Buddhaghosa on seeing things as they are (3)

My continuing dispute with Maria Heim and Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, over the ideas of Buddhaghosa, now returns to where it began: the distinction between ultimate (paramattha) and conventional (sammuti or vohāra).

Heim and Ram-Prasad admit that for some Buddhist traditions these terms refer to different truths or levels of truth. (When Śāntideva employs the ultimate/conventional distinction, for example, he describes them explicitly as satyadvaya, two truths.) But Heim and Ram-Prasad claim that for Buddhaghosa it is not so. Buddhaghosa, they note, uses the terms paramattha and sammuti/vohāra to describe not truth or reality (sacca) but modes of teaching (kathā) or language (bhāsa). I think it is a good point that Buddhaghosa (different in this way from so many Sanskrit Buddhist thinkers) does not use paramattha to modify sacca. However, I think he does use the term to refer not merely to modes of skillful teaching but to reality, to existence. We have already encountered a passage at Visuddhimagga XVIII.28, referring back to the Milindapañhā’s chariot analogy, which Heim and Ram-Prasad themselves render as: “an ‘examination’ shows that ultimately there is no chariot.” (15) “Ultimately” is their translation of paramatthato, and the sentence – in the translation and in the original – is referring to existence. The final word of the Pali sentence, natthi, is the standard way to say “there is no”, “does not exist”. This sentence is saying that the chariot does not exist upon examination, and does not exist paramatthato. The “ultimately” has to do with existence, not merely teaching or language.

Moreover, the ultimate genuinely is ultimate – or at least, higher and better. In the sentence just quoted, Heim and Ram-Prasad may have slipped up from their intentions when they used the very common and standard translation “ultimately” for paramatthato, for elsewhere they render paramatthato more weakly as “further”. That weaker translation is called for by their later interpretation of paramattha: “One does indeed proceed from conventional to further [paramattha] meaning (rather than the other way around); but that does not make the conventional erroneous or less true.” (33)

Doesn’t it, though? Heim and Ram-Prasad immediately proceed to note that Buddhaghosa says “seeing correctly is the seeing of one who sees in this way, that from the standpoint of further sense, there is only name and form.” (34) In Pali this is: Paramatthato pana nāmarūpamattameva atthīti. Evaṃ passato hi dassanaṃ yathābhūtadassanaṃ nāma hoti (Vism XVIII.28). Here, “seeing correctly”, more literally rendered “seeing according to the existent” (yathābhūtadassana), is exactly the seeing of one who sees how things are paramatthato. I don’t think you’re going to find any passage where Buddhaghosa identifies “seeing correctly” with anything at the conventional level, the level that is not paramattha. If someone can find me such a passage, where yathābhūtadassana is indeed identified with the correct seeing of something conventional sammuti or vohāra (and that “correct seeing” has to do not merely with recognizing the fact that they are merely conventional), I’d be willing to change my view on this. But I doubt that that is likely to happen, because as far as I can tell, the whole point of making a paramattha/vohāra distinction in the first place is that the ultimate is truer, and the conventional therefore less true. If it weren’t, you wouldn’t need to speak at the ultimate level at all; you could just use the conventional, and you probably should, since it has the advantage of being far more pedagogically effective. But you do need the ultimate despite its pedagogical difficulties, because to see existents as they are, yathābhūtadassana, just is to see them paramatthato, in the ultimate way. To see them according to convention is to have some lesser kind of seeing, one that is not fully correct, not yathābhūtam. Buddhaghosa and other Pali authors typically attach matta (“mere” or “only”) to the “conventional” words sammuti and vohāra, as they do not to paramattha; plenty of things are “mere convention” but nothing is “merely ultimate”.

Consider further what this claim of Buddhaghosa’s implies about that correct seeing, “the seeing of one who sees in this way”. The first sentence or clause in the Pali ends with iti, the word that serves as a quotation mark of sorts, indicating that it is to be taken as a proposition referred to in the second part. Heim and Ram-Prasad are right to render the evam in this way: “one who sees in this way, that from the standpoint of further sense, there is only name and form.” In this context at least, correct seeing has propositional content: one sees that the world is ultimately a certain way, a way that can be expressed in a sentence. And here too, that sentence’s key verb is a verb of existence, atthi: one who sees correctly (yathābhūta) sees that ultimately there is only name and form. This is an ontological claim. It is hard to see how anyone could see it as not an ontological claim. The very definition of ontology is the study of being, of what is. And one who sees correctly – one who sees according to the existent – sees what ultimately exists (namely, name-and-form only).

