Knowledge of awakening

Knowledge of awakening

If the Buddha’s accounts of his awakening are to serve as a source of knowledge for others, then there is a sense in which those accounts are to be regarded as having the capacity to realize an object (arthakriyāśakti), and being real in the true sense (paramārthasat). Both of these expressions are ambiguous, but it is possible to disambiguate them.

According to Indian Buddhist scholastics who followed the lead of Dharmakīrti, regardless which traditional report of the Buddha’s teachings one follows, the content of the Buddha’s awakening must be understood as having the form of generalities rather than of particularities. Therefore, if one follows the definitions given by Dignāga and accepted with certain modifications by Dharmakīrti, the type of knowledge involved in the Buddha’s becoming a Buddha was inference rather than sensation. Knowing this enables us to decide among the alternative possible meanings within each set of ambiguities.

When applied to the four noble truths and so forth the term “capacity to realize an object” must be understood in the sense of realizing a goal rather than in the sense of causing a specific effect. And the term “real in the true sense” cannot be understood in the sense of an ultimately real object in contrast to an object accepted as real by human consensus; rather, it must be understood in the sense of pertaining to the highest good, namely, nirvana, in contrast with what is popularly regarded as good in quotidian life. Indeed, Dharmakīrti is explicit in saying that nirvana must ultimately be regarded as a fiction. nirvana is commonly understood as the cessation of rebirth, but rebirth itself is an idea that makes sense only if one imposes the notion of a unified self upon a group of discrete properties. One may impose the concept of person upon what is sensed; and one may then imagine that this person has a life; and one may go even further and fancy that the person who is having one life is identical in some sense to a person who had experiences in another life. But once this complex fiction of a self undergoing a series of lives, deaths and rebirths is given up, then so is the fiction that this elaborate process comes to an end.

PV 1.193cd‒194: As long as one does not give up favoring oneself, one imagines oneself a victim of affliction and goes on suffering, and one does not live as a happy person. Even though there is no one who achieves liberation, it takes an effort to give up this false imagining.

This suggests that nirvana is not regarded as an ultimately real thing, since it is nothing more than the absence of the false belief in a self, and an absence is not a thing at all. That notwithstanding, nirvana can still be regarded as the highest good, since nothing is better than being free of the delusion that serves as the root cause of all discontent.

Dharmakīrti’s position thus turns out to be similar to the one advanced by the monk Nāgasena in book six of the Questions of King Milinda (Milindapañha).1 Here nirvana is said to have no characteristics and no physical location, since it is merely a name given to the absence of the principal causes of distress. But even though it is an absence that has no real existence, it is an occasion of joy, just as the discontinuation of burning is a source of joy to a man pulled out of a pit of glowing coals. Moreover, the absence called nirvana can even be spoken of as an achievement in the sense that it takes a great deal of discipline to bring the sources of discontent to an end.

How does one verify the Buddha’s teachings?


  1. Milinda’s Questions, trans. I.B. Horner, Sacred Books of the Buddhists, vol. 22 (London: Pali Text Society, 1964. ↩︎

Work cited

  • Milinda’s Questions. Translated by I.B. Horner. Vol. 22. Sacred Books of the Buddhists, London: Pali Text Society, 1964.

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