The dhamma is not a transcendent law

In his interesting recent Buddhism and Political Theory, Matthew Moore sums up current scholarly work on Buddhist ethics noting “There are several major debates ongoing in the field, particularly whether early Buddhist ethics are better understood as consequentialist or a version of virtue ethics (almost no one argues for deontology)…” (113)

My friend and fellow blogger Justin Whitaker is a major part of the “almost”. I once described him as a “voice in the wilderness” for interpreting Buddhist ethics in terms of Kantian deontology. But I was delighted to hear that he has recently completed his dissertation, in a way that should make that voice a little louder. And I was happy to have a chance to read it.

To say that I am delighted that the work exists is not, of course, to say that I agree with it. I am not convinced by the dissertation’s attempt to read Pali Buddhism in terms of Kantian ethics, and I will explain.

The dissertation compares Pali Buddhism to Kant in a variety of ways, but the ones which I find most interesting, and are probably most central to his account, are the ones in which Buddhism is taken to articulate some sort of moral law independent of human desire and motivation – as Kant also does. Such a claim is of particular interest to me because of its take on the question of ethical internalism and externalism. I have typically taken Buddhists to articulate an internalist approach – where they appeal to our preexisting motivations and derive the value of the path from those. A prime example is Śāntideva’s insistence that suffering should be prevented because “no one disputes that!” – the only question then being whether we should prevent our own suffering, or everyone’s. Justin suggests an alternative, externalist, reading of Pali Buddhist texts – in which they posit a moral law that human beings are obliged to follow irrespective of their motivations.

Justin pursues the idea of a moral law with respect to two key Pali Buddhist concepts, dhamma and kamma (equivalents of the Sanskrit – and English – words dharma and karma). On p24 he stresses these two concepts as central to his interpretation. I’ll talk about the former this time and the latter next time. Justin claims that the term dhamma “means not only [the Buddha’s] teachings or doctrine, but also the truth or nature of reality itself, toward which the teachings were claimed to be pointing. This truth is thought to exist prior to and apart from the Buddha’s own discovery and exposition of it.” (21) I understand that such a claim about dharma is common in later Mahāyāna traditions such as the Yogācāra, which identify a cosmic Dharmakāya (dharma body of the Buddha). I was intrigued to hear that there might be a support for it in the Pali texts that are the dissertation’s focus. But where do these texts actually say this?

Justin’s key reference for this claim is the Paccaya Sutta (found at Saṃyutta Nikāya 12.20, SN II.25 in the Pali Text Society edition). Later in the dissertation (p108) he quotes Abraham Vélez de Céa in a similar vein – “It is true that the Dharma could be interpreted as a transcendent reality with respect to Buddhas because it can exist even when there are no Buddhas in the universe” – but it turns out Vélez de Céa is getting it from the very same sutta. So the claim that the dhamma exists as a transcendent moral reality seems to stand or fall primarily, if not entirely, on the Paccaya Sutta. Justin (pp 21-2) quotes this sutta as follows:

Whether the Tathāgatas [Buddhas] arise or the Tathāgatas do not arise, that condition stands, the groundedness of the Dhamma, the lawfulness of the Dhamma, this causality. A Tathāgata gains highest awakening to this and understands it.

Striking, yes? It would seem that this sutta says the dhamma exists whether or not there are buddhas around to teach it. But does it? Let us look a little closer. Justin’s footnote to the quote notes that the Buddha actually “is speaking specifically of dependent origination, paṭiccasamuppāda, sometimes said to be equivalent to the Dhamma.” But that is not quite right. The source Justin quotes for the “sometimes” is the Mahāhatthipadopama Sutta. What that sutta actually says is not that dependent origination is the dhamma. It says that one who sees the dhamma sees dependent origination, and vice versa; to understand one is to understand the other. But that doesn’t mean they’re the same. To understand the nature of heat and how it works is, at some level, to understand cold – but that doesn’t mean heat and cold are the same! And that is a difference that really matters here, because while the dhamma (in a Buddhist context) is unquestionably good, dependent origination is bad! The dhamma offers you a way out of the cycle of dependent origination that otherwise, normally, traps you in suffering.

So in the Paccaya Sutta, what stands irrespective of buddhas is not the dhamma itself but dependent origination. But it might nevertheless seem that the sutta still describes dependent origination – “that condition”, “this causality” – as “the groundedness of the Dhamma, the lawfulness of the Dhamma”. Such a description would at least hint that there might be a permanent dhamma grounded in the reality of dependent origination.

