An Examination of the Cognitive Status of Buddhist Teachings

An Examination of the Cognitive Status of Buddhist Teachings

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Buddhism is classed among the world’s major religions. The teachings of Buddhism can be traced back to its founder, Gotama Buddha, who proclaimed after a laborious search for the nature of the good life that he became enlightened regarding a certain reality that was not known to the existing authoritative traditions of his time. The essence of the Buddha’s enlightenment experience was formulated in the first sermon of the Buddha in the form of Four Noble Truths. In presenting the four noble truths the Buddha insisted that these truths were not among the holy teachings handed down in previous authoritative traditions and claimed that vision, knowledge, insight and illumination regarding them dawned on him.1 What the Buddha realized was described by him as profound, difficult to see, difficult to understand, but yet appeasing, pleasant, not obtainable by speculation, subtle and knowable by the wise.2 His insight into reality was also presented as a penetration into the ‘dependent arising’ nature of things (idappaccayatā pañ iccasamuppādo). It was around this core of the Buddha’s articulation of his enlightenment experience that Buddhism has evolved over the last two thousand five hundred and fifty years of its history, developing sometimes in widely divergent directions and taking multifarious religious and philosophical forms. The attempt in this enquiry is not to focus attention on all the numerous subsequent developments of the tradition based on how imaginative teachers of the tradition under different historical and cultural contexts understood the original message and interpreted it, but to focus attention on the significance of the Buddhist claim to a specific kind of knowledge. The Buddha not only claimed that he acquired new knowledge, but also assured that the same knowledge can be shared by others who follow the methods that he adopted for acquiring it. Many of his disciples, during his lifetime and after, claimed that they also attained it.

The kind of knowledge, that the Buddha is said to have gained is asserted to be far superior to other ordinary forms of knowledge that human beings are capable of acquiring. In the Buddhist tradition such knowledge has been qualified in evaluative terms as right knowledge (sammāñāõa), noble knowledge (ariyañāõa), liberating knowledge (vimuttiñāõa) and knowledge leading to the extinction of cankers of the mind (āsavakkhyañāõa). It is in this self-transforming nature of the knowledge that the characteristic difference between knowledge pursued in Buddhism and knowledge pursued in what is conceived as modern scientific activities lies. The four noble truths, dependent arising nature of things, the three characteristics of existence, kamma and rebecoming, Nibbāna, the distinction between what is morally right (kusala) and wrong (akusala), the various stages of contemplative development and purification of the mind are, according to Buddhism instances of such self-transforming knowledge.

In the context of pre-Buddhist religious and philosophical thought the Buddha is represented in the Buddhist canonical scriptures as having insisted on the significance of direct and personal knowledge in respect of matters pertaining to the good life. In the oft quoted Kālāma Sutta the Buddha rejected ten grounds that were commonly accepted by his contemporaries for determining the truth of a proposition or for seeking guidance regarding the moral life.3 Among the ten grounds rejected revelation, sacred scriptures, tradition, authority of venerated teachers, and speculative reason are some of the typical examples. All of them could broadly be classified into two categories as external authority and speculative reason. In the Saïgārava Sutta, when the Buddha was questioned about the ground on which he propounded the principles of a holy life, he distinguished between three groups of teachers who were known to him at the time and identified himself with the third group.4 According to the Buddha the first group consisted of the traditional Brahmanical teachers who believed that the teachings handed down in the sacred Vedic scriptures had the authority of divine revelation, and that those teachings alone were true, and everything outside them were false. The second group consisted of those who depended on reason and speculation and constructed worldviews on the basis of self-evident premises deducing from such premises certain logical consequences in the manner of philosophers belonging to the rationalist tradition in the history of philosophy. The Buddha pointed out that the result of such speculation is metaphysical dogmas and a plurality of mutually contradictory positions leading ultimately to interminable conflicts among people who cling to their own dogmas.5 The third group with which the Buddha identified himself consisted of those who depended on some kind of personally acquired higher knowledge. What is evident here is that the Buddha considered total dependence on the authority of tradition and the deliverances of speculative reason as unsatisfactory and insisted on the importance of direct personal knowledge.

