Buddhist Philosophy [1] 9789553118226

458 135 2MB

English Pages 459 Year 2020

Report DMCA / Copyright


Polecaj historie

Buddhist Philosophy [1]

Table of contents :
1. Saddhā: A Prerequisite of Religious Action............................. 1
2. Freedom from Dukkha:
The Central Message of Buddhism ......................................... 18
3. Dependent Co-Origination:
The Buddhist Approach to Reality......................................... 31
4. A Textual Interpretation of Kamma....................................... 41
5. Sacca (true/truth) in Buddhism............................................... 57
6. Nirvana of the Healthy Mind .................................................. 68
7. The Ontology of Citta, Atta and Nibbāna: A Thervada
Perspective................................................................................. 90
8. Nihilism in Buddhist Perspective........................................... 104
9. Pragmatism and Buddhism.................................................... 107
10. Mysticism in Buddhist Perspective ........................................ 111
11. An Introduction to Buddhist Logic...................................... 117
12. Critical Thinking and Logic: A Buddhist Approach ........... 141
13. What Does Dharmakīrti Mean by pratīti in pratītinirākṛta?.157
14. A Study on the Kathāvatthu.................................................. 163
15. A Conceptual Analysis in the Kathāvatthu with a
Special Focus on the Debate on the Puggala (Puggala-kathā).174
16. ‘Enlightened Ignorance’ in Buddhist Philosophy of
Education................................................................................ 195
17. The Development of ‘Sacred Language’ in the Buddhist
Tradition................................................................................. 210
18. Some Key Aspects of the Buddhist Philosophy
of Education............................................................................. 217
19. Philosophy and Content of the Laṅkāvatāra-Sūtra............. 229
20. Contemporary Indian Interpretations of Buddhism:
Radhakrishnan and Murti ..................................................... 241
21. Buddhist Non-theism: Theory and Application .................. 250
22. Verification, Falsification and Search for Certainty in
Knowledge: An Old Question Revisited through
Buddhism ................................................................................ 270
23. The Thesis of Religious Ineffability ...................................... 278
24. Ineffability in Buddhism ........................................................ 297
25. Kulatissa Nanda Jayatilleke .................................................... 317
26. KN Jayatilleke’s Interpretation of Nirvana Revisited........... 325
27. The Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation:
A Socio-Historical Approach................................................. 346
28. Buddhism and Science: One Analysis but Two Different
Goals?...................................................................................... 368
29. The Nature of Medicine (A Critique of the Myth of
Medicine)................................................................................ 376
30. Mind and Liberation in Buddhism: A Study of
Psychological and Soteriological Significance of
Adhimutti/Adhimukti and Adhimokkha/Adhimoksa ........... 391
31. Beyond Āsava and Kilesa: Understanding the Roots of
Suffering According to the Pali Canon ................................. 394
32. Entering the Stream to Enlightenment:
Experience of the Stages of the Buddhist Path in
Contemporary Sri Lanka ....................................................... 397

Citation preview

Collected Papers : Asanga Tilakaratne Volume I

Buddhist Philosophy

The generous contribution of the Most Venerable Bellanwila Dhammaratana Nayaka Thera of Bellanwila Raja Maha Viharaya toward the production of this volume is gratefully acknowledged : Editorial Board

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review Sarasavi Publishers (Pvt) Ltd: [email protected] Collected Papers : Asanga Tilakaratne, Vol I - Buddhist Philosophy First Print 2020 © Asanga Tilakaratne ISBN: 978-955-31-1822-6 Introduction Soorakkulame Pemaratana Thera Editor Bertram G. Liyanage Book and Cover Design by Bertram G. Liyanage Printed by Sarasavi Publishers (Pvt) Ltd No - 601, Athurugiriya Road, Malabe Published by Sarasavi Publishers (Pvt) Ltd No - 23, Ekanayaka Mawatha, Nugegoda www.sarasavi.lk and Sri Lanka Association of Buddhist Studies


Buddhist Philosophy

Introduction Soorakkulame Pemaratana Thera

Editor Bertram G. Liyanage Editorial Assistant Nuwanthika Ariyadasa



COLLECTED PAPERS : ASANGA TILAKARATNE Volume I - Buddhist Philosophy Volume II - Buddhist Ethics Volume III - Theravada Studies Volume IV - Buddhism and Modernity Volume V - Inter-Religious Understanding Editorial Board Prof. Raluwe Padmasiri Thera, MA. Prof. Miriswaththe Wimalagnana Thera, MPhil. Wimal Hewamanage, PhD. D. Denzil Senadheera, PhD. Ashoka Welitota, PhD. Bertram G. Liyanage, MA. Sheila Fernando, PhD. Editorial Assistants Thich Nu Khanh Nang Bhikṣuṇi, PhD. Sewwandi Marasinghe, MA. Nuwanthika Ariyadasa, MA.

Contents Editorial Note .................................................................................. xi Acknowledgements ........................................................................ xii Introduction .................................................................................. xiii 1. Saddhā: A Prerequisite of Religious Action............................. 1 2. Freedom from Dukkha: The Central Message of Buddhism ......................................... 18 3. Dependent Co-Origination: The Buddhist Approach to Reality......................................... 31 4. A Textual Interpretation of Kamma....................................... 41 5. Sacca (true/truth) in Buddhism............................................... 57 6. Nirvana of the Healthy Mind .................................................. 68 7. The Ontology of Citta, Atta and Nibbāna: A Thervada Perspective................................................................................. 90 8. Nihilism in Buddhist Perspective........................................... 104 9. Pragmatism and Buddhism.................................................... 107 10. Mysticism in Buddhist Perspective ........................................ 111 11. An Introduction to Buddhist Logic...................................... 117 12. Critical Thinking and Logic: A Buddhist Approach ........... 141 13. What Does Dharmakīrti Mean by pratīti in pratītinirākṛta?.157 14. A Study on the Kathāvatthu.................................................. 163 15. A Conceptual Analysis in the Kathāvatthu with a Special Focus on the Debate on the Puggala (Puggala-kathā).174 16. ‘Enlightened Ignorance’ in Buddhist Philosophy of Education................................................................................ 195


17. The Development of ‘Sacred Language’ in the Buddhist Tradition................................................................................. 210 18. Some Key Aspects of the Buddhist Philosophy of Education............................................................................. 217 19. Philosophy and Content of the Laṅkāvatāra-Sūtra............. 229 20. Contemporary Indian Interpretations of Buddhism: Radhakrishnan and Murti ..................................................... 241 21. Buddhist Non-theism: Theory and Application .................. 250 22. Verification, Falsification and Search for Certainty in Knowledge: An Old Question Revisited through Buddhism ................................................................................ 270 23. The Thesis of Religious Ineffability ...................................... 278 24. Ineffability in Buddhism ........................................................ 297 25. Kulatissa Nanda Jayatilleke .................................................... 317 26. KN Jayatilleke’s Interpretation of Nirvana Revisited........... 325 27. The Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation: A Socio-Historical Approach................................................. 346 28. Buddhism and Science: One Analysis but Two Different Goals?...................................................................................... 368 29. The Nature of Medicine (A Critique of the Myth of Medicine)................................................................................ 376 30. Mind and Liberation in Buddhism: A Study of Psychological and Soteriological Significance of Adhimutti/Adhimukti and Adhimokkha/Adhimoksa ........... 391 31. Beyond Āsava and Kilesa: Understanding the Roots of Suffering According to the Pali Canon ................................. 394 32. Entering the Stream to Enlightenment: Experience of the Stages of the Buddhist Path in Contemporary Sri Lanka ....................................................... 397 Primary Sources and Abbreviations ............................................ 401


Secondary Sources and Translations............................................ 405 Index of Subjects .......................................................................... 412 Index of Proper Names ................................................................ 430 Asanga Tilakaratne....................................................................... 437 Editorial Board.............................................................................. 439

Editorial Note

Professor Asanga Tilakaratne, who has followed the footprints of such eminent modern interpreters of Buddhism as KN Jayatilleke and David J Kalupahana, has played a prominent role in the field of Buddhist studies in Sri Lanka. The idea about this whole project of compiling the academic papers of Professor Tilakaratne emerged at a casual discussion among a group of us at the occasion of his retirement in 2018 from the university service as the senior chair professor of Pali and Buddhist Studies, University of Colombo. As a tribute to his services to the field of Buddhist Studies, we decided to edit and compile his papers scattered in various journals and books. At first, we presumed that the collection would run into a few volumes only. But to the amazement of us and the author himself it far exceeded our initial calculations, now the whole series running into eight volumes altogether, three in Sinhala and five in English. The five volumes in English are Buddhist Philosophy, Buddhist Ethics, Theravada Studies, Buddhism and Modernity and Inter-Religious Understanding. Turning to the scholarship represented by Professor Tilakaratne, he rightly marks a transition from the traditional to the modern Buddhist studies, exhibiting in the course of his academic career expertise in both aspects. On the one hand, there are the traditional Buddhist studies continuing more than two millennia in this country celebrating the expertise in the Pali textual tradition, which Professor Tilakaratne mastered at Buddhashravaka Dharamapethaya, Anuradhapura. On the other hand, there is the modern Buddhist academic tradition pioneered by such eminent savants as GP Malalasekera and continued by numerous scholars such as Jayatilleke and Kalupahana who interpreted the teaching of the Buddha in the light of western analytical and empirical philosophical thought, which Professor Tilakaratne inherited first at University of


Peradeniya and subsequently at University of Hawaii. Although Prof. Tilakaratne has his professional academic training in the Buddhist philosophy of language and philosophy of religion his wide-ranging interests and the needs of the Buddhist academic field in the country have made him venture into many aspects of Buddhist studies as this multi-volume collection would testify. This has indeed made the task of the editors pretty challenging. We sincerely thank, therefore, Professor Tilakaratne for trusting us to handle this task and supporting us all the way through. Our editorial function was mainly confined to three aspects of these collected articles. With the consent of the author, first, we updated some facts where they were necessary. In most cases, following our suggestions, the author himself came up with innovative ideas to revise them with new materials. Secondly, we highlighted instances that we felt needed clarifying which, again the author was kind to comply with us. Lastly, in order to fit the individual papers to a collected whole, we removed some papers particulars unique to specific contexts (excepting book reviews). Since the articles appearing in any particular volume are not written in regular order, we did not see a point in arranging them chronologically. Since overlapping of some information is unavoidable in a collection of this nature, we have only managed to remove some such repetitions with the least possible damage to the order and the content. We must, nevertheless, confess that we opted to leave some such recurrences untouched due to the structure of the given article. At the beginning of each article, we have mentioned the original publication in a footnote, which refers only to the first version of the corresponding article. Almost all papers in these collections are revised versions of these originals. Where there is not any remark about the first publication, the paper is either a fresh one written especially for the collection or a revision of an earlier article with a good amount of new materials. A marginal note is due here on the usage of diacritical marks and the citation style. Some of the Buddhist terms such as nirvana, karma, samsara are familiar to all English readers and hence we have treated them as ordinary English words. When it comes to proper nouns, particularly personal names, the author’s preference was to leave well-known names like Ananda, Sariputta, Mahakassapa without diacritical marks, expecting that the reader would find no difficulty of pronouncing them. If the given name sounds unfamiliar to the English tongue, we have inserted the diacritics (e.g. Vaṭṭagāmini, Koṇḍañña). For the secondary sources, we followed the Chicago style in citing references. For the primary sources, we have developed a consistent method catering to the actual


editorial requirements. Moreover, we have to concede that we ignored spelling variations, British or American, insofar as they did not interfere with the comprehension of the content. Whenever spelling variation of a word appears critical to its meaning, we have rightly corrected it. In the course of this work, we have incurred many intellectual and emotional debts paying back for which our words will never be adequate. In addition to those kind-hearted individuals mentioned in the acknowledgement note of each volume, we must acknowledge sincerely and gratefully some individuals for their guidance, support, and assistance to the overall project. Of course, first comes Professor Asanga Tillakaratne, who entrusted this task on us without any hesitation. We are grateful to all editors and publishers of all original articles. We, nevertheless, regret our inability to take permission from individual editors and publishers. Since each volume represents a specific area of Buddhist studies, we invited five scholars to write introductory essays for the five volumes. We sincerely thank those distinguished scholars, Damien Keown, Rupert Gethin, Anne Blackburn, Abraham Velez and Ven. Soorakkulame Pemaratana, for their valuable contribution to the project. Our sincere thanks are due to Mr HD Premasiri, Chairman of Sarasavi Bookshop [Pvt] Ltd, Mr Chandu Haputhanthri, its Managing Director, and Mr Sripali Perera, its Publishing Manager, who undertook the substantial task of producing and publishing this series of volumes. In this context, we cannot fail to mention the Most Venerable Bellanwila Dhammaratana Mahāthera, the chief incumbent of Bellanwila Rajamaha Viharaya from whose magnanimity this project has gained much. A bulk of the editorial work was done at Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies, University of Kelaniya. We owe a great debt of appreciation to its academic and non-academic members, for their kind cooperation and understanding. Madihe Sugatasiri Thera of the academic staff of University of Colombo deserves our thanks for his initiative to collecting and making copies of the papers to be edited. Finally, in his retirement, we wish Professor Asanga Tilakaratne, who has devoted more than 40 years of his academic carrier for the field of Buddhist studies, longevity, good health and happiness!

Editors  2020


Professor KN Jayatilleke, no doubt, was an iconoclast in Sri Lanka Buddhist studies in 1950s. In my generation, beginning with the 1980s, it was Professor Asanga Tilakaratne. I believe that only a few Buddhist scholars in Sri Lanka could have reached to his calibre, following his critical approach to Buddhism, for, I assume, his writings are always tinged with Western critical outlook, and he encapsulates a wide area of Buddhist studies. The rich diversity of his writings indeed illustrates his versatile erudition virtually in all areas of Buddhist studies. The pith of his writings, I must comment, constitutes his articles based on Buddhist philosophy of Pali Canonical texts, however. I was elated, then, by giving me the oppertunity to edit Buddhist Philosophy Volume of his collected papers, and for that reason, I would like to express my deep sense of gratitude to him, first. Anne Murphy, a PhD candidate at the University of Colombo then, comes to my mind next. She assisted me willingly and attentively by reading all papers and suggesting some improvements in language style. I deeply appreciate her contribution. I also thank Nuwanthika Ariyadasa for playing truly assistant’s role. My colleague, Ruwan Bandara Adhikari, Assistant Editor of the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, readily provided some required references from Buddhist Encyclopaedia library. I acknowledge him along with all my colleagues in the Editorial Board, and all staff members of the Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies for their generous treatment at every requirement. Peliyagoda Vidyalankara Pirivena also deserves my sincere thanks for letting me access to its resources anytime at my request. Finally, I would like to mention my wife as well as the ‘editor’ of my life Nimali Hettiarachchi, and my two tiny daughters Medhavi and Vimoksha for all their support and encouragement. Bertram

Introduction Soorakkulame Pemaratana Thera, PhD. Post-Doctoral Fellow Department of Religious Studies University of Pennsylvania

Professor Asanga Tilakaratne is the contemporary link in the prestigious lineage of Sri Lankan scholars on Buddhist Studies. As the most versatile contemporary Buddhist scholar in Sri Lanka, his contributions cover a variety of sub-fields in Buddhist Studies such as Buddhist modernism, Buddhist Ethics, Vinaya Studies and Buddhist textual studies. Among all of these, his greatest contributions are in the field of Buddhist Philosophy. This collection of papers provides testimony for the significance of his work in the field of Buddhist Philosophy. In this introductory essay, I aim to highlight three significant ways in which Asanga Tilakaratne has contributed to advance the scholarship of Buddhist Philosophy. One of the most significant contributions of Tilakaratne’s scholarship is his advancement of the thesis of Buddhist empiricism. This philosophical stance argues that the epistemological foundation of early Buddhism is primarily a form of empiricism and that its central doctrines can be empirically verified. This line of argument has a Sri Lankan identity. While scholars like Radhakrishnan and Aldous Huxley had previously remarked on the empiricist bend of early Buddhism, it was Professor KN Jayatilleke who convincingly argued for the empiricist foundation of early Buddhism in his monumental work, Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge (London: George Allen and Unwin Limited, 1963). Jayatilleke argued that the emphasis found throughout early Buddhist sources that knowing (jānaṃ) should be based on direct perceptive experience (passaṃ) makes early Buddhism a form of empiricism. Jayatilleke’s works influenced a number of Sri Lankan intellectuals. These scholars continued the argument by focusing attention on the fact that the Buddhism of the Pali canon rejects metaphysics, absolutism and essentialisms of any form or kind in favour of empirical knowledge.


Soorakkulame Pemaratana Thera

Prof. David J Kalupahana, a student of Jayatilleke, expanded the Buddhist empiricism thesis by explaining the central doctrines of Buddhism in empirical terms, arguing that transcendentalism has no place in Buddhism. What cannot be ultimately verified through human experience is not included within Buddhist teachings. Even doctrines of Kamma and Rebirth, according to Kalupahana, are based on sensory data. In this case, the data include experiences received from extrasensory perception (abhiññā) or in his terms, “supersensory knowledge.” (Kalupahana 1976). This adherence to empiricism, in Kalupahana’s view, is what distinguishes Buddhism from other forms of Indian thought (Kalupahana 1993). Prof. PD Premasiri further strengthened this argument by showing that so-called extra-sensory perception is ultimately based on ordinary senses. Citing Pali canonical sources he argued that the paranormal powers of perception known as abhiññā involve an extension of ordinary sensory capacities of the visual and the auditory senses. These powers, which are natural consequences of the appropriate mental training, allow one to experience things beyond the limits of ordinary sensory organs. The content of these cognitive powers are still merely visions, sounds or memories and are not qualitatively different from the ordinary sensory data. Other higher forms of knowing such as pariññā and paññā also do not refer to experiencing a mysterious or absolute reality but involve deeper penetration into the conditioned nature of ordinary sensory data. Premasiri concluded that the acceptance of paranormal cognitive powers in early Buddhism does not affect its empirical position (Premasiri 1990). Prof. Gunapala Dharmasiri contributed to this line of argument by demonstrating that this empiricist attitude is maintained in early Buddhism even with regard to meditative states. In his Buddhist Critique of Christian Concept of God (1988), which challenges theism, he shows how deeper meditative states in Buddhism such as jhāna, āruppa and even nirodha-samāpatti do not posit any transcendental reality. Even these meditative states in the Buddhist practice should be seen as causally produced. These heightened meditative experiences are also used in early Buddhism to further one’s understanding of the conditionality of all experiences. Tilakaratne, who was a student of Professor Kalupahana at the University of Hawaii, entered the discussion with his doctoral dissertation which was later published as Nirvana and Ineffability: A Study of Buddhist Theory of Reality and Language (1993). In this work and many of his other articles, some of which are included in this volume, he dealt



with the most difficult issue in this discussion of Buddhist empiricism. That is the nature of nibbanic/ nirvanic experience. Most of the writers on the nature of nirvana have interpreted it as a reality or experience that is beyond the realm of empiricism and language. Scholars like S Radhakrishnan and TRV Murti held such a view, interpreting nirvana as a transcendental reality (See Chapter 20). Such interpretations of nirvana as a transcendental reality rely heavily on the alleged ineffability of nirvanic experience. It is this relationship between ineffability and transcendence that Tilakaratne has examined thoroughly with reference to the interpretation of nirvana. In both traditional and scholarly accounts of religious experiences, the ineffability has been given as the key characteristic of the experience of transcendental reality. Scholars who argue that nirvanic experience is ineffable are also supporting the view that nirvana is transcendental. However, Tilakaratne argues that close examination of Pali canonical description of nirvana does not allow an interpretation of nirvanic experience as ineffable or transcendental. Clarifying the Buddha’s philosophy of language, he demonstrated that language is not viewed in early Buddhism as necessarily a distortion of reality (Tilakaratne 1993, 105). Early Buddhism indeed admits that language is a convention of the world and that it must be used with caution. Yet, it is an important tool for both gaining knowledge and expressing one’s insights regarding reality. When it comes to the expression of nirvanic experience found in early Buddhist sources, language becomes a tool rather than a hindrance for sharing this experience with others. He further shows that the way that nirvanic experience has been described by arahants within the canonical sources does not reflect any difficulty in the employment of language to describe this significant experience (Tilakaratne 1993, 68). Tilakaratne made a sustained effort to demonstrate that the nirvanic experience in early Buddhism does not involve seeing a separate reality or encountering a mysterious object or realm that is impenetrable by human cognition and language. For Tilakaratne, at the heart of the nirvanic experience is the realization that the world of experience is causally conditioned and hence, devoid of such a stratum of reality (1993, 9). In this light, what is significant in nirvanic experience is not its content but the shift of perspective it brings. Rather than seeing or realizing a new reality, nirvanic experience involves experiencing reality from a new perspective. Tilakaratne suggested that instead of saying that one experiences nirvana, we should rather say that one experiences [the world]


Soorakkulame Pemaratana Thera

‘nirvanically.’ (1993, 69) The idea of the transcendent, Tilakaratne argued, is psychologically alluring. Buddhist practice is a battle against this psychological allurement. There is nothing mystical at any point of this path. Hence, he asserted that the central characteristic of nirvana is not transcendence but non-transcendence. The hallmark of the ultimate Buddhist experience is knowledge and clarity of vision, and not a sense of awe, a feeling of wholly other or ineffable amazement that is common to religious experiences of many other religious traditions in the world (Chapter 24). Tilakaratne concluded, “What is called ‘nibbāna’ in early Buddhism, probably, is the resultant purity of mind and the experience of reality through that purified mind” (Chapter 26, 344). What we see in the writings of Tilakaratne is an extension of Buddhist empiricism thesis to the experience of nirvana. This is an important contribution. Even KN Jayatilleke, the pioneer of empiricist interpretation of Buddhism, subscribed to the view that nirvana is a transempirical reality. With reference to the state of nirvana, Jayatilleke says, “The transempirical cannot be empirically described or understood but it can be realized and attained” (1963, 477). Tilakaratne saw this transcendental interpretation of nirvana as inconsistent with Jayatilleke’s overall argument. While appreciating Jayatilleke’s empirical approach, Tilakaratne went beyond Jayatilleke by interpreting even the experience of nirvana as within the realm of the empirical (See Chapter 26). With this empiricist interpretation of nirvana, Tilakaratne brought the discussion of Buddhist empiricism to a conclusion. We saw earlier that scholars of Buddhist empiricism explained that early Buddhist sources maintained an empirical approach to ordinary human knowledge, extrasensory perception and meditative states. However, the experience of nirvana has been open to transcendental and mystical interpretations in the hands of both classical commentators and modern scholars. Tilakaratne’s argument places the experience of nirvana in the realm of the empirical. While Kalupahana and Premasiri previously expressed a dislike for a transcendental interpretation of nirvana, it was Tilakaratne who conclusively argued for an empirical and naturalistic interpretation of nirvana. Commenting on Tilakaratne’s work, Nirvana and Ineffability (1993), Kalupahana says, “It took nearly four decades, since Jayatilleke, to examine this problem [of transcendental interpretation of nirvana] in details and come up with a satisfactory explanation of the Buddhist position.” (Kalupahana 2006, 3). With this naturalistic and empiricist interpretation of nirvana, Tilakaratne stressed that early Buddhism is a rare



example in showing that a mental training and an ethical system can exist without having a transcendent reality to make them meaningful. For him, “This can be regarded as the factor which makes Buddhism unique among the other religions, theistic and non-theistic” (Chapter 26, 345). Another outstanding contribution by Tilakaratne is to highlight the system of logic found within Theravada Buddhism. Scholars tended to see Theravada Buddhism as restricted and narrow in terms of philosophical richness in comparison to Madhyamaka and Yogavacara schools of Mahayana Buddhism. Tilakaratne pointed out that Theravada Buddhism is indeed complex and rich in its philosophy and logical system. He did it mainly through his studies on the Kathāvatthu, a major text of Theravada Abhidhamma. Before Tilakaratne, the scholarly attention to the Kathāvatthu focused mainly on its rich collection of controversial viewpoints held by various Buddhist schools in India. The text was studied mainly as a sourcebook for contested doctrinal issues in Indian Buddhism and the Theravada response to those issues. In other words, the study of the Kathāvatthu has been primarily historical. The new perspective Tilakaratne brought to this text was to see it as a treatise of Buddhist logic. While appreciating the doctrinally rich content of the text, he brought our attention to the logical structure of dialogues found within the text (Chapter 14). He argued that the dialogues of this text follow well-develop logical reasoning and that the author of the text was well aware of rules of logic and modes of debates. While much can be learned from the Kathāvatthu about debated issues on personalism, realism and transcendentalism and the Theravada standpoint on these issues, Tilakaratne’s interest was to look at how these philosophically complex issues were handled logically. Following the lead of such scholars as Jayatilleke and Kalupahana he argued that the way both the proponent and the opponent argue this issue reveals rules of logic in Theravada that are similar to the rule of implication and the rule of contraposition found in modern logic (Chapter 14, 171). He reminded us that the Kathāvatthu predates celebrated Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna and Buddhist logician Dignāga. By revealing the logical and hermeneutical value of Kathāvatthu, Tilakaratne highlighted the significance of Theravada Buddhism in the development of logical reasoning within the context of Indian thought. Tilakaratne’s works on Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist texts can be described as ultimately contributing to the larger project of asserting the sophistication of Asian philosophical traditions. In the academic


Soorakkulame Pemaratana Thera

and philosophical circles, non-Western traditions of philosophy are often viewed as peripheral or less sophisticated. It is clearly seen in the way curriculums of philosophy are structured, professional organizations are formed and journals on philosophy are published. Even when some recognition is given to non-Western traditions of philosophy, they are always marked as Indian philosophy, Asian philosophy or African philosophy. Yet, when it comes to Western philosophy, it is just philosophy signalling its privileged core position (Garfield 2015, 9). This privileging of Western philosophy is a vestige of European intellectual hegemony promoted as a part of Western colonization of Asian and African countries. It is this scholarly trend that Edward Said labelled as “Orientalism” (Said, 1979). Orientalist scholars or those who were unconsciously influenced by Orientalism viewed literature, art and institutions in non-Western civilizations as the polar opposite of the rational West. The Oriental was caricatured as irrational and childlike whereas the Occidental was rational and mature. When it comes to philosophy, this attitude has been strong since Emmanuel Kant, who infamously claimed, “Philosophy is not to be found in the whole Orient” (quoted in Ching 1978). Tilakaratne both argued and demonstrated that the philosophical thinking and logical reasoning developed over many centuries in the Asian region are as sophisticated as those in any other philosophical tradition. His works assert that rationality does not arise only within one context. It is a universal human capacity. His works also argued that universal does not mean homogenous, showing how the universal human capacity for logic and reason can be utilized for different purposes (Chapter 10). Tilakaratne joined the scholars like BK Matilal, Richard King, S Vidyabhushana, CD Sharma to argue that philosophical thinking in Indian culture has a long history and those philosophical discussions found in Indian sources are richly dialectical. Tilakaratne and others pointed to the well-established practice of debate (vāda) among thinkers and religious teachers in Indian culture as a context in which philosophical and logical thinking flourished. A view promoted by any prominent personality was open to debate. Vedic sources, Jain and Buddhist sources dating back to the 6th century bce reference designated places for such public debates, and it was accepted that every thinker or teacher was required to debate one’s viewpoint with opponents. Ethics and rules for the proper practice of debate known as vāda-vidhi were developed and texts were written explaining this accepted code of ethics on the practice of debates (Chapter 12). Philosophical discussions among various groups of thinkers were carried out as verbal debates as well as in written treatises.



This practice allowed various traditions of Indian thought to grow philosophically and for philosophical arguments to be refined. The works of these scholars, including Tilakatene, have demonstrated that in this philosophically mature social context, thinkers of Indian culture had already been thinking about philosophical issues that Western philosophy only began to consider in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Chapter 14). These scholars also stressed the need to assess Indian thought in its own context first before examining its relationship with Western philosophy. Tilakaratne was careful in his usage of the term empiricism not to conflate it with the strictly Western sense of the term. He argued that Indian thought has had its own version of empiricism for many centuries. While empiricism of Indian thought shared many of its premises with Western empiricism, fully informed discussion required recognition of the distinctiveness of the concept in Indian thought. In the same vein, he clarified that the empiricism KN Jayatilleke saw in early Buddhism is not necessarily identical with that of Western philosophy (Chapter 26). Empiricism within the Buddhist context means, according to Tilakaratne, that all human beings can use their sensory experience (ordinary or refined) to recognize that they suffer and the way to overcome their suffering (Chapter 26). Hence within Buddhist empiricism, there is a place for ethical and spiritual propositions as opposed to Western empiricism. The contributions of Asanga Tilakaratne that are highlighted here are not meant to exhaust the breadth of his scholarship on Buddhist philosophy. However, these specific contributions highlight the value of Tilakaratne’s works in advancing the scholarship on Buddhist philosophy. He has contributed to laying a solid foundation for the scholars of future generations to explore the depth of philosophical analysis found within Buddhist sources. Whoever studies Buddhist empiricism, Buddhist perspective on truth, Buddhist philosophy of language and Buddhist logic will have to engage with Tilakaratne, and such engagement will definitely result in further advancing the field of Buddhist studies. References Ching, Julia. 1978. “Chinese Ethics and Kant.” Philosophy East and West 28 (2): 161- 172. Dharmasiri, Gunapala. 1988. A Buddhist Critique of the Christian Concept of God. Antioch: Golden Leaves.


Soorakkulame Pemaratana Thera

Garfield, Jay. L. 2015. Engaging Buddhism: Why It Matters to Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press. Kalupahana, David J. 1976. Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʿi Press. 1993. A History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuities. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʿi Press. 2006. Karma and Rebirth: Foundation of The Buddha’s Moral Philosophy. Dehiwala: Buddhist Cultural Center. Premasiri, P.D. 1990. “Epistemology.” In Encyclopeadia of Buddhism 5 (1): 95 – 112. Colombo: Ministry of Buddha Sasana. Said, Edward. W. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books. Tilakaratne, Asanga. 1993. Nirvana and Ineffability: A Study of The Buddhist Theory of Reality and Language. Sri Lanka: PGIPBS, University of Kelaniya.

1. Saddhā: A Prerequisite of Religious Action*

Introduction Although saddhā (faith) remains one of the most discussed of all Buddhist doctrinal concepts there is still a lot of uncertainty on its exact nature and its significance in the Buddhist religious practice. A key factor behind this uncertainty is that a typical study of the subject based on textual evidence always finds it hard to develop a coherent theory due to seemingly contradictory statements and their apparently ambiguous terminology. This forces the prospective researcher to engage in an extensive textual interpretation and grammatical analysis to forge out an interpretation. The traditional approach to the texts has been to accept the entire basket of discourses (sūtra-piṭaka) as authored or approved by the Buddha. However contemporary scholarship believes the three baskets (Tipiṭaka) of early Buddhism have been developing, at least, for several centuries. This understanding allows for an acceptance of different stages in the development of a particular concept. It relieves the researcher of the burden of trying to develop an all-encompassing theory of what she/he studies but leaves open the burden of determining what shades of meaning are earlier and what is later, which is not a simple task but depends largely on one’s personal preference. No study referring to the texts can escape these difficulties altogether and insofar as it is a textual study, the present study too is no exception. * A preliminary version of this paper was published in Recent Researches in Buddhist Studies: Essays in Honour of Professor Y Karunadasa. ed. Asanga Tilakaratne; Rev. K Dhammajoti & Kapila Abhayawansa. Colombo. 1997


Asanga Tilakaratne

My approach to the concept of saddhā is basically different from that of others in the following manner: It tries to understand saddhā as a condition necessary for religious action which ultimately leads to religious knowledge. In doing so I take saddhā (or the attitude which is religiously known as saddhā) as not confined to religious action alone but as a characteristic common to all human actions. I argue that knowledge is hard to come by without action and action is impossible without saddhā in Buddhist religious practice. This interpretation of saddhā finds its rationale from a study of the nature of and the motivating factors behind Buddhist religious practice.

Jayatillake’s view on saddhā One of the most comprehensive studies of the early Buddhist concept of saddhā has been conducted by KN Jayatilleke (1963, 382–401). The context of his treatment of saddhā is the early Buddhist theory of knowledge. According to Jayatilleke, there are three main aspects of saddhā, namely, cognitive, conative and affective and there are ‘at least two strata in the evaluation of saddhā within the Pali Canon.’ In the earlier stratum, the saddhā was quite in accordance with the rational attitude detailed in the Kālāma-sutta and what is meant by saddhā is ‘a belief in the statements of the Buddha.’ In the later stratum, the attitude changes towards a more sentimental state. Jayatilleke evidently considers the cognitive aspect of saddhā to be the most significant of the three aspects mentioned here. In his discussion, Jayatilleke has demonstrated quite convincingly: i. That saddhā or faith in the Buddhist religious practice is not groundless faith (amūlikā saddhā) but a rational faith (ākāravatī saddhā); and ii. that once the practitioner becomes enlightened his saddhā will be completely replaced by paññā (wisdom). The treatment of saddhā by Jayatilleke can create an impression that he is trying to attribute to early Buddhism a rational characteristic which is not present. In fact, this criticism has been levelled against him by Frank J Hoffman (1987). According to Hoffman, Jayatilleke tries to show that saddhā is always a consequence of the examination of statements made by the Buddha, suggesting thereby that the saddhā in the Buddha (teacher) is a result of the saddhā in the dhamma (teaching). Hoffman contends that there is textual evidence to support that the exact reverse is the case. He quotes from scriptures:

Saddhā: A Prerequisite of Religious Action


If he has enough faith in the Tathāgata, enough regard, then he will have these things, that is to say, the faculty of faith, the faculty of energy, the faculty of mindfulness, the faculty of concentration, the faculty of wisdom. This, monk, is called the person who is striving after faith.1 And then he comments: If it is correct to assume the second occurrence of saddhā here as in ‘the faculty of faith’ refers to doctrine, then one consequence of such faith in the Tathāgata is faith in the doctrine. Taken in this way, the passage depicts the former as the source or precondition of the latter. I mention this passage not to argue for one usage of saddhā as primary in general but to offset the undue weight given to ākāravatī saddhā (Jayatilleke: rational faith). (81) Hoffman’s comments on saddhā are a part of his larger program to show that early Buddhism is not a version of empiricism as KN Jayatilleke has proposed. Although we do not plan to discuss this larger issue here, the present discussion will show that in emphasising ākāravatī saddhā Jayatilleke has not laid any undue weight on the concept which was not already present in the early discourses. In fact, the present discussion will substantiate Jayatilleke’s two conclusions referred to above. Nevertheless, if the interpretation of saddhā developed here as being a prerequisite of religious action is correct, it will further show that Jayatilleke’s view, viz. ‘saddhā is not necessary at least for the few’ is not correct (1963, 396).

From belief to rational faith As a background to the proposed interpretation of saddhā let us first try to understand the nature of action in the Buddhist religious practice and the role of saddhā in it. It is a well-known fact that in the 6th century bce during the time of the Buddha there were various religious teachers who claimed that they alone and not others knew the path to freedom from suffering. We can imagine that the average villagers in north India during this time were inundated with various kinds of doctrines or wandering mendicants who claimed that ‘what they said alone was true and the rest was empty’ (idameva saccaṃ, moghamañña’nti2). Although the Buddha does not seem to have dogmatically asserted that what he 1  The original statement occurs in the Kīṭāgiri-sutta: M I, 473-481. 2  For instance, read introductory remark of the Kālāma-sutta: A I, 95. The typical expression occurs, among many other places, at M I, 410.


Asanga Tilakaratne

taught alone is true, he himself was trying to persuade people to accept his teaching and to follow it. The crux of this message to the world was the doctrine of the four noble truths. Through the first and the second truths the Buddha offered an analysis and an explanation of the human predicament. Through the third and the fourth truths he offered a solution and the means of achieving it. The Buddha’s analysis of human existence as characterised by suffering and suffering as having its origin in ‘thirst’ (Pali: taṇhā or Sanskrit: tṛṣṇā) may be accepted by intelligent people (viññūpurisā) through their own experience and knowledge. But, what about nirvana, the Buddhist solution to the problem, and the path which is believed to lead to nirvana? On what ground would one change one’s non-belief to belief or give up one’s already accepted religious beliefs and make one’s mind up to do what the Buddha recommends? Here one has to make a decision to do something existentially very significant by choosing to live an entirely different way of life to achieve what is not within one’s immediate experience. Basically, it is the situation of being compelled to do something of which the outcome has to be seen only after doing it. In that sense the situation this religious person is faced with is not altogether different from many situations we encounter in our daily life. For example, suppose we are in a situation to choose a new dentist. Now there is one to whom we have not gone before and therefore whom we do not ‘know.’ However, before making a decision we could check things such as his educational qualifications, his training, other people’s experiences of him etc., which have a direct bearing on his ability as a dentist. Having gathered these pieces of information, we may develop a certain degree of confidence in the person. Now this confidence may be described as a justified belief. It may prove right or wrong when we actually go to him and get the work done. Nevertheless, given the background information, we are justified in believing this dentist do a good job. In choosing a bank to deposit our money or a school to get an education we are guided by similar beliefs (It is a different matter that very often we do have an unjustified believing attitude towards the people we associate with for our daily needs). Religion is a much more complicated affair. In choosing a religion we look for different kinds of reasons because here we are dealing with a matter which is fundamentally different from, say, our daily grocery needs. In other words, for different kinds of needs we look for different kinds of justification of belief to achieve the desired end. Without such belief we will not act. Such belief, justified or not, is a fundamental requirement of human action or behaviour.

Saddhā: A Prerequisite of Religious Action


There is a popular theory among epistemologists that knowledge is justified true belief. The philosopher’s use of the term ‘belief’ is basically to refer to a proposition that is accepted to be true. In the present paper the term is used in a strictly psychological sense and therefore means a believing mentality. In that sense, belief, justified or unjustified, marks a stage prior to knowledge. Whether this belief will turn out to be true or false is largely outside the control of the believer. It should be made clear that certain forms of knowledge are never achieved without action. For instance, in the case of our dentist, we will not really know whether he is good or bad until we get our teeth attended to by him. On the other hand, we will never go to him unless we have some belief in him. In sum, knowledge is impossible without action and action is impossible without belief. When I go to my dentist believing that ‘he is good,’ his good performance will make my belief true and bad performance will make it false. Under these circumstances the most we can expect from ourselves is a justified belief. Being predominantly more emotional than rational beings (according to the Buddha and, more recently, Freud), we do most of our actions on rationally unjustified belief. My reason for going to a certain dentist may be that ‘she is good looking’ and I may still get my teeth attended to well. But, we must admit that a justified belief remains an ideal. Particularly, this holds true for a system such as Buddhism in which ‘knowledge’ plays a crucial role. According Purāṇañjasa-sutta (S II, 104-5) in early Buddhism, the Buddha is compared to a pioneer who has discovered an ancient path which leads to an ancient city. Having followed this path, the pioneer has reached the ancient city, and having returned from there he tells others how to go there. Following the instructions given by him, others too would reach the same destination. In the like manner, it is said that the Buddha has discovered the path to nirvana and attained it by following the Eightfold Path. Having done so, the Buddha instructs others how to attain nirvana by following the same path. In both cases, it is very necessary that the listeners believe in what is being said. In order that the listeners believe in what is being said they need to have confidence in who is saying it. The belief in the person, in the Buddha, in this context, arises from the conviction born out from observing the behaviour of the Buddha. In other words, what is promised by the Buddha is the cessation of defilements (āsavakkhaya). If this is possible at all, the Buddha must, from his behaviour, prove it beyond reasonable doubt. There must not be any discrepancy between what the Buddha says and what he does. He must be a doer of what he says


Asanga Tilakaratne

and also one who says what he does (yathāvādi tathākāri, yathākāri tathāvādi, It 122). Before going any further, let us examine some evidence from the discourses which exemplifies this procedure in the Buddhist religious practice. First, we will discuss the Vīmaṃsaka-sutta (Discourse in Inquiry) in which the Buddha describes how one should examine the Buddha before one makes up one’s mind to follow him. Here, the Buddha says that one who cannot read others’ minds3 should study the Tathāgata regarding two things, namely, things cognisable through the eye and through the ear, with the idea: ‘do those impure states cognisable through the eye and the ear exist in a Tathāgata or not?’. Having done this examination and being satisfied, the prospective follower cannot stop inquiring whether those impure states exist in the Tathāgata or not, for, by him, the Tathāgata should be further questioned.’ The establishment of the ideal saddhā occurs only after this step. The Buddha describes the solid character of the belief born in this manner in the following words: Monks, in anyone in whom faith in the teacher is established, rooted, supported by these methods, by these sentences, by these words, that faith is called reasoned based on vision, strong: it is indestructible by a recluse or a brahman or a divine being or Mara or a Brahma or by anyone in the world. Thus, monks, does there occur the proper study of the Tathāgata, and this does the Tathāgata come to be well studied in the proper manner. (M I, 320) The second example comes from the Cullahatthipadopama-sutta (The Lesser Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant’s Foot Print) in which the process of attaining the nirvanic knowledge from belief has been compared to the procedure followed by a clever elephant tracker in tracking an elephant (M I, 27) (Horner 1954, Vol. I:220–30). The Buddha says: An elephant tracker might enter an elephant forest and might see in the elephant forest a large footprint, long and broad. But a skilled elephant tracker does not at once come to the conclusions: indeed, it is a great bull elephant. What is the reason for 3  The Pali phrase ‘parassa cetopariyam ajānantena’ has been translated by IB Horner as ‘learning the range of another’s mind’ (Horner 1954, Vol. I:379). Perhaps following Horner KN Jayatilleke’s translation is ‘who can read the thoughts of another’ (1963, 392). This cannot be accepted. An inquiry is needed only for those who cannot read the others mind. The text is usually read as ājānantena with long ā at the beginning, but it could be ajānantena where short a can give a negative meaning. Therefore, the correct translation should be ‘by one who cannot read another’s mind.’

Saddhā: A Prerequisite of Religious Action


this? There are, Brahman, in an elephant forest stunted she-elephants who have large footprints and he thinks that this might be a footprint of theirs. In this manner, the elephant tracker observes many clues without concluding until he sees that bull elephant itself at the root of a tree or in the open. Then only he does come to the conclusion that this is that bull-elephant. In this manner, a prospective follower hears that the Buddha is born and that he teaches the doctrine; he listens to the dhamma, having listened, he gains faith in the Tathāgata. Then he decides to renounce home and become a monk and follow the path leading to nirvana. Having followed the path, ultimately, he attains the complete destruction of defilements. The Buddha describes the state of the mind of the follower who has attained final emancipation in the following words: It is at this point, Brahman, that the aryan disciple comes to fulfilment, thinking: The Buddha is fully-awakened; well-taught is dhamma by the Buddha; the Order fares along well. The statement clearly shows that it is at this point that the follower has gained complete knowledge. Until this moment occurs, he had only a justified belief on the Buddhahood of the Buddha, the correctness of the dhamma and accomplishments of the Sangha. Another interesting example occurs in the Brahmāyu-sutta (Discourse to Brahmāyu) in which the elder brahmin Brahmāyu sends his young pupil Uttara to know for sure whether the Buddha is enlightened or not (M I, 91) (Horner 1954, Vol. I:317–32). Uttara’s mission is twofold: First, following obviously an age-old tradition, he examines whether the Buddha had thirty-two signs of a great person (mahā-purisa lakkhaṇāni). Seeing these signs in the Buddha he becomes satisfied. Nevertheless, he does not stop at this step. Secondly, he follows the Buddha like a shadow for a long period of time. Subsequently, he reports his experience in the following words: We, Sir, have seen that revered Gotama walking, we have seen him standing still, we have seen him sitting silent within a house, we have seen him eating in a house, we have seen him sitting silent after he has eaten, we have seen him giving thanks after he has eaten, we have seen him in a monastery teaching dhamma in an assembly. This revered Gotama is like this like that and even more so. This last statement is significant in the sense that it shows the results of verifying those statements he had heard about the Buddha by test-


Asanga Tilakaratne

ing them against his behaviour. These three discourses reveal some very important aspects of saddhā in the actual Buddhist religious practice. The Discourse on Inquiry recommends that followers must examine the behaviour of the Buddha and question him on the same manner. It has been noted already that the faith one gains after this exercise has been described as reasoned, based on vision and strong and indestructible (ākāravatī saddhā dassanamūlikā daḷha asaṃhariyā). The Discourse on the Simile of the Foot Print of the Elephant is significant as it clearly shows that saddhā ultimately culminates in nirvanic wisdom. According to this discourse the prospective follower comes to the Buddha having heard the good words uttered about him by others. It is in fact a very mild and initial stage of belief in which he has not yet decided to accept as true what he hears but has merely made up his mind to visit the Buddha to listen to him. However, having listened to the Buddha he develops saddhā or belief which causes his decision to become a monk.4 The belief referred to in this statement constitutes two stages of the same cognitive process. The belief at the stage of deciding to go and listen to the Buddha was not very strong; since it does not involve any deep commitment it does not need to be. However, the belief at the stage of renouncing one’s household life is stronger, and it comes after listening to the dhamma. This is the stage detailed in the Discourse to Brahmāyu. It does not mean that all those who opted to follow the Buddha followed through Brahmāyu’s method, but it shows that at least some prospective followers were demanding. The process of examination and verification detailed in the discourse on the simile of the elephant foot-print reaches its culmination only when the person becomes an arahant or attains the end of the āryan path. The discourse says: In this manner, O brahmin, the āryan disciple draws a final conclusion, namely, that the Buddha is enlightened, the dhamma is leading to nirvana and the sangha is well entered on the path.5 In an illuminating discussion on the nature of knowledge involved in the Buddhist religious practice, the Buddha refers to three stages in the process of arriving at the conclusion that ‘this alone is true; the rest is empty.’ The first is the stage of ·preserving the truth (saccānurakkanā). At this stage one may assert what one believes to be true on the following 4 so taṃ dhammaṃ sutvā tathāgate saddhām paṭilabhati; so tena saddhāpaṭilābhena samannāgato iti paṭisañcikkhati – ‘sambādho gharāvāso rajopatho, abbhokāso pabbajjā. (M I, 178). 5 Ettāvatā kho, brāhmaṇa, ariyasāvako niṭṭhaṃ gato hoti – ‘sammāsambuddho bhagavā, bhagavatā dhammo, suppaṭipanno bhagavato sāvakasaṅgho’ti (M I, 182).

Saddhā: A Prerequisite of Religious Action


five grounds, namely, belief (saddhā), inclination (ruci), tradition (anussava), reflection on the form (ākāra-parivitakka) and immersing in view (diṭṭhi-nijjhānakhanti) (M II, 218). These five means of knowledge, the Buddha says, may have either of two consequences, namely, being either true or false. On the act of believing, the Buddha says: ‘even though something may be thoroughly believed in, it may be empty, void, false; on the other hand, something not thoroughly believed in may be factual, true, not otherwise.’ Therefore, the Buddha further says, a person who preserves the truth may well state what he believes but must not conclude, basing himself solely on saddhā, that this alone is true, and all else is false (The same also applies for the other four). Awakening to truth (saccānubodha) is the second stage, and it begins with a thorough inquiry into the character of the teacher to see whether his behaviour betrays characteristics of greed, hatred and delusion or not. The Buddha describes this process in the following words: After examining him (the teacher) and beholding that he is purified of states of confusion then he reposes his faith in him; with faith born he draws close; drawing close he sits down nearby; sitting down nearby he lends ear; lending ear he hears dhamma; having heard dhamma he remembers; he tests the meaning of the things he remembers: while testing the meaning the things are approved of; if there is approval of the things desire is born; with desire born he makes an effort; having mode an effort he weight it up: having weighed it up he strives: being self-resolute he realises with his person the highest truth itself; and penetrating it by means of intuitive wisdom, he sees. It is to this extent, ... that there is an awakening to truth. The saddhā referred to in the second instance is a result of inquiry. Therefore, it must be different from the saddhā in the first instance. Even at this stage, the Buddha says, one is not able to assert that this alone is true, and everything else is empty. Attainment of truth (saccānuppatti) is the final stage which is the conclusion of the practice of the doctrine (dhammānam āsevanā bhāvanā bhahulīkammā), that starts at the second stage. It is only at the successful completion of this third stage that one is justified in asserting that this alone is true, the rest is empty. The three stages seem to signify the three degrees of the comprehensive knowledge, the aim of Buddhist religious practice. The first and second stages are characterised by two different kinds of saddhā, namely, mere


Asanga Tilakaratne

believing mentality and ākāravatī-saddhā or rational belief.6 An interesting feature in this discussion is that the process has also been described in the reverse order. It runs in the following manner: for the attainment of truth (i.e. the third stage), the practice of the dhamma with diligence is helpful: for the practice, comparison (tulana) is useful; for comparison, striving (ussāha) is useful: for striving, willingness (chanda) is useful: for willingness, understanding of phenomena (dhammanijjhānakkhanti) is useful; for the understanding of phenomena, examination of meaning (attha upaparikkhā) is useful; for the examination of meaning, bearing the dhamma (in mind) (dhammadhāraṇa) is useful. For the bearing the dhamma in the mind, listening to the dhamma (dhamma savaṇa) is useful: for listening to the dhamma, paying attention (sotāvadhāna) is useful; for paying attention, association (pay6  The concept of kṣānti that occurs in the Abhidarmakośa and some of the Mahayana texts bears resemblance, in certain respects, to the concept of saddhā as representing a stage prior to knowledge: ‘Kṣānti’ in this sense does not refer to patience or endurance in its usual sense as it occurs as one of the pāramitas but bears a cognitive sense in answering the question: is the Patience knowledge? The Kośa explains the relationship between kṣānti and jñāna in this manner: The pure Patiences are not a type of Knowledge. The eight types of pure Patience which form part of the path of Seeing (ahhisamayāntika, vi. 25d-26c) are not, by their nature, knowledge; for, at the moment of patience, the defilement of doubt, which each Patience abandones is not already abandoned. But Knowledge is certain; it is produced when doubt is abandoned (Pruden 1990, Vol. IV:1087). The Kośa further explains that patience is the entry into certitude of the acquisition of absolute good (ch. vi-26a). Commenting on the occurrence of kṣānti in the Kośa, DT Suzuki says: In the Abhidharmakośa, Chapter VII, kṣānti is used in a way contrasted to Jñāna. According to it, kṣānti is not knowledge of certainty which jñāna is, for in kṣānti doubt has not yet been entirely uprooted. Its characteristic is to enquire, to investigate, to examine so that an intellectual understanding may turn into intuitive certainty whereby errors are destroyed, never to assert themselves again. In this case, jñāna = parijñā = prajiñā = adhigama = abhisamaya = svasiddhānta = pratyātmaryajñāna, while kṣānti is an intelligent recognition of a theory or doctrine (1957, 396). As a stage prior to knowledge in which the doubt is not totally abandoned kṣānti and saddhā seem to have something in common. Neither represent the stage of comprehensive knowledge. It is also significant to note that Kośa too discusses the concept of kṣānti in the context of the comprehension of truth (satyābhisamaya) which immediately follows the ‘patience.’ In the gradual order described in the Cullahattipadopama-sutta the first two stages, saccānurakkhana and saccānupapatti have saddhā as a significant element whereas the last stage is a result of the practice. The Kośa account is an ābhidhārmika analysis in which the process has been described as taking place through the thought-moments of the person who realizes truth. The Pali Abhidhamma tradition does not recognise a similar stage in the process of realisation of the lokuttara (supra-mundane) path (I thank Ven. Dr. K Dhammajoti of the Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies for drawing my attention to the concept of kṣānti).

Saddhā: A Prerequisite of Religious Action


irupāsana) is useful; for association, approaching (upasṃkamana) is useful; and for approaching, faith (saddhā) is useful. One would not approach unless one has saddhā.7 Finally, the discussion ends at the point where it began, namely, with saddhā as the prerequisite of the entire religious process. It should be noted, however, that the Buddha does not use the term ākāravatī saddhā in this discourse. But he says that saddhā is a result of samannesanā which etymologically means (sam+anu+esana) ‘exhaustive and gradual search.’ Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that saddhā referred to here is nothing other than the ‘rational faith’ highlighted in the discourses such as the Vīmaṃsaka-sutta. These discourses clearly indicate that the rational faith which is taken as the ideal is usually focused on the Buddha. This finding directly contradicts Hoffman’s view that if the faith in the Buddha is the cause of the faith in the dhamma, i.e., the statements of the Buddha, that faith cannot be ākāravatī saddhā or rational faith. The Vīmaṃsaka-sutta where the term ākāravatī saddhā occurs is particularly clear on this point: one’s rational faith arises based precisely on one’s investigation or intelligent appraisal of the Buddha. This faith is not based on mere appreciation but as a result of deep scrutiny into the behaviour and the character of the Buddha. Another very significant matter that surfaces from the above-mentioned discourses is that what the Buddha says (dhamma) and what he does (his life) cannot be separated from each other. The life of the Buddha is the embodiment of his teaching and he is a living example of what he says. In other words, the statements of the Buddha are checked against his behaviour and vice versa. The following statement of the Buddha highlights this close affinity between the Buddha and his teaching: He who sees the dhamma (teaching) sees me; he who sees me sees the dhamma. Verily seeing the dhamma one sees me; seeing me one sees the dhamma.8 The evidence in the discourses to the effect that the Buddha denied the kind of omniscience attributed to him by some people further reveals the nature of faith in Buddhism. It sounds normal in a system that the attribution of omniscience to the teacher one believes in, comes without questioning. In the Sandaka-sutta (M (76) I, 519.), the Buddha describes a system of religion based on the idea of omniscience which is active all the time as unsatisfactory (anassāsikā) since such a phenom7  yasma ca kho saddhā jayati tasmā upasaṃkamati (M II, 176). 8  yo kho ... dhammaṃ passati so maṃ passati. yo maṃ passati so dhammaṃ passati. Dhammañhi, ... passanto maṃ passata, maṃ passanto dhammaṃ passati (S III, 120).


Asanga Tilakaratne

enon is impossible (according to the reasons given in the discussion). Nevertheless, in the Kaṇṇatthala-sutta (M (90) II, 126-7.) he asserts that he does not deny the possibility of omniscience altogether. However, according to the Tevijjavacchagotta-sutta (M (71) I, 481-3.), the Buddha rejects the possibility of omniscience which is active all the time regarding himself and says that the proper way to describe him would be to say that he is endowed with the three ‘sciences’ (vidyā). What is clear from this is that the Buddha does not rule out the possibility of omniscience but does not claim any for himself. This may be taken as providing extra encouragement for the followers to develop an inquiring mentality in accepting what the Master says. The ideal picture of saddhā, developed in the course of this discussion need not be taken as invariably applicable in all cases. In other words, while it may have been the case that some people looked for reasonable justifications to believe what the Buddha said, some others may have readily accepted what he said due to certain reasons which are not directly relevant. In such cases, it cannot be the ideal form of saddhā. The fact that there are instances which betray a concept of saddhā that is less than the ideal need not baffle us for it is possible that not all the disciples adhered to the ideal form of saddhā advocated by the Buddha.

Attainment of nirvana The interpretation of saddhā as justified belief connected with the (religious) cognitive process may seem to ignore the emotional and the affective aspects which are usually connected with the idea of saddhā. It is a fact that in the early discourses saddhā has been coupled with emotive concepts such as pasāda - appreciation, bhatti - devotion and pema affection (A III, 165.). Usually these emotive elements are understood as aspects of saddhā. This identification, however, does not seem to be proper. In fact, they seem more to be factors which are related to saddhā in a mutual causal relationship. For certain people mental conditions such as appreciation and affection could be reasons for believing in someone. If such attitudes arise from knowing the truthfulness of what the person says, then naturally they lead to believing and acting accordingly. This type of pasāda has been specifically described as aveccappasāda or appreciation born of understanding.9 The pasāda referred to approvingly in the discourses is this, and the superficial pasāda which 9  M I, 37. Jayatillake’s translation of the term is ‘faith born of understanding.’ See his (1963, 386) for an etymological and grammatical analysis of the term.

Saddhā: A Prerequisite of Religious Action


one experiences for a person has been discouraged by the Buddha.10 Nevertheless, these attitudes could well arise in someone simply because, say, the person has a charming personality. In such a case saddhā is the effect of pasāda etc. and it cannot be described as ākāravatī. Since religious life in general involves a strong emotional element, one might wonder whether in the Buddhist religious practice, given its rational character, there is no possibility at all for one to follow the path solely motivated by emotions. Insofar as Buddhism is taken as a popular religion this possibility cannot be easily ruled out. Nevertheless, it needs to be made clear that if the follower is really aiming at the goal the very nature of the goal of Buddhist religious practice requires one to let knowledge supersede emotions. In order to know why this is so, one needs to have some idea about the nature of nirvana. Nirvana is the cessation of all defilements, namely, attachment, hatred and delusion (rāga, dosa, moha). Cessation is always understood as made possible by knowledge (ñāṇa) or wisdom (paññā). Knowledge in its ultimate sense is described as pariññā (pari+ñā) or comprehensive knowledge, and it is as the result of this knowledge that the above-mentioned three major defilements are eliminated.11 The knowledge which effects purification is usually understood as threefold, the knowledge of one’s previous existences (pubbenivāsānussatiñāna), the knowledge of passing away and arising of beings (cutūpapātañāna) and the knowledge of destruction of defilements (āsavakkhayañāna). These are the kinds of knowledge that the Buddha himself realised when he attained Buddhahood,12 and it is these very same kinds of knowledge that anyone attaining arahanthood would realise.13 In his very first sermon to the world, the Buddha is recorded to have described his realisation in the following terms: In the phenomena unheard of before eye was born knowledge was born, wisdom was born, ‘science’ was born, light was born (pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu cakkhuṃ udapādi, ñāṇaṃ udapādi, paññā udapādi, vijjā udapādi, āloko udapādi).14 In this manner, the ultimate religious goal has been described in the texts in clear cognitive terms. It has been regarded as a dawn of a new insight into reality. 10  See A III, 270 where the Buddha refers to five ill-effects of pasāda in a person. 11  Yo … rāgakkhayo dosakkhayo mohakkhayo – ayaṃ vuccati, …pariññā. S III, 26. 12  See the Pāsarāsi-sutta of the M I, 160-174. 13  See, for instance, the Sāmaññaphala-sutta of D I, 81-4. 14  Dhammacakkappavattana-sutta S V, 420-24.


Asanga Tilakaratne

In this manner, the ultimate religious experience in Buddhism is ‘gnanic’ and not ‘bhaktic.’ It is a cognitive state in the sense that it is the realisation of the knowledge of the nature of reality. In theistic religions, the ultimate religious experience is very much a result of one’s faith. The grace of God comes to those who are faithful. The faith in the theistic sense is the belief in the ‘articles of faith’ affirmed by the church. These articles of faith are believed to be beyond human reasoning. The following definition of faith by the First Vatican Council shows this transcendental character of faith: “a supernatural virtue by which guided and aided by divine grace we hold as true what God has revealed” (Hick 1967). It is clear that saddhā in Buddhism is fundamentally and basically different from faith described in this manner. The Buddhist religious practice, the noble eightfold path begins with right understanding (sammādiṭṭhi) and finally ends with right knowledge (sammāñāna) and right emancipation (sammāvimutti). In such a situation it is hard to see how a follower can advance in the Buddhist religious path if he is driven solely by emotions. It is not denied that such a person will derive some benefit from the Buddhist religious practice; but it is very unlikely that he will attain pariññā (comprehensive knowledge) through pasāda alone. This forces us to conclude that the emphasis on rational faith or justified belief is a logical necessity connected to the very nature of the goal of the Buddhist religious practice. The nirvanic knowledge is the completion of the Buddhist path. Up to that point the follower is guided by different degrees of justified belief. The intensity of this belief becomes stronger along with advancement in the path. For instance, it is said that one’s doubt (vicikicchā) which is counted among the hindrances (nīvaraṇa) to religious progress persists until he attains the first stage of arahanthood, namely, stream entry (sotāpatti). What is meant by ‘stream’ here is the path that leads to nirvana. Once the follower has gone into the stream there is no turning back (anāvatti dhamma). According to the accounts given in the discourses it is only at this stage that one’s doubt about the teacher and the teaching disappears. However even this stage does not signify a total establishment of nirvana as a ‘fact.’ At this stage one knows for sure to the extent that one ‘sees’ the goal but has not actually realised it. Until one realises, one does not know it comprehensively. Knowledge in a comprehensive sense arises only at the stage of arahanthood. It is only at this stage one can be said to have knowledge in the sense that one knows that nirvana is a reality and what the Buddha said is (therefore) true. In other words, what was up to this point a justified belief now becomes a reality. The role of the

Saddhā: A Prerequisite of Religious Action


justified belief ceases and the comprehensive knowledge is born.

Faith in arahanthood KN Jayatilleke says that an arahant’s saddhā at this point is completely replaced by his paññā (1963, 399). According to the interpretation we have developed we can see that this is true, for there cannot be anything to believe in, in something that we already know. If there is even a small amount of belief left, there cannot be complete knowledge. arahanthood in early discourses is a cognitive state in which absolute certainty is the hallmark. The texts confirm this when they remark: ‘when the liberation is achieved there arises the knowledge of being liberated’ (vimuttasmiṃ vimuttam iti ñāṇaṃ hoti, M I, 249). The Sāmaññaphala-sutta describes the dawn of this ultimate emancipatory knowledge in the following words: He knows as it really is ‘this is suffering’, he knows as it really is ‘This is the origin of suffering’, he knows as it really is ‘This is the cessation of suffering’, he knows as it really is ‘This is the path leading to the cessation of suffering.’ And he knows as it really is ‘These are the corruptions,’ ‘This is the origin of corruptions’, ‘This is the cessation of corruptions,’ ‘This is the path leading to the cessation of corruptions.’ And through this knowing and seeing, his mind is delivered from the corruption of sense desire, from the corruption of becoming, from the corruption of ignorance and the knowledge arises in him: ‘This is deliverance’ and he knows: birth is finished, the holy life has been led, done is what had to be done, there is nothing (left) further here. (Walshe 1987, 107–8) What has been described here is total and absolute certainty; therefore, there is no room for any doubt. What has been described in the passage is the arising of religious knowledge. What is striking is that the process is not basically different from the arising of any other kind of knowledge through experience. KN Jayatilleke refers in his discussion to Barua who says that “faith increases with knowledge so that when a maximum of knowledge is reached there is a maximum of faith” (1963, 399). According to Jayatilleke, Barua refers to a discourse in the Saṃyutta-nikāya in which the Buddha says that “one becomes an arahant as a result of these five moral faculties being fully and completely developed” (saddhā is one of these faculties). Jayatilleke suggests that this discourse represents a concept of


Asanga Tilakaratne

arahanthood different from the one he has developed in his discussion and that it can be a later development. In fact, this need not necessarily be so. Nor does it need to be understood as contradictory to the interpretation developed by him and corroborated in the paper on somewhat different grounds. The persistence of justified belief is a requirement in the pursuit of knowledge. Although it disappears once the knowledge is achieved, we can imagine that the effective element of saddhā, namely the conviction and the sense of appreciation, could continue to exist having become firmer and more established. When knowledge arises, conviction reaches culmination and the resultant appreciation of the teacher and teaching not only continues but also reaches culmination. As a result, an arahant can be the one who has the highest pasāda in the Buddha and his teaching, for he enjoys the highest degree of conviction. It is because he knows without any doubt that the Buddha is enlightened and his dhamma leads to the goal. Jayatilleke’s view that saddhā is basically an emotional concept (with a very strong cognitive aspect) seems to have made him draw the following conclusion: Now the faith or belief in the above sense is only considered a first step towards understanding. It is not even a step for all and this is probably the reason why it is not included in the noble eight-fold path. It is said that ‘there are two sources for the arising of the right view of life, viz., the propaganda of others and critical reflection (dve ... paccayā sammādiṭṭhiyā uppādāya, parato ca ghoso yoniso ca manasikāro, M I, 294). The acceptance of the right view on the basis of propaganda of others, presumably of the Buddha and his disciples is an acceptance out of saddhā, but the fact that we may adopt it as a result of one’s own independent thinking shows that saddhā is not necessary at least for the few. (1963, 396) The right view produced by others’ instructions and critical reflection cannot be its ultimate level which is described as the realisation of the four noble truths. The ultimate religious knowledge mentioned in the Buddhist religious practice is (usually) a result of a long and arduous process. Therefore, what is referred to in the statement quoted by KN Jayatilleke can be only an initial stage of the right view. This initial right view may function as a cause of saddhā which, in turn, will lead one to act. It could be possible for one to follow the religious path, as Jayatilleke maintains, without any attachment to a person. In drawing this conclusion, Jayatill-

Saddhā: A Prerequisite of Religious Action


eke may have been looking at the concept of saddhā merely as emotional (pasāda, bhatti or pema). But, if we understand saddhā as justified belief we know that there cannot be even one who can do without it. There is evidence in the discourses which suggest that saddhā is not necessarily a Buddhist concept. While describing his own religious search before his Buddhahood the Buddha refers to saddhā as one of the qualities he shared with his two former religious advisors, namely, Āḷāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta.15 This is impossible if we accept the traditional interpretation of saddhā as the belief in the Buddha, Dhamma and the Sangha. There is no doubt that this is the saddhā in the Buddhist religious practice, but it is only the Buddhist manifestation of a universal aspect of the human mind which is necessary for anyone to initiate any action.

Conclusion In emphasising the rational character of the Buddhist concept of saddhā, Jayatilleke was not placing undue weight on it alien to early Buddhism as Hoffman maintains. The fact that the Buddha underscored the rational character of this sentiment does not mean that all the disciples of the Buddha were rationally motivated to follow him. There is the clear case of Vakkali who was mesmerised by the physique of the Buddha and kept looking at him all the time (S III, 120.). The Buddha’s advice to him was that he should not look at his filthy body (pūti-kāya) but instead look at the dhamma. The Buddhist religious goal, nirvana, is not a gift of God to a faithful follower. At no point does the Buddha play God in this entire process. He is a pioneer who discovered an ancient city that had been neglected for a long time. Those who wish to visit it need to trust him initially. A person who doubts the existence of such a city even as a remote possibility will never move. Although the attitude of believing will ultimately be replaced by the attitude of knowing, no one can begin the journey without some sort of believing.

15  Pāsarāsi-sutta M I, 164-6.

2. Freedom from Dukkha: The Central Message of Buddhism*


Anuradha, in the past and even now I teach only dukkha [‘suffering’] and its cessation (S IV, 384: M I, 140). These words of the Buddha to one of his disciples may be taken as the summary of his entire teaching. In the Dhammacakka-pavattana-sutta1 [Discourse on the Turning the Wheel of Dhamma], his very first public statement to the world, the Buddha revealed the crux of his teaching, namely, the four noble truths; suffering, its origin, its cessation and the path leading to its cessation. In the well-known advice to Māluṅkyaputta, who challenged the Buddha to answer the ten questions,2 known as ‘unexplained,’ the Buddha refused to answer his questions, but laid emphasis on what he taught and what he did not teach. What he taught, the Buddha said, is the four noble truths.3 In another instance, the Buddha says: “Monks, due to non-comprehension and non-realisation of these four noble truths you and I have been wandering in this samsara for a long time” (S V, 431). The Buddha’s statement to Anuradha is just one among many repeated affirmations by him focused on the centrality of the theme of 1  Vin I, 10-11: S V, 420-24. Translation: (Bodhi 2002, Vol. II:1843–47). 2  The ten questions are: Is the world eternal? Is it not eternal? Is the world finite? Is it infinite? Are the body and the soul the same? Are they different? Does the enlightened person exist after death? Does he not? Does he both exist and not exist? Does he neither exist nor does not exist? These questions appear as fourteen in the Mahayana literature. 3  M 63, Translation: (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 533–37). * An initial version of this article was published in International Journal of Buddhist Thought and Culture, Vol.10, Dongguk University, Korea. 2007.

Freedom from Dukkha: The Central Message…


suffering and its cessation in his teaching. In what follows, I will give a brief analysis of the key aspects of this teaching with a view to highlight the connection between life and death and liberation in the teaching of the Buddha. My analysis will be based on the discourses of the Buddha as found in the Pali Canon. Toward the end of the discussion I will say a few words about how these central conceptions of early Buddhism need to be understood in the broader context of Buddhism as a way of life.

Search for liberation from suffering Describing his journey in search of liberation from suffering, the Buddha, after his liberation, reminisced in the following manner: And to me brethren, before I was enlightened, while I was yet unenlightened and was Bodhisatta there came this thought: Alas! This world has fallen upon trouble. There is getting born and decaying and passing away and being reborn. And yet from this suffering, from decay and death, an escape is not known. O, when shall escape from this suffering, from decay and death, be seen. (S II, 10-11) This statement makes clear what was behind the Prince Siddhartha’s move to renounce his worldly pleasures and embark on a journey as a seeker of that which is wholesome (kiṃ kusalagavesi). A traditional story occurring in the Jātaka says that Prince Siddhartha saw, in four consecutive trips to his pleasure park, an old person, a sick person, a dead body and one who had undertaken the religious life. The meaning of the story is that the young prince was confronted with the realities of life which made him make a drastic change in his own way of life. What these textual and traditional accounts highlight is the crucial significance of the perception of deep-rooted unsatisfactoriness in human existence in motivating Siddhartha to undertake his search for liberation. As a liberation-seeker Śramaṇa4, Siddhartha followed some wellknown teachers of his day and attained jhanic absorptions characterised by increase aloofness from the external world but concluded that such temporary and volatile escape from reality was not what he was after. He wanted to find true liberation of mind resulting from seeing through wisdom. For this purpose, he had to device his own way and no teacher was there to guide him. The path he followed has been described in detail in the Bhayabherava-sutta (Discourse on fear and dread) of the 4  Śramaṇa was the main non-brahmanic religious tradition, comprised of liberation seekers of various types.


Asanga Tilakaratne

Majjhima-nikāya. I will not describe it here for the sake of space. Let me quote from the Discourse the Buddha’s account of the final liberation-generating knowledge he achieved by following the path: When my concentrated mind was thus purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to knowledge of the destruction of the taints. I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is suffering;’ ‘I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is the origin of suffering’; I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is the cessation of suffering’; I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering’. I directly knew as it actually is: ‘These are the taints’; I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is the origin of taints’; I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is the cessation of taints’; I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of taints’. When I knew and saw thus, my mind was liberated from the taint of sensual desire, from the taint of being, and from the taint of ignorance. When it was liberated, there came the knowledge: ‘It is liberated.’ I directly knew: ‘Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.’ (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 106) I will return to this discussion in the last part of this essay. What needs to be highlighted at this point is that the final realisation has been seen considering the cessation of birth, which is the immediate cause of all other forms of suffering, including death.

Suffering The Buddhist analysis of the human predicament may well be summarised by the word dukkha, suffering. As the Buddha’s statement about his pre-enlightenment stage, quoted above, reveals, suffering characterised by birth, decay and death is the predicament of life that the Buddha (as Prince Siddhartha) found himself and all others in the world are subjected to and he wished to find an answer to this problem. In the very first sermon, referred to earlier, the Buddha described this in the following words: And what is the noble truth of suffering? Birth is suffering, ageing is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; to be associated with the unpleasant is suffering; to be dissociated from the pleasant is suffering,

Freedom from Dukkha: The Central Message…


not to obtain what one wants is suffering, in short, the five aggregates affected by clinging are suffering. This analysis refers to various kinds of suffering one is bound to undergo so long as one is under the influence of ‘thirst’ [taṇhā: the thirst for the sensual pleasures, for becoming and for destruction] that is described as the cause of suffering. Due to the complexity of the concept of dukkha, the ancient commentators have identified its three important aspects, namely, (i) dukkha as ordinary suffering (dukkha-dukkha), (ii) dukkha caused by change (vipariṇāma-dukkha), and (iii) dukkha as a constructed state (saṅkhāra-dukkha) (Vism, 499). Of these three, the first refers to any form of ordinary physical and mental suffering described above as the suffering of birth, old-age, disease and death, and the second is that which is caused by the change of pleasant conditions and situations into neutrality or unpleasantness. The third, however, is psychologically and philosophically the most important and it corresponds to this last aspect described in the above analysis of suffering, namely, suffering caused by clinging to the five aggregates of personality. The five aggregates are material form, feeling, perception, conditioned states and consciousness, and the combination of these aspects is called a [human] being. The suffering associated with this pentad - as indicated by the phrase ‘in short’is the totality of suffering. In other words, it shows that there is no difference between the five aggregates affected by clinging and suffering itself. To understand human suffering, we need to pay special attention to the specification of the five aggregates as ‘affected by clinging,’ which, according to the doctrine of dependent co-origination, is caused by ‘thirst’ (taṇhā), which is mentioned as the cause of suffering. This indicates that the human existence characterised by the five aggregates itself is not suffering. What makes it sorrowful is the fact of its being affected by clinging. It is to such existence characterised by thirst and clinging that all forms of suffering mentioned in the analysis of the first noble truth pertain. In the Buddhist analysis, there is no being over and above or apart from the five aggregates. The traditional belief in a soul [ātma/atta] postulates something imperishable and permanent in [human] beings, which is believed to be the factor that secures one’s so-called identity. The materialists at the time of the Buddha accepted only the validity of matter and consequently they held that life will be over with its physical destruction. Those who believed in an everlasting soul held that it transmigrates from birth to birth retaining one’s personal identity intact. Very


Asanga Tilakaratne

often the last aspect of the five aggregates, namely, the consciousness, was taken as representing this soul. One of the followers of the Buddha himself held the view that ‘it is consciousness that runs through and roams around unchanged’.5 The Buddha rebuked the disciple for holding this wrong view and clarified his position pointing out that ‘I have described consciousness as dependently arisen.’6 Within a dependently arisen reality there cannot be anything independent which agrees with the traditional characterisation of ātma as ‘unborn, permanent, everlasting, ancient; not destroyed at the destruction of the physical body’.7 In the Sabbāsava-sutta [Discourse on all taints] of the Majjhima-nikāya (M I, 6) the Buddha traces the origin of the self-view to our unnecessary agonising over our own existence. According to this analysis, we do not attend to things fit for attention but attend to things that are not fit for attention, and consequently we generate taints (āsava) that are not in us and increase the taints that are already in us. The unwise attention is sixteen-fold and relates to the psychological agony about the past, the present and the future of our own existence. They are as follows: Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what did I become in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I be not in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I become in the future? [Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the present thus]: Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where will it go? 5  viññānaṃ sandhāvati saṃsarati anaññaṃ (M I, 256). 6  paticca-samuppannam viññānam vuttam bhagavatā, (Ibid.). 7  Ajo nityam śasvatoyam purāṇo – na hanyate hanyamane śarīre: Chāndogya Upaniṣad. VIII. 7.1.

Freedom from Dukkha: The Central Message…


Subsequently, the Buddha explains how this kind of agonising causes six different views on self: When he attends unwisely in this way, one of six views arises in him: the view ‘I have a self’ arises in him as true and established; the view ‘I have no self’ arises in him as true and established; the view ‘I perceive self with self’ arises in him as true and established; the view ‘I perceive not-self with self’ arises in him as true and established; the view ‘I perceive self with not-self’ arises in him as true and established; the view ‘This myself, which speaks and feels, which experiences the fruits of good and bad actions now here and now there, this self is permanent, stable, everlasting, unchanging, remaining the same for ever and ever. (M I, 8) The agonies connected to our own existence and our self-view are mutually connected, each feeding on the other. The anxiety over one’s existence and clinging to oneself are the results of this self-generating process. Among the sufferings of life listed in the analysis of suffering, the most devastating is death, which is the final blow on life. Death signifies the loss of everything associated with life. Although it is the loss of everything, both good and bad associated with life, driven by our desire for life, we do not consider the fact that at death we are relieved not only from pleasant things but also from all unpleasant things in life. Nevertheless, what seems to matter to us is that all what we consider as pleasant will be lost at death. Death simply is the destruction of the entire universe one has been building throughout one’s life time placing oneself at its centre. In this sense, death is not mere the physical act of breathing our last breath but the severest possible blow on our ego-centred universe constructed during our whole life time: we are separated from the pleasant, and the pleasant is separated from us without our willingness. One’s eternal hope is to have everything that one wishes to possess although such expectation can be utterly unrealistic. The Venerable Sariputta describes this unrealistic human desire in the following words: And what, friends, is ‘not to obtain what one wants is suffering’? To beings subject to birth, there comes the wish: ‘Oh, that we were not subject to birth! That birth would not come to us!’ But this is not to be obtained by wishing, and not to obtain what one wants is suffering. To beings subject to ageing, … subject to sickness, … subject to death, … subject to sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair, there comes the wish: Oh, that we were not subject to sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair! That


Asanga Tilakaratne

sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair would not come to us!’ But this is not to be obtained by wishing, and not to obtain what one wants is suffering. (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 1099) The analysis by Sariputta highlights the nature of ordinary human psychology characterised by unrealistic expectations: we expect the impossible to happen; we expect a life without any sorrow; this, as Sariputta shows, cannot be attained by a mere wish, which implies that it can be attained by following a path of mental development. As we will see later, the result of such a path will be to get rid of this unrealistic desire by seeing the folly of it. Furthermore, looking from a more realistic point of view we would see that everything mentioned as suffering is related to human life. It is natural for one to be born to reach old-age gradually, to be subject to various kinds of illness, sooner or later, and finally to die. Thus old-age, disease and death are natural phenomena of human life. Over the course of life people undergo a loss of hope, frustrations and all kinds of unpleasant situations in life. The important question is why we need to be devastated by these natural phenomena. Usually the religions have provided an answer to the problem of death: it is the ever-lasting existence in a paradise to be born after one’s death, without any further death. This, furthermore, is claimed to be granted to one through the grace of an all-powerful God. In other words, this is a promise for everlasting life without having to fear about dying and any other calamity such as ageing, getting sick or any form of mental or physical agony. We are given a promise of a transcendental existence where, once born, one will never die again, as opposed to the worldly existence, which is full of all forms of suffering. As indicated earlier, this is not the Buddha’s solution to the problem. Now we turn to the solution proposed in the teaching of the Buddha.

Liberation from suffering As found in the passage I quoted at the beginning of this discussion, the cessation of suffering was one of the two key aspects of the teaching of the Buddha. It was also revealed through those passages that the motivation for the Buddha’s noble quest was the suffering characterised by old-age, decay and death. Consequently, one would expect the Buddha to come up with a solution like the one advocated in many other religions, a prospect of an unending blissful life, but this is not so. As the liberation from suffering, the Buddha did not postulate a state or a

Freedom from Dukkha: The Central Message…


paradise of ever-lasting life, in which, once born one would never die. Such a belief would go against the very idea of dependently origination of suffering according to which there cannot be birth without association of suffering. In the exposition of the four noble truths, the Buddha described the origin of suffering as the thirst for pleasurable objects, continued existence and destruction. Following this way of describing the cause of suffering the Buddha described the liberation from suffering as “the complete cessation and detachment without residue” of the very same thirst. With the cessation of thirst all the other dependently arisen phenomena, such as clinging, becoming, birth, decay and death come to an end. This, in brief, is the liberation from suffering as taught by the Buddha. This final goal is known in the Theravada tradition as nirvāṇa/nibbāna, blowing out of all the defilements. In the discourses it is more frequently referred to as ‘comprehensive extinguishment.’ The relevant Pali term is parinibbāna which is intimately connected with the idea of nibbāna. It is important now, to study this concept in a little more detail. The term ‘parinibbāna’ or ‘parinirvāṇa’ (in Sanskrit) is usually used in current Buddhist parlance to refer to the passing away of the Buddha or an arahant. The mistaken idea is that the Buddha or an arahant really attains nirvana only along with his parinirvāṇa which is understood to be the death of such an enlightened person. Contrary to this belief, in fact, the discourses make it quite clear that the idea of parinibbāṇa is basically connected to what happens in this very life to one who realises cessation of suffering. Let me give some examples: In the Rathavinīta-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya there is a recorded discussion between two great disciples of the Buddha, Sariputta and Puṇṇa Mantāniputta, on the issue of the purpose of the holy life lived under the Buddha. When questioned by the former on this matter, the latter admits that it is lived not for the sake of any one of the seven types of purification.8 When questioned further by Sariputta as to what purpose, if not for any one of the seven purifications, Puṇṇa Mantāniputta answers by saying that it is for the sake of ‘comprehensive extinguishment without clinging.9’ The point of 8  The seven purifications outline the gradual process of purification taught by the Buddha. They are: purification of virtue (sīla-visuddhi), mind (citta), view (diṭṭhi), overcoming doubt (kaṅkhā-vitaraṇa), purification by knowledge and vision of what is the path and what is not the path (maggāmagga-ñānadassana), purification by knowledge and vision of the way (paṭipadā-ñānadassana) and purification of knowledge and vision (ñāṇadassana). 9  In their translation Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi (2001) translate ‘an-


Asanga Tilakaratne

the discussion is to show that each of the seven purifications lead to the subsequent purification and that all seven together lead to the final goal, which is comprehensive extinguishment without clinging. The usage of the concept in this context shows that the goal is achieved within this life itself and the attainment does not mean the physical death of the person. In many instances, for example, the attainment of the final goal has been described as ‘mind was liberated from influxes without clinging’.10 The concept of parinibbāna without clinging and the concept of liberation without clinging, no doubt, are synonymous in these contexts. The concept of parinibbāna has been used in the same sense in places such as: “That Exalted One, being himself comprehensively extinguished, teaches the doctrine for comprehensive extinguishment”11; and “comprehensively extinguished in here itself”.12 It is emphasised that the goal of being without thirst is to be achieved ‘before the break of the body’.13 This characterisation of final liberation is closely connected to the two most common terms used in the discourses to refer to it, namely, purification (visuddhi) and liberation (vimutti). In the Dhammapada, the insight into the three signs, namely, impermanence, sorrowfulness and non-substantiality are described as ‘the path to purification.’14 This reminds us of Buddhaghosa’s monumental work, the Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), detailing the path to cessation of suffering. The concept of emancipation (vimutti) is equally used in the discourses to refer to the release one achieves by freeing one’s mind from influxes. In upādā-parinibbāna’ as ‘final Nibbāna without clinging’. I would, however, translate ‘parinibbāna’ not as ‘final nibbāna’ but as ‘comprehensive extinguishment,’ which is closer to the original etymology. 10  The relevant Pali phrase is: anupādāya āsavehi cittaṃ vimucci. M I, 501; Vin I,17. 11  parinibbuto so bhagavā parinibbānāya dhammaṃ deseti: D III, 55. 12  idheva parinibbuto or idheva parinibāyati: Also look at the usage, by the Buddha, of the concept ‘parinibbāna’ in the Sallekha-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya: That one who is himself untamed, undisciplined, [with defilements] unextinguished, should tame another, discipline him, and help extinguish [his defilements] is impossible; that one who is himself tamed, disciplined, [without defilements] extinguished, should tame another, discipline him, and help extinguish [his defilements] is possible. So too: A person given to cruelty has non-cruelty by which to extinguish it. [emphasis added] (Translation from Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 130). 13  The relevant concept is ‘vīta-taṇho purā-bhedā’ [before break-up] and found emphasised in the Purabheda-sutta of the Suttanipāta v. 853. 14  When one sees with wisdom that all the constructed phenomena are impermanent then he becomes disgusted in suffering; this is the path to purification. When one sees with wisdom that all the phenomena are sorrowful… when one sees with wisdom that all phenomena are non-substantial…this is the path to purification. Dhp. v. 277-9.

Freedom from Dukkha: The Central Message…


the Theragāthā and the Therīgāthā, two anthologies included in the Khuddaka-nikāya of the Pali Canon, in which the joyous utterances of the liberated monks and nuns are recorded, it is almost customary to these liberated people to describe their attainment as ‘liberation of mind from influxes.’15 Furthermore, the Buddha and the arahants (those who have realised the cessation of suffering) are often described as spending their leisure time “experiencing the happiness of emancipation.”16 These two concepts respectively refer to defiling phenomena, which are usually described by such terms as defilements and related concepts, and hindrances17, and binding phenomena, described as influxes, cankers, bondages, and engagements.18 Defilements are basically attachment, hatred and delusion and related phenomena. The five factors that obstruct the smooth practice of the path, namely, sensual desire, extreme aversion, sloth and torpor, confusion and regret and doubting mentality are called hindrances (nīvaraṇa). The concept of purification becomes meaningful in the context of these defiling phenomena. Being a deep psychological analysis, the two mutually related concepts reveal how the Buddha gave a new meaning to the deep-rooted belief of ritualistic purity and impurity prevalent among the brahmins during his time. The concept of emancipation derives its meaning from the presence of influxes or characteristics of mind that infatuates it, binds it or enslaves it to pleasures. The predominant character of these phenomena is to create bondage or bounded nature in human mind. Emancipation is to liberate one’s mind from these phenomena. The Buddha’s analysis of these two phenomena, purification and emancipation and the related characteristics, in addition to making his teaching one of the most psychological of all religious teachings hitherto available, also makes clear how liberation from suffering has been perceived in the early Buddhist tradition. The discussion up to this point shows clearly that liberation according to the teaching of the Buddha is a result of purification of mind and liberating one’s mind from defiling factors. The final knowledge that gives birth to this liberation is called ‘the knowledge of the extinction of influxes’ (āsava-(k)-khaya-ñāṇa), and in a passage quoted earlier, it was 15  cittaṃ āsavehi vimucci (mind was freed from influxes) or similar expressions. Vin I, 17; M I, 501. 16  Vimuttisukha-paṭisaṃvedi. Vin I, 3. 17  Concepts such as kilesa, upakkilesa, saṅkilesa (all meaning different shades of defiling factors) and nīvaraṇa (hindrances) are some examples. 18  āsava, saññojana, bandhana, yoga are some examples.


Asanga Tilakaratne

described as knowing what influxes are, how they originate, their cessation and the path leading to their cessation. The arising of this knowledge is the liberation-generating knowledge and with the dawn of it one knows that one is liberated. To quote again: When it was liberated, there came the knowledge: ‘It is liberated.’ I directly knew: ‘Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being. (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 106) Now we need to connect this account with the suffering characterised by old-age, decay and death; the obvious question being: how this liberation liberates one from such suffering? Does this mean that the person so liberated would not be subject to old-age, decay and death? In the Discourse on Noble Search (Majjhima-nikāya no. 26) the Buddha says to the monks not to search for things that are subject to old-age, decay, disease, death, grief and defilement, being oneself subject to these phenomena already. Instead, he advises them to search for things that are not to subject to old-age, decay and death. He says thus: Here someone being himself subject to birth, having understood the danger in what is subject to birth, seeks the unborn supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to ageing, having understood the danger in what is subject to ageing, he seeks the unageing supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being subject to sickness, … he seeks the unailing supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to death, … he seeks the deathless supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to sorrow, … he seeks the sorrowless supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to defilement, … he seeks the undefiled supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna. (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 255–56) Any literal understanding of this passage may be interpreted as Buddha referring to some state of existence without birth, old-age, decay and death. In fact, the popular understanding of nirvana is not without this difficulty. What the Buddha means is something quite different: it is to liberate oneself from the mentality obsessed by thirst which makes natural phenomena of life, such as old-age, decay and death disastrous for oneself. For example, old-age, disease or death become a disaster to the amount of thirst one has toward gratification of one’s senses. Once the thirst is removed from the mind, or once the mind is liberated or purified of one’s thirst, these phenomena will no longer bear the same dread-

Freedom from Dukkha: The Central Message…


ful meaning as they used to. In addressing, after his enlightenment, the sceptical five ascetics, who were his early companions during the time he was striving to attain the Buddhahood, the Buddha announced to them that ‘the Deathless (amata) has been attained’ by him.19 Now it is clear that this deathless or immortality is a state of mind achieved in this very life. Such a state is further described as blindfolding the Māra (the personification of death); to have become invisible to him; depriving the eyes of the Evil One [=Māra] of the opportunity of seeing; and going beyond the hunter’s range.20

Concluding remarks Dukkha and freedom from dukkha constitutes, in this manner, the kernel of the teaching of the Buddha. Sometimes this emphasis on suffering has earned the teaching of the Buddha an undeserved reputation as a form of pessimism. I do not wish to answer anew this question already answered by many Buddhist scholars. It is, important however to note that in the Buddha’s own admission (as we quoted at the very outset of this discussion), his teaching is on suffering and its cessation and not on suffering alone. It is also equally important to remember that the Buddha talked about what can be called ‘social suffering’ or suffering that exists in society, such as poverty, discrimination based on caste, sexuality and the like. These questions were discussed not merely as examples of suffering justifying renouncing the worldly life but as issues to be dealt with as required by a happy and good worldly life of ordinary men and women. The Buddha did not envisage a society in which everyone renounces household life to become monks or nuns. He envisaged a prosperous householder life in which people abide by basic ethical norms characterised by the five precepts (pañca-sīla). The Buddha and his monastic followers were not gloomy people who only saw the dreadfulness of life. They were required to see suffering to comprehend it21, and not to be put-off by it. At one place the Buddha advices his followers that they, irrespective of whether they were monks 19  Ariyapariyesana-sutta: Majjhima-nikāya I, 274. 20  See (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 266–67) for details. 21  According to the Dhammacakka-pavattana-sutta (S V. 420-4): translation: (Bodhi 2002, Vol. II:1843–47), dukkha is to be comprehended (pariññeyyam), the cause of it to be given up (pahātabbam), the cessation of it to be realised (sacchikātabbam), and the path is to be practiced (bhāvetabbam).


Asanga Tilakaratne

or nuns or men or women, should reflect on death. The reason for this is that such a reflection tends to make one’s life much more meaningful, considerate and humane; but not gloomy, withdrawn and apprehensive of death all the time. Having achieved the deathless, the Buddha was always happy and with a mild smile (mihita-pubbaṅgama) as observed by his contemporaries. The secret of the Buddha’s smile was that he had comprehended suffering and realised its cessation, the liberation.

3. Dependent Co-Origination: The Buddhist Approach to Reality*

Introduction The Buddhist doctrine of dependent co-origination or paṭiccasamuppāda (hereafter abbreviated as PS) is usually understood as strictly applicable to one’s individual path of purification. Judging by the standard formulation of the teaching it is understandable that one gets this kind of impression about the teaching. In fact, it is quite true to say that in the teaching of the Buddha the idea of dependent origination has been used mainly to explain how suffering arises and ceases, based on various causes and conditions, in the individual. This, however, must not be taken as the exclusive use of the explanation in Buddhism. The purpose of this essay is to show that the teaching can also be used as a way of approaching problems we are facing or forms of suffering that we experience collectively in today’s world.

Dependent co-origination ‘Dependent co-origination’ is the literal translation of the term ‘paṭiccasamuppāda’ which contains the basic Buddhist insight into the nature and the working of reality. Although its most frequent use in the teaching is to explain how suffering arises and ceases it is understood as a principle, universally applicable. The general theoretical form of the idea is presented in the discourses in the following manner: Imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti When this is, this is Imassa uppādā idaṃ uppajjhati From the arising of this, this arises * An initial version of this article was published in Dialogue (NS) Vol. XXIX 2002, Colombo.


Asanga Tilakaratne

Imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti When this is not present, this is not present Imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati With the cessation of this, this ceases. (S II, 33) As a universal principle, it is described as having four characteristics, namely, objectivity (tathatā), necessity (avitathatā), invariability (anaññatā) and conditionality (idappaccayatā). In this characterisation objectivity refers to the fact that PS is not a creation by the Buddha or by any other person, for it is there whether the Buddhas were to be born or not. What the Buddha does is reveal it, a principle which is already present, to the world. In other words, PS is not a subjective explanation but an objective reality. This character of reality has been explained with the following simile: Suppose a man faring through the forest, through the great woods, sees an ancient path, an ancient road traversed by men of former days. And he goes along it and sees an ancient city, a former prince’s domain, where men of former days lived, a city adorned by gardens, groves, pools, foundations of walls, a beautiful spot, ... Just so did I behold an ancient path, an ancient way traversed by a former Buddha. ... Following that path, I came to understand fully decay and death, their arising, their cessation and the path leading to their cessation, (S II, 105-6). The simile indicates that PS is not an invention or a creation but a discovery by the Buddha of an objective reality already existing in the world. The second characteristic of necessity describes the situation that occurs when all the conditions are present. In other words, in the presence of all the necessary conditions the effect is bound to happen. The third characteristic of invariability says that there is a constant relation between the cause and the effect. This highlights the fact that there is a correlation between the cause and the effect. The fact that there is a group of conditions coming together to make an effect is defined by the fourth characteristic of conditionality. These four characteristics underscore the law-like nature of the principle of dependent origination. According to the discourses, the PS basically refers to the mode of explanation adopted by the Buddha to explain the origin and the cessation of suffering. The standard expression of the idea occurs in the discourses in the following manner:

Dependent Co-Origination...


And what, bhikkhu, is dependent origination? With ignorance as condition, volitional formations (come to be); with volitional formations as condition, consciousness; with consciousness as condition, name-and-form; with name-and-form as condition, the six sense bases; with the six sense bases as condition, contact; with contact as condition, feeling; with feeling as condition. Craving; with craving as condition, clinging; with clinging as condition; existence, with existence as condition; birth, with birth as condition; aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure and despair come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. This, bhikkhus, is called dependent coorigination. But with the remainder-less fading away and cessation of ignorance comes cessation of volitional formations; with the cessation of volitional formation, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain displeasure and despair cease. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering. (Bodhi 2000, Vol. I:533–34) The first part of the statement explains how suffering arises dependently and the second part explains how it ceases once one link is severed. The Buddha has said in many occasions that he explains only two things, namely, arising and the cessation of suffering, which highlights the centrality of the phenomenon of suffering by the teaching of the Buddha. This does not infer, however, that he has not said anything else, but it means that whatever he has said, it would not contradict this broad theme and that the eradication of suffering has been his foremost concern. Although suffering in this context is basically understood as individual suffering, Buddhism has always understood the individual essentially as a part of society. Society ultimately being a combination of different configurations of human beings, social problems are nothing other than human problems in which everyone may not be considered as that important. Buddhists understand various forms of social unrest and upheavals as manifestations of human suffering affecting, ultimately, individual human beings. By explaining the origin of suffering as dependently originated, the Buddha primarily dissociated himself from the two religious trends popular during his time, namely, eternalism (sassata-vāda), the view that a human being lasts forever in some form or another, and annihilationism (uccheda-vāda), the view that a human being does not survive death and


Asanga Tilakaratne

is annihilated. Avoiding these two extremes, the Buddha describes the human predicament as originating dependently on various causes and conditions which are interconnected. As has been explained by the Buddha to the ascetic named Acela Kassapa (Bodhi 2000, Vol. I:545–48), this way of explanation avoids the following erroneous views: Suffering is done by oneself. Suffering is done by another. Suffering is done by both oneself and another. Suffering occurs for no reason and is accidental. Suffering does not exist. According to the explanation given subsequently, the first view amounts to eternalism; the second to annihilationism; the third is a combination of these two wrong views and the fourth is a denial of causation characterised, according to the Buddhist understanding, by conditionality. That the rejection of these erroneous views does not amount to rejecting the existence of suffering is indicated by the denial of the last position. The implications of this explanation cannot be over-estimated. By rejecting the first two positions, Buddhism rejects not only metaphysical explanations, but it also rejects, perhaps more importantly, any explanation of an absolutist nature. A view that suffering is created by oneself attributes the origin of suffering to a metaphysical cause, which is in this context the soul is believed to last forever, which at the same time is only one single and absolute cause. The key point in the teaching of PS is that reality is an inter-dependent and inter-related complex of events. According to this understanding, there cannot be any unconnected phenomenon in reality; no phenomena can stand on its own. The dependent and inter-connected nature of reality is not something devised by the Buddha. As the Buddha himself has claimed “whether the Buddhas exists or not, this nature of reality is there, namely, the conditionality” (S II, 25-6). The role of the Buddha in this context is nothing but that of a guide who has pioneered the experience of PS What this means, in other words, is that PS represents an intrinsic character of reality, which we need to comprehend for the sake of right understanding. In speaking of understanding reality, we cannot forget that the human being is a very important and decisive aspect of it. It is very important therefore, that the nature of reality and his/her relation to it are understood as essential aspects of dependent origination. In contrast to the Brahmin tradition where a human being is understood in terms of his/her individual soul and its relation to the universal soul, which is un-

Dependent Co-Origination...


derstood as a Creator God, Buddhism understands human beings as a dynamic interaction of the five khandha-s or aggregates, namely material form, feeling, perception, constructions and consciousness. These five are not static entities but are processes that undergo constant change. In other words, this means that a human being is not a permanent or an absolute entity but a dynamic and causally conditioned phenomenon. In this manner, both reality and human beings are causally conditioned phenomena and are subject to the same characteristics of existence. In Buddhism, these characteristics are described as ‘ti-lakkhaṇa’ or three signata, namely impermanence (anicca), satisfactoriness (dukkha) and non-substantiality (anatta). Impermanence refers to the ever-present nature of change in which each human being is an essential part. In other words, nothing in the world or as a human being remains unchanged. It is the cause of the unsatisfactoriness experienced by all beings and this is what is called ‘suffering.’ What is changing and unsatisfactory is characterised as ‘no-soul.’ The idea of no-soul in Buddhism primarily implies that a human being is not characterised by a soul believed to survive death and last forever (until it attains union with Brahma). Experientially, this means that there is nothing that we can grasp within or without oneself as ‘it is me’ and ‘it is mine’. A well-known statement in Buddhism says that ‘all conditioned phenomena are impermanent’ (sabbe saṅkhāra aniccā) (S III, 43; Dhp v. 277). The term saṅkhāra in this context has a very broad meaning encompassing within reality, as totality. This indicates that everything, animate and inanimate, share certain fundamental characteristics. There are certain significant ethical implications in this position. The position of a human in nature is an area that religions do not agree upon. The Buddhism maintains that to be born as a human being is precious, mainly because a human being has the capacity to determine his own destiny. From simple events to more complicated events in human life, everything is explained in Buddhism as caused by factors within human experience. For instance, in the Hindu tradition the act of perception is usually described with reference to one’s soul. Accordingly, it is said that it is one’s soul that really sees or hears things but not one’s eye or ear. The contrary explanation of Buddhism runs in the following manner: Dependent on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the above three is contact. With contact as condition there is feeling. What one feels, that one perceives. What one perceives, that one thinks about. What one thinks about, that one


Asanga Tilakaratne

mentally proliferates. With what one has mentally proliferated as the source, perceptions and notions tinged with mental proliferation beset a man with respect to past, future, and present forms cognisable through the eye. (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 203) (The same applies to the rest of the sensory faculties.) In this account, there is no reference to a soul understood as the ‘ghost in the machine’! The discourse describes how the process of perception takes place, and based on that which it describes, subsequently, how suffering arises due to a wrong attitude to one’s perceptions. Social manifestations of human suffering have been dealt with in the same manner. For instance, the Cakkavattisīhanāda-sutta describes how the deterioration of society takes place in a causally conditioned manner. From not giving of property to the needy, poverty became rife, from the growth of poverty, the taking of what was not given increased, from the increase of theft, the use of weapons increased, from the increase use of weapons, the taking of life increased, and from the increase in the taking of life, people’s life-span decreased ... (Walshe 1987, 399–400) A human being and his multiform suffering is also a part of this. The Buddhist view of a human being the resultant attitude is basically in conformity with the understanding of reality as dependently originated. In a dependently arisen reality there is no place for a transcendent reality staying over and above that which is ordinary, which rules out the possibility that a human being is a creation by such a transcendent reality representing itself in this manner. The classical Hindu view holds that each individual human being has an ātma which determines one’s uniqueness (jīvātma). All individual ātmas owe their existence to what is called paramātma or absolute reality, which is sometimes understood as a personal God. In this understanding of reality, a human being and everything else associated with him has been created by God and are capable, in principle, of existing independently. In the Buddhist understanding marked by PS, a human being too is dependently originated and hence a part of the overall reality which constitutes one’s own lived experience. By characterising a human being in this manner, Buddhism does not say that he is nothing more than any other aspect of reality. On the contrary, Buddhism holds that to be born as a human being is a rare opportunity and that human life is something of great value. What this basically means is that a human being, of all beings, has the capacity for

Dependent Co-Origination...


shaping one’s own destiny. This view is based on a human being’s developed physical and psychological aspects with potentiality for attaining higher states of development. A human being, on the other hand, shares many characteristics with all the other animate and inanimate beings and objects. For instance, like all beings, she/he is subject to the natural and moral laws; and subject to impermanence, sorrowfulness and non-substantiality. Like all beings, she/he is desirous of pleasure and happiness and works for that end all throughout his existence and finally succumbs to death, like all beings. The morality of all of this is that human beings are not extra-ordinary and are part of nature. The above analysis of reality based on PS provides a very significant ethical lesson. A very powerful religious expression of this lesson is included in the story of Raṭṭhapāla, a young and rich householder who renounced his worldly life on seeing the reality of life. On being questioned by the ruler of his country Raṭṭapāla explains the reasons behind his act of renunciation: Great king, there are four characteristics of Nature that have been taught by the Blessed one who knows and sees: Life is unstable, it is swept away; the world has no shelter and is without an overlord; the world has nothing of its own, one must leave everything and pass on; and the world is incomplete, instantiate and the slave of craving. (M II, 54.) Of the four characteristics described by Raṭṭhapāla, the first three are basically natural results of reality characterised by dependent existence. The fourth is how an uninstructed worldling would react to such reality. The aim of the teaching of the Buddha is to guide one to develop a healthy attitude towards reality. There is no wonder in the dependently arisen phenomena being impermanent. Everything including various situations involving human beings are subject to change. The ethics deriving from this understanding of reality may well be called the ‘ethics of impermanence.’ Religiously, it reminds us that we as human beings are only a part of a wider reality, sharing a lot of characteristics together. It not only makes us humble but also it places us in the right perspective. As a part of our lived experience, dependency and impermanence may give some of us a negative sense of life. This, however, is to take these universal phenomena in the wrong manner. Impermanence also gives us hope: hope for a change for the better. As Nagarjuna demonstrated forcefully, a reality characterised by the presence of ‘one’s own nature’ (svabhāva) is a reality that will never change. This means that


Asanga Tilakaratne

there will not be progress (or lack of it) in religious life, for progress involves a change for the better. Nagarjuna says: When sva-bhāva exists, the universe will be unborn, non-ceased, remaining immutable and devoid of variegated states. If empty is not seen then reaching what has not been reached, the act of terminating suffering as well as the relinquishing of all defilements also will not be seen. (MMK, XXIV: 38-39) The changing and dependent character of reality, in this manner, provides the basis for a quest for solutions to problems with which we are entangled. The Theravada Buddhist tradition refers to five areas of reality that come under the operation of PS. They are given in the following manner: i. The physical (inorganic) world (utuniyāma) ii. The physical (organic) world (bījaniyāma) iii. The sphere of mental activity (cittaniyāma) iv. The moral sphere of moral action (kammaniyāma) v. The sphere of higher spiritual life (dhammaniyāma) (DA II, 432.) In this context, ‘niyāma’ refers to the nature of things or to natural principles. The first category is the inorganic aspect of nature such as the changes in seasons. The second refers to the organic aspect of nature such as plant life. Both aspects of nature function as causally conditioned phenomena. This means that there is no doer or regulator within or behind these phenomena. The third is the sphere of mind, which, very often, is misunderstood to be the agent in the person or the soul. Moral or immoral action, covered by the fourth aspect, too is very often understood as being done by oneself or another. With their inclusion under this classification, the mysterious agent has been taken away from moral action. The fifth aspect refers to the spiritual sphere and underscores the fact that it too must be understood as an interdependent web of conditions. In other words, this classification shows that, according to Buddhism, Nature, with all its aspects including human beings, is considered a phenomenon governed by one universal principle, namely, dependent arising, co-existence and dissolution. As it is clear from the Aggañña-sutta of the Dīgha-nikāya (D III, 79), the Buddha explains the evolution of the world and the people and their institutions in accordance with this theory. As a result, this theory does not imply a first cause

Dependent Co-Origination...


which causes everything else. Accordingly, as we have discussed earlier, the Buddha has explained how problems in society arise as causally conditioned phenomena.

