Why the Buddhist view of reality must be ‘true’ for it to be the Buddhist view of reality

dharma-wheel

It is sometimes thought that Buddhist philosophy is pragmatic in nature. From this it often follows that it is also based upon some form of scepticism. Reality cannot be known in its true detail and Buddhism uses various skilful teachings to overcome suffering and to end the endless cycle of rebirths. Though one can understand why such assumptions might be made, I think Buddhism loses some essential elements with such a bias in our understanding of it. I will offer some reasons on why in this article.

 

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre has suggested that a dichotomy between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, between fact and value, is a modern phenomenon. Indeed, MacIntyre argues that, until modern times, the distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ was not made.[1] Western thought may then make a distinction between thought and action, between fact and value, that was not made in India. This point has been made by Paul Williams:

 

‘In the Indian context it would have been axiomatic that liberation comes from discerning how things actually are, the true nature of things. That seeing things how they are has soteriological benefits would have been expected, and is just another way of articulating the ‘is’ and ‘ought’ dimension of Indian Dharma. The ‘ought’ (pragmatic benefit) is never cut adrift from the ‘is’ (cognitive factual truth). Otherwise it would follow that the Buddha might be able to benefit beings (and thus bring them to enlightenment) even without seeing things the way they really are at all. And that is not Buddhism.’[2]

The uncoupling of the categories of ‘is’ and ‘ought’ is usually traced to Hume. Since Hume, it has been questioned whether we can derive statements of value from statements of fact. Hume argued the following:

 

‘In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relation of objects, nor is perceived by reason.’[3]

 

 

Hume is arguing that a statement of fact, how things are, ‘cannot provide a logical basis for morality’.[4] In other words, we cannot derive what is of value from apprehending the true nature of things. However, as Paul Williams suggests, such a dichotomy may never have existed in India. It does, moreover, greatly alter our understanding of certain statements if the distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ is not made. One set of statements that do not make such a distinction is right-view which expresses both fact and value. Right-view is both an ‘is’ and an ‘ought’ statement.

 

Firstly, it is clear that without the distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, statements of fact are also statements of value. This means that seeing things as they are is also soteriologically transformative. In the context of Buddhist soteriology, this is usually stated in terms of craving and ignorance being overcome by calm and insight. It is important to reflect upon what is being suggested by the interaction of calm and insight. Early Buddhist soteriology is both descriptive and prescriptive. These two methods are not mutually exclusive. What is of value is based upon seeing things in a certain way: it is based upon insight into the way things are. In the early Pāli canon, what we crave is inseparable from what we know, and what we know inseparable from what we crave. One of the conclusions we can draw from such an understanding is that thought affects action and action affects thought. This process is very clear if we look at the notion of ‘views’ (diṭṭhi). With the adoption of wrong-view an unwholesome course of action follows; with the adoption of right-view a wholesome course of action follows. Our understanding of how things are affects how we act. One of the reasons to adopt right-view and reject wrong-views is because right-view produces this wholesome course of action. It produces the cessation of craving. The reason for this, the early texts suggest, is that it is based upon a true description of reality. Through combining the notions of ‘is’ and ‘ought’ diṭṭhi encompasses a number of factors: the cognitive and affective; the descriptive and prescriptive; fact and value. The affective nature of things is not separate from what is cognitive. The conclusion that we may reach is that insight into the way things are has a transformative effect and that categories that we may normally separate are intrinsically bound and inseparable factors on the Buddhist path. By not separating the ‘is’ from the ‘ought’, the early texts are making an important point. This is that ignorance and craving are inseparable in producing unwholesome action and in turning away from the way things really are. In a similar way, the cessation of craving is caused by seeing things as they are.

 

Two theories may be proposed as to the nature of seeing things as they are. These are the strong and the weak theories. [5] The strong theory would hold that statements of the way things are are not, in fact, statements of the way things are, but are value statements. Much of Buddhist discourse should be understood as evaluative and prescriptive. Their value is based upon their transformative effect. When the texts speak of seeing things as they are, we should not understand this literally. Such statements produce the cessation of craving, therefore they are true. The weak theory holds that statements of the way things are are, quite literally, statements of the way things are. Further, seeing things as they are produces a radical change in one’s actions. Apprehending things in a particular way is transformative. The strong theory emphasises the ‘ought’, the weak theory the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’. It is the weak theory that I am arguing for in this book. As I am suggesting, the ‘is’ cannot be divorced from the ‘ought’ without undermining the purpose of Buddhist doctrine. The seeing of things as they are is a statement of fact and value.

 

If the notions of ‘is’ and ‘ought’ are not uncoupled, the idea that Buddhism is pragmatic in nature loses much of its fizz. Further, the idea that the Buddha was sceptical as to the true nature of things no longer holds. The basic premise of all mainstream Indian philosophy and religion (if they were separate entities) is to ‘see things as they are’ (yathābhūtadassana). Without ‘seeing things as they are’ the overcoming of suffering is not possible.

 

[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (South Bend, Ind, 1981), pp. 54-57, 80-81; see W.D. Hudson, ed., The Is/Ought Question: A Collection of Papers on the Central Problem in Moral Philosophy (London, 1969).

[2] Paul Williams, Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition (London, 2000), p. 40.

[3] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature: Books Two and Three, ed. by Páll Árdal (London, 1972), pp. 203-4.

[4] W. D. Hudson, in Hudson, ed., The Is/Ought Question, p. 16.

[5] I am grateful to Paul Williams for his help in clarifying my thinking on this issue.

Socially Engaged Buddhism

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To act politically is clearly to involve oneself in the world – at the most basic level it is to make a choice, to take a position, to change the world for the betterment of those who live within society. One of the dilemmas faced by the proponent of Buddhist social engagement is the seeming reluctance of the Buddha to make pronouncements about social change. But, it goes deeper than this. There is not only a reluctance but a very real philosophical necessity to remain distant from strategies of social change and distinct from political involvement. I discuss here part of this philosophical necessity.

 

The Pali Aṭṭhakavagga’s insists that one should not depend upon apperception (saññā), knowledge (ñāṇa), views (diṭṭhi), on what is seen (diṭṭha), heard(suta), or thought (muta), or on precepts and vows (sīlabbata).[1] This is consistent with the four primary Nikāyas. The Aṭṭhakavagga teaches that purity is not by means of views, learning, knowledge or precepts and vows, nor is it by absence of these. The Mahāviyuha-sutta (Sn 895-914) speaks of giving up all precepts and vows and action both blameable and blameless.[2] This suggests a ‘teaching’ a dhamma of non-involvement – not showing preference for what is seen and heard.[3] Preference or choice (cetanā) is involvement in ‘action’ (kamma), in the round of endless existences pervaded by suffering (saṃsāra, Sn 901).

 

In the Suribheda-sutta (Sn 848-861) the question is asked, ‘having what vision and precepts is one called “calmed”’?[4] The answer is that it is not to be dependent,[5] not to prefer (purekkhataṃ), not having attachment, and not going astray among dhammas.[6]Knowledge or right-view is an insight into the nature of reality that leads to calm.[7]

 

Dependence on what is seen, heard, thought and cognized is a familiar basis for wrong-views in the Nikāyas. The diṭṭhi-saṃyutta explains how views arise due to attachment to whatever is seen, heard, thought, cognized, attained, sought after, and ranged over by the mind.[8]It is also explained in the Alagaddūpama-sutta that to regard the ‘aggregates’ (khandhas)[9] or what is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, attained, sought after, and ranged over by the mind as: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’[10] is a basis for view (diṭṭhiṭṭhānaṃ). Without attachment and doubt concerning these things, wrong-view does not arise.[11] This constitutes stream-attainment, when all views are abandoned.[12]

 

