Tensions within Dharmakīrti’s theory

In Dharmakīrti’s presentation of the two sources of knowledge, there seems to be some inconsistency. On the one hand, it seems that it is the experience of the senses that grasps that which is true in the highest sense (paramārtha) of the word. On the other hand, it seems that the greatest good (paramārtha) is beyond the range of the senses and that one can be directed towards it only through sound reasoning.

In the sections that follow, let me try to expand the problem inherent in Dharmakīrti’s view of pure sensation (pratyakṣa), whereby it is portrayed on the one hand as the only means of acquiring knowledge of ultimate reality and is portrayed on the other hand as too weak to arrive at the knowledge necessary to enable one to achieve nirvāṇa, the greatest good.

The limitations of pure sensation

Pure sensation, as described by Dharmakīrti, has two features that reduce its effectiveness as a means of acquiring knowledge of the four noble truths, which is supposed to be important in the attainment of nirvāṇa. The first of these features may be seen as intrinsic in that it is part of pure sensation by definition, while the second may be seen as an extrinsic feature that arises because of practical considerations.

An intrinsic feature of pure sensation, as expressed in PV 2.2, is that its subject matter is always a particular, which cannot be the subject matter of conceptual thinking and which is therefore inexpressible through language. But the content of the Buddha’s awakening is not a particularity at all. On the question of the contents of the Buddha’s awakening, Akira Hirakawa reports that Hakuju Ui compiled a list of fifteen different accounts of the Buddha’s awakening in the Buddhist scriptural literature.1 These accounts follow three basic patterns:

  1. Gautama became a Buddha by discovering the principle of dependent origination (pratītya samutpāda), for which there are two different formulations in the Buddhist scriptures
  2. Gautama became a Buddha by mastering the four levels of meditation (dhyāna) and acquiring three types of extraordinary knowledge.
  3. Gautama became a Buddha by understanding the four noble truths.

It is the third type of account that is stressed most often by Dharmakīrti, but it may be worth examining each of the three patterns from the point of view of Buddhist epistemologists under the influence of Dignāga.

Sensation and dependent origination

  1. Paul Groner, ed., A History of Early Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Mahāyāna, Asian Studies At Hawaii, vol. 36 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990), p. 27. ↩︎

Work cited

  • Paul Groner, ed. A History of Early Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Mahāyāna. Vol. 36, Asian Studies At Hawaii. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.

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