Early Buddhist Philosophy
Early Buddhist scriptures are guarded not only about the value of asceticism, but also about the value of scholarly study and intellectual investigation. So one who recites, but does not practice, is said to be like a rain-cloud that thunders, but does not rain. Again, mere textual study cannot lead to enlightenment, nor is one who is good at such studies permitted to criticize those who are not to escape reproach for his lack of practice. Such study is like holding a poisonous snake by its tail, that is, the student has got Dharma, but in such a way that it does damage rather than good. Dharma is to enable one to cross over the stream, not to be grasped as an intellectual attainment making one good at criticizing others and winning debates, and such grasping leads to misery and frustration.
But although study alone brings no one to release, and much harm and suffering results from grasping after victory in debate and a reputation for cleverness, one must also avoid the opposite error. Unless one is a Buddha who discovers the truths of Dharma for oneself, it is necessary to hear the Dharma, and the words of the Dharma do no good without an understanding of their meaning. Indeed, to attain the goal, one must go beyond merely understanding the teaching—one must examine it and determine its truth for oneself. The Buddha rejected the Brahmanic notion that simply memorizing, reciting, and studying some sacred scripture philologically, as it were, will lead to attainment of the goal.
Brahmanic notions are also the target of the attack on the notion that knowledge can be acquired by revelation (svanussutam, “tradition” or “report”) independently of other sources of knowledge. Buddhism agrees with the other naturalistic movements of its day, including Jainism, in this. Even if we can rely on an authority, even if he is a sage, what he says is not true just because he pronounces that it is so. When we do rely on authority and testimony, it still makes sense to ask how the authority knows what he says. If he relies on authority himself, and that authority relies on a further authority, and so on ad infinitum, there is then no ground at all for any confidence that the authority is right. Authority must be grounded in something other than authority. “If a person has faith, he preserves truth when he says ‘My faith is thus’; but he does not yet come to the definite conclusion: ‘Only this is true, anything else is wrong.’”
Not only authority is attacked as an independently reliable source of truth in the Sutta just quoted, but also faith in what is approved (that is, the received opinion amongst experts), in oral traditions like that of the Vedas, in the results of abstract reasoning, and in views accepted upon reflection. In each of these cases no guarantee is provided of the truth of what is believed. Religious views based on reason and speculation (takka and vimamsa) are not necessarily false, but neither are they true with certainty, even if fundamental doctrines are said to be self-evident. It seems that Rationalism, the notion that there is a faculty capable of recognizing self-evident truths by the direct apprehension of universal real natures of things, is rejected here. Reason (takka) seems intended to be such a capacity, and speculation (vimamsa) would seem to construct sciences from conclusions drawn from self-evident first principles. (Logic, the faculty of drawing conclusions, is called Naya.) The validity of rationalistic religion was attacked before Gautama, and he knew of the attacks, it seems. The Nyaya proofs of God’s existence are perhaps the sort of thing Gautama had in mind when he rejected reliance on such a faculty of Reason.
[Sutta–Nipata 878–894, esp. 884–886, where it is insisted that there is only one truth, and the disagreements among the philosophers and ascetics are due to their habit of surmising a truth from a faulty perception of things, and then insisting that this alone is true and there is no other truth. Things are taken to be, simply true or false, and the issue is whether it can be known that they are, and how. Irresolvable disputes arise over metaphysical “truths,” which are not verifiable through observation. [I’m sure the reference to the wise men and the elephant, in the Udana, concerns metaphysical beliefs.] Also relevant, Anguttara Nikaya II 25, discussed in Kalupahana (1992) 47, Jayatilleke 345–346, which says that if the Buddha knows something, it is “confusion” for him to say that he does not know it, or that he both knows it and does not know it (after the Jains? in different regards?), but a bad deed to say that he neither knows it nor does not know it. Possibly the distinction is between simple falsehood, and the attempt to assert a non–empirical view, which is not simple falsehood, but meaningless?
The ability to gain metaphysical knowledge by special yogic powers, yet another source of knowledge ungrounded in other kinds of knowledge, was also denied by Gautama. To invalidate the various sources of absolute metaphysical knowledge of reality others depended on, Gautama claimed to have explored all these paths himself, and found them wanting. So he declared he had obtained all the possible kinds of supernatural yogic knowledge, and insisted that it was of no use to gain such extrasensory powers if one wished to gain knowledge of what is not empirically testable, for yogic knowledge only extends experience, it does not go beyond it. Thus, it does not report any supernatural fact, but only facts which can be tested by sensory experience and other means of knowing. Thus he rejects the claims of Brahmans who have gained extrasensory powers, and claim to have used them to discover that the world and the self are eternal, or that a God made the world. Extrasensory powers simply do not report such “facts,” and their beliefs are in fact based on false reasoning from what they have in fact experienced through such powers. Such beliefs, Gautama claims, prevent one from seeing things as they are, and so hinder one from attaining freedom by non-grasping. But if grasping and aversion do not enter into the picture, then extrasensory perception may provide information that helps one to attain freedom. Non–empirical beliefs are used to reinforce grasping inasmuch as people use them to interpret reality in such a way that they can maintain their illusions, and so the Buddha rejects them on practical grounds. But they are also rejected on the ground that every truth is about the world as it is experienced, so there is no faculty of knowledge that informs us of non-empirical truths.
Extrasensory perception, the Buddha insisted, arises from natural causes in any case, being the result of Samadhi, which is itself caused by meditative practices. It is denied that such perception attained in meditation can make one omniscient, as the Jains would wish. Rather, it can provide (1) memory of one’s past lives (through the concentrated functioning of the mind), though not of every one of an infinite number of past lives, but only of whatever finite number of past lives one wishes to remember, (2) knowledge of the decease and survival after death of beings other than oneself (clairvoyance, due to the concentrated functioning of the eye), and of the nature of of their rebirth and karmic influences, (3) knowledge in his own case of the cessation of the defiling impulses or outflows (asavas). In addition, under the second category, there seems to be included a direct knowledge of certain invariable causal connections, i.e. those connecting one’s mental states and suffering and its cessation. These outflows are originally the Jains’ karmic inflows of matter, but to a Buddhist, they are sensual desire, desire for existence (as a Self), and ignorance, wrong views being added as a fourth outflow later. That these are outflows is due to the Buddhist insistence that it is what one does that defiles a person, not what happens to the person, so the shift in terminology asserts the Buddhist notion of personal responsibility against the the Jains. Elsewhere these three occur in a list with knowledge of the body and its not being the self (gained through unobstructed operation of the senses), knowledge of a mind–created body (apparently a body that can travel afar, produced in certain types of Shamanic/Yogic conentration) and that it is not the self, psychokinesis or magical powers, a divine ear by which one can hear even what goes on in the heavens, and the ability to read minds. Of these powers gained in yogic meditation, only the knowledge of the cessation of the outflows is anything like a holy knowledge.
Some of these rejections of the Brahmanic teachings comes out in a Buddhist creation story in the Agganna Sutta. The picture presented is one of recurrent cycles, always ending in the destruction of what arises. There is no beginning, and usually the destruction of the world leaves the Brahma-world intact, though it seems this world must sometimes be itself destroyed. Brahman would believe himself immortal because he has survived destruction so often, just as the yogic meditator believes he is immortal when he recalls his previous lives. In fact, neither one is immortal. The story of the origin of the present world-order, and of the castes, is done along naturalistic lines. The Kshatriya caste arises when the people authorize the strongest to keep justice. When those who were unable to endure the ascetic life compiled books instead, the Brahmins arose. We can see what the Buddhists who wrote this think of the bookish non-practitioner. The whole point is that the class system is conventional, arising in the course of nature, and there is no supernatural sanction for it. Anyone who practises properly, regardless of background, can become an Arhat.
