Extraordinary knowledge

Sensation and three types of extraordinary knowledge

A second pattern of text that describes the Buddha’s awakening relates that he entered into increasingly abstracted states of meditation.1 In the first state, it is said, the Buddha became aloof from the pleasures of the senses and entered into a state of elated intellectual reflection; the reflection stopped as he entered the second state, which was one of rapture and joy; at the third stage, rapture disappeared, leaving only joy; and at the fourth stage, joy disappeared and was replaced by equipoise, an emotionally balanced state free of both pleasure and pain. While in this fourth state, say the texts, the Buddha began to recall hundreds of thousands of his previous lives, including such details as his name, clan, diet and lifespan. Then, with a kind of superhuman divine vision, he witnessed the dying and rebirth of all kinds of sentient being, and he saw what kinds of conduct resulted in what kinds of birth; in other words, he saw the principle of karma at work throughout the world. Finally, he “directed the mind to knowledge of” the four noble truths, that is, the nature of distress, its cause, the fact that removing the cause would eliminate the effect, and the method of removing the cause.

Once again it can be asked whether it is sensation or inference that is involved in these three types of superior knowledge. The first type of knowledge is depicted as nothing more than recalling past events, and since this is grasping what has already been grasped it would not be regarded by Dharmakīrti as a case of new knowledge. The second superior knowledge, which consists in witnessing the deaths and rebirths of all kinds of sentient beings, is evidently the perception of a process that takes place over time. Moreover, observation of this process is said to have led the Buddha to conclude that in general beings who do lovely actions achieve pleasant rebirths, while beings who do ugly actions achieve unpleasant rebirths. As in the apprehension of dependent origination, this kind of knowledge would therefore have to be classed as a kind of inductive reasoning (anumāna) rather than sensation. This leaves the third form of superior knowledge, which consists in grasping the four noble truths.

Sensation and the four noble truths

Tilmann Vetter discussed the apparent contradiction involved in the Buddha’s turning his mind to the four noble truths while in a meditative state that has been described as being free of discursive thinking, for everything about the stock presentation of the four noble truths bears the mark of discursive thinking.2 But the issue of whether or not the Buddha could have arrived at the four truths through the method of practicing abstracted states of meditation is one that can be set aside for the time being. What is more to the point for our discussion here is what kind of knowing is involved in grasping the four truths. And, as in all the cases discussed above, it is clear that the grasping of the four noble truths involves considerably more than the sort of pure sensation that Dharmakīrti says deals only with particulars and never with universals. Indeed, the four truths are typically presented as merely one of the many frameworks within which the general notion of causation may be discussed.

Source of the tensions


  1. Examples of this pattern can be found in the Bhayabheravasutta, number 4 of the Majjhimanikāya. Similar discussions of these states of meditation in other contexts appear in, for example, the Sāmaññnaphalasutta and the Sampasādanīyasutta, numbers 2 and 28 of the Dīghanikāya. ↩︎
  2. Tilman Vetter, The Ideas and Meditative Practices of Early Buddhism, (Leiden; New York: E. J. Brill, 1988), xxvi‒xxvii. ↩︎

Work cited

  • Vetter, Tilman. The Ideas and Meditative Practices of Early Buddhism. Leiden; New York: E. J. Brill, 1988.

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