But it seems to me that that too is not what this sutta is saying. The terms translated as “the groundedness of the Dhamma, the lawfulness of the Dhamma” are dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā. And if we look to Buddhaghosa’s aṭṭhakathā (commentary) on this sutta (available at the wonderful Pali Tipiṭaka site), we find that as Buddhaghosa parses out these words, he renders dhamma in the plural (dhammā, dhamme).The groundedness and lawfulness are of dhammas – those mental states or elements to which everyday phenomena are reducible – and not of the Dhamma itself. (This is itself assuming that niyāmatā can be rendered “lawfulness”, which I think is itself quite questionable; its usual meaning is more like “constraint”.) Those dhammas operate in ways grounded in the law of paṭicca samuppāda; it is that groundedness, not the Buddha’s teaching, that exists independently of the buddhas. It seems to me that Justin and Vélez de Céa have both been misled on this point by a homophone.

Now it is possible that Buddhaghosa got the sutta wrong. Jayarava, in an excellent post on this passage, notes that the translations of both Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Bodhi render it “the dhamma”, as Justin does. But I don’t see any reason to disagree with the canon’s most august commentator other than the word of these translators. For I know of no other passages in the Pali canon that suggest the dhamma as a cosmic reality. (I’d be interested if anyone can find me some.) As far as I can tell, the suggestion that it is, is a much later Yogācāra invention. Which would suggest that if one really wanted to push this aspect of the Kant-Buddhism comparison, one would probably want to go away from the Pali and toward Yogācāra.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

9 thoughts on “The dhamma is not a transcendent law

  1. A quote from Nietzsche’s The Pre-Platonic Philosophers(trans Greg Whitlock (p 86), goes like this: “Only we must not mistake Parmenidean idealism for that of Buddhism, still less for that of Kantianism. For Buddha it is an ethical, religious conviction to nothingness, to sorrow, to the perishability of all things: the world is Buddha’s dream. For Kant the dichotomy between the thing-in-itself and the world of appearance is produced from a nearly inverted critique of knowledge. He considered precisely the predicates that Parmenides had left over– time and space, substance– as our necessary presuppositions of the world of representations, while he described the thing-in-itself as more [like] the Unlimited, as qualityless to our knowledge. Parmenides would have immediately rejected the thing-in-itself, for it would present itself to him as a Not-Being; that however is not allowed. Hence it is neither a mythic faith about pantheistic one-ness, an ethical spite at the world as a fleeting dream, nor finally Kantian idealism but rather the more naive introduction of Being and Not-Being to the older system that brought him to the one idea “that Not-Being, and in this regard had understood what does not work ( das Wirkende ) as Being and matter as Not Being (in other words, the living and that which does not in itself have life), now he has declared the entire table of categories as a delusion of the senses, since only the conceivable exists: Becoming cannot be conceived. Consequently, his elements are a delusion. With this, though, the problem of Becoming was not solved, because he retained Becoming and passing away in thought. Here he was not yet a partisan. And then, if everything is only One, why appearance? Why delusion? Why the senses? (continues) Tadit: at the least Parmenides seems to have been in discourse with Buddhism, though Nietzsche’s weight upon sorrow seems out of phase to my understanding of dharma.

    • PS: my vote is for Dharma as in it is neither transcendent nor immanent in their ordinary sense, this too is Brahma. Nietzsche seems to be saying that it involves attachment aka sorrow. Parmenides seems aligned with Being imo.

  2. Gordon Davis has an excellent paper on this topic. Citation and abstract below:

    ABSTRACT
    Barbra Clayton and Charles Goodman have recently proposed interpretations of Mahāyāna philosophy that take its fundamental ethical commitments to be consequentialist. There are aspects of the bodhisattva ideal, however, that result in a distinctive constraint on what might otherwise amount to a commitment to consequentialist maximization. Though the doctrinal provenance of this constraint is unique, the constraint itself is in some ways akin to a feature of Kant’s ideal of the kingdom of ends. This does not make Mahāyāna ethics proto-Kantian, but it does suggest that its complexity does not rule out an analysis in terms of familiar consequentialist and non-consequentialist theoretical elements.

    Traces of Consequentialism and Non-Consequentialism In Bodhisattva Ethics
    Gordon Davis
    Philosophy East and West 63 (2):275-305 (2013)

  3. Hi Amod,

    Thank you for the interest and careful reading of my dissertation. I’m happy to see this discussion and hope to learn more as we go along.

