03 October 2008

Knowledge and Vision

Anyone familiar with the teaching of Sangharakshita will most likely be familiar with his "spiral conditionality". This is the sequence of links or states which he juxtaposes with the twelve nidanas: the former is linear and leads to enlightenment; while the latter, according to the commentarial tradition, results in cycling around from birth to birth. The locus classicus for this teaching is the Upanisa Sutta in the Saṃyutta Nikāya.(1) Since Sangharakshita identified and expounded this idea of a second order of conditionality a number of us, myself included, have identified other examples of it in the Nikāyas.(2) It is clear that this teaching once formed an important part of the Buddha's message, but that it was forgotten sometime after the Pāli Canon was written down and is lost in the Theravāda tradition. It was rediscovered in fact by C.A.F. Rhys Davids when she translated the SN, and it was her reference to it in the introduction of that translation which was published over the years 1917-1930, which alerted Sangharakshita to it.

Spiral conditionality in the Upanisa Sutta begins with faith (saddha) which is the support for joy (pāmojja - also known as weak rapture) and so on up to knowledge of the destruction of the asavas (āsavakkhayañāṇa). In this essay I want to focus on the 8th stage or link in this sequence: yathābhūtañāṇādassana. This words is translated by both Sangharakshita and Bhikkhu Bodhi as "knowledge and vision of things as they really are".

yathābhūtañāṇādassana is a compound word with 4 parts. It is yathā + bhūta + ñāṇā + dassana. My method here is one that I have employed on a number of occasions in this blog, which is to look at each word in turn, and then reassemble the compound hoping to see more clearly what it means by understand the parts and how they fit together. Starting at the end and working backwards we come to:

Dassana means "seeing, looking; noticing, sight of, appearance, look".(PED) The ancient Indians shared our metaphor that seeing is knowing. See what I mean? Something seen is known, something unseen is unknown. Under ñāṇa the PED says of the relationship between sight and knowledge that "[it] implies that all things visible are knowable as well as that all our knowledge is based on empirical grounds. It is a basic metaphor for us - sight is our primary sense, our strongest experience of the world is through sight. The visionary has in-sights into Truth, they lead us into new areas of knowledge. The Buddha frequently uses this kind of visual metaphor to describe the experience of bodhi which itself continues the metaphor because to wake up is to open one's eyes, it suggests day-time, light.

Ñāṇa (Sanskrit jñāna) means "knowledge, intelligence, insight, conviction, recognition. (PED) Note the presence of visual metaphors in this definition. Ñāṇa is related via the Latin (co)gnito to English words "cognise", "gnostic", and "know". The dictionary tells us that it is synonymous with paññā (Sanskrit prajñā) for which PED gives "intelligence, comprising all the higher faculties of cognition... reason, wisdom, insight, knowledge, recognition. Paññā and ñāṇa are routinely translated as knowledge and wisdom respectively in order to distinguish them. Pañña seems to imply the kind of knowledge which results from insight (vipassanā) ie that kind of knowledge of which bodhi consists; whereas ñāṇa is the understanding that arises from sense data and thinking. However we need to be careful to insist on this distinction because ñāṇa is being used here in the sense of vipassanā.

So ñāṇadassana would appear to be an elaborate, or poetic, way of referring to vipassana. "Knowledge and vision" is a good translation but it's worth considering synonyms in order to give a sense of it: for instance "recognition and noticing". I quite like this because knowledge and vision suggests a state, almost a fixed state - a vision is so often conceived of as a one off event; whereas recognition and noticing implies more of a process. If we read the compound differently we might consider the "knowledge from seeing" - c.f. K.R. Norman's interpretation of the compound aryasacca as "the truth of the noble ones" which I explore in my essay The Four Noble Truths.

Now bhūta is a very interesting word. It comes from a root bhū which means "to become". Bhūta itself is a past participle so it means: "grown, become, born, produced; nature as the result of becoming". (PED) We tend to associate bhū with our verb "to be", e.g. in the verb bhavati "he is, there exists". (Warder p.11) However in Buddhist circles "being" is more like "becoming". Being is not a state, but a process. This fundamental difference is often overlooked precisely because we use words derived from "be" and "exist" in translating Buddhist texts. In the past tense then, bhū, refers to the results of a process of becoming. In Buddhist this is everything which can be sensed and cognised in the ordinary way - although note, and I'll come back to this, the idea of distinct "things" is one that the Buddha seems to have been undermining in his teaching.