In keeping with his rejection of metaphysical, absolute knowledge, Gautama taught that many questions were unanswerable, and that it was without profit to seek answers to them. So Kassapa was said to have asked if suffering is caused by oneself or another, or both, or neither? In each case the Buddha replied, “Do not say it is so,” since in each case, to say so seems to reject a tenet of Buddhism. To say that suffering is caused by oneself denies conditional causation and suggests an eternal Atman. To say that it is not suggests Carvaka views, placing the cause of our troubles in external circumstances and denying the validity of a spiritual path to freedom through self-discipline. The third alternative seems to be the Jains’ view—the Jains would have embraced both the earlier alternatives, each one qualified differently from the other, since the Self of the Jains causes its own suffering by its attachment, and that suffering arises from the contact of the self with matter. It is rejected because it makes both the errors of the first two views. The fourth view is rejected because it repudiates natural causation.
Perhaps we could say that the point of taking any of these views as absolutely correct is to try to hold onto some view of one’s Self, that it is eternal and utterly in control of its destiny, or that it is in no way in control of its destiny, so that it has no responsibility to shape itself. Likes and dislikes, attachment, inclination and aversion, confusion and fear are all identified as producing error about things as they are. The notion is pretty clear. Such states leads us to self-deception and wishful thinking, which prevents us from seeing the world as it is. Confusion is conceived as an almost deliberate state, like willful stupidity. The view of the Jains that the soul is by nature omniscient has its echo in Buddhist thought, but one is by nature perceptive, inclined to see things as they are, for a Buddhist, not omniscient. It is these harmful mental states, leading to self-deception, escapism, and deliberate stupidity, that cover over our natural insightful intelligence. So strong are our tendencies to find metaphysical backing for our fondest delusions that Gautama hesitated to teach the Dharma, fearing it would be misinterpreted, and converted to yet another metaphysical system reinforcing ignorance, rather than becoming a vehicle of enlightenment. Thus, when he did decide to teach, he adopted the gradual method of instruction, telling each hearer what he needed to hear if he was to make progress, even if it contradicted what was told another hearer, and would be contradicted by the Buddha himself later if the person seized on it to reinforce his grasping.
Elsewhere a large number of metaphysical views will be listed and rejected as unknowable. For the most part, they fall under these heads:
(1) The world is eternal, or is not eternal.
(2) The world is finite, or is not finite, in extent.
(3) The Soul is or is not identical with the body.
(4) The Tathagata exists, or does not exist, or both, or neither, after his death.
The chief metaphysical error for the Buddhists was the belief in the Self or Atman. This belief is assigned a number of sources. One interesting suggestion, much emphasized later in Chan teachings, is that the subject-predicate form of a sentence gives rise to the belief. “Who feeds on consciousness?” “Of whom is there decay and death?” The idea is clearly that we look for a reality to correspond to the subject, for an agent to perform the action named in the predicate, and in fact there need not be any such predicate, since the sentence need not indicate a fact of the same structure it itself has.
[Transition to positive account how to get knowledge –– in addition to below, the end of the Canki Sutta of note 4... There must be such an account, for he only criticizes the various bad methodologies on the ground that they do not yield certainty, and so do not produce knowledge, so since he claims direct knowledge, this must involve certainty, and that is why we shouldn’t settle for anything less. So his account seems to be that there is knowledge, gained through experience = direct knowledge, and experience can be trusted as long a it is not messed up by grasping and wishful thinking. In connection with this, sensory experience...
In a more central account, it is suggested that, “depending on the visual organ and the visible objects..., arises visual consciousness; the meeting together of these three is contact; because of this contact arises feeling. What one feels, one perceives.” Note the shift to a personal verb here. The perception gives rise to the notion that someone is perceiving. “What one perceives, one reasons about; what one reason about, one is obsessed with.” The reasoning is perhaps that dwelling on the thing that is forbidden in the meditation of awareness, where one is simply to note each passing thought and perception, and let it go by. Obsession, according to the commentators, includes craving for external things, self-conceit or obsession with one’s self-image, and obsession with dogmatic views that will support the latter. “What one is obsessed with, due to that, concepts characterized by such perceptions assail him in regard to visible objects cognizable by the visual organ, belonging to the past, future and present.” These concepts include self, duty, and anything else bearing the notion of importance. They “assail” the person. That is, although they are only projected onto our perceptual field, the person reacts to them as though they were real and outside him. So one who sees things as they are, without projecting his obsessive views into his experience, will not perceive a self or anything with self-nature.
Buddhism is faced with a problem, given its skeptical views on metaphysical knowledge. Since Gautama advances certain metaphysical views himself, for instance, the notion that nothing abides, and there is no self, how can he justify this procedure? In part the answer is that he does not mean to deny the views of others here, but only to indicate that no self, self-nature, and the like, is to be found in experience. A self beyond our experience, of course, could not affect the issue, since its characteristics are not known, so that one cannot be obsessed with its nature or with getting it what is best for it, since that, too, is unknown if it is not given in experience. So when Gautama was asked what constitutes “everything,” he answered that the six sense organs (which include mind) and their objects, namely form, sound, odor, taste, the tangible, and concepts, are, but to posit anything further leads only to vexation and worry, for it would have to be beyond the realm of experience. The point seems to be that to posit anything non-empirical is to posit what can have no bearing on one’s life, since it cannot enter one’s experience, one’s world. Thus, however we regard the non-empirical, we can only live in the world we actually experience, and so it is best to set aside these questions of the non-empirical as bootless.
So the Buddhist metaphysical tenets must be rooted in experience. In fact, testimony is permitted, though it must in the end be replaced by knowledge based on one’s own experience and reflection on it. Reasoning and inductive inference based on one’s experience are permitted, and it is allowed that some experience might be extra-sensory, and available only to the practitioner of Yoga. So inductive inference on the basis of direct perception, both sensory and extra-sensory, establishes universal causality, the impermanence of things, the non-satisfactoriness of things (that they are all “ill”, that is, not objectively valuable by their natures, nor specified by the world as the end for man), and the non-substantiality of things. That is, in each case we find that we have no experience of such a thing, and eventually we conclude that there is never any experience of such a thing, at which point we should abandon its pursuit, and live as though there were no such thing. Thus Buddhism permits us to make general inference about how experience must always go, but it does not permit us to go beyond experience and speak of what cannot be and never has been experienced.
[It seems that nothing very sophisticated is involved here. All knowledge comes from experience, we are so built that our experience is reliable, direct knowledge, as long as craving does not enter the picture and lead us to conclusions that far exceed experience. Somehow, a Buddha has direct knowledge gained from yogic powers as well as sensory stuff, but this might well be intended to be read as knowledge of psychological processes rather than actual rebirths...]
* * * * *
According to the doctrine of causality in the early Buddhist scriptures, causality has four characteristics, (1) Objectivity, (2) Necessity, (3) Invariability, and (4) Conditionality. The first characteristic is asserted to deny that cause and effect are appearances only, or a matter of mere names. The reality of causal relations, and so of the natural world, is insisted on. So it is emphasized in several places that the doctrine of causation was always true, and is merely discovered by the Tathagata, not invented by him. The second and third characteristics assert that the cause is necessary for its effect, so that its removal will remove the effect, and sufficient for its effect, so that the effect invariably follows the cause. Thus the Nyaya notion of causation and its rational establishment is accepted. These characteristics of causation are cited, in particular, when the intention is to assert that the failure to discover the cause is simply due to our ignorance. For any given case a causal explanation, involving a causal law establishing a necessary and sufficient condition for the event explained, is always available if we can just discover it.
The last characteristic of causal connections is what distinguishes Buddhists from naturalists such as the Nyaya. Its meaning is that no causal law ever expressed in a causal explanation is more than prima facie true. The law invariably holds only under certain further conditions which cannot be entirely spelled out, and may not be known to us at all. In effect, this means that every causal judgment is made in a context that cannot be made entirely explicit. What is the point of saying this?
