Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Reason’s Traces - Introduction

Identity and Interpretation in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist Thought

Introduction: What is Buddhist Philosophy?

It is by now a commonplace to remark that our attempts to interpret Buddhist thought in Western terms have generally reflected the intellectual perspectives of the interpreters as much as those of the Buddhist thinkers we wish to interpret. Nāgārjuna has seen Hegelian, Heideggerian, and Wittgensteinian readings come and go; Vasubandhu has been incarnated as both transcendental idealist and phenomenologist; the arguments of Dharmakīrti and his successors might have stepped out of the pages of Husserl’s Logische Untersuchungen or the Principia Mathematica of Russell and Whitehead. To take an ungenerous view of our encounter with Buddhism, a great Asian religion turns out to be whatever we happened to have had in our heads to begin with. Like Frank Baum’s Dorothy, we visit Oz only to discover that we never had to, and indeed never did, leave Kansas.

Nevertheless, our situation is perhaps inevitable: as Dilthey taught us long ago, understanding must be ever constituted on the basis of prior understanding, and to step altogether out of our skins is an impossibility for us. If we cannot eliminate the conceptual background engendered by our time, place, and personal circumstances, we can, however, with sufficient care, discern some of the ways in which our vision is at once constrained and enabled by it. Our problem is not to discover, per impossibile, how to think Buddhism while eliminating all reference to Western ways of thought; it is, rather, to determine an approach, given our field of reflection, whereby our encounter with Buddhist traditions may open a clearing in which those traditions begin in some measure to disclose themselves, not just ourselves. The difficulty presented by our recourse to the resources of the intellectual world that is given to us—a world whose inscriptions permeate our use of the English language—lies not only in our unavoidable employment of the words and concepts we find ready at hand here, but, more subtly and sometimes insidiously, in the manner in which even our grammar defines the modalities of discourse that are authorized for our use: not for nothing did the late Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, sometimes characterize English as a “theistic language.” Accordingly, even to speak of “Buddhist philosophy” is already to suggest that the path upon which we now embark lies within the domain of “philosophy,” that is to say, that sphere of thought whose horizons and practices have unfolded within those discourses that have been known to the West as “philosophy.” If we try to circumvent this conclusion by marking the field of our inquiry not as “philosophy” but as “theology,” we gain nothing thereby, but only make explicit our tacit determination to hedge discourse appertaining to religion within the theocentric bounds of Western religious thought.

I do not pretend here that, in an attempt to spring us from the pen of our established ways of thought, I have dug a better tunnel than others have before. On the contrary, I believe that the means available to our efforts to open up the dialectical space I have imagined above are in the first instance those that have been long since deployed: to adduce apparently promising avenues for comparative inquiry, while at the same time not hesitating to criticize those same avenues with rigor, and so to pursue those that seem most durable until they, in their turn, have given way. In posing here the question, “What is ‘Buddhist philosophy’?” then, I offer no bold, new synthetic vision, but at most a small gesture; it will be left to time and to others to determine if it suggests a path worth pursuing at length.

When we attempt to speak of “Buddhist philosophy,” our expression is strangely hybrid. If its hybridity is no longer unsettling to us, this is only because we have grown accustomed to it by repeated usage; but this is not to say that the strangeness embodied in the phrase has really vanished. For we cannot ask ourselves what Buddhist philosophy might be without at the same time asking what it is that we mean by “philosophy.” If we assume that we already certainly know what philosophy is, so that the question is closed even before we have had the occasion to ask it, then evidently we are not thinking philosophically at all—in which case Buddhist philosophy, whatever else it might be, apparently has very little to do with philosophy. Unquestioned, “Buddhist philosophy” is therefore a self-contradictory and self-refuting locution. If we do not welcome this outcome, we have no alternative but to linger somewhat over what we understand philosophy to be, at least when conjoined with the only slightly less problematic term “Buddhist.”

Turning to recent scholarship devoted to the chimera called “Buddhist philosophy,” it appears that philosophy is often conceived in terms of certain characteristic Buddhist doctrines and ways of reasoning about them. Contemporary work on Buddhist philosophy thus reflects in some respects the “problems and arguments” approach to the study of philosophy that defines much of contemporary philosophical education. In mainstream philosophical circles, precisely this approach has sometimes been deployed in order to exclude from the domain of philosophy those discourses— Buddhist, Hindu, and otherwise—stemming from outside of one’s preferred version of the Western Philosophical Canon, and so deemed non-philosophical by the prevailing orthodoxies of our academic philosophy departments. Thus, for instance, the analytic philosopher Antony Flew offers this bit of wisdom to undergraduates:

Philosophy…is concerned first, last and all the time with argument…[B]ecause most of what is labelled Eastern Philosophy is not so concerned…this book draws no materials from any sources east of Suez.

(In this way, with a late imperial flourish Flew would exclude from Philosophy’s sainted halls not only Nāgārjuna and ⁄aºkara, but also much of the Aristotelian tradition of medieval Islam!)

