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Existentialism, Phenomenology, Ontology, Ontics and Enlightenment

If you are comfortable with the above terms, then you already can understand most of what this site is about. If not—well, that’s why I need to write this.

Existentialism, the dominant philosophy of the twentieth century, is sort of a manifesto of postmodern thought. It uses the method of phenomenology, the science of experience, to explore life. Existentialism asks the vital question “What am I?” but does not supply an answer. It is up to every one of us to search out the answer for himself in his experience.

Ontology is the science of being and becoming. It has to do with our model of the stucture of reality, and how it influences consciousness. It goes very well with phenomenology, an experiential approach to life and learning. Ontology provides tools for the comprehension of life and mastery of being and becoming.

Ontic, adj. from the Greek ὄν, genitive ὄντος:  “that which is”; whatever is physical, real, or factual existence. Ontic pertains to what is there (phenomena), as opposed to the nature or properties of that being (ontology).

Enlightenment is the peerless teaching of the Buddha, the Noble Eightfold Path to the complete cessation of suffering. Mastering the Four Noble Truths—suffering, the cause of suffering, cessation of suffering and the path to cessation of suffering—is the key to enlightenment, the perfection of human life.

Ergontics© is from the Greek ergos, work; ontic, of or having to do with the possibilities of being; and -ics, a suffix denoting a field of study, art or science . Our work involves a scientific approach to questions of the possibilities of being. Specifically, beginning from issues of integrity in leadership, we developed a line of research into being and becoming that led back to the original teaching of the Buddha.

Forest Meditation Monastery is our present residence and workplace located in a remote rural area in the mountains of Sri Lanka. Here we are participating in authentic Buddhist community in a pristine ecological environment. It is a perfect situation for deep meditation and learning spiritual truth.

Existential Ambiguity is our podcast on Buddha’s Teaching, expressed in the language of existential ontology. We are using Wettimuny’s Buddha’s Teaching and the Ambiguity of Existence as a text, and adding a lively discussion and our personal clarification and insights.

Your Dictionary is your friend. Make liberal use of it to get the best from this site.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

Venerable Ñānasāra Thero 

Ñāṇasāra is a monk in the Sri Lankan Theravāda Buddhist Order. Ñāṇasāra means ‘the essence of wisdom’. The deep meaning of ñāṇasāra is the Buddha’s teaching of emptiness: suññataÑānasāra Thero studies and practices the Theravāda Suttas, the original teaching of the Buddha, in a small forest monastery high in the mountains of Sri Lanka.

Before this he was a guru in a Vedic tradition. Having traveled extensively and lived in India as a monk for most of his adult life, he was deeply conversant with the teachings of Vedānta and yoga. Nevertheless there was something wrong: he was still suffering. He resigned from his position as guru, dissolved the organization he founded and spent over a year in Europe researching leadership and ontology.

This research led to the discoveries presented in the Skillful Living video series, as well as pointing clearly toward the Buddha’s teaching as the solution for the most pressing problems of life. He traveled to Thailand to study meditation, and then was invited to Sri Lanka by a prominent Buddhist musician. One thing led to another, and he was ordained in October of 2013. He plans to spend the rest of his life as a Theravāda forest monk.

For private or confidential matters please email Venerable Ñānasāra Thero directly.

8 Comments
  1. Anonymous Coward permalink

    I would like to know whether it’s asmimána that gives Ven. Ñanavira’s x’s and o’s their sting.

    It’s refreshing to come across a Buddhist who doesn’t shy away from ontology.

    • I wouldn’t speculate on Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s state of mind, but he certainly has penned some penetrating and influential comments on the Suttas. Ontology is the only western body of thought that can even compare with the Buddha’s teaching. How could any westerner consider himself a student of one without out the other?

  2. Anonymous Coward permalink

    I think what you’ve written here is really first-rate. What I was getting at was the need to get a visceral sense of just what taking a determination as mine implies and how it conflicts with the structure of experience laid out in Fundamental Structure. We infer the negative (L.44), what we feel we perceive (M18), if each determination is a distinct particular the contradiction is clearly apparent, so why is it so difficult for us to reconcile the contradiction, and to see that we don’t exist? I’m not about to claim any sort of attainment, but I believe that much of the Buddha’s teachings as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka is directed at just this goal, i.e the weaning ourselves off from our sense of existence — but note that it requires a particular understanding, a Right View to get a sense of the matter at hand.

    P.S. Feel free to regard me as a coward: I’m shameless when it comes to what other people think of me. But I prefer to remain anonymous out of a bit of technophobia, in other words, I value my privacy.

    • Thanks for the sincere appreciation; we normally don’t allow anonymous comments, but the clear value of your comments in forwarding the discussion moved us to make an exception. Anyway we have your IP address, the black helicopters are on the way…

      The Fundamental Structure of attention laid out by Wettimuny in his …Ambiguity of Existence inspired by Ven. Ñāṇavīra details the flow of attention of the puthujjana. We are presently going through this structure (from Majjhima-nikāya 1) in the podcast series. It is the very core structure of ‘I’-making and ‘mine’-making, and it is based on the synthesis of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ by a process of appropriation. Thus egotism is essentially ‘taking what is not given’ and making an ‘I’ from it. When we see this clearly in self-observation, we can let go of the habit.

