Buddhist Epistemology and Research in Buddhist Studies

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<p>Buddhist Epistemology (prama-vda), and Research in Buddhist StudiesNotes for a lecture at the IBC, Summer Course 2008 | Mattia Salvini</p> <p>Having bowed to the One who became a praa, who wishes good to the world, to the Teacher, the Sugata, the Protector, a compendium from my own thought, spread in many works, is here made, for the sake of establishing the pramas.1 Digga</p> <p>IntroductionIt is common to employ theoretical tools taken from contemporary European philosophies and social sciences to approach ones research in Buddhist studies. For example, some scholars may employ phenomenology; or, structural anthropology; or, materialist historicism; and so forth. I here propose that many of the difficulties a researcher may face could be tackled, or at least better understood, by employing theoretical tools from within the Buddhist tradition; in particular, from the tradition of Buddhist epistemology (prama-vda). The latter was always concerned with finding a suitable way to discuss in a broader (i.e. not necessarily Buddhist) forum.</p> <p>1. Hetuvidy and the Five VidysThe general purpose of the five Vidys | The specific purpose of Hetuvidy</p> <p>The practice of debate and discussion is present in all layers of Buddhist literature. In the Stras, Buddha kyamuni himself often employs vda; either with non-Buddhist opponents, or as a teaching tool with his own students (who often question the cogency of the teachings). We find debates in Abhidharma texts (like the Kathvatthu, up to the Abhidharmakoa and beyond), and in practically all types of Buddhist stras.1</p> <p>pramabhtya jagaddhitaiie praamya stre sugatya tyine | pramasiddhyai svamatt samuccaya kariyate viprastd ihaikata || Pramasamuccaya 1.1</p> <p>1</p> <p>Within the Bodhisattvayna, the science of reasons (hetuvidy) occupies an important place: it is one of the five sciences that a Bodhisattva has to master in order to obtain omniscience. In fact, it is even said that omniscience consists in the perfection of these five vidys. The specific purpose of the science of reasons has to do with relating to externals, non-Buddhists. Knowing reasoning, which here must be linked to debate, is the way to convince them of the soundness of the Buddhist doctrines by starting from a common ground. Texts From the Mahynastrlakra: Without having applied oneself to the fivefold knowledge, the supreme rya does not in any way reach omniscience. Thus, to subdue or assist others, or for the sake of omniscience, he surely applies oneself to those. There are five types of knowledge: inner knowledge, knowledge of reasons, knowledge of words, knowledge of medicine and knowledge of topics in the arts and crafts. Here he shows the purpose for which a Bodhisattva should research them: all of them, without distinction, are for the purpose of obtaining omniscience. When we distinguish, moreover, he researches the knowledge of reasons and the knowledge of words in order to subdue others, who have no conviction towards that (omniscience). The knowledge of medicine and the knowledge of topics in the arts and crafts are for the sake of assisting others who need them. Inner knowledge is for the sake of directing oneself.2 From Sthiramatis commentary to the Madhyntavibhga:2</p> <p>vidysthne pacavidhe yogam aktv sarvajatva naiti kathacitparamrya | ity anye nigrahanugrahaya svjrtha v tatra karoty eva sa yogam || 60 || pacavidha vidysthnam | adhytmavidy hetuvidy abdavidy cikitsvidy ilpakarmasthnavidy ca | tadyadartha bodhisattvena paryeitavya taddarayati | sarvajatvaprptyartham abhedena sarvam | bhedena punar hetuvidym abdavidy ca paryeate nigrahrtham anye tadanadhimuktnm | cikitsvidy ilpakarmasthnavidy cnyem anugrahrtha tadarthiknm | adhytmavidy svayam jrtham || Mahynastrlakra, 11.60:</p> <p>2</p> <p>Something that should be known is something to be known: and that is in its entirety the five loci of knowledge. Moreover, those are called: inner, grammar, reasons, medicine, and topics in all the arts and crafts. Un-afflicted ignorance, being an impediment to knowledge in respect to those, is the obscuration to what is to be known.3</p> <p>2. Epistemology and debate: Nyya and Prama in relation to VdaYogcra texts on Vda | Digga and Dharmakrti | strasiddhi vs. Vastusiddhi | The Vdanyya of Dharmakrti ||</p> <p>The second feature of hetuvidy concerns more precisely the science of correct argumentation or debate. Debate was the predominant mode of philosophical enquiry in medieval (and possibly, ancient) India, if we go by the texts preserved to this day. Most philosophical texts are in fact in the form of a debate. Yogcra authors of the gamnuyy branch4 composed a few treatises on proper debate: Asaga has a section of the Ahidharmasammucaya, further commented upon by Sthiramati, devoted to this topic. Vasubandhu also wrote a short treatise on Vda. But it is specifically Digga and Dharmakrti, who shaped a comprehensive system of epistemology, or prama, closely linked