    I’ll start by saying that I find the labeling of Dharma as good and dependent origination (DO) as bad to be somewhat puzzling. I think I get where you’re going on the second, but I’m not sure it squares with the texts. My reading, at least, is that DO is simply the ‘T’ Truth of how things are for beings in samsara. Sure, that includes ignorance and suffering, etc, which are bad – but DO is not itself bad.

    If it were, the Paccaya sutta would be pretty puzzling. Why is the Buddha here talking about DO and then jumping directly into describing the apparently transcendent nature of Dharma? To me the equivalence persists: to see the Dharma is to see DO. The realization/understanding (recall that ‘seeing’ in the Indian context is closely related with ‘knowing’) of DO is a wonderful thing. It is much like the Buddha’s statement in the Vakkali Sutta that “to see the Dharma is to see me, to see me is to see the Dharma.”

    So I don’t think the hot/cold analogy holds.

    They are obviously not the “same” but they are, in a practical-spiritual context, “equivalent.” You switched from my term “equivalent” to “same” – which I agree is not in the texts.

    As to Dhamma / dhammas – It’s certainly worth exploring further, and I’d give great weight to Buddhaghosa’s interpretation and certainly be interested as to why Bhikkhu Bodhi and others haven’t followed his gloss. However, I’d be hesitant to call these “homophones” which literally means different words with the same sound. Instead I’d see them as different uses of the same word, which is important for understanding Buddhist soteriology.

    For my work, I relied a lot on J.R. Carter’s discussions of Dhamma, and I owe thanks to Doug Smith for pointing me to Rupert Gethin’s excellent recent discussion at:

    He Who Sees Dhamma Sees Dhammas: Dhamma in Early Buddhism
    by Rupert Gethin – Journal of Indian Philosophy, Vol. 32 pp. 513-542 (2004).

    As far as I can tell, it reinforces my interpretation (following from Velez de Cea and others).

    • Thanks, Justin. The reason I go into dhamma/dhammas is that, as far as I can see, in the Paccaya Sutta the Buddha is *not* “describing the apparently transcendent nature of Dharma”. That was my point. There is no puzzle as to why he would do that – because he doesn’t! He is saying that to see *dhammas* is to see DO – their nature can only be understood when they are understood as dependently originated. You’re probably right that my calling the words “homophones” was a bit overstated – thanks for the Gethin reference, which (on a very quick first skim) seems to be a good reminder that there is some relationship between dhamma and dhammas as concepts. (I am looking forward to reading it in more detail.) But I don’t see him challenging the basic point: dhammas and “the dhamma” are not the same thing, one is not merely a plural of the other, nor one a member of the other’s species. There is such a thing as _akusala dhamma_s – these are referred to a lot – but it should be obvious that the dhamma of “dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi” cannot be akusala! (Nor, surely, can the latter simply mean “I take refuge in *a* dhamma”, “I take refuge in a mental state”.) The words in “the Customs Office” and “turkey is a custom at Thanksgiving” are not just homophones either, but the one word still means something quite different from a plural of the other.

      This is all important because paṭicca samuppāda (in the Pali texts) is part of the *problem* that is dukkha; it is a cycle of causes that keeps us mired *in* dukkha. You are correct that it is wonderful that we know it – *because* that knowledge is what allows us to get out of it. The idea being: *it is good to know the existence of a bad thing*. It is good that we know global warming exists and what it is; our ignorance of it is part of the problem. But that doesn’t mean there is anything good about global warming itself. Seeing the problem is an urgent matter, just because it *is* such a problem: it is good to *know* the thing, but the *thing* is not good. I’m sure we can find plenty of places where it is proclaimed that it is good to *know* DO; I am not aware of any place in the Pali Canon where DO *itself*, as opposed to knowing it, is affirmed as good. (East Asian Buddhism is an entirely different matter, of course.) It remains true that to *see* DO is to *see* the dhamma, but that does not mean the two are equivalent; they aren’t. I might be going a *little* far to describe DO as bad. But what it is *not*, is good. If we embrace and celebrate it, that will put us in deep trouble.

      • “This is all important because paṭicca samuppāda (in the Pali texts) is part of the *problem* that is dukkha; it is a cycle of causes that keeps us mired *in* dukkha. You are correct that it is wonderful that we know it – *because* that knowledge is what allows us to get out of it. The idea being: *it is good to know the existence of a bad thing*.”

        Again, I’m not sure we find this in the texts.

