Conventional teaching wrongly taken as an equal

I demonstrated last time why Buddhaghosa believes the ultimate (paramattha) to be higher and truer than the conventional (vohāra or sammuti). But this is not to say that he finds the conventional unnecessary. Charles Hallisey rightly points out its value in his important “In defense of rather fragile and local achievement“. Hallisey notes that the conventional is essential for pedagogical purposes, and those purposes matter. The conventional is at least as important as the ultimate – but the ultimate, as I noted last time, remains truer. If it were not truer, there would be no need for it; the conventional would simply be superior, since it is more effective at teaching and persuading people.

In The Forerunner of All Things – a generally strong book of which I stand by my previous praise – Maria Heim claims that in that same article Hallisey argues “the Theravādins do not see ultimate (paramattha) teachings as truer than conventional (sammuti) teachings”, following this up with her own comment that “They have different purposes but are equally truthful ways of describing the world, and the Theravāda sources do not place them in a hierarchy.” (Forerunner 90)

But that is not quite what Hallisey says in the chapter at issue. He does observe Buddhaghosa’s commentary on the Kathāvatthu as “a use of these labels which considers the conventional and absolute not as hierarchically ranked, but only as separate and contrasted.” (128) The Kathāvatthu commentary (in the Puggalakathā section) says “whether [Buddhas] use conventional speech or absolute speech, they speak what is true, what is factual, not false.” (Hallisey 129) But two things need to be said about Hallisey’s observation in this passage.

First, both Hallisey’s translation and the original Pali cast strong doubt on Ram-Prasad and Heim’s claim that “Unlike some Indian Buddhist traditions that take these to refer to truths or ‘levels’ of truth, Buddhaghosa takes sammuti and paramattha to refer to two modes of teachings (kathā) or language (bhāsā); he does not rank them in their descriptive accuracy.” (1106) Hallisey translates the relevant passage for this claim as:

The Perfectly Enlightened One, the best of teachers, spoke two truths [duve saccāni], that is, the customary and the absolute – one does not come across a third; a customary statement is true because of convention and an absolute statement is true since it is about the real characteristics of things [dhammānaṃ tathalakkhaṇa]. (Kathāvatthu Aṭṭhakathā 34)

Here, note, Buddhaghosa indeed uses sammuti and paramattha to describe two saccas, two truths, not merely different modes of teachings or language – though they are both indeed true. And the truth of paramattha is because it is dhammānaṃ tathalakkhaṇa, which Hallisey renders “about the real characteristics of things” (dhammas).

Second, on the next page Hallisey notes that the “contrastive treatment of conventional and absolute truth” in the Kathāvatthu commentary “does not, however, preclude a hierarchical ordering. It leaves open the possibility that conventional and absolute teaching could be integrated in a hierarchy.” (130) And Hallisey then proceeds to quote another passage, this time from the commentary to the Aṅguttara Nikāya, in which Buddhaghosa proceeds to do exactly that. The passage maps sammuti and paramattha onto the hermeneutical distinction between texts with a direct meaning (nītattha) and those which need further specification (neyyattha). It argues that when in a sutta the Buddha is said to speak of a person,

its sense has to be inferred since there is no individual in the absolute sense (paramattho). But a person because of his folly may take this as a sutta of direct meaning and would argue that the Tathagata would not have said “there is one individual, O monks” etc. unless a person existed in the absolute sense. (translated in Hallisey 130)

And so, Hallisey argues:

Although Buddhaghosa accepts both indirect and direct teaching as valid, he emphasizes here the danger of taking indirect teaching independently from direct teaching. This could result in a confusion of the two, with conventional teaching wrongly taken as an equal to absolute teaching. With this as a possibility, it is inadequate only to separate and contrast the conventional and the absolute. Once they are connected, absolute teaching may serve as a constraint, and if necessary a corrective, against the confusion which the conventional itself is unable to check. Thus knowledge of absolute teaching contributes to knowledge and mastery of the conventional, but not vice versa. (131, emphasis added)

The ultimate can correct the conventional; the reverse is not true. It is wrong to take conventional as equal to the ultimate. Hallisey’s interpretation seems to me on the whole to be harmonious with the passages quoted from the Visuddhimagga in this and previous discussions. Conventional truth is indeed mere (matta), and it is that because its truth is of a sort that is merely pedagogically helpful; it needs to be corrected by a further, absolute, ultimate truth which is about the real characteristics (tatthalakkhana) of dhammas. That ultimate truth in turn does not need to be corrected by the conventional, and it is in this sense that the conventional remains mere, lesser.

It matters that Hallisey is referring to Buddhaghosa’s aṭṭhakathās – his commentaries on sutta and abhidhamma texts – rather than to his magnum opus the Visuddhimagga, which is the subject of Heim and Ram-Prasad’s article. One could plausibly find text-critical grounds to object that these texts had different authors. But Heim, at least, explicitly rejects such a move in Forerunner, seeking to treat the works attributed to Buddhaghosa as a unity. I approve of her approach there, and so I stand by the claim that Buddhaghosa views sammuti as lesser than paramattha.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

One Reply to “Conventional teaching wrongly taken as an equal”

  1. It is enlightening.
    But I am viewing the conventional as non-controversial(single possibility) and the ultimate as a purpose behind the conventional
    (several possibilities).
    For example we look at an object and identify it as a chair having a particular structure(the conventional)and its purpose as
    either a seat for resting or a height for better view (the ultimate and several).
    The purposes are truer than forms and names.

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