Yathā is a word which means "as, like, in relation to, after". In compounds it can mean "according to" for example yathākāmaṃ - "according to desire". It is used to create adjectives and adverbs. So when Ajātasattu is confessing to the Buddha that he has killed the good king Bimbisara, he prefixes the verb with yathābālaṃ yathāmūḷhaṃ yathā-akusalaṃ - i.e. the thing was done "foolishly, confusedly, and unskillfully".

Yathābhūta then must literally mean something like "according to what has become", or "like the become", or perhaps even "the nature of having been produced". Interpreting we may say that it refers to the functioning of the process of becoming. Recall that when Assaji meets Sariputta he described the Buddha's teaching this way:
Ye dhammā hetuppabhavā
tesaṃ hetuṃ tathāgato āha,
tesañca yo nirodho
evaṃ vādī mahāsamaṇo

Of those experiences [i.e. dhammas] that arise from a cause
The Tathāgata has told their cause,
And their cessation":
Thus the Great Samaṇa argues.
On several occasions (most notably in What is it that Arises in Dependence on Causes, 11.4.08) I have argued that what arises in dependence on causes is dhammas, which are mental phenomena, i.e. experiences. Not things note, but experiences. It seems to me that this is also what yathābhūta is referring to. The products of becoming are dhammas. If we take this position we avoid a lot of difficult entanglements with what "things" are and their ontological status. It would be best to leave the word "things" out of our definition.

So putting it all together we can now try to define yathābhūtañāṇādassana. It is the "recognition and noticing according to what has become", or perhaps alternatively "the knowledge from seeing the process of becoming". I believe that latter flows better and is more in keeping with Buddhist goals. We do not need to invoke the problematic "things" in translating the term, and we can thereby avoid a potentially disastrous misinterpretation. The Buddha, I insist, was asking us to look at our minds and how they work, and seems to me to have avoided ontological questions and ontology generally.

Bodhi is waking up to the process of becoming, the knowledge that what presents itself to our mind is conditioned and 'become'. If it was a merely a matter of noticing cause and effect in the world then Isaac Newton would have been a Buddha - perhaps no-one in Western history has been so intimately acquainted with cause and effect as he. But Newton was not a Buddha. The insight of the Buddha is more fundamental somehow.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the Buddha chose this multivalent word "dhamma" to stand for what presents itself to the mind as the word becomes overused and confusing. The idea that dhammas refer to "things in the world", or that impermanence is to be understood through observing the world as though it consists of impermanent "things" is a wrong view. When we say "things are impermanent" we have already gone too far down that road. We need to go back and examine what we mean by "things". When we say "things" we inevitably have in our minds something fixed - it is built into our grammar. It is unavoidable. (see Language and Discrimination) If we drop the language of "things" altogether we are on safer ground.

What we Buddhists are trying to see and know is the mental process of becoming - how our consciousness accepts, processes, and acts on information from our senses - ie how we come to know, the epistemological process. We build up a story about what we perceive and we fall into believing that our story is true and act on that basis. One only has to look at a random pattern of dots, or clouds in the sky, or shadows on a wall, to begin to see figures and faces - very often faces I find. That is the mind at work, making stories and trying to make out patterns. In the lower evolution, the biological species end of the process, this has value in that it helps to keep us alive and thriving. In the higher evolution, the spiritual individual end of the process, we have to begin to see through the stories.

It is pleasant experiences that we crave and grasp after, not things. It is the feeling of pleasure, or the feeling of aversion, that motivates us - and that feeling is a mix of the raw sense data, our interpretations of it based on experience, learning, and habit, and our responses to it. It is the way experiences come into being and pass away that we must know and see in order to be free.


(1) Upanisa is a Pāli word generally translated as "support", but my friend Dhīvan has pointed out to me that it is the same word as upaniṣa in Sanskrit and is therefore closely related to the word upaniṣad - the collective title for the late Vedic philosophical works which are also known as Vedanta, the end of the Vedas.

(2) My list of other references can be found in my essay: A Footnote To Sangharakshita's 'A Survey of Buddhism'.

image: macro water drop by Hypergurl.
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