Conclusion I think, ultimately, the characterisation of reality in this manner has a very important message for the modern world which has an increasing tendency to perceive itself (one’s organisation, society or country or one’s own self) as the ‘centre of the universe.’ In a dependently arisen phenomenon there cannot be any centre as such occupying the supreme position. One’s existence is dependent on others as much as that of others are dependent on oneself. This means that we cannot solve our own problems by completely forgetting those of others. In trying to do so, we either solve our problems inadequately or we create fresh problems for ourselves and others or for both. We really cannot ignore the problems of others, for, in the final analysis, there is no such thing as ‘others’ problems, to which one is totally immune from. ‘The other’ in this context is not merely the human beings but it includes the animal life as well as inanimate aspects of nature such as trees and plants, rivers and mountains, oceans and the environment. I must underscore the fact that this is not reading modern environmental attitudes into Buddhism; the Buddhist tradition has always upheld an all-inclusive attitude toward Nature as exemplified by such statements as sabba-pāṇa-bhūtahitānukampi-viharati (one lives being kind and understanding to all forms of life and beings) (D I, 63) and sabbe sattā bhavantu sukhitattā (may all beings be well and happy) (Kh 8.). It is true that we are speaking of an ‘environmental factor’ today much more than we did several decades ago. However, it is still difficult to say whether we have learnt our lesson. For instance, what most of the developed countries do is to find places elsewhere in other countries, very often within less developed countries, which cannot afford the luxury of caring for nature to carry out their hazardous research or to dump their dangerous waste materials. Driven by poverty most of these less developed countries do not find an alternative to allowing themselves to become the garbage dumps of their more developed counterparts. By behaving in this manner, the capable countries are only passing their problem on to someone else. But this is quite a temporary measure. The dependently arisen character highlighted by PS shows that none is immune to the problems that others face. One cannot do harm to someone


Asanga Tilakaratne

else without causing harm to oneself in the process. Therefore, this insight should provide us with an opportunity and a need to be generous and to adopt a broader perspective of life in which both oneself and others are included in a meaningful manner.

4. A Textual Interpretation of Kamma*

In the language of early Buddhism and the Theravada tradition, kamma basically means action. It is used to refer to actions both ethically qualifiable and otherwise. In its a-ethical sense, the term is used to denote any kind of action or behaviour. However, as one of the key concepts in Buddhism, what is meant by kamma is an ethically qualifiable action. Such an action is always accompanied with cetanā, intention, which is either good (kusala) or bad (akusala). Therefore, an action may be qualified as either good or bad according to the nature of the intention involved. The first two stanzas of the Dhammapada highlight, in the following words, the intimate connection between kamma and the mental factor determining its nature, and the vipāka or the result determined by the kamma: “Mind is the forerunner of (all) states. Mind is chief; mind-made are they. If one speaks or acts with wicked mind, because of that, suffering follows one ... If one speaks or acts with pure mind, because of that, happiness follows one ...” (Dhp v. 1-2). Thus, what is meant by kamma in Buddhism is one’s behaviour and its psychological foundations. A study of this concept will show that it is one of the most fundamental concepts in the teaching of the Buddha. The origin of the concept of kamma may be traced back to the Vedic religion. By the time of the Buddha, kamma was very much a standard view in Indian religion, both in Brāhmaṇa and Śramaṇa traditions. Therefore, the Buddhist view of kamma needs to be understood in its historical and philosophical contexts. The belief in kamma and its result is a very important and an almost universal aspect of Indian religions; the Buddha himself was typical among others. In the first instance, the Bud* An initial version of this article was published in Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, Vol. VI: Fascicle 1. Colombo: Sri Lanka, 1996.


Asanga Tilakaratne

dha dissociated himself from the view of denying ethical action and its result (akiriyavāda). What is rejected by this dissociation is the annihilationist view (ucchedavāda), which the Buddha identified as one of the two extreme forms of life. The Sandaka-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya (M I, 513) makes this point. On the other hand, in accepting kamma he did not identify himself with the group of ātmavādins who believed in a soul which was believed to be the agent of doing kamma and experiencing its result. By this recognition, the eternalist view (sassatavāda) associated with the belief in a soul tis rejected. Rejecting these two potions as extremes, the ‘middle’ position of the Buddha is made clear in the dialogue with the ascetic Acela Kassapa. The Buddha answered in the negative to all the following questions put forth by him: Is suffering wrought by oneself? Is suffering wrought by another? ls suffering wrought by both oneself and another? Has suffering arisen by chance? Is suffering non-existent? Is it the case that Gotama does not know suffering? Having done so, the Buddha explained the reasons behind his denial: One and the same person both acts and experiences [the results]’ this, Kassapa, which you called at first ‘suffering is selfwrought’ amounts to the eternalist theory.’ One acts, another experienced [the result]’ this, Kassapa, which to one smitten by the feeling occurs as suffering caused by another amounts to the annihilationist theory ... the Tathāgata, not approaching either extreme, teaches the Norm by a middle [way]” (Davids 1972, Pt. II, 15–16). Strict determinism regarding kamma also has been rejected by the Buddha. The Titthāyatana-sutta of the Aṅguattara-nikāya (also Vibhaṅga, 367), which classifies three views rejected by the Buddha, lists the view that one’s all pleasurable and painful experiences are due to his past kamma (sabbaṃ pubbekatahetu) as one of them (A I, 173). According to the Devadaha-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya (M II, 214-228) Niganṭha Nātaputta, the Jain leader, held this view. This discourse appears to explain that the Jains believed that liberation results from the extinction of all past kammas and for that purpose they tortured their body. In commenting on their practice, the Buddha remarked that, if people experience happiness and unhappiness purely due to their past kamma, then the Jains must indeed have done evil kammas in their past lives for they undergo extensive suffering in this life (sace bhikkhave sattā pubbekatahetu sukhadukkhaṃ paṭisaṃvedanti, addhā bhikkhave Nigaṇṭhā pubbe dukkaṭakammakārino yaṃ etarahi evarūpā dukkhā tippā kāṭukā vedanā vediyanti, M II, 222). Thus, the Buddha distinguishes his position from that of others.

A Textual Interpretation of Kamma


The most significant distinction in the Buddhist view of kamma is that it has been defined in terms of cetanā or intention. The Buddha has underscored its significance when he said the following: “O, monks, I say that intention (cetanā) is kamma” (cetanā’haṃ bhikkhave kammaṃ vadāmi - A III, 415). The reason for this identification of intention with kamma, as revealed in the subsequent portion of the statement, is that having intended, one performs actions by body, speech or mind. As it is clear from this statement, kamma by way of its ‘doors’ of performance may be divided into three, namely, physical, verbal and mental (kāya, vacī, mano kamma). By whichever means the action is performed, what makes an action a kamma is its ‘intention.’ In the Abhidhamma, cetanā has been identified as one of the seven universal aspects of any consciousness (sabbacitta-sādhāraṇa cetasika). According to this, all conscious actions, including those that are not overtly ethical, must be understood as kamma. This leads us to some intricate problems of the nature of cetanā with which the Buddhist scholastic traditions have struggled extensively. For the present purpose, it would suffice to say that by cetanā the early discourses mean mainly the ‘ethically qualifiable intention.’ The analysis of kamma as kusala and akusala is a part of Buddhist soteriology. Equally, the analysis of kamma into puñña and pāpa occupies a key position in the eschatology of Buddhism. According to the Sammādiṭṭhi-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya (M I, 46-47), ethically qualifiable actions, kusala or akusala, are enumerated as twenty: ten for each. It has been further shown that it has the root (mūla) which makes a particular action either kusala or akusala. There are three unskillful roots (akusalamūla), namely, greed, hatred and delusion, and there are ten unskillful actions which result from them. They are: killing, stealing and sexual misconduct as physical actions; lying, slanderous speech, harsh speech and gossip as verbal actions; and covetousness, wrath and wrong view as mental actions. Refraining from these actions derives from skillful roots (kusalamula) and they are skillful actions. The skillful roots are non-greed, non-hatred and non-confusion. The skillful actions are restraint from killing, stealing and sexual misconduct, which are physical; restraint from lying, slanderous speech, harsh speech and gossip, which are verbal actions; and non-covetousness, non-wrath and right views, which are mental actions. Although cetanā or intention plays a crucial role in determining the kusala or akusala nature of an action, whether it be physical, verbal or mental, the mere cetanā would not qualify an action to be complete. In


Asanga Tilakaratne

the commentarial tradition, the term kammapatha (course of kamma) has been used to underscore this matter. The term itself goes back to discourses (e.g., S II, 168; A V, 57, 268) and has been used to refer to the ten kusala or akusala kammas. In the Atthasālinī (89-90), Buddhaghosa makes a distinction between kamma and kammapatha in the following manner: regarding the physical and verbal doors, mere ‘activity without producing the desired result will not be kammapatha; but in so far it is an akusala, it will be only a physical misbehaviour (kāya duccarita) not a physical akusala kamma. With regard to the mental door, mere proneness (manodvare samudācāraṃ patvā…) to the killing motive will not be a kammapatha; only the arising of the thought of killing will make it so. This shows that the presence of cetanā is a necessary condition without which a kamma cannot come into being; but cetanā alone is not a sufficient condition for kusala or akusala kamma result for the actual action has to take place for the karmic action to be deemed complete (see, … cetayitvā kammam karoti kāyena vācāya manasā - having intended one performs kamma with body, speech or mind; A III, 415). In analysing actions into kusala and akusala the emphasis is laid on the ethico-psychological character of the action. For example, a kusala action whether physical, verbal or mental, signifies a state of mind which is ‘undefiled’ (asaṅkiḷiṭṭha) by defilements (kilesa). The akusala represents the opposite. These two aspects have a direct bearing on the path to nirvana. However, the analysis of actions into puñña (meritorious) and pāpa (evil) underscores more the experiential aspect of kamma, which is more relevant to the life after death (eschatology). For example, the self-same action, which were described under kusala and akusala, will mean ‘happiness-producing’ and ‘unhappiness producing’ when described as puñña-kamma and pāpa-kamma. The significance of the two groups of actions has something to do with the final goal and the ‘relative’ goal of the Buddhist religious life; a distinction is not explicitly made, though it is obvious in the practice. The eradication of akusala by means of the development of kusala helps one attain nirvana which is the final goal of Buddhism. However, for the ordinary people who are not able to shed all of their worldly ties at once, the goal is not nirvana but rather the ‘plane of pleasurable existence’ (sugatiṃ saggaṃ lokaṃ). The means, for this end, is accumulating as much puñña as possible and abstaining from all kinds of pāpa. The distinction between kusala and akusala and puñña and pāpa is that the former liberates one from the samsaric existence whereas the latter would keep one within it. Puñña makes one’s existence within the ‘realm of the Māra’ (māradheyya)

A Textual Interpretation of Kamma


agreeable and pleasing (sukho puññassa uccayo; accumulation of puñña [causes] happiness): pāpa makes it sorrowful (dukkho pāpassa uccayo; accumulation of pāpa [causes] suffering). However, both puñña and pāpa are similar in their act of prolonging one’s samsāric existence. In the discourses, there are various accounts of kamma presented based on its kusala and akusala or puñña and pāpa character. The Rahulovāda-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya (M I, 416 ff.) begins with an admonition to the effect that one must thoroughly reflect before one performs a kamma with one’s body, speech or mind (paccavekkhitvā paccavekkhitvā kayena kammaṃ kātabbaṃ…). Subsequently, the discourse characterises the nature of the kusala kamma according to three criteria, namely, that an action should not be for the harm of oneself, the other or both. While such a kamma is kusala its opposite is said to be akusala. This shows ‘that, in determining the kamma, not only the intention (cetanā) but also the outcome of it is taken into consideration. This idea is affirmed by the following two statements of the Dhammapada (v. 67, 68). “That deed is not well done which, being done, one afterwards repents, and the fruit whereof one reaps weeping, with tearful face: that deed is well done which, being done, one afterwards repents not, and the fruit whereof one reaps with joy and pleasure.”

Kamma and its result Along with the idea of kamma, occurs the idea of vipāka or the result of kamma (which literally means ripening of the kamma). Buddhism teaches that kamma produces results which correspond to its good or bad character. Thus, good kammas produce good results and bad kammas bad results. The phenomenon of kamma producing corresponding results has been explained in the teaching of the Buddha as an aspect of the general causal process operative in nature. There is no agent, human or divine, who is responsible for this process. It is a known fact that Buddhism denies the concept of God as the first cause of the universe or the creator of it. Being such a non-theistic system Buddhism explains the process of kamma and its result by appealing to a rational understanding of causation. This idea is highlighted in the fivefold classification of ‘laws of nature’ or niyāma dhammas, (which occurs only in the Pali commentarial literature: Atthasālinī. 272) namely, law of seasons (utuniyāma), law of seeds (bījaniyāma), law of kamma (kammaniyāma), law of nature (dhammaniyāma) and law of mind (cittaniyāma). The idea conveyed by this classification is that in all above-mentioned


Asanga Tilakaratne

fields there are no agents responsible for the activation of those phenomena but that they all come under the principle of causality (patticcasamuppāda), which means that when all the necessary causes and conditions are met, the corresponding effect is produced. Kamma and its result has also been explained according to this principle. In the Kukkuravatika-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya (also in the Aṅguttara-nikāya, catukkanipāta) the Buddha highlights this mutual correspondence between kamma and its result by the following classification: a kamma which is (i) dark with a dark result, (ii) fair with fair result, (iii) dark and fair with dark and fair result, (iv) neither dark nor fair with neither dark nor fair result (see below for more discussion) (M I, 389). This analysis shows that the nature of the result is determined by the nature of the kamma. The self-same idea is brought forth beautifully in the following well-known statement: “one reaps what one sows; the doer of good receives good and the doer of evil receives evil” (yādisaṃ vapate bījaṃ tādisaṃ harate phalaṃ - kalyāṇakārī kalyāṇaṃ pāpakārī ca pāpakaṃ, S I, 227). In the subsequent commentarial literature, the concept of kammasārikkhatā or ‘correspondence of kamma’ (to its vipāka) was developed to highlight this phenomenon. The Atthasālinī (272) describes the kammaniyāma (law of kamma) referring to kammasārikkhatā: kammasārikkhatāvipākavaseneva kammaniyāmo nāma hoti. Moreover, the correspondence between kamma and its vipāka does not necessarily imply that one’s future birth is determined exclusively by the nature of the kamma performed by that person in his or her previous existence. The Buddha has explained this fact in the Mahākammavibhaṅga-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya (M III, 207). In this discourse, the Buddha classifies people who are reborn due to their kamma into four categories: (i) those who engaged in ten akusalas has consequently born in a woeful existence, (ii) those who engaged in ten akusalas but born in a pleasurable existence, (iii) those who engaged in ten kusalas and consequently born in a pleasurable existence, and (iv) those who engaged in ten kusalas but born in a woeful existence. It is clear, according to this classification that one’s next birth does not necessarily reflect one’s predominant behaviour in his or her past life. In some exceptional cases, the predominant kamma may produce results immediately, subsequently or indefinitely (…diṭṭheva dhamme vipakaṃ paṭisaṃvedeti upapajje vā apare vā pariyāye), although it has been superseded by a kamma of the opposite nature. The intimate connection between kamma and its result has been frequently emphasised in the teaching. In the Dhammapada (v. 127),

A Textual Interpretation of Kamma


the following statement occurs: “neither in the sky, nor in mid-ocean, nor in entering a mountain cave, is found that place on earth, where abiding one may escape from (the consequences of) an evil deed.” In the Dasadhamma-sutta, which refers to the ten factors that must be constantly reflected on by monks, kamma and its result has been mentioned in the following emphatic and definitive words: “I myself am responsible for my deed, I am the heir to my deed, the womb of my deed, the kinsman of my deed, I am he to whom my deed comes home. Whatever deed I shall do, be it good or bad, of that shall I be the heir” (Woodward 1972, Vol. V:62). These statements undoubtedly sound deterministic. The reason for this emphatic and near-deterministic character of the statements needs to be understood contextually: the admonition to those who have renounced their household life was meant to stress their soteriological goal; in the case of ordinary disciples, it was to underscore the keen interest Buddhism takes in their morality. A case in point is that the doer of any of five kammas which are considered most heinous, namely, killing one’s mother or father, an arahant, or wounding the Buddha and causing a split amongst the community of monks, are described as apāyikā nerayikā parikuppā atekicchā. These five kammas are called ānantarīya in the sense that they bear result immediately in the next birth. The concept of ‘obstructive kamma’- kammāvaraṇa or the view that kamma becomes an obstruction for liberation in that very life (A III, 436) articulates this inevitability of the result of the kamma. However, it is only about certain types of very powerful kammas. For example, if a person commits one of the five ‘immediately resulting (bad) kammas or if that person is extremely dull (duppañño hoti bālo elamugo), this obstructs his ability to attain nirvana within that particular birth. However, this does not mean that he is obstructed forever. Once he pays for his bad kamma it no longer becomes an obstacle. However, Buddhist rejection of this kind of strict determinism is shown by the following statement made with reference to Thera Angulimala who became an arahant overcoming all his bad kammas: “He who having been heedless is heedless no more, illuminates this word like moon freed from clouds ” (Dhp v. 172). Although the exact mechanism of kamma is unpredictable, Buddhism has no doubt about the fact that kamma is responsible for one’s birth in a particular existence and the (desirable or undesirable) quality of life one acquires at one’s birth. According to the Cūlakammavibhaṅga-sutta (M III, 202), the youth named Subha asks the following question from the Buddha:


Asanga Tilakaratne

Master, Gotama, what is the reason, what is the condition, why inferiority and superiority are met with among human beings, among mankind? For one meets with short-lived and long-lived men, sick and healthy men, ugly and handsome men, insignificant and influential men, poor and rich men, low-born and high-born men, stupid and wise men. To this, the Buddha answered in the following manner: Student, beings are owners of kamma, heirs of kamma, they have kammas their progenitor, kamma as their kin, kamma as their homing-place. It is kamma that differentiate beings according to inferiority and superiority. The intimate connection between kamma end rebirth has been explained in the Sāleyyaka-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya according to which those who do good are born in a pleasurable existence and those who do bad in woeful states (M I, 285). Nevertheless, this general view needs not be understood as identifying kamma as the sole reason behind one’s present existence. Given the Buddhist assumption that one can change one’s kamma for better or for worse, what this statement could mean is that it is basically kamma that determines one’s birth (into a certain social condition with certain physical and mental make-up). However, the way one subsequently moulds one’s life depends largely on one’s behaviour. The fact that the Buddhist tradition has understood the course of one’s life as not strictly determined by kamma is shown by the enumeration of a set of factors which are said to influence the vipāka in both a negative and positive manner. The Manorathapūraṇī (II, 218 ff.), the commentary to the Aṅguttara-nikāya refers to this classification as one belonging to the Abhidharma tradition. According to this, there are four factors, namely, the birth (gati), physical appearance (upadhi), time of birth (kāla), and behaviour (payoga) which may act as advantage (sampatti) or disadvantage (vipatti) with regards to both kusala and akusala results. For example, by being advantaged in either of the four factors, one’s bad results may disappear or by being disadvantaged, one’s good results may disappear. In the like manner, by being advantaged one’s good results may appear and by being disadvantaged one’s bad results may appear. This sixteen-fold analysis shows that a vipāka of a kamma may undergo changes due to these extra-kammic factors. It further shows that the relationship between kamma and its vipāka is not always inevitable.

A Textual Interpretation of Kamma


Classification of kamma Early discourses classify kamma according to the results. For example, the following classification which classifies kamma according to the place in which one experiences the vipāka is available in the Aṅguttara-nikāya (III, 98): kamma to be experienced in ‘hell’ (nirayavedanīya), to be experienced among the animals (tiracchānavedanīya), to be experienced in the realm of the hungry ghosts (pettivisayavedanīya), in the human world (manussalokavedanīya) and in the divine world (devalokavedanīya). In the same nikāya, kamma has been classified into three types according to the time of its fruition: (i) (kamma to be resulted) in this very life (diṭṭheva dhamme), (ii) in the next life (upapajje), and (iii) any time subsequently (apare vā pariyāye). However, these classifications and analyses receive more elaboration by the hand of commentators and subsequent Abhidhamma scholastics. As such, the commentators have employed a broad category in analysing the results of kamma as paṭisandhi vipāka or ‘relinking-result’ which signifies the birth-producing aspect of kammavipāka and pavatti vipāka or ‘course result’ which signifies the results other than those effecting birth. The Sarvāstivāda classification of karma into āyur-vipāka-karma or the karma that determines the length of life (āyus) bhoga-vipāka-karma or the karma that produces results other than āyus, which occurs in the Vibhāṣāśāstra, seems to be identical in principle. In all the subsequent commentarial analyses of Theravada we see that this classification has been taken for granted. The Aṅguttara-nikāya Aṭṭhakathā (II, 210- 218) classifies kamma into three broader categories and eleven sub-categories: (a) Kammas according to their time of fruition: (i) immediately effective kamma (diṭṭhadhamma vedanīya), (ii) subsequently effective kamma (upapajja vedanīya). (iii) indefinitely effective kamma (aparāpariya vedanīya). According to the commentary, in a thought-process, of the seven javanas (active phase of cognitive process), the first is immediately effective; the last is subsequently effective, and the rest of the five in-between javanas are indefinitely effective. The commentary gives two examples for kusala and akusala results that have produced immediate results, but it does not provide any clue to identify them specifically. The subsequently effective kammas are more definite; for the kusala, it is eight attainments (aṭṭhasamāpatti) and for akusala, it is five heinous kammas known as ānantarīya kamma.


Asanga Tilakaratne

(b) Kammas according to their nature: (i) weighty kamma (yaggaruka), (ii) habitual kamma (yabbahula), (iii) death-proximate (yadāsanna), and (iv) reserve (kaṭattā). In producing results, particularly at birth, the weighty kamma (for kusala, a ‘sublime’ - mahaggata kamma or for akusala, one of the five ānantarīya kammas will dominate over the others. In the absence of such kammas, habitual kamma or death-proximate kamma will dominate. In the absence of any of these three, a reserve kamma may produce results. (c) Kammas according to their function: (i) productive kamma (janaka), (ii) supportive kamma (upatthambhaka), (iii) obstructive kamma (upapīḷaka), and (iv) destructive kamma (upaghātaka). These four apply to both kusala and akusala. Productive kamma’s major function is to give birth. According to the commentator’s standard view, its sole function is to give birth. However, according to another view, it could produce results during the course of existence (pavatti vipāka). The other three, both kusala and akusala, affect the kammas throughout the course of existence in supporting, obstructing and destroying the kammas. In the Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha (Ch. V. Vīthimuttasaṅgaha-vibhāga) that which is termed a defunct kamma (ahosi) has been added to the sub-categories, which were included under category (A). The commentary (Manorathapūrarṇī) also accepts it though it does not identify ahosi as a separate category of kamma. According to the commentary, a kamma could become defunct due to the non-availability of an opportunity to produce results. For instance, all the existing kammas of an arahant which are indefinitely effective can be defunct at his demise (parinibbāna). Immediately effective and subsequently effective kammas of any person can become defunct if they fail to produce results at due occasions. The Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha further divides kamma into another category, namely, by place of its ripening: (i) unwholesome kamma (akusala), (ii) sense-sphere wholesome kamma (kāmāvacara kusala), (iii) fine-material-sphere wholesome (rūpāvacara kusala), and (iv) immaterial-sphere wholesome (arūpāvacara kusala). The unwholesome kammas are available only in the sense sphere. Of the eighty-nine thoughts (citta) recognised in the Abhidhamma, fifty-four belong to the sense sphere, and twelve of them are unwholesome. Of the rest, eight are

A Textual Interpretation of Kamma


kusala, twenty-three are vipāka and eleven are functional (kiriya), the two last categories being neither kusala nor akusala. Of the thoughts belonging to the fine material, immaterial and transcendent spheres, thirteen (5+4+4) are kusala and another thirteen are vipāka and eight are functional. Except for two functional cittas that are operative in the process of sense perception, all the other functional citta are only available for the arahants. Functional cittas do not have any roots either kusala or akusala behind them. Therefore, they do not produce any result. In the case of an arahant, there is no question about his not having unwholesome roots (lobha, dosa and moha) in him. However, since he has wholesome roots (alobha, adosa and amoha) one may wonder as to what happens to the kammas produced by them. Since he has eradicated the craving for existence without any residue, wholesome roots in him, too, are incapable of producing results; they merely perform an action. Therefore, this tallies well with the early Buddhist explanation of nibbāna as the extinction of kamma-(kammakkhaya). The Aṅguttara-nikāya Aṭṭakathā refers to another classification which analyses kamma and its vipāka according to the time of its performance and presence or absence of its results. The classification, which is traced to the Paṭisambhidāmagga by the commentary, is as follows: (i) past kamma with past result (ahosikamma ahosikammavipāka}, (ii) past kamma without past result (abosikamma nāhosikammavipāka), (iii) past kamma with present result (ahosikamma atthikammavipāka), (iv) past kamma with absent result (ahosikamma natthikammavipāka), (v) past kamma with future result (ahosikamma bhavissatikammavipāka), (vi) past kamma without future result (ahosikamma na bhavissatikammavipāka), (vii) present kamma with present result (atthikamma atthikammavipāka), (viii) present kamma with absent result (atthikamma natthikammavipāka), (ix) present kamma with future result (atthikamma bhavissatikammavipāka), (x) present kamma without future result (atthikamma na bhavissatikammavipāka), (xi) future kamma with future result (bhavissatikamma bhavissatikammavipāka), and (xii) future kamma without future result (bhavissatikamma na bhavissatikammavipāka). This sort of analyses testifies to the great depth the tradition was willing to undergo to understand the complex relationship between kamma and its result.

Kamma as a condition Theoretically more advanced stage in the Buddhist understanding of kamma is shown by its inclusion among the twenty-four conditions


Asanga Tilakaratne

(paccaya) enumerated in the Paṭṭhāna. The Abhidhamma idea of twenty-four conditions marks a Theravada sophistication of the early Buddhist idea of causation. It is an effort by Theravada Buddhists to understand the mechanism of causation more precisely and fully. In this process, they seem to have recognised the great efficacy attributed to kamma in the early Buddhist discourses. As a result, they have included kamma as one of the conditions. However, in the early discourses, the efficacy of kamma has been recognised as a phenomenon applicable to life in a broad and unspecified manner. The Abhidhamma tradition is more specific in identifying the phenomena that are conditioned by kamma (kammasamuṭṭhārūpa), namely, the first five sense organs, two faculties of sex and the physical basis of mental activity (hadayavatthu) and phenomena related to them. These are in fact the vipāka of the kamma (kamma as cetanā or intention which is a universal aspect of all forms of consciousness that conditions all mental states and if these mental states give rise to matter [cittasamuṭṭhānarūpa] they also need to be considered as conditioned by kamma; however, this simultaneous conditioning has not been thought to be applicable in this context for kamma and its results are not simultaneous. The above-mentioned analyses of the later scholastics bear evidence to the keen interest they have shown in understanding the nature of kamma and its vipāka although the Buddha has included the result of kamma among the four matters that cannot be thought and must not be thought, (for) they result in madness and frustration (kammavipako bhikkhave acinteyyo na cintetabbo yam cintento ummādassa vighātassa bhāgī assa, A II, 80). This injunction cannot mean that the mere thought of these matters would drive the thinker mad; but could be understood as indicating the extremely vast and complicated character of the subject. For example, one could simplistically imagine that one’s overt behaviour foretells one’s plight in the next birth; nevertheless, this forecast may be completely misguided for in producing results, kamma is produced by many factors. For example, in the Mahākammavibhaṅga-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya (M III, 202), the results of kamma are shown to be characterised by four situations, two among which go against the usual pattern, namely, (i) evil-doer who is born in a woeful state; (ii) evil-doer who is born in a pleasurable state; (iii) doer of good who is born in a pleasurable state; and (iv) doer of good who is born in a woeful state. This should indicate the complex nature of the vipāka process of kamma. Therefore, by the above admonition the Buddha could well be reminding us of an inherent limitation in human cognitive

A Textual Interpretation of Kamma


capacity. However, according to the commentary which interprets two key terms acinteyyo na cintetabbo as ‘(those) not proper to be thought’ (cintetuṃ na yuttāni) and ‘that must not be thought since they are not proper to be thought’ (acinteyyattāyeva na cintetabbani), the injunction of the Buddha seems to be based on ethical considerations (AA III, 108). However, acinteyya may more appropriately be interpreted as indicating an epistemological limitation of the human mind. The second (na cintetabbo) may be understood as an ethical injunction. Therefore, the statement should be understood as indicating an inherent limitation of the human mind and as providing a piece of religious advice motivated by pragmatic considerations.

Later philosophical concerns Beside the classificatory treatment of kamma and its vipāka, Theravada scholasticism was also conscious of the problems of a more theoretical character. For example, some outstanding were the problem of explaining the consecutive occurrence of kusala and akusala which are incompatible with each other; the problem of explaining, in the face of the theory of momentariness (kṣaṇikatvavāda), the continuance of kamma and vipāka through samsara, and the problem of explaining the continuity of a being (individual) with karmic potentialities without believing in an ātma which was popularly understood as the doer and the experience of the kamma. These were the key issues that occupied not only the Theravadins but also many other Buddhist scholastics. As for the first problem, the Theravadins came up with the view that kusala or akusala thought processes never follow each other without an intervention of a citta which is neither kusala nor akusala. According to the Theravada view, at the end of every thought process there occurs a bhavaṅga which is a resultant citta and hence is neither kusala nor akusala. The invention of bhavaṅga by the Theravadins is mainly due to various difficulties they encountered in explaining the exact mechanisms of kamma. Here they use the bhavaṅga to overcome the difficulty of explaining the apparent coexistence of kusala and akusala. Vaibhāṣikas tried to solve the problem by postulating two citta viprayukta saṅakāras, namely, prāpti and aprāpti which are neither purely mental nor purely physical. Prāpti basically signifies a force which effects the connection of a dharma (mental phenomenon) with a thought process (santāna). Aprāpti is its opposite. These forces cause, respectively, a particular collection of elements to come together and prevent a certain collection of elements from coming


Asanga Tilakaratne

together. For example, if an akusala citta follows a kusala citta, the latter is made possible by the prāpti of the kusala elements and the aprāpti of the akusala elements. The Sautrāntikas rejected both these solutions and came up with the theory of the bīja or seed: they said that there are three kinds of seed, namely, kusala bīja, akusala bīja and avyākṛta bīja. According to their interpretation, these bājas are not destroyed, but exist in one’s mind, not as a kind of separate dhammas but as powers. They arise whenever there is the occasion. It is this self-same difficulty that the Vijñānavādins tried to address by postulating ālayavijñāna or the store-house consciousness which they claimed to contain, among other things, the seeds of kamma. To provide a sufficient explanation for the continual existence of kamma and its vipāka without accepting an ātma (soul) was the other major challenge faced by the Buddhist scholastics. The answer to this problem is connected to the theory of momentariness, which in turn created difficulties for the karma theorists. Other Indian systems such as Brahmanism and Jainism did not have to face the problem of explaining the continuity of the individual, for they believed in a permanent soul which transmigrates from one existence to another without change. The early Buddhist teaching demonstrated the unreality of a permanent soul through its doctrine of the three signata (tilakkhaṇa), of which impermanence (anicca) is the foundation. The later Buddhist scholastics developed the idea of impermanence to a highly sophisticated theory of momentariness according to which both mind and matter are momentary, and there is no room for the existence of anything unchanging and permanent. However, the problem for the kamma theorist was to explain how it could persist through samsara if there is no ātma and if the human mind had such a short duration of life. In responding to this challenge, the Theravadins made use of their newly discovered notion of bhavaṅga which was believed to be the basic stream of thought that goes unbroken through samsara. They also claimed that it is the bhavaṅga that contains the kammas and their vipākas. In this manner, for the Theravadins, it is bhavaṅga, not ātma, that effects the continuity of the person along with his or her karmic potentialities. The Sautrāntikas in their effort to be more faithful to the sutras (original discourses) rejected the idea of existence (sthiti) of phenomena, but only accepted their arising (utpāda) and cessation (bhaṅga). Nevertheless, in their effort to resolve the problem of karma they had to accept the theory of bīja (seed). As for the Vaibhāsikas, to solve the problem, they developed the idea of avijñapti or unmanifested or latent energy. They claimed that whenever

A Textual Interpretation of Kamma


one performs a kamma by means of body or speech, in addition to the visible action (which is called vijñapti), an invisible action (avijñapti) is produced and lies within the individual in the form of an energy. It is this latent energy, according to them, that produces a forthcoming vipāka. Subsequently they developed the idea of avijñapti to account for the continuity of such mental states as making a vow to observe precepts or to become a bhikkhu and so on. The very idea of ‘Sarvāstivāda’ or the view that all dharmas exist during all three phases of time (sarvaṃ sarvadā asti) is the overall philosophical expression of this view. An idea of a similar type of an underlying force was recognised by the Mahāsāṅghikas by the name of upacaya (accumulation) and by the Sammitīyas by the name of avipraṇāsa (indestructible). The Theravadins, however, do not seem to have felt the need for such a phenomenon.

Cessation of kamma As we may notice from the foregoing, by the keen interest of Buddhist traditions shown on this subject the significance of kamma is testified in their religious life. At the popular level of religion, we can understand how kamma and its result may have directed the ordinary man into an ethical path. However, the deeper significance of the phenomenon lies in its direct bearing on the samsaric predicament for which Buddhism is meant to provide a solution. Samsara or continuous existence is caused by the accumulation of kammas. In other words, as long as a person accumulates kamma, irrespective of whether they are puñña or pāpa, then that person is bound to be born again and again. Repeated birth is suffering (dukkhā jāti punappunaṃ). This shows that the way to end the suffering is to end the accumulation of kamma. Due to this fact, nirvana itself has been described as ‘the cessation of kamma’ (kammanirodha: S IV.132). The Buddha has stated that kamma arises due to contact (phassa) and ends therefore by the cessation of contact and the cessation of kammas (phasso kammānaṃ nidāna sambhavo ... phassanirodho kammanirodho: A III, 415). The contact in this context comprises one’s responses and reactions, motivated by defilements, to the external world. The path leading to the cessation of kamma is the noble eightfold path. For understanding the cessation of kamma, the following fourfold classification of it (referred to earlier) is helpful, namely, dark kamma with dark kammavipaka, fair kamma with fair kammavipāka, both dark and fair kamma with both dark and fair kammavipāka, and neither dark nor fair kamma with neither dark nor fair kammavipāka. The first three represent bad, good and mixed kammas and their results respectively. The


Asanga Tilakaratne

fourth which goes beyond these categories represent the kind of practice which leads to the cessation of kamma (kammaṃ kammakkhayāya saṅvattati: A II, 232: M I, 391). The purpose of the fourth category which does not really represent the kamma process that prolongs the samsara is to highlight the very soteriological significance of kamma. An understanding of kamma is a necessary aspect of the attainment of arahanthood. According to the discourses, the realisation of nirvana occurs with the realisation of the ‘threefold knowledges’ (tivijjā), namely, the knowledge of one’s past existence (pubbenivāsānussatiñāṇa), the knowledge of the death and the birth of beings (cutūpapātañāṇa) and the knowledge of the destruction of the influxes (āsavakkhayañāṇa). During the course of first two knowledges, the noble disciple comes to know, respectively, how oneself has been wandering in samsaras as a result of one’s own past kamma and how other beings pass away and are reborn as a result of their own kamma (yathā kammūpage satte ... D I, 83). At this level of higher knowledge (abhiññā), kamma is no longer a conjecture but a part of empirical reality, for he has seen it through his own super-knowledge (abhiññā). With the attainment of arahanthood, given that one has cut off all one’s attachments to existence, one therefore does not accumulate kamma which causes rebirth. The mental state of such a person has been described as puññapāpapahīna (Dhp, v. 39), one who has given up both puñña and pāpa. His behaviour at this stage may properly be described as kusala or wholesome, which technically means actions marked by the absence of attachment, hatred and delusion (alobha, adosa and amoha). In this context, it is illuminating to see that nirvana has been described as the extinction of attachment, hatred and delusion (rāgākkhayo dosakkhayo mohakkhayo nibbānaṃ), which is nothing but kusala. This point has been underscored in the Bahītika-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya (M II, 115) in which the arahant has been characterised as ‘one who has abandoned all akusala and one who is endowed with kusala’ (sabbākusaladhammapahīno kho mahārāja tathāgato kusaladhammasamannāgato).

5. Sacca (true/truth) in Buddhism*

The fundamental ‘knowledge and vision’ (ñāṇa-dassana) about existence that the Buddha gained, by becoming the Fully-Enlightened One (sammā-sambuddha), has been described as ‘the four noble truths’ (cattāri-ariya-saccāni). The Buddha is described as ‘sammā sambuddha,’ for his realisation of these four truths. The Dhammacakka-pavattana-sutta (S V, 433), traditionally believed to be the first sermon of the Buddha, articulates these four truths. They are the noble truth of suffering (dukkha ariya-sacca), the noble truth of arising of suffering (dukkhasamudaya ariya-sacca), the noble truth of cessation of suffering (dukkhanirodha ariya-sacca) and the noble truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering (dukkhaniroda-gaminī-patipadā ariya-sacca). The knowledge of each truth involves three stages, namely, knowing that it is true (sacca-ñāṇa), that something needs to be done about it (kicca-ñāṇa) and that what needs to be done has been done (kata-ñāṇa). For example, in the case of the first truth the Buddha knew that it is true, that it has to be comprehended (pariññeyya) and that it was comprehended (pariññāta). In the like manner, the similar three stages are applicable to that which involves the second noble truth, craving, which is to be abandoned, the third noble truth, nirvana, which is to be realised and the fourth noble truth, the eightfold path, which is to be cultivated. The Buddha describes the four truths as noble (ariya). What is meant by this epithet is obviously not its racial meaning. According to the Visuddhimagga, the four truths are called ‘ariya’ for the following reasons: (i) for they have been realised by the noble ones such as the Buddhas (buddhādayo ariya pativijjhanti ti ariyasaccāni); (ii) truths that * An initial version of this article was published in Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, Vol. VII: Fascicle 3. Colombo Sri Lanka, 2005.


Asanga Tilakaratne

belong to the noble (ariyassa saccāni ti ariysaccāni); (iii) the truths the realisation of which makes one an ariya or noble (etesaṃ abhisambuddhattā ariyabhāvasiddhato); (iv) truths that are noble (ariyāni saccāni ti) (Vism 495). The four truths have been described in the discourses as real (tatha), unerring (avitatha) and not otherwise (anaññatha) (S V, 431-2). These terms are usually employed to describe the idea of dependent co-origination (paṭicca-samuppāda). What is implied by these terms is that the truths are real, not unreal or untrue and not otherwise or different from that which is real. Although the idea of ariya-sacca dominates the early Buddhist discussions on truth, the concept of truth by no means is confined to that alone. For instance, in the Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa identifies five usages of the concept of truth. They are (i) verbal truth (vācā-sacca), (ii) ethical truth (virati-sacca), (iii) conceptual truth (dṭṭthi-sacca), (iv) ultimate truth (paramattha-sacca) and (v) noble truth (ariya-sacca). It is obvious that the terminology of this classification belongs to Pali scholasticism. Nevertheless, the examples Buddhaghosa quotes are from the canon, and used, clearly, in different contexts to convey different shades of meanings of the term. These terms have been rendered into English by Ñāṇamoli as respectively. Here, ‘virati’ and ‘diṭṭhi’ have been rendered into English as ethical and conceptual, and taking into consideration the broad connotations of these terms. The classification as a whole testifies to the fact that the Buddhist tradition was operating within a broad concept of truth. In discussing the Buddhist concept of truth, we have to make a basic distinction between (verbal) utterance of truth and (psychological) realisation of truth. What Buddhaghosa meant by ‘verbal truth’ is the aspect of truth associated with language. In the modern use, it is the propositional (aspect of) truth. In Buddhism, this aspect has been highlighted mainly for ethical purposes. Telling the truth and refraining from uttering falsehoods are important aspects of morality (sīla) to be developed as the first step in the threefold discipline (tisso sikkhā). The ordinary lay Buddhist followers are advised to observe the five precepts (pañca-sīla), the fourth aspect of which is the precept of refraining from uttering falsehoods (musāvādā veramaṇi). In the context of monastic discipline the relevant morality has been described by the following words: abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech, he speaks truth, adheres to truth, is trustworthy and reliable, he who is no deceiver of the world: (musāvādaṃ

Sacca (true/truth) in Buddhism


pahāya musāvādā paṭivirato hoti saccavādi saccasandho theto paccayiko avisaṃvādako lokassa) (M I, 179). As a part of disciplining one’s verbal behaviour, truth and falsehood refer to true and false utterances. The realisation of truth involves a more important aspect of the Buddhist theory of truth. By calling suffering a truth, this means that it is there as an essential aspect of human life. What one needs to do about it is to comprehend it. In fact, the intellectual and practical aspects of this process of realisation have been described as comprehension, abandonment, realisation and practice (pariññā, pahāna, sacchikaraṇa and bhāvanā): the first truth has to be comprehended; the second has to be abandoned; the third has to be realised and the fourth has to be cultivated. The four noble truths discussed here involve a very important practical aspect in regards to them. That which is referred to by the first and second noble truths is actually always there in ordinary (human) beings. One has to comprehend suffering which is already apparent in human beings and likewise, one needs to abandon desire already present. Nirvana, involved in the third noble truth has to be realised in the sense of making it real for oneself. The ethical path involved in the fourth noble truth has to be cultivated. In this manner, the first and second truths are real for they are always there in all unenlightened beings. The next two are real in the sense that they can be made real by all those who have the required qualities. The actions involved in the four noble truths clearly go beyond an intellectual understanding of a proposition. That which comes close to an intellectual understanding, if at all, is the comprehension associated with the first truth. The rest involve different kinds of practice that make the abandoning, realisation and cultivation possible. All these activities and associated behaviour are intimately connected with the Buddhist concept of truth and this practical/experiential aspect of truth may be called the ‘realisation of truth.’ The Buddha has outlined three stages of realisation of truth in Caṅkī-sutta of Majjhima-nikāya: preservation of truth (saccānurakkhanā), discovery of truth (saccānubodha), and the attainment of truth (saccānupatti). The first stage is characterised by making known that which one believes to be true but not drawing a definite conclusion about it. One may accept a certain state of affairs to be the case on one of the following five grounds, namely, faith (saddhā), approval (ruci), oral tradition (anussava), reasoned cognition (ākāra parivitakka) and reflective acceptance of a view (diṭṭhi-nijjhāna-khanti). The Buddha does not reject them in total. The criticism is that they could result in being either


Asanga Tilakaratne

‘empty, hollow and false’ or ‘factual, true and unmistaken.’ Hence, a person who is serious about preserving the truth must not come to a definite conclusion that “Only this is true; anything else is wrong” (natveva tava niṭṭhaṃ gacchati idam eva saccaṃ mogham aññamti). What one can properly do at this stage is simply to say that such and such is one’s faith etc. and nothing more. In doing so, one preserves truth. The discovery of truth is a result of a series of ethico-intellectual activities. It begins with when a prospective follower visits a religious teacher and starts investigating him as to whether or not his physical, verbal and mental behaviour is characterised by greed, hatred and delusion. Once he discovers for himself that his behaviour is purified of such states as greed etc., he opts to live a religious life under that teacher. The process is described in the following manner: When he has investigated him and has seen that he is purified, … he places faith in him; filled with faith he visits him and pays respect to him; having paid respect to him, he gives ear; when he gives ear, he hears the Dhamma; having heard the Dhamma he memorises it and examines the meaning of the teachings he has memorised; when he examines their meaning, he gains reflective acceptance of those teachings; when he has gained a reflective acceptance of those teachings, zeal springs up; when zeal has sprung up, he applies his will; having applied his will, he scrutinises; having scrutinised he strives; resolutely striving, he realises with the body the ultimate truth and sees it by penetrating it with wisdom (kāyena c’eva paramasaccam sacchikaroti paññāya ca tam ativijjhā passati). In this way … there is the discovery of truth. The third stage of arrival at truth (saccānupatti) is described as resulting from “the repetition, development, and cultivation of those same things” (tesam yeva kho dhammānām āsevanā bhāvanā bahulīkammā saccānupatti hoti). The three stages outlined in this discussion show that truth involves a complex cognitive, intellectual and experiential process. At the first stage, one makes a statement without making any effort at justification, marking a preliminary stage of linguistic expression. The second stage represents a cognitive and intellectual activity, whereas the third represents a stage characterised by realisation, or experiencing the truth as real. This stage is far above the cognitive state of knowing something to be the case through one’s own intellect. The final stage results from, as we saw above, a repetition of the process of practice, development and cultivation.

Sacca (true/truth) in Buddhism


This account of truth in the early discourses gives us some idea about the concept of truth accepted in early Buddhism. When truth is spoken of as real, unreal and not otherwise, this indicates that truth has been understood primarily as the reality or something that exists in reality. Several discourses in the Saccasaṃyutta stress the idea that these truths are eternal in the sense that they are real, for not only the present but also they have been real in the past and they will be so in the future (S V, 416-7). This stance is sharply contrasted with the modern philosophical understanding of truth as an aspect of propositions or statements/assertions. Assertions are understood as being either true or false. In this sense, truth or falsehood is not a property of reality. The propositional sense of truth and falsehood is not absent in Buddhism either. To refrain from an utterance of falsehood is an essential element of virtue to be cultivated by all. One is compelled to refer to reality or any other criterion only when one has to answer the question as to why a particular proposition is true or otherwise. In discussing the Buddhist theory of truth, KN Jayatilleke (1963, 352–53) has argued that early Buddhism accepts correspondence as the criterion of truth. In fact, the characterisation of truth as reality supports this position. He also notices instances where coherence has been taken into consideration as a criterion of truth (1963, 353). In his discussion, Jayatilleke takes coherence and consistency synonymously and shows how the Buddha was careful to observe the Principle of non-contradiction. While we do not deny this as a relevant example, we would like to take coherency in a slightly broader sense as referring to the internal consistency within the totality of the statements made available in the teachings. A case in point is the four great indicators (mahāpadesa) mentioned in the Mahāparinibbāna-sutta of the Dīgha-nikāya (D II, 123-26). When a doubt arises on a statement attributed to the Buddha, the Buddha admonishes the monks that they must not go by the authority of any one monk or a group of monks no matter how powerful they may be. Instead, the statement at question must be “compared with the suttas and reviewed in the light of the discipline” (sutte otāretabbāni vinaye sandassetabbāni). What is meant by this, in the present context, is not simple consistency between two statements but coherency of the statement at question within the entirety of the statements made in the Dhamma and the Vinaya. Here is a good example in which coherency has been used as the criterion to determine that what Dhamma and Vinaya is. This amply demonstrates that while correspondence to reality has been used as the criterion of truth in many instances, including the four noble truths, coherency too


Asanga Tilakaratne

has been used as a major criterion in certain other contexts. One could argue that a problem of truth does not arise regarding the great indicators for they are meant to determine what Dhamma and Vinaya is or is not. The Vinaya, being the practical aspect of monasticism, derives its validity from the Dhamma, and the Dhamma is true in the sense that the four noble truths are true. Therefore, what the great indicators are ultimately meant to do is to determine whether a particular statement is true (to the Dhamma). Scholars have noted how the early discourses take ‘utility’ as an important aspect of an assertion. It is widely accepted in the early discourses that for a statement to be meaningful (attha-saṃhitā), it has to be relevant or useful for the ultimate goal advocated in Buddhism. The Buddha has made it quite clear that he would not teach anything that is not relevant to this goal. In responding to Māluṅkyaputta, who demanded that the Buddha answers his ten questions on ‘unexplained matters (abyākatavatthu), the latter asks the former to hold what is said by the Tathāgata as what has been said and what has not been said by the Tathāgata as what has not been said. Subsequently, the Buddha explains what he has said and not said and why: What have I left undeclared? ‘The world is eternal’ – I have left undeclared. … ‘After death, a Tathāgata neither exists nor does not exist’ – I have left undeclared. Why have I left that undeclared? Because it is unbeneficial, it does not belong to the fundamentals of holy life, it does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna. That is why I have left it undeclared. And what have I declared? ‘This is suffering’ – I have declared. … ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering’ – I have declared. Why have I declared that? Because it is beneficial, it belongs to the fundamentals of the holy life, it leads to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna. That is why I have declared it. (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 536) As this explanation reveals, there is a strong pragmatic element in the teachings by the Buddha. Nevertheless, this does not necessarily mean that the Buddha took usefulness/relevance as a criterion of truth. Discussing the well-known smile of the raft (M I, 135), Jayatilleke says: We cannot interpret this to mean that the dhamma is true only by virtue of its utility and that it ceases to be true when it ceas-

Sacca (true/truth) in Buddhism


es to be useful. What is meant is that unlike the answers to the avyākata-questions (which were ‘not useful’ for … salvation, the dhamma was useful for salvation and its value (though not its truth-value) lay in its utility. It ceases to have value, though it does not cease to be true, when one has achieved one’s purpose with its help by attaining salvation. (1963, 357–58)

Truth and logicality In the Sandaka-sutta of Majjhima-nikāya, the Buddha describes the practice of reasoner and inquirer (takkī vīmaṃsī) in the following manner: “…when a teacher is a reasoner, an inquirer, some is well reasoned and some is wrongly reasoned, some is true and some is otherwise (takkissa kho pana satthuno vīmaṃsissa sutakkitaṃpi hoti duttakkitaṃpi hoti, tathāpi hoti aññathāpi hoti (M I, 520). From this we get four positions, namely, well-reasoned truth, well-reasoned falsehood, ill-reasoned truth, and ill-reasoned falsehood. This analysis shows that there is no necessary connection between truth and logicality from the Buddhist point of view. In the well-known Kālāma-sutta, the Buddha advised the Kālāmas that they should not accept any statement as morally good or bad simply on the grounds of the logicality of that statement. As the Kālāma-sutta explains further, what morally good or bad is should be judged according to one’s personal experience, which means that what one knows to be morally good or bad should be so in his or others’ experience. It is the community of intelligent people –viññū purisa- in society that is accepted as being capable of determining that which is good or bad, which, in their most complete sense, have to be determined and judged with reference to the soteriological scheme articulated in the four noble truths. Thus, logicality of an assertion is not totally rejected; nor has it been made a necessary or a sufficient condition of truth-value.

Sammuti and paramattha sacca It is interesting to see how an idea of two truths has developed within the Buddhist tradition. At first glance, it even looks like going against the idea advocated in the discourses that truth is one and there is no second (ekam hi saccaṃ na dutiyamatthi: Sn. v. 884). The commentarial interpretation of this statement is that it refers to truth in the ultimate sense (paramattha-sacca). This, however, assumes that there is truth that is not paramattha and thus begs the question. The statement may be interpreted as affirming that truth is one in any given context. However, the commentarial interpretation indicates a development that had been


Asanga Tilakaratne

established in Buddhist scholasticism, namely, the classification of truth into two as, conventional (sammuti) and ultimate (paramattha) truth. The division is not seen in the early discourses. Nevertheless, the early discourses refer to a somewhat similar distinction, namely, discourses with a direct meaning (nītattha-sutta) and an indirect meaning (neyattha-sutta) (A I, 60). The sutta itself does not elaborate on what these two categories are. According to Buddhaghosa, the direct discourses are those in which the Buddha denies that there is a being, an individual or an ātma. It is a way of explaining anatta or the non-substantiality of reality. The indirect discourses are the ordinary worldly usage in which the Buddha speaks as if there are substantial entities in reality. The sutta says that those who confuse these two categories misrepresent the Buddha. A classic example in the history of Buddhism for misunderstanding this division is the ‘personalism’ (puggala-vāda) held by the school called Sammitīya (See the Kathāvatthu for the Theravada critique of this view). The commentarial invention of sammuti and paramattha means the same as neyattha and nītattha respectively. As Jayatilleke too has noticed and highlighted, the commentator goes a step further in calling these two categories of truth: Duve saccāni akkhāsi sambuddho vadataṃ varo Sammutiṃ paramatthaṃ ca tatiyaṃ nūpalabbhati Saṅketavacanaṃ saccaṃ lokasammuti kāraṇaṃ Pramatthavacanaṃ saccaṃ dhammānaṃ tathalakkhaṇaṃ. (KvuA 34) The Perfectly Enlightened One, the best of teachers, spoke two truths, viz. conventional and absolute – one does not come across a third; a conventional statement is true because of convention and an absolute statement is true as (disclosing) the true characteristics of things. In calling these categories truths, the commentarial tradition seems to assume an idea of standpoints. What is suggested is that both truths are valid depending upon the standpoint from which one makes the statement. This emphasis on two truths has been necessitated, in particular, by the later developments in the Buddhist tradition. While the Buddha used two kinds of discourses, as we noted above, to clarify his anatta doctrine, the later tradition needed more sharply defined analysis in order to support the non-substantialist position of the teaching. Nagarjuna, the founder of the Madhayamaka tradition provides a good example. Nagarjuna uses the idea of emptiness (śūnyatā) in order to drive home

Sacca (true/truth) in Buddhism


the non-substantiality of all phenomena. However, he came under severe attack by his opponent who construes his position as an extreme form of nihilism that, if true, ultimately denies the entire ethical structure, including the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, advocated by the Buddha. To counter this criticism Nagarjuna resorts to the distinction between what he calls samvṛti and paramārtha truths. Nagarjuna says in Mūlamdhyamakakārikā: Dve satye samupāśritya - buddhānām dharmadeśanā | Lokasamvṛtisatyaṃ ca - satyaṃ ca paramārthataḥ || Yo’nayor na vijānāti - vibhāgaṃ satyayor dvayoḥ | Te tatvaṃ na vijānanti - gambhīraṃ buddhaśāsane || Vyavahāram anāśritya - paramārtho na deśyate | Paramārtham anāgamya - nirvāṇaṃ nādhigamyate (24:8-10) The teaching of the doctrine by the Buddha is based on two truths: truth relating to worldly convention and truth in terms of the ultimate fruit. Those who do not understand the distinction between these two truths do not understand the profound truth embodied in the Buddha’s message. Without relying upon convention, the ultimate fruit is not taught. Without understanding the ultimate fruit, freedom is not attained. Translation from Kalupahana (1986) From this statement, which is one of its kind in the entire Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Nagarjuna says that his concept of emptiness is the language employed to articulate the paramārtha-satya and that one must not confuse it with the samvṛti-satya. In this view, both truths are complementary and one needs both for a proper exposition and understanding of the Dhamma. The overall implication is that in order to understand any given statement in the Dhamma, one must know the point of view in which the particular statement is made. This kind of acceptance of standpoints seems to go against the sharp dichotomy made between truth and falsehood, a characteristic mark in Western thinking. The very fact that Buddhism accepts a scheme of four-fold proposition (catuśkoṭi) further supports this position. The third position in the catuśkoṭi scheme, namely, for example, is and is not (hoti ca na hoti ca), bearing the form of p and ~p, should be understood only as one made from these two standpoints. Nevertheless, within the broad scheme of catuśkoṭi, Jayatilleke maintains, a two-valued system


Asanga Tilakaratne

still holds. Jayatillke calls the Buddhist scheme a ‘two-valued system of four alternatives” (1963, 350), for in any given situation, when one alternative is true then all the others are false. This is excepting the situations where all four propositions are taken as irrelevant or non-applicable, as in the case of the post-mortem status of the arahant (hoti tathāgato parammaranā? etc.). Finally, a word on ethics, epistemology and soteriology of truth in Buddhism. KN Jayatilleke starts his discussion of the concept of truth in the Nikāyas with the following remarks: There is no direct inquiry into the nature of truth (in the epistemological sense) in them, but the value placed on truth (in the wider sense) was so great that some observations about the nature of truth (in the above sense) were, perhaps, inevitable. (1963, 351) Jayatilleke is right in saying that there is no direct inquiry into the epistemological nature of truth in the Pali Nikāya literature. This is, perhaps, because truth in Buddhism, mainly and fundamentally, is moral and soteriological. The Buddha seems to have often made the following statement, highlighting the crucial significance of the four truths: It is because of not understanding and not penetrating the four noble truths that you and I have roamed and wandered through this long course of samsara (Catunnaṃ bhikkhave ariyasaccānam anannubodhā appativedhā evam idaṃ dīgham addhānaṃ sandhāvitaṃ saṃsaritaṃ mamañceva tumhākañca…) (S V, 431) The statement traces the root cause of samsaric existence to a lack of understanding of the four truths. This is none other than ‘ignorance’ or ‘avijjā’ occurring in the paṭicca-samuppāda. The following statement highlights the realisation aspect associated with the four truths and asserts that the ultimate goal cannot be realised without ‘knowing and seeing’ the four noble truths: I say that the destruction of the taints is for one who knows and sees, not for one who does not know and does not seek. For one who knows what, for one who sees what…? The destruction of the taints comes about for one who knows and sees: ‘This is suffering’; … ’This is the origin of suffering’; ‘This is the cessation of suffering’; …’This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.’1 1  Jānatohaṃ, bhikkhave, passato āsavānaṃ khayaṃ vadāmi, no ajānato apassato. Kiñca, bhikkhave, jānato passato āsavānaṃ khayo hoti? ‘Idaṃ dukkha’nti, bhikkhave,

Sacca (true/truth) in Buddhism


The statements of this nature testify to the crucial soteriological role played by the four truths in the teaching of the Buddha. In this religious sense, truth is not a mere characteristic of a proposition. Rather, it is the reality or what is real about human existence. It should be comprehended, abandoned, realised and cultivated. The process is not merely intellectual, but beginning from intellectual understanding, it culminates in cultivation and realisation. This shows that the Buddhist concept of truth involves a much broader sphere of human action than mere intellectual understanding.

jānato passato āsavānaṃ khayo hoti, ‘ayaṃ dukkhasamudayo’ti jānato passato āsavānaṃ khayo hoti, ‘ayaṃ dukkhanirodho’ti jānato passato āsavānaṃ khayo hoti, ‘ayaṃ dukkhanirodhagāminī paṭipadā’ti jānato passato āsavānaṃ khayo hoti (S V, 434).

6. Nirvana of the Healthy Mind*

Introduction “May the golden gates of the city of nirvana be open for you” - this statement in Sinhala language is commonly seen in Sri Lanka on banners raised to honour the dead. Walpola Rahula in his well-known work What the Buddha Taught referred to a more elite version of a similar belief when he wrote: “Some popular inaccurately phrased expressions like ‘The Buddha entered into Nirvana or Parinirvana after death’ have given rise to many imaginary speculations about nirvana” (1978, 41). In this manner, for ordinary Buddhists, nirvana may well represent a city where they enter after death and live happily ever after. For the educated, it could well be a mystical state where one enters after death. With either belief, nirvana is essentially a phenomenon that has its validity in the life after and has not much to do with one’s lived reality. The questions such as “what is nirvana” and “what happens after death to one who has realised nirvana” have been pressing issues for people even during the time of the Buddha. As we will see later in the discussion there are some good psychological reasons for these nirvana-cantered worries. The purpose of the present paper is to reiterate the early textual position that nirvana is not a metaphysical state that one achieves after death and is not a city which those lucky people enter upon death, but to present nirvana as a positive psychological experience and a state of mind. In developing this interpretation, I do not think that I am presenting a new picture of nirvana against the tradition. This * An initial version of this article was published in New Horizons in Buddhist Psychology: Relational Buddhism for Collaborative Practitioners, ed. Maurits GT Kwee; Editorial Consultants: Ruth T Naylor & Asanga Tilakaratne. Taos Institute Publications, Chagrin Falls, Ohio, 2010.

Nirvana of the Healthy Mind


interpretation will be shown to be that which one can derive from the early discourses, although such an interpretation may seem at odds with the scholastic interpretation, subsequently developed by the commentators. This chapter will be organised in the following manner. In the first part of the discussion, an exposition of nirvana will be developed which follows the basic discourses of the Buddha. This discussion will show nirvana to be a purified state of mind and not a mystical metaphysical state. In the second part, we will look at some textual passages that have been understood as supporting that which I would like to call a transcendental interpretation of nirvana. The concluding section will summarise the discussion, highlighting its main conclusions.

Nirvana: The cessation of suffering In the four noble truths scheme, the third is that of the cessation of suffering, which is nirvana. The locus classicus of the four noble truths, the Dhammacakkappavattana-sutta, does not use the term nirvana. It simply describes the cessation of suffering as the residue-less detachment and cessation of the very same thirst,1 giving it up, letting (it) go, release (from it) and non-attachment (to it).2 The “very same thirst” is that which is described as the cause of suffering under the second noble truth of the origin of suffering. If the thirst (for pleasures, existence and the destruction) is the cause of suffering, then the eradication of the cause is the cessation of suffering, and that is simple enough logic to follow. Of the four noble truths, the first is described in experiential terms as birth, decay, disease, death, to be associated with the unpleasant, to be dissociated from the pleasant and not getting what one craves for. Finally, the whole series of experiences is summarised as “the suffering associated with the five elements of (psycho-physical) existence characterised by clinging.” This is the problem that the teachings of the Buddha are meant to provide a solution to. It is the problem intimately connected to existence; as far as the self-consciousness of the individual who undergoes that suffering is concerned, it is a human problem more than of any other being, although all other beings who are not awakened are subject to it. With this emphasis on suffering as a human problem, the point that I am trying to drive at is that it is not a “metaphysical” or an imaginary problem but rather, a real problem for real human beings. The second noble truth locates 1  This is the literal translation of the term taṇhā in Pali (tṛṣṇā in Sanskrit), which is usually translated as over-desire or craving (or in many other similar terms). 2  S V, 420-24 (For a translation: see Bodhi 2002, Vol. II:1843–47).


Asanga Tilakaratne

the source of the problem right within the human being her/himself. The thirst cannot exist anywhere else other than in human (or any other samsaric) beings, who are subject to the cycle of daily psychological “rebirths” of emotional events. This point is well illustrated in one of the discussions the Buddha had with a naked ascetic called Kassapa. The dialogue between the two ran in the following manner: Kassapa:   Is suffering done by oneself? The Buddha:  Do not say so. Kassapa:   Is suffering done by other? The Buddha:  Do not say so. Kassapa:   Is suffering done by both oneself and other? The Buddha:  Do not say so. Kassapa:   Is suffering, done by neither, arisen for no reason? The Buddha:  Do not say so. Kassapa:   Is it the case that suffering does not exist? The Buddha:  It does exist. Kassapa:   Is it then the case that you do not see it? The Buddha:  I do see it. Subsequently, the Buddha explains how suffering arises depending upon the causes and conditions, which are ignorance, constructions, consciousness, psycho-physical personality, six sensory bases, contact, feeling, thirst, grasping, becoming, birth, decay and death; these are the twelve aspects that form the standard explanation on how karmic suffering intentionally arises. There are several important insights we can derive from this analysis based on the teaching of dependent co-origination. One is that the metaphorical thirst (i.e., mental craving) given as the reason for suffering is explained in a broader context of human psychological function, which ultimately leads to the generation of suffering. In fact, thirst alone is not all; it is one in a series. It also is dependently arisen. Another very important insight is that thirst is essentially an aspect of human psychological function. One cannot talk about thirst as an entity that is present in one’s mind permanently. The whole point of dependent co-origination-based analysis is that all these phenomena, including thirst, are arisen dependently, which means that they arise depending on conditions and cease depending on the cessation of conditions. The third noble truth, as we saw earlier, is “the complete cessation of this very same thirst,” which has three main aspects or manifestations of it. The first is the thirst for pleasures, namely the pleasures one en-

Nirvana of the Healthy Mind


joys through one’s senses; eye, ear, nose, tongue, skin/body and brain/ mind. The respective pleasures are, physical forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, and concepts/views. This aspect of thirst represents the most common and the most gross form of it. It is also very forceful, if not the most forceful, motivation of ordinary human behaviour (This motivation is common to animal behaviour too, except for concepts/views as mental objects). The second is the thirst for continued existence or the perpetual desire to “be” something. The third and last, is the thirst to be annihilated or the (self and other) destructive facets of human craving. The eradication of these three forms of thirst is what is called the cessation of suffering. The fourth noble truth describes the path leading to the cessation of suffering, namely, the noble eightfold path. The description up to this point should show that the key teachings of the Buddha, namely, the four noble truths, is a straightforward scheme that does not involve anything metaphysical or mystical. Nevertheless, it is a fact that many metaphysical speculations have been developed around the concept of nirvana, which the Buddha simply described as the cessation of suffering. In the remainder of this section, I will show how the Buddha described the final goal of his blissful life in terms of processes and events and not as entities, and I will further show that the path to the realisation of cessation of suffering does not involve any metaphysical or mystical elements.

Purity and freedom Two most common terms used in the discourses to refer to the final goal is purification (visuddhi) and emancipation (vimutti). In the Dhammapada, the insight into the three signata, namely, impermanence, sorrowfulness and non-substantiality are described as “the path to purification.”3 This reminds us of Buddhaghosa’s monumental work, the path of Purification (Visuddhi-magga), detailing the path to the cessation of suffering. The concept of emancipation (vimutti) is equally used in the discourses to refer to the release that one achieves by freeing the mind from the influxes. In the Theragāthā and the Therigāthā, in which the joyous utterances of the liberated bhikkhus and bhikkhunis are recorded, it is almost customary for these people to describe their attainment as 3  When one sees with wisdom that all the constructed phenomena are impermanent, then he becomes disgusted with suffering; this is the path to purification. When one sees with wisdom that all the phenomena are sorrowful ... when one sees with wisdom that all phenomena are non-substantial ... this is the path to purification (Dhp, v. 277-79).


Asanga Tilakaratne

“liberation of mind from influxes.”4 The Buddha and the arahants (those who have realised the cessation of suffering) are described as spending their leisure time “experiencing the happiness of emancipation.”5 These two concepts respectively refer to the defiling phenomena, which are usually described by such terms as the defilements (and related concepts) and hindrances,6 and binding phenomena, described as influxes, cankers, bondages and engagements.7 The defilements are basically attachment, hatred and delusion, and related phenomena. The five factors that obstruct the smooth practice of the path, namely, sensual desire, extreme aversion, sloth and torpor, confusion and regret, and a doubting mentality are called the hindrances. The concept of purification becomes meaningful in the context of these defiling phenomena. In addition to being a deep psychological analysis, the two mutually-related concepts reveal how the Buddha gave a new meaning to the deep-rooted belief of ritualistic purity and impurity, prevalent amongst the brahmins during his time. The concept of emancipation derives its meaning from the presence of the influxes or characteristics of mind that infatuates it, binds it or enslaves it to pleasures. The predominant character of these phenomena is to create bondage or a bounded nature in the human mind. Emancipation is to liberate one’s mind from these phenomena. The Buddha’s analysis of these two phenomena, purification and emancipation and the related characteristics, makes his teaching one of the only psychological of all the other teachings that attend to a way of life hitherto available. In addition to the two concepts mentioned above, the final goal has been described in the discourses frequently as “comprehensive extinguishment.” The relevant Pali term is parinibbāna, which is intimately connected with the idea of nibbāna. It is important now to study this concept in some detail. The term parinibbāna or parinirvāṇa (in Sanskrit) is usually used in current Buddhist parlance to refer to the passing away of the Buddha or an arahant. The mistaken idea (as we saw in Walpola Rahula’ s remarks at the beginning of this chapter) is that the Buddha or an arahant really attains nirvana along with his parinirvāṇa, 4  Cittam āsavehi vimucci: mind was freed from influxes or similar expressions. D II, 35; M I, 501. 5  Vimuttisukha-paṭisamvedi. Vin I, 3. 6  Concepts such as kilesa, upakkilesa, saṅkilesa (all meaning different shades of defiling factors) and nīvaraṇa (hindrances) are some examples. 7  āsava, saññojana, bandhana, yoga are some examples.

Nirvana of the Healthy Mind


which is understood to be the death of such an awakened person. In fact, the discourses make it quite clear that the idea of parinibbāna is basically connected to what happens to one who realises the cessation of suffering. Let me give some examples: In the Rathavinīta-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya (24), a discussion is recorded there between two great students of the Buddha, Sariputta and Puṇṇa Mantāniputta on the issue of the purpose of a wholesome life lived under the Buddha. When questioned by the former regarding this, the latter admits that this life is lived not for the sake of any one of the seven types of purification.8 When questioned further as to what purpose, if not for any one of the seven purifications, Puṇṇa Mantāniputta answers by saying that it is for the sake of “comprehensive extinguishment without clinging.”9 The point of the discussion is to show that each of the seven purifications lead to subsequent purifications and all seven together lead to the final goal, which is comprehensive extinguishment without clinging. The usage of the concept in this context shows that the goal is achieved within this life and the attainment does not mean the physical death of the person. In many instances, for example, the discourses describe the attainment of the final goal as the “mind was liberated from influxes without clinging.”10 The concept of parinibbāna without clinging and the concept of liberation without clinging, no doubt, are synonymous in these contexts. The concept of parinibbāna has been used in the same sense in places such as: “That Exalted One, being himself comprehensively extinguished teaches the doctrine for comprehensive extinguishment,”11 and “comprehensively extinguished in this life itself.”12 It is emphasised that 8  The seven purifications outline the gradual process of purification taught by the Buddha. They are: purification of virtue (sīla-visuddhi), mind (citta), view (diṭṭhi), overcoming doubt (kaṅkhā-vitaraṇa), purification by knowledge and vision of what is the path and what is not the path (magga-amagga-ñāṇadassana), purification by knowledge and vision of the way (paṭipadāñānadassana) and purification of knowledge and vision (ñāṇadassana). 9  In their translation, Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi (1995/2001) translates anupādā-parinibbāna as “final Nibbāna without clinging.” I would, however, translate parinibbāna not as “final nibbāna” but as “comprehensive extinguishment,” which is closer to the original etymology. 10  The relevant Pali phrase is: anupādāya āsavehi cittam vimucci. D II, 35; M I, 501. 11  Parinibbuto so bhagavā parinibbānāya dhammam deseti: D III, 55. 12  Diṭṭheva dhamme parinibbāyati: S IV, 102. Also look at the usage, by the Buddha, of the concept parinibbāna in the Sallekha-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya (8): “That one who is himself untamed, undisciplined, (with defilements) unextinguished, should take another, discipline him, and help extinguish (his defilements) is impossible; that one who is himself tamed, disciplines, (with defilements) extinguished, should


Asanga Tilakaratne

the goal of being without thirst is to be achieved “before the break-up of the body.”13

The path The non-mystical and non-metaphysical character of the final goal may be demonstrated by analysing the path to be followed to achieve it. In the earlier discussion, we saw that the Buddha described the path as the fourth noble truth and presented it as an eightfold procedure. The technical details of this procedure are given in many other discourses varying in length depending upon the special circumstances of such elaborations. In this discussion, I would use the elaboration found in the Sāmaññaphala-sutta of the Dīgha-nikāya (2), where the Buddha details the fruits of noble life to King Ajātasattu. On being questioned by the King on “the fruits of the noble life in this very life,” like the fruits enjoyed in this very life by those engaged in various professions, the Buddha lists such fruits and consequently, the discourse is a detailed analysis of the attainments at different levels of the path. In this context, I would like to highlight the significance of the idea that what is being described is “the fruits of noble life achieved in this very life.”14 Also, note the pragmatic character of the question by the King, comparing the noble life to professions followed by people for living, and the Buddha taking it obviously in the same spirit and undertaking to provide an answer. The path begins with virtue described under three categories, namely, small, medium and large, and covers the ethical behaviour to be developed in him/herself by one who lives the noble life. Being virtuous is thus, the first fruit of the noble life. Thus, what one obtains from this is described by the following words: And then, Sire, that [bhikkhu] who is perfected in morality sees no danger from any side owing to his being restrained by morality, just as duly-anointed khattiya king, having conquered his enemies, by that very fact sees no danger from any side, so the [bhikkhu], on account of his morality, sees no danger anywhere. He experiences in himself the blameless bliss that comes from maintaining this Aryan morality. (Walshe 1987, 100) take another, discipline him, and help extinguish (his defilements) is possible. So too: A person given to cruelty has non-cruelty by which to extinguish it.” (emphasis added) (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 130). 13  The relevant concept is vīta-taṇho purā-bhedā (before break-up) and found emphasised in the Purabheda-sutta of the Sn v. 853. 14  Sandiṭṭhikam sāmaññaphalam is the relevant Pali term.

Nirvana of the Healthy Mind


This account shows that virtue is not understood merely as a training but as a training provides moral stability and a sense of blissfulness. Subsequently, it lists the steps of the noble path leading to the second stage, namely, a concentration of mind. The requisites for the second stage are: being a guardian of sensory faculties, being accomplished in mindfulness and clear awareness, and being contented. With these psychological qualities possessed by him, the bhikkhu “sits down cross-legged, holding his body erect, and concentrates on keeping mindfulness established before him” and abandons the five hindrances within him. The process of abandoning the hindrances has been described in the following manner (note how the salutary attitudes are developed as the five unhealthy characteristics are abandoned): Abandoning worldly desires, he dwells with a mind freed from worldly desires, and his mind is purified of them. Abandoning ill-will and hatred, ... by compassionate love for the welfare of all living beings his mind is purified of ill-will and hatred. Abandoning sloth-and-torpor, ... perceiving light, mindful and clearly aware, his mind is purified of sloth-and-torpor. Abandoning worry-and flurry, ... and with inwardly calmed mind his heart is purified of worry-and flurry. Abandoning doubt, he dwells with doubt left behind, without uncertainty as to what things are wholesome, his mind is purified of doubt.(Walshe 1987, 101) The state of the mind resulting from the abandonment of the five hindrances is described by five similes, underscoring the freedom and the sense of relief the practitioner gets from it. The state of mind without the hindrances is compared to the feeling one gets when one repays, upon the successful development of his business, a loan taken to develop his business; to the feeling one gets when one regains their health after a severe sickness; to the feeling a prisoner gets when he is released from prison; to the feeling a slave gets when he is freed from his slavery; and to the feeling one gets when one safely crosses a dangerous desert. Being with the hindrances is compared to being in debt, being unhealthy, being in prison, being in slavery and being in a desert, and the absence of the hindrances is winning freedom, release and relief, described in quite mundane and dayto-day comparisons. The next step in the path is the attainment of the serene states of mind described as jhāna in the texts. The jhānic attainments can be good candidates for mystical states for those who are not sufficiently familiar with them. A study of the process, how they are attained and the nature of these states, will reveal that this is not the case. The Buddha describes the process leading to jhāna in the following words:


Asanga Tilakaratne

And when he knows that these five hindrances have left him, gladness arises in him, from gladness comes delight, from the delight in his mind his body is tranquillised, with a tranquil body he feels joy, and with joy his mind is concentrated. The first, second, third and the fourth jhānas, characterising gradually increasing sense of aloofness from sensory experience and the resultant joy, or equanimity in the case of the fourth jhāna, are attained on this basis. The first jhāna is “with thinking and pondering, born of detachment, filled with delight and joy.” Once the practitioner is in this state, s/he: ... with this delight and joy born of detachment, so suffuses, drenches and fills and irradiates his body that there is no spot in his entire body that is untouched by this delight and joy born of detachment. (Walshe 1987, 102–3) This is compared to: ... a skilled bathman or his assistant, kneading the soap powder which he has sprinkled with water, forms from it, in a metal dish, a soft lump, so that the ball of soap-powder becomes one oleaginous mass, bound with oil so that nothing escapes. (Walshe 1987, 102) The second jhāna is a result of subsiding of thinking and pondering, inner tranquility and oneness of mind. Its characteristics are absence of thinking and pondering, being born of concentration and filled with delight and joy. Exactly as in the first jhāna, in this experience to the body of the practitioner is suffused so that no spot remains untouched with the delight and joy born of concentration. This is compared to a lake to which rainwater flows and gets mingled with its cool water so that no part of the pool was untouched by it. The third jhāna arises when delight fades away, joy is retained, and the practitioner becomes imperturbable, mindful and clearly aware. Equanimity and mindfulness are the characteristics of this state, “and with this joy devoid of delight he so suffuses his body that no spot remains untouched.” This state is compared to the lotuses in a pond that remain completely suffused with the cool water of the pond. The fourth jhāna arises in a bhikkhu who gives up pleasure and pain and whose former gladness and sadness disappear. The experience is beyond pleasure and pain and purified with equanimity and mindfulness, “and he sits suffusing his body with that mental purity and clarification

Nirvana of the Healthy Mind


so that no part of his body is untouched by it.” This state is compared to a man who covers himself totally with a white sheet so that no part of his body is not covered by that sheet. The most impressive character of these jhānic experiences is that they combine intimately both mind and body. They seem to be neither purely mental nor purely physical for they cover the totality of the person. The state of mental purity that served as the basis for this experience, as we saw earlier, was again an example of the mutual influence of mind and body: delight of the mind tranquillises the body; a tranquillised body generates joy, and with joy, mind becomes concentrated. The jhānic states follow as natural results. The jhānas in this manner are states of serene and tranquility, and no mystical states in which one “communicates” with the unknown. Also, it is noteworthy, how at the end of the exposition of each experience that the physical aspect of it has been highlighted. At this juncture, it is useful to mention that in addition to the four jhānas we just discussed, which are called the “fine-material” jhānas, there are four further jhānas that are called the “non-material”, although they have not been mentioned in this particular discourse. They are the sphere of infinite space, the sphere of infinite consciousness, the sphere of no-thingness and the sphere of neither perception-nor-non-perception. These, similar to the first four jhānas, are states of meditative experience characterised by gradually ascending aloofness from sensory perception, the final stage of which has almost no perception at all. The conclusion of this process is described in the discourses as the cessation of perception and what is felt, at which stage the practitioner appears to become totally devoid of any perceptive or cognitive process at all for a limited period of time.15 Whereas the states beginning with the first fine-material jhāna represent a gradually increasing aloofness and the resultant serenity and joy; this state of cessation is the culmination of the process marked by the total absence of any connection with any sensory data. Obviously, one cannot be in this state for a long time. This looks like a situation in which one stops one’s entire psycho-physical activity temporarily. Certain discourses describe the path to the cessation of suffering through these attainments. Some modern commentators seem to have understood this process as the attainment of cessation as directly result15  This state is discussed in such discourses as Cullvedalla-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya (44) and in the Visuddhimagga. For a comprehensive modern discussion on it, see: (Griffiths 1985).


Asanga Tilakaratne

ing in the cessation of suffering. Moreover, continuing in their understanding, they seem to understand the nirvanic experience in terms of the cessation of perceptions and feelings. In fact, what the discourses say is that once risen from the attainment of cessation, the practitioner directs his mind to insight and consequently, “having seen through wisdom his influxes are eradicated.”16 As the Mahānidāna-sutta of the Dīgha-nikāya (15) explains, a practitioner may first practice and master what is called “the eight liberations” of which, the last five are the four nonmaterial jhānas and the attainment of cessation, and subsequently attain the knowledge of destruction of the influxes, which we come across in many other discourses, including the Sāmaññaphala-sutta under discussion. Cessation, which is the cessation of perceptions and feelings and the non-material jhānas are neither necessary nor enough conditions for the realisation of cessation of suffering, although these states may be achieved in the process by the practitioner. Coming back to the Sāmaññaphala-sutta, after the jhānas, the Buddha outlines some attainments that may be achieved based on the jhānic experience: With the mind concentrated, purified and cleansed, unblemished, free from impurities, malleable, workable, established and having gained imperturbability ... (Walshe 1987, 104) The practitioner directs his mind towards, knowing and seeing, which is the first of such attainments. With this ability, he sees the relationship between his physical body and his consciousness “which is bound to it and dependent on it.” This act of distinguishing is compared to easy distinguishing between a pure gem and the cord strung to it by a man with good eyesight. Subsequently, the practitioner directs his mind with characteristics described above to making mind-made bodies: “out of this body he produces another body, having a form, mindmade, complete in all its limbs and faculties.” This is compared to a man’s drawing out a reed from its sheath, drawing a sword from its scabbard, and drawing a snake from its (old) skin. The next is to direct one’s mind to various supernormal powers such as ... being one he becomes many; being many he becomes one; he appears and disappears; he passes through fences, walls and mountains unhindered as if through air; he sinks into the ground and emerges from it as if it were water; he walks on the water without breaking the surface as if on land; he flies cross-legged through the sky like a bird with wings, he even touches and strokes with his hand the sun and the moon, mighty and powerful as they are; and he travels in the body as far as the Brahma world. 16  Paññāya cassa disvā āsavā parikkhīṇā honti: M I, 175.

Nirvana of the Healthy Mind


This is compared to a skilled potter or his assistant making any form that he wishes with well-prepared clay; skilled ivory-carver or his assistant making any object with well-prepared ivory; and a skilled gold-smith or his assistant making any article with gold. The next attainment is the divine ear with which “he hears sounds both divine and human, whether far or near.” This is compared to one distinguishing between the sounds of big drum, small drum, conch, cymbals or a kettledrum. The last among these attainments, before attaining the three knowledges, is the knowledge of others’ minds. “He knows and distinguishes with his mind the minds of other beings or other persons,” namely, the mind with passion to be mind with passion or mind without passion to be without passion, etc. This act is compared to a woman or a man or a young boy, fond of one’s appearance, examining one’s face in a brightly polished mirror or in water and knowing whether there was a spot there or not. Following this, the three “sciences” or knowledges are described, namely, knowledge of (one’s) previous existences, knowledge of arising and passing away of beings and the knowledge of the destruction of the influxes. In the standard explanations of the final stage of the path to cessation of suffering, these three knowledges are invariably included, and they are given as following the four jhānic attainments described above. Here, what is described in-between, from the state of knowing and seeing to the knowledge of others’ minds are abilities the practitioner may or may not cultivate, for they are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for the realisation of the final goal. In this discourse, they have been described in the context of the King’s question as to the fruits of the noble life. The point of my discussion of these aspects in this paper is to show that even some of these abilities representing supernormal powers have been understood in the system not as mystical, but as deriving its natural results from a purified, concentrated and well-practised mind. The first of the last three knowledges is the knowledge of one’s previous existences. By means of this knowledge the practitioner comes to know his past existences with all the details, extending into several eons. This cognition is compared to a man going from his village to another, and having returned, recollecting how he left his village, did things in the other village and how he has now returned to his own. The next knowledge is the knowledge of the passing away and arising of beings. With this knowledge - “with the divine eye, purified and surpassing that of humans” - the practitioner sees beings passing away and arising depending upon their good and bad karmas, once committed. This knowledge


Asanga Tilakaratne

is compared to the seeing by a man, standing at a lofty building situated at a crossroads, people entering or leaving the building, walking in the street or sitting in the middle of the crossroads. The final and most important amongst the three knowledges is the knowledge of the destruction of the influxes. It is the knowledge that produces the ultimate realisation of the cessation of suffering. This knowledge has been described in the following words: And he, with mind concentrated, purified and cleansed, unblemished, free from impurities, malleable, workable, established and having gained imperturbability, applies and directs his mind to the knowledge of the destruction of the influxes. He knows as it really is: “This is suffering,” he knows as it really is: “This is the origin of suffering,” he knows as it really is: “This is the cessation of suffering,” he knows as it really is: “This is the path leading to the cessation of suffering.” And he knows as it really is: “These are influxes,” “This is the origin of the influxes,” “This is the cessation of the influxes,” “This is the path leading to the cessation of the influxes.” This is the knowledge that ultimately produces the liberation from suffering. The nature of this knowledge and its subsequent implications are described in the following manner: And through his knowing and seeing his mind is delivered from the influx of sense desire, from the influx of becoming, from the influx of ignorance, and the knowledge arises in him: “This is the deliverance!”, and he knows: “Birth is finished, the holy life has been led, done is what had to be done, there is nothing further here.” (italics added) This crucial knowledge has been further described with the following simile: Just as if Sire, in the middle of the mountains there were a pond, clear as a polished mirror, where a man with good eyesight standing on the bank could see oyster-shells, gravel-banks, and shoals of fish on the move or stationary. And he might think: “This pond is clear, there are oyster-shells. “Just so with mind concentrated ... he knows: “Birth is finished, the holy life has been led, done is what had to be done, there is nothing further here.” The Buddha concludes his discussion with the King on the fruits of

Nirvana of the Healthy Mind


the noble life, emphasising that there is no more excellent or perfect fruit than this last one. The significance in this entire discussion and in the description of the last, in particular, is the non-mystical character of the entire process. The simile of the man seeing that which is in the clear water pool is very important in this context. It highlights the clarity of the understanding at this stage. The deliverance is from the influxes, headed by the influx of desire, which is none other than what is described as the origin of suffering. This shows that the path culminates in the realisation of the deliverance of mind from the influxes or the causes of suffering. Once the mind is delivered from these influxes, it knows that it is liberated, and this is the most crucial aspect of this whole process. The ultimate realisation arises from the clear process of cognition, the key characteristic of which is clarity. When this knowledge arose in him, the Buddha described it as: “the eye was born; knowledge was born; wisdom was born; science was born; and light was born.”17 These expressions reveal the non-mystical character of the ultimate goal.

Textual controversies This discussion is not complete unless we refer to some instances in the early canonical texts that have been interpreted by commentators, both ancient and modern, as supporting a metaphysical interpretation of nirvana.18 One of the oft-quoted instances in this connection is the following, which is known as U 80 (referring to page 80 of the Pali Text Society edition of the Udāna, one of the texts in the Khuddaka-nikāya): There is [bhikkhus], that sphere wherein there is neither earth nor water, no fire, no air; there is neither the sphere of infinite space nor of infinite consciousness, nor of nothingness, nor of the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception; where there is neither this world nor the world beyond, nor both together; nor moon nor sun; this I say is free from coming and going, from duration and decay, there is no beginning no establishment, no result, no cause; this indeed is the end of suffering ... [bhikkhus], there is not-born, not-become, not-made, not-compounded. [bhikkhus], if that not-born, not-become, not-made, not-compounded were not, no escape from the born, become, made and compounded would be known here. But [bhikkhus], 17  Cakkhuṃ udapādi, ñāṇaṃ udāpdi, paññā udapādi, vijjā udapādi, āloko udapādi. S IV, 420-24. 18  In this context, I will not make a detailed analysis of these textual instances which I have discussed in detail elsewhere; see Tilakaratne (1993, 75-82).


Asanga Tilakaratne

since there is not-born, not-become, not-made and not compounded, therefore an escape from the born, become, made and compounded is known. In the first passage, a “sphere” is described, which has no connection to any of the very advanced fine-material mental states or to any worldly categories such as this world or the world thereafter and so on. The Buddha finally equates this sphere with the cessation of suffering. In the next paragraph, what is described as “not-born, not-become, not-made, not-compounded” seems to refer to nirvana, although the specific word is not mentioned here. Now, the problem is why nirvana has been described in such terms as these, which apparently betrays a sense of metaphysical entity. These statements taken as they are, no doubt, are open for both metaphysical and non-metaphysical interpretation. The fact that there is textual ambiguity cannot be denied. The language used, viewed superficially betrays a metaphysical sense. Depending on this type of sporadic instance, whether we should undermine the wide spread “naturalist” characterisation of nirvana is the challenge. As the Buddha, himself, mentioned in the Mahāparinibbāna-sutta of the Dīgha-nikāya, the criterion to judge whether or not any particular statement belongs to the Buddha is its consistency and coherency with the rest of the Dhamma as taught by him. Viewing the statements in the U. 80 from this criterion, they should be interpreted as being consistent with the predominant interpretation of nirvana given in almost all the other discourses. Accordingly, the first statement can be interpreted as distinguishing nirvana, as an experience, from all the other worldly experiences and states of mind. Hence, its reference to fine-material states and other extreme categories. The second statement can be understood as referring to nirvana as the absence of birth, becoming, actions and constructions, which are the characteristics of the worldly existence. The other debated issue, which points to a metaphysical direction is the postmortem status of the liberated person or the arahant. Among the well-known unanswered questions, the last four are on the post-mortem status of the awakened person, whether he exists, does not exist, both or neither. In the Cūlamāluṅkyaputta-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya, the locus classicus of these questions in the Pali Canon, the Buddha did not answer these questions claiming they are not pertinent to the realisation of the goal.19 The well-known parable of the man hit by an arrow is de19  This issue has been discussed so extensively by scholars that a fresh discussion at

Nirvana of the Healthy Mind


scribed by the Buddha in order to drive home this point, namely, the irrelevance of the knowledge of answers to these questions for the goal. The question ‘what happens to the arahant after his death’ seems to have bothered many. In particular, this existential anxiety makes sense in the context of the thirst we discussed earlier, for it is the thirst for the enjoyment of pleasures (thirst for pleasures) and the thirst to continue to do it (thirst for existence) which are fundamental to worldly human existence, or any form of existence for that matter. Consequently, uncertainty about one’s continued existence is one of the most existentially important issues any person will have to reconcile in himself. The most popular solution to this anxiety is given by theistic religions in the form of an eternal life without death in a blissful plain. As the Buddha has enumerated in the Brahmajāla-sutta, the very first discourse in the Dīgha-nikāya, the collection of the long discourses of the Pali Canon, there are four eternalist views that hold eternity of the world and the self on four different grounds, and partly-eternalist and partly non-eternalist views that hold the world and the soul to be partly eternal and partly non-eternal on four different grounds, which can be regarded as the result of this anxiety. In the same discourse, the Buddha enumerates views on post-mortem existence. According to this account, there are sixteen views relevant to ‘conscious post-mortem survival’, namely, the self after death is healthy and conscious and (1) material, (2) immaterial, (3) both material and immaterial, (4) neither material nor immaterial, (5) finite, (6) infinite, (7) both, (8) neither, (9) of uniform perception, (10) of varied perception, (11) of limited perception, (12) of unlimited perception, (13) wholly happy, (14) wholly unhappy, (15) both, and (16) neither. There are eight views on ‘unconscious post-mortem survival,’ namely, the self after death is healthy, unconscious and (1) material, (2) immaterial, (3) both, (4) neither, (5) finite, (6) infinite, (7) both, and (8) neither. Similarly, there are eight views on “neither conscious nor unconscious survival” on eight grounds as mentioned above. Now, all these views, believed to have been held by different religious groups or people, can be regarded as philosophical expressions of the existential anxiety of post-mortem survival. The Buddha’s analysis of the belief in self, which is the basis for all types of anxiety, is found in many discourses. In the Alagaddūpama-sutta this point seems redundant. See Tilakaratne (1993, 109-124) for a detailed discussion and references.


Asanga Tilakaratne

of the Majjhima-nikāya, the Buddha describes vividly how taking the five aspects of personality, material form, feeling, perception, construction and consciousness and the views as “this is mine, this I am, this is my self’ causes suffering and agitation. In particular, the view mentioned here is the self-view, namely, ... that which is the self is the world; after death I shall be permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change; I shall endure as long as eternity. This clearly shows that the root-cause of the problem of suffering is the desire to be for eternity, which means, endlessly. Subsequently, the Buddha explains what happens in a person who holds this belief when he hears the Buddha’s teaching: ... for the elimination of all standpoints, decisions, obsessions, adherences, and underlying tendencies, for the stilling of all formations (constructions), for the relinquishing of all attachments, for the destruction of craving, for dispassion, for cessation, for Nibbāna. He thinks thus: “So I shall be annihilated! So, I shall perish! So, I shall be no more! Then he sorrows, grieves, and laments, he weeps beating his breast and becomes distraught.” (italics added)(Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 229–31) It is very clear that what causes anxiety about the post-mortem survival of the person who has realised nirvana is the deep-rooted desire to last forever.20 There is an instance in the Suttanipāta, a text believed to be older than other texts and belonging to the Khuddaka-nikāya (collection of minor anthologies), where the question has been put to the Buddha directly: ... the person who has ceased to exist- does he not exist or does he exist eternally without any defect; explain this to me well, Venerable Sir, as you understand it. (v. 1076) As the italicised phrase highlights, the issue is whether or not the arahant exists without any defect after his demise (Although, the actual words used do not directly mean an arahant, the context makes it clear that what is meant is the person who has realised the goal). In other words, 20  The other side of this desire, the utter denial of death, has been expressed by a modern writer in the following words: “I do not want to die - no; I neither want to die nor do I want to want to die; I want to live for ever and ever and ever. I want this “I” to live-this poor “I” that I am and that I feel myself to be here and now, and therefore the problem of the duration of my soul, of my own soul, tortures me”: Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), as quoted by Brian Davies (1993, 231).