In some of the scriptures the point seems to be to find a middle road between determinism and the denial of causality altogether. But this must not be misread. Buddhism in fact has little sympathy for those who are desperate to rule out determinism in order to leave room for the absolutely uncaused, free actions of our Selves. The real target of the Buddhist attack is rather fatalism, the view that it does not matter if we make an effort or not. It does matter, else the attempt to gain Nirvana will be useless. The doctrine of the conditionality of causation helps by making it clear that the ordinary causal processes that predispose us to rebirth, ignorance, and suffering depend on certain conditions for their effectiveness. If we can determine what those conditions are, we can then undermine them and bring the process of re-birth to a halt. Moreover, we can do whatever is necessary to accomplish this, if the causal roots of such an action are present. (In particular, the causal roots for making an effort must be present.) It is repeatedly emphasized that enlightenment and the attainment of the Arhant are causally conditioned, and only occur with the right causal background. No attempt is made to establish free will and responsibility for our actions through some form of indeterminism.
But the chief use of the doctrine of the conditionality of causation is to undermine the notion that there can be a self. The self is supposed to be the true agent, entirely responsible for one’s action. Thus the Jains postulate individual souls that have a radical, indeterministic freedom of will. They are morally responsible for their actions because they themselves (the soul, not some event) form the only causal antecedent to their actions. Such a view amounts to a rejection of the conditionality of causal laws, since the cause acts in an unconditioned manner here. Similarly, Buddhism rejects the view that would make the real self the Universe at large, or the Brahman behind the natural world, so that the unconditioned totality acts as one’s self. By extension, the svabhava, a substantial form akin to the self, but lying behind the actions of natural objects, is also, as an unconditioned cause, to be rejected. Thus the hope of finding unconditioned, ultimate natural laws is held to be a vain one. In the end, it was insisted that events cause events, never do things or selves, in some unconditioned way, cause events. A thing causes an event only if the right events have determined that it act in the way required to produce that event.
Moreover, by a natural extension of the doctrine ultimate reasons and values are rejected. Nothing is a good reason for doing or believing a thing except under the right conditions, and nothing is valuable except under the right conditions. Thus the self viewed as the ultimately valuable, the Kantian good will (which we hope turns out to be ourselves) which is the only thing that is in itself valuable and is the source of value, these things are ruled out as impossibilities.
Is early Buddhism anti-realist, then? In a way it is, since it insists that it is useless to speculate about an unconditioned, ultimate, reality. The assertion is not generally that there is no Self, or that there are no unconditioned causes, at all, but only that no such things can occur in experience. There may be such things, one might suppose, but since we cannot experience them, their existence can have no bearing on our lives. And, indeed, it is clear that for all their agnosticism on such metaphysical questions, the Buddhists did not wish to reject the reality of the empirical world, but only to insist that we must always approach every reality from within a context, and never as a whole with nothing outside it that can determine what it is or influence its behavior. But I suspect the Buddhist view goes deeper than that. The insistence that the thing is not to be found in experience leads not merely to agnosticism, but in the end to a rejection of such categories of speech altogether. The objectivity of the world and of causal processes is to be maintained without any reference to the existence, or the non-existence, of an ultimate, unconditioned, reality. Such a reality is not merely not given in experience, but cannot be given in experience, and as a result, should play no role in our view of the world. In particular, it should not play a negative role, for Buddhists are not subjectivists who wish to deny reality to the natural world. They simply have no truck with the notion of an unconditioned reality.
A view of the sort required might go like this: (1) All causal relations hold between events, there being no essential nature (svabhava) or self (atman) that produces activity out of itself. (2) All causal laws connecting events are conditioned, and so prima facie. (3) The nature of an event is itself conditioned, for it is this or that depending on the context in which it occurs. Which causal laws are to be applied to it depends on what sort of event it is, so this “conditioning” passes over to causal laws applying to the event as well. (4) Thus nothing is what it is absolutely, but perhaps an unconditioned reality can be found in the whole of things, which has nothing outside it to condition it. But such a whole does not exist, because the world is of indefinite extent, as is time, so that no finite whole can be found. (5) If one suggests that the requisite whole is somehow infinite, then it might be argued that no causal laws bearing on such a whole can be proposed. Alternatively, one might point out the mathematical antinomies that arise when one deals with illegitimate totalities, and suggest that similar antinomies must arise in the case of this whole = reality. Thus nothing will exist or take place that is not conditioned both as a cause and effect, and in its very essential nature. Such a view seems possible, and is surely not subjectivist. For one thing, the conditions may well be right for something to be of a given sort, or for a given causal law to actually operate. It is not our everyday reality, but only the ultimate reality of the philosopher and the scientist that is attacked.
Given all this, it might well be wondered how the Buddhist thinks causal laws are known, and how he thinks that such universally valid principless as No-self and the conditionality of causes are known. Causal laws are said to be known by inductive inference, and thus a certain skepticism is enforced, since it is insisted that incomplete inductive inference (the only sort we ever have) can go wrong. It is insisted in particular that not even Yogic powers give knowledge of the future, but only inductive inference can do so. I don’t know of a detailed account of inductive inference in the Nikayas, but it presumably is a matter of hypothesis testing, with perhaps some special influence that leads one to good hypotheses.
* * * * *
Let us now turn to some of the details of Buddhist cosmology, which will clarify the doctrine of causation.
Later Scholastics speak of five realms of causation, the physical, divided into organic and inorganic causation, the psychological, the moral, and the spiritual realm. The notion seems to be that each of these realms can be treated independently of the others, so that type-reductionism of, say, biological laws to physics and chemistry, is not to be found. The first three realms are familiar enough to us. The moral realm is the realm of karmic connections, and the spiritual realm is the realm of Nirvana, in which the Buddha acts free from karmic influences. The postulation of these five realms is rooted in a consideration of the Scriptures.
The chief discussion of the details of a particular causal process in the Tripitaka occurs in the twelve-fold formula concerning rebirth, which elucidates the the second Noble Truth. (1) From ignorance (avidya) of the dharma, which is at the root of it, arises (2) dispositions or forces (samskarah, “aggregates”), or character traits. these two phases are taken by Buddhaghosa to refer to the first life of the person being considered, and the character traits are taken to result in a new being, (3) whose consciousness (vijnana) continues one’s own, so one’s character determines that a new consciousness will arise, and determines its characteristics. This is the law of Kharma, of course. Consciousness gives rise to (4) the psychophysical person (nama and rupa, “mind and body”) which can be sensed and referred to, that is, a foetus in whom the new consciousness has come to reside. This person gives rise to (5) the six gateways of perception (sadayatana), or the sense organs, which give rise to (6) contact (sparsa) with the objects of sense, that is, sensory awareness of the minimal sort leading to reflex actions. From this sensory awareness arises (7) feeling (vedana), that is, awareness of the pleasantness, unpleasantness or neutrality of what one is experiencing. From those feelings arises (8) craving or attachment (trishna), whether to feelings, or to the existence or nonexistence of a self. From craving comes (9) grasping (upadana), the activities by which one clings to what one craves and avoids what one craves to avoid. In later thought this grasping is essentially connected to the consciousness of a self. It gives rise to (10) becoming or existence (bhava). This is the last stage of the second life in Buddhagosa’s view of the thing, though Tibetans take it to be conception, and so the beginning of the third life. From becoming arises (11) birth, and from birth arises (12) ageing, death, sorrow, lamentation, suffering, dejection, vexation, and this whole mass of ill.
Taken on the surface, the doctrine clearly concerns the causal conditions that lead to rebirth after death, though this rebirth is not to be read as the continuation of the Self in a new life, since there is no Self. Rather, it involves the same sort of connection that holds between earlier and later stages of the same person, between birth and death, earlier conditions setting the stage for and producing later mental events, so that a coherent causal story is followed out and one can view the person as a continuing unity of a sort. But a different reading of the thing is possible, for this could be read as concerning not only the rebirth that occurs after death, but also a metaphorical rebirth from moment to moment of the self, or, rather, of the illusory consciousness of a self which we cling to so that it controls our lives. On this reading we have an account how someone who begins (1) ignorant of the dharma, and possessing (2) certain established character traits, that is, an organized and coherent personality, will become entrapped in (3) “consciousness”, or the illusion that there is a self. Such a person will, immediately after this, be conscious of his self and its characteristics, and thus (4) the psychophysical personality of the next moment in time will arise as a continuation of the previous psychophysical personality, that is, it will be what it is, that psychophysical personality, because of the consciousness it has of “its” previous stages. (Compare the notion of identity of a person over time in Locke’s treatment, which makes it rely on the later stage’s memory of the earlier stage’s actions and thoughts. Of course, the awareness of its self, past or present, is illusory, but the account here has to be an account how an illusory world arises.) This personality will have (5) perceptual organs, but these too are only a continuing process with earlier stages, so that the presence of sense organs now is conditioned by the earlier stage of one’s personality, which is connected to the present stage by memory. But from sense organs arises (6) sensation, contact with other things, and from this sensation or awareness how things are there arise (7) feelings of pleasure or displeasure, which produce (8) craving, which leads to (9) grasping. Grasping is what gives rise to (10) (the illusion of) existence, that is the production and maintenance of the illusion of the self, the chief object of grasping being the self. Thus (11) birth of the self occurs, and (12) all the ills of the world come to be, since they all attach to this illusory self, which must needs suffer death, ageing, loss, and so on. Taken in this way, the doctrine clearly entails the recommendation that we eliminate ignorance. It is an expansion of the second noble truth concerning the arising of ill.