To argue, as some have, that the relinquishment of attachment to what is seen, heard, thought and cognized is an isolated teaching in the Nikāyas, is perhaps to overlook the prominence of passages condemning such attitudes.[13] The Nikāyas suggest consistently and often that attachment to the ‘aggregates’ (khandhas) is the cause of wrong-views, and this, I contend, is the same as stating that one should not be attached to what is seen, heard, thought or cognized. This way of seeing, the detached way expressive of right-view, is described in the Dhammasaṅgaṇi as the unincluded (apariyāpannā) explained as ‘neither the issue of attachment nor favourable to it’.[14] This attitude of non-attachment is at least comparable to that described in the Aṭṭhakavagga as non-attachment from what is seen, heard or thought, from any view, apperception (saññā),[15]contact (phassa), or even dependence on knowledge (ñāṇa, Sn 800).[16] Just as the stream-attainer, one who has achieved right-view, is described as having no dependence upon any act of cognition, so the Aṭṭhakavagga advises the eradication of all attachment to views, apperceptions and knowledge. The sage of the Aṭṭhakavagga ‘does not believe in any view at all’,[17] but then nor does the stream-attainer of the Nikāyas. I suggest that the Nikāyas and the Aṭṭhakavagga describe the same cognitive attitude toward views, wrong or right. The Aṭṭhakavagga verses positing non-attachment from what is seen and heard are consistent with the Nikāyas in which the dhamma is a raft to which one should not become attached, and with the Abhidhamma description of sammā-diṭṭhi as paññā. If we wish to find teachings similar to the Aṭṭhakavagga in the Nikāyas, then we must be clear about the Nikāyas understanding of what constitutes right-view. I am arguing that right-view is not depending on (upādāya), not being attached to, or craving, the khandhas. It is non-dependence on knowledge and views. The Abhidhamma explains how attachment to insight and practice can cause unwholesome dhammas to arise. This is described in the Paṭṭhāna. If the Paṭṭhāna is criticising the act of giving, holding the precepts, the duty of observance, and the practising of the jhānas, then the Aṭṭhakavagga is criticising knowledge and wisdom. As it is unlikely that either text is critical of practice or knowledge, then it is likely that they are stating that attachment to the path is destructive.

The Aṭṭhakavagga and the Nikāyas are not critical of knowledge and truth but hold that attachment to knowledge and truth is detrimental. The reason that attachment to knowledge and truth is detrimental can be explained by the need for both calm and insight in the process of seeing the true nature of things. I would suggest that, in the same way that action influences knowledge and knowledge influences action, so the texts are describing how calm influences insight, and insight influences calm. In other words, seeing dependent-origination involves being calm, and being truly calm involves seeing dependent-origination.

 

And here, I suggest, is where Buddhist social engagement must begin. It begins with an attitude free from attachment and stubbornness. Although the Buddha clearly made few prescriptions about how to transform society, he did make many about the adaptation of the mind – and this is the point at which Buddhism might depart from other religious traditions, and depart on a journey of political engagement. The philosophical necessity of non-involvement does not necessarily hinder the efforts by the Buddhist for social and political change – the mind though has to be in the right place for social engagement.

 

Notes

[1] An example of the teaching advising detachment from these means of knowledge in the Aṭṭhakavagga is the following: ‘Giving up old corruptions, not forming new ones, he does not go according to his wishes, he is not a dogmatist. He is completely released from views (and) wise. He does not cling to the world, and does not reproach himself. He is without association in respect of all mental phenomena (dhammas), whatever is seen, or heard, or thought. That sage with burden laid down, completely freed, is without imaginings, unattached, not grasping’ (pubbāsave hitvā nave akubbaṃ, na chandagū no pi nivissa-vādī, sa vippamutto diṭṭhigatehi dhīro, na lippati loke anattagarahī. sa sabbadhammesu visenibhūto, yaṃ kiñci diṭṭhaṃ va, sutaṃ mutaṃ vā, sa pannabhāro muni vippamutto, na kappiyo nūparato na patthiyo ti, Sn 913-14; see also Sn 798, 803, 900; see Gómez, ‘Proto-Mādhyamika’, p 140.

[2] sīlabbataṃ vā pi pahāya sabbaṃ, kammañ ca sāvajjanavajjam etaṃ, Sn 900.

[3] diṭṭhe sute khantim akubbamāno, Sn 897.

[4]kathaṃdassī kathaṃsīlo upasanto ti vuccati, Sn 848.

[5] Sn 849. cf., ‘He for whom there is no state of dependence, knowing the dhamma, is not dependent’ (yassa nissayatā n’ atthi ñatvā dhammaṃ anissito, Sn 856). See also Sn 910: ‘A dogmatist is indeed not easy to discipline, since he prefers a preconceived view. Saying that the good is there, in what he depends upon, he speaks of purity (saying) he saw reality there’ (nivissavādī na hi subbināyo, pakappitaṃ diṭṭhi purekkharāno, yaṃ nissito tattha subhaṃ vadāno, suddhiṃ-vado tattha tathaddasā so, Sn 914).

[6] dhammesu ca na gacchati, Sn 861.

[7] Nett 65.

[8] diṭṭhaṃ, sutaṃ, mutaṃ, viññātaṃ, pattaṃ, pariyesitaṃ, anuvicaritaṃ manasā, S III 203.

[9] The Alagaddūpama-sutta gives the first four khandhas, as noted above.

[10] diṭṭhaṃ sutam mutam viññātaṃ pattaṃ pariyesitaṃ anuvicaritaṃ manasā tam pi: etaṃ mama esoham asmi, eso me attā ti samanupassati, M I 135.

[11] Indeed, I have compared this process to attachment to the khandhas.

[12] S III 203.

[13] Eric Fallick, ‘Two Small Remnants of “Pre-Hīnayānist” Buddhism in the Pāli Nikāyas’, Buddhist Studies Review (17), 2000, 35-38.

[14] anupādinna-anupādāniyā, Dhs 181, § 992.

[15] Cf.: ‘By him not even a minute apperception has been formed here in respect of what is seen, heard, or thought’ (tass idha diṭṭhe va sute mute vā, pakappitā n’ atthi aṇū pi saññā, Sn 802).

[16] ñāṇe pi so nissayaṃ, Sn 800.

[17] diṭṭhim pi so na pacceti kiñci, Sn 800. The term pacceti is translated as ‘believe in’. The term literally means ‘to come on to’; see PED s.v. pacceti.

Is the idea that Buddhism has a political message ‘wishful thinking’?

thich

In the study of Buddhism it has often been noted that the teachings do not point to the changing of the world, but to changing our perception of it – there is nothing wrong with the world but the way we perceive the world. The problem of ‘suffering’ (dukkha) is not ultimately to do with the world, but with the fact that people tend to grasp and become attached to all sorts of things. The world is seen with greed, hatred and delusion. This aspect of Buddhist teachings suggests that Buddhist doctrines should not be used to change the world, but to change the way we view the world.They should be used to lessen greed, hatred and delusion and, in so doing, solve the problem of dukkha. What is needed is a way of seeing that reduces and eradicates craving. I would like to consider these ideas and conclude with some comments on how this might affect our understanding of socially engaged Buddhism.

Let me use the Abhidhamma to explore these ideas. Throughout book three of the Dhammasaṅgaṇi, an evaluation is given of certain ways of apprehending the world. In the following I would like to focus upon one aspect of what I think the text is describing. Put simply this is that the world can be apprehended with or without craving. This aspect of Buddhist thought has been noted by Steven Collins, who has suggested that this reflects something of a dichotomising tendency within early Buddhism:

 

‘Anything with conceptual or experiential content was to be assimilated to the impersonal, non-valued side of the dichotomy; since in this sphere everything was dominated by desire and grasping, anything with content became potentially graspable. Against this stood the empty unconditioned nibbāna, susceptible neither to conceptualising nor grasping.’[1]

 

Buddhism is, at it were, concerened with different orders of seeing, between the graspable, and the ungraspable, between concepts and emptiness, beteen attachment and non-attachment, between craving and calmness. I would like to look at the Dhammasaṅgaṇi to see how it considers this apparent dichotomy. Book three of the Dhammasaṅgaṇi,the Nikkhepa-kaṇḍaṃ, begins with the following question:

 

‘Which ‘things’ (dhammas. I leave the term untranslated in the following) are wholesome?
The three roots of the wholesome:Absence of greed, hatred and delusion;The four ‘aggregates’ (khandhas)[2] of feeling, apperception, volitional formations and consciousness when they are associated with these roots;Actions of body, speech and mind when they come from these three roots.These are wholesome dhammas’.[3]

 

With reference to the khandhas, I take this to imply that, when they are seen in their true nature, i.e. as not-self, they are wholesome (this is sammā-diṭṭhi).