Nirvana of the Healthy Mind


this is to ask whether nirvana is an everlasting state. The Buddha’s answer to the question is as follows: The person who has ceased to exist is without measure; he does not have that with which one can speak of him. When all the phenomena are destroyed all ways of speech too are destroyed. (v. 1082) This statement does not provide a direct answer to the question on an arahant’s eternal existence. It appears to say that we cannot talk about a person who has reached this state. According to the late Professor Jayatilleke, this means that “the trans-empirical cannot be empirically described or understood but it can be realised and attained.” The Tathāgata freed from the conception of form, sensation, ideas, dispositions, and consciousness is said to be “deep, immeasurable and unfathomable, like the great ocean.” Discussing this matter further, he says that what the Buddha knew in the transcendent sense was beyond verbal articulation due to the limitations of language and empiricism. I have discussed Jayatilleke’s position elsewhere in detail and am not going to repeat it. Nevertheless, it is important to reflect on the discussion of the Buddha on which Jayatilleke’s comments are based. In this discussion, Vacchagotta, a wandering ascetic, questions the Buddha on the ten issues that were “kept aside” by the Buddha without answering. The last four of these questions are on the posthumous existence of the enlightened person. The Buddha answered him by saying that expressions such as “is born” or “is not born”: etc. do not apply to such a person. The Buddha takes the fire burning by them as an example and illustrates how the fire that was burning due to grass, sticks, etc., will be extinguished once the fuel (such as grass sticks, etc.) is used u Once the fire is extinguished, it is not proper to ask where the fire has gone, to the East, West, North or South, and the proper explanation is that: ... the fire burned in dependence on its fuel of grass and sticks, when that is used up, is reckoned as extinguished when it does not get any more fuel. The Buddha sums up the explanation in the following words: So, too, Vaccha, the Tathāgata has abandoned that material form by which one describing the Tathāgata might describe him, he has cut it off at the root, made it like a palm-stump, done away with it so that it is no longer subject to future arising. The Tathāgata is liberated from reckoning in terms of material form. Vaccha,


Asanga Tilakaratne

he is profound, immeasurable, unfathomable like the ocean. The term “is born” does not apply, the term “is not born” does not apply, the term “both is born and is not born” does not apply, the term “neither is born nor is not born” does not apply.21 (The same is repeated about the other four aspects of personality.) The discussion highlights two important matters, the first of which is that the awakened person is extinguished when the “fuel runs out,” and that he does not any more possess the five aspects of personality with which one can speak of him. The fire simile is quite straightforward and what is said is clear: like fire that was extinguished the arahant is no more. What happened to him is like what happened to the fire. If this is a matter for consternation, then that is our problem from one who looks at it while still being “on this shore.” The second matter that the discussion highlights, is that an arahant who attains such a state is “profound, immeasurable and unfathomable.” This is not as clear as the fire simile: does this mean that he attains a position characterisable in such terms as these after his physical death or is it an account of his nature while still he is alive? Since an arahant has five aspects of personality while he is living this assertion cannot be about a living arahant. If this describes the state of the arahant after his physical death, which obviously seems to be the case, the after-death state of the arahant must be taken as something more than simple extinguished fire. He is like the fire in the sense that in extinguishing due to lack of fuel, the fire has not gone anywhere to return later. But, on the other hand, what happened to the arahant is not as simple as what happened to the fire, for the process of making an end to all the fuel in the case of an arahant is a complex activity involving the development of the mind to advanced levels of purification. In discussing this matter, we need to appreciate the mentality behind Vaccha’s question. It is a question that arises basically from the existential anxiety of being forced to imagine a universe without one’s own existence. The religions that offer eternal heaven clearly cater to this deep-rooted need for, in that state, nothing happens without one’s knowledge and in one’s absence, for one exists for ever. To believe that the story is over after death is to concede to materialism with a sense of loss, bewilderment and a grudge. Māluṅkyaputta’s and Vaccha’s and many others’ query over the posthumous existence of the arahant is a result of this mentality characterised by the desire for a continued existence, which we discussed as the ‘thirst for existence’ at the beginning 21 M I, 487. The translation adapted from (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 593).

Nirvana of the Healthy Mind


of this discussion. In the entire canon, I have not come across one single instance where an arahant raises this set of questions as something causing existential anxiety for them, except for a few short discourses containing, without any context, the typical question and the answer, (short discourses of this nature being abundant in the canon). Usually, arahants have never raised this query as an existentially nagging question of their own. It is also interesting to see that the Buddha has never tried to give an easy answer to these minds to give the desired comfort. It is quite clear that the Buddha did not say that one is eternal or is annihilated after death. Not only about an arahant, but also about any ordinary person, the Buddha did not make this claim. It is plainly because “an individual in a true and substantialist sense is not available,” the precondition for either eternity or annihilation cannot be postulated. However, the claim about the ordinary “worldling” has not been understood as ruling out his discontinuation in samsara; it is understood that such a person undergoes birth and death repeatedly. The problem, however, on what happens to the arahant who has removed the idea of the self by eradicating all forms of thirst: if his samsara is over and if he would not continue in samsara, his samsaric existence must be therefore over. Whether there is an extra-samsaric existence, another form of becoming (bhava), has never been suspected for the Buddha has quite clearly denied any such existence. When an arahant attains physical death, there is nothing that exists or does not exist.

Conclusion This brings us back to the question with which we started this discussion, namely, ‘what is the nature of the experience that is characterised by purity and freedom?’ In the early texts, we have numerous instances of those venerable men and women, in addition to the Buddha, who realised it and were talking about it (Earlier in this essay I referred to the verses attributed to them, i.e. the Theragāthā and Therīgāthā). As one final example, let us allow one who has realised the cessation of suffering to talk about it. As occurring in the Vinaya literature, the speaker is Soṇa Koḷivisa (Vin I, 178) who entered the Sangha from a very affluent social background and had to be advised by the Buddha to balance his over-zealous approach to the practice. Having attained arahanthood, he comes to the Master and describes how desire, hatred and delusion are gone away from one who has destroyed the cankers, and further articulates its implications on one’s lived experience in daily life:


Asanga Tilakaratne

Thus, Venerable Sir, even if physical forms cognisable by the eye come very strongly into the field of vision of a [bhikkhu] whose mind is wholly freed, they do not obsess his mind for his mind comes to be undefiled, firm, won to composure, and consequently he notes its passing (The same is said for the sounds cognisable by the ear, scents cognisable by the nose, tastes cognisable by the tongue, touches cognisable by the body and mental objects cognisable by the mind). It is as if, Venerable Sir, there were a rocky mountain slope without a cleft, without a hollow, of one mass, and as if wild wind and rain should come very strongly from the Eastern quarter (Western, Northern and Southern quarter) it would neither tremble nor quake nor shake. Even so, Venerable Sir, if physical forms cognisable by the eye ... mental objects cognisable by the mind come very strongly into the field of vision (etc.) of a [bhikkhu] whose mind is wholly freed, they do not obsess him... This is what the liberated mind means in terms of the lived experience of daily life: it is characterised by the stability and unsinkability. The Buddha frequently refers to this state as “health.” Once he claims that he is one of the few people who would claim health in a psychological sense. In an illuminating discussion with a very old householder student couple, Nakuala-mātā and Nakula-pitā, who complained that they were quite indisposed and old, the Buddha advised them to preserve their mental health as total physical health is a near impossibility. Here, what he seems to have meant by mental health in this context, is the total mental health resulting from eradicating all the defilements from one’s psyche. As we saw in our discussion, this metaphor of gaining health was used by the Buddha even in his account of getting rid of the five hindrances. In the ultimate sense, however, “health” is a term used to describe nirvana in the early Buddhist discourses. This makes the realisation of nirvana tantamount to achieving health in a deep and comprehensive sense. Those who are healthy are naturally happy. On this, let me quote Rahula again: There are two ancient Buddhist texts called the Theragatha and Therigatha which are full of joyful utterances of the Buddha’s (students), both male and female, who found peace and happiness, in life through his teachings. The king of Kosala once told the Buddha that unlike many a (student) of other (ways of life)

Nirvana of the Healthy Mind


who looked haggard, coarse, pale, emaciated and unprepossessing, his (students) were “joyful and elated, jubilant and exultant, enjoying the spiritual life, with faculties pleased, free from anxiety, serene, peaceful and living with a gazelle’s mind, i.e. light-hearted.” The king added that he believed that this healthy disposition was due to the fact that “these venerable ones had certainly realised the great and full significance of the Blessed One’s teaching.” (Rahula 1978, 28) The Buddha has been described by his contemporaries as “ever with a mild smile” (mihita-pubbaṅgama); the above account by the King suggests that this smile was “infectious”!

7. The Ontology of Citta, Atta and Nibbāna: A Theravada Perspective

Introduction It is a well-known fact that Buddhism does not accept the reality of ātman. The Buddhist concept of anatta/anātma is taken to mean the rejection of the concept of ātman, as held in the Upaniṣadic literature as ‘unborn, permanent, everlasting and ancient; and surviving even after one’s physical death (ajo nityam śasvatoyam purāṇo – na hanyate hanyamāne śarīre1). Although Buddhism would not describe the mind in such terms as the Upaniṣadic seers used to describe ātman, many of the functions attributed to ātman (i.e. perception, cognition, rebirth) have been explained in the Buddhist discourses with reference to the mind. This leads us to study the Buddhist concept of mind and how it performs the function of ātman without actually being ātman. Stated in this manner, the subject matter of this paper is not absolutely new in the field of Buddhist studies. Nor is it new in the Buddhist religious tradition itself for, from the time of the Buddha, his disciples themselves, not to mention others, have been grappling with this matter. In revisiting this ancient problem, although I do not claim any new arguments or insights, I will try to demonstrate how the Theravada tradition has continued to be consistent, with some notable exceptions, with the basic early Buddhist characterisation of mind. The structure of the paper will be as follows: I will begin by highlighting some instances recorded in the discourses pointing to the difficulties faced by some early Buddhist disciples in trying to adhere to the anātma language or mind language. From there, I will move on to discuss the early Buddhist analysis of mind as dependently-arisen (paṭiccasamuppanna) 1  Kaṭha Upaniṣad II.18.

The Ontology of Citta, Atta and…


and the implications of that analysis, and lastly, I will examine some later Buddhist developments such as the concept of ultimate reality (paramartha dharma), including the commentarial debate on the existence of nirvana as instances highlighting the intellectual and emotional challenges faced by early and later Buddhists in grasping the doctrine of anātma.

Troubles dealing with anatta A classic example of the difficulty arising from not seeing the distinction between ātman and the mind is the view held by Sāti, a monastic disciple of the Buddha. He held that the consciousness runs through and wanders without change2, meaning thereby that the same consciousness transmigrates from life to life. When the Buddha came to know of this wrong view, he explained how erroneous the view was and summarised his admonition by saying,” I have said that consciousness is dependently-arisen (paṭiccasamuppannaṃ viññṇaṃ vuttaṃ mayā). We will refer to this explanation by the Buddha again below. The significance of the whole episode is that it highlights how the disciples of the Buddha struggled with this unique position, which is neither eternalism, of those who held the ātma-view, nor the annihilationism of the materialists. The next example highlights the particularly difficult situation of speaking about an act without referring to an actor. When the Buddha described four types of nutriments [edible food, contact, mental volition and consciousness], Moḷiya Phagguna, a monastic disciple, asked: Venerable sir, who consumes the nutriment of consciousness? To this, the Buddha responded by saying: ‘Not a valid question’ and explained further: I do not say one consumes. If I should say ‘one consumes,’ in that case, this would be a valid question: who consumes? But I do not speak thus. Since I do not speak thus, if one should ask me, Venerable sir, for what is the nutriment consciousness [a condition]? This would be a valid question, To this, the valid answer is: ’The nutriment consciousness is a condition for the production of future renewed existence.’ (Saṃyutta-nikāya, Nidāna-saṃyutta, 12; Bodhi, 2000. 477) Another instance which provides an example of the same challenge of trying to talk about an act and its result without referring to either a persistent or disconnected actor and the experiencer is found in the Nidāna-saṃyutta. Here, Acela Kassapa, a naked ascetic, asked the Bud2  The statement occurring in the Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya-sutta, Majjhima-nikāya, 38 is: ’viññāṇaṃ sandhāvati saṃsarati anaññam.’


Asanga Tilakaratne

dha whether the suffering was done by oneself, another, both by oneself and another or if it arises fortuitously being made neither by oneself nor by another. To which, the Buddha answered all questions in the negative. To the perplexed ascetic, the Buddha then explained the reasoning behind his rejection of the above-mentioned positions: Kassapa, [if one thinks] ‘The one who acts is the same as the one who experiences [the result]’, [then one asserts] with reference to one existing from the beginning: ‘suffering is created by oneself.’ When one asserts thus, this amounts to eternalism. But Kassapa [if one thinks] ‘The one who acts is one, the one who experiences [the result] is another,’ [then one asserts] with reference to one stricken by feeling: ‘Suffering is created by another,’ When one asserts thus, this amounts to annihilationism. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathāgata teaches the Dhamma by the middle. With ignorance as condition, volitional formations [come to be]. … (Saṃyutta-nikāya, Nidāna-saṃyutta, 17; Bodhi, 2000, 483) In this dialogue, the Buddha reveals how the belief that the same person acts and experiences the results of their acts in the next birth and the belief that one who acts and one who experiences are two different persons amounts respectively to eternalism, the view that ātman is eternal, and annihilationism, the view that ātman is annihilated at death. What is clear from these discussions of the Buddha is that he made use of the idea of dependent origination to steer clear of any concept of agency. In other words, dependent origination constitutes the method used by the Buddha to distance himself from an atma view. Having done so, the Buddha used the same method to explain the mind which he considered to be essential to an analysis of human action. Apart from these instances from the discourses, there are other situations which appear to require, for an explanation, an agent in addition to the mind. One such instance is as to how to explain one who generates good or bad thoughts. As thoughts are a part of the mind, when it is said that one generates good or bad thoughts naturally one tends to ask; what are thoughts and who is the one who generates them? The same difficulty may be described with reference to the reflection on one’s own thoughts (citta-anupassanā) in mindfulness meditation. Here, there is a case of ‘mind looking at itself, or mind looking at mind’ (to put it in a rather misleading manner). The expression used in the discourse is the following: he abides contemplating mind as mind (citte cittānupassī vi-

The Ontology of Citta, Atta and…


harati): here, who is he and what is mind? In both these instances and in other similar cases, it is clear that the Buddha assumes the reality of the empirical individual who is practising the path. Ultimately, however, the empirical individual is what is described in the dependent origination process as nāma-rūpa, one who cannot be sharply divided as mind and body. Meditator’s practice becomes accomplished when he reaches the understanding that there is nothing beyond a web of relations.

Mind dependently-arisen As we already acknowledged in the Buddha’s response to Sāti, the mind according to the Buddha is dependently-arisen, which he further clarified as: ‘if there are no conditions coming together there will not be arising of mind’.3 The basic idea of dependent arising is that any particular phenomenon does not have an independent existence. The conditions that come together to produce a phenomenon themselves are being dependently-arisen, ultimately what there is, is a web of dependently-arisen phenomena of which nothing in itself has an independent existence. What is the mind in Buddhism which replaces ātman? This is not an easy question to answer in one word. In the discourses, there are three key terms used to refer to the mind, namely, citta, mano and viññāṇa. Although at times discourses indicate that these three refer to one and the same phenomenon,4 scholars have noticed that each term has its own unique connotation. In the present context, I do not plan to make a comprehensive study of these three terms, which has already been done by others.5 Nevertheless, it is good to have some basic idea as to what each term signifies. Citta is usually mentioned as something which gets defiled or purified, which is developed or undeveloped, disciplined or undisciplined, and ultimately it is citta that gets liberated from influxes and attains the highest state of inner purity. Often in the discourses, this state is described as: the mind was freed from influxes (āsavehi cittaṃ vimucci). Viññāṇa, usually rendered as consciousness, is mainly a constituent of human personality, namely, one aspect of the five ‘aggregates’, 3  Aññatra paccayā natthi viññāṇassa sambhavo (Ibid). 4 “… to that which is called ‘mind’ and ‘mentality’ and ‘consciousness’ … Bodhi (2000) 526. … cittam itipi mano itipi viññāṇam itipi (Saṃyutta-nikāya, Nidāna-saṃyutta, 94). 5  Rune Johansson “Citta, Mano, Viññāṇa: A psychological Investigation“, University of Ceylon Review (23 Nos. 1-2: 1965, 165-212) is a good early attempt.


Asanga Tilakaratne

(khandha), and one aspect among the twelve aspects in the dependently-arisen scheme of origination and the cessation of suffering; in sense perception, it arises in association with the corresponding sensory faculties. In addition, it plays an important role in the rebirth process as the factor that connects a being from this existence to the next.6 Mano is mentioned mainly as a faculty (mana-indriya), like any other sensory faculty which takes phenomena (dhammā) as its object. While it is just one amongst the faculties, it occupies a special place among them as the factor that has access to the content of the other faculties, each of which has its own sensory domain not shared by the rest, and serves as the coordinating factor among them.7 In addition, mind’s having its own sensory domain has important implications. As we will see below it is this aspect of mind that provided the basis of bhavaṅga (life-continuum) in the later Abhidhamma tradition. Although there are exceptions, roughly this characterisation appears valid in regard to the three concepts. Although these three do not mean three different phenomena, they may be understood as highlighting different aspects/roles of the same phenomenon. The accounts in which these three terms are described as referring to one (as we noted above) are meant to make one very important observation, namely, that the one that arises is not the one that ceases.8 What is emphasised is the extreme short lived-ness of the mind. Once referring to this nature of short livedness, the Buddha said that the mind is so short-lived that it is hard to find a simile also to describe it.9 So far in this discussion, we have identified two characteristics of mind according to the Buddhist understanding, namely, that it dependently arises and that it passes swiftly. The first characteristic has been highlighted in the discourses to show how things happen without an agent as the doer, in the regular ac6  Mahānidāna-sutta, Digha-nikāya II, 63. 7 (Majjima-nikāya no. 43, Mahāvedalla-sutta): Friend, these five faculties each have a separate field, a separate domain, and do not experience each other’s field and domain, … now these five faculties have mind as their resort, and mind experiences their fields and domains. Bodhi (2001) 391. 8  It would be better, bhikkhus, for the uninstructed worldling to take as self this body composed of the four great elements rather than the mind. For what reason? Because this body … is seen standing for one year, …for a hundred years or even longer. But that which is called ‘mind’ and ‘mentality’ and consciousness’ arises as one thing and ceases as another by day and by night. Bodhi (2000) 527 Nidāna Saṃyutta: 61. 9 Bhikkhus, I do not see even one other thing that changes so quickly as the mind. It is not easy to give a simile for how quickly the mind changes: Bodhi (2012) 97.

The Ontology of Citta, Atta and…


counts of sensory perception, whereas the Upaniṣads would identify ātman as the real seer or hearer etc. behind the perception. The Buddhist analysis refers only to the combination of factors such as, in the case of visual perception; eye, visual form and the attention upon that form in order for the act of seeing to take place. In the context of realisation of the path and the fruit of attaining nirvana too, this agent-less process is applicable. When all the conditions that are necessary for a state of mind to arise are present, there is no need for any extra volition or aspiration on the part of the person concerned. In the following statement, the Buddha clarifies this point with reference to the path towards the goal: Bhikkhus, for a virtuous person, one whose behaviour is virtuous, no volition need be exerted (na cetanāya karanīyam): ‘Let non-regret arise in me.’ It is natural (dhammata hesa) that non-regret arises in one who is virtuous, one whose behaviour is virtuous. (Bodhi 2012, 1554) This is applicable to the entire sequence of things, beginning from being joyful, rapture, tranquillity, pleasure, concentration, knowing and seeing things as they really are, disenchantment, dispassionate-ness, and culminating in the realisation of the knowledge and vision of liberation. Finally, the Buddha sums up his exposition with the following words: Thus, bhikkhus, one stage flows into the next stage, one stage fills up the next stage, for going from the near shore to the far shore.10 (Bodhi 2012, 1555) In order to explain this same natural process, the Buddha in several instances has referred to the natural process of hatching an egg as a simile.11 Just as a hen does not need to specifically wish that her chicks would pierce the shells and come out from their eggs which are well incubated and properly nurtured by her; a practitioner with the necessary qualities will complete the path without any extra wish that he should achieve those specific states for “his eggs are unspoiled, he is capable of breaking out, capable of enlightenment, capable of attaining the supreme security from bondage’ (Bodhi, 1995/2001, 463). As pointed out in the quoted statements, it is the nature of things that things arise and cease when such conditions are present. The idea 10  iti kho bhikkhave dhammā ca dhamme abhisandenti, dhammā ca dhamme paripūrenti apārā pāraṃgamanāya ti: Anguttara-nikāya V. 313. An almost identical argument has been made in the Bhūmija-sutta, Majjhima-nikāya (126 M III 142) with reference (to the irrelevance of) aspiration (asa). 11 Sekha-sutta, Majjhima-nikāya, 53; also, Cetokhila-sutta, Majjhima-nikāya 16.


Asanga Tilakaratne

of a natural process has been articulated in the subsequent Theravada tradition as ‘niyāma dharma’ (DhsA 272) under which five types of activity have been included, namely, seasonal changes, plant life, action (and its results), nature and mind (citta niyāma). By including mind in this classification, the tradition was developing upon the idea of causality applied in the early discourses to describe the operation of the mind. The understanding developed by the Buddha on reality as being dependently originated is not meant to be a mere interpretation but to represent the actual nature of reality, and this has been highlighted by using four terms to characterise the causal process, namely, objectivity (tathatā), invariability (avitathatā), necessity (anaññathatā) and conditionality (idappaccayatā).12 The Buddha further states that whether or not the Tathāgatas were to be born, this nature of things exist in the world, and the function of the Tathāgata is only to reveal it to the world. The implication of this characterisation of dependent origination is that the absence of an agent is taken in a real sense and not as a mere interpretation or a device to serve a soteriological purpose. Nevertheless, the Buddha did not have a problem of assuming an empirical reality without which one cannot make sense of the day-to-day existence of human beings. The following statement by the Buddha sheds light on his position on this matter: Bhikkhus, I do not dispute with the world; rather, it is the world that disputes with me. A proponent of the Dhamma does not dispute with anyone in the world. Of that which the wise in the world agree upon as not existing, I too say that it does not exist. And of that which the wise in the world agree upon as existing, I too say that it exists. … Bhikkhus, just as a blue, red, or white lotus is born in the water and grows up in the water, but having risen up above the water, it stands unsullied by the water, so too the Tathāgata was born in the world and grew up in the world, but having overcome the world, he dwells unsullied by the world. (Bodhi 2012, 949-950) The difference between an enlightened person and an ordinary worldling (puthujjana) is that whereas the former deals with the world with its objects and individuals knowing that there is nothing more than webs of relations, the latter sees independent and solid agents and patients. 12  Saṃyutta-nikāya, Nidāna-saṃyutta, 20. Bodhi (2000) 487. [Bhikkhu Bodhi renders these four as actuality, inerrancy, nototherwiseness and specific conditionality.]

The Ontology of Citta, Atta and…


These two ways of perceiving the world make a crucial difference in the attitudes and behaviour of the person who does so. One who perceives the world as anātma lives in it without getting into attachments or animosities with it. This is the ‘lotus-like’ life referred to above in which one is both in and not in the world simultaneously. The other lives in the world reacting to it with love and hatred, thereby subjecting himself and others to a mixture of good and bad leading ultimately to suffering.13

Momentary phenomena Two ideas referred to so far, conditionality and instantaneousness of the mind, have been developed by the subsequent Theravada Abhidharma tradition (and other similar traditions) to their logical extremes. The Theravada Abhidhamma refers to four ultimate realities (paramattha dhamma), namely, mind (citta), factors of mind (cetasika), matter (rupa) and nibbāna. Of these, citta is defined as having only a momentary existence called a mind-moment (citta-khana). Each mind-moment has three sub-moments, arising (uppāda), presence (ṭhiti) and dissolution (bhanga). Even though a moment is divided into three sub-moments, giving an impression of one with a longer duration, according to the experts in Abhidharma, “in the time that it takes for lightning to flash or the eyes to blink, billions of mind-moments can elapse” (Bodhi 2006, 156). It is clear that a phenomenon of this quickness cannot be a part of one’s ordinary experience. The purpose is to make clear the composite character of mind and the absence of any enduring permanency in human experience, which is responsible for the false impression that there are permanent agents who perceive solid realities. An interesting innovation of the Theravada tradition is to come up with the idea that a citta does not arise in isolation, but it arises always as a part of a process which is called a ‘cognitive process’ (citta-vīthi). A regular cognitive process has seventeen thought moments each having three sub-moments as mentioned above. The seventeen moments of the eye-door process are given in the following order: [Since a thought process arises from one’s bhavaṅga stream] the first thought moment is past bhavaṅga; second is vibrational bhavaṅga, third is arrest of bhavaṅga, fourth is five-door adverting thought moment, fifth is eye consciousness, sixth is receiving the object, seventh is investigating the object, eighth is 13  This position is different from that of Advaita Vedanta which gives to the lived reality of the individual only a relative existence which is ultimately unreal. In the Buddhist position the lived experience is not an unreality. In other words, both samvrti and paramartha are true; one is for samsara and the other is for nirvana.


Asanga Tilakaratne

determining the object, ninth to fifteenth are seven javana14 moments, the last two are registration moments (occurring following the same object), and at this point citta again goes back to the bhavaṅga stream from where it began. A cognitive thought process occurs when all the conditions needed for a particular thought process to occur are present. For instance, if it is an eye-door thought process it needs eye-sensitivity, visible object, light and attention as conditions; the ear-door process needs sensitivity, sound, space, and attention as conditions, and so on for the rest of the nose, tongue, body and mind-door processes. When the required conditions are present, the relevant thought process occurs in the order as mentioned above, and that orderly occurrence is attributed to citta-niyāma or the natural order of the citta. The rationale and order behind this process have been explained in the following manner: It should be noted that the entire cognitive process occurs without any self or subject behind it as an enduring experiencer or inner controller, a “knower” outside the scope of the process itself. The momentary cittas themselves exercise all the functions necessary to cognition, and the reality of the cognitive act derives from their coordination through laws of conditional connectedness. Within the cognitive process, each citta comes into being in accordance with the lawful order of consciousness (cittaniyāma). It arises in dependence of a variety of conditions, including the preceding citta, the object, a door, and a physical base. Having arisen, it performs its own unique function within the process, and then it dissolves, becoming a condition for the next citta. (Bodhi, 2006 158-159) ‘Bhavaṅga’ [bhva+aṅga], life-continuum, mentioned in the process is another very important innovation of Theravada Abhidhamma, not directly mentioned in the discourses, but implied, particularly by the analysis of mind (mano) as a faculty having its own objects in addition to functioning as the coordinating factor in other sense organs, as we have mentioned above. It is: 14  Javana is a technical term of Abhidhamma usage that is best left untranslated. The literal meaning of the word is running swiftly. As a function of consciousness, it applies to the stage of the cognitive process that immediately follows the determining stage, and consists of a series of cittas (normally seven, all identical in kind) which “run swiftly” over the object in the act of apprehending it. The javana stage is the most important from an ethical standpoint, for it is at this point that wholesome or unwholesome cittas originate (Bodhi, 2006, 124).

The Ontology of Citta, Atta and…


the indispensable condition of existence. Bhavaṅga is the function of consciousness by which the continuity of the individual is preserved through the duration of any single existence, from conception to death. After the paṭisandhicitta [re-linking thought-moment] has arisen and fallen away, it is then followed by the bhavaṅgacitta, which is a resultant consciousness of the same type as the paṭisandhicitta but which performs a different function, namely, the function of preserving the continuity of the individual existence. (Bodhi, 2006, 122-123) This means that bhavaṅga functions all the time when there is not any cognitive function of the kind elaborated above taking place. When a cognitive thought process arises, it breaks the bhavaṅga process and once it is over, the bhavaṅga stream resumes. It is held that in a dreamless deep sleep, when the faculties do not respond to objects, then that what functions is bhavaṅga; in addition, however, in the normal waking life too, bhavaṅga occurs between every two thought processes. Bhavaṅga is not without its problems: some who do not wish to accept any persistent entity think that this later innovation brings Buddhism back to the atma view. There is a strong tradition which even rejects the persistent sub-moment in a thought moment for the reason that to accept even a moment of persistence is to cause harm to the anatta view. On the other hand, those who hold this objection fall into trouble by not being able to explain how a series of phenomena that a persistent stage does not have can be effective. Bhavaṅga, according to Abhidhamma, is the continuation of the relinking consciousness which perishes and having given birth, causes the bhavaṅga citta to arise. This citta continues throughout one’s entire life until it ceases at death by causing cuti-citta or departing consciousness. As we found at the beginning of this discussion, consciousness is dependent on conditions, and without conditions, it does not arise. In the case of bhavaṅga, it is the paṭisandhi-citta that becomes as its condition; once arisen it continues, always being conditioned by the immediately preceding bhavaṅga thought moment: “Arising and perishing at every moment during this passive phase of consciousness, the bhavaṅga flows like stream, without remaining static for two consecutive moments.” (Bodhi, 2006, 123) Clearly, the Theravada tradition has come up with a theory which is internally consistent and does not go against the basic teaching of the Buddha, which is that consciousness dependently arises. If bhavaṅga or


Asanga Tilakaratne

a similar citta is not assumed, on the one hand, there will be a difficulty in explaining the continuity of the individual, and on the other, there will have to be a constant supply of external conditions for the consciousness to arise even when one is in a deep dreamless slee According to Abhidhamma, paṭisandhi-citta, bhavaṅga-citta and cuti-citta are resultant, or they arise as results (vipāka) of previous actions. Once so arisen, relinking consciousness perishes having given birth to bhavaṅga, which continues till the person passes away, which is cuti-citta, the termination of the process begun with paṭisandhi-citta. By being so, these three are called ‘process-freed (consciousness)’ (vīthi-mutta) and hence are not counted as actions. The characterisation of these three as resultant is well aligned with the basic Buddhist understanding of how karma produces a result, namely, the result of particular karma being decided (conditioned) by the nature of that particular karma, which is described as the “[causally-conditioned] natural law of action (kamma-niyāma). Once an action is done, the result is determined then and there, and there is no divine or metaphysical agency to intervene in the process. This has been explained in the Dhamma conjointly with ‘[causally-conditioned] natural law of seeds (bīja-niyāma): Yādisaṃ vapate bījam – tādisaṃ harate phalam Kalyānakāri kalyānaṃ – pāpakārī ca pāpakaṃ (S I, 227) One receives the fruits of what one harvested; [in the like manner] the doer of good receives good, and the doer of evil receives evil. Viewed in this manner, the innovation of bhavaṅga does not appear to counter the basic Buddhist portrayal of mind as a dependently arisen phenomenon. The mind exists and continues to exist as a dependently arisen phenomenon. Existence does not seem to pose a problem as long as that which exists is not unchanging, permanent or everlasting like ātman. When the later Abhidharma tradition identified citta, cetasika, rūpa and nibbāna as ultimate realities (paramartha dharma), the basic assumption is that they exist. It appears, however, that ‘existence’ does not have the same connotation in every case. One instance in which this difficulty emerges is the relationship between citta and cetasika. By definition, the cetasikas belong to citta (mind) without which they cannot exist. The Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha of Anuruddha defines cetasika as having four characteristics, namely, they arise and cease together with mind and share the same object and base as mind. This characterisation affirms that these two are inseparable from each other.

The Ontology of Citta, Atta and…


Based on this, one could argue that these two are relative to each other and hence, one does not have an existence without the other. However, this is not the way that the tradition understood the mutual relationship. Bhikkhu Bodhi describes these two as ‘functionally interdependent’ (2006: 76). The Abhidhamma way of understanding this can be seen in the two approaches it adopted to explain the close connection between these two ultimate realities. They are the method of association (sampayoga-naya) ‘which takes mental factors as the basis of inquiry and seeks to determine which types of citta each mental factor is associated with,’ and the method of combination or inclusion (saṅgaha-naya) which ‘takes citta as primary and seeks to determine, for each type of citta, what mental factors are combined within.’ These two approaches assume that citta and cetasikas, notwithstanding their close connection, have their particular ontological status. This approach, however, appears problematic. The real relationship may be more accurately understood as one of mutual interdependence, but instead, in the Abhidhamma, we have mental factors which are belonging to the mind. Why the Theravada Abhidhamma tradition did not wish to adopt a position of mutuality remains to be examined. The tradition is familiar with inter-dependency with the mutuality condition (aññamañña paccayā) among the twenty-four paccayas, and the mutually-dependent relationship between nāmarūpa and viññāna (as in ‘nāmarūpa paccayā viññānam, viññāna paccayā nāmarūpam.15 So, mutuality in itself cannot be an issue. Perhaps the reason may have been the acceptance, along with other early schools, of sva-bhāva (one’s own nature), which is problematic and which came under severe criticism by philosophers such as Nagarjuna, and therefore the over concern about asserting the existence of the dharmas. Even a more serious difficulty arises with the issue of the existence of nirvana. Being an ultimate reality, nirvana must exist. However, according to Abhidhamma, nirvana, being an unconditioned reality (asaṅkhata dhamma), cannot be existing exactly like the other three realities which are conditioned. In the Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa tries to establish that nirvana is not abhāva (non-reality) but is bhāva (reality). For Buddhaghosa this is a crucial issue because if the existence of nirvana is not established, then the religious path meant to realise it would be null and void.16 He raises the question: Is nibbāna non-existent because 15  Naḷakalāpa-sutta, Saṃyutta-nikāya II, 114. 16  Asati hi nibbāne sammādiṭṭhipurejavāya sīlādikhandhattayasangahāya samāpaṭipattiyā vañjhabhāvo āpajjati. Buddhaghosa 508.


Asanga Tilakaratne

it is unapprehendable, like the hare’s horn? And answers his question in the following manner: That is not so, because it is apprehendable by the [right] means. For it is apprehendable [by some, namely, the Noble Ones] by the [right] means, in other words, by the way that is appropriate to it, [the way of virtue, concentration and understanding;] it is like the supramundane consciousness of others, [which is apprehendable only by certain of the Noble Ones] by means of knowledge of penetration of others’ minds. Therefore, it should not be said that it is non-existent because unapprehendable; for it should not be said that what the foolish ordinary man does not apprehend is unapprehendable. (Ñāṇamoli, 1956, 578) In this discussion, the phrase, ‘tam āgamma’- ‘on coming to that’ has been the key term that Buddhaghosa makes use of in order to assert that nirvana really exists in a spatial sense. Ven. Ñāṇamoli, the English translator of Vism. adds the following footnote: … On coming to that (taṃ āgamma)”: on reaching that nibbāna by making it the object (Pm 533). Āgamma (ger. of āgacchati – to come) is commonly used as an adverb in the sense of ‘owing to’ (e.g. at M I, 119). Here, however, it is taken literally by the commentaries and forms an essential part of the ontological proof of the positive existence on nibbāna. (footnote no. 16, 577) It is clear that the subsequent Theravada tradition has made nirvana a transcendent reality in the sense of a reality which transcends the world, but what is understood by lokuttara in the early tradition is a state that transcends worldliness. This is clear in the Paṭisambhidāmagga analysis of the concept of ‘lokuttara.’17 Even though it is considered to belong to a later stage of the Pali Canon, it retains the early non-transcendent concept of nirvana.18 It is clear that in this later debate on the existence of nirvana, the definition of nirvana given in the discourses as the “destruction of greed, destruction of hate, destruction of delusion”19 was not given due attention, most probably because it portrays nirvana as a state and an experience of mind of one that realises it.

17  Refer to its chapter, ‘Treatise in the Supramundane,’ (Ñāṇamoli, 1975 247-249). 18  For a discussion on the Patisambhidamagga exposition of ‘lokuttara’, see the last chapter of Tilakaratne 2018. 19  Rāgakkhayo dosakkhayo mohakkhayo nibbānaṃ (S V, 261).

The Ontology of Citta, Atta and…


Concluding remarks The key point highlighted in this discussion is the dependently arisen character of reality, including the mind. In the instances referred to at the beginning of this discussion we saw how the Buddha used the concept of dependent origination to distance himself from the belief in atma. In its place, the Buddha posited mind and showed that it too is causally conditioned, and hence lacking in any independent existence. In the preceding discussion, it was pointed out that the tradition has basically been faithful to this standpoint. The tradition, nonetheless, has not been able to free itself totally from the gaze of realism which has proved quite resilient in the history of the Buddhist tradition. That the Theravada tradition also has not been totally exempt from this influence was clear in our discussion of the interdependence of citta and cetasika and of nirvana. This whole debate can be critiqued from an early Buddhist point of view with reference to such discourses as the Kaccāyanovāda-sutta (Saṃyutta-nikāya, Nidana-saṃyutta) in which the Buddha rejected both atthitā and natthitā – existence and non-existence, as misleading categories to understand reality. It is interesting to note that the only direct reference to a discourse that Nagarjuna makes in his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, which was written solely in order to repudiate the realism of dharma-vāda, is this particular discourse to Kaccayana Thera. As Ven. Ñāṇamoli correctly points out, the tradition has not been able to resist the urge to establish “the ontological proof of positive existence of nirvana”, proving once again that this unique teaching of the Buddha truly “goes against the stream” (paṭisotagāmi).20

20  Ariyapariyesana-sutta, (Majjhima-nikāya 26)

8. Nihilism in Buddhist Perspective*

The term ‘nihilism’ basically refers to a view characterised by the denial of moral, ethical and social values. It denotes a sense of scepticism on the possibility of meaningful acts in these spheres. At times, it is understood as involving a denial of an objective reality, its knowability and the communicability, as in the case of Gorgias (in ancient Greece) who held that: (i) nothing exists; (ii) even if something did exist it could not be known; and (iii) even if it was known, that knowledge could not be communicated. According to Robert G Olson (1967, 515), the term is believed to have been first coined in the 1860s by the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev in his novel Fathers and Sons. The main character of this novel is revolutionary, full of disdain for tradition and authority, with great faith in reason and committed to materialism in philosophy. Most of the early anarchistic and revolutionary nuances of the term were gradually lost when the term became popular in Europe and America. The more contemporary usage of the term is used to denote either the doctrine that moral norms or standards cannot be justified by rational arguments or that human existence is devoid of any meaning or value. The first view is what is known in philosophy as ‘emotivism’ and was popularised by the logical positivists who held ethical statements to be mere expressions of one’s likes, and dislikes conditioned by one’s social upbringing. The second was widely held by philosophers belonging to an existentialist persuasion. Both views were understood to be atheistic and hence, those who did not believe in the existence of God as the foundation of morality were called nihilists. The idea was that in the absence of God, who is believed to provide the foundation and criterion for morality, that which emerges is nihilism or rejection of everything that is morally desirable. * First version of this article appeared in Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, Vol. VII: Fascicle 1. Colombo: Sri Lanka, 2003.

Nihilism in Buddhist Perspective


Central to the position of emotivism is the sharp distinction believed to exist between fact and value. In formulating the Buddhist response to the emotivism claim, first, we must admit that the question as discussed by modern philosophy was not known to the Buddha. As a result, one cannot expect a direct answer from Buddhism to such a question. Buddhism, nevertheless, does hold a position on the truth-value of the ethical claims that it makes. For example, the five precepts (pañcasīla) which are recommended for all householder Buddhists is understood to be based on some facts concerning (human) life and the world. For example, in accepting to abide by the precept to abstain from taking life, one’s act is based on such beliefs that all living beings love their life. Therefore, it is wrong to take life either out of hatred or out of any other sort of malicious or selfish motivation. Regarding the other precepts, there are also similar reasons given. Monastic disciplinary rules are very often justified on a pragmatic basis, having the realisation of nirvana as the basic criterion. Owing to this pragmatic basis one could argue that Buddhism subscribes to a form of relativism in ethics, a position akin to that of logical positivism. A closer analysis of the Buddhist position, however, would reveal that this is not the case. Buddhism holds that whatever is conducive to nirvana is good.1 However, we must not forget that it understands nirvana, characterised by the absence of craving, hatred and delusion as the fundamental sources of all evil, to be the highest good or the most desirable state to realise. It follows on from this that the pragmatic position on ethics held by Buddhism is not relative. One cannot, on the other hand, describe this position as being absolutist, the traditional opposition of relativism, for Buddhism recognises other desirable states such as being born in heavenly abodes for which some other forms of behaviour are considered as good. A popular criticism of the nihilist position is that since it rejects the existence of God, it cannot hold a moral or ethical position. It is clear from this criticism that it is based on the view that theism is the only form of valid religion for, in the opinion of the theist, without God, there cannot be a foundation for ethics and morality. Given the fact that Buddhism does not accept the existence of God as a creative and dominative force of the universe (M II, 222) one could equally level the charge against Buddhism. But Buddhism provides a clear case that ethics and 1  This follows the Buddha’s explanation that his teaching has only one taste that is liberation (ayaṃ dhammavinayo ekaraso, vimuttiraso: A IV, 203)


Asanga Tilakaratne

morality can be established not only on a supernatural ground but on natural grounds. What is good or bad is decided not on a decree of God but on pragmatic, psychological and humanistic grounds. This demonstrates that by merely rejecting God one does not necessarily become a nihilist. The existentialist position that life is meaningless has been identified as representing an attitude of nihilism. This existentialist position is a rejection of the theistic view that the universe created by God has a purpose determined by him and that it moves gradually towards its fulfilment. Although Buddhism agrees with existentialism in denying this teleological stand it does not contribute to the latter’s sense of despair and loss of hope. Buddhism holds that the existence of an ordinary human being is characterised by suffering (dukkha or a deep sense of unsatisfactoriness). It, however, does not stop at that. It says that this suffering can be overcome and that there is a path leading to its realisation. The Buddhist position may be summarised in the following manner: there is no meaning for human life originating from any supernatural source whatsoever; meaning must be created by individual human beings by living a life of compassion and wisdom. Thus, Buddhism cannot be described as nihilist simply because it rejects the teleological stand professed by theism. As the preceding discussion shows, Buddhism does share certain premises with nihilism although it does not necessarily draw the same conclusions from those premises as nihilists would.

9. Pragmatism and Buddhism*

Pragmatism is the philosophical view that the meaning of the truth of a concept depends on its practical consequences. Charles S Peirce of the United States first articulated the philosophical view in the latter part of the 19th century and it was made popular at the beginning of the 20th century by such philosophers as William James, John Dewey and FCS Schiller, as basically a reaction to the metaphysical pursuits that dominated philosophical discussion during that period. Peirce’s view was presented in the context of scientific research and he claimed that practice was the cornerstone of determining the truth of a scientific theory. William James changed this initial emphasis and took ‘practice’ to mean, not merely the repeatable experimental practice by a group of scientists’ as in the case of Peirce, but concrete practical consequences, and having such consequences was held as the criterion of truth. Negatively, this was a rejection of traditional debates on metaphysical entities and positively, it was to understand the function of philosophy as establishing some positive aims as the purpose of philosophy. Although pragmatism as a modern philosophical view is, obviously, of recent origin from the point of accepting a very close connection between truth and practical consequences, the Buddha appears to have anticipated a pragmatic view of truth in his own teaching. It is well known that the Buddha did not answer speculative questions that are known as ‘unanswered questions ‘(abyākata pañhā). In the Cūlamāluṅkyaputta-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya (64), the locus classicus of the ten questions mentioned in the Pali Canon, the Buddha uses the simile of the man hit by an arrow as a way of explaining the futility of searching for * This paper first appeared in Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, Vol. VII: Fascicle 3. Colombo: Sri Lanka, 2005.


Asanga Tilakaratne

answers to these questions. The point of the simile is that when a person is hit by an arrow the immediate priority for him should be to remove it and to get cured using the medicine. If he were to insist on the details such as the caste of the person who shot him, where he comes from and the like; he will have to succumb to his injuries without finding answers. In the like manner, the Buddha says, when suffering is the problem one must not waste time on irrelevant issues but focus on that which is relevant. In this context, the Buddha says: Whether there is the view ‘after death a Tathāgata neither exists nor does not exist there is birth, there is ageing, there is death, there are sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair, the destruction of which I prescribe here and now.” (M I, 430) The whole point is that knowing the answers either affirmatively or negatively to these questions would not make a difference as far as one’s suffering, the crucial existential issue as the Buddha taught, is concerned. The reason given by the Buddha for not answering such questions is based purely on pragmatic reasons. He says: Why have I left that undeclared? Because it is unbeneficial, it does not belong to the fundamentals of the holy life, it does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna. That is why I have left that undeclared. (M I, 431) The conclusion of the discussion is clear: if there was not any practical difference for the existence of suffering owing to whether the metaphysical assertions were true and if they do not serve the purpose of release from samsara then there is no point in talking about them. Although pragmatists such as William James were not concerned with suffering in the Buddhist sense, they were concerned about science and one’s day-to-day life which he says is relevant in the context of the Māluṅkyaputta discussion: He says: If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle.” (1948, 142) He further says: You must bring out each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience. It appears less as a solution, then, than as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed. (145)

Pragmatism and Buddhism


This latter statement with its stress on experience and the need for change goes well with the Buddha’s emphasis on the human experience as the limit of knowledge and the need for change in one’s samsaric existence. The philosophers of religion are quite familiar with the defence of the existence of God by James on pragmatic grounds. James said that “if theological ideas prove to have a value for concrete life, they will be true…” (154) and supported the belief in God claiming to believe so would prove useful. As will be seen from the discussion below the Buddhist standpoint makes a clear distinction between truth and falsehood and for being useful or otherwise in a Buddhist moral sense. Buddhism would not accept the Jamesian equation ‘truth = usefulness,’ for there may well be useful things in an ordinary sense which are not true. There has been an academic discussion whether the Buddha held the pragmatic value as a criterion of truth. KN Jayatilleke, in discussing the Buddhist theories of truth, observes quite clear pragmatic tendencies in the teachings of the Buddha. Nevertheless, he does not think that the Buddha accepted a pragmatic value as a criterion of truth. Jayatilleke refers to the Buddha’s discussion with Prince Abhaya (Abhayarājakumara-sutta of Majjhima-nikāya, 58) where he draws a distinction amongst true, useful and pleasant or unpleasant statements; true; useless, pleasant or unpleasant statements; and false, useless and pleasant or unpleasant statements. Pointing to the category of the true, useless and pleasant or unpleasant statement, Jayatilleke says: This means that a statement could be useless without being false, thus showing that utility (attasaṃhitam) was not considered to be a definition or an infallible criterion of truth.” (1963, 358) Discussing the same discourse, David J. Kalupahana seems to draw a different conclusion: For the Buddha, language derives its ‘meaning’ (attha) when it is able to produce results (attha), and thus what is true (bhūta, taccha) is that which bears results (atthasaṃhita). The Buddha did not recognise anything that is false to be productive of results.” (1986, 19) It is true in the Discourse that the Buddha does not admit a category of false and useful, pleasant or unpleasant. Jayatilleke is not quite sure as to whether this is an omission. He surmises that this absence may be due to the “peculiarly Buddhist use of the term ‘useless’ (na atthasaṃhitam) (1963, 358). He suggests, rightly, I think, that the word ‘attha’ is used in this context not just in the sense of ‘what is advantageous’ but in the sense


Asanga Tilakaratne

of ‘what is morally good in the sense of being useful for the attainment of the goal of nirvana.’ It must be said, not only the term ‘attha’ is used in a typical Buddhist sense but also the term ‘anattha’ is used not in the sense of mere absence of attha (use-less or meaning-less as understood by Jayatilleke and Kalupahana), but to denote positively the presence of what is morally disadvantageous. Understood in this manner, it is obvious why false can never be ‘atthasaṃhita’ but always ‘anattha-saṃhita.’ It is not right, however, to interpret this as the Buddha not accepting a category that is both false and useful in a mundane pragmatic sense. There may or may not be useful but false situations, but the given context does not make clear whether the Buddha accepted such a category. It is, nevertheless, worth noting that the Mahayanists in developing the view of upāya-kauśalya do seem to have believed precisely in such a possibility! What may be concluded from the Buddha’s discussion with Prince Abhaya is that the Buddha accepted utility in a Buddhist religious sense, not as the exclusive, but as a very important, criterion of a statement worthy of utterance. Although all false statements are anattha-saṃhita, the vice versa is not necessarily true for there can be even true statements that are anattha-saṃhita. In sum, although Buddhism lays considerable stress on the pragmatic value of statements it does not make statements to be true on mere grounds of pragmatic considerations.

10. Mysticism in Buddhist Perspective*

Usually, mystical experiences are considered a form of religious experience. In particular, in the Judeo-Christian religion, mysticism is understood as a major form of experience associated with religion. In general, mysticism is understood and experienced as the source of that which is conceptually and rationally (ineffable). In the present discussion, I take these two characteristics as the key to understanding mysticism. In her writings on mysticism, Ninian Smart (1967, 420) quotes following definitions from WR Inge: “Mysticism is the immediate feeling of the unity of the self with God” (Otto Pfleiderer); “Mysticism is that attitude of mind in which all relations are swallowed up in the relation of the soul of God” (Edward Caird); ‘‘True mysticism is the consciousness that everything that we experience is an element and only an element, in fact, i. e. that in being what it is, it is symbolic of something else” (Richard Nettleship). Of these definitions, as Smart rightly observes, the first two are based clearly on theological implications which means that any Buddhist religious experience cannot be identified with them. The third, although without theological implications, still may not be accepted by a Buddhist for the ultimate Buddhist religious experience, and of any other stages prior to it, cannot be taken as ‘symbolic of something else.’ Despite an obvious lack of correspondence, it is still customary that discussions of mysticism have references to Buddhism, indicating that at least it contains a different kind of mysticism. I propose that this is not an accurate representation of Buddhism in general and the early form of Buddhism based on the Pali Canon in particular. * An initial version of this article was published in Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, Vol. VII: Fascicle 1. Colombo: Sri Lanka, 2003.


Asanga Tilakaratne

William James (2002, 295–96), one of the early writers to define mysticism, identifies four main characteristics in mystical experience. They are ineffability by which he means the possibility that the experience cannot be communicated to one who has not had a similar experience; a poetic quality that the experience is also a state of knowledge; transiency that the experience does not last long; and passivity that one is only a passive receiver of the experience. WT Stace (1961, 62-81, 85-123) classifies mysticism into two, namely, extroversive and introversive, by which he means a mystical experience of the unity of the diversity of Nature and the experience of being one with God or the transcendent, respectively. Subsequently, he suggests the following list of characteristics for an extroversive experience; the unifying vision, the apprehension of the One as being an inner subjectivity, feeling of blessedness, a feeling that what is apprehended is a holy paradoxical nature and an ineffability as alleged by mystics. The introversive experience, according to Stace, shares the last four characteristics with the former. The first three are the unitary consciousness (which is not very different from unifying vision given as the first character of the extrovert experience), being non-special and non-temporal and a sense of objectivity or reality. The extroversive mysticism is alternatively called nature mysticism for the reason that the experience is a result of an awareness of the multiplicity and variegatedness in Nature, which ultimately is believed to produce the unitary vision in which the recipient feels that he or she has become one with nature. The other type of experience is associated with religion. Clearly, Stace’s characterisation comes from analysing the theistic religious experience. In his effort to identify characteristics of mysticism common to all religions, Stace finds that the no-soul doctrine (anatta-vāda) in the Pali Canon is “inconsistent with the experience of non-Buddhist mystics” (1961, 124). He thinks, however, that this difficulty can be overcome by accepting the possibility, as suggested by a number of Western Buddhist Scholars, that the Buddha did not deny the Universal self although he rejected the individual self. The crux of his argument is that if the existence of a soul, in some form or another, can be accepted, the apparent difference of the nirvanic experience from that of a theistic tradition is only a matter of a different interpretation of the same (transcendental) experience. We do not plan to make a detailed study here of Stace’s position in this context. What does need to be said however is that his argument

Mysticism in Buddhist Perspective


for the inclusion of Buddhist religious experience in the total picture of universal mysticism is far from being satisfactory. The problem common to most of the writers of this genre is their inability to see that religious experience can be of a very different character from that which is represented by theistic religious traditions. What we intend to do in the present exposition, therefore, is not to show how Buddhism is a kind of mysticism but how it is not. Most of the writers who have discussed the Buddhist religious path and its attainments (jhānas, paths and fruits) first assume, without much questioning, that all religious experience is invariably mystical and subsequently (based on that unsubstantiated universal statement) proceed to characterise Buddhism in these terms. A closer look will prove that the Buddhist religious experience, either at its path or at its fruition, cannot be characterised as mystical. The Buddhist religious path is described, in well-known terms; methodical training, methodical action and methodical procedure (anupubba-sikkhā anupubba-kiriyā anupubba-paṭipadā: M I, 479). In compliance with this general characterisation, the path is described in the discourses as comprised of a threefold training, namely, morality, concentration and wisdom (sīla, samādhi and paññā). It is elaborated into various types of morality, gradually progressing stages of concentration and the acquisition of knowledge characterised usually by what is called tisso-vijjā, three kinds of knowledge, namely, knowledge of recollection of (one’s own) past existence, knowledge of the departure and appearance [of other beings] and the knowledge of the exhaustion of cankers. These stages of the path and their various steps have been enumerated meticulously and clearly and this clarity can be considered an outstanding feature in the early Buddhist expositions of the gradual path to nirvana. Nirvana is achieved by liberating (vimutti) one’s mind from influxes (āsava), bonds (bandhana) or shackles (saññojana), or purifying it (visuddhi) from defilements (kilesa) as two ways of describing the same procedure. The purificatory process and its culmination cannot take place without the knowledge and the full understanding by the person concerned. It is not something affected by any external agency. According to another statement, purity or impurity is up to oneself; no one can purify another (suddhī asuddhi paccattam –nāññamaññaṃ visodhaye: Dhp v. 165). When one’s mind is liberated, one has the distinct knowledge to that effect (vimuttasmim vimutan iti ñāṇam hoti: D I, 84). It should be clear that any kind of mysticism cannot be a characteristic of a procedure marked by this degree of clarity.


Asanga Tilakaratne

The states achieved by following the path have sometimes been understood as representing mystical states or forms of mystical experience. There are two groups of jhānas (absorptions) namely, fine material or rūpa and immaterial or arūpa, and each group has four progressive stages. The first group represents the four stages characterised by a gradually increasing aloofness from sensory experience. This is achieved by systematically withdrawing attention from the external world. The second group of jhānas are characterised by an even more advanced sense of aloofness coupled with the development of mental states, leading to the gradual thinning of any external sensations. The last of these four stages is called; nevasaññānāññāyatana or the state of neither perception nor non-perception, and as the name itself highlights, it is characterised by an almost total absence of perception and conception. These states are characterised by the gradual disappearance of sensory and psychological data. Hence, the consequent experience is described as being characterised by calmness serenity and mental quietude. There is nothing extraordinary or unexplainable and hence no mystical about this experience. The case of the ‘attainment of cessation’ or nirodhasamāpatti is interesting in this regard, for although it is usually mentioned as the head of the above-mentioned two groups of jhānas, it is significantly different from the others owing to its total absence of any experience. Whereas the last of the four immaterial jhānas are still with a shade or semblance of experience, the nirodhasamāpatti is totally devoid of any experience whatsoever. It is as if to make one ‘dead’ temporarily. There appears to be nothing remaining, mystical or otherwise, in this state of the ‘stopping of the machine.’ The ultimate goal of the Buddhist religious practice is ‘nirvana’ attained at a total purification of mind. In the early discourses, nirvana is often described in such experiential terms as the highest happiness (paramasukha), peace (santi), and cessation of suffering (dukkhanirodha) and extinction of thirst (taṇhakkhaya). The somewhat later Theravada tradition is fond of describing nirvana as a transcendental phenomenon (lokuttara dhamma). The concept of transcendence accepted by these Buddhists is essentially an ethical one, meaning thereby an experience characterised by purity and freedom that surpasses anything experienced by ordinary worldlings. A metaphysical concept of transcendence seems to imply a state of ineffability as in the case of the concept of God. In the Buddhist tradition, the alleged ineffability does not seem to have been an issue or a problem, as in the discourses we do not come across any

Mysticism in Buddhist Perspective


instances where nirvana has been called ineffable. Nor do we find any arahant, who having realised nirvana, complaining that his/her experience was to be so. The given definition for nirvana is that it is the extinction of lust, hatred and delusion (rāgakkhayo dosakkhayo mohakkhayo nibbānam: S IV, 251). Since the existence of an ordinary worldling is characterised by the dominance of these factors, nirvana is duly characterised as the cessation or the absence of them. The tradition does not ever understand this as some state existing independently to a particular (human) being who has realised it. Furthermore, even at the level of personal experience and knowledge, this has never been considered mystical in the Buddhist tradition. Although the general view regarding the matter is such as, the texts are not altogether absent from statements open to transcendental interpretation. In an often referred to statement in the Udāna (80), a state, not directly but obviously referring to nirvana, is described as not-born, not-become, not-made and not constructed (ajāta, abhūta, akata, asaṅkhata) and is contrasted with that what is born, become made and constructed (jāta, bhūta, kata, saṅkhata), the characteristics shared by everything that belongs to the worldly existence. The past participles used appear to describe a state that transcends the world and we should admit that a direct and literal reading of the text supports such an interpretation. According to some critics, the statement marks a stage in the evolution of Buddhist thought in which nirvana was increasingly seen as a metaphysical entity. According to some others, however, the statement can be interpreted differently. In their view, it simply describes nirvana as something that is qualitatively different from the worldly experience. If we accept the second way of reading, then it is clear there is no room to describe nirvana as something metaphysically transcendent, and hence as mystical. The identical question, however, has been discussed with reference to the person who has realised nirvana, namely, an arahant. In responding to Vacchagotta, who wanted to know what happens to the arahant after his passing away, the Buddha states that the question is not applicable to him as he can no longer be identified with one who is associated with the experience of the five aggregates. The Buddha further characterises the person in this state as deep, immeasurable and unfathomable like the great ocean (gambhīro appameyyo, duppariyogāḷho seyyathāpi mahasamuddo: M I, 487). This latter characterisation appears to put the nature of the arahant beyond human comprehension. There is a somewhat similar statement elsewhere; the person who has attained the end does not have


Asanga Tilakaratne

a measure; he does not have that by which one can speak of him. When all the phenomena are destroyed, all the ways of speech are destroyed too (Sn 207). Clearly, such statements as these indicate the possibility that an arahant passes after death (or while still living, depending on how one interprets it (atthaṃ+gata)) into a state that cannot be comprehended and hence cannot be described or conceptually understood. These statements nevertheless are open to various interpretations. The Buddha’s characterisation of the arahant as deep etc. to Vacchagotta could well be contextual, for the latter being an outsider to the Dhamma may have been deemed by the Buddha as incapable of seeing the true meaning of the religious naturalism life of an arahant. The Suttanipāta statement can simply be taken as indicating the nature of the arahant, which is diametrically opposed to that of the ordinary worldling. Some of these textual examples quoted towards the end of this discussion testify to the problems of interpretation. It is, nevertheless, true to say, in an overall manner that the early discourses in the Pali Canon do not support the characterisation of either the path or the ultimate goal as anything to do with mysticism. This does not necessarily mean that the later Buddhist schools did not develop trends closer to mysticism. Different branches of Mahayana, in particular, seem to have believed in states or kinds of realisation surpassing the limits of the conceptual domain. According to a story in the Zen tradition, the very inception of Zen took place when the Buddha held up a flower and smiled. It is said that only Mahākāśyapa Thera understood this and this is said to be the beginning of the tradition. This story is symbolic in the sense that it refers to a kind of non-verbal communication. The Zen method is characterised as a special tradition outside the scriptures, with no dependence upon words and letters. The use of koans, usually without any consistent meaning as themes for meditation is also understood as indicating towards the dawn of an experience that is beyond conceptualisation. The term anabhilāpya, that cannot be said or described, is seen in works such as the Laṅkāvatārasutra to indicate an ultimate reality as understood by the Mahayana tradition. It is not our intention in this essay to discuss in detail this aspect of the later schools of Buddhism. However, what can be said in brief is that mystical elements appear to have gradually crept into the Buddhist tradition, which seems to have begun originally as a form of religious naturalism.

11. An Introduction to Buddhist Logic*

The use of logical reasoning is a significant characteristic of the teaching of the Buddha. Apart from that, the development of systematic logic in India is much obliged to the Buddhist logicians. The contribution of Buddhist logic in shaping the nature of Indian logic, in general, has been widely acknowledged. Therefore, the present discussion endeavours to cover both the historical and the philosophical aspects of the subject. For that purpose, the discussion is organised under three main sub-topics: (i) history of Buddhist logic, (ii) logical reasoning in early discourses, and (iii) the systematic Buddhist logic.

History According to Satischandra Vidyabhusana (1909), mediaeval Indian logic is primarily derived from Buddhist and Jaina logic. The latter being a relatively minor aspect of the overall Indian logic. The middle period of Indian logic is basically Buddhist. Although it is true that systematic Buddhist logic occupies the middle period of Indian logic, the use of logical reasoning goes as far back as the original discourses of the Buddha. It seems that, by the time of the Buddha, logical reasoning had become an accepted mode of rational thinking. Literary evidence belonging to the early Buddhist tradition shows that not only logical reasoning was known and practised but also that people were mature enough even to subject it to criticism. This philosophical maturity as witnessed in the discourses of the Buddha did not come about abruptly. It is believed that the logical tradition of India started with the Nyāya-sūtra of Akṣapāda Gautama who, * An initial version of this article was published under the title ‘Logic’ in Encyclopaedia of Buddhism Vol. VI, Fascicle 3. Colombo: Sri Lanka, 2002.


Asanga Tilakaratne

according to Vidyabhusana, lived around the 6th century bce. This date is not quite certain. Nevertheless, it may well belong to an era several centuries prior to the Common Era. As in ancient Greece, in ancient India too, logical reasoning began with the institution of debate. The Bṛhadāraṇyaka-Upaniṣad records philosophical discussions that were held between Janaka, the philosopher king and Yājñavalkya, the great brahmanic thinker. What originally developed as an aspect of the sacrificial act, subsequently, it seems to have grown to become an institution of its own. In the Caraka-Saṃhitā, the great sage Caraka refers to two kinds of debate; namely, debate held among fellow scholars in a friendly atmosphere (sāndhaya sambhāṣā) and those held among disputants in a hostile manner (vigṛhya). Caraka further divides the latter into two kinds, namely, Jalpa where two parties try to establish their own theses by refuting that of the other, and vitaṇḍa where one tries only to refute the other but does not try to establish one’s own view. Caraka’s analysis seems to be based on the earlier division in the Nyāyasūtra according to which debate (kathā) is threefold, vāda or friendly debate, jalpa and vitaṇḍa, more or less, understood in the sense described by Caraka.1 Buddhist discourses testify to the fact that there was a philosophically mature society by this time. The discourses have references to many Śramaṇas and Brahmins who engaged in arguing with each other to establish that their’ own view alone was true and that of others’ were false, for they held mutually contradictory views (aññam’aññassa ujuvipaccanīka vādā: M I, 402). The Brahmajāla-sutta of the Dīgha-nikāya records 62 religious and philosophical views that Śramaṇas and Brahmins were clinging to. The holders of such views maintained that theirs’ alone were true and those belonging to others were false, and it is said that they did so on the ground of logic (takkañca diṭṭhīsu pakappayitvā, saccaṃ musāti dvayadhammamāhu: Sn 173). On the role of debates in the development of logical reasoning in India, AK Warder says, “In India the main stimulus to the development of logic came from the practice of debating, great public debates in which rival philosophical schools engaged in argument under the chairmanship of an umpire and sought to uphold their doctrines and refute their opponents” (2004, 395). In the well-known in the Kālāma-sutta that the Buddha admonishes the Kālāmas to not to accept any assertion on the grounds of takka (logic) (mā takkahetu) or naya (method) (ma nayahetu). We will discuss the precise meaning of these terms later. What is significant to note in 1  Cf. Matilal (1985, 1–22) for a comprehensive discussion of debate in the Nyāya tradition

An Introduction to Buddhist Logic


the present context is the critical attitude that the Buddha held toward logical reasoning. In a well-known remark on the nature of his teaching, the Buddha says that it is ‘not grasped by logic’ (atakkāvacara). In the Majjhima-nikāya, the Caṅkī-sutta, the Buddha classifies takka as a means of knowledge, which is not acceptable. The reason given is that an assertion may be well argued but false or poorly argued but true. This shows that the distinction of the validity and the soundness of an argument were well observed by the early Buddhist tradition. The use of the much-discussed four-cornered negation (catuskoṭi) is a prominent characteristic in the discourses. The early discourses refer to it as (in) these four positions’ (imesu catusu ṭhānesu, S IV, 380). The term catuskoṭi occurs in the Buddhist Sanskrit literature. It is believed that the scheme was originally used by certain Śramaṇa groups, particularly the sceptical tradition of Sañjaya, and was subsequently borrowed by the Buddhists. However, the early Buddhist discourses use catuskoṭi widely. This, again, shows an advanced stage in logical reasoning. Nagarjuna who is believed to have lived in the 2nd century ce used this mode of predication. His use of the scheme in the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā mainly shows the inapplicability of assertions of any form that the system has come to be known as ‘negative dialectics.’ There are two works in Pali literature that could belong to a period earlier than Nagarjuna. The Kathāvatthuppakaraṇa, one of the seven Abhidhamma treatises of the Theravada tradition is believed to have been compiled during the time of Emperor Asoka. The authorship is attributed to the great elder called Moggaliputta Tissa. The purpose has been to establish the Theravada view in contrast to the views held by other Buddhist sects. The style of the composition is dialogical, and the language used is the technical language employed in debates. Such terms occur quite frequently. The other work is Milindapañha (or the Nāgasena Bhikṣu Sutra in the Chinese tradition) which is written in the form of a dialogue between a Greek king called Milinda (Menandros who is believed to have reigned from 155-130 ce.) and the Buddhist monk called Nāgasena. It is believed that the book belongs to the early 1st century and there are several versions belonging to the Theravada, Sarvāstivāda and other traditions. What is significant is that the book represents a very advanced stage of the art of debate. The following conversation that occurs at the very beginning of the discussion proves this point:


Asanga Tilakaratne

(King Milinda said), Revered Nāgasena, will you converse with me? I will converse if you, sire, will converse in the speech of the learned, but if you converse in the speech of kings I will not converse. How, revered Nāgasena, do the learned converse? When the learned are conversing, sire, there is a turning over and an unravelling of the subject; then there is a refutation and an acknowledgement of a mistake; distinctions and contra-distinctions are drawn; yet, thereby, they are not angered. It is thus, sire, that the learned converse. And how, revered sire, do kings converse? When kings are conversing, sire, they approve of some matter and order punishment for anyone who disagrees with that matter, saying, “Inflict a punishment on him.” It is thus, sire, that kings converse. (Mendis 1993, 32) It is widely accepted that systematic Buddhist logic started with Dignāga. However, the beginning of the writing of manuals for logical reasoning focussing particularly on the art of debate has a far longer history. For instance, Tucci (1981) includes four works as representing logical treatises prior to Dignāga: (I) Tarkasāstra, a mere fragment containing a preliminary chapter on the wrong discussion and two other sections on the jātis and on the nigrahastāna: ix. Authorship is uncertain; (2) Upāyahṛdaya, a treatise written to support the teachings of the early schools, with uncertain authorship; Warder thinks that the book could belong to Bahuśrutīyas (2004, 395 n.1) (3) Vigrahavyavartanī by Nagarjuna. The book is basically a response by Nagarjuna to his opponents, and according to Tucci, contains refutation of the theory of Pramāṇa and the first of its kind that has come down to us and which is strictly related to Nyāya Sūtra: xiii). (4) Śatasāstra, the sutra portion has been written by Āryadeva, the pupil of Nagarjuna and the commentary is attributed to Vasubandhu. According to Tucci, it is a polemical work, ‘the scope of which is to establish the exact doctrine of the śūnya after refuting other views’ (xiv). The following account of Upāyahṛdaya by Warder reveals the sophisticated character of the philosophical discussion represented by these works: This work first offers a Justification of debate as a procedure necessary to protect truth (against an opponent who suggests

An Introduction to Buddhist Logic


that it promotes anger and other harmful principles). It then sets out the eight main topics of debate. The first of these is the ‘examples’ or sense data, the data of experience, appealed to by debaters in constructing their arguments. Such an example must be something that is accepted by everyone. More importantly, is the seventh topic, ‘illusory middle term’ i.e., fallacies, which include begging the question, equivocation, contradicting experience, undistributed middle term, etc. This method of argument or demonstration that is followed (and which was more or less standard at this time for all schools of philosophy in India) is one of five steps, as follows: 1. (To prove) S is P

- ‘statement’

2. (We assign the middle term) M

- ‘middle term’

3. (All) M is P as (for example) M1

- ‘example’

4. (Now) S also is M

- ‘application’

5. Therefore it is P (Q. E. D)

- ‘conclusion’

If, of course, the opponent can adduce a counter-example, say M2, which is not P (from experience), then the argument is overthrown, and the statement is not established. (2004, 395) Dignāga, the first systematic Buddhist logician, is believed to have lived around 400 ce. He was the pupil of Vasubandhu. The dating of Dignāga has been vexed with difficulties. It has been particularly so due to the uncertainty of dating his teacher Vasubandhu. For a long time, modern Buddhist scholars have been suspicious of the belief that Vasubandhu was an idealist. However, today almost all Buddhist scholars accept that there was more than one Vasubandhu. The Yogācāra Vasubandhu who was the brother of Asaṅga is believed to have lived in the 4th century ce. Vasubandhu who was the teacher of Dignāga is believed to have lived in the 5th century ce. and his pupil Dignāga too is included between the 5th and the 6th centuries. The traditional belief that Vasubandhu and Dignāga were idealists has been rejected and scholars today think that both, who wrote on epistemology and logic, were Sautrāntikas.2 Vasubandhu has written a critique of Vaibhāṣika in the form of a commentary on the Abhidharmakośa. Dignāga has written a commentary on the Bhāśya of Vasubandhu reaffirming the Sautrāntika position of the former. Amongst the works attributed to Vasubandhu is Vāda2  (Warder 2004, 425 ff.) for a detailed discussion on the matter.


Asanga Tilakaratne

vidhāna, apparently a book on the art of debate. Dignāga seems to have written a commentary on this book but both appear to have been lost according to Warder (2004, 426). It is believed that Dignāga developed a theory in a systematic manner on the logical and debate-related doctrines articulated by his teacher and produced a fully-fledged epistemology. Dignāga has been described as ‘the father of mediaeval logic’ by Satischandra Vidyabhusana. Accordingly, a large number of books have been attributed to Dignāga. In addition to the Pramāṇa-samuccaya, which is the greatest work of Dignāga and unanimously accepted to have been authored by him, Vidyabhusana attributes several other logical works as his, namely, Nyāya-praveśa, Hetucakradamaru, Pramāṇasamuccaya-vṛtti and Pramāṇasamuccaya-pravesa. According to Warder: At least fourteen philosophical works are believed to have been written by Dignāga, besides which he seems to be the author of some hymns in praise of the Buddha and of a commentary on some hymns by a fellow student. It is remarkable that not one of these works seems now to be available in the original Sanskrit, so thorough were the Turks in their holocaust of Indian libraries. Six of the philosophical works are available in Tibetan translations, one of these in Chinese also, and three further philosophical works in Chinese translations. Fortunately, about thirty later Buddhist works on Dignāga’s doctrines are extant in Sanskrit (mostly preserved in Tibet), which include numerous quotations from Dignāga’s works. About forty-five more such works are preserved in Tibetan translations, showing the sustained study of epistemological problems in the Buddhist schools over a period of seven or eight centuries in India, before the great Buddhist universities there were destroyed under the Turkish terror. (2004, 428) Of these works, Hetucakradamaru (Nyāyapraveśa or) Nyāyamukha and Pramāṇasamuccaya are Dignāga’s main philosophical contributions. Hetucakradamaru (Drum of the wheel of the middle terms) is work on logical proof dealing with the validity and invalidity of the middle term in a syllogism. Nyāyamukha (Introduction to Logic) is work on proof and refutation. Of Pramāṇasamuccaya, it is reported that there are two Tibetan translations, and several scholars (M Hattori, H Kitagawa and HN Randle) have collected fragments from various works that quote from Dignāga and have reconstructed his philosophy. According to Vidyabhusana, the book has six chapters: (1) Perception (2) Inference

An Introduction to Buddhist Logic


for one’s own sake (3) Inference for the sake of others (4) Three characteristics of the middle term (5) Rejection of credible word or verbal testimony and (6) Parts of a syllogism. As suggested by the names of the chapters themselves, in this final grand work more emphasis has been given to epistemological issues. If Dignāga is considered the initiator of Buddhist logic, then Dharmakīrti is the one who brought it to culmination. It is believed that he lived in the seventh century ce. According to Warder, he ‘took up the doctrine of Dignāga and in effect completely reworked it, though his main work is presented in the modest guise of a kind of commentary on, or rather a supplement on, the Pramāṇasamuccaya. His object was to meet all the criticisms and difficulties that had arisen in the field since Dignāga’s pioneering work. He was so successful that his seven treatises, regarded as a kind of ‘canon,’ were afterwards taken as the basis for the study of the theory of knowledge by most Buddhist logicians, and Dignāga was comparatively neglected. Certainly, he is one of the world’s greatest philosophers in his own right (2004, 448). Dharmakīrti’s main work, Pramāṇavārttika has four chapters: (1) inference for one’s own sake (2) means of knowledge (3) Perception and (4) inference for the sake of other. This does not exactly follow the chapter arrangement of Dignāga. In addition to this main work, Dharmakīrti had written six other works. They are (1) Pramāṇa-viniścaya, an abridgement of the first work. (2) Nyāya-bindu, a further abridgment of the same work, (3) Hetubindu, a short classification of logical reasoning, (4) Sambandhaparīkṣā, an examination of the problem of relations, (5) Codanā-prakaraṇa, (or Vādanyāya) a treatise on debate, and (6) Santānantara-siddhi, a treatise of the reality of other minds. It is believed that the main work Pramāṇavārttika is the body of the doctrine of epistemology and the other six are the six feet. As in the case of seven prakaraṇas of the Abhidharma, it is believed that the new study, with its seven works, was thought to become the canon of the new piṭaka. According to Stcherbatsky evidently, Dharmakīrti thought that the study of logic and epistemology would replace the ancient philosophy of early Buddhism’ (1993, I:37). Ever since Dharmakīrti, it is true to say that the entire study of Buddhist logic has been focused on his works, particularly on his main work Pramāṇavārttika. Dharmakīrti himself wrote a commentary solely on the first chapter of his book. The task of writing a commentary on the remaining three chapters was assigned by him to his pupil Devendrabuddhi. The Tibetan tradition holds that only the third attempt by Devendrabuddhi received the reluctant approval of the teacher.


Asanga Tilakaratne

According to Stcherbatsky, three schools of interpretation on Dharmakīrti has developed. The philological school of interpretation owes its origins to Devendrabuddhi who was more concerned about knowing the exact meaning of what had been said in the Pramāṇavārttika. His pupil Sākyabuddhi and Prabhābuddhi are included in this school. The origin of another school which is described as the Cashmere school (according to the place where it flourished) or the philosophic school (according to the character of its interpretation) is attributed to Dharmottara, who is highly regarded by the Tibetan tradition and was a kind of a commentator, with a very high capacity, whom Dharmakīrti would have wished to have as a student. He did not comment on Pramāṇavārttika itself, but he did write commentaries on Pramāṇa-viniścaya and Nyāyabindu, which are summaries of the former. The third school, which was founded by Prajñākara Gupta, had as its main aim the revealing of the total religious significance of Dharmakīrti’s logical and epistemological endeavours. This school seems to receive inspiration from the Mahayana tradition, and it is an example of how Dharmakīrti’s newly articulated knowledge was assimilated into the wider Buddhist tradition. The interpretative tradition that developed around this school is so vast that, according to Stcherbatsky, three sub-schools were developed around it. The Buddhist logical studies in India continued until the 12th century. By this time, Buddhism in India was on the decline and during the next two centuries, it disappeared altogether. However, the tradition started flourishing in Tibet, its new found home. Once Tibet developed as the centre of Buddhism, logic and epistemology became a very important branch of its monastic life. According to Stcherbatsky, “the chief works of Dignāga, the great commentary on Pramāṇaasamuccaya by Jinendrabuddhi, the seven treatises of Dharmakīrti, all the seven great commentaries on Pramāṇavārttika (namely, Devendrabuddhi’s commentary, Śākyabuddhi’s commentary, the Tibetan commentary by Rgyal-tshah, Prajñākara Gupta’s commentary and three sub-commentaries on him by Ravigupta, Jina and Yamari) the works of Dharmottara and many other Buddhist logicians, all this literature has been preserved in trustworthy Tibetan translations” (1993, I:55). Stcherbatsky states that there are two stages in the logical studies in Tibet, the old phase of logical studies beginning in the 12th century (the last independent Tibetan author of logic being Chaba-Chökyi-senge (1109- 1169) and ending with Rendapa-Zhonnu-lodoi (1349-1412) the teacher of Tsongkhapa (1357- 1419), from whom the modern phase

An Introduction to Buddhist Logic


begins. In the second phase, in addition to the systematic works on logic, every chief monastery developed its own manuals of logic for use by its students. The tradition of studying logic as an essential aspect in monastic life continues to date, according to Stcherbatsky. Buddhist logical studies in ancient China and Japan do not seem to be as extensive as those in Tibet. According to Stcherbatsky, Buddhist logic works were introduced to China at two occasions: once in the 5th century by Paramārtha (真諦) who translated three works by Vasubandhu, namely, Ju-shih-lun (=tarka-śāstra), Fan-chih-lun (=paripṛcchā-śāstra?) and To-fu-lun (=nigraha-sthāna-śāstra). However, this phase of introduction did not have much effect. The second time was by the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (玄奘) in the 7th century. He brought Nyāyamukha of Dignāga and Nyāyapraveśa of Saṅkara-swamin, and his pupils wrote commentaries on them. One of the pupils of Xuanzang, Kuījī (窥基) wrote six volumes of commentary on Saṅkara-swamin’s Nyāyapraveśa and this work, which is the standard logical text in China, is known as the ‘Great Commentary’ (因明入正理論疏). Pramāṇasamuccaya, the fundamental work of Dignāga, as well as the seven treatises of Dharmakīrti and the enormous literature of commentaries with their division in schools and sub-schools is quite unknown in China and Japan”, says Stcherbatsky (1993, I:54). Logical studies arrived in Japan in the 7th century. Japanese monk called Dohshoh studied Buddhist logic under Xuanzang and established a school of logicians called South Hall on return to his country. Subsequently, in the 8th century, a monk called Gemboh took the Great Commentary and other logical works from China and established another school of logical studies, which came to be known as the North Hall. From Tucci’s work, referenced to earlier, we know that some pre-Dignāga works of logic were translated into Chinese prior to the introduction of formal logical works. It appears that in the early periods, logical studies were not a very attractive branch of study in these two countries which otherwise had very high Buddhist academic activity. Modern studies in Buddhist logic owes its origins to a few pioneering scholars who braved through the mass of almost unintelligible and untranslated original Tibetan, Chinese and Sanskrit materials and started reconstructing the lost tradition. Satischanda Vidyabhusana, who went to Tibet and researched Buddhist literature including that of the Buddhist logical studies, is a pioneer in this field. His History of the Mediaeval School of Indian Logic was first published in 1909 by the University


Asanga Tilakaratne

of Calcutta and contains a wealth of information, although later scholars have revised much. Rahula Sankrtyayana is another Indian Buddhist scholar who made several trips to Tibet at the turn of the century and brought many manuscripts to India and began editing and publishing them. His publications of Dharmakīrti’s works have been commented on by JW de Jong (1976, 73). One of the early European scholars who contributed to the field is Louise de La Vallée Poussin (1869-1938) who edited the Tibetan text of the Nyāyabindu together with Vinītadeva’s commentary (Bibliotheca lndica. Calcutta. 1907-13). Theodore Stcherbatsky published a Russian translation of Dharmakīrti’s Nyayabindu and in 1909 he published a study of Buddhist logic in Russian. It is an enlarged version of this that appeared in English in two volumes as Buddhist Logic in 1930-32. Giuseppe Tucci’s Pre-Diṅnāga Buddhist Texts on Logic from Chinese Sources was published in 1929. Fragments from Diṅnāga (Royal Asiatic Society, London. 1926) by HN Randle is an effort to collect and interpret the fragments from Dignāga’s Pramāṇasamuccaya which Vidyabhusana had attempted earlier. More recently, E Frauwallner and Hattori Masaki have attempted to reconstruct Dignāga’s epistemology and logic.3 Still, there remains a large number of ancient books on logic available in Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan languages to be edited, translated and interpreted. It is an area where a considerable amount of research is being done and needs still to be done. An important aspect of Logic in Buddhism, which has attracted the attention of scholars, is the so-called tetra-lemma or the four-cornered logic. According to Jayatilleke, St Schayer examined it early in the century.4 Richard H Robinson (Philosophy East and West (PEW), January 1957 and Early Madhyamaka in India and China. Delhi. 1967), KN Jayatilleke (Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge and PEW 1967), BK Matilal (Logical and Ethical Issues of Indian Religious Beliefs. Calcutta. 1982 and other works) and more recently RD Gunaratne (The Logical Form of Catuṣkoṭi: A New Solution in PEW 1980) are some noteworthy scholars who have endeavoured to understand the meaning of the four-cornered proposition system available mainly in early Buddhism and Madhyamaka.

Use of logical reasoning in the discourses At the beginning of this discussion, we noticed that society in India in which Buddhism arose was one with high philosophical maturity. 3  See (Jong 1976, 73) for bibliographical details. 4  See (Jayatilleke 1963, 350) for bibliographical details.

An Introduction to Buddhist Logic


Inter-religious debates, where philosophical and logical reasoning was the norm, were quite a common occurrence during this period. Early discourses of the Pali Canon bear evidence to this. The nature of the Buddha’s participation in these events must be understood carefully. On one hand, we have clear evidence in the discourses to show that the Buddha did not wish to take part in debates where participants were simply trying to win over others. On the other hand, there are many instances where the Buddha clearly has to prove his point. The examples for the first situation will be such discourses in the Suttanipāta as Duṭṭthaṭṭhaka, Pasūra, Cūlaviyūha and Mahāviyūha. The central message in these discourses is that debates arise due to dogmatism in views and therefore one must give up such tenacious grasp on views, which result in unfriendly debates. The sage (muni) has been described as one who does not enter any controversy that has arisen (vadañca jātaṃ muni no upeti: Sn 153). The proper attitude has been summarised in the following admonition: These disputes arise among recluses and, because of them, there is elation and depression. Seeing this, avoid disputation. There is no value in it other than the praise won thereby” (161). This disapproval of debate where logical reasoning was used in all kinds of manner does not necessarily prove that the Buddha did not like logical reasoning. However, there is a clear statement made by the Buddha denying that he is one of the traditionalists (anussāvika) who base their religious knowledge on the three Vedas or one of the reasoners (takkī) or metaphysicians (vīmaṃsī). The Buddha identifies himself with those who profess the basis of religion after finding a final and ultimate insight in this life by gaining a higher knowledge personally (sayaṃ abhiññā sacchikatvā). According to this admission, the teaching of the Buddha is neither one received through the tradition nor one based on mere logical reasoning. It is significant to note that none of the basic teachings of the Buddha, the four noble truths, the three signata etc., which include his insight into human existence, is found through logical reasoning or metaphysical speculation. Why logical reasoning was not recognised as a means of gaining religious knowledge has been explained in the Sandaka-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya. According to this discourse, takka or logical reasoning does not necessarily guarantee the truth, for it is possible that one’s view is well reasoned or ill-reasoned and true or false (M I, 520). According to this characterisation, the following four situations can be obtained: (I) well-reasoned truth, (2) well-reasoned falsehood, (3) ill-reasoned truth and (4) ill-reasoned falsehood. As the procedure is liable to error the Buddha has not taken logical reasoning as a reliable source


Asanga Tilakaratne

for religious knowledge. We may connect the well-known epithet atakkāvacara to this context. In the Ariyapariyesana-sutta (of the Majjhima-nikāya), the Buddha has described his teaching (dhamma) as something ‘outside the scope of pure reason.’ According to the commentary, ‘dhamma’ in this context refers to the four truths, which are outside the scope of pure reason for they cannot be grasped and penetrated by logical reasoning but only grasped through knowledge (atakkāvacaroti takkena avacaritabbo ogahitabbo na hoti ñāṇeneva avacaritabbo: MA I, 174). What this means is that the realisation of the vision of the four noble truths is something that requires more than mere logical reasoning. By ñāṇa, the commentator must be referring to the ‘insight knowledge’ (vipassanāñāṇa) through which the actual realisation of truth occurs. This rejection of logical reasoning as a reliable source for the ultimate religious knowledge does not mean that the Buddha or early Buddhist tradition has completely rejected it. The message of the Sandaka-sutta is that it could be either true or false. As far as it leads to correct conclusions, the Buddha does not seem to have rejected logical reasoning. A suggestive example occurs in the Saṃyutta-nikāya where the comments on Ananda5: ‘Ananda, it is very good; you have reached as far as you can reach by logical reasoning (S I, 56).’ The context of the statement is that a divine being comes to the Buddha and declares a statement. Judging by the content of the statement, Ananda concludes that it must be Anāthapiṇḍika, the foremost lay supporter of the Buddha, who was born as a divine being after his death. As far as Ananda was concerned, his conclusion was based on the evidence that he already had. This procedure is referred to as takka or logical reasoning, and it has been clearly accepted as a means with limited validity. In this connection, it is important to note that the Buddha did not shun discussions with people who came to argue with him on matters of religious importance. In these discussions, it is generally true to say that, the Buddha was more concerned about establishing his own view than disproving those views of others. However, when it was necessary to show the futility or the meaninglessness of others’ views the Buddha was not hesitant to do so. A good example occurs in the Buddha’s discussion with Upāli, a lay supporter of Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta (=Jaina Mahāvīra) (M I, 371-387). During the discussion, Upāli announces that in Jaina’s view, a physical act is weightier than mental or verbal acts. The Buddha 5  sādhu sādhu Ananda, yāvatakaṃ kho Ananda takkāya pattabbaṃ anupattaṃ tvayā.

An Introduction to Buddhist Logic


asks a few simple questions from Upāli and in answering; he contradicts himself and commits to the position that mental acts are weightier. Now, the Buddha says: what you said later does not connect with what you said earlier and vice versa (na kho te sandhīyati purimena vā pacchimaṃ, pacchimena vā purimaṃ). The demonstration of this self-contradictory situation is taken as conclusively defeating the opponent’s argument. In the Buddha’s discussion with Ambaṭṭha (D I, 87-110) also there is a similar occasion where Ambaṭṭha is warned against trying to escape from the logical consequences of his position by the following words: Ambaṭṭha, I have a fundamental question for you, which you will not like to answer. If you don’t answer, or evade the issue, if you keep silent or go away, your head will split into seven pieces’ (Walshe 1987, 115).6 KN Jayatilleke (1963) has noticed that almost all the arguments used in the discourses against the bearers of different views are of the form of modus tollens, which is to demonstrate that the opponent’s view results in a proposition which is obviously false. In the Cūladukkhakkhandha-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya (I, 91-95), the Buddha demonstrates to Niganṭhas that if their practice of undergoing suffering in order to destroy the past karmas is meaningful, then those who have entered religious life under Jaina must be those who were born as human beings due to their own bad past karmas.7 The implication is that since not all those who enter religious life in Jainism can be of that character, the practice must be misguided. Amongst the examples discussed by Jayatilleke, one from the Therīgāthā (which also occurs in the Digha-nikāya) is clearer: If water-baptism can free one of evil karma (p) then the fishes, tortoises, frogs etc., straight to heaven will go (q) (Thīg 146). Since q is obviously false, p is false, too. The Buddhist discourses refer to instances of two-pronged questions (ubhatokoṭikaṃ pañhaṃ) put forth to the Buddha. One such instance occurs in the Abhayarājakumara-sutta (M I, 92-6). Abhayarāja’s question is as follows: Would the Tathāgata make statements that are displeasing and unpleasant to others (= p)? If yes, then how is he different from the ordinary individual who makes similar statements (= q)? The situation under discussion seems to involve both logical and extra-logical matters. The Buddha’s statement to the effect that Devadat6  ayaṃ kho pana te, ambaṭṭha, sahadhammiko pañho āgacchati, akāmā byākātabbo. Sace tvaṃ na byākarissasi, aññena vā aññaṃ paṭicarissasi, tuṇhī vā bhavissasi, pakkamissasi vā ettheva te sattadhā muddhā phalissati (D I, 94). 7  Evaṃ sante, āvuso nigaṇṭhā, ye loke luddā lohitapāṇino kurūrakammantā manussesu paccājātā te nigaṇṭhesu pabbajantī’ti (M I, 93).


Asanga Tilakaratne

ta was bound to be born in a woeful state is public knowledge. The Buddha cannot deny it without being a liar. Logically if the antecedent [The Tathāgata makes unpleasant statements.] and the consequent [The Tathāgata is similar to an ordinary person] is accepted there is a perfectly valid modus ponens argument here. The only way to disprove this particular argument is to challenge the consequent or the implication (that p implies q) which the Buddha does. In other words, although the argument presented was logically valid, since its consequent is questionable the argument as a whole is not sound. The Buddha shows that, when it comes to evaluation of a statement, there are more crucial factors than being pleasant or unpleasant: one does not become an ordinary worldling simply by making an unpleasant statement provided that it is true, timely and done with good intention. If the Tathāgata would not make statements which are displeasing and unpleasant to others (= r), then why has he made the pronouncement about Devadatta that he is doomed to hell (= s)? Here, it is clear that the intention of the questioner is to commit the Buddha either to q (that he is not different from an ordinary person) or to r (which is equal to accepting that he is a liar). The Buddha escapes from this dilemma by admitting to p (that he uses unpleasant words) in a qualified sense. The example is illuminating not only for the awareness of the logical rule that it betrays but also for the Buddha’s refusal to yield to the rigidity of linguistic concepts and the rules of logic themselves. The above example shows that the early Buddhist tradition did not take logical rules based on strict true-false dichotomy as inviolable and sacrosanct. Nevertheless, rational thinking, which is characterised by a clear demonstration of advantages and disadvantages in any given situation, has always been upheld. In the Apaṇṇaka-sutta (M I, 400-413), the Buddha compares the advantages and the disadvantages of accepting and rejecting survival of life and moral responsibility and demonstrates that it is always more advantageous to accept these two views rather than rejecting them. This argument has been addressed to a group of open-minded people who did not wish to believe in things beyond their immediate perception. The entire argument rests on the assumption that any rational person will be likely to maximise one’s opportunities for happiness. The instances of the use of logical reasoning in the Abhidhamma seem to be more technical than those from the discourses. According to some interpreters, the Kathāvatthu, one of the treatises belonging to the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, contains even more advanced forms of logical

An Introduction to Buddhist Logic


reasoning. The entire book has been presented as a dialogue between the Theravadin and those who held views different from him, namely, those who belonged to Buddhist sects other than Theravada. The language used here contains certain technical terms that were used in professional debates where logical reasoning was employed. For instance, refutation (niggaha), rejoinder (paṭikamma) are two such terms which occur frequently. More importantly, scholars like KN Jayatilleke have shown that if the statements in the Kathāvatthu are interpreted as dealing with propositions and not with terms, then the author of the book shows that he knew the two theorems of propositional calculus namely, the rule of implication (p → q ≡ ~(p ∙ ~q) and contraposition (p → q ≡ ~q → ~p) (Jayatilleke 1963, 415). More recent scholars like Kalupahana have argued that this way of interpretation is wrong and have suggested that the relevant statements are to be understood as efforts to clarify the relationship between the two key concepts sacchikaṭṭha and paramattha (truth and reality) (1992, 135). Apart from the logical reasoning of this nature, early Buddhist literature is quite outstanding in its exercises in conceptual clarification and analysis. Conceptual analysis is a very significant aspect of the teaching of the Buddha. Jayatilleke thinks that the Buddha himself claimed to be an analyst and not one who makes categorical statements (1963, 278). However, as Y Karunadasa has pointed out, in his analysis, Jayatilleke has not noticed a very important limiting term ettha that means ‘here’ or ‘in this context.’ Thus, the statement has to be understood not as the Buddha identifying himself with one who makes analytical statements exclusively but one who makes both kinds of statements depending upon the situation. In the same discussion, the Buddha admits that he has made both categorical and non-categorical statements. Thus, although it is true that the Buddha did not identify himself to be an exclusive analyst, analysis, clarification and classification of concepts have been key characteristics in the discourses of the Buddha. One can find plenty of examples for this in discourse like the Saccavibhaṅga-sutta where all the key concepts related to the four noble truths have been analysed and explained, connected with conceptual clarification with the use of definitions, which is a very important characteristic in early Buddhist literature. The Buddhist mode of definition does not follow the brahmanic method of defining concepts or things according to genus and species, for such a definition would go against the idea of non-substantiality, which is a fundamental teaching in Buddhism. In the early discourses,


Asanga Tilakaratne

we find definitions made by way of a basic characteristic (lakkhaṇa) of what is defined. It is in the later commentarial literature, that we find a fully worked out theory of definition with four aspects: lakkhaṇa (characteristic), rasa (function), paccupaṭṭhāna (antecedent condition) and padaṭṭhana (resultant condition). In the early discourses, we find definitions that are not obviously etymological or historical. For instance, in the Dhammapada, the three concepts, brāhmaṇa, samaṇa and pabbajita have been defined in the following manner: ‘Because he has discarded evil, he is called a brahmaṇa; because he lives in peace he is called a samaṇa; because he gives up the impurities, he is called a pabbajita –recluse.8 These are obviously not historical or etymological definitions. The reason behind doing so has to be understood as not necessarily resulting from ‘the absence of a clear conception of definition’ as Jayatilleke has suggested (1963, 297), but as a way of fulfilling a religious requirement. In the case of the Buddha, he had to use the already available language to express his radical religious views. In this endeavour, he had to re-define these terms underscoring the new meanings attributed to them. One way the Buddha challenged the existing social, religious and philosophical systems was to question the meanings, which were held in high esteem, believed to be unchanging and attributed to key concepts. The above example amply demonstrates this. This shows that in the early Buddhist discourses, defining terms was not a precise grammatical function but a religious requirement. In a system that has anattavāda (non-substantialism) at its heart, there cannot be one rigid way of defining. The Buddha’s attitude to language has been aptly summarised in the following statement9: ‘These are general agreements, general ways of speech, general uses and general conventions which the Tathāgata would use without clinging’ (D I, 202). In this very statement, several terms (samaññā, niruttiyo, paññattiyo and voharā) have been used to refer to language, and a closer look would show that they are not strictly synonymous, nor are they different from one another; a collection of overlapping terms conveying their meaning while retaining the complexity of experience. This characteristic can be seen regularly in the early discourses. Abhidhamma Piṭaka is a good example of conceptual analysis and classification. In this regard, the work to be studied is the Yamaka, one 8  Bāhitapāpo ti brāhmaṇo, samacariyā samaṇoti vuccati; Pabbājayam attano malaṃ, tasmā pabbajito ti vuccati (Dhp v. 109). 9  Itimā kho Citta, lokasamaññā lokaniruttiyo lokavohārā lokapaññattiyo, yāhi tathāgato voharati aparāmasan ti.

An Introduction to Buddhist Logic


of the pakaraṇa (treatises) belonging to the Abhidhamma Piṭaka. The entire Yamaka is constituted by pairs of statements which are meant “to convey to the reader the exact logical boundaries of important concepts in the light of their actual technical usage” (Jayatilleke 1963, 309). For example, the following analysis is intended to clarify the boundaries of the two concepts, rūpa (form) and rūpakkhandha (aggregate of the form): Question:

Rūpaṃ rūpakkhandhoti? (ls rūpa rūpakkhandhdha?)


Piyarūpaṃ sātarūpaṃ rūpaṃ, na rūpakkhandho; rūpakkhandho rū1pañc’eva rūpakkhandho ca: (What is piyarūpa (attractive) and sātarūpa (pleasant) is rūpa but not rūpakkhandha; rūtpakkhandha is rūpa and is also rūpakkhandha).


Na rūpakkhandho na rūpan ti? (What is not rūpakkhandha is also not rūpa?)


Āmantā: Piyarūpaṃ sātarūpaṃ na rūpakkhandho, rūpam. Rūpañca rūpakkhandhañca ṭhapetvā avasesā na c’eva rūpaṃ na ca rūpakkhandho (Piyarūpa and sātarūpa are not rūpakkhandha, but rūpa. Apart from rūpa and rūpakkhandha, the rest are neither rūpa nor rūpakkhandha).10

In this manner, all the key concepts in the Dhamma have been analysed in relation to other related concepts. The exercise attests to the existence of a very advanced sense of precision and the limits of the concepts amongst early Buddhists. In discussing the early Buddhist application of logical reasoning, one cannot ignore the four-fold predication, which later came to be known as catuskoṭi or the four-cornered predication or negation in the later Buddhist tradition. Before we hear more about the systematic development of the brahmanic logic, we come across many Śramaṇa traditions that adopted systems other than the bivalent propositional system. In Buddhist literature, for example, Sañjaya Bellaṭṭhiputta, the sceptic philosopher among the famous six contemporaries of the Buddha has been attributed with a five-fold system of negation: evam’pi me no = I do not say so; tathā’pi me no = I do not say thus, anñathā’pi me no = I do not say otherwise; notipi me no = I do not say ‘no’; and no noti’pi me no = I do not say not ‘no.’ Jayatilleke has shown that this fivefold negation can be interpreted as negating the four positions adopted 10  See Karunadasa (1967, 4–5) for a penetrative discussion.


Asanga Tilakaratne

in the catuskoṭi, namely is, is not, both is and is not and neither is and nor is not (p, ~p, (p ∙ ~p), ~(p ∙ ~p)). What is significant in this assertion is that it shows that the four-fold predication was initially adopted by Sañjaya and the sceptics and the Buddhists shared this scheme with the sceptics, for, in some very important respects, early Buddhism also shares some of the attitudes of the sceptics. On somewhat similar (but not identical) grounds, the Jainas held syādvāda or anekānta-vāda (a system of non-categorical assertions supported by a non-absolutist understanding of reality) which is characterised by not making any conclusive assertion. Being Śramaṇas and not holding a dogmatic attitude to truth, Buddhists adopted the four-fold predication in making claims. The distinction in the Buddhist system is that it is not relativist as in the case of the Jaina and not inconclusive as in the case of the sceptics. Even though the Buddhists used the four-fold predication, it is a two-valued system in which only one assertion is true and the other is false. However, this is not applicable for claims on certain matters on which we are not able to assert any position. In such situations, all four claims may be rejected as not applicable. An example of this sort of claim is the well-known four positions regarding the after-death existence of the liberated person (arahant). They are; does the Tathāgata exist, does not exist, both exist and does not exist and neither exists nor does not exist after death. When these questions were raised, the Buddha rejected all four positions as irrelevant (na upeti). The reason given is the following: since a liberated person is not truly obtained even in this very existence itself, how can he be considered as existing after his death? After the early Buddhist discourses, it is in Nagarjuna’s work that we find extensive use of catuśkoṭi. The fact that Nagarjuna has used the four-cornered logic to negate all the four positions, has given the name ‘negative dialectic’ or ‘four-cornered negation’ to the system. Many have tried to understand Nagarjuna’s use of the system. In particular, the rejection of the fourth position has been understood as indicating a rejection of any possibility of verbal expression. For instance, Matilal has described this fourth one as a ‘leap negation that asks us to look beyond’ (Bimal K. Matilal 1982, 124). Matilal’s opinion is that the rejection of the fourth position is an indication towards that which is ineffable in religion. However, judging by the nature of the claims, what seems more plausible is that the fourth position was rejected on the ground of the limits of empirical knowledge and the meaningfulness of the concepts used. In fact, an examination of Nagarjuna’s use of the catuśkoṭi shows that his application is confined to the kind of either the themes that were set aside by the Buddha as

An Introduction to Buddhist Logic


unanswered or themes like them in nature.11 Therefore, by rejecting all the four positions as not applicable, Nagarjuna is not making any new use of the catuśkoṭi but he simply seems to be following the early Buddhist example.12 Apart from his use of catuśkoṭi, Nagarjuna’s most important philosophical as well as the religious contribution is to reveal the erroneous character of dividing reality into mutually contradictory (e.g., going and not going) or contrary (eg. going and standing still) binary categories and attributing substantiality to them. By showing that these concepts are always other-dependent, Nagarjuna also showed that they are empty of svabhāva, a concept used by certain later Buddhists to attribute substantiality to reality which is soul-less (anatta).

