Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Omniscience and the Rhetoric of Reason - Preface

Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla on Rationality, Argumentation, and Religious Authority


When I knew just a little bit, I was blind with intoxication like an elephant in rut;
at that time, I thought, “I am omniscient!” So arrogant was my fancy.
But when, through proximity to wise persons, I gradually understood just a little bit,
then, I thought, “I am an idiot!” Like a fever, my pride dissolved.
           -- Bhartṛhari, Nītiśataka 8

As an enthusiastic graduate student, I became fascinated by the topic of the Buddha’s omniscience. I was intrigued by how a tradition with a reputation for a rational and pragmatic approach to the problems of the human condition could postulate what seemed to me such an implausible state for its founder. That the Buddha should have known absolutely everything was absolutely mind-boggling. I was also perplexed by how a tradition that is frequently concerned with a critique of subject-object duality could maintain a coherent theory of omniscience for the awakened Buddha, who supposedly had overcome dualistic knowing. Would not the act of knowing necessarily become something quite different for such a being? Would not the objects of knowledge also disappear in the nondual gnosis of awakening? Such questions drew me in and led me on a quest for the answers that Buddhists have given over the years.

Being young and eager, I naively imagined that I could address these questions for the entire scope of Indian Buddhism. My plan was to write a dissertation that explored both the initial theories of the Buddha’s omniscience and the developments of these theories throughout the many literary and philosophical streams of Buddhism in South Asia. Early on in my project, I discovered the Tattvasaṃgraha and its commentary, the Pañjikā, the monumental works at the heart of this book. The final chapter of these interconnected works is an extended treatment and defense of omniscience. I decided that I would start my research there. Little did I realize the complexity and sophistication of these works at the time. As it turned out, the scope of my research project became progressively smaller, as I took more and more time to try to understand what was happening in these fascinating but quite challenging works.

The history of the idea of omniscience in Indian Buddhism is yet to be written, and it will not be written for many more years. There remain too many works, some surviving only in Chinese or Tibetan, still insufficiently studied. This book is a modest contribution in that regard, as it addresses only one small slice of the larger Indian Buddhist pie. Although I present an overview of omniscience in India in the first chapter of this book, the gaps in that overview are far greater than what it contains. The present book speaks mainly to very specific sets of arguments that were unfolding in and around the eighth century in India. To understand these arguments, one needs to understand a great deal about the metaphysics, epistemology, soteriology, and practical rationality that were in play at the time. Omniscience, as it turns out, is a theme that involves nearly everything—which I suppose should not be surprising.

The quotation by Bhartṛhari cited above well describes my experience in writing this book. The more I pursued this outrageous topic, the more I encountered scholars of extraordinary learning. The more I spent time with such erudite persons, the more clearly I comprehended the limits of my knowledge. Slowly, over time, I began to discern a small area where I might make a unique contribution. But it is with utmost humility that I say this. Most of what I have discovered comes directly from others, and none of what I have done here would be possible without them.

Those who have helped me with this project are far too numerous to name, and any attempt at an exhaustive list would be inevitably doomed to failure. The only consolation I can give to those whose names do not appear here is the assurance that I recognize the depths of my dependence on the many of you who have so kindly offered your insights, your material support, and your friendship. Please know that I am profoundly grateful for all the assistance I have received over the years.

A few persons are too central to this project not to be named. At the very beginning, I wish to acknowledge my first teacher of Buddhism, Professor Masatoshi Nagatomi of Harvard University, without whose encouragement this project would never have begun. Similarly, my current colleague and partner for many years, John Dunne, was with me in Sarnath on the day I decided to make omniscience the focus of my doctoral studies. His help over the years has been invaluable. My teachers in Sarnath were likewise all critical to this work. In particular, Ram Shankar Tripathi, whom I always call Guru-ji, was exceedingly generous with his time, wit, and wisdom, tirelessly reading and explicating hundreds of Sanskrit verses and commentary with me over the course of more than one year. I will never forget his teaching to me of the importance of stopping work periodically for a laughter break— a practice that infused great joy into our time together. In Sarnath as well, Geshe Yeshe Thabkhe took considerable time with me to read Indian texts in Tibetan translation. I learned more from him about Madhyamaka than from nearly anyone else. During this time, Venerable Lobsang Norbu Shastri was my faithful companion, accompanying me to Guru-ji’s home and offering me meals and tea, thus entirely and selflessly reversing the usual monk-layperson relationship. Another Sarnath connection is Shrikant Bahulkar, one of the most gifted Sanskritists I have had the pleasure to know. His aid in the later stages of this book is greatly appreciated. Most importantly, I want to thank Andy Rotman, whom I met on the steps of the Śāntarakṣita Library in Sarnath and who has since become a trusted advisor and friend. Andy’s perpetual counsel and deep-seated maitri have seen me through everything, and there are no words to express my thanks for his presence in my life.