 

The next question asked is:

 

‘Which dhammas are unwholesome?
The three roots of the unwholesome:Greed, hatred and delusion;The defilements (kilesā) united with them;The four khandhas of feeling, apperception, volitional formations and consciousness when they are associated with these roots;Actions of body, speech and mind when they come from these three roots.These are unwholesome dhammas.’[4]

 

The Dhammasaṅgaṇi is clearly stating that the four mental khandhas are unwholesome when they are associated with ‘greed’, ‘hatred’ and ‘delusion’ (lobha, dosa, moha). [5] In this analysis it must be remembered that in the Nikāya and Abhidhamma analysis the term khandha is a neutral term, but the khandhas can become associated with (are indeed prone to), corruption. Primarily they are prone to give rise to the corruption of ‘wrong-view’ (micchā-diṭṭhi) which distorts the way things really are. Rupert Gethin has commented on the nature of the khandhas in the Nikāyas and Abhidhamma:

 

‘The term upādānakkhandha signifies the general way in which the khandhas are bound up with upādāna; the simple khandha, universally applicable, is used in the nikāyas and especially the Abhidhamma texts as a neutral term, allowing the specific aspects of, for example, upādāna’s relationship to the khandhas to be elaborated.’[6]

 

The Dhammasaṅgaṇi is using the khandhas in its explanation of two ways of apprehending the world, one ‘wholesome’ (kusala), and one ‘unwholesome’ (akusala). These ideas suggest that the text is attempting to explain two attitudes to the world found in the dichotomy suggested by Collins. The same reality is seen, but the one based on non-attachment is wholesome, and the other, based on attachment, giving rise to corruptions, is unwholesome.

 

One could state that in this particular understanding of the Buddha’s teachings the entire engaged Buddhism agenda appears fundamentally flawed. Socially engaged Buddhism begins with the premise that suffering is not only caused by mental reactions to external events, but that external events – social, political and economic, for example – can be the cause of suffering. For the engaged Buddhist suffering is not only psychological, to be overcome by such techniques as meditation, but finds its causes in a wide variety of factors. Political struggle, among other things, can then be used as a technique to overcome suffering. I’m not suggesting that either interpretation is correct. They appear to me to both be valid and to have support from different parts of the tradition. I would suggest that the teachings I am considering here offer a criticism, and one that perhaps needs to be addressed, of socially engaged Buddhism. As I have heard it suggested – to think that Buddhism has a political message is ‘wishful thinking’.

 

Notes

[1] Steven Collins, Selfless Persons, p. 113.

[2] I shall return to the use of four khandhas below.

[3] katame dhammā kusalā? tīṇi kusalamūlāni: alobho adoso amoho taṃsampayutto vedanākkhandho saññākkhandho saṃkhārakkhandho viññāṇakkhandho, taṃ samuṭṭhānaṃ kāyakammaṃ vacīkammaṃ manokammaṃ, ime dhammā kusalā, Dhs 180, :981. All references to the Dhs are given by page then paragraph numbers.

[4] katame dhammā akusalā? tīṇi akusalamūlāni: lobho doso moho, tadekaṭṭhā ca kilesā taṃsampayutto vedanākkhandho saññākkhandho saṃkhārakkhandho viññāṇakkhandho, taṃsamuṭṭhānaṃ kāyakammaṃ vacīkammaṃ manokammaṃ, ime dhammā akusalā, Dhs 180, :982.

[5] The text finally defines those dhammas that are indeterminate (avyākatā), which is not essential for the present discussion: katame dhammā avyākatā kusalākusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ vipākā kāmāvacarā rūpāvacarā arūpāvacarā apariyāpannā, vedanākkhandho saññākkhandho saṃkhārakkhandho viññāṇakkhandho, ye ca dhammā kiriyā n’ eva kusalā nākusalā na ca kammavipākā, sabbaṃ ca rūpaṃ, asaṃkhatā ca dhātu. ime dhammā avyākatā, Dhs 180, :983.

[6] Rupert Gethin, ‘The Five Khandhas: Their Treatment in the Nikāyas and Early Abhidhamma’, Journal of Indian Philosophy, 14 (1986), 35-53 (p. 39).

Hate speech and ‘flower speech’

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The phenomenon of ‘hate speech’ has become synonymous with movements within the Burmese Buddhist Sangha in recent years. Embedded in the rhetoric of the 969 movement and its leader U Wirathu, negative speeches and propaganda aimed at minority groups have tainted the international image if Buddhism in Burma.

Of course, the notion of the purity of speech (vāc) within Indian religious history is very prominent. From the utterance of the sacred scriptures (the Vedas) in the form of mantras, and the precision of Sanskrit grammar to preserve the correct performance of the ritual, to the notion of ‘right-speech’ as part of the Noble Eightfold Path speech is both ontological and ethical. As four of the ‘ten unwholesome courses of action’ (dasa akusala-kammapathā) described as impure and to lead to an unhappy destination, they entail false speech, malicious speech, harsh speech, and gossip. Their opposites, the ‘ten wholesome courses of action (dasa kusala-kammapathā) entails the abandoning of false speech, malicious speech, harsh speech and gossip:

A new movement is growing in Burma called ‘The Flower Speech campaign’ (Panzagar) founded by Nay Phone Latt. The movement embodies many of the elements of the notion of the centrality of speech in Indians religions, and the prominent place that harmonious actions of speech are given on the Buddhist path. This centrality is often overlooked but it is worth considering the attention played to acts of body, speech and mind in Buddhism. Violent acts of the body and a depraved mental attitude are more easily understood, but acts of hatred in the form of speech, preaching, propaganda and education are also powerful tools in the destruction of society and the dismantling of Buddhist culture.

The slogan of the campaign, as described by Nay Phone Latt is ‘Let’s moderate our speech to prevent hatred between human beings’.

As he explains:

‘When we advocate for free speech, reducing hate speech is included. … Speech calling for hitting or killing someone is hate speech, and can spread hate among people and is a risk for society… It is the wrong use of freedom of speech. I am worried about that because it is not only spreading on social media but also by some writers and [Buddhist] monks who are spreading hate speech publicly.’

In the Pali Canon, purity of speech is described in the following terms:

Fourfold cleansing by speech (catubbidhaṃ vācāya soceyyaṃ)

Here someone, abandoning false speech, abstains from false speech; when summoned to a court, or to a meeting, or to his relatives’ presence, or to his guild, or to the royal family’s presence, and questioned as a witness thus: ‘So, good man, tell what you know,’ not knowing he says, ‘I do not know,’ or knowing he says, ‘I know’; not seeing, he says, ‘I do not see,’ or seeing, he says, ‘I see’; he does not in full awareness speak falsehood for his own ends, or for another’s ends, or for the sake of some trifling gain.[1]

Abandoning malicious speech, he abstains from malicious speech; he does not repeat elsewhere what he has heard here in order to divide [those people] from these, nor does he repeat to these people what he has heard elsewhere in order to divide [these people] from those; thus he is one who reunites those who are divided, a promoter of friendships, who enjoys concord, rejoices in concord, delights in concord, a speaker of words that promote concord.[2]

Abandoning harsh speech, he abstains from harsh speech; he speaks such words as are gentle, pleasing to the ear, and loveable, as go to the heart, are courteous, desired by many, and agreeable to many.[3]

Abandoning gossip, he abstains from gossip; he speaks at the right time, speaks what is fact, speaks what is beneficial, speaks on the dhamma and the discipline; at the right time he speaks such words as are worth recording, reasonable, moderate and advantageous.[4]

 

Notes

[1] idha gahapatayo ekacco musāvādaṃ pahāya musāvādā paṭivirato hoti: sabhāggato vā parisaggato vā ñātimajjhagato vā pūgamajjhagato vā rājakulamajjhagato vā abhinīto sakkhipuṭṭho:eh ambho purisa yaṃ jānāsi taṃ vadehī ti. so ajānaṃ vā āha na jānāmī ti, jānaṃ vā āha jānāmī ti, apassaṃ vā āha na passāmī ti, passaṃ vā āha passāmī ti. iti attahetu vā parahetu vā āmisakiñcikkhahetu vā na sampajānamusā bhāsitā hoti, A V 67.

