- EARLY BUDDHISM: SOME RECENT MISCONCEPTIONS
- By Henry Cruise
One of the most recent major writers on Buddhism, David Kalupahana, has
likened the approach of Early Buddhists(1) to that of the Logical Positivists: ... the
Buddha confined himself to what is empirically given. Following a method comparable to
that adopted by the Logical Positivists, he sometimes resorted to linguistic analysis and
appeal to experience to demonstrate the futility of metaphysics.(2)
Whether the Buddha demonstrated the futility of metaphysics will not be
our concern here. Our main concern will be to elucidate
I. The "empiricist" approach of Early Buddhism, and
II. What this approach lead to in the areas of
2. "Things" involved in causation (dharmas)
3. Nirvaa.na, Self, and the "unanswered" questions.
I. EARLY BUDDHIST EMPIRICISM
Early Buddhism rejected both authority and reason (specifically a
priori reasoning), either separate or together, as sufficient bases for knowledge. They
were rejected because, according to Jayatilleke, "beliefs based on authority or
reason may turn out to be true or false."(3)
Authority and/or reason may give us true beliefs, but that they are
true is not guaranteed by their being derived from reason and/or authority.
What guarantees the truth of a belief, and what constitutes knowledge,
is that one has "'personal knowledge'... of it, taking into account the views of the
"Personal knowledge" of something (say 'P') would seem to be
a necessary but not always sufficient condition for one to be said to have knowledge of
'P'. That a view is held by the wise does not appear to be a sufficient condition for one
to be able to claim a view as knowledge, but it would seem in some cases that it is a
necessary condition. How should we take this?
It should be noted that there would be a problem with the above if too
much emphasis were placed on "the wise," for then one would be left with the
question of how one can tell who are the wise, other than by ascertaining who possesses
knowledge, and consequently be open to a vicious circularity. Given this and the already
mentioned Buddhist rejection of authority, it seems reasonable to take the reference to
"the wise" as a reminder to check one's personal knowledge with the personal
knowledge of others.
The important question that arises is, what is to count as
"personal knowledge"? Both Kalupahana and Jayatilleke agree that "personal
knowledge" is acquired through perception, ordinary and extra-sensory, as well as by
inference derived from such perceptions.
There are said to be six forms of higher knowledge (abhi~n~naa) one can
acquire on reaching the fourth jhaana, or stage, of meditation. These are:
(i) iddhividhaa - psychokinesis
(ii) dibbasotadhaatu -clairaudience
(iii) cetopariya~naa.na - telepathic knowledge of various kinds
(iv) pubbenivaasaanussatin~naana - knowledge of past lives
(v) dibbacakkhu - knowledge of the decease and arising of beings
(vi) aasavakkhaya~naa.na - knowledge of the destruction of the defiling
As Jayatilleke points out,(6) (i) is a matter of "knowing
how", rather than "knowing that." We should also note that the rest,
(ii)-(vi), are not different forms of knowledge per se, but different forms of perception.
I may have the ability to perceive that I have destroyed the defiling
impulses, but, that I have so destroyed them, and further, known that I have, would appear
to be separate things again. Similarly, I may have the ability to read minds, hear voices
at a distance, and so forth, but this is distinct from any particular piece of knowledge I
may acquire from such abilities.(7)
Jayatilleke claims, justifiably I think, that Buddhism "makes less
obvious the gap between the empirical and the mystical."(8) The powers mentioned
above are not seen in any way as ''supernatural," and the conditions for their
attainment are listed by the Buddha. Both Jayatilleke and Kalupahana spend time discussing
these psychic powers, but they ignore the higher stages (5th-9th) of Buddhist meditation
and their role in Buddhist knowledge; Although these higher stages do not appear necessary
for the verification of the four noble truths, they do seem to play a part in Buddhist
knowledge, indeed, they did seem to have a part to play in the Buddha's own attainment of
The major point that is to be drawn from the above is that the early
Buddhist view of verification and knowledge is not as naive as Kalupahana's comparison of
it with Logical Positivism would lead us to believe.(10)
The empiricism of Early Buddhism is like that of the Logical
Positivists in that they both rejected a priori reasoning and authority as sources of
knowledge, and tried to ground knowledge in experience. But this is where the similarity
ends; there are major differences that highlight the Superficiality of the similarities so
Those Logical Positivists that were interested in knowledge (rather
than in demarcation criteria for linguistic meaningfulness) were interested in it as a
public endeavour, "science." Knowledge was seen as somehow being public property
which a society built on. On the other hand, knowledge is a private thing for Early
Buddhism. Even belief in the Four Noble Truths does not count as knowledge unless one has
investigated them personally, verified them for oneself. For Early Buddhism, "public
knowledge" would be a contradiction in terms.
Secondly, for Early Buddhism, grounding knowledge in experience was not
a straightforward matter whereby this or that experience verified this or that proposition
in a clear-cut manner. Rather, it was a matter of observing or seeing "with proper
understanding."(11) This not only points one to the fact that people can misperceive;
it is suggestive of a more significant point, that people can and do misinterpret what
they observe consistently.
The abovementioned injunction to check one's personal knowledge can be
seen as a caution stemming from the above fact. So, too, can the frequently stated claim
in the Nikaayas that people hold views because of certain likes and dislikes be seen as
another facet (in fact the cause) of people consistently misinterpreting the world.
Thirdly, not only did Early Buddhism consider the mind not to be a
"blank slate" upon which the world wrote, it insisted that the
"contents" of the mind were legitimate "objects" of observation.
