Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Knowledge and Metaphysics in Ancient India


Introduction


This post -- the second in a set of preliminary studies -- will examine selected aspects of the problem of knowledge as it presented itself in ancient Indian thought, in particular, in the Upanishads and early Buddhism. It will begin by looking at various ways that the Upanishads arrived at their doctrines and will then move to the problem of how the self was known in the early and middle Upanishads. The problem of Vedic authority will then be taken up through an examination of the nature of the Buddhist critique of the Vedas as well as the brahmanic response to that critique. The post will then close with a critique of K.N. Jayatilleke's contention that early Buddhism constituted a form of "empiricism."

For the most part here, I follow Jayatilleke's excellent monograph, Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge. Indeed, the post as a whole can be read as a reflection upon, and review of, Jayatilleke's book.

I. Metaphysics and Ways of Knowing in the Upanishads

The Upanishads are often associated with the earliest developments of Indian speculative thought. They are also associated with some of the earliest expressions of Indian mysticism. A general claim is sometimes made, by Neo-Vedantins and others, that the contents of the Vedas are based upon the mystical and illuminative "experiences" of the rishis who composed them. A version of this theory is the contention that the various metaphysical conceptions found in the Upanishads are based upon the "yogic experiences" of ancient rishis.

While there may indeed be a relationship between certain experiences and various conceptions found in the Upanishads, it would be difficult to maintain that the entire contents of the Upanishads are based upon the yogic experiences of the ancient rishis. This is not to say that this is a general claim of the Neo-Vedantins; Aurobindo, for one, made a point of distinguishing those parts of the Upanishads that are "experientially based" from those that are not. Nonetheless, in light of the above, a critical account of how specific conceptions in the Upanishads find their basis might be in order.

Before beginning, a review of the idea that metaphysical concepts, in general, are derivative of mystical experiences might be useful. The idea that the metaphysical content of a spiritual discipline is derived from the mystical experiences following from its practice is an idea most closely associated with what is sometimes called "mystical empiricism." Empiricism generally holds that any legitimate metaphysical conception must be empirically verifiable. It also contends that all our concepts ultimately derive from experience. Mutatis mutandis, mystical empiricism holds that the truth of a particular spiritual teaching can be "verified" by way of direct, transpersonal or mystical experience. Its contention is that various metaphysical truths -- as well as various metaphysical "structures," such as "higher planes of being," and so on -- were "discovered" by the founders of the different traditions of spirituality, and that these truths, and structures, can be personally "verified" by experimentally replicating the experiences of the founders via the spiritual techniques first used to discover them. The implication of this contention is that the metaphysics underpinning a spiritual discipline is based upon, and drawn from, the experiences of its founders. Recently, a similar notion has beed put forward by certain scholars of Yogachara and Vijnanavada thought, who have suggested that the contents of the philosophy of that school is, in part at least, derivative of meditative experience.

While such ideas are suggestive, they are also theoretically problematic. They are problematic as it is difficult to say which of the two, the metaphysic or the experience, is logically prior. Did an experience determine a particular metaphysic, or did the teaching, which implies a metaphysic, determine the experience? The two seem inextricably intertwined. In what follows will argue from the direction of the latter point of view and offer an alternate interpretation of what is actually achieved by the practice of a spiritual tradition.

Though the Upanishads relate various states of consciousness, such as dreaming, to certain metaphysical conceptions, there is no unanimity in the Upanishads as to how such states are to be conceived. We find, for example, more than one theory associated with the state of dreaming. According to one account, the self wanders around outside the body during dreaming. It is in the context of this idea that Brhad Up 4.3.14 says, "do not wake him too suddenly," lest his dream-self not find its way back into its body. But according to another idea the self remains inside the body while dreaming (Brhad Up 2.1.8). This is the interpretation favored by Shankara. Here, it is apparent that we have two very different conceptions of dreaming. Now if these conceptions of dreaming were derived entirely from the experience of dreaming itself, we would not find different interpretations of what happens when one dreams. This means that account of dreaming found in the Upanishads also derives from speculation and that it is not based solely on the "raw" experience of dreaming.