[2] pisuṇaṃ vācaṃ pahāya pisuṇāya vācāya paṭivirato hoti: ito sutvā na amutra akkhātā imesaṃ bhedāya, amutra vā sutvā na imesaṃ akkhātā amūsaṃ bhedāya iti bhinnānaṃ vā sandhātā sahitānaṃ vā anuppadātā, samaggārāmo samaggarato samaggakaraṇiṃ vācaṃ bhāsitā hoti, A V 67.

[3] pharusaṃ vācaṃ pahāya pharusāya vācāya paṭivirato hoti: yā sā vācā nelā kaṇṇasukhā pemanīyā hadayaṅgamā porī bahujanakantā bahujanamanāpā tathārūpiṃ vācaṃ bhāsitā hoti, A V 67.

[4] samphappalāpaṃ pahāya samphappalāpā paṭivirato hoti: kālavādī bhūtavādī atthavādī dhammavādī vinayavādī, nidhānavatiṃ vācaṃ bhāsitā kālena sāpadesaṃ pariyantavatiṃ atthasaṃhitaṃ, A V 267.

On why the Buddhist epistemologist does not want to ‘wriggle like an eel’

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It is often assumed that Buddhism, in its condemnation of attachment to some forms of knowledge is in some ways a form of scepticism. While there are some similarities there is also a clear condemnation of those who deny a valid means of gaining knowledge. Indeed, one can perhaps suggest a certain uneasiness with its own epistemology being compared to a sceptical one. This notion is epitomised by the view attributed to Sañjaya Belaṭṭhiputta in the Sāmaññaphala-sutta.

 

In the Sāmaññaphala-sutta (D I 47-86) King Ajātasattu asks six teachers to ‘point to such a reward visible here and now as a fruit of the homeless life’.[1] There are two things one may observe about the nature of the exchange in this Sutta. First, in a similar way that the Buddha refuses to answer certain questions, the six teachers appear to be unwilling to answer questions about the nature of action and the effects of actions. Second, as the Buddha sometimes refuses to answer questions of an ontological nature, so the six teachers, in a sense, will only answer (or evade) questions of an ontological nature. In the Sāmaññaphala-sutta the Buddha’s answer to King Ajātasattu suggests that action influences the realisation of knowledge (D I 62-85). His answer suggests the interplay of conduct and knowledge, the answers of the six teachers deny this, hence they are wrong-views.

 

On being asked the fruits of the homeless life, Sañjaya Belaṭṭhiputta, the last of the six teachers to be interrogated by King Ajātasattu in the Sāmaññaphala-sutta answered in the following way:

 

“If you ask me: ‘Is there another world?’ — if I thought there is another world, I would declare that there is. I do not take it thus, I do not say it is true, I do not say it is otherwise, I do not say it is not so, I do not say it is not not so.

Similarly, when asked any of the following questions, he resorts to the same evasive statements and to endless equivocation:

‘Is there no world beyond?’ ‘Is it that there both is and is not a world beyond?’ ‘Is it that there neither is nor is not a world beyond?’ ‘Are there beings spontaneously reborn?’ ‘Are there no beings spontaneously reborn?’ ‘Is it that there both are and are not beings spontaneously reborn?’ ‘Is it that there neither are nor are not beings spontaneously reborn?’ ‘Is there fruit and result of good and bad actions?’ ‘Is there no fruit and result of good and bad actions?’ ‘Is it that there both is and is not fruit and result of good and bad actions?’ ‘Is it that there neither is nor is not fruit and result of good and bad actions?’ ‘Does the Tathāgata exist after death?’ ‘Does the Tathāgata not exist after death?’ ‘Does the Tathāgata both exist and not exist after death?’ ‘Does the Tathāgata neither exist nor not exist after death?’”[2]

 

In the Sāmaññaphala-sutta this formula is, as I have indicated, attributed to Sañjaya Belaṭṭhiputta. These views are not given a name. The sutta states that when Sañjaya Belaṭṭhiputta was asked the fruits of the homeless life he ‘replied by equivocating’ (vikkhepaṃ vyākāsi, D I 57). In the Brahmajāla-sutta are found the wrong-views of the ‘four endless equivocators'(or ‘eel-wrigglers’ cattāro amarā-vikkhepikā) which are very similar to the wrong-view of Sañjaya Belaṭṭhiputta.

The views of the endless equivocators

There are four views found in the Brahmajāla-sutta (D I 1-46) called the views of the ‘four endless equivocators’ (cattāro amarāvikkhepikā). These are the views of those who avoided answering questions:

 

The first three views begin with:

Herein, bhikkhus, some recluse or brahmin does not understand as it really is what is wholesome and what is unwholesome. He thinks: ‘I do not understand as it really is what is wholesome and what is unwholesome. If, without understanding, I were to declare something to be wholesome or unwholesome:

 

View 1: my declaration might be false. If my declaration should be false, that would distress me, and that distress would be an obstacle for me.’ Therefore, out of fear and loathing of making a false statement, he does not declare anything to be wholesome or unwholesome.

 

View 2: desire and lust or hatred and aversion might arise in me. Should desire and lust or hatred and aversion arise in me, that should be attachment on my part. Such attachment would distress me, and that distress would be an obstacle for me.’ Therefore, out of fear and loathing of attachment, he does not declare anything to be wholesome or unwholesome.

 

Thie third view takes a slightly different form:

View 3: Now there are recluses and brahmins who are wise, clever, experienced in controversy, who wander about demolishing the views of others with their wisdom. If, without understanding, I were to declare something to be wholesome or unwholesome, they might cross-examine me about my views, press me for reasons, and refute my statements. If they should do so, I might not be able to reply. If I could not reply, that would distress me, and that distress would be an obstacle for me.’ Therefore, out of fear and loathing of being cross-examined, he does not declare anything to be wholesome or unwholesome.

 

All views (including the fourth view) conclude with:

But when questioned about this or that point, he resorts to evasive statements and to endless equivocation: ‘I do not take it thus, nor do I take it in that way, nor do I take it in some other way. I do not say that it is not, nor do I say that it is neither this nor that.’ [3]

 

The fourth view takes a slightly different form:

View 4: Herein, bhikkhus, some recluse or brahmin is dull and stupid. Due to his dullness and stupidity, when he is questioned about this or that point, he resorts to evasive statements and endless equivocation:’ ‘If you ask me whether there is a world beyond—if I thought there is another world, I would declare that there is. But I do not take it thus, nor do I take it in that way, nor do I take it in some other way. I do not say that it is not, nor do I say that it is neither this nor that.

 

Similarly, when asked any of the following questions, he resorts to the same evasive statements and to endless equivocation:

 

‘Is there no world beyond?’ ‘Is it that there both is and is not a world beyond?’ ‘Is it that there neither is nor is not a world beyond?’

 

‘Are there beings spontaneously reborn?’ ‘Are there no beings spontaneously reborn?’ ‘Is it that there both are and are not beings spontaneously reborn?’ ‘Is it that there neither are nor are not beings spontaneously reborn?’

 

‘Is there fruit and result of good and bad actions?’ ‘Is there no fruit and result of good and bad actions?’ ‘Is it that there both is and is not fruit and result of good and bad actions?’ ‘Is it that there neither is nor is not fruit and result of good and bad actions?’