While noting the inadequacy of traditionally handed down authoritarian teachings and speculative reason the Buddha is also known to have cautioned people against certain emotional and subjective factors that distort people’s vision into truth. In the Ca ïkī Sutta he points out to a learned Brahmin youth, who was well versed in Vedic learning, and was firmly convinced that all the truth that is needed to be known is contained in the sacred scriptures, that if not even a single person in the successive generation of teachers who have traditionally accepted those teachings had not known personally and directly those teachings to be true, the whole successive line of teachers are comparable to a string of blind men of whom neither the foremost, the middle nor the hindmost sees.6 To claim that one has strong faith in those teachings is not sufficient to guarantee the truth of the propositions contained in them. In this context the Buddha points out that it is reasonable for a person to maintain “Such is my faith” (evaü me saddhā hoti) but not to claim “This alone is true and everything else is false” (idam eva saccaü mogham aññaü). He also pointed out that a body of teachings on which one has unwavering and strong faith may turn out to be empty and false, while other teachings that do not have the backing of such strength of faith may turn out to be in accordance with reality (susaddahitañca hoti tañ ca hoti rittaü tucchaü musā, no ce susaddahitaü hoti tañca hoti bhūtaü tacchaü anaññathā). Religious beliefs, like most other beliefs that people hold could also depend on various subjective influences such as a person’s individual desires, aspirations, propensities likes and dislikes. In the Caïkī Sutta the Buddha used the term ruci, meaning individual preference as a factor that influences someone to accept some belief as true. However, people have a tendency to believe what they like to believe and this does in no way safeguard the truth. In the same context the Buddha speaks about a common tendency in people to develop a bias in favor of a preferred dogma (diññ hinijjhānakkhanti) that one has contemplated upon. None of these methods guarantees that what we arrive at by means of them is true.

The Buddhist tradition specifies as characteristics of the teaching that the truths of Buddhism are to be witnessed here and now (sandiññ hiko), that the practice in accordance with the truths give immediate results (akāliko), that they are open to anyone who is willing to come and see (ehipassiko), that they progressively lead towards the realization of the intended goal (opanaiko), and that they are to be personally verified by wise men (paccattaü veditabbo viññūhi).7 In a discourse of the Buddha called the Minor Discourse on the Elephant’s Footprint (Cū¯ ahatthipadopama Sutta) a procedure by which a tentative hypothesis should be confirmed in the light of one’s own experience is laid down.8 The Buddha discouraged people’s tendency to rush to conclusions on any matter without thoroughly investigating it. A person who enters a forest inhabited by elephants might see a large footprint of an elephant and hastily conclude that it must be the footprint of a large bull elephant The Buddha points out that there may be dwarf she elephants who have broad feet, tall thin she elephants having broad feet, she elephants with a small built but with long trunks or tusks and broad feet. Given such possibilities, a definite conclusion should be reached only when the fact is known by direct experience.

There is a logical difference between wanting to believe and knowing, wanting something to be true and something being true. However, if one claims to know that something is true, and the claim is valid, then it must be true. If one claims that something is the content of a strong belief, the possibility is still open that such content may be false even if one’s claim to the strength of one’s belief in it is valid. Given these conditions relating to knowledge specified in the Buddhist teachings, an issue that needs clarification in the light of some of the contemporary philosophical analyses of the concept of knowledge is whether the Buddhist claim to knowledge passes the test of validity. If it does, it follows that there are varieties of knowledge outside the domain of the empirical sciences that may be conceived as religious knowledge, and this would be of no mean consequence to the life of human beings.

The search for knowledge in Buddhism is evidently directed towards the attainment of a specific goal. It is in that sense that it is qualified as ‘noble knowledge’ or ‘emancipating knowledge’. It is because of this reason that the ‘noble knowledge’ that it seeks has religious significance. In contemporary empiricism and positivism cognitive status is denied to religious utterances. It is not only the cognitive status of religious utterances that came to be questioned in empiricism and positivism, but also of moral judgments. The paradigm of cognitive judgments was restricted to the sphere of science. The criterion for the demarcation of the distinction between science and nonscience was considered as the cognitive undecidability of the non-sciences in which category were included all metaphysics, religion and moral judgments. Insofar as Buddhism belongs to the family of religions its doctrinal content can be considered as comprised of religious statements. Buddhism does not merely present a body of theoretical statements about man and the world that may be considered as statements of putative facts. It also consists of a body of teachings connected with the making of moral judgments. According to the empiricist and positivist concept of knowledge, none of this can be considered as genuine knowledge. They may belong to the sphere of metaphysics or to that of value judgments both of which contain no genuine knowledge. They are cognitively meaningless. The consequence of such denigration of ethical language and religious language was relegating them to the sphere of non-rational belief and faith in contrast to what is conceived as rational science to which the role of discovering new knowledge and truths about the real world came to be exclusively assigned. According to this view, knowledge pertaining to religion and ethics is possible only within the confines of the methods of empirical science, and hence the only truths that are discoverable about religion are those that the sociologists and anthropologists are capable of discovering.

According to Buddhism, there are different modes of knowing relative to the purpose for which each mode is pursued. There is no attempt in at least the early teachings preserved in the Buddhist canon to adopt an absolutist position regarding knowledge. Buddhist scriptures use a variety of terms derived from the generic verbal root jñā ‘to know’ expressing differences in modes of knowing by varying the prefixes attached to the verbal root. The terms that occur most frequently in the scriptures are the following:

saü + jñā = saññā (noun), sañjānāti (verb) vi + jñā = viññāõa (noun), vijānāti (verb) abhi + jñā = abhiññā (noun), abhijānāti (verb) pari + jñā = pariññā (noun), parijānāti (verb) pra + jñā = paññā (noun), pajānāti (verb)

Out of these five modes of knowing, Buddhism considers the latter three as related to its goal of liberation. For the purpose of liberation special modes of knowing have to be cultivated. The first two mentioned above indicate ways of knowing that have no special relation to the Buddhist goal of liberation. Those cognitive experiences are common to all human beings who have unimpaired senses and the capacity to interact with the external world through their senses. They are considered as the initial cognitive responses of a living being to the external world. Cognition is the starting point of affective and emotive responses. Buddhism considered it necessary to transcend the first two modes of knowing in order to transform the nature of our affective and emotive responses. Therefore those modes need to be subjected to scrutiny by the application of the latter kinds of knowing in order to facilitate the kind of noble knowledge or self-transforming knowledge that Buddhism aims at.

We have noted that philosophers who are inclined to reserve cognitive status to the formal and the empirical sciences do not wish to grant cognitive status to religious statements. However, the implication of the Buddhist concept of knowledge is that it avoids the kind of absolutism characteristic of such a philosophical analysis of the concept of knowledge. It need not follow from the Buddhist concept of knowledge that there is no knowledge in the empirical sciences, that all modern science is illusion, and that genuine knowledge is found only in the intuitions (whether it is mystical, metaphysical or otherwise will become clear in the course of this discussion) of Buddhism. What Buddhism denies is that the knowledge that human beings have acquired by the pursuit of modern science is liberating knowledge. It is not knowledge that helps in any way to transform the inner nature of human beings.

Those who pursue the modern sciences maintain on their own accord that it is not their aim to impart any nowledge to human beings regarding what they ought to do. Questions regarding ‘good’, ‘right’ and ‘ought’ are believed to be outside the sphere of scientific knowledge. Science provides us with the knowledge of means to attain certain ends, but does not engage in providing us knowledge regarding whether the ends are right, good or ought to be pursued. Religion and ethics deal with good ends to be pursued, and seek knowledge pertaining to what is right and ought. The recognition in Buddhism of the possibility of different modes of knowing does not preclude a genuine and committed pursuit of the latter kind of knowledge.

One might be tempted to interpret the different modes of knowing recognized in Buddhism as implying the existence of different objects of knowledge that correspond to each mode of knowing. This interpretation however, is unwarranted. Buddhism does not seem to agree with the Platonic doctrine which distinguishes between sense experience and intellectual intuition according to which sense experience provides us with only opinions while intellectual intuition provides us with knowledge of reality. Plato believed that the transient phenomena grasped by the senses lack reality while the real objects are in a transcendental metaphysical world. The real, according to Plato, could be apprehended only by intellectual intuition. The real is permanent and immutable. The Buddhist search for knowledge does not engage in the search for immutable entities. Buddhism points only to different modes of knowing but not to different objects of knowledge. The objects of knowledge are the same for all modes of knowing. The difference lies only in the way the same objective existence is known. The Platonic theory of knowledge which seems to have been followed by many rationalistically inclined philosophers has inevitably led to absolutistic conclusions. Buddhism steers clear of absolutism.