A parallel example can be found in the later yogic tradition. In the kundalini yoga of the Naths, the yogic process, and the experience associated with it, is said to occur "within" the body. But in the shabda yoga of the northern Sants, the yogic process, and the experience associated with it, is thought to occur "outside" the body. Here, it is apparent that how a teaching initially conceives of yogic experience is determinative of how that experience is later interpreted. This is to say that the metaphysical conceptions underpinning a particular teaching will, to a significant extent, pre-determine the experiences that follow from that teaching.

Given this point -- that a pre-conceived metaphysics is already at work interpreting "yogic" experience even while it is occurring -- there is certain circularity to the "verification" theory of the mystical empiricists. According to mystical empiricism, spiritual truths, and various metaphysical structures, are "re-discovered" or "verified" by practitioners of a spiritual tradition through its practice. But accepting a particular practice will mean adopting the specific form of that practice; it will mean accepting the teaching that informs it, along with the metaphysical edifice underpinning that teaching. It is no accident, then, that these "metaphysical structures" are "re-discovered" by practitioners. For what is practice (abhyasa; bhavava) but the inculcation of a teaching to the point where one comes to understand one's experience in terms of it, where one begins to see reality in accord with that metaphysic? We will return to this point below.

One experience that appears to have been, more or less, directly related to certain metaphysical conceptions is the experience of ecstasy (i.e., the so-called "out of body experience"). Since the time of the Rg Veda, the experience of ecstasy has been related to the idea of the separability of the personality or "soul" (anu; manas; atma) from the body. The Keshi-sukta section of the Rg Veda (10.136), for example, describes the ecstatic experiences of the keshins, long-haired munis, who appear to drink some sort of psychotropic compound (visha) and fly through the air with the winds, "looking down on those below." More significantly, Rg Veda 10.59 describes how the soul (manas) of someone thought to be dead has "wandered" some distance in the nether worlds before returning to its body. Later, the Katha Upanishad speaks of the practice of separating the inner self (antar-atma) from the body just as the core from a stalk of grass is pulled from its sheath (2.3.17). Even the Buddhists speculate about the ability to separate the "mental body" from the physical body (mano-maya-rddhi).

While there appears to be a relationship between the experience of "bodily transcendence" and certain metaphysical conceptions, such as the separability of the soul from the body, a one-way relationship between the two cannot be established, for the same reason that the experience of dreaming does not necessarily imply the idea that the soul wanders around outside the body during sleep. There are, in other words, other ways of intepreting the experience of ecstasy. Again, this is because there is a degree of speculation involved in understanding of the experience of ecstasy. Thus, descriptions of the ecstatic experience cannot be taken as accounts of some "raw" experience.

In his comments on Rg Veda 10.59, A. MacDonnell suggests a relationship between the experience of ecstasy and ideas concerning the continuation of the soul after the death of the body. Eric Frauwallner and K.N. Jayatilleke have also both suggested that meditative experience (jhana) may have contributed to speculations concerning the existence of a "mental-body" (mano-maya-kaya). The Vedic tradition itself appears to have attempted to use the experience of ecstasy as grounds for positing the existence of the disincarnate soul. That they had attempted to do so is evident from the remarks of the materialists. Interestingly, the materialists take the very argument, turn it around, and use it against the Vedic tradition. The materialists argue that the disincarnate soul does not exist precisely because it cannot be separated from the body the way we can separate a stalk of grass from its sheath. In other words, we do not actually see a soul rising from the bodies of people who have recently died.

While it would appear, then, that the experience of ecstasy was related to conceptions concerning the existence of the soul, I think it is worth pointing out that speculation about the afterlife, the immortality of the soul, the existence of heaven, and so on, had as much, if not more, to do with wonder about, and desire for, life after death than it did with trying to simply understand the experience of ecstasy. In other words, the attempt to base the existence of the soul on the experience of ecstasy would appear to be an ad hoc attempt to rationalize and justify the desire for life after death. The Buddhists, who are critical of just such desire, appear to have recognized this; the Potthapada Sutta points out that we should not be lead astray by the language of the Buddha when he speaks of the mental body (mano-maya) as some sort of "constructed self" (atta-patilabha). In other words, the mental body is not to be taken as an actual self; this is indicated by the fact that it "comes and goes." Much the same can be said for later conceptions concerning the existence of the "subtle body" (sukshma-sharira; linga-sharira). The postulation of a "subtle body" had more to do with the explanatory need for a vehicle for the karmic "seeds" (bija) that remain after the death of the physical body than it did with the need to explain or understand a particular "meditative experience."

