The Concept of Certainty in Eastern Philosophy


Published in the Philosophical Review, 2014


The search for certainty left us in doubt.

Some philosophers blamed the concept itself: “Absolute certainty is unattainable” (1) and that is because “The human senses are limited” (2).

There is a hidden assumption here about the inferiority of human capacity, but luckily it did not prevent further investigation of what is certainly true in various fields of inquiry.  Logic assures us what conclusion is ‘certainly true’, and science can predict with precision the occurrence of some phenomena or facts.  Among various disciplines, it is the philosophical certainty that is the focus of an unresolved inquiry.

Descartes was passionate about finding something certain without doubt:

Anything that admits the slightest doubts I will set aside as if I have found it to be wholly false, and I will proceed in this way until I recognize something certain” (3).  

The Cogito was celebrated for its plain and neat structure, but after considerable criticism from various philosophers, the glory of the Cogito seems to have faded in time.  The concept of Certainty was also investigated in Eastern traditions, however from a different philosophical perspective.

Lost in Translation

It is difficult to differentiate between Philosophy and Religion – especially when examining Eastern traditions.  Interest in Eastern philosophies increased in the 19th century with the appearance of translated works such as Max Müller’s ‘Sacred Books of the East’, related to Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist texts.  In many cases, because of the unfamiliarity of Eastern concepts, it was difficult to find a fitting translation for some words.  

For example, the essential concept of Sunyata was translated from Sanskrit as “Emptiness” or “Void”.  The word ‘Emptiness’ gives the impression of vagueness and nothingness, and it has a negative hue.  But the original concept designates a field of existence, which is not directly perceived by the five senses (such as dreams, past memories, future latency, mind creativity, etc.).  A modern translation gives the concept of Sunyata the word Non-substantiality (4), referring to its non-material essence, which is devoid of matter but is, of course, far from being empty, or nothing.  

A similar situation of misunderstanding Eastern traditions touches the concept of Certainty. For example: how can we find any certainty if Eastern philosophies are based on the ‘Principle of Transience of all things’?  Before we finish examining any certainty of a given phenomenon, it is about to be swept away by its transience!  Misunderstanding of Eastern concepts, however, is starting to give way to examining what is shared between the East and West, and what is common rather than what separates.

Certainty of Life and Death

Eastern philosophy approached the quest for Certainty through observing ‘Life and Death’ as occurrences which are beyond any doubt. One couldn’t have asked the question about certainty if one is not alive, and one’s life – without doubt – has to conclude in death.  Certainty becomes anchored here with the undeniable.  Benjamin Franklin (1817) jokingly mentioned that

In this world nothing can be certain, except death and taxes”,

and while tax evaders can find one part of this statement funny, the other part is quite serious.  The approach towards this serious matter differs between individuals and cultures, but in general, death is not a very comfortable subject.  

How does Eastern philosophy relate to the subject of Death itself?  A contemporary philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda, explains:

Death makes room for renewal and regeneration. Death should therefore be appreciated, like life, as a blessing. Buddhism views death as a period of rest, like sleep, by which life regains energy and prepares for new cycles of living. Thus there is no reason to fear death, to hate or seek to banish it from our minds” .  

This view points to the generally accepted attitude towards the subject of life and death in Eastern philosophies, viewing it as one wave of two continuing phases.  

If we do not believe in life and death as a cycle, then this current existence suffices for acknowledging their certainty.

Another perspective, implying a comfortable acceptance of certainty of death as a natural phenomenon, was expressed by Nichiren, a Buddhist philosopher of 13th century Japan: “Living beings that pass through the two phases of life and death are the entities of [the Law of Cause and Effect]” (5).  Interestingly, ‘cause and effect’ are mentioned in the above statement as being the background essence of ‘life and death’. This wave of impermanence of phenomena, starting with its emergence (birth) in the world then manifesting withdrawal from it (death), is true not only for individual entities but it governs all phenomena: 

“No phenomena – heaven or earth, Yin or Yang, the sun and moon, the five planets or any life-condition from Hell to Buddhahood – are free from birth and death. Thus the life and death of all phenomena are simply the two phases of Myoho-renge-kyo [the Law of Cause and Effect]” (6).

The observation of the world as constantly changing is so certain, that it is identified with the word ‘Law’ or ‘natural order’.  Although all things are in flux, and all things are interrelated, yet our world of phenomena is not chaotic.  The world is not random.  This suggests that the three principles of Impermanence, Interconnectedness and Order constitute that which is certain without dispute or doubt.

The Eastern Cogito

A transition between Descartes' Cogito and Eastern philosophy is perhaps possible through a simple addition to its “I think” part.  Firstly, because no one can live in isolation of others, then to ascertain one’s existence, others should be somehow included.  It is impossible to ascertain one’s existence without interrelated others, or without the environment also. In its focus on “I” without indicating others, and also the environment, the Cogito shows a bias towards the individual around whom certainty revolves.  