with the issue of philosophical enquiry as a reasoned (and reasonable) debate. In this context, Dharmakrti introduces the distinction between strasiddhi and vastusiddhi. strasiddhi means establishment according to ones own school; vastusiddhi means establishment according to the object. According to Dharmakrti, only the second type of establishment has any force in a debate.3</p> <p>jtavya jeyam | tac ca sarvtman paca vidysthnni tni punar adhytmavykaraahetucikitssarvailpakarmasthnkhyni | tatra jnavibandhabhtam akliam ajna jeyvaraam || Sthiramatis sub-commentary on Madhyntavibhgabhya 3.12. Yogcra philosophers can be divided into two branches. The first is called Followers of Scripture, (gamnuyy) and comprises, Asaga, Vasubandhu, Sthiramati, Dharmapla and so forth. They accept eight consciousnesses, and do not emphasize epistemology in a way comparable to the second branch. The latter is called Followers of Reason(yuktynuyy), and comprises the school of Digga and Dharmakrti. They only accept six consciousnesses, and lay great emphasis on epistemology. There is nevertheless a very direct link between the two branches, since Digga is considered to have been a direct disciple of Vasubandhu.4</p> <p>3</p> <p>For example: sound is considered permanent by some, impermanent by others; the Naiyyika consider sound an attribute of the substance called space. None of these specific positions could be taken as a suitable starting point for these philosophers to debate with each other: but sound is itself accepted by all the parties involved, who can use it as a starting point to prove something more about it. A remarkable text on the importance of reasonable debate as a means to understand reality (tattva) is the Vdanyya of Dharmakrti. In this text Dharmakrti states (among many other things) that: deception has no place in a debate; a debate is for the sake of ascertaining what is true; one should start from a common ground with the opponent; digression into irrelevant topics is a cause of defeat. As we will see, all four points can be helpful in finding a balanced style in academic research. Texts From Dharmakrtis Vdanyya If you say that those who wish to win, may also debate while employing some deception, we disagree: the stras composed by good people do not work where the erroneous perceptions of the wicked have jurisdiction. Those who are bent on helping others do not teach improper behavior, like false speech, aggrandizing oneself, demeaning others, and so forth. Moreover, to obtain profit, respect and praise by demeaning others is not the conduct of good people [...] Therefore, no debate for the sake of winning, is proper. [...] Following reasonable and proper ways is how good people debate.5</p> <p>chalavyavahrepi vijigi vda iti cet, na, durnanavipratipattyadhikre sat strpravtte. na hi parnugrahapravtt mithypralprambhtmotkaraparapasandn asadvyavahrn upadianti. na ca paravipasanena lbhasatkralokoparjana satm cra. [...] tasmn na yogavihita kacid vijiguvdo nma [...] tad eva nyynusaraa sat vda || Vdanyya of Dharmakrti.5</p> <p>4</p> <p>From the Vdanyya of Dharmakrti: what to do with people who bring up irrelevant topics? With these people one should simply stop talking: since there is nothing whatsoever that cannot be used by making a digression. (If we dont accept this), it would then follow that an upholder of the doctrine of no-self might use dance and song to prove it. In this way: someone may state the following proposition: We Buddhists say that there is no Self. Who are the Buddhists? Those who accept the teachings of the Buddha, the Blessed One. Who is the Buddha, the Blessed One? The one, within whose teachings, the Revered Avaghoa became an ascetic. And who is the Revered Avaghoa? The author of the drama called Rrapla. How is this drama, called Rrapla? Making such a digression, the Buddhist may recite at the end of the invocation, enters the stage-manager, then, he may dance and sing. The opponent may not be able to imitate its entire digression-performance, hence he would be defeated. What a proper way to reflect upon reality on the part of the learned, honored by the good!6</p> <p>6</p> <p>ebhi kathviccheda eva karaya, na hi kacid artha kvacit kriyamaprasage na prayujyate, nairtmyavdinas tu tatsdhane ntyagtyder api tatra prasagt. yath pratijbhidhnaprvaka kacit kuryt. nsty tmeti vaya bauddh brma. ke bauddh. ye buddhasya bhagavata sanam abhyupagat. ko buddho bhagavn. yasya sane bhadantvaghoa pravrajita. ka punar bhadantvaghoa. yasya rrapla nma nakam. kda rrapla nma nakam iti prasaga ktv nndyante tata praviati stradhra iti pahen ntyed gyec ca. prativd t ca sarvaprasaga nnukartu samartha iti parjita syd iti. sabhya sdhusammatnm vidu tattvacintprakra. || Vdanyya of Dharmakrti</p> <p>5</p> <p>3. Pramavda Dharmakrti</p> <p>as</p> <p>the</p> <p>system</p> <p>of</p> <p>Digga</p> <p>and</p> <p>The importance of correct knowledge in worldly and non-worldly endeavors | Only two pramas | Reasons for accepting only two | How does textual tradition (gama) fit? | Other views on Prama</p> <p>Dharmakrti