Another domain where mystical experiences would seem to be determinative is soteriology. While we cannot rule out the possibility that mystical experience was involved in conceptions of liberating insight or enlightenment (avabodha), it is important to note that the eschatological and soteriological conceptions in the Upanishads are also essentially related to certain patterns of thought. While the early Upanishads do contain content relating to the older brahmanic ritualism, they generally offer a significant critique of the personal eschatology associated with the sacrificial cult and its ritualism. At several points in the Upanishads (Brhad Up 1.4.15; 3.8.10; 4.4.6; Chan Up 5.10.5; 8.1.6; Mundaka Up 1.2.9) it is stated that when the karmic results of the rite are "used up," the beneficiary of the rite leaves the heaven-realms (svarga) and returns back to the world of men. In other words, there is a growing recognition in the Upanishads that the fruits of ritual action (karma) are only temporary. The logic behind this kind of thinking is as follows: whatever comes into being, goes out of being; the effects (karya) of ritual action (karma) come into being; therefore, they will, in time, go out of being. This same logic underpins the soteriology of Advaita Vedanta, with its notion that moksha is, in reality, "always already" established (nitya; siddha), and it is this same reasoning that Shankara uses when he rejects the idea that liberation is the causal effect of some means (sadhana). Moksha must be permanent; therefore, it cannot be the result of an action. Here, rather than an experience, it is a certain kind of inferential thinking that is determinative of how moksha is to be conceived.

Other metaphysical conceptions in the Upanishads can be shown to be related to basic observation and inference. For example, discernable in the Upanishads are certain clusters of ideas forming rudimentary "theories" about the mysterious processes of life and death. These theories are each based upon one of the elements of life: "fire" (tejas); breath (prana); and water (apah). That these theories derive in large part from simple observation and inference is not difficult to see. The monsoons bring new life to plants; vegetation dies during periods of drought; living bodies are warm and respiring; corpses are cold and breathless. This act of observation is related to the term "darshana" in the oldest Upanishads, and "observation" is one of the earliest senses of this term. We also find the term used in the later classical tradition with a similar sense. In philosophical writing, darshana and its cognates mean, "it can be seen that..." or "we see that...." This "seeing" acts as a substitute for other senses, like the sense of touch. We might say that the term "darshana" refers to perception in general. Accordingly, Chandogya 3.13.8 says, "This is the perception (drshti) of that, when one cognizes (vijanati) the warmth (ushniman) in the body (sharira) by touch (samsparsha)."

In the Brhararanyaka Upanishad, knowledge of the self is related to this "seeing." There we read that the self is "to be seen" (drashtavyam), as well as to be heard, reasoned about, and contemplated (Brhad 2.4.5). The later tradition takes this four-fold group as referring to a sequential process through which truth is gradually revealed. But there is no reason to assume that the four were originally meant to reflect a progressive unfolding of knowledge and understanding. What these four probably originally referred to were four different, though inter-related, manners of knowing.

The early Upanishads did, however, distinguish knowledge of the self from other forms of knowledge. Chandogya Upanishad 7.1.2-3 reads: "O sir, I have studied the Rg Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda and the Atharva Veda, the Epics and Puranas, grammar, ritual, mathematics, meteorology, mineralogy, debate, etiquette, etymology, ritual science, the elements, archery, astronomy, herpetology, and the fine arts. O sir, I know all these. I am a knower of these mantras and sciences (mantra-vid). But I am not a knower of the self (atma-vid)."

In the Taittiriya Upanishad, which is later than the Brhad Up and Chandogya Up, we read that study (svadhyaya) and discussion (pravacana) are to be practised (Tait Up 1.9.1). This can be taken as referring to the practices of 'hearing' (shravana) and 'thinking' (manana) referred to above. It would appear, then, that at this point in the tradition, listening, discussion, recitation, and debate were important aspects of the teaching of the Upanishads. Accordingly, some etymologists take the term "upanishad" to mean, "come, sit near (and listen to this teaching)."