 

‘Does the Tathāgata exist after death?’ ‘Does the Tathāgata not exist after death?’ ‘Does the Tathāgata both exist and not exist after death?’ ‘Does the Tathāgata neither exist nor not exist after death?’ D I 24-28. [4]

 

These views are the views of the endless equivocators. The first view claims knowledge is a ‘moral danger’ and a ‘source of remorse’.[5] The second view sees ‘attachment’ (upadāna) as the danger, which will lead to ‘mental disquietude’ (vighāta).[6] The third view states that fear of debating, which may lead to argument or interrogation (anuyogabhayā), is the danger.[7]Hence, falsehood, involvement and debate are the things to be avoided by these three positions. [8] The final view is somewhat different. It is identical to that attributed in the Sāmaññaphala-sutta to Sañjaya Bellaṭṭhiputta. A central theme of all four views is the expression: ‘I do not take it thus, nor do I take it in that way, nor do I take it in some other way. I do not say that it is not, nor do I say that it is neither this nor that’.[9] Watanabe points out that the Buddhist tradition has explained this clause as containing both four and five answers.[10] This expression is found alone in the following:

 

Again […] a certain teacher is dull and confused. Because he is dull and confused, when he is asked such and such a question, he engages in evasive statements and to endless equivocation: ‘I do not take it thus, nor do I take it in that way, nor do I take it in some other way. I do not say that it is not, nor do I say that it is neither this nor that.’[11]

 

This passage from the Sandaka-sutta is described as one of four kinds of ‘holy life without consolation’ (anassāsikaṃ brahmacariyam akkhātaṃ M I 520).[12]

 

These are the views of those who avoid answering questions. In general the endless equivocators held that there was a ‘moral danger’ (antarayo) in making truth claims. The moral danger perceived was worry or remorse (vighāto). Jayatilleke has noted a ‘superficial similarity’ between these ideas and those of the Buddha.[13] Some have found in this an expression of a spiritual path.[14] Though the view of Sañjaya Belaṭṭhiputta does not express this sense of despondency with debate and the making of truth claims, it is in this context that I think the view should be considered. He endlessly wriggles, like an eel, as do the views condemned in the Brahmajāla-sutta. And anyone with even a passing interest in the history of Buddhist thought might think the Buddhist epistemologist, seeking to explain knowledge and truth is also prone to some philosophical equivocation. In this context it is not surprising that, given the opportunity, scepticism is condemned in both the Brahmajāla-sutta and the Sāmaññaphala-sutta.

 

Notes

[1]sakkā nu kho […] evaṃ diṭṭheva dhamme sandiṭṭhikaṃ sāmaññaphalaṃ paññāpetun ti, D I 52 ff.

[2] atthi paro loko ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, atthi paro loko ti iti ce me assa, atthi paro loko ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evam pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. n’ atthi paro loko? ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, n atthi paro loko ti iti ce me assa, n’ atthi paro loko ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evanti pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. atthi ca n’ atthi ca paro loko? ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, atthi ca n’ atthi ca paro loko ti iti ce me assa, atthi ca n’ atthi ca paro loko ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evanti pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. nevatthi na n’ atthi paro loko? ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, nevatthi na n’ atthi paro loko ti iti ce me assa, nevatthi na n’ atthi paro loko ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evanti pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. atthi sattā opapātikā? ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, atthi sattā opapātikā ti iti ce me assa, atthi sattā opapātikā’ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evanti pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. atthi ca n’ atthi ca sattā opapātikā? ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, atthi ca n’ atthi ca sattā opapātikā ti iti ce me assa, atthi ca n’ atthi ca sattā opapātikā ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evanti pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā’ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. nevatthi na n’ atthi sattā opapātikā? ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, nevatthi na n’ atthi sattā opapātikā ti iti ce me assa, nevatthi na n’ atthi sattā opapātikā ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evanti pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. atthi sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko? ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, atthi sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko ti iti ce me assa, atthi sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evanti pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. n’ atthi sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko? ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, n’ atthi sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko ti iti ce me assa, n’ atthi sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evanti pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. atthi ca n’ atthi ca sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko? ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, atthi ca n’ atthi ca sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko ti iti ce me assa, atthi ca n’ atthi ca sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evanti’pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. nevatthi na n’ atthi sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko? ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, nevatthi na n’ atthi sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko’ti iti ce me assa, nevatthi na n’ atthi sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evanti pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. hoti Tathāgato param maraṇā? ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, hoti Tathāgato param maraṇā ti iti ce me assa, hoti Tathāgato param maraṇā ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evanti pi me no. tathā’ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. na hoti Tathāgato param maraṇā? ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, na hoti Tathāgato param maraṇā ti iti ce me assa, na hoti Tathāgato param maraṇā ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evanti pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. hoti ca na hoti ca Tathāgato param maraṇā? ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, hoti ca na hoti ca Tathāgato param maraṇā ti iti ce me assa, hoti ca na hoti ca Tathāgato param maraṇā ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evanti pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. neva hoti na na hoti Tathāgato param maraṇā? ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, neva hoti na na hoti Tathāgato param maraṇā ti iti ce me assa, neva hoti na na hoti Tathāgato param maraṇā ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evanti pi me no. tathā ti’pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no ti, D I 58-59.

[3] The first three views begin with:

idha bhikkhave ekacco samaṇo vā brāhmaṇo vā idaṃ kusalan ti yathābhūtaṃ na ppajānāti. idaṃ akusalan ti yathābhūtaṃ na ppajānāti. tassa evaṃ hoti: ahaṃ kho idaṃ kusalan ti yathābhūtaṃ na ppajānāmi. idaṃ akusalan ti yathābhūtaṃ na ppajānāmi. ahañ c’ eva kho pana idaṃ kusalanti yathābhūtaṃ na appajānanto, idaṃ akusalan ti yathābhūtaṃ na appajānanto, idaṃ kusalan ti vā vyākareyyaṃ, idaṃ akusalan ti vā vyākareyyaṃ, tattha me assa chando vā rāgo vā doso vā paṭigho vā. yattha me assa chando vā rāgo vā doso vā paṭigho vā.

View 1: taṃ mam assa musā. yaṃ mam assa musā, so mam assa vighāto. yo mam assa vighāto, so mam assa antarāyo ti. iti so musāvādabhayā musāvādaparijegucchā n ev idaṃ kusalanti vyākaroti. na pan idaṃ akusalan ti vyākaroti.

View 2: tattha me assa chando vā rāgo vā doso vā paṭigho vā. yattha me assa chando vā rāgo vā doso vā paṭigho vā, taṃ mam assa upādānaṃ. yaṃ mam assa upādānaṃ, so mam assa vighāto. yo mam assa vighāto, so mam assa antarāyo ti. iti so upādānabhayā upādānaparijegucchā n ev idaṃ kusalan ti vyākaroti. na pan idaṃ akusalan ti vyākaroti.

View 3: santi hi kho pana samaṇabrāhmaṇā paṇḍitā nipuṇā kataparappavādā vālavedhirūpā vobhindantā maññe caranti paññāgatena diṭṭhigatāni, te maṃ tattha samanuyuñjeyyuṃ samanugāheyyuṃ samanubhāseyyuṃ. ye maṃ tattha samanuyuñjeyyuṃ samanuyuñjeyyuṃ samanuyuñjeyyuṃ, tesāhaṃ na sampāyeyyaṃ. yesāhaṃ na sampāyeyyaṃ, so mam assa vighāto. yo mam’ assa vighāto, so mam’ assa antarāyo ti. iti so anuyogabhayā anuyogaparijegucchā n ev idaṃ kusalan ti vyākaroti. na pan idaṃ akusalan ti vyākaroti.

All views (including the fourth view) conclude with:

tattha tattha pañhaṃ puṭṭho samāno vācāvikkhepaṃ āpajjati amarāvikkhepaṃ: evam pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no ti.