        Paṭicca samuppāda / DO is causality (delineated in different ways in the texts), right? Does it only go in one direction? Can you explain how it “keeps us mired *in* dukkha”?

        I ask because it seems that you’re adding things in here (1. adding a normative value to DO and 2. suggesting some power that DO has over/upon us) that I don’t find in the texts. It could be there, but I don’t see it in the Maha-nidana sutta or Nidana sutta.

        For further connection (and spiritual/practical equivalence) between DO and Dhamma, we might look to the case of the conversion of Sariputta, recounted in the Vinaya here: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/vin/mv/mv.01.23.01-10.than.html

        • Well, as I understand it, dependent origination isn’t just any causality. It’s specifically said to consist of twelve links, twelve nidānas. Of those, one is ignorance; another (taṇhā) is specifically identified by the Second Noble Truth as the cause of dukkha. The First Noble Truth identifies two more (birth and aging-and-death) with dukkha. Another is upādāna and three and a half more (saṅkhāra, viññāna, vedanā, rūpa) are among the five aggregates – the short summary of the First Truth is “the five aggregates subject to upādāna are dukkha”. That’s more than half of the links identified with either dukkha, the arising of dukkha, or ignorance. This dependent origination is the process by which the components and causes of dukkha come to be. That sure seems bad. And none of the links are anything clearly good (puñña, the dhamma, kusala, even nirodha).

          Now, that vinaya passage is really interesting in this regard, because it does point out one really good thing about dependent origination. And that good thing is: that it can stop! What is subject to origination, is subject is to cessation. So you can de-originate things, you can stop the process at one spot, and that will stop the rest of the process at the later spots in that locus. That’s the Third Noble Truth, the truly wonderful thing (according to the texts, at any rate). It is a great thing about dependent origination, true. But I don’t really see a problem with calling something generally bad, when the most wonderful thing about it is the fact that you can make it go away.

  4. Two things (and then we’d perhaps best leave the matter for now, as I’m sure there are much more problematic aspects of my dissertation to dig into :)…

    1. You say that you take DO as only referring to the 12 nidanas. But then you say that the vinaya passage says something interesting about DO. But… the vinaya passage has no nidanas in it. It has the simple: this being, that becomes; this not being, that does not become formulation of DO. Gombrich discusses other versions of DO in What the Buddha Thought; I imagine the variety of formulations is noted elsewhere in secondary literature as well. So I would suggest that you’re giving DO too narrow a reading if you’re only equating it with the 12 nidanas.

    2. We seemed to be getting somewhere with, “I might be going a *little* far to describe DO as bad.” (Lele, July 15)

    But then fell back to, “This dependent origination is the process by which the components and causes of dukkha come to be. That sure seems bad.” (Lele, July 19)

    The problem, I think, is that you’re just reading it in one direction. This may be a matter of following certain secondary literature or something from Buddhaghosa; I’m not sure. With another quick scan of suttas discussing DO, none fail to mention the other direction. You’ll see, as well, in the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism entry on DO -pratītyasamutpāda- that both directions are discussed and explicitly linked to the 2nd *and 3rd* Noble Truths.

    • Yeah, there’s more that I could say in response to that, but it’s probably best to hold off since I’ve got a followup post coming tomorrow. I did want to add one thing, which is that I looked back at the Gethin article you mentioned and I think this paragraph from it is worth quoting:

      Seeing dhamma as some form of eternal natural order or law would appear to be a more interpretative suggestion for the meaning of dhamma than those that we have so far considered, in that it is harder to cite passages where the translation ‘Natural Law’ or ‘Universal Law’ is clearly required by context and to be given preference over other translations. The kinds of passage referred to in order to illustrate this kind of understanding of dhamma are those which speak of the way things arise in dependence upon other things, or of how the mental and physical factors that make up the world (saṃkhāra) are all impermanent, suffering and not self, and then refer to this fact as the dhamma-ṭṭhitatā, the dhamma-niyāmatā that endures whether or not Buddhas arise in the world. Certainly these last two expressions might be translated ‘the constancy of nature’, ‘the law of nature’. And one could also suggest that the statement quoted above – ‘he who sees dependent arising sees dhamma’ – might be rendered as ‘he who sees dependent arising sees the law’. Yet it does not follow from such translations that we should necessarily hypostasize dhamma and conceive of it as some form of ‘immanent, eternal, uncreated’ law of the universe. Possibly these two expressions should be interpreted as the constancy and law of dhammas, plural, rather than dhamma, singular…

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