The dominant, dismissive prejudgment of the analytic tradition, however, was received by late twentieth-century anglophone students of Buddhist thought with sufficient seriousness that, during the past few decades, many of us who work in this and related areas have in effect devoted our energies to proving Flew wrong—to showing, that is, that classical Indian and Buddhist thinkers were concerned with well-formed arguments, and that the problems about which they argued were often closely similar to those that are taken to exemplify philosophy in our textbooks. Thus, recent work has concerned Buddhist examples of the analysis of concepts and categories such as truth, knowledge, perception, and memory; theories of reference and meaning; and ontological questions relating to universals and particulars, substance and attribute, causality and change, the existence of God, and other minds.

It may be fairly proposed, however, that the problems and arguments approach, whatever its heuristic utility, somehow misses the point: it brings to mind the ancient parable about the blind men and the elephant, which— though truly described by them as being at once like a pillar (the elephant’s leg), a hose (its trunk), a lance (its tusk), a fan (its ear), and a rope (its tail)— remains nevertheless unknown, so long as all they know of it are these “true descriptions.” As good pupils, we have learned, for instance, that the causal theory of perception, the argument from evil against theism, and the conceptualist view of universals are all parts of the elephant that is philosophy; and we can find these and more in certain classical Buddhist works. Ergo, in such works we find Buddhist philosophy. But this is about as good an argument as one that concludes, on the basis of the blind men’s report, that a tool-shed is actually an elephant.

There are, of course, alternatives to the problems and arguments approach to our understanding of philosophy. For some, philosophy cannot be dissociated from the historical fact of its Greek origins, so that any inquiry into what we mean by it must proceed by way of the question, “What did philosophy mean for the Greeks?” Philosophy is thus definitionally inalienable from the contingencies of its Greek beginnings, and hence from the project of reason as it unfolded and formed itself within the Greek world and in the entire subsequent intellectual experience of the West. This perspective was most radically articulated by Martin Heidegger, who held the very expression “Western European philosophy” to be tautological; for philosophy is essentially constitutive of Western thought and culture, and of no other. In asserting this, Heidegger was by no means endorsing the Western philosophical triumphalism we have seen articulated by Flew; he does not exclude the possibility that we might find conceptual and dialectical analogues to aspects of our philosophical tradition outside of the West. What he holds, rather, is that the formation of philosophy as a distinct domain of activity is inseparable from its historical constitution in the Greek intellectual and cultural world, and embodies a characteristically Greek preoccupation and astonishment with the categories of being, becoming, and essence.

Heidegger regarded the archaic thinkers, above all Anaximander, Parmenides, and Heraclitus, to be the true exemplars for the Greek world of an at once luminous and occluded presence of being within language and thought. The passage later traced from Socrates through Plato to Aristotle represents, in Heidegger’s view, an achievement that is in truth a rupture, whereby thinking became fatefully unhinged from being. As one of Heidegger’s interpreters has put it, “The history of philosophy becomes a nightmare from which we, Dædalus-like, are trying to awake.” In particular, metaphysics and the philosophical project of defining, analyzing, and hence dominating being represent no longer a conquest but a terrible fall.

It is beside the point of our present concerns to pursue Heidegger’s path at length here; I have introduced him into my discussion to make just two points. First, our understanding of the obscure self we call “philosophy” is questionable, and our questioning of it must proceed by way of constant reference to Greek thought. Second, Heidegger’s critique of “metaphysics,” the Western philosophical science of being, should caution us to be particularly wary regarding the deeper implications of the effort to assimilate Buddhist thought, that obscure other, to our category of “philosophy.” In considering a bit further the first of these points, I want now to turn from Heidegger to a more recent interpreter of Greek philosophy who I think will help us to shed some light on the second: the implications of things Greek for our reading of things Buddhist.

Pierre Hadot, during the past several decades, has elaborated a far-reaching rereading of the classical tradition—one that seeks to restore for us the relationship between thought and being within Greek philosophy, though not along the lines suggested by Heidegger. At the center of Hadot’s reflections is the concept of “spiritual exercise,” whereby, in his words, “the individual raises himself up to the life of the objective Spirit, that is to say, he replaces himself within the perspective of the Whole.” And as Hadot further affirms, “Philosophy then appears in its original aspect: not as a theoretical construct, but as a method for training people to live and to look at the world in a new way. It is an attempt to transform mankind.”