Systematic Buddhist logic Systematic Buddhist logic starts with Dignāga. In his Pramāṇasamuccaya (Compendium of the Theory of Knowledge) (PS) Dignāga discusses the following subjects: perception, inference (for oneself and for others), the middle term (hetu), verbal testimony and syllogism. The main topics discussed by Dignāga become the content of subsequent logical studies of both Buddhists and others. With Dignāga, the concept of pramāṇa or means of knowledge starts occupying the centre of the stage of Indian logic. The logic itself became known as the pramāṇa-śāstra or the study of means of knowledge, marking a major shift in emphasis from its earlier subject matter; syllogism, proof and debate.

Perception Buddhists reject the brahmanic view of four means of knowledge, namely, perception, inference, analogy and sacred word. Instead, Dignāga asserts that there are only two means of knowledge, namely, perception and inference. This does not go against Dignāga’s description, in the dedicatory verses, of the Buddha as being pramāṇabhūta himself for he is the very illustration of these two means. Why are there only two means of knowledge? It is because there are only two knowable objects, namely, own (or particular) characteristic (svalakṣaṇa) and universal characteristic (sāmānyalakṣaṇa), which are known respectively by per11  For example: at Mūlamadhyamakakārikā XXII, 11 the four positions empty etc. regarding Tathāgata, at XXII, 12 eternals etc. about the peaceful state (nirvāṇa), at XXV, 15-16 eternal etc. regarding nirvana, at XXV, 17-18 again exists etc. on liberated person, at XXV, 21 on finite etc. and eternal etc., at XXV, 22, 23 finites etc. and eternal etc. rejected on everything and at XXVII, 29 again eternal etc. are rejected. 12  For a fuller discussion, see (Tilakaratne 1993, 125–34)


Asanga Tilakaratne

ception and inference. According to the Buddhist view, there is nothing else to be known. According to this view, except that which is known by perception, everything else such as memory, recognition or any other attempt to connect perception and inference, comes under inference. Memory and recognition involve what is already known. Any supposition of a new means to know that that is already known will lead to infinite regression. Dignāga defines perception as ‘that which is free from conceptual thinking, unconnected with name, genus etc., (pratyakṣaṃ kalpanāpoḍhaṃ nāmajātyādyasamyatanṃ). In perception, it is held, that there cannot be any thinking, for it is the pure sensation of the sense datum. The Theravada definition of viññāna (consciousness) as dassanmatta (mere seeing) seems to correspond to this view. The example has further described this ‘seeing blue’ (nīlaṃ vijānāti) as against ‘seeing as blue’ (nilam iti vijānāti). In the first instance, it is an awareness of mere sense datum, and in the latter, it is to perceive through a mental construction. The idea of this way of defining is to exclude any room for error in the process of perception. Dharmakīrti, who commented on Dignāga, refined this definition by adding ‘free from error’ (abhrāntaṃ) as a characteristic of perception. Dignāga does not seem to have thought that such a specification was necessary, for perception cannot be erroneous by definition. Perception is four-fold, namely, perception of (the five) senses (indriya-jñāna), perception of mind (mano-vijñāna) being the knowledge of one’s internal psychological characteristics, self-consciousness (ātamasaṃvedanā) being the knowledge of one’s own knowledge, and knowledge of one who contemplates (yogi-jñāna), when not interfered with by anyone.

Inference Inference (anumāna) is two-fold, namely, inference for oneself (svārthānumāna) and inference for others (parārthānumāna). It is believed that this distinction was first made by Dignāga. It is said that the former is knowledge-based (jñānātmaka) and the latter is word-based (śabdātmaka). The inference for oneself is to infer something through a characteristic or cause (liṅga or hetu) belonging to that object. For instance, ‘that hill has fire’ is determined by the presence of smoke, which is the characteristic or the reason. The reason must fulfil three requirements, and these have been described as rules of logical reasoning. They

An Introduction to Buddhist Logic


are; the reason must be present in the subject of the conclusion (hill, in this instance) (pakṣe satva), it must be present in similar instances (sapakṣe satva) and it must be absent from dissimilar instances (asapakṣa asatva). Therefore, in order for the inference to be complete, these requirements need to be fulfilled. The reason or the cause is three-fold, namely, identity (svabhāva), effect (kārya) and non-perception (anupalabdhi). ‘Identity’ is to infer the presence of an object by observing an inseparable characteristic belonging to that object. An example is ‘This is a tree because it is an oak.’ ‘Effect’ is to infer the presence of an object by observing the presence of its effect: e.g., here there is fire because there is smoke. ‘Non-perception’ (or ‘negative syllogism’ as Stcherbatsky maintains) is to infer the absence of something through non-perception or perception of some phenomenon that indicates something absence. This has been described by Dharmakīrti as eleven-fold depending on that which serves as the reason for the negative judgment. Inference for the sake of others is to articulate reasons to produce inferential knowledge in others. What meant by this is to present an inferential argument in the form of a syllogism. Instead of the standard five-member syllogism (of the thesis (pratijñā), reason (hetu), example (udāharaṇaa), application (upanaya) and conclusion (nigamana), Buddhists rejected the last three aspects and adopted a syllogism with the first two aspects. Accordingly, the syllogism adopted by Buddhists is of the following form; (1) The hill is fiery (2) Because it has smoke. Although udāharana was not included in the logical statement proper, it is mentioned both in its negative and positive forms which may be stated in the following manner: All that has a smoke is fiery like the kitchen and whatever is not fiery has no smoke like a lake. The increased awareness of the precision has resulted in an elaborated treatment of logical fallacies (ābhasa) by Buddhist logicians. As Dignāga has shown, logical fallacies correspond to the three logical rules mentioned above. The three rules constitute the necessary requirements of correct reasoning. If the first rule is violated the resultant fallacy is called asiddha-hetvābhāsa or the fallacy of unreal reason. For instance, in the Buddhist view, any assertion made on ‘soul’ will suffer from this fallacy, for it does not exist. Stcherbatsky describes this as the fallacy against reality. The other two fallacies that Stcherbatsky calls ‘fallacies against consistency’ involve violation of the second and the third rules combined. Viruddhahetvābhāsa or the fallacy of the contrary reason is


Asanga Tilakaratne

to use a reason, which is against the fundamentals of one’s own system of beliefs, to establish one’s argument. For instance, the following argument of a brahmin suffers from this weakness: The sounds of the Veda are eternal because they are produced by causes. The third anaikāntika-hetu-ābhāsa or the fallacy of uncertain reason is to use a reason that cannot be supported by the second and the third rules. For instance, if one tries to establish the eternity of the Veda because it is audible, it is a characteristic exclusively owned by sound and not shared by all similar or dissimilar cases. Although the treatment of fallacies in the hands of the Buddhist logicians has been an elaborated subject, the above fallacies identified by Dignāga remain at its core. At the heart of the Buddhist claim that there are only two means of knowledge, namely perception and inference, is the belief that there are only two things to be known, namely, particular and universal characteristics. The distinction between these two knowable objects is that the former is real, while the latter is not. The same distinction is maintained in the Pali commentaries. While the particular characteristic (variously referred to as dhamma, salakkhaṇa, sakabhāva and sabhāva) is known as a datum of sense perception (paccakkha-ñāṇa), the universal characteristic (sāmañña lakkhaṇa) is known through inference (anumāna-ñāṇa). It is also held that while the particular is real the universal is not (Karunadasa 1996, 18). We know that Dignāga holds that perception of a particular characteristic is devoid of any such concepts as name, species etc. This act of cognition is individual and personal. Knowledge becomes public at the level of inference that has the universal characteristic as its object. The knowledge is made public by means of language. This prompted Buddhist logicians to examine the function of language. The standard view of language criticised by Dignāga held that words refer to universals that are real and cognised directly in particulars. In this view, both particulars and universals are real and words directly refer to them. Dignāga rejected this realist view and came up with a unique theory called apoha or anyāpoha (exclusion of other), which says that words do not refer directly to objects but they do only by excluding that which is other than. For instance, the word ‘cow’ refers to a particular cow by excluding all other animals that are ‘non-cow.’ The word ‘cow’ does not refer to all cows that are innumerable; nor does it refer to universal cowness. However, it refers to a line of differentiation between a particular cow and other cows or other animals. In this view, the function of words is an exclusion. In other words, a word does not refer to any substance;

An Introduction to Buddhist Logic


it simply distinguishes one object from the rest. Knowledge is a result of this act of exclusion of the other, and being an indirect form of knowledge, it comes under inference. Here lies the Buddhist reason behind the denial of śabda or word as a separate source of knowledge.

Conclusion From a historical point of view, systematic Buddhist logic occupies the middle period in Indian logic. It marked a significant shift of emphasis in Indian logical studies by turning what was basically a science of syllogism into an epistemological logic. In the hands of the Buddhist logicians, the centre of logical studies shifted to knowledge or the means of knowledge (pramāṇa). This shift may be understood as determined by the centrality of knowledge (described by such religious terms as paññā and pariññā in the Buddhist path of purification. In the Buddhist system, syllogism became only a part of inferential knowledge. This relatively insignificant place received by a syllogism in the hands of Buddhist logicians suggests that they were not very concerned about the formalisation of logic. The emphasis was not on a technicality as such but on the establishment of the validity of knowledge. The religious goal of early Buddhism is to attain purification by getting rid of defilements. The way to achieve this was through knowledge (having discerned through wisdom his cankers are eliminated: paññāya c’assa disvā āsavā parikkhīṇā honti: M I, 175). Since wisdom constituted the ultimate means of purification, the Buddhist tradition made no secret of the value it placed on it. As we saw earlier, logical reasoning was accepted only as far as it helped reach the knowledge of the truth. However, it was made clear that mere logicality would not guarantee the truth. This, no doubt, is a critique of logical reasoning and thereby it represents an advanced stage in human thinking. In a similar spirit, the Buddhist tradition did not encourage debates motivated by the desire to win over others. Nevertheless, it used the institution of debate in order to prove the truthfulness of the teaching, but the motivation was the discovery of truth and not victory. This is shown by the statement (quoted above) the Venerable Nāgasena made at the beginning of his long conversation with king Milinda. The rules and attitudes referred to by the Thera are common features of any form of civilised debate. The subsequent Buddhist literature on the art of debate by such illustrious Buddhist teachers as Nagarjuna, Asaṅga, Vasubandhu, Dignāga etc., shows clearly that the emphasis was on avoidance of error and discovery


Asanga Tilakaratne

of truth but not on victory by any means. The adoption of the four-cornered system of the proposition is an example of the fact that the early Buddhist tradition was not bound by the bi-valiant logical system. While the Buddhist system was neither unsure like scepticism and nor relativist like the Jaina system, it still held that certain situations may require us to go beyond the strict ‘either-or’ dichotomy. Although through the adoption of the bivalent logical system common to all forms of systematic logic, the subsequent Buddhist logicians seem to have neglected this original Buddhist position, there is no reason to say that systematic Buddhist logic is a departure from the spirit of the early teaching. Finally, there is a problem of interpretation to be mentioned even briefly. For a long time, there was a belief among the scholars of Buddhism that Vasubandhu and Dignāga, the pioneers of systematic Buddhist logic, were idealists. However, the contemporary scholarship has favoured the view that there were at least two Vasubandhus and the teacher of Dignāga is not an idealist but a Sautrāntika (a Hīnayāna school that accepted the validity of the discourses alone). In this manner, the puzzle as to how to understand the logical and epistemological ideas of these teachers in the context of the historically attributed positions to them seems to be gradually being solved. Nevertheless, the debate is far from being over. DJ Kalupahana, a leading interpreter of the Theravada tradition, has recently challenged the traditional interpretation as well as the more recent one and has explained Dignāga’s logical and epistemological theories within the early Buddhist empirical tradition (Kalupahana 1992, 194-205). If Kalupahana’s interpretation of Dignāga is accepted, it involves reconsidering all of his main ideas, including, in particular, his interpretation of perception. This shows in spite of the considerably vast knowledge we have accumulated over the years on the subject, how tentative our conclusions could be.

12. Critical Thinking and Logic: A Buddhist Approach*

Introduction Critical thinking and logic (CTL) have acquired near canonical status in Western philosophical discourse. The transformation from metaphysics to logic, which took place at the turn of the last century in the English-speaking world, marked the beginning of what is now known as ‘analytical philosophy’, with its central emphasis on the principle of verification and linguistic analysis. In his Language Truth and Logic (1952) AJ Ayer brushed aside (or at least he thought he did so) all the traditional so-called metaphysical problems by making use of these tools. The emphasis on verification came mainly because of the development of natural sciences. Scientific knowledge based on empirically obtained data was open for verification, and the early admirers of science, among whom were the philosophers who came to be known at the turn of the 20th century as the “Vienna Circle,” were most impressed by this and they thought that not anything that is not verifiable deserved to be considered knowledge-proper. Everything that is not considered knowledge was relegated to what early Wittgenstein called “Unsinnig” (nonsense) and was kept away from the philosophical discourse. Therefore, areas of human interest such as ethics and aesthetics were not considered because they were matters of one’s personal inclinations. Metaphysics was rejected on the ground that it was beyond verification. Subsequently, the status of Logical Positivism and the principle of verification itself underwent changes. In the field of scientific discourse, verification was abandoned in favour of Karl Popper’s idea of falsifica* This paper first appeared in Sri Lanka Journal of Social Sciences, Vol. 29-30 (June-December 2006/2007, National Science Foundation (NSF), Colombo: Sri Lanka.


Asanga Tilakaratne

tion. Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, with its emphasis on language games and resultant pluralism of realities, deprived science of its privileged status and relegated science to one amongst many other language games. In this situation, what was considered philosophical virtue was logical consistency, coherence and logicality of statements made. The function of the philosopher was to make sure that these virtues prevail in any form of the language game. This is to reaffirm the belief that analysis was the sole legitimate role of the philosopher. It is under these circumstances that critical thinking and logic became the trademark of modern philosophy. The purpose of telling this story of Western philosophy is to show that the modern emphasis on CTL arises from a particular social, scientific and philosophical context. In emphasising CTL, one does not need to subscribe to the widely accepted belief that CTL can only come within the context of modernity. During the course of this presentation, I will adduce evidence to support the view that CTL can arise in different contexts and serving different proposes. The very concept of CTL as governed by rigid rules will be questioned throughout the course of this investigation.

Logic and logicality in Indian context It is well-known today that Edward Said (1991) and others demarcated how the East was defined as being mystical, mysterious, occult-oriented and unbounded by rational and logical discourse. The idea behind this is that there is only one form of rationality and logicality and anything that cannot be captured within that conception of rationality and logicality is a matter of wonderment, a thing to be studied as the ‘mysterious other.’ A classic case is the Western reaction to catuśkoṭi or a four-cornered logical proposition. The standard accusation was that the Indians never understood the Principle of Non-Contradiction.1 In India, logical thinking seemed to have begun with the practice of the art of debate (vāda). The widespread practice of debate promoted not only ethics but also epistemology and logic. The rules were developed for the proper practice of debate and such works were known as Sambhaśā-vidhi or Vāda-vidhi. As Satischandra Vidyabhushana (1988) has shown in a masterful manner, in India, the initial stage of logic and philosophy was called ānvikśikī a feminine-formed word in the San1  For a comprehensive discussion see (Jayatilleke, 1949 and 1950), and (Jayatilleke 1963, 333–50)

Critical Thinking and Logic: A Buddhist…


skrit language connoting ‘(the act of) seeing minutely.’ Ānvīkśikī was bifurcated subsequently into ātma-vidyā (the science of soul) and hetu-vidyā (the science of reasons), which were gradually developed into philosophy and logic respectively. At this initial stage of development of Indian thinking, reasons to support the existence of ātma were articulated in logic. The Nyāyasūtra of Akṣapāda Gautama is believed to be the first logical treatise of the Brahmin tradition. Amongst the main subjects discussed in this treatise is vāda or debate. According to Vidyabhushana, the Brahmin tradition classified vāda (discussion) into three parts, namely, vāda that aims at ascertaining the truth, jalpa (wrangling) that aims at gaining victory, and vitaṇḍa (cavil) that is aimed at merely finding faults. This classification indicates a well-developed art of debate with its own ethics and logic. Discussion on the fallacy (hetvābhāsa) came under this theme, highlighting the need for proper procedures for drawing appropriate conclusions. The fact that debate served as the means of conveying philosophical views, defended in accordance with an accepted code of ethics, is shown by both brahmanic and non-brahmanic authors who always included a chapter on vāda in their logical treatises. At times, separate treatises outlining the methods to be followed in debates were written by these authors. A case in point is the Buddhist logician Dharmakīrti who wrote a separate treatise called Vādanyāya (the logic of debate) outlining both the logic and ethics of debate. Dharmakīrti begins his discussion with the following statement: “The wicked persons defeat even the one who argues rationally in debates by employing improper methods. We start this (work on the logic of debate) for repudiating them.”2 In this work, there is a separate section called chala-vyavahāra-niśedha or the condemnation of cheating practices (section 37 in Gokhale’s edition). In this manner, there is ample evidence of the development of critical thinking and logic within the Indian logical and epistemological tradition itself. Furthermore, the brahmanic emphasis on the purity of language, the scepticism of the materialists, the indeterminism and relativism of the Jains and the emphasis on knowledge by Buddhists proved to be fertile ground for the development of logic and critical thinking. Logic, in the Indian context, became a study of the means of knowledge or pramāṇa-sāstra (theory of knowledge) and syllogism, mainly by the hands of Buddhist logicians. The subsequent development of Navya-nyāya by later brahmanic philosophers, the beginning of which was 2  Translation from (Gokhale 1993)


Asanga Tilakaratne

marked by the Tattvacintāmaṇi by Gangeśa Upādhyāya of the 13th century, established logic as the pure study of the means of knowledge. By this time, however, the art of debate had established its roots within the Indian religio-philosophical tradition so deeply that it had become an institution in its own right.

Rationality, logicality and analysis in Buddhism Buddhism, coinciding with the later middle Upaniṣads, clearly demonstrates signs of an advanced mode of thinking and reasoning greatly surpassing the general brahmanic Indian tradition. The Buddha had famously said that his teaching is for those who are intelligent and not for those who are not.3 In accordance with his own utterance, the Buddha seems to have addressed mainly, although not exclusively, the rational and intelligent group of people within society. The Dhamma, the teaching of the Buddha, is described, as a well-known formula occurring ubiquitously throughout the Pali Canon, characterised as something “to be understood by the viññū people individually” (paccattam veditabbo viññīhi). Very often, whether some form of behaviour is praised by the viññū (viññū-pasattha) or despised by them (viññūgarahita), has been presumed as the criterion of acceptability or otherwise. In the Aṅguttara-nikāya (II, 228), an immature person with the wrong physical, verbal and mental behaviour and wrong views are described as “censured by the intelligent” (sanuvajjo viññūnām) and the person without those characteristics is described as “not censured by the intelligent” (ananuvajjo viññūnām). With respect to discussing the character of the Venerable Ananda, the following two factors have been mentioned: “that he has been praised by the Buddha and that he has been revered and praised by the intelligent fellow-mendicants” (satthu ceva saṃvannito saṃbhāvito ca viññūnām sabrahmacārīnām: S III, 134). This reveals a distinction made even amongst the Sangha based upon whether a member is a viññū, or not. Morality, the foundation of Buddhist religious practice, has been described by the use of the following standard set of epithets: “unbroken and unaltered those rules of conduct which are spotless, leading to liberation, praised by the wise, unstained and conducive to concentration” (emphasis added: D II, 80).4 In the well-known Kālāma-sutta, by way of demonstrating how the three defilements, lobha, dosa and moha, are unwholesome, the following dialogue occurred between the Buddha and the Kālāmas: 3  Paññāvantassāyaṃ dhammo nāyaṃ dhammo duppaññassa (D III, 287). 4  Translation from (Walshe 1987, 234)

Critical Thinking and Logic: A Buddhist…


Well, then Kalamas, what do you think? Are these things profitable or unprofitable? Unprofitable, sir. Are they blameworthy or not? Blameworthy, sir. Are they censured by the intelligent or not? They are censured, sir. If performed and undertaken, do they conduce to loss and sorrow or not? They conduce to sorrow and loss... But Kalamas, when you know for yourself: These things are unprofitable, ... censured by the intelligent, ... then indeed you reject them (emphasis added). (Woodward 1979, Vol. I:173) These mental characteristics praised by the intelligent people, or despised by them, have been taken as a criterion for judging them as ethically good or bad. It is important to examine whom the Buddha exactly means by this term. The commentarial tradition usually describes this term as synonymous with a learned person (paṇḍito) or a clever person (viyatto). Going somewhat further, the Cūla-Niddesa defines the term with the following words: viññūti paṇḍito, paññavā, buddhimā, ñāṇi, vibhāvī, medhāvi. Here, viññū means learned person, wise person, intelligent person, a person with knowledge, analytical person and wise person (Cn 147). Amongst the modern Buddhist scholars, KN Jayatilleke is one who noticed the significance of this oft-recurring term in the canon. He says: The Buddha goes on to say that they [the learned men] often praised him, after making a comparative study of the doctrines and lives of different religious teachers. They appear to have been no other than the intelligentsia of the age, who made a critical study of the various theories prevalent at the time and cultivated whatever knowledge they could lay their hands on. The Buddha calls them ‘the intelligent’ or rational ones (viññū), and he seems primarily to have addressed this class of people and put his theories to the test at their hands... The viññū represented for the Buddha the impartial critic at the level of intelligent common-sense and the Buddha and his disciples introduced the ‘viññū puriso’, or the hypothetical rational critic when it seems necessary to make an impartial and intelligent assessment of the relative worth of conflicting theories. (Jayatilleke 1963, 229) Further discussing this group of people, Jayatilleke proposes that they represented an open-minded group of people who were not committed to any particular religious beliefs. He cites the Apaṇṇaka-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya as an example. He says: Although there is little evidence that any of the basic doctrines


Asanga Tilakaratne

of Buddhism are derived by reason, we sometimes meet with the Buddha recommending his doctrines on rational grounds. This is particularly evident where his sermons are addressed to the viññū or the elite, who seem to represent the open-minded rationalist. Thus, in the Apaṇṇaka-sutta we find such an appeal to reason. (1963, 405) This particular sutta was taught by the Buddha to the brahmin householders of Sāleyyaka who ‘had not developed even a rational faith toward any teacher.’ In this sutta, the Buddha does not present the idea of rebirth or life after death as something that should be taken for granted; he presents it as something to be accepted only on examination of its relative merits. The argument presented by the Buddha in this sutta is quite similar to Pascal’s wager argument on the existence of God. A sutta of similar nature is the Kālāma, referred to earlier, and taught by the Buddha to a group called the Kālāmas, who were not committed to any particular religious view. Quite similar to the position adopted in the Apaṇṇaka-sutta, the Buddha presents in the Kālāma-sutta the idea of rebirth and the consequences of actions in the after-life, as something to be adopted only on rational grounds. The Buddha says that the person who opts to give up enmity, oppression and taints, experiences four comforts in this very life. The first two relates to the belief in an after-life and the result of karma: If there be a world beyond, if there be fruit and ripening of deeds done well or ill, then, when the body breaks up after death, I shall be reborn in the Happy Lot, in the Heaven World. This is the first comfort he attains. If, however, there be no world beyond, no fruit and ripening of deeds done well or ill, yet in this very life do I hold myself free from enmity and oppression, sorrowless and well. This is the second comfort he attains. (Woodward 1979, Vol. I:175) All these examples support the interpretation given by Jayatilleke regarding the term viññū as denoting the elite in society who did not believe in such ideas as karma and rebirth. Although these particular discourses referenced and some other instances seem to support this view, the use of the term in a larger majority of instances suggests that the viññū did not exclusively refer to such a group of people alone, but it represented the knowledgeable and intelligent members in society. In one of the instances quoted above, the term has been used not only to refer to the open-minded elite but also to refer to some members of the Sangha.

Critical Thinking and Logic: A Buddhist…


What is, however, more significant is the fact that the Buddha mostly addressed the viññū or the intelligent class of people in society. In the dialogue between the Buddha and Acela Kassapa (a naked ascetic), the former always refers to ‘the wise’ in society. This dialogue may be considered a good example in itself for an example of the Buddha’s addressing a wise person. The question posed by Kassapa to the Buddha was whether it is indeed the case that the Buddha denounced all forms of asceticism. The Buddha answered him by saying that it was wrong to attribute to him such a blanket denial of all forms of asceticism, and he explained his position further (D I, 165): Kassapa, there are some ascetics and brahmins who are wise, skilled, practised in disputation, splitters of hairs, acute, who walk cleverly along the paths of views. Sometimes their views accord with mine, sometimes they do not. What they sometimes applaud, we sometimes applaud, what they sometimes do not applaud, we sometimes do not applaud, what they sometimes applaud, we sometimes do not applaud, and what they sometimes do not applaud, we sometimes applaud. What we sometimes applaud, they sometimes applaud, what we sometimes do not applaud they sometimes do not applaud. What we sometimes applaud, they sometimes do not applaud, and what we sometimes do not applaud, they sometimes applaud. (Walshe 1987, 151–52) With a clear understanding of the similarities and differences, the Buddha would select that which the two groups agree upon and follow up with an investigation of these matters. Here, the Buddha relies on the wise (viññū) for this operation. The wise in this context are not necessarily those who have already followed the path of the Buddha, but those who possess an open mind, who can assess the situation objectively and factually. This shows that Buddhism, from a very early stage of its existence, operated with a very advanced sense of rationality. Logicality or logical thinking has been perceived as an important virtue in intelligent human behaviour, although the Buddha has not failed to appreciate its limitations. The discourses of the Buddha refer to the term takka (Sk. tarka) in many instances. The Dhamma has been described as atakkāvacara (that which is not within the scope of logic) while views have been referred to as takka-pariyāhataṃ (beaten by logic). In the well-known Kālāma-sutta, referred to above, takka is one factor that must not be taken as a sure criterion of acceptability (mā


Asanga Tilakaratne

takka-hetu). In this context, it is very important to remember that the Buddha did not reject takka totally. As has been amply demonstrated by KN Jayatilleke, the Buddha used logical reasoning quite often, but at the same time, he was quite aware of its limitations. His attitude was that takka is not an exclusive criterion of acceptability. As explained in the Caṅkī-sutta, conclusions drawn on logic may or may not be true. Discourse refers to the following four possibilities: sutakkitaṃ tathā - well-reasoned truth sutakkitam aññathā - well-reasoned falsehood duttakkitaṃ tathā - ill-reasoned truth duttakkitaṃ aññathā - ill-reasoned falsehood (M I, 520) The ideas expressed and the attitudes adopted in such discourses portray a quite sophisticated understanding of the nature and limitations of logic. A virtue that goes hand-in-hand with logicality is consistency in thinking and statements. It is one of the oft-referred virtues of the statements of the Buddha. As has been highlighted by KN Jayatilleke, consistency referred to here is not merely a characteristic of statements; more importantly, it was considered a virtue of one’s behaviour and what one said about it, i.e., one’s behaviour. One of the well-known virtues attributed to the Buddha was that he said what he did and did what he said (yathāvādi tāthākāri, yathākāri tathāvādi: It 122). A very important area related to logic and critical thinking is the concept of limitations found in the early Buddhist discourses. These limitations are related to thought, knowledge, and consequently to expression. The Buddha refers to four phenomena as “[something] cannot be thought and should not be thought” (acinteyyo, na cintetabbo), because “thinking of which one would be distraught and come to grief,” namely, the range of the Buddha, that of one who is in jhāna, the fruit of action (kammavipāka) and speculations of the world (AII, 80). Of the two terms used to describe the nature of these phenomena, ‘cannot be thought’ seems to refer to a limit of one’s epistemological capacity, and the other, ‘should not be thought’ seems to refer to a kind of ethical limit. The commentary, however, appears to take the first term in somewhat of an ethical sense when it says acinteyyaniti cintetum ayuttani: (AA II, 108) acinteyyani means “those that ought not to be thought.” Accordingly, it interprets the second as “should not be thought for they ought not to be thought” (acinteyyattāyeva na cintetabbani). Thus, in

Critical Thinking and Logic: A Buddhist…


the commentator’s view, both refer to some kind of ethical sense. If we assume that the two terms with the suffix ‘eyya’ were used to mean what they usually mean, namely, capability, capacity etc., it is reasonable to give a broader interpretation to these two terms. It is further said in the discourse that if one were to try to think about these phenomena, one would end up becoming insane (ummāda) and frustrated. Insanity can be a result of one’s trying to stretch one’s capacity to an extreme extent. The resultant inability is ultimately bound to produce frustration. The underlying idea is the limits of one’s knowledge or one’s known ability. While the Buddha has been listed as one of the four unknowables in the later Buddhist traditions including Theravada, the Buddha himself was attributed with absolute, unhindered knowledge, which was denoted by the term sarvajñatva or omniscience. I do not plan to have a discussion on this often-discussed issue, which Jayatilleke has dealt with comprehensively. There are some passages in the canon suggesting, nevertheless, that there could be certain phenomena about which nobody, including the Buddha, knew. For instance, in a well-known statement, the Buddha says that the end of the samsara is not known and that its first beginning is unseen (anamataggo’yam bhikkhave saṃsāro pubbakoṭi na paññāyati …). In this statement, there are two important terms, namely, ‘anamata’ (na+amata), a past participle which means ‘not known’, and ‘na paññāyati’ which means ‘not seen’ or ‘not manifested’.5 The important feature in this statement is that it does not clearly specify by whom it is not known and to whom it is not seen or manifested. Does that mean that it is not known or seen only by ordinary people or that it is so for any person? If it was not seen by ordinary people and the Buddha could see it, then he would have stated that clearly. The Buddha has never indicated that it is so either in this instance or in anywhere else. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that this particular phenomenon is beyond the reach of any and every person, including the Buddha. 5  There is a somewhat similar statement in the A V, 113, which runs in the following manner: Monks, the first beginning of ignorance which can be stated as ‘ignorance did not exist before this point (of time) but started later,’ is not seen (purimā bhikkhave koṭi na paññāyati avijjāya ‘ito pubbe avijjā nāhosi atha paccā sambhavī’). The point here seems different from the statement on samsara under discussion. The context of the sutta shows that the Buddha was explaining the conditionality or the causally conditioned character of ignorance. The subsequent statement; ‘nevertheless, there appears ignorance causally conditioned’ (atha ca pana paññāyati idappaccayā avijjāti). The point is not exclusive to ignorance; in fact, we cannot talk of ‘thing-hood’ of any phenomenon as having any independent existence. Although what is said on ignorance applies to samsara too, the point there was different.


Asanga Tilakaratne

As Jayatilleke (1963, 202–3) has demonstrated, this conclusion is not contrary to the position adopted regarding the alleged omniscience of the Buddha in the early strata of the Canon, although later, this position was radically changed. The position adopted by the later Buddhist tradition, including the Theravada, is quite absolute on this. The following statement articulates this later tradition when it is said: Na tassa adiṭṭhanamidhatthi kiñci, Ato aviññātamajānitabbaṃ; (Ps I, 134) There is nothing not seen by the Buddha; nor is there anything that is not known or cannot be known by him. This type of all-knowing status attributed to the Buddha can be considered as a result of devotionalism that subsequently grew up within the Buddhist tradition. What is significant, nevertheless, is the early Buddhist awareness of the limits of thought (think-ability), which ultimately applies to the limits of knowledge (know-ability) and the limits of language (say-ability).6 Another example of the sophistication of Buddhist thinking is the importance it places on the proper handling of questions. It also has clear implications for the limits we have just discussed. The discourses refer to four types of questions: the questions that ought to be explained categorically (ekaṃsa-vyākaraṇīya), questions that ought to be replied with counter-question (paṭipucchā-vyākaraṇīya), questions that ought to be explained analytically (vibhajja-vyākaraṇīya) and questions that should be set aside (pañho ṭhapanīyo). Recent scholars have found the last category is, in particular, very interesting philosophically and religiously. We will not plan to go into this discussion, although it is very important.7 Being mindful of the fact that a right question is a pre-condition for the right answer, the Buddha sometimes corrected the question before he attempted to answer it. For instance, as recorded in the S II, 3, a bhikkhu called Moḷiya Phagguna asks the following question: who feeds on the food of consciousness? (ko nu kho viññāṇāharaṃ āhareti). The Buddha’s initial response was ‘the question is not proper’ (no kallo pañho). Subsequently, the Buddha gives the following explanation: The kind of question rejected by the Buddha in this context is what is called a ‘loaded’ question, which contains an assumption that is not appropriate. 6  This idea if ‘unsayability’ has to be differentiated from what can be considered the classical thesis of religious ineffability. Read Tilakaratne 1993 for a comprehensive discussion on the issue. 7  See Jayatilleke 1963, 281–83 for a comprehensive discussion.

Critical Thinking and Logic: A Buddhist…


I do not say ‘one feeds on.’ If I were to say so then the question, ‘who feeds on’ would be proper. But I do not say so. Since I do not say so if one were to ask ‘for which the consciousness-food takes place’ that would be a proper question. In discussing the sophistication of Buddhist thought, we cannot by-pass the stress it lays on evidence and verification, which also forms very important ingredients of contemporary empiricist tradition. It is well known that the principle of verification was highly valued by logical positivists, at the turn of the last century, and how it was subsequently dropped giving way to falsification, as proposed by Karl Popper. This story of the vicissitudes of the verification principle is not applicable to Buddhist philosophy for its use and the context of evidence and verification are quite different from those of logical positivism. As we discussed earlier in the context of the Kālāma-sutta, the Buddha emphasised the need for ‘seeing it for oneself’ (attanāva jāneyyātha) as a prerequisite of accepting something to be a fact (an assertion, in philosophical parlance). A classic example for the actual practice of this freedom for inquiry is the case of a young brahmin called Uttara, a pupil of the elderly teacher called Brahmāyu, who asked his student to examine whether the good things said by people about the Buddha were so in fact or not so. The student followed the Buddha closely (obviously for a considerable period to get a good idea of his behaviour) and gives the following report to his teacher: We have seen Master Gotama walking, sir, we have seen him standing, we have seen him entering indoors, we have seen him indoors seated in silence after eating, we have seen him giving blessings after eating, we have seen him going to the monastery in silence, we have seen him in the monastery teaching the Dhamma to an audience. Such is the Master Gotama; such he is, and more than that. (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 746) One could still argue that this requirement was only for the ‘free thinker’ and not for the committed followers. That it is not so is clear from what the Buddha says to his monastic disciples as recorded in the Vīmaṃsaka-sutta of the Majjhimaniākaya (47). The Buddha says: Bhikkhus, a bhikkhu who is an inquirer, not knowing how to gauge another’s mind, should make an investigation of the Tathāgata in order to find out whether or not he is fully enlightened. (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 415)


Asanga Tilakaratne

Subsequently, the Buddha explains how one should do this inquiry: a disciple who really wishes to verify whether the Buddha is enlightened should examine him on two states, namely, states cognisable through the eye and through the ear to find any defiled states in him. Failing this, he should examine whether the Buddha has any mixed states cognisable through the eye and ears. Having done this, he should look for cleansed states. Finding such cleansed states, he should further examine to see whether these states are temporary or they have been present with the Buddha for a long time. Discovering that these qualities have been present in him for a long time, he should next examine whether or not the Buddha ‘has acquired renown and has attained fame so whether the dangers (connected with renown and fame) are found in him. Not finding such dangers, finally, he should examine the Buddha for whether he is restrained due to fear or he avoids lust because he has destroyed lust. Having found that the Buddha is without fear and without lust, he must not stop at that; he should question the Buddha himself to verify what he found through his own observations, from the Buddha himself. The process of this verification leads one to listen to the Dhamma taught by the Buddha and consequently to become convinced in the Teacher, his Teaching (Dhamma) and the Sangha, the followers of that teaching. This account shows that one who does not have access to others’ minds should first trust one’s eyes and ears and then verify what one saw and heard against the words of the person concerned before one makes up one’s mind to approach and listen to him. One may argue here that the bhikkhus who were addressed by the Buddha were already among the Sangha and hence the admonition is pointless for they have already made their commitment to follow the Buddha. Although it is true that the bhikkhus have already made a commitment, the real commitment to the path should arise from one’s firsthand experience, whether or not one is a monastic disciple. Therefore, the admonition is meant for everybody including the insiders. As an admonition to one’s own followers, therefore, what the Buddha did in this discourse must be unprecedented in the history of religion. This shows that evidence and verification plays a crucial role in the Buddhist path. Another discourse indispensable in discussing verification in the Buddhist sense is the Cullahatthipadopama-sutta (the junior discourse on the simile of the elephant’s footprint) of the Majjhima-nikāya (27). In this discourse, the Buddha, by making use of the analogy of a woodsman trying to track down a big bull elephant by following its footprints

Critical Thinking and Logic: A Buddhist…


explains how a disciple arrives at complete certainty. The analogy, which the Buddha explains to brahmin Jāṇussoni, (272-2) is as follows: Brahmin, suppose an elephant woodsman were to enter an elephant wood and were to see in the elephant wood a big elephant’s footprint, long in extent and broad across. A wise woodsman would not yet come to the conclusion: ‘Indeed this is a big bull elephant.’ Why is that? In an elephant wood, there are small she-elephants that leave a big footprint, and this might be one of their footprints. He follows it and sees in the elephant wood a big elephant’s footprint, long in extent and broad across, and some scrapings high up. A wise elephant woodsman would not yet come to the conclusion: Indeed, this is a big bull elephant.’ Why is that? In an elephant wood, there are tall she-elephants that have prominent teeth and leave a big footprint, and this might be one of their footprints. He follows it further and sees in the elephant wood a big elephant’s footprint, long in extent and broad across, and some scrapings high up, and marks made by tusks. A wise elephant woodsman would not yet come to the conclusion: ‘Indeed, this is a big bull elephant.’ Why is that? In an elephant wood, there are tall she-elephants that have tusks and leave a big footprint, and this might be one of their footprints. He follows it further and sees in the elephant wood a big elephant’s footprint, long in extent and broad across, and some scrapings high up, and marks made by tusks, and broken-off branches. And he sees that bull-elephant at the root of a tree or in the open, walking about, sitting, or lying down. He comes to the conclusion: ‘This is that big bull elephant.’ (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 271–72) Just like the wise elephant woodsman who would not draw a definite conclusion until he sees the big bull elephant itself, a wise follower of the Buddha would not draw the conclusion that “the Blessed One is fully enlightened, the Dhamma is well proclaimed by the Blessed One, the Sangha is practising the good way” until one attains the final emancipatory knowledge of the destruction of defilements (āsavakkhaya-ñāna). Like the wise woodsman, the follower of the Buddha too sees signs suggesting and supporting the above conclusion, such as the attainment of jhānas and the forms of higher knowledge. He would not yet draw a definite conclusion until he has obtained first-hand evidence. What is said in the context of the above discussion is supported by that which the Buddha says in the Caṅkī-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya (95).


Asanga Tilakaratne

Here, the Buddha discusses the foundations of the Brahmanic oral tradition with Kapathika, a young and learned brahmin. When questioned by the latter regarding what the Buddha thought about the Brahmanic claim that their oral tradition of the scripture is absolutely trustworthy, the Buddha counter-questioned him with whether there is even a single brahmin who can say that he knows this and he sees this. To this, Kapathika answered in the negative but tried to defend his tradition on the basis of the belief in divine revelation and faith. The Buddha answered by saying that the five factors, including revelation (anussava) and faith in the tradition (saddhā), approval (ruci), reasoned cogitation (akara parivitakka) and reflective acceptance of a view (diṭṭhinijjhān-khanti), are not fully trustworthy for they could be either true or false. When such a possibility is apparent, the Buddha said, one who is keen on preserving truth must not depend solely on them for certainty. Subsequently, the Buddha described three steps in the process of acquiring true beliefs, namely, preservation of truth (saccānurakkhaṇa), the discovery of truth (saccānubodha) and the final arrival at truth (saccānuppatti). The first step is characterized by a very basic acceptance of a proposition, merely as one’s belief and nothing more than that; he does not derive any definite conclusion to the effect that only his belief is true and that the other beliefs are empty. The second stage is not different from what was described in the Brahmāyu-sutta, referred to above, namely, to investigate the teacher in order to determine whether his behaviour is consistent with what he says. Once he discovers that the teacher’s behaviour and words tally with each other, he goes on to the second step, which is described in the following words: When he has investigated him and has seen that he is purified from states based on [greed, hatred and] delusion, then he places faith in him; filled with faith he visits him and pays respect to him, having paid respect to him, he gives ear; when he gives ear he hears the Dhamma; having heard the Dhamma he memorises it and examines the meanings of the teachings he has memorised; when he examines their meanings, he gains a reflective acceptance of those teachings; when he has gained a reflective acceptance of those teachings, zeal springs up; when zeal has sprung up, he applies his will; having applied his will, he scrutinises; having scrutinised, he strives; resolutely striving, he realises with the body the ultimate truth and sees it by penetrating it with wisdom. In this way, there is the discovery of truth; in this way, one discovers the truth, ... But as yet there is no final arrival at truth. (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 782)

Critical Thinking and Logic: A Buddhist…


The discovery of truth just described is a result of intellectual understanding supported by practice. The final arrival at the truth, however, is a result of “repetition, development and cultivation of those same things,” marking the complete realisation of the path. It is only at this stage that one can claim that one’s belief is true and those of others are empty. These early Buddhist discussions show the great importance it placed on evidence and having the first-hand experience as validating one’s claims. This further shows that Buddhism operates within a strong conception of rationality and logicality.

Religion, philosophy and Buddhism The account of Buddhist rationality, logicality and critical thinking given above clearly marks a difference in Buddhism from other religious traditions. One might even be tempted to think that this effort is motivated by some sort of modernistic and ‘scientific’ trend. The answer to this objection is that if what is presented looks modern and ‘scientific’ then it is only by accident. What is presented here is what is in the texts and how exactly the Buddha wished others to perceive him and his teaching. Although it is true that a ‘religion’ developed gradually around the person and teachings of the Buddha, Buddhism as a religion is quite different from the rest. For example, the standard definition of religion involves a conception of the transcendental. In his well-known work, The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto defines religion as involving something “wholly other” inspiring a sense of awe, which he calls “mysterium tremendous.” The Buddha took away mysticism and the mystical from religion. In rejecting the belief in a personal soul, the Buddha took away a key aspect of mysticism from human existence. In rejecting the possibility of a creator God, he took away a source of universal mysticism. Although it is strange to talk about man without a soul and a universe without God, Buddhism does so quite self-consciously and yet remain religious! There is a path to be followed and there is the fruit of the path to be achieved as a result. Neither in the path nor in the final fruit is there any mystical character. A good example of this is how the Buddha explained the clarity of the mind of the person who realises the knowledge of the destruction of defilements (āsava), which marks the final stage in the realisation of nirvana- the ultimate religious experience in Buddhism. In the Sāmaññaphala-sutta of the Dīgha-nikāya (2), the Buddha describes this emancipatory knowledge and its clarity in the following words:


Asanga Tilakaratne

Just as if in the midst of the mountains there were a pond, clear as the polished mirror, where a man with good eyesight standing on the bank could see oyster-shells, gravel-banks, and shoals of fish, on the move or stationary. And he might think: This pond is clear, ... there are oyster-shells ... “ Just so, he knows as it really is: “This is suffering; he knows as it really is: “This is the origin of suffering” he knows as it really is: “This is the cessation of suffering”; he knows as it really is: “This is the path leading to the cessation of suffering”. He knows: “Birth is finished, the holy life has been led, done is what had to be done, there is nothing further here. (Walshe 1987, 108) Knowledge and clarity of vision are the hallmarks of the Buddhist ultimate experience. This Buddhist account may be contrasted with the well-known idea of “cloud of unknowing” upheld in theistic traditions.8 The above discussion should show that CTL is not quite new to the Indian tradition in general and the Buddhist tradition, in particular. The attitude of Buddhism to these intellectual tools is that in Buddhism they are not taken as ends in themselves. They are meant to serve as tools, not absolute but with relative merits, in the task of the realisation of truth. They should be taken in the context of the philosophy of life advocated in Buddhism. We find many discourses in the Suttanipāta referring to various religious people who used these tools for destructive purposes. The Buddha shunned this type of practice and he was quite conscious of the limits affecting these tools. What is significant, however, is that logicality and analytical thinking are not things to be introduced to the tradition anew. The task for the philosophers of this country today is to find ways and means to input these epistemological virtues to the dayto-day practice in the life of the people.

8  See Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Justin McCann, Westminister: The Newman Press, 1952.

13. What Does Dharmakīrti Mean by pratīti in pratītinirākṛta?*

This paper proposes to discuss a term occurring in the Nyāyabindu by Dharmakīrti, namely, pratīti, which appears to have been used to give more than one, but interconnected, meanings. Pratīti occurs several times in the Nyāyabindu. In the very first chapter, Dharmakīrti refers to arthapratīti, and when used in conjunction with artha it seems to mean comprehension of meaning. Even in the Sinhala translation of the Nyāyabindu, Venerable Pandit Karagampitigoda Sumanasara Thera translates it as artha-avabodhaya, which gives this literal meaning. However, this is not the only use of pratiti in the Nyāyabindu. In discussing sādhanābhāsa (fallacies of evidence), Dharmakīrti refers to a defect called pratītinirakṛta and gives the example acandraḥ śaśī: “that which has a rabbit is not the moon” (śaśin is not candra). Dharmakirti’s commentators do not agree on how to understand this fallacy, particularly, the use of the term pratīti. Dharmottara, a leading commentator of Dharmakirti, understands pratīti as mental construction. He claims that a mental construction can be given any name and one cannot deny any one of these names when all such names refer to one identical mental construction. Vinītadeva, another commentator of Dharmakīrti, understands pratīti as a belief, popularly accepted as true. In other words, it is so well known that śaśin refers to the moon and to deny that would be to deny which is so well known or what is obvious. I argue that pratīti in this context may be better interpreted as a logical implication. The logical fallacy is not so much denying that which is so well known but denying that two synonyms are synonymous, which * This paper first published in the Journal of the Post-Graduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies, Vol. 2. eds. Asanga Tilakaratne, Toshichi Endo. Boralesgamuwa: Sri Lanka, 2007.


Asanga Tilakaratne

is absurd. Understood in this manner, pratīti seems to contain a much stronger logical sense than merely what is so well-known. Pratīti derives from prati + i (to go). The past participle form, pratīta means ‘acknowledged, known, recognised,’ according to Monier Williams (1981). For the past participle form, Apte (1978) includes ‘believed, trusted; proved established; acknowledged, realised; well-known, received, famous’; and ‘convinced, of a known conviction.’ These meanings given to the past participle form by both Apte and Williams support why Dharmakīrti’s usage in the above mentioned instances have been understood by the commentators as referring to something that is popularly believed to be true. In its noun form, pratīti contains several meanings: Apte (1978) lists the following meanings: i. conviction settled belief; ii. belief; iii. knowledge, ascertainment; clear or distinct assumption; iv. fame, renown; v. respect; vi. delight; vii. going forward, approaching. These basic meanings listed by Apte in the noun form, and in particular, the meanings i through iii are basically in accordance with the meanings listed for the pp form. Monier Williams, however, lists the following two meanings which highlight the logical sense of the term: the following from anything (as a necessary result); being very clear and intelligible by itself. These meanings seem better to capture Dharmakīrti’s use of the concept of pratītinirākṛta. In contemporary analytical philosophy, a statement such as ‘if x is bachelor then x is unmarried’ seems to correspond to Dharmakīrti’s example. This statement is true, by definition. In order to determine the truth-value of this statement, we do not need to make an empirical investigation. Mere analysis of the language would make the meaning clear. The two key terms are synonymous and one cannot deny the statement without contradicting oneself. In this sense, it is similar to Kant’s analytic apriori judgment, the criterion of which is the principle of non-contradiction. In the same manner, in Dharmakīrti’s example, to assert acandraḥ śaśin (or to deny that śaśin (that which has a rabbit) is candra) would be to violate the principle of non-contradiction. In his well-known study of the Nyāyabindu and its tika by Dharmottara, Stcherbatsky translates pratītinirākṛta as “a thesis contradicted by the (identity) or a conception” (1993, II:163). This translation is based on Dharmottara’s interpretation which I will quote below (as translated by Stchcrbatsky):

What Does Dharmakīrti Mean by pratīti…


The following is an example of a proposition standing in contradiction to the (identity of the corresponding) conception. The word “hare-marked” does not mean the moon, i.e. cannot be denoted by the word moon. This is disproved by (the identity of) the conception (corresponding to both these words). (59.6) A thing is said to be distinctly conceived when it is an object (apprehended by a synthetic) mental construction. To be a concept or to be conceived means to be an object of mental construction. (59.7) Owing to the circumstance that the thing “bearing the image of a hare” corresponds (in our speech) to a mental construction which has the form of a concept, (of a distinct image), it is established beyond doubt that it can be given the name of the moon. Indeed, what corresponds to a constructed image is capable of coalescing with a word, and what is capable of coalescing with a word can be designated by a name chosen (arbitrarily) by convention (59.9). Consequently, the possibility of giving it the name of the moon, and the contradiction of denying it, are established by (the identity) of the object of mental construction, i.e., by the (identical) form of the (corresponding) image. Dharmottara’s analysis is based on the idea of mental construction which is capable of being associated with a concept. The mental construction is a particular object and as long as the object and the corresponding construction remains the same, it can be designated by any word because language is a convention adopted by people. Pratīti in this context is understood as a ‘thing distinctly conceived.’ The contradiction spoken here is the contradiction of denying the possibility of naming an identical mental construction by any name. Dharmottara’s analysis is worded in psychological terms. Consequently, the basis for identity is the mental construction that remains unchanged whatever the name that is used. In this context, both words, ‘moon’ and ‘bearing the image of a hare’ have the same mental construction. A very similar, but the non-psychological explanation was given by Gottlob Frege, a modern German philosopher (Geach and Black 1985, 56–78). His well-known distinction between ‘sense and reference’ seems to precisely refer to a similar situation. By the examples of ‘morning star’ and ‘evening star,’ Frege explained how two different terms with different meanings can refer to the same object. In other words, terms with different senses can refer to the same object, a fact which is very often common-sense and trivial, but in some cases as the morning star and


Asanga Tilakaratne

evening star, indicate a significant discovery in astronomy. By asserting that the morning star is the evening star, although it looks like a tautology, in fact, it can be a result of an important discovery. If that is so, then denying that the morning star is the evening star is rather a result of ignorance than a contradiction. In a similar manner, when one denies that śaśin is the moon it can merely be the ignorance of a popular belief that the moon is also that which bears the mark of a hare. Vinītadeva, another commentator of Dharmakīrti and his Tibetan translators, as Stcherbatsky shows, understood pratīti as what is popularly known or believed. Vinītadeva’s position results from the Buddhist theory of language that holds that any object can be called by any name as the connection between reality and language is not necessary but is arbitrary. Such nominations, however, must be approved by the society of users of that particular language. According to Vinītadeva, the fallacy involved here is that of denying that which is popularly known. Dignāga described this fallacy as loka-prasiddhi-viruddha (contrary to what is known in the world). Stcherbatsky contends that Dharmakīrti’s change of prasiddhi into pratīti is intentional and that the meaning of this was what Stcherbatsky calls an “analytical syllogism.” He proposes the following logical syllogism: Major premise: Whatsoever appears as the distinct image of the moon can be given the name of the moon. Minor premise: The “hare-marked” object appears as the distinct image of the moon. Conclusion or the thesis: It can be given the name of the moon. Stcherbatsky explains his formulation further: Both names represent two coexisting possibilities, the presence of the one is by itself a sufficient reason for inferring the necessary presence of the other, the denial of this would be a contradiction (bādhita). (1993, II:164) Although Stchcrbatsky calls this an analytical syllogism, his formulation is based on a psychological interpretation of pratīti. The contradiction involved here is described as the denying of one when a sufficient reason for its presence is given. This idea of contradiction described by Stcherbatsky is not logical but ontological, namely, it is related to facts of the world. In a sense, such inference is not different from inferring the

What Does Dharmakīrti Mean by pratīti…


presence of fire when smoke is present. I think Stcherbatsky understands correctly that what is involved here as an analytical syllogism, but his formulation suffers from a lack of clarity. I think that this can be better explained by taking analyticity in a logical sense rather than in a psychological form or an ontological sense. Pratīti seems to contain, among others, a sense of logical implication. Dharmakīrti uses the term in this sense in his discussion of non-perception (anupalabdhi). He says: Even in non-perception when it is said that whatever exists, all conditions of perceptibility being fulfilled, is necessarily perceived, if such an object is not perceived then it is absent as established by implication [anupalabdhāv api yat sadupalakṣaṇaprāptam tadupalabhyata evetyukte’nupalabhyamānam tādṛśam asad iti pratīter anvayasiddhiḥ (3: 14)]. The sense of implication referred to here is quite ordinary, similar to the term gatārthatvāt (in 3-39) and not in a strong sense of logical implication. The sense of implication contained in the issue under discussion here is the definitional implication. Logicians have shown various senses of implication. In an example such as “If all humans are mortal and Socrates is a human, then Socrates is mortal,” the implication is a logical implication. In a statement such as “If Leslie is a bachelor then Leslie is unmarried,” the implication is definitional. This is because the consequent follows from its antecedent by its very definition. In order for one statement to follow from another two statements, it has to be equivalent in some sense. The concept of equivalence is usually described as two-fold, namely, material equivalence and logical equivalence. Two terms or statements are materially equivalent if they merely happen to have the same truth value (even if they have no factual connections with one another). Two statements or terms are logically equivalent when they have the same meaning and “may be substituted for one another in any truth-functional context without changing the truth value of that context” (Copi and Cohen 1990, 289). The relationship between śaśin and chandra seems to be one of logical equivalence. They have the same reference and they can be substituted for one another without changing the truth value. If we understand Dharmakīrti’s example in this sense, it seems to contain a strong logical sense than merely an idea or that which is well known. Finally, by way of conclusion, it is a question of whether Dharrnakīrti really meant a kind of strong logical equivalence when he formulated pratātinirākṛta as one of the sādhanābhāsas. It may appear that by reading Dharmakīrti in this manner one is attributing a kind of sophisti-


Asanga Tilakaratne

cation which was not applicable to this ancient logician. The commentators of the past are divided between psychological and conventional (popularly known) interpretations. I propose that by calling this ‘analytical syllogism’, Stcherbatsky comes close to the meaning; however, his interpretation is based on an ontological sense. The logical sense that I propose is simpler for it rests merely on the meaning of the terms involved. Whether or not Dharmakīrti meant this could not be decided conclusively. By substituting Dignāga’s prasiddhi with pratīti, it is clear that Dharmakirti was not talking about a fallacy involving that that is popularly known. What remains then is a psychological interpretation which is closer to the ancient concept of language. However, going by Dharmakīrti’s usage of the term in other contexts to imply a logical necessity it may well be imagined that he was guided by a sense of strong logical necessity when he formulated this fallacy.

14. A Study on the Kathāvatthu*

The Kathāvatthu (Kvu) is one of the seven books belonging to the Abhidhamma Piṭaka of the Theravada tradition. Although the book is believed to have been added to the canon last, in the traditional listing of the Abhidhamma books it is placed as the fifth. The traditional Theravada belief is that the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, in its extant form, was preached by the Buddha himself. In the commentary to the Dhammasaṅgani, Buddhaghosa says that the Abhidhamma was preached by the Buddha to the inhabitants of the Tāvatiṃsa heaven where his mother was born following her death, immediately after the birth of the future Buddha. This theory of the inception (nidāna) of the Abhidhamma is meant to attribute the general authorship of the Piṭaka to the Buddha. However, in the case of the Kvu, one has to take into consideration the following two points: (1) Kvu is the only Theravada Abhidhamma book for which the tradition acknowledges a separate author, namely, the great elder Moggalīputta Tissa. (2) Its subject matter is a critique of the so-called wrong views adopted by later Buddhist sects that emerged several centuries after the parinibbāna of the Buddha. In this connection, the commentary (viz. Pañcappakaraṇaṭṭhakathā) has the following explanation to make: After he [the Buddha] had taught them the Dhammasaṅgaṇi, the Vibhaṅga, the Dhātukathā and the Puggalapaññatti, he thought: when in the future the turn for setting forth the Kathāvatthu shall arrive, my disciple, the greatly wise Elder, Tissa, the son of Moggali will purge the blemishes that have arisen in the Religion, and calling a third council, will, seated in the midst of the Order, divide this compilation into thousand sec* An initial version of this article was published in Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, Vol. VI: Fascicle 2, Colombo, 2000.


Asanga Tilakaratne

tions ...... he drew up, with respect to courses to be adopted in all the discourses, a list of heads in a text uncompleted by just one section for recitation ... (KvuA 1) This recovers the predicament by attributing the authorship of the main themes of debates recorded in the book to the Buddha and by leaving the detailed authorship to Moggaliputta Tissa Thera. The historical background of the Kvu is the division of the Sangha into many different schools. According to the commentary to the Kvu, one hundred years after the parinibbāna of the Buddha, a group of monks called Vajjiputtaka proposed a laxity of rules. The orthodox monks came together and decided that the proposed relaxation of rules was not warranted by the original disciplinary code (Vinaya) of the Buddha. The group who did not accept this decision broke away from the original group and formed a new sect called ‘Mahāsāṅghika’ or ‘those who belonged to the great community.’ The traditional group came to be known as Theravadins i.e. ‘those who follow the doctrine of the Elders.’ Subsequently, about two centuries after the parinibbāna of the Buddha, there arose five sects from the Mahāsāṅghikas, namely, Ekabbohārika, Gokulika, Paññattivāda, Bāhulika and Cetiyavāda. Eleven sects arose from Theravada, namely, Mahīsāsaka, Sabbatthi-vāda, Kassapīya, Sāṅkantika, Sutta-vāda, Dhammaguttika, Vajjiputtaka, Dhammuttariya, Channāgārika, Bhadrayānika and Sammitīya. During the reign of Emperor Asoka, who showed great concern for the sāsana, there were many who entered it for the sole purpose of living an easy life. As a result, the sāsana had become corrupted. The third council was convened by Asoka in order to remedy this situation. At this council, the entire three Piṭakas were recited and the Kathāvatthu was compiled by the convener of the council, Moggaliputta Tissa Maha Thera in order to repudiate the wrong views held by the nikāyins other than the Theravadins. This Theravada version of the story and the very historicity of the third council have been questioned by certain historians. Moreover, it has been shown that some of the sects mentioned in the book belong to a post-Asoka period. Nevertheless, the historicity of the book and its author is generally accepted.

Structure of the book The Kvu deals with 217 doctrinal interpretations held by various Buddhist schools.1 They have been arranged under 23 chapters. Scholars 1  By taking separately the questions: ‘whether five sense organs are something vis-

A Study on the Kathāvatthu


who have studied the book have noticed that there is no method or order in presenting these controversies either by subject matter or by the sects to which these views have been attributed. The book itself does not refer to any of these nikāyas by name. That information is provided by the commentary written by Buddhaghosa. The issues that have been debated cover a wide spectrum of doctrinal matters ranging from the most significant, to the not so significant. Among the issues debated, four stand out by virtue of the impact they have made on the subsequent evolution of Buddhist philosophy and the monastic tradition. They are whether the ‘person’ obtains in a real and ultimate sense (upalabbhati puggalo sacchikaṭṭha paramaṭṭhena?); whether everything exists (sabbaṃ atthīti?), whether the nature of the Buddha is transcendent and ‘whether an arahant could lose his arahanthood’ (parihāyati arahā arahattā) and many other issues in connection with the nature and the ability of the arahant. The first three issues represent personalism, realism and transcendentalism respectively in the Buddhist philosophical tradition. The sceptical quarries and questions on the arahant seem to represent a conscious effort to discredit the arahanthood as the ultimate religious ideal in Buddhism and this trend has culminated in Mahayana Buddhism, which is more aptly called the ‘Bodhisatvayāna’. The book begins with the question ‘whether the person is known in a real and ultimate sense’ (upalabbhati puggalo sacchikaṭṭha paramaṭṭhena?). The personalist view, which is well known in the history of Buddhism, is attributed to Sammitīyas by the commentator. This question has been dealt with extensively. In contrast to the treatment of the other questions, this is the longest, which runs into 69 pages of the PTS edition. The question regarding the alleged non-existence of the Buddha in the world of humankind indicates the transcendentalist trend that surfaced in the Buddhist tradition and ultimately led to the development of the concept in Mahayana Buddhism, in which the Buddha is considered as wholly transcendent. The questions, such as did the Buddha visit to earth by proxy only? (XVIII: I) and did he preach by proxy only? (XVIII: II), further testifies to this trend. Many other questions relating to the nature of the Buddha shows that the concept of Buddhahood was a fertile ground for the emergence of many unorthodox views. Amongst the other ible?’ and ‘whether bodily action is something visible?’ which are usually included in the question: ‘whether earth element is something visible? (VI:8)’ sometimes the issues are counted as 219.


Asanga Tilakaratne

issues debated on the nature of the Buddha are: everyday use of conventions by the Buddha (II: 10); his powers (III: 1,2); possibility of enlightenment through enlightenment (IV:4); his physical marks (IV:7); whether a gift to him could bring blessings (XVVII: 10); whether or not he feels pity (XVIII :3); was everything about him fragrant? (XVIII:4); could he work wonders against nature (XXI:4); how do Buddhas mutually differ (XXI:5); and whether or not they pervade in all directions? (XXI:6). Hand in hand with the tendency to establish the transcendence of the Buddha there appears to have been another tendency growing amongst the Buddhist schools, which was to downgrade the nature of the arahant and other noble persons’ (ariya puggala) who had realised any one of the other three stages of sainthood. The question of whether an arahant falls away from arahant hood? (parihayāti arahā arahattā? chapter I: section 2) and many other issues related to the nature of an arahant indicate the later Buddhist developments, which ended in almost completely discrediting the high character attributed to an arahant in the earlier tradition. Amongst the many other issues regarding an arahant which was debated: Can Māra defile him (II:2); the nature of his knowledge and its limits (II:2; IV: 10; XXll:I); can he doubt (II:3); can others excel him (II:4) the difference between an arahant and layman (IV:1); can he inherit arahantship? IV:2; XXII:5); his common humanity (IV:3); indifference to sensations (IV:5) his attainment as the final step (IV:10); as adept (V:2); does karma affect him? (VII:11); whether or not he accumulates any more merit (XVII:23) his untimely death (XVII 2); his consciousness at death (XXII:23); bogus arahants (XXIII:2); whether or not his emancipation is complete (XXI:3; XXII: I). The overall flavour of the questions is the wide-spread scepticism regarding the exalted nature of the arahant as recognised in the Theravada tradition. It is this trend that served as the background to the Bodhisattva doctrine that gradually emerged in the Mahayana tradition. The question: ‘does everything exist?’ (sabbaṃ atthīti)? represents the fundamental doctrine of the Sabbatthivāda (Skr. Sarvāstivāda) or the realist school of Buddhism. In the debate over this question, the key issue was whether past, present and future are real or not. Amongst the other subjects debated are the puthujjana or average person, gods, the Order of the saṅgha, sāsana (dispensation), individual (puggala), cosmology, the unconditioned or nibbāna and a number of ethical issues among which the doctrine of karma occupies an important place. With the exception of the above-mentioned issues, most of the questions dealt

A Study on the Kathāvatthu


with arose from statements dealing with ethics, psychology and cosmology. Some of these questions were not matters of great significance. They usually arose from the misunderstanding of the statements by the Buddha. The Venerable Nyanatiloka observes: A great deal of those speculations relate, indeed, to very minor matters, and are often merely one-sided, or misleading statements; and nearly all of them can be traced back to wrong or inaccurate understanding or the indiscriminate use of technical terms, or of utterances occurring in the Canon. (Nyanatiloka 1983, 61)

The method The purpose of the Kvu, as we noticed earlier, is to repudiate the views held by the sectarian groups. In order to do so, the book follows two methods: The first is what may be called the logical method, which is implemented through such means as analysing concepts, determining their limits and drawing their logical implications. The second is to appeal to the authority of the statements of the Buddha in order to show whether a particular view is in conformity or not with the word of the Teacher. Since a large number of issues arise from misunderstanding the texts, both parties of the debate refer to the statements of the Buddha in order to support their own case. The manner of the presentation of the issues is dialogical. The discussions run in the form of dialogues between the Theravadin (saka-vādi) and their opponent (para-vādi), who may belong to one amongst many rival schools. The dialogue seems to follow a well-developed structure of debate that is based on mutually agreed upon canons of logical reasoning and categories of exegesis. Among the issues debated, the first is presented in great detail; the others are presented in varying degrees of length. In order to give the reader an idea of the complexity and the richness of the method of the Kvu, we will summarise key elements of the debate on ‘individual.’ The alleged reality of the ‘pudgala’ (individual) has been examined under eighteen aspects. These are: (1) Sense of realness (sacchikaṭṭha) (2) Illustration with other realities (suddhika sansandanā) (3) Illustration by way of analogy (opamma sansandanā) (4) Illustration by the fourfold method (catukkanaya sansandanā) (5) Associated characteristics (lakkhaṇa yutti kathā)


Asanga Tilakaratne

(6) Clarification of terms (vacana sodhana) (7) Inquiry by way of conventions (paññattānuyoga) (8) Inquiry by way of birth, departure and re-linking (gati cuti paṭisandhi anuyoga) (9) Inquiry by way of dependent conventions (upādāya paññattānuyoga) (10) Inquiry by way of human action (purisakāranuyoga) (11) Inquiry by way of super knowledge (abhiññānuyoga) (12) Inquiry by way of kinship (ñātaka anuyoga) (13) Inquiry by way of birth (jāti anuyoga) (14) Inquiry by way of practice (paṭiipatti anuyoga) (15) Inquiry by way of approach (upapattii anuyoga) (16) Inquiry by way of realisation (paṭivedha anuyoga) (17) Inquiry by way of the noble fraternity (saṅghānuyoga) (18) Inquiry by way of the true own character (saccikaṭṭasabhāvānuyoga) In addition to these eighteen modes mentioned by name, there are additional five modes used in the debate of the puggala but not given any specific names. Taking into consideration the content of the modes we may identify them under the following headings: inquiry by way of becoming (bhavānuyoga), inquiry by way of feeling (vedanānuyoga), inquiry by way of establishment of mindfulness (satipaṭṭhānuyoga), inquiry by appeal to the discourses of the Buddha (buddhadesanānuyoga) and inquiry by way of conceptual analysis (saṅkappa vibhāgānuyoga). Of these, the fourth, the mode of referring to the discourses of the Buddha is by far the most important and also the ultimate criterion resorted to by both the proponent and the opponent not merely on one question but on all debated questions. This practice ultimately leads to an interesting interpretational issue of the word of the Buddha: when both groups produce the statements of the Buddha in support of their positions the matter hinges on how one would interpret these statements. What is at the heart of the issue is whether the particular statement of the Buddha is of direct meaning (nīta-attha) or indirect meaning (neya-attha), an interpretational criterion mentioned in the discourses as crucial for the correct understanding of the word of the Buddha.

A Study on the Kathāvatthu


Of the above-mentioned eighteen modes, the first is treated from four different perspectives, namely, the abstract sense of reality (suddha sacchikaṭṭha), the locative perspective of reality (okāsa sacchikaṭṭha), the temporal perspective of reality (kāla sacchikaṭṭha) and aspect perspective of reality (avayava sacchikaṭṭha). Each of the four perspectives is treated in two ways, namely, positively (anuloma) and negatively (paccanika): the sakavādī begins the debate by presenting the basic objection in a positive manner, and paravādī continues his rebuttal in negative manner in the following sequence: (i) the fourfold rebuttal (paṭikamma catukka); (ii) the fourfold refutation (niggaha catukka); (iii) the fourfold application (upanayana catukka) and (iv) the fourfold conclusion (nigamana catukka) and concludes that first step of the debate; next the paravādī begins by presenting his position in negative manner and the sakavādī continues in a positive manner following the same sequence and concludes that step of the debate. These initial steps are called ‘pentad’ (pañcaka) for the reason that probably they have the following structure of five aspects: questioning (pucchā), acknowledgement (paṭiññā), objection (anuyoga), rejection (paṭikkhepa) and refutation (niggaha) or amendment (paṭikamma). In these two pentdas the sakavādī’s turn is called ‘the fivefold confrontation of the paravādin (opponent) by the sakavādīn (the Theravadin) (anuloma paccanīka pañcaka) and the paravādī’s turn is called ‘the fivefold confrontation of the Theravadin by the paravādin (paccanīka anuloma pañcaka). In this manner, the issue of the reality of puggala is treated according to the four perspectives mentioned above, namely, abstract sense, location, time, and aspects, following a similar structure of argument mentioned above to form what is called ‘eight refutations’ (aṭṭha niggaha). The eight are the following: (1) suddha sacchikaṭṭha anuloma-pañcaka, paṭikamma-catukka, niggaha-catukka, upanayana-catukka and nigamana-catukka; (2) suddha sacchikaṭṭha paṭiloma-pañcaka .... (3) okāsa sacchikaṭṭha anuloma pañcaka .... ( 4) okāsa sacchikaṭṭha paṭiloma-pañcaka (5) kāla sacchikaṭṭha anuloma-pañcaka .. .... (6) kāla sacchikaṭṭha paṭiloma-pañcaka ... (7) avayava sacchikaṭṭha anuloma-pañcaka ..... and (8) avayava sacchikaṭṭha paṭiloma pañcaka .... Of these perspectives only the first is described fully, everything else has been treated in what is traditionally known as ‘peyyāla’ (abbreviated method). It is the implicit belief that the logical method and the four perspectives applied in the discussion of the [perspective of] abstract sense of realness of puggala is applicable to all the questions of the entire Kvu.


Asanga Tilakaratne

The eighteen modes mentioned by name and the rest of the five modes not mentioned by name, except what we named buddhadesana-anuyoga have been developed with particular reference to the issue of the puggala, and hence they are not necessarily found in the discussions of the other issues. Consequently, these other discussions assume a variety of proportions as we mentioned above. As to some questions, a selected number of modes have been used depending on their relative significance. For questions such as, ‘does the arahant fall back from his arahanthood’ (1:2) and ‘does everything exist’ (1:6), the initial presentation of the basic subject matter is from the perspectives of time and space and the subsequent discussion followed by a long discussion2 is called the ‘canons of debate’ (Vādayutti). This, however, is limited to very few discussions. Notwithstanding the apparent lack of uniformity in application, there is little doubt that the guidelines delineated here testify to the existence of a rich and complex tradition of exegesis, interpretation and debate. What remains universal in the treatment of all issues is the dialogical method containing the essence of logical reasoning. The dialogues show that the participants were well aware of some of the basic rules of logic. For example, the very first dialogue of Kvu runs as follows: Theravādin: Is ‘the person’ known in the sense of real and ultimate fact? Paravādin: Yes Th. Is the person known in the same way as a real and ultimate fact is known? P. Th.

Nay, that cannot truly be said. Acknowledge your refutation: (i) If the person is known in the sense of a real and ultimate fact, then indeed, good sir, you should also say, the person is known in the same way as [any other] real and the ultimate fact [is known]. (ii) That which you say here is wrong, namely, (1) that we ought to say ‘the person is known in the sense of real and ultimate fact’ but (2) we ought not to say, the person is known in the same way as [any other] real and ultimate fact [is known]. (iii) If the latter statement (2) cannot be admitted, then indeed the former statement (1) should not be admitted. (iv) In affirming the former statement (1), while (v) denying

2  The PTS edition does not have this.

A Study on the Kathāvatthu


the latter (2) you are wrong. This dialogue may be re-stated using p [The person is known in the sense of real and ultimate fact] and q [(The real and ultimate facts exist and) the person is known in the same way as real and ultimate facts are known] for two basic propositions involved in the debate: Sakavādī: Is p true? Paravādī: Yes. Sakavādī: Is q true? Paravādī: It is not true. Acknowledge the defeat (for if p is true then q is true; p → q) The assertion that p is true but ~q (not q) is false. If q is not true, then p is also not true (Jayatilleke 1963, 413). This is an argument in the form of modus ponens (MP). The paravādī accepts p but does not accept q as he should and hence guilty of denying the consequent. What is clear from the dialogue is that both the proponent and the opponent were familiar with what is known in modern logic as the rule of implication: p implies q if and only if ~q or Similarly, the following argument in the form of modus tollens (MT) shows that the debaters were aware of that which in modern logic is called the rule of transposition (or contraposition): p implies q if and only if ~ q implies ~ p. If p then q [p = The person is known in the sense of real and ultimate fact; q = The real and ultimate facts exist and the person is known in the same way as real and ultimate facts are known]; ~ q; Therefore, ~ p (the paravādī who denies the consequent has to deny the antecedent too. But he does not do so, and hence guilty of a logical error according to the sakavādī.) In the Kathāvatthu terminology, what we took as p (antecedent) is ‘ṭhapanā’ [‘act of placing’], p (consequent) is ‘pāpanā’ [‘act of conducting’] and the concluding process is ‘āropanā’ [act of attributing’]. In this debate both sakavādī and paravādī adhere to these two forms of argument regularly. The general mode of the dialogue consists of the following: asking a question (pucchā); its acknowledgement by the opponent by affirming


Asanga Tilakaratne

it (paṭiññā = thesis) [NB. Although this is presented as a question and answer due to its dialogical form, this is basically the thesis of the argument.], challenge by the proponent (anuyoga) and its rejection by the opponent (paṭikkhepa). Sometimes refutation (niggaha) by the questioner follows the rejection. This simple method has been followed consistently throughout the text. The awareness of the limits and the logical boundaries of the concepts is the hallmark of these debates. A good case in point is the section called ‘the clarification of terms’ (vacana sodhana). The following excerpt makes it clear. Theravadin: Paravādīn: Th:

Is ‘the person’ known and, conversely, is that which is known the person? The person is known. Conversely, of that which is known some is person, some is not person. Do you admit this with respect to the subject also: of that which is person, is some known and some not known? P: Nay, that cannot truly be said... Th: Does ‘person’ mean reality and conversely? P: ‘Person’ is a reality. Conversely, reality means in part person, in part, not the person. Th: Do you admit this with respect to the subject also: that person means in part reality in part nonreality? P: Nay, that cannot truly be said... The entire debate in this section seems to have centred around the limits and the extent of the two key concepts, namely, ‘person’ and ‘reality’. As Mrs Rhys Davids too has noticed earlier [Points of Controversy (1915), Prefaratory Notes, l] what is behind this exercise is the distribution of terms and the method of conversion, although any particular names to denote these do not seem to have been given by the Buddhists. In order to show that there is no unchanging reality behind concepts, Moggalīputta Tissa Thera produces the following three sets of concepts: (I) pot of oil, pot of honey, pot of molasses, pot of milk and pot of water; (II) pan of water; bag of water, pool of water. The idea is that either the container in the case of the first group or the contained in the case of the second group can be varied depending on circumstances and that there is no permanent identity behind seemingly permanent

A Study on the Kathāvatthu


concepts. (III) The next two examples nicca-bhatta and dhuva-bhatta show that what is referred to is not ‘permanent’; (nicca) or ‘everlasting’ (dhuva) meal or ‘thick’ broth (although these adjectives usually convey these meanings) but ‘regular meal’ and ‘thick broth’ This stresses the fact that words do not have fixed and strictly etymological meanings but they differ depending on contexts. Moggalīputta Tissa Thera’s last move is to show that the entire view of the existence of an unchanging person is based on a wrong philosophy of language. The Kvu represents a very advanced and developed art of debate in which the basic canons of logic that are universally accepted are seen to be emerging. Some modern critics have been hesitant to believe that these ancient Indian debaters possessed knowledge of sophisticated logical principles. As Jayatilleke correctly observes, in a situation such as this “one has to rely on the factual evidence... and not on hypothetical possibilities of what can or cannot exist” (1963, 415). In the Theravada Buddhist canonical literature, the Kvu is significant both historically and philosophically. Historically it reports the viewpoints of various Buddhist traditions contributing thereby to our understanding of not only the vast and variegated traditions of Buddhism but also the Indian religion in general. Philosophically, it contains the arguments adduced by both opponents and proponents for certain very important religious and philosophical positions. In addition to these two aspects, Kvu’s value as a basic treatise on Buddhist hermeneutics is immense. It also provides valuable information regarding the early development of both the art of debate and the logical reasoning in the context of the Indian religion.

15. A Conceptual Analysis in the Kathāvatthu with a Special Focus on the Debate on the Puggala (Puggala-kathā)

Introduction The analysis of the nature, function and the limits of linguistic concepts has played a more important role in early Buddhist philosophical analysis than has been hitherto recognised by the scholars who have studied the philosophy of the early Buddhist canonical literature.1 This is particularly so with regard to the Kathāvatthu (Kvu), one of the seven works of the Theravada Abhidhamma, which uses conceptual analysis as a key tool. In order to highlight how the analysis of concepts feature in this work, this essay examines the Kvu discussion on the alleged existence of the puggala (individual) in a real and an ultimate sense, a view mainly attributed to the Vatsiputriyas (and Sammitīyas), who are known in the history of Buddhism as ‘those who held the view of the puggala (puggala-vādī) or the ‘personalists’. In this discussion, we use the term ‘conceptual’, although it may be easily replaced by ‘linguistic’, mainly because the Kvu deals with concepts, and not merely with words. Further, this usage will help avoid any confusion with linguistic analysis in contemporary analytical philosophy.

Background The Kvu is the only text among the seven texts that constitute the Theravada Abhidhamma which has been attributed to a particular author, namely, to Moggaliputta Tissa Thera who, according to the Mahāvaṃsa, was the convener of the third Buddhist council during the reign of 1  Concept in early Buddhism has been studied by scholars such as Warder (1970, 1971), and Priestly (1999). My focus here is on how conceptual analysis has been used in early Buddhism, some earlier examples for which are Watanabe (1983) and Kalupahana (1986).

A Conceptual Analysis in the Kathāvatthu…


King Asoka. In his commentary to the Kathāvatthu,2 Buddhaghosa adduces reasons to accommodate this historical authorship within the larger Theravada3 belief that the entire Abhidhamma was the word of the Buddha. Obviously, this is a tall order, for, in the specific historical context that necessitated the Theravadins to respond to the various interpretations of the Dhamma, developed during the two and half centuries after the parinirvāṇa of the Buddha, the commentator had to find an ingenious way to include the Kvu within the fold. According to the commentator, the Buddha foresaw the future developments and left the lead terms (mātikā) relevant to all matters of debate to be developed by Moggaliputta Tissa Thera (Com. 1-2, 9). On this commentarial view, the actual author is only an elaborator and commentator of what the Buddha left in a sketchy form. It appears that consistency has been achieved at the expense of the philosophical integrity of the teaching of the Buddha.4 The Kvu contains debates on 217 matters related to various aspects of the doctrine or Dhamma (not on the Vinaya). The commentary identifies different schools of Buddhists who held these views, altogether eighteen including Theravada and Mahāsāṅghika,5 which initially broke away from Theravada as well as the others that broke away from these two traditions. The content is presented in the form of a debate between 2  Kathāvatthuppakaraṇa-aṭṭhakathā (included in Pañcappakaraṇa-aṭṭhakathā named Paramatthadīpani), ed. NA Jayawickrama, Pali Text Society (PTS), London, 1979. 3  At this juncture I do not plan to venture into the debate on whether or not ‘theravada’ existed by this time and at what point of its evolution Theravada was called ‘theravada.’ For the purpose of this study, I simply assume that the tradition, subsequently came to be called Theravada, existed with an unbroken continuity since the first sangayana (See How Theravada is Theravada (ed. Peter Skilling et al.) for a collection of excellent studies on this and related issues.) 4  A question of determinism looms large over the claim that the Buddha foresaw as to what will happen at a distant date. 5  Mahiṃsāsaka, Vajjiputtaka, Dhammuttarika, Bhaddayānika, Channāgārika, Sammitīya, Sabbatthivāda, Dhammaguttika, Kassapika, Saṅkantivāda, and Suttavādi are the eleven groups that broke away from Theravada and from Mahāsāṅghika, five schools broke away, Gokulika, Ekabbohārika, Bāhussutika, paññattivāda and Cetiyavāda making altogether seventeen representing the ‘others’ (para) in debates. The commentary refers to a further six groups, that emerged later and were not represented in the debates, Hemavatika, Rājagirika, Siddhatthika, Pubbaseliya, Aparaseliya and Vājiriyavāda (Com. 3-5). See Points of Controversy or Subjects of Discourse, the English translation of Kvu by Shwe Zan Aung and Mrs Rhys Davids (PTS, 1915/2001) for a useful list of debated themes that were sorted out according to the schools that held those views ( xviii-xxvii).


Asanga Tilakaratne

‘sakavādī’ (proponent or Theravadin) and ‘paravādī’ (an opponent or ‘the other’). There is a well laid out procedure for the debate, resembling in some respects the fivefold syllogism developed later, presumably by the Naiyāyikas, consisting of the presentation of the initial argument in a positive (anuloma) or negative manner (paccanika), rebuttal (paṭikamma), refutation (niggaha), affirmation of one’s position (upanayana) and finally the conclusion (nigamana). While these aspects serve as the structure of presentation, the logical rule followed by both the proponent and opponent is exactly like the two basic rules found in modern logic, modus ponens and modus tollens, presented by the following structure, ṭhapanā (placing), pāpanā (conveying) and aropanā6 (attributing) (corresponding respectively to antecedent, consequent and conclusion). The Kvu presents eighteen modes of debating a particular issue. These are: Examination by pure reality (suddha sacchikaṭṭha), comparison with other realities (suddhika saṃsandanā), comparison by way of analogy (opamma saṃsandanā), comparison by the fourfold method (catukkanaya saṃsandanā), examination by associated characteristics (lakkhanayutti kathā), clearing the terms (vacanasodhana), inquiry by concepts (paññatti anuyoga), examination by destiny, departure and relinking (gati-cuti-paṭisandhi anuyoga), examination by derivative concepts (upādā paññatti anuyoga), examination by human action (purisakāra anuyoga), examination by super knowledge (abhiññā anuyoga), examination by kinship, caste, way of life and birth (ñātaka-jāti-paṭipatti-upapatti anuyoga [four modes combined]), examination by realisation (paṭivedha anuyoga), examination by (saṅgha) community (saṅgha anuyoga) and examination by the nature of realisation (sacchikaṭṭha sabhāva anuyoga). These modes are systematically elaborated only in regard to the debate on the puggala. In addition to these modes mentioned by specific names, there are several additional modes, five to be exact, which are not referred to by any specific names. For the sake of convenience for the study we will name them as examination by becoming (bhava anuyoga), examination by feeling (vedanā anuyoga), examination by the establishment of mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna anuyoga), examination by appeal to the discourses (buddhadesanā anuyoga) and examination by conceptual analysis (saṅkappavibhāga anuyoga). While all of these modes are interesting in themselves, what is rele6  Mrs Rhys Davids in her introduction translates these terms as positing, gaining and lifting, respectively (Points of Controversy: xlviii).

A Conceptual Analysis in the Kathāvatthu…


vant for our study here are those directly dealing with concepts. Accordingly, for the remainder of this essay we will study the following modes in order to understand how conceptual analysis has been used in the Kvu to analyse the alleged existence of the puggala as an ultimate reality: (i) clearing the terms (vacana sodhana), inquiry by concepts (paññatti anuyoga), examination by derivative concepts (upādāpaññatti anuyoga) and examination by conceptual analysis (saṅkappavibhāga anuyoga). In addition, I will highlight some instances relevant to a conceptual analysis found in other modes and also, in other discussions. I. Clearing the terms (vacana sodhana) What is usually found in the Vinaya as pada-bhājaniya (analysis of terms) is the clarifying of the meaning of the words or terms used. What is meant here, however, is not exactly clarifying the meaning of terms, but rather, an exercise in determining the extent of the concepts involved. As was also noted by Shwe Zan Aung and Mrs Rhys Davids (1915/2001), in logical language this method involves the distribution and conversion of terms. Sakavādī: Is puggala (person) known, and conversely, is that which is known puggala?7 Paravādī: Puggala is known; conversely, of that which is known some are puggala, some are not puggala. Sakavādī: Does that mean that some puggala is known, and some puggala is not known? Paravādī: One should not say so. In the same manner, the following assertions are tested with the Paravādī: (i) Does puggala mean a reality, and what is real is pudgla? (ii) Does puggala continue to exist (saṃvijjamāna) and is what continues to exist puggala? (iii) Does puggala exist (atthi) and is what exists puggala? The debate seems to focus on whether or not Paravādī is aware of the extent of the concepts he is using. In other words, it is a logical exercise in a class-member relationship, which in this particular case is between the puggala as a known object and the class of all known objects. If we construe this in the form of Aristotelian A proposition [All puggalas 7  Author himself has translated all Pali passages in the present paper. His translations, however, are not meant to be final to given passages as he believes that they can be further improved - Editor.


Asanga Tilakaratne

are known objects], then its converse ‘All known objects are puggalas’ is clearly wrong. For in an A proposition, though the subject is distributed the predicate is not, and hence the conversion remains invalid. The argument is concluded in the following manner: Sakavādī: Puggala exists, all that exists is not puggala? (puggalo atthi, atthi na sabbo puggalo’ti) Paravādī: Yes. Sakavādī: Puggala does not exist; all that does not exist is not puggala? (puggalo natthi, natthi na sabbo puggalo’ti). Paravādī: One should not say so. Although, it is acceptable to Paravādī that all that exists is not puggala, for there are other objects that exist, he cannot agree with Sakavādī when he combines two propositions, the first of which [puggala does not exist] is clearly not acceptable to him with the second presented in a twisted manner indicating the non-existence of puggala, which too is not acceptable to the Paravādī. Hence, his negative response. II. Inquiry into terms/concepts (paññatti anuyoga) There are four main sets of argument here:


Sakavādī: In the sphere of rūpa, is there rūpī-puggala? Paravādī: Yes. Sakavādī: In the sphere of kāma, is there kāmī-puggala? Paravādī: One should not say so.

In this context, rūpī-puggala means puggala with a material body or one born in the fine-material realm; but kāmī-puggala means a sensuous person and not one born in the sensuous realm. The similarity between these two concepts is only structural. A kāmī-puggala, a person with sense desire, does not necessarily mean that he is exclusively in the kāma world for even those beings in other realms can be with kāma, whereas in the kāma realm there can be persons such as arahants who are not with kāma.

A Conceptual Analysis in the Kathāvatthu…


The same argument is repeated with the plural form of the rūpa realm (rūpino sattā) and with the singular and plural forms of arūpi (non-material) realm (arūpino sattā). (ii)

Sakavādī: Someone leaving the rūpa realm is born in the arūpa realm? Paravādī: Yes. Sakavādī: Puggala from the rūpa realm is annihilated and puggala in the arūpa realm is born? Paravādī: One should not say so.

The same argument is repeated here by replacing puggala with sattā (being). This particular form of an argument qualifies to be called a conceptual analysis insofar as it revolves around the applicability of the concept of annihilation to describe the rebirth process of a being. In addition to conceptual analysis, it involves Buddhist metaphysics. (iii)

Sakavādī: Kāya (body) and sarīra (figure) are the same in meaning? Paravādī: Yes. Sakavādī: Kāya is one, puggala is another? Paravādī: Yes. Sakavādī: Jīva is one, sarīra is another? (jīva = ātma) Paravādī: One should not say so.

If Paravādī accepts this last proposition, it amounts to accepting that a puggala can exist without a sarīra (physical body). The puggalavāda position being that the pudgala is neither with the śarīra (five aggregates) nor without the śarīra, so he cannot accept Sakavādi’s proposition. (iv)

Paravādī8: Do you admit that the Buddha has said: atthi puggalo attahitāya paṭipanno… Sakavādī:


8  The term ‘paravādī’ is highlighted for easy identification since Paravādī’s questions are relatively less.


Asanga Tilakaratne


Kāya is one, puggala is another?


One should not say so.

Sakavādī rejects Paravādī’s proposition because he accepts the puggala only in so far as the five aggregates exist and not in their absence thereof. III. Examination by derivative concepts (upādāpaññati anuyoga) The examination of the concept of the puggala is done by making use of concepts (such as rūpa, vedanā etc. and many other characteristics attributed to the puggala), from which the concept of puggala may be derived. Although upādāpaññatti is here rendered as ‘derivative concept’ following Shew Zan Aung and Mrs Rhys Davids’s translation, it is more appropriately rendered as ‘dependent concept.’ The commentary does not define this term directly, but later comments on the related term upādāya using paticca and āgamma (depending on, having approached) and further adds ‘it means not without that’ (tattha upādāyāti paṭicca, āgamma, na vinā tanti attho: 28). Thus, what is meant by this mode is the examination of the puggala as a dependent concept. As we will see later in the discussion, the relationship between puggala and the concepts on which it depends is not always of a strict logical nature to be described as one deriving from the other. The concepts being debated here may be understood on both ontological and conceptual/linguistic levels. On the one hand, the discussion tries to clarify the connection between the concept of the puggala and the constituent factors that come together to make a puggala, and on the other hand, the discussion clarifies the role of language in relation to reality. (a) (i)

Sakavādī: Is the concept of puggala derived from rūpa (rūpaṃ upādāya puggalassa paññattiti)? Paravādī: Yes. Sakavādī: Is rūpa impermanent, conditioned, dependently-arisen, liable to perish, to pass away, to become passionless, to cease and to change? Paravādī: Yes. Sakavādī: Does puggala have the above-mentioned attributes?

A Conceptual Analysis in the Kathāvatthu…


Paravādī: One should not say so. The same form of argument is applied to the remaining four aggregates. (ii)

Sakavādī: Is the concept of puggala derived from rūpa? Paravādī: Yes. Sakavādī: Is blue puggala derived from blue rūpa? Paravādī: One should not say so.

The same form of this argument is made with reference to yellow, red, white, visible, invisible, resisting, and unresisting. For example, “Does unresisting puggala derive from unresisting rūpa?” Even though these and similar qualities are applicable to rūpa, which is material, they are not applicable to the puggala, which is neither material nor immaterial. (b) A similar argument is applied to the four aggregates starting from vedanā, which are classified as either kusala, akusala or abyākata (The concepts such as kusala (skillful) etc. are not applicable to rūpa for obvious reasons). The argument runs in the following manner: (i)

Sakavādī: Is the concept of puggala derived from vedanā? Paravādī: Yes. Sakavādī: Is kusala puggala derived from kusala vedanā? Paravādī: One should not say so.


Sakavādī: Is kusala puggala derived from kusala vedanā? Paravādī: Yes. Sakavādī: Does kusala vedanā have fruit that is desirable, pleasing, gladdening, unspotted, a happy result, conveying happiness? Paravādī: Yes. Sakavādī: If so, does the kusala puggala have the above-mentioned characteristics?


Asanga Tilakaratne

Paravādī: One should not say so. For akusala vedanā (saññā, sankhāra, viññāṇa) the following question is asked: “Does akusala vedanā have fruit that is undesirable, unpleasing, spotted, an unhappy result conveying unhappiness?” For indeterminate vedanā (saññā, sankhāra, viññāṇa) the following question is asked: “Is indeterminate feeling impermanent, conditioned, dependently-arisen, liable to perish, to pass away, to become passionless, to cease, to change?” The attributes applicable to kusala and akusala are not applicable to what is neither kusala nor akusala. In these arguments, Paravādī answers Sakavādī’s identical questions both negatively and affirmatively for the reason that the categories such as kusala, akusala and abyākata are applicable and not applicable to puggala depending upon situations. However, beyond this basic agreement, Paravādī does not wish to accept any further implications as applicable to puggala. (c)

Sakavādī: Is the puggala who sees (cakkhumā) derived from the eye (cakkhu)? Paravādī: Yes. Sakavādī: When the eye ceases to exist, the puggala who sees is ceased? Paravādī: One should not say so.

The same form of argument is made for the remaining five faculties, wrong eightfold path (micchā diṭṭhi – micchā samādhi) and right eightfold path (sammā diṭṭhi – sammā samādhi). In this argument at a linguistic level, cakkhumā depends on cakkhu and hence, cakkhumā puggala too may be said to depend on cakkhu, but on an ontological level puggala does not depend on any one, several or all of the faculties or any other concepts such as a right path or wrong path. (d)

Sakavādī: Is puggala derived from rūpa and vedanā? Paravādī: Yes. Sakavādī: Depending on two khandhas two puggalas are derived?

A Conceptual Analysis in the Kathāvatthu…


Paravādī: One should not say so. … Sakavādī: Depending on three khandhas three puggalas are derived? Paravādī: One should not say so. … Sakavādī: Depending on four khandhas four puggalas are derived? Paravādī: One should not say so. … Sakavādī: Depending on five khandhas five puggalas are derived? Paravādī: One should not say so. The same form of argument is applied to the 12 āyatanas, 18 dhātus and 22 indriyas and bhava of just one aggregate (ekavokāra bhava), of four aggregates (catuvokāra bhava) and of five aggregates (pañcavokāra bhava). By this argument, Sakavādī seems to point out that Paravādī’s position involves multiplication of puggalas depending on the multiplicity of the characteristics. For Paravādī this is not acceptable for his concept of puggala is indeterminate. (e)

Sakavādī: Is the concept of the puggala derived from [dependent on] rūpa just as the concept of a shadow is derived from [dependent on] a tree? And just as the concept of a shadow is derived from the tree, and both the tree and shadow are impermanent, is it even so that the concept of puggala is derived from rūpa, and both puggala and rūpa are impermanent? Paravādī: One should not say so. Sakavādī: In the same way, as the tree is one thing, and the concept of a shadow derived from it another, is rūpa one and the concept of the puggala derived from it another? Paravādī: One should not say so.

The same form of argument is made with: the villager (gamika)is derived from the village (gāma), and the kingdom and the king (raṭṭha and rājā).


Asanga Tilakaratne

In these three arguments, the relationship that is obtained within each of these three examples, the tree and its shadow, village and villager, and the king and the country are not of the same logical order. Tree, village or country may exist without a shadow, village or king, but vice versa this does not hold. Although there cannot be a shadow without a tree, the tree is not the cause of the shadow, for a shadow is caused by light. A proper logical/conceptual relation is obtained between a village and villager (gāma and gamika) and a king and country, although there is no conceptual connection between the latter pair of concepts. (f)

Sakavādī: A jail9 (nigalo) is not a jailor (negaliko), but a jailor is he who has the jail (yassa nigalo so negaliko). In the same manner, rūpa is not one who has rūpa (rupavā); he who has rūpa (yassa rūpaṃ) is one who has rūpa (rūpavā), in the like manner rūpa is one, one who has rūpa is another? Paravādī: One should not say so.

In this argument, Sakavādī employs two pairs of concepts, one deriving from the other and having a similar grammatical structure, which examines whether or not the paravādī will be led astray by this seemingly analogous structure to believe that rūpa and one who has rūpa are unconnected and separate from each other. This argument by analogy seems to depend purely on a conceptual/linguistic analysis. At the level of language there are two concepts; but do they mean two different entities? Obviously not! This may also be viewed from the point of view of a part-whole relation in which the whole does not have an independent existence over and above its parts. (g) (i)

Sakavādī: Is there a concept of the puggala to each [moment of] consciousness? Paravādī: Yes. Sakavādī: In each [moment of] consciousness does the puggala undergo birth, decay, death, disease, and rebirth? Paravādī: One should not say so.

9  Here, ‘jail’ is used to refer to the act of putting in chains (nigaloti saṅkhalikabandhanaṃ: Com. 28)

A Conceptual Analysis in the Kathāvatthu…



Sakavādī: When the second consciousness arises, is it wrong to say, ‘it is the same or someone different’? Paravādī: Yes. Sakavādī: When the second consciousness arises, is it wrong to say, ‘it is a boy’ or ‘it is a girl’? Paravādī: It must be said.

The same form of arguments is made with regard to the female, male, householder and renounced – (itthi, purisa, gahaṭṭha, pabbajita). This argument is basically based upon Buddhist metaphysics and a conceptual analysis does not seem to play an important role except for the mention of concepts such as female, male etc.. (h) (i)

Paravādī: Is it wrong to say that the puggala is known in the sense of a real and ultimate fact? Sakavādī: Yes. Paravādī: Is it not the case that when someone sees something by some means, then he sees that by that means? Sakavādī: Yes. Paravādī: If so, you must say that the puggala is known in the sense of a real and ultimate fact.

The same form of argument is made with regard to the rest of the five senses. (ii)

Sakavādī: Is it not the case that when someone does not see something by some means, then he does not see that by that means? Paravādī: Yes. Sakavādī: If so, you must not say that the puggala is known in the sense of a real and ultimate fact.

The same form of argument is made with regard to the rest of the five senses.


Asanga Tilakaratne

Again, this form of argument does not seem to have much to do with a conceptual analysis, although it does contain such concepts as someone seeing, something being seen and the means of seeing. (h) (i)

Paravādī: Is it wrong to say that the puggala is known in the sense of a real and ultimate fact? Sakavādī: Yes. Paravādī: Has not the Buddha said “passāmahaṃ bhikkhave dibbena cakkhunā visuddhena atikkanta mānusakena satte cavamāne uppajjamāne…” (Bhikkhus, I see with my divine eye … beings in the process of departure and arrival)? Sakavādī: Yes. Paravādī: Then the puggala is known in the sense of a real and ultimate fact.


Sakavādī: Has not the Buddha said “passāmahaṃ bhikkhave dibbena cakkhunā visuddhena atikkanta mānusakena satte cavamāne uppajjamāne…” (Bhikkhus, I see with my divine eye … beings in the process of departure and arrival)? Paravādī: Yes. Sakavādī: Does the Buddha see the rūpa or the puggala with his divine eye? Paravādī: He sees the rūpa. Sakavādī: (Then) rūpa is the puggala, it is rūpa that departs and is born? Paravādī: One should not say so.