Secondly, Descartes uses the word “thinking”.  Thinking, however, is a function.  It is just one function among many others, which collectively integrate into the existence of my being, I.  It is not a coincidence that several ‘humorist cogitos’ developed, and there is even a sexual cogito.   Additionally, ‘thinking’ is a process which is always about something.  Without a subject about which we think, there is no thinking.  To include in the Cogito the various other things contributing to I think – perhaps: ‘I think of others, therefore I am’ – can be an option.

Philosophical certainty, however, can be extended to something other than the “I”  factor.  There are phenomena in the natural world which can also share in the debate of what is certain.

Many Western philosophers had raised their comments or also objections to the Cogito – as a solid ground for Certainty – from various perspectives.

Objections to the Cogito

With good faith, Descartes aimed for the ultimate purity in reasoning by getting rid of anything which may be questionable in the process.  This led him to the method of applying extreme and exaggeration

With good faith, Descartes aimed for the ultimate purity in reasoning by getting rid of anything which may be questionable in the process.  This led him to the method of applying extreme and exaggerated doubt – but as Simon Blackburn writes, this method does not seem to be logically justified: “What exactly is he thinking? Perhaps this:

‘The senses sometimes deceive us. So for all we know, they always deceive us’.  But this is a bad argument – a fallacy. Compare: ‘Some banknotes are forgeries. So for all we know, they all are forgeries’. Here, the conclusion is impossible, since the very notion of a forgery presupposes valid notes” (7).

The senses, which the ‘Cartesian Doubt’ dismissed (as having the potential for illusions or errors), can also lead to correct data and can correct mistakes: 

. . . we only know that the senses sometimes deceive us because further investigation – using the same senses – show that they have done so” (8).

Descartes lived in the 17th century, when tools, the extension of our senses, were unreliable compared with the current state of precision.  I think Descartes would have hesitated before applying his method of reasoning (by dismissing the senses from his enquiry into certainty) if he had known the potentials of the senses and tools – not to deceive, but to clarify reality.  An extension of the sense of vision, a camera, has been now developed with a resolution which can distinguish an item of a width of 1 millimetre from a distance of 10km.  Philosophy cannot dismiss the wealth of information the senses offer to any enquiry; it would have been rather an unjustified waste.

The Cogito uses the word “I” twice: in “I think” and in “I exist”.  The first “I”, of “I think”, implies that the thinker already exists.  Kierkegaard viewed the Cogito as almost circular, because it already presupposes the existence of ‘I’.   Bertrand Russell commented on the Cogito few times, and in his work ‘A History of Western Philosophy’ (1945) he finally stated:

“ ‘I think’ is [Descartes'] ultimate premise.  Here the word ‘I’ is really illegitimate” (9).

The same subject of “I think” was targeted by Nietzsche, suggesting that Descartes was observing a process of thinking, which would have been better described by the word ‘it’, rather than using the word ‘I’.

Descartes and the ‘Consciousness-Only’ school

There is an interesting view about the Cogito, which links its essence to an early Eastern tradition.  According to Stuart Mirsky (2013):

The Irish philosopher, Bishop George Berkeley, addressed Descartes' claims by arguing that, if the thinking self is all that can be known with certainty, as Descartes had proposed, then the thinker qua the mind was all that we can be certain exists, making the mind primary in any effort to describe the world. The material world, the world of physical things, must therefore be no more than a mental construct. Thus, and as seen in some eastern traditions, Berkeley thought the world secondary to the mind, which turns out to be the stuff of reality while physical phenomena have a status akin to dreams…” (10).

The first part of the Cogito (I think) relates to the mental aspect of mind, while the second part relates to the physical aspect of existence.  This reminds us of a view that the mind is the source of existence of all phenomena – which was introduced by an early school of meditation: the Consciousness-Only school, in sixth century India.  This school – known also as Yogacara – taught that 

“there is nothing in the realm of human experience that is not interpreted by and dependent upon the mind” (11) and that “all phenomena arise from the ālaya consciousness”.  

The teachings of Yogacara were elementary in the course of further development of the concept of karma and the inseparability of body and mind, which prevail in modern Mahayana Buddhism.

The Certainty of Impermanence

The focus of various Eastern teachings is on a solution to human sufferings, rather than on an intellectual or theoretical study in philosophy.  The first observation about the many causes of suffering was called attachment to what is transient.  Attachment requires continuity, while transience is about change.  Transience, flux and change of physical and mental phenomena indicate a nature which cannot be doubted; it is certain.

This observation is common with the Greek philosophy:

Heraclitus, I believe, says that all things pass and nothing stays, and comparing existing things to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river”(12).

Eastern philosophy is in complete agreement with Heraclitus’s observation, and suggests a universal nature of this truth, expanding it to characterize living beings, plants, animals, people – as well as planets, stars and galaxies.  Depending on their conditions, all things in the universe undergo birth into the physical world, and at a later time undergo withdrawal into latency.  Impermanence was further specified as integrating the four stages of Emergence (birth), Continuity (maturing), Decline (aging) and Disintegration (death) – or withdrawal into latency:

“From the Buddhist viewpoint, the constellations, like human beings, are going through the four stages; birth, maturation, destruction and latency. Our five billion year old Earth is at present in a mature state of stability, but eventually it too will be swallowed up by the Sun or destroyed in some other manner.  In the case of stars, interstellar gas condenses to form them, they go through a period of stability and then die in an explosion of great brilliance and energy . . . At the micro end of the scale, the life span of elementary particles is so short as to defy the imagination” (13).