Seeing and knowing the world correctly involved eliminating the "theory
ladenness" of our observations, and the only way one could eliminate such colouring
of our experiences was to be aware of our likes and dislikes, the theories or views we
held to. Thoughts, feelings, habitual tendencies, and so forth were all things we could
and should observe and come to see and know correctly.
The "empiricism" of Early Buddhism is aptly encapsulated by
Edward Conze when he claims that "like is known by like" in that there is a
"hierarchy of insights dependent on spiritual maturity."(12) However, Conze does
not see this as empirical at all; indeed, he views this as a demarcation between the
spiritual and the empirical. I think he is right in that it is at this point that Early
Buddhism diverges from the Logical Positivists, as it does take into account the above
mentioned phenomena. But I think he is wrong in asserting that Early Buddhism is
unempirical. It just had a more sophisticated idea of what it is to be empirical than had
the Logical Positivists, the latter being Conze's yardstick of "empiricism."
There is nothing methodologically wrong with the fact that special
training is needed in order for people to have certain observations and understandings.
Nor is a training procedure unsound because not all people are suited to, capable of, or
interested in that training. If this were the case then modern physics would be in
disrepute. To someone who objected to this line of argument by saying that modern physics
is involved in "public" (read "objective") observations, while
Buddhists indulge in "private" (read "subjective,"
"unscientific") observations, Early Buddhism would reply: "All experiences
are 'subjective', all knowledge is 'personal knowledge'."
The above is not meant to be a full blown defence of Early Buddhist
empiricism; it is more a sketch of how one can defend such a position, and an indication
of where I think the important issues lie. The main point is that there is a case to be
made that Early Buddhism was empirical, in the way that modern science might be said to be
empirical but not in the way in which "the Lord Buddha finds himself conscripted as a
supporter of the British Philosophical tradition of empiricism'."(13)
With the above as background, I now propose to examine some other areas
central to Early Buddhism.
It would appear that it is easier to say what the Early Buddhist theory
of causation is not, or what it rejects, than what it actually proposes. Many of the
scholars working in this area introduce the topic by detailing those ideas about causation
that Early Buddhism repudiates (that is, cause through/by self other than self-caused,
self and other-caused, and the thesis that there is no causation). These authors explain
why such ideas were rejected (not only because they were supposedly factually false, but
because they lead to the heretical views of either eternalism or annihilationism), and
then state that Buddhism treads a middle path between these extremes. But what is this
theory that treads a middle path?
Kalupahana believes that the Early Buddhist theory "transcends the
commonsense notion"(14) where the "commonsense notion" is one that
distinguishes causes and condition.(15)
While recognizing several factors that are necessary to produce an
effect, it does not select one from a set of jointly sufficient conditions and present it
as the cause of the effect. In speaking of causation, it recognizes a system whose parts
are mutually dependent.(16)
Jayatilleke holds that the Early Buddhist view of causation
"resembles the [modern day] Regularity theory except for the fact that it speaks
of... empirical necessity."(17) Kalupahana disagrees with this latter point, and
offers evidence in the form of a quotation from Buddhaghosa on 'necessity' which he thinks
shows that 'necessity' just points to the existence of regularity: "Since there is no
failure, even for a moment, to produce the events that arise when the conditions come
together, there is said to be 'necessity.'"(18)
However, Kalupahana does not believe that this leaves Early Buddhism
with a regularity theory or something closely akin to one.(19) In support of this he says:
"It is true that Early Buddhism depended on experience (i.e.,
'contact,' phassa, ch'u or 'sensation, vedanaa, shou) to verify the nature of reality. But
such experience was not considered momentary.... Therefore, the causal connection itself
becomes an object of experience."(20)
Furthermore he cites the statement "On the arising of this, that
arises" and the use of "dependent origination" to describe causation, as
evidence of an attempt to bring the notion of "productivity" into causation.
Although the use of these terms and aphorisms might be seen as
suggestive of more than regularity, it is difficult to understand what Kalupahana means by
"productivity." Kalupahana himself points out in other parts of his book that
Early Buddhism did not want to bring "metaphysical" concepts of "power to
produce, " and so forth into causation.(21)
Jayatilleke also notes the same point: "The Buddhist theory is...
empirical since it spoke only of observable causes without any metaphysical
pre-suppositions of any substrata behind them."(22)
Given this, it would seem that the most plausible support Kalupahana
has for holding that Early Buddhist views on causation were not ones of mere constant
conjunction, akin to a regularity theory, is that Early Buddhists felt that they could
perceive causal connections. However, nothing we have looked at so far would seem to imply
that Early Buddhists could, or claimed they could, see causal connections. Kalupahana's
point is that since Early Buddhists were able to resort to the sixfold higher knowledge,
they could "perceive the relationship between two events that are separated in time
and space."(23) But it is not at all obvious that one can perceive relationships, at
least in the way that it is not obvious that "one is able to perceive the causal
connection between two events that succeed one another without a pause or temporal gap
(e.g., the connection between touching a live electric wire and getting a
shock)."(24) Kalupahana claims one can see this connection, and with "higher
knowledge" one can see in a similar fashion other connections.
Taking Kalupahana's example, one can perceive the touching of the wire
and the shock, but whether one can perceive anything over and above this, a "causal
connection," is doubtful.(25) But this claim appears even more dubious when one
remembers that Early Buddhists do not, as Kalupahana himself notes, "select one from
a set of jointly sufficient conditions and present it as the cause of the
In the above example, it would not just be the touching of the wire
that caused the shock. The "cause" would be a set of jointly sufficient
conditions: touching the wire with bare hands, you being "grounded," the wire
connected to a generator that is functioning, and so on.