In the Katha and Mundaka Upanishads, which are later still, we find the beginnings of a more critical gnoseology. Katha Up 1.2.7 says, "The self cannot be attained through mere hearing (shravana)." The next verse, 1.2.8, reads, "This self is not known when spoken of (prokta) by people... (and) it is beyond reasoning (tarka)." Apparently referring to the Taittiriya Up, Katha Up 1.2.23 says, "The self cannot be grasped through discussion (pravacana), through the intellect (medhyaya), or by repeated hearings (bahuna shrutena)." And Katha Up 2.3.12 says, "The self cannot be obtained through speech (vacas), through the mind (manas), nor by the eyes (cakshus)." Such passages can be read as a critique of the practices of "seeing," "hearing," and "reasoning" referred to above.

However, according to Katha 1.3.12, the self can be seen (drshyate) with the subtle intellect (sukshmaya buddhya) by those seers (darshi) who are able to perceive the subtle (sukshma). In the Mundaka Upanishad this idea is clarified. At 3.1.8-9 we read that the self is seen (pashyate) while meditating (dhyanamanah) through the clarification of knowledge (jnana-prasadena), or by the mind (citta) that has been purified (vishuddha). The Gita contains similar expressions. Gita 13.24 also says that one can see (pashyati) the self by way of meditation (dhyana).

It would appear then that by the time of the Katha Upanishad, yogic meditation entered the picture as a new means of knowledge in the Indian tradition. It would also appear that this tradition of mystical vision begins to understand itself in contradistinction to the older tradition of inculcation through recitation, listening, discussion and debate. Significantly, we find mention of two kinds of knowledge in the Mundaka Upanishad: a "lower knowledge" (apara-vidya) and a "higher knowledge (para-vidya). Here, the four Vedas and various sciences mentioned above in Chandogya Up 7.1.2-3 are explicitly referred to as the "lower knowledge" (Mundaka Up 1.1.5) and the "higher knowledge" is related to that which is "unseen" (adrshya), "ungraspable" (agrahya), "subtle" (sushkshma), and "without eyes or ears" (Mundaka Up 1.1.6). It is this "higher knowledge" that is said to be the means to attaining the "indestructible" (akshara).

II. Authority and Knowledge in the Brahmanic Tradition and Philosophical Darshanas

When the Vedic tradition was the only tradition practiced in India, there was little questioning of its authority, except perhaps among the materialists. But with the rise of heterodox traditions such as Buddhism and Jainism, its authority became a matter of great interest. According to the early Buddhist accounts, the brahminic tradition claimed that the Vedas were "composed" by the rishis. We do find occasional references to the Vedas being the "utterances (vakya) of the rishis" that support this contention. But it is difficult to determine whether or not the brahmins of the Buddha's time actually made this claim or whether this is merely a polemical construction on the part of the Buddhists.

In the Rg Veda, we find the idea that the Vedas are produced by the sacrifice of the cosmic person, Purusha (Rg Veda 10.90). In the later Brahmanas, the Vedas are said to arise from the divine Word, Vak (Taittiriya Brahmana 2.8.8.5). Elsewhere in the Brahmanas, Prajapati, the creator god, is said to be the source of the Vedas (Taittiriya Brahmana 3.3.2.1; Shatapata Brahmana 6.1.1.8). At times, Prajapati is identified with Brahma, and Brahma is related to the three Vedas. In the Upanishads, Brahma is said to have taught the Vedic tradition to Prajapati (Chandogya Up 8.15.1) and Prajapati is said to have taught the gods (Brhadaranyaka Up 5.2.1) and Manu (Chandogya Up 8.15.1). If Brahma is understood to be the creator and source of the Vedas, this can be taken as a reference to a personal (pauruseya) if superhuman origin for the Vedas.

In the later brahmanic commentarial tradition we find a more novel theory as to the origin of the Vedas. According to Yaska (5th century BCE), the rishis directly intuit (sakshat-krta) the Vedic dharma (Nirukta 1.20). In a similar way, the Vedartha-prakasha, a commentary on the Taittiriya Samhita, states that the Vedas are "seen" (drshta) by the rishis through "super-sensory perception" (ati-indriya pratyaksha). Here, it would appear that the brahmanic tradition is beginning to be concerned with establishing the authority of the Vedas by relating their origin with the most direct means of knowledge: perception.