The treatment of the doctrine in later Abhidharma is generally ambiguous precisely because the same chain of events that leads to rebirth in a new body is also conceived in Abhidharma to lead to the production of the new self in the next moment within a single life. Since nothing persists more than a moment, rebirth in fact occurs continuously. It is possible, I think, to take it that the metaphorical reading was in fact the Buddha’s intention, and that the Abhidharmic doctrine of the momentary nature of all existents arose precisely because the monks knew that this was the right way to read it, and so, when they got literal about ontology, were forced to make room for the self to create the next self from one moment to the next. The Buddha himself probably thought of the basic things making up the world as events, including such things as the presence of a body of a certain sort at a certain time, the usual view in later Buddhist thought, which means the Abhidharmists were pretty close to the mark. But why must we read it in this metaphorical way rather than dealing straightforwardly with rebirth after one’s death?
The point of the exercise here is salvational. One is to see that birth is the cause of ill, and so determine how to prevent birth. Now this would fit in with the views of any number of groups in India at the time of the Buddha, who sought an end to the life of this world in order to enter a life separated from the causal nexus of the cosmos, a life of perfect bliss. But we have seen that Gautama rejected the possibility of such a life. For him, death was simply the end of the matter. Indeed, it is hard to believe that he could have taken the end of further rebirths in the Jain or Hindu sense as the aim to be achieved, though, assuming that he accepted that reincarnation does occur, and would cease to occur once enlightenment was attained, he might have accepted the end of one’s incarnations as a necessary, and presumably unfortunate, result of attaining nirvana. The life to be aimed for, the Buddha insists, is not that in which no experience occurs, but the life of ordinary experience, but cleansed of grasping, anger, and ignorance. The metaphorical reading of the chain of causation, not the literal one, fits this aim, for it is the end of the rebirth of the illusory consciousness of self that is the aim, not the end of experienced life altogether. I suspect, then, that the Buddha had no belief one way or the other concerning the matter of multiple lives and rebirths, or was skeptical about it, and certainly regarded it as a matter of no import to salvation.
The metaphor, however, was useful in part because of its literal sense. Many laymen and monks must have taken it literally, given that they expected a way of salvation to free them from the conventional round of rebirths, and the religion would be honored by laymen for attaining this aim. Those who were capable would see the ironic intent, and understand the metaphor. It was probably a necessary, if very subtle, maneuver, for to deny the whole doctrine of karma and rebirth and put the whole affair literally would probably have left the Buddha largely without converts, given how engrained these doctrines were in the Indians of his time. A similar situation exists with the teaching of morality for the purpose of gaining favorable rebirths. A sly monk would understand the real purpose, which was to lead the layman closer to nirvana in this life, but to try to tell that to the layman would be to court disaster.
The statement of this twelve-fold chain led later Buddhist thinkers to claim that consciousness, the sense organs, and the like, would all vanish with the elimination of ignorance. Such a reading suggests that the Buddha is supernatural, a view followed by some deviant later Buddhists, but the usual intepretation of such pronouncements is that a delusory conception of the sense organs or whatever is eliminated. In particular, there is a delusion in the consciousness of previous stages of the unenlightened person, since she sees a Self as continuing from the earlier stages into the present stage, and this contamination of one’s sense of the continuation of one’s self spreads to one’s view of the new stage of the person. Of course one continues to have sense organs in a way even if one is a Buddha, but the unenlightened man does not see his sense organs as they really are, so that he has illusory sense organs. This is a plausible reading, but it may be that it does violence to Gautama’s intention. He might have intended that the later stages, perhaps the last six starting with feeling, are eliminated when ignorance is, since dispositions cannot give rise to these in the absence of ignorance, though it does give rise to consciousness and such, which are present even in a Buddha.
An alternative reading of the twelve-fold formula sometimes encountered would put ignorance at the nave of the wheel of becoming, with ageing, death and the like at the rim. Items (2) - (11) are placed as spokes of the wheel. The ten spokes would form a chain of causes that has ignorance as an underlying condition, and ageing, death and the like would be by-products of this chain. Whether this reading can be taken as correct or not, it indicates a resource of the interpreter—given that all causes are conditioned, it need not be the case that the twelve-fold formula is presenting a chain of causes. It may well be that some items in the table are preconditions that must be met if the causal connections between later items are to hold, not earlier parts of the chain.
In the more popular version of the Wheel of Becoming (Divyavadana) there are five spokes, the regions between the spokes representing the five realms into which one may be reborn. These realms are the hells, the world of animals, the world of the pretas or hungry ghosts (the wandering ghosts of those whose funeral rites were not properly observed), the world of the gods and the world of human beings. All these realms are illusory, that is, the creatures therein are all dominated by the illusion of a self, and so the worlds they live in are informed by their notions of their selves. None of them see the world as it is. The Tathagata, or enlightened one, will stand outside the five realms. In the nave of the wheel stand desire (or passion), hatred (or anger), and stupidity (or ignorance), the three poisons, which keep the whole wheel in motion, represented in a snake, a dove or cock, and a pig. Around the edge are arranged the causes (nidanas) in the twelve-fold chain, and the whole thing is being eaten by impermanence. Outside the wheel there is a circle of Nirvana, and a Buddha pointing to it. The Tibetans added a sixth realm of angry gods to the five.
These six realms can be taken to represent the places where one can be reincarnated, but the more sophisticated take them as six personality-types into which one is reborn from moment to moment. Hell creatures are destructive toward themselves and others; hungry ghosts, starving with mouths too small to admit more than a grain of rice, are those who cannot be satisfied with anything; while the animals pursue their aims without intelligence, reflection or adaptability. All of these fall short of the human beings, who are capable of sympathy and friendliness for themselves and others, capable of satisfaction, and intelligent in their pursuit of their aims. The Gods differ from human beings in that they need nothing, and are perfectly happy. The only problem with being a God is that the state is impermanent. A God who doubts himself, and begins blustering and boasting to reassure himself about his perfection, is the Tibetan Angry God, and he is at war with the gods. The Scholastics discuss in detail the ways in which one can move from one of these realms to the other, and the result is an interesting psychology of personality. Only those in the human realm can follow the path to enlightenment, for only they are reflective enough to understand that it is all suffering, and to seek a way out.
Typically Buddhist writers speak of existing things when they really mean the illusory things of these six worlds. It must be born in mind that Buddhism often treats these illusory things as a kind of reality, and then goes on to say crazy things about them, asserting their non-existence, for instance. After denying the existence of things, the text will often go on to guard against a misconception, since it might be taken that one really means to deny that there is anything at all, rather than denying only that the illusory things of the six realms exist, so it will be denied that things do not exist. Then similar moves to guard against misunderstanding will lead to denials that things both exist and do not exist, and that they neither exist nor do not exist. Thus the typical dialectic of Buddhism is established on the consideration of the illusory world, and the fact that the respondent to the master is incapable of speaking without referring to his illusions.
