Mere convention vs. seeing correctly

Continuing my response to Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, I want to turn back now to the original point of contention with which our exchange first began: the role of conventional (sammuti/vohāra) and ultimate (paramattha) in Buddhaghosa’s thought. First and foremost, I am deeply puzzled by Ram-Prasad’s claim in his comment on my previous post that “Buddhaghosa does not use the locution ‘merely’ (matta) in reference to conventional language”, when one can find this passage on page 1094 of his and Heim’s own article:

At XVIII.28, [Buddhaghosa] says that “there comes to be the mere common usage of ‘chariot’” (ratho ti vohāramattaṃ hoti) from its parts but that an ‘examination’ (upaparikkhā) shows that ultimately there is no chariot.” Likewise, when there are the five aggregates of clinging, then there comes to be the mere common usage of ‘a being’, ‘person’”…

There is matta, “mere” or “merely”, used twice in reference to vohāra, the conventional, right in a passage that Heim and Ram-Prasad themselves both quote and translate (and which is indeed in the original text). Not only that, this passage is the very passage we have been discussing at greatest length, Visuddhimagga XVIII.28. So: yes, actually, Buddhaghosa does use the locution “merely” in reference to conventional language, and Ram-Prasad has himself already agreed, in his own published writing, that this is the case.

It is true, as Ram-Prasad claims in the comment, that Buddhaghosa’s use of matta does not settle the case about his ontology. It does, however, cast doubt on his and Heim’s claim that Buddhaghosa’s proceeding fom vohāra to paramattha (never the other way round) “does not make the conventional erroneous or less true” (1106). And that claim was this whole conversation’s original point of contention to begin with. This discussion began because I had asserted that in the Milindapañhā and the works of Buddhaghosa the ultimate truth “corresponds to reality”, with conventional truth “simply an appearance or convenient way of speaking.” Ram-Prasad had initiated this entire discussion of ours, referring to the “In a double way” article, by claiming that on his and Heim’s reading, Buddhaghosa’s “usage of the distinction through abhidhamma does not map on to metaphysical one you make.”

And so I stand by my original view that Buddhaghosa does consider the ultimate to be better than the conventional, more highly valued in some respect that makes the conventional “mere” by comparison. As per Ram-Prasad’s own analogy, if “one played ‘merely’ in the Minors, but wanted ‘ultimately’ to get to the Majors”, one clearly valued the Majors more highly.

Why does Buddhaghosa value paramattha more highly? Because it allows for viewing existence correctly, in a way that sammuti alone does not. We have already discussed a passage in which Buddhaghosa says: Paramatthato pana nāmarūpamattameva atthīti. Evaṃ passato hi dassanaṃ yathābhūtadassanaṃ nāma hoti (Vism XVIII.28). Heim and Ram-Prasad, again, render this “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.” (1106)

“Correctly” is Heim and Ram-Prasad’s translation for yathābhūta, a key word which the Pali Text Society Dictionary renders as “in reality, in truth, really, definitely, absolutely; as ought to be, truthfully, in its real essence” and which I had spelled out as “according to the existent”. Ram-Prasad makes the extremely curious comment that yathābhūta has the “equally possible and more phenomenological sense” of “according to what has arisen”. We are agreed that the yathā part of the compound means “according to”, but I can find no justification for rendering bhūta as “what has arisen”. While the -ta form is a past participle and thus gives some justification for a “what has” translation, the bhū root has no etymological sense of “rising”, of upward movement, that I am aware of – in contrast to other Pali terms, like samuppāda, that do have that sense and are more commonly translated “arising”. (The Pali Text Society Dictionary makes no reference to any sense of “arisen” in any definition of bhūta, or to “arise” for the verb bhavati.) Rather, bhū is a participle referring to existence; indeed, Wilhelm Halbfass in On Being and What There Is (22) claims that the Sanskrit/Pali roots bhū and as have more prominent existential functions than the English word “to be” itself.

Indeed, even in his and Heim’s article, Ram-Prasad himself never renders bhūta as “what has arisen”, but as “what has become” (1095) or as “the elemental” (1096). When the article speaks of bhūta outside the compound yathābhūta, it is in that latter sense of elements. So: sure, a translation of “what has arisen” could be argued to have a “more phenomenological sense” in that it suggests yathābhūtam could merely have to do with seeming, with what arises in the mind before consciousness, in a way that has nothing to do with existence or reality. But I find nothing in Buddhaghosa’s own usage of bhūta or yathābhūta, in their wider usage in other Pali and Sanskrit texts, or in “In a double way” itself, that would imply even the slightest reason to translate bhūta as “what has arisen”, as opposed to the far more standard understanding that identifies it with existence. In Ram-Prasad’s own words, Ram-Prasad “is entitled to his intuitions on this of course, but they do not amount to argument.” Heim’s and Ram-Prasad’s own translation “what has become” gives much more of a connotation of what has actually come to be – an ontological connotation. From that more justified usage related to existence, it is surely a short distance to the common and widely accepted translation of yathābhūtam as “in reality”.

To sum up: Buddhaghosa explicitly values the paramattha more highly than what he explicitly calls “mere” vohāra, because one who sees what exists (atthi) in a paramattha way sees yathābhūta – that is, she sees correctly, according to what has come to be. This is not to say, though, that the vohāra is unnecessary. It remains essential, and next time I will treat the reasons why.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

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