Early Buddhism: Some recent misconceptions
Philosophy East and West Volume 33, no.2 (April, 1983) P.149-165
by University of Hawaii Press
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
this approach lead to in the areas of
involved in causation (dharmas)
3. Nirvaa.na, Self, and the "unanswered"
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 wise."(4)
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
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.
(iii) cetopariya~naa.na--telephathic knowledge of various kinds
of past lives
(v) dibbacakkhu--knowledge of the decease and arising of beings
(vi) aasavakkhaya~naa.na--knowledge of the destruction of the defiling impulses.(5)
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.
may have the ability to perceive that I have destroyed the defiling impulses,
but, that I have so destroyed them, and further, knonw 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)
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 nibbaana.(9)
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
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 far cited.
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 clearcut 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.
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
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."
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'."
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)
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
Jayatilleke holds that the Early Buddhist view of causation
"resembles the [modern day] Regularity theory except for the fact that it
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:
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)
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:
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"
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
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 effect."(26)
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.
might seem plausible to assert
that one can see the connection between a cause and an effect:
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
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 seriously.(29)
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 only is it tainted 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.
in Causation (Dharmas)
All dhammas (Pali) are said to be characterised by:
(b) unsatisfactoriness (dukkha)
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
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.
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
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)
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 experience.
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:
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
Somewhat reluctantly he also notes that one could take the
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)
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
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)
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
(ii) Nirvaa.na substrate left (saupaadisesa); while on the other
hand he equates,
(iii) Nirvaa.na after death, WITH,
(iv) Nirvaa.na substrate
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 life remaining."
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.
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 none of:
purity of moral habit,
(b) purity of mind,
(c) purity of view,
purity through crossing over doubt,
(e) purity of knowledge and insight into
the way and what is not the way,
(f) purity of knowledge and insight into
(g) purity arising from knowledge and insight.(41)
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
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
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)
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 knowledge
and are freed No mention of yet having perfect profound knowledge and freedom
Said to be untraceable (tracks cannot be discerned) Said to attain utter nibbaana
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 claim. 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 Rune Johansson.(45) Kalupahana's judgement on this conclusion is that
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.
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
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.
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 true, 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.
Premise(1) Normal people have certain identifiable characteristics,
egos-the conceit "I am"-habits of mind, and so forth,
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 characteristics-known
by psychic powers.
Therefore this person is known by me to be an arahant.
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)
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
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.
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),
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 "I."
(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
(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
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 is 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
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,"
(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)
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
(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 Pali Nikaayas and the Chinese AAgamas. I shall follow this
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),
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
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 argue below.
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.
12. Edward Conze, Buddhist Thought in India (London: George Allen &
Unwin, 1962), pp. 26 and 17, respectively.
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, 1955).
16. Kalupahana, p. 59.
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.
Kalupahana, p. 96.
21. Ibid., p.73.
22. Jayatilleke, p. 453.
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. P.166
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), pp. 25-26.
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.
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.
David Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis (Honolulu: University
Press of Hawaii, 1976), p. 39.
38. Ibid., p.41. 39. Ibid., p.
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.
45. Rune Johansson, The Psychology of Nirvana (London: George Allen
& Unwin Ltd., 1969), p. 61.
46. Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy, p. 83.
47. Majjhima Nikaaya I, p. 179.
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.
Buddhist Philosophy, p. 180.
54. Majjhima Nikaaya, II, p. 165.
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