Potentials again

Potentials as discussed by Indian philosophers

The English word “potential” is derived from the Latin verb “possum, posse, potuī,” which means “to be able, to be powerful.” The Sanskrit counterpart of that verb is “śaknoti,” which also means “to be able, to be powerful.” From this Sanskrit verb we get the verbal noun “śakti,” which means “power, capacity, ability, potentiality.”

When Sanskrit-writing philosophers discuss potentiality (śakti), one of the questions they usually raise is: where does the śakti reside? To whom does it belong? This same question, incidentally, also occurred to Aristotle. His solution was that a potential is a power that resides in one being but that requires an external being to trigger it. This led him to conclude that God, being the prime mover and therefore not requiring anything external to prompt him into action, has no potentials; for Aristotle, God is pure activity.

A second question that comes up is: how is it possible to know that something has a potential to do something when it has not yet manifested the actuality for which it has a potential?

Where does a potential reside?

In an earlier module, we talked about some of the Buddhist arguments against the doctrine that the world was produced by a single creator. One of the considerations in that discussion is to do with this whole problem of where śakti resides. The outline of the argument is as follows:

  1. If the śakti to produce the world resides in the creator, then it is either self-actualized or it requires something from outside to trigger it.
  2. If a creator’s śakti requires something from the outside to trigger it, then we should say it is really that outside thing that is responsible for creation; the creator is merely an instrument by which that outside thing performs the creation.
  3. On the other hand, if a creator’s potential is self-actualized, then it is reasonable to ask why the potential is realized at a particular time and not a moment earlier or later.
  4. Moreover, it is reasonable to ask how a potential is realized without any change taking place in the being that possesses the potential.

One Buddhist philosopher who elaborated on this argument was Manorathanandin, a commentator on Dharmakīrti’s Pramāṇavārttika. He notes that God is described as an eternal being and that it is accepted by those who believe in eternal beings that there is no way a being can be eternal if it undergoes change. But such a God cannot be the creator of the world, says Manorathandin. Not only can a permanent being not actually create anything, he suggests, but it cannot even try to do anything, for even the mental effort necessary to form an intention to act requires some change in the being, namely, the change involved in going from the state of not having an intention to the state of having it. Since effort is the cause of action, an effort, or an intention to act, can be seen as a potential action. If God is an eternal being, he cannot even have the potential to act. Manorathanandin defines a cause as that in the absence of which the effect does not arise; since an eternal being is never absent, it cannot be a cause. If a cause were defined as that in the presence of which an effect is present, then every eternal being, such as space (ākāśa), would have to be regarded as the cause of everything, in which case there would be no justification for singling out God as a creator.

The premise that the Buddhists are operating on is that being a cause necessarily involves some kind of change in the cause. If, for example, one observes the growth of a plant from a seed, one can observe the role played by the soil and the seed and other factors that contribute to the growth of the plant. The plant grows as a result of the interaction of all these factors, and all these factors are changed in the process of contributing to the plant’s growth. The plant acquires certain characteristics by taking them from the soil, which leaves the soil in an altered state. As the plant grows, all the factors from which it acquires its own characteristics lose something in the process. From such observations we can derive the conclusion that whatever participates as a causal factor in the birth or growth of something else undergoes observable changes in nature. There can be no role played by a factor that does not undergo such changes in nature. Therefore, no eternal being can participate in the changes that take place in the empirical world.

Dharmakīrti anticipates an objection that might be raised by those who believe in divine participation. Suppose, they say, that this creation of the world by God were similar to a sense-faculty’s contacting a sense-object. The sense-faculty undergoes no change while it serves as a cause of awareness, nor does the sensible object. So, for example, when the eyes are open in the presence of a visible color, neither the eye nor the sensed color undergoes change, and yet both serve as causes of vision. God could very well function in just the same way. This objection, answers Dharmakīrti, rests upon a false premise. The fact is that a sense-organ does undergo change. In looking at this issue from a modern perspective, one might make an argument along these lines: A sense-faculty functions to cause awareness because it has a potential to do so. This potential is in the form of an amount of energy that is held in reserve. But once that energy is used to produce some effect, it ceases to exist and must be replaced by another quantity of energy. Any action involves a change from a potential state to an actual state, and any change from potentiality to actuality therefore involves some change in the levels of energy in whatever participates in the action. Therefore if God participates in the world in the same way that a sense-faculty participates in awareness, he must undergo changes in energy levels, and if he undergoes such changes, he cannot be eternal.