It was stated above that the term saññā represents in Buddhism a certain mode of cognitive response to the world. It is considered to have a sensory origin. Although no exact equivalent to the term can be found in the English language, contextual uses of the term suggest that it has connotations such as sense-consciousness, perception, discernment, recognition, assimilation of sensations, awareness, conception, idea, notion, and sign.9 Under the Buddhist analysis of the physical and the psychological components of a person saññā is recognized as one of the four psychological components. It is explained in Buddhist psychology as a product of the interaction between the six senses, enumerated as the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind and their respective objects, material forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile things and thoughts or mind objects. In the standard description of the cognitive process occurring in the Pali canon, the dependent arising of saññā is stated as follows:

“Depending on the eye and material forms there arises visual consciousness. With the coming together of these three, arises sense impingement. Depending upon sense impingement arises sensation. What one senses, is cognized in the saïïā way.”10 (note that the term saññā has been left untranslated).

The scriptures regularly explain saññā as that mode of cognition which is consequent upon sensation, arising from the sensory impingement which occurs in instances when the respective sense consciousness arises due to the interaction between a particular sense organ and a corresponding sense object. Thus three things have to come together for sensory impingement (phassa) to take place. They are the sense faculty (indriya), the sense object (ārammaõa) and the sense consciousness (viññāõ). Saññā is explained as the process of concept formation and identifying the external reality in terms of concepts. Identifying the content of visual experience for instance in terms of colors blue, yellow, red, white etc. is part of the activity of cognition in terms of saññā. The activity of saññā seems to depend on repeated perceptual experience and the mind’s ability to formulate abstract ideas and recognize the sensory environment in terms of such ideas. Saññā forms the basic psychologically constructed material for thought. Insofar as saññā consists of what the mind has constructed on the basis of the raw material of experience given in sense perception it is considered to be alterable. Saññā is not fixed and unalterable. All conceptual structures that are based on sense experience having some relation to practical purposes are considered in Buddhism as belonging to the domain of saññā. Saññā can also be altered by adopting various techniques that alter the nature of human consciousness. According to the Buddhist account of various forms of meditative experience saññā that is associated with the ordinary level of sense consciousness could be transcended and alternative saññā be established by transforming the nature of one’s consciousness about existence. At the dayto- day level of ordinary waking consciousness the interaction with the world of sense experience takes place in terms of a conception of it as providing a basis for sense gratification. In higher levels of meditative consciousness existence is not conceived in that manner. The Buddhist description of the gradual cessation of saññā proposes that by the volitional determination of the concentrated and composed mind cultivated by meditation techniques it is possible to drop the ordinary way of conceptualizing existence by making the phenomenological experience of reality subtler and subtler at each stage of progress in meditation until finally all forms of conceptualization ceases.11 According to this description of phenomenological experience, there are three progressive levels of saññā represented as (1) saññā at the level of sensuous consciousness (kāma saññā), (2) saññā at the level of mere form (rūpa saññā) without sensuous consciousness, as in the four meditative states of mind from the first to the fourth meditative absorption (jhāna) and (3) saññā at the level of formless experience (arūpa) wherein no ideas or notions of space, matter or a plurality of finite objects remain in consciousness. The most refined experience of consciousness in this hierarchy of meditative experience is called the experience of neither perception nor nonperception (nevasaññānāsaññā). However, Buddhism does not identify even the subtlest kind of conceptual experience as identical with ultimate reality. They are yet conceptual constructions. They arise dependently and being conceptual constructions that arise dependently, they are not permanent realities. The unreality of these phenomena and the possibility of transcending them all are indicated by the final step in the meditative cultivation of the mind recognized in Buddhism. This is referred to in the Buddhist scheme of meditative training of the mind as the experience of cessation of sensation and perception (saññāvedayitanirodha).

The Buddha is represented in the scriptures as having practiced all the then existing methods of mind development in the search for what is ultimately real. Most religious teachers of the time pursued the search for an ultimate essence in existence that could be the permanent basis of ultimate bliss and happiness. Whatever is transient and subject to change was considered by them as unsatisfactory, and they turned inwards to seek for some spiritual essence in man which transcends change and mutability. They were impressed by the various subtle experiences of meditative culture of the mind and interpreted them as the ultimate experience of the immutable essence of things, the reality of the inmost self which they conceived as the eternal Ātman. The Buddha, however, was not impressed by this approach, and being disenchanted with those meditative experiences, took a different direction in his search for liberating knowledge. It is on this basis that the Buddha introduced the method of insight meditation in order to supplement the already existing methods of attaining a high level of mental tranquility through the practice of cultivating the subtler forms of saññā.

Saññā from the perspective of the Buddha, does not ensure any liberating knowledge. It functions as the initial step in evoking emotional responses to the perceptual world. Clinging to saññā has to be avoided by the person who is on the path to liberation. Saññā provides the raw material for emotionally colored thought processes. Obsessive thought processes tinged with unwholesome emotions could be the result of remaining at the saññā level of cognitive experience. As stated in the scriptures:

“One thinks about what one cognizes in the saññā way. Obsession (papañca) follows from what one thinks about. Due to this (obsession) a person gets assailed by the ideas of conceptual proliferation with regard to the past present and future material forms which are cognizable by means of visual consciousness.”12

According to Buddhism, the unenlightened individual is incapable of transcending the saññā level of cognitive experience. As long as one is unable to transcend it one remains in bondage to misery. It becomes the source of all internal psychological conflicts as well as conflicts that get expressed in the external world of social interaction. The Buddha points out that a person who is unattached to saññā(conceptual constructions) is freed from bonds.13 The Mūlapariyāya Sutta, shows that the saññā response to any category of sense experience that includes the four material elements to which the whole of material reality is reduced in the conceptual construction of material reality, all the data of the senses (what is seen (diññ ha), what is heard (suta), and whatever is sensed by the remaining senses including the mind (muta), meditative experiences such as the experience of the ‘sphere of the infinity of space’ (ākāsanañcāyatana) and the rest, and even the highest spiritual category conceptualized as Nibbāna lead to bondage and misery. As stated in this discourse:

“…a monk who is not learned, who has not seen the noble ones, who is not proficient in the noble teaching, cognizes the earth element in the saññā way. Having cognized the earth element in the saññā way, he thinks of the earth element, he thinks through the earth element, he thinks of himself (as coming from) the earth element, he thinks of the earth element as belonging to himself and he delights in the earth element. What is the reason for this? I say that it is because he has not cognized the earth element comprehensively (in the pariññā way)”14.

The Sutta applies it to all the conceptual categories and shows how the cognitive response described as saññā leads to bondage if the data of the senses are not scrutinized with the other higher modes of understanding that conduce to liberation.

In the same Sutta, it is pointed out that the cognitive response of the person who is on the path of higher training and is aspiring to the supreme security from bondage, cognizes the same phenomena in a different way. Here, a term signifying a different mode of cognition, namely abhijānāti is used. It was already noted that the term abhiññā has been used to refer to a specific mode of cognition in Buddhism. The prefix abhi which qualifies the verbal root jñā ‘to know’ has the meaning ‘superior’, ‘higher’ or ‘extra’. Such knowing transcends the mundane limits of knowing and is directly connected with the attainment of a spiritual goal. It is also important at this juncture in our discussion to be reminded of the point previously made that the Buddha claimed to have laid down the principles of a higher life on the basis of what he had directly and personally realized by means of higher cognition (sāmaü yeva abhiññāya).

In the Buddhist tradition six kinds of such supercognition have been identified. They consist of certain extraordinary psychic capacities acquired through the development of mind training. Out of the six kinds of super-cognition, the last one is most significant for Buddhism because it is the basis of knowing that ensures final liberation and is called ‘knowledge of the eradication of influxes’ (āsavakkhayañāõa). Four of the remaining five are considered as extra-sensory capacities to gather more information about the phenomenal world. They consist of (1) clairvoyance (dibbacakkhu), an extended capacity of the visual sense to see things not visible to the normal physical eye and beyond the normal range and focus of the physical eye; (2) clairaudience (dibbasota), an extended capacity of the auditory sense to hear sounds that are not audible under normal conditions; (3) retro-cognitive memory (pubbenivāsānussatiñāõa), an extended memory capacity enabling one to trace back one’s memory experiences across a large range of previous lives in the cyclic series of births and deaths; (4) the telepathic capacity to directly grasp the thought processes of another person (paracittavijānana). The remaining higher knowledge refers only to a kind of knowing how to perform certain extra-ordinary acts due to the cultivation of psychic potential and is called iddhividha. Under this capacity are included such feats as levitation, moving out of the body, creation of mind made bodies, walking on water, penetration through solid obstructions like rocks and walls etc. The Buddha recognized these as natural causal outcomes of mind training, and recognized their value for the understanding of the higher potential of the mind as well as for the gathering of more information about the phenomenal reality that is not open to the ordinary physical senses. In recognition of these superior forms of cognition that the Buddha as well as some of his immediate disciples claimed to possess, the Buddha wished his disciples to call him a person possessed of threefold vision tevijjo). T