Buddhaghosa on seeing things as they are (1)

Earlier this year I examined the classic Pali Milindapañhā dialogue and its claim that while one can speak of oneself as a “convention” (vohāra), ultimately (paramattha) a person is not found. I referred in passing to the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification), the most famous work of the great Theravāda philosopher Buddhaghosa, as following this understanding. And I noted that on this view a person, or a chariot, can most accurately be described in reductionist terms, as atomized parts; the ultimate reality lies beyond that convention.

Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad took issue with this description in a comment, referring me to Maria Heim’s forthcoming book The Voice of the Buddha – and to an article he wrote with Heim in Philosophy East and West entitled “In a double way”. Neither of these has been officially published yet, but I could find a preprint version of “In a double way” on PEW’s site for “early release”.

The article claims that Buddhaghosa uses abhidhamma categories, such as the five aggregates (khandha), not as “as a reductive ontological division of the human being” but rather as “the contemplative structuring of that human’s phenomenology.” (1)1 That is to say that according to Heim and Ram-Prasad, Buddhaghosa is not trying to talk about what exists or what human beings and other entities really are, just about the kinds of experiences human beings have, and especially those found in meditation. The article comes to this conclusion through a welcome close reading of the Visuddhimagga, something which, the authors note accurately and unfortunately, “has rarely been attempted in competing views of him…” They add: “It would be a welcome development in the study of Buddhaghosa if other scholars were to offer further or contrasting interpretations – e.g., as that he engaged in constructing a metaphysical dualism – based on such textual analysis rather than on an a priori commitment to a picture of abhidhamma and its interpreters.”

To this I reply: challenge accepted. I’m not necessarily going to defend a dualist picture of Buddhaghosa per se; I think Heim and Ram-Prasad are right to note that nāma and rūpa, “name and form”, are at least interconnected. But I will defend the point that Buddhaghosa’s understanding of sammuti and paramattha is indeed ontological and not merely phenomenological – that is, it concerns how things actually are, and not merely how they appear, in meditation or otherwise. And I will do that through a close reading of the same passages that Heim and Ram-Prasad themselves quote from the Visuddhimagga – noting some key points that they miss.

The resulting discussion must therefore get technical, including a few points of Pali grammar and the like. That will make it somewhat rough going for nonspecialists, but my hope is that it will still remain intelligible to such an audience. The ultimate point I am trying to make in all of it parallels the article I wrote for JBE a few years ago: for Buddhaghosa as for Śāntideva, metaphysics matters. The way we should act and live has something to do with the way reality is. I’m going to address that point in three different posts, each addressing a part of Heim and Ram-Prasad’s article. First, here, I will talk about Buddhaghosa’s reductionism – his claim that there is no person but only the aggregates that make the person up – and how that is not merely a matter of phenomenological inner experience. Second, next time, I will look at Buddhaghosa’s criticism of the diṭṭhigata, those who “resort to views”, and argue that (contrary to Heim and Ram-Prasad) he is not criticizing the very idea of having a metaphysical point of view. Third, finally, I will talk about the distinction between conventional and ultimate, which had provoked Ram-Prasad’s original comment.

So now to the substance. Heim and Ram-Prasad claim that Buddhaghosa is “not so much concerned with what one knows (an epistemological state determined by propositional content) but instead with how one knows (a transformation in knowing the world).” (15) I think they are right that how one knows is the most important thing for Buddhaghosa. But then how exactly is one supposed to know? What separates good, right or appropriate knowing from bad, wrong or inappropriate knowing? What knowing transforms to what other knowing?

Let us take a closer look. At Visuddhimagga XVIII.28, Buddhaghosa makes the same chariot analogy that the Milindapañhā makes (though without the latter’s snappy dialogue). In Heim and Ram-Prasad’s own rendering, we see 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.” Buddhaghosa, unlike the Milindapañhā, also offers several other examples of composite entities (“just as when the fingers, thumb, etc., are placed in a certain way, there comes to be the mere term of common usage ‘fist'”) and then gets to the person:

Likewise, when there are the five aggregates of clinging, then there comes to be the mere common usage of ‘a being’, ‘person’; but in the further sense, when each dhamma is examined, there is no being that is the foundation for assuming ‘I am’ or ‘I’. In the further sense, there is only name-form. The vision of one who sees thus is called ‘seeing correctly.’

Heim and Ram-Prasad, startlingly to me, seem to think that this passage is “clearly” all about phenomenology, about inner experience:

Clearly, the “examination” here is reflexive, because it is of the “aggregates of clinging.” “Clinging” is a phenomenological fact, this is what is experienced. And seeing correctly is to see through the experience of clinging to how the sense of being a substantial person occurs because of clinging to the aggregates. (HRP 15-16)

But we have just been through a similar examination of chariots, fists, and more, which are not similarly put in terms of the aggregates of clinging (upādānakkhandha). Seeing these correctly (yathābhūta) is not reflexive: it is not the chariot that experiences the chariot or the fist that experiences the fist! But the chariot and the fist are the analogies being offered here. It seems to me that those analogies suggest an examination that is not especially reflexive in this sense: just as one breaks down the chariot or the fist into their parts, so one breaks down the person (puggala) into its parts, which are the aggregates of clinging. For that reason it is not only the person doing the breaking who can and should thus be broke down, but any person. It’s not just yourself that you can analyze into the five aggregates, but me, and Buddhaghosa and Taylor Swift and anybody else.

And so, I submit, for Buddhaghosa the reduction into the aggregates is not merely a meditation experienced within one’s own consciousness, but an accurate description of how things are. One reduces not merely one’s own mind and body, but all other minds and bodies, and indeed all the rocks and trees and birdies, to the five aggregates or to name-and-form. I think the passage just quoted lends itself well to this interpretation, but it will be lent further support by my next two discussions.

1. Page references are to the preprint version, currently available from the Philosophy East and West website with an institutional subscription. Presumably when the official article is published, the page numbers will change but the text will remain mostly the same.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

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