Crucial to the direction that my research eventually took is my dissertation advisor, Professor Tom Tillemans of the university of Lausanne. Tom’s invitation to John and me to spend two years in Lausanne was a decisive event in my scholarly life. When Professor Nagatomi passed away unexpectedly during that period, Tom’s willingness to take on the role of director for my thesis, even though I was still officially a student at Harvard, was an act of great kindness. His careful work with me on the Sanskrit texts as well as his insistence on the highest level of clarity in my writing and thinking were services whose benefits remain with me to this day. It was also Tom who suggested I look into the new Rhetoric of Chaïm Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, thinkers whose mark can be discerned throughout the whole of this book. For all these reasons, as well as for his relentless philosophical curiosity and unwavering kindness, I thank Tom profoundly from the depths of my heart.

Others who have played a truly central role in the successful completion of this work include Professor Charles Hallisey of Harvard University, a member of my dissertation committee and a source of ongoing intellectual inspiration. Professor Leonard van der Kuijp, also of Harvard, was the third member of my dissertation committee, and his help has likewise been crucial. Sincere thanks are due as well to Professor Ernst Steinkellner of the Austrian academy of Sciences and to Professor Shōryū Katsura of Ryukoku University, both of whom provided extensive corrections and comments to an earlier draft of this book. For other indispensible help, I wish to acknowledge Dr. Helmut Krasser, Dr. Vincent Eltschinger, and Dr. Toru Funayama. Likewise also Dr. Phyllis Granoff, Dr. Laurie Patton, Mr. Barry Hershey, Ms. Amy Benson Brown, Ms. Constance Kassor, and all the scholars whose works I cite in this book. These names represent just a few of the many to whom I owe a great debt. needless to say, any errors that remain in the book are entirely my own.

Many institutions have generously allowed my work to proceed by offering scholarships and other material support. These include Harvard university, Columbia university, the American Institute of Indian Studies, the Rocky Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, the Central Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies (now Central university for Higher Tibetan Studies), the university of Lausanne, the Fonds Elisabet de Boer, Emory university, and the Hershey Family Foundation. I extend my gratitude to all of them for their recognition of my efforts.

Thanks are due also to Laura Cunningham and to everyone at Wisdom who helped bring this book to fruition. This is my second book in the Studies in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism series at Wisdom Publications (the first is a volume co-edited with Georges Dreyfus). In both instances, the experience has been exceptional. My editor for both projects, David Kittelstrom, is among the most attentive readers I have yet to encounter. The publisher, Tim McNeill, who has great insight into the world of Buddhist publishing, had the courage to create an academic series that has now published some of the best works in our field—it is a great honor to be part of it. My thanks go also to the members of the editorial board of the series for their positive appraisal of my work and for their patience in seeing it come to press.

Finally, I thank my immediate family, especially my daughter, Alekha Jolly, who continues to be among my greatest teachers concerning those inexpressible realities that must remain unwritten, and my mother, Winifred Jolly, who despite her own challenges and personal tragedies, has consistently been there for me whenever I have called. Each of them has contributed more than she can ever know to the successful completion of this book. May they both, and may all beings, find lasting happiness and peace.

Sara L. McClintock
Atlanta, June 2010


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© Sara L. McClintock, Omniscience and the Rhetoric of Reason (Wisdom Publications, 2010)

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