The issue of śakti or potentiality comes up in other contexts. One of them of those contexts is in the realm of what we would call philosophy of mind, which deals with, among other questions, whether the material body is the sole cause of mental activities such as awareness and emotional engagement. In India there were materialists who argued that consciousness arises as what scientists and philosophers today call an emergent property. The idea is that a single piece of matter, such as a neuron, is not conscious. But if one puts a network of billions of neurons together, there emerges from the network properties and functions that none of the single items in the network had on their own, namely, awareness, volition, memory and so forth.

The materialists in India, like materialists today, denied the possibility of rebirth. Rebirth, they said, requires the transmission of some kind of consciousness from one physical body to another. But that is impossible, because consciousness depends on a living material body, and when a body ceases to be alive, then the consciousness it supported must come to an end. In other words, the materialist argues against the possibility of a succession of connected lives, since there is nothing material to carry the mind from one material body to another. And yet, says Dharmakīrti, the materialist argues that observable matter itself has the potential to generate consciousness. If it is granted, however, that the observable material body had the capacity to generate one’s consciousness at the beginning of the present life, one may ask what feature of the material body is lost at death that results in the loss of the capacity to create consciousness. The body, after all, continues to be observable. Dharmakīrti’s aim in asking this rhetorical question is that since matter itself continues to have the same nature after one dies as it had during life, the materialist is hard pressed to explain why consciousness does not continue to be generated by a material body even after it has died.

In replying to the materialist argument, Dharmakīrti asserts that there is no part of the material world in which one does not find some kind of sentient creatures living. This would suggest that every kind of matter has the potential to produce life, and therefore there is no evidence to support the materialist’s claim that matter must be specially configured to support sentience. So, suggests Manorathanandin in his commentary to Dharmakīrti, the fact that some matter is evidently sentient while some matter is not cannot be accounted for by facts within the material world alone; there must be some non-material factors involved in the production of sensation and mental events. Those non-material factors must exist independently of the physical body.1

There is one other area in which a discussion of śakti plays a crucial role in Buddhist philosophy. It is well known that Buddhists regarded nothing as permanent. Nothing lasts forever, but just how long does something last? In a previous module we saw that the Buddha said that if one must make a choice between regarding the body or the mind as the self, one would be better saying that the body is the self, for it is more stable and changes more slowly than the thoughts and emotions. This suggests that in the Buddha’s view, not everything decays at the same rate. Later Buddhists, however, took the view that everything is momentary in the strictest sense of the word; that is, nothing lasts for more than a moment. In fact, everything perishes in the very act of coming into being. The very conditions that brought about the birth of a thing are also the conditions that bring about its death.

One the principal arguments for this highly counter-intuitive view of radical momentariness rests on the claim that whatever is truly real, as opposed to being a merely conceptual construct, must realize all its śakti in every moment of its being. This suggests that in this context śakti is not being understood as potential at all, but rather as actualized power. In reality there are no unrealized potentials. There is no point in talking of anything having an ability or a capacity if it is not being manifested. It was by drawing on this principle that such Buddhists as Śāntarakṣita argued that if God had the potential to create the world, then he must realize that potential at every moment. But if God is eternal, then he must create the world at every moment of his existence, which means that the world, like God, can never have had a beginning. If that is so, then there is no point is speaking of the creator of the world.

Now from this principle that what has a power must exercise it at every moment, it follows that if anything has the power to perish, it must realize that power in every moment of its existence. Everything that can perish must perish in every moment of its existence, which of course means that it can endure for only one moment. If it fully realizes its power to perish in its first moment, it will never have a second moment. This is the Buddhist twist on the old Upaniṣadic addage “One without a second.”

As I hope this discussion of how Buddhists thought about śakti will show, it is at the forefront in a good variety of contexts, and Buddhists produced numerous arguments based on their way of thinking about it.2 These arguments should be borne in mind when we come to a discussion of a sentient being’s potential to become a buddha.

How does one know a potential?


  1. For more on these arguments, see John Taber, “Dharmakīrti Against Physicalism,” Journal of Indian Philosophy 31, no. 4 (August 2003): 479–502. ↩︎
  2. Some of these arguments are elaborated in Richard P. Hayes, “Potentiality, Indian Theories of,” in 7, ed. C. Craig Edward, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1998). ↩︎

Works cited

  • Hayes, Richard P. “Potentiality, Indian Theories of.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward C. Craig. New York and London: Routledge, 1998.
  • Taber, John. “Dharmakīrti Against Physicalism.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 31, no. 4 (2003): 479–502.

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