The Certainty of Interconnectedness.

Interconnectedness is undeniable:  

No one exists in isolation. We are connected to parents, to teachers, to friends . . . We are also linked to people who we have never met: [those] who harvest and distribute our food, manufacture our clothing, write our books and shape our thinking – in fact we are connected to everyone whose efforts help hold together the fabric of society”  (14). The Dalai Lama suggests that Interdependence and Interconnectedness weave the nature of Reality.

One of Spinoza’s 17th century European philosophical insights was the principle of ‘the unity of all that exists’, which comes close to the essence of interconnectedness; however, his views were not widely accepted.  Interconnectedness leads to the concept of nonduality, which may seem similar to Monism, except that Monism advocates one substance, while “Nonduality means ‘not two’, but ‘not two’ also means ‘not one’.  That is why we say ‘nondual instead of ‘one’ ” – as teacher Thich Nhat Hanh explained.  

A skilful presentation of Interconnectedness is found in the ‘net of the Vedic God Indra’, who – over 3000 years ago – hung in his heavenly abode a net of jewels:

 “. . . in such a manner that it stretches out indefinitely in all directions” and in every node of the net there is a glittering jewel; and, because the net is infinite in all directions, then “the jewels are infinite in number.  Here hang the jewels, glittering like stars of the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold.  If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other in the net, infinite in number.  Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that the process of reflection is infinite” (15).

This concept of ‘Indra Net’ suggests that each point of the space has information about each other point in the space.  A surprisingly almost identical statement is found in the science of Holography:

“. . . during holographic recording, each point on the hologram’s surface is affected by light waves reflected from all points in the scene” (16).

Regarding Interconnectedness as an indisputable fact is also emerging in the study of Quantum Mechanics, and in particular the phenomenon of Entanglement.

The Certainty of the Law of Cause and Effect

There could be no doubt that nature manifests consistent patterns: we live within tendencies, principles, relationships, and laws of nature.  The appearance of phenomena and their disappearance does not occur at random. The way things are interconnected is not chaotic.  The dynamic of things shows their order.  Processes which seem random get integrated on a different scale within a pattern or law.  What we call ‘chaos’ is a science presenting laws of regularity of infinite patterns.

The existence of patterns and principles in countless phenomena of the natural world is also mirrored by patterns of relationships (good or bad) between individuals and groups – in the living world.   Causality was central to Hume’s studies and also to other philosophers, and the study of patterns and causes and effects is developed in the field of psychology and sociology.  This makes the observation of the mere existence of laws (in physical and mental realms) parallel to Eastern concepts.

The experienced patterns of causes and effects in human relationships – and the teachings aimed at their perfection through Enlightenment – are included in the word ‘Dharma’.  Some traditions view Dharma as embodying both the spiritual and the physical order of the world.  Eastern traditions differ in their definition of Dharma, but a modern translation using the word Law has been also used frequently: the Law of Cause and Effect:

Living beings and their environments always manifest [the Law of Cause and Effect] Myoho-renge-kyo” (17).

This view identifies the Certainty of Cause and Effect with the reality of existence.

The word reality is questioned by various schools of thought.  Some describe reality as the result of the mind’s projection. Or that it is rather distortion and illusion that we call reality.  But these claims do not matter here, because whatever one’s perception, the world itself does exist.  

Many religions, especially the religions which originated in the Middle East, shift the certainty of the existence of the world towards a different issue: who created the world?  This is akin to patenting the Universe by various religious establishments, assigning it to a Creator God.  Nevertheless, whether God-believer, atheist or neither, the certainty of the existence of reality of phenomena is without doubt.

Whatever we imagine reality is - the world is undeniably ordered.

Causes of actions inevitably lead to Consequences.



(1)     Maker, W (1994)  Philosophy without Foundations, Rethinking Hegel, p. 53.  University of New York ISBN 0-7914-2100-7

(2)     Yacobi, Ben  (2013)  ‘The Human Dilemma’, p. 204, Journal of Philosophy of Life

(3)     Descartes, René  (1641)  ‘Second Meditation’, in Philosophy of Mind ed. D. Chalmers, p. 10


(5)     The Writing of Nichiren,vol.1, p. 216, Published 1999 by SokaGakkai.

(6)     Ibid

(7)     Blackburn, Simon  (1999)  Think, p. 22.   OUP 1999

(8)      ibid, p.24

(9)      The Bertrand Russell Society Quarterly 2008/2009, p.1

(10)     Background section:


(12)     Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Heraclitus

(13)     Ikeda, D  (1982)  Life an Enigma, pp. 52-53.  Kodnsha International

(14)     (2001)  The Buddha in Your Mirror p.72.   MiddleWay Press



(17)     Nichiren.  ‘The True Aspect of All Phenomena’, in The Writings, Vol.1, p. 383