Sakavādī: Does the Buddha see the rūpa or the puggala with his divine eye? Paravādī: He sees the puggala.

A Conceptual Analysis in the Kathāvatthu…


Sakavādī: Is then the puggala the rūpa? Is it rūpa-āyatana, rūpa-dhātu, blue, green, yellow, red, white? Cognisable by sight, impinges on the eye, enters the field of sight? Paravādī: One should not say so. (iv)

Sakavādī: Does the Buddha see the rūpa or the puggala with his divine eye? Paravādī: He sees both. Sakavādī: Is then both [rūpa and the puggala] the rūpa? Is it rūpa-āyatana, rūpa-dhatu, blue, green, yellow, red, white? Cognisable by sight, impinges on the eye, enters the field of sight? Paravādī: One should not say so.

The discussion depends upon knowing the various implications of making a distinction between the puggala and the constituents of the puggala such as rūpa etc., acceptance of which entails accepting all other phenomena associated with it. For example, if the puggala is rūpa, then it also has to be rūpa-āyatana, rūpa-dhātu, rūpa with a particular colour, coming into contact with an object etc. It is interesting to see in this discussion that the puggala has been considered by the Theravadin as an upādāpaññatti, dependent or a derivative concept which, owing to its being dependent, does not own its own existence, a case analogous to the Abhidhamma distinction of mahābhūta-rūpa and upādāya-rūpa which the latter, owing to its dependent character, does not have its own existence in the ultimate sense. IV. Examination by conceptual analysis (saṅkappa vibhāgānuyoga): Although this is given as an instance of the word of the Buddha by Sakavādī, any specific reference in the discourses has not been traced. The issue is examined with reference to an analysis of three categories of concepts, namely, (i) sappi-kumbha (pot of ghee), tela-kumbha (pot of oil), madhu-kumbha (pot of honey), phānita-kumbha (pot of molasses), khīra-kumbha (pot of milk) and udaka-kumbha (pot, of water)


Asanga Tilakaratne

[not a pot made of ghee etc.]; the container is the same, but the content is different. Suvaṇṇa kumbha, although structurally similar to the other concepts, means a pot made of gold, not a pot full of gold. (ii) pānīya-thālaka, pānīya-kosaka, and pānīya-sarāvaka [a container of water referred to in many dialects]; both container and the content are the same, although the container is denoted by several different words yet means the same. (iii) nicca-bhatta (permanent meal) and dhuva-bhatta (constant meal) [limits of ‘permanent’ and ‘constant’] do not have the regular meanings of the terms ‘nicca’ and ‘dhuva.’ The Kvu provides these three classifications of concepts but does not make any further observations about them. Interestingly, these concepts are not doctrinal at all. They are meant to highlight the contextual nature of language in relating to reality, indicating ultimately that ‘puggala’ is a concept with a sense but with no reference, to use a distinction made by Gottlob Frege.10 Elaborating on the purpose of these sets of concepts, Shwe Zan Aung and Mrs Rhys Davids (1915/2001) add the following observations: The argument is that to use such terms as puggala, being, etc., in their popular conventional sense, as the Buddha did when teaching the laity, by no means confers upon the transient aggregates so-called any ultimate or philosophical reality, any more than to speak of a constant supply of food implies and eternal, immutable source. (63) In addition to these main modes of debate, there are some very interesting instances of the conceptual analysis found in the other modes and also in debates on other themes. (i) In the examination by kinship, caste, way of life, and birth (ñātaka, jāti, paṭipatti, upapatti anuyoga: modes 12-15), the issue of the puggala is examined with reference to these four categories of concepts. The initial arguments, in this case by Paravādī, runs in the following manner: Paravādī: Should not say that the puggala exists? 10  Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) is a German philosopher of mathematics, logic and philosphy of language who articulated in his well known paper “On Sense and Reference” this distinction in discussing identity statements of the sort a=a and a=b (‘Venus is Venus’ and ‘Venus is the morning-star’).

A Conceptual Analysis in the Kathāvatthu…


Sakavādī: Yes. (meaning: no) Paravādī: Is there not a mother? Sakavādī: Yes, there is. Paravādī: Then you should say that the puggala exists as a real and ultimate fact. The same form of argument is made by Paravādī with reference to the father, brother, sister (kinship), warrior, Brahmin, Vaiśya, Śudra (caste), householder, renounced (way of life) and divine beings, human beings (birth). In his response to Paravādī, Sakavādī presents an argument which is philosophically interesting: (ii)

Sakavādī: Admitting that the mother exists, you say that the puggala exists as a real and ultimate fact? Paravādī: Yes. Sakavādī: Is there anyone who, not having been a mother, becomes a mother? Paravādī: Yes. Sakavādī: Is there anyone, not having been a puggla, becomes a puggala? Paravādī: One should not say so.

The same form of argument is made by Sakavādī with reference to the father, brother, sister (kinship), warrior, Brahmin, Vaiśya, Śudra (caste), householder, renounced (way of life) and divine beings, human beings (birth). The same form of argument is also made by Sakavādī with the assertion in which negation is applied to the other side: Is there anyone who, having been a mother, is no longer a mother? The relevant question for the puggala is: Is there anyone, having been a puggala, is no longer a puggala? In these examples, the categories such as mother, father etc. are not ‘intrinsic’ to a person but arbitrary characteristics which are acquired dependent on external circumstances, but the puggala cannot be considered


Asanga Tilakaratne

as such a secondary category. One may imagine a puggala, say a woman, as a mother or as not a mother; but one cannot imagine a mother as not a person [puggala as not puggala]. A woman, initially not a mother, can become a mother later, but we cannot imagine a person not being a person at some stage and then later assuming personhood. This analysis reminds us of Kant’s well-known observation (in his discussion in Critique of Pure Reason on the futility of efforts to prove the existence of God by rational arguments) that existence is not an attribute. For example, when you say X is dark, you do not have to separately assert that X exists. In a similar manner, when you say X is a mother you have already assumed that X exists. Furthermore, being a mother and being a person may be considered as belonging to two different categories. Personhood is basic and motherhood is secondary. One cannot mix up the two categories, which would involve what Gilbert Ryle, an Oxford philosopher, described as a category mistake in discussing Cartesian mind-body dualism, which he famously called ‘the ghost in the machine.’11 Paravādī’s negative response to the questions by Sakavādī suggests that he is aware of the assumptions behind the latter’s questions. (II) In the discussion of human action (purisakāra anuyoga), the following encounter occurs: (i)

Sakavādī: Admitting that ethically good and bad actions exist, do you assert that the doer and instigator too exist? Paravādī: Yes. Sakavādī: Then does a doer of that doer and instigator exist? Paravādī: One should not say so.


Sakavādī: Then does a doer of that doer and instigator exist? Paravādī: Yes.

11  Gilbert Ryle, being a behaviourist, argued against the Cartesian concept of mind in order to dismiss it. Although, a Buddhist analysis on the puggala may go along with Ryle in his rejection of the Cartesian-type mind, the Buddhist position is different from his behaviourist conclusion (Ref. Concept of Mind, 1949/2002)

A Conceptual Analysis in the Kathāvatthu…


Sakavādī: It is applicable to that person, that person and so on. Then there is no ending of suffering, no cutting off the cycle of existence, no nibbāna without residue? Paravādī: One should not say so. In this discussion, Sakavādī brings out the possibility of having a doer of the initial doer. Having rejected it in the first argument, in the second, Paravādī accepts this possibility. Then, Sakavādī draws the inevitable conclusion that it will lead to a series of doers regressing infinitely resulting in ultimately, the meaninglessness of the entire religious behaviour due to the absence of a definitive doer. The commentary describes this implication by the following words: “If there were to have a doer for the doer of the actions, and then there must necessarily be his doer, his doer and so on; then each previous soul would be the inevitable maker of its successor.”12 This argument based on the possibility of infinite regression occurs frequently in the course of this discussion as leading to the futility of human action. A question of the same form but extending to the opposite direction occurs in the discussion on whether everything exists (sabbaṃ atthi). Sakavādī asks the following question: Is it the case that the view that everything exists is a wrong view is a right view? [sabbamatthīti yā diṭṭhi, sā diṭṭhi micchādiṭṭhīti yā diṭṭhi, sā diṭṭhi sammādiṭṭhīti hevamatthīti?] In this example, we have a view of a view–three views. Although, the implication is not clearly articulated this series of views could go on ad infinitum. In the same discussion of the existence of everything, Sakavādī questions on the possibility of non-existent objects are: Sakavādī: Does everything exist? Paravādī: Yes. Sakavādī: Whatever that does not exist that too exists [yampi natthi tampi atthīti]? Paravādī: One should not say so. Although this line of thinking is not pursued any further, we cannot for12  Yadi kammānam kārakassa kattā, tassāpi kattā, tassāpi kattā attheva, evam sante purimena purimena avassaṃ pacchā pacchā puggalo kātabboti: KvuA, 30.


Asanga Tilakaratne

get the Indian philosophical context, both Buddhist and other, in which existence and non-existence figured as important matters of debate. In the Nyaya-Vaiśeṣika, abhāva (non-existence) is one of the seven basic principles (padārtha) in reality. The Buddhist realism represented mainly by those who believed that everything exists (sabbaṃ atthi) attributed reality not only to present things but also to things of the past and the future. The concept of svabhāva - own-nature of phenomena - developed by the Sarvāstivādins and others and critiqued by Nagarjuna, resembled the Aristotelian substance without which a definition is said to be impossible. In the Kvu debate on time, we encounter some developments resembling Platonic Forms. Sakavādī asks the following question from Paravādī: The past exists and it does not shed its past-ness (atītaṃ atthi, atītaṃ atītabhāvaṃ na jahati)? The identical question is asked with regard to the present and present-ness and the future and future-ness. Then, the three abstract entities are applied to the existence of universal monarchs (rājā cakkavatti) in the past, present and future and Sakavādī questions whether it is possible for the three universal monarchs to meet one another. Paravādī, who accepts that universal monarchs belonging to the three times could exist, rejects this question. The svabhāva idea developed by the Sarvāstivādins resembles Platonic Forms in its essentialism, although the later Buddhist view did not end in Platonic heaven where it was believed that all perfect Forms existed. What lies behind Platonic Forms is ultimately a problem of language, and hence a conceptual problem arising from the reification of abstract nouns. The Buddhist concept too may be described as resulting from reification of the concept of the puggala, the key for the solution of which lies in conceptual analysis and clarification. The Kvu discussion on the alleged existence of the puggala in general and the last item of its discussion (which we named saṅkappavibhāga anuyoga) provides ample evidence to the importance given to conceptual analysis. Elaborating on this aspect, the commentary refers to the two discourses of the Buddha, namely, sammuti-kathā and paramattha-kathā, the first of which is to refer to satta, puggala, deva, brahma etc. – ‘being’ in the conventional sense. The latter is to teach with reference to anicca, dukkha, anatta, khandha, dhātu, āyatana etc. According to the commentary, for those who understand when spoken by sammuti-kathā the Buddha would use that mode of speech while for those who understand

A Conceptual Analysis in the Kathāvatthu…


better when spoken by paramattha-kathā the Buddha would use that mode of language. Whatever the mode of language the Buddha(s) always speak what is true: te sammutikathaṃ kathentāpi saccaṃ eva sabhāvaṃ eva amusāva kathenti, paramatthakathaṃ kathentāpi saccaṃ eva sabhāvaṃ eva amusāva kathenti (36). The commentator quotes the following two stanzas that summarises this position even clearer: Duve sacccāni akkhāsi – sambuddho vadataṃ varo Sammutiṃ paramatthaṃ ca – tatiyaṃ nūpalabbhati Saṅketavacanaṃ saccaṃ – lokasammutikāraṇaṃ Paramatthavacanaṃ saccaṃ – dahmmānaṃ tathalakkhanan’ti The Buddha, the greatest of speakers, uttered two truths, conventional and absolute. There is no third. Symbolic word is true for the reason that it is worldly convention. The absolute word is true for the reason that it characterises the true nature of phenomena. This commentarial view is different to the popular view held by the adherents of some of the later Buddhist schools and Advaita Vedantins, namely, what is said in sammuti-sacca is provisional or not ‘really true.’ The commentarial standpoint is not different from the early Buddhist classification of the teaching of the Buddha into direct (nītattha-desanā) and indirect teaching (neyattha-desanā:A I, 60), which can be considered the precursor of the later sammuti-paramattha classification. The commentator concludes by summarising the overall philosophy of language of the Buddha by referring to his statement to an interlocuter called Citta: “imā kho Citta lokasamaññā lokaniruttiyo lokavoharā lokapaññattiyo yāhi tathāgato voharati aparāmasanti : D I, 202): [Citta, these are worldly agreements, worldly ways of speech, worldly usages, worldly conventions which the Tathāgata uses without getting attached to] which lays emphasis on the worldly, conventional and non-absolutist character of language.

Concluding remarks As shown by the foregoing discussion, a key characteristic of the Kvu discussion of the puggala is its extensive use of conceptual analysis as a tool to investigate the alleged existence of the puggala. While it is clear that the Pudgalavadins developed sophisticated arguments to establish their position13, where they went astray, according to the other schools, 13  See: The Literature of the Personalists in Early Buddhism, Bhiksu Thich Thien Chau (1999), English tr. Sara Boin-Webb (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass) for an exposi-


Asanga Tilakaratne

they did not see properly the meaning of the two-fold teaching or two modes of teaching by the Buddha, as mentioned above. Based on this study, we may say that conceptual analysis is not peripheral but lies at the heart of the method to deal with the issue of the alleged existence of the pudgala in a real and ultimate sense. This discussion may be aptly concluded by referring to Nagarjuna, who underlined the crucial significance of grasping the purpose behind the two ways of teaching by the Buddha: Yo’nayorna vijānāti – vibhāgaṃ satyayordvayoḥ Te tatvaṃ na vijānanti – gambhīraṃ buddhaśāsane Vyavahāramanāśritya – paramārtho na deśyate Paramārthamanāgamya – nirvānaṃ nādhigamyate (MMK:24: 9-10) Those who do not know the distinction between these two truths [saṃvṛti and paramārtha] do not know the real nature of the teaching of the Buddha. The highest goal cannot be taught without making use of conventional usage. Not having attained the highest goal, nirvana will not be realised.

tion of the views of the personalists from four Chinese sources.

16. ‘Enlightened Ignorance’ in Buddhist Philosophy of Education*

Introduction Generating knowledge and skills lies at the heart of education. It is often taken for granted that knowledge is valuable and good. As a result, education is praised as unconditionally desirable. It is, nevertheless, well known that knowledge as the final product and education as its means can well be motivated by personal gains of various sorts. The increased volume of knowledge we have acquired over centuries ultimately does not seem to have added necessarily to the happiness of the species. Religions have sounded notes of alarm repeatedly. Buddhism, for instance, emphasises that more sublime emotions and intention should enrich the knowledge. The knowledge thirsty modern society needs an ethic of knowledge perhaps even more than they need knowledge itself. The argument of the paper is that ignorance in the sense of refusing to buy into the ever-active knowledge-seeking project, or knowing that an uninterrupted supply of information or skills is not the only way to quench the thirst for knowledge, is an option worth looking at seriously. I plan to develop this idea by analysing some Buddhist insights on knowledge and its application. I argue that an excessive emphasis on the accumulation of knowledge is not the pressing need of our contemporary society anymore, but that it really needs right attitudes towards the world. The paper seeks to highlight the missing moral dimension in education and knowledge. An idea of the limits of knowledge, not necessarily in its usual epistemological sense but in a social, moral and pragmatic sense, will emerge from the discussion. * A version of this paper (‘Enlightened Ignorance: Case for Pragmatism and Limits of Knowledge’) was presented at the Ninth East West Philosophers Conference, at East West Center. Honolulu. Hawaii. May 29-June 10. 2005.


Asanga Tilakaratne

I will begin this discussion with an account of nature and the role of knowledge in the Buddhist path of purification. Subsequently, I will discuss the limits of knowledge and finally, I will develop the concept of ‘enlightened ignorance’ characteristic of Buddhism.

Knowledge and its role in the Buddhist path of purification In the Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dhamma (Dhammacakka-pavattana-sutta: S V, 20-4), which according to the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, contains the Buddha’s first public statement of his Enlightenment, the Buddha articulated the essence of his experience by the following words: The eye is born: knowledge is born: wisdom is born: science is born; light is born. Cognitive nuances of these terms are unmistakable. Religious experience is characterised by a type of cognition in clear terms, although a characteristic common to the Middle Upaniṣad period of Indian religion, it is an outstanding character in Buddhist thought. This very same character, however, forces us to examine what this knowledge spoke about so loudly and clearly in Buddhist soteriology is. The Buddhist path of purification is described as ‘the threefold discipline’ (tisso sikkhā) and contains virtue (sīla), concentration (samādhi) and wisdom (paññā). In this gradually ascending process, wisdom marks the culmination. The Pali word that refers to this stage, paññā is derived from the root jñā to know. The word ñāṇa, referring to the same stage is derived from the same root. The term vijjā used in the first sermon as we just saw, is derived from the root vid to know. This last-mentioned term is as equally significant as the other two terms for the most fundamental cause for the continued existence in samsara, which is full of suffering is avijjā or the absence of vijjā or knowledge. The following statement, well-known in the Discourses, highlights the vitality of this cognition: Bhikkhus, it is because of not understanding and not penetrating the four noble truths that you and I have roamed and wandered through this long course of saṃsāra. (S V, 431) ‘Knowledge’ in this context is specifically the knowledge related to suffering.1 It is owing to the lack of knowledge of the four noble truths that beings wander in samsara. In this manner, the crucial role of ignorance in one’s continued samsaric existence makes it clear that the final stage of the path is the arising of knowledge by dispelling the darkness of ignorance. 1  And what, bhikkhus, is ignorance? Not knowing suffering, not knowing the origin of suffering, not knowing the cessation of suffering, not knowing the way leading to the cessation of suffering. This is called ignorance. S II, 4 Translation from (Bodhi 2000, Vol. I:535).

‘Enlightened Ignorance’ in Buddhist Philosophy...


The discourses are very clear about what this knowledge consists of. In the Bhayabherava-sutta of Majjhima-nikāya, the Buddha describes in the following words the arising of this ‘knowledge’ in himself as the arising of three kinds of knowledge. The first knowledge is described in the following words: When my concentrated mind was thus purified, bright unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to knowledge of the recollection of past lives. I recollected my manifold past lives that is, one birth, two births, ... a hundred thousand births, many aeons of world-contraction, many aeons of world-expansion, many aeons of world contraction and expansion: “There I was so named of such a clan with such an appearance, such was my nutriment such my experience of pleasure and pain such my life-term and passing away from there, I reappeared elsewhere: and there too I was so named ... and such my life-term; and passing away from there I reappeared here. Thus, with their aspects and particulars, I recollect my manifold past lives. This was the first knowledge attained by me in the first watch of the night. Ignorance was banished and knowledge arose, darkness was banished and light arose … (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 105) The second and third kinds of knowledge are described in the like manner. The second knowledge is that of the passing away and appearance of beings. With this knowledge, the Buddha saw “beings passing away and reappearing inferior and superior, fair and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate.” With this knowledge, the Buddha claimed that he “understood how beings pass on according to their actions...” The third and final knowledge is that of the destruction of the taints. This very important liberation-producing knowledge is described in the following words: When my concentrated mind was thus purified. ... I directed it to the knowledge of the destruction of the taints. I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is suffering’; I directly knew as it actually is: ‘this is the origin of suffering: I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is the cessation of suffering’; I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.’ I directly knew as it actually is: ‘These are the taints’; I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is the origin of the taints’; I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is the cessation of the taints’; I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of taints.’(Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 106)


Asanga Tilakaratne

All three forms of knowledge have been further described in very apt similes. The simile used to describe the last, which is the most important highlights the clarity of this knowledge: Just as if in the midst of the mountains there were a pond clear as a polished mirror, where a man with good eyesight standing on the bank could see oyster shells, gravel-banks and shoals of fish; on the move or stationary. And he might think: “this pond is clear there are oyster shells. On the move or stationary,” just so with mind concentrated he knows “Birth is finished, the holy life has been led, done is what had to be done, there is nothing further here.” (Walshe 1987, 108) The arising of this knowledge itself is the final liberation. The Buddha describes it in the following words: When I knew, and saw thus, my mind was liberated from the taint of sensual desire, from the taint of being, and from the taint of ignorance. When it was liberated, there came the knowledge: ‘It is liberated.’ I directly knew: ‘Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.’ There are several very important insights contained in this exposition of the liberation-producing knowledge by the Buddha. The most important of them all is that it is the knowledge that is ultimately responsible for the realisation of liberation, which is the ultimate goal of religion. The last of these forms of knowledge is the one that destroys the taints or all defiling factors that were there in the Buddha prior to his Enlightenment. Once all the defiling factors are gone the liberation has been realised, and that the Buddha had realised liberation was an essential aspect of the liberation process. In other words, the Buddha was liberated through knowledge and he knew that he was liberated (vimuttasmiṃ vimuttaṃ iti ñāṇaṃ hoti). It is these very same three forms of knowledge that one realises when one follows the path as taught by the Buddha. Therefore, the liberated monks and nuns, mentioned in the Theragāthā and Therigāthā2, usually described their liberation as the ‘attainment of the three sciences’ (tisso vijjā anupattā), which meant the three forms of knowledge. Moreover, the liberated person is described in the discourse as having ten aspects (M III, 78). Of the ten aspects, the first eight are the eightfold path. The remain2  The two works belonging to the Khuddaka-nikāya of the Pali Canon describing the enlightenment experience of monks and nuns respectively.

‘Enlightened Ignorance’ in Buddhist Philosophy...


ing two are right knowledge (sammā-ñāṇa) and right liberation (sammā vimutti). This confirms the fact that the practice or the (eightfold) Path produces knowledge, which in turn paves the way for liberation, the goal. The above discussion also reveals the intimate relationship between action and knowledge as emphasised in the teachings of the Buddha. It is the practice of virtue and concentration, the first two aspects of the path that produces the knowledge that liberates. In this context, it is useful to know that in Buddhism knowledge is classified as threefold, namely, knowledge arising from hearing (sutamaya paññā), knowledge arising from thinking (cintāmaya paññā) and the knowledge arising from meditation (bhāvanāmaya paññā). Of these three, the first two can be interpreted as factual/ empirical knowledge that one gets from conventional learning and the knowledge that one gets from thinking with reflection. The second looks very similar to the logical knowledge one gets from reflecting on the propositions that one already knows. The last in the classification is the one that is referred to as knowledge (ñāṇa), ‘Wisdom’ (paññā), ‘right knowledge’ (sammā-ñāṇa) or ‘science’ (vijjā) in the final stage of the path. This is the ‘knowledge’ that one through meditation/religious practice focuses on the impermanent (anicca), unsatisfactory (dukkha) and non-substantial (anatta) character of reality. This manner of perception of reality is described in the discourse as insight (vipassanā) meditation. This account of the concept of knowledge in the Buddhist path of purification should explain why Buddhism has been included among the so-called jñānic religions and not amongst the bhaktic. Although the classification is over-simplified and misleading, the realisation of the goal of the path has been described directly as resulting from the cognition of a very special character. Regarding the threefold classification of knowledge, as we noted earlier, this knowledge can be described as one resulting from meditation (bhāvanāmaya), (the term ‘bhāvana’ literally means the ‘development’ or ‘cultivation’). It is to develop a mode of perceiving reality as impermanent, sorrowful/unsatisfactory and non-substantial. The Buddha himself described the dawn of this knowledge as “arising in him a vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge and light in regard to things ..., unheard before” (S V.422). The specification of things on which the knowledge arose as ‘unheard before’ indicates that the knowledge in question is not something that the Buddha learned from anyone: hence, it is not knowledge based on learning (sutamaya). Nor it is a result of pure logical reflection (cintāmaya), for the eightfold path transcends such conventional categories as mentioned above.


Asanga Tilakaratne

The content of this knowledge is a complex of cognitive, reflective and meditative states characterised by knowing that suffering is a reality that has to be comprehended and that it has been comprehended: that craving is a reality, that it has to be abandoned and that it has been abandoned: that nirvana is a reality (noble truth), that has to be realised and that it has been realised: and that the path is a reality that has to be practised and that it has been practised. The Buddha has described this as knowledge and vision in three phases and twelve aspects “ñāṇadassanaṃ tiparivaṭṭaṃ dvādasākāram” (S V, 423).

Limits of knowledge According to a legend occurring in the Buddhist literature, an ancient religious seer who possessed psychic powers and could travel at an extraordinary speed once decided to use his speed to cross the universe to locate its end. He travelled at this speed for a hundred years briefly stopping only to attend to his basic physical needs and to finally fall dead on the way without reaching his destination. On this, the Buddha said: One cannot reach the end of the universe by traveling: however, there is no escape from suffering without reaching the end of the universe.3 The second ‘universe’ referred to here is not the universe in its ordinary sense; but it is the internal universe of everyone, penetration of which is indispensable for the eradication of suffering. In this parable, there is a clear indication of what is possible and impossible for us, human beings. On the one hand, a human being who has a life-span of more or less a hundred years is physically incapable of undertaking a venture that surpasses his limit of existence. On the other hand, this leaves the possibility open for a being who has a longer span of life, but this does not seem to be the meaning of the story. The question of whether the universe is finite constitutes two of the ten well-known questions that have been left unanswered by the Buddha. The locus classicus in the Canon for these questions is the Cūḷamāluṅkyaputta-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya (no. 63). Māḷuṅkyaputta is a disciple of the Buddha who insists that he be given answers if he were to not leave the Sangha. The Buddha responds to him by saying that he should take what has been taught by the Buddha as what he has taught namely, how suffering arises and ceases and that what he has not 3 Gamanena na pattabbo – lokassanto kudācanaṃ na ca appatvā lokantaṃ- dukkhā atthi pamocanaṃ: S I, 62

‘Enlightened Ignorance’ in Buddhist Philosophy...


taught as not taught, namely the ten issues raised by him. The Buddha further explains why the issues were “left aside unanswered and rejected” (ṭhapitāni, abyākatāni, paṭikkhitāni): Why have I left that undeclared? Because it is unbeneficial it does not belong to the fundamentals of the holy life, it does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace to direct knowledge to enlightenment, to Nibbāna. That is why I have left it undeclared. (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 536) The pragmatic bent of the Buddha is very clear in this explanation. The simple reason given for not answering these and similar questions is that knowing them is not relevant for the realisation of the ultimate goal. This is further confirmed by the well-known parable of the man hit by an arrow. If a man hit by an arrow would insist on knowing all the details of the one who shot him as a precondition for the removal of the arrow, then the Buddha says he will succumb to his wounds before knowing the answers. The Buddha compares this situation to one who is afflicted with samsaric suffering. In addition to the pragmatic reason given for the refusal of answering, it has been argued that the very metaphysical character of the issues involved may have played a role in the decision made by the Buddha. I do not plan to have a discussion of this matter, which is already very familiar to the students of early Buddhism.4 The consensus is that the Buddha did not answer these questions categorically not only because doing so is not relevant, but also because at least some of the questions surpass the limits of human cognitive capacity. In a well-known statement, the Buddha says that “samsara is without a discoverable beginning”, and that “a first point is not discerned of beings roaming and wandering hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving” (Bodhi 2000, Vol. I:651). This statement does not make it clear by whom this cannot be discerned. If it was discernible by the Buddha, then he would have said so clearly. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that even the Buddha could not discern it. The reason, however, is not necessarily that the Buddha’s ability to see was limited. Rather, it could be due to the very nature of the phenomenon, namely, that samsara does not have an absolute beginning. In another suggestive discourse, the Buddha talks about the totality of things or ‘all’ or ‘everything.’ Here, the Buddha says thus: And what, bhikkhus is the all? The eye and forms, the ear and 4  See (Jayatilleke 1963, 470–76) and (Tilakaratne 1993, 109–24).


Asanga Tilakaratne

sounds, the nose and odours, the tongue and tastes, the body and tactile objects, the mind and mental phenomena. This is called the all. If anyone, bhikkhus, should speak thus: “Having rejected this all, I shall make known another all” that would be a mere empty boast on his part. If he were to question, he would not be able to reply and further, he would meet with vexation. For what reason? Because, Bhikkhus, that would not be within his domain. (Bodhi 2002, Vol. II:1140) In this example, again the Buddha talks in a very general manner about the impossibility of talking about things lying beyond the reach of our sensory field. The discourse should be interpreted as referring to a limitation affecting any human being, including the Buddha himself. Physical limitations clearly affect all human being although psychological limitations may differ relative to the internal development of everyone. As we will see later, the Buddha rejected even limited omniscience for himself. In this discourse, the Buddha makes a clear reference to what is within one’s domain and the domain is the field of sensory experience. Being reminded of early Wittgenstein, the Buddha appears to say that what one can talk about at all is that which lies within the reach of his senses and anything beyond these limits must be non-sense. Instances of this nature seem to suggest that there can be certain cognitive limitations affecting all human beings, irrespective of the fact that one is enlightened or not. These limits imposed on knowledge based on ethical and moral considerations are more important in the context of our discussion. In one of the discourses, the Buddha refers to four phenomena that “cannot be thought and ought not to be thought” (“acinteyyāni acintetabbāni”) (A II, 80). These are the field of the Buddha (buddha-visaya), the field of Jhānic attainments (jhāna-visaya), and the field of the universe (loka-visaya) and the field of karma (kamma-visaya). The Buddha further adds that one who tries to think about these unthinkable phenomena will be subject to madness and frustration (yaṃ cintento ummādassa vighātassa bhāgī assa). Here, the two terms “cannot be thought” and “ought not to be thought,” may be understood as standing respectively for cognitive and moral limits. While cognitive limits may be due both to the vastness of the subject to be thought about and the limitedness of human capacity, the moral limits seem to point in a different direction. The idea here is that one is unable to grasp the phenomena under dis-

‘Enlightened Ignorance’ in Buddhist Philosophy...


cussion as a certainty. Except for the field of the universe, the other three matters can well have a positive effect on people when they reflect upon them. Therefore, this injunction should not be taken to mean that one must never think at all about these matters. Thinking of these matters with the right attitude can be good for one’s religious life. What is bad is to think about them with a view to fully fathom that which is impossible. In particular, for one to think that the Buddha can be fully grasped in all respects is tantamount to be being arrogant and supercilious. Therefore, such a thought can be morally harmful to that person. The idea that there should be limits to one’s knowledge on moral grounds is quite familiar in the early Buddhist tradition. While the learning of the Dhamma is praised and valued as necessary, it is always valued only as a means and not as an end. Learning becomes meaningful always within the context of practice, without which the former becomes empty. In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says the following on this situation: Though much he recites the Sacred Texts, but acts not accordingly that heedless man is like a cowherd who counts others’ line. He has no share in the fruits of the Holy Life. Though little he recites the Sacred text, but acts in accordance with the teaching, forsaking lust, hatred and ignorance, truly knowing, with mind well freed, clinging to naught here and hereafter, he shares the fruits of the Holy Life.” (Dhp v. 19-20: Narada Thera 1978, 20–21) This lays stress on the need of having knowledge (vijjā) and practice (caraṇa) together. As an ancient Buddhist saying goes, the learnedness of one who lacks virtue is meaningless (sīlena anuppatassa sutena atthaṃ natthi).

Enlightenaed ignorance The above discussion should show that in addition to the serious cognitive limits we are faced with, owing to both our human limitedness and the vastness of certain subject matters, there are some very significant moral constraints over the acquisition of knowledge of the teachings of the Buddha. While ignorance (avijjā) is the fundamental cause of suffering experienced in samsara and hence, needs to be eradicated by all means; ignorance in the sense of not knowing what can broadly be called as things not directly relevant for the goal, seems not only acceptable but also desirable in the pursuit of the final goal. How could this be understood?


Asanga Tilakaratne

In a way, the entire Buddhist scheme of attaining liberation can be described as a battle with a constant flow of knowledge in the form of information through our senses. Buddhism views human beings basically as a complex interaction between the senses and reality. (The analysis of a human being by the Buddha into the five khandhas, twelve āyatanas and eighteen dhātus exemplify this dynamic understanding of the human being.) Human beings always generate knowledge by means of information that they constantly receive through their senses, namely, eyes, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. This is a nonstop and constant process. The objects of our desire come to us through our senses. The origin of suffering is our reaction to these pleasurable objects with attachment and aversion. Finally, it is due to the knowledge we derive through our senses that we generate our suffering. In the Madhupiṇḍika-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya (no.18),5 how craving, deceit and wrong views become proliferated owing to one’s the wrong reaction to sensory input is explained eloquently. The Venerable Mahākaccāyana says: Dependent on eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as condition there is feeling. What one feels that one perceives. What one perceives that one thinks about. What one thinks about that one mentally proliferates. With what one mentally proliferated as the source perceptions and notions tinged by mental proliferation beset a man with respect to past, future, and present forms cognisable through the eye.” (The same is repeated for the rest of the senses, namely, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind.). (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 203) The analysis clearly shows how perceptions are value-laden and become instrumental in generating bondage and resultant suffering. If one is beset with mental proliferation regarding objects belonging to the three time periods, the answer that the Buddha made clear in the Indriyabhāvanā-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya (no. 152), is not merely not seeing forms with the eye, hearing sounds from the ear or receiving any objects from the rest of the faculties. As the Buddha argued very convincingly, if such is the case then the blind and the deaf would be the ones with the most developed facilities.6 What one needs to do is to avoid generating an attachment and aversion to the object perceived, 5  See (Ñāṇānanda 1971) for detailed discussion of the discourse. 6  It is owing to very similar concerns that the Buddha did not accept the attainment of jhānas characterised by increasing sensory aloofness as the most satisfactory solution to the problem of suffering.

‘Enlightened Ignorance’ in Buddhist Philosophy...


and to develop equanimity. The process is described in the discourse in the following manner: When a bhikkhu sees a form with his eye, there arises in him what is agreeable, there arises what is disagreeable, there arises what is both agreeable and disagreeable. He understands thus: ‘There has arisen in me what is agreeable, there has arisen what is disagreeable, and there has arisen what is both agreeable and disagreeable. But that is conditioned, gross, dependently arisen; this is peaceful, this is sublime, that is, equanimity.’ The agreeable that arose, the disagreeable that arose, and the both agreeable and disagreeable that arose cease in him and equanimity is established. (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 1148) The Buddha has given the very same advice in a different context as: Take what is seen as merely seen; take what is heard as merely heard; take what is felt as merely felt, and take what is cognised as merely cognised. (U 8). When one can perceive objects, and stop short of proliferation, one is, in fact, delimiting one’s inflow of information, not by running away from them but by understanding them. The desire for knowledge associated with sensory faculties is an important part of one’s craving, which is the cause of suffering. The person with such an unending curiosity for knowledge is called in the discourses kathaṃkathi or one who is in the habit of asking ‘how? how?’ While this is characteristic of an unliberated person (puthujjana), the liberated person is described as akathaṃkathi or one who is not in the habit of asking ‘how? how?’ Of the ten fetters (saññojana) that bind beings with samsara, doubt characterised by uncertainty and curiosity stands out and is removed at the first stage of arahanthood namely, the stream-entrance (sotāpatti). The complete cessation of doubt, however, occurs at the attainment of arahanthood, for it is at this level that all of one’s doubts about the Buddha as the master, the Dhamma as the remedial measure, and the Sangha as the living example of the possibility or attainment are gone without any remainder. Does this mean that the arahant knows everything? How much does a liberated person know? According to the definition of ‘everything’ which we saw earlier, we may say that an arahant or even the Buddha knows what comes within his sensory purview. Nonetheless, there is nothing extraordinary in this, for any ordinary human being may know this much. ‘Three sciences,’ however, clearly goes beyond the ordinary sensory perception. In par-


Asanga Tilakaratne

ticular, this is so regarding the first two forms of knowledge, namely recollection of one’s past lives and seeing how beings depart and are born. As we saw earlier, these forms of knowledge result from the cultivation of internal spiritual faculties. In a religious context in which certain teachers claimed omniscience, the Buddha was noteworthy for admitting that he possessed all three forms of knowledge. During the time of the Buddha, according to Buddhist sources, some people had attributed to the Buddha a kind of omniscience in the sense that he had this ability ever present in him, uninterruptedly, irrespective of the fact that he was walking or standing, sleeping or awake. The Buddha said that those who say so do misrepresent him and further added that right way to represent him is to say that he has the threefold true knowledge.7 Although the Buddha did not claim omniscience for himself he seems to have accepted the possibility of knowing everything, not all at once, but gradually when one directs one’s mind to it.8 The Buddha has not claimed even such omniscience for himself. What he did claim is knowledge way beyond what he had taught. Once the Buddha was in a siṃsapā grove in the company of his disciples and he took up a few siṃsapā leaves in his hand and asked from them whether the leaves he had in his hand or the leaves in the grove were most numerous. When the disciples admitted that the leaves in the hand were much less numerous, the Buddha drew the analogy in the following words: So too, bhikkhus, the things that I have directly known but have not taught you are numerous, while the things I have taught you are few. And why bhikkhus have I not taught those many things? Because they are unbeneficial irrelevant to the fundamental of the holy life, and do not lead to revulsion to dispassion to cessation to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna. Therefore, I have not taught this. (S V, 438 : Bodhi 2002, Vol. II:1857–58) This highlights how the limits of knowledge and pragmatism go handin-hand. In answering a brahmin who wanted to know who he was, the Buddha said the following: What had to be comprehended has been comprehended. What had to be developed has been developed. What had to be abandoned has been abandoned by me, therefore, brahmin, I am the 7  See Tevijjavaccagotta-sutta, Majjhima-nikāya (no. 71) 8  See Kaṇṇakatthala-sutta, Majjhima-nikāya, (no. 90).

‘Enlightened Ignorance’ in Buddhist Philosophy...


Enlightened.9 What The Buddha attributed to himself in this statement is not as ambitious as the omniscience mentioned even in a limited manner. What is attributed here partials to the three of the noble truths referred to as above.10 As we saw earlier, in his very first discourse, the Buddha acknowledged that he had knowledge of the four noble truths “in three phases and twelve aspects.” The attribution of knowledge in a limited sense and the rejection of omniscience indicate clearly that the Buddha questioned the traditional concept of all-encompassing knowledge, usually attributed to religious teachers. By doing this, the Buddha was able to signify knowledge from a pragmatic point of view. In other words, what the Buddha comprehended was only what had to be comprehended. This suggests that the Buddha had not comprehended whatever that needs not to be comprehended. The fact that the Buddha could have comprehended any phenomenon if he so wished, and that the Buddha knew much more than what he taught indeed is accepted in the Buddhist tradition. However, this is not to say that he was omniscient: it only says something about his superior intellectual capacity.

Conclusion There are several insights that emerge from the discussion so far. In the earlier part of the discussion, we noticed that knowledge in Buddhism does not mean factual (sutamaya) or logical (cintāmaya) knowledge alone, but also means a conviction arising from cultivation (bhāvanāmaya) by putting what is known into practice, having a combination of factual and logical knowledge, is the basis. For instance, the first noble truth needs comprehending, the second abandoning, the third realising (making it real in oneself), and the fourth cultivating. The result is liberation as well as the knowledge that one is liberated. A liberated person necessarily knows what is needed for liberation. In the case of the Buddha, he could know and did know much more even though he may not have spoken of it. This, however, cannot be applicable to any and every enlightened person. That people could achieve enlightenment without any of the conventional knowledge is affirmed by the fact that some who attained enlightenment during the time of 9  Abhiññeyyaṃ abhiññātaṃ – bhāvetabbaṃ ca bhāvitaṃ Pahātabbaṃ pahīnaṃ me - tasmā buddhosmi Brāhmana (Sn v. 109). 10  The subsequent Theravada tradition has attributed to the Buddha an unlimited omniscience encompassing everything that belongs to all three time periods. See (Jayatilleke 1963, 467) for a comprehensive discussion.


Asanga Tilakaratne

the Buddha came from the lowest social stratum where education was a taboo. A liberated person lacking in worldly wit and smartness may look unimpressive. That, however, does not diminish his value as a person enjoying the highest state of mental freedom. The enlightened person does not have a desire or curiosity to know for curiosity is nothing other than desire, even though the desire is for knowledge. Like any other desire, the desire for knowledge too causes suffering. This last insight leads us to the pragmatism of knowledge advocated in the teaching and the life of the Buddha. For the Buddha, knowledge was always knowledge for a purpose. In his particular case, it was for a sublime and lofty goal, namely for liberation. This means that once the purpose is achieved one could abandon it. In a well-known statement, the Buddha compared his Dhamma teaching to a raft to be used for crossing over and not for carrying along, once one is liberated. The Buddha said: kullūpaṃ vo bhikkave dhammaṃ desissāmi, nittharaṇatthāya no gahanatthāya. (M I, 135) Bhikkhus, I teach the Dhamma, comparable to a raft, being for crossing over, not for grasping. The point is that one should even abandon the desire for the Dhamma in abandoning desire for everything. If one were to retain the desire for the Dhamma, having used it as a means for abandoning desire for other things, one is then faced with a grave problem of medicine, meant to cure the disease, but itself becoming the cause for illness.11 What do all these things have to do with the philosophy of education? The Buddha as ‘the teacher of gods and human beings’ spent his entire life teaching people the way to end suffering. The process required a complete system of education with teaching on the part of the Buddha and the enlightened arahants, and learning, keeping in mind what is learnt and practising what is kept in mind (sunātha dhāretha carātha dhamme) as key aspects. In the Alagaddūpama-sutta, in which the Buddha spoke of the Dhamma as a raft he deplores certain monks who stud11  We are reminded at this junction of what Nagarjuna had to say on those who made emptiness, meant to abandon all dogmatic views, itself a dogmatic view. Śūnyatā sarvadṛṣṭīnāṃ - proktā niḥśaraṇaṃ jinaiḥ Yesāṃ tu śūnyatā dṛṣṭḥ - tān asādhyān babhāsire (MMK:13-8) The victorious ones have announced that emptiness is the relinquishing of all views. Those who are possessed of the view of emptiness said to be incorrigible. Translation from Kalupahana 1986, 223.

‘Enlightened Ignorance’ in Buddhist Philosophy...


ied the Dhamma for worldly gain and the inflation of one’s ego. This shows that what really matters is not what you learn but the attitude with which one learns it. As the Buddha points out in the above-mentioned discourse, although the Dhamma is sublime and can serve a sublime purpose, if it is taken in a wrong manner it will destroy the person who studies the Dhamma just like a wrongly-handled snake will sting back at the handler. What is needed ultimately is a set of right attitudes. Knowledge should not be for one to inflate one’s self and to disparage others. Knowledge should serve for the well-being of all beings, not only for human beings. The enormity of knowledge accumulated over centuries should serve to humble those who take pride in machinery capable of preserving vast amounts of data. It should not be a reason to be over-ambitious as in the case of the proverbial seer who ventured to locate the end of the universe by travelling. Human beings will have to live with limits that are inseparable from their very nature. This, however, need not necessarily be a cause for despair. We must be content with the knowledge that suffices our specific objectives and goals. Knowledge just for the sake of knowledge is not valued in Buddhism. As we saw in the discussion, what matters is not whether one masters a little text or many texts, but whether one really puts into practice what one knows. The lessons drawn could go on and on.

17. The Development of ‘Sacred Language’ in the Buddhist Tradition*

In the present paper, I identify some of the historical and philosophical reasons behind the move, initiated by some later Buddhists, to introduce a sacred language into Buddhism. I suggest that the fact that early Buddhism did not have an idea of a sacred language is not an absence by accident, but an absence by choice and very much conforms with the spirit of early Buddhist philosophy. I see the subsequent development of the idea of a sacred language in the Buddhist tradition as only one aspect of greater Hindu influence. However, the reader might observe with curiosity, how this development took place amongst the Theravadins, who claimed to be the faithful followers of original Buddhism. The term ‘sacred language’ has different connotations. For the purposes of this paper, I identify two. One is the view that language or words per se, and specifically, the act of speech unrelated to any particular language, is sacred. Two striking examples are the early Vedic concept of Brahman as embodying the mystical power of words and the Christian concept of logos, first as the word of God or Word as embodying God and subsequently, Jesus himself as the Word. The other is the connotation that one language, as against other languages, is sacred. Usually, the attribution of sacredness to a language in this manner begins with the identification of that language with a specific religious tradition. The best example from India is the elevation of Sanskrit to the position of a sacred language amongst Hindus.

* An initial version of this article was published in Premier Colloque Étienne Lamotte. Brusselles. Université Catholique De Louvain: Institut Orientaliste Louvain-LaNeuve, 1993.

The Development of ‘Sacred Language’...


Pre-Buddhist Indian background The origin of the idea of the sacredness of language in the Indian context goes back to the early Vedic period. In this era, the ancient Indians regarded not a particular language as sacred, but the word per se. They deified and glorified the word as ‘word goddess’ (vāg devī). In commenting on Ṛg. 10.71, Frits Staal (1977) suggests that the hymn is the story of the origin of a sacred language in the Indian context. The transition from the first to the second stage takes place when the Vedas were considered as the revealed truth or śruti. The interesting aspect of this move is that not only the content of the revealed truth but also the medium through which it has been revealed is elevated to a sacred position. The sacredness universally attributed to the word is now identified with the words of a particular language, i.e., Sanskrit. It is considered as the original language of the world and the language of the gods (daivī vāk). The mere utterance of religious words was believed to result in rebirth in heaven after death (Pandeya 1963, 1-23). The meaning and the purpose of the brahmin’s enthusiasm to protect Sanskrit in its original form can be appreciated only against the background of the idea of the sacredness of language.

Early Buddhism It was mainly as a reaction and an alternative to Hinduism that the Buddhist religious movement originated. Among many aspects of Hinduism criticised by Buddhism was the caste system, which was marked by the brahmins’ and the high castes’ exclusive right to use Sanskrit. The alleged sacred and inviolable nature of language was extended to the doctrinal concepts expressed in that language. The Buddhist attitude to language can be regarded as a direct reaction to this ‘linguistic imperialism’ and doctrinal rigidity. The language the Buddha used in his sermons is Māgadhī (later to be known as Pali), which is believed to be the dialect in the Magadha province. Not only did the Buddha not use esoteric Sanskrit in his sermons, but he did not approve of the suggestion made by two brahmin monks that they should be allowed to translate the words of the Buddha into Sanskrit (chandaso aropema: Vin II, 139). The two monks thought that diverse people from diverse castes would contaminate the words of the Buddha by studying them in their own dialects (sakāya niruttiyā buddhavacanam dusenti). The Buddha asked them to not translate the doctrine into Sanskrit and approved the practice of monks who studied the doctrine in their own dialects.


Asanga Tilakaratne

This incident is suggestive of the fact that the Buddha did not believe in the sacredness of Sanskrit or in any other language, including the one he spoke. It also shows that for the Buddha there is nothing profane in language. The Buddha admonished his disciples to neither cling to any particular vernacular nor to transgress any linguistic conventions (M III, 230-234). Without doing either, one must use language only as a tool. In Hinduism, the sacrosanct nature of language is derived mainly from two factors: the belief that language was a creation by Brahma, the Creator, and that Sanskrit was the medium of revealed truth. Neither of these reasons plays any role in Buddhism. Buddhism is atheistic. It does not credit any deity with the creation of the world. Therefore, it does not believe in the phenomenon of language to have been created. In this sense, Buddhism is a form of naturalism. Accordingly, language also has evolved gradually as any other phenomenon in the world. This last observation means that language being a natural phenomenon, is subject to the three signata common to any phenomena namely, impermanence, suffering and non-substantiality (anicca, dukkha, anatta). There are no unchanging concepts or words, nor unchanging substances behind them, as we see in Hinduism. The word of the Buddha has never been considered a revealed truth. There is no supernatural source for the doctrine. As far as the Buddha was concerned, he did not present himself as a saviour whose relationship to a higher being would enable him to save the believers. He offered himself only as a guide. “The Tathāgatas only give directions, it is your responsibility to follow.”1 As the famous Discourse to Kālāmas testifies, freedom of thinking and questioning was encouraged. The final emancipation from samsara, the wheel of existence, is to be achieved only by personal endeavour and not by divine grace. As far as this end is concerned, the doctrine of the Buddha has been compared to a raft used to cross over a river and then abandoned once its purpose is served (M I, 134). In short, nothing is either sacred or profane in language, according to early Buddhism.

Development of sacred language in later Buddhism The emergence of the idea of a sacred language in the later Buddhist tradition is something that took place gradually, as a result of various historical events. The development of Mahayana Buddhism and the continuous encounters with Hinduism through the centuries are ma1  “Tumhehi kiccaṃ ātappaṃ akkhātāro Tathāgatā.” Dhp v. 276.

The Development of ‘Sacred Language’...


jor historical events with philosophical significance that bear a direct relationship to the emergence of a Buddhist sacred language. However, this exposition is too brief to discuss these in any detail. Therefore, I summarise that some later Buddhists adopted the very same Hindu views of language against what original Buddhism had reacted. In this context, I will discuss Tantric Buddhism in India as an instance of the development of a sacred attitude towards language or words in general, and Theravada Buddhism in South Asia as an instance of developing a fully-fledged sacred language from Pali. Both developments have historical counterparts in Hinduism. Along with Hindu Tantrism, Buddhist Tantrism believed that well-articulated words had the power to accomplish various ends, ranging from such trivial and mundane ends as harming one’s enemy or securing personal favours by invoking the gods to the most sublime goal: the realisation of ultimate bliss, nirvana. Bhattacharya quotes the following couplet from Sādhanamāla, a well-known treatise from Buddhist Tantric literature: “kim asty asādhyaṃ mantrānāṃ yojitānāṃ yathāvidhi” (Is there anything unachievable through mantras employed according to the rules?). Bhattacharya further says: The mantras by their power can even confer Buddha-hood. The merit that secures from the mutterings of the mantra of Mahākāla are so numerous that all the Buddhas taken together cannot count them, even if they were to count without cessation for a number of days and nights. (Bhattacharya 1964, 57) Being an outgrowth of Mahayana, Tantrists use Sanskrit as their medium of expression. However, as far as their belief about the power of words is concerned, it has nothing to do with any specific language, e.g. Sanskrit. After all, the language in Tantric mantras is very often not pure Sanskrit. Thus, the Tantrists’ belief about the power of words is closer to that of the early Vedic period. The practice of chanting protective utterances (Pali: parittā, Sanskrit: paritrāṇa) developed by some later Buddhists, especially by Theravadins, has some affinities with the Tantric practice of uttering mantras. Parittās are chanted to secure some worldly gains such as health and wealth, and the belief in the power of words is at the heart of this practice. However, there are significant differences. The anticipated power of the words is not believed to be derived from the proper articulation of words (as in Tantrism) but is believed to be derived from the truthfulness of the words originally uttered by the Buddha, who is believed to be


Asanga Tilakaratne

the embodiment of virtue. Thus, the power of parittās is believed to be derived from their source and content and not from any alleged intrinsic power of the words.

Pali as the sacred language The history of Theravada Buddhism supplies us with a good example of the development of a sacred language of the second type, namely, the elevation of a particular language, Pali in this case, to a sacred position. Pali is believed to be the original Magadha language spoken by the Buddha. The Theravadins, who inherited it, decided not to adopt any language except Pali - especially not the elite Sanskrit adopted by the Mahayanists. It is curious to observe that the Mahayanists did not develop a sacred language out of Sanskrit, although they were more prone to do so temperamentally than their Theravada counterparts because of their bhakti (devotional) mentality. However, on the one hand, Sanskrit was the language of Hinduism and on the other hand, they had already made it a sacred language for their own reasons. If Hattiyangadi’s explanation of the adoption of an ineffability doctrine by Hindus as a reaction to the idea of a sacred language is correct, one can use the same explanation to account for the fact that the Mahayanists did not develop a sacred language and their claim that language is not capable of expressing the ultimate reality (1975). The Theravadins did not develop the idea of ineffability, at least, not explicitly. The developments that led to the origin of the idea of a sacred language amongst Theravadins are numerous. They are both ideological and historical. Ideologically, an important development took place amongst Theravadins to the effect that they attributed omniscience to the Buddha. The Buddha did not claim such knowledge and in fact, denied it (M I, 482). However, from the time of the Buddha, one can discern a mentality of dependence developing among the disciples, even though it was against the wishes of the master. At the time of his death, the Buddha did not appoint a successor - a move in conformity with his liberal attitudes - and asked the disciples to consider the doctrine and disciplinary rules as the master. It seems they took this request quite literarily. The agreement not to make any changes in the doctrine and the great effort to preserve the doctrine in its pristine purity were the results. Preserving the doctrine in its original form meant, among other things, preserving it in the original language. The language is identified with the doctrine and the sacredness of the doctrine is transferred to the language. Thus, Pali becomes the sacred language among Theravadins.

The Development of ‘Sacred Language’...


The following well-known stanza summarises this newly developed attitude toward Pali: Sā māgadhī mūlabhāsā - narā yāyādikappikā Brahmāno c’assutālāpā - sambuddhā c’āpi bhāsare 2 This Māgādhi (Pali) is the original language in the world. It is the language which the original people, brahmins and the Enlightened Ones and those who have never heard any speech would speak. Buddhaghosa’s following account can be regarded as a possible source for this view: When a child has a Tamil mother and an Andhaka father and if it were to hear the mother first, it would speak Tamil; if it were to hear the father first, it would speak Andhaka; if it were to hear neither, then it would speak the language of Magadha (Pali). If one were to be born in an unpopulated vast forest, if there were nobody (capable of) speaking, then he, producing words by his own nature, would speak Pali. Everywhere, namely, in hell, in the spheres of animals, petas and human and in heaven, Pali alone is great. The languages such as Ottakirata, Andhaka, Yonaka and Tamil change, it is this language of Magadha alone which is natural and which is the language of brahmins and aryas that will never change. (PsA I, 6). Obviously, Buddhaghosa’s claim is not important as a scientific statement. Also, it is quite clear that, in claiming that Pali will never change, the Theravadins go against the grain of the Buddhist doctrine. Nevertheless, it betrays their deep feelings about the Pali language. It is with this reverential attitude that prompted the Theravadins to interpret the request of the Buddha for his disciples to study the doctrine in their own dialects (saka nirutti), as a request to study the doctrine only in the Pali language. Buddhaghosa interpreted saka nirutti as “Buddha’s own dialect” (VinA VI, 1214), which is Pali. The right interpretation of the term is a matter of debate, but it seems that Buddhaghosa’s interpretation, which is the received view of Theravadins is not consonant with the liberal attitude of the Buddha. Perhaps the most striking example of the establishment of Pali as a sacred language comes from Buddhaghosa in his commentary regarding 2  Saddhammasaṅgaha (of Dhammakitti Thera) ed. Saddhananda Thero for The Journal of the Pali Text Society, (London·: 1890).


Asanga Tilakaratne

the procedure of admission and higher admission (pabbajjā, upasampadā). The practice at the time of the Buddha was to make prospective candidates accept the Triple-Gem (Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha) as their refuge. This was done by uttering the formula “Buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi, Dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi, Sanghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.” Commenting on this, Buddhaghosa stresses that, unless the formula is recited exactly without adding or omitting even one single syllable, the purpose is not achieved. “Therefore,” he concludes, “it is necessary that one must utter it as exactly as it is in the Text.” (VinA V, 969-70). The whole idea behind the demand for precision is that the words of the Buddha or the words of the Pali language contain extraordinary mystical powers, capable of converting an ordinary person into an ordained monk. Since the Buddhist religious practice is deeply psychological and ethical in character, this strikes one as a strange shift of emphasis. Another statement by Buddhaghosa in the same discussion is more interesting, because of its implicit suggestion that admission cannot be performed in any language other than Pali. He says: Pabbajjā hi saraṇagamaneheva siddhā, sikkhāpadāni pana kevalaṃ sikkhāparipūraṇatthaṃ jānitabbāni. Tasmā tāni pāḷiyaṃ āgatanayena uggahetuṃ asakkontassa yāya kāyaci bhāsāya atthavasenapi ācikkhituṃ vaṭṭati Ordination [=admission] is accomplished only by taking refuge. However, the precepts are to be known in order to be observed. Therefore, for someone who could not understand Pali, it is proper to explain the precepts in any language. (VinA V. 969-70). The statement indicates clearly that the ordination must be conducted in Pali. It also indicates indirectly, that ordination can take place even though the person could not understand what he utters. Such is the power of a sacred language. We may suggest that the introduction of a sacred language in later Buddhism and its development, took place under the influence of Hinduism. Many key ideas were borrowed from the Hindus and attributed to Pali. Whether or not this new development is a sign of progress is not my concern. However, one thing is clear: these later developments show a radical transition from the more philosophical and less emotional stands in early Buddhism to a less philosophical and more emotional disposition of later Buddhism.

18. Some Key Aspects of the Buddhist Philosophy of Education*

Introduction In discussing the Buddhist philosophy of education, it is important at the very outset to clarify a possible misunderstanding, namely, that there is a specific viewpoint on education clearly developed and articulated by the Buddha, or by any other early disciples of the Buddha. In fact, there is nothing of that nature which can be called ‘the Buddhist philosophy of education’ in a definitive sense. Nevertheless, whenever we start discussing a subject under a definitive term such as this, one tends to get the wrong idea that there is such a theme of study articulated by the Buddha, in the like manner that the Buddha has articulated his views on the defilements or karma. This should not be understood, on the other hand, as the Buddha said nothing about education. There is so much that the Buddha has said about matters of importance for education, but those things have been said not in the context of education per se, but in the overall context of the Buddhist path for freedom from suffering. Saying that there is nothing that the Buddha has said about education per se, my intention is to make clear the essential contextual character of what the Buddha has said. In a well-known statement, which occurs in more than one place in the discourses, the Buddha says that he teaches only suffering and its cessation.1 Obviously, this cannot be taken literarily; what it lays emphasis on is the essential contextual character of the teachings of the 1  For reference, see: M I, 140; For English translation see (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 234). * This paper first appeared in Korean Journal of Religious Education, Korea, December:2007. Revised for this edition.


Asanga Tilakaratne

Buddha, namely, that his teaching should be understood in the context of its main purpose of providing a solution to the problem of suffering. When we refer to the Buddhist philosophy of education, what we are doing is extracting from his teachings that which is relevant to the concept and practice of education, which was in the face of what the Buddha was doing while in the process of communicating his ideas to his listeners and guiding them according to such ideas. By picking up ideas and practices from the Buddha, we can develop what may be called the ‘philosophy of education.’ However, we should remember that it is basically our own construction, but this does not mean that such a construction is unwarranted. In fact, it is an important and edifying effort to derive inspiration from the Buddha to enrich our own thinking on education. This warning is meant only as a reminder of the limitations of such reconstructions. A substantial amount has been written on this subject. In particular, a lot has been discussed, for example, on the methods, the Buddha adopted in reaching different people, his use of simile and metaphors and the like. In this discussion, I am not going to spend time on these already well-known things, although they are surely important. Instead, I would rather focus on some issues which are not usually discussed explicitly or are under-discussed in the usual discussions on ‘Buddhist education.’

The functions and the limits of a religious teacher It is said that the Buddha, right after his Enlightenment, surveyed the world in order to see to whom he should teach that which he had realised. The Buddha started his teaching to the five companions, who were known to him since he was practising the austerities. Subsequently, the number of followers increased and from there, sixty followers realised enlightenment. At this juncture, the Buddha instructed these enlightened followers to go in sixty different directions and to teach this message. These events show how significant the teaching was for the Buddha. Usually, the founders of religions are considered saviours in the sense that they save those who have faith in them. It is important to see in this respect that the Buddha did not himself pose as a saviour to his disciples. The Buddhist tradition has recognised the extraordinary capacities of the Buddha as a teacher. Among the most cited nine sublime characteristics of the Buddha, two characteristics highlight this fact, namely, his being ‘the teacher of gods and human beings’ (satthā deva-manussānaṃ) and an ‘incomparable guide to those who are to be

Some Key Aspects of the Buddhist…


disciplined’ (anuttaro purisadamma-sārathi).2 That does not mean, however, that the Buddha was considered as a saviour. It is important to note that the Buddha on his part never encouraged that type of attitude in his disciples. He appears to have noticed this possible danger. Consequently, he always emphasised that he was only a guide or a pointer of the path (akkhātāro tathāgatā: Dhp v. 276). The difference between the Buddha and a follower is highlighted in the parable of the lost ancient path rediscovered (S II, 105-6). In this story, the Buddha is compared to one who discovers an ancient path that leads to an ancient city. Having followed the path, this person enters the ancient city, enjoys observing it and comes back to his own village and tells others about his discovery. The others would follow the instructions given by him and discover the same ancient city by themselves and enjoy observing it. The Buddha’s role as the teacher is compared to this pioneering man who discovers the path initially and walks on it, all by himself. The difference being, one is the pioneer whereas the others are followers. From the point of view of the city visited, however, there is no difference between one who visited first and others who visited later.

Could the Buddha teach everyone equally and successfully? There is no doubt about the fact that the Buddha was a successful teacher. For example, when the Jaina follower Upāli was to go to the Buddha to challenge him, another follower alerts the Jaina leader of the ‘magical power of attraction’ that the Buddha was believed to have possessed.3 This shows how the contemporaries viewed the Buddha’s ability as a teacher. Does this, however, mean that the Buddha could convince anybody and everybody? The following situation should be kept in mind. Even among the people who received instructions from the Buddha, everyone’s understanding was different, and this is quite understandable. It appears, very often, there were only a few, or one or two, who reached the point of full comprehension to the extent that they opted to follow the Buddha by becoming monastic members. For example, when the Buddha visited the village called Thullakoṭṭhita, many brahmin householders came to listen to him. However, only Raṭṭhapāla, the young and rich householder, reached that level of understanding.4 The Buddha taught those who 2  The nine qualities are referred to in numerous places in the discourses. For example, see M II, 238, (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 1087–88). 3  M I, 375ff.; for English translation see: (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 477–92). 4  M I, 54ff.; for English translation see: (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 677–91).


Asanga Tilakaratne

came to listen to him in such a manner that getting deeper gradually starting from a very simple level of good and bad ethical behaviour and its corresponding results, and culminating in the analysis of deep psychological roots of samsaric5 suffering. With such a gradual method of instruction, which went deeper and deeper progressively, of those who came to listen to the Buddha, many of the audience might have left by the time he advanced into the themes of samsaric suffering. Apart from this general picture, there are several notable ‘failures’; for example, the Buddha met Upaka, who belonged to the Ājīvika tradition, on his way to Benares to teach the five early companions; a conversation took place, but Upaka was not convinced.6 This is a less problematic case, for there was no real teaching involved in this case. A more problematic case would be Devadatta, who is considered as the worst of all bad disciples. It is very clear that Devadatta never entered the path, which means that the teaching of the Buddha did not work in his case. The Buddha explicitly says that there is not any worth in Devadatta for him to mention it, for if there is even the smallest worth in him then he would not refrain from saying so (A III, 401). Does this mean that there are ‘totally dark’ people according to the Buddhist analysis of personality? The matters in connection with Devadatta basically occur in the Vinaya. Due to his wholly unacceptable and destructive behaviour, the Buddha had predicted that he will be born in ‘hell’ after his death. Subsequently, there seems to have arisen some discussions on this matter amongst the monks. On being questioned by some of his followers about his statement regarding Devadatta, the Buddha produced an explanation which is contained in one of the discourses, referred to above. The discourse states that the Buddha can penetrate one’s mind and knowing one’s faculties (purisa-indriya-ñāṇa) and how one generates phenomena in the future (āyati-dhamma-samuppāda). The analysis classifies people into three main categories and three derivative categories from the point of view of their spiritual potential. Of the three main categories: the first person has both kusala (wholesome/involving absence of attachment, aversion and delusion) and akusala (unwholesome/involving attachment, aversion and delusion) phenom5  ‘Saṃsāra’ is the concept used in the Indian religious tradition in general and in the Buddhist tradition in particular to refer to the cycle of continuing existence of beings by repeated birth and death. 6  See Vin I, 8 and introductory section for the full account.

Some Key Aspects of the Buddhist…


ena in him. Later, his kusala phenomena are found to have disappeared and the akusala phenomena were found to have emerged. Nevertheless, he has the kusala roots undestroyed in him. Subsequently, from those kusala roots, kusala will arise in him. Such a person will be of the nature of non-declining in the future. He is compared to a good seed placed in fertile soil, growing well since both the seed and the soil are good. The second person too has both kusala and akusala phenomena, and later his akusala phenomena are found to have disappeared and the kusala phenomena to have emerged. Nevertheless, he has akusala roots undestroyed in him. Subsequently, from those akusala roots, akusala will arise in him. Such a person will be of the nature to decline in the future. He is compared to a good seed placed on a slab of stone and not growing since it does not have a good basis. The third person too has both kusala and akusala phenomena, and subsequently, he is found to be absolutely without any ‘fair phenomena’ but only having ‘dark phenomena.’7 Such a person will be bound to ‘hell’ after his death. This person is compared to a completely rotten seed placed in fertile soil but unable to sprout owing to its rottenness. In the derivative category, the first person has both kusala and akusala phenomena. He is subsequently found to have his kusala phenomena disappear and his akusala phenomena emerge. Whatever kusala roots he happens to have undestroyed in him have also been destroyed. Such a person will be of the nature to decline in the future. Such a person is compared to pieces of heated and burning charcoal that would not increase in heat when placed on a slab of stone. Knowing such a person’s future is compared to one’s knowledge that it will be dark when it is evening and the sun sets, and one’s knowledge that darkness has set in at the night meal-time. The second person also has both kusala and akusala phenomena. He is subsequently found to have his akusala phenomena disappear and his kusala phenomena emerge. Whatever akusala roots he happens to have undestroyed in him, too have been destroyed. Such a person will be of nature to non-decline in the future. Such a person is compared to pieces of burning and heated charcoal that would increase in heat when placed on dry leaves. Knowing such a person’s future is compared to one’s knowledge that darkness will disappear and that there will be light 7  Two terms used in the discourses to refer to wholesome and unwholesome (kusala and kusala) phenomena. This usage may have its origins going back to some kind of social distinction based on physical complexion among the early Indo-Aryans.


Asanga Tilakaratne

when the sun rises in the morning, and one’s knowledge by the noon meal-time that darkness has disappeared and light has arisen. The third person has both kusala and akusala phenomena present in him. Subsequently, he is found to be absolutely without any akusala phenomena. Such a person attains parinirvāṇa (=total freedom from suffering) in this life itself. He is compared to pieces of charcoal, completely extinguished and becoming cool, which would not generate fire even if these were to be put amongst dry leaves. The classification deserves careful study. One important factor to note is that all the six people classified here have both kusala and akusala in them, to begin with. Even the third person in the first category, one who is bound to be born in hell, and the third person in the second category, one to attain parinirvāṇa (total freedom from suffering) in this life itself, have both aspects, to begin with. So, whatever happens to them seems to happen subsequently. Regarding the first person, the undestroyed kusala roots are mentioned and regarding the second person, the undestroyed akusala roots are mentioned. From this, we can surmise that both these persons have both types of roots. The difference being is that in one person, the kusala roots become more powerful and in the other, the akusala roots become more powerful. The curious thing is that in regards to the third person there is no mention of roots. He is compared to a rotten seed which cannot have sprouted however, many of the other factors are conducive for growth. The other two persons are compared to good seeds, and the determining factor is that one is placed in fertile soil whereas the other is placed in bad soil. In this classification, the first and second persons do not pose a problem, but the difficulty is with the third person, who is considered a rotten seed. In the case of Devadatta, he is compared to a rotten seed without any worth at all. The fourth and the fifth persons correspond to the first and second persons and the difference is, in the fourth person, whatever undestroyed kusala roots are destroyed and in the fifth person, the undestroyed akusala roots are destroyed. Both are compared to heated charcoal, one is dying due to a lack of support and the other is thriving due to the presence of support. The sixth person, attaining arahanthood, is the opposite of the third person, who is totally dark. One important question that arises from this discussion is the deterministic character implicit in the predictions involved with the persons under scrutiny. The very question that prompts the discussion by the

Some Key Aspects of the Buddhist…


Buddha, according to the Discourse, was whether the Buddha made the initial pronouncement on Devadatta’s future destiny after having comprehensively surveyed the world? The Buddha admits to having done so, and subsequently, classifies persons into six groups according to the evolution of their behaviour. In particular, in regards to the fourth and fifth persons, who respectively, are down-ward bound and upward-bound, the knowledge of their future as compared to knowing that it will be dark when the sun sets and knowing that there will be light once the sun rises, respectively. To determine whether this analysis entails a kind of strong determinism, I propose to study two matters in this context, namely, to study the nature of the simile used and, study the concept of omniscience which was accepted in the early Buddhist tradition. First, I will discuss the simile of the sun setting and rising and the resultant falling of darkness and the appearance of daylight. It is wellknown that the phenomenon of dependent co-origination, which is the Buddhist understanding of the workings of reality, is perceived as operating in five different areas, namely, the natural seasonal changes (which is called utuniyāma or the principle of season), plant life (which is bīja-niyāma or the principle of plant life), moral action (which is kamma-niyāma or the principle of action), nature of things (which is dhamma-niyāma or the principle of nature) and the workings of the mind (which is citta-niyāma or the principle of mind). The simile used in the discourse falls into the first area mentioned here, namely, the operation of the seasons. The idea, emphasised by taking the operations of the seasons as dependently co-arisen, is that in the presence of the necessary causes and conditions seasonal changes take place as a natural process independent of any agent. Once the causes and conditions are met, the resultant process is understood to be sure and guaranteed. To that extent, one may say, there is determinism here. The Buddhist tradition articulates this certainty about the nature of things not as involving determinism but as involving four characteristics, namely, real-ness (objectivity, tathatā), not-unreal-ness (necessity, avitathatā), not-otherwise-ness (invariability, anaññathatā) and conditionality (idappaccayatā) (S II, 25), which guarantees the regularity and the factuality of the process. The broader understanding behind this explanation is that when causes and conditions necessary for a phenomenon to take place have come together, then that thing must happen. In a different context, the Buddha explains the same procedure by the following words:


Asanga Tilakaratne

It is in the nature of things that a person in the state of (meditative) concentration knows and sees what really is. A person who knows and sees what really is, does not need to try of will to feel disinterested and to renounce. It is in the nature of things that a person who knows and sees as it really is, feels disinterested and renounces. One who has felt disinterested and renounced does not need an effort of will to realise the knowledge and insight of emancipation. It is in the nature of things that one who has felt disinterested and renounced, realises the knowledge and insight of emancipation.8 What is described here are the workings of the mind in the specific field of meditative development. It is confirmed by this explanation that the human mind too, as we found in the above list of five areas, works in accordance with the larger principle of dependent co-origination. Now, judging from this evidence, we can safely say that what is said about the persons classified and about Devadatta, in particular, is not any kind of strict deterministic pronouncement but that which can be predicted in accordance with the dependently co-originated character of such people’s behaviour. The next question is, how could the Buddha see the workings of the mind of Devadatta? Or, how can the Buddha see the future workings of anyone’s mind? If we accept our conclusion in the previous paragraph, namely, that the human mind works in accordance with the broader natural principles such as dependent co-origination, then judging anyone’s future psychological behaviour is no different from predicting any other natural phenomena such as seasonal changes or the weather. How can the Buddha know the others’ minds? This is not an issue as long as we accept Buddhist soteriology, according to which it is an ability not only by the Buddha but any other liberated person may possess this with due meditative development.9 In fact, it is not necessary for us to go into the problem of the alleged omniscience of the Buddha if we are comfortable with these two conclusions. According to scholars, such as KN Jayatilleke, who have studied this issue deeply, the later Buddhist traditions including Theravada has at8  As quoted by Jayatilleke (1963, 420–21) from A V, 3. 9  For example, refer to the Sāmaññaphala-sutta of the Dīgha-nikāya for the standard exposition of the path as culminating in the three forms of knowledge including the knowledge of knowing others’ minds.

Some Key Aspects of the Buddhist…


tributed to the Buddha all-encompassing omniscience through which the Buddha is deemed capable of seeing anything belonging to the past, present and the future. One important reason being able to see the future is problematic is, that doing so, anticipates a deterministic universe in which things are determined beforehand. In so far as the early discourses are concerned, what the Buddha actually claimed is not omniscience, but only the knowledge of the three ‘sciences’ (vijjā), namely, the knowledge of recollecting one’s own past births (pubbe-nivāsānssati-ñāṇa), knowledge of how others depart and are born (cutūpapāta-ñāṇa), and the knowledge of destruction of the defilements (āsavakhaya-ñāṇa).10 In the present context, we do not need to pursue this line of analysis any further for neither the working of the mind is determined, nor has the Buddha claimed any ability to know the future precisely due to that very reason. This, however, does not rule out the possibility of knowing the future as a dependently co-arisen phenomenon. Such knowledge, as Jayatilleke rightly says, is not certain but probable (1963, 454). The Buddha’s prediction on Devadatta in this context should be understood purely as what is warranted by the Buddha’s understanding of the dependently co-arisen character of the former’s mind. A question of educational import that arises from this discussion is whether there are any ‘students’ who can never be corrected. In the above discourse, Devadatta has been described as ‘incurable’ (atekiccha), but does this ultimately mean a ‘temporary’ situation or does this mean that he can never be cured under any circumstances? The discourse does not give an answer to this question. Nor does the commentary by Buddhaghosa give an answer, although it says that Devadatta’s akusala behaviour can retain him in hell for a kalpa (unit of the longest duration of time). What happens to him after a kalpa is not discussed in the Discourse or in the commentary, but it is clear from the generally non-absolutist character of his teachings that the Buddha did not talk about any person as absolutely ‘incurable.’ It is a well-known fact that Buddhism does not maintain that heaven and hell are everlasting. In this sense, neither are there eternally-damned nor eternally-blessed people according to Buddhism. An arahant is not considered as one who is born in heaven and such a person is not covered by the characterisation of heaven. 10  For a complete discussion on this issue, see Tevijjavacchagotta-sutta [To Vacchagotta on the Threefold Knowledge] of the Majjhima-nikāya (no.71), where the Buddha says that those who say that the Buddha claimed to be omniscient and all-seeing, and to have complete knowledge and vision while walking, standing or asleep or awake, misrepresent him, and those who say that he has the threefold knowledge are representing him correctly.


Asanga Tilakaratne

Educationally speaking, this means that the Buddhist tradition does not believe that people are totally incurable. In Devadatta’s case, however, he was considered as incurable in that birth. Whether this should be understood as saying that there are incurable students in a more mundane or ordinary sense remains open. My personal view is this story pertains not to ordinary situations such as that one would come across in a classroom but rather, for more deeper existential situations. The point to be stressed is that even Devadatta, who turned out to be a rotten seed, started with both good and bad attributes. How he became rotten has, to my knowledge, not been discussed in the texts, although the texts do refer to King Ajātasattu has been misguided by Devadatta.11 The overall story of Devadatta may be understood as indicating the magnitude of some persons’ limitations even defying the Buddha’s incomparable ability to penetrate other people’s minds and teach accordingly.

Faith in and inquiry of the Buddha How a student should develop faith in a teacher is an important element in the process of education. In a usual academic setting, it is important that students are satisfied with the academic credentials of their teachers. In the case of a religious teacher, whose role goes far beyond the usual acts of imparting knowledge, it is crucial that students are satisfied with the teacher’s higher inner states. In the Buddhist tradition, it is particularly emphasised that there cannot be any discrepancy or contradiction between what one says and what one does. This has been articulated in the well-known phrase: “doing what one says and saying what one does” (yathāvādi tathākāri; yathākāri tathāvādi: A II, 24). Looking from this perspective, the Buddha seems to be far ahead of all hitherto known religious teachers. He has allowed his followers to inquire into his behaviour and ask any questions regarding his behaviour before they finally make up their mind that he is indeed a fit teacher to follow. The best example in this regard is the Vīmaṃsaka-sutta (Discourse on Inquiry) (M no. 47), in which the Buddha encourages his disciples to inquire about his external (verbal and physical) behaviour, for they cannot read his mind and know for sure that he does not have any defilements, whether they are overt or covert. The procedure recommended is as follows: One should start by inquiring whether there are any defiled states in the Buddha, cognisable 11  Refer to the commentary to the Sāmaññaphala-sutta of the Dīgha-nikāya by Buddhaghosa.

Some Key Aspects of the Buddhist…


through the eye or through the ear, and not finding any such state, then next, he should inquire whether there are any mixed states, both defiled and undefiled. Not finding such states subsequently, he should investigate for positively cleansed states in the Buddha. Finding such states in him, subsequently, he should inquire whether he has attained these positive states recently or has he had such states for a long time. Discovering that the Buddha has had these states in him for a long time, then next, he should inquire whether the Buddha has the dangers associated with acquiring renown and fame, due to these good qualities. Finding that he does not have the dangers associated with renown and fame, although he has achieved renown and fame, then next, the follower should inquire whether the Buddha keeps away from the defilements out of fear or due to his own genuine absence of lust etc., and finds that he is away from these defiled states, not out of fear, but due to his genuinely undefiled nature himself. Once one goes through this process of investigation, then the final test that remains is to question the Buddha directly on the seemingly absent defiled-states and seemingly present cleansed-states. It is only when one gets confirmation from the Buddha himself that one should conclude that “the Awakened One is fully enlightened, the Dhamma is well proclaimed by the Awakened One, the Sangha is practising the right path.” The Buddha himself has described the faith one gains by following this process by the following words: When anyone’s faith has been planted, rooted, and established in the Tathāgata [the Buddha] through these reasons, terms, and phrases, his faith is said to be supported by reasons, rooted in vision, firm; it is invincible by any recluse or brahmin or god or Mara or Brahma or by anyone in the world. (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 418). The kind of faith spoken about here is what is called ‘rational faith’ (ākāravatī saddhā) and is contrasted with what is called ‘root-less faith’ (amūlikā saddhā), articulated in the context of when discussing the assertions made by some religious groups without any experiential basis. In discussing the brahmins’ claim that their scripture has truly been revealed by Brahma himself, the Buddha questions his interlocutor Caṅkī, the young and learned brahmin, whether there is any single brahmin, even as far back as the seventh generation, who can claim that he has personally experienced this God. Upon admitting that it is not so, the Buddha concludes: It seems that among the brahmins there is not even a single brahmin who says thus: “I know this, I see this: only this is true,


Asanga Tilakaratne

anything else is wrong.” And among the brahmins, there is not even a single teacher or a single teacher’s teacher back to the seventh generation of teachers, who says thus: “I know this, I see this, only this is true, anything else is wrong.” ··· Suppose there was a file of blind men each in touch with the next; the first does not see, the middle one does not see, and the last one does not see. So too, regarding their statement, the brahmins seem to be like a file of blind men: the first one does not see, the middle one does not see, and the last one does not see. What do you think, that being so, does not the faith of the brahmins turn out to be groundless? (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 779–80). What the Buddha highlights here is the need for one’s faith to be based on valid and rational reasons. The Buddha accepts that faith has a role to play in the process of learning. It is something of the following nature: one has to begin with faith; such a process ultimately will lead to a point at which faith will gradually be replaced by knowledge. Faith, however, has to be rational and not groundless. The story of the young brahmin Uttara, who followed the Buddha, like a “shadow that is inseparable,” for seven months and finally confessed that he could not see any defect in the behaviour of the Buddha, testifies to the fact that at least some people took the Buddha’s challenge seriously and did experiment with this scrutiny. The above outline should show that the Buddha’s life as a teacher and his discourses contain many valuable examples and ideas, based upon which we are able to develop a philosophy of education. Although the Buddha may have not spoken directly on education as we understand the subject today, his very practice as a teacher and his philosophical analysis of the human situation and his deep insights into human psychology are invaluable sources for such an endeavour.

19. Philosophy and Content of the Laṅkāvatāra-Sūtra*

The Discourse about ‘Entering Lanka’ is one of the most important sūtras of Mahayana Buddhism. It is included amongst the traditional ‘great discourses’ (Vaipulya sūtra) by Mahayanists. The sūtra has also been adopted as one of the basic texts of the Soto Zen Buddhist tradition in Japan. The date of the compilation of the sūtra has not been fixed with certainty, for want of evidence. The internal evidence suggests that the sūtra represents the idealist development in the Indian Buddhist tradition. However, it is generally believed that the sūtra was compiled during 350-400 ce (Nakamura 1987, 231). Many who have studied the sūtra are of opinion that the introductory chapter and the last two chapters were added to the book at a later period. Suzuki, who may be regarded as the most authoritative writer on the sūtra in the English language points out that there are records of four Chinese translations of the sūtra, the earliest being about ce 420 and the last being about ce 704. He further points out that the earliest translation by Guṇabhadra does not contain the first and the last two chapters. He surmises that this shorter version is the original Laṅkāvatāra which is believed to have been brought to China from India by Bodhidharma, the legendary founder of Mahayana in China. The tradition believes that Bodhidharma transmitted the text to the second patriarch Hui-K’e. According to Suzuki, the sūtra contains all the major tenets of Zen Buddhism (Suzuki 1930, 89–236).

Structure of the sūtra: The sūtra has 10 chapters. They are: 1. Rāvaṇādhyeṣaṇaparivarta (Chapter on Rāvaṇa’s Request) * First version of this article was published in Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, Vol. VI: Fascicle 2. Colombo: Sri Lanka, 1999.


Asanga Tilakaratne

2 Ṣaṭṭriṃśatsahasrasarvadharmasamuccayaparivarta (Chapter on the Collection of all the Dharmas (taken from) Lankāvatāra of 36,000 Verses) 3. Anityatāparivarta (Chapter on Impermanence) 4. Abhisamayaparivarta (Chapter on Intuitive Understanding) 5. Tathāgatanityānityaprasaṅgaparivarta (Chapter on the Deduction of the Permanency and Impermanency) 6. Kṣanikaparivarta (Chapter on Momentariness) 7. Nairmānikaparivarta (Chapter on Transformation) 8. Māṃśabhakṣaṇaparivarta (Chapter on Meat-eating) 9. Dāraṇīparivarta (Chapter on Dhāraṇis) 10. Sagāthakam (Chapter with Verses)

Content of each chapter: Chapter 1: The Enlightened one was staying in a castle situated on the peak of Mount Malaya in Lanka. He was surrounded by bhikṣūs and bodhisattvas who understood the significance of the objective world as a manifestation of their own mind; they knew how to maintain (various) forms, teachings and disciplinary measures, according to the various mentalities and behaviours of beings; they were thoroughly versed in the five dharmas, the (three) svabāvas, the (eight) vijñānas and the two-fold ‘Non-ātman’. The Buddha, following a tradition of the ancient Buddhas, expresses the intention of explaining the dharma to the king of Rākṣasas, Rāvaṇa. Having known the intention of the Buddha, Rāvaṇa arrives before the Buddha. The Buddha through his divine power makes Rāvaṇa see that everything in the universe is a creation of one’s own mind. Subsequently, aided by Mahāsatva Bodhisattva, upon the approval of the Buddha, Rāvaṇa asks a question from the Buddha on duality. The Buddha says that duality arises from discrimination (e.g. dharma and adharma etc.), which is ‘cherished by the philosophers, Śrāvakas, Pratyekabuddhas and ignorant people.’ The Buddha further says that the highest samādhi which is attained by entering the womb of Tathāgatahood (tathāgatagarbha) is realised through oneness, which is the absence of duality and discrimination. Chapter 2: The chapter begins with the Bodhisattva Mahāsatva’s statement that he will ask one hundred and eight questions from the Buddha (According to Suzuki’s translation, there are 151 questions or even more than that in this list). These questions cover various issues most of

Philosophy and Content of the Laṅkāvatāra-Sūtra


which are directly related and some not directly related to the teaching of the Buddha. For example, a few questions at the beginning are as follows: How can one be cleansed of false intellection? Whence does it arise? How can one perceive errors? Whence do they arise? Whence come lands, transformation, appearance, and philosophers? Wherefore is the state of imagelessness, the gradations, and whence are the sons of the Victorious? Where is the way of emancipation? Who is in bondage? By what is he redeemed? What is the mental state of those who practice the dhyānas? Whence is the triple vehicle? (Suzuki 1932, 60 ff) However, there are some other questions, where the relevance to the teachings of the Buddha is not quite clear. For instance: Of how many sorts are gātluis? What is prose? What is metre? Of how many sorts is reasoning and exegesis? How many varieties of food and drink are there? Whence does sexual desire originate? Whence are there kings, sovereigns, and provincial rulers? (Suzuki 1932, 25) The above questions have no direct bearing on the teaching, although such questions are not unheard of in the Buddhist literature. The way the Buddha deals with these questions suggests that they have been put, not in order to obtain answers but for some other purpose, namely, to show that the questions are meaningless since the language itself used to convey the meaning is empty. The Buddha rejects all questions saying that the sentences do not actually make the statements, meant to be made by those sentences (‘... utpādapadam, anutpādapadam, nityapadam anityapadam,...). Despite this treatment of his questions by the Buddha, Mahāmati continues to ask. It is significant to note that the questions asked are in no way different from the rejected questions. In fact, almost all the questions subsequently asked by Mahāmati are from the previous list. This time, the Buddha does not reject the questions, but ‘answers’ them. In this longest chapter of the sūtra, questions are asked on the following subjects: (the numbers in the following summary refer to the numerical order of the question.) (1) in how many ways does the rise, abiding, and the ceasing of the vijñānas take place?; (2) the subtlest doctrine which explains the citta, manas, manovijñāna, the five dharmas, the svabhāvas, and the Lakṣaṇas; (3) examining into the reality of noble wisdom; (4) purification of the outflow which comes from recognising


Asanga Tilakaratne

an objective world which is of mind itself; (5) the eternal unthinkable; (6) making an assertion and refuting it; (7) how all things are empty, unborn, non-dual, and have no self-nature; (8) is the tathāgata-garbha the same as ego-substance of the other religionists?; (9) perfection of the discipline leading to being a yogin; (10) will-body; (11) causation of all things; (12) essence of discrimination as regards to words; (13) conditions whereby the word-discrimination manifests itself; (14) attainment of self-realisation by noble wisdom; (15) nirvana; (16) nature of the Buddha’s theory of causality; (16) whether all things exist on the reality of words; (17) eternity of sound; (18) nature of error; (19) the stream-enterer and their special attainments; (20) one vehicle that characterises the inner realisation of noble wisdom. The Buddha answers these questions by laying emphasis on the fundamental vijñānavāda doctrines. Chapter 3: The chapter begins with the Buddha giving a further account of the will-body to Mahāmati. Subsequently, the following questions, which are similar in nature to those in the previous chapter are asked and answered: (21) the live immediacies; (22) the Buddha nature of the Buddhas; (23) the deeper sense of the statement “I am all the Buddhas of the past” and “I have gone through many a birth ...”; (24) on ‘not speaking is the speaking of the Buddha’; (25) being and nonbeing of all things; (26) characteristic of the realisation; (27) what characterises wrong discrimination; (28) Why should not Bodhisattva-Mahasattva grasp meaning from words? What are the words? What is the meaning?; (29) deep-seated attachment to the existence of all things and the way of emancipation; (30) if all things are of the nature of false imagination is there neither defilement nor purification?; (31) how is transcendental knowledge unobtainable?; (32) why Lokāyata should not be honoured?; (33) what does the term nirvāṇa designate?; (34) self-nature of Buddhahood; (35) is the Tathāgata a non-entity? (36) on external causation (of the Buddha and the other religionists); (37) on the claim that all composite things are impermanent. Chapter 4: This short chapter is on a single question asked by Mahāmati on (38) the state of perfect tranquillisation. Chapter 5: This short chapter too discusses one point, namely, (39) whether the Tathāgata is permanent or not. Chapter 6: The chapter discusses the following questions by Mahāmati: (40) the rising and disappearing of skandha, dhātu and āyatana; (41) distinguishing aspects of the live dharmas, the (three) sv-

Philosophy and Content of the Laṅkāvatāra-Sūtra


abhāvas, the (eight) vijñānas and the twofold egolessness; (42) should the statement “the Tathāgatas of the past, present and future are like the sands of the river Ganga” be taken literally?; (43) momentary destruction of all things and their distinctive signs; (44) what are the six pāramitās? how are they fulfilled? Chapter 7: The following questions are asked (together) and answered (together): (45) how was it that the arahants were given assurance by the Buddha on their attainment of supreme enlightenment?; (46) how can all beings attain Tathāgatahood without realising the truths of parinirvāṇa?; (47) What does it mean that from the night when the Tathāgata was awakened to supreme enlightenment until the night when he entered into parinirvāṇa, between these two events the Tathāgata has not uttered, has not pronounced a word?; (48) What is the meaning of this that, being always in samādhi, the Tathāgatas neither deliberate nor contemplate?; (49) how do the Buddhas of transformation being in the state of transformation, execute the works of the Tathāgata?; (50) how is the succession of momentary decomposition explained, which takes place in the vijñānas?; (51) what do these statements mean: that Vajrapāṇi is constantly with (the Tathāgata) as his personal guard, and that the primary limit is unknown and yet cessation is knowable, and that there are evil ones, their activities and left-over karmas?; (52) how can the Blessed one with the unexhausted karma hindrances attain omniscience? Chapter 8: This chapter is the Buddha’s response to Mahāmati’s question (53) on meat-eating. Chapter 9: This short chapter comprises the Laṅkāvatāra Mahāyānasūtra Dhāraṇi or magical formula based on the sūtra (a device characteristic of the Mahayana tradition by which usually a lengthy sūtra is given in an extremely abbreviated form for the purposes of chanting, in order to secure good results). Chapter 10: This is usually not numbered as a separate chapter, but is meant to be a compilation in verse form of all the ideas expressed in the sūtra so that memorisation is made easy. There are 884 verses in this section, which covers not only what was already given in the sūtra but also many new issues. The Laṅkāvatāra sūtra is one of the most important of all Mahayana works. It represents the most advanced stage of the philosophical development of the Mahayana tradition, namely, the Vijñānavāda or the idealist trend in Buddhist thought (Cf. Dasgupta 1983).


Asanga Tilakaratne

The Sūtra has a dual purpose, positive and negative. The positive purpose of the sūtra is to present the idealist persuasion in Buddhist thought. The negative purpose is to criticise the views that are not in conformity with its own. The sūtra is simultaneously engaged in both these activities, and that it is so engaged can be seen very clearly throughout the work, from the beginning to its end. We already mentioned the fact that many scholars including Suzuki are of opinion that the first and the last chapters are later additions. There are several theories about the presence of the first chapter. One theory believes that the first chapter with the king of Lanka, Rāvaṇa, as the main interlocutor has been added later in order to give historicity for the sūtra (Suzuki 1930, 16 and Guruge 1992). Another theory says that the sūtra has been compiled hurriedly having Lanka as the venue in order to introduce Mahayana Buddhism to Sri Lanka. This theory is heavily dependent on the eighth chapter on meat-eating, which is a Hinayana practice (Kalupahana 1992, XVIII and Appendix). Whether this chapter is a subsequent addition or not cannot be determined conclusively on the available historical or even on internal evidence. There is a possibility that both these theories may be true. However, one thing is clear: the internal evidence clearly suggests that the first chapter is quite integral in its content and outlook with the rest of the sūtra and it serves as the introduction to the whole sūtra. The introductory chapter introduces all the main ideas and trends that the reader is bound to come across repeatedly throughout the sūtra. Therefore, the first chapter, even if it is a later addition, has been constructed to integrate quite well with the rest of the sūtra. The only ‘non-philosophical’ chapter of the Sūtra (with the exception of the ninth chapter containing a dhāraṇī, which is not supposed to have a standard meaning) is the one on meat-eating. However, it is hard to say that these chapters are not integral to the whole sūtra, for the sūtra not only gives a philosophy but also gives a religion. The discussion on meat eating and the dhāraṇī are quite significant in this respect.1 The major philosophical and religious views of the Sūtra are those of the Vijñānavāda tradition, namely, the five dharmas, three svabhāvas, the eight vijñānas and the twofold non-ātman (1)2; the non-differ1  We agree with Arnold Kunst, who says that the Lankāvatāra is a highly polemical text’: “Some Polemics in the Laṅkāvatārasūtra” in Festschrift for Walpola Rahula. 2  Unless otherwise stated, throughout this article these are section numbers in Suzuki’s text.

Philosophy and Content of the Laṅkāvatāra-Sūtra


entiating nature of the ālayavijñāna (17); denial of duality (16); abandonment of discrimination (18), unreality of the external world (20), and the ‘womb of tathāgatahood’ (tathāgatagarbha) (21). These ideas are introduced and emphasised in the first chapter itself. The above ideas are not presented in a vacuum but in the context of the views which are opposed to them. In this respect, the first and foremost target is what the sūtra calls śrāvakas or the Hinayana schools of Buddhism. Almost always, the śrāvakas are grouped together with the pratyekabuddhas, the other religionists or tīrthakas (which Suzuki, not very appropriately, translates as ‘philosophers’) and ‘those who are ignorant.’ In the first chapter, the Buddha warns Rāvaṇa that he should “not fall into the attainments, conceptions, experiences, views and samādhis of the śrāvakas...” (10). Subsequently, the Buddha praises Rāvaṇa for asking a question on some aspect of meditation, which is never tasted by those who practice the meditation of the śrāvakas...” (14), and refers to the stage of acala in meditation that goes “beyond the samādhi and understanding attained by the śrāvakas....” (15). In this same discussion, the discrimination of phenomena into dharma and adharma is attributed to other religionists, śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhās and the ignorant (18). In this manner, the sūtra always presents its views along with the criticism of its opponents of whom the Hinayana tradition is the foremost. ‘Other religionists’ are often referred to along with the rest. However, the main contention with them is their theories of causation (section:40). Rāvaṇa is said to acquire a kind of knowledge that can dispose of the arguments of other religionists on causation (10-11). Although Lokāyatikas are referred to in several places, it is not clear in what sense the term is being used. They have been described as “skilled in varieties of incantations and in the art of eloquence” and “making clever use of words” (173), but subsequently they have been attributed with views usually considered ‘metaphysical’ and ‘unanswered’ in the Buddhist tradition (176-177). They have also been attributed with dualism (being and non-being etc.), which is usually attributed to ‘other religionists’ in the sūtra. It must be noted that the major philosophical and religious views advocated and the references to the opponents whose views are criticised in the first chapter continue to appear until the end of the sūtra. The main interlocutor in the sūtra (in fact, the sole interlocutor after the first chapter) Mahāmati, the Bodhisattva, appears in the first chapter itself. He is the only one in the assembly who understands the significance of the mysterious smile of the Buddha. Mahāmati’s inquiry


Asanga Tilakaratne

into the reason behind the Buddha’s smile opens the door for the exposition of the philosophy of the sūtra, first as responses to Rāvaṇa’s questions and subsequently to those of Mahāmati. The themes discussed from the 2nd to the 7th chapters are of a uniform nature in the sense that the responses of the Buddha to these questions represent the Vijñānavāda philosophy. As the (above) summary of the questions show, the subject-matter of the questions is diverse and varied. Nevertheless, the philosophy presented to respond to these questions is the same. The Vijñānavāda doctrine of ‘mind only’ (cittamātra) and the reality of ālayavijñāna is the central teaching of the sūtra. This doctrine is presented against the practice of various forms or discrimination, namely, citta, mano and manovijñāna and subject and object. The following statement articulates the two ideas clearly: ... That Mind in itself has nothing to do with discrimination and causation, discourses of imagination, and terms of qualification (lakṣyalakṣaṇa); that body, property, and abode are objectifications of the ālayavijñāna, which in itself above (the dualism of) subject and object; that the state of imagelessness which is in compliance with the awakening of mind itself, is not affected by such changes as arising, abiding, and destruction. (section: 42) The ‘mind-only’ doctrine is affirmed throughout the sūtra. For example, it occurs in the following sections: 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 46, 70, 73, 91, 111 (chapter II); 152, 162, 170, 173, 183, 208 (chapter III); 212 (chapter IV); 219 (chapter V); 225, 235 (chapter VI); 243 (chapter VI?); 272, 282, 300, 301, 311, 320, 327, 335, 342, 351, 369, 375 (chapter X). The related ideas of (the folly of) false discrimination (129-131, 150, 163, 204, 274 and 306); non-reality of the external world (māyā) (320, 334 and 374); and that all phenomena are empty of self-nature (73-74) occur throughout the sūtra in support of the main doctrine. Primarily the idealist philosophy is presented against the Hinayana philosophy and religion. The references to and criticism of the Hinayana doctrines and practices are many and varied. They are scattered in all chapters except in chapter IX, which is a dhāraṇī (magical formula). In the first chapter, there are several references to Hinayana. The first reference to the śrāvakas occurs in the admonition by the Buddha to Rāvaṇa, not to “fall into the attainments, conceptions, experiences, views, and samādhis of the śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas and philosophers” (10).