Let us now return to the larger picture. What does all this close and technical reading – in this post and the previous two – imply? Each time, we have looked closely at the same passages Heim and Ram-Prasad examine in their article. We have seen all three times that in these very passages Buddhaghosa is concerned not merely with phenomenology – how things appear – but with ontology, how things actually are. The reduction of a person or a chariot into aggregates or name-and-form has to do not merely with one’s inner meditative experience, but with the fact that the person or the chariot actually is made of the reduced elements. Seeing correctly is not a matter of eliminating views, but of having a view that corresponds to things as they are (yathābhūtadassana). And it is by taking that reductionist view, of things as they are, that one sees things in the higher, ultimate, way and not in the lesser way of mere convention. To be liberated from suffering, in Buddhaghosa’s view just as in Śāntideva’s, one must see things as they are; one must perceive reality correctly. One must, that is, be concerned with ontology and metaphysics.

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.

2 thoughts on “Buddhaghosa on seeing things as they are (3)

  1. Maria Heim and I thank Amod Lele for his interest in our essay. We post this comment in acknowledgement of his remarks rather than to enter into further debate; we leave it to readers to pursue their own understanding of Buddhaghosa through the scholarly literature.

    What we might say at the outset is that all parties agree that Buddhaghosa is a dogmatic Buddhist who advances the doctrines of the four noble truths, anātta, etc. But Amod helps himself to precisely the ontological reading of these doctrines that he is supposed to establish through argument.

    Let us begin with an example. We want to reiterate that for Buddhaghosa phenomenological analysis is a correct way of seeing. So, to disaggregate the notion of ‘person’ is to come to ‘see correctly’ that our experience of ourselves is not of irreducibly single subjects. To then take this exercise to be an assertion that there is an ultimate reality of disaggregated entities is a further step, and not one that Buddhaghosa argues for epistemologically. This leads to the larger question of what Buddhaghosa is doing in the Visuddhimagga. Our paper attempts to take Buddhaghosa at his word when he takes himself to be engaged in analysis: he describes his efforts in terms of those of his school, the Analysts (Vibhajjavādins). The Path of Purification and his other works are aimed at purifying understanding through analysis. Perhaps he had a correspondence theory of reality, but he does not argue for one in his work, and he does not engage in metaphysical and epistemological arguments of the sort we see widespread elsewhere, as in Yogācāra and other systems of Indian philosophy (and on which Ram-Prasad has published extensively).

    Our case, then, is that we should look at what he is doing in his text overall. This applies, amongst other things, to the conventional/ultimate distinction. Buddhaghosa does not use the locution ‘merely’ (matta) in reference to conventional language. More generally, in his work the distinction between sammuti and paramattha always refers to different registers of the Buddha’s language and teachings; Buddhaghosa never disparages or downplays the truth-value or any other quality of the Buddha’s words. In any case, the relative valuation between sammuti and paramattha does not settle Amod’s case: that one played ‘merely’ in the Minors, but wanted ‘ultimately’ to get to the Majors does not make baseball leagues an ontological category.

    So there are several critical issues in play. (i) Translational choices: For example, Amod prefers ‘according to the existent’ for yathābhūta, in contrast to the equally possible and more phenomenological sense, “according to what has arisen.” He is entitled to his intuitions on this of course, but they do not amount to argument. Arising from this, (ii) doctrine is not equivalent to ontology. The commitment to doctrine (‘views’) – anattā, suññatā, sabhāva, khandhas – is not a commitment to ontology but a rejection of whatever commitments the Buddha held to be wrong (‘viewpoints’). In many Buddhist traditions, it is obvious that this is indeed construed as a debate about competing ontologies or at least ontological strategies (such as a case against ontologies), and we do not deny that. But our argument is that we need to interpret how such doctrines are understood and function in each context, and not presume that all philosophical contexts are necessarily ontological. If doctrine is taken ontologically, then of course canonical materials can be read in that manner; but then all we have are competing intuitions.
    But our case is more than about competing intuitions, for we also have to consider (iii) the function and context of a philosophical programme: Buddhaghosa offers a detailed programme of phenomenological practice for purifying attitudes towards a given set of assumptions about how things are; he is not concerned to offer arguments in defense of how things ‘really’ are. (If read ontologically, he might end up looking a rather inadequate epistemologist, fodder for Madhyamaka deconstruction.)

    Our paper focuses on how nāmarūpa functions within Buddhaghosa’s programme (as opposed to the many different ways it functions in other programmes – Śaṅkara, for example, uses it a ramifyingly metaphysical way). We have been surprised that Amod’s critique sidesteps the core argument of the article, which involves reading Visuddhamagga chapter XVIII for its understanding of nāmarūpa. We remain curious about how the ontological reading of nāma and rūpa as irreducible “ultimate existents” would survive a careful consideration of Buddhaghosa’s treatment of them in that chapter and the way such a treatment would fit within the overall project of the text.

    • Thank you for the detailed and thoughtful response, Ram. I think it is best addressed in a full-length followup post (or possibly even multiple such posts), which I have begun working on.

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