starts his short treatise, the Nyyabindu, by stating that the accomplishment of all human aims is preceded by correct knowledge. In other words, correct knowledge has a purpose; and for this reason, one may strive towards such knowledge. In fact, it may be even argued that being capable of a certain efficacy is the mark of existence: what exists can accomplish something. What constitutes accomplishment also depends from our purposes and usages; hence, our initial purpose might be closely linked to the results of our correct knowledge. This, which may appear as an inversion of Dharmakrtis initial assertion, is nevertheless what his system seems to imply; at least, in reference to what we may describe as conventional valid knowledge: the knowledge of tables, planets, geopolitics or languages. His chief commentator further elaborates that Dharmakrtis statement shows the purpose of the whole text: because, no cautious (or, sensible) person would start studying something without ascertaining its purpose and value. It would be a waste of time, like studying a treatise on the number of teeth of a crow. What is to be noticed about Dharmakrtis assertion is that it is in no way specifically Buddhist. Firstly, because it is not necessarily concerned with matters of liberation, as he states that all human aims are preceded by correct knowledge. Hence, anyone should have some interest in what he is going to discuss. Secondly, he does not appeal to a specific view of correct knowledge, nor to a Buddhist doctrinal standpoint. He leaves correct knowledge without any further qualifications (although, of course, the reader is going to be shown that correct knowledge is embodied in the Buddhist tenets of impermanence and no-self). Furthermore, Dharmakrti accepts only two means of sound cognition: perception and inference. That does not necessarily exclude textual tradition or scripture, but the validity of the latter is not independent from the first two. In any case, the prominence given to direct perception and inference opens the possibility of an enquiry not bound by preconceived or inherited doctrinal standpoints. In other words, if one were to accept the tenet of noself, it should be due to compelling reasoning, and not merely because the Buddha stated that it is so. This view about two pramas depends from a specific ontology: it depends on what Digga and Dharmakrti consider to be the 6</p> <p>possible objects of knowledge. And the latter are only two: the owncharacteristic (svalakaa) and the generalized-characteristic or the universal (smnyalakaa). The first is unique, lasts only one instant and has either minimal or no extension. The second is a conceptual imputation of similarity, of continuity through space and time: like table, planet, I, and so forth. Because there are only two possible objects of cognition, there are also only two types of valid cognition: direct perception cognizes the own-characteristic, and inference cognizes universals. Needless to say that most of our ordinary experience is entirely bound within the conceptual and ultimately unreal world of the universals. The scope of Dharmakrtis system is to undo ones habit of freezing instants into continuities, and to let direct perception go with the flow of ineffable, selfless moments. Textual tradition, though, does have a role in Dharmakrtis system: through inference, the words of the Buddha can be shown to be reliable, hence they can be resorted to in cases where direct perception and inference do not provide us with any compelling evidence. I have spoken of Dharmakrtis as the system of Buddhist epistemology par excellence. This is partly justified by its great popularity and influence, as well as the sustained attention that this philosophy gives to the question of valid cognition. Nevertheless, it is important to know that many other schools have discussed epistemological issues and have come up with very divergent solutions. Before Dharmakrti, we find discussions about valid cognition in the Abhidharmakoa. Yogcra philosophers like Sthiramati talk about valid cognition in terms only partly similar to those of Dharmakrtis school. In Madhyamaka, there have been open divergences (like Candrakrtis acceptance of four pramas and criticism of the svalakaa), or conciliatory stances (like Ata, saying that emptiness is not understood through pramas, but pramas are used to help the non-Buddhists understand). Texts Dharmakrti and Dharmottara on the purpose of their work: The accomplishment of all human aims is preceded by correct knowledge: therefore, the latter is here explained.7 If what is spoken of would have no purpose, then a composition of words for the sake of understanding that, would not be fit to be taken up. Just like,7</p> <p>samyagjnaprvik sarvapururthasidhhir iti tad vyutpadyate || Nyyabindu, 1.1</p> <p>7</p> <p>since the teeth of a crow have no useful purpose, a sensible person should not take up their examination.8 In this way: all sensible people engage in something after having enquired for a purpose in such engagement....</p>