It might seem plausible to assert that one can see the connection
between a cause and an effect: A------causes------B
But, it does not appear possible that one can view the relationship
between mutually dependent conditions and an effect. It is this latter view of causation
that the Early Buddhists held.
All the above would seem to argue for our rejecting Kalupahana's claim
that Early Buddhists could perceive causal connections, and that their theory of causation
was something more than a regularity theory. However, despite this, I think Kalupahana is
correct, or at least his two conclusions are correct; the reasons he gives for his
conclusions seem to me less than adequate in places.
The first point to be made is that Jayatilleke is right in claiming
that Early Buddhism spoke of necessity, and it is prejudice that makes Kalupahana attempt
twisting the idea of "necessity"' into the idea of regularity.(27) This is a
crucial point to make, for if one allows that there are no empirical or
"natural" necessities, one gives the "in principle argument'' of Hume
(mentioned by Siderits in my note 25) a foothold.
Hume himself acknowledged that we have the "impression" that
we experience causal connections, but argues that since "empirical necessities"
are impossible in principle, we must be mistaken, and these "impressions" must
somehow have to do with habit and expectations, and they could only arise through our
projecting them (albeit unconsciously) onto the world. An Early Buddhist would have
rejected this however, for he would have given priority to experience and claimed that the
"in principle" argument is sophistry that needs to be rejected in favour of
experience. We have already noted that Early Buddhism considered the observation of
"internal" objects of experience, thoughts,feelings, perceptions, and so forth
as important as the observation of "external" objects. Because of this, Early
Buddhists would have had little reason to doubt that they did experience causal
connections. The arising of pain when one puts one's hand into a fire is not just constant
conjunction, it is an experience of the causal phenomenon "fire" in relation to
what it is to be the causal phenomenon "human being." We all experience this
causal connection. We shall say more about this in discussing dharmas; for the moment, I
would like to say a bit more about the Humean arguments that might make what we have
already said somewhat more palatable.
It might be thought that the rejection of Hume's argument on the above
grounds is cavalier, if not foolhardy, even if it is consistent with the Early Buddhist
epistemological position. Some might say that if this is what the Early Buddhist
epistemological stance condones, so much the worse for that stance. However, the work of
some modern day philosophers, particularly that of Saul Kripke, (28) should make the above
seem less cavalier, particularly in relation to the idea that empirical necessities exist.
In summarizing Kripke's views Stephen P. Schwartz says:
Kripke claims that most recent and contemporary philosophers have
failed to distinguish the metaphysical notion of necessity from the epistemological notion
of prioricity and the linguistic notion of analyticity. If "necessarily true"
means true in all possible worlds and a priori means knowable independently of experience,
then we are talking about two very different notions, and there is no reason to suppose
that their extensions have to be the same... Of course, the claim that there can be
synthetic necessary propositions is startling to most contemporary analytic philosophers,
but given the persuasiveness of Kripke's arguments and examples the claim must be taken
This is not the place to discuss Kripke's arguments; the main point is
that Hume's thesis that there are no such things as "empirical necessities" is
arguably false, and out experiencing such things need not be an illusion, a product of
habit and expectations. The other strand of Hume's argument, that any single experience is
insufficient in giving us experience of "causal powers, " is equally suspect.
Not is it with the identification of necessity with a prioricity,(30) but some authors
also have argued that:
... Hume's conclusion is already presupposed by his atomistic epistemic
assumptions. Since he takes punciform and atomistic sensations as epistemically basic, it
would be impossible for any single impression to be the original of any relational
concept, let alone the original of 'the action of causal powers'. This epistemic
assumption, however, seems more dubious to us than the fact of the ordinary experience of
the action of causal powers....(31)
As we have already noted, Early Buddhists did not hold such epistemic
assumptions, and would consequently not be swayed by the above Humean argument, nor be
inclined to view their observation of things in its light.
"Things" Involved in Causation (Dharmas)
All dhammas (Pali) are said to be characterised by:
(a) impermanence (anicca)
(b) unsatisfactoriness (dukkha)
(c) nonsubstantiality (anatta).
Kalupahana sees (a) as the essential characteristic and (b) and (c) as
corollaries. He also believes that for Early Buddhism the claim "all things are
impermanent'' is not based on the view that things are momentary, which Kalupahana says
would be seen as a speculative metaphysical opinion by Early Buddhists, but on an
empirical claim about objects of experience, which can be verified by seeing that all
things are subject to birth, decay, and destruction, arising and passing away.
The term dhamma, when applied to empirical things, is always used in
the sense of 'causally conditioned dhammas' (paticcasamupanna-dhamma)."(32)
Putting these ideas about "things" and "causation"
together, we see that for the Early Buddhists all things are conditioned, and all
conditions are themselves conditioned. It is essential that we keep this in mind, for in
my opinion it is central to Early Buddhism. "Causation" is not one thing and
"things involved in causation" another; we can differentiate them for ease of
discussion, but ontologically the are not separate or separable.
'Things' are not static, 'things' to which something happens or which
"bump into" other things; to be a thing is to be a causal thing, to be
conditioned and a condition. This is an active, dynamic understanding of causation and of
causal things. Thus a fire is not one thing and heat another, something a fire
"has." "Fire" is a name we give a complex causal phenomenon that has
certain conditions for its arising and certain necessary effects. To perceive a fire is to
perceive a causal phenomenon, to perceive causal powers. For this reason it would be
impossible for Early Buddhists to hold a regularity theory of causation along the lines
suggested by Hume, in that "we may define a cause to be an object followed by
another, and where all objects, similar to the first, are followed by objects similar to
the second."(33) An Early Buddhist would understand the notion of one object being
similar to another as one causal phenomenon being similar to another. For us to perceive
two objects as similar is for us to be in similar causal relationships with two assumedly
similar causal phenomena.