An example of Hadot’s perspective is his reading of the death of Socrates, its treatment by Plato, and its legacy in the Stoic and other Hellenistic traditions: “For Plato,” Hadot writes, “training for death is a spiritual exercise which consists in changing one’s point of view. We are to change from a vision of things dominated by individual passions to a representation of the world governed by the universality and objectivity of thought. This constitutes a conversion (metastrophe) brought about with the totality of the soul.” In Hadot’s thought, the implications of this deceptively simple shift of focus ramify throughout our understanding of Greek philosophy; Stoic physics, for example, is now seen to be less concerned with supplying a complete and coherent account of the material world than with the cultivation by the philosopher of a particular attitude to the world, and with the implications thereof for self-understanding. Physics in this system is thus inextricably tied to ethics, and to the formation of oneself as a specific type of agent. It is inseparable from the Stoic “training for death” and as such “is linked to the contemplation of the Whole and the elevation of thought, which rises from individual, passionate subjectivity to the universal perspective.”

Now, I think that anyone who has even passing familiarity with Buddhist path texts—works such as Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga (Path of Purity), Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra (Introduction to Enlightened Conduct), or Tsong-kha-pa’s Lam-rim chen-mo (Great Sequence of the Path)—will appreciate that there is a powerful analogy to be explored here. Take, for example, these verses of Śāntideva:

By reason of what I cherish and despise, I have done much that is sinful.
Leaving it all, I will have to go on—as if I didn’t know this would be so!
What I despise will not be, neither will there be what I love. I, too, will not be. Everything will come not to be.

Adopting Hadot’s way of speaking, Śāntideva directs us here to practice a particular spiritual exercise in which training for death is related both to scrupulous attention to the moral quality of one’s actions and to a general meditation on the nature of all conditioned entities as fleeting and impermanent. Acts that flow from our impulse to possess what we find desirable and to avoid what we do not are all grounded in a remarkable illusion, an intellectual error that is at bottom a willful refusal to confront the ephemeral quality of the constituents of our experience, a persistent and tenacious denial of our own mortality. We must, therefore, struggle against this profound disposition to regard ourselves and our properties as secure and enduring realities. The contemplation of universal impermanence reveals to us that we are no more than motes turning within a passing dustcloud. We must order our values and actions with this humbling vision always in mind.

The little I have said so far suggests that Hadot’s reading of the Socratic schools, particularly in their Hellenistic iterations, offers a useful model for our thinking on Buddhism in its relation to philosophy. It is a model that depends upon a view of philosophy that emphasizes the “techniques of the self ”—systematic spiritual exercises and ascesis, and paideia, here primarily the formation of the person as a moral agent refined through philosophical education. There is, however, an important challenge to this perspective, in its application both to things Greek and things Buddhist. For, although it is a contribution of inestimable value to delineate with care the manner in which classical philosophy embodied powerful commitments to well-formed regimes of self-cultivation, in which dialectic and argument played central roles, it remains nevertheless true that classical philosophy was also concerned with both speculative and practical knowledge. The Aristotelian project, most notably, with its systematization of scientific research and the acquisition of data, and its strong emphasis on theoria, all of which have been regarded as the true ancestors of our modern conceptions of scientific knowledge and discovery, seems to speak for a very different model. Analogously, over and against the Buddhist path texts I have mentioned, we find large numbers of Buddhist writings devoted to logic and epistemology, the categories, and basic ontology. These works are more difficult to interpret according to the conception of philosophy-as-spiritual-exercise that I have been discussing, and it is precisely because they are harder to interpret in this way, and more amenable to the dissection of their “problems and arguments,” that we must place them now at the heart of our endeavor.

On reading Hadot’s œuvre one is immediately struck by the apparently diminished place of Aristotle, relative to the centrality and weight he is usually accorded. Socrates, Plato, and Plotinus are without doubt the heroes of Hadot’s account, together with some, notably Marcus Aurelius, who have been too often neglected in our philosophical syllabi. Nevertheless, Hadot does have a position on Aristotle, and it is one that, perhaps to some degree echoing Heidegger, stresses our mistaken tendency to read theoria as synonymous with what we now mean by “theory,” and accordingly to position theoria over and against what we call “practice.” For Hadot, theoria in Aristotle’s sense is itself the most highly valued practice; it is, in fact, that practice through which human beings may come to participate in an activity that is characteristically divine. Where Aristotle departs from Plato is not in valuing theoretical knowledge above practice, but in valuing a specific type of practice, theoria, and the way of life that it entails, over the life of political practice that had been so dear to his master.

Now, with this in mind, an approach to Buddhist “theoretical” knowledge may begin to emerge. I would like us to consider, in this regard, a particular—one to which we shall have frequent occasion to return in the chapters that follow—the Tattvasaṅgraha, literally the Gathering of the Tattvas, by the great eighth-century Indian master Śāntarakṣita. Tattva is an important Sanskrit philosophical term that in both form and meaning resembles the Latin scholastic term quidditas, denoting the “essence or true nature of the thing itself.” (Tattva literally means “that-ness.”) Hence, in the extended sense in which Śāntarakṣita uses it in his title, tattva refers to “discussions and viewpoints pertaining to the real natures of things.” Śāntarakṣita’s text, in some 3,600 verses accompanied by the multivolume commentary of his disciple Kamalaśīla, is a veritable encyclopedia of “problems and arguments,” treating, together with much else, the existence of god, substance theories of the self, the nature of perception, the ontology of time, and the theory of reference. For those who may harbor doubts, à la Flew, as to whether or not there was philosophical argument “east of Suez,” this is the ideal eye-opener. Consider, for instance, the following remarks concerning the logical necessity of positing, besides those cognitive acts that are defined by their reference to an object, a class of self-presenting or purely reflexive acts. Śāntarakṣita here takes up an objection that holds that any and all acts of cognition involve objectification, so that there can be no genuine reflexivity. As Kamalaśīla summarizes the argument:

The opinion at issue is this: “That [act of consciousness], too, must be known by some knower discrete from itself, [for these reasons:] because it is a phenomenon that comes into being and is annihilated, because it is ponderable, and because it is an object of memory, just like any [other type of] object.” [However,] if one act of consciousness must be experienced by a successor, then there may be an infinite regress. For an object cannot be known by an act of awareness that is itself unknown. Thus, to establish a single object, by proceeding through [an infinite] succession of acts of awareness, the entire lifespan of a person must be thereby exhausted! Hence, owing to this danger of an infinite regress, [it must be assumed that] some act of awareness occurs that is essentially self-presenting.

Analogous arguments can be found in the writings of Franz Brentano and Edmund Husserl. If Śāntarakṣita’s subject matter and his approach to it are not philosophical, then one might well wonder what is. But, to continue along the path I had set upon earlier, this point is tangential to our concerns. What we want to know is not whether and in what ways the particular topics discussed by Śāntarakṣita resemble philosophical discussions with which we are familiar, but, rather, what are the larger contours of his project, and how do these relate to the projects we otherwise treat as “philosophy”?

The very dimensions of Śāntarakṣita’s work have, I think, caused us to refrain from asking big questions about it. Once more, like the blind men and their elephant, we try to get the feel of only one part at a time; our grasp is just not large enough to embrace the behemoth’s whole girth. But the effort is nevertheless worthwhile, and Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla have certainly favored us with some important clues about their intent. Thus, for example, in the six stanzas introducing the Gathering (which together form one long sentence), Śāntarakṣita praises his supreme teacher, the Buddha, while providing the general program for his book at the same time. The Buddha is the greatest of all teachers because he has articulated, as no other had done before, the teaching of pratītyasamutpāda, the “interdependent origination” or “arising” of all conditioned things, and Śāntarakṣita’s verses relate the entire project of the Gathering to this cardinal tenet. He writes:

Movement devoid of prime matter, a divine creator, their conjunction, self and similar constructions;
Ground for the deed and its fruit, their relationship, ascertainment and such;
Empty with respect to quality, substance, function, genus, inherence and other superimposed categories,
But within the scope of words and concepts relating to posited features;
Ascertained by the two epistemic operations possessing distinct characteristics;
Unmixed with so much as even a mote of extraneous nature; Without temporal extension, without beginning or end, like unto reflections and so on;
Free from the whole mass of conceptual projections, unrealized by other [teachers]—
This interdependent arising was propounded by the best of proponents,
Who was unattached to self-justifying revelations, and moved to benefit the whole world;
Who throughout no fewer than numberless æons became the very self of compassion;
Having bowed before him, the Omniscient, I gather here the tattvas.

For the sake of the present discussion, it will not be necessary to unpack this in detail (Kamalaśīla devotes some 20 pages to it). Let us consider briefly just the first line, which describes interdependent arising as:

     Movement devoid of prime matter, a divine creator, their conjunction, self and similar constructions…

This sets the agenda for the first eight chapters of the Gathering, which provide critical accounts of: the Sāṃkhya theory of prime matter (chapter 1), Śaiva theism (chapter 2), the concept of a creator working as a demiurge upon prime matter (chapter 3), and six different theories of the substantial self, or ātman (chapter 7). The word “movement” in the verse alludes to the chapter defending the Buddhist teaching of the ephemerality of conditioned beings over and against these doctrines (chapter 8). “Similar constructions” refers to three chapters refuting, respectively, the notion of spontaneous, causeless creation (chapter 4), the philosopher Bhartṛhari’s theory of the “Word-as-absolute” (śabda-brahman, chapter 5), and the Vedic conception of the primal man, puruṣa (chapter 6). In the remaining lines of the opening verses, Śāntarakṣita similarly introduces, as descriptions of interdependent arising, the other topics he will discuss in the order of their discussion; and in the concluding lines his characterization of the doctrine gives way to a eulogy of the teacher who proclaimed it:

Who was unattached to self-justifying revelations, and moved to benefit the whole world;
Who throughout no fewer than numberless æons became the very self of compassion;
Having bowed before him, the Omniscient…

The last chapters of Śāntarakṣita’s treatise will be devoted precisely to refuting the claims of the Vedic revelation (chapters 24–25), and to upholding the omniscience attributed to the Buddha (chapter 26).