      There are a number of approaches in the Buddha’s teaching to the same realization, but all of them hinge on detailed self-observation. This is hard for us (Westerners), because we prefer the convenience of dealing with ‘self’ through various designations and symbols, using abstractions rather than getting down and dirty with perceptions and how we process them. It’s similar to the difference between coding in assembler and using a high-level language. (No technophobia here!)

      Another obstacle is the common Western and Mahāyana misinterpretation that the Buddha declared the illusory nature of ‘self’ based on its constant change, as if the Buddha were some kind of paleo-Positivist. The real reason, of course, is that ‘self’ is a fabrication, a deception, a lie that we create to justify our appropriation, our taking what is not given, our lust and stealing. Of course, in doing so, we separate our ‘self’ from existence, dulling our perceptions by introducing a layer of abstraction between phenomena and our experience. Again, this may be convenient but it is hardly pleasurable; it leads to the constant state of frustration and greed we see in so many people, especially those trying to justify an ‘eternal self’ by some kind of religious abstractions. No wonder they are so vicious and violent…

      Anyway Right View based on emptiness is certainly necessary to make any progress at all, along with willingness to do a lot of detailed self-observation in present time, and not just while sitting. Sitting in the bhavana-śala may be a good place to develop habits of self-observation and self-analysis; but the real battlefield is out in life, where the temptation to make things easier by the proxy of ‘self’ is always pressing.

  3. Anonymous permalink

    My approach to understanding Ven. Ñanavira and the Suttas has come by way of Husserl and Heidegger: categorial intuition, presence and absence, passive synthesis, phenomenological time, those sorts of things. But I believe I have a copy of Mr. Wettimuny’s book somewhere in my library.

    Ven. Ñanavira and the Suttas keep one on track as to what is relevant to the allieviation of suffering: One could spend a lifetime delving into the phenomena of the lived body or alterity for example, but while important just an understanding of their basic validity is all that is necessary in making progress in the Buddha’s Teaching. I must say, however, that Ven. Ñanavira really is in the thick of things phenomenologically. It’s surprising that no other Western phenomenologist has ever questioned the legitimacy of appropriating the first-person perspective, but then again perhaps I underestimate the Buddha’s insight in hindsight.

    • Existential philosophy and phenomenological methodology, along with ontology are certainly very helpful in approaching the Buddha’s teaching. But of course, they are merely ancillary and supportive; nothing can substitute for the Buddha’s teaching itself. Modern scientific positivism might superficially seem to have arrived at some conclusions similar to the Buddha regarding ‘self’, but the positivist reasoning is flawed—a misapplication of quantum mechanics to the realm of human experience.

      Wettimuny’s work is so valuable precisely because he translates the Buddha’s teaching into the vocabulary of existential thought without ever losing sight of its original source in the Suttas. He is building a bridge that any intelligent, educated person can use to cross from western thought to the Buddha’s thought without distortion. His work is less terse and therefore much more accessible than Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s, and more useful because he explains everything from multiple points of view.

      The existentialists’ use of the first-person perspective was inevitable; they couldn’t envision phenomenology without ‘self’. But they could not explain ‘self’ without running again and again into the ‘existential ambiguity’ that it is a deception, a fabrication, a lie. Thus all their work wound up in failure and frustration, and they mostly retreated from phenomenology into belief. But their thinking works wonderfully as an approach to the Suttas, and as a language for expressing their insights in Western terms.

  4. Anonymous permalink

    My impression is that existentialism has waned over the years. Today phenomenology is more closely associated with cognitive science; the structure of intelligibiilty, our experience of space and time. It does have a way of dazzling people, of drawing them into its world of thought. The uplifting quality about it is that the ideas it puts forth can be verified directly in one’s own experience.

    Heidegger understanding of the first-person perspective is that its appropriation is primordial – phenomenology being a purely descriptive discipline and he being a puthujjana -but over all his views are tantalizingly close to Ven. Ñanavira’s, yet at the same time radically apart (cf. L. 121 where he explains the Báhiyasutta to Mr. Pereira).

    But I’ll begin reading Mr. Wettimuny’s book. I do think you’re offering the Buddhist community a great service in setting up this website. I certainly hope that it draws the attention that it deserves. Obata bohoma pin.

    • It’s true that existentialism does not have the same high public profile it did, say, in the 1960s when we used to have Mensa seminars on it. But since then, no one has come up with anything better, it remains the default philosophy of the Western world. God is dead; man is free. Free for what? Apparently, to make a complete animal paradise, a nihilistic empire perfect for the rise of totalitarianism. I think most people today would agree that appropriation is primordial: “He who dies with the most toys, wins.” Wins what, is the question. Richest corpse in the graveyard?

      And the numerous popular clones of Christian Buddhism (start a church, replace Jesus with Buddha, rake in the dough) aren’t helping much. Buddha said, “I live in a dwelling of emptiness.” Who has his address? Buddha’s teaching exhibits a level of refinement and existential truth unmatched in my experience. And I was a Vedic monk for almost 40 years…

      I looked up the Bāhiya-sutta, and it is wonderful.

      “Then, Bāhiya, you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bāhiya, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of stress.”

      ‘Coincidentally’ (LOL—ain’t no such thing), I was just meditating this morning on how to realize emptiness.

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