Our earlier criticism of Kalupahana gained its persuasiveness because
"things" were understood as "static things'' which were somehow
mysteriously "joined" in a causal situation. However, once we switch to looking
at "things" as "causal" things, as complex causal phenomena for which
we have certain names, the mystery disappears.
This also explains why the Early Buddhists were reluctant to allow
ideas of "power to produce" into the area of causation, for this brings us back
to the static notion of things, which supposedly possess these powers. To repeat, a thing
is nothing other than a 'causal thing', a causal phenomenon. As Harre and Madden point
out: "The exercise of causal power or efficacy is nothing in general; it is precisely
the relationship of production between specific and potent objects... and revealed in the
experience of daily life...."(34)
These views are, I think, a direct result of the Early Buddhist theory
of knowledge. This empirical attitude also leads to a concentration on the practical
aspects of attaining nibbaana, the conditions that need to be met for its attainment,
while excluding all 'speculative' views. The major drawback of this attitude is that Early
Buddhism does not, and indeed cannot, give causal explanations about much that we
Causal explanations involve indulging in speculative views, theorising
about causal mechanisms, suggesting hypothetical, theoretical entities. Early Buddhism
cannot give such explanations. They often list conditions that need to be satisfied before
certain effects occur, but they rarely are in a position to discuss what is significant
about such conditions such that they do give rise to effects. The distinction is between
being told that x, y, z, and so on need to be done before one's car will start, and being
told what it is about x, y, z, and so on that causes one's car to start. The former is a
listing of conditions, the latter an attempt at a causal explanation.
This is a problem I see with most Early Buddhist
"explanations." Jayatilleke notes this about one aspect of Early Buddhism when
he says, with regard to the ability to remember past lives, that "the pali Nikaaya's
are apparently not interested in accounting for this memory by a theory, but in merely
stating that it is a faculty that can be evoked.'"(35) In many ways, however, this is
not a disaster for Early Buddhism, as it was not interested in explaining everything;
rather it was concerned with explaining suffering and its cessation, and in this area it
did provide explanations.
Nirvaa.na, Self, and the Unanswered Questions Our discussion of
causation should lead us to expect Early Buddhism to see the "self" (or at least
a certain understanding of the self) as a causal phenomenon. Kalupahana succinctly
summarises this view saying:
According to him (the Buddha) this (the concept 'man') was merely a
'bundle of perceptions', or a group of aggregates, not discrete and discontinuous, but
connected by way of causation.(36) Somewhat reluctantly he also notes that one could take
the stance that:
What the Buddha denied was that the five aggregates (khandaa) are the
permanent and eternal 'self' (aatman) and that the Buddha did not actually deny a 'self'
over and above, or not identical with, the aggregates.(37)
According to Kalupahana this leads us to the problem of the unanswered
questions. I do not wish to discuss these in detail yet, but we can note that Kalupahana's
position is that to the Buddha the 'self', whether it is identical with the body or
different from the body, is a metaphysical entity. It is a metaphysical entity solely
because it is unverifiable, either through sense perception or through extrasensory
perception. In short, it is not given in experience (avisaya), and therefore the Buddha
left these questions undeclared.(38)
Kalupahana disagrees with any suggestion that Early Buddhism implies
the existence of a "transcendent" self, or a "transcendental"
nirvaa.na state. It is the latter claim I wish to tackle first. Kalupahana's first step in
arguing for this is to claim that Early Buddhism equates on the one hand,
(i) Nirvaa.na obtained in this life, with,
(ii) Nirvaa.na substrate left (saupaadisesa); while on the other hand
(III) Nirvaa.na after death, with,
(iv) Nirvaa.na substrate (anupaadisesa).(39)
That is, Kalupahana is taking the meaning of saupaadisesa (and its
negation) , literally. Saupaadisesa meaning "having substratum of life
remaining"(40) is understood by Kalupahana to refer to bodily existence, and not to
something like "potential for rebirth'' or "having inclination or craving for
The point of these distinctions is that, given them, Kalupahana can
claim that there is nothing essentially transcendental about one who has attained
nirvaa.na in this life. Further, the only reason we can say nothing about a dead arahant
(which for Kalupahana is the same as one who has attained nirvaa.na without substrate) is
that one should not speculate about unverifiable matters.
That is, no experience of such a one can be had through any form of
perception, and the nature of one who has attained nirvaa.na without substrate is not
unverifiable because he is transcendent, and so forth, but because such a one is dead and
beyond empirical investigation.
The above argument seems to me to be questionable on a number of
points. First, it is not obvious that one can make the equations (i) = (ii) and (iii) =
(iv), above (that is, nirvaa.na with substrate left, meaning "nirvaa.na in this
life" and nirvaa.na without substrate, meaning "nirvaa.na after death") .
If in fact this cannot be substantiated, then Kalupahana can no longer maintain that the
only reason one cannot say anything about one who has attained nirvaa.na without substrate
is because such a one is dead, and as such, beyond empirical investigation.