[4] View 4: idha bhikkhave ekacco samaṇo vā brāhmaṇo vā mando hoti momūho. so mandattā momūhattā tattha tattha pañhaṃ puṭṭho samāno vācāvikkhepaṃ āpajjati amarāvikkhepaṃ: atthi paro loko ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, atthi paro loko ti iti ce me assa, atthi paro loko ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evam pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. n’ atthi paro loko ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, n’ atthi paro loko ti iti ce me assa, n’ atthi paro loko ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evam pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. atthi ca n’ atthi ca paro loko ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, atthi ca n’ atthi ca paro loko ti iti ce me assa, atthi ca n’ atthi ca paro loko ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evam pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. atthi sattā opapātikā ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, atthi sattā opapātikā ti iti ce maṃ assa, atthi sattā opapātikā ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evam pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. n’ atthi sattā opapātikā ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, n’ atthi sattā opapātikā ti iti ce me assa, n’ atthi sattā opapātikā ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evam pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. atthi ca n’ atthi ca sattā opapātikā ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, atthi ca n’ atthi ca sattā opapātikā ti iti ce me assa, atthi ca n’ atthi ca sattā opapātikā ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evam pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. nevatthi na n’ atthi sattā opapātikā ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, n ev atthi na n’ atthi sattā opapātikā ti iti ce me assa, n ev atthi na n’ atthi sattā opapātikā ti iti ce naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evam pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. atthi sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, atthi sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko ti iti ce me assa, atthi sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evam pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. n’ atthi sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, n’ atthi sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko ti iti ce me assa, n’ atthi sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evam pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. atthi ca n’ atthi ca sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, atthi ca n’ atthi ca sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko iti ce me assa, atthi ca n’ atthi ca sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evam pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. n ev atthi na n’ atthi sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, n ev atthi na n’ atthi sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko ti iti ce me assa, n’ ev’ atthi na n’ atthi sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipākoti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evam pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. hoti tathāgato param maraṇā ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, hoti tathāgato param maraṇā ti iti ce me assa, hoti tathāgato param maraṇā ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evam pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. na hoti tathāgato param maraṇā ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, na hoti tathāgato param maraṇā ti iti ce me assa, na hoti tathāgato param maraṇā ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evam pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. hoti ca na hoti ca tathāgato param maraṇā ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, hoti ca na hoti ca tathāgato param maraṇā ti iti ce me assa, hoti ca na hoti ca tathāgato param maraṇā ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evam pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no. n eva hoti na na hoti tathāgato param maraṇā ti iti ce maṃ pucchasi, n’ eva hoti na na hoti tathāgato paraṃ maraṇā ti iti ce me assa, n eva hoti na na hoti tathāgato param maraṇā ti iti te naṃ vyākareyyaṃ. evam pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no, D I 24-28.

[5] Jayatilleke, Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, p. 120, Dutt, Early Monastic Buddhism, pp. 51-2.

[6] Jayatilleke, ibid., p. 127.

[7] Jayatilleke, ibid. p. 128-9.

[8] See Warder’s discussion, Outline of Indian Philosophy, p. 45.

[9] evam pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi me no.

[10] Four clauses by not counting the first phrase evam pi me no. Watanabe, Philosophy and its Development in the Nikāyas and Abhidhamma, p. 89. Watanabe gives as his reference Sumaṇgalavilāsinī,115-6.

[11] puna ca paraṃ [] idh’ ekacco satthā mando hoti momūho, so mandattā momūhattā tathā tathā pañhaṃ puṭṭho samāno vācāvikkhepaṃ āpajjati amarāvikkhepaṃ: evam pi me no. tathā ti pi me no. aññathā ti pi me no. no ti pi me no. no no ti pi no. M I 520-521.

[12] The other three are those who claim ‘omniscience’ (sabbaññū), the ‘traditionalist’ (anussaviko), and the third the ‘reasoner’ and ‘enquirer’ (takkī, vīmaṃsī). These can of course be compared to the four ways which ‘negate the living of the holy life’ cited in chapter two. These four kinds of holy life without consolation are evaluated in a more positive way than the previous group of four. Those who claim omniscience are most likely Jains, the anussaviko is surely an allusion to the Brahmanic tradition, the takkī/vīmaṃsī are familiar as a way of arriving at a viewpoint from the Brahmajāla-sutta.

[13] Jayatilleke, Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, p. 474; see also Steven Collins, Selfless Persons, p. 128.

[14] Jayatilleke, Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, pp. 124, 128-9; A.K. Warder, Outline of Indian Philosophy (Delhi, 1971), pp. 45-46; B. M. Barua, Pre-Buddhistic Indian Philosophy (Calcutta, 1921), p. 326; G. C. Pande, Studies in the Origins of Buddhism (Allahabad, 1957),p. 350. Pande thinks that, at the very least, this scepticism is based upon ‘critical considerations’.

Towards Engaged Buddhist political activity

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There is something of a dilemma at the heart of any Buddhist attempt at social and political engagement. The basis of this is that in venturing to find the causes of suffering in social and political structures one is involving oneself in (and potentially becoming entangled in) suffering itself. Some would therefore argue that Buddhism has no political and social message. It is a world renouncing ascetic tradition. There are many complex issues at stake here and, having taught university courses on Engaged Buddhism a number of times I am aware that to answer the question of whether Buddhism originally had a social message or not is in many ways misleading. What is less misleading is to consider that those who do make use of Buddhist teachings in a social and political way should be aware of the complexity and potential philosophical precipices as they strive to use Buddhist ideas to change the world. In attempting to move the focus from the adaptation and exploration of the mind to the adaptation of the world the engaged Buddhist should be mindful of the focus of Buddhist thinking in certain key areas.

The Nettippakaraṇa quotes the Udāna 81: ‘The supported is liable to dislodgement; the unsupported is not liable to dislodgement’.[1] It uses this statement to suggest how one should respond to the world. It first explains that there are two kinds of support: there is ‘support by craving, and support by view’.[2] Any choice (cetanā) of one who is lusting (rattassa), is support by craving (taṇhā-nissayo), and any choice by one who is ‘confused’ (mūḷhassa), is ‘support by views’ (diṭṭhi-nissayo). The text then states that the act of choice or volition (cetanā) leads to involvement, and this is a ‘formation’ (cetanā pana saṃkhārā). This is then used to suggest that one who lusts or holds on to view is involved in the process of dependent-origination. The text gives a version of dependent-origination based upon volitional formations, i.e. with volitional formations as condition there is consciousness, etc., sorrow, lamentation, despair and suffering.[3] This negative outcome of holding to views is familiar to us. The Nettippakaraṇa explains that both those who hold views and those who lust and crave are involved in the same process, that of dependently-originated dhammas. Involvement with these dhammas leads to dukkha.

The Nettippakaraṇa next describes how there is escape from this cycle. When there is no liability to dislodgement, there is tranquillity; when there is tranquillity, there is no inclination (nati),[4] when there is no inclination, there is no coming and going; when there is no coming and going, there is no decease and reappearance; when there is no decease and reappearance, there is no here, beyond or in between, and this is the end of suffering.[5] This is the escape from dukkha. The text explains that the unsupported is not liable to dislodgement because it is ‘unsupported by craving by virtue of calm’,[6] and ‘unsupported by views by virtue of insight’.[7] It states that: ‘insight is knowledge and with its arising there is the cessation of ignorance’,[8] and so on through the cessation of the chain of dependent-origination.[9]

The unwholesome process begins with choice or volition (cetanā), for both lust and views: objects of the senses and cognition. This gives rise to volitional formations (saṃkhārā), and to dukkha. The wholesome process begins with a turning away from objects of sense and cognition, through calm (samatha) and insight (vipassanā) which abandons ignorance and the chain of dependent-origination leading to dukkha. The Nettippakaraṇa is explaining in clear terms that the holding of views is part of the very process of dukkha.

In this discussion one might like to consider a similar process in the form of the right-view of Anāthapiṇḍika. This view is the following:

‘Whatever has become is put together, is thought out, is dependent on something else, that is impermanent. What is impermanent, that is dukkha, what is dukkha: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self’.’[10]

It is the cessation of craving, essential for apprehending this process, which the texts describe as ‘right-view’ (sammā-diṭṭhi). The Nettippakaraṇa makes this clear by suggesting that the very holding of a view is a cetanā and this is a saṃkhāra. View is, as it were, implicated in the whole process of dependent-origination. I would argue that it is not just micchā-diṭṭhi that is implicated, but sammā-diṭṭhi is also likely to be a cetanā and a saṃkhāra, and part of the process of dukkha. In the Nettippakaraṇa passage the text is, in one sense, making a distinction about the nature of the view that ‘corrects’ micchā-diṭṭhi which, in fact, corrects diṭṭhi. It corrects all views, in the sense that any view is an object of attachment. In the language of the Nettippakaraṇa, a view cannot be ‘liable to dislodgement’ (calitaṃ natthi). It is the view that is ‘not supported by views’ (diṭṭhiyā anissito) in virtue of insight (vipassanā-vasena). Right-view transcends all views.