Philosophy and Content of the Laṅkāvatāra-Sūtra


Subsequently, the discrimination of things as belonging to past, present and future is condemned and the state beyond such discrimination is described as a state “not tasted by those who practice the meditation of the śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas, and philosophers ...” (14). Subsequently, sections 15, 18 and 20 contain criticisms of Hinayana on the same grounds. Chapter II extends the criticism of Hinayana to many other philosophical issues. The workings or the ālayavijnāna is described as a phenomenon “not easy to comprehend (especially) by those who practice the discipline belonging to the śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas and philosophers” (45). The dharmatā Buddha, which is unconditioned is described as “not belonging to the world of the ignorant, śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas and philosophers” (57). Subsequently, the final realisation of the śrāvakas is criticised as “no discarding of habit-energy and no escape from the unperceivable transformation of death” (58). This downgrading of the Hinayanic goal reaches its culminating point by the following statement: ... [T]hose who, afraid of suffering arising from the discrimination of birth and death, seek for nirvana, do not know that birthand-death and nirvana are not to be separated the one from the other; and seeing that all things subject to discrimination have no reality, imagine that nirvana consists in the future annihilation of the senses and their fields. They are not aware. Mahāmati, of the fact that nirvana is the ālayavijñāna where a revulsion takes place by self-discrimination. Therefore, Mahāmati those who are stupid talk of the trinity of vehicles and not of the state of mind-only where there are no images. (61-62) Sections 63, 69, 71 and 83 contain criticisms of the Hinayana doctrines of skandha, dhātu and āyatana. Sections 72, 97, 103, 107 and 134 contain similar criticisms of the low nature of the Hinayana standards. Chapter III continuing along a similar line of thought confirms that those who adhere to discrimination of skandha, dhātu and āyatana are ‘doomed to ruin’ (147). Section 170 shows the importance of keeping the bodhisattvas away from ‘those who belong to the vehicles of the śrāvaka ...’ Chapter IV is a reaffirmation of the ‘mind only’ doctrine and a downgrading of the Hinayana nirvana, which is prohibited for the bodhisattvas who have a loftier ideal (212). Chapter V, although it does not directly refer to the śrāvakas, does criticise their practice of discrimination of phenomena into skandha, dhātu and āyatana and permanency and impermanency. Chapter VI contains a harsher attack on Hinayana. Section (222) claims that self-realisation is not gained by the


Asanga Tilakaratne

śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas and philosophers. Section 226 asserts that right knowledge constitutes not ‘falling back into the stage of the philosophers, śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas. Section 236 refers to those ‘ignorant and simple-minded who are addicted to the doctrine of momentariness’ and the next section compares those who delight in nirvana and those who perform the pāramitās of charity etc., in order to achieve it with the ‘ignorant’ (237). Chapter VII describes the śravakas as those who have got rid of ‘passion hindrance’ (kleśāvaraṇa), but not ‘knowledge hindrance’ (jñeyāvaraṇa), a result of the direct perception of the egolessness of phenomena which is not achieved by the śrāvakas. Chapter VIII is the only chapter which discusses a practically-oriented ethical issue, namely, the practice of meat-eating. The entire chapter can be considered a direct attack on Hinayana. At the very outset of the chapter, the Hinayanists are isolated from the other groups with whom they were combined with up until that point for attack, and this fact becomes clear from this statement of Mahāmati: “even those philosophers who hold erroneous doctrines and are addicted to the views of the Lokāyata such as the dualism of being and non-being, nihilism, and eternalism, will prohibit meat-eating...” (244). In this chapter, we do not encounter the expositions of usual idealist doctrines, but again the focus is the bodhisattvas who must refrain from the kind of food enjoyed by the śravakas. In the discussion, it is made clear that meat-eating is not approved for anyone, not even for the śrāvakas. The so-called ‘meat purified from three ends’ (trikoṭipāriśuddhimāṃsa) of the Hinayanists has been clearly denied (253 and 257). The last chapter which is composed of verses is basically a summary of the ideas presented in the previous eight chapters (chapter IX being only a dhāraṇī), although it contains some other material which is not directly related to the main trend of the sūtra. The criticism of the Hinayana continues unabated in this chapter as well. Section 295 puts all the doctrines criticised together and affirms their dream-like nature: Causation, the dhātus, skandhas, and the self-nature of all things, thought-construction, a personal soul and mind they are all like a dream, like a hair-net. The doctrines advanced by the śrāvakas are described as resulting from jealousy. They ‘who are deeply intoxicated with the liquor of samādhi’ are compared to an elephant ‘who is stuck in deep mud is unable to move about’ (322). In the very last section, the basic ideas emphasised throughout the sūtra are reiterated:

Philosophy and Content of the Laṅkāvatāra-Sūtra


When the dualism of being and non-being is abandoned, there is neither bothness nor not-bothness; and going beyond śrāvakahood and pratyekabuddhahood, one will even pass over the seventh stage. (357) This discussion shows that the sūtra has a clearly articulated dual purpose, namely, to promote the idealist trend in Buddhist philosophical thinking and the religion associated with it and to show the invalidity of the philosophy and the religion of Hinayana. Many scholars have noticed the sūtra has a large number of repetitions. However, this aspect of the sūtra may be defended claiming in a work that combines theoretical philosophy with practical religion, repetitions are not only desirable but also helpful, for they serve to keep laying emphasis on the main themes so that the reader becomes accustomed to the viewpoint. The philosophical method followed in the sūtra is like the method in the Vajracchedika and in Nagarjuna. Namely, the method of conceptual ‘deconstruction.’ The best example of this kind of treatment is the way the Buddha treats the so-called 108 questions that occur at the beginning of the second chapter. As we showed earlier, these questions cover a vast range of concepts. All the questions are dismissed as not capable of conveying the meaning intended. The obvious reason is that both language and the things behind its concepts are empty of any reality. There are other occasions where specifically Buddhist and philosophical concepts are negated, a method that very much resembles that of Nagarjuna: And there are no Buddhas, no truths, no fruition, no causal agents, no perversion, no nirvana, no passing away, no birth. And then there are no twelve elements (aṅga), and no duality either, no limit and no no-limit; because of the cessation of all notions (that are cherished by the philosophers). I declare (there is) mind-only. (249) The difference in application of this method, however, from Nagarjuna, as indicated in the above quoted statement, is that here all concepts are negated not only to show that they are devoid of any self-nature but also to affirm the view that all such phenomena are mind-made and hence, the sole reality is mind, a view which marks the idealistic development over the Śūnyatāvāda. The negation of the validity of the concepts including those in the 108 questions in the second chapter thus, appears to be integral to the


Asanga Tilakaratne

philosophical method adopted by the sūtra. In holding this view, we are not in agreement with Suzuki, who holds the following: The 108 clauses preached by the Buddhas of the past are a string of negations, negating any notion that happens to come into the mind now, apparently with no system, with no special philosophy in them. These negations are another example of the irrationality of the Laṅkāvatāra. (Suzuki 1930, 41) The negation of the validity of language is an essential aspect of the philosophy of religion in the sūtra. What the sūtra presents as an ultimately valid experience is that which transcends the boundaries of language. The following question by Mahāmati and the answer given by the Buddha to this question confirms this: Mahāmati: Are words themselves the highest reality, or is what is expressed in words the highest reality? Buddha: Words are not the highest reality, nor is what is expressed in words the highest reality. Why? Because the highest reality is an exalted state of bliss and as it cannot be entered into by mere statements regarding it, words are not the highest reality, Mahāmati, the highest reality is to be attained by the inner realisation of noble wisdom, it is not a state of word-discrimination; therefore, discrimination does not express the highest reality. (87) The denial of the validity of all concepts does not necessarily mean that ‘things in themselves’ are beyond expression. Rather, it leads us to the core of the Vijñānavāda philosophy, namely, nothing in phenomena has any reality, but all of them are creations of the mind. What ultimately remains is the mind alone (cittamātra). This understanding shatters the māyā, the cause of the realistic view of phenomena and leads us to the experience of “the highest samādhi,” which is gained by entering the womb of Tathāgatahood, which is the realm of noble wisdom realised in one’s innermost self (21). The Religion of the Laṅkāvatāra, for which the philosophy is only a means, culminates here.

20. Contemporary Indian Interpretations of Buddhism: Radhakrishnan and Murti*

Introduction Indian interpreters of Buddhism are as old as Buddhism itself. Starting from the time of the Buddha, there have been interpreters of Buddhism, both critics and admirers, until the end of the middle period of the Indian history of religion. With some discontinuity, just before the dawn of the modern period, the critical traditions have continued up-to-date. The classical Indian debates on Buddhism have been fertile soil for polemics. Buddhism was one of those systems that the Brahmanic thinkers, in particular, loved to hate. Now that the classical ages are gone, the old debates do not continue exactly in the same manner or with the same vigour and heat. Debates nonetheless are not non-existent. Recent beginnings of Buddhism in India do not extend beyond the second half of the 19th century. Until the mass conversion of Dr Ambedkar and his followers in the 1950s, Buddhism was only an academic subject and a relic of the past. The Indian intellectual interest in Buddhism is only a relatively recent phenomenon confined to a small group of academics and the elite. The popular interest in Buddhism is still largely confined to the followers of Ambedkar and their descendants. In order to understand the dynamics of this phenomenon, it is necessary that one does a comprehensive sociological study. The present paper does not aim to undertake this task. A somewhat different task, however, is to examine the sources of the contemporary Indian understanding of Buddhism. For this purpose, one needs to study the views on Buddhism expressed * A version of this article was published in The Journey of the Holy Tree: Cultural Interface Between India and Sri Lanka, ed. HM Mahinda Herath and Birender Singh, Colombo: Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), 2011.


Asanga Tilakaratne

by modern scholars, philosophers, and thinkers. However, to study all the relevant sources will be a far too large a task for the present project. In this paper, therefore, I propose to examine the interpretations of Buddhism developed by some selected modern Indian religious, philosophical and social thinkers. This initial examination will be focused only on two, namely, S Radhakrishnan, and TRV Murti. As a prelude to the discussion, first, I will study some historical instances of how Buddhism was understood by those in the classical ages. I will conclude the discussion with an assessment of the philosophical, ideological and social implications of these interpretations.

Two levels of critique Basically, the present essay is concerned with the critique of religion. A critique can be either partial or total. A partial critique affects only partly a religion, whereas the total critique questions the very basis or the basic assumptions, of a given religion. Certain critiques can only concern the individual issues; these are partial critiques applicable only to some aspects of the teaching. Some relevant examples are the so-called unanswered questions raised by the disciple of the Buddha, named Māluṅkyaputta, and the wrong view held by another monastic disciple, named Ariṭṭha on the ‘harmful phenomena’ (anatarāyikā dhammā). The former involves the ten (fourteen in the later tradition) questions that were not answered by the Buddha (Cūlamāluṅkyaputta-sutta of Majjhima-nikāya, no. 63). Māluṅkyaputta was of the view that the Buddha should answer ten issues in a definitive manner and the fact that the Buddha did not answer them was a weakness of the teaching. Although Māluṅkyaputta does not describe this non-answering as a weakness of the teaching, this is what he means when he threatens the Buddha that he would leave the Sangha if the answers are not given to him. In the second example, Ariṭṭha was of the view that whatever the phenomena described by the Buddha as ‘harmful’ (antarāyikā) are not so (Alagaddūpama-sutta of Majjhima-nikāya no. 22). In these cases, the misunderstandings involved do not seem to affect the entire system. They refer only to partial misunderstandings, although the questioner himself may not have felt so. The second category is different. There can be certain critiques applicable to the totality of the teaching. Such critiques, if valid, could affect the entire system. The almost standard accusation of the ātmavadins that the Buddha was a nihilist and Bhikkhu Sāti’s view that consciousness

Contemporary Indian Interpretations of Buddhism


continues unchanged are two examples of this category. In the Alagaddūpama-sutta, referred to above, the Buddha describes by the following words, the accusation levelled against him by those who believed in the ātma: “Bhikkhus, I have been baselessly, vainly, falsely, and wrongly misrepresented by some recluses and brahmins thus: “The recluse Gotama is one who leads astray; he teaches the annihilation, the destruction, the extermination of an existing being.” The Buddha clarifies his position visà-vis the criticism: “Bhikkhus, both formerly and now what I teach is suffering and the cessation of suffering.” (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 234). Similarly, Sāti’s view on the unchanging character of viññāṇa (“It is this same consciousness that runs and wanders through the round of rebirths, not another” (Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya-sutta, Majjhima-nikāya no. 38) also amounts to attributing some form of ātmavāda to the Buddha. These two criticisms are concerned with the unique character of the teachings of the Buddha. If the Buddha believed in an ātma of any kind, there would not be any difference between what the Buddha taught and the mainstream beliefs of ātmavāda. A criticism of this nature will have implications on the entire teachings of the Buddha, and therefore may be considered as a total criticism. In this discussion, we will focus on some interpretations that encompass the entirety of the teachings of the Buddha.

Two attitudes towards Buddhism: rejection and reduction When Buddhism arose as a śramaṇa movement, it was clearly rejected by the brahmins as well as the other śramaṇa traditions. Of the instances referred to above, the one based on the claim that the Buddha was a nihilist who accepted the destruction of a truly living being is an example of such rejection. Based on the understanding that Buddhism rejected the ātmavada accepted by them, the brahmins included the teachings of the Buddha amongst the nāstika (nihilist) systems, whereas the systems that accepted the reality of ātma were classified amongst the āstika (positive) ones.1 On account of its anātmavāda (no-soul view), Buddhism was grouped with the materialism of Cārvāka, which during the time of the Buddha represented the teachings of Ajita Kesakambali, (one among the six religious teachers mentioned in the Sāmaññaphala-sutta of the Dīgha-nikāya). The reduction is clearly not rejection. It allows, in a way, co-existence of a system along with the system, which is taken as the point of refer1  In present day India, these two terms āstika and nāstika refer to theisim and atheisim respectively, but I have used them here strictly in historical sense.


Asanga Tilakaratne

ence. In this case, it is Hinduism. What usually happens is to reinterpret the religion in question, Buddhism in this case, to suit one’s own system. As we will see below, this is not confined to Hinduism alone; many contemporary philosophers of religion seem to adopt a similar reductionist approach towards other religions. This approach of contemporary philosophers of religion is largely as a result of their relativist and post-modernist standpoints, which tends to reject an exclusive true/false distinction and accepts in its place some form of pluralism. For example, John Hick, whom I will discuss in somewhat detail later, concedes that ‘the world is religiously ambiguous.’ He comes to this conclusion faced with the multiplicity of the explanations of the world as advanced by religions. What we will see below are not outright rejections, but instances of reductionism.

S Radhakrishnan’s Upaniṣadic interpretation Radhakrishnan is known in the field of Buddhist studies for asserting a very close relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism. He has gone to such an extent in his claim that the popular view attributed to him says that Buddhism is an off-shoot of Brahmanism. In his introduction to the Dhammapada, Radhakrishnan has a long discussion on the affinity between the Upaniṣads and the teachings of the Buddha. Highlighting these affinities, Radhakrishnan says: The Upaniṣads from which the Buddha’s teaching is derived, holds that the world we know, whether outward or inward, does not possess intrinsic reality. Intrinsic reality belongs to the knower, the Ātman, the self of all selves. Brahman and Ātman are one. Knowledge of this supreme truth, realisation of the identity of the self of man and the spirit of the universe, is salvation... The Buddha accepts the propositions that the empirical universe is not real, that the empirical individual is not permanent, but both these are subject to changes which are governed by law and that it is the duty of the individual to transcend this world of succession and time and attain nirvana. (Radhakrishnan 1950, 26) In this statement, Radhakrishnan correctly says that Buddhism does not allow us to believe in an intrinsic reality, but right away he asserts that such an intrinsic reality is the domain of the knower, namely, the Ātman. There is no doubt that the belief in ātma belongs to Hinduism, and therefore it is true for that system. The difficulty with this assertion is that it leaves the reader with an uncertainty of whether or not Buddhism accepts the concept of ātma that the author refers to.

Contemporary Indian Interpretations of Buddhism


The concept of anatta, a salient feature of the teachings of the Buddha, clearly rejects the concept of ātma in any metaphysical sense. As we observed at the beginning of this discussion, the contemporaries of the Buddha did not have any problems in seeing this, namely, the rejection of the concept of soul, and due to that very reason, they called the Buddha a ‘nihilist’ and described his teaching as a type of nihilism like the character of Cārvāka (materialist) philosophy. Accordingly, they rejected the Buddha as a nihilist (venayika). Radhakrishnan’s approach is different. He thinks that the Buddha accepted ātma in an ultimate sense. In affirming his view, Radhakrishnan says that “the Buddha pointed out the reality of nirvana, of an absolute self and of an absolute reality which he chose to call dharma” (Radhakrishnan 1950, 55). In addition to his assertion on ātma, the other two assertions Radhakrishnan makes (in the above-quoted statement) on nirvana and dharma are quite controversial. The issue of the reality (bhāva) of nirvana has been a matter of debate amongst the Buddhists themselves. For instance, Buddhaghosa has a long discussion on this issue in the Paññābhūmi-niddesa of the Visuddhimagga, and therein he concludes that nirvana is real. However, it is Nagarjuna who cleverly demonstrated that both bhāva and abhāva (existence and non-existence) are extremes to be avoided when discussing nirvana (MMK 25.07). In order to support his claim, Radhakrishnan refers to the Nagara-sutta of the Saṃyutta-nikāya (II, 105-6) where the Buddha compares his Dhamma to a forgotten path and nirvana to an ancient buried city. Radhakrishnan seems to understand the Buddha’s comparison as an indication of the possibility that the Buddha considered his teaching as a rediscovery of the ancient Brahmanic tradition. In this context, he approvingly quotes Max Müller who said that Buddhism is “the highest Brahmanism popularised...” In fact, the Buddha has not denied the historically rootedness of his teaching; he has clarified his position regarding important issues with reference to his contemporary religious milieu. In the Saṅgārava-sutta (M no. 100), the Buddha refers to three types of religious teachers in so far as their view on the means of knowledge is concerned, namely, those who believed in the textual tradition (anussavikā), those who relied on logical reasoning (takkī vīmaṃsī) and those who relied on their own higher knowledge (sayaṃ abhiññā sacchikatvā ...), and includes himself within the third group. KN Jayatilleke has described them as traditionalists, rationalists and experientialists respectively, and has shown that some middle Upaniṣadic thinkers also belonged to this last category. This


Asanga Tilakaratne

evidence (including that of the Nagara-sutta), however, cannot be interpreted as the Buddha’s teaching in all its respects as a re-emergence of the Upaniṣadic thinking. In the Nagara-sutta itself, the Buddha refers to the eightfold path as ‘the ancient path followed and practised by the ancient Buddhas’ (purānamaggo purānañjaso pubbakehi sammāsambuddhehi anuyāto... : S II, 106). This context makes it clear that what the Buddha meant by ‘ancient path’ is nothing other than the eightfold path, which is ancient only in the sense that it was followed by the ancient Buddhas. There are other instances where the Buddha identifies these ancient Buddhas by name. For instance, as the very same Nidāna-saṃyutta bears evidence, the Buddha refers to the six past Buddhas, namely, Vipassī, Sikhī, Vessabhū, Kakusandha, Koṇāgamana and Kassapa, and says that all of them comprehended the same doctrine of dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda) as he himself did (S II, 7-9). There is a well-known statement by the Buddha in which he refers to the idea of paṭiccasamuppāda as an aspect of the nature of things in the world, which exists whether or not the Buddhas were to appear (S II, 25). This statement seems to describe the paṭiccasamuppāda as an eternal reality, but it does not refer to any ‘eternal’ dharma as Radhakrishnan wishes us to believe. There are two other interconnected claims Radhakrishnan makes in connection with his overall thesis of Upaniṣadic Buddhism, namely, the silence of the Buddha and the ineffability of nirvana. Radhakrishnan produces five arguments in support of his claim that “the Buddha’s reasons for his silence are quite intelligible.” The arguments are as follows: (1) the Buddha gave more emphasis to facts than to theories for there were many theories rampant during the time of the Buddha, and it was hard to distinguish between ignorance caused by superstitions and sophistication caused by learnedness; (2) it is not doctrinal disputes but personal effort that would lead one to the realisation of truth; (3) the Buddha’s mission was not only for intellectuals but also for ordinary people; so he laid more emphasis on the practice of virtues than on theoretical speculations; (4) the affirmative theology reduces the absolute into the relative; (5) the nature of the absolute is beyond logical categories and conceptual articulation (Radhakrishnan 1950, 54–57). Based on these arguments, Radhakrishnan concludes that nirvana is ineffable. He says: The liberated soul apart from the mortal constituents is something real but ineffable. Nirvana is not extinction but is the unconditioned life of the spirit... It is capable only of negative

Contemporary Indian Interpretations of Buddhism


description. The expressions of negative theology, the divine dark, the infinite God, the shoreless ocean, the vast desert, occur repeatedly. It is not being in the ordinary sense and yet a positive reality of which thought has no idea, for which language has no expression. (Radhakrishnan 1950, 49–50) Radhakrishnan further supports his portrayal of the Buddhist nirvana as ineffable with a discussion of the beyond-the-word nature of the ātma frequently occurring in the major Upaniṣads. As we will see in our discussion of Murti, subsequent scholars have picked up the idea of the silence of the Buddha to support their transcendental interpretations of the ultimate Buddhist religious experience or nirvana. It is assumed that the so-called silence of the Buddha is because of the alleged ineffable character of nirvana. Radhakrishnan’s Upaniṣadic reading of Buddhism does not allow him to see the uniquely different character of nirvana. Since I have dealt with both these ideas, the silence of the Buddha and ineffability of Buddhist nirvana in more detail previously, I will not repeat those arguments here. I will only refer the reader to my earlier work Nirvana and Ineffability: A Study of the Buddhist Theory of Reality and Language (Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies, Colombo, 1993). The negative theology, the divine dark, the infinite God, shoreless ocean, the vast desert etc., which Radhakrishnan refers to are metaphors frequently used in the theistic religious literature, but surely not in the Buddha’s discourses.

TRV Murti’s response to Radhakrishnan TRV Murti, who became renowned for his comparative work on Nagarjuna and Kant (The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (CPB), originally published in 1955) is a student of Radhakrishnan. Murti acknowledged his intellectual debt to his teacher in his CPB. Nevertheless, he differs from Radhakrishnan in rejecting the view that Buddhism is an off-shoot of the Upaniṣads. Even though Murti does not refer to his teacher directly, obviously he was rejecting Radhakrishnan’s view when he wrote the following: Since the opening of the Buddhist scriptures to the Western world, it has become almost a stereotyped opinion among orientalists to regard the Buddha as carrying on the work of the Upaniṣadic seers. Indian philosophy is interpreted as having evolved out of one single tradition - the Upaniṣadic. Buddhism and Jainism are


Asanga Tilakaratne

treated as deviations rather than as radical departures from the Upaniṣadic tradition (ātmavāda). (Murti 1980, 14) Displacing Upaniṣads as the sole fountain of the entire Indian philosophy, Murti maintained that there are two streams in Indian philosophy. Accordingly, he concluded that “Indian philosophy must be interpreted as the flow of these two vital streams - one having its source in ātma doctrine of the Upaniṣads and the other in the anātmavāda of the Buddha (Murti 1980, 12). Although Murti allowed this independence to Buddhism, his own interpretation of it seems to follow very much like the interpretation adopted by Radhakrishnan. A good way to demonstrate Murti’s line of interpretation will be to examine his analysis of the ‘silence’ of the Buddha. Murti has a whole chapter on the issue of the Buddha’s silence. After discussing at length, Murti dismisses all the leading interpretations of the Buddha’s silence such as agnosticism, nihilism etc. Then he concludes that the silence is due to the Buddha’s awareness that the absolute is beyond empirical characterisation. Murti summarises his conclusion by the following words: The Buddha did not doubt the reality of Nirvana (Absolute); only he would not allow us to characterise and clothe it in empirical terms as being, non-being etc. His silence can only be interpreted as meaning the consciousness of the indescribable nature of the Unconditioned Reality (Murti 1980, 48). Murti refers to Radhakrishnan (Indian Philosophy vol. I 682-3) in support of his interpretation and further refers to the via negativa of the Upaniṣads articulated by ‘neti, neti’ in describing the Buddhist concept of nirvana in these absolutist and transcendentalist lines. Murti is essentially following the footprints of his teacher, Radhakrishnan! Therefore, the response to Radhakrishnan as outlined above should equally be applicable to Murti. The position jointly held by Radhakrishnan and Murti is that Buddhism ultimately upholds an absolute, which is transcendental and hence, ineffable. The thesis behind this claim is a universal claim, namely, that all religions are ultimately forms of absolutism. Radhakrishnan says: “The Absolute is apprehended by us in numberless ways. Each religion selects some one aspect of it and makes it the centre to which others are referred to” (Radhakrishnan 1950, 41). This is not a new position for it has been voiced in the early Vedic literature in the following words: ekam hi sat viprā bahudhā vadanti: - the real is one; sages describe it differently. More recently, another well-known phi-

Contemporary Indian Interpretations of Buddhism


losopher of religion, John Hick, has held almost an identical position regarding religious experience in general. Hick undertakes to study the ultimate realities mentioned in all the major religions and finds that these realities have been described in those religions either in personal terms or in impersonal terms. Hick calls the former ‘personae’ and the latter ‘impersonae’ of religious experience. Yahweh, Allah, Krishna etc. are the personae of the religious experience, whereas Brahman, Tathata, Satori etc. are the examples of the impersonae. Hick claims that these differences are only the matters of naming the identical religious experience, which is one, they are only different in terms. The difference, therefore, is only apparent and not real. Ultimately, all these various terms refer to the same transcendental ultimate reality, which Hick calls ‘the Real’ or ‘the Transcendental.’ Hick’s position is a mere restatement of the ancient Vedic position mentioned above. The difference is that his application covers a much wider area including both theistic and non-theistic religions (Hick 1989).

Conclusion The contemporary Indian interpretations of Buddhism we have just discussed are different from their ancient counterparts in that, whereas the latter are unanimous in their dismissal of the teachings of the Buddha as a form of nihilism, the former seems to adopt an assimilative approach. Under this new interpretation, Buddhism is not nihilist but transcendentalist and absolutist like any other religion, in particular like the Upaniṣaidic religion. Although this is not an outright rejection, it is a kind of reductionism in which Buddhism is made to appear yet another articulation of the age-old Upaniṣadic tradition. What we have outlined as a Radhakrishnan-Murti interpretation of Buddhism has become almost the received view of Buddhism amongst the Indian scholars who came after them. Consequently, Indian scholars (not all) have failed to appreciate Buddhism as religious teaching, losing in the process the sight of Buddhism as having its own epistemological, moral and soteriological dimensions.

21. Buddhist Non-theism: Theory and Application*

Introduction The two most important points where Buddhism departs from many other religions are its denial of the existence of a creator God and an everlasting substantiality. In the history of Buddhism, these two positions have never been contested. Even the Personalists (pudgalavādins) who came close to believing in something akin to the soul were, in their self-undertraining, anātmavādins or holders of a no-soul view. Similarly, no Buddhist tradition, Hinayana, Mahayana or Vajrayana, has ever incorporated into its system the belief in a God who is a creator and saviour. With the possible exception of certain Mahayana traditions of more recent origins, no Buddhist tradition has ever held the Buddha to be a creator god or has subscribed to any such similar idea. Buddhism, nonetheless, is replete with gods. Even the Buddhist texts that are judged as belonging to an early period contain many episodes regarding gods. The Saṃyutta-nikāya has its very first section devoted to the Buddha’s interactions with various divine beings. In addition to this, both the Sutta and the Vinaya Piṭakas contain many instances where gods have figured in the life of the Buddha and his disciples. These divine beings are depicted as those who experience the beneficial fruits of their good past karmas. Their life span is very long but not everlasting. At the termination of the effects of their karma, they are believed to take birth as other beings such as humans or animals etc.. There is also a * An initial version of this article was published in Approaching the Dhamma: Buddhist Texts and Practices in South and South-East Asia, eds. Anne Blackburn and Jeffery Samuels. Pariyatti Publishing, Seattle: USA, 2003. (A collection of essays published in honour of late Godwin Samararatne).

Buddhist Non-theism: Theory and Application


higher group of divine beings, called brahma who are believed to occupy a higher place in the Buddhist universe. They are born in the Brahma realm as a result of their attainment of jhāna (different degrees of mental concentration). Their life-span is even longer than that of divine beings; but still not everlasting. Of these two kinds of beings, gods are closer to the life of ordinary people, including monks and nuns, than brahmas. Brahmas with their higher spiritual attainments do not seem to have much to do with those lesser beings. However, gods, very often, are depicted as protecting and helping monks and nuns who, for instance, meditated in forests. According to the Mahāparinibbāna-sutta, when Sunīdha and Vassakāra, two ministers of king Ajātasattu, were building a city at Paṭalīgāma, the gods who were residing in that area took up residence in the houses that were being built. The story says that the higher gods began to reside in the houses built for higher officials while the gods of lesser status in the heavens started occupying the houses built for ministers of a corresponding medium and lower status. The account is concluded with the following statement: devatānukampito poso sadā bhadrāni passati: ‘one who receives kindness from gods always enjoys happiness’ (D II, 89): In this manner, the divine beings are depicted as having a close relationship with and a salutary effect on human beings. These divine beings, however, do not pose a problem in regards to the basic tenets of Buddhist philosophy. They are not everlasting and hence, they do not contradict the Buddhist understanding of reality as impermanent, unsatisfactory and devoid of substance (anicca, dukkha and anatta). Since none of these divine beings is attributed with the power of creating the world, a position which makes such a being independent of dependently co-originated (paṭiccasamuppanna) nature of reality, there is no violation of the Buddhist view of the dependent character inherent in reality. The more crucial point is that the presence or the absence of these divine beings has absolutely nothing to do with one’s attainment of nibbāna, which is to make an end of one’s suffering by eradicating the thirst for pleasure (taṇhā). The question, however, is how valid is this rational picture in regards to the lived reality of the religion of ordinary men and women? In other words, how did ordinary people who are committed to following the Buddha, cope with the denial of God? In the theistic religions, God has been understood as having the characteristics of omniscience, omnipotence and kindness. He is credited with the creation of the world and


Asanga Tilakaratne

protection of what he has created. The main attraction in God is that he is the source of the sense of security, which ordinary human beings need badly for their existence. Also, God guarantees salvation for those who believe in him. While God’s protective function can be accommodated within the Buddhist tradition, the belief in his creation and salvation of the world does not find a place in it. The purpose of this paper is to examine how Buddhism accommodated the needs of ordinary people for whom the realisation of nibbāna by eradicating all sorts of desire was not the immediate need. I will argue that Buddhism accommodated certain aspects of a traditional theistic concept of God within the Buddhist tradition without doing harm to its unique philosophical and ethical standpoint. The argument will be developed in the following manner: first, I will discuss the Buddhist attitude to the concept of God and show that Buddhism clearly and unequivocally denied the concept of God. In the next section, I will discuss how Sakka, the King of gods, Yama, the King of the unhappy world-hell (apāya) and Brahma, the embodiment of virtue and goodness, three divine beings occurring in the Pali Canon, together represent three very important aspects attributed to God in theistic religions. In the concluding section, I will discuss the religious and philosophical implications of this development. By way of a note on methodology, it would be useful to mention that what I mean by ‘Buddhism’ in the present paper is primarily the Buddhist thought and the tradition represented by the Pali Canon. The textual references are usually to these texts in the Pali language. What I refer to as ‘early Buddhism’ is the system of teachings represented by this literary tradition. I use the term ‘Theravada’ to refer to the Buddhist tradition developed in countries such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand, having the Pali Canon and the commentaries written on it as its doctrinal base. This limitation in scope, however, does not necessarily mean that other traditions of Buddhism are completely different from Theravada or that the findings of this paper are not relevant to those traditions.

Denial of God in Buddhism and the reasons behind it The dominant religious tradition of India at the time of the Buddha was Brahmanism, which at least in its more popular form, was theistic creationism. The belief in an individual soul (ātmavāda) and the belief in a creator God (īśvara-nirmāṇavāda) were the two key aspects of this religion. Most of the śramaṇa traditions differed from Brahmanism in rejecting its theory and practice of social division (varṇāśrama-dhar-

Buddhist Non-theism: Theory and Application


ma), although a large number of the former shared with Brahmanism its belief in a soul. Buddhism, which was itself a śramaṇa tradition, differed from most of the other similar traditions in rejecting the soul theory along with the belief in a creator God. In the Indian religious tradition, it was held without any doubt that Buddhism was a nāstika-vāda or negativism, a system which denied the authority of the Veda and the existence of a soul and God. The Brahmanic religious tradition described itself and others who accepted the reality of a soul and God as āstika-vādins or positive view-holders (Sharma 1972, 2-3).1 The contemporaries of the Buddha seem to have been very clear about this. The following criticism which has been made against the Buddha is an example: venayiko samaṇo gotamo; sato sattassa ucchedam vināsam vibhavam paññāpeti: ‘ascetic Gotama is a destructionist; he asserts the annihilation, destruction and non-existence of an existing being.’ (M I, 140). This statement obviously refers to the anātmavāda of the Buddha. The belief in God is not very different from this, for the allegedly everlasting and permanent soul is nothing other than the microcosm of the macrocosm that is God. In the Brahmanic tradition, this distinction is articulated as jīva-ātma (individual soul) and parama-ātma (absolute soul). Buddhism rejected both these beliefs. Therefore, the general understanding was clear that Buddhism was non-substantialist and non-theistic.2 In the Pali Canon, there are many statements clearly denying the existence of God. There are two terms usually used to refer to God in the Pali Canon: one is brahmā or mahābrahmā and the other is issara, a derivative from the Sanskrit īśvara. In the popular brahmanic belief of the Trinity, Brahma is the creator, while Vishnu and Mahesvara are credited respectively with the continuation and destruction of what has been created. The belief that an all-powerful God has created the world is called issara nimmāṇa-vāda (God creation-view) in the Pali Canon. A discourse in the Aṅguttara-nikāya refers to three religious views that are rejected by the Buddha as unsatisfactory. The creationist view which holds that everything is due to God’s creation has been included as one 1  The following distinction made by TRV Murti corresponds to these two characterisations: “There are two main currents of Indian philosophy-one having its source in the atma-doctrine of the Upaniṣads and the other in the anātma-doctrine of Buddha.” (Murti 1980, 10). 2  In more recent times, scholars have focused their attention on the issue of Buddhist non-theism again. (Fernando and Swidler 1985, 104), (Panikkar 1989, 62) and (Hick 1989, 246) are some representative examples.


Asanga Tilakaratne

of them. The Buddha criticises this view as causing inactivity and a lack of moral responsibility and initiative. The Buddha says: Thus, for those who fall back on the creation of a Supreme Deity as the essential reason there is neither desire to do, nor effort to do, nor necessity to do this deed or abstain from that deed. (Woodward 1979, I:158) The following statement attributed to the arahant called Raṭṭhapālaattāṇo loko anabhissaro (‘the world is without protection; there is no over-lord there’: M II, 68) is another prime example of rejecting the creationist view. In this statement, God has been referred to as ‘abhi-issara,’ ‘abhi’ being a prefix which means higher or superior. Buddhist non-theism emerges sharply in the discussions, criticising the Brahmanic belief in superiority by birth. The most outstanding example in this regard in the canon is the Ambaṭṭha-sutta of the Dīghanikāya. Here, the Buddha criticises the Brahmanic belief that they are born from the mouth of Brahma. The Buddha is presented here as laughing this idea out of existence by saying that there cannot be any manner of birth peculiar only to brahmins, other than that which is common to all human beings. The Buddha indicates that there is no need to believe in any creator other than one’s biological creators, namely, one’s parents. Buddhism calls one’s parents ‘brahma’ 3 in the sense that they are the real creators of their children. In addition to the rejection of the idea of creation, the belief in the creator Brahma having responsibility for the final liberation of beings is also rejected by the Buddha. The Brahmanic belief was that they became united with Brahman after death: brahma-savyatā. In the Tevijja-sutta of the Dīgha-nikāya, the Buddha compares those who claim that they will be united with Brahma after their death to a succession of blind people guided by one who is equally blind. The idea is that none of those who claimed that they will be united with Brahma has seen him and therefore, they are talking of something about which, they do not have any personal acquaintance. In making these assertions, the Buddha shows that he is rejecting, purely on empirical grounds, the idea of Brahma as the source of salvation. The main reason, however, why Buddhism cannot accept the idea of a transcendental God is a philosophical one. This has largely to do with the Buddhist understanding of reality as dependently co-originated. The early Buddhist term which articulates this understanding is ‘paṭicca-sam3  brahmāti mātā pitaro (parents are called the Brahma) (A I, 132).

Buddhist Non-theism: Theory and Application


uppāda’ (dependent co-origination). The reality originated in this manner is described as ‘paṭiccasamuppanna’ or dependently co-originated. The teaching of paṭicca-samuppāda is basically used to explain how suffering arises and ceases conditioned by a series of psychophysical factors. The contemporaries of the Buddha described this phenomenon as either wrought by oneself, or by another, or by both oneself and another, or by accident. The Buddha rejected all these positions and explained the origin and the cessation of suffering as causally-conditioned.4 God and soul were not among these causes. Why God and soul were not among these causes is because they do not form a part of dependently co-originated phenomena. God and soul, by definition, are independent and do not depend on anything for their existence. According to the paṭicca-samuppāda understanding of reality, there cannot be anything independent and the only reality that is available is dependently co-originated. Buddha’s teaching of the four noble truths becomes meaningful in the context of this state of affairs. According to this teaching, human beings or all beings who have not realised nibbāna are subject to the suffering caused by one’s own defilements. The cessation of this suffering is nibbāna and it must be realised by following the ethical way of life described in the noble eightfold path. According to this analysis, suffering is one’s own doing and no one else is responsible for that. The task of getting rid of it too is one’s own responsibility. Neither the Buddha nor anyone else is capable of bringing the final release on behalf of someone else. If God exists, one does not need to take responsibility for this arduous task. The Buddha says very clearly the following: ‘you must strive yourself; the Tathāgatas are only the preachers of the path.’5 Furthermore, the Buddha says that one is one’s own protector (God); how can there be a protector from outside?6 It is quite clear from the very teaching of the four noble truths that there is no God who can save one from suffering. Therefore, the most convincing argument for the Buddhist non-theism comes from the basic philosophical understanding of reality as dependently co-originated.

A decentralised concept of God in Buddhism? Although Buddhism denies the concept of God as the creator and the giver of salvation through his grace, this does not mean that the ordinary people who started following the Buddha were so advanced that they 4  An example is the Buddha’s discussion with Acela Kassapa (S II, 19-20). 5  Tumhehi kiccam ātappaṃ - akkhātāro tathāgatā (Dhp v. 276). 6  Attā hi attano nātho - ko hi nātho paro siyā (Dhp v. 160).


Asanga Tilakaratne

were able to do without any gods at all. As is clear from the textual and architectural traditions of Buddhism, gods have been made to associate closely with the life of the Buddha. The discourses such as Mahāsamaya and Aṭānāṭiya clearly demonstrate how the Buddhist tradition has incorporated a large number of Brahmanic gods into its own belief system (D no. 20 and 32). Usually, the gods in Buddhism are ordinary beings who enjoy the fruits of their good past karmas. They do not have any specific role to play in regards to human life. Nevertheless, there are certain gods attributed to such functions as the protection of people and providing them with help in their day-to-day life. In addition to these gods attributed with ordinary functions, there are a few gods, mentioned in the Buddhist tradition, to whom certain specific tasks have been assigned and they become very important owing to the functions attributed to them. Three gods that are particularly outstanding in this respect are Yama, who is described as the king of hell, Sakka or the king of gods who is the helper and the protector of the good, and Brahma who is the embodiment of good and plays the role of the highest being in the world, except for the liberated ones including the Buddha and the arahants. In the remainder of this paper, we will examine how each of these gods has been portrayed as performing a special task, which has been attributed to God in traditional theistic religions. Brahma In the Brahmanic tradition, Brahma is the Supreme Being who is the creator of the universe. In the complex Hindu mythology, the position of gods does not remain constant and therefore, it is not easy to say anything about them with certainty. Brahma does not appear as the Supreme Being in the Ṛgveda period. This is because there was not any such being at this stage. On the evolution of the concept of Brahma, Eliot Deutsch says thus: The term ‘Brahman’ first appears in the Ṛg Veda (ca. 1200 B.C.) in close connection with various sacred utterances that were thought to have a special magical power. Originally, then the term may have meant ‘spell’ or ‘prayer;’ an utterance that was used for the magical attainment of worldly wishes and other worldly desires. Later, in the Brāhmaṇas, Brahman comes to signify that which stands behind the gods as their ground and source, and in the Upaniṣads generally it becomes the unitary principle of all being, the knowledge of which liberates one from finitude. (Deutsch 1969, 9 note 1)

Buddhist Non-theism: Theory and Application


The original idea of the personal Brahma, given as a masculine noun, became established in the Purāṇa period. Of the 18 main Purāṇas, six (namely, the Brahma, Brahmāṇḍa, Brahmavaivarta, Mārkaṇḍeya, Bhaviṣya, and Vāmana Purāṇas) have the creator Brahma as their central deity (Flood 1998, 110). The very same idea of a supreme being was presented through the neuter gender in philosophical discussions. This distinction was later systematised as saguṇa-brahman or Brahma with qualities and nirguṇa-brahman or Brahma without qualities, an impersonal principle. The early Buddhist tradition does not seem to know the concept of Brahma as the Supreme Being in the philosophical sense (nirguṇa-brahma). It uses the word to refer to brahma as a creator God as well as to refer to a group of divine beings, as we mentioned earlier, who are born in the Brahma-worlds as a result of their achievement of developed states of mind. Those who attain material and immaterial trance states (rūpa or arūpa jhāna) and those who are in the third stage of sainthood, namely, anāgāmi or non-returner are said to be born in the Brahma-worlds.7 The life-span of those who are born in these worlds are described as much longer than those who are born in the heavens. It is significant to note that, among the many Brahmas, some are referred to as mahābrahma or great Brahma. For instance, Sahampati, the one who encouraged the Buddha to teach his doctrine when he was hesitating to teach, was closely associated with the life of the Buddha, and is always described as ‘great.’ In addition to such Brahmas, the discourses refer to a Brahma who is simply called mahābrahma - the great Brahma who is described as the highest in the thousand-world system. What this account implies is that there is one Brahma who is the greatest and the highest amongst all the inhabitants of the ten-thousand world system. The reader of this account is apt to think that what is referred to here is the mahābrahma traditionally believed to be the creator God. This is not, however, the case. The message of the discussion is that mahābrahma too is subject to change and hence, one must not aspire to it. The Buddha says: 7  Jhānas mentioned in the Buddhist path of purification are states achieved by developing concentration of the mind to different degrees. The four preliminary states are described as rūpa or belonging to the fine material realm and the subsequent four are described as belonging to the immaterial (arūpa) realm. It is said that one is born as a Brahma as a consequence of attaining these states.


Asanga Tilakaratne

Monks, in the ten-thousand systems of world the Brahma is reckoned highest. Nevertheless, monks, even with regard to the Great Brahma there is otherness and there is change. Seeing this, the noble disciple would become dispassionate even in it: One who gets dispassionate in that is the one who gets dispassionate in the highest. There is no question (of him getting dispassionate) in what is lower.8 What is conveyed by the statement is that to be a Brahma of this calibre is the highest form of life to which one can aspire within samsaric existence, but that too, is not more desirable than the attainment of arahanthood, which is to escape from samsara. A discourse occurring in the Aṅguttara-nikāya discusses the impermanent character of the Brahma-world. It says that the cessation of the self-view is more desirable than to be born in the Brahma-world, which ultimately is impermanent and promotes one’s self-view.9 Another discourse in the Aṅguttara-nikāya shows how the self-(mis)understanding of a brahma as being the Great Brahma is generated. The Brahmajāla-sutta of the Dīgha-nikāya has the same account given in the context of explaining the origin of the partly eternalist and partly non-eternalist views. According to the former, a religious teacher called Sunetta is born in an empty Brahma-world when the universe was contracting and subsequently when he was feeling lonely and longing for others to come, there arose some others. What occurs at that point to him and to the new-comers is described by the following words: And, then, monks, that being who first arose there thinks: “I am Brahma, the Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, the All-Powerful, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, Ruler, Appointer and Orderer, father of All That have Been and Shall Be. These beings were created by me. How so? Because I first had this thought: ‘Oh, if only some other beings would come here!’ That was my wish, and then these beings came into this existence!” But those beings who arose subsequently think: “this, friends, is Brahma, Great Brahma, and Shall Be. How so? We have seen that he was here, and that we arose after him.” (Walshe 1987, 76) 8  yavatā bhikkhave sahassīlokadhatu mahābrahmā tattha aggam akkhāyati. Mahābrahmuno’pi kho bhikkhave atth ‘eva aññathattaṃ atthi vipariṇāmam. Evam passaṃ bhikkhave sutavā ariyasāvako tasmiṃ’pi nibbindati, tasmim nibbindanto agge virajjati, pageva hinasmim (A V, 59-60). 9  Brahmaloko’pi kho āvuso anicco addhuvo sakkāyapariyāpanno (S V, 410).

Buddhist Non-theism: Theory and Application


According to these accounts, the very idea of a creator God was a mistake on the part of this Brahma, who had that idea and then the others who believed it. The discussion is concluded with the assertion that even Sunetta possessing much power and longevity is subject to suffering, characterised by birth, old-age, death etc. and that he too is not liberated from suffering (aparimutto dukkhasmāti vadāmi: A IV, 105). It is customary that Brahma is described as endowed with infallible vision (aññadatthu-dasa). In the like manner, in traditional theistic accounts, God is attributed with omniscience. The Buddhist literature contains stories not only denying this attribution but also positively attributing ignorance to this so-called Great Brahma. According to the Kevaḍḍha-sutta of the Dīgha-nikāya, a disciple of the Buddha goes to see the Great Brahma in order to find an answer to a question that he had. On being asked the question by the monk, the Great Brahma did not answer it but merely announced how powerful he was. After a time, Brahma took the monk aside by the hand and said the following: Monk, these devas [gods] believe there is nothing Brahma does not see, there is nothing he does not know, there is nothing he is unaware of. That is why I did not speak in front of them. But, monk, I don’t know... (Walshe 1987, 178) According to this admission by Brahma himself, not only does he not know, but he is also boastful, arrogant and full of vanity. ‘Braham-sahavyatā’ or union with Brahma, the Brahmanic religious goal, was known to Buddhism. As in the case of many Vedic religious concepts, this concept too gets a new interpretation in the hands of the Buddha. In the Tevijja-sutta, mentioned earlier, having shown that union with Brahma advocated by the brahmins is not based on personal experience, the Buddha explains his interlocutors the Buddhist view of the way to union with Brahma. The path according to Buddhism is the path of mental concentration characterised by the attainment of the fine-material and the immaterial jhānas. The following statement, occurring in the discourse to a brahmin called Māgandiya, shows how the Buddha adapted his teaching to suit his listeners: Ime kho brāhmana brahmalokādhimuttā ... yannūnāhaṃ dhanañjānissa brāhmaṇassa brahmānām sahavyatāya maggaṃ deseyyanti (M II, 194) (These brahmins are devoted to the Brahma-world. Suppose I show the brahmin Dhanañjāni the path to the union with the Brahmas). It is important to note that what is usually given in the singular form as ‘brahma-sahavyatā’ - ‘union with Brahma’ is given here in the plural as ‘brahmānam sahavyatā’ - ‘union with brahmas,’ an idea closer to the Buddhist reading of the concept.


Asanga Tilakaratne

As evident from the above discussion, although Buddhism does not reject the idea of the Great Brahma, it affects considerable changes to it. The creator and saviour aspects of Brahma are clearly rejected. Nevertheless, the idea is retained as a moral ideal. It is believed that the Great Brahma maintains four sublime attitudes towards all beings. They are loving-kindness (mettā), compassion (karuṇā), altruistic-joy (muditā) and equanimity (upekkhā). In commenting on the statement that one’s parents are Brahma (brahmāti mātāpitaro: A I, 132), the commentary says that the parents share these sublime virtues with Brahma. The difference is, whereas the former has these virtues towards their children, the latter always has them towards all beings.10 Although the Great Brahma has these virtues towards all beings, like parents who are creators of their children, Brahma is not attributed to creation in the Buddhist tradition. The equation of parents with the Great Brahma, however, appears to be the Buddhist response to the creator God concept of the theists. This suggests that the Buddhist tradition did not deny the concept of Great Brahma as a universal moral being. As in theistic traditions, in Buddhism, Brahma is the embodiment of virtue. The Great Brahma Sahampati begging the newly enlightened Buddha to teach the doctrine to ‘those who have little dust in their eyes’ should be understood in this context.11 Yama Yama is understood as the king of death. He is one of the leading and most powerful gods in the Ṛgveda. According to Radhakrishnan, his origin is not Indian, he is Yima, the son of Vivanhvant of the Avesta. In the Ṛgveda, there are several hymns dedicated to him. In Vedic belief, Yama is the one who reigns in the world of the departed fathers (pitṛloka). It is said that he has two messengers, dogs, who assist him in his work. There, he judges the departed souls, and it is believed that he is the king of justice. Radhakrishnan summarises the position of Yama in the early Hindu tradition as: He is the chief of the dead, and not so much a god as a ruler of the dead. He was the first of mortals to die and find his way to the other world, the first to tread the path of the fathers. Later, he acts as the host receiving newcomers. He is the king of that kingdom, for he has the longest experience of it. He is some10  yathā mahābrahmuno catasso bhāvanā avijahitā honti, mettā karuṇā muditā upekkhāti. evameva mātāpitunnaṃ puttakesu catasso bhāvanā avijahitā honti (AA II, 204). 11  See the Ariyapariyesana-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya for details.

Buddhist Non-theism: Theory and Application


times invoked as the god of the setting sun. In the Brahmanas, Yama becomes the judge and chastiser of men. But in the Ṛgveda, he is yet only their king. (1994, I, 85) In the Yama-Naciketas, a conversation appearing in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, Yama is portrayed as the knower of the secret of winning over re-death (punar-mṛtyu) (Hume 1993, 341–61). In the story, Yama reveals this to Naciketas, although with some reluctance and hesitation. This characterisation of Yama as one with a high ethical sense is consistent with the development of the concept in the Buddhist tradition. It is possible that the Buddhists adapted this concept from the Brahmanic tradition. The locus classicus of Yama in the Pali discourses is the Devadūta-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya (no. 130). According to the account given in the discourse, when a person, who did not behave in a righteous manner, died, the attendants of Yama are conducted to assist him. At that point, Yama would ask a few questions from this person. The questions would be concerned with whether this person saw the messengers of the gods (devadūta), namely, an infant lying on its back, an old person, a sick person, a robber being punished by the king and a dead person.12 The person would answer that he has seen these things but it never occurred to him that he must learn a lesson from these events and to behave well. At that point, Yama becomes silent and his wardens would drag him away and fling him into hell and subject him to various forms of grave suffering. The discourse gives a detailed account of the suffering that one undergoes. The commentary to Majjhima-nikāya has the following comment on Yama: The king Yama is a hungry-ghost king living in a mansion (vemānika-peta-rājā); at times he enjoys in that divine mansion such divine pleasures as a divine wish-fulfilment tree, divine gardens and divine dancers; at other times, he experiences the results of his (bad) karma. He is a righteous king. He is not one; there are four of them at the four entrances. (MA IV, 231) As is clear from this account, although Yama is the ruler of apāya he is not a part of it. If he is in the hell itself as one who pays for his misdeeds, then he cannot be the judge and the ruler of it. On the other hand, if he is a total outsider, it cannot be in conformity with the teachings of the Buddha, which considers karma and its result as a natural process and does 12  The idea of the Messengers of Yama is Ṛgvedic. In Buddhism, it has been an ethical concept.


Asanga Tilakaratne

not require an agent to activate it. The commentarial description of Yama as a righteous king is significant. What it really says is that Yama is a just king for justice in the Indian context, as denoted by ‘dhamma.’ If Yama does not play an active role in the process, there is no need to lay emphasis on this aspect of his character. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is always described as a just God. It is the same in the Hindu tradition. An examination of this whole account shows how the Buddhists were trying to incorporate an idea that cannot be an intrinsic part of their belief system. According to the Buddhist karma theory, it is impossible that there is a person or a group of persons who, while staying above the law of karma, are responsible for distributing due rewards and punishments for the karmas committed by people. Karma has been described as a natural process like the process in the cultivation of a crop. One receives according to what one has sown; the doer of good receives good and the doer of bad receives bad.13 There is no need for a higher person to dispense good and bad results. What is required is the combination of all the necessary conditions. For a non-theistic religion like Buddhism, a belief in the existence of hell poses a serious problem because the belief does not tally with its denial of a creator God. In a theistic tradition, God is beyond his laws and he can also have a group of helpers who are equally beyond such laws. The king of hell and his men seem to belong in this category. Buddhism cannot accept the idea that certain beings are over and above karmic effects. That may be the reason both Yama and his men are said to belong to the realm of hungry ghosts and considered as undergoing suffering and paying off their own bad karma. The significance of the admission by the commentator that Yama is not one single unique being but a class of people, although that class does not seem to contain a very large number, should be understood in this context. All these can be viewed as how Buddhists were trying to incorporate an eschatology, which is not their own with the least harm to their own basic philosophy.14 13  Yādisam vapate bījaṃ - tādisam harate phalaṃ Kalyāṇakārī kalyāṇaṃ - pāpakāri ca pāpakam (S I, 227). 14  Discussing the role of Yama in the Pali Canon and, in particular, in the Devadūta-sutta, MMJ Marasinghe holds that Yama does not play any role in the process of karma and that he definitely does not play the role of the judge (1974, 268–70). I think Marasinghe’s view of Yama as ‘merely a sympathetic onlooker’ is a result of reading the discourse only at its literal level. What is implied both in the -sutta and its commentary is that he does play a role in the process. The reluctance to admit this openly, on the part of the -sutta, should be viewed as resulting from the recognition of the basic philosophical

Buddhist Non-theism: Theory and Application


The presence of Yama and his men was not received unanimously in the Buddhist tradition. The commentary to the Devadūta-sutta (mentioned above) reports a controversy amongst the Buddhist teachers on this matter. The commentator says: Some are of the view that there are no wardens in hell, but, as in the case of a machine, the actions take place by themselves. But this view has been rejected in the Abhidhamma by answering affirmatively to the questions: “Are there wardens in hell?” and ‘Are there those who implement?” Like there are executioners in the human world there are wardens in hell. (MA IV, 231) This account refers to the Kathāvatthuppakaraṇa of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka as the authority. The Kathāvatthu discusses this problem and concludes that the view that there are no wardens in the hell is wrong (Kvu 596-98). According to the commentary to the Kathāvatthu, the view is held by the Andhakas (KvuA 187). In support of their view, they produce the following statement as the words of the Buddha: Not Vessabhu, nor yet the Peta’s King Soma, Yama, or king Vessavaṇa. The deeds that were his own do punish him who ending here attains to other worlds? (Aung and Davids 2010, 346) The Theravadin interprets this statement as underscoring the affinity of karma with its result (kamma-sarikkhatā). Looking back at this debate one gets the impression that the Andhakas who raised this doubt were motivated by deeper philosophical reasons. Although the philosophical question is not discussed directly, their view that the activities in hell are happening mechanically indicates that they had recognised the difficulty in believing that there are agents who are vested with the power of implementing karma. The Theravadi analogy with the human world, where there are both actions and those who do them, does not seem to catch the point. Finally, the manner in which the Devadūta-sutta ends is instructive in this regard. Seeing how the wardens of hell treat those who come under their power, the following occurs to Yama: Those in the world who do evil unwholesome actions indeed have all these many kinds of tortures inflicted on them. Oh, that I might attain the human state, that a Tathāgata, accomplished and fully enlightened, might appear in the world, that I might difficulty of the position.


Asanga Tilakaratne

wait on that Blessed One, that the Blessed One might teach me the Dhamma, and that I might come to understand that Blessed One’s Dhamma. (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 1035) This thought by Yama implies that he himself considers that being born as a human would be better than his powerful position. Being born as a human being is superior solely because it provides one with the opportunity of advancing on the path to liberation from suffering. According to the Buddhist belief, human beings are situated more favourably than any other beings in this context. Therefore, it is understandable that even Yama aspires to become a human being and to achieve higher realisations. The concept of Yama belongs to a culture which is dominated by the belief in many gods, each responsible for a specific aspect of human life. In the Indian context, polytheism gradually developed into a form of monotheism with a supreme God having all the essential characteristics in himself. Buddhism, which denied the existence of such a God, nevertheless accommodated a form of polytheism in which certain gods are more powerful than others. The story of Yama in the Buddhist tradition is a good example of this innovation. As the above discussion shows, the Buddhist Yama is an effort to incorporate certain popular theistic characteristics without undermining Buddhism’s fundamental tenets. Sakka Sakka in the Buddhist discourses is described as ‘the king of gods’ (devanām inda). It is believed that king or ‘inda’ of gods is none other than the Indra from the Vedic tradition. The Vedic god Indra is usually depicted as a warring god. In the Buddhist tradition, however, Sakka is not a warring god but an admirer and follower of the Buddha. When the newly-enlightened Buddha entered the city of Rājagaha, it is said that Sakka announced the arrival of the Buddha by chanting appreciatory stanzas (Vin I, 38). In this instance, he acknowledges to the inquisitive onlookers that he is an attendant of the Buddha. On other occasions, he is seen visiting the Buddha and asking questions regarding the doctrine. In the Saṃyutta-nikāya, there is a whole section containing twenty-five discourses connected to Sakka.15 Of these twenty-five discourses, eleven have some reference to Sakka’s dealings with Asuras. Many of them have references to the battles between these two groups. In the well-known Dhajagga-sutta, Sakka says to his fellow gods to look at the flags of the 15  Sakka Saṃyutta (S I, 216-240).

Buddhist Non-theism: Theory and Application


four chiefs including himself, if they find themselves in trouble in the battlefield (S I, 218-220). According to the sutta, the Buddha, however, adds that although Sakka instructs his people in that manner there is no guarantee that it is going to work because Sakka himself is ‘not without lust, hatred and delusion’ and hence, is bound to get scared and run away (leaving his own followers behind).16 Sakka, as the divine helper is particularly highlighted in the Jātakas. The commentaries too have a few references to him. The commentary to the Dhammapada reports how Sakka helped Cakkhupāla, the blind arahant, who was forsaken by his attendant (DhpA I, 17). In the Buddhist Jātaka stories, Sakka appears very often as the divine helper who watches the world and comes forward to assist good people who get into trouble. In the Jātaka stories, very often the benefactor is the future Buddha who finds himself in a helpless situation because of his goodness. For instance, in the Guttila-jātaka, Sakka comes to rescue Guttila, the future Buddha who was faced with an imminent defeat and humiliation at the hands of his pupil (J II, 248-57). In his excellent treatment of ‘Sakka’, Malalasekera has summarised this characteristic of Sakka and refers to relevant instances from the Jātakas: Sakka appears as the guardian of moral law in the world. When wickedness is rampant among men, or kings become unrighteous, he appears among them to frighten them so that they may do good instead of evil. He is on the side of the good against the wicked, and often helps them to realise their goal. Instances of this are seen in the Ambacora, Ayakūṭa, Udaya, Kaccāni, Kāma, Kāmanīta, Kumbha, Keḷisīla, Kharaputa, Culladhanuggaha, Dhajaviheṭha. Biḷārikosiya, Maṇicora, Mahākaṇha, Vaka, Sarabhaṅga, Sarabhamiga and Sudhābhojana Jātakas. (Malalasekare 1960, II:963) It is interesting to note that all these stories mention that the stone seat where Sakka usually sits would get heated when something drastically wrong happens in the human world. It is through this heat that Sakka comes to know that his intervention is needed somewhere. This aspect suggests that Sakka’s intervention is not something personal to Sakka but has a broader universal character. Sakka’s seat or the position seems to indicate the seat of righteousness or goodness. In other words, it is to say that Sakka is closely connected to the moral nature believed to exist 16  sakko hi bhikkhave devānām indo avītarāgo avītadoso avītamoho bhīru chambhī utrāsi palāyīti. (S I, 219).


Asanga Tilakaratne

in the universe. This makes Sakka not an ordinary kind of god who is willing to help but a universal phenomenon, which is a part of the reality in which righteousness ultimately triumphs over what is unrighteous.17 The protection of the good is an important task attributed to God in theistic religious traditions. Obviously, in Buddhism’s non-theistic tradition, Sakka has been assigned this task. Key virtues of Buddhism’s social philosophy seem to be implied in Sakka reaching out to help others. In this respect, he can be regarded as representing the active aspect of compassion and loving-kindness (mettā and karuṇā).

Conclusion Early Buddhist literature, arts and architecture bear ample evidence to the belief that gods had a close association with the life of the Buddha and his disciples.18 Their interconnection with the Buddha is seen when they come to him or his disciples to ask questions or to pay homage. Gods are usually given a position below the Buddha and his disciples. This is understandable in the context of the Buddhist standpoint that one’s greatness ultimately depends on one’s inner purity and not on the material wealth one possesses or pleasures one enjoys. The close association these gods have with the Buddha and his Order may be a later development. Nevertheless, this association has been executed in such a way that it does not come into conflict with the philosophy of the system. A problem, however, seems to arise in the existence of certain gods attributed with characteristics usually associated with God in theistic reli17  No instances of such help are recorded in the later history. A somewhat relevant case is reported in the Mahāvaṃsa, the chronicle of Sri Lanka. When there was a famine during the reign of Vaṭṭagāmaṇi Abhaya, it is said that Sakka provided a large raft for those monks who wished to go to India in order to escape the famine. The incident reported in the Sammohavinodanī, the commentary to the Vibhaṅga, ( 445-6) and the same has been discussed by EW Adikaram in (2009, 73–74). It is interesting to note that the story also suggests that the Buddhists were aware of the limitations of Sakka. The initial request of the monks was not a raft but the destruction of the enemy that has arisen. Sakka is reported to have responded by saying that even he cannot do away with an enemy that has arisen, but he can be of help in some other manner. It is at this juncture that he provided a raft. It is further said that the pre-Buddhaghosa commentary known as Mahā Paccari was so named because it was compiled in this vessel (paccarī) (Adikaram 2009, 12). 18  There are so many discourses in the Pali Canon showing how a number of non-human beings, a larger majority of whom are divine beings, had close association with the Buddha and his disciples. These encounters have been described in more detail in the subsequent Buddhist literature and portrayed in the Buddhist art. Some prominent examples from sculpture are available at Mathura and Sanci in India.

Buddhist Non-theism: Theory and Application


gious traditions. The presence of such gods suggests that, even though one is one’s own Lord and one does not need any external intervention in the path to nirvana, some followers needed the help of these divine beings for their daily existence. It is admirable that the early Buddhists did not dismiss this need as unnecessary, irrelevant or inappropriate. Their challenge was to incorporate these divine beings in a way that they do not contradict the fundamental teachings of the Master. In the above discussion, we found that they have done their best to be faithful to the Buddha’s teaching despite having had to accommodate gods in his system of philosophy. Sociologists of religion are fond of talking about great and small traditions within traditions. Obviously, the gods belong to the small tradition of Buddhism, and even the slightest exposure to the traditional Buddhist cultures would show that this small tradition is thriving today as it has been doing throughout the ages. A curious fact, however, is that even in these cultures, apart from Thailand, where Brahma is popularly worshipped,19 one does not find these three gods (discussed above) being worshipped as popular gods. How can this be explained? We know that the three gods discussed here have their origin in the Vedic tradition, but even in this tradition within which these gods originated, they are not worshipped as popular gods. Yama is still invoked at funerals but none of those gods are worshipped daily. The historical reasons for their absence may equally explain why their counterparts are not worshipped in Buddhist societies. In the history of Vedic religion, we know that there were several stages in the evolution of the gods. We know that there was a large number of gods at the earliest stage, but most of them were relegated to a subordinate position with the evolution of Vedic thought. This is the fate that befell the three gods discussed in this account. For instance, in the Vedic tradition, as in the Buddhist tradition, Brahma was the highest of all divine beings. With the evolution of the religion and the philosophy of the Veda, Brahma who was a person at the beginning, gradually became an impersonal concept. It is only subsequently, that the concept of brahma was reintroduced as the creator God in the Brahmanic trinity 19  Maurice Walshe (1987, 43) refers to a Brahma shrine outside the Eravan Hotel, Bangkok. Interestingly, according to the Hindu mythology found in Purāṇa literature, modern Hinduism rejects or deliberatly avoids paying homage to Brahma due to the curse of Lord Śiva, who decapitated the fifth head of Brahma. In Purāṇa literature most of the due characteristics of Brahma, such as omniscience, have been attributed to Lord Śiva and Viṣṇu. The commonly held view is Brahma has completed his duty of creation and there is nothing left for him. It is now for Lord Śiva and Viṣṇu to perpetuate the cosmic order. Then, people have no reason to worship Brahma.


Asanga Tilakaratne

of gods. According to Garrett: In this mythological character of creator of the universe, he is mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita and Vishnu Purāṇa. When, ...the idea of one Supreme Being was again brought forward, Brahma was considered the chief of the existing trinity, and was at first identified with that idea of an unknown god; and though afterwards Shiva and Vishnu were each in turn identified with the Supreme Being by their respective followers, the Shaivas and Vaishnavas, the name Brahma in the neuter, was still retained in the language of philosophy to designate the universal Supreme One. (Garrett 1990, 102–3) As Garrett’s account shows, the popular Hindu religion gradually bifurcated into Saivism and Vaisnavism and the belief in Brahma as a creator God appears to have become a subordinate belief in the system. Furthermore, with the philosophical developments in Advaita Vedanta, the term ‘brahman’ came to be used exclusively to refer to brahma as the essence of reality or the absolute soul (paramātma). This may have caused the idea of Brahma as the creator and highest being in the masculine sense to recede gradually into oblivion. In a Theravada Buddhist country like Sri Lanka, the above mentioned three gods are not worshipped; nor are there shrines dedicated to them. Nevertheless, they exist very much in Buddhist consciousness. As for the gods that the Sri Lankan Buddhists worship, a larger majority of them have their origins in Sri Lanka itself or in the Southern part of India. This small tradition has not ceased to exist; only it has evolved. Now, there are different gods to perform these very same functions. The admirable aspect in the tradition is that even the most uneducated Buddhist would not attribute any of the characteristics of God to the Buddha for they know that he is no more. Nor would they go to the Buddha in search of mundane assistance. They seek the help of gods either by offering merit or by making some kind of ‘payment’ to them. These two traditions and the practices associated with them seem to go smoothly, unhindered by the other, each maintaining its distinctiveness. Ultimately, what all of this about gods has to do with a person like Godwin Samararatne, who devoted his life to seek and strengthen the inner tranquillity of oneself and others according to the teaching of the Buddha may not be clear at once. Godwin belonged in a Buddhist universe in which gods are a very important class of occupants. His message, nevertheless, was that we, all the sentient beings including gods,

Buddhist Non-theism: Theory and Application


must ultimately rely on our own selves, which can be refined by meditation. This is an essential aspect of the original message of the Buddha who is ‘the incomparable teacher of gods and human beings’ (satthā deva-manussānam).

22. Verification, Falsification and Search for Certainty in Knowledge: An Old Question Revisited through Buddhism*

Introduction The search for certainty in knowledge can be imagined as quite an ancient preoccupation for the human race. At least, in philosophy, it has been one of the leading motivating forces from the very early periods. It is said that philosophy began with wonderment. Wonderment as to what really exists behind external appearances. When Thales in ancient Greece said that everything is water, he was going beyond what appears to the senses and was trying to locate something more fundamental as to what is really real. In the like manner (although in a different context), when the Upaniṣadic thinker in ancient India said: lead me from unreal to real; lead me from death to immortality; lead me from darkness to light, he was basically sounding this perennial human yearning for certitude in knowledge. In more recent times, Western philosophers have occupied themselves so much with this problem that it may be described as a central problem in the theory of knowledge. The purpose of this paper is not even to try to find a solution to this age-old problem but rather to attempt exploring the possibilities of finding alternative modes of coping with or managing the problem. In doing so, firstly, I will briefly overview the history of the quest for certainty in knowledge in the Western philosophical tradition. This will take us from the sceptical challenge to the possibility of knowledge and various types of foundationalism, verification and falsification as a united effort to meet this challenge. Subsequently, I will look at some branches of * A version of this paper appeared in Abhayaprasadini: Essays in Honour of Professor Oliver Abenayaka, ed. Walletota Indananda Thera and Tunkama Pannalankara Thera, Colombo: Godage Publishers, 2012.

Verification, Falsification and Search for Certainty…


Eastern philosophy, and in particular, Buddhist philosophy, to examine the answer derived from this tradition. The comparative aspect of this essay is to explore the way different cultures dealt with similar epistemologically pressing problems, leading hopefully to achieving a better inter-cultural understanding.

Sceptical challenge In the Western philosophical tradition, the systematic scepticism goes as far back as Pyrrho of Elis who maintained that one cannot reach any decisive conclusion regarding matters of dogmatic debates and hence, one should admit ignorance or impossibility of knowledge for the sake of peace of mind, which the Stoics called ataraxia. In this last-mentioned aspect, Pyrrho and his followers appear rather close to some of their Indian counterparts, as we will discuss later. Although not grouped amongst sceptics, Socrates is clearly sounding a deep sense of scepticism when he said that the only thing he knew was that which he did not know. Plato, from his key dialogues such as the Republic and the Theatetus, in which Socrates was the main speaker, demonstrated a form of scepticism, which ruled out a definite knowledge on reality, which was called Forms of Ideas. This tradition of scepticism continued in the Western philosophical tradition and consequently by Descartes, who is considered the father of modern Western philosophy, and one of his key projects was an effort to base knowledge on a secure foundation. In his foundationalist enterprise, Descartes begins with what is known as systematic doubt in which he doubts everything that could be doubted. Finally, he doubts even mathematics, imagining that there may be an evil demon who will mislead him systematically every time he does his calculations. In his more serious and well-known dream argument, Descartes brings out the possibility of our being in a dream whenever we think that we are experiencing the real world. Finally, Descartes’ route to locate all knowledge based on an indubitable foundation of clear and distinct ideas, derived through his cogito [cogito ergo sum = I think, therefore I am], is so well known to be elaborated here in detail. Although neither Descartes’s foundationalism nor his systematic doubt has been taken seriously by philosophers, the fact that he highlighted the sceptical challenge for the possibility of knowledge remains an important methodological milestone in modern philosophy. Hume’s problem of induction highlighted the fact that empirical knowledge can never have the certainty that one encounters in mathe-


Asanga Tilakaratne

matical propositions. The knowledge based on generalising from past experience carries the uncertainty of the same past not being repeated again even though it has happened for time immemorial, as for example, in the case of the ‘sun rising in the morning.’ The possibility that empirical knowledge, scientific knowledge, in particular, is fraught with the danger of being disproved at any time has aroused considerable concern amongst philosophers. Immanuel Kant famously said that he was awakened from his dogmatic slumber by Hume. Naturally, many undertook to find solutions to the Humean challenge. In contemporary philosophy, the logical positivist idea of verification and Popper’s falsifiability requirement are two well-known efforts meant to deal with this problem, although they are not specifically presented in this manner. The idea of verification as a requirement of meaningfulness of a proposition was proposed by a group of philosophers associated with the Vienna Circle. According to AJ Ayer, a leading English proponent of the school, verifiability is a criterion to be used in determining whether a proposition is meaningful or not. In logical and mathematical propositions, truthfulness does not depend upon external facts but on logical relations. If the conclusion follows from the premises, then the statement is true or otherwise, it is false. Apart from such propositions, any other propositions connected to matters of fact must be capable of undergoing the test of verifiability. If a proposition cannot be verified actually, then it must be verified in principle, which Ayer described as weak verifiability. If a statement is not verifiable in either manner, the logical positivist conclusion was that such a statement is not meaningful. This not only rejected many traditional philosophical propositions on Being, the One etc. from the domain of propositions proper but also rendered homeless statements related to ethics, aesthetics etc. as not verifiable. In an early Wittgensteinian sense, these were ‘Un-sinnig’ or non-sense. In addition to having serious implications for ethics, religion etc., the verification principle provided a strong explanation of what scientific knowledge truly is. Karl Popper’s idea of falsification shifted the emphasis from verifiability to falsifiability and claimed that given theory may not conclusively be proved, although it may conclusively be disproved. Even the most plausible theory, which may have been without any counterexample for a long time, is still open to the possibility of being disproved in the future. What this means is that a theory can never be conclusively proved; with the discovery of one opposing example, however, that theory can

Verification, Falsification and Search for Certainty…


be conclusively disproved. Popper’s falsifiability requirement was based on this insight, which its origin is derived from Hume. The falsifiability in a naïve sense is to prove that a proposition is false. Popper, however, was more concerned with the falsifiability of a theory. He claimed that his requirement is properly applicable to scientific theories and not to any particular statement within a theory. Popper’s criticism of the logical positivist theory of verification was that it mixed up two different things, namely, the meaningfulness of a proposition and the validity of a scientific theory. Popper’s verifiability was not presented as a theory of meaning but as one relevant for validation of scientific theories. Falsifiability required that any scientific theory might be in principle falsified, and open to being disproved (although it may not actually be done). At this juncture of the present discussion, however, we do not need to go deeply into this discussion, although undoubtedly, it is very important. What is more important for us is to understand the attitude to the knowledge behind these two theories. Both verification and falsification ultimately aim at the certainty of knowledge. The adherents of the former rejected everything that did not meet their requirement. The knowledge proper was that which is empirical and anything beyond human experience was rejected from the domain of knowledge. Falsifiability is an innovation within that same attitude to knowledge. Both these traditions ultimately carry the legacy of Hume who thought that scientific knowledge is faced with the serious problem of not having a firm basis. Although, this is different from the Cartesian foundationalism and although the Humean challenge is much more realistic than Descartes’ sceptical doubt, all ultimately seem to be rooted in an absolutist demand of indubitable knowledge. While it is clear that Cartesian doubt is merely methodological and hence artificial, Humean sceptical challenge, too, is merely theoretical. Therefore, no practising scientist would have taken either of these challenges seriously. Now the question is whether the project for indubitable and error-proof knowledge that is timelessly valid is humanly possible. The answer given by at least some schools of Indian philosophy appears to be in negative. Giving such an answer, however, did not necessarily amount to accepting some sort of agnosticism or negativism as one would expect. Let us review in brief some of these views. As in ancient Greece, scepticism in the Indian context also has a long history. Although there are records of sceptics from the early Vedic period, some of the sceptics that are more systematic were existing around


Asanga Tilakaratne

the 6th century bce. One such philosopher, known as Sañjaya, avoided answering any question in the affirmative and did not take any position regarding any view. As the Brahmajāla-sutta (Dīgha-nikāya no. 1) records, the sceptics during this period adhered to their position for various reasons, namely, for fear of uttering a falsehood (musāvāda-bhayā musāvāda-parijegucchā), fear of developing attachment to views (upādāna-bhayā upādāna-parijegucchā), fear of getting involved in fierce debates (anuyoga-bhayā anuyoga-parijegucchā), or due to sheer ignorance (mandattā momūhattā). In any case, the main intention was to live a life without distress or a hindrance to one’s inner peace (Walshe 1987, 80–81). In this respect, we see interesting parallelism between these Indian sceptics and those of ancient Greece, as we referred to earlier. Another Indian philosopher who underscored the essentially incomplete and partial character of human experience and knowledge was the leader of the Jain tradition, Jaina Mahāvīra, who advocated a kind of non-absolutism in knowledge. In his view, human knowledge is essentially partial and one cannot know a phenomenon in its totality. Consequently, any description of knowledge is bound to be incomplete and hence, neither totally false nor totally true. The result was the rejection of any knowledge that claims absolutist in character. The well-known parable of the blind men who described an elephant is quoted as an example of this epistemological state of affairs (Ud 66ff). The Buddhist philosophical tradition provides an interesting perspective on the scope and the limits of human knowledge. Buddhism begins with what is considered a very important insight into the nature of the workings of reality, including human beings. The basic insight of the Buddhist teaching, namely, the four noble truths, describes the problem and the solution of human existence, which requires one to be involved both at the levels of theory and practice. In other words, the noble truths need to be realised and when liberation is attained, one knows that one has attained it. This very brief description endeavours to show how knowledge claims are crucial to this philosophy. The Buddha has described his own realisation of these truths as the birth of an eye, knowledge, wisdom, science and light (cakkhuṃ udapādi, ñāṇaṃ udapādi, paññā udapādi, vijjā udapādi, āloko udapādi). Does this mean that according to this philosophy one can know everything, or that one can have absolute knowledge on anything and everything? The answer is clearly ‘no.’ Despite this emphasis on knowledge, Buddhist philosophy has a substantial element of scepticism and a

Verification, Falsification and Search for Certainty…


strong sense of human epistemic limits. For instance, the early Buddhist discourses refer to certain phenomena as unthinkable. The two Pali terms used to describe this state, namely, acinteyyo, na cintetabbo (A II, 80) would be translated into English as: ‘cannot be thought, should not be thought.’ The first seems to refer to an epistemic limit, that there are certain things that cannot be exhausted by thinking. The second seems to indicate a piece of moral advice, namely, that one must not venture into thinking about these matters. The discourse subsequently explains why; because one will end up in frustration and derangement of mind if one were to do so (ummādassa vighātassa bhāgī assa). The phenomena listed as ‘cannot be thought and must not be thought’ are the range of the universe, the mental sphere of the fully-enlightened person, the manner of the fruition of karma and the capacity of a person who has attained meditative absorptions. Listing these phenomena under the category of unthinkable does not mean that human beings cannot have any idea about them. In fact, the very idea of listing these phenomena as unthinkable betrays some knowledge of them. If we do not know anything at all then we will not be able to know the existence of such phenomena. At least we have some knowledge, but we may not be able to comprehend fully the matters under discussion. It is quite well known in the religious and metaphysical literature that one finds statements indicating unknowability and ineffability. For instance, the claim that ‘God is ineffable’ is quite known in theistic religious traditions. The Tao Te Ching begins by saying that Tao that can be talked about is not real Tao. So, one cannot talk about Tao as most possibly, one cannot know it or even think about it. Even in these traditions, we cannot imagine that they meant a kind of total ignorance on the part of the ordinary human beings on these exalted matters. I am not going to deal here with this intricate matter that I have discussed in greater detail elsewhere (Tilakaratne 1993). The point is that as far as Buddhist philosophy is concerned, unthinkability does not mean total blankness of knowledge but rather a reminder of the limits we are subject to, and also the futility of the effort on the grounds of practical reasons, which I will describe shortly. The philosophical scene in ancient India, around the 6th century bce, was characterised by intense curiosity over metaphysical questions involving the extent and duration of the universe, the nature of the soul and the like. The Buddhist literature records ten such questions, which were often posed to the Buddha for answering. In one classic incident, a


Asanga Tilakaratne

monastic follower of the Buddha put these questions forth to the Buddha, reminding him that he would not follow the Buddha any longer if he were not given the answers to these questions (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 534–35). At this juncture, the Buddha described what is known in the literature as the parable of the man hit by an arrow. If a man hit by an arrow were to insist in knowing all the details of the person who shot him before the arrow is removed and he is treated for his potentially fatal wounds, the Buddha pointed out ‘he will die before he knew all such details.’ What is urgent is to remove the arrow and heal the wounds. In the like manner, the Buddha continued, one would not be able to know the answers to all these questions regarding the universe etc., even if one were to strive during one’s entire lifetime, instead what is more important is to end suffering, the knowledge required for this is within the reach of human beings. With further advice for his questioner, in this manner, the Buddha asked him to understand that what he has not taught as not being taught, and what he has taught as being taught. In other words, he has not taught whether or not the universe is finite etc., instead, he has taught how suffering arises and ceases, and hence, he should follow this teaching accordingly. There have been many philosophical discussions on these questions and on the possible reasons for the Buddha’s not answering them in categorical terms. The parable of the man hit by an arrow suggests that it is motivated by pragmatic considerations. Based on the earlier remarks on unthinkability, we may suggest that the limitation of human epistemic capacity was also a reason. Again, I am not proposing to go into this long drawn-out debate here. What I need to underscore here is the essential pragmatic character of early Buddhist philosophy, which refused to be entangled in metaphysical debates that, in most cases, defy human cognitive capacity. This pragmatic attitude toward knowledge requires one to inquire about the purpose or the use of knowledge. Knowledge for its own sake is not encouraged for, like anything else, accumulation of which would tend to increase one’s problems rather than decrease them. While refusing to engage in metaphysical debates, the Buddha holds that one can know everything that one needs to know in order to make an end to one’s suffering. This is scepticism on the one hand and upholding the possibility of knowledge on the other. In other words, this is to hold that human beings cannot know everything but they can always know what is needed for their existence. This includes not only the matter of

Verification, Falsification and Search for Certainty…


terminating one’s suffering but also any other form of knowledge in dayto-day use.

Conclusion For some, the scepticism with which we started this discussion was either a cause for or an effect of frustration. For the ancient Stoic school of Greece, however, it was the basis of the tranquillity of mind. For ancient Indians, the reason behind their sceptical attitude was both moral and epistemological. A suspension of judgment and resultant inaction due to scepticism can be harmful when it becomes long-term. However, as a temporary measure, they do not pose a serious problem. What should be clear from this discussion is that an awareness of the limits of knowledge with the right attitude is a kind of enlightened ignorance and not an ignorance resulting from ignorance itself. In any scientific explanation, we look for causes and conditions for a phenomenon to take place, but we always stop at a point that we think sufficient. As Aristotle showed, of course, we can go on ad infinitum until we reach a First Cause or an Uncaused Cause, but a scientist would not be interested in such a project simply because, doing so, does not serve a purpose other than wasting one’s time. On the other hand, science gets things done by demonstrating that a lack of absolute knowledge has not really been a problem. It is part and parcel of the inductive method to make statements that go beyond the limited observed data. Any universal statements of the type of ‘all swans are white’ or ‘sun rises every morning’ will never be conclusively verified or asserted. Perhaps the right attitude may be to revise the question and to relax our stringent requirements of knowledge. As Wittgenstein once said, the answer to the question may be the disappearance of the question by understanding the fundamentally misleading character of it! The quest for absolute certainty in knowledge could well be another manifestation of our unlimited ambition. An alternative way to deal with it would be to learn to tame it.

23. The Thesis of Religious Ineffability

Preliminary remarks The claim that certain phenomena are ineffable is not confined to religion alone. We encounter similar claims in various fields of human interest such as arts, poetry, literature, linguistics and philosophy.1 Neverthe1  The concept of ineffability is known to philosophy conspicuously. Plato seems to be an early sympathiser of the concept. As revealed in the Cratylus, Plato holds that the true knowledge of Forms is not adequately described by words (438-449). The inferiority of book-learning and reading to pure thought and reasoning, a key point in the Pheadrus is also indicative of Plato’s sympathy towards the concept. Leibniz’ and Kant’s ideas of unknowability and the latter’s idea of noumena imply ineffability. The idealist and solipsist tendencies of the classical empiricist tradition of Locke, Berkeley and Hume lead to a form of ineffability. The contemporary empiricism characterised by the early Wittgenstein’s ambition to develop a logically perfect language, Carnap’s ambitious program to develop a protocol language and logical positivists’ verification theory-all; these betray the empiricists’ tendency towards idealism and solipsism that finally end up with ineffability, in a way. Wittgenstein’s idea of ‘inexpressible’ in metaphysics and morals is still among the debated philosophical matters. See chapter V of Johnston 1989 for a recent discussion of the matter. In the more recent philosophy, Quine’s thesis of the indeterminacy of translation and Kuhn’s theory of the incommensurability of paradigms imply a sort of limited ineffability. Davidson’s requirement of inter translatability as the criterion of language hood can be regarded as a response to certain philosophers’ wide-spread tendency towards ineffability. Both Chinese and Japanese philosophies are familiar with the concept of ineffability. Taoism is based on the idea of Tao, which is considered ineffable. According to Tao Te Ching, the Tao which can be spoken of is not real Tao. In contemporary Japanese philosophy, the idea of an ineffable absolute plays a key role. For example, the pure experience in Nishida’s philosophy is something beyond description (Nishida 1990, 1–10). Modern Linguistics is a good example for the tension between ineffability and affability. According to one powerful group of linguists, the discipline is founded on what

The Thesis of Religious Ineffability


less, judging from the history of the concept in the field of religion2 it is reasonable to assume that ineffability is basically an alleged characteristic of certain religious phenomena. The enigmatic nature of the claim ‘some phenomenon is ineffable’ is itself amount to a description of that which is claimed to be ineffable.3 From this point of view, the statement is self-defeating. Despite this difficulty, people have made the claim, however.4 In the present context, what we consider is not this seemingly self-contradictory nature, but the value of the thesis as representing a manner of characterising a kind of religious experience. It may be suggested that the ancients may have used the concept in its basic etymological sense (see below). However, an analysis of the instances of the thesis would show that the usage of the concept extends far beyond its etymological sense. What the proponents of the thesis were trying to convey was a difficulty associated with conceptualising religious phenomenon. As we see below, however, they differ from one another on the degree of this difficulty. Some say that language is utterly useless, while others remind us of the ‘weaknesses of language’ in capturing the essence of the religious experience. It may be impossible to know what the proponents of the thesis had ‘in mind’ when they said that reSearle (1970) calls ‘the principle of expressibility’ or what JJ Katz (1976) calls ‘the affability principle.’ This view of linguistics is rejected by another equally powerful group of people who represent what is called ‘the reality construction view’ (Grace 1987). On the view of this latter group, some sort of ineffability based on the uniqueness of conceptual systems is unavoidable. In contemporary criticism of aesthetics, the idea of ineffability has been held by such critics as John Dewey (1934, 73–74) and DW Prall (1936, 169) claiming language cannot express the experience captured by a work of art. In Ineffability: Naming the Unnamable from Dante to Beckett (1984) Peter S Hawkins and Ann Howland Schotter describe how the idea of ineffability has been held by well-known literary figures from the early modern period to the present. Thus, either negatively or positively, the theme of ineffability has played an important role in many areas of human thinking throughout history. 2  In both East and West, the belief in an ineffable reality seems to have originated from religious literature. We will discuss below some of these ancient instances of the belief. 3  The classical statement of this objection occurs in Augustine (Of Christian Doctrine 1.6): “God is not even to be called ineffable because to say this is to make an assertion about Him.” 4  Early Wittgenstein (in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus), who says a great deal on metaphysics while claiming that the same is ineffable, is a good example for this kind of ‘contradictory’ behaviour.


Asanga Tilakaratne

ligious experience is ineffable, but we need to fix some definite meaning to the concept, in order to use it meaningfully. The first part of this discussion elucidates some of the usages of the concept before deciding upon the meaning that we wish to attach to the concept. The second part of the discussion analyses some actual instances of the thesis of ineffability. This analysis will reveal the specific aspects of religion that were believed to be ineffable, and furthermore, will give an idea as to why these aspects were considered ineffable.

A definition of ‘ineffable’ The etymological meaning of the term ‘ineffable’ is plain. According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary, the word originates from Latin effari (effabilis) and means ‘unutterable.’ The prefix ‘un’ and the suffix ‘able’ indicate a limit and an impossibility. The impossibility involved here may be either ‘psychological’ or ‘logical’.5 If it is the former, which seems to be the case with some religious, mystical and occult traditions, the impossibility is associated with one being speechless before an extraordinary experience or a phenomenon. It has nothing to do with the nature of language or even, sometimes, the phenomenon involved. It says something about the state of the mind of the person who is affected. If it is the latter, it must be universal. For example, if there is something unknowable in principle, it must be ineffable in principle. Or, if there are limitations in language, what lies beyond those limits must be ineffable. The logical impossibility involved in this concept suggests that, a given religious phenomenon is beyond description and cannot be referred to by language. This is a situation marked by a complete non-use of language. As we will see shortly, Pseudo-Dionysius sometimes held a similar position. Among his writings, The Mystical Theology remains a brief but succinct and forceful statement of the ineffability of the theistic religious experience. Here, he says: “The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming; so that as we now plunge into the darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing” (emphasis added) (chapter 5  The two terms ‘psychological’ and ‘logical’ have been borrowed from (Appleby 1980). The term ‘logical ‘is used in this context in a broader sense to refer to the aspect of ineffability believed to arise either from the alleged limits of language or the experience, or from the very nature of the metaphysical phenomena believed to be involved in the process.

The Thesis of Religious Ineffability


3).6 According to this position, religious experience is about that which one must be utterly silent because language is wholly inapplicable to the phenomenon. This may well be the basic idea the proponents of the thesis wished to convey when they said that religious experience is ineffable. Paul Henle (1948) also discusses the possibility of two kinds of ineffability, one relative to a particular symbolism and the other, a pervading linguistic system as a whole. As an example of relative ineffability, he says that there may be a certain system of symbols in which certain statements cannot be made about them. By the very structure of this system, it can only express some ideas but not others. In such a situation, however, one can switch into another system to overcome this difficulty. An absolute ineffability is not something that is relative to one particular system of symbols, but a situation that covers the phenomenon of language as a whole. It means that something cannot be expressed in any language at all. The claim made in religious literature appears to be something of the second kind. It refers to human linguistic capacity in general, and the claim that there are things that lie beyond its limits. However, despite their claims to the contrary, some have talked substantially about which they call ‘ineffable.’ It is interesting to note that many of these descriptions have been made by using literary devices such as the via negativa, paradoxical statements, analogies, similes and metaphors. A popular explanation suggests that religious literature uses these devices because what it says cannot be said in ordinary language. It is further stated that what is said by using these special devices cannot be ‘translated’ or ‘reduced’ to ordinary language.7 By this explanation, there is an observation made about the nature of ordinary language which remains to be substantiated. Nevertheless, if the popular explanation gives the true reason behind the practice of using above-mentioned modes 6  The idea behind this is that God can be known only through God’s grace. Such a state of knowledge is believed to be marked by the lack of any knowledge acquired by traditional means, namely, reason and experience (see the discussion below on Dionysius and Aquinas). It is believed that this extraordinary knowledge is derived from ‘not knowing’ (docta ignorantia). Although sometimes it is believed that God is known by intuition, it should be mentioned that what is taken to be intuition is not what is popularly understood by that term in philosophy. For these ancients, something is known either by reason or by experience or it is not known at all. The ‘knowledge’ through the grace of God belongs to a wholly different category (of intuition) and is claimed to be ineffable. The claim that ‘God is unknowable’ does not rule out this extraordinary ineffable knowledge. 7  See (Black 1962) Essay III for a defence and (Alston 1989) Essay 1 for a critique of this view.


Asanga Tilakaratne

of description, then what is meant by ineffability is not that the religious experience is wholly ineffable, but ineffable relative to the ordinary mode of language. It must be mentioned that not all descriptions have been made by using these special literary devices. Religious literature does use the ordinary mode of language to describe that which is claimed to be ineffable. How can this be explained? Both Dionysius and Aquinas give some clues for a solution. Dionysius wrote The Divine Names as a discussion of the names used to denote and describe God. On the one hand, Dionysius believes that meaningful names are based on meaningful concepts; on the other hand, he holds that God is ineffable. Still, he tries to use concepts to describe precisely that which he considers ineffable. Dionysius produces the following explanation for the obviously inconsistent position that he is in: “we must not dare to resort to words or conceptions concerning that hidden divinity which transcends being, apart from what the sacred scriptures have divinely revealed”8 (emphasis added). According to this statement, the difficulty is not that concepts or words from ordinary language do not apply to God, but that we as humans are unable to know the essence of God to be able to characterise it conceptually. Nevertheless, in the scriptures, there are concepts revealed by God, which we are permitted to use. Thus, according to this interpretation of Dionysius’ view, ineffability is not the inapplicability of the ordinary mode of speech to describe the Transcendent, but the inapplicability of the unrevealed concepts. In other words, insofar as there are revealed concepts, God is not ineffable. In Aquinas’ view, we can name anything “as far as we can understand it” (Summa Theologica Q. 13, A. 1).9 Although we cannot understand God in his essence, we can understand him through his creation. This indicates that we can use concepts to describe God. Nevertheless, given Aquinas’ sympathy for the mystical belief that God is unknowable and ineffable, how can we do so? Aquinas provides the following answer: These names signify the divine substance, and are predicated substantially of God, Although they fall short of representing Him. (emphasis added) (Summa Thelogica Q. 13. A. 2) It is clear here that Aquinas does not think that words can really ‘represent’ or capture the essence of God (as they presumably can capture the essence of any other object). What this theory amounts to is, not 8  The Divine Names Chapter I. (Rolt 1920, 51 ff). 9  All references are from Pegis 1944.

The Thesis of Religious Ineffability


that language is utterly useless, but that language cannot adequately describe God. The underlying reasoning may be the following: Concepts are meant to describe things in the world; God is transcendent, so concepts cannot describe him. Nevertheless, since language is indispensable, he appears to relegate it to a subordinate position. Aquinas’ well-known idea of analogical predication, the view that language primarily applies to creatures and only analogically to God, is a result of his effort to overcome the difficulty while still preserving the validity of an ineffability of God. The two kinds of cognitive powers that human beings possess, in Aquinas’ view - sense and intellect, can give them only the knowledge of material objects and abstract ideas; but ‘angelic knowledge’ alone can know God in his essence. However, unless bestowed upon by God himself, human beings do not have such a capacity. In order to have the angelic knowledge, God must unite himself with the created being, and since this is impossible as long as one is attached to a human body, then this ultimately means that it is impossible for us to know God (Cf. Summa Theologica Q. 12, A. 4 and 6). This implies that God is in principle unknowable and hence, ineffable. The sense of inadequacy in question in this type of situation could also arise due to the psychological state of the prospective describer. It may well be that one has such an enormous admiration for the Transcendent, or one is so spellbound or fascinated by the experience to such a great extent, that one may feel that the phenomenon cannot be described at all. Or, in a less intensive case, one may feel that one cannot describe the phenomenon adequately, regardless of how much one has already said. This may well be, psychologically, the source of the complaint about language. Given the fact that these writers describe the religious phenomena in detail, despite their claims of ineffability, we may conclude, at least, that what some of them mean by ineffability is the sense of inadequacy and incompetency which one is apt to feel before the Transcendent. The unknowability and the resultant ineffability must not be understood as referring to the quite normal and trivial situation characterised by the fact that we cannot say anything about what we do not know. Ineffability resulting from a lack of information bears no philosophical significance. However, the ineffability involved in the theistic claim underlies two interesting and mutually-related metaphysical and epistemological claims, and these claims betray a kind of unknowability in a serious sense: The metaphysical claim is that there is some phenom-


Asanga Tilakaratne

enon, God in this context, that transcends the human experience (= the Transcendental). The epistemological claim is that there are certain inevitable and unsurpassable limits to human cognition and human language. Thus, the belief in unknowability and ineffability associated with the theistic religious experience underlies certain concerns regarding the allegedly inherent deficiency in human nature, on the one hand, and the belief in the magnitude of the Transcendental, on the other. The monistic ineffability claim is based on the belief that the experience involved is wholly different and occupies a realm of existence distinct from our ordinary experience. It is believed that the very nature of the said experience defies any articulation or expression by means of linguistic concepts. Here again, we can see that similar metaphysical and epistemological claims are involved. In sum, the most important aspect of this way of understanding religion is the belief that religion involves the Transcendental, which is ineffable. In addition to what is mentioned above, ineffability is popularly understood as referring to the fact that one cannot ‘communicate’ one’s personal experiences to another. The best articulation of this interpretation is in William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, which discusses the mystical experience as one variety of religious experience. James states that there are four characteristics in such an experience. The first, according to James, is ineffability. He says: The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given by words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. (2002, 371) James compares this experience to the experience of love or music, which would not make much sense to one who has not himself been in love or does not have an ‘ear’ for music. In a similar manner, James suggests, mystical experience does not make sense to one who has not experienced it. Accordingly, ineffability is the fact that one who has experienced something cannot communicate that experience to another who has not experienced it. The difficulty James refers to is not a problem of describing the experience. The problem is that no description conveys the meaning of the experience. Strictly speaking, the problem is not ineffability but incommunicability.10 10  Stace (1961) calls this interpretation the “Spiritual Blindness Theory”, and criticises

The Thesis of Religious Ineffability


Although James does not refer to any mystic to support this characterisation, certain statements made by some religious people can be interpreted as indicating such a difficulty. For example, the sage in the Kena Upaniṣad (I.3) says: “We know not, we understand not how one could teach it” (Radhakrishnan 1968, 582). Having described the unique nature of the experience of the undifferentiated unity, Plotinus (Ennedes VI.11) further says that “the Divine is not expressible, so the initiate is forbidden to speak of it to anyone who has not been fortunate enough to have beheld it himself” (O’Brien 1964, 87). The difficulty in both cases is not exactly the ineffability in the sense of it being indescribable, but the difficulty in communicating the experience to the uninitiated. Therefore, it is possible that some of those who have claimed ineffability may have meant incommunicability by their claim (Martin 1960, 69). The ineffability as understood in the present context is due to the transcendental nature of the experience which, because of its very nature, cannot be communicated by means of language. A contemporary example of this type of characterisation of religious experience is the one referred to by Rudolf Otto. He describes the religious experience as the feeling of ‘mysterium tremendum’ (numinous dread) and further says that this feeling refers to something ‘wholly other’ or something that transcends the ordinary human experience and hence, human linguistic capacity. In Otto’s view, religious experience is ‘non-rational’ in the sense that it cannot be defined, presented or analysed by means of concepts. The impossibility involved in this context, Otto has described as ‘ineffable’ by which he means the belief that the experience “completely eludes apprehension in terms of concepts” (Otto 1950, 5). Otto thought that the ineffable transcendental is a universal characteristic of religious experience and that “there is no religion in which it does not live as their real innermost core, and without it, no religion can be worthy of the name” (Otto 1950, 6). What Otto contrasts here is two ways of interpreting religion, mystical and rational of which the respective characteristics are the absence and the presence of rational discourse, conceptualisation and ineffability. Whether the religious experience is uniform or multiform has been a matter of debate for some time. Otto’s represents the view that religious experience, in some essential sense, is uniform. However, more recently, some students of religion have identified two major forms of religion, it on two grounds, (i) that it is a variety of the general empiricist view that experiences cannot be communicated by words, and hence it does not explain why mystical experience alone is called ineffable; (ii) that it puts the blame on the hearer whereas the real problem in ineffability is with the speaker who finds the experience to be ineffable (283-84).


Asanga Tilakaratne

namely, those that have transcendental God as the centre of their religious experience (theism: e.g. the religions of the Judeo-Christian tradition) and those that have what is called undifferentiated unity as the content of religious experience (e.g. non-dualism of Hinduism as that of Sankara and monism of Plotinus and certain Mahayana schools of Buddhism). Based on the preceding discussion, we may present the different meanings of ‘ineffability’ in the following manner: A. Ineffability is the position which holds that the Transcendent is wholly indescribable or that language is wholly inapplicable to the Transcendent. B. Ineffability is the position which claims that ordinary language is not capable of describing the Transcendent. C. Ineffability is the position that the unrevealed language is not capable of describing the Transcendent. D. Ineffability is the position that language is capable of, but is inadequate to describe the Transcendent. E. Ineffability is the sense of incomprehension, inadequacy or incompetence one is apt to feel before the Transcendent. F. Ineffability is the incommunicability of the experience to the uninitiated. The first four propositions have a gradually descending order, the first being the strongest and the last being the weakest in the degree of ineffability. The idea of the ‘degree of ineffability’ allows us to accommodate the first five within the concept of ineffability. In the strictest sense of the term, only the first and perhaps the fifth (in an intensive sense) may be qualified as proper definitions of the term. These two correspond respectively to what may be called logical and psychological ineffability, which are marked by the inapplicability of language. In the present study, we focus on the logical impossibility as indicated by the concept. However, there are difficulties in holding this position. In addition to the difficulty referred to above, namely, saying that something is ineffable, there is the difficulty with the idea of transcendence - how is it possible to know something if the phenomenon transcends human experience? Although we do not plan to discuss these difficulties in detail, we may mention here that these difficulties are not insurmountable. As for the first difficulty, we suggest that when something is ineffable one is not able to describe the phenomenon, and that

The Thesis of Religious Ineffability


one cannot say anything more than that.11 As for the second difficulty, one may not know what the Transcendence is (its characteristics, etc.), but one may know that it exists, which is sufficient for the ineffability to be claimed. The reason for taking ineffability, in its basic sense, as involving a fundamental inapplicability of language is that unless it is understood in that way, the thesis loses its significance and validity. If the thesis is understood as a warning against the mere weaknesses of language in capturing the essence of human experience, then there is nothing extraordinary in that claim, for it is commonly accepted that language has its own limitations.12 There is nothing controversial about it either. The significance of the thesis is the paradox involved in the very claim that there are certain phenomena which resist reference or description or both. Therefore, we interpret the thesis as claiming that language cannot describe religious phenomena. There is a significant difference between the ineffability caused by the nature of human language and the one caused by the limitations of the human cognitive capacity. In the case of the former, the ineffability is a result of the very nature of language. A good example is the Advaita Vedantic ātman/Brahman state. It is said that the ultimate religious experience of ātman/Brahman is as a result of the realisation that duality is false and what is real, is only the non-duality. Language is considered having the major characteristic of duality and hence language represents the unreal characteristic of common-sense reality. The ātman/Brahman is characterised by oneness, and it is claimed that in oneness, there cannot be any operation of language, for language requires duality and multiplicity for its very existence. Now, this is a clear situation in which 11  Refer to Arthur Danto’s definition of ineffable: “The ineffable is that about which all that is to be said is nothing more is sayable.” (“Language and Tao: Some Reflections on Ineffability” Journal of Chinese Philosophy l. 1973:43). 12  The ‘weakness’ theory in most cases is based on a confusion of the meaning of ‘inexpressible.’ The popular Bergsonian sense of the term is that we cannot reproduce the experience in the hearer by means of language. According to this view no experience can be so reproduced; hence, language is inherently weak and any kind of experience is ineffable or inexpressible. Both Lockean and Humean classical empiricism also support this view. The mistake in this view, in the first place, is to expect language to do something impossible. However, no experience is inexpressible in the sense that we cannot describe the former by using concepts (terms). Whether our description reproduced the experience in the hearer, or not, is a wholly different matter. (See the discussion above on James for a similar view, and see Stace (1960/1976) 2.83 f. for a criticism of this view.).