In the "Discourse on the Relays of Chariots"
(Rathaviniitasutta), in the Majjhima Nikaaya, it is said that one lives under the Buddha
for Utter Nibbaana without attachment (hereafter U.N.W.A.), and U.N.W.A. is said to be
(a) purity of moral habit,
(b) purity of mind,
(c) purity of view,
(d) purity through crossing over doubt,
(e) purity of knowledge and insight into the way and what is not the
(f) purity of knowledge and insight into the course,
(g) purity arising from knowledge and insight.(41)
Each of these states is said to be a purpose for the next state
(presumably each is a necessary condition for progressing to the next); for example,
"purity of moral habit" is a purpose for (necessary for) "purity of
mind." A footnote referring to the list above explains:
Whatever is purity of mind, this is the goal (attha), this the peak,
this the culmination of purity of moral habit.(42)
The main thing to note about the above is that there is no mention of
death as a necessary condition for U.N.W.A. (and (a)(g) does seem to be a list of
necessary conditions), and the last "state" in the list, (g), is said to be a
purpose for U.N.W.A. Also we should note that "without attachment" is a
translation of anupaadaa, which the Pali-English Dictionary says is a gerund of an
upaadiyati, the latter meaning "to take hold of, to grasp, cling to, show attachment
(to the world)." This suggests a less literal translation of anupaadisesa (without
substrate), than that given by Kalupahana, referred to above. Moreover, the following
quotations from Early Buddhist texts seem to deny Kalupahana's equations, (i) = (ii),
(iii) = (iv); in these texts it is implied that U.N.W.A. can be
attained in this life. At the end of the "Discourse of Kii.taagiri"
(Kii.taagirisutta) the Buddha says:
For a disciple who has faith in the Teacher's instructions and lives in
unison with it, monks, one of two fruits is to be expected: profound knowledge here and
now, or, if there is any basis (for rebirth remaining), the state of no-return.(43)
The Buddha expands on this at the end of "The Parable of the
Water-Snake" (Alagadduupamasutta). Here, after rejecting the view that he is a
nihilist, the Buddha lists six possibilities for his followers. It is worthwhile quoting
the significant parts of the first two at length:
(1) ... those monks who are perfected ones, the cankers destroyed, who
have lived the life, done what has to be done, laid down the burden, attained their own
goal, the fetter of becoming utterly destroyed, and who are by perfect profound knowledge
the track of these cannot be discerned.
(2) ... those monks in whom the five fetters binding the lower (shore)
are got rid of all these are of spontaneous uprising, they are attainers of utter nibbaana
there, not liable to return from that world.(44)
The Buddha goes on to list four more groups of attainment for his
followers, briefly these are:
(3) once returners, not liable to downfall
(4) bound for awakening
(5) if striving for faith, bound for awakening
(6) bound for heaven. (It is to be noted that monks are mentioned in
all but the last group.)
Keeping in mind that the above is a descending order of accomplishment
(from 1-6), we can note some of the similarities and differences between the first two
groups. It is stated that the second group are non-returners, consequently the first must
also be non-returners. The reason for this is that since the above is a descending order,
whatever a lower group has attained a higher will have attained and gone beyond. This is
one similarity; the differences are:
1st GROUP 2nd GROUP
Have perfect profound No mention of yet having
knowledge and are freed perfect profound knowledge and freedom
Said to be untraceable (tracks said to attain utter nibbaana cannot be
discerned) there (after death ?)
It seems clear from the above that attaining the state of non-returner,
and having the knowledge that one is a non-returner, is not the attainment of the goal of
Buddhism (although it is an indication that one is near the goal, certain to attain it).
In contrast to the "lower" second group, the first has
attained U.N.W.A. here, in this life. This is a direct contradiction of Kalupahana's
What also is clear is that knowledge is required for U.N.W.A. (Recall
(a)-(g) above, especially (g).) That knowledge is a requirement for U.N.W.A.
should not come as a surprise, as the Buddhists hold that ultimately it
is ignorance that is responsible for craving, grasping, old age, death, and so forth. That
in the end ignorance can only be eradicated by knowledge seems entirely consistent and to
be expected. We might surmise that for some, death can aid in acquiring such knowledge and
thus attaining U.N.W.A. But death is not the only way to such knowledge, and indeed it is
the "perfect profound knowledge" that is important for U.N.W.A., not death.
If one can attain U.N.W.A. in this life, then Kalupahana can no longer
maintain that the only reason the Buddha said little about such a one is that such a one
is beyond the scope of knowledge because he is dead and the Buddha did not want to involve
himself in mere speculation.
It is my contention that there is little essential difference between a
living and a dead Tathaagata (one who has attained U.N.W.A.), and the reason the Buddha
said little about such a being must be seen not only as because of the scope and limits of
knowledge, but, more importantly, because of the "nature" of one who has
attained U.N.W.A. Problems about this "nature" will have little to do with
problems of tracing one who has died. The same conclusion, that there is no essential
difference between a living and a dead Tathaagata, is held by RuneJohansson.(45)
Kalupahana's judgement on this conclusion is that this is a very superficial
comparison.... A living arahant cannot be known easily by an ordinary person, nor even
gods (Indra, Brahma or Prajaapati- M 1.40), because his ways are very different from their
own.... But an arahant can be known by another arahant. On the other hand, the nature of a
dead arahant cannot be known even by an arahant.(46)
In this instance I think Kalupahana slides over quite a few problems
much too quickly and ends up with a number of erroneous claims. The full excerpt from the
Majjhima Nikaaya used by Kalupahana in the above is:
Monks, when a monk's mind is free thus (by getting rid of the conceit
'I am') the devas those with Indra, those with Brahmaa, those with Pajaapati, do not
succeed in their search if they think: 'This is the discriminative consciousness attached
to the Tathaagata. What is the reason for this?(47)
The reason given is certainly not the one presented by Kalupahana above
("his ways are very different from their own"); it is (Horner:)(48) "I say
here and now that a Tathaagata is untraceable." (Johansson:)(49) "I say that a
Tathaagata cannot be known even in this life."