Where there are no views there is ‘no here, beyond or in between’. This is the wholesome course of action. Wrong-view is the opposite to this. It is involved, it gives rise to volitional formations, consciousness, name and form, feelings, craving attachment and suffering. Wrong-view is always associated with greed. It is implicated in the process of giving rise to unwholesome actions. As such it leads away from insight, from right-view.

As can be seen from these passages, from a philosophical standpoint meaningful social and political action must be based upon a quite specific mental attitude. This attitude is one free from greed hatred and delusion. It is free from a foundation ensnared by a particularly firm adherence to a specific standpoint. It is free from a particularly strong sense that one holds to a particular mental bias. One could suggest that for these reasons Buddhists have concentrated on the adaptation of the mind and not on changing the world. However, in working out a Buddhist social theory the ideas being outlined here must be part of what is considered for a model of Buddhist social and political activity. Social and political action must in itself be part of a wholesome (kusala) process of body, speech and mind. It must begin by being free from adherence and attachment. Buddhist political activity must itself display those qualities it aims to achieve in society – selflessness, dispassion, the overcoming of suffering, a lack of craving and attachment. Buddhist theories of meditation are adept at describing these processes and abilities, these disciplines and mental activities. For Buddhist social and political engagement to be a realistic activity these ideas need to move beyond the mind and into the world.


[1] nissitassa calitaṃ anissitassa calitaṃ n’ atthi, Nett 65.

[2] nissayo nāma duvidho: taṇahānissayo diṭṭhi-nissayo ca, Nett 65.

[3] saṃkhāra-paccayā viññāṇaṃ, viññāṇa-paccayā nāmarūpaṃ, nāmarūpa-paccayā saḷāyatanaṃ, saḷāyatana-paccayā phasso, phassa-paccayā vedanā, vedanā-paccayā taṇhā, taṇhā-paccayā upādāna, upādāna-paccayā bhavo, bhava-paccayā jāti, jāti-paccayā jarāmaraṇaṃ, sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā sambhavanti, evam etassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti, Nett 65.

[4] I am translating the term nati as ‘inclination’. To have an inclination is a subtle craving and need, the opposite to tranquillity. See a comparable passage at S II 67 which reads: tasmiṃ patiṭṭhite viññāṇe virūḷhe nati hoti. natiyā sati āgatigati hoti. āgatigatiyā sati cutūpapāto hoti.

[5] passaddhiyā sati nati na hoti, natiyā asati āgati-gati na hoti, āgatigatiyā asati cutūpapāto na hoti, cutūpapāte asati nev’ idha na huraṃ na ubhayam antarena es’ ev’ anto dukkhassā, Nett 65.

[6] samathavasena vā taṇhāya anissito.

[7] vipassanāvasena vā diṭṭhiyā anissito, Nett 65.

[8] vipassanā ayaṃ vijjā vijjuppādā avijjānirodho.

[9] avijjā-nirodhā saṃkhāra-nirodho, saṃkhāra-nirodhā viññāṇa-nirodho, viññāṇa-nirodhā nāmarūpa-nirodho, nāmarūpa-nirodhā saḷāyatana-nirodho saḷāyatana-nirodhā phassa-nirodho, phassa-nirodhā vedanā-nirodho, vedanā-nirodhā taṇhā-nirodho, taṇhā-nirodhā upādāna-nirodho, upādāna-nirodhā bhava-nirodho, bhava-nirodhā jāti-nirodho, jāti-nirodhā jarāmaraṇaṃ sokaparidevadukkhadomansūpāyāsā nirujjhanti, evam etassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa nirodho hoti, Nett 65-66.

[10] yaṃ kho pana kiñci bhūtaṃ saṃkhataṃ cetayitaṃ paṭiccasamuppannaṃ, tad aniccaṃ yad aniccaṃ taṃ dukkham, yaṃ dukkham, tam n’ etaṃ mama n’ eso ‘ham asmi na me so attā ti, A V 188.

The ten imperfections of insight (vipassanā-upakkilesa)

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Central to Buddhist philosophy are the ideas of impermanence, suffering and not-self. In the following I will look at these ideas as they are expressed as the insight and subject of ‘right-view’. However, there is something of a subtle warning in the textual tradition. This warning takes the form of describing the ‘ten imperfections of insight’ (vipassanā upakkilesa) These imperfections are illumination, knowledge, rapturous happiness, tranquillity, bliss, resolution, exertion, assurance, equanimity and attachment. All of these factors can erase and obscure the truths revealed by embarking on the Buddhist path. They point to the danger of any position succumbing to attachment. The idea however goes further than this and, as is sometimes the case in Buddhist meditational theory, reflects the notion that what are otherwise positive qualities being prone to to destroying Buddhist practice.

The first example is taken from the khandavagga of the Saṃyutta-nikāya. The Paṭhamanandikkhaya-sutta (S III 51) subjects each of the five ‘aggregates’ (khandhas) to right-view:

‘Bhikkhus, a bhikkhu sees form as impermanent, which is actually impermanent: that is his right-view. Seeing rightly, he experiences indifference.[1] With the destruction of delight comes the destruction of lust; with the destruction of lust comes the destruction of delight. With the destruction of delight and lust the mind is liberated and is said to be well-liberated.’[2]

The other four khandhas are treated in the same way. Seeing any of the five as impermanent is right-view. It should be noted that seeing in a certain way, apprehending the ‘aggregates’ (khandhas) as impermanent, causes a specific form of behaviour: the experience of indifference (nibbidā). This, in turn, causes the liberation of the mind. The role of right-view is twofold: it sees things as they are and this is transformative. A similar theme is found in the Saḷāyatanavagga of the Saṃyuttanikāya. This time, seeing the six senses as impermanent is right-view.[3] Similarly, in the following sutta, seeing the six external sense bases, the objects of the senses (rūpa, sadda, gandha, rasa, phoṭṭhabba and dhamma) as impermanent is right-view. [4] In three further suttas from the Saḷāyatanavagga of the Saṃyuttanikāya the same teachings are found. These are the Micchādiṭṭhippahānasutta (S IV 147), the Sakkāyadiṭṭhippahānasutta (S IV 147-8) and the Attānudiṭṭhippahānasutta (S IV 148). In the first sutta, it is asked how one should know and see for ‘wrong-view’ (micchā-diṭṭhi) to be abandoned, in the second for ‘personality-view’ (sakkāya-diṭṭhi) to be abandoned and in the third for ‘views about self’ (attānudiṭṭhi) to be abandoned.[5] The answer given for ‘wrong-view’ (micchā-diṭṭhi) is that one should see each of the senses, their objects, contact with the objects, and the type of consciousness that they produce and any feelings (whether painful, pleasurable or neither) as impermanent. This is how wrong-view is abandoned. For sakkāya-diṭṭhi to be abandoned one should view the same things as unsatisfactory, and for attānudiṭṭhi to be abandoned one should see them as not-self.

Right-view as seeing: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self’

In the Alagaddūpama-sutta (M I 136) is found the six ‘bases for views’ (diṭṭhi-ṭṭhāna). By ‘bases’ (ṭṭhāna) the text may be implying that they are the object which views take as their standpoint, their position. The ‘noble disciple’ (ariya-sāvaka) should regard the ‘aggreagates’ (khandhas) as: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self’ instead of: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’ which are wrong-views.[6] The ariya-sāvaka is to regard what is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, encountered, sought, mentally pondered, as: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self’. Finally, the basis for views, ‘This is self, this the world; after death I shall be permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change; I shall endure and last as long as eternity’, this too he should regard as: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self’. The suggestion is that of a detached and therefore wholesome way of seeing the world. Right-view proposes the notions of ‘not mine’, ‘not I’, and ‘not-self’. It proposes the cessation of craving and attachment.

