The problem of verification

It has been shown that the content of the Buddha’s awakening would be classed in Dharmakīrti’s system as inferential knowledge that worked to the Buddha’s own benefit. But his teaching, which was based on the insights he gained through his awakening, was for the benefit of others. And yet other people do not automatically benefit just by hearing this teaching; rather, for the teaching to be of any benefit to those who hear them, it must be confirmed or verified. What remains to be discussed is how this verification is to be accomplished.

As we have seen in some of the passages already cited from Dharmakīrti’s work, the task of becoming free of discontent is one that takes an effort (PV 1.194) and the constant practice of methods (PV 1.140). This effort requires, among other things, thinking. And this thinking can be in itself a means of acquiring new knowledge.

PV 1.5 A subjective cognition is not regarded as a source of knowledge, because it consists in grasping what has already been grasped. Thought is a source of knowledge, because it is the principal source of action upon things that one should avoid and things that one should welcome.

It is at this point that we encounter a new problem. The problem now arising is that while repeated effort in thinking may lead to a correct understanding of things, it does not necessarily do so. In fact, if one begins with a false belief and repeats it constantly, the eventual result may be an almost unassailable delusion, one in which unreal things are experienced as vividly as if they were actually present to the senses.

PV 2.182 Those who are mad with desire, pain or fear and those who are tormented by dreams of thieves and so forth see even things that are not present as if they were present before them.

It is not the case that thinking is based passively upon what one has experienced, says Dharmakīrti, but rather, how one experiences things is affected by one’s patterns of thinking and one’s overall mentality. In his own prose commentary to PV 3.58, Dharmakīrti says:

For experience generates convictions of certainty according to the repetition of thoughts. For example, even though there is no difference in the seeing of visible properties, there are ideas of a corpse, an object of desire and something to be eaten.

An ascetic, who has repeatedly practiced the exercise of gazing at corpses until he can visualize them at will, will automatically perceive an attractive woman as corpse; seeing her in this way protects him against lustful thoughts that might otherwise arise. A lecher, on the other hand, will see exactly the same visible properties that the ascetic saw, but he will perceive them as sexually exciting. And a dog, seeing exactly the same set of visible properties, will not be sexually aroused by them, for he is more likely to perceive them as a potential meal.

The point that Dharmakīrti intends to make through the example that the same woman makes different impressions on the ascetic, the lecher and the dog is evidently that one tends to form ideas about what one sees according to ideas that one already has in mind as a result of having immediate goals. The example, however, also invites a further question: can any of these ideas be considered more accurate or more in conformity with reality than the other two? If one were to apply only the criterion of whether the ideas have the capacity to achieve a goal, it would appear that none of these perceptions is inaccurate, since each has the potential of fulfilling the goal of the perceiver; the ascetic successfully fulfills his goal of protecting his chastity, the lecher his of being sexually excited, and the dog his of finding nutritious victuals.

In the various kinds of perception discussed by Dharmakīrti, we find two instances of sense perception in which someone interprets something that is not present to the senses as vividly as if it were actually present. One of these instances, which we have already discussed, is that of the yogi who visualizes an object through repeated practice. The other is that of a person who is so stricken by a fear of intruders that he misperceives a perfectly innocent person (or a harmless noise) as an aggressive intruder. Both of these experiences can be regarded as false cognitions or misperceptions, especially if the only criterion of accurate perception is that what one believes to be present to the senses actually is present to the senses. Nevertheless, Dharmakīrti regards the yogi’s perception as a genuine source of knowledge (pramāṇa), while he regards the fearful person’s alarming misperception of harmless sights and sounds as a bogus source of knowledge (pramāṇābhāsa). So now it must be asked: What differentiates the panic-stricken person’s perception of a harmless person as an aggressor from an ascetic’s perception of a living woman as a corpse? An answer to this may emerge by reviewing several different types of cognition that Dharmakīrti discusses.

To review Dharmakīrti’s position, he recognizes two radically different kinds of cognition: those that are purely sensory in that they involve no judgement, and those that are intellectual in that conceptual judgement plays a role. All sensations are caused by the functioning of physical senses. This is the case even when yogis “see” things that are not really there, such as when they visualize living people as corpses and so forth; these acts of visualization are not regarded as the projection of mental images, but as a kind of sensation in which the organs of sense are somehow operating. Dharmakīrti takes care to distinguish these yogic visualizations from what we might call hallucinations. Hallucinations, unlike yogi visualization, are purely the product of the internal sense organ, located in the physical seat of the mind. Hallucinations involve a projection of an internal image into consciousness, along with a failure to be able to distinguish imagination from sensation through the external sense organs—the eye, ear, nose, tongue and body. Therefore, a hallucination is at the root an intellectual error.

In addition to intellectual errors, there are, according to Dharmakīrti, also purely sensory errors, in which the judgement does not play a role at all. These might be called false sensations. False sensations, unlike hallucinations and dreams, do involve the senses. Moreover, Dharmakīrti insists that the errors that occur take place within the senses themselves, and not in the intellect. When one sees a rapidly twirling torch, one actually sees a circle of fire, even though there is in fact no circle to be seen. If the torch is twirling rapidly enough, one cannot help seeing the circle of fire, even if one knows intellectually that in fact there is not a continuous circle of fire. In this case, the intellect is required to correct the errors of the senses.

Similarly, when one sees an enduring physical body or a continuing psychological self instead of a series of vanishing moments, this sensory illusion can be corrected only by the intellect, and this correction can occur only if the intellect is functioning within the constraints of sound reasoning. Presumably, what makes the yogi’s superimposed vision of a corpse accurate for Dharmakīrti is the fact that the feelings of disgust and loathing that it produces are shown by reason, if not by the senses, to be just the sorts of feelings that it is suitable for a man to have towards a superficially attractive woman; the vision of the corpse, in other words, conforms to what reason shows an apparently attractive person’s true nature to be. If this analysis is correct, it would seem to be in conflict with the claims that it is the experience of the senses that grasps the greatest good and that the greatest good is beyond the grasp of reason.

Discussing revelation and the limits of scripture

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