In the Indian philosophical systems (darshana), we find a further development of the idea that the rishis directly intuit the Vedas through super-sensory perception. In his commentary on the Nyaya Sutras, Vatsyayana states that the rishis are "reliable witnesses" (apta) and legitimate sources of knowledge (1.1.8). The reference to the idea of a "reliable witness," or authoritative expert, is a reference to the epistemic theory that in some cases "word of mouth" (shabda), that is, testimony from a reliable source, is a legitimate source of knowledge (pramanya). The case of the rishis, here, is interesting. According to Vatsyayana, the rishis are reliable because they have directly intuited (sakshat-krta) the Vedic dharma (Nyaya Sutra Bhashya 2.1.68), even though the Vedas are said to belong to the domain of non-empirical facts (adrshtha). This is clearly an adaptation of Yaska's idea recast in terms of the epistemological categories of classical philosophy.

The Samkhya tradition also makes use of the idea of the seer's super-sensory ability, but applies it in another manner. It claims that the insights of its founder Kapila, whom it regards as a primordial knower (adi-vidvan) and great sage (maha-muni), are authoritative. The implication appears to be that great sages like Kapila have the same kind of authority as the rishis of old. This theory is referred to, and rejected, by Shankara in his account of the Samkhya's claim to authority.

Another later Naiyayika philosopher, Jayanta Bhatta, makes some rather interesting comments about the nature of immediate, pre-predicative perception (nirvikalpaka-pratyaksha). Some of the Mahayana Buddhists and Advaita Vedantins of his day had made claims about nirvikalpaka perception as a means of apprehending absolute reality or "things as such." Jayanta notices that even though the Buddhists and Advaitins both lay claim to this unmediated perception, they differ as to what it is that "direct experience" apprehends. Jayanta asks, "Is it pure being as such (sat), as Mandana Mishra claims? Or is it the thing in itself (svalakshana) as the Mahayanists claim?" What he's getting at here is that though both the Advaitins and the Buddhists had a doctrine of nirvikalpaka pratyaksha, they held diametrically opposed views as to what it is that pre-predicative perception apprehends. For Mandana, it is pure being as such where being is the supreme, all-pervasive universal (samanya). For Dharmakirti, however, it is the thing in itself, which for the later Buddhists is the concrete particular shorn of all qualities. Jayanta remarks that, at first glance, it may seem that "direct perception" offers a means of resolving the problems of metaphysics. But, he asks, who is it that determines which awareness is most direct and truly immediate? He concludes his remarks on the topic by commenting that even the "greatness (mahatmya) of perception (pratyaksha)" has its limits.

The Mimamsakas, who inherit the brahmanic tradition, reject in its entirety the notion that the Vedas are "composed" by any being, human or divine. For the orthodox Mimamsakas, the Veda is "authorless" (apaurushya), and by this they mean that it has no reference to any agency, human or super-human or divine. They also reject the contention that the Vedic dharma is "intuited" by the rishis through some kind of super-sensory perception. For the Mimamsakas, the Veda exists eternally as the body of timeless knowledge and transcendental truth. Kumarila, perhaps the most sophisticated of the Mimamsa exegetes and philosophers, rejects the contention that "super-sensory" (ati-indriya) knowledge, or "yogic perception" (yogi-pratyaksha) as he calls it, is authoritative. Being the traditionalist that he is, Shankara follows the Mimamsa acharya Kumarila almost entirely on these points. We will look at Shankara's position on such matters in another post.

Kumarila also subjects the dharmashastra theory, concerning the various means of deriving the dharma, to critical scrutiny. The dharmashastra literature gives four sources from which the dharma can be derived. The dharma can be learned from revealed scripure (shruti); it can be learned from transmitted scriptures and authoritative secondary literature (smrti); it can be learned from the conduct (achara) of "virtuous individuals" (sadhu); and it can be obtained via "personal conviction" (atma-tushti). But for Kumarila, the conduct of "virtuous individuals" can only refer to the conduct of those who are already learned (shishta) and "well-cultured" (samskrta) in the dharma. For Kumarila, the authority of the "sadhu" cannot in any way compete with the Veda; the conduct (achara) of the good (sadhu) can only mean conduct that conforms with the Vedic norms. The same goes for the so-called fourth source of the dharma, "personal conviction" (atma-tushti), also referred to as the "inner voice of conscience" (hrdaya-koshana). In Kumarila's view, "personal conviction" (atma-tushti) can only mean the "inner voice" of those who have thoroughly internalized the Vedic dharma, to those who "know the Veda" (veda-vid). Here, the Veda itself is the ultimate source of dharma (veda-mulatva), and the other means are but derivative from it.