There is a further dimension to Śāntarakṣita’s introduction to his great work that deserves our attention. His six stanzas strongly echo the first verses of Nāgārjuna’s Treatise on the Middle Way (Madhyamakaśāstra), where the Buddha is praised in closely similar terms for his declaration of interdependent arising. And elsewhere in his treatise, Nāgārjuna in fact defines the key concept of śūnyatā, or emptiness, precisely as this radical contingency of conditioned things. In other words, in its deeper meaning Śāntarakṣita’s Gathering is perhaps not primarily a work on logic and epistemology, but rather a sustained exploration of a core soteriological theme of Mahāyāna Buddhism in its relation to the full range of the preoccupations of late first-millennium Indian thought. The Gathering, then, is not gathered together in the manner of a miscellany; it is a dialectical gathering-in, a passage through Indian systematic thought whose spiraling flight finds its center in the Buddha’s message and in the person of the Buddha himself. The dialectical path of the work is defined by its continual oscillation between moments of affirmation and of negation. On the one hand, this means that Śāntarakṣita is occupied throughout in presenting the affirmations of his intellectual rivals, Śāntarakṣita’s refutation of which points the way to successively stronger positions. But Śāntarakṣita does not proceed via negative argument alone; there is a positive content to his thought as well, which finds its culmination, once again, in the teaching of interdependent origination and in the affirmation of the Buddha’s surpassing omniscience and omnibenevolence.

The Madhyamaka philosophy of Nāgārjuna and his successors (including Śāntarakṣita) is one of the areas in Buddhist thought in which we are prone to find an exemplification of philosophy-as-theoretical-activity, according to something like what we mean by “theory.” We sometimes speak, for example, of “establishing emptiness,” as if the point here were to demonstrate apodictically the soundness of the particular thesis that “all things are empty of essential being.” As the Madhyamaka teaching of emptiness, however, is sometimes said to dispense with all expressed tenets, even this one, more nuanced readings favor finding here a type of scepticism, specifically a sceptical view of the referential capacity of language and conceptual activity. None of this seems to me to be wrong, but it raises the question: what connection could this possibly have with the program of spiritual exercise I introduced earlier? Indeed, we must entertain this question, for within the Mahāyāna the Madhyamaka teaching is always valued soteriologically, and from our standpoint it is perhaps difficult to see precisely how salvation flows from assenting to a sceptical view of language. But consider how Nāgārjuna’s great commentator Candrakīrti, for instance, introduces the suitable aspirant’s response to the teaching of emptiness:

Even as a mundane person, on hearing of emptiness, He is inwardly moved to rejoice,
To rejoice until tears wet his eyes
And the hairs of his body stand on end.
In that one there is the seed of the Buddha’s intention. That one is the vessel fit for this intimate teaching.
It is to him that you should teach this ultimate truth,
For in him the virtues that flow from it will emerge.

Whatever else we may say of this, it should be evident that Candrakīrti is not speaking here of “theory” as something set over and against “practice.” The teaching of emptiness gives joy to the receptive individual who possesses the seed of the Buddha’s intention, in whom the soteriological orientation of the teaching is well-planted. For such an individual, “emptiness” cannot be understood primarily in propositional, or “theoretical” terms; rather it fundamentally determines one’s orientation to the Buddha’s salvific project. This is also clearly expressed by Śāntarakṣita’s disciple Kamalaśīla in commenting upon his master’s verse (“This interdependent arising was propounded by the best of proponents”):

By teaching interdependent arising the Lord [Buddha] engenders the attainment of worldly excellence and supreme beatitude, in this way: by the inerrant teaching of interdependent arising and the ascertainment of its meaning, the basis for an excellent destiny (sugatihetu), namely, the inerrant comprehension of deeds and their results, their connections, and so on, is born; and the basis for supreme beatitude, the realization of selflessness, both personal and in principle, develops progressively through audition, reflection and contemplation. For when that has developed, the unknowing that is the basis of the worldly round is undone; and with its undoing all that is rooted in it—the affective and cognitive obstructions—is undone. It is from dispelling all these obstructions that beatitude is won.

The dialectical path of Śāntarakṣita’s text, therefore, is not to be followed solely through study and critical reflection culminating in intellectual certainty; it must be pursued further in contemplation, bhāvanā—a word often translated as “cultivation,” and literally meaning “bringing into being.” This philosophy, in the end, is not primarily about objects of thought (jñeya), but is rather a way of coming-to-be (bhāvanā)—one that we are enjoined to bring to fruition within ourselves.

Some further specifications are called for. As we have seen above, much of Śāntarakṣita’s text is devoted to the critical scrutiny of doctrines propounded by rival schools, for instance, the Hindu Sāṃkhya theory of prime matter. Now, how does the study of this and its refutation properly belong to the program of self-culture through spiritual exercise that we have been discussing? For on the surface, at least, it appears that Śāntarakṣita’s purpose is primarily to dismiss the teachings of Buddhism’s opponents and to defend the faith; philosophical argument, so it seems, is deployed here primarily in the service of doctrinal apologetics.