Four non-perversions of view (na diṭṭhi-vipallāsā)

In the idea of the four perversions and non-perversions of view, similar notions are found. In a sense, the doctrinal content of views cannot be separated from the effect of views: the ideas of ‘is’ and ‘ought’. In the Vipallāsa-sutta (A II 52) we are told that there are four perversions of apperception (cattāro saññā-vipallāsā), four perversions of mind (cattāro citta-vipallāsā) and four perversions of view (cattāro diṭṭhi-vipallāsā). The vipallāsa is an inversion and distortion of reality. The Vipallāsa-sutta states that to hold that in the impermanent there is the permanent, is a perversion of apperception, mind and view,[7] to hold that in suffering there is happiness, is a perversion of apperception, mind and view,[8] to hold that in the not-self there is a self, is a perversion of apperception, mind and view,[9] and to hold that in the ugly there is the beautiful is a perversion of apperception, mind and view.[10] In the verses that follows the prose, this is described as ‘going to wrong-view’ (micchā-diṭṭhi-gatā).

To see the opposite, that which is impermanent as impermanent, that which is suffering as suffering, that which is not-self as not-self, and that which is ugly as ugly, are the non-perversions of apperception, mind and view.[11] It is these four ways of seeing which, in verse, are described as ‘undertaking right-view’ (sammā-diṭṭhi-samādānā), and by this undertaking of view all suffering is overcome (sammā-diṭṭhi-samādānā sabbaṃ dukkhaṃ upaccagun ti, A II 52).

In the Visuddhimagga, the vipallāsas are explained in the following terms:

‘There are three perversions, namely, the perversion of apperception, of consciousness and view, which occur apprehending objects that are impermanent, suffering, not-self and ugly, as permanent, pleasant, self, and beautiful.’[12]

The Nettippakaraṇa (Nett 83-84) states that to contemplate the body as the body abandons the perversion that there is beauty in the ugly (asubhe subhan ti vipallāsaṃ pajahati), and this abandons the attachment to sensual desire. To contemplate feeling as feeling abandons the perversion that there is pleasure in the painful (dukkhe sukhan ti vipallāsaṃ pajahati), and this abandons the attachment to existence (bhavupādāna, this term is unusual in this context). To contemplate the mind as mind (citta) abandons the perversion that there is permanence in the impermanent (anicce niccan ti vipallāsaṃ pajahati), and this abandons the attachment to views. To contemplate dhammas as dhammas, one abandons the perversion that there is self in the not-self (anattaniye attā ti vipallāsaṃ pajahati), and this abandons the attachment to the doctrine of self. There is possibly a connection between the abandoning of these perversions and the cultivation of the four foundations of mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna).[13] I will return to this in chapter three and my discussion of the abandoning of the āsavas, and in chapter five and the discussion of the three gateways to liberation.

The ten imperfections of insight (vipassanā-upakkilesa)

The central idea in the passages I have been considering is one of misapprehending and grasping. Buddhaghosa explains that ‘clinging’ (parāmāsa) is a term for micchā-diṭṭhi, because it misses the individual essence of dhammas, by apprehending (āmasana) elsewhere an unreal individual essence’.[14] Or that those who do not have the correct attitude to the dhamma, who understand what is impermanent as permanent, have adherence to views (As 49). Buddhaghosa also states that ‘there comes to be the removal of ‘views’ (diṭṭhi) in one who sees volitional formations as not-self’.[15] It is in this way that they, micchā-diṭṭhi, are abandoned. It is, in fact, not only micchā-diṭṭhi but all diṭṭhi that are abandoned in this way. Attachment is not a predicate of right-view, of sammā-diṭṭhi. This is expressed by the idea of the ‘ten imperfections of insight’ (vipassanā upakkilesa) found in the Visuddhimagga. These imperfections are illumination, knowledge, rapturous happiness, tranquillity, bliss, resolution, exertion, assurance, equanimity and attachment.[16] It is due to these that the bhikkhu does not see impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and not-self. Attachment is explained in the following terms:

‘Attachment is attachment due to insight. For when his insight is adorned with illumination, etc., attachment arises in him, which is subtle and peaceful in aspect, and it relies on (clings to) that insight; and he is not able to discern that that attachment is a defilement.’[17]

Attachment is then an imperfection of insight. Knowledge of what is of most importance, the eradication of dukkha, must not give way to craving for that knowledge. As right-view is explained as a type of wisdom (insight), so attachment and grasping are not part of its nature. If Buddhist doctrine becomes an object of attachment it is, in an important sense, incorrect doctrine. The content of Buddhist doctrine induces a cessation of craving and attachment.


[1] I follow Sue Hamilton in translating nibbidā as ‘indifference’, instead of using translations such as ‘revulsion’, which are misleading. The idea is that, with the achievement of right-view, there is detachment; see Hamilton, Identity and Experience, p. 184.

[2] aniccaññeva bhikkhave, bhikkhu rūpaṃ aniccan ti passati. sāssa hoti sammā-diṭṭhi, sammā-passaṃ nibbindati. nandikkhayā rāgakkhayo, rāgakkhayā nandikkhayo. nandirāgakkhayā cittaṃ vimuttaṃ suvimuttan ti vuccati, S III 51.

[3] aniccaṃ yeva bhikkhave bhikkhu cakkhuṃ [sotaṃ, ghānaṃ, jivham, kāyaṃ and manaṃ] aniccan ti passati. sāssa hoti sammā-diṭṭhi, sammā passaṃ nibbindati, nandikkhayā rāgakkhayo rāgakkhayā nandikkhayo nandirāgakkhayā cittaṃ suvimuttan ti vuccati, S IV 142.

[4] anicceyeva bhikkhave bhikkhu rūpe [sadde, gandhe, rase, phoṭṭhabbe and dhamma] aniccāti passati. sāssa hoti sammā-diṭṭhi, sammā passaṃ nibbindati, nandikkhayā rāgakkhayo rāgakkhayā nandikkhayo nandirāgakkhayā cittaṃ suvimuttan ti vuccati, S IV 142.

[5] kathan nu kho bhante jānato kathaṃ passato micchā-diṭṭhi [sakkāya-diṭṭhi […] attānudiṭṭhi] pahīyatī ti, S IV 147-8.

[6] To regard things as: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self’ is described as the ‘perfect view’ (sampanna-diṭṭhi) in other parts of the canon (Paṭis I 160).

[7] anicce […] niccan ti saññā-vipallāso citta-vipallāso diṭṭhi-vipallāso, A II 52.

[8] dukkhe […] sukhan ti saññā-vipallāso citta-vipallāso diṭṭhi-vipallāso, A II 52.

[9] anattani […] attā ti saññā-vipallāso citta-vipallāso diṭṭhi-vipallāso, A II 52.

[10] asubhe […] bhikkhave subhan ti saññā-vipallāso citta-vipallāso diṭṭhi-vipallāso, A II 52.

[11] anicce […] aniccan ti […] dukkhe […] dukkhan ti […] anattani […] anattā ti […] asubhe […] asubhan ti na saññā-vipallāso na citta-vipallāso na diṭṭhi-vipallāso, A II 52.

[12] vipallāsā ti anicca-dukkha-anatta-asubhesu yeva vatthusu niccaṃ sukhaṃ attā subhan ti evaṃ pavatto saññāvipallāso cittavipallāso diṭṭhivipallāso ti, Vism XXII 53.

[13] These are to contemplate body as body, feelings as feelings, mind as mind, and dhammas as dhammas (M I 56).

[14] parāmāso ti tassa tassa dhammassa sabhāvaṃ atikkamma parato abhūtaṃ sabhāvaṃ āmasanākārena pavattanato micchā-diṭṭhiyā etaṃ adhivacanaṃ, Vism XXII 57.

[15] evaṃ saṃkhāre anattato passantassa diṭṭhisamugghāṭanaṃ nāma hoti, Vism XX 87.

[16] obhāsa, ñāṇa, pīti, passaddhi, sukha, adhimokkha, paggaha, upaṭṭhāna, upekkhā, nikanti, Vism XX 105. I am following Ñāṇamoli in translating nikanti as ‘attachment’ a term often used to translate upādāna; see Ñāṇamoli, The Path of Purification (Colombo, 1956), p 739.

[17] nikantī ti vipassanānikanti; evaṃ obhāsādi-patimaṇḍitāya hissa vipassanāya ālayaṃ kurumānā sukhumā santākārā nikanti uppajjati, yā nikanti kileso ti pariggahetum pi na sakkā hoti, Vism XX 122.