Given this together with our previous discussion, it seems clear that a
Tathaagata cannot be known if looked for by another. Further, a
Tathaagata cannot be known by another, because of his nature and not
for any straight-forward empirical reason, such as his being dead.
What are we to say about Kalupahana's other point, that an arahant can
be known by another arahant in this life? It would appear that if this were true, one
could not reasonably keep the position I have been advocating.
I would like to tackle this by noting that there are at least three
things we could mean by the above claim:
(i) That an arahant can be known to be an arahant, by another arahant.
That is, an arahant can know that another is an arahant, in this life.
(ii) That an arahant can know the nature of another who is known to be
an arahant (i,e, (i)), in this life.
(iii) That an arahant can have direct perception of the arahant nature
of another arahant, in this life.
I wish to argue that (i) and (ii) are not problems for the sort of
position I wish to advance. These are not problematic, for, remembering that Early
Buddhism allowed inference based on experience as a form of knowledge, (i) and (ii) could
be ture, and it also could be true that a living arahant is unknowable by another.
I could know (i) through inference, and partly because an arahant is
unknowable by another. For example:
Premise(1) Normal people have certain identifiable characteristics,
egos the conceit "I am" habits of mind, and so forth, Premise(2) The only people
who do not have such are arahants known from my own experience if
I am an arahant. Premise (3) This person has no such
haracteristics-known by psychic powers.
Therefore this person is known by me to be an arahant.
Similarly, if I am an arahant, and assumedly know my "own"
nature, I can therefore, knowing (i), inferentially know (ii), given that all arahants
have a similar, or the same, nature. Which of (i), (ii), or (iii) is claimed by Early
Buddhism? It is difficult to know where Kalupahana's claim comes from, for he cites no
texts at this point in his work, but the section of Johansson's book he is commenting on
does mention a text. It says:The venerable Maha-Moggollana saw with his mind (ceto) that
their minds (citta) were freed without basis (for rebirth).(50)
This is certainly compatible with holding that an arahant is unknowable
by another. I can know that someone is freed (for example, by seeing an empty prison cell)
and "know" where he is (that is, outside the cell) without implying I can trace
or directly perceive where, or what, he is.
Since a living arahant has been claimed to be unknowable by another, it
should follow that a dead arahant is also. However, Johansson cites texts
which he interprets as indicating that: at least the Buddha himself
claimed the ability to identify and report about dead arahants.... the Buddha himself was
able to trace an arahant after death.(51)
I think Johansson is drawing the wrong conclusions from these texts,
mainly because he does not make the sort of distinctions just made (that
is, (i), (ii), (iii) above). for there is a world of difference between
being able to report about, on the one hand, and identify or trace, on the other.
The texts he cites relate how the Buddha reported that certain monks
who died in a fire had attained parinibbaana.
If an arahant is unknowable by another, one could still know
inferentially that someone had attained nibbaana. That is, the Buddha could report that
someone had attained nibbaana, without it being the case that he could directly perceive
("know" directly) the nature of his being. The Buddha could know, through
inference, that someone had attained nibbaana after death because:
(a) only beings who have attained nibbana are not reborn (known through
experience and inference), (b) a certain being cannot be seen to arise (known through
psychic power clairvoyance the ability to see the demise and arising of beings), (c) one
can 'know', and report, that this certain being had attained nibbaana.
We can pause here and note some of the conclusions we have come to:
(1) Although Early Buddhism rejected a concept of self composed of the
aggregates, there seem to be suggestions that there is in some sense a self, but not an
(2) For Early Buddhism, nibbaana is something more than just escape
from the cycle of rebirth, more than becoming a non-returner. Further, attaining nibbaana
is intimately entwined with knowledge.
(3) U.N.W.A. is attainable in this life, and it would appear to be an
untraceable "state," that is, (it is) not directly perceivable by another.
What we cannot conclude from the above discussion is that Early
Buddhism has implications of the existence of a "transcendental" nibbaana state,
if we understand by "transcendental" the claim that it is a state that is not
knowable. We have seen that this state is not directly perceivable by another, but it is
"knowable'' if we follow Early Buddhist epistemological criteria. That is, this state
is knowable in the sense that all things are, in that we can have personal experience of
it, we can experience nibbaana. It is only when one unconsciously imports foreign
epistemological criteria that the debate about a transcendental state of nibbaana arises.
Nibbaana a transcendental state, if by this we mean a state that surpasses others; it is
not if we mean a state that is beyond knowledge, and hold consistently to the Early
Buddhist criteria for knowledge. It is neither sufficient(52) nor necessary that something
be able to be talked about, or described, before that something comes into the province of
human knowledge, as far as the Early Buddhists are concerned. It is the Buddha's refusal
to talk about, or describe, the nibbaana state and the Tathaagata that sparks much of the
debate about "transcendentalism" in Early Buddhism.
With this discussion in mind we can now approach those unanswered
questions of the Buddha that have to do with the Tathaagata. When asked to reply to the
a) The saint exists after death
b) The saint does not exist after death
c) The saint does and does not exist after death
d) The saint neither exists nor does not exist after death the Buddha
responded by saying "I do not say this" to each in turn.