It is undeniable that this is an entirely legitimate way of reading Śāntarakṣita’s text, and that it succeeds very well in capturing one of the dimensions to which it is directed. Nevertheless, even here I believe that Śāntarakṣita’s dialectical course suggests an alternative reading. As Kamalaśīla insists, the doctrines Śāntarakṣita is concerned to refute all involve “mistaken views of the self ” (vitathātmadṛṣṭi). As such, the importance of critical reflection upon them lies precisely in the fact that they are not just others’ views of themselves, but that, potentially at least, they are views that any of us may harbor, whether explicitly or not, with respect to ourselves. Śāntarakṣita’s critical journey through the byways of Indian philosophy is therefore no mere exercise in doxography; rather, it is a therapy whereby one must challenge one’s own self-understandings so as to disclose and finally uproot the misunderstandings that are concealed therein. This process involves equally the positive construction of a conceptual model of the Buddha’s teaching and of the Buddha himself, a conceptual model that is to be progressively assimilated until, in the end, concept and being have merged. This is a self-transcending project, oriented toward that omniscient being who, as the very self of compassion, is oriented to benefit all beings.

The perspective I am adopting here depends in part upon an accentuation of the Madhyamaka architecture of what, after all, is classified as a treatise on logic and epistemology. Within later Tibetan Buddhist circles, however, it was in fact sometimes disputed whether the epistemological doctrines of the philosophers Dignāga and Dharmakīrti—who, as we have seen, were among Śāntarakṣita’s major sources of inspiration—had any clear soteriological role, or instead offered merely an organon. Nevertheless, the assimilation of even these thinkers to the project of spiritual exercise, contested though it may have been, offers what I believe is a particularly forceful confirmation of the general validity of the approach I am adopting. For whatever may be concluded regarding Dignāga’s and Dharmakīrti’s exact intentions, it is certain that many thinkers trained within their tradition understood their thought, too, in its connection with a clear program of spiritual exercise.

This is very well illustrated in the writings of the great eighteenth-century master, Lcang-skya Rol-pa’i rdo-rje (1717–86), a figure of commanding importance in the Manchu empire’s religious affairs. Identified at the age of four as the incarnation of a famous lama, Lcang-skya was sent to Beijing to be educated at the court. There he became the playmate of the fourth-ranking Manchu prince, who, despite his rank order, was selected by his father, the Yongzheng emperor, to succeed to the throne. Known by his reign title Qianlong (reigned 1736–99), the prince became the greatest of the Qing monarchs. Lcang-skya rose with his boyhood friend to become the empire’s preeminent Buddhist clergyman.

The text I present here is drawn from one of Lcang-skya’s most esteemed and puzzling works: it records a dream-vision in which the relationship between the systematic study of Dharmakīrti’s epistemology and progress on the Buddhist path is set out in general terms. Kept secret during the final year of Lcang-skya’s life, it was published posthumously in the superb biography authored by his disciple, Thu’u-bkwan Blo-bzang-chos-kyi-nyi-ma (1737–1802). The text does not propose to examine particular arguments in detail, but rather presents a strategy for relating the study of Dharmakīrti’s magnum opus, the Pramāṇavārttika (Exposition of [Dignaga’s system of] Logic and Epistemology), to the soteriological concerns of Buddhism. The visionary aspect of the text tends to undermine the assumption that there was any great divide between the worlds of the Buddhist logician and the Buddhist mystic. Lcang-skya, by placing this sketch of Buddhist rationalism in the context of a dream-vision, effectively annuls the gulf separating religious experience from reason. He writes:

I, Rol-pa’i rdo-rje, traveled to Mount Wutai, the supreme abode of the emanation of Mañjuśrīghoṣa, during the wood serpent year of the thirteenth cycle (1785). Sealing myself in meditational retreat for some months, I prayed to the three supreme jewels [Buddha, doctrine, and community], when, during the night of the seventeenth day of the sixth Mongolian month, there was a great torrential rainfall, and, because it brought great danger of flood, my opportunity to sleep was stolen. Spontaneously, the verbal significance of the Hymn of the Glorious One Excellent with the Virtues of Knowledge occurred to me clearly, as if explained by another, and I wrote it down the next day.

During that retreat I experienced many altered states, in which mystical experience and dream intermingled. Mostly they seemed to be experiences mixed up with portents of obstacles, so that it was difficult to distinguish the good from the bad. Nonetheless, there were some that caused me to frequently wonder whether they might be [due to] the blessing of the deity and guru.