Asanga Tilakaratne

language, totally and wholly, is incapable of expressing the reality of ātman/ Brahman. An ineffability caused by unknowability and unthinkability is a different case. Strictly speaking, we can say that the basic problem is not related to language per se but rather, is related to the limited cognitive capacity of ourselves. The ineffability occurs for the simple reason that we cannot talk about things that we do not know anything about. What has been maintained as ineffable in the field of religion is that which is believed to be the ultimate reality. If what is meant by this claim is some psychological condition of one who makes the claim, or some kind of language with relative limitation, or a speaker-relative limitation, then they are not insurmountable difficulties. What is philosophically and religiously significant is the claim that the ultimate religious experience involves something totally transcendental and hence, it is ineffable in the sense that human language cannot articulate it.

The thesis of ineffability It is believed that some of the earliest claims of ineffability were made by early Upaniṣadic thinkers with regards to the nature of Brahman. The following statements are from some key Upaniṣads: Where from words turn back, together with the mind, not having attained (Taittirīya II.4). There the eye goes not, speech goes not, nor the mind. We know not we understand not how one could teach it (Kena I.3). Not by speech, not by mind, not by sight can be apprehended. (Kaṭha II.3.12) The reason behind the attribution of ineffability to Brahman may be understood by analysing certain Upaniṣadic statements further. In the Kena Upaniṣad, Brahman is described in the following manner: That which man does not comprehend with the mind, that by which, they say, the mind is encompassed…; that which man does not see with the eyes, that by which man perceives the activities of the eye ...; that which man does not hear with the ear, that by which man knows this ear ...; that which man does not smell with the organ of smell, that by which the organ of smell is impelled, know that to be Brahman. (Kena I.6-9) The literary meaning of this statement is not hard to understand. What lies behind the literary meaning is the implication that Brahman is the

The Thesis of Religious Ineffability


Principle behind the function of sense perception and the world, which is the object of perception. Obviously, that which is neither perceived nor is perceived cannot belong in the perceptual realm. This is how the Upaniṣadic thinker expresses the belief that Brahman is transcendent. Sankara’s following comment confirms the belief in the transcendent nature of Brahman: When a word, as expressed by the organ of speech, reveals its own idea, speech is said to go to its object. But Brahman is the Self of that word, as also of the organ that utters it; therefore, speech does not go. Just as fire, which burns and illumines, does not burn or illumine itself, similarly is this so. (Gambhirananda 1977, I:45) According to Sankara, Brahman makes language possible. As fire does not burn itself, the language in this ultimate sense cannot express itself. In other words, Brahman occupies a domain impenetrable by language, or it transcends the domain of language. The ineffability we have thus been led to is not different from the theistic ineffability that we will discuss shortly. This is further confirmed by the fact that the Upaniṣadic statements which indicate ineffability of Brahman have been understood in a theistic sense by some later philosophers like Ramanuja. The interpretation of these statements as leading to a non-dual experience is owed mainly to Sankara, who is the leading historical figure in the Vedantic tradition. It occurs in the following manner: The single most important doctrine of the early Upanisads in general, (Deutsch 1969, 5 n.5) and Sankara in particular, is the realisation of the non-duality between Brahman and ātman. Although Brahman transcends worldly limits, due to its relation to ātman, there is a level at which one can realise Brahman. It is the realisation of one’s own ātman (soul). According to Deutsch; [Ā]tman (or paramātman, the Highest Self), for Advaita Vedanta, is that pure, undifferentiated self-shining consciousness, timeless, spaceless, and unthinkable, that is not different from Brahman and that underlies and supports the individual human person. (Deutsch 1969, 48) Ātman is the “ontological oneness” (Lott 1980, 38) experienced in the realisation of the undifferentiated unity between Brahman and ātman. It is “the knowledge of the unity of the self” (Gambhirananda 1956,


Asanga Tilakaratne

6). According to the Vedantic view, this unitary knowledge and the vision is entirely different from the experience of the world, which is unreal or māyā. Hence, it is considered to be ineffable. Deutsch (1969, 11) further elaborates this Vedantic view as follows: Human language has its source in phenomenal experience; hence, it is limited in its application to states of being that are beyond that experience; logic is grounded in the mind as it relates to the phenomenal order; hence, it is unable to affirm, without at the same time denying, what extends beyond that order. According to this explanation, language and transcendence do not cross each other’s paths. In the Western tradition, Plotinian experience of One comes very near to the Advaitic experience.13 Plotinus explains this unitary vision in the following manner: The vision, in any case, did not imply duality; the man who saw was identical with what he saw. Hence, he did not “see” it but rather was “oned” with it. (The Enneads VI.9.11)14 The experience described here is marked by the complete ‘oneness’ of the experiencer and the experienced. When we say that one knows something, it implies a knower and a known and the presence of discursive reasoning; the two factors imply the existence of multiplicity. The experience of One, according to Plotinus, is beyond any kind of duality and multiplicity (The Enneads IV.9.4). Therefore, there is nothing to be described by a subject-object language. Hence, Plotinus quotes Plato with approval: “It can neither be spoken nor written about” (The Enneads IV.9.4). The undifferentiated unity taught in both Sankara and Plotinus is an extraordinary experience. It might even be misleading to call this an experience, for an experience anticipates an experience. In the non- dualistic oneness, there exists only one thing, viz. the undifferentiated unity. In other words, this is a universe with only one object. All else - the entire complex of the universe with the multitude of objects including language 13  However, Deutsch (1969, 3) notices a difference between non-dualism and (forms of) monism: Sankara’s system is best labelled “non-dualistic” rather than “monistic” to distinguish it from any position that views reality as a single order to objective being. Advaita Vedanta is concerned with the ultimate non-reality of all distinctions - that reality is not constituted by parts, that in essence it is not different from the Self. The unity or “oneness” that Advaita upholds ... does not require variety or multiplicity, as in the case with most monist views, in order to be affirmed. 14  Translation from Elmer O’Brian (1964).

The Thesis of Religious Ineffability


- is false or unreal. Multiplicity does not make sense in this universe. Therefore, ineffability is the frustration we are doomed to experience when we try to approach this universe from our point of view. Thus, non-dualists seem to place their experience on a different ontological realm which cannot be penetrated by language. Ineffability seems to be the characteristic of this experience so far as we human beings are concerned. Given the picture outlined above, there appears to be a kind of inconsistency in the mystical use of the negative language, as mystics sometimes do, to speak about this experience. The two systems, Hindu and that of Plotinus - equally share the use of the via negativa as the proper way to talk about the religious phenomena. Although one cannot say what the mystical is, it is believed, one can say what it is not. Plotinus makes extensive use of this mode of expression in Ennead III.6.9. He denies that the One is a thing, a quality, a quantity, intelligence or a soul or that the One has any other distinguishing characteristics about it. Similarly, Yājñavalkya, the Upanisadic sage, says about Brahman that “there is the teaching, not this, not this for there is nothing higher than this, that he is not this” (Bṛhadāraṇyaka II.3.6). The use of the via negativa is hard to justify if one does not claim any knowledge of that which one negatively describes or implies. What is indicated by this practice is that one has some knowledge, but one cannot say anything positive about it. This, in other words, is to acknowledge the possibility of a non-verbalisable knowledge or to claim that one has had an experience which can never be expressed by words - if this is at all possible. Based on this discussion, we may conclude that the monist’s ineffability claim is comprised of the following: A. The undifferentiated unity characterised by the oneness of ātman and Brahman or the One (of Plotinus) is ineffable due to the very nature of the phenomenon of oneness. B. Insofar as it is the experience of someone, in the undifferentiated unity, there is a quality (of the experience) or a kind of knowledge which is ineffable (The difference between A and B is that the former is a metaphysical claim, and the latter is an epistemological claim). The theistic religious experience is marked by the union of the soul with God, but not, like in the monist experience, by undifferentiated unity or oneness with God. The experience of union with God is con-


Asanga Tilakaratne

sidered to be one of extreme intensity. Nevertheless, it still is a union and not an identity. To be identified with God was considered to be blasphemous. In the history of Christianity, the mystics who claimed such an identity have been treated with suspicion.15 The reason was that the theistic traditions have devotion both as their main virtue and as the means of salvation. Zaehner correctly describes this situation when he said that “Christianity is predominantly ‘bhaktic’ or devotional, not ‘jnānic’ or ‘gnostic’ (Zaehner 1957, 176). In such a devotional tradition as the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is customary that God, the centre of its religious experience, is elevated to a very high transcendental status, and then called ineffable. Pseudo-Dionysius stands out amongst the early Christians for strongly asserting religious ineffability. One of his writings, The Mystical Theology, remains a brief but succinct and forceful statement of the ineffability of the theistic experience. There are three major themes running throughout his work: unknowability, ineffability, and the use of the via negativa in order to describe the Transcendent. At the beginning of the treatise, Dionysius admonishes us to “leave behind ... everything perceived and understood, everything perceptible and understandable, all that is and all that is not” if we are to “strive upward… toward union with him who is beyond all being and knowledge” (Ch. 1). This admonition suggests that the Transcendent is not known by such means as perception or understanding (reason) and that it is ‘known’ only by some special religious means. Dionysius compares the process to a sculptor’s work in which the sculptor reveals an image by removing that which is unnecessary, or “simply by an act of cleaning” (Ch. 2). The more the process ‘goes upward’, the more the language falls downward and finally, making the latter completely useless. Dionysius says: The fact is that more we take flight upward, the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming; so that now as we plunge into the darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing (Ch. 3). According to Dionysius, here we are confronted with something beyond our faculty of understanding and wholly other than ordinary reality. Therefore “there is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of 15  Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) who expressed a similar view in his sermons was ordered to appear before the Inquisition (see Blackney 1941 Introduction).

The Thesis of Religious Ineffability


it” (Ch. 5). We can say what it is not, but not what it is.16 St. Thomas Aquinas is a good example of a mainstream Christian theologian who confirms the transcendence of God and believes that ineffability follows from the transcendent nature of God. Aquinas’ claim of the ineffability of God depends upon the assertion that human beings cannot know God in his essence unless they receive God’s grace (Summa Theologica Q.11 A.4). The two kinds of cognitive powers human beings naturally have, in Aquinas’ view-sense and intellect, are capable of having only knowledge of material objects and abstract ideas; but the ‘angelic knowledge’ alone can know God in his essence (Ibid, Q.11 A.4). Human beings do not have this power unless bestowed upon them by God himself. According to the article 4 of the question 12 in Summa Theologica, God must unite himself to the ‘created intellect’ in order to know the essence of God. By this act of grace, it is said, the human intellect gets “illumination” with which the creature “is made deformed” (or God-like)(Ibid, Q.12 A.6). Thus, in order to know God’s essence, one has to be ‘God-like’. However, this is impossible as long as one is attached to the human body (Ibid, Q.12 A.4). Although Aquinas says that the essence of God is out of the reach of the human intellect, he does not deny that men can know God as the first cause of the world or through God’s creation. Men can know that God is, (but not what God is) (Ibid, Q.12 A.12). This knowledge, though meagre in content, enables men to name God, but since they lack any knowledge of God’s essence, their names cannot ‘represent’ God; they can only ‘signify’ the divine substance (Ibid, Q.13 A.2). Therefore, insofar as men understand God, they do not have difficulty in naming him. Thus, in Aquinas’ opinion, the ineffability of God has its origins in the inadequacy of human knowledge, which results from the transcendence of God. This line of thinking developed by Dionysius and Aquinas can be seen continued by the fifteenth-century theologian and mystic, Nicholas de Cusa; whose theological writings are devoted to describing the transcendence of God. The following is typical of his statements: And so this unlimitable and unboundable, or inconceivable, concept of God, we must also call ineffable, because of its infinity. For by no name or term can we limit or define that Word, since it cannot be conceived. Thus, we do not give God the name “one” or “three” or call Him by any other name whatsoever; for He exceeds every concept of one or of three or of whatever 16  See the entire chapter 4 (Ibid.) as an example for the via negativa.


Asanga Tilakaratne

nameable thing. Rather, we remove from God every name for any conceivable thing, since He excels (every conceivable thing) (Hopkins 1978, 109). According to Nicholas, God is beyond the limits of human experience, and hence, surpasses human cognition. Therefore, neither concepts nor names by means of which the human cognitive faculty functions, would apply to him. As in Hinduism, here we have a case of a transcendent God who is ineffable. It occurs in the following manner: The Transcendent is not a possible object of human experience or human intellect; what is not such an object is not knowable; what is not knowable is ineffable. The limited knowledge we have about the existence of God by logical and natural reasoning (a la St. Aquinas) warrants some affability, but that knowledge does not count here. In the ineffability claim made in this manner, in fact, there is no logical inconsistency or discrepancy. It is a perfectly sensible statement to make for one who accepts a realist theory of meaning.17 However, the 17 What is behind the thesis of ineffability is a strong realism which can be characterised by a belief in a thoroughgoing correlation between words and objects. This is common to both monist and theistic traditions. Sometimes, the Upanisadic and Sankarite doctrine of the reality of Brahman and the unreality of the world is understood as a form, see idealism (see Deutsch 1969: Ch.3 and notes 8 and 11 for a discussion). This is a result of not making a clear distinction among the levels of reality accepted in Sankara’s philosophy. The unreality of the world is held only on the level of Brahma realisation, in other words, the world is unreal or a māyā only from the point of view of Brahman. However, on the level of subject-object distinction, the world is described as ‘neither real nor unreal’. This intermediate category is a result of the way Advaitins explain real (e.g. Brahman) and unreal (e.g. son of a barren woman). Although the world is such relative to real and unreal, Advaitins do not question the reality of the world. Hence, subject-object distinction, language and reason find their place within this ‘reality’. Language refers to those ‘neither real nor unreal realities. Soteriologically speaking, this is the world of suffering. In order to realise liberation (mokṣa), one has to transcend this level of existence. Therefore, in the ‘real’ reality (Brahman) there are no distinctions and no language. Thus, on one level the Advaitin reject realism and on another level, they accept the same. Clearly, behind this idea of liberation and ‘reality’, there lies both an acceptance and a rejection of a realist epistemology. Both monist and theist traditions of the West also assume a realism. Western realism is derived first from Plato and then from Aristotle (see Colish 1968: preface and Ch. 1 for details). The realism of the latter was very influential in medieval Christian theology (e.g. St. Thomas Aquinas calls Aristotle “the philosopher” (Q. 13, art.6) and uses the Aristotelian doctrine of essence). Given the nature of this influence, it is rea-

The Thesis of Religious Ineffability


problem is, the theist does not stop at this point. The theist makes a further claim which says that we can experience God by God’s grace: God reveals himself to those whom he deems worthy. Now this suggests that God is a possible object of our experience (at least for a fortunate few). If we can experience God, no matter what the source or the experience is, we could maintain that we must be able to describe that experience, but this is not the case; the theologians remind us that we are still unable to describe the experience: Thus, we have been led again to the possibility of non-verbalisable knowledge. The case we have at hand has to be distinguished from the wellknown (and much debated) phenomenon of pre-linguistic knowledge. According to certain psychologists and philosophers, there is a pre-conceptual stage in the process of our perception. At this initial stage (sometimes called ‘sensation’), we have direct access to ‘raw’ sense data; no ‘conceptualisation’ (hence, verbalisation) is involved here. Whether this situation is obtained or not has not been conclusively determined. However, even for those who accept such a stage in knowledge, it is only a preliminary stage [of knowledge] which ultimately becomes propositional. As in the case of Kant, the non-propositional, ‘immediate’ intuitions are only the primary stage of the knowledge of the truth of judgements concerning objects intuited by senses (Critique of Pure Reason A.19). The ineffable ‘knowledge’ claimed by the theist is different. It is a pre-linguistic knowledge ‘in principle’ it is non-verbalisable. It is a knowledge in itself and does not depend on a more advanced stage for its significance. Therefore, the pre-linguistic knowledge in this context is actually a form of non-linguistic or non-conceptual knowledge. Thus, ultimately, the theistic ineffability claim too comes to rest on the possibility of non-verbalisable knowledge. Based on this discussion, we may conclude that the theistic ineffability claim is comprised of the following: A. God is ineffable due to his transcendence (The difference besonable to assume that the idea that God is unnamable and ineffable has its origins in the Aristotelian doctrine that one needs to know the essence of an object to define it or to have knowledge of it (Metaphysics VII Chs. 5-6). Aristotelian doctrine says that we can know the essences of the things that belong to the world, and therefore, (it automatically follows that) they are knowable, namable and effable. Since God does not belong to this world, the theologians who accepted the Aristotelian doctrine claimed that God’s essence must not be knowable, and hence, that God must be unnamable and ineffable. Thus, behind the ineffability claim of the west there lies a form of strong realism and a realist philosophy of language.


Asanga Tilakaratne

tween this and the Hindu claim is, in the latter tradition, Brahman is not always understood as a personal God as in the school of the natural theology of the former). B. It is possible to have ‘in principle’ non-linguistic ‘knowledge’. As the above discussion indicates, the ineffability thesis in both the nondualist and theistic traditions is both a metaphysical and an epistemological claim. The theistic tradition talks about a transcendent and ineffable Ultimate Reality (Brahman or God). The non-dualist tradition lays stress on an experience characterised by the undifferentiated unity which does not allow linguistic operations. In one way or the other, both claims presuppose a possibility of non-linguistic knowledge. Thus, (i) God or Brahman, (ii) the experience of undifferentiated unity between the individual and the universal soul (e.g. ātman/Brahman in Hinduism or the One in Plotinus) and (iii) non-linguistic knowledge can be considered as the three key metaphysical and epistemological aspects of the ineffability thesis.

24. Ineffability in Buddhism

Introduction The non-theistic character of Buddhism has posed some difficulties for those who wish to identify a God-like Transcendental principle. While some hold that the Buddhist religious experience (nirvana) is a monistic-type transcendental experience, some others hold that all forms of religious experience, including that of Buddhism involve an ineffable Transcendentalist, which is equivalent to a neutral Brahman or Godhead. A case in point is John Hick’s views in his An Interpretation of Religion. For Hick, all sorts of religious experience, whether they are theistic or monistic, are different responses to what he names ‘the Transcendental’ or ‘the Real.’ Some, such experiences as Allah, Yahweh or Indra is personal characterisations or ‘personae,’ whereas others, such as nirvana, satori and Brahman are impersonal characterisations or ‘impersonae’ of the Real. The Real itself is unknowable and ineffable (Hick 1989, 246). This interpretation brings all religions, including Buddhism, under one roof, namely, that of the ineffable Transcendental. The interpretation of the Buddhist religious experience as involving an ineffable Transcendental has its advocates amongst both philosophers of religion and Buddhist philosophers. Certain contemporary philosophers of religion, Rudolf Otto and John Hick, for instance, come to hold this opinion as a necessary entailment of the larger belief that all religions ultimately involve a non-rational ‘I’ or an ineffable Transcendental. For Buddhist philosophers, the belief is more a matter of the weight of internal evidence. Therefore, what is more significant in the present context is to examine some of the internal evidence produced, particularly, by Buddhist philosophers supporting their beliefs.


Asanga Tilakaratne

Ineffability in early Buddhism In the present context, what we mean by ‘early Buddhism’ is the worldview presented in the three piṭakas (collections) as preserved by Theravadins. We draw particularly from their Sutta Piṭaka (the collection of discourses in the five nikāyas) for it contains the most relevant material. The most well-known statement in the Pali Canon which is often referred to in support of the transcendental view of nirvana is the following statement at Udāna 80. atthi, bhikkhave, tadāyatanaṃ, yattha n’eva paṭhavī, na āpo, na tejo, na vāyo, na ākāsānañcāyatanaṃ, na viññāṇañcāyatanaṃ, na ākiñcaññāyatanaṃ, na nevasaññānāsaññāyatanaṃ, n’āyaṃ loko, na paraloko, na ubho candimasūriyā, tad amhaṃ, bhikkhave, n’eva āgatiṃ vadāmi, na gatiṃ, na ṭhitiṃ, na cutiṃ, na upapattiṃ; appatiṭṭhaṃ, appavattaṃ, anārammaṇamevetaṃ, es’ev’anto dukkhassā’ti. There is that sphere wherein is neither earth nor water nor fire nor air, wherein is neither the sphere of infinite space, nor of infinite consciousness, nor of nothingness, nor of neither-perception-nor-non-perception; wherein there is neither this world nor a world beyond nor both together, nor moon nor sun; this I say is free from coming and going, from duration and departure; there is no establishment no continuation, no object; this indeed is the end of suffering. This passage is further fortified by the following, which can be considered an extention of the former, and found in both Udāna 80-1 and Itivuttaka 37. atthi bhikkhave ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ, no ce taṃ bhikkhave abhavissa ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ, na yidha jātassa bhūtassa katassa saṅkhatassa nissaraṇaṃ paññāyetha. yasmā ca kho bhikkhave atthi ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ, tasmā jātassa bhūtassa katassa saṅkhatassa nissaraṇaṃ paññāyatī’ti. Monks, there is a not-born, not-become, not-made, not-compounded. Monks, if that not-born, not-become, not-made, not-compounded were not, no escape from the born, become, made, compounded had been known here. But, monks, since there is a not-born, not-become, not-made, not-compounded, therefore an escape from the born, become, made, compounded is known.

Ineffability in Buddhism


These statements are understood as referring to a state (experience or a realm of existence) which does not share any characteristic to that which belongs in the world, namely, born, become, made and compounded. What has been described by these terms is believed to constitute a separate ontological state which is transcendental. Since language is believed to be valid or applicable only within the realm of what is born, become, made and compounded, the transcendental state, by implication, is also believed to be ineffable. Whether early Buddhism acknowledges an ineffable state or not depends upon the fact that whether it understands nirvana as a transcendental (beyond experience and knowledge) state, or not. The above statement, translated in that manner, suggests that nirvana was considered to be such a state. However, the interpretation of the statement is a matter of controversy. Rune Johansson, who made an interesting study of nirvana based on the Pali Canon (1969, 55), has pointed out that the most important term (nirvana) is missing in the passage and that the key terms of the passage are rather ambiguous in meaning. Johansson thinks that the passage may well be understood as a description of nirvana in experiential terms. David J Kalupahana, taking a similar stand, thinks that the past-participles used in the statement indicate events that have already taken place, and says that “their nominal forms - birth (jāti), becoming (bhava), making or doing (kamma), and dispositions (saṅkhāra) - explain the world of bondage and suffering” (1992, 92–93). The following statement could be viewed as supplying more compelling evidence in support of the ineffable, transcendental nature of nirvana: In so far only, Ananda, can one be born, or grow old, or die, pass away or reappear, in so far only is there a pathway for verbal expression (adhivācanapatha), in so far only is there a pathway for terminology (niruttipatha), in so far only is there a pathway for designation (paññattipatha), in so far only is there a sphere of knowledge, in so far only is the round of samsaric cycle kept going for there to be designation of the following, namely, the psycho-physical personality (nāmarūpa) with consciousness (viññāṇa). (It 37) Although the statement does not make a specific reference to nirvana, by showing that human suffering, samsara, language and the psycho-physical-personality are co-extensive, one could conclude that language is applicable only within the realm characterised by these phe-


Asanga Tilakaratne

nomena. The obvious contrast is nirvana, which may be seen as lying beyond all linguistic conventions. A similar version has been promoted based on certain statements regarding the nature of the post-mortal condition of the arahant. One such statement occurs in one of the dialogues between the Buddha and Vacchagotta. The latter asks the Buddha where the arahant is born after his death. The Buddha tells him that the expression that ‘he is born’ does not apply to the arahant. Then Vacchagotta asks, whether, in that case, the arahant is not born, both born and not born, or neither born nor not born. The Buddha states that none of these descriptions would apply to the arahant. Now, to Vacchagotta who gets confused by this response, the Buddha says that just as it is inappropriate to ask to which direction a fire which burned depending on fuel and extinguished due to lack thereof has gone, even so, it is inappropriate to ask where the arahant, whose ‘fuel’ is completely exhausted, is born. The Buddha further says: Just so, Vaccha, the form by which one would like to designate the Tathāgata, that form of the Tathāgata is given up, its root broken, uprooted like a palm, free from further growth or renewed existence in the future. The Tathāgata is free from everything called form. (The same is repeated for the remainder of the aggregates). The Tathāgata is deep, immeasurable, and unfathomable, like the deep ocean (emphasis added) (M I, 486-7). It is believed that the above account including, particularly, the ocean-simile portrays the state of the arahant as transcendental. The following statement which occurs in the Suttanipāta (v. 1076) has also been understood as supportive of this way of thinking. Notice that the statement constitutes a specific reference to speech: There is no measure for one who has reached the end. He does not have that with which one would speak about him. When all the conditions are destroyed, all ways of speech too are destroyed. The above statement has been made by the Buddha on being asked whether the arahant who has reached the end does not exist or whether he exists eternally. The Buddha does not give any categorical answer, either affirmative or negative. Taking into consideration the nature of the Buddha’s response to the question, one could well argue that the Buddha did mean a state which goes beyond the limits of language (ineffable state). Yet, on the other hand, one could equally well produce a rebuttal by pointing to the ground behind the Buddha’s reluctance to use any categorical statement, that is to say, that he would be misinterpreted as

Ineffability in Buddhism


advocating some sort of nihilism or eternalism. One could further support this argument by showing that the statement can be interpreted as a plain description of the after-death condition of the arahant who does not produce any further psycho-physical personality, for he has uprooted the causes thereof, and therefore that language does not play a role for the obvious reason that there is no psycho-physical personality to be described by language. The fact that the after-death status of the arahant is a subject among the ‘unexplained questions’ (Pali: abyākata, Sanskrit: avyākṛta) has also been taken up as an added support for this position. In his Central Philosophy of Buddhism (1980), TRV Murti translates avyākṛta as ‘inexpressible’ which gives the impression that these questions pertain to something which cannot be expressed by language. In this sense, the term has been understood as the Buddhist equivalent of the Hindu avācya or anirvacanīya, which refers to the impossibility of describing the ultimate reality by means of language. However, the term avyākṛta does not mean ‘inexpressible’ but ‘unexpressed’ or ‘unexplained’, since its grammatical form is a past participle. Many reasons have been adduced by modern scholars on the Buddha’s silence on the avyākṛta questions. However, what we must not overlook here is that the reason given by the Buddha himself is based on pragmatic considerations. Here, there is no allusion whatsoever to any difficulties he encountered in describing what ‘trans-empirical’ is. It is slightly misleading to state that the Buddha was silent around these queries. What is true of the situation is that he did not make any categorical answer to the inquiries. Nevertheless, the Buddha did talk about these questions, and he did explain why a categorical answer was not possible. As we will see later, in the Mahayana tradition, a form of silence has been attributed to the Buddha, which he is claimed to have used as the most effective way of communicating some of his teachings. So far as the evidence in the Pali Canon goes, we may say that there are no instances where the Buddha made recourse to such a silence as a means of teaching his doctrine. The fact that in the ‘unexplained questions’, the four positions regarding the after-death state of the arahant are presented in terms of catuṣkotika or the four-cornered logical predication has also been taken as suggestive of a transcendental state. Among the four positions, the first three are understood as asserting a positive, a negative and the conjunction of both positive and negative (contradictory) respectively. The


Asanga Tilakaratne

fourth, which seems to deny both positive and negative disjunctively, (e.g. neither the arahant is and nor he is not) has baffled many students. A popular way to make sense out of this seemingly paradoxical situation is to say that it refers to the transcendental state which is beyond any linguistic expression. The meaning of the negation of both negative and positive statements has been taken to imply the inapplicability of language. However, looking from another viewpoint, the alleged paradoxicality of the statement is due to the belief in the absolute character of the concept of truth, which is the basis of the two-cornered logic from where partial truth is excluded. However, for those who believe that certain states of affairs are too complex to be predicted as either negatively or positively, such statements as the fourth are not paradoxical. Thus, the curious negation involved in the fourth statement of the tetralemma regarding the after-death status of the arahant can be interpreted as an effort to avoid both eternalism and nihilism respectively. Usually, this ‘negative dialectic’ is understood as implying the via negativa or the use of negative language to describe what is believed to be beyond description. As in the case of the well-known Upaniṣadic injunction neti neti, the idea is that we cannot say what the Transcendent is, but only what it is not. It is also believed that paradoxical statements characterised by oxymoron and contradictory statements allegedly necessitated by the ‘identity of opposites’ (coincidentia oppositorum) are the results of the ineffable nature of the Transcendent. However, looking at their literature, it does not seem that the early Buddhists encountered a similar difficulty in describing nirvana which necessitated for them to use such devices as the via negativa, paradoxes or contradictions. Certain meditative states associated with the early Buddhist path of purification might be interpreted as involving some sort of ineffability. Two such instances are the second jhāna which is devoid of vitakka and vicāra (understood as initial and discursive thought) and saññā-vedayita nirodha samāpatti or the attainment of the cessation of perceptions and feelings. Amongst the characteristics of the first jhāna are initial and discursive thought. According to the Cullavedalla-sutta (M I, 301), these two are called ‘activities of speech’ (vacīsaṅkhāra) for ‘having first had initial and discursive thought, one subsequently utters speech.’ Since the second jhāna is attained ‘with the subsiding of initial and discursive thought’ it is characterised by the absence of any psychological and verbal activity. This seemingly suggests that there is such an undifferentiated or unified state of mind which is not disturbed by external sense

Ineffability in Buddhism


objects. Thus, jhāna or the absorption of mind in the Buddhist sense is not an experience of some kind of transcendental and mystical reality which is beyond communication. Therefore, the absence of initial and discursive thought in the second jhāna does not indicate that jhānic experience is ineffable. The attainment of cessation (nirodha-samāpatti), the highest state of jhānic experience referred to in the Buddhist tradition has been sometimes interpreted as an ineffable state. This interpretation is based on the fact that the attainment of cessation is described as devoid of all physical, verbal and mental functions. However, this situation is due to the cessation of everything perceived and felt. According to the Buddhist analysis of the empirical individuality, the existence of the subject is dependent on the existence of the object or the external world which is the object of sensory experience. In the attainment of cessation, what takes place is an intensive form of the aloofness of subject from object, which causes a temporary suspension of the external world. This results in the cessation of the physical, verbal and mental activities, which is almost tantamount to the cessation of the subject of cognition. There is no reason to interpret this state as ineffable in the absence of speech is a result of the absence of the conditions necessary for verbal behaviour. It is interesting to note that in the Pali Canon there is no term which directly connotes the idea of ineffability. However, some (Dutt 1941, I:21 and Conze 1962, 76-7), have taken ‘atakkāvacara’ - ‘beyond reasoning’- as implying the ineffable nature of nirvana. This interpretation is sought to be justified by the fact that the four-cornered logical predication does not apply to the after-death state of the arahant. Since the propositions in the tetralemma are supposed to exhaust all predicative possibilities, it is contended that whatever cannot be so predicated is also ‘beyond-dialectic’ (Note the significance of the term dialectic which refers not merely to reasoning in a narrow sense, but to linguistic involvement in a broader sense). This interpretation may be challenged (as in the case of Jayatilleke 1963, 431) on the grounds that ‘takka’ in the early discourses is not dialectic but is logical reasoning, which was used by the professional debaters at the time of the Buddha in order to refute their opponents. The Buddha rejected the exclusive authority of reasoning in determining the truthfulness of a statement on the grounds that there can be a well-argued falsehood (see Sandaka-sutta, M I, 513-24) as in the case that there can be a logically-valid but unsound argument. Furthermore, what has


Asanga Tilakaratne

been described (in the Ariyapariyesana-sutta) as atakkāvacara, nirvana and the dependent nature of reality, involve much more than logical reasoning: they must be realised by following the ethical path laid down by the Buddha. Therefore, atakkāvacara does not necessarily refer to the so-called ‘beyond-dialectic’ nature of the Buddhist religious experience. Another term believed to have a closer affinity with the idea of ineffability is nippapañca (Sanskrit: niṣprapañca). Accordingly, papañca is sometimes translated as a concept or language. The negative form nipprapañca is therefore taken to refer to the non-conceptual character of the nirvanic experience. A well-argued presentation of this view is found in Bhikkhu Ñāṇānanda’s Concept and Reality (1971). Ñāṇānanda’s interpretation is based on the following statement occurring in the Madhupiṇḍika-sutta of Majjhima-nikāya in which the dependent origination of suffering is explained: Cakkhuṃ ca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ, tiṇṇṃ saṅgati phasso, phassa paccayā vedanā, yaṃ vedeti taṃ sañjānāti, yaṃ sañjānāti taṃ vitakketi, yaṃ vitakketi taṃ papañceti, yaṃ papañceti tatonidānaṃ purisaṃ papañcasaññāsaṅkhā samudācaranti atītānāgatapaccuppannesu cakkhuviññeyyesu rūpesu. Ñāṇānanda translates the passage as follows: Visual consciousness, brethren, arises because of eye and material shapes: the meeting of the three is sensory impingement; because of sensory impingement arises feeling; what one feels one perceives; what one perceives, one reasons about; what one reasons about, one proliferates conceptually, what one proliferates conceptually, due to those concepts characterised by the prolific tendency assail him in regards to material shapes cognisable by the eye ... (1971, 4) Here the pivotal term ‘papañca’ has been translated as ‘conceptual proliferation’, and this translation is sought to be supported by the idea that the passage traces the origin of suffering to the conscious activity of perception which includes three stages, namely, ‘perceives’ (sañjānāti), ‘reasons about’ (vitakketi) and ‘proliferates conceptually’ (papañceti)’. Based on Ñāṇānanda’s interpretation, the cause of suffering is the conceptual proliferation which an enlightened person would not engage in. Accordingly, Ñāṇānanda takes the achievement of the final goal as a result of the “gradual elimination of concepts” or “the deconceptualisation of the mind” (1971, 27) “by controlling its [ of papañca] gateways of ‘vitakka-vicāra”‘ [initial verbal dispositions] (1971, 29).

Ineffability in Buddhism


According to Ñāṇānanda’s interpretation, nirvana is a state in which the recipient would not permit any conceptual activity, for he has controlled the doors of sense perception which cause verbal dispositions and conceptual proliferation. This state may be described as ineffable in the sense that the said state is marked by the utter absence of any form of conceptual or linguistic activity. The validity of this conclusion largely depends on how one tends to interpret the state of the arahant or the nature of nirvanic experience. Since the arahants seem to live a normal life, Ñāṇānanda must show how an arahant would engage in any thinking or talking after his attainment. Also, he must show that the early Buddhist literature uses the term papañca as an umbrella term to cover all forms of conceptualisation, whether good, bad or neutral. So far, we have discussed the key passages in the Pali Canon which have been interpreted as supporting the ineffability of the nirvanic experience. The discussion shows that the interpretation of these crucial passages is by no means conclusive. The position we discussed at the beginning of this essay, namely, that ‘all religions have something transcendental as their ultimate goal’ implies that early Buddhist nirvana too is such a transcendental state. When the idea of transcendence is understood as transcending human experience and cognition, then what is transcendental becomes necessarily ineffable. This position must be supported by evidence, but the crucial evidence remains inconclusive. Due to the self-same inconclusiveness of the evidence, the opposite position, namely, that ‘early Buddhism rejects ineffability,’ too, cannot be established. Therefore, it is clear that we cannot conclude one way or another solely on the basis of the above-discussed instances. What could be a better alternative is to see how far we can build a consistent interpretation of the text as a whole. The way to do so is, first, to form a general theory about the nature of the Buddhist philosophy, and then to see whether the text could be read to suit such a theory. If the bulk of the text can be interpreted according to such a theory, we will be able to ignore the few instances, that cannot be so interpreted. Although the initial formation of such a theory is, ultimately, dependent on the reading of the text itself, the final result will be a compromise between the two. A theory of this nature would serve as the criterion in determining whether early Buddhism accepts an ineffable position in its experience, or not. If the text can be read consistently to render a ‘transcendental’ interpretation, it would help establish that early Bud-


Asanga Tilakaratne

dhism accepts the ineffability of nirvana. If it can be read to render an ‘empirical’ and ‘naturalist’ interpretation, it would help establish that early Buddhism rejects the ineffability of nirvanic decision depending on the degree of consistency and cogency of each interpretation. In this regard, it would be worthwhile to mention that the early Buddhist literature allows an ‘empiricist’ interpretation more than it would allow a transcendental one. The fact that early Buddhism emerged as a reaction to the brahmanic transcendentalism (belief in transcendental and ineffable ātman and Brahman) and the presence therein of a marked empirical tendency could be cited as supporting such an interpretation. This could be further supported by the fact that early Buddhism had adopted a ‘naturalist’ attitude to language which was marked by the belief that language is a convention of the world and that it must be used with caution (D I, 202). This statement underscores the belief that we can adopt a convention to talk about any of our experiences, nirvanic or otherwise. In a system where the existence of things is explained as causally conditioned (paṭiccasamuppanna), there cannot be room for an uncaused Transcendental. Therefore, it seems that there is ample room in early Buddhism for a non-transcendental, non-ineffable and ‘naturalist’ interpretation of a religious interpretation. This brings us closer to the belief that early Buddhism does not accept an ineffable position in its religious experience.

Ineffability in later Buddhism Although it is true that early Buddhism did not develop a theory of transcendentalism around nirvana, (or even around the Buddha for that matter), there is a sense in which nirvana was considered ‘transcendental’. The usage of the term lokanirodha as another expression for nirvana is a case in point. Here, the term is understood not in a literal sense to mean the cessation of the world, but in a figurative sense to mean the transcendence of the world. There are also instances where the arahant is described as ‘born in the world, living in the world, yet standing above the world’. The well-known lotus-like life simile of the arahant is understood in a similar sense. Nevertheless, this state cannot be described as transcendental in the regular sense for the early Buddhists did not consider this state to be beyond human cognition or language. The Pali term which came to be applied in the sense of beyond or transcending the world is lokuttara. It seems to be a coinage on the part of the Theravadins. Nevertheless, it is clear from Buddhaghosa’s account

Ineffability in Buddhism


of nirvana in the Visuddhimagga, (PTS, 506-9) that the Theravadins’ belief in the transcendence of nirvana did not require them to adopt a belief in ineffability. The reason may be that their idea of transcendence was not different from that of the early discourses. This situation seems to have undergone some considerable changes towards the time of the Mahayana proper. The focus gets shifted from nirvana to the absolute and transcendental nature of the Buddha and his teaching. The development of a form of transcendentalism around the personality of the Buddha can be seen in the Lalitavistara, which is believed to be a text belonging to Sarvāstivādins. However, the culmination of this trend is seen in works like Saddharmapuṇdarīka-sūtra, which “seems to arrive at the ultimately incorruptible and eternal and all-pervading concept of Buddha” (Kalupahana. o cit. 173). Along with the transcendental conception comes the idea that the Buddha transcends everything that is worldly including language. In some of these later traditions, there is a popular belief that the Buddha did not even speak one single word. The Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra contains the following discussion: Again, Mahāmati said: It is said by the Blessed One that from the night of the Enlightenment till the night of the Parinirvāna, the Tathāgata in the meantime has not uttered even a word, nor will ever utter; for not speaking is the Buddha’s speaking. According to what deeper sense is it that not-speaking is the Buddha’s speaking? The Blessed One replied: By reason of the two things of the deeper sense Mahāmati, this statement is made. What are the two things: they are the truth of self-realisation and eternally abiding reality. According to these two things of the deeper sense the statement is made by me. (Suzuki 1932, 123–24) In the course of further explanation, it is stated that “the realm of self-realisation is free from words and discriminations, having nothing to do with dualistic terminology” (ibid. 124), and that the eternally abiding reality needs no explanation for it is there, whether the Buddhas appear or not. The above explanation of the Buddha’s silence of the nature of the ultimate goal clearly shows how in the schools of Mahayana the difference between samsara and nirvana came to be understood: the former as dualistic, pluralistic and could be comprehended by language and the latter, as monistic, unitary and could not be comprehended by language. We cannot fail to notice the similarity of this situation with that of Hin-


Asanga Tilakaratne

duism where an undifferentiated unity between ātman and Brahman is upheld. In both systems, language has been understood as an obstacle which prevents us from gaining a direct insight into reality. Therefore, the language came to be described as saṃvṛti in the later schools of Buddhism. As BK Matilal (1986, 310) says “the idea is not that we are supposed to be aware of occasional linguistic snares while doing philosophy; rather our entire language is a snare or a colossal maze that ‘conceals’ reality completely.” A more philosophical statement of this new trend is seen in Candrakīrti’s Prasannapadā (Dharbhanga: The Mithila Institute. 1960, 159) where prapañca, which, according to the Theravada commentarial tradition, meant defilements in general, is taken to mean language. Once this interpretation became established, the Buddha came to be understood as ‘one who transcends language’ (prapañcopaśama). This development may well be understood as admitting into the Buddhist tradition a full-fledged theory of ineffability which was not available in early Buddhism. As a general philosophical claim, the validity of the thesis of ineffability has been questioned on logical grounds. It is argued that if something is truly ineffable, one cannot say anything about it, including that it is ineffable for saying so, too, is saying something of it. However, in the present context, we are not concerned with these logical aspects. What is significant in the present context is the fact that certain religionists claim that their experience is ineffable. This may well have been based on some misunderstanding of the nature of language, and, perhaps, even on a misunderstanding of the experience itself. Nevertheless, it is religiously significant that a particular experience has been characterised in that way. A positive conclusion emerging from this claim is the awareness of the limitations of knowledge based on language in bringing about the ultimate goal. All major religions are in agreement in holding that we have to go beyond such knowledge to achieve the ultimate goal. At least in the early Buddhist tradition the transcendence of language-based knowledge does not mean that nirvana is a state which cannot be described conceptually. What this appears to mean in the Buddhist tradition is that one has to achieve the goal by following the ethical path laid down by the Buddha, which requires both knowledge and practice. In certain Zen Buddhist traditions, what is called a ‘koan’ or aphorisms may be understood as serving a similar purpose, namely, to direct one’s mind to ‘insight’ (vipassanā) for which knowledge derived from language is only a necessary but not a sufficient condition.

Ineffability in Buddhism


Buddhist enlightenment In his first sermon to the world, the Buddha referred to his realisation in the following words: pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu cakkhuṃ udapādi, ñāṇaṃ udapādi, paññā udapādi, vijjā udapādi, āloko udapādi (S II, 8): ‘there arose eye, knowledge, wisdom, science and light with regard to the phenomena unheard of earlier.’ In this statement, the Buddha uses a series of cognitive terms to describe the vision he realised and the last term he used is ‘light.’ The Buddhist nirvana may well be described as ‘enlightenment’ in this particular sense, but not in its usual modern sense of being exclusively rational or intellectual. The teaching of the four noble truths focuses on the idea of dukkha (suffering). It describes the human predicament as characterised by suffering and goes on to explain that suffering is caused by ‘thirst’ (taṇhā) and related defilements (kilesa). The purification (visuddhi) marked by the eradication of these defilements is called nirvana (the cessation of suffering = dukkha nirodha), which constitutes the third noble truth whereas the fourth describes the path leading to the cessation of suffering. Along with ‘purification’ there is another term which is used widely in the texts to refer to nirvana, namely, ‘vimutti’ or liberation. It signifies the liberation from defilements. The basic four noble truth teaching makes it very clear that the ultimate stage of Buddhist religious life is the purification of mind and defilements or liberation of the mind from the fetters (entanglements or shackles). This purification or liberation has many stages. The wellknown four stages, namely, sotāpanna (stream-entrant), sakadāgāmi (once-returner), anāgāmi (non-returner) and arahanta (worthy-one), characterise the gradual process of purification or liberation. The texts elaborate the bonds (saññojana) as ten. They are personality belief, sceptical doubt, clinging to mere rules and rituals, sensuous craving, ill-will, craving for fine-material existence, craving for immaterial existence, conceit, restlessness and ignorance. The first five are called the lower fetters and the other five are the higher fetters. Of these, the first three are eradicated at the first stage of liberation; in the second stage the next two are softened; then these two are completely eradicated at the third stage; the last five are destroyed at the final stage and such a person is called an ‘arahant’, or one who has realised nirvana. It is quite natural in the teachings of the Buddha that there is a very deep and extensive analysis of the human mind for the ultimate aim, which is the purification of the mind. The Buddhist analysis of the defilements is very deep. It


Asanga Tilakaratne

talks about many aspects and characteristics of these defilements. Rune Johansson says the following about the Buddhist emphasis on human psychology: Anybody with a good knowledge of psychology and its history who reads the Pali nikāyas must be struck by the fact that the psychological terminology is richer in this than in any other ancient literature and that more space is devoted to psychological analyses and explanations in this than in any other religious literature. (Johansson 1969, 11) This emphasis in Buddhism makes sense in the context of the nature of the ultimate realisation as advocated in Buddhism, namely, nirvana or the consummate purity of mind. Characterising the happiness arising from the cessation of suffering, nirvana, has been described as the ‘highest happiness’ (parama sukha). Highlighting the purity arising from the cessation of the defilements, nirvana is often described in the texts as the extinction of lust, ill-will and delusion (rāga-khayo, dosa-khayo, moha-khayo). These three mental factors have been recognised in the Buddhist psychological analysis as representative of the defilements. All the other defilements are regarded as the species of these three. For the same reason, they are described as the ‘roots of unskilfulness’ (akusala-mūla). The arahant’s behaviour is described as one of kusala, for it is devoid of the defiling factors characterised by these three. The path to arahanthood has been elaborated in the discourses. Strikingly, there is no mysticism involved in the entire process. The Buddhist path to purification begins with morality (sīla) and goes through the stages of development of the moral qualities of mind, along with its concentration (samādhi) and finally culminates in wisdom (pañña). In the second (samādhi) stage, one starts cultivating one’s own mind. The key elements of this process are abandoning that which is called the five hindrances (nīrvaraṇa) and generating the advanced states of mind called the absorptions (jhāna). In the Jhanic states, one’s mind gets gradually directed to itself and the connection with the external world become lesser and lesser. However, these are not mystical states for they are characterised by a clarity of mind. For instance, the Sāmaññaphala-sutta of the Digha-nikāya, one of the authoritative discourses of the Canon, elaborates this stage of the process clearly and in a step-by-step process. Then he, equipped with Ariyan morality, with his Ariyan restraint of the senses, with his Ariyan contentment, finds a sol-

Ineffability in Buddhism


itary lodging at the root of a forest tree, in a mountain cave or gorge, a charnel-ground, a jungle-thicket, or in the open air on a heap of straw. Then, having eaten after his return from the almsround, he sits down cross-legged, holding his body erect, and concentrates on keeping mindfulness established before him. Abandoning worldly desires, he dwells with a mind freed from worldly desires, and his mind is purified of them. Abandoning ill-will and hatred ... and by compassionate love for the welfare of all the living beings, his mind is purified of ill-will and hatred. Abandoning sloth and torpor, perceiving light, mindful and clearly aware, his mind is purified of sloth and torpor. Abandoning worry-and-flurry ... and with an inwardly calmed mind his heart is purified of worry-and-flurry. Abandoning doubt, he dwells with doubt left behind, without uncertainty as to what things are wholesome, his mind is purified of doubt.... As long, Sire, as a monk does not perceive the disappearance of the five hindrances in himself, he feels as if in debt, in sickness, in bonds, in slavery, on a desert journey. But when he perceives the disappearance of the five hindrances in himself. It is as if he were freed from debt, from sickness, from bonds, from slavery, from the perils of the desert. And when he knows that these five hindrances have left him, gladness arises in him, from gladness comes delight, from the delight in his mind his body is tranquilled, with a tranquil body he feels joy, and with joy, his mind is concentrated. Being thus detached from sense desires, detached from unwholesome states, he enters and remains in the first jhāna, which is with thinking and pondering, born of detachment, filled with delight and joy. And with this delight and joy born of detachment, he so suffuses, drenches, fills and irradiates his body that there is no spot in his entire body that is untouched by his delight and joy born of detachment. ... Again, a monk, with subsiding of thinking and pondering, by gaining inner tranquillity and oneness of mind, enters and remains in the second jhāna which is without thinking and pondering, born of concentration, filled with delight and joy. And with this delight and joy born of concentration, he so suffuses his body that no spot remains untouched... Again, a monk, with the fading away of delight remains imper-


Asanga Tilakaratne

turbable, mindful and clearly aware, and experiences in himself that joy of which the noble ones say: “Happy is he who dwells with equanimity and mindfulness”, and he enters and remains in the third jhāna. And with this joy devoid of delight, he so suffuses his body that no spot remains untouched. Again, a monk, having given up pleasure and pain and with the disappearance of former gladness and sadness enters and remains in the fourth jhāna which is beyond pleasure and pain, and purified by equanimity and mindfulness. And he sits suffusing his body with that mental purity and clarification so that no part of his body is untouched by it. The aspects described in these passages cover the second samādhi stage in the process of purification. The jhānas referred to here are those belonging to the realm of form (rūpa), where existence is characterised by the presence of physical form. The Buddhist tradition also refers to four other stages of jhāna, which are called the formless (arūpa). They have not been elaborated in the Samaññaphala-sutta, perhaps because they are not essential for the purification of the mind. They have been described in many other discourses in the following manner: Through the total overcoming of the perception of matter, however, and through the vanishing of sense-reactions and the non-attention to the perceptions of variety, with the idea, ‘Boundless is space’, he reaches the Sphere of Boundless Space (ākasānañcāyatana) and abides therein. Through the total overcoming of the sphere of boundless space and with the idea ‘Boundless is Consciousness’, he reaches the Sphere of Boundless Consciousness (viññānañcāyatana) and abides therein. Through the total overcoming of Sphere of Boundless Consciousness and with the idea: ‘Nothing is here’, he reaches the Sphere of Nothingness (ākiñcañāyatana) and abides therein. Through the total overcoming of the Sphere of Nothingness, he reaches the sphere of Neither-Perception-nor-Non-perception (nevasaññānāsaññāyatana) and abides therein. This account of these finer states of jhāna shows that they result from the gradual isolation of the mind from the external world. Even in the fourth stage, the mind is not totally devoid of perception; but they are almost absent in it. These states cannot be described as mystical or transcendental for they are nothing other than what has been described.

Ineffability in Buddhism


The culmination of the trend of isolating the mind from perception is the attainment of cessation (nirodha samāpatti). Usually, this is described as the cessation of what is perceived and felt (saññāvedayita nirodha). A recent authority describes this attainment in the following manner: [A]ttainment of Extinction ... is the temporary suspension of all consciousness and mental activity, following immediately upon the semi-conscious state called ‘Sphere of Neither-Perception-nor-Non-perception. The absolutely necessary preconditions to its attainment are said to be the perfect mastery of all eight absorptions (jhāna), as well as the previous attainment of Anāgāmi or Arahatship ... With regard to the difference existing between the monk abiding in this state of extinction on the one hand and a dead person, on the other hand, M [ajjhima-nikāya] 44 says: In him who is dead. And whose life has come to an end, the bodily (In and Out-breathing) verbal (Thought Conception and Discursive Thinking) and mental functions have become suspended and come to a standstill, life is exhausted, the vital heat extinguished, the faculties ‘are destroyed’. Also in the monk who has reached ‘Extinction of Perception and Feeling’ (saññā-vedayitanirodha) the bodily, verbal and mental functions have been suspended and come to a standstill, but life is not exhausted, the vital heat not extinguished, and the faculties are not destroyed.1 As this description suggests, this is a temporary stopping of all sensory avenues including the mind. The resultant state is characterised by the complete cessation of any form of conscious existence. In this state, one is not much different from a lifeless piece of log and is characterised by total nothingness. Even in this state, there is nothing mystical because there is nothing either mystical or non-mystical. The final stage in the path to purification is ‘wisdom’ and it has three stages. The Sāmaññaphala-sutta describes these stages in the following manner: And he, with the mind concentrated, ... applies and directs his mind to the knowledge of previous existences. He remembers many previous existences: one birth, two, three, four, five births, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty births, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand births, several periods of contraction, of ex1  Buddhist Dictionary. Nyanatiloka, first published in Sri Lanka in 1946.


Asanga Tilakaratne

pansion, of both contraction and expansion, “there my name was so-and-so, my clan was so-and-so, my caste was so-and-so, my food was such-and-such, I experienced such-and-such pleasant and painful conditions, I lived for so long, having passed away from there, I arose there. There my name was so-and-so ... And having passed away from there, I arose here.” Thus, he remembers various past births, their conditions and details... And he, with mind concentrated, ... applies and directs his mind to the knowledge of the passing-away and arising of beings. With the divine eye, purified and surpassing that of humans, he sees beings passing away and arising: base and noble, well-favored and ill-favored, to happy and unhappy destinations as kamma directs them, and he knows: ‘These beings, on account of misconduct of body, speech or thought, or disparaging the Noble Ones, have the wrong view and will suffer the kammic fate of the wrong view. At the breaking-up of the body after death, they are reborn in a lower world, a bad destination, a state of suffering, hell. But these beings, on account of good conduct of body, speech or thought, of praising the Noble Ones, have right view and will reap the kammic reward of right view. At the breaking-up of the body after death, they are reborn in a good destination, a heavenly world.’ Thus, with the divine eye ... he sees beings passing away and re-arising... And he, with mind concentrated, purified and cleansed, unblemished, free from impurities, malleable, workable, established and having gained imperturbability, applies and directs his mind to the knowledge of the destruction of the corruptions. He knows as it really is: “This is suffering”, he knows as it really is: “This is the origin of suffering”, he knows as it really is: “This is the cessation of suffering”, he knows as it really is: “This is the path leading to the cessation of suffering.” And he knows as it really is: “These are the corruptions” “This is the origin of the corruptions”, “this is the cessation of the corruptions”, “this is the path leading to the cessation of the corruptions”. And through his knowing and seeing his mind is delivered from the corruption of sense desire, from the corruption of becoming, from the corruption of ignorance, and the knowledge arises in him: “This is deliverance”, and he knows: “Birth is finished, the holy life has been led, done is what had to be done, there is nothing further here”.

Ineffability in Buddhism


The actual occasion of becoming an arahant and realising nirvana occurs at the realisation of the knowledge of the destruction of the defilements. The un-mystical character of this stage of realisation is emphasised in the discourse through the following simile: Just as if, Sire, in the midst of the mountains there were a pond, clear as a polished mirror, where a man with good eyesight standing on the bank could see oyster-shells, gravel banks, and shoals of fish, on the move or stationary. And, he might think: “This pond is clear, ... there are oyster-shells, ... just so with mind concentrated, ... he knows: “Birth is finished, the holy life has been led, done is what had to be done, there is nothing further here. This ‘Sire’ is a fruit of the homeless life visible here and now...” This simile makes it very clear that the final stage of the process of purification is wholly un-mystical and does not refer to any transcendental phenomenon.

Conclusion The conclusion I draw from this is that nirvana is not a transcendental phenomenon which lies beyond human cognitive capacity. Nor does it indicate any transcendental reality similar to ātman/Brahman, which is the negation of reality that alone can allegedly be described by language, and therefore nirvana or the Buddhist enlightenment is not ineffable. In many religious traditions, we find that the ultimate religious experience or reality has been described as ineffable, mainly due to the fact that it has been described as transcendental. If something is beyond human comprehension and lies totally above human cognition, such a thing has to be ineffable in the sense that one cannot talk about something that one does not know. However, faced with the task of characterising their religious experience, many religious traditions have made inconsistent statements. On the one hand, they say that the ultimate religious reality is unknowable and ineffable. On the other hand, they say that it can only be known by extraordinary methods. If something can be known by whatever manner, it is difficult to contend then that it is going to be ineffable. The only consistent position to hold is total transcendence, total unknowability and total ineffability, but this position is not very helpful, either religiously or philosophically. It is important to note that the early Buddhist tradition has never held that nirvana is ineffable. None of the arahants who realised nirvana have claimed their experience to be ineffable either. As we saw in the


Asanga Tilakaratne

above discussion of the nirvanic path, the clarity of vision is the hallmark of the entire process. There is nothing mystical at any point of the process. Therefore, it is quite natural that such a religious tradition has not understood its ultimate religious experience to be ineffable.

25. Kulatissa Nanda Jayatilleke*

Jayatilleke, KN (1921 - 1970), besides being a professionally qualified teacher of philosophy, was one of the leading interpreters of Buddhism in modern times. He was himself a philosopher with a distinctive outlook shaped mainly by the teachings of early Buddhism and contemporary (British) empiricism, the key factors behind his intellectual development. KN Jayatilleke (KNJ) had his early education at Royal College, Colombo, one of the leading schools in Sri Lanka. He entered the Ceylon University College in 1939, where he read for an Honours degree in Indo-Aryan Studies and obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of London in 1943, being placed first in order of merit. Subsequently (1945-47), he followed the Moral Science Tripos course at the University of Cambridge and obtained his second first degree. He also obtained an Honours Degree in Philosophy at the University of London. It was during his stay at Cambridge that KNJ had the opportunity to attend Wittgenstein’s lectures for two years (1945-47), delivered in his private quarters at Whewell’s Court, Trinity College, Cambridge. Later, in 1961 he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy by the University of London for his thesis, which was later published under the title Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge (George Allen and Unwin Ltd., London, 1963). KNJ began his academic career as an Assistant Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Ceylon and reached the peak, where he was elevated to the position of Professor of Philosophy at the same University. KNJ was exposed to the Western intellectual tradition from the very * A version of this article was published in Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, Vol. VI: Fascicle 1. Colombo: Sri Lanka, 1996.


Asanga Tilakaratne

outset of his entry into higher education. The philosophical milieu in England during the 1940s and 1950s, which was marked by the rise of logical positivism, exercised a great influence on KNJ’s intellectual development. The logical positivist movement was started in Europe by a group of scientifically-minded philosophers called the ‘Vienna Circle.’ They maintained that science represented the paradigm of knowledge, and they held the scientific method in high esteem, which emphasised empirical evidence and verification of such evidence. This movement was highly influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ideas expressed in the Tractatus, although Wittgenstein himself was not a member of this group, nor did he have any direct association with it. By the 1940s when KNJ attended his lectures, Wittgenstein was revising the views he had held during the time that has now become known as ‘the early Wittgenstein,’ a stage of philosophical thinking, which has influenced the program of logical positivism. Nevertheless, this philosophical school with its antipathy towards metaphysics and an emphasis on verification was still very much in vogue. KNJ was highly influenced by this view of philosophy. He seems to have inherited his demand for verifiability in matters of religion and his dislike for metaphysics (with some reservations, in this case) from the logical positivists. The major evidence for the logical positivist influence in KNJ’s thinking can be seen in his book, Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge. KNJ’s major intellectual work is Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge (hereafter abbreviated as EBTK). The purpose of this monumental work was to establish that the foundation of the early Buddhist theory of knowledge is not rationalist as scholars had believed then, but empiricist. To establish this thesis, KNJ begins with a thorough study of the history of Indian thought up to the time of the Buddha and identifies three broader categories under which he could accommodate all schools of Indian religious and philosophical thought. The three categories are the ‘Traditionalists,’ the ‘Rationalists’ and the ‘experientialists’. Supporting his thesis that the Buddha was an experientialist, he made use of the Buddha’s admonition to the Kālāmas in which the Buddha asks them not to accept any proposition just because it is sought to be based upon ten grounds. Among these, six have been identified by KNJ as different forms of authority and the other four as pertaining to a rationalist approach. According to KNJ, by rejecting these two major means of knowledge accepted by many religious teachers of his day, the Buddha sought an alternative way which is the experientialist position.

Kulatissa Nanda Jayatilleke


The position that KNJ attributes to early Buddhism is not a denial of the other two traditions in toto. According to him, the authority of the Buddha and logical reasoning play an important role in the path of liberation advocated in early Buddhism. Nevertheless, their scope is limited; therefore, they fail to produce the ultimate religious experience aimed at in Buddhism. Even the method adopted in early Buddhism, namely, experience, has its limits. For example, early Buddhism on KNJ’s interpretation does not believe in a kind of omniscience, as accepted in the Jaina or any other religious traditions of the day. As far as the alleged omniscience of the Buddha is concerned, KNJ refers to the sutra evidence to show that the early Buddhist tradition did not attribute to the Buddha such knowledge. In other words, in the Buddhist view, there are limits to knowledge and furthermore, knowledge is only a means according to Buddhism. It is not concerned with knowledge for its own sake; knowledge (ñāṇa) is only a means to emancipation (vimutti). The analytical outlook, in KNJ ‘s view, is an outstanding feature of the thought in the Pali Canon. The tendency towards classification, definition and the delimitation of the meanings of the terms, encountered in the Pali Abhidhamma often owes much to this outlook. A major use of the analysis of linguistic concepts in the early Buddhist tradition via to eliminate certain metaphysical ideas, the concept of ātman being foremost amongst such ideas. After TRV Murti’s initial treatment (The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1955), it is KNJ who made a comprehensive philosophical discussion for the first time about the reasons behind the Buddha’s not answering the so-called avyākṛta (undetermined) questions. In his discussion, KNJ suggested that besides pragmatic reasons there must be philosophically valid arguments as to why they are left undetermined. Discussing the four questions on the after-death existence of the arahant, KNJ draws our attention to the Aggivacchagotta-sutta where the Buddha shows that the question ‘in which direction has the fire gone’ cannot be answered owing to the very misleading nature of the question, ‘in which direction has the fire gone.’ The Blue and Brown Books of Wittgenstein (1958. 108) uses the identical simile (‘where does the flame of a candle go when it’s blown out’) to highlight the error of the analogy involved here. Thus, in KNJ’s view, there is a close resemblance between the approaches adopted by the early Buddhists and the logical positivists in dealing with certain types of questions. The most significant distinction between these two systems, in


Asanga Tilakaratne

KNJ’s view, is apparent in their attitude about the concept of the transcendental religious reality. Both Buddhism and logical positivism, as KNJ had shown earlier (in the cases of the Buddha’s response to the questions regarding the after-death status of the arahant and Wittgenstein’s remarks to questions on where the light of a candle goes when it is extinguished), make similar critiques about questions founded on a mistaken logic of language. Nevertheless, according to KNJ, early Buddhism accepts the possibility of such a state (EBTK 475). KNJ outlines how early Buddhism differs from logical positivism in some important respects. This shows that KNJ was not concerned with a superficial search for similarities. He was a critical scholar who knew both philosophical traditions well. His appreciation of logical positivism seems to originate from his acceptance of empiricism as the more reliable means of knowledge and the method of analysis as the key tool in philosophy. He went along with logical positivism insofar as these two important methodological principles were concerned. However, it did not amount to his accepting the logical positivist ideology in toto, for he did not accept the logical positivist critique of ethica1 and spiritual propositions. As is clear from the writings of AJ Ayer and others, the logical positivist critique of religion was levelled mainly and solely against the God-centred religions of the West. However, this is not to say that Buddhism or any other religion may be spared from this critique altogether. Nevertheless, it may be argued that it does not amount to a fully-fledged critique of a religion like Buddhism in which some of the key metaphysical notions such as God and Soul are rejected. The history of religion in India shows that Buddhism rejected the two most important concepts in theistic religion (which is the religion in many cases) and yet continues to be ‘religious.’ It was due to this Buddhist stand that some of the contemporaries of the Buddha branded him a nihilist. This line of criticism results from the assumption that religion is impossible without God and Soul. Not only during the time of the Buddha but even today, the term ‘atheism’ carries the connotation of immorality and irreligiousness. Nevertheless, the Buddha rejected these two concepts and still maintained its survival and moral responsibility. In a sense, KNJ’s situation was similar: he maintained his logical positivist stand without rejecting the validity of propositions dealing with such matters as ethics, religion, spirituality and causality. KNJ’s analysis of the epistemology in early Buddhism constitutes a

Kulatissa Nanda Jayatilleke


significant part of his contribution to Buddhist and Indian philosophy, in particular, and to philosophy in general. KNJ’s analysis showed that the more recent trends in Western philosophy, particularly those of linguistic philosophy and the philosophy of language were not quite new to Indian philosophical thinking. The line of thinking initiated by KNJ has more comprehensively been carried out (with regard to Nyāya and other Indian Philosophical schools) by philosophers like Daniel Ingalls, Bimal K Matilal, JN Mohanty and DJ Kalupahana, to name a few: Another distinctive contribution made by KNJ to Buddhist Philosophy in particular, and philosophy in general, lies in his reinterpretation of Buddhist Social Philosophy on the epistemological grounds which he established in EBTK. KNJ was convinced that a viable social philosophy could be developed from the teachings of early Buddhism. From EBTK he showed convincingly that early Buddhism had epistemological tools necessary for this task. His next task was to show that a comprehensive social philosophy could be built on early Buddhist teachings. It is primarily with this task that KNJ occupied himself until his death at the age of 49. The two most significant landmarks in this direction are his Buddhism and the Race Question and his lectures in The Hague on international law and Buddhist vinaya. The former was written in collaboration with the late Professor GP Malalasekara and was published by UNESCO (1958). ln this monograph, the authors identify the major Buddhist arguments for the oneness of humanity, and thereby they provide us with the rationale behind the Buddhist disapproval of discrimination based on one’s skin colour, caste, race etc. The actual Buddhist criticism was levelled against the caste system prevalent in India at the time of the Buddha. KNJ (and Malalasekara) show that the caste system in India was very much similar in practice to discrimination based on skin colour experienced in the contemporary world. The Buddhist arguments aim at establishing the unity of humankind, which is the rationale for the rejection of discrimination based on colour. One of the key Buddhist arguments is based on the fact that humankind, unlike in the case of plant and animal life, constitutes one single species. The Buddha articulates this fact in the Vāseṭṭha-sutta of the Suttanipāta. Having outlined the argument, KNJ observes that “this view accords remarkably with the findings of modern biological science.” In addition to this, KNJ presents Buddhist arguments against caste and for the oneness of humanity based on anthropological, sociological, legal, moral, ethical and religious or spiritual considerations.


Asanga Tilakaratne

Having outlined these arguments, KNJ was keen on elaborating on the Buddhist way of solving similar problems. He did not stop at the usual point common to many on this kind of discussion, namely, addressing the need for changing one’s heart. One could argue that a philosopher need not worry about the social application or implementation of what he says. This would be quite true for a pure theoretician. However, for KNJ who wrote these words at a very early stage of his career as a philosopher, the practical aspect of what he said was equally important. This emphasis in his outlook may be understood as influenced by Buddhist Philosophy, which lays equal emphasis on theory and practice or knowledge and conduct. Towards the end of his relatively short life, KNJ was very much motivated towards the implementation of what he had said. As a result, he became an active participant of the opposition to the then existing government, which KNJ thought was not guided by a proper political philosophy. The Principles of International Law in Buddhist Doctrine (published in 1967 by AM Sijthoff, Leyden as a part of “Receueil des Course” Vol. II) is a major contribution by KNJ to what may be called a Buddhist Philosophy of Law or Buddhist Jurisprudence. In this series of lectures, KNJ reconstructs, through doctrinal and philosophical, historical and practical evidence from Buddhist Literature, a Buddhist Philosophy of law and tries to show that it is not merely an ideal but something that has been and could be put into practice. Through the arguments and assertions outlined by him, KNJ reinterprets the theoretical and practical aspects of Buddhism as constituting a quite valuable contribution towards building a more meaningful conception of law and international law. This effort too is based on the epistemological foundations KNJ had established in his magnum opus, EBTK. This also testifies to his life-long interest in interpreting the doctrine of the Buddha as providing the most solid and meaningful foundation for ideology in contemporary society. A good amount of KNJ’s work falls into the areas of comparative philosophy and comparative religion. Although KNJ did not discuss the methodological concerns of either of these fields of study, his writings remain text-book examples of studying philosophy and religion comparatively. The cardinal feature in KNJ’s comparative methodology is that he was not a mere seeker of similarities, nor was he of the opinion that comparative philosophy or religion must engage only in comparisons,

Kulatissa Nanda Jayatilleke


although this task was not excluded by him. Without being exclusivist or particularist, KNJ has shown that Buddhism, like any other system of religion, has its own unique message for humanity. A difficult point in KNJ’s analysis of early Buddhism is his interpretation of nirvana as ‘a state beyond space, time and causation (na paṭicca-samuppanna) and therefore strictly beyond description’ (Principles of International Law in Buddhist Doctrine, Ch. III). This is, in fact, the conclusion of his EBTK in which KNJ’s burden was to establish that early Buddhism is a form of empiricism. However, this difficult point in KNJ’s interpretation of Buddhism does not directly affect his overall assessment of the teachings of the Buddha. Nor does it affect the applicability of Buddhism to the problems of contemporary society, as envisaged by KNJ. In concluding the Buddha Jayanti lecture delivered in India in 1969, KNJ remarked: In my opinion, the philosophy of the Buddha presents a challenge to the modern mind and it should be a primary function and duty of modern philosophers to examine its solutions to basic questions. In the same manner, we may say that KNJ’s views on Buddhism present a challenge for the modern mind and that it should be a primary function of students of Buddhism to examine his interpretation of Buddhism and his version of applied Buddhism. Such an exercise will result in furthering the process of developing some viable solutions to the problems of contemporary society through the teachings of the Buddha.

Bibliography of KNJ’s works Some problems of translation and Interpretation in University of Ceylon Review Vol. VII & VIII (1949 & 1950). Positivism in Buddhism in Encyclopaedia of Buddhism (Volume of specimen articles) 1957. Buddhism and the Scientific Revolution in ‘Buddhism and Science.’ Buddhist Publication Society (BPS) Kandy, Sri Lanka, 1958. Buddhism and the Race Question (with G.P. Malalasekera) UNESCO, 1958. Buddhism and Peace, BPS, 1962 Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, George Allen and Unwin Ltd. London, 1963.


Asanga Tilakaratne

The Principles of International Law in Buddhist Doctrine (Extract from the “Recueil des Cours” Vol. II, 1967). Survival and Karma in Buddhist Perspective, BPS 1969 Facets of Buddhist Thought, BPS, 1971 Ethics in Buddhist Perspective, PS, 1972 The Contemporary Relevance of Buddhist Philosophy (1969, Buddhajayanti Lecture delivered in India), BPS, 1978 Avijjā in Buddhist Encyclopaedia. The Buddhist Conception of Truth in Knowledge & Conduct, BPS 1963. Aspects of Ethics in Early Buddhism and Bhagavadgita in UCR. The Logic of Four Alternatives in Philosophy East of West Vol. 17. I

26. KN Jayatilleke’s Interpretation of Nirvana Revisited*

Introduction When discussing the four ‘unanswered’ questions on the after-death existence of the liberated person, in his monumental work, Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge (EBTK), Professor KN Jayatilleke wrote: The Buddhist while saying that [it] is meaningless to ask whether one exists in (hoti), does not exist in (na hoti), is born in (upapajjati) is not born in (na upapajjati) in Nirvana, still speaks of such a transcendent state as realisable. The meaninglessness of these questions (avyākṛta) is thus partly due to the inadequacy of the concepts contained in them to refer to this state... The trans-empirical cannot be empirically described or understood but it can be realised and attained (476-7). This statement, which occurs in the very last paragraph of his book, is quite significant in understanding the nature and the limits of Jayatilleke’s empiricist interpretation of early Buddhism. In KN Jayatilleke’s multifaceted contribution to Buddhist scholarship, that which stands out is his interpretation of the early strata of Buddhism represented by the Pali Canon, as based on a kind of empiricism and agreeing in some very important respects with the analytical philosophical tradition of the west. A significant factor in KN Jayatilleke’s effort is that it was not motivated by the view that ‘everything modern has been anticipated by the ancient teachings of the Buddha.’ What seems to have happened in his case is that his research into the early dis* This is KN Jayatilleke Memorial Lecture, 1998, published by the KN Jayatilleke Memorial Organization and Postgraduate Institue of Pali and Buddhist Studies. Revised and edited for this collection.


Asanga Tilakaratne

courses brought him to the realisation that the procedure prescribed by the Buddha to his followers had the personal conviction and verification based on reason as the ultimate arbiter in the entire process. He found that this process had very striking affinities with logical positivism. KN Jayatilleke’s (KNJ) stand has been a subject of philosophical debate. By the time he published his EBTK in 1963, the logical positivist school was already losing its prestige in Western philosophy. While KNJ shared the logical positivist dislike for metaphysics, he saw that early Buddhism too rejected such metaphysical ideas as God and a soul. The criterion adopted by Buddhism was verification. The theory of verification as articulated by logical positivists had certain difficulties and finally, it was given up by its very proponents as an unsatisfactory criterion of truth. The very idea of truth came under fire finally, paving the way for a kind of relativism. When he published his book, it was very unlikely that he was not aware of these developments in Western philosophy. The very fact that, in EBTK, KNJ does not defend logical positivism against its criticism suggests that he did not think that it will affect his interpretation of Buddhism. In other words, although the Western philosophy went to a kind of relativism from positivism, there was no point for Buddhism to do so by rejecting the requirement of verification, which is a very crucial aspect in the early Buddhist path of purification. The key message in the well-known Kālāma-sutta is the need for knowing by oneself and by personal verification. Having described the insufficient grounds for belief, the Buddha states the following to the Kālāmas: Kālāmas, when you know for yourselves: These things are unprofitable, these things are blameworthy, these things are censured by the intelligent, these things, when performed and undertaken, conduce to loss and sorrow, then indeed ye reject them. Now, what think ye Kālāmas? When greed arises within a man does it arise to his profit or to his loss? To his loss, Sir. Now, Kālāmas, does not this man, thus become greedy, being overcome by greed and losing control of his mind, does he not kill a living creature, take what is not given, go after another’s wife, tell lies and lead another into such a state as that causes him loss and sorrow for a long time? He does Sir (Woodward 1979, Vol. I:172) (The same applies to the other two roots of evil, namely, aversion and delusion).

KN Jayatilleke’s Interpretation of Nirvana Revisited


This shows that the Buddha expected these things to be seen by any intelligent person for oneself (paccattam veditabbo viññūhi). Although the path may be taken as a hypothesis that should be tested against evidence, that does not mean that ones’ personal experience can disprove it. Craving, ill-will and delusion are bad for anyone who accepts the first two noble truths. It is a self-contradictory situation for one to believe, on the one hand, that craving causes suffering and, on the other hand, to argue that craving is not harmful. The underlying belief is that all human beings suffer and that all human beings who are sufficiently intelligent cannot fail to see this. This simply means that the kind of empiricism KNJ saw in Buddhism does not necessarily need to be identical with that of modern science. Despite the Buddhist empiricism advocated by KNJ, as evident from the quoted passage, it seems that he finally had to resort to a kind of transcendentalism in making the goal of Buddhism meaningful. One who is sceptical of KNJ’s empiricist interpretation could say that whatever his interpretation of the Buddhist theory of knowledge is, he finally came onto the right track by admitting that nirvana is a transcendent phenomenon. On the other hand, looking from a point of view of consistency, one could maintain that KNJ’s position on nirvana does not conform with his empirical approach. My own view, which I expressed in 1993 was like this. In Nirvana and Ineffability: A Study of the Buddhist Theory of Reality and Language, commenting on KNJ’s position in the passage (quoted above), I wrote: This is an interesting conclusion for a philosopher who is convinced that the early Buddhist foundation of knowledge is an experience. The question to be raised is: if the ‘ultimate reality’ according to early Buddhism is transcendent why did Buddhism adhere to empiricism which fails in the ultimate sense? However, assuming Jayatilleke’s characterization of Buddhist epistemology as empiricist in nature to be acceptable, we need to inquire whether the statements quoted above by him would lead to the conclusion that nirvana is a transcendent reality (1993, 77). In analysing the instances discussed by KNJ, I discovered that they do not necessarily need to interpret as indicating a transcendent state in a metaphysical sense. Nevertheless, I found that nirvana in early Buddhism is transcendent only in an ethical sense. In short, what I did in my own research is to suggest that the empirical track presented by KNJ need not exclude nirvana, but can equally be extended to the entire Buddhist path including the ultimate goal.


Asanga Tilakaratne

The Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, one of the most well-known interpreters of the Pali Buddhist tradition in the world today, in writing a review for my book (Buddhist Studies Review: 13, 2 (1996). London) finds my criticism of KNJ and the resultant picture of nirvana as a non-transcendent ethical ideal to be unsatisfactory. Bhikkhu Bodhi finds two main defects in my approach, which, in his own words, are as follows: (1) Textual studies are necessarily selective, but in this case, it is acutely narrow selection on the basis of which Tilakaratne attempts to validate his position that this reviewer finds problematic. If other texts had been examined we would have gained access to alternative exposures of the same process of emancipation, and several of these would be difficult to accommodate comfortably within a purely naturalistic interpretation of Nibbāna. I have in mind particularly the account of the ‘destruction of the taints’ described at M I, 435-7 (and elsewhere) as well as a handful of suttas on the unique meditative experience of the arahant (see A V, 7-10). These suttas suggest that Nibbāna is indeed a distinct object of knowledge on the basis of which the defilements are destroyed and to which the arahant has special access in an extraordinary sphere of contemplation that the unenlightened person can hardly think of without bafflement. (2) Another reservation - and it is a serious one - concerns Tilakaratne’s methodology. Not only does he narrowly limit his base of canonical texts, but he makes no references at all to the Pali commentaries. The commentaries, however, offer us a more detailed, microscopic picture of what actually takes place on the occasion of enlightenment, showing that the comprehension of the Four Noble Truths described so concisely in the Sāmaññaphala Sutta comes about when the cessation (Nibbāna) is penetrated as an object of the path consciousness. From the standpoint of the Pali commentaries, Nibbāna is neither the simple act of destroying the defilements nor the purified condition of mind that results from their destruction, but the undefiled reality, the deathless element (amatadhātu) in dependence on which the destruction of defilements comes about (see for example Vism. 508). The larger issue that arises from the comments by the Venerable monk is the problem of determining the nature of nirvana. However, before coming to this problem, I need to say something about the two issues raised by him regarding my methodology. If the texts discussed by

KN Jayatilleke’s Interpretation of Nirvana Revisited


me to prove my point are acutely selective, that was because it depended upon that context. I was responding to KNJ and I was confined to his selections. The second point, namely, my not consulting the commentaries is, in fact, the result of a methodological consideration. This is not to overlook or be insensitive to the valuable exegetical tradition contained in the Theravada commentaries, which has preserved a systematic and coherent way of understanding the Pali Canon. Nevertheless, it must be admitted while the exegetical tradition of the Pali commentaries had a history of about ten centuries before it developed its final shape in the 5th century in Sri Lanka. There are reasons to believe that this interpretative tradition began during the time of the Buddha himself, but what we have today is a tradition that evolved throughout centuries as the Theravada response to various doctrinal debates arose within the larger Buddhist tradition. In this sense, it is correct to say that the Pali commentaries represent how one tradition, namely, Theravada, understood and wished the posterity to understand what the Buddha had said. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of those venerable monks who upheld the tradition, but, nevertheless, the fact remains that it is not necessarily what the Buddha said. Therefore, what the commentaries say about nirvana should be understood against this background.

Three aspects of nirvana1 When discussing nirvana, it is useful to identify the various aspects of nirvana mentioned in the discourses. Overlooking this has led to many confusions both in the past and the present. It appears that the discourses mention about at least three identifiable aspects when referring to nirvana. One is the experiential aspect of nirvana, which is part of the daily life of one who has realised it. The person who has realised nirvana lives his life until he passes away attending to his or her normal activities. Although he moves around like any other person, his perception of reality is different from that of ordinary worldlings. An arahant is the real manifestation of the nirvanic experience. The second aspect of nirvana is the specific samādhi attainment by the arahant. These are occasions when an arahant enters samādhi, which has nirvana as the object. Bhikkhu Bodhi refers to such samādhi, which has been described in the Aṅguttara-nikāya (V:7-8, 318-26). The well-known instance of ānantarika samādhi too has been understood in this sense. This state of nirvana is not something that is experienced by arahants all the time, but it is a special aspect of the experience to which they have access. The 1  I am indebted to Professor Y Karunadasa for this insight.


Asanga Tilakaratne

third aspect is the state of nirvana after the parinibbāna (passing away) of the arahant. It is this aspect that has become the subject of numerous queries and discussions. In the Itivuttaka (39) there is a reference to two kinds of nirvana, namely, sopadisesa and anupadisesa. According to a remark, available in the gāthā section of the discourse, which seems to have been added as a basic statement attributed to the Buddha, the second category here is understood as referring to nirvana after the passing away of the arahant. The main part of the sutta itself, however, does not say anything to that effect. The distinction between the two, according to the information provided by this cryptic sutta, is that in the first, the arahant, due to the very presence of the five aggregates, undergoes pleasure and pain; in the second, all that is felt but not cherished becomes cool (sabbavedayitāni anabhinanditāni sītibhavissanti). In both instances, that which is referred to as nibbāna is the extinction of lust, hatred and delusion. Although, the discourses do not talk much about what happens to an arahant after passing away (except in rare occasions such as the venerable Godhika’s case when the Buddha remarked ‘appatiṭṭhitena ca bhikkhave viññāṇena godhiko kulaputto parinibbuto: S I, 122), and this aspect of the nirvanic experience has been a subject of intense debate. When discourses refer to nirvana they appear to refer to any one of these aspects. There is a methodological significance in identifying these different aspects of nirvana.

Commentarial debate over nirvana In the history of the Buddhist thought, it is quite clear that nirvana and the person who has realised it have been the subject of numerous queries and controversies. There are many discussions recorded in the discourses in which the subject matter is nirvana. It does not appear, however, that the immediate disciples of the Buddha were concerned about the ontological status of nirvana. Their queries were centred more around the nature of it and were motivated by the desire to realise it. However, the post-mortem existence of the arahant has been a more vexing question for some of the contemporaries of the Buddha. The last four of the well-known ‘unanswered questions,’ formulated in the catuṣkoṭi scheme, were regarding this matter. Two classic instances of these questions are in the Māluṅkyaputta-sutta and the Aggivacchagotta-sutta in the Majjhima-nikāya (no. 63 and 72). In both cases, the questioners appear to have been motivated by anxiety as to what will happen to their life once they attain nirvana and pass away. In Māluṅkayputta’s case, the Buddha would not even discuss the question; he rejected them by saying that

KN Jayatilleke’s Interpretation of Nirvana Revisited


they were not conducive for attaining the goal. In the latter’s case, the Buddha explained how and why these four questions are not pertinent. As evident from the Kathāvatthu, which the tradition holds as being compiled by the Venerable Moggalīputta Tissa at the third council to refute the views raised by the other Buddhist sects; the nature of the arahant had been a key matter in numerous inter-school controversies. There are 19 questions (to be exact) raised on the nature of the arahant to which the Venerable Moggalīputta Tissa provided the Theravada defence. The nature of nirvana or the post-mortem existence of the arahant as such does not seem to have received equal attention.2 The concern over the real existence of nirvana is something that can be clearly seen in the commentaries. As Bhikkhu Bodhi mentions: “from the standpoint of Pali commentaries, Nibbāna is neither the simple act of destroying the defilements nor the purified condition of mind that results from their destruction, but the undefiled reality, the deathless element (amatadhātu), in dependence on which the destruction of defilements comes about.” The commentary to the well-known U 80 makes the point very clear by the statement: ‘atthi bhikkhave’ ti paramatthato nibbānassa atthi-bhāvo pavedito ti veditabbo. (UdA 395) There is, monks: it must be known that (by this) the existing-ness of nirvana in the ultimate sense was said. It appears that the commentators felt very strongly that they should establish the ‘existing-ness of the nirvana in the ultimate sense’ (paramatthato nibbānassa atthi-bhāva). The Visuddhimagga has a substantial discussion on this point. The opponent’s argument is that nirvana does not exist for it cannot be perceived like the hare’s horn (natthi eva nibbānam sasavisānam viya anupalambhaniyato ti ce?). Buddhaghosa’s counter-argument runs as follows: That is not so, because it is apprehendable by the [right] means. For it is apprehendable [by some, namely, the Noble Ones] by the [right] means, in other words, by the way that is appropriate to it, [the way of virtue, concentration and understanding;] it is like the supramundane consciousness of others, [which is apprehendable only by certain of the Noble Ones] by means of knowledge of penetration of others’ minds. Therefore, it should not be said that it is non-existent because unapprehendable; for 2  There is only one question directly related to nirvana: Nibbānadhātu kusalāti? (19:6).


Asanga Tilakaratne

it should not be said that what the foolish ordinary man does not apprehend is unapprehendable. (Buddhaghosa 2010, 521) Venerable Buddhaghosa’s counter-argument that ‘something cannot be said to be non-existent simply because it is not apprehendable by the ordinary foolish people’ is a convincing one. However, as is clear from subsequent discussion, Buddhaghosa’s main concern is that if nirvana is taken as non-existent in an ultimate sense, then the path will become futile: asati hi nibbāne sammādiṭṭhipurejavāya sīladikhandhattayasangahāya sammāpaṭipattiyā vañjhabhāvo āpajjati: For, if nibbāna were non-existent then it would follow that the right way, which includes the threefold aggregates, beginning with Virtue and headed by right understanding would be futile. It is obvious that this possibility is a serious one for one who follows the path sincerely. If the ultimate goal is something unreal, then the entire religious life will be meaningless. Therefore, here too, Buddhaghosa’s concern is understandable. Nevertheless, the problem here is that the Theravada Buddhist tradition as represented by Buddhaghosa has thought that the reality or ‘existing-ness’ of nirvana must be in an ultimate sense as in the case of mind (citta), constituents of mind (cetasika) and matter (rūpa), although, he does not refer to these phenomena specifically in this context. The Itivuttaka commentary, Paramatthadīpani, makes it clear that the commentators thought of nirvana as another ‘dhamma,’ which was defined as bearing its own nature (sabhāva). In commenting on the term ‘nibbānadhatu,’ the commentator describes it as ‘…sabhāva-dhāranaṭṭhena ca dhātū-ti nibbānadhātu’ (ItA I, 164). The definition given to dhātu here is the same as the definition given to ‘dhamma’ (attano sabhāvam dhāretī’ti dhammo). The dhamma theory developed by these later Buddhists claims that what they identified as dhamma really does exist. Does this mean that these dhammas exist independently of their particular instances? For example, did they believe that mind can exist independently of the mind of an individual, like Forms or Ideas in Plato’s philosophy? It does not seem so for, although they held that these dhammas exist in an ultimate sense, they are subject to the three characteristics of existence, namely impermanence, suffering and no-soulness. However, the case with nirvana appears to be different, for it cannot be subject to the above three characteristics of existence. Buddhaghosa’s discussion of nirvana in the Visuddhimagga makes it clear that nirvana is not like matter (rūpa) etc. It suggests that nirvana alone can be called permanent for everything, which is constructed is

KN Jayatilleke’s Interpretation of Nirvana Revisited


impermanent. Buddhaghosa’s discussion in the Visuddhimagga on this specific aspect of nirvana runs as follows: And it is uncreated because it has no first beginning. (Q) Since it is, when the path is, then it is not uncreated? (A) That is not so, because it is not arousable by the path; it is only reachable, not arousable, by the path; that is why it is uncreated. It is because it is uncreated that it is free from ageing and death. It is because of the absence of its creation and its ageing and death it is permanent. (Q) Then it follows that Nibbāna, too, has the kind of permanence [claimed] of the atom and so on. (A) That is not so. Because of the absence of any cause [that brings about its arising]. (Q) Because Nibbāna has permanence, then, these [that is, the atom etc.,] are permanent as well? (A) That is not so. Because [in that proposition] the characteristic of [logical] cause does not arise, [in other words, to say that Nibbāna is permanent is not to assert a reason why atom, etc., should be permanent]. (Q) Then they are permanent because of the absence of their arising, as Nibbāna? (A) That is not so. Because the atom and so on have not been established as facts. The aforesaid logical reasoning proves that only this [that is, nibbāna] is permanent [precisely because it is uncreated]; and it is immaterial because it transcends the individual essence of matter. (Buddhaghosa 2010, 522) In this discussion, Buddhaghosa says that nibbāna cannot be aroused by the path, which means that it is not created by anything or it is not an effect of a cause, but can only be reached by the path. The assumption is that nibbāna is already there, for if it is not there already then one cannot reach it. This suggests that nibbāna is there as something uncreated. This way of thinking is influenced by a view that nibbāna is an entity, which exists as a transcendent realm and is not made real or produced by the path, but can be attained by practising the path. The realism, as believed by the commentators, gives a very special ontological status to nirvana. In the subsequent Abhidhamma litera-


Asanga Tilakaratne

ture, such as the Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha, nibbāna has been counted amongst the four paramattha dhammas, which include citta, cetasika and rūpa, which are not transcendental. The dhammas in Abhidhamma philosophy have an existence more real than ordinary conventional phenomena, for the former are based on sabhāva or one’s own nature. The ontological status of nibbāna is different or higher than that of the saṅkhata dhammas for they are, nevertheless, subject to impermanence etc. Nibbāna is radically different since it is the only dhamma that is not created and not constructed. In other words, in the opinion of the commentators, nibbāna is there forever making itself available for those who are worthy of attaining it. In reaching this conclusion, the commentators seem to have been guided by the language denotive of space as used in the discourses to refer to nirvana. A well-known example is U 80, which has been mentioned already. It starts with the following account: There is, monks, that sphere wherein neither earth nor water nor fire nor air; there is neither the sphere of infinite space nor of infinite consciousness nor of nothingness nor of the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception; where there is neither this world nor the world beyond nor both together; nor moon nor sun; this, I say, is free from coming and going, from duration and decay; there is no beginning no establishment, no result, no cause; this indeed is the end of suffering. It is generally understood that this account characterises nibbāna, but the account itself does not mention the word ‘nibbāna.’ According to the statement itself, it is an account of ‘the end of suffering.’ If we understand the reference of this statement as nibbāna, one could interpret it as characterising nibbāna as a transcendent reality, which has none of the characteristics of worldly existence including very subtle states of mind recognised as the ‘formless states of consciousness.’ However, on the other hand in the very same discourse, this ‘end of suffering’ has been described in psychological terms. The account is as follows: For him who is attached there is vacillation; for him who is not attached there is no vacillation. When there is no vacillation, there is calm; when there is calm, there is no delight; when there is no delight, there is no coming and going (i.e., continuous birth and death); when there is no coming and going, there is no disappearance and appearance; when there is no appearance and disappearance, there is nothing here nor there or between them; this indeed is the end of suffering.

KN Jayatilleke’s Interpretation of Nirvana Revisited


Now, here is a case in the very same discourse where ‘the end of suffering’ has been characterised, firstly, from spatial language and secondly, from psychological language. If we look at the first statement, it is essentially ambiguous and may be interpreted as referring to a transcendent reality or as a metaphorical use of language to refer to the transformation of mind that takes place when one realises the end of suffering. However, there is no such ambiguity with the second statement for it clearly uses familiar psychological language. In another statement that occurs in U 55, it is said that there is no shrinkage or overflow in nirvana (without any residue left), although many monks attain it. Now, this may be interpreted as suggesting that nirvana is some kind of place, but on the other hand, since there aren’t such spaces which are not affected by an increase or decrease of the population, then it could be interpreted as saying that nibbāna is not a place (meaning, a transcendent reality). In discussing Buddhaghosa’s use of the phrase ‘on coming to that’ (tam agamma), which occurs in his statement: “But because craving fades away and ceases on coming to that, it is therefore called ‘fading away and ‘cessation.’” Venerable Ñāṇamoli makes the following observation: “here, ... it is taken literally by the commentaries and forms an essential part of the ontological proof of the positive existence of nibbāna.” He further refers to the following passage in the Paramatthamañjuasā, the commentary to the Visuddhimagga: It is on coming to Nibbāna that greed etc. are destroyed. It is the same Nibbāna that is called ‘destruction of greed, destruction of hate, destruction of delusion.’ These are just three terms for Nibbāna. When this was said, he [the opponent] asked: You say on coming to (āgamma) it; from where have you got this ‘on coming to’? It is from the Suttas - Quote the sutta - ‘Thus ignorance and craving, on coming to that, are destroyed in that, are abolished in that, nor does anything anywhere ... (evaṃ avijjā ca taṇhā ca taṃ āgamma tamhi khīnaṃ tamhi bhaggaṃ na ca kinci kadāci ...). When this was said the other was silent. According to Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, ‘the quotation has not been traced’ (520). The discussions of this sort make it clear that the Theravada tradition understands nirvana as a transcendent reality, which exists independently to human beings. The main argument is that; it is necessary to postulate such an existence lest the path will become futile. This as-


Asanga Tilakaratne

sumption can be shown to be unnecessary from the Buddhist ethical path itself. For example, in developing kindness (karuṇā) or friendliness (mettā) it has not been considered necessary for those concepts existing independently of those who cultivate them. The Jhānas and the other meditative states too have not been treated differently. It is obvious that existence or reality has several different aspects. For example, tables and chairs exist independently of us. There are certain concepts such as ‘square-circle,’ which do not refer to anything for the very concept is self-contradictory. So, they cannot have any sort of reality. Such concepts as ‘golden mountain’ and ‘flying horse’ are possible but are known to not have existed. Kindness, friendliness, virtue etc., in the Buddhist view, are real but cannot have an existence independently of one who owns it. Although the Buddhist tradition has not thought that they exist positively and objectively, it has not been a problem to speak of them or prescribe people to cultivate them. In the like manner, if nirvana is understood as an ethical ideal, it is difficult to see why it is necessary for it to exist objectively, in order to realise it. Therefore, Venerable Buddhaghosa’s argument does not seem to be supported by early Buddhism. There are statements occurring in the discourses, which clearly show that nibbāna is the cessation of greed, aversion and delusion. Two discourses in the Saṃyutta-nikāya define nibbāna and arahanthood in identical terms, namely, as the ‘extinction of greed, aversion and delusion’ (rāgakkhaya, dosakkhaya, mohakkhaya ‘) (S IV, 251-2). In his discussion of nibbāana, venerable Buddhaghosa refers to the view that nibbāna is extinction (khaya), which is held by the opponent because of the above definition, and refers to the sutta which describes arahanthood in similar terms, and argues that if nibbāna is extinction according to the first sutta then arahanthood too, must be extinction according to the next sutta. His conclusion is that, since it is obvious that arahanthood is not extinction then the interpretation given to nirvana based on the first sutta is not acceptable. What becomes clear from Buddhaghosa’s analysis of nibbāna and his effort to characterise it in positive terms, is that he is trying to defend a position within the scholastic debate that took place during the history of Buddhism. His dislike for the term ‘khaya’ as a way of characterising nibbāna is that, in this debate, the Theravadins were in the positive block. This required them to maintain that nirvana is a ‘bhāva,’ something that really exists, as opposed to the view that it is an ‘abhāva,’ something that does not really exist.