The Buddhist cosmology, then, whether it be taken literally, so that the Buddha’s Nirvana becomes a sort of highest heaven, or taken in the more sophisticated way indicated above, is built around the notion of karma and rebirth. Accounts of how these doctrines are known to be true take on the same ambiguity as the cosmology. So we are told that “With his clear paranormal clairvoyant vision he sees beings dying and being reborn, the low and the high, the fair and the ugly, the good and the evil each according to his karma.” Taken literally, the claim is the same as one we would find among the Hindus, who presumably take the realms of illusion to be real. The enlightened sage verifies the cosmology and the metaphysics of Hinduism by his super-normal yogic vision. It is quite likely, though, that Gautama set little store by such vision, and if we read this in the more sophisticated way, it will indicate that Gautama is able, with his insight into reality as it is, to see certain facts of psychology, that is, how the illusory self arises and goes through its transformations in response to psychological causes. Psychological rather than cosmological insight will be indicated, and one need not suppose anything beyond what we regard as natural. By the way, it is to be noted that one point of the passage is that these truths are known by experience, not by authority.
In any case, Buddhism insists that the laws of karma are just as conditional as any other laws. That is why those of yogic attainments don’t agree on their observations as to karma. In general, their observations are informed by one-sidedness, so that they never consider the causal factors they don’t like to think about. Some even say that no deeds at all affect one’s future existence (the Carvakan group). Gautama argued that laws of karma are always prima facie. Conversion just before one’s death, good deeds outweighing the bad, and so on, may block karmic consequences. In particular, enlightenment entirely upsets karmic laws, since there is then no longer a self to suffer karmic consequences. Indeed, if karmic laws were unconditioned, then the holy life could not save one from suffering. The reason is that even good karma leads to formation of an ego-consciousness, and so rebirth, though in a heaven. In no way can the accumulation of any kind of karma lead to the extinction of the self. To some extent this point is obscured in the texts by the notion that enlightenment is only attained by great virtue, and is, of course, a consequence of one’s acts, so that it comes to appear like a highest heaven, the highest reward of good karma. But generally the paradoxical alternative view, placing the Tathagata outside the world of karmic consequences, asserts itself somewhere.
There is considerable discussion in the scriptures and the Abhidarma commentaries on it concerning psychology in general and the causal factors leading to enlightenment in particular. Three factors noted in particular are merit acquired in the past by good deeds, life in appropriate surroundings, and proper resolve and application.
The causes of action are divided into three groups. Contact, that is, stimuli leading to reflex action, this being the sixth of the twelve causes, is operative even in an infant in the womb, and gives rise to feeling, the seventh cause. Unconscious motives, which seem to correspond to the eighth of the causes, include the desire for pleasure and perpetuation of life, and the aversion to death and pain. They are unconscious, not in Freud’s sense of being repressed, but rather in virtue of being instinctive. They are present before the consciousness of a self is, though they are still the result of ignorance, that is, perhaps, an inchoate notion of the objective importance of things that will naturally lead to self-consciousness. The third cause is conscious motives, that, is, the motives belonging to an ego-conscious being, including attachment, aversion, and confusion. They correspond to the ninth of the twelve causes. The absence of such motives is generally cited as the cause of good actions.
The Self is generally said to be an aggregate of the four elements, space, and consciousness (when the physical self is envisioned), or of the five aggregates (skandhas) (when the psychical self is envisioned). The birth of a new being requires coitus of the parents, a mother ready to conceive, which together produce the physical foetus, or nama-rupa. The physical being is completed by the influence of the consciousness of the dieing person, it being supposed that the influence of the old consciousness is necessary if the foetus is to attain maturity. If one has attained Nirvana, rebirth will not occur, for the elimination of craving for existence prevents the psychic influence on the foetus. All this is put as though reincarnation were at issue, but it makes the most sense if one takes it allegorically to refer to re-birth of a self-conscious being from one moment to the next. At least the influence of the desire for continuation of the Self makes sense in that more esoteric context.
The resultant self is sometimes analyzed into a body and mind, and sometimes into a body, feelings, perception, the aggregates, and consciousness. In one place, it is analyzed into nama, the mental elements among the skandhas, that is, feeling, perception, volition, contact and attention, and rupa, the body, that is, the four elements and what is in them.
* * * * *
All things that exist, that is, that exist in the illusory world of those with an illusory consciousness of self, are said to have three marks: (1) Impermanence, (2) Unsatisfactoriness, and (3) Non-selfhood. Associated with these marks are the four perverted views (viparyasa) which lead to the continuation of our suffering, that permanence is to be found in the impermanent, satisfaction or ease in what is unsatisfactory, the self in what is not self, and delight in what is intrinsically unpleasant. Impermanence is probably nothing more than a matter of the inevitability of eventual destruction, though Abhidharma took it to mean that nothing persisted for any time at all. If the idea is that all reality consists in events, with no permanent substance persisting through any change or series of actions, the source of the Abhidharma notion would be clear enough, and the absence of any theory of moments (ksana) in the early texts provide no problem for the postulation of such a view. “Unsatisfactoriness” is a much better translation of duhkha than “ill” or “suffering.” The point is that nothing lasts, so that nothing is satisfactory to one who grasps, for such a one demands permanence. Thus grasping invariably results in suffering. “What is impermanent, that is not worth delighting in, not worth being impressed by, not worth clinging to.”
This is not to say that life is all inevitably unsatisfactory. The claim is only that it is unsatisfactory for one who grasps after something permanent. The enlightened arhat, who has extinguished all grasping after the permanent, should find life perfectly satisfactory. For those who has not extinguished grasping life is all of it unsatisfactory, but they may not realize it. One first realizes that life seems inevitably to throw up stretches of suffering in one’s way. Only after some experience of life without grasping does one start to realize that even what were thought of as pleasant times were not really so. Meditative practice leads people to an awareness of life in this very moment which most of us ordinarily avoid. One result is the realization of the seriousness and extent of our escapism, of the way in which we take events that were miserable to live through and retell them in such a way that they look exciting and romantic, the way in which we distract ourselves continuously from our anger and unhappiness through entertainment, superficial socializing, fantasizing, work, or whatever other distraction can be contrived, and the way in which we ignore what is really going on in order to act out dramas within which our importance and value are made clear. Meditation takes away all our toys and games by blocking our continuous resort of fantasy and story-telling about ourselves and our lives, and leaves us face to face with the reality of the moment, and our desperate desire to be important and secure. Finally, one comes to recognize that life is unsatisfactory as long as there remains any grasping, that is, any desire coupled with the belief that one must have its satisfaction, or else something is dreadfully wrong.
We have already discussed at some length the doctrine that there is no Self to be found in experience. The Buddhist view is that belief in a Self arises from one’s inclinations, the desire to live and avoid death, to be happy and avoid pain, and to do so permanently. It arises from a kind of wishful thinking, though the wishful thinking is backed up by the tendency to see oneself as a single thing without analyzing it into its components, a tendency that leaves one with a vague impression of some permanent continuant that would be dispelled by close attention to the components making up the supposed continuant. In fact, a man is a bundle of perceptions, thoughts, and the like, kept together by causality. It is like a chariot, which is nothing over and above the parts that one puts together to make a chariot, and all of the properties of which, even its persistence, are explicable in terms of those parts and their interactions. There is no unified reality behind the psychic processes that make up a person. In particular, the notion that there is a self who is the subject of one’s thoughts is repudiated, as well as the notion that the Self is a continuing consciousness. Thus the Buddha denies that a consciousness to be identified with the one who speaks, feels, and so on, transmigrates when one dies, and goes on to argue that consciousness itself is causally conditioned. The point is that the unity of consciousness from one moment to the next is causally conditioned, that is, due to causal connections that connect earlier phases of consciousness with later ones, and is not due to some persisting reality. The text goes on to analyze the constituents of a person, and to argue that the four foods keep a person in being—material food, contact (sensory support), cogitation, and consciousness. These foods are causally conditioned by craving, apparently since birth is produced by craving, and so the self that is kept in being here is the illusory self.