When I left the retreat and was returning [to Beijing], after the sun had set during the first day of the ninth Mongolian month, when I was in the vicinity of the great Chinese fort called “Baoding Palace” [in Hebei Province, en route between Mt. Wutai and Beijing], I recited about five chapters of the text of the Guhyasamājatantra together with my attendant Ja-sag Bla-ma Dge-legs-nam-mkha’, and in my mind I had various pleasurable experiences. Afterward, having turned in, I fell asleep reciting a Mañjuśrī prayer as I drifted off. Then, at some point, while experiencing myself to be seemingly awake, someone arrived suddenly and I asked who it was. “I’m ’Jam-dbyangs,” he said.37 I thought it must be my monk called “’Jam-dbyangs” who was sleeping outside my door, and I looked to see. Because my eyes were unclear I saw neither the form nor the garments of a human being; but just then there was a small, young reverend, wearing a new blouse of yellow silk, to whom I said, “Look at the wallclock to see what time it is!” He acted as if to look at it, and said that it had reached the halfway point of the hour of the pig. After I said, “Then it’s still early. Go back to sleep!” he straightened himself up right there, but did not go off. At that time, a recollection suddenly popped into my mind of [the title and opening verses of Dharmakīrti’s Exposition of Logic and Epistemology].

Right then, that small reverend just sat there and, though it was not clear that he was speaking, there was a voice in my ear: “This Exposition of Logic and Epistemology is a superlative treatise! In those who strive for liberation and omniscience a faith in our teacher and teaching that reaches the depths must be born from the heart. About that, even though certainty brought forth by pure reason is not born in the fideists, a faith involving conviction may well be born in them; still, it is hard [for them] to get beyond a conditional [sort of faith]. If certainty is born on the basis of genuine reason, it won’t be turned back by conditions; a firm disposition is established.

“In the second chapter of the Exposition, it explains at length…the manner in which our Teacher [the Buddha] is Epistemic Authority for those seeking liberation. Owing to this, fully comprehending that the plentiful talk among the Outsiders [i.e., non-Buddhists] of liberation and the path to reach it is like childish babble, there will come to be the uncontrived production of deep faith in our Teacher and Teaching, brought about on the path of reason.

“Further, when one well investigates by reason the Transcendent Lord’s declarations of the four truths, along with the injunctions, prohibitions, and methods [that follow from them, one finds that] there is not even the slightest fault, contradiction, lack of proof, or uncertainty. Not only that, but when investigating all the reasons that are articulated [in the Buddha’s teaching] through study and reflection, they are [found to] really penetrate the heart of the matter. You must reflect on that [intellectual penetration], intermingling it with your present experience: these varied pleasures and pains that occur to you now in the course of things are ephemeral occurrences. Regarding them, these pleasures and pains—whatever the degree of their intensity—are experientially proven to occur on the basis of causes and conditions. Having taken the measure of this, [one comes to know that] the acquisitive skandhas certainly depend on causes, and that, regarding those causes, they do not arise from permanent or heterogenous causes. Thus you arrive at the thought that [the teachings of impermanence, suffering, and causality] that have been proclaimed by the Teacher are certainly established…”

Thus, for Lcang-skya—the urbane servant of an eighteenth-century empire, whose awareness of contemporary Russia, Germany, and France led him to scoff at traditional Tibetan Buddhist knowledge of the world from an early modern perspective—the cultivation of reason was nevertheless tied to the exercises of the path in much the same manner that it had been for Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla a millennium before. The reasoned investigation of the teaching is to be intermingled with one’s experiences; it must flow from, and in turn inform, one’s engagement in the culture of the self.

In view of all that I have said above, it seems fair to affirm that what we may term “Buddhist philosophy” has unfolded within those realms of discourse that might be more precisely called, in the proper sense of the term, “Buddhology,” that is, the hermeneutics of buddhahood and of the message propounded by the Buddha.42 Because this suggests that we remain nevertheless within the domain circumscribed by the authority of a revealed religious tradition, one may well object that this “Buddhist philosophy” is not really philosophy at all; it is, to appropriate an expression well-known to historians of philosophy in the West, merely the “handmaid” of the Buddhist analogue to theology. That such thinkers as Nāgārjuna and Candrakīrti remain firmly within the ambit of the Buddhological project, despite the impressively sceptical dimensions of their path, may be taken by some as proof positive that Buddhist philosophy has never claimed for itself the perfect autonomy of reason that is often supposed to be a hallmark of the Western traditions of rational inquiry derived ultimately from the Greeks. Buddhist scepticisms, like those of Western “sceptical fideists,” in the end remain relatively tame; the trenchant impulse to overthrow all prior assumptions that we find perhaps in a Jayarāśi Bhaṭṭa in India or in a Solomon Maimon in the West seems altogether alien to the Buddhist tradition. Even the most radical deconstructions of the world and the self in Buddhist contemplative experience, where the disposition to hanker after the merest grain of reality in body or mind is undone, must be seen to be indexed to specific soteriological projects and the axiological assumptions that accompany them.