I think we have said enough to enable us to dismiss Kalupahana's
explanation of the Buddha's silence on these questions. Kalupahana's explanation was that
"the silence of the Buddha was due to his awareness of the limitations of empiricism,
rather than concepts."(53) Is then the silence of the Buddha as a response to the
questions about the Tathaagata due to the limitations of concepts as Murti and Jayatilleke
amongst others believe? I think it is.
If we look at the context of the text in which these questions are put
to the Buddha by Vacchalotta, in the "Discourse to the Vacchagotta on Fire," we
find the Buddha saying "does not apply" to each of the alternatives (a-d) and
then saying: "this dhamma is deep, difficult to see, difficult to understand,
peaceful, excellent, beyond dialectic."(54) By way of explanation the Buddha asks
Vaccha what Vaccha would say on being asked which direction (North, South, East, or West)
the fire in front of him went on being quenched. The answer to be given to this question
containing four alternatives (North, South, East, West) is the same as the one that is
appropriate in response to the questions about the Tathaagata, which also entertain four
alternatives (a-d), that answer being, the question does not apply.
The point of the analogy would seem to be that in both cases, what is
assumed by the very framing of the question ('existence' applying to the Tathaagata,
spatial direction' applying to a spent fire) is unacceptable. So much so that to deny the
question is not enough; one must deny the assumption in the question, and one does this by
rejecting the question as not legitimate. These are sometimes called category mistakes,
but all questions of the sort we have been talking about need not involve category
mistakes; for example, ''Have you stopped beating your wife?" is a question that
might fit into the category of those which involve assumptions one wants to reject, but
does not involve a category mistake.
All this clearly suggests that the silence of the Buddha is likely to
be due to the lack of adequate concepts, due to the uncharacterizable, non-describable
(but not non-knowable) nature of the Tathaagata. However, in a recent article Mark
Siderits asserts that while we can see the unanswered questions as pointing to the Buddha
being aware that a category mistake is being made, we should also note that: "the
Buddha is not saying that the state of the arahat after death is indescribable or
ineffable. This possibility is represented by the fourth of the four alternatives, which
the Buddha rejected."(55)
It seems to me that Siderits is plainly mistaken, The fourth
alternative does not cover the possibility that the arahat after death is indescribable:
it covers the possibility that after death the arahat is describable neither as existing
nor as not existing. That is, accepting the fourth alternative does not entail that one
accept that the arahat is indescribable after death, it entails that one accept that the
arahat is not describable as either existing or not existing after death. One could still
accept that the arahat was not describable in these terms and at the same time hold that
the arahat was describable some other way. So rejecting the fourth alternative is not
tantamount to rejecting indescribability per se. The point of merit in Siderits' paper is
the suggestion that the case for the indescribability of
the arahat after death cannot rest just on the Buddha's silence in the
face of these questions. And my point is that it does not. Gathering together the salient
features of the above discussion, the substance of my argument is:
(1) Early Buddhism placed fundamental importance on knowledge,
understood as personal experience, and so forth. One could accept the Four Noble Truths as
truths, but one did not know them until one had personal experience of them, and it was
knowledge of them that was essentially important.
(2) A certain sort of theory of meaning seems to follow from this, and
it would appear to be something like that suggested by Jayatilleke, namely, that if one
had no personal knowledge of the things referred to in a statement, then that statement
was meaningless to one.
(3) If one accepts, both that nibbaana is a "state" that
surpasses others, and that one can only have knowledge of it by experiencing it for
oneself, that it is unlike all other "states," then:
(4) All statements about that "state" will be meaningless to
one, if one has not experienced that "state."
Now someone might point out in reply to this that what the above argues
for is not the indescribability of the nibbaana state but its indescribability to all
those who have not experienced it, and there may be true but to us meaningless
descriptions of the state, so that it is therefore describable. It is at this point that
the unanswered questions have importance, for they supplement point 3 above, and indicate
how unlike all other states the nibbaana state is. They point to the fact that nibbaana is
unlike all other states to the extent that all words and descriptions that derive from and
refer to experiences that are other than nibbaana are inappropriate for describing
nibbaana. And, if something as basic as existential language, exists/does not exist,
constitutes a category mistake, I am mystified as to what further categories our language
and experience leave us as alternative options of description.(56)
In summary then, my conclusions are that nibbaana is:
(a) Knowable, but not directly perceivable in another,
(b) Not meaningfully describable to one who has not experienced it,
(c) Not describable using language which gains its reference from
experiences that are 'other-than' nibbaana, that is, it is not describable.
(1) Kalupahana takes "Early Buddhism" to be that which is
presented in the Paali Nikaayas and the Chinese AAgamas. I shall follow this usage.
(2) David Kalupahana, Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism
(Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1975), p. 185.
(3) K. N. Jayatilleke, Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge (London:
George Alien & Unwin Ltd., 1963), p. 416.
(5) See Kalupahana, p. 104, and Jayatilieke, p. 438, where these are
noted and discussed.
(6) Jayatilleke, p. 439.
(7) Having any such ability may be a form of knowledge itself, but,
following Jayatilleke's distinction, this too is a matter of 'knowing how' (e.g., to read
minds) rather than 'knowing that'.