Later commentators on the Nirukta place similar limitations on Yaska's theory that the Vedas are "intuited" by the rishis. In his commentary on the Nirukta, Durga insists that the term for "seeing" used by Yaska (sakshat-krta) must be taken as fiugurative; the dharma cannot actually be "seen" in this manner. Likewise, in the later dharmashastra literature, limitations are imposed on the powers of "extraordinary individuals" -- the seers, sages, and siddhas. In his writings, Medhatithi comments that deriving the dharma from the authority "super-human" (purusha-atishaya) individuals is a view belonging to the non-Vedic "outsiders" (bahya), such as the Buddhists and Tantrikas. Besides, he adds, seers and sages come and go, but the Veda is eternal.

III. Authority and Knowledge in Early Buddhism

As is well known, the early Buddhist tradition was critical of the authority of both the Vedas and the Vedic tradition. The term the early Buddhists use for Vedic traditionalism is "anussavika," which appears to mean "listening repeatedly." This may be a reference to what the Katha Upanishad means when it refers to those who attempt to apprehend the self "by repeated hearings" (bahuna shrutena).

According to K.N. Jayatilleke, the Buddhist critique was based on the idea that both the brahmins and the Vedic poets had no personal knowledge of that which they talked about. The Buddhists contended that the brahmins, their teachers, and their teacher's teachers, all the way back to the Vedic seers, are not "reliable witnesses" (apta) and that their testimony cannot be trusted. In the Canki Sutta, for example, the Buddha says of some brahmins: "They do not know, and do not see what their scriptures (mantapadam) speak of. They do not say, 'I know this, I see (passami) this'." The Buddha also criticizes the dharma of the brahmins on the grounds that neither the brahmins, nor their teachers, nor the original Vedic seers, claim to have the super-sensory knowledge (abhinna) of their dharma. In the Tevijja Sutta, we also find the implied charge that none of the teachers of the Vedic tradition have direct knowledge of Brahma (Digha Nikaya 1.238): "they have not seen Brahma face to face (brahma sakhidittho)."

Given that this was the nature of their challenge to the authority of the Vedic tradition, we are now in a position to understand why the later brahmanic tradition posited the theory that the rishis intuited or "saw" the Veda through super-sensory vision or direct perception. It is clearly an ad hoc response to the Buddhist critique that is retrospectively read back into the tradition.

In contrast to the Vedic tradition, the Buddha claims that he does not teach his dharma on the basis of what he has heard from another ascetic or brahmin, but rather from the authority of his own knowledge: "It is from what I have seen myself, what I myself have realized, what I know personally, that I speak." (yad eva me samam natam samam dittham samam viditam tam evaham vadami) (Majjhima Nikaya 3.186) The operative term here is "samam" which is a reflexive term like "myself." Thus, the distinction being drawn here is between what one has "seen for oneself" and what one has "heard from tradition" (samam dittho va hoti anussavasuto) (Majjhima Nikaya 1.465).

The Buddha also occasionally exhorts others to follow him and his teaching (dharma): "Let an intelligent person come to me, sincere, honest, and straightforward; I will instruct him and teach the doctrine so that on my instructions he would conduct himself in such a way that before long he would himself know and see for himself." (Majjhima Nikaya 2.44) Thus, the contrast between the two traditions is such that the Buddhist truth is "personally known in this life (sacchikato sayam)" (Theragata 1.331), while the Vedic tradition is not "personally realized by oneself" (samam sayam abhinnatam attapaccakkhadhamman).

