Acquisition rejected

Critique of acquisition and non-acquisition

In dismissing the theory of non-phenomenal matter, Vasubandhu refers to what he calls a transformation in the personal continuum of one who deliberately undertakes a certain kind of action. It is to this concept of a transformation in the continuum that Vasubandhu also appeals in his rejection of the doctrine that there are special conditioning characteristics known as acquisition and non-acquisition. If the idea of a person is to be regarded as no more than a popular convention that is superimposed upon the reality of constantly perishing complex properties, argues Vasubandhu, then the properties of acquisition and non-acquisition must also be purely conventional ideas rather than ultimately real properties. In fact, the idea of these properties is arguably as much derived from the idea of a stable person as the idea of a stable person is derived from the idea of these properties. For if we did not have the idea of a stable personality in the first place, there would be no need to explain how a given type of “person” consistently acquires the same kinds of mental properties.

Those who accepted the existence of a special property known as acquisition argued that this special property served to ensure that a person who had abandoned the belief in a real self would acquire those emotional states that are appropriate to a wise person. Meanwhile, they said, the special property of non-acquisition would ensure that the noble person would not acquire emotional states suitable to a foolish person. The view of Vasubandhu, on the other hand, is that once a person has abandoned the belief in a real self, his or her causal continuum simply becomes devoid of the causes of further unhappiness. If a lamp runs out of fuel, it is not necessary to say that the running out of fuel then produces a special property in the lamp that keeps a flame from burning in it; rather, all that is necessary is to say that a lamp without fuel no longer contains the conditions necessary for flame to burn in it. Flamelessness is not a property in itself that arises because of a special condition that prevents flame, but rather it is simply that flame no longer occurs owing to the absence of fuel. Similarly, when someone becomes free of false beliefs, it is not necessary to say that the absence of false beliefs then produces a special property in the person that keeps certain kinds of unhappiness away. Rather, it is enough to say simply that wrongful motivations no longer arise owing to the absence of false beliefs.

The depletion of the causes of certain kinds of effects in a thing can be called a transformation of that thing. The idea of a person is a conventional designation that is superimposed upon the reality of groups of properties. When those properties no longer include foolishness, then we can say conventionally that the person has undergone a transformation of character. But in saying such a thing there is no need, in the final analysis, to speak of more than the properties themselves and the causal relations among them.

Summary of Vasubandhu’s views on karma

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