(8). Jayatilleke, p. 439. Jayatilleke goes further than this and later
claims that "causal empirical explanations were everywhere substituted (e.g.,
theories of perception, knowledge, consciousness, etc.), for prevalent metaphysical
theories." (Ibid., p. 452). This further claim is incorrect. in my opinion, as I
(9) Among other places this is mentioned in 'The discourse on the
Ariyan Quest' in the Majjhima Nikaaya. I do not wish to go into the status of these higher
levels of meditation here, but one need keep in mind that they are mentioned in Early
Buddhist texts, and they do have some part to play in Early Buddhist knowledge, a part
that has been virtually ignored by modern scholars.
(10) I do not wish to imply that Kalupahana is alone; many scholars
have held that Early Buddhism maintained a naive form of empiricism.
(11) Kalupahana, p. 11.
(12) Edward Conze, Buddhist Thought in India (London: George Allen
& Unwin, 1962), pp. 26 and 17, respectively.
(14) Kalupahana, p. 59.
(15) Kalupahana criticises Murti for not distinguishing between the
Early Buddhist and the later theories of the Abhidharma. He, rightly, I think, points out
that the former did not have a theory of moment, or atoms, nor did it distinguish between
cause and conditions. See The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (London: Allen & Unwin,
(16) Kalupahana, p. 59.
(17) Jayatilleke, p. 453.
(18) Kalupahana, p. 93.
(19) Jayatilleke. on the other hand, is prepared to accept that the
Early Buddhist theory is a type of regularity theory, and this is open to such a theory's
traditional criticisms that its characterization cannot distinguish between accidental
constant conjunctions and causal situations. This seems to be the crux of E. J. Thomas'
criticism of Early Buddhist ideas on causation. See The History of Buddhist Thought (New
York, 1933), p. 62.
(20) Kalupahana, p. 96.
(21) Ibid., p.73.
(22) Jayatilleke, p. 453.
(23) Kalupahana, p. 104.
(25) Mark Siderits, in reviewing Kalupahana's book points out that
"no empiricist may consistently speak of... an experience of causal connection... no
amount of additional kinds of sensa can render perceptible what is in principle
imperceptible." See The Journal of Indian Philosophy 8:194.
(26) Kalupahana, p. 59.
(27) Siderits claims that "Kalupahana represents the Buddha as
holding that there is a necessary connection between cause and effect" (p. 96) .
However, Kalupahana does not claim this. What he does say is that Early
Buddhism viewed causation as more than constant conjunction, but what this specifically
means is never spelt out. Kalupahana draws back from claiming that Early Buddhists held to
empirical necessity as we noted above, and I think Kalupahana is wrong so to draw back.
See Journal of Indian Philosophy 8:193.
(28) See "Naming and Necessity" in The Semantics of Natural
Language, edited by Donald Davidson and Gilbert Harman (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1972).
(29) Stephen P. Schwartz, "Intorduction" to Naming, Necessity
and Natural Kinds, edited by Stephen P. Schwartz (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977),
(30) Part of the force of Hume's epistemic argument comes from the idea
that since it is only with repeated exposure that we discover certain
things about objects (e.g., fires), things that are not discoverable at
first glance; such things can only be 'empirical', meaning 'not necessary'. One must also
resist the temptation to confuse problems about empirical necessities with problems about
induction. To say that fires must necessarily burn unclad human beings is not to claim
that fires must always (or necessarily) exist, nor is it to claim that things that look
like fires must burn things that look like unclad human beings.
(31) R. Harre and E. H. Madden, Causal Powers (Oxford: Basil Blackwood,
1975), p. 55.
(32) Kalupahana, p. 84.
(33) An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section VII.
(34) Harre and Madden, p. 57.
(35) Jayatilleke, p. 440.
(36) David Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis
(Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1976), p. 39.
(38) Ibid., p.41.
(39) Ibid., p. 69.
(40) T. W. Rhys Davids and W. Stede, eds., The Pali Text Society's
Pali-English Dictionary (London, 1921-1925), p. 655.
(41) Majjhima Nikaaya, in The Middle Length Sayings, vols. I-III,
trans. I. B. Horner (London: Luzac & Co., Ltd., 1967), I, p. 193.
(43) Ibid., II, p. 156.
(44) Ibid., I. pp. 181-182.
(45) Rune Johansson, The Psychology of Nirvana (London: George Allen
& Unwin Ltd., 1969), p. 61.
(46) Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy, p. 83. Emphasis mine.
(47) Majjhima Nikaaya I, p. 179.
(49) Johansson, p. 61
(50) Ibid., p. 62
(51) Ibid., p. 63
(52) Jayatilleke discusses the Early Buddhist theory of meaning and
claims that for them a statement is meaningless if no experiential content is attached by
the speaker or hearer of the words used in the statement. See Early Buddhist Theory of
Knowledge, p. 321.
(53) Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy, p. 180.
(54) Majjhima Nikaaya, II, p. 165.
(55) Mark Siderits, "A Note on the Early Huddhist Theory of
Truth," Philosophy East and West 29, no. 4 (October 1979): 491-99.
(56) I am thus puzzled by Siderits' claim that "Once we see...
that such predicates as 'reborn' simply do not apply to the arahat and that the deceased
arahat is subsumed under a different category, the seeming oddity of the position (the
Buddha rejecting the four alternatives) vanishes."
(Ibid., p. 494). I would like to know what this "different
category" is. I would also like to know why, if the Buddha did see these
questionsjust in terms of rebirth (i.e., questions about whether the Tathaagata exists
after death were to be understood as asking if the Tathaagata was reborn), he was
perfectly happy on some occasions to say plainly that the Tathaagata was not reborn, while
on others he was extremely coy, and why these latter occasions coincided with those times
he was asked, not about rebirth, but about existing after death.
Transcribed for Buddhism
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