21 October 2011

The Post-Abhidharma Doctrine Disaster.

I WAS COMMENTING ON a discussion on Google+ regarding an article by B Alan Wallace recently when something crystallized out in my thinking about the history of Buddhist ideas. One of my long term interests is the way the definitions of dhammas evolved. Early on it seems reasonably clear that dhammas are seen as aspects of experience that have no ontological status. For this reason the Kaccānagotta Sutta can say that atthi (it exists) and n'atthi (it does not exist) do not apply to the world of experience. As Eviatar Schulman has pointed out, this does not mean that early Buddhist doctrines have no metaphysical implications. [1] But these implications did not seem to interest the authors of the suttas; which leads us to presume didn't they interest the Buddha either. However as attempts to systematise the teachings proceeded it seems that metaphysical implications became more and more interesting. Noa Ronkin has argued that it is overstating the case to say that the Abhidharmikas introduced ontology into Buddhism, but they certain were interested in ontology in a way that the authors of the suttas were not.[2] And this opened up Buddhism to metaphysical speculation. One of the problems that Buddhists created for themselves relates to bodhi.

The problem seems to be that Buddhists sidelined dependent arising as the mechanism by which one experienced bodhi. They did this by:
a.) reifying conditioned dhammas;
b.) deifying unconditioned dhammas (i.e. bodhi);
c.) forgetting that dependent arising has a lokuttara aspect. (See e.g. A XI.1-5, Nettipakaraṇa, 65).
The combined effect was that dependent arising could no longer account for bodhi. Dependent arising is relegated to describing how saṃsāra works, with a focus on the material world. There is a sense of this in Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga when he mentions the lokuttara-paṭiccasamuppāda only in passing and, as fa as I can tell, seems to regard it as relating to saṃsāra rather than nibbāna. Similarly Nettipakaraṇa defines the twelve nidāna sequence as lokiya 'worldly'.

Bodhi, according to the post-Abhidharma traditions, is somewhat like the Christian idea of grace. Grace is a quality that Yahweh gives out at his whim, and one cannot earn it through any amount of piety and good works. Similarly most Buddhists seem to believe that one cannot cultivate or pursue bodhi, one must just meditate and hope for the best. I always meet resistance when I use the phrase "cultivating insight" on my blog! "Insight", I am solemnly informed, "is not something that can be cultivated." Which I do not believe for a second.

The vinaya provides sanctions for anyone who is not an arahant claiming to be one. These days any kind of claim to spiritual attainment is seen with suspicion. And this particular attitude combined with the vagueness about how bodhi might happen have created a strange situation in Buddhism. People do claim to be arahants in this day and age. I've mentioned Daniel Ingram, who openly calls himself an arahant, to a few people and the attitude seems to mainly be one of indifference. Which is surprising in some ways. If someone has achieved what we have strived for years and decades to achieve then shouldn't we be at least curious? But I gather that most people secretly believe it is not possible, or they are not interested because he is the wrong kind of Buddhist.

The side-lining of dependent arising meant inventing new ideas to account for bodhi, prominent amongst which was tathāgatagarbha. Tathāgatagarbha appears to adapt the Vedantic idea of the ātman (and some Mahāyāna sūtras explicitly equate tathāgatagarbha with ātman). This idea is that in each of us is a spark or mote of bodhi, which we have covered in defilements. This mote has all the characteristics of ātman. If you read about ātman in the Upaniṣads instead of Buddhist anti-Hindu propaganda, you will see just what I mean.

With the advantage of hindsight we can see what a disaster the whole Abhidharma project was, and how it created huge down stream philosophical problems (including the one under discussion). Really we should be thinking in terms of letting the house of cards fall down and rebuilding from scratch.

I don't know as much about Nāgarjuna as I ought. But I see him as an interesting figure, not for the usual reasons, but because he cited a Sanskrit version of the Kaccānagotta Sutta (KS) in his Mūlamadhyama-kakārikā (MMK). David Kalupahana has made much of this single citation - the only text cited by name in fact. He sees MMK as a grand commentary on the KS. [3] While I think this is plausible, I don't think it's the only way to see the relationship. I think the KS reflects a particular attitude to the teachings which I have been calling the "hermeneutic of experience". With the hermeneutic of experience we seek to interpret doctrines as though they are always talking about experience, rather than metaphysics (enquiry into 'being') or ontology (enquiry into 'what is'). I'm told this is similar, but not identical, to the methods of phenomenology. I think Nāgarjuna might have been employing a hermeneutic of experience, which lead him to resist the Abhidharmika interest in metaphysics. But Nāgarjuna had a problem: traditionally Buddhists could not backtrack. Though he disagreed with the Abhidharmika metaphysics, he could not simply set them aside, and perhaps it did not even occur to him. The Abhidharma was already canonical by that stage. So he came up with a way to get back to experience, and deal with ontological speculation by introducing the idea of svabhāva śūnyatā, and it's corollary the so-called "two truths". Though this was a brilliant solution to his dilemma I wonder if we could actually do better. I've already tried to demonstrate that the two truths are in fact superfluous if we do not make erroneous assumptions about where pratītya-samutpāda applies, i.e. if we apply the hermeneutic of experience, and do not reify conditioned dharmas. [4] If we ditch the abhidharmika metaphysics of dharmas, then the idea of svabhāva śūnyatā is also superfluous because it is already explicit in the KS.

This is not to say that good ideas and practices have not come out of the post-Abhidharma doctrine debacle. Straying into metaphysics required some creative correctives such as Nāgarjuna introduced. But the result is messy and confused. Doctrinal wrangling is such a prominent, even dominant, feature of Buddhism! We cannot decide what our own teachings mean, or if we do 'know' then we invariably seem to be dogmatic about it and often ignorant of alternatives. Since I adopted the hermeneutic of experience I have found that many of the paradoxes and polarisations that surround Buddhist doctrine have melted away, and this is partly why I think it is so useful! There is much less to argue about.

The irony is that the methods continue to be effective despite our messed up views. So there is another argument which says that it doesn't matter that much what you believe, and it is certainly not necessary to have big doctrinal arguments (unless you like that kind of thing). If what we believe motivates us to practice, and by practice I mean the full range of Buddhist practices, then the practices themselves tend to sort out our views, eventually. So in fact doctrine is of relatively minor importance compared with practice.


  1. Shulman, Eviatar. (2008) 'Early Meanings of Dependent-Origination.' Journal of Indian Philosophy. 36:297-317.
  2. Ronkin, Noa. (2005) Early Buddhist Metaphysics. Routledge.
  3. Kalupahana, David J. (1986) Nāgārjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way. State University of New York Press.
  4. Jayarava. (2011) 'Not Two Truths.' Jayarava's Raves. http://jayarava.blogspot.com/2011/08/not-two-truths.html
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