The tendency to talk of the illusory self that is created by the natural operation of human psychology as the atman complicates our picture of the texts. The notion is that a person actually has a sort of invented self, a role that he plays. This role is only a role, not a substantial form of an individual, and is impermanent, conditioned, and if it is taken seriously or grasped, it is also the source of pain and loss. The account of the rising of the self is almost always aimed at accounting for this illusion, this invented self or adopted role, and thus the false impression can be left that the individual, who might still be about after the illusory self is extinguished and the end is attained, is itself illusory. It is not, it is only impermanent, conditioned, and the like. The individual is not a self, and is unreal in the sense that it is not the ultimate, bottom-line reality, but is rather composed of more fundamental elements, and everything but the skandhas themselves is unreal in this sense. But it is not unreal in the way that the object of an illusory perception is.
That the person is not some sort of fundamental, bottom-line reality is established in the Buddhist texts by their analysis of the self into five heaps (skandhas), material form, feelings, perception, dispositions to act, and consciousness. These five heaps are the only things that occur in experience, and they are merged into a human personality by causation. A typical meditation will reflect on each of these heaps, and establish to one’s satisfaction that it is not the self. In one text the self is said to be the taking-up-of-the-burdens, that is, of the five Skandhas. That is, the illusory self arises with the grasping of the Skandhas, and release is obtained when they are laid down, extinguishing this self. It is argued that the self is not the combination of these five heaps as the flame of a lamp just is a visual appearance, for there is no unity nor permanence to be found in the five heaps, nor is there some self over and above them which has them as a tree has a shadow, nor are they in some self as a scent is in a flower, or some self in them as a gem is in a casket.
But it seems pretty clear that the dissolution of the self into the five heaps is secondary to other considerations establishing its unreality. The two arguments most frequently presented in the scriptures are (1) that everything we might identify in experience, since it has the Three Marks, turns out to be subject to suffering even when unwilling to suffer, and no such thing can be the eschatological self of the non–Buddhist sects; (2) working from the analysis of causation, all the actions of any putative self rise as much from the outside as from within, so that the “agency theory” of free will, as it is sometimes called, must be rejected. But nothing can be a self if it is not able to cause actions independently of all outside influences. A self is a svabhava, a self–nature or essence, which has causal powers simply in itself, and so, given the nature of its peculiar powers, a self is free—but there is no such thing. Nothing is entirely “in our power,” no matter who we take ourselves to be. We originated from other things, and not only is our character caused, but our every act is possible only as a reaction to events. Note that the self is equated with something metaphysically fundamental, it must be among the most basic realities of the world. This is certainly the usual tendency of thought among those who take the notion seriously.
Two of the questions which Gautama refused to rule on deal with Atman. One asks whether the self is the same as the body, or different from it, and the other asks whether the Jiva is the Atman. Is the Carvakan materialist or the Jain dualist right? The questions are rejected, not because we can’t know the answer, as some scholars suggest, but because a necessary presupposition of the question, that there is an Atman to be identified with the body or the Jiva, is rejected.
The chief argument advanced against the identification of the self with anything real rests on attributing absolute control of itself to the self. So form is said to be without self, since we cannot change our bodies as we will simply by forming the intention that they be changed, and the same point is made about each of the other aggregates. The idea underlying the argument is that one’s self is that which controls the non-self, as the mind, perhaps, controls the body. This self is in absolute control of itself, for it must be since it is the source of all volition, and any difficulty in control arises from that which belongs to it, its body or whatever, which may sometimes resist volitional control. The problem with this natural view of the self is that there is nothing in us over which we have absolute control, certainly not our bodies, and not our thoughts, intentions, beliefs, or the like, either. Again, this is a lesson driven home by meditation, which leads us to recognize that none of the events observable in our psyche occur except under the right conditions. One cannot always stay awake, or suppress distracting thought, by the will alone. When it is warm and one is full, drowsiness comes, and when one has had a fight with one’s spouse, distraction and anger are bound to occur, however one tries to focus on what is present at this moment alone. The notion of the self as the controller, supremely in control of itself, might suggest that the self alone is worth clinging to, so that our problem is that the self is tangled up in this world of impermanent things over which we have little control. The Buddhist view is that there is no such self, and ultimately, in the Mahayana schools, it would be questioned whether it makes sense, then, to aim for withdrawal from this impermanent world. Some withdrawal from affairs, at least for a little while, is necessary for meditation, and the cessation of grasping might be described as a kind of withdrawal, but enlightened Arhats ought to be able to live in the midst of the ordinary world without attachment, and find it good. They would recognize themselves as nothing but a part of this world, as conditioned and impermanent as the rest of it, and so be free of grasping after control of themselves of the sort that might enable them to be, for instance, perfectly moral or perfect Buddhist sages.
* * * * *
The whole question of Atman is elucidated by a consideration of Nirvana. Nirvana is said to be of two sorts, Nirvana with a substrate left, which is the Nirvana that an Arahant has during his life, and Nirvana without a substrate left, which is the Nirvana of a dead Arahant. In Nirvana with the substrate left the five senses are retained, and one experiences pleasure and pain, but is free of craving and grasping, and all that follows on them. The elimination of ego-consciousness is supposed to produce a positive revulsion from grasping and craving, which are now found to be intrinsically unpleasant. Thus one of the “three erroneous views” is that what is in fact unpleasant, that is, grasping, craving, and the unpleasant excitement that follows upon them, is pleasant. This view disappears in Nirvana. The revulsion is apparently produced by a realization that craving and grasping cause all the trouble, but it also arises from a habit of attending to what is actually going on. We ordinarily don’t attend to what is going on at the moment when we are involved in ego-consciousness, but to what we wish for or anticipate, to the past, or to illusory notions of ourselves and the events we are involved in. When we abandon this escapist approach to life and actually attend to what we are currently experiencing, we discover how unpleasant craving and grasping and its results were all along. This realization tends to make Nirvana stable, that is, self-perpetuating and so relatively permanent. In a state of Nirvana one is not agitated as a result of gain or loss, good repute or ill repute, praise or blame, happiness or suffering, the “eight worldly phenomena.”
Nirvana is said to lack the three marks of conditioned things, so that it undergoes neither death nor production, is not marked by suffering, and is not not-self. Nirvana is listed by the Abhidharma as an unconditioned dharma or reality, which is why it lacks the three marks. It is difficult to see how to take this, but Mahayana developments of the view suggest one plausible interpretation, namely that nirvana is the personal realization of the unchanging truths of the conditioned nature of existing things and their three marks. Thus one is always a Buddha, always in a state of nirvana, as are all things, but one does not realize it, being caught up in the illusion of the self. Adapting this to a pre-Mahayana perspective, we could say that the attainment of nirvana is not an attainment of any thing, any conditioned dharma, but only an elimination of certain illusions, so that what was there all along is now recognized for what it is. If production is viewed as the attainment of something one grasps after, whether one grasps after something positive or the absence of something aversive, then nirvana is not produced or destroyed, for one cannot obtain nirvana as long as one grasps.
From this we can argue that nirvana is not unsatisfactory, since nirvana, being merely a negative state, the extinction of grasping and illusion so that reality reveals itself, and not the possession of any thing, is not such as to produce suffering. Of course, one can, while in an unenlightened state, grasp after nirvana, which cannot be grasped or held any more than anything else can, and thus suffering may be produced, but this grasping involves the mistake of supposing that nirvana, the elimination of all grasping, can be obtained while grasping after it. In fact, to attain nirvana one has to simply stop, rather than succeeding in getting hold of not having hold of anything. But nirvana can be attained, if one can simply stop, and since there is no grasping in nirvana, it is satisfactory once attained, even if it turns out it can be lost again, since the prospect of that loss will not spoil anything one has. One obtains a satisfactory state of affairs only when one no longer grasps after such a state of affairs.
That nirvana is not no-self is perhaps more difficult to see, but consider that not being the self is a characteristic of dharmas or realities that arises from our lack of control over them. Thus our thoughts are not our selves, since they are conditioned from outside ourselves, and we cannot control them absolutely. Do we have control of nirvana? Of course, we do not, but then, when we have nirvana, it does not matter to us whether we have control of it, for we are free of grasping. And so security is found in nirvana, the recognition that nothing is secure, so that nothing is worth grasping after. One gains security only by giving up on gaining control.