I do not raise these objections in order to quibble about the relative degrees to which the freedom of reason has (or has not) been realized and expressed in various historical settings in the West and in the Buddhist world. My point is not to underwrite a stance that values an assumed Western freedom of thought as a unique achievement, now best emulated by all those others who, despite their best efforts, have never quite hit the mark. For, as emphasized earlier, the impossibility of our just stepping out of our skins should counsel caution regarding our presumptions of perfect intellectual freedom. And far from proposing a negative assessment of the achievements of past Buddhist thinkers, I hope that I have made clear above that I regard theirs to be an intellectual tradition of supreme and enduring value. What I wish to emphasize, nevertheless, is that, whatever we may rightly assert of the powerful analogies between certain important trends in Buddhist thought and equally important aspects of the enterprise we call philosophy, the relationship between Buddhism and philosophy must continue in some respects to perplex us, even after we have grown to accept the locution “Buddhist philosophy.” In the work presented here, therefore, I wish to consider “Buddhist philosophy” not as an achievement, but as a still unrealized potentiality.

The elaboration of doctrine and argument in traditional Buddhist settings necessarily responded to the intellectual cultures of the times and places concerned. We cannot rightly expect to find there ready-made answers to the problems that confront our contemporary philosophical culture. And one of the hallmarks of philosophy is that it must forever renew itself in response to the specificities of place and time, that there is a strong sense in which there can be no perennial philosophical doctrine. From this perspective, the very notion of a “perennial philosophy” risks finishing as an annulment of the philosophical spirit. However, in suggesting that perhaps the richest analogue between traditional Buddhist thought and Western philosophies is to be found not in the comparison of particular arguments so much as in the overriding project of philosophy as a vehicle for the formation of the person through spiritual exercise, as has been emphasized by Hadot, a new perspective may also be disclosed, not only for comparative reflection on arguments and practices elaborated in the past, but in considering also our unactualized prospects. If Buddhism is to emerge as a viable current in Western thought over the long duration, its point of departure will have to be sustained and critical reflection upon its ideals of the good in relation to our contemporary predicaments. Thus, Buddhist philosophy, despite its great and ancient history, remains for us a project as yet unborn.

*    *    *

The essays that follow in the body of this book relate to the perspective I have traced out here in a number of different ways. In the first part, “Situating the Self,” the connection between critical reflection on the self and the “techniques of the self ” is implicit throughout and is underscored especially in chapters 2 and 5. It will also be clear, I believe, that the questions at issue in part 2, “Reality and Reason,” represent, in important respects, the extension of particular inquiries whose initial points of departure were among the problems of the self: Vasubandhu’s “proof of idealism,” discussed in chapter 7, turns on an analysis of part-whole relationships that is directly related to the analysis of persons in terms of their parts, considered in chapters 2 and 3; while the Madhyamaka teaching of two truths, taken up in chapter 8, flows from distinctions that were first adumbrated, so far as we now know, in the context of the debates on the self that are surveyed in chapters 3 and 4, concerning the complementary themes of the absence of the self and its synthesis.

The inclusion, in part 3, of three essays on tantrism may strike some as unusual in a book of philosophy, and perhaps requires some explanation. Not long ago, given the widespread presupposition in philosophical circles of an near-absolute dichotomy between “mysticism and reason,” it was almost unimaginable that some of the greatest reasoners in the Indian and Tibetan Buddhist traditions could have also been involved in “tantric mysticism.”46 The evidence now available to us, however, demonstrates that in both India and Tibet there were many important figures whose mature work involved both the tantric and dialectical dimensions of Buddhist thought and practice. This is exemplified, as we have seen above, in the life and work of Lcang-skya Rol-pa’i rdo-rje, and in the body of the book by such figures as Bhāvaviveka and Abhayākaragupta in India, or Dol-po-pa and Mi-pham in Tibet. It is therefore a prima facie problem for the interpretation of the tradition to understand just how these two spheres are related to one another. (The importance of this question in relation to the hermeneutics of Indian religious culture generally was suggested as early as the 1920s, in the writings of Heinrich Zimmer, considered in chapter 11.) Of course, tantrism engages philosophical reflection to the extent that thinkers within Buddhist traditions were influenced by tantrism in their philosophizing—this is illustrated in chapter 9, as well as in the two chapters of part 4 on “Doctrinal Interpretation in Tibet.” Perhaps more significant, however, was the role of tantric ritual and meditational practice in the formation of the religious agent; for, in this respect, tantrism complemented and cooperated with the educational formation that, as I have argued here, was essential to the project of Buddhist philosophy overall. In chapter 10, “Weaving the World,” I seek to illustrate the manner in which Buddhist tantric ritual embodied a dynamic process of world-construction in which adepts and artisans might participate in divine agency. Such a process has the formation of a Buddha-realm as its ideal culmination, and, as I have suggested above, it is the realization of the Buddha’s wisdom and love that is the proper telos of reason as well.


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© Matthew T. Kapstein, Reason's Traces (Wisdom Publications, 2001)

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