Omniscience and the Rhetoric of Reason - Selections
CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION
Omniscience—the quality or state of infinite, all-encompassing knowledge—has proved a vexing notion for philosophers who proclaim a commitment to reason. Problems with the conception abound, not the least of which is how an ordinary person possessing limited knowledge could ever verify the omniscience of some allegedly omniscient being. However many things a being may appear to know, it nonetheless remains conceivable that there exist still other things of which that being is ignorant. In the face of this recognition, is it not simply folly for a philosopher to attempt to defend omniscience? This thorny issue lies at the heart of the present book, since Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla, the Buddhist authors whose arguments in defense of omniscience we examine here, are not only aware of the conundrum, they fully endorse its basic premise. That is, these philosophers fully accept that the omniscience of one being cannot be verified by another who is not omniscient. Yet they also emphatically maintain that the doctrine that the Buddha is (or was) omniscient can be entirely justified through rational means.
This book aims to discover how this can be, at least with regard to the myriad arguments concerning omniscience in two Indian Buddhist texts of the eighth century: the Tattvasaṃgraha written by the Buddhist monk Śāntarakṣita, and its commentary, the Tattvasaṃgrahapañjikā, written by Śāntarakṣita’s direct disciple, the monk Kamalaśīla. Śāntarakṣita’s work is an encyclopedic verse composition consisting in 3,645 metered stanzas, while Kamalaśīla’s prose commentary, to which I will refer simply as the Pañjikā, runs to more than 1,000 pages in modern printed editions. although the extant Sanskrit manuscripts and Tibetan translations preserve the two works separately, the modern editions display them together, with the verses of the so-called “root text” inserted interlinearly in accord with the commentary’s explicit and pervasive “indications” (pratīka). The presence of these indications attests to the close commentarial nature of Kamalaśīla’s work, and I take them, together with the near certainty that Kamalaśīla was indeed Śāntarakṣita’s disciple, as a warrant for referring occasionally (mainly in the notes) to the two texts as a single, though admittedly bipartite, work. Taken as a whole, these two massive works comprise a sustained apology for the rationality of Buddhism, including the ultimate Buddhist goal of attaining omniscience.
Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla’s arguments in defense of omniscience in these works are in many ways bewildering. First, the arguments are complex, and they are found in several locations, not all of which are included in the lengthy final chapter explicitly devoted to the topic. Second, the arguments are generally expressed in the highly technical idioms of Indian epistemological discourse, thus requiring solid grounding in that elaborate style of reasoning. Third, and most confusing, the authors present what seem to be contradictory visions of omniscience in different parts of the works. Sorting out the nuances of these various positions is pretty tough. On the one hand, it requires a careful examination of a large number of complex arguments scattered throughout the texts. On the other hand, it also requires a more general investigation into the authors’ understanding of the nature of rationality, argumentation, and religious authority, since all three of these are profoundly implicated in their arguments concerning omniscience. But this challenging task turns out to have an unexpected reward, for by attending to the broader conceptions of rationality, argumentation, and religious authority that inform the reasoning about omniscience in these works, we come to discern a rhetoric of reason in the argumentation overall. It is insight into this rhetoric of reason that is the true fruit of the labor in this book. For it is only once we have understood the deeply rhetorical nature of reason for these Buddhist thinkers that their arguments about omniscience—arguments that are in some respects the pinnacle of all rational inquiry in their philosophical system—begin to make sense.
The Rhetoric of Reason
I first developed the idea of a rhetoric of reason as a result of my encounter with Chaïm Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca’s theory of argumentation known as the new Rhetoric. a fundamental tenet of this theory, which the authors articulate in their groundbreaking work, La nouvelle rhétorique: traité de l’argumentation, is that central to all forms of argumentation is the enactment of a dialectical process in which some speaker or author seeks to win over an audience. Whether an argument is formal or informal, concerned with facts or with values, coldly calculating or hotly impassioned, it always involves a speaker or author who, through discourse, tries to make an audience accede to a particular point of view. an argument’s audience thus holds enormous power over the argument’s author, since to persuade or convince an audience, the author must present arguments to which that audience can be made to accede. The centrality of the audience in argumentation thus can never be negated, even in the case of highly rational or rationalized discourse. To reflect this idea of the centrality of the audience, which I felt was essential to Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla’s own theories of rationality and argumentation, I coined the term the “rhetoric of reason” and used it in the title of my doctoral thesis.
Later, I discovered the work of James Crosswhite, a philosopher and professor of English, who also draws on the new Rhetoric and who argues persuasively in his book The Rhetoric of Reason: Writing and the Attractions of Argument for the rhetorical nature of all forms of human reasoning. I found that Crosswhite’s understanding of rhetoric as “the only viable way to explain the possibility of reason itself ” resonated strongly with my reading of the premises underlying certain Buddhist approaches to rationality and reasoning, and that it bolstered my reading of Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla as embracing a rhetoric of reason in the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā. In making his claim about rhetoric, Crosswhite begins from the premise that rhetoric “is different from any other field because rhetoric is concerned with the way discursive authority operates wherever it is found.” as such, the study of rhetoric has a kind of priority among all fields and disciplines, insofar as rhetoric always plays a critical role in the production of knowledge, no matter the field or the discipline. But rhetoric is not somehow foundational, since rhetoric is neither impervious to critique nor epistemologically prior to the construction of discursive authority. In short, rhetoric, like all forms of discourse, is also rhetorically constructed. Crosswhite compares his understanding of rhetoric to Habermas’s view of philosophy as simultaneously interpreting and acting within communicative practices. Likewise, rhetoric involves both the study of discursive authority and the simultaneous participation in the rules of such authority at particular times and places. It thus can never be absolute.
The notion of a rhetoric of reason, then, points primarily to the ways in which philosophy and philosophical argumentation, both of which put a premium on rationality and truth, are nonetheless themselves also circumscribed by particular norms of authority and particular discursive practices which have themselves been rhetorically constructed. a rhetoric of reason does not reject reason as unattainable, but neither does it futilely attempt to cordon reason off from the rest of human discourse. Instead, a rhetoric of reason attempts, as precisely as possible, to attend to the question of discursive authority in relation to questions about such things as what is reasonable, rational, justified, true, or right in a variety of contexts. Crosswhite sums up as follows:
A rhetoric of reason does not understand itself as describing the necessary a priori features of all reasoning, to which the rhetorician has some kind of priviledged incontestable access. Rather, in its attempt to offer a general account of what happens when people argue, it understands itself as offering an account which is better for particular purposes, and more convincing in the context in which it is offered, than are competing accounts. That’s all.
On my reading of these Buddhist thinkers, Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla would definitely assent to this characterization of their philosophical enterprise, though they would also be likely to emphasize their feeling that their own accounts are indeed better and more convincing for particular purposes than are rival accounts. But by itself, this high degree of confidence in their own analysis does not mitigate their commitment to an account of the authority of reason as a contextual product of particular discursive practices. While their frequent talk of certainty (niścaya) lends a veneer of absolutism to their work, there is good reason to hold that for Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla, certainty, like all conceptual constructs, is primarily of pragmatic and not absolute value. For these reasons, which we will explore further below, I maintain that these thinkers engage in a rhetoric of reason, even if they do not explicitly claim to do so.
Specifically, I see two ways in which Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla may be said to employ a rhetoric of reason in the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā. The first way corresponds closely to Crosswhite’s understanding outlined above. Here, the idea of a rhetoric of reason depends on a reading of the term rhetoric as signifying the contextual aspect of all communicative discourse—including discourses concerning what counts as a rational argument. The term rhetoric in this instance draws attention to the fact that there is no neutral playing field upon which arguments may be advanced, but rather that the field of discourse is always being negotiated by the speaker or author and the audience for any given argument. In the works under study in this book, we find Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla continually adjusting their premises, reasoning, and language to accord with the premises, reasoning, and language of a wide variety of audiences. In part, they do so to increase their chances of winning over these diverse addressees. as such, their practice can appear to be a kind of sophistry. But contrary to this, I argue that Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla do not engage in this behavior solely in order to win debates. Rather, they do so because they understand reason and truth to be highly conventional affairs that emerge only in contexts created mutually by author and audience. This philosophical insight not only justifies their method of shifting premises, it actually requires it for reason to function. The indispensability of the author-audience relationship for the very existence of rationality is the first and most important element in Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla’s rhetoric of reason.
The second way in which Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla may be said to embrace a rhetoric of reason corresponds to a more common connotion of the term rhetoric—one that is perhaps more familiar than is the study and construction of discursive authority. On this reading, the term rhetoric points to what Crosswhite calls the “different protocols and styles of reasoning [that] hold sway in different disciplines.” That is, we regularly speak of the rhetoric of a given group, discipline, or profession and, when we do so, we mean the ways in which that group, discipline, or profession attempts to shape and define a particular field of discourse through its use of particular forms of language and argument. Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla engage in a rhetoric of reason insofar as they make consistent appeal to reason (yukti) as the highest arbiter of belief, and they do so within a context of a style of formal reasoning (nyāya) that places extremely high value on reason and rational analysis. Whatever the particular argument being advanced, whomever the particular audience being addressed, the authors’ underlying premises always seem to include the idea that reason justifies their arguments and their conclusions. To emphasize this, the authors regularly supplement their general argumentation with formal proof statements, using a highly stylized and prestigious style of reasoning for presenting arguments. This prestigious style of reasoning is based in their understanding of the pramāṇas, the instruments or means by which reliable knowledge may be attained. In this book, I use the translation “means of trustworthy awareness” to refer to the pramāṇas; other common translations include “valid cognition,” “means of valid cognition,” “instrumental awareness,” “instrument for warranted awareness,” and so on.
In utilizing the technical idioms of this prestigious form of reasoning rooted in the pramāṇas, the authors appear to enter a kind of denaturalized field of discourse in which arguments and conclusions attain an aura of self-evidence and objectivity. We will have occasion to examine quite a few such arguments in the book, but our general purpose will not be to evaluate the soundness or validity of these formal proof statements per se. Rather, we will focus instead on how the authors use such formal proof statements as part of a larger rhetorical strategy aimed at convincing others of the overall rationality of the doctrines they endorse. The authors thus engage in a rhetoric of reason through their insistence on the privileged status of reason, especially when it is encoded in highly stylized proof statements.
These two ways of reading the notion of a rhetoric of reason—one with an emphasis on the conventional nature of rhetoric, the other with an emphasis on the certainty produced by reason—appear in some ways to be in tension. The first reading, that of a rhetoric of reason, involves the understanding that reason, like all forms of communicative discourse, is neither self-evident nor absolute, but is rather contigent on a context created mutually by author and audience. The second reading, that of a rhetoric of reason, involves the idea that reason is the highest and best arbiter of belief, and also that it is possible to demonstrate which beliefs reason justifies through the presentation of formal, seemingly self-evident, objective proof statements. Are Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla aware of this tension, and if so, do they attempt to resolve it? I do think that Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla are aware of the tension, but I hold that they see the tension as more apparent than real. This is so because they understand the apparent self-evidence of the formal proof statements of their rational discourse as rooted in the mutual conditioning of author and audience. Describing how language functions, Śāntarakṣita says:
Indeed, we hold all verbal transactions to be similar to the statement “There are two moons” uttered by a person with eyes distorted by cataracts to another person who is like himself.
In other words, all discourse—including formal rational discourse—is ultimately flawed, as are the concepts it produces. Words and concepts do not refer in any direct or unambiguous manner to anything that can be verified independently of those very words and concepts. Still, words and concepts function (at times quite well) due to the presence of a shared context and conditioning—conditioning that is itself a shared form of ignorance. The situation is thus similar to that of two people with the same eye disease who are able to agree on the presence of two moons. Even categories of philosophical thought such as reason, truth, and validity can function without any form of absolute reason. Reason functions as if it were absolute, but only so long as our shared ignorance remains.
This position has a powerful resonance with the new Rhetoric, especially with its understanding of all argumentation as necessarily imprecise due to the vagueness of language. Philosophy requires a rhetorical conception of reason since philosophy, like all discourse, is “elaborated not by setting out from an intuition of clear and distinct ideas, but setting out from common language, always confused and susceptible to a large number of interpretations.” although the precise explanations for why language is confused will differ, there is a common recognition that for philosophical argumentation and analysis to take place, people must agree to start with premises that are inevitably tainted by bias and confusion. Clearly, there can be nothing absolute or self-evident in this process. Still, because conditioning is shared, agreement on premises and terms can be attained, such that a speaker or author may be in a position to “gain the adherence of minds” when addressing an audience. and if the speaker or author is not able to win over an audience, he or she always has the option of going back and revisiting the premises and terms in an attempt to find common ground to move the argumentation forward.
There is, however, one possible exception to the general principle that reason is contextual and rhetorically constructed in both the Buddhist texts and the new Rhetoric. The exception is not, as some might initially imagine, an appeal to direct perception or the “given” of sense-datum philosophers. Such appeals exist and possess a strong aura of self-evidence, but they are still not absolute for either the Buddhists or the new Rhetoricians. appeals to experience remain conditioned, both rhetorically (insofar as they are discursive appeals) and through other forms of conditioning. The one possible exception to the rhetorical conception of reason in both systems comes in the form of what might be described as analytic reason. In the case of the Buddhist thinkers, the one possible form of reason that may not be rhetorical is that which is based on the principle of noncontradiction; for the authors of the new Rhetoric, it is reason that is entirely mathematical and that can be expressed through the symbols of formal logic. Both systems appear to grant such analytic forms of reason an exalted status, although in both cases it remains difficult to say whether these forms of reason can remain insulated from from the critique of contingency that applies to reasoning as carried out in ordinary language. Since all human reasoning requires ordinary language to function, the existence or nonexistence of a type of pure analytic reason that is not contingent on a rhetorically constructed context is more or less moot: even if such reason exists, human philosophers cannot proceed without constructing a field of discourse that includes confusion, bias, and ignorance, and that proceeds through the mutual construction of discursive authority through the interaction of author and audience.
Reason, Rhetoric, and Omniscience
Although Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla understand reason to be rhetorical in this way, this does not lessen their commitment to it. In fact, they see rational analysis as critical to the fundamental Buddhist enterprise they also embrace: the eventual elimination of the primordial ignorance (avidyā) that pervades the mindstreams of all ordinary beings. This primordial ignorance is not just an absence of knowledge but involves a fundamental error or misperception of reality. When perfectly accomplished, the eradication of this fundamental error results in perfect knowledge, which the Buddhist tradition calls omniscience (sarvajña). The Buddha is necessarily one who has attained this kind of perfect knowledge, and so he is called the Omniscient One (sarvajña). This same can also be said for any and all buddhas in the past, present, and future. This much is relatively standard Buddhist doctrine, and in line with their general commitment to reason, Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla hold that the doctrine that the Buddha is (or was) omniscient can and should be justified by reason. The Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā contain extended argumentation in defense of this doctrine, nearly all of which is grounded in the notion that it is a rational doctrine that can be defended through rational means.
In comparison with many of the other Buddhist doctrines they defend, however, including such Buddhist ideas as impermanence, selflessness, and even the complicated exclusion theory of linguistic reference (apoha), it is extremely difficult to pin down exactly what these authors think omniscience is on basis of the evidence in their texts. Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla present more than one model of omniscience in these works, while providing only subtle and indirect clues as to which version of omniscience they ultimately endorse. not surprisingly, scholars have often been perplexed at the apparently contradictory presentations of the Buddha’s omniscience found in the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā. Once we recognize that Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla embrace a rhetorical conception of reason, however, their multiple positions on omniscience and the apparent contradictions appear far less troublesome. The key to our understanding is the authors’ use of a technique that I call the “sliding scale of analysis.” This technique allows that a philosopher may, under certain circumstances, be rationally justified in arguing from diverse and even contradictory metaphysical premises, even within the confines of a single work. The sliding scale of analysis reflects the authors’ rhetorical conception of reason, since it is rooted in the notion that rational discourse can and must change in accordance with the premises of the audience addressed.
Although recognizing the widespread use of the sliding scale of analysis in these works helps resolve some issues, it also raises difficult questions about the rhetorical nature of the rationality that these works valorize. Most of these questions cannot be fully answered in this book because they touch on presuppositions so fundamental that they would need another entire work to address them adequately. For example, one could inquire to what degree the sliding scale of analysis operates by playing on the tension mentioned above, whereby the standards of rationality by which arguments may be judged actually depend for their reliable operation on the continued presence of a degree of primordial ignorance in the author’s (and audience’s) mind. Similarly, one might also ask whether the sliding scale of analysis implies a kind of pragmatic theory of truth, whereby different things can be true for different people at different times. Or, one might consider whether we are dealing here with a form of practical reasoning in which truth per se is not the authors’ primary concern. These are extremely important questions, and we will continue to touch on them in the pages to come. The primary focus of the investigation, however, will remain the authors’ understanding and rational defense of omniscience, and especially the way that rational defense relies upon a rhetoric of reason in both of the senses described above.
Omniscience is a particularly fruitful doctrine to examine in this context for several reasons. First, omniscience has a special connection to the rhetoric of reason through its association with religious authority. That is, as these texts state and as is corroborated in other Buddhist and non-Buddhist works, there is a clear supposition on the part of most Indian philosophers that the primary motivation for undertaking a demonstration of the Buddha’s omniscience is to provide an unshakable foundation for the truth of the Buddhist scriptures. After all, if one were able to demonstrate that a particular person knew everything, then one could also feel comfortable accepting whatever that person has said to be true. But if this is an accurate description of the authors’ motives in undertaking to demonstrate the Buddha’s omniscience, would it not then diminish their rhetoric of reason? Why would a person who values reason as the highest arbiter of truth care about grounding scriptures? Would not reason alone suffice for deciding all matters? The close connection that omniscience has with religious authority brings such questions into high relief, and presents a conundrum that will occupy us throughout much of this book: if the motive for undertaking a demonstration of the Buddha’s omniscience is not to establish his religious authority, then why bother to demonstrate it at all? A possible solution—and one for which I argue in this book—is that the authors wish different audiences to come away with different answers to the problem of reconciling reason and religious authority. This connects again to the rhetoric of reason, in that one answer or argument does not fit all audiences. It also opens the door to asking about political, social, or institutional motivations that may lurk behind the arguments for the Buddha’s omniscience.
Another important way that omniscience is related to the rhetoric of reason concerns the authors’ conception of omniscience as the proper goal of all rational and judicious persons. A result of this conception is that when Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla argue for the possibility of human beings attaining omniscience, they may be seen also as arguing for a special way of life that is specifically designed to lead to this particular goal. Omniscience is thus not just one doctrine among many for these thinkers but rather the highest good and final destination of all those who seriously value and practice rational inquiry. When the authors claim to have demonstrated the Buddha’s omniscience through reason, they at the same time claim to have shown the rational justification for the path that has omniscience as its goal. They say, in effect, that the Buddhist path is a rational path, grounded in reason, which any rational person will be bound to follow if only he or she comes to see its rationality for him or herself. This underlying argument corresponds to Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca’s conception of rhetoric, since those authors hold that an essential aspect of all argumentation involves persuading an audience to adopt a particular action, or at least to open themselves to the possibility of adopting such an action in appropriate circumstances. One way of reading this bipartite Buddhist work, then, is essentially as an apology for Buddhist practice, designed to convince rational persons to take up the Buddhist path with the eventual goal of attaining omniscience themselves.
The above assessment of the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā as offering an apology not just for Buddhist doctrines but also for Buddhist practice brings into relief the question of whether these texts should be considered works of religion, philosophy, or something else altogether. Matthew Kapstein has recently addressed a similar question in relation to these and other Buddhist texts from around the same period, asking in particular what it can possibly mean to speak of the works as “Buddhist philosophy.” noting that many of the works in question contain formidable arguments that can be compared with arguments from the Western philosophical tradition, Kapstein nevertheless maintains that the presence of these arguments is not the only or even the most important warrant for speaking of these works as Buddhist philosophy. Instead, he invokes Pierre Hadot’s reading of philosophia in ancient Greece as “a way of life” whose goal is a kind of personal transformation brought about through a variety of “spiritual exercises” (exercices spirituels). In my earlier doctoral thesis, I similarly invoked Hadot, since, like Kapstein, I think that attention to the larger question of how the practice of philosophy contributes to the formation of persons is critical to understanding the nature of any form of philosophy. In the case in question, there is good reason to hold that the practices enjoined by the text centrally include the practice of rational inquiry, and that the arguments that make up the bulk of the works are themselves a part of that practice.
In the case of ancient Greek philosophia, the parallels to Indian Buddhism are strong. Following Hadot, we can understand philosophia to be “a form of life defined by an ideal of wisdom,” where wisdom is “a state of complete liberation from the passions, utter lucidity, knowledge of ourselves and of the world.” Wisdom is the goal of this form of life, and approaching or achieving wisdom brings about a transformation of the person that involves liberation from things such as “worries, passions, and desires.” To achieve such a transformation, the philosopher undertakes particular exercises of reason “designed to ensure spiritual progress toward the ideal state of wisdom,” much as an athlete trains to win a competition or a doctor applies a cure.
Although these exercises of reason may be called meditations, Hadot argues instead for calling them “spiritual exercises” on the grounds that they are exercises that “engage the totality of the spirit.” according to Hadot, all ancient Greek philosophical schools practiced such exercises. This is because they all agreed that
. . . man, before his philosophical conversion, is in a state of unhappy disquiet. Consumed by worry, torn by passions, he does not live a genuine life, nor is he truly himself. all schools also agree that man can be delivered from this state. He can accede to genuine life, improve himself, transform himself, and attain a state of perfection. It is precisely for this that spiritual exercises are intended.
Hadot maintains that these exercises are “unlike the Buddhist meditation practices of the Far East,” since they are not linked to a specific corporal posture and are instead “purely rational, imaginative, or intuitive.” But despite this disclaimer, I see nothing in the above description of philosophy to which Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla would be likely to object. On the contrary, it seems to me they would see his statement as close to encapsulating their own understanding of what they themselves do. For these Buddhists also recommend and engage in specific exercises of reason—including, and especially, the act of rational inquiry itself—as a central element in a way of life in which one seeks to transform oneself through developing and perfecting wisdom in an effort to remove suffering, that unfortunate state of ignorance and “unhappy disquiet.”
For Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla, this way of life is the Buddhist path (mārga). The goal is intellectual and moral perfection, a state of perfect wisdom and compassion called “awakening” (bodhi) or “perfect and complete awakening” (samyaksaṃbodhi). This path, like philosophia, entails of a way of being in the world whereby a judicious person, the counterpart of the Greek philosopher-sage, seeks to cultivate wisdom by every possible means in order to attain the maximal degree of wisdom attainable by a human being. This also entails that, as part of the cultivation of wisdom, a judicious person on the Buddhist path must be unrelenting in subjecting his or her ideas and experiences (his or her “thought”) to rational, philosophical analysis. The high degree of confidence that the authors place in the power of rational analysis to remove confusion and ascertain reality leads them to accept that through intensive thought or deliberation (cintā), a person may attain certainty (niścaya) concerning the way things really are.
It is important to remember that while rational analysis may lead to unshakable certainty concerning the nature of reality, this certainty is still a rhetorically formed linguistic or conceptual construct. As such, this “certainty” is (paradoxically) still connected with ignorance. It is therefore also not the final goal of the path, which involves the complete removal of primordial ignorance and its attendant suffering. Since the removal of ignorance does not take place at the level of language or concepts, the ultimate goal of the path cannot be achieved by rational analysis. Rather, the removal of ignorance requires a transformation of the very structure of the mind itself, which in turn requires one to engage in a process of meditative cultivation (bhāvanā). Yet rational analysis still plays a critical role, because it allows one to rule out a whole range of incorrect views and replace them with views that while not able to directly encapsulate reality, can nevertheless be ascertained as in accord with reality. On the basis of such views, one then undertakes the meditative cultivation that gradually eliminates the distortions of primordial ignorance (and hence, also, all “views”), such that one’s thought and experience come to be in accord with reality. Eliminating ignorance brings about the elimination of suffering (duḥkha)—a term that could arguably be translated as “unhappy disquiet.”
Thinking of texts like the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā as works of Buddhist philosophia and thereby highlighting structural similarities with the practice of philosophy in ancient Greece thus allows us to more clearly see the deeply practical elements of the Buddhist philosophical enterprise. It does not, of course, mean that Buddhist and Greek philosophy are the same nor that the differences between them are unimportant. As Vincent Eltschinger has recently argued in a lengthy article responding both to Kapstein’s use of Hadot and to my own earlier use of Hadot in my doctoral thesis, scholars of Buddhism remain woefully uninformed concerning the details of the social and historical conditions informing the practice of Buddhism, including what we have come to call Buddhist philosophy, in ancient India. Unlike Hadot in his study of philosophia in the Hellenistic world, scholars of Buddhism have barely any reliable knowledge concerning the institutional realities and other social conditions under which monks like Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla lived and worked. Nor can we be certain about the actual spiritual exercises in which they engaged. These gaps in our knowledge render problematic any assessment of their work as analogous to the philosophia of the ancient world, apparent similarities aside.
Eltschinger further emphasizes that the spiritual exercises of the Hellentistic world differ from those Indian Buddhist practices that we might be tempted to term “spiritual exercises” in Hadot’s sense of the term. For example, the spiritual exercise of “training for death,” varieties of which Hadot takes as central to several ancient Greek schools, would no doubt look different had it developed in a context, such as that of ancient India, in which philosophers contemplating death envisioned “myriads of births to come.” While this is true, Kapstein nevertheless has little difficulty pointing to a number of Buddhist texts—“path texts” like the Bodhicaryāvatāra of Śāntideva (eighth century)—in which, to adopt Hadot’s idiom, “training for death is related both to scrupulous attention to the moral quality of one’s actions and to a general meditation on the nature of all conditioned entities as fleeting and impermanent.” These are general characteristics of the Hellenistic practice of training for death, and the doctrine of future births does not negate this, even if it does change how such a practice might affect one’s thought about the present life.
The point is not to find the same or similar spiritual exercises in all these disparate philosophical systems and thinkers. It is to see that these particular Buddhist works advocate a form of praxis that includes and even glorifies rational analysis, at least to a certain extent. Thus, as Kapstein notes, these Buddhists are perhaps more like Aristotle than they are like Socrates, Plato, or Plotinus. And while it is true that Aristotle, with his emphasis on theoria, is not at the center of Hadot’s works, while Plato and the others are, this does not mean that Aristotle should be excluded from the larger scope of “philosophy-as-spiritual-exercise.” Indeed, as Kapstein explains:
. . . Hadot does have a position on Aristotle, and it is one that, perhaps to some degree echoing Heidegger, stresses our mistaken tendency to read theoria as synonymous with what we now mean by “theory,” and accordingly to position theoria over and against what we call “practice.” For Hadot, theoria in Aristotle’s sense is itself the most highly valued practice; it is, in fact, that practice through which human beings may come to participate in an activity that is characteristically divine. Where Aristotle departs from Plato is not in valuing theoretical knowledge above practice, but in valuing a specific type of practice, theoria, and the way of life that it entails, over the life of political practice that had been so dear to his master.
Although Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla clearly differ from Aristotle in numerous respects, there is at least this important point of continuity: that for both traditions rational analysis and inquiry are forms of spiritual exercises in Hadot’s sense of the term, the correct practice of which conduces toward the highest good (differently conceived though this may be).
Rightly seeking to explore this claim further, Eltschinger makes reference to two distinct Buddhist schematics that involve rational analysis. The first is the widespread schematic of three successive kinds of wisdom: wisdom arisen from study (śrutamayīprajñā); wisdom arisen from deliberation (cintāmayīprajñā); and wisdom arisen from meditation (bhāvanāmayīprajñā). In this schematic, which we find throughout the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā, it is the middle factor, the wisdom arisen from deliberation, that bears on the theme of rational analysis and inquiry. The second schematic, found mainly in the treatises of the Yogācāra school of Mahāyāna Buddhism but apparently absent in the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā, is that of five “sciences” (vidyā). These are the science of logic (hetuvidyā); the science of grammar (śabdavidyā); the science of medicine (cikitsāvidyā); the science of arts (śilpakarmasthānavidyā); and the science of the inner spirit (adhyātmavidyā). Eltschinger notes that commentators such as Sthiramati consider the first four sciences to be “worldly” (laukika). The science of logic, like that of grammar, is considered to have three main aims: to defeat opponents, to increase faith among those who possess it, and to convert those who do not have faith. From this, Eltschinger concludes that “Buddhist epistemologists denied any soteriological relevance to epistemology as such, which, they contend, has no other raison d’être than to discard the heretics’ misguiding epistemological doctrines.” He then cites a passage from the Tattvasaṃgrahapañjikā as evidence for this claim. Although the passage does mention refuting opponents, and thus does attest to a polemical function for the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā, I can see no reason to read it as indicating that logic and reasoning have no soteriological relevance. Indeed, it seems to me that even if we focus just on the role of logic to bring about the conversion of non-believers, we must acknowledge its soteriological role.
Eltschinger discusses the passage from the Tattvasaṃgrahapañjikā alongside another from Dharmakīrti’s Pramāṇaviniścaya. In this passage, Dharmakīrti contrasts a conventional means of trustworthy awareness (sāṃvyavahārikapramāṇa) with an ultimate one (pāramārthikapramāṇa), stating those who are confused regarding the conventional means of trustworthy awareness mislead the world (visaṃvādayanti lokam). The ultimate means of trustworthy awareness, described as stainless and free from error, is realized by those who have assiduously cultivated the wisdom arisen from deliberation. Eltschinger summarizes his understanding of this passage as follows:
Since conventional pramāṇas are instrumental in the path to liberation insofar as the whole process of cintā-mayī-prajñā resorts to them, Dharmakīrti considers it his duty to refute these misconceptions so that people are not led astray. In other words, epistemology or hetu-vidyā as a theoretical concern has no direct bearing on the path to salvation, but misconceived pramāṇas ensure one’s failure to achieve liberation, and hence epistemology is a necessary science.
Elsewhere, Eltschinger has shown that Yogācāra treatises understand the wisdom arisen from deliberation to involve four kinds of reasoning (yukti), one of which in particular (upapattisādhanayukti) may be correlated with the science of logic (hetuvidyā) from within the schematic of the five sciences. But if this is the case, then it is difficult to understand his reading of Dharmakīrti. After all, if the science of logic is integral to the cultivation of the wisdom arisen from deliberation, and if that wisdom is in turn critical to the realization of the ultimate means of trustworthy awareness, does it really make sense to say that the science of logic has “no direct bearing” on the path to awakening?
The answer to this question may well lie in our assessment of the authors’ own view of their epistemic situation. That is, in linking the Pramāṇaviniścaya passage with the passage from the Tattvasaṃgrahapañjikā mentioned earlier, Eltschinger states that “Dharmakīrti and Kamalaśīla agree in denying that epistemology itself has any soteriological value whatsoever provided one is not under the sway of misconceptions” (emphasis added). But this is precisely the point: on my reading, Indian Buddhists like Śāntarakṣita, Kamalaśīla, and Dharmakīrti maintain that we all are under the sway of misconceptions as long as we have not obtained perfect and complete awakening. Thus, while the application of logic and reasoning does serve the purpose of refuting the grossly inaccurate views of opponents, it also has a therapeutic function of helping Buddhist practitioners both to remove gross misconceptions and to begin to correct subtle ones. As Kapstein aptly notes, for Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla, the mistaken views to be counteracted through the application of rational analysis “are not just others’ views of themselves, but that, potentially at least, they are views that any of us may harbor, whether explicitly or not, with respect to ourselves.” Just because the reasoning in question is conventional does not make it ineffective or soteriologically irrelevant.
Returning to the question, then, of whether and how to apply Hadot’s analysis of ancient Greek philosophia to the works in question, we can see that much depends upon our understanding of the nature of the reasoning at work in these texts. Eltschinger seems to want to separate the highly technical Buddhist treatises of the logico-epistemological tradition, such as the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā, from other forms of Buddhist life and practice. He then advocates that it is these other forms of Buddhist life and practice—what he calls “Buddhism itself ”—and not the treatises and ideas that Western scholars have tended to label as Buddhist philosophy, that most resemble the philosophia of ancient Greece. The texts of the logico-epistemological school are not concerned with the nondiscursive ethical and soteriological praxis that is revealed through the Buddhist scriptures. Instead, they serve a purely polemical function since, apparently, the Buddhist authors have no misconceptions remaining to be put to rest. But this assumes a degree of hubris on the part of authors like Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla that belies their own statements concerning both the limitations and the utility of concepts and language, both necessary to the science of logic. The Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā may be considered as works of Buddhist philosophia insofar as they advocate the use of reasoning as a practice and a way of life that contribute to leading one away from misery and to the attainment of the highest human goal: perfect and complete awakening, buddhahood, omniscience.
The Contours of Omniscience in India
The defense of omniscience in the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā arises within a complex landscape of competing views and arguments concerning omniscience cutting across the religious traditions of ancient and medieval India. Diverse traditions from ancient times assert and defend some form of omniscience for their founders, sages, or deities. In the Pāli nikāyas of early Buddhism, we read that the nigaṇṭha nātaputta—the founder of the Jain tradition known to his followers as the Jina or Vardhamāna Mahāvīra—as well as the teacher Pūraṇa Kassapa both claimed to possess complete and continuous knowledge. The Jains in particular upheld a very strong version of omniscience for their founder, and Jains were among the earliest systematic defenders of the notion, probably inspiring some later Buddhist arguments. Patañjali in the Yoga Sūtra allows that a yogi may become omniscient, although doing so does not seem to be necessary for the attainment of liberation (mokṣa). The Sāṃkhyas also give omniscient status to Lord Īśvara (roughly “God,” though not necessarily the creator of the world in this system). In the wider Brahmanic literary and religious traditions, great sages and gods from the Veda onward are often said to be all-knowing or all-seeing, although it is not clear whether such epithets are to be understood literally or in some other fashion. naiyāyikas hold that Īśvara, the creator of the world, is by nature omniscient and that his omniscience is established by virtue of establishing his creatorship. Later Buddhist traditions, both in Pāli and Sanskrit, extol the Buddha’s omniscient and inconceivable knowledge. In later Hinduism, major deities like Śiva, Viṣṇu, and Durgā are all described as omniscient, and they are given as examples of omniscience in traditional lexicons. In short, omniscient beings abound in India in ways that they do not in the West.
But critics of omniscience can also be found in India. The Buddha himself is seen to reject certain formulations of all-encompassing knowledge in the early strata of the Pāli nikāyas. Although later Pāli sources uphold certain other forms of omniscience, and Mahāyāna treatises frequently tout the dimensions of the Buddha’s omniscience as inconceivable, it is nonetheless clear that Buddhism has a history of ambivalence toward the stronger forms of omniscient knowing. In the era just prior to Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla, the Mīmāṃsaka philosopher Kumārila Bhaṭṭa (sixth or seventh century) launches a formidable attack on the idea, and it is primarily in response to this attack that the bulk of the argumention concerning omniscience in the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā is composed. Around the same time as well, the Lokāyata sceptic Jayarāśi rejects even ordinary knowledge claims, to say nothing of claims concerning the existence of supersensible realities like a buddha’s omniscient mind. Dharmakīrti (seventh century), an important predecessor and intellectual influence for Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla, is similarly well known for his remarks dismissing the significance of supersensible knowing—stating that if seeing far is the mark of wisdom, then we might as well worship vultures—though his precise position on omniscience remains something of an open question. There is thus a great diversity of opinion regarding omniscience in India, and many of these opinions are developed in conversation with rival models or attacks.
Terms for omniscience in the Indian texts are also diverse, though in general they are similar to the Latin term omniscience in that they are compound words made up of a component denoting some form of totality (e.g., sarva; sabba) and a component denoting some form of knowing (e.g., jña; ñu). Note that such terms may denote both omniscience and the omniscient being; abstract endings (e.g., -tva) may be added when the discussion is specifically focused on the state of omniscience and not on the omniscient being. The nature of the terms highlights the need to understand the nature of both the totality and the knowledge in question when considering the precise meaning of omniscience for a given text, thinker, or tradition.
This is by no means obvious, however, since extreme differences in the understanding of both components may be found in the diverse religious and philosophical traditions of India. Consider, for example, Jan Gonda’s research on the term sarva in early Vedic texts, which indicates that omniscience would originally have meant something like “knowledge that is complete” in the sense of not lacking anything essential, as opposed to a literal “knowledge of all things whatsoever.” Similarly, in the Sabba Sutta, the Buddha defines “all” or sabba as the twelve sense media (āyatana): the eye and visual forms; the ear and audible sounds; the nose and smells; the tongue and tastes; the body and tangible objects; the mind and mental objects. While the implications of this claim are not entirely obvious, one possibility is that on this definition of the term all, omniscience could turn out to be a kind of exhaustive knowledge of the taxonomy of being, such that by knowing all possible categories of things one is considered omniscient. Another possibility is that the meaning of “all” is unique to each individual, changing from person to person.
Whatever the case, it is clear that specifying the nature of omniscience for a given tradition, thinker, or text requires that we also understand the ontological and epistemological premises upon which that concept of omniscience depends. As philosopher of religion Roy Perrett has argued, these differing premises lead to various kinds of restrictions to the scope of the totality that is known in omniscience, as well as to the ways it may be known. Taking the Western tradition first as an example, Perrett argues that the scope of God’s omniscient knowledge will be restricted due to “certain fundamental philosophical and theological beliefs about the nature of God and of the world.” He goes on to show that by restricting the scope of the term all in the phrase all-knowing in various ways, it is possible to come up with a range of degrees of omniscience to combat philosophical or theological problems. As examples, he delineates the concepts of logical omniscience, total omniscience, and inevitability omniscience, each of which corresponds to a different kind of omniscience that might be attributed to God. He then sets out to show that restrictions to the scope of omniscience can also be found in the Indian traditions, although the nature of the restrictions differ from those in the West, due again to differences in the ontological and epistemological premises at play.
Indeed, the contours and philosophical problems associated with omniscience in India are different from those associated with omniscience in the West. In the first place, there is a stark difference in assumptions concerning the kinds of beings who may be or become omniscient, with many Indian traditions allowing that humans may become omniscient and Western traditions generally limiting omniscience to a single creator God. Further, unlike in India, omniscience in the West is not generally something beings can attain but is rather an essential and inalienable property of the divine. The philosophical problems entailed by accepting omniscience appear distinct as well. Thus, while Indian thinkers have been mostly unperturbed by anything like the notorious conflict in Christian theology between divine omniscience and human free will, they were greatly disturbed by the conundrum of how an omniscient being could speak—an issue that does not seem to have struck Western theologians at all. An area for further research is the question of whether and how such differences in the approach to omniscience in India and the West can be related to differences in the approach to knowledge: whereas the Western tradition generally understands knowledge to be propositional and to involve justified true belief, the Indian tradition tends to understand knowledge as a kind of trustworthy or faultless awareness, and this seems to impact the types of problems that theorists discover when considering the possibility of an omniscient mind.
Foundational to all discussions of omniscience in India is a basic understanding concerning knowledge and liberation whereby knowledge or awareness (jñāna) of reality (tattva) is incompatible with all moral and intellectual faults (doṣa). These faults, in turn, are the principal causes of suffering, which for many theorists continues throughout innumerable lifetimes in the seemingly endless cycle of repeated birth, death, and rebirth known as saṃsāra. Since the goal of religious practice is ultimate release or liberation (mokṣa; apavarga)—in other words, everlasting freedom from suffering—the goal of religious practice requires the elimination of all moral and intellectual faults, including all forms of ignorance and misconception. The main way to eliminate these faults is to gain accurate knowledge of reality. In this way, Indian religious philosophy assigns correct knowledge of reality an exalted position in the quest for liberation, and controversies among Indian thinkers generally have more to do with disputes about the nature of knowledge and the nature of reality than they do with this widespread and basic structure. The central relevant questions for Indian religious philosophers then become: What is reality? How is it known? When does knowledge of reality reach its perfection so that faults are eliminated and freedom from suffering is obtained? Should such perfection of knowledge be called omniscience, and if so, what does the term imply?
Omniscience in the Pāli Texts and the Theravāda Tradition
Answers to these questions are extremely diverse in India, and even within the Buddhist tradition we find conflicting models of the Buddha’s perfect knowledge of reality. The earliest layers of the Pāli canon do not use the epithet omniscient one (sabbaññū) for the Buddha, although the term becomes common in late canonical works and in the commentarial (aṭṭhakathā) literature. More typical in the early Pāli works are passages in which the Buddha denies that he or anyone possesses the kind of all-encompassing knowledge in which it is possible to have simultaneous and continuous knowledge of everything in a single moment of cognition. The Buddha’s proclamation in the Kaṇṇakatthala Sutta is most definitive: “There is no recluse or brahman who knows all, who sees all, simultaneously; that is not possible.” A well known passage from the Tevijjavacchagotta Sutta furthermore has the Buddha vigorously rebuff the notion that he claims to be omniscient in the sense in which “knowledge and vision are continuously and uninterruptedly present” before him. Instead, he says, his wisdom amounts to a “threefold knowledge” (tevijja) consisting of the following: (1) he can recollect any of his former lives (pubbenivāsa) in all their details whenever he pleases; (2) he can use his divine eye (dibbacakkhu) to see the wanderings of beings in saṃsāra whenever he likes; and (3) he abides in the knowledge that he has realized mental freedom (cetovimutti) and the freedom of wisdom (paññāvimutti) through the destruction of the defilements (āsava). Although such knowledge is clearly extraordinary, it is not obviously an instance of omniscience. There are plenty of realities (for example, the number of bugs in the world) not covered by this threefold knowledge. and it is also clearly not a simultaneous knowledge of all things (for example, rocks, planets, or stars) in all times and places.
Nothing in this or any other text indicates that the Buddha’s threefold knowledge differs in any way from the threefold knowledge attributed to the Buddha’s enlightened disciples, the noble ones or arhats (Pāli arahant). But other passages do suggest that the Buddha’s knowledge greatly surpasses that of his arhat disciples. In the parable of the siṃsapā leaves, the Buddha holds up a few leaves and asks his disciples which are more numerous: the leaves he holds or the leaves in the siṃsapā grove in which they sit. The disciples answer that the leaves in the grove are more numerous. Just so, the Buddha proclaims, “the things I have directly known but have not taught you are numerous, while the things I have taught you are few.” The Buddha goes on to explain that he has not taught those many things because they are irrelevant to the path. What is important, he stresses, is knowledge of the so-called nobles’ four truths, and so that is what he has taught and what the disciples must realize. The nobles’ four truths, which the Buddha is said to have taught in his first sermon, consist in four salvifically crucial truths: (1) that ordinary life is characterized by suffering; (2) that suffering has a cause, known as thirst or craving; (3) that suffering may cease through the elimination of its cause; and (4) that there is an eightfold path which when followed can bring about the cessation of suffering through the elimination of its cause. Complete knowledge or realization of these four truths is very frequently presented as the heart of the Buddhist path to liberation.
There is thus a kind of pragmatism that seems to permeate the early Buddhist writings, and that makes itself felt in a variety of ways. We see, for example, that the Buddha famously refuses to answer certain speculative questions since they are not conducive to liberation. Although the Buddha’s silence on these questions seems to have prompted rivals to question his authority, Buddhists have remained adamant that their teacher’s refusal to answer the questions is rooted not in his ignorance but in his knowledge of their uselessness for his followers. Similarly, in the Cūḷasakuludāyi Sutta, although the Buddha appears to indicate an ability to know the future, he emphasizes that such knowledge is unimportant, counseling his disciple udāyin as follows:
But let be the past, udāyin, let be the future. I shall teach you the Dhamma: When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases.
Here the Buddha characterizes his core teaching not in terms of the nobles’ four truths but rather in terms of dependent arising (paṭiccasamuppāda; Sanskrit pratītyasamutpāda). The doctrine of dependent arising holds that all conditioned things arise from causes, and that the absence of a cause necessarily involves the absence of an effect. Since the nobles’ four truths are the most salvifically relevant of the innumerable causal patterns that make up saṃsāra, the central message remains the same: liberation from saṃsāra requires penetration into the causal nature of reality. Omniscient knowledge is not required.
Despite such passages, however, the early Pāli texts do leave room for a kind of omniscience that, while not necessary for liberation from saṃsāra, may nonetheless be attributed to the Buddha. Obviously, this cannot be the kind of omniscience that entails simultaneous and continuous knowledge of all things, since the Buddha rejects this type of knowledge in the Kaṇṇakatthala Sutta cited above. But the Buddha’s claim to far-reaching knowledge in the parable of the siṃsapā leaves, together with other passages in which he indicates that he knows everything that is seen, heard, sensed, and cognized in the universe, lends support to later canonical texts like the Paṭisambhidāmagga, which include omniscient knowledge (sabbaññutāñāṇa) as one of the six unique forms of knowledge (asādhārañāṇa) that only the Buddha possesses. In this and other similar works, the Buddha’s omniscient knowledge is extremely far ranging and includes knowledge of all conditioned and unconditioned things; knowledge of everything past, present, and future; and knowledge of everything that has been seen, heard, sensed, or thought by gods or humans. Toshiichi Endo, whose study of the Buddha in the Theravāda tradition is the most comprehensive to date, sees in such passages a process of “apotheosis or exaltation” of the Buddha. K. N. Jayatilleke has a similar view, holding that “neither did the Buddha claim omniscience nor was omniscience claimed of the Buddha until the very latest stratum of the Pāli Canon . . . .” Several scholars have noted that the increased interest in omniscience in Buddhist texts may well reflect rivalry with the Jain tradition, which holds omniscience to be an indispensible attribute of their founder, Vardhamāna Mahāvīra.
Indeed, it is difficult to avoid the impression of a struggle within the Buddhist ranks on the question of how to reconcile scriptural passages in which the Buddha claims to know everything or is extolled as omniscient with other passages in which the Buddha appears to deny knowing everything in a single moment of cognition. Eventually, a model of omniscience emerged that seems to have satisfied many mainstream Buddhist commentators. I call this model capacity omniscience. On this model, which we find articulated both in the Milindapañha and by Vasubandhu in the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, one may be omniscient in the sense that one may attain an unlimited capacity to know whatever one wishes simply by directing one’s attention to the object in question; omniscience is not a matter of knowing all things simultaneously. according to this model, the Buddha may be called “all-knowing” by virtue of the fact of his unlimited capacity to know any knowable thing to which he directs his attention, just as fire may be called “all-consuming” by virtue of its capacity to burn all combustible things and not because it actively burns everything all at once. The sixth-century Theravādin scholar Dhammapāla endorses capacity omniscience in his commentary on the fifth-century scholar Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, where he adds an interesting twist by stating that the Buddha may in fact turn his attention to “the entire range of dhammas,” thus directly knowing all things simultaneously. In other words, the doctrine of the Buddha’s capacity omniscience does not preclude that the Buddha also possesses knowledge of all things whatsoever. Following Perrett, we can refer to this later doctrine as total omniscience, and we can see Dhammapāla’s move to embrace it as part of a larger movement toward the exaltation, or apotheosis, of the Buddha. As we will see, the doctrine of total omniscience becomes increasingly widespread and difficult for Buddhists to reject or temper as time goes on.
Mahāsāṃghika and Sarvāstivāda Perspectives on Omniscience
One of the earliest surviving positive accounts of total omniscience is that found in the Mahāvastu, a Buddhist Sanskrit treatise connected with the Mahāsāṃghika school and dating in its earliest strata to perhaps the second century B.C.E. as is well known, the Mahāsāṃghika school maintains that the qualities associated with the Buddha are all supramundane (lokottara) and as such are untinged by the defilements of the world. For example, the Buddha’s conception is immaculate, and while he appears to engage in ordinary human activies such as eating, bathing, getting sick, and getting old, he does not do so in reality. In keeping with this exalted vision of buddhahood, his omniscience is total in terms of its scope and also in terms of its immediacy. According to the Mahāvastu, the Buddha knows all things whatsoever, and he knows them by means of “wisdom connected with a single moment of cognition” (ekacittakṣaṇasamāyuktayā prajñayā). although this material has not been well studied, Zhihua Yao has made an important start in his book on reflexive awareness (svasaṃvedana; svasaṃvitti), where he coins the term instantaneous omniscience to refer to the knowledge predicated of the Buddha in the Mahāsāṃghika and related schools. On Yao’s reading, the Mahāsāṃghikas are able to uphold this kind of instantaneous omniscience in part because they also maintain that the mind is capable of knowing itself.
In contrast, Yao explores the view of the Sarvāstivāda abhidharma, a school known best for its doctrine maintaining the existence of past, present, and future. Citing Kātyāyanīputra’s Jñānaprasthāna (first century B.C.E.) Yao notes that the instantaneous total omniscience upheld by the Mahāsāṃghikas is not possible for the Sarvāstivādins, since without a doctrine of reflexive awareness, at least two moments of mind would be required for knowledge of all dharmas to occur: one moment for knowing all things apart from the mind and its associates, and a second moment for knowing the mind and its associates. at the same time, the Sarvāstivāda abhidharma seems quite comfortable posting an awareness of all conventional dharmas, though it understands this awareness to require multiple moments. Yao calls this model the gradual model of omniscience, and argues that it can only be maintained when past and future are accorded the same reality as the present, such that “the present awareness can take the previous awareness as its object and still consider this previous awareness as itself.” In addition, this omniscient awareness is considered to be defiled. This is so since it is understood to be conventional. An undefiled awareness of all dharmas consists of the knowledge of the nobles’ four truths in all their aspects, a view that Yao attributes to the Vaibhāṣika school as well as the Sarvāstivāda. The view that omniscience requires multiple moments seems also to have been shared by the Pudgalavādins, whose views on the topic are represented and refuted by Vasubandhu in the appendix to his Abhidharmakośabhāṣya.
Mahāyāna Developments in Theories of the Buddha’s Omniscience
The theories outlined above—many of which deserve much greater study than they have received to date—provide the backdrop for the new theories of omniscience that emerge within the Mahāyāna (“Great Vehicle”) schools of Indian Buddhism. as is by now well understood, Mahāyāna Buddhism should not be considered as a singular movement or a unitary phenomenon in India. Just as within the non-Mahāyāna schools, enormous variation exists within the Mahāyāna, and these variations extend to the presentation of the Buddha’s omniscience. The formulations of omniscience we find in Mahāyāna texts reflect the new metaphysical and epistemological concerns that are characteristic of the Mahāyāna. We also see an increasing emphasis on the Buddha’s omniscience as a mark of his superiority over his enlightened disciples and an increasing use of the epithet Omniscient One (sarvajña). Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla are part of the later stream of Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism, and they consciously adopt Mahāyāna rhetoric and dogmas throughout their work. But their approach to omniscience is unique to their particular synthesis of the epistemological, Yogācāra, and Madhyamaka schools of thought, as we will explore in the next section below.
Other Mahāyāna formulations of omniscience were also in play. One of the best-known, though not necessarily well understood, models is found in Maitreya’s Abhisamayālaṃkāra, a commentary on the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā, an important Mahāyāna sūtra. This formulation of omniscience is further codified in the commentaries, including the Abhisamayālaṃkārāloka of Haribhadra—a likely contemporary of Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla—and the Abhisamayālaṃkāravṛtti of Ārya Vimuktisena. A distinguishing feature of the Abhisamayālaṃkāra is its presentation of three kinds of omniscience: knowledge of all aspects (sarvākārajñatā), knowledge of the path (mārgajñatā), and knowledge of everything (sarvajñatā), each of which is held to be obtained by a different kind of Buddhist adept. The root text of the Abhisamayālaṃkāra is divided into eight topics, which are described as the three kinds of omniscience, the four methods of realization, and the final result, the last of which is the dharmakāya (“Dharma body”) of a buddha. Chapter 7 of the present text takes up the fourth method of realization, the “realization in a single moment,” or ekakṣaṇābhisaṃbodha, a topic that could be connected with the discussions between the Sarvāstivādins and Mahāsāṃghikas mentioned above. It seems, however, that the main commentators understand this realization in quite different ways. In any case, the scheme with the three forms of omniscience does not appear in the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā, despite the presence of a number of passages in Haribhadra’s Abhisamayālaṃkārāloka that appear to parallel Kamalaśīla’s Pañjikā.
Another significant Mahāyāna approach to omniscience is found in several texts associated with the Yogācāra stream of Indian Buddhist thought, including the Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra, the Buddhabhūmi Sūtra, and their commentaries. This approach conceptualizes a buddha’s omniscience in terms of four distinct, but interacting, kinds of awareness: mirror-like awareness (ādarśajñāna), awareness of equality (samatājñāna), discriminating awareness (pratyavekṣājñāna), and accomplishing awareness (kṛtyānuṣṭhānajñāna). According to the commentaries, mirror-like awareness is connected with a buddha’s dharmakāya or svābhāvikakāya (“essence body”); awareness of equality and discriminating awareness are manifestations of a buddha’s sāmbhogikakāya (“enjoyment body”); and the accomplishing awareness is identified with a buddha’s nairmāṇikakāya (“emanation body”). Like the theory of the buddha bodies, the theory of the four awarenesses posits that these are not separate realities but rather all aspects of a single reality. Again, despite Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla’s association with Yogācāra epistemological traditions, this model of omniscience is not found in the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā.
Models of Omniscience in the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā
All the models of omniscience considered above were likely present to a greater or lesser degree in the intellectual milieu in which Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla composed these treatises. The authors consider several models in the works, offering sustained argumentation in support of two models and a more cursory, but ultimately stronger, endorsement of a third model. Their arguments for these distinct models of omniscience are made in different contexts and for different audiences in accord with the authors’ sliding scale of analysis and their rhetorical uses of reason.
Although the authors refer to the model we dubbed capacity omniscience above, it is not one of the models they most ardently defend. Instead, their strongest argumentation is devoted to a defense of the models of omniscience to which we will refer in this book as dharmic omniscience and total omniscience. All of the arguments for these two types of omniscience are found in the final chapter of the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā, which is famous for its treatment of the topic. But ultimately the authors also endorse a third model of omniscience to which we will refer as spontaneous omniscience. The arguments for this model of omniscience occur in the twenty-third chapter, which is dedicated not to a treatment of omniscience but rather to the question of the existence of external objects. Their relatively cursory consideration of this model, in conjunction with its less prominent placement in the text as a whole, accounts for the lack of attention that this model has received in scholarly treatments of omniscience in these works to date.
The model of dharmic omniscience emphasizes the Buddha’s knowledge of salvifically crucial realities such as the nobles’ four truths and dependent arising. This model strongly resonates with the passages in the early Pāli texts that stress not the Buddha’s knowledge of a great many irrelevant items but his knowledge of that which would allow his disciples to eliminate ignorance and achieve liberation. Much later, Dharmakīrti takes a similar tack in his Pramāṇavārttika as well as in his commentary on that work, the Svopajñavṛtti. There, Dharmakīrti appears to be responding to attacks to the Buddha’s omniscience that have come to be associated with the Mīmāṃsaka Kumārila Bhaṭṭa. One of Kumārila’s main claims is that human beings are incapable of directly knowing the supersensible yet salvifically crucial realities known as Dharma—that which leads to the highest good—and its opposite adharma. While direct knowledge of these is impossible, indirect knowledge can be obtained through the authorless words of the eternal Veda. Dharmakīrti, in contrast, wants to show that human beings are capable of directly knowing all soteriologically significant realities, which for him as a Buddhist means that humans can directly know the nobles’ four truths in all their aspects.
Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla closely follow Dharmakīrti in this as in many other matters, and in the final chapter of the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā, the structure of their arguments for omniscience mirrors closely the structure of the arguments for the Buddha’s trustworthiness (prāmāṇya) or authority in the second chapter of Pramāṇavārttika. While Dharmakīrti does not call this knowledge omniscience, Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla do. We can refer to this model as dharmic omniscience, since the emphasis is on the Buddha’s complete knowledge of Dharma in the sense of everything necessary for the removal of ignorance and the attainment of the highest good, freedom from saṃsāra.
The second model of omniscience that Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla defend, total omniscience, refers to an understanding in which the omniscient being can in some fashion be said to have simultaneous knowledge of all things whatsoever. Although some version of total omniscience is found in nearly all the major treatises of the Mahāyāna stream of Indian Buddhism, the details can vary considerably. Simultaneous knowledge of all things whatsoever requires a very precise delineation of the referent for “all things,” and different Buddhist schools give highly divergent accounts. In the final chapter of the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā, the authors argue mainly from what Kamalaśīla calls a Sautrāntika perspective, in which objects of knowledge are both real and, for the most part, external to the mind. They also occasionally argue from a Yogācāra or Vijñānavāda point of view, wherein external objects do not exist. The consideration of how a buddha can know all things simultaneously necessarily varies depending on the metaphysical premises from which the consideration is undertaken, and in keeping with their rhetorical conception of reason, Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla offer arguments for total omniscience from both these perspectives; they even allow for multiple approaches to the problem within each perspective. At the same time, they continually emphasize the priority of dharmic omniscience, since that is what establishes the authority of the Buddhist tradition.
If the ultimate rejection of real external objects is a hallmark of the Yogācāra stream of Mahāyāna Buddhism, then the rejection of real objects of any kind is a hallmark of the Madhyamaka stream. Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla are closely associated with both schools of thought, and although they do not explicitly argue from the Madhyamaka perspective in these works, we find that the model of omniscience they ultimately defend, spontaneous omniscience, is one that takes into account this lack of real objects of knowledge. The doctrine of spontaneous omniscience is not unique to these works but appears in a variety of other Mahāyāna sources. In the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā, we find spontaneous omniscience championed in the chapter dedicated to establishing that objects of knowledge external to the mind cannot exist, the “Investigation of External Objects” (bahirarthaparīkṣā). In the model of spontaneous omniscience as presented here, the Buddha’s omniscience is understood to be a kind of unknowing or nonknowing that nevertheless appears to unawakened sentient beings to be total omniscience. This paradoxical situation is said to be accomplished through the Buddha’s innate power (ādhipatya), a natural effect of his previous aspirations (pūrvapraṇidhāna) to attain omniscience for the sake of sentient beings. Since this is the solution to the conundrum of the Buddha’s omniscient knowledge when the argument is considered at the higher levels of analysis, the spontaneous omniscience model does not get much attention in the final chapter of the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā, which is argued at a lower level of analysis primarily in order to counter the attacks advanced by Kumārila. It is important not to overlook this model, however, as it does represent a position that the authors seem prepared to defend at the highest levels of analysis. Thus, the argumentation in support of dharmic omniscience and total omniscience contained in the final chapter—which is generally advanced on a lower level of analysis—must be understood as in some sense prior to the arguments for spontaneous omniscience in the chapter on external objects, even though that chapter comes earlier in the works. Below I will present evidence for this assertion based on my analysis of the structure of the works as divided into two main divisions.
Omniscience and Religious Authority
In advocating multiple versions of omniscience to accord with different metaphysical premises, Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla also advocate a kind of gradual path of rational analysis in accord with their rhetorical conception of reason. Moving up the hierarchy of views, one repeatedly refines one’s own previous perspective and one’s corresponding understanding of omniscience. But while the highest level of analysis—and the corresponding model of spontaneous omniscience—may be the most important for the practitioner, from the point of view of interreligious polemics, it is the lowest level of analysis—and the corresponding model of dharmic omniscience—that holds the most value for these authors. This is because demonstrating the Buddha’s dharmic omniscience, understood as the complete knowledge of everything relevant to attaining the highest good of liberation from saṃsāra, is tantamount to demonstrating the religious authority of both the founder and the scriptures of the Buddhist tradition. Indeed, there is a general understanding in India that by claiming omniscience for the founder of one’s tradition, one also claims legitimacy for the scriptures attributed to that founder, and legitimacy as well for one’s own religious practices. In addition to the early scriptural passages suggesting that the Buddha was omniscient, therefore, later Indian Buddhists were also constrained by the climate of the times to defend and protect the doctrine that their founder was omniscient.
As was noted above, there is some evidence that Jain claims to an omniscient founder were particularly threatening, especially since the Jain scriptures did not contain ambiguous statements, as did the Buddhist, to the effect that it is impossible—or at least pointless—to know all things simultaneously. We see evidence that competition with Jains or similar groups was a factor in provoking Buddhists to delineate and defend a Buddhist notion of omniscience in the sixth-century Buddhist author Bhāviveka’s Tarkajvālā, his commentary on his own verse composition, the Madhyamakahṛdaya. The tenth chapter of that work is entitled the “Demonstration of the Proof of Omniscience” (sarvajñasiddhinirdeśa). It presents a series of objections to the Buddha’s omniscience under a rubric, found in a variety of early sources, in which episodes from the Buddha’s life-story are offered as evidence against his omniscience. The passage commences with a reference to “naked wanderers” (Tibetan: gcer bur rgyu ba), here understood as Jains, who challenge the Buddha’s omniscience with a reference to the unanswered questions we encountered earlier as well as other problematic aspects of the Buddha’s life-story. For example, the Buddha is said to have entered a village to beg for alms only to discover that the villagers were attending a festival, and he thus had to return with his begging bowl empty. An omniscient person, it is argued, would have known in advance that begging in that particular village on that particular day was a waste of time, and he would have known the name without asking. another example includes the Buddha’s encounter with a wild elephant; presumably, an omniscient person would have known to take another route and would thus have avoided the dangerous beast. Bhāviveka’s resolution of these various challenges to the Buddha’s omniscience is based on the resolution found in the Upāyakauśalya Sūtra, which Bhāviveka cites, in which it is held that the Buddha only appears to undergo unfortunate events as a means of teaching his disciples about the ripening of karma. In no case can such unfortunate episodes be attributed to the Buddha’s lack of knowledge or negative karma.
In this way, we see Buddhists like Bhāviveka warding off the attacks of those such as Jains who claim a different omniscient founder. We also see Buddhists like Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla responding to those, like the naiyāyikas, who claim that omniscience is a quality of God (Īśvara) alone. In these two cases, the debate centers on determining which religious figure should be counted as omniscient such that his authored works would then carry the weight of religious authority. In the case of Kumārila, however, the locus of contention is not the founder of a tradition or author of its scriptures: it is rather the scriptures themselves. Because they claim that the Veda is both eternal and authorless, the Mīmāṃsakas are able to advocate a kind of perfection for scripture without having to accept perfection for any being, whether human or divine. a great deal of argumentation in the final three chapters of the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā is therefore devoted to refuting the eternal and authorless nature of the Veda as well as to demonstrating the possibility of the perfectibility of human wisdom. As I argue in chapter 2 of this book, the final three chapters of the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā are primarily focused on the question of religious authority, and the demonstration of dharmic omniscience in particular is in direct response to this question.
The terrain here is tricky, just as it is in Dharmakīrti’s demonstration of the Buddha’s trustworthiness in the Pramāṇavārttika, to which our authors are clearly indebted. At stake is the question of the need for scriptures, and the role of what has come to be called scripturally based inference (āgamāśrayānumāna) in the Buddhist epistemological tradition. Does a demonstration of the Buddha’s dharmic omniscience allow one to then assume that everything he has said about radically inaccessible matters is necessarily true? Does the demonstration of total omniscience allow this? If so, then what is the role of reason for those who have faith in the Buddha? If not, then what is the point of the demonstration of the Buddha’s omniscience?
Although the answers to these questions are not easy, we will see that for Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla, much depends upon whether one is to be counted among those judicious persons (prekṣāvant) who are inclined toward wisdom or among those who are inclined toward faith. I argue that the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā is ultimately directed toward judicious persons for whom the demonstration of the Buddha’s omniscience has nothing to do with grounding scriptures in his transcendent knowledge or authority. Instead, the motivation for demonstrating the Buddha’s omniscience is (1) to refute the Mīmāṃsaka claims that humans cannot know Dharma and adharma and that there can be a reliable scripture that has no author, and (2) to establish that omniscience is possible and therefore a reasonable goal toward which a judicious person may strive. Scripturally based inferences are then understood as a kind of embellishment for rational argument and are to be used rhetorically when arguing with others about radically inaccessible matters. In short, omniscience is demonstrated not so as to justify reliance upon the Buddhist scriptures—which in all significant respects may be entirely verified through ordinary perception and inference—but merely to show omniscience is a viable and worthy goal.
The Path Ahead
Omniscience is thus both a vexing and a critical category of inquiry for the study of Buddhism. As a graduate student, I naively imagined that I could undertake a comprehensive study of the development of the concept of omniscience in Indian Buddhism from the early Pāli texts through the later treatises of the Mahāyāna. Eventually, I realized that even just to unpack the thought of Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla in the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā on this topic would be no small achievement. The remainder of this book contains my findings in this area. As noted earlier, these findings do not concern the doctrine of omniscience alone, but more pertinently they have to do with the problems of rationality, argumentation, and religious authority for these authors. These problems, in turn, entail the exploration of epistemological as well as metaphysical issues, both in order to understand the types of rationality, argumentation, and religious authority at play in these polemical works and to comprehend the various models of omniscience presented there. The study of omniscience in these works thus becomes a window to a much larger vista on the philosophical and religious perspectives of these two eighth-century thinkers.
The remainder of this book proceeds on the premise that understanding the arguments for omniscience in the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā requires that we develop a much better picture of the overall nature of these works than has been available to date. In chapter 2, I seek to enlarge our understanding of these works through an examination of the rhetorical complexity of several elements of the texts. With help from Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, the chapter looks first at the multiple audiences to which the work is addressed, and then at the styles of reasoning employed throughout. Next, we examine a previously unrecognized structural division in the works, one that is crucial for our interpretation of the authors’ arguments in defense of omniscience. The chapter closes with a consideration of the various aims of these works, a discussion that can only proceed once the questions of audiences and styles of reasoning have been sufficiently resolved. Throughout this chapter, we remain focused on the high level of prestige that these authors accord to rational inquiry, and to their engagement in a rhetoric of reason in both senses of the term discussed above.
The next chapter continues to provide important background for understanding the argumentation concerning omniscience in the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā, but now the focus narrows specifically to topics relating to omniscience itself. We begin with the notion of Buddhist philosophia, taking a cue again from Hadot in understanding the centrality of dogmas to the practice of philosophy in antiquity. Recognizing that Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla write from within a particular stream of Mahāyāna Buddhism, we examine various doctrines, or “dogmas,” regarding omniscience which remain more or less unquestioned by the authors, at least in this work. Having explored these dogmas, we then go on to examine the connotations for omniscience in the work, which turn out to be multiple, thus significantly complicating the interpretive task. Finally, the chapter considers some of the same rhetorical aspects that the previous chapter examined in relation to the work as a whole. This time, however, our examination is undertaken specifically in terms of the final chapter of the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā, the chapter most closely associated with the concept of omniscience, and the final chapter of the first section of the work, the chapter in which the authors present something closer to their own position on omniscience. With the rhetorical structures and dogmatic presuppositions concerning omniscience now more precisely drawn, we next turn to the argumentation concerning omniscience as found in the two works.
Chapters 4 and 5 consider the basic arguments about omniscience that are found in the famous final chapter of the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā. In chapter 4, we explore what I term the general demonstration of omniscience, in which the authors argue for the theoretical possibility of omniscience in one of at least two distinct forms. The general demonstration contains three elements or “movements,” and the chapter is divided accordingly. As with nearly all of the argumentation in this section of the works, the main person being addressed is Kumārila Bhaṭṭa and his Mīmāṃsaka followers, and our knowledge of this fact helps us to understand these three movements more clearly. The three movements can be further divided according to which model of omniscience they concern. Thus, the first two movements are concerned primarily with establishing the possibility of dharmic omniscience, and this correlates with Kumārila’s contention that Dharma and adharma, which all parties may agree are the keys to salvation, are fundamentally inaccessible to ordinary human knowledge. The third movement in contrast appears aimed to establish the possibility of some vision of total omniscience. Despite this important shift in the third movement, however, all three elements of the general demonstration have in common their concern to establish a general or theoretical possibility of omniscience, and not a particular instance of an omniscient being.
That task is left to another set of arguments, also from the final chapter of the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā. These arguments, which I refer to collectively as the specific demonstration of omniscience, comprise the topic of chapter 5 of this book. Unlike the general demonstration, in the specific demonstration the authors wish to show that a particular person, namely, the founder of the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha or Sugata, was himself omniscient. In addition to laying out the mechanism by which this demonstration is conceived to work, chapter 5 also considers a significant tension inherent in the demonstration, namely, that the demonstration of the Buddha as an omniscient being appears to violate the authors’ own stated ban on inferring the mental qualities of another person. The tension is not resolved in this chapter, but is soon revisited.
Chapter 6 is an analysis of the motives at play in both the general and the specific demonstrations. In keeping with the theme of the book, I argue that the authors have multiple motives in relation to multiple audiences. For judicious persons, the overall aim appears to be to convince them to convert to Buddhism and then to put the Buddhist teachings into practice and to attain omniscience. For those who are less than judicious, the general goal appears to be to discredit their philosophical thought and religious practice and thus discourage others from adopting their irrational ideas and ways of life. This chapter also takes up the question as to whether and in what way the authors of the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā intend to ground Buddhist scriptures in the omniscience of their founder. Although we will see that Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla are adamant that trustworthy scriptures must have trustworthy authors, they do not accept that a scripture may be determined to be trustworthy on the basis of the omniscience of its author. Rather, the argumentation works in the opposite direction, such that omniscience, at least in the sense of dharmic omniscience, may be determined on the basis of a rationally coherent and salvifically efficacious scripture. Here, again, we see that the commitment to rationality is paramount.
The seventh and concluding chapter includes a discussion of spontaneous omniscience as it is advocated in the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā. Paradoxical as it sounds, I argue that this model of omniscience represents the authors’ own favored perspective, at least in the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā, while the arguments in the chapter ostensibly dealing with omniscience operate on lower levels of analysis. Such a conclusion does not diminish the importance and validity of the arguments in the chapter on omniscience, however, since it is these arguments that the authors count on to convince judicious persons—particularly those judicious persons who are not yet committed to the Buddhist path—that omniscience is a worthy and attainable goal. Thus the treatment of omniscience in the Tattvasaṃgraha and the Pañjikā is in keeping with the authors’ rhetoric of reason, insofar as reason is always to be used and valued in relation to particular goals. In the case of the work at hand, the goals appear to include convincing others that omniscience is a viable and important human aim. If the contours of what precisely constitutes omniscience must shift somewhat in the process of the arguments on its behalf, such should not be considered a blemish in the reasoning process. Rather, it is my view that the authors would have us believe such shifts to be the mark of a high level of sophistication in their reasoning process, in that they indicate a dialectical model of reasoning in which the adherence of diverse audiences may be gradually won by means of a large number of interlocking arguments, each of which is individually tailored to counter and remove particular misconceptions of particular persons. Like all good doctors, these authors would certainly agree that the medicine must fit the disease.
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© Sara L. McClintock, Omniscience and the Rhetoric of Reason (Wisdom Publications, 2010)
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