Buddhaghosa on seeing things as they are (2)

I continue my argument from last time dissenting from Maria Heim and Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad’s interpretation of Buddhaghosa. I turn to a second passage that Heim and Ram-Prasad use – incorrectly, in my view – to claim Buddhaghosa is not trying to take a position on the way things actually are. They note correctly that Buddhaghosa contrasts those who see correctly, one one hand, with those who “resort to views” (the diṭṭhigata) on the other. But what does this distinction mean, exactly?

Buddhaghosa quotes the Buddha as follows:

Here the Bhagavan said: “some gods and humans are obsessed by two ways of resorting to views: some hold back, some overreach, and only those with eyes see. And how, monks, do some hold back? Monks, gods and humans delight in being (or becoming), are intent on being, take pleasure in being. When the Dhamma is taught to them for the sake of the cessation of being, their awareness does not take to it, or become calm, settled, or inclined to it. These are those, monks, who hold back. And how, monks, do some overreach? Some are anxious, disaffected, and disgusted by that same being, and they take pleasure in cutting off being, saying “at the breakup of the body, the self is destroyed and perishes, and is nothing further after death – this is peace, this is fulfillment, this is truth.” These are those, monks, who overreach. And how, monks, do those with eyes see? Here, monks, a monk sees what has become as become (bhikkhu bhūtaṃ bhūtato passa). Having seen what has become as become (bhūtaṃ bhūtato disvā), he reaches disenchantment, dispassion, and cessation for what has become. In this way, monks, those with eyes see.” (Visuddhimagga XVIII.30; the translation is Heim’s and Ram-Prasad’s but I have added the Pali in key passages. The original quote is from the Itivuttaka, a short text within the Khuddhaka Nikāya of the Pali canon.)

Heim and Ram-Prasad read this passage as invoking a difference between diṭṭhi, “view”, and dassana, “viewing” or “seeing”: “we are drawn into seeing that ‘view’ – i.e., a view-point – is not the same as ‘viewing’ – i.e., the continual act of purified seeing.” (17) They want this to mean that Buddhaghosa is refusing any sort of ontological diṭṭhi, any “view” of how things are. But what the passage invokes is not merely a difference between diṭṭhi and dassana, these two similar nouns derived from the same root, but between those who are diṭṭhigata – resorting to or stuck on a view – and “those with eyes” who see (cakkhumanto passanti). It is relevant here that in the closely related language of Sanskrit, the widely used term for a metaphysical “view” is darśana, the exact equivalent of dassana, which already makes me a little suspicious of a claim that a diṭṭhi is a “view” and a dassana is not. Conversely it would be quite strange for Buddhaghosa to reject all diṭṭhi when he accepts the Noble Eightfold Path, whose first element is sammādiṭṭhi, right view.

And indeed, Buddhaghosa does not reject diṭṭhi as such in any of the Visuddhimagga passages they analyze. Quite the contrary. Heim and Ram-Prasad refer approvingly to “purified seeing”, but a few pages earlier they have already noted the term Buddhaghosa regularly uses for the purification of seeing, and it is not dassanavisuddhi but diṭṭhivisuddhi. That is, one’s “view”, diṭṭhi, is itself purified. Having a diṭṭhi is not the problem, being diṭṭhigata is. For those who are diṭṭhigata either find “their awareness does not take to” the Dhamma, or they make a materialist claim that directly contradicts the claims Buddhaghosa makes elsewhere in the text. That prevents them, in turn, from seeing what exists (bhūta) as it is. That is what makes their seeing – whether one calls it diṭṭhi or dassana – impure, as distinguished from those whose diṭṭhi has indeed been purified.

I split these hairs in order to counter what I think is Heim’s and Ram-Prasad’s own hair-splitting: the important distinction Buddhaghosa is making is not between these two forms of the word for “see”, as they claim it is. The important distinction is not whether the “see” word in question is diṭṭhi, dassana or passanti (the odd present form of the same root). Rather, the important distinction is between seeing correctly and seeing incorrectly. And Buddhaghosa, like many other Buddhists, identifies seeing correctly in terms of seeing as: here, seeing the bhūta (what exists, what has become) as the bhūta. One must see entities as they actually are. The term that Heim and Ram-Prasad typically render as “seeing correctly” is yathābhūtadassana: literally, seeing according to the existent. This is a correspondence theory of right view: things are a certain way, and one who sees correctly sees things in that way that they are.

All of which is to disagree completely with Heim and Ram-Prasad’s next paragraph:

This framing of his inquiry into nāmarūpa as being about seeing is significant because it implies that what is said about this topic is not for the purpose of achieving a viewpoint or position about reality. The distinction above serves as a propaedeutic to his phenomenological practice – the structured attending to experience. We should remember that the practice is not only not for the purpose of arriving at conclusions about how things ultimately are, it is in fact directed towards developing the capacity to not seek such conclusions. (17)

This is not at all what Buddhaghosa is saying. Assuming that “conclusion” is their rendering of diṭṭhi, Buddhaghosa’s point then is not to avoid “conclusions”, but rather to conclude correctly. The “conclusion” one needs to attain is a way of seeing, a diṭṭhi or dassana, which may not be reducible to a proposition or set of propositions. But that way of seeing is a way of seeing things as they ultimately are.

That word “ultimately” itself needs more discussion – and that will be the topic of my final post in this series.

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.

One thought on “Buddhaghosa on seeing things as they are (2)

  1. Looking back seventy years, we are influenced in many ways now by Eastern thought…

    Do influences help us conclude correctly–like stone Hindu and Buddhist statues can orient a posture in oneself, a posture of and for movement “to seeing according to the existent”…

    Western “ways” are glimpsing possibilities for being in a cosmos–a ordered universe…
    …via small groups of searching, observing, reporting people…thanks

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