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Full transcript here. This month, Henry Curtis and I sit down with Graham Priest (CUNY Graduate Center) to get the straight dope on Buddhist metaphysics. Click here to download Episode 123 of Elucidations.

Buddhism isn’t just a religion—it’s an entire family of philosophical traditions that took root all over the Asian continent for thousands of years. The historical Buddha articulated views in what we consider to be many different areas of philosophy, including metaphysics, ethics, and political philosophy. But for this episode, we’re focusing on the metaphysics. Metaphysics means different things to different people, but our guest thinks of it as a broad inquiry into the structure of reality at a fundamental level, space and time, what substance is, cause and effect, what makes any given thing the thing it is. And one of many things he finds interesting about Buddhism is that over the years, Buddhists have floated metaphysical views that don’t arise in the Western traditions.

One cool example he gives is a view associated with Madhyamaka Buddhism that nothing has a nature that makes it independent of its relation to anything else in the world. So take me, Matt. I am what I am not just because of properties that I have in and of myself, but because of the relation I stand in to certain other things. (Though not necessarily all other things, as he hastens to point out.) Like for example, I have a special relation to New Jersey: I was born and grew up there. So facts about what Matt is and what he’s like is are tangled up with facts about what New Jersey is and what it’s like.

Graham Priest further observes that this general view leads to skepticism about whether anything is maximally explanatorily basic, which is a view that hasn’t been explored by many contemporary philosophers. Like, a typical contemporary philosopher who works on metaphysics would probably say that a flagpole is more basic than the shadow it casts, because you could have the flagpole without the shadow, but not the other way around. There wouldn’t be anything for the shadow to be a shadow of! Priest thinks that the Madhyamaka view that everything is dependent on something else leads to the further view that no one thing or set of things can be most basic.

Join us as our guest walks us through the core metaphysical tenets of Buddhism! And mark your calendars: next month he’ll be back for a follow-up episode on Buddhist political philosophy.

Matt Teichman

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Further Reading

I cannot recommend Graham Priest’s book The Fifth Corner of Four: An Essay on Buddhist Metaphysics and the Catuskoti highly enough. It is one of the finest examples of clear, approachable expository writing I’ve ever seen. There’s plenty in it to interest experts, but you can also sit down with this book knowing nothing about the Buddhist philosophical traditions and have a transformative learning experience.

The Fifth Corner of Four, Graham Priest

In addition, Graham Priest has generously gone through some of his publications and put together this exciting reading list, in case you would like to do a little background reading on what we discuss in this episode. You can read all of these papers for free in pre-print form:

What’s so Bad about Contradictions? (1998)
Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyakamakārika (2013)
Much Ado about Nothing (2014)
Fictional Objects Fictional Subjects (2019)
Buddhist Dependence (2019)

You can also browse through the full archive of his published papers here: