Philosophers’ Buddha

What kind of Buddha suits a philosopher?

In the early part of the seventh century, the problem of tension among various approaches to Buddhism had not been solved. Much of the controversy over which teachings were authentic was focused on the question of which texts are authentic in the sense of being accurate records of what the Buddha had actually taught. Rather than trying to solve this problem by discovering yet another sutra whose authenticity could be disputed, some Buddhists attempted to avoid the question of the authenticity of sutras altogether. For them the potentially unifying factor that could bring all Buddhists together was not the word of the Buddha, but the Buddha’s reason. The strategy of these Buddhists was exactly the opposite of the Lotus Sutra. Whereas the Lotus Sutra presented the Dharma as something that was entirely beyond the reach of logic and reasoning, the Buddhist logicians claimed that nothing could be regarded as Dharma unless it passed the test of being logically coherent, free of contradictions and based upon principles that anyone could easily discover.

What is a rationalist’s Buddha like?

One of the chief architects of this rationalistic approach to Buddhism was Dignāga. He opens his Pramāṇasamuccaya (Collection of writings on the instruments of knowledge) by bowing to “to him who has become a source of knowledge, who yearns for the well-being of the world, who is a teacher, who has attained goodness, and who is a guide.” In his own prose commentary to his opening verse, Dignāga explains that the Buddha’s authority consists in the excellence of his motivations and the excellence of the natural results of those motivations. The excellence of the Buddha’s motivations can in turn be understood as the excellence of his intentions, and the excellence of his implementation of those motivations. The excellence of his intentions is expressed by the phrase “who yearns for the well-being of the world,” while the excellence of his implementation is expressed by the phrase “who is a teacher.” The excellence of the natural consequences of the Buddha’s motivations, on the other hand, can be understood as the excellent attainments that are of benefit to the Buddha himself, and the excellent attainment that is of benefit to others. The attainments that benefit the Buddha himself are suggested by the phrase “who has attained goodness (sugata),” an epithet that is traditionally explained with reference to the fact that the Buddha a) is admired, b) will never again be reborn, and c) has achieved all his goals. The attainment that is of benefit to others is indicated by the phrase “who is a guide,” since his teachings guide people across the turbulent waters of life to the yonder shore of nirvana.

What is the basis of the Buddha’s authority?

Dignāga’s principal interpreter was Dharmakīrti, whose works drew far more attention over the centuries than did Dignāga’s. Indeed, Dharmakīrti ranks as one of the most influential of all Indian Buddhist thinkers. His project was to show that the Buddha was a pramāṇa, that is, an instrument of knowledge, or a reliable source of new knowledge. In his discussion of the Buddha’s authority, or his being a source of knowledge, Dharmakīrti first of all defines knowledge as a particular type of cognition, which is unlike such cognitions as beliefs, opinions, conjectures, wishes and hopes. What differentiates knowledge from these other types of cognition, he says, is that knowledge is a belief that does not deceive or cheat the person who holds it. To be more precise, if a person acts on a piece of knowledge, then the goal that prompted the person to act may be achieved. In contrast, if one acts on a belief or hope or wish, then the goal that prompted the action may not be achieved.

This claim, that what distinguishes knowledge from other types of cognition is its capacity to enable a person to realize a goal (arthakriyā), is not found in Dignāga’s works on epistemology but is an innovation on Dharmakīrti’s part.

Note that Dharmakīrti does not hold that the pragmatic test need actually be applied to every belief to determine whether or not it is practicable. If one believes, for example, that a particular fire is producing enough heat to boil water, it is not necessary to put this belief to the test in order to have confidence in its feasibility. One can draw on one’s experience of previous fires to draw conclusions about this fire. If one has had the experience before that fires of a this magnitude generated enough heat to boil water, then one can reasonably believe that this fire also has that capacity.

What is important about Dharmakīrti’s pragmatic criterion for beliefs is that there are some kinds of beliefs that can never pass the test of practical experience, namely, beliefs about things that have never before been part of one’s experience. Examples of such beliefs are the Brahmanical doctrine that the result of doing one’s social and religious duties (dharma) will be entry into heaven, and various doctrines about the beginning and the end of the world.

In contrast to some of the beliefs of Brahmans, which can never pass a practical test, Dharmakīrti argues that the key doctrines taught by the Buddha can be put to a practical test in this life, and indeed have passed the practical test in the lives of a sufficient number of other people that one can have confidence in them even if one has not tested them thoroughly for oneself. Seeing that others have experienced an extinction (nirvāṇa) of the basic causes of their discontent, for example, is grounds for believing that nirvana is indeed possible to attain. According to Dharmakīrti, then, the belief in nirvana is, unlike the Brahman’s belief in heaven, reasonable to hold, even for a person who has not yet experienced nirvana first hand.

Up to this point, the views of some Asian Buddhist traditions have been considered. Buddhism, which was at one time found almost exclusively in Asia, now has followers in Europe, the Americas and the antipodes, not just among Asians who have migrated to those places but also among people in those countries of European and African descent. They bring into their Buddhism many aspects of modern culture. The next question to be asked then is: What kinds of Buddha do Western Buddhists crave?

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