KN Jayatilleke’s Interpretation of Nirvana Revisited


Bhāva and abhāva polarism from the point of view of early Buddhism Although the debate may have its own philosophical value, the whole process appears to be redundant as far as understanding the nature of nirvana is concerned. The Buddha has made it very clear that the origin of polar views may ultimately be traced to the deep-rooted ātmavāda or self-view. In the Kaccayanagotta-sutta, in describing what right view is, the Buddha refers to these two poles as ‘is-ness’ (atthitā) and ‘is-notness’ (natthitā) and says that right view entails not seeing the world from either of these points of view. The Buddha says: To him who perceives with right wisdom the uprising of the world as it has come to be, the notion of non-existence in the world does not occur. Kaccayana, to him who perceives with right wisdom the ceasing of the world as it has come to be, the notion of existence in the world does not occur. The world, for the most part, Kaccayana, is bound by approach, grasping and inclination. And he who does not follow that approach and grasping, that determination of mind, that inclination and disposition, who does not cling to or adhere to a view: ‘This is my self’, who thinks: ‘suffering that is subject to arising arises; suffering that is subject to ceasing ceases, ‘such a person does not doubt, is not perplexed. Herein, his knowledge is no other-dependent. Thus far, Kaccayana, there is right view. ‘Everything exists’ - this, Kaccayana, is one extreme. ‘Everything does not exist’ - this, Kaccayana, is the second extreme. Kaccayana, without approaching either extreme, the Tathāgata teaches you a doctrine by the middle, namely, dependent upon ignorance arise dispositions ... (Kalupahana 1986, 10) According to this very important discourse of the Buddha, the originality of which is attested by the fact that it is the only discourse that Nagarjuna refers to by name in his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, that right view is to perceive reality without the concept of self. When the concept of self is no longer, there one sees only the arising and cessation of suffering. In fact, the debate over whether nirvana really exists is to fall into the wrong view based on the belief in the soul (attavāda). The belief in the soul, as many discourses of the Buddha makes clear, produces two polar views of eternalism (sassatavāda) and annihilationism (ucchedavāda). The ‘is-ness’ and ‘is-not-ness’ referred to above, or the view that ‘everything exists’ (sabbaṃ atthi) or ‘nothing exists’ (sabbaṃ natthi), are


Asanga Tilakaratne

different manifestations of these two views. The age-old debate over the ontological status of nirvana can ultimately be traced to these two polar views. This is not to say that the Sautrāntikas who held that nirvana is an abhāva were materialists in its gross form. Their negative characterisation of nirvana may have arisen purely from a doctrinal interpretation. However, to fall into polarism of bhāva and abhāva is to accept the existence of something tantamount to ātma, for, either to be bhāva or abhāva, there must be some permanent entity. We find in Nagarjuna, who is popularly recognised as the founder of Mahayana, a defence for the early Buddhist position of nirvana against this sectarian debate. In his Mūlamadhayamakakārikā, Nagarjuna examines, from the point of view of the pratītyasamutpāda doctrine, the main themes of the teaching of the Buddha and shows that they cannot be understood as either bhāva or abhāva. In the chapter called ‘Nirvana Parīkṣā’ (examination of nirvana), he shows how the four positions, namely, existence, non-existence, both existence and non-existence and neither existence nor non-existence (bhāva, abhāva, bhāvābhāva, na bhāva nābhāva) are not applicable to nirvana. Against the characterisation of bhāva, Nājārjuna argues that nirvana is not bhāva for being a bhāva entails having the characteristics of decay and death (25:4), being conditioned (25:5) and being dependent (25:6). On the other hand, against the characterisation of abhāva, he argues that, since abhāva is relative to bhāva the former cannot exist without the latter (25:7), and that a thing which is abhāva cannot be independent whereas nirvana is. Nagarjuna concludes this part of the discussion with the following statement, which is the reaffirmation of that which the Buddha said in the Kaccayanagotta-sutta: Prahāṇaṃ cābravīc chāstā - bhavasya vibhavasya ca | Tasmān na bhāvo nābhāvo – nirvāṇam iti yujyate || The Teacher has said the relinquishing of becoming and non-becoming. Therefore, it is proper to take nirvana as neither existence nor non-existence [but transcending both]. (25:10) It is in this very same chapter that Nagarjuna’s well-known and often misinterpreted statement on the alleged identity between samsara and nirvana occurs. The main cause of the misinterpretation is that the statement is taken alone without the subsequent statement which explains the reason behind the claim. The two statements are as follows: Na saṃsārasya nirvāṇāt - kincid asti viśeṣanam | Na nirvāṇasya saṃsārād - kincid asti viśeṣanam ||

KN Jayatilleke’s Interpretation of Nirvana Revisited


Nirvāṇasya ca yā koṭiḥ – koṭiḥ saṃsaraṇasya ca | Na tayor antaraṃ kimcit – susūkṣmam api vidyate || Samsara does not have anything that distinguishes it from nirvana; nirvana does not have anything that distinguishes it from samsara. Whatever is the end of nirvana and the end of samsara, in between them a thing of even subtle nature is not evident. (25: 19-20) According to this explanation, nirvana and samsara cannot be distinguished from each other for there is no-thing, or, - in Nagarjunas’s more familiar language - no sva-bhāva that makes nirvana possible and samsara possible. A similar seemingly controversial statement about the similarity between the Tathāgata and the world is perhaps, clearer. It runs in the following manner: Tathāgato yat svabhāvaḥ - tat svabhāvam idam jagat | Tathāgato nissvabhāvaḥ - nissvabhāvam idam jagat || Whatever is the nature of the Tathāgata, this world is of that nature. The Tathāgata does not have an own-nature; (in the like manner) this world (too) does not have an own-nature. (22:16) In this statement, the Tathāgata and the jagat are similar by nature in the sense that both do not have an own-nature. In other words, the socalled transcendent (nirvana or the person who has realised it) and the immanent (samsara or the world) are similar to each other for neither possesses sva-bhāva. This sva-bhāva, which is attacked by Nagarjuna, is nothing other than the rationale for the dhamma theory adopted by the so-called Hinayana schools, including the Theravadins. As we saw in the above discussion by venerable Buddhaghosa, nirvana has been described in terms of its alleged sabhāva or own-nature. It is this subtle substantialism that has led to the positive ontology of nirvana. Bhāva and abhāva polarism is the result of ātmavāda, although this form of ātmavāda need not be as gross as the one believed by ordinary soul theorists. An arahant is a person who has transcended this polarism for he has seen reality as it is. It is interesting to note that an arahant has never been curious enough to speculate on the nature of nirvana, for there is no anxiety for him about what happens to him at the termination of his five skandhas. Arahants do not die, for in their mind, they have overcome it. It is equally interesting to note that an arahant has never raised the four avyākṛta questions regarding the after-death existence of the Tathāgata. The reason, again, is the same as above.


Asanga Tilakaratne

Interpretational ambiguity of the discourses A major difficulty in the early Buddhist studies of nirvana is that there are a number of discourses, which allow the interpretation of nirvana as a transcendent entity, which exists independently of human experience. Some instances such as the Udāna (55), and (80), Vacchagotta-sutta in the Majjhima-nikāya (72) and Upasīvapucchā in the Suttanipāta (v. 1075) have already been mentioned. The Theravada commentarial tradition has consistently interpreted these discourses as indicating the existence of nirvana with its own nature. As we have said earlier, this belief is so crucial to the tradition that the concern is, that without it, the entire ethical process of the Teaching will lose its significance. Nevertheless, there is a weighty tradition of modern interpretation represented by such well-known scholars as Johansson (1969, 55), Kalupahana (1976, 75) and Karunadasa (1992), who think that these crucial discourses and particularly Udāna 80, must be understood not as referring to a transcendent reality but as referring to psychological states. There are, however, many discourses that allow a different interpretation of nirvana. In addition to the two discourses mentioned above, which define both nirvana and arahanthood in identical psychological terms, there are many discourses that support a non-transcendent interpretation of nirvana. Just to mention a few: In a conversation with Rohitassa, a divine being, the Buddha makes the following statement: ‘Verily, I declare to you, my friend, that within this very body, mortal as it is and only a fathom high, but conscious and endowed with mind, is the world, and the waxing thereof and the waning thereof and the way that leads to the passing away thereof.3 The Buddha’s statement which affirms that the entire religious process of Buddhism including the path and the ultimate fruit is within the human being comes as a response to the following question put to him by Rohitassa: “Sir, can the end of the world where one is not born, not decayed, not dead, not departs, not arrived be known, seen or reached by walking?” The language of this question (e.g. yattha) indicates that the questioner had the impression that nirvana is some state or location outside the human mind, and the question itself is specifically about nirvana. Now, the answer given by the Buddha can be understood as a total rejection of that type of characterisation of the ultimate goal. 3  api khvāham āvuso imasmiññeva vyāmamatte kalebare saññimhi samanake lokam ca paññāpemi lokasamudaṃ ca lokanirodhaṃ ca lokanirodhagāmaniṃ ca paṭipadam. S I, 62, See also A I, 49-50.

KN Jayatilleke’s Interpretation of Nirvana Revisited


According to the Kevaḍḍha-sutta in the Dīgha-nikāya, the following question was asked of the Buddha: Sir, where do these four great elements, namely, the element of earth, water, heat and air cease without remainder? – kattha nu kho bhante ime cattaro mahābhūtā aparisesā nirujjhanti, seyyathīdaṃ paṭhavi-dhātu āpo-dhātu tejo-dhātu vāyo-dhātuti. The Buddha replies that the question must not be asked in that manner and corrects it in the following manner: Kattha apo ca paṭhavi - tejo vāyo na gādhati, Kattha dīghaṃ ca rassaṃ ca – anuṃ thūlam subhāsubhaṃ Kattha nāmaṃ ca rūpaṃ ca – asesaṃ uprujjhati. Where do earth, water, fire and air no footing find? Where the long and short, small and great, fair and foul where are nameand-form wholly destroyed? The answer given is the following: Viññāṇam anidassanaṃ - anantaṃ sabbatopabhaṃ Ettha āpo ca paṭhavi - tejo vāyo na gādhati Ettha dīghaṃ ca rassaṃ ca – aṇuṃ thūlamṃ subhāsubhaṃ Ettha nāmaṃ ca rūpaṃ ca – asesaṃ uprujjhati Viññānassa nirodhena - etthetam uparujjhati ‘The consciousness which is signless, boundless and can be entered from all directions That is where earth, water, fire and air find no footing, There both long and short, small and great, fair and foul Their name and form are wholly destroyed With the cessation of consciousness, this is all destroyed.’ (D I, 223) According to the commentary, the reason the Buddha corrected the question is that the question was asked covering everything, including even the non-derived phenomena (anupadinnaka), whereas the question should have covered only the derived phenomena (upadinnaka).4 However, judging by the change made in the question by the Buddha, it is difficult to accept the commentator’s view. Instead of the remark, ‘where ... cease without remainder’ [the Buddha proposed ‘where ... finds no footing.’ The idea is that the four basic elements do not get destroyed in nirvana but they do not find a footing there. Nevertheless, the 4  padesenesa pañho pucchitabbo, ayañca kho bhikkhu anupādinnakepi gahetvā nippadesato pucchati. (DA II, 392)


Asanga Tilakaratne

response makes it clear that the nāma and rūpa do get destroyed there without remainder. The answer by the Buddha starts with a reference to what is called anidassana viññāṇa which, the commentary says, refers to nirvana in the sense that it is to be known. This viññāṇa is further qualified as boundless (ananta) and as that which can be entered by all directions (sabbatopabha). Although ‘pabha’ in ‘sabbatopabha,’ according to the commentary, is derived from ‘papa,’ the term as ‘pabha’ could also mean ‘all luminous.’ We should admit that these terms, anidassana, ananta and sabbatopabha (in the sense of being luminous) can also be taken as indicating a transcendent reality. However, since the response ends with a reference to the cessation of consciousness, which could mean the cessation of the consciousness characterised by nirvana, the overall meaning of the Kevaḍḍha-sutta explanation of nirvana appears to be non-transcendent. A larger number of discourses present nirvana either as the cessation of suffering, or purification or liberation of mind from the defilements. Nevertheless, as we discovered in the above discussion, there are a considerable number of discourses which could be interpreted either way. This interpretational ambiguity is a problem we should face directly and honestly when interpreting early Buddhism. My personal view is that any effort to interpret the text in any exclusive manner is bound to fail. It is particularly so regarding the problem of nirvana. Therefore, what seems to be the more acceptable procedure is to develop a picture of nirvana, which coheres with the larger majority of the statements attributed to the Buddha, and deal with the ‘problematic’ statements based on how far they can be agreeable or otherwise with the broader picture. This procedure goes well with the method advocated by the Buddha with the four great indicators (mahāpadesa: D II, 124-26).

Conclusion KN Jayatilleke’s interpretation of Buddhist philosophy has been criticised as one that lays undue emphasis on what he thought to be its similarities with science and logical positivism. In fairness to KNJ, it must be said that the kind of empiricism he noted as the foundation of Buddhist epistemology had some crucial differences to scientific empiricism. By accepting a form of empiricism, KNJ was not subscribing to a scientific method necessarily. The very idea of the scientific method as denoting one unique procedure has long been abandoned. In his The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1972), Karl Popper showed that the picture, the scien-

KN Jayatilleke’s Interpretation of Nirvana Revisited


tific method hitherto accepted, namely, the induction, was not actually what was followed in science. He showed that it is a hypothetic-deductive method. This Popperian picture too has been drastically changed by the more contemporary philosophers of science, but that story need not be retold here. What needs to be said in brief is that accepting a form of empiricism does in no way entail accepting the empirical method followed in science. KNJ appreciated the kind of openness advocated in the Kālāma-sutta; he found the early Buddhist emphasis on verifying the truth by one’s own self attractive. At the same time, he knew that what is stated by ‘sayaṃ abhiññā sacchikatvā’ goes a long way from the ordinary sensory experience. In scientific practice, what you assume as a working hypothesis may be given up for a better one. In the same manner, the conclusions accepted as final at a given moment may be later rejected and revised. However, in the Buddhist religious practice, the procedure is different. With the acceptance of the first two noble truths, namely, that life is suffering and that suffering is caused by craving and other defilements, the other two truths automatically follow. Although it has not been stated in that manner, it is self-contradictory to accept that life is suffering and to reject the consequent propositions. There may be instances of people who are not admitting at all that there is suffering or that it is caused by the defilements. In such cases, that individual’s experience does not invalidate the basic scheme of Buddhism. Therefore, the Buddhist response would be to say: ‘let him take time to be mature and come to that understanding.’ In other words, the four noble truths in Buddhism is the tested truth by the Buddha and by many thousands of others, who are following the Buddha. It is a matter of repeating the experiment and receiving the same result. If one does not receive the identical result, then one should see where one has gone wrong but not what is wrong with the scheme. One could argue that, if this is the case, why does one need verification and seeing by one’s own self etc., but couldn’t just one accept what the Buddha had said and follow him? The answer is that the practice guided by mere blind faith cannot generate the desired result, namely, paññā. Therefore, it is necessary that personal conviction should precede the practice. What I find problematic with KNJ, therefore, is not his basic insight into Buddhist epistemology but rather, his not seeing that the ultimate goal too has to be in consonant with that methodology. According to KNJ, “the transempirical cannot be empirically described or understood


Asanga Tilakaratne

but ... can be realised and attained.” Despite his own interpretation of Buddhist epistemology, KNJ seems to have accepted the traditional interpretation of nirvana which posits it as the ultimate reality, which is transcendent: As we saw in the earlier discussion, the ultimate goal, according to discourses, is something to be known, seen and attained (ñāteyyam daṭṭheyyam patteyyam), and all these three terms indicate the emancipatory knowledge, which cannot be separated from the goal. The well-known expression: paññāya cassa disvā āsavā parikkhīṇā honti’ testifies to the fact that it is impossible for one to see the defilements through wisdom but still not get rid of them. What is called ‘nibbāna’ in early Buddhism, probably, is the resultant purity of mind and the experience of reality through that purified mind. This is precisely why the arhants attain ‘parinibbāna’ while still living. To call this a trans-empirical reality that cannot be empirically described or understood is, on KNJ’s part, to concede to the tradition totally and to subscribe to the transcendent interpretation of ultimate reality, which is universally seen by all other religions. In commenting on the line of thinking and interpretation I followed in my work, Nirvana and Ineffability, Bhikkhu Bodhi observes: However, it is questionable that the distinctiveness of Buddhism can be successfully preserved by arguing against a transcendental dimension at its core and seeking to assimilate its teachings to Anglo-American empiricism and positivism. While such a rational version of the Dhamma may seem impressive within the scientific, skeptical climate of our age, in the end it may leave us with something that amounts to little more than a system of ethical culture and mental training based on an especially insightful psychology. (175) I must say that I fully sympathise with the apprehension Bhikkhu Bodhi conveys on efforts to assimilate the teaching of the Buddha to modern thought. However, at the same time, we must admit that there is a larger methodological question regarding comparative philosophical studies. This is not only regarding Buddhist studies but also regarding Indian philosophical studies in general. The recent studies in Indian philosophy, particularly in logic and philosophy of language, by such eminent scholars as Bimal K Matilal5 have shown that Indians had already thought about some of the questions that Western philosophy came to pay attention to only at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of 5  See, for instance, (Matilal 1985) and other works.

KN Jayatilleke’s Interpretation of Nirvana Revisited


the 20th century. Now, hardly anyone would say that Matilal was motivated by a populist mentality of affirming intellectual supremacy of ancient India over the Anglo-American world. If these things have been thought out before, then there should not be a problem of acknowledging it in public. What, I think, needs to be guarded against is the urge to keep on changing the interpretation of Buddhism to suit the ever-happening changes in modern thought. Verification, which was one of the key concepts of logical positivism, for instance, has been dropped by contemporary analytical philosophers. Nevertheless, I do not think that KNJ would have proposed to follow suit and drop it from the early Buddhist theory of knowledge, were he to live to revise his philosophical thinking. The other remark made by the venerable monk, which is that my kind of interpretation of Buddhism would leave us with something that amounts to little more than a system of ethical culture and mental training is puzzling to me, for, in my understanding, Buddhism is precisely that, namely, a system of ethical culture and mental training, in the highest sense, of course. Nirvana in Buddhism is the highest wholesome (kusala) state and the arahant is one who has realised this highest goodness. This goodness is the highest, for, once realised, one never turns back or falls from it. The fascinating characteristic in early Buddhist thought is that it shows that there can be mental training and an ethical system without having a transcendent reality to make them meaningful. This can be regarded as the factor which makes Buddhism unique amongst the other religions, theistic and non-theistic. Thus, the popular concept of immortality (amṛta) or everlasting life, understood as the life of enjoyment without having to die, has a different meaning in Buddhism. Therefore, nirvana is not a reality in which one has some sort of everlasting existence but the quality of experience of one who sees things as they truly are.

27. The Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation: A Socio-Historical Approach* Book Review Nalin Swaris. Author Publication. Colombo 1999 ( xii+442)

When introducing The Buddha’s Way to Human liberation, Professor Y Karunadasa wrote: Dr Nalin Swaris’s work is a truly original contribution to Buddhist studies which no serious student of Buddhism could ignore. Its merit as an original contribution is to be seen not only in evolving a coherent thesis on the original teachings of the Buddha as a way to human liberation but also in debunking many a misinterpretation of Buddhist teachings which has gained currency since the academic study of Buddhism began at the turn of the 19th century. It is difficult to bypass Y Karunadasa’s statement. This essay is as a result of conceding to this difficulty. The Buddha’s way to human liberation, beginning from its inception in the 6th century bce in India, has been trodden by many hundred thousands of people, from all over the world, who were interested in making an end to their suffering. A large number of commentators, scholars and writers, both modern and ancient, too, have done the same thing, although in different manners and for different purposes. An academic study of religion may not necessarily be motivated by religious reasons. Nevertheless, Buddhists have a tradition which goes to the very early period of its arrival in Sri Lanka, which holds that without studies and an analysis of the teachings (pariyatti), any meaningful practice (paṭipatti) of it is not possible. There has never been any doubt about the necessity of practice. The debate has always been on the status of * An initial version of this article was published in Dialogue (NS) Vol. XXVII 2000, Colombo.

The Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation…


the precept. This debate has been very much a part of all Buddhist traditions. In Sri Lanka, this was debated by the early monks of the 1st century bce, who committed the word of the Buddha to writing, perhaps, for the first time in its history. The decision came, it is said, in favour of those who advocated study and according to some critics, this marks a major shift in Buddhism in this country. These age-old debates, at least in their ancient form, however, have little relevance for today. At the beginning of the 21st century, today, Buddhism is obviously no longer the same old traditional religion. Nor is the Buddhist practitioner the same traditional villager in South or South-East Asia. Many contemporary Buddhist practitioners are not born Buddhists; nor are they Buddhists in any other legal or traditional sense. Buddhist studies, too, are no longer the monolithic textual studies that they used to be for centuries. The word of the Buddha is viewed from many different angles and viewpoints. The techniques of literary criticism and philosophical analysis that have been developed by contemporary scholars have changed the nature of Buddhist studies. As a result, naturally, there are new approaches and new challenges vis-à-vis, which the students of Buddhism are continuously called upon to make their own position and location clear. Contemporary debates on Buddhism are conducted on different grounds on different matters. The standard feature of most of them is that precept is being debated and discussed, whereas practice is set aside as irrelevant or embarrassing. In a rare case, one finds precept being debated to find meaning in the practice. I made these remarks by way of introducing Nalin Swaris’s book, which engages precept to find meaning in practice. It challenges the existing Buddhist scholarship in more than one way and forces Buddhist scholars to view and clarify their own position on the face of its new reading of the message of the Buddha. I see three quite outstanding characteristics in Swaris’s analysis of Buddhism. They are: (i) the complex and challenging methodology; (ii) radically new interpretation; and (iii) the comparative outlook. As a preface to the comments that I will be making along with these three areas, I need to introduce the subject matter and the structure of the thick volume that Swaris has produced. The Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation (with 452 pages printed in the 10-point letter) is a voluminous work by any standard. It has 19 chapters in addition to a detailed introduction and conclusion. These chapters have been organised under three parts. The first part is called ‘preliminaries’ and begins with an introduction, which deals with the content and


Asanga Tilakaratne

the method. Chapter 1: ‘The Buddha Dhamma: a this-worldly vision’ reveals how the academic discipline of Buddhism has been constructed by the scholars of the West following some of their own key religious and metaphysical assumptions. Chapter 2: ‘The noontide and twilight of Western metaphysics’ discusses the Western intellectual heritage starting from medieval times with its Aristotelian origins and covers such key figures as Bacon, Descartes, Kant, Marx and Nietzsche. The discussion ends with a fairly comprehensive study of Freud. The content of chapter 3 is given in its title itself: ‘The post-structuralist and feminist revolt against metaphysics and transcendentalism.’ The figures discussed are Lacan and Foucault. The 4th chapter: ‘Sociological premises’ is a discussion of the sociological model and some theoretical concepts used to understand the dynamics of social change in Northern India from around the 8th century bce to the period in which Siddhattha Gotama lived. The second part is called ‘Context’ and is devoted to discussing the socio-political and religio-philosophical background of Buddhism. Chapters 5-7 deal respectively with ‘The majjhimadesa; matrix of a new society’, ‘The monarchical states’, and ‘Tribes, kingdoms and tribal federations.’ The author draws comprehensively from authors like Dharmananda Kosambi and Romila Thapar. Chapters 8-11 reconstruct the religious and philosophical environment prior to and during the time of the Buddha under the following respective headings: ‘Brahmin theory and practice’; ‘Private salvation-seeking (I)’; ‘The mystical and metaphysical way’; ‘Private salvation seeking (II) the way of heat- tapas’; and ‘Wandering mendicant teachers: a new social movement.’ Part III is called ‘The way’ and deals with the philosophy, religion and the culture of Buddhism. Chapters 12 through 14 discuss the basic philosophical assumptions from the thought of the Buddha, namely, conditioned co-genesis which encapsulates the great awakening of the Buddha, anatta which the author describes as the ‘deconstruction of things, concepts and words, and kamma, which is ‘the creative life-force of kamma beings.’ Chapter 15 is titled ‘the sociogenesis of identity consciousness’ and bases the discussion on a re-reading of the Aggañña-sutta of the Dīgha-nikāya, which Swaris describes as ‘a genealogical explanation of social institutions and personal identities.’ Chapter 16 is on ‘The morphology of suffering and its sources’ and discusses some key Buddhist concepts such as ‘dukkha’, ‘taṇhā’ and ‘upādāna’. Chapter 17 discusses what nibbāna is and concludes that it is not a negation but an affirmation of life. Chapter 18 is on the Sangha, which the author un-

The Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation…


derstands in a broader manner to include all four groups of the disciples of the Buddha (namely, bhikkhu, bhikkhunī, upāsaka and upāsikā). The last chapter is devoted to discussing the magga, which is ‘the Buddha’s way to human liberation.’ The conclusion which borrows its title ‘The nomads of the present’ from Alberto Melucci, summarises the overall message of the book, the philosophy of freedom, by effectively using the metaphor of being a nomad (An explanation of key terms and a comprehensive bibliography have been profitably added at the end). As the foregoing should suggest, the Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation deals with many social, historical, philosophical and religious issues both general to Western and non-Western traditions and in particular, to Buddhism. Taken as it is, the subject matter itself of the book is not something terribly new. Starting from Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification), an innumerable number of books have been written on the subject. The socio-historical approach itself that Swaris has adopted in his book is not something unused in the analysis of the teachings of the Buddha. Authors, such as Dhammananda Kosambi, Bala Gangadhar Tilak, Lal Mani Joshi, Trevor Ling and Romila Thapar, whom the author refers to and agrees with, and Richard Gombrich, Steven Collins and many others who the author does not refer to are some notable examples. Nevertheless, it is, perhaps, right to say that this approach has not been used in such a comprehensive manner by anyone before. In addition to this, what makes Swaris’ work interesting is his use of post-structuralist insights, techniques and tools in interpreting the teachings of the Buddha. Some of the conclusions he draws upon are equally exciting, interesting and capable of raising quite a few eyebrows. In the remainder of this review, let me try to articulate some of these points, which I think no serious student of Buddhism can overlook. In reading Swaris, one cannot miss his sympathies to post-structuralism, post-modernism and post-feminism. When describing how he came to adopt this kind of methodology and approach, Swaris offers the following autobiographical explanation: It is not my intention to present an exhaustive survey of ‘Western thought’ in this section. It is rather an autobiographical narrative. I began with my early intellectual formation in Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics and then go on to discuss the ideas of Western thinkers who influenced me to re-examine the fixed positions of Aristo-Thomism. The moral protest of the Biblical prophets and of Jesus Christ against social injustice led me to


Asanga Tilakaratne

Karl Marx - ‘the last of the Jewish prophets.’ The Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and ‘the killing fields of Cambodia’ led me to question the dogmatism and the teleological assumptions of Communism and to revisit thinkers whom I had viewed with suspicion as ‘bourgeois.’ It is at this point of my intellectual development that I began to read Pali scripture. The Buddha’s core doctrines presented few problems. Soon I began to realize that they were filling in gaps in the thinking of non-metaphysical philosophers. Post-structuralist thinkers seemed to have arrived at positions taken by the Buddha and the first Buddhists long before ‘the Christian Era’ was constructed. (39) For not this chapter alone, but the entire book can be considered a ‘spiritual’ journey of a person who was initially trained in Christian theology and had spent his formative years as a Roman Catholic priest, and subsequently found his way through Marxism, psychoanalysis, post-modernism, post-structuralism to Buddhism (The present publication is substantially based on his doctoral dissertation to the State University of Utrecht, Netherlands 1997). Swaris’s methodology is a combination of several approaches. As the sub-title to his book states, it is ‘a socio-historical approach.’ In so far, he tries to understand the teaching of the Buddha in its socio-historical setting drawing inspiration from a Marxist understanding of history while not accepting the determinism associated with it; Swaris’s study is diachronic. In rejecting the synchronic approach characteristic of Straussian structuralism, which holds the unconscious as fixed and beyond history, Swaris’s approach is post-structuralist. Being a typical post-structuralist (most poststructuralists are so described not by themselves but by others!), Swaris hates being labelled as a follower of any particular methodology or ideology. He provides us with the following explanation: The social-historical method requires at least a working knowledge of the findings of social scientists and historians. My approach has been ‘cross-disciplinary’ rather than ‘inter-disciplinary.’ This refers to a transformation of terms in the Derridian sense of ‘crossing out,’ ‘a putting under erasure.’ The old term (here ‘discipline’) is not obliterated but liberated from its confinement to a single signification... A ‘discipline’ disciplines. It subjects the free movement of thought to a ‘regime of truth’ by determining the rules and procedures. For producing ‘legitimate’ knowledge about fixed area of human experience. A wholly arbi-

The Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation…


trary ‘fixation’ because outside the thinking head actuality retains its autonomy as process and movement. I conclude this study with a plea for ‘nomadic’ action for freedom. This presupposes nomadic or cross disciplinary thinking. The nomadic thinker freely traverses through and between, trespassing the territorial sovereignty of ‘subjects’ of knowledge. ( 24. emphasis added) We cannot miss the Derridian overtones in what Swaris says here. Derrida’s own writings - both the content and the manner of presentation – are aimed at rejecting that which may be called ‘methodological essentialism.’ Post-structuralist movement is understood as an open and bold rejection of a sovereign subject and the notion of essence, the ideas which constitute the Judeo-Christian, Aristo-Thomian and Cartesian heritage of Western thought. It is because of this historical legacy that the demand for ‘clear and distinct ideas’ and the urge for foundationalism in knowledge became the very core of Western philosophical thinking. In the European movement of Enlightenment, the rational character of a human being was given prominence and it was believed that the human faculty of reasoning will ultimately be able to realise the best of the ‘best of all possible worlds.’ Obtaining guidance from such thinkers as Nietzsche and Freud, post-structuralist philosophers challenged these age-old assumptions. Consequently, what they came up with was quite unsettling for the traditional mainstream Western philosophy. Therefore, it is not surprising that an author like Swaris coming from this tradition finds the key standpoints in Buddhism fascinating, which is non-theistic and non-essentialist and very realistic in its analysis of the human situation. Amongst the philosophical techniques developed by post-structuralists, Swaris finds the semiotics used, among others, by Jacques Lacan to interpret psychoanalysis quite useful in understanding the teachings of the Buddha. The signs are basically the linguistic signs, although not confined to them. The study of language, or more specifically the power of linguistic concepts and signs, has been a major preoccupation of contemporary Western philosophy, although the mainstream analytical philosophers (e.g., logical positivists and linguistic philosophers) and the phenomenologists and post-structuralists draw mutually-opposing conclusions from their studies. At the extreme ends of the two poles lie what may be called ‘the label theory of language,’ with its strong realism and ‘the reality-construction view of language,’ which denies any reality existing in-


Asanga Tilakaratne

dependently of the human mind (a strong form of idealism). As I will be showing in detail later, Swaris’s sympathies are with the reality-construction view of language. The positive point, however, is that he underscores the creative and meriting power of language over human beings. Swaris’s use of Marxist analysis of history and human society and the Freudian psychoanalytical findings on the human psyche are meant to show that the analysis offered in Buddhism in these areas is strikingly similar. The very idea of comparing Marx with the Buddha may be a weird oddity in some people’s eye. Any comparison with psychoanalysis could create a similar reaction. The fact that no final reading of these movements has been done itself may be taken as indicative of the ultimate failure of such an exercise. On the other hand, going along with more recent trends of literary criticism, namely, that no final reading of any text is possible [‘The last reading of the Pali scripture has yet to be made; texts will continue to refer to oilier texts with samsaric boredom.’ 25), then what Swaris is doing is nothing other than legitimate literary and philosophical reconstruction. We may or may not agree with him, but none of us can deny that he has a right to do what he is doing. I have problems with how he is doing it and I will come to that later. Up to this point what I have been discussing is Swaris’s ‘methodology’ and approach to the subject. Some aspects of his approach are new in Buddhist scholarship. In particular, his use of poststructuralist insights and also its tools such as semiotics needs to be mentioned. This approach and methodology alone can be considered a significant contribution to the field of Buddhist studies, which seems to need a fresh supply of avenues. The really challenging aspect in Swaris is the way he interprets the teachings of the Buddha. The overarching thesis of his essay is that the goal of Buddhism is not ‘private salvation from cosmic existence’ and therefore, the path itself is not individualistic. In developing this theme, Swaris begins with this question: The Buddha’s way is often understood and explains as a path to private liberation, ideally to be realized in solitude, away from the everyday concerns of ordinary men and women. If this is true, how can one explain Magga - the way, the fourth noble truths, which is one of the most social of all moralities? (l) According to Swaris, the responsibility of the misrepresentation of Buddhism should go to Western colonialism, which constructed ‘otherworldly East’ as opposed to ‘this-worldly West’ and to those scholars

The Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation…


who accepted these categories unwittingly and recreated ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Buddhism’ etc., which were previously non-existent in that manner. Swaris uses the findings of such scholars as Dhammananda Kosambi, Romila Thapar and Trevor Ling to substantiate his position. In Swaris’s argument, there are two clear aspects: one is to clarify how the self-identity of Buddhism has been tailor-made and imposed on Buddhists. The other aspect is to show that this characterisation is erroneous and he does so by characterising Buddhism as advocating a communal (saṅghika) liberation by a communal (saṅghika) effort. The first aspect of the argument is revealing and instructive. It is revealing because it uncovers the dependent mentality of some of the oriental scholars themselves who accept, without any question, the categories imposed on them while not understanding that the very foundation of their studies go against the reality of what they are studying. It is instructive because it challenges us to rethink the very categories, the concepts and the terminologies with which we are operating. In developing his interpretation of Buddhism, it is quite crucial for the author to show that the path of the Buddha differs radically from the mainstream social and religious traditions of his time. Swaris describes in detail the monarchical rule that was gaining ground in India by this time and shows how the ‘gaṇa-saṅgha’ form of the ruling was coming to a sad end. With remarkable dexterity, Swaris shows how the social practices adopted by the Buddha for his own Sangha’s organisation reflects similarities with the ancient tribal organisations. The author uses sociological and anthropological findings of early societies to support his views. Swaris’s study of ‘dāna’ (giving) is interesting in this context. Using the concept developed by M Mauss on the giving and exchanging of gifts, Swaris unearths some interesting characteristics in the Buddhist practice of dāna. He distinguishes between the popular religious practice of dāna as a means of accumulating merits (for the benefit of the next birth) and the dāna as sharing of what one already has. In ancient societies, it was customary that things were pooled and then shared. This was exactly what the Buddha approved of for the renouncer members of the Sangha. Except for a very few personal belongings, there was no private property amongst the renounced Sangha. In the Buddhist sense, Swaris clarifies, the term saṅgha was not confined to a particular group of disciples of the Buddha, but to what is called ‘catudissa-saṅgha’ [sic] the Sangha of the four quarters which was comprised of people belonging to all four castes. Because of this broad constitution, the tribal limi-


Asanga Tilakaratne

tations of commensality were rejected. The Buddhist Sangha naturally ate with everybody. By accepting their daily meal from anyone, irrespective of clan, class or birth status, the first Buddhist mendicants openly flouted the customs governing commensality. (434) As Swaris shows, some of the salient features of the Buddhist monastic tradition have historical parallels. This does not, however, necessarily mean that the Buddha adopted a certain practice simply because it was a part of his ‘gaṇa-saṅgha’ background. The Buddha diagnoses the human predicament as caused by the selfish and accumulative character of human beings, and states that we must get rid of this craving to make an end to suffering. Therefore, it is quite logical for the Buddha to adopt for himself and recommend for others a way of life, which he found conducive to self-less living. This leads us to Swaris’s analysis of the concept of Sangha in the Buddhist sense. The discourses often refer to the concept sāvaka saṅgha and tell us how those who accepted the Buddhist way of life took refuge in the Buddha, the teacher, Dhamma, the teachings and Sangha, the followers of the path. In the context of taking refuge, what is meant by the term sāvaka saṅgha is ‘the eight noble individuals (aṭṭha-purisa puggalā). They can belong to any of the four groups of disciples, and need not exclusively be the male members of the monastic order. Therefore, Swaris is correct in going back to the original meaning of the term. However, according to the following statement, the author seems to interpret the practice of taking refuge in the Sangha as one largely with a social significance: Refuge is sought in the saṅgha: Not just in the bhikkhu saṅgha but the entire community of bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, upāsakas and upāsikās: a free association of those who have committed themselves to the practice of Ahimsā and Dāna. (425) It is true that the practice of the Buddhist path may be understood as something that could be done more profitably in a community, which is combined by the unity of goal and practice, than in isolation. However, we cannot confine the original meaning of taking refuge only to this social practice, for it is very clear in the discourses that what is meant by this religious act is much more than harmonious social living, although by no means it is excluded. For instance, in many discourses, we find the following sentiment often being expressed, namely, that ‘the way of life conducive to the eradication of suffering is not easily followed by a householder.’ A case in point occurs in the Raṭṭapāla-sutta (of the Majjhima-nikāya),

The Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation…


which tells the story of the young and rich householder who renounced his vast wealth to become a bhikkhu-disciple of the Buddha. Within the very life-time of the Buddha, it seems that the monastic order became an example to the Sangha who did not renounce the householder life. Therefore, it is not strange that taking refuge in the Sangha came to mean taking refuge in the monastic order exclusively. The problem we are facing is not easy to solve. Swaris appears to be saying that the original idea of taking refuge in the Sangha became lost at some point and that we must resuscitate it. However, I do not think that this historical analysis of the matter is enough or totally accurate. There is a religious dimension to the problem. It may well have been the case that the path was not easily trodden by ordinary householders, as some like Raṭṭapala felt during the time of the Buddha himself. If this is true then we are not dealing with a phenomenon of historical degeneration of a religious tradition, but with a core characteristic of it. Therefore, it requires a different treatment as there is a possibility of being on the contrary. Swaris is right in providing an exclusively social interpretation to this phenomenon, but still, it needs to be established by addressing adequately the point of view which fields its clear expression within the tradition. In the course of his new interpretation of Buddhism, Swaris rereads all the major Buddhist concepts. It is an essential part of his ‘socio-historical’ interpretation, and, therefore any study of Swaris’s work is incomplete without even cursorily examining at least some key aspects of his interpretation. In what follows I propose to examine, briefly, his treatment of paṭicca-samuppāda (conditioned-co-genesis) and kamma. The important theme of anatta will be discussed in a different context. Swaris does not like the popular rendering of paṭicca-samuppāda as ‘causality’ or ‘causation’ for these terms have their origin in Aristotelian metaphysics, which upholds the existence of a thing-hood or the existence of separate substances. For this reason, he prefers the strictly literal translation of the original Pali term as ‘conditioned-co-genesis.’ He also rejects the popular translation of ‘asmin sati idam hoti ... as ‘when this is that is’ which indicates ‘linear causality.’ He sees as the key function of the teaching as breaking the bondage of dualism (‘dyads are not seen as opposites but as mutually-conditioned conditioning relationships.’ 256). For him, it represents ‘an ethico-epistemological breakthrough.’ These are not terribly new discoveries that Swaris has made for they have been around for some time; but they, nonetheless, do represent a more up-to-date understanding of the subject.


Asanga Tilakaratne

The key element of Swaris’s radical interpretation of conditioned co-genesis, however, is to treat it as a device of explanation used by the Buddha to explain, among other things, the ‘genesis of real life.’ He articulates this standpoint in the following words: Unfortunately, this epistemological breakthrough is mostly explained in abstract terms, as a philosophical concept, and applied for introspective reflection on mental and psychological processes. The confinement of Buddhist discourse within a ‘spiritual’ paradigm blunts the critical edge of a great science which could be applied to practical investigation and social criticism. (254) Swaris supports his claim by referring to the Buddha’s discussion on the biological reproduction of life in the Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya, and to his explanations of how life is supported by food production and how fire is produced by friction. It is clear from these examples and the above-statement that Swaris is not very keen on looking at that which he calls ‘psychological’ explanation of paṭicca-samuppāda, which is articulated in numerous places in the Canon including the entire Nidāna-vagga of the Saṃyutta-nikāya, not to mention the post-canonical explanations of it by Buddhaghosa and others. Here the problem with Swaris (as very often is the case in other instances too) is not what he says on paticca samuppāda, but what he does not. I sympathise with his observation that a one-sided interpretation has deprived a valuable tool that could be used as a powerful device to understand and eliminate social injustice and suffering. Nonetheless, there cannot be any justification for him to brush aside a very, or perhaps, the most important use of paticca-samuppāda as a misplaced emphasis. The tradition may have understood the whole thing wrong, but it needs to be shown how. My own conviction is that ultimately, paticca-samuppada leads us to a deeper philosophical and psychological understanding of our own reality. Although I would like to be corrected by Swaris, my complaint is that he has not done it. Swaris’s analysis of the Buddhist concept of karma is interesting, enlightening and controversial. It is easy to understand his interpretation by knowing the reading of karma that he is opposing. In his own words, it is the following: This doctrine of kamma in its practical implication functions as a dominant ideology when it is deployed to explain social disparities as the manifestation of an imminent justice at work in the world (285).

The Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation…


He explains what he means by this further: The linkage of ethics to reward and punishment treats the human being as an animal that can be goaded into morality only by conditioned reflexes of desire and fear. It engenders a mercantilist mentality which evaluates everything in terms of cost and benefit. The selfish individual asks him/herself what visible or invisible profit will this bring for me now and in the hereafter? (287) Swaris thinks, I am sure, rightly, that this way of understanding the concept of karma is mainly responsible for people being narrow-minded and selfish. The predominant notion of karma has almost nothing to do with human action and its creative and transformative value within this life itself, for it is exclusively occupied with ‘meritorious’ and ‘demeritorious’ deeds productive of after-death results. Sometimes, the popular Buddhist tradition has gone to the extent of contradicting its own cherished views in emphasising the results of karma. One such instance lists among other desirable things, being born to a higher caste (uccakulīnatam) as a result of puñña-kammāni (meritorious deeds). Now, this is a quite strange thing to be found in a tradition which openly rejected the caste system as having nothing to do with human dignity. In particular, I find the author’s emphasis on the practical value and its results (‘kamma-phala’ 251) of human action very instructive and important. Swaris encapsulates this aspect of his view on kamma in the following words: Intrepid pioneers had transformed the rainforest of the Majjhimadesa by collective action. The transition to agriculture and sedentarism enabled the development of a host of ancillary technologies that increased and diversified the productive capacity of human beings... However, in the very capacity to develop techniques for regulating the forces of nature towards envisaged ends, the Buddha discovered the key to resolve the problem of suffering. He developed a technology for human beings to understand themselves and to control their passions. Without fear, but with consummate patience, he helped Angulimala to tame himself. (305) Notwithstanding my agreement with Swaris to a large extent, I still have a few concerns. Let me try to articulate them: In his analysis, Swaris makes a clear distinction between what the Buddha originally may have taught - early Buddhism - and what the tradition believes - later Buddhism- although he does not refer to these categories openly. The notion of karma that he attributes to the Buddha is quite a naturalist, but one obvious deficiency in this interpretation is caused by the fact that Swaris


Asanga Tilakaratne

appears to neglect the psychological aspect of karma almost completely. I think it is this link that makes the Buddhist notion philosophically and psychologically interesting. To disregard this aspect means to disregard a very important aspect of Buddhist theory. The vipāka or karma is also understood in the Buddhist context with reference to the doer’s mind. The early Buddhist teaching is very clear about karma being understood as operating under the law of dependent co-arising. Knowing this, I do not understand how Swaris can say the following: ‘The compassionate Buddha could hardly have promulgated a law of ruthless retribution’ (286). To my understanding, it is not what the Buddha wished to happen, but it is what he saw and declared to be happening, exactly in the same manner as he saw and declared the general law of dependent co-arising. Being consistent with his interpretation of karma, Swaris rejects the traditional notion of rebirth, which is associated with karma quite closely. On the contrary, Swaris understands rebirth as ‘birthing’ and ‘rebirthing’ of desire (e.g. 284, 366) and the resultant repeated birthing or suffering. Therefore, he does not think that the Buddhist notion of rebirth has anything to do with someone being born again after death. In fact, he thinks that the belief in rebirth cannot co-exist with the teaching of anatta (no-soul). Obviously, Swaris is not the first one to hold this view in the context of Buddhism. There is a tradition of Buddhist scholarship which maintains that the Buddhist path to purification can be made meaningful without reference to rebirth, but the problem itself, whether the belief in rebirth is consistent with the original teachings of the Buddha, is not easy to solve. Nevertheless, whether or not Buddhism holds this belief is not difficult to answer. Not only the subsequent popular Buddhist tradition but also the main textual tradition itself clearly holds and assumes the belief. That I do not think we can deny. Curiously, Swaris does not discuss samsara, but it is a very basic belief in early Buddhism and the Buddha appears to have believed in it! Swaris refers to an incident that occurs in the Mahāparinibbāna-sutta, in which Ananda inquiries from the Buddha, who was nearing parinibbāna, about the after-death destiny of certain disciples who had already died (388). Swaris interprets the Buddha’s answer as an unconditional discouragement of such inquiries. However, if we go by the text the Buddha did reveal to Ananda the posthumous destiny of a few people, but when Ananda’s list started growing the Buddha gave some broad guidelines with which one can judge by oneself. In fact, the passage can be read, as Swaris does, only if it does not say that the Buddha himself revealed several instances of rebirth, but with this information given it is difficult to disregard it.

The Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation…


The above discussion ultimately leads us to a broader question about the limits of interpretation. The main thrust of Swaris’s interpretation is that the teaching of the Buddha is a form of naturalism and humanism without familiar religious metaphysics. It is supported by his reading of paṭṭicca-samuppāda and karma and many other Buddhist concepts in the manner as shown above. Now, the question one is tempted to ask is: Is that all to Buddhism? What has happened to its ‘religion’? I know that Swaris does not even like to use this term to describe Buddhism. In the absence of regular metaphysics, forms of mysticism, esoterism and dogmas universally available in God-centred religions, it is misleading to call (early) Buddhism a religion, and I go along with Swaris on this count. Nonetheless, what about the mind-culture with its various stages articulated in detail in the discourses? What about the monastic life with its large number of rules and regulations as the more appropriate way to achieve the nirvanic goal? Do these things not make Buddhism something more than a form of enlightened social living? We know that Buddhism arose in a religious context, in which to be religious was to believe in a creator God and an immortal soul. When the Buddha rejected these predominant beliefs, he was branded an annihilationist and materialist (venayiko samaṇo gotamo) because, based on the accepted view, it was impossible to be religious (and hence moral) while rejecting these beliefs. (Note: even today, ‘atheist’ means ‘non-religious’ and hence, morally bad). I think what the Buddha did was to demonstrate that ‘religion’ (sāsana) is possible without such beliefs. The goal advocated by the Buddha was total purification by getting rid of all the defilements. It was understood that this required one to struggle with one’s own deep-rooted psychological characteristics with diligence. Those who achieved this goal were then expected to return to society and guide and help others. At the same time, it is possible, there may have been others who had to struggle throughout their entire lives to achieve this aim. This obviously did not apply to non-renouncers exactly in the same manner. I feel that although there is only one path, the intensity of application could amount to different degrees. Swaris’s reconstruction of the Buddhist path appears to downplay these distinctions. I fully sympathise with him regarding his view that the tradition has made Buddhism basically a monastic tradition, in which householders have been relegated to a marginal position. Also, I do not want to undervalue the message Swaris is trying to bring up, namely, that the path of the Buddha needs to be reinterpreted not as a


Asanga Tilakaratne

system of ‘private salvation-seeking’ but as a path of social action. My dissatisfaction, however, is that, in the process, we might make the path of the Buddha nothing more than a form of enlightened social living. This I think is to lose sight of the deep and subtle psychological impact of the teaching of the Buddha. In other words, Buddhism demythologises and demystifies our religious beliefs, but at the same time, it leads us to higher forms of understanding of our own individual and social reality. In Swaris’s interpretation, the first part of this comes out very beautifully, but the second part remains largely unasserted. A discussion of Swaris’s work is not complete without discussing two other aspects of his interpretation which come to surface quite often. One is the comparative aspect of his treatment and the other is his use of linguistic analysis and critique of language as a crucial element in the process of alleviating human suffering. I will begin with the first. Earlier in the discussion, I mentioned that Swaris finds post-structuralist critical tools to be useful in interpreting the teachings of the Buddha. Like the leading thinkers of this movement have themselves found, Swaris finds such thinkers as Marx, Nietzsche and Freud to be very congenial for his philosophical project. In fact, Swaris seems to think that some views of these thinkers have come quite close to what the Buddha had said. Marxist political and historical views and Freudian psychological views have already been studied by others, vis-a-vis Buddhism. However, the views of Nietzsche have not been studied to that extent, at least, as far as the Sri Lankan Buddhist scholarship is concerned. Swaris does not engage in any in-depth or systematic study of these thinkers, which is not necessary for his project, but he does not waste any opportunity to refer to these thinkers and fortify his interpretation through them. The doctrine of anatta is one area in which Swaris thinks that the post-structuralist critical devices and insights can be quite usefully employed. In particular, he finds semiotics as the science of analysing signs as used by writers like Jacques Lacan and Roland Bathes, and the practice of deconstruction, articulated by Derrida, as pertinent devices to understand what the Buddha said about this core concept of his teaching. Swaris interprets the Buddhist doctrine of anatta as resulting from ‘deconstruction’ of the human personality. In employing deconstruction, Swaris says, Jacques Derrida, among contemporary philosophers, has perhaps come closest to the Buddha’s point of view at the theoretical level. There is a remarkable congruence between the Bud-

The Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation…


dha’s use of the term visaṅkhāra ... and Derrida’s neologism deconstruction... (author’s emphasis). ( 262) Swaris uses the Buddhist term from the Dhammapada 153 ‘visaṅkhāragatam cittam ...’ which he renders into English as ‘consciousness is deconstructed’ (P.260). Swaris’s translation of ‘visaṅkhāra-gata’ as ‘deconstruction,’ is fully supported by the etymology of the term and the tradition of translating ‘saṅkhāra’ as ‘construction.’ Besides this grammatical support, in his brilliant exposition, (this is perhaps Swaris’s best chapter) Swaris substantiates his analysis of anatta with a thorough study of the five ‘aggregates’ (He does not like this term; I will discuss why later), and the phenomenon of nāma-rūpa, which is usually understood as ‘psychophysical personality’ (a wrong rendering, again, according to Swaris). Following the insights developed using semiotics by post-structuralist thinkers, Swaris interprets the concept of ‘nāma-rūpa’ as signifying the combination of metaphysics and language, which is responsible for creating the dichotomy of a transcendental self (a thing-in-itself or ātma) and an ordinary reality which is subordinate. Swaris interprets this key term as ‘signifier and signified.’ He gives the following historical analysis: Philosophers of his [the Buddha’s] day had developed an ingenious theory of being and language. Perceived entities were split into a perceptible form - rūpa - and a named essence or signification - nāma. This imaginative theory of name (‘Sign’) and form (‘Thing’) was the basis of a division of reality into physical, metaphysical, or conceptual realms. (83) The Buddha rejected, says Swaris, this way of constructing reality. But in its place, the Buddha did not produce an alternative theory of reality-construction, instead, he deconstructed the whole thing. By doing so, not only the Buddha revealed the ‘witchery’ of words over things but also became “the first thinker known to history who provided a ‘this-worldly’ genetic explanation of consciousness” (269). In a detailed analysis of the famous Madhupiṇḍika-sutta, Swaris brings his analysis of language and reality into completion. ‘When the Buddha uses the categories ‘name’ and ‘form,’ Swaris says, ‘they have to be comprehended as ‘crossed out’ or ‘put under erasure’ in the Derridian sense’ (264). In reading the concept of nāma-rūpa in this manner, Swaris modifies the traditional Buddhist reading of the concept, namely, nāma as referring to the psychological aspects of human personality; feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), constructions (saṅkhāra) and consciousness (viññāṇa), and rūpa as referring to the physical aspect or personality.


Asanga Tilakaratne

In his reading, the nāma-rūpa can be interpreted as ‘name-form’ or language and reality. The problem, however, is that it is difficult to see how, with this new way of reading, all occurrences of nāma-rūpa in the paṭiccasamuppāda formula can systematically be interpreted. Reading Swaris’s analysis of anattā, I must admit that it has really fascinated me. However, on the other hand, in trying to find justification for his new reading, I do not see much textual support behind it, except for the possibility; rendering ‘nāma’ as ‘name.’ It is true that the Pali word nāma has this meaning; but to conclude that nāma-rūpa has been used in the same sense, Swaris should engage in a little more textual and linguistic analysis. His use of such semiotic distinctions as ‘signifier-signified’ and his demonstration of parallels in Buddhism with post-structuralist thinkers are all marks of the creative, interpretative ability of very high calibre, but still, the paucity of textual support looms largely over his interpretation. There is no doubt that the texts are open to interpretations and readings. No one can question one’s right to do so. As Swaris very rightly says, the final reading of the word of the Buddha has yet to be done. The troubling point, however, is the limits of the freedom of interpretation. Under the influence of Derrida and others, the contemporary readings of texts are getting increasingly liberated from contexts and their authors. John Sturrock summarises the situation in the following words: ...Derrida’s argument is that the text has in fact been set free from the individual who produced it, who may very well be dead. An author can have no special authority over what he has written and then published, because he has committed it both to strangers and to the future. The meanings it will henceforth yield need not coincide with those he believed he had invested in it: they will depend on who reads it and what circumstances. (Sturrock 1979, 14) How far this situation is appropriate in interpreting Buddhist texts, often written in archaic languages, meant to clarify the correct way towards final liberation, is an important question to ponder. One thing must surely be accepted; although anyone may advance any reading of Buddhist discourses, there cannot be more than one correct reading of what has been compared to a physician’s prescription for a serious disease! The following words of RK Norman, one of the stalwarts in the field of philology, should serve as a corrective: …[P]hilological studies have enabled us to identify nominal and verbal forms which were no longer understood, to identify ver-

The Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation…


bal roots which are not otherwise attested in the language, and with our newly found knowledge to correct corrupt readings and restore something which we hope might approximate to the original reading, and make better and more accurate translations as a result. It is very regrettable that many of these philological discoveries are still unknown to, or are perhaps ignored by, some translators, who consequently may well make mistakes in their translations, and in their understanding of Buddhism based upon those translations. (Norman 1997, 14) Resonance, Swaris finds in some post-structuralist thinkers and in Marx, Nietzsche and Freud are not meant to say either that the Buddha has thought everything earlier, or that these thinkers are totally ‘Buddhist.’ Swaris transcends this kind of popular enthusiasm characteristic in mushrooming garden-variety comparative studies. He finds some interesting and exciting parallels but not without limitations. For example, talking about deconstruction, one of his much-cherished interpretative tools, Swaris says: …the limitations of Derridian deconstruction, from the point of view of the Buddha’s way, needs to be emphasized. Derrida, like other post-structuralist thinkers work in a ‘void,’ which they call ‘the end of philosophy.’ But they continue to philosophize. Derrida prodigiously deconstructs language, texts, representation etc. and becomes himself the subject of deconstruction, there by selling in motion an endless spiral of deconstruction. The relentless pursuit of deconstruction has yet to yield practical or practicable ethic. The question remains: how does one move from deconstruction as a noetic exercise to a praxis that leads to the eradication of Desire and a positive knowledge which is not ‘knowledge about’ but the ‘pure experience of the suchness of actuality as flux? (84) The caution Swaris exercises in using the categories developed by other philosophers in analysing the Buddhist concepts is illuminating. This has ramifications for both the contemporary studies in Buddhism in Western languages and comparative studies in Buddhism. A key point in Swaris’s critique of modern studies of Buddhism has been to point out that, often, the very categories and terminology that have been employed in the exercise are laden with presuppositions alien to Buddhism: (‘The Buddha Dhamma is distorted when it is not understood in its own terms.’ p.326). In particular, the problem of terminology is a crucial one. The early translators of the Buddhist texts into Western languages were


Asanga Tilakaratne

Westerners who were trained in a Judeo-Christian Western tradition. The limitations in their knowledge of Pali (and other ‘Buddhist’ languages) and of ancient Indian social history and a world-view may have been contributing factors in the poor choice of terms. Naturally, their translations were influenced by their world-view shaped by their own tradition. However, after nearly two hundred years of Buddhist studies, still, the problem persists mainly because the assumptions behind these translations go unchallenged. Today the field of Buddhist studies is highly sophisticated in its philological studies. Nevertheless, the same old traditions of translation continue. For instance, in discussing the translation into English of the concept of khandha as ‘aggregate,’ Swaris says: In Upanisadic philosophy it was used to designate the underlying support or substratum of a thing. The Buddha rejected the view that precepts and concepts have fixed footholds and that they are shadowy signs of an ultimate reality or a ‘Ground of Being.’ Unfortunately, the Buddha’s revaluated use of the term khandha is translated as ‘aggregate’ - which in Aristotelian-Thomist usage refers to an assemblage of substances. (264) Swaris suggests that ‘the terms “category” and “factor” convey better the connotation of khandha as used by the Buddha’s epistemo-psychology’ (265). I think that the morale of Swaris’s admonition must be taken seriously. It is the difficult but crucial task of the researcher to do their best to find the language with the least unwanted assumptions and histories, but the task could be highly taxing or even impossible at times. Swaris’s very statement shows that the problem is not new and how the Buddha faced it. Obviously, the language the Buddha had at his disposal was basically Brahmanic and Vedic with psychological and metaphysical nuances of ātmavāda and nirmāṇavāda. The Buddha was very much aware of the difficulties, but on the other hand, inventing a wholly fresh language (a ‘private language’) was out of the question. In the face of this difficulty (maybe this is a reason the Buddha felt discouraged at teaching what he realised) what the Buddha did was exactly what Swaris says: to use the same old language but to give quite different meanings to it. It is nice if a contemporary student of Buddhism pursuing his/her Buddhist studies in any language other than Pali or Sanskrit (or any other middle Indo-Aryan language), which the Buddha is said to have spoken, is lucky to have a group of concepts devoid of usual metaphysical assumptions and attached histories. However, when this is practically impossible, one must use the existing language being aware of the limits and making these limits known to one’s readers. This is to use language ‘without get-

The Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation…


ting absorbed in it’ (voharati aparamāsaṃ). Following Swaris’s way of arguing, one can equally say of his own suggestion of the term ‘category’ for ‘khandha’ that it is laden with Kantian nuances which are equally unacceptable to Buddhism. Therefore, I think Swaris’s admonition is to be taken as a warning, but not as a plea to create a fresh ‘Buddhist’ language. Language is a very important issue in Swaris’s entire dissertation. In addition to his remarks on the problems of translation and attendant interpretations and comparisons, the very nature of language becomes a crucial issue in Swaris’s analysis of the liberation process taught in Buddhism. In discussing our intellectual development, Swaris highlights the insights of language developed by Lacan and Derrida and shows how language introduces a child into a particular culture and history. He shows that to be able to use a language is to belong to a particular culture, lifestyle, way of thinking and behaving. He understands ‘logocentrism’ or the function of a language as a system of governing one’s thoughts and thereby, one’s behaviour as decisive. Swaris takes semiotics as the study of language to unearth the underlying assumptions or metaphysics and psychology behind the language. He applies these insights into the study of Buddhism, and finds, that what the Buddha did in his sermons could be interpreted as untangling the web created by language. Obviously, Swaris’s sympathies lie in what is known as ‘reality construction view’ of language. In an illuminating analysis, Swaris discusses how the ‘identity consciousness’ is created by language, which in turn is a social production (321-332). Consequently, he finds the liberation taught in Buddhism as very much a liberation from what he calls the ‘witchery of things and words’ (82). He finds support for his interpretation in earlier writers like Bhikkhu Ñāṇānanda (1971) who analysed the Madhupiṇḍika-sutta’s key concept papañca as ‘conceptual proliferation.’ Looking from the angle of language, Swaris’s book can well be characterised as an essay in the Buddhist philosophy of language. It is the first time, to my knowledge, that the Buddhist philosophy has been interpreted in the light of post-structuralist linguistic insights in a thorough manner. I have a general agreement to this way of looking at the emancipatory project in Buddhism and I think, we need to make due emphasis on the role that language plays in generating and enhancing our dukkha. The point where I get off the bus, however, is the overemphasis of the role of language to the extent of saying that once the language is fixed then everything will be fixed. I do not want to say that Swaris goes to this extreme. Nevertheless, the post-structuralist, post-modernist and post-feminist thinking, to which Swaris is openly


Asanga Tilakaratne

sympathetic to, very often does go to this extreme. It is a triumph for feminism that everybody is using ‘politically correct’ language today. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether this reflects a genuine change of heart. Coming to Buddhism, the conceptual witchery should be fixed at a level higher than that of linguistic. Ultimately, the mind-culture or bhāvanā is meant to bring this about. The Buddhist use of language clearly shows that there is no enlightened language as such, but only an enlightened way of using it. It is a truism to say that mere words have nothing to do with how their users use them. Therefore, it is futile to try to ‘liberate’ those early Buddhists of sexism, for whom such a thing did not even exist. If I were to comment on all the important points of Swaris’s discussion, I will have to write something much longer, which is impossible to do in a review. The aim has been to create an impression in the reader of the vast wealth of the material in the book. I hope I have managed to do it without getting carried away too much by my appreciation of what the author has done. In sum, I must say that Swaris has given the readers a very illuminating essay on Buddhism. For general readers, it opens many avenues to approach Buddhism. For professional Buddhist scholars, it gives a lot of additional points for their deep meditation. There are methodological and interpretational challenges, which no serious student of Buddhism can pass silently. For Swaris himself, his own study, like what he studies, has an ultimate existential and moral purpose. I have only to agree with the author when he says: I hope that this essay stimulates further study along these lines: refine and elaborate it through critique of its method, and even challenges some of its inferences and conclusions. From the Buddha’s point of view, what matters in the final analysis is whether academic exposition of his Dhamma are helpful to those for whom suffering is not an academic matter. (25) (Italics mine). Finally, a few remarks on nuts and bolts: Although, presumably done for reasons of space the letters of the print are too small; the paper is too bright and pains the eye. Frequent printing mistakes are stones in your plate of rice. Style is descriptive and, at times, repetitive. As a result, the book is long (If anyone is interested- Swaris provides a ‘poststructuralist’ justification for his style, 23). The reader, however, does not need to fear reading another Derrida! Swaris is markedly more direct and clearer. Reading him is, definitely, fun. An index, at least, of the key terms would have been very useful; - I do not know whether the absence

The Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation…


is a result of a ‘policy decision’ or not, for no explanation has been given - but in a dense book such as this, some such guide could have been of great help. Even though the length of the book demands a sizable chunk of your active life, with his wit and metaphor and scattered pieces of wisdom, Swaris is worth spending that much time.

28. Buddhism and Science: One Analysis but Two Different Goals? Book Review Two Buddhist Sutras viewed from Science: A Narration of a Personal Experience and Subsequent Contemplation, by JKP Ariyaratne. Stamford Lake Publication, Pannipitiya, Sri Lanka. 2001. 159.

The claim that Buddhism is scientific is a familiar one. There has been so much written about it in the popular Buddhist writings such as those found in the Vesak Journals and the like to this effect, that it has become far too common to be taken seriously. The usual claim is made with a tinge of self-assurance and arrogance caused, perhaps, by the feeling that Buddhism is in good company! The populism associated with the subject has nearly almost robbed all opportunities for any serious discussion on the matter. Nevertheless, some serious minds, from time to time, have found the issue, the nature and the extent of the relationship between science and Buddhism, worthy of attention. The latest in this line is JKP Ariyaratne, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at the University of Kelaniya. The basic insight, which constitutes the core of the present volume, was first articulated by him in 1992 in a paper written for the Silver Jubilee Commemoration Volume of the Faculty of Science at the University of Kelaniya. The English version of the paper titled ‘Chemical bonding and Buddhist Philosophy: Some Striking Parallels’ was first presented in the same year at the 12th International Conference on Chemical Education held in Bangkok, Thailand. The publication under review presents the developments in Ariyaratne’s thinking along similar lines since then. As the title indicates the major content of the book is a discussion of the Dhammacakka-pavattana-sutta and the Anattalakkhaṇa-sutta (of the Saṃyutta-nikāya), two discourses considered respectively to be the first and the second sermons of the Buddha. The book begins with an introduction where the author acknowledges that his effort is “the elucidation of the parallels and affinity between Buddhism and science” (3). In the next chapter called ‘prologue,’ the author includes the original paper, referred to earlier, which marks the beginning of his meditations on

Buddhism and Science: One Analysis but…


the subject. The third chapter is on ‘the reasons for the existence of parallels.’ It discusses ‘the scientific method’ and ‘the Buddhist procedure’ with comparisons and contrasts between the two. The fourth and fifth chapters are discussions of the first and second sermons by the Buddha and these discussions constitute the bulk of the work. In discussing the first sermon from a scientific point of view, Ariyaratne draws parallels between the procedure followed in the sutta in its presentation and exposition to that of the standard practice in a modern academic conference. The summary of that section of the discussion is that the structure and the mode of presentation of the first sermon of the Buddha are very much like the mode of presentation of a scientific paper by a leading scientist. Discussing the content of the first discourse, the author finds the Buddha’s emphasis on avoiding the two extremes of sexual indulgence (kāmasukhallikānuyoga) and self-torture (attakilamathānuyoga) as indicating very interesting parallelism with science. The author says: The way in which science treats observations in attempting to understand the truths or laws of Nature and the Buddha’s instructions to seekers of truth for perceiving the real nature of life and the world are unbelievably and closely parallel. Indeed, the sutra recommends exactly the same approach as normally followed by scientists, namely, avoiding the high and the low extremes in taking experimentally determined parameters into consideration. (77) Discussing next the idea of the middle path as advocated in the discourse, Ariyaratne finds that it can be understood as perfectly agreeing with science. He takes oxygen as an example and says that both the total absence and the 100% presence of oxygen could cause death, whereas ‘the intermediate optimum concentration of oxygen’ is both beneficial and indispensable for our existence. Ariyaratne discusses several similar instances from science and reveals how the middle approach is applicable in many situations in our life. He sees, however, a very important distinction in the two procedures: Buddhism, in adopting the viable media is concerned more about ‘the qualitative intermediate course of action,’ whereas science is only concerned about the middle position in quantitative terms (The author, however, does not tell us what exactly is the qualitative intermediate position between the two behavioural extremes mentioned in the discourse). In the subsequent analysis of the four noble truths, the author finds that the Buddha’s analysis of suffering is tantamount to science’s emphasis on changes. He says:


Asanga Tilakaratne

... the instances identified in Buddhism as dukkha and the instances recognised in science as changes are entirely comparable, in that both dukkha and changes require a definite cause or a definite combination of causes for their manifestation. (93) The parallelism which Ariyaratne considers most important becomes apparent in his analysis of the 2nd noble truth, namely, the cause of suffering, craving. He claims that the three kinds of craving, craving for pleasures (kāma-taṇhā), existence (bhava) and annihilation (vibhava) are similar to the three kinds of forces operating in nature. An example taken from the classical model of physics is given by the author: In the hydrogen atom, there is an electrical attraction between a positively-charged proton and the negatively-charged electron. Accordingly, the lighter particle, i.e., the electron, tends to be attracted to and moves towards the heavier particle, i.e., the proton. When the electron moves in a circular orbit around the proton, the electron behaves as if it experiences a force which tends to eject it away from the centre of the circular orbit. This is commonly referred to as the centrifugal force... Due to the centrifugal force, the electron tends to be repelled and moves away from the proton. The tendency for electrical attraction and the tendency for this mechanical repulsion always operates in exactly opposite directions. Therefore, the two tendencies can balance one another, under certain definite conditions. The various states of balance thus obtained are not static in nature, but they are dynamic. That is, balance comes into being with a simultaneous motion. Thus, the balancing between the tendency for attraction and the tendency for repulsion gives rise to a tendency for stabilization, which is not static but dynamic in nature. (98-9) It is in this manner, according to the author, that the three kinds of craving operate in the human being. Therefore, he concludes: ... [F]rom the smallest atom to the biggest object, namely, the universe is governed by the triad of tendencies of attraction, stabilization and repulsion which are respectively analogous to kāma taṇhā, bhava taṇhā and vibhava taṇhā. (101) At this juncture the author proposes, I think very correctly, to analyse the functioning of the human mind in association with the sensory faculties to show that what lies behind the function of the mind is the three forces or tendencies, as mentioned above. Ariyaratne makes a physiological analysis of the brain and its functioning and shows that the

Buddhism and Science: One Analysis but…


three forces of attraction, repulsion and stabilisation are operative in the process. From this, he concludes that what is called visual consciousness (or any other form of consciousness, for that matter) arising from the complex physical and electrochemical factors also function due to the three forces operative in nature. Since the human mind is understood in Buddhism in terms of the functions of the six sensory faculties, Ariyaratne concludes that if each of these faculties is functioning according to the three forces, then the human mind too is of no exception. The psychological counterparts of the three forces are the threefold cravings referred to earlier. The author tries to substantiate his claim further by analysing the five aggregates, which constitute the human being. He analyses the purely corporeal aspects of the five aggregates and shows that it is due to the three forces that they come into being and exist. The psychological aspects of the aggregates, the author claims, are the three kinds of craving. Discussing how the five aggregates function as a mutually-integrated whole, Ariyaratne summarises his conclusion in the following words: The physical aspect of this integration is the triad; attraction, stabilization and repulsion, while its mental aspect is the threefold taṇhā, consisting of kāma taṇhā, bhava taṇhā and vibhava taṇhā. ( 126) The discussion of the first discourse ends with highlighting parallels between the scientific procedure, characterised by identifying the cause and then solving the problem by changing it, and the identical procedure contained within the third and the fourth noble truths. The last chapter, which is relatively short, has been devoted to discussing the second discourse by the Buddha, namely, the Anattalakkhaṇa-sutta, the key point of which is the no-soulness or non-substantiality of all phenomena. According to the author, if the first discourse is the ‘initial abstruse lecture’ given by a professor, then the second is his ‘elucidating tutorial.’ Unlike in the first sermon, the success rate of the Buddha in preaching this sermon is a hundred per cent. Using modern physics, the author shows that all that which are called ‘fundamental particles’ are incessantly changing and non-substantial. The author says: ...we who are made up entirely of atoms, which are composed of fundamental particles, should also have the same characteristics of impermanence and insubstantiality, irrespective of whether considered in terms of individual particle or as complex conglomerate of trillions of particles.... Indeed, a human being is


Asanga Tilakaratne

only an exceedingly complex aggregation of processes involving condensations of quantum fields of virtual particles! Accordingly, there is no independent, permanent and unchanging absolute essence or spirit abiding in man. (146-7) The author’s claim is that what the modern quantum field theorists say about the nature of the fundamental particles is nothing other than what the Buddha said by the anatta doctrine. The author supports his claim further by analysing the five aggregates to show their non-substantiality. In this sense, the author finds that the latest theories of physics go very well with the fundamental insights of Buddhism. The difference, however, according to him, between the two is not something to do with facts but with morality. Where Buddhism tries to develop a liberated mentality, science supports maximizing material happiness. This results in the exploitation of natural resources for the sake of satiating one’s sensual pleasures. In this manner, in the author’s view, there does exist an important difference between the two; nevertheless, the similarities are far more serious to be overlooked. As I indicated at the beginning of this discussion, Ariyaratne’s work is the most lucid and scientifically substantiated statement of the view that there is an inner affinity between science and Buddhism. If taken as firmly established, the conclusion he draws has far-reaching implications not only on Buddhism and science but also on our understanding about human nature, the mind-body problem and morality. No serious student of Buddhism or science can sidestep this claim. Ariyaratne’ s book identifies several points where Buddhism and science agree with each other. These parallels may be belonging to two broad areas. Parallels related to structure and the manner of presentation are one. According to the author, there are parallels in science and Buddhism in the manner of presentation of the material. For example, Ariyaratne draws a long list of parallels between the first sermon of the Buddha and a report presented by a leading scientist at a scientific meeting. The parallels of this sort are interesting but not the most enlightening. Parallels related to the philosophical or conceptual content of the two systems constitute the real meat of the issue. The most important conceptual affinity between Buddhism and science is that the three kinds of ‘craving’ mentioned in the first discourse of the Buddha and three forces active in natural phenomena are of the same sort. The only difference is that what Buddhism refers to is mental, whereas what science refers to is physical. What the author appears to claim is that, apart from the difference in the

Buddhism and Science: One Analysis but…


domains of function, the two forces are identical. If established, the claim carries far-reaching implications for science, philosophy and religion, but we need to see whether or not the author has substantiated his claim. The author has established beyond any reasonable doubt that matter or the entire universe is governed by the three forces of attraction, stabilisation and repulsion. However, the claim regarding the three aspects of craving (taṇhā) has not been so well-established. In his original paper written in 1991 (included in this book as the epilogue), Ariyaratne describes that he got this idea initially ‘without any intentional contemplation, during a lecture on ionic bonding given to the first-year students of University of Kelaniya’ ( 21). The present work is meant to give a more sustained defence of this initial piece of wisdom. Ariyaratne does provide several detailed analyses of the physical aspects of the universe and shows how they are working under the forces mentioned above. However, when it comes to the Buddhist claim, he does not do much more than stating that the taṇhās mentioned in Buddhism works the same as the three forces mentioned in science. This alone cannot be taken as proof for the view he has set himself to defend. The establishment of the scientific position does in no way amount to a proof of the Buddhist position. It remains to be proved with reference to the nature, function and characteristics of these three forms of craving. Forgetting this difficulty for a moment, if we suppose that the claim has been already established, then we are faced with a much more serious problem, namely, how to account for the existence of those noble ones (ariya puggala) who have eradicated craving without any residue left. If Ariyaratne’s claim is right then the mind of any human being must function regulated by these three kinds of craving. By the doctrinal definition, an arahant (a liberated person) cannot even have an iota of craving. It is also clear that arahants continue to live after their attainment. This means that their mind must be functioning. If these three kinds of craving are universal characteristics of the human mind then how can the arahant’s mind function without these forces? Ariyaratne has not shown how the three aspects of craving are similar or function in a manner similar to those three forces. To my knowledge, there is no way that this interpretation can be supported textually. Judging by all the accounts given about the three aspects of craving, it does not seem that the three aspects of craving function in that manner: it is not that bhava-taṇhā is the stabilising factor between two driving forces towards two opposite directions. Ariyaratne’s claim remains to be proven with


Asanga Tilakaratne

reference to the teachings of the Buddha. The criticism I am making must not be understood as denying the possibility that both mind and matter (Buddhism does not believe in this sharp dichotomy anyway!) operate in a similar manner under similar principles. My complaint is that it has not been proven in this case. Apart from this disagreement with the key issue, there are a few other points where I tend to see things somewhat differently. Let me briefly point them out. • The problem of the middle position: The author compares the Buddhist middle path with the situations available with the study of science. For instance, he discusses the situation where there is a hundred per cent oxygen and a total lack of it. Now, both these positions are fatal. A condition in the middle is most desirable for our existence. The author finds the Buddhist middle path that avoids the extremes of self-mortification and self-indulgence as comparable to such situations. The first impression one gets from this comparison is that the author understands the Buddhist middle path as a balance between the two extremes. He makes, however, a distinction between what he calls the quantitative and qualitative balance and says that what is meant here is not the numerical difference but the qualitative difference. The trouble about this somewhat reticent remark is that it is not enough. The reader cannot gain an idea of what this difference means in this context. • ‘Scientific method’: The author discusses what he calls the scientific method in considerable detail ( 45-49). In this account, he refers to a well-defined process ‘of science,’ which has been solidly established for about the last 450 years and refers to Karl Popper (49) as an authority. It is true that Popper is known for challenging the procedure of science following up to his time and establishing what is known as ‘the hypothetical-deductive method’ as the proper way of doing science. Nevertheless, it is also true to say that much has happened in the philosophy of science since Karl Popper. The well-defined method advocated by people like Popper has been accepted by many in the field. It is precisely this portrayal of the scientific method that has been challenged by people like Kuhn and Feyerabend. There is an on-going debate over this issue in the field and I am not competent to pass any verdict. The moral, however, is that even excellent scientists such as Ariyaratne need to be careful about making pronouncements on the philosophy of science. The acceptance of the evanescent nature of the scientific method itself has important implication for what Ariyaratne is doing in this book.

Buddhism and Science: One Analysis but…


• Fritjof Capra: The author refers to Capra, who wrote The Tao of Physics, which has become not only a best seller but also a classic in the field of popular science (and mysticism), and he says about the inspiration he received from reading him. Again, I am not a competent judge on what Capra says on science and hence, am more than happy to go by Ariyaratne’ s judgment on this matter. The troubling point about Capra, however, is the assumption that he is working under, namely, that there is what may be called ‘pan-Oriental mysticism,’ which covers the content of all the ancient religions. At least, as far as the Theravada Buddhism that he discusses in one chapter is concerned, I can say that Capra is not right. There is a serious methodological problem in taking science on one side and the entire Asian philosophy and religion on another side and treating the latter as one homogeneous whole. The genre of literature initiated and popularised by people like Capra suffer from this weakness. I am not saying that Ariyaratne is guilty of this methodological looseness, but the debate needs to be taken to a level higher than that fixed by popular writers. Finally, by way of concluding remarks, I would like to say something in general about this kind of project undertaken by the author. Many look at this with suspicion when they encounter any effort to compare Buddhism with science or any aspect of contemporary knowledge. Very often, the scepticism is not a result of enlightenment but of ignorance or closed-mindedness. My own view of the enterprise is that if there are similarities at all they need to be said and said openly. There is no monopoly of knowledge; nor is there such a thing as that we, in today, are more advanced than those who lived a long time ago. If the Buddha had thought about certain things way before the modern scientists had done so, there is nothing improbable about it. If, what the Buddha said tallies with science that is all right, but we do not need to be overjoyed about that. Such a mentality will force us to change what does not tally with science in Buddhism. As Atiyaratne has clearly demonstrated the Buddha, with the mere aid of his superior knowledge, had known certain truths about reality, which science has come to know with the help of sophisticated instruments. Any effort to understand how was it possible for the Buddha twenty-five centuries ago will illuminate not only our knowledge in Buddhism but also our knowledge in the intellectual development of humanity. Therefore, there is not any doubt about the validity and the usefulness of the project, but as Ariyaratne’s work shows, strong and almost ‘religious’ experiences, unchecked and critically unevaluated, once the initial euphoria is gone, are not the best guide in epistemological enterprises of this sort.

29. The Nature of Medicine (A Critique of the Myth of Medicine)* Book Review Gunapala Dharmasiri. Author Publication. First edition: August 1997. pages 318.

As the sub-title itself suggests this book is a critique. It is a critique not of medicine in general, but of a very specific ideology and practice of medicine namely, Western medicine. To my knowledge, this is the first book of this nature written by a Sri Lankan scholar. The author is Gunapala Dharmasiri, a professor of philosophy at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. Dharmasiri received his training in Buddhist and Western philosophy, and his much-acclaimed work, The Buddhist Critique of Christian Concept of God (Lakehouse. Colombo 1974) is his doctoral dissertation. Among his areas of expertise is the philosophy of religion, comparative philosophy and Buddhist philosophy. His postdoctoral research has been mainly regarding ethics, in general, and Buddhist ethics, in particular. As the present monograph makes clear, Dharmasiri is at home with modern epistemology and the philosophy of science. So, there cannot be any doubt about the author’s credentials, which makes him eminently qualified to undertake the kind of project he has undertaken in this book. The Nature of Medicine is an extremely rich book in content. It provides us with a mine of information on various aspects of modern Western medicine, both as an institution and an ideology. The main function of the book is to contrast Western medicine with Ayurveda and Buddhist medicine. During this exercise, the author has developed an incisive criticism of the theory and the practice of Western medicine. Much of the material critically dealing with Western medicine has been borrowed from recognised authorities who have developed their theories, being critical of Western science and medicine over the past several decades. The bulk of the author’s own observations can be seen in his * A version of this article was published in Sambhasa, Pirivena Education Branch, Ministry of Education, Sri Lanka, 2000.

The Nature of Medicine (A Critique…


discussion on Ayurveda and Buddhist medicine. The real contribution of the author lies in the fact that he has coordinated the relevant materials from various authors and has built up a very powerful argument against Western medicine. Therefore, if there is any value in the book, it too must be found in this critique that he has developed. However, before going onto the critical aspect of the book, I would like to take the reader on a guided tour through the extremely rich content of this book. The book has 14 chapters, and a useful bibliography of selected works with an index. The first two chapters are meant to provide the intellectual background for the discussion. The first chapter: ‘A Critique of Science: Feyerabend,’ is a sharp criticism of the nature and assumptions of modern science presented through the words of Feyerabend, one of the highly controversial philosophers of science in contemporary Western philosophy, who challenged the very idea of a ‘scientific method’ in his well-known work: Against Method: Outline of an Anarchist Theory of Knowledge (NLB. London. 1975). The second chapter (A Critique of Western Medicine: Ivan Illich), is an equally sharp criticism of Western medicine by Illich. The rationale of the two chapters is that, since Western medicine is ultimately a branch of modern Western science, the two should be critiqued to begin with. Looking at the argument of the first two chapters a little more in detail, in the first chapter, the author makes use of Feyerabend’s Science in a Free Society (1983) to show that modern Western science does not have a monopoly over truth, and that there is no reason to believe that it should. The present advantageous state of science is due to the systematic destruction of other forms of science and culture by the powerful organisational aspects behind modern science. Summarising the views of Feyerabend, the author concludes: ‘science’ is a part of the Western Imperial Establishment, has therefore become a significant strategy in maintaining and expanding its colonialism. Politically, it works powerfully to destroy all the other, alternative cultures. Through the destruction of their cultures the wisdom of the natives deteriorates and gradually disappears. That strengthens the colonial mentality of the natives. Economically the space that gets created through the destruction of cultures supplies an excellent market place for all the spurious gadgets produced by the scientific technology. (14) According to the author, this mentality of the West in which human beings are only a means to realise its ulterior ends, is ultimately


Asanga Tilakaratne

founded on the concept of God (‘theism in its rather crude tribal form’) and the belief that God created man in his own image and the world to be used by him. The resource person in the second chapter is Ivan Illich (Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health, 1976). The chapter begins with an attack on the received view that Western medicine is the best. According to the author, the catalysts of this belief are Western imperialism and colonialism. It is obvious that these two terms are not used in their traditional historical sense but in a more figurative sense to refer to the world – a wide organisation of scientific and technological industry owned by multi-national corporations based on a handful of rich countries in the world. What comes under Illich’s attack is basically the attitudes regarding such vital concepts as health, pain, illness and death held and propagated by Western medicine. Illich says that Western medicine ultimately creates an environment in which people are totally dependent on the doctor and medicine and are not able to think about health without medicine. This is called the ‘medicalisation’ of life. This situation has been artificially created to maintain the profitable business of medicine, including selling drugs. The ultimate result of being subject to this powerful machinery of the health industry is a loss of confidence in facing pain, sickness and death. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 go under the general title: ‘The Frightening Nature of Western Medicine’ and elaborates on various negative characteristics of Western medicine. Chapter 3 has as its sub-heading ‘Drugs Produce Diseases’ and the discussion has been organised in the following order of topics: the lethal nature of antibiotics. Western medicine’s most frightening contribution to humanity: the creation of super-bugs, germs fight back, Western medicine creates AIDS, Western medicine acknowledges defeat, terrifying implications in genetic therapy, and how Western medicine creates diseases. Chapter 4 has as its sub-heading ‘In the Humanisation of Medicine’ and elaborates on how commercial interests have influenced the practice of medicine. The discussion runs through the following subtopics: Western medicine is censored by commercial interests, persecution of women by Western medicine. Western medicine’s use of human beings as Guinea pigs, Western medicine’s creative aspects lead to nightmares: the story of cosmetic surgery, some other dangers of Western medicine, and commercialisation of Western medical education. Chapter 5 has as its sub-heading, the tragedy of the mechanisation of medicine, and the discussion is devoted to an elaboration on how the use of high-tech machinery in the practice of medicine has contributed to its face-less character. The chapter also discusses how

The Nature of Medicine (A Critique…


medicine has become a monstrous business in which our entire humanity has been reduced to becoming its helpless victims. The 6th chapter is on ‘The Myth of Psychiatry’, and is meant to expose the tragic character of the field of medicine which, according to the author, is a sure sign of the overall malady of society. The author begins his discussion with a problem of methodology. He says that ‘The central problem in psychiatry is that it does not have any method at all’ (108). What he means by this, is not only the uncertain character of the methods applied in their trade by individual psychiatrists but also the deeper problem of treating the mind as an object in laboratory studies. The author affirms that ‘the study of mind will always be philosophical and theoretical, and will never be scientific’ (108). It is the lack of this understanding that has led psychiatrists to engage in misguided efforts by what is called ‘chemical attempts to modify character.’ The author describes this phenomenon as an effort to create ‘chemical saints. Subsequently, the author goes on to show the myth behind the wide-spread belief in mental illness and takes the case of child abuse as an area that has been created and misused by psychiatrists for their own gain. Chapters 7 and 8 are somewhat unusual and bold efforts to reveal the politics behind anti-smoking and anti-marijuana campaigns, while at the same time developing a defence for smoking and the use of marijuana. The author’s main claim is that the wide-spread campaigns against smoking cigarettes and marijuana are motivated by more ‘political’ reasons. In chapter 7, titled ‘Scapegoats of Western Medicine: the Phenomenon of Cigarettes,’ he takes up the case of cigarette smoking. His basic line of thinking on the matter is summarised by these sentences, which appear in the very first paragraph of the discussion: ...Of course, cigarettes have killed many people. But so many other things have killed more humans in worse ways, about those nobody talks. Why make such an overblown fuss about smoking while the very air we inhale spell death for us every day? The author himself answers the question: Western medicine is no less a danger. Western medical establishment wants a scapegoat to focus or project their angered failure on to this scapegoat. They must have something on to which they can vent all their pent-up anger and the consequent aggression and smokers have become the target. (125) The discussion unfolds along two lines: one is the positive aspects of smoking, like its ‘sublime character’ and how it has helped the mental


Asanga Tilakaratne

health for those who smoke; the other is to reveal the politics behind the entire anti-smoking campaigns that originated in the West. The author reveals that these so-called developed countries have double standards by their attitudes and behaviour, one for themselves and another for poorer countries. The conclusion of the discussion is the following: There is no point in treating smoking as a separate poison. We are literally surrounded by all over by various types of chemical poisons. Literally, it is all in the air we breathe, and in the water we drink. We now eat poison as food. Therefore, the basic need for us today is to find urgently a method to be proof to all poison. ( 142) Chapter 8, titled ‘Politics of Western Medicine: the Phenomenon of Marijuana’ runs in a vein similar to that of the previous chapter. The author claims that marijuana is a very valuable herb that has been used in medicine for a long time, and the recent uproar against it is motivated, again, by political and other reasons. The case, in other words, is very similar to that of cigarettes. One additional reason for the anti-marijuana campaign, according to the author, is that it is through the smoking of it that a large number of Western youths came to accept Eastern religion (e.g. John Lennon becoming a follower of Maharshi Mahesh Yogi), causing embarrassment to powerful Western religion. ‘Colonialism and Western Medicine in Our Part of the World’ is the title of chapter 9. The main thesis of the chapter is stated by the following words: ‘In the third world, Western medicine is a powerful political force which is similar to the way in which religion (Christianity) was used by Western imperialism. Its force is subtle because it masquerades as a neutral objective science’ (161). The main point emphasised in the discussion is how Western medicine works in collaboration with Western colonialism in so-called third-world countries. In other words, what the author is saying is that Western medicine is a new form of slavery to which we have been subjected. In the colonial periods, only those who followed their ways and styles of life were recognised, and in a similar manner today, in these countries ‘for all legal purposes only the Western Doctor is valid. They have all the medical authority, while the native physician is legally regarded as a quack and utterly neglected. They have no political or legal whatsoever’ (160). The author discusses how the self-perception of the Eastern physicians themselves has been shaped by this slave mentality. Chapter 10 is on the disappearance of traditional medicine due to material power and the psychological appeal of Western medicine. It discusses the reasons for the disappearance of Sri Lankan medicine.

The Nature of Medicine (A Critique…


Some of these reasons can be common to any indigenous medical system threatened by the formidable presence of Western medicine. They are the destruction of forests on a large scale, blockade of imports of herbal plants, lack of both physicians and patients, a lack of active undermining of educational facilities, the fact that native medicine can be more expensive than Western medicine, and the dietary habits and the foodstuffs inimical to indigenous medicine. Chapters 11 and 12 are long, informative and insightful accounts of Ayurveda and Buddhist medicines, which the author considers to be far better than Western medicine that is founded on Cartesian mind-body dualism. The author produces six reasons to show the desirability of the Ayurveda system. They are: (1) it has been practised very successfully without any side effects for more than 3000 years; (2) it has a unified theory of illness (the author finds this second reason to be a quite significant distinction in Ayurveda); (3) the theory is based on Sāṃkhya and Buddhist philosophies; (4) the previous reason indicates that the theory is ultimately founded on the idea of liberation; (5) the moral foundation of Ayurveda leads to the integration of the person and society; (6) it can never end up in a commercially exploitative situation mainly because it is primarily based on wild plants. The author also underscores the charitable aspect found in the indigenous medical practice. In comparing Western medicine with Ayurveda, the author finds the following negative points in the former: (1) Western medicine is wrong and dangerous by definition because its central working concept is ‘killing’ or ‘murder’ [of bacteria and germs]. (2) Almost all drugs are foreign to the body, as they are all chemicals. (3) Because Western drugs are chemicals they are often poisons. (4) Western medicine is totally alienated from the common person. (5) Western medicine treats illnesses out of their contexts. If a patient with kidney trouble comes to the doctor, the patient becomes one big kidney. (6) Therefore, in Western medicine, the disease is defined as an external enemy. (7) A major problem with Western medicine is that it leads towards a very primitive view of life and death. (8) Western medicine views man as a separate entity (from a cosmic context). The discussion ends with a detailed review of the Sri Lankan indigenous medical practice. Chapter 12 is a detailed discussion of Buddhist medicine. At the outset of the discussion, the author identifies the medical character of the teachings of the Buddha who is known as the surgeon incomparable (sallakatto anuttaro) in the early Buddhist tradition and the teacher of


Asanga Tilakaratne

physicians (bhaiṣajyaguru) in the Northern Buddhist tradition. In an illuminating discussion, the author shows how Ayurveda, though basically a Brahmanic system, has been influenced by Buddhist philosophy. In particular, the diagnosis of illness as arising basically from negative psychological characteristics, and the cure as effected by the practice of such virtues as kindness, generosity etc. have been highlighted. The author lays great emphasis on the Buddhist teachings on mental health and finds that Buddhism contains a comprehensive theory of mental health. Chapter 13 is titled as ‘Metaphysics of Medicine’ and focuses on some theoretical issues amongst which the question, whether Western medicine is scientific, is a key one. The author concludes that Western medicine is not scientific because it is relative to different countries where it is practised and whatever is relative cannot be objective. The author finds a very fundamental problem in Western medicine, i.e., the perception of its function as killing (germs etc.) He explains this situation in the following words: What really happens there in the Western medicine is that, because it is geared to the concept of killing of germs and bacteria, when it kills them, it kills, on the sly, the patient where the bacteria live too. The poison, called medicine, is targeted to kill living beings. The dose does not matter. The enemy knows that you are going to kill it. That is the point. Thereby the enemy starts exploring the ways of killing the patient who is its enemy. The mistake one does is that one thinks one is a separate being, living totally unconnected to others. That is why one cannot kill germs without killing oneself at the same time. Killing beings involve killing oneself because one is also a being not at all different from others, but necessarily a part of others. (281) The attitude outlined here, claims the author, makes Western medicine ‘the most immoral medicine system that has appeared in the world ...’ (283). Instead of this attitude of killing, the author proposes the following criterion: ‘The ideal medicine system has to be as harmless as possible, and as beneficial as possible to all beings in the universe as well as to the universe itself’ (282). The concluding chapter is titled ‘The Nature of Our Civilisation.’ The key piece of insight presented in the chapter is articulated by the following words: ‘without curing our civilisation we cannot cure those illnesses’ (293). The author thinks that the civilisation of technology has only brought us to the brink of destruction and that there must be a

The Nature of Medicine (A Critique…


radical change within us in order to escape from this disastrous situation. The author, however, does not seem to have much hope for this required change of mind, for he says: It may be a foolish thing to expect a voluntary change. If we are not ready for such a voluntary choice, all we can expect is a dramatic disaster, and, perhaps, a change for the better afterwards, if humans will still be living and have enough intelligence by that time. (293) The outline of the chapters attempted above is not at all meant to be exhaustive. It is impossible to do justice to the rich content in such a review as this. Nevertheless, this summary will help one to understand the line of thinking followed throughout the book. Looking at both the content and the approach of the book, we must admit that this is the first of its kind presented in such great detail to the Sri Lankan reader. I have several problems regarding the methodology and the argument of the book and I will try to articulate them subsequently. However, those considerations should not undermine my appreciation for the candidness, honesty and boldness with which Professor Dharmasiri presents his case. I will begin with a minor stylistic issue which, nevertheless, adversely affects the reader. As the author himself provides an explanation in his introduction, he has used materials from Feyerabend and Illich in the first two chapters, for they are the best authorities in this particular area and the author himself is not an expert in these matters which they have dealt with. As a result, the first two chapters are basically from Feyerabend and Illich, except for a few connecting sentences here and there by the author. In most of the other chapters too, we find this characteristic not to the same extent of the first two chapters, but in varying degrees. Although the author’s defence of this mode of presentation has a point, I believe that it is always better to summarise what others say in one’s own words rather than quoting extensively. Another way-out would have been to present these chapters as edited versions of Feyerabend and Illich. One advantage in doing so is that the reader does not have to strain his eyes (and mind) to determine where the inverted commas begin or end. In fact, in reading this book the reader is very often at a loss in not knowing whether he is reading a quotation or the actual words of the author. This has nothing to do with the authenticity or the accuracy of the argument: one can always get one’s premises from different sources and still derive a new conclusion. Nevertheless, stylistically, it could have been more effective if the author presented his case in his own words, quoting only where it is necessary to do so.


Asanga Tilakaratne

The book does a great academic and social service by uncovering the theoretical and social underpinnings of modern Western medicine. In particular, the author seems to focus on two aspects of this world-wide phenomenon, again and again, namely, the all-pervasive commercial character of medicine today and the erroneous and potentially harmful philosophical foundations of Western medicine. In elaborating on the first, the author refers to the ‘imperialism’ and ‘colonialism,’ of Western medicine, and the author, I think rightly, lays stress on the psychological allurement and the resultant slave mentality it produces in people, particularly those in developing countries. On the second aspect, the author stresses the self-perception of Western medicine as engaged in killing germs, and questions, again, I think rightly, the meaning of this negative self-portrayal. According to the author, the perception of a patient as a body separate from other bodies and a particular illness as an isolated incident or phenomenon in that body is ultimately based on the dualism of mind and body as two distinct substances by Descartes. The author finds fault with this ideology, again, with good reason. The author comes to these themes repeatedly in his book, and I think his treatment of these two issues themselves are enough to make his contribution noteworthy in contemporary Sri Lankan philosophical literature. The story, however, is not over. The all-pervasive characterisation of Western medicine by the author is that it is totally and unconditionally bad, negative, morally decadent and harmful. A reader who does not know much about the relative merits of different medical systems would start wondering whether the medical system to which he has the easiest access is really that bad. A very serious problem with Dharmasiri’s characterisation of Western medicine is bound to arise here: The negation of Western medicine is so total and unconditional that the reader is not going to believe it. Once the trust of the reader is broken down, a book loses its value. The trouble with Dharmasiri is not necessarily with the reasons he produces to support his thesis but with the extremism in his attitude. A representative example occurs in chapter 9 in the sub-section: ‘Doctors and Our Native Physicians’. The author contrasts physicians practising Western medicine with those who practice native medicine. The characterisation of the former is that he is completely aloof from his patients, he even would not talk to them and he must be bribed to get his service, whereas the latter, the native physician, is all out to help patients and is not interested in money. The author refers to personal experience by himself, a case when a Western medical practitioner had to be bribed by a very poor patient to receive his service. The author concludes: ‘Is

The Nature of Medicine (A Critique…


this practice of the medical profession or what? This could never happen in our traditional medical systems. I know cases where Vaidyas have paid return bus fares to poor or needy patients’ (Italics added. 167). What the author says is that all (or the majority) of the Western physicians are utterly corrupt, while none in the native medical system is so. The only supporting evidence he gives is a case where a doctor had to be bribed by a very poor person. The least I can say about this is that drawing a universal conclusion by observing (producing as evidence, in this case) only one case is an absolutely poor use of induction. This kind of generalisation only betrays the absolute dislike the author has towards the Western medical system, but never the actual status of its practice. Now, the biggest trouble with Dharmasiri lies in this kind of extreme negative conclusions he draws purely on emotional grounds. Letting us know that the author has a strong dislike towards Western medicine is autobiographically interesting gossip but not intellectually appealing information! There may be a psychological need, in this case, for a castigation and a negative expression. It might be helpful as a catharsis for certain readers, who may have been tantalised by the glamour of Western medicine, but what I have to say is that Dharmasiri’s presentation goes beyond even that kind of requirement. In this context, we may be able to derive some inspiration from the Buddhist doctrinal practice of affirmation, negation and qualified affirmation. In the Vajrachedikā-prajñāpāramitā-sutra (Diamond Sutra), the main purpose of which is to break our tendency for conceptual reification, we come across this process. The position of the person who believes in a substantial existence of concepts is illustrated by the affirmation of the reality of dharmas (dharmāḥ). The next step (na dharmāḥ) is the negation which signifies the negation of the substantialist notion of the dharmas. This second step has a cathartic value; it is a part of the purificatory process. However, the third step re-affirms the existence of the dharmas (dharmāḥ) in a non-substantial sense. If we apply this Buddhist practice to the present case, what comes under the severe criticism of Dharmasiri is like the reified view of the dharmas, a reified view of Western medicine. What Dharmasiri does from his book appears to be like the second step that is an unconditional negation of that reified reality. However, the trouble with Dharmasiri is that he does not go onto the third stage at all. One could argue that he does go onto the third stage by proposing Ayurvedic and Buddhist medicine as alternatives. This may be further justified on Kuhnian grounds. One could argue that Western medicine


Asanga Tilakaratne

and Eastern medicine are like Kuhn’s paradigms, each negating the other and presenting two completely different world views. Therefore, there cannot be any co-existence between the two paradigms. However, the paradigm shift Kuhn talks about can replace an existing system with another but does not nullify the old one. For instance, the Einsteinian paradigm of physics may be based on assumptions which are radically different from those of Newton. But the new paradigm of Einstein does not mean the total nullification of the older paradigm. The truth is that two systems function in two different fields of physics without interfering with each other. If we apply Kuhn’s paradigm shift to understanding the situation in which Dharmasiri is involved, we must admit that two systems may exist and function in two different fields. In fact, in actual practice, it could happen. A patient may be examined by both the Eastern and the Western physician and then, by agreement, either one may undertake to provide care for him. In such a situation, even Kuhn’s ‘windowless’ paradigm shift becomes less tenable. The situation we are in may be more like that of the proverbial sailor in Neurath’s boat, broken in the middle of the ocean and being forced to repair it while still being in it. The only way you can do this is to replace each plank by plank and not by totally dismantling the boat. What Dharmasiri wishes to say is that the boat right now, that we are in, is totally broken, but there are better boats around to which we can easily get into. The more realistic situation may be that we are in a decadent boat and there are equally, less or more decadent boats around, which cannot be totally relied on. What we can do is to take better planks from different boats and construct one good one by abandoning bad planks. In one way or other, what I mean to say is Dharmasiri should give more serious thought to the problem of salvaging the Western medical system. I say this, not as a conclusion of research that I have done on the subject, but my common sense and gut feeling say that the Western medical system with such considerable advancements behind it cannot be totally dismissed by any amount of theoretical arguments. Therefore, I feel that what we need to do is to seek ways to salvage it. The fact that it is beset with very serious deficiencies should not lead to the conclusion that it should be dumped altogether. For instance, the technology used by Western medicine cannot itself be good or bad; it depends on how we use it. If the meanings given to technology are harmful then we must be able to fix it at a deeper level. Dumping it altogether would be like throwing the baby out with the bath water.

The Nature of Medicine (A Critique…


The acceptance of the relative merits of every system is supported by the relativist methodology that Dharmasiri seems to accept. The very concept of a paradigm shift is relativist in nature. Different paradigms may exist in different domains. They may not necessarily co-mingle, but they may coexist side-by-side. As I mentioned earlier, in chapter 13, the author argues that objectivity is an essential characteristic of science. He says that Western medicine is only relatively true, and what is relative is not objective, and what is not objective is therefore not scientific. Now the major premise of the argument is that something must necessarily be objective for it to be a science. While being faithful to Feyerabend, I do not think that the author himself accepts this argument. It has been used to show that medicine is not a science according to its own criterion, but I do not think that this strategy works. The crux of Feyerabend’s argument is that ther