IV. Jayatilleke on Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge

Jayatilleke compares this claim, that the Buddhist dharma is to be "personally known," to the principle of verifiablity put forward by empiricists and positivists. In Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, he writes:

The emphasis that 'knowing' (janam) must be based on 'seeing' (passam) or direct experience, makes Buddhism a form of Empiricism. We have, however, to modify the term to mean not only that all our knowledge is derived from sense-experience but from super-sensory experience as well.... Early Buddhism should therefore be regarded not as a system of metaphysics but as a verifiable hypothesis discovered by the Buddha in the course of his 'trial' and 'error' experimentation with different ways of life. (Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, pp. 463-464)


At the same time, Jayatilleke wishes to distinguish the "empiricism" of early Buddhism from mysticism. He begins by distinguishing the Upanishadic gnosis from Buddhist wisdom. The Upanishadic gnosis, he says, is due to the grace of God, while in Buddhism, mental concentration (samadhi) is the causal factor (upanisa) in the rise of knowledge (p. 420). Discussing the nature of abhinna, he continues:

Buddhism does not make the claim of the mystic that this knowledge was derived from a supernatural source... but that it is a product of the natural development of the mind.... It would be wrong to call this mystical or intuitive knowledge in the context of Buddhism.... We shall therefore refer to this kind of knowledge as 'extrasensory perception' in the Buddhist context. (Ibid., p. 426)
Apparently, when describing this early Buddhist "naturalism," it is not correct to characterize it as a form of mysticism though it is appropriate to speak of it in terms of ESP. But Jayatilleke is not consistent on this point. Given some of his other characterizations of early Buddhism, it seems difficult not to admit that what he is describing is indeed some form of mysticism. In the closing pages of Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, he writes:

The transempirical cannot be empirically described or understood but it can be realized and attained.... It is not that there was something that the Buddha did not know, but that what he 'knew' in the transcendent sense could not be conveyed in words because of the limitations of language and empiricism. (Ibid., p. 476)

If this is not a description of some form of mysticism, it is difficult to imagine what might count as mysticism. I am not suggesting that early Buddhism needs to be understood as a form of mysticism. My point here is simply that Jayatilleke's account of early Buddhism ends up sounding very much like a description of mysticism.

In order to bolster his claim that early Buddhism is a form of "empiricism" in which practitioners can personally "verify" the Buddha-dharma, Jayatilleke must put in check the element of faith (shraddha) that the Buddhist tradition speaks of. He locates a passage from a later philosophical work in support of his contention that faith is not essential to Buddhism:

Just as a learned one (pandita) tests gold by burning it and rubbing it with a touch-stone, so should my statements be accepted after examination (pariksha) and not out of respect for the guru (gaurutva). (Tattvasamgraha 3588)

This passage, from Shantirakshita's Tattvasamgraha, is not found in the Pali canon, and it is not clear if it is from some text that has been lost or if it is a construct of the later tradition. In any case, according to Jayatilleke, it "reflects the attitude of the Buddha" and he takes it to mean that the practice of Buddhism is not based upon faith in the Buddha. This is an odd claim given that, as Jayatilleke himself notes, the Buddhist critique of the Vedic tradition had hinged on the matter of who counts as a "reliable witness" (apta) and on whose teaching can be trusted.

Jayatilleke also interprets the Pali expression "safeguarding the truth" (saccanurakkhana) along positivistic lines. He suggests that it means that the Buddha-dharma should only be provisionally accepted by the practitioner until such time as its truth may be personally verified. The analogy here is with the scientific method of assuming a hypothesis until its veracity can either be confirmed or discounted. As for those passages from the early Buddhist writings that are more explicitly dogmatic, Jayatilleke says that they "emerged only in the latest stages of the Pali Canon" (p. 401).

In an analogous manner, Jayatilleke interprets the parable of the arrow as the expression of a kind of Buddhist Pragmatism:

...the gist of it is that a man struck with a poisoned arrow should be concerned with removing the arrow and getting well rather than be interested in purely theoretical questions (about the nature of the arrow, who shot it, etc.) which have no practical utility. The moral is that man should only be interested in truths which have a practical bearing in life. (Ibid., p. 357)

This interpretation jibes well with Jayatilleke's positivist reading of the Buddhist rejection of the various "views" (drshti): just as positivism regards metaphysical questions as "meaningless" insofar as they cannot be empirically verified, so too Buddhism dismisses the various metaphysical theories or "views" (drshti) as pragmatically irrelevant.