The Buddha is said to have entered Parinibbana upon his death, which is like the extinction of a lamp (the flame going nowhere at all). The description of his death makes it clear that this state is not Nirvana, nor is it any of the meditative states. It is said that the Buddha first meditated, passing into the fifth Dhyana, apparently to help handle the pain, and then returned to ordinary consciousness. “His mind was firm, without exhalation and inhalation. When the sage passed away, free from desire, having found peace, he endured pain with an active mind.”
In one Sutra it is asked what happens to an Arhat after his death. Gautama denies that it can be said that he will be reborn, or that he will not be reborn. The reason this difficult and subtle doctrine, “beyond the sphere of logic,” is advanced is to avoid the disciple taking it that (1) there is an Atman that survives our death, or (2) that there is an Atman that is destroyed when the sage dies. Gautama goes on. If someone should ask, if the fire be extinguished, where it has gone, it can only be replied that it has gone nowhere. Its fuel being consumed, it has simply ceased. In the same way the form by which one designates the Tathagata is gone when he dies, and there is no chance of its leading onward to another rebirth.
* * * * *
One would expect that the form taken by Buddhist meditation, as well as other religious practises, would reflect the aim of attaining Nirvana. Let us look at the account of meditation in the Nikayas and see if this is indeed the case.
The yoga, or “yoking” (of the mind), described in the Pali texts is closely related to Upanishadic forms of meditation that often have rather different aims in mind, and it seems clear that Buddhist meditative practises are developed from those of the ascetics who preceded Gautama, and from whom he learned. In general, it is argued that the practice of morality, concentration (samadhi) and wisdom (prajna) will lead to Nirvana. The notion is that one must first practise morality, and when that is firm, then one should take up the practise of concentration. Wisdom is to result from concentration, and will establish one in Nirvana. Proper concentration, however, will lead one also to the four jhanas, or states of concentration, or, in an alternative scheme, to certain “attainments”.
As our most easily comprehended text describe it, one is first to practise morality, that is, most especially the recognition of the rights and value of others, and the determination not to harm others. In the second place, one is to keep the doors of the senses guarded, that is, one is not to examine or concentrate on the objects of sense for the sake of pleasure. In the third place, one is to be mindful and self-possessed, performing every action with care and attention, avoiding day-dreaming and other forms of deliberate escape from awareness of one’s present condition. In the fourth place one is to be content with his life as it is. The second stage of practise, concentration, is pursued to eliminate the “five hindrances” to knowledge, that is, longing for the world, malice, sloth and torpor, distraction and agitation, and doubt or hesitation about one’s path. The practise of concentration leads one through four meditative states, or dhyanas. The first, arising from one’s purification from the five hindrances, is characterized by pleasure and joy, and the habit of reflection and investigation. The second abandons the habit of investigation and reasoning through concentration on a single point, but the feeling of unity, confidence, peace and joy remains. In the third, joy, which apparently was the result of the satisfaction of a craving, fades away, though the sense of well-being (pleasure felt with the body) remains. In the fourth stage there is no sense of well–being, either, but the mind is considerate and flexible, without prejudices. It is to be noted that an abandonment of ordinary conceptual awareness is not assumed, by Buddhists, at least, in any of these meditative states. These preparatory states of meditation are said to belong to the world of matter. They are followed by four immaterial dhyanas. In the first one contemplates infinite space, apparently as a way of weening oneself of contemplation of material things. But, perhaps this is the idea, the awareness of the infinity of space is really nothing more than an awareness of the infinity of one’s own consciousness, which can always think further, without limit, and always frame to itself the notion that there is more space even beyond that, so one moves into the second immaterial meditation, on the infinity of one’s own consciousness. But this, too, is unsatisfactory, and reflection on it reveals that what is contemplated is, in itself, nothing at all, but only what it is (consciousness, space) because of its relation to another, and so in the third immaterial meditation, one is aware of this “nothing.” At this point one is perhaps aware of the lack of a real substantial nature in things, and one might expect the process to stop, but the Buddha, following the practice of his teachers, goes beyond to a fourth immaterial meditation, a state of neither perception nor non–perception. One neither perceives something, nor nothing. The Buddha claimed to go on beyond this last state, which had been reached by his teachers, and to have entered a state of cessation of perception and feeling.
The last of these states, cessation, appears to be a state that can only be held to temporarily. Often it is said that one in such a state is indistinguishable from a dead person, and the Buddha resorted to it often later in life (in particular, as he was dying), apparently for the sake of steadying himself with a moment of deep serenity and peace. It was said to be experienced with the body, not the mind. This might cast doubt upon my interpretation of the last stages in this series of meditative states. Kalupahana suggests that the first four meditations establish one in the perception of the emptiness of material things, and points out that one source summarizes the point reached at the end of the meditations in the realm of form as a knowledge of the impermanence of the body, and its association with mind. At this point the question of the substantial nature of mind has yet to be explored, and so the formless meditations are required. The full insight into mind’s lack of Selfhood is reached in the third of these, and the meditation on neither–perception–nor–non–perception is a matter of a non–cognitive state interpreted (or interpretable, at least) as an ‘awareness’ of something non–experiential, so not perception, nor non–perception. The Buddha did not grant that this state constituted a genuine perception of some absolute, non–empirical self, though, and so he moves beyond it to the state of cessation. This means that the seventh stage is an incomplete realization, for although a person in that stage may have seen through the pretensions to selfhood in every experienced thing, including her own mind, there is still room to postulate something that cannot be experienced, a ground of experience, perhaps (rather as St. John of the Cross postulates a kind of non–empirical awareness of God in the highest mystical reaches, not as something outside the soul, nor yet identical with it, but as the ground of its being, somehow presupposed by it). This last illusion is realized in the misinterpretation of the eighth state, and only clearly eliminated in cessation of all perception and feeling. It remains possible that this state is a deeply quiescent one, of course, reached only when the background noise of thought and perception is so much reduced that one becomes aware of something that could be read as a non–empirical self or God. It may be that only by going yet deeper, and attaining a higher level of quiescence, can one see that this is no perception at all of anything.
A variant course of meditation is contained in the description of the eight liberations. In this technique one attains the four material dhyanas by focusing on an object of some sort, a kasina or focus of meditation, and taking delight in it. We have seen the use of a meditative focus already in the immaterial dhyanas, which involve attention to space and then to consciousness, as well as the material dhyanas, which involve concentration on some point or other in the second through the fourth dhyanas, such concentration leading to freedom from discursive thought. In the first liberation one “possesses material form and sees material form,” that is, one focuses on an object within one’s body, a colored object which one visualizes (the blue of the eyes, the yellow of the skin, the red of the blood, or the white of the teeth). In the second attainment one focuses on an external material object (a circle of clay or a bowl of water, for instance). In the third stage there is no attention to the external material as such, but one is aware only of beauty. In the fourth liberation one abandons focus on material objects altogether, even their beauty, entering on the immaterial dhyanas and the cessation of perception and feeling already described.
In yet another scheme, the bases for transcendence, one concentrates first on certain definite (limited, finite) material objects, beautiful or ugly, within oneself, and then on certain unlimited internal forms within oneself. Perhaps one is to focus on particular material things, then on the unlimited world–masses from which all things are made, in the same way that one focuses on space, and then on its lack of limit, in the immaterial dhyanas. Then one focuses on definite and indefinite material forms external to oneself in the same way. In the next four stages the forms are seen as, progressively, blue, yellow, red and white.
The general sense of what is going on is actually fairly easy to see, whatever difficulty there may be in the details. The person, through his meditation, is supposed to arrive at a new apperceptive grasp of reality. Things no longer look to him as though they have self-nature. This change in apperception occurs by stages, the appearance of a self-nature or ultimate reality belonging to one thing or another being very persistent, but the errors become more and more subtle, until at last all illusion is destroyed, not only intellectually, but apperceptively as well. The fifth higher Dhyana is often represented as a kind of trance in which one is conscious, but free of all sensory experience and all sense of things being good or bad, but that does not seem to be the original idea at all. we have an account of the fifth Dhyana which makes it clear what is going on without looking at later material. According to this account,
There is, monks, that sphere wherein there is neither earth nor water nor fire nor air; there is neither the sphere of indefnite space nor of indefinite consciousness, nor of nothingness, nor of the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception, where there is neither the world nor the world beyond nor both together, nor moon nor sun; this I say is free from coming and going, from duration and decay; there is no beginning nor establishment, no result, no cause; this indeed is the end of suffering.