Admittedly, there are elements of Jayatilleke's reading of early Buddhism that ring true. For one, he is correct to suggest that early Buddhism did not advocate some form of agnosticism, as we often find the rejection of this position in the Buddhist writings. But other aspects of his interpretation are intermingled with problematic elements. For example, the various metaphysical theories (drshti) may indeed have been rejected by the early Buddhists as soteriologically irrelevant. But Buddhism also presents itself as the correct view (samyag-darshana), and that claim would seem to entail that it held to its own share of metaphysical presuppositions. So it is unlikely that the various views were rejected purely on the grounds that they are merely "theoretical" or "metaphysical."

It may be that the metaphysical theories of the rival teachings were understood as irrelevant simply because they were seen as incapable of bringing release (nirvana). As the Vacchhagotta Sutta says, the views are to be rejected because they are not efficacious in that they are not conducive to nirvana. This point is developed by Richard Robinson in his article, "The Unexplained Points." Robinson argues that early Buddhism understood its teaching as a kind of metaphysical gnosis (vidya) like other teachings of its time; the difference was that it understood its teaching as the only teaching conducive to nirvana. Thus, the other views are rejected not because they are "metaphysical," but because their gnosis does not lead to freedom from rebirth. As Robinson puts it, "It is not a question of metaphysics versus pragmatic wisdom, but rather one of which metaphysics is most efficacious in attaining an existential objective." Robinson continues:

Przyluski drew attention to the deep significance of the terms derived from upa-as: "Upas, upasana, upasaka bears witness to a fund of common ideas of an ancient teaching in which deliverance is the fruit of the act" (J. Przyluski and E. Lamotte, "Bouddhisme et Upanisad"). In primitive Buddhism, upasaka seems to have meant a devotee or adherent either in the householder life or in the homeless life. This is why Vacchagotta... can be said to have become an upasaka.... His becoming an upasaka involved commitment to a teaching he accepted. His goal... was arhatship, and eventually he attained it by a process of combined moral and mental cultivation, which is essentially the Upanisadic upasana, except that it concentrated on a different gnosis -- the fourfold truth and the twelvefold dependent coarising, rather than the identity of Brahman. ("The Unexplained Points.")

Robinson's article is as much a paper on early Buddhism as it is a methodological reflection on various approaches to early Buddhism. The value of his presentation lies in the fact that he attempts to understand early Buddhism on its own terms, or at the very least, in terms of how the various movements at that time in India understood themselves. Much of Jayatilleke's interpretation, on the other hand, comes off as a projection of modern concerns onto the blue-screen of ancient India. This makes his account contentious on several points. For one, it is highly unlikely that early Buddhism advocated the kind of systematic doubt and openness to alternative hypotheses that characterize modern scientific method. Like other soteriological teachings, Buddhism speaks of the insidious nature of doubt (samshaya) and lays stress on the importance of faith (sraddha) in the teaching.

Let us look again at a passage that Jayatilleke himself quotes:

Let an intelligent person come to me, sincere, honest, and straightforward; I will instruct him and teach the doctrine so that on my instructions he would conduct himself in such a way that before long he would himself know and see for himself. Majjhima Nikaya 2.44

As I read the passage, the Buddha is saying, "Let me teach this sincere, intelligent person the dharma; and let that person then conduct himself faithfully and earnestly in accordance with the dharma; and then let that person see if the dharma makes a difference in his life." While it may be tempting to interpret this point in accordance with James' Pragmatic Rule, I would suggest that it might more favourably be seen in terms of existential commitment.

In this case, "conducting himself in such a way..." does not refer to the implementation of some kind of experimental method; and "seeing for oneself" will not mean the empirical verification of some fact. "Conducting oneself in such a way that one may see the truth of the dharma" means inculcating the dharma into one's life, into one's very existence, to the point where one begins to see oneself and the world in a new, more meaningful and more liberating way. It is, in other words, to understand the world and our place in it in terms of the Buddha-dharma. Accepting the Buddha-dharma as only "provisionally true," as Jayatilleke suggests, will, quite simply, not achieve this end, because such an approach will not involve the kind of existential commitment that is required. Rather, understanding oneself and one's place in the world in terms of the Buddha-dharma will only be effected through faith in that very dharma.