The world perceived here is not mere nothingness, but rather the world void of absolute reality. The deployment of the four-fold denials characteristic of the criticism of the notion that there is an unconditioned, real self-nature is apparent. The passage goes on to remark that
non-substantiality is indeed difficult to see. Truth certainly is not easily perceived. Craving is mastered by him who knows, and for him who sees, there nothing... Monks, there is a not-born, not-become, not-made, not compounded. If there were not, no escape from the born, become, made, compounded would be known here. But, monks, since there is such, there is an escape... For him who is non-attached, there is no vacillation. When there is no vacillation, there is calm; when there is calm, there is no delight; when there is no delight, there is no coming and going [that is, birth and death]; where there is no coming and going, there is no disappearance and appearance, nothing here or there or between them; this is indeed the end of suffering.
We shall see that the interpretation of these remarks, and of the stages of meditation, distinguishes the various schools of Abhidharma, and is one key to the evolution of later Buddhist thought.
Some further insight into the higher states of meditative consciousness can be gained from a consideration of the “three doors to deliverance,” through which Nirvana is supposed to be approached. These are emptiness (sunyata), the signless (animitta) and the wishless (apranihita). These gates to deliverance are experienced in meditation just prior to the attainment of Nirvana. They represent three properties of reality as it really is. The void is that which is empty of the self and anything pertaining to the self, and was considered in Chinese Buddhism to be a kind of latent potentiality from which all things emerge, so that all comes from emptiness and returns to it. The notion is rooted, it would seem, in the belief that the illusory world of our experience, which is everywhere related to the self, is rooted in the perception of emptiness, the world as it is, upon which we project our selves. The signless is what does not point beyond itself, that is, what is seen is what is seen, and the Arhat stops there, and does not take it as a sign of something beyond itself, so that the perception never serves as a basis for grasping. In particular, it is not taken as a sign of something desirable or aversive, or, more subtly, as a sign of some thing with a self nature. Nirvana is said to be free of ten signs, the five sense objects, male and female, production, perpetually changing subsistence, and destruction. The wishless is what is not in any way useful for one’s plans, so that to perceive the wishless is to perceive reality as it is without projecting usefulness upon it. It seems that an apperception of the world is being described here, one attained in meditation, in which everything presents itself to one just as it is, without our reading into it any kind of self, real nature, or usefulness to any end. This would be an extraordinary sort of apperception, in which interpretations normally projected right into our sensory fields is absent, a perception of the five aggregates just as they are, without perception of things, usefulness, or any relation to the self or its desires. Such a perception might well produce nirvana, the extinction of craving, if one were prepared for it, and ready to interpret it as a vision of reality as it is, confirming the Buddhist metaphysics and the irrationality of grasping. Suddenly, grasping would seem an absurd sort of affair, particularly if this apperception were coupled with a sense of the wonder and beauty of things just as they are, and of the peace attached to freedom from grasping. This way of perceiving would pass, and one would return to the ordinary way of perceiving the world, but might no longer take the world as it is ordinarily perceived seriously, and might remain free of grasping.
Nirvana itself is also said to be empty, signless and wishless, that is, (1) the state of nirvana does not belong to any self, either in reality or in the perception of the one who enjoys that state, (2) the state of nirvana does not point beyond itself to something that can be grasped, it is not a sign, even of itself, and (3) the state of nirvana is not desired or wished for. In nirvana, one is content simply to be, without any attention to the meaning of what one is, and without any false awareness of a real self that enjoys the state.
We have been describing the supposed results of concentration, and one can see how it is supposed to lead to wisdom, in the form of an actual shift of apperception so that the absence of self in the world is reflected not in one’s intellection, but actually in one’s perception. The Chan Buddhist notion that Concentration and Wisdom are two sides of the same coin is given a point here. But we have not yet seen how the practise of meditation actually goes.
One type of concentration is a matter of fixing one’s attention on a single object, such as a circle of red clay on a cloth. One looks at it until an after image forms, and then concentrates on that. Thus one develops powers of visualization and concentration, which coupled with an intellectual understanding of the Dharma, will help bring about the requisite shift in apperception. The development of power of visualization is an important technique today among Tibetan Buddhists, and I have been told by some of its practitioners that it can be quite effective.
Another type of concentration involves close attention to the four components of oneself, body, mind, feelings, and thoughts. For each of them one is become aware of its impermanence. Under the concentration on thoughts one runs through the five skandhas in this fashion, the four “groups of grasping,” that is, body, feeling, perception and consciousness, and then the six senses and their objects. And so it goes, until one has meditated on everything given in experience, and verified that not one them is the self. It is this type of concentration that the Chan Buddhist refers to when he asks the disciple to find and show him the original Buddha nature. There is no such thing, of course, since one is being asked to find a bottom-line reality, though one already has the Buddha-nature, since it simply consists in emptiness, and all that is, including one’s self, is empty of self-nature.
Another approach is to simply concentrate on feeling the virtues required and dispelling by an effort of will those poisonous states of mind that get in the way. So one might concentrate on being ardent and not dejected, to the elimination of harmful thoughts (such as the consideration how one has been injured) and fostering of good thoughts (reflecting on the essential kindness even of one’s worst enemies), the fostering of mindfulness, faith, calmness, equanimity and so on. This all seems related to another form of meditation borrowed from the Yogins. It is described as an inferior form, not leading to aversion to craving and grasping, absence of passion, cessation, peace and so on. In fact it helps foster adherence to morality by fostering sympathy with other people. One is to project love, or friendliness, to each of the four quarters, above, and below, and then do the same with compassion, sympathy, and equanimity. I have seen it practised to project strength, calmness and the like to someone in distress to aid them. Buddhaghosa suggests that it is best for one to start with love for oneself, then for one’s family, and work outward until one projects love even to his enemy. One is supposed to attain to the Brahma-Worlds through this meditation, not to enlightenment, and this notion reflects neatly the aim of morality.
In all these forms of meditation control of one’s mind is emphasized. It is only by mental discipline that one can break old habits of reaction and thought, and eliminate the sources anger, greed and the like; and it is only by such discipline that one can keep the dharma in mind so constantly that it comes to inform one’s apperception of the world. In the last stages discipline can be abandoned, as attentiveness has become second nature, and the clear perception of the truth has led one to an automatic revulsion from craving and grasping, now seen for the evils that they are. But one only reaches this point of ease and freedom by a severe mental training.
It is interesting, though, that from early on there are legends of Buddhist laymen winning enlightenment by a sudden attainment without the long and gradual practice of meditation. And indeed, it would seem to be opposed to the Buddhist view of things to insist that enlightenment can only be won by such long, hard discipline. Any such causal connection is necessarily to be trusted only when the conditions making it obtain are satisfied. If the background and preparation of a laymen is favorable, the usual road to enlightenment can be by-passed. Indeed, we shall find Chan Buddhism making sudden enlightenment an actual technique, the point being to set up the conditions under which sudden enlightenment can be obtained, and then making the move that will suddenly produce the necessary insight. This was a departure from the usual procedure in early Buddhism, which seeks enlightenment through a gradual practise. The differences in technique are still found today in Zen Buddhism and the Theravada Buddhism of Sri Lanka.
[On forms of dhyana—note the contrast between Soto (Tsaotung) and Rinzai (Linchi) sects in the Zen (Chan) school. It seems clear that practice can lead to strange states of consciousness involving the absence of sensory perception and the like, however these may be induced. The use and interpretation of these states is at issue. In both forms of Zen the primary aim is the achievement of the sages enlightenment, and so these states described in the immaterial forms of dhyana are not looked on as final aims, but as useful steps on the way. In particular, the moment at which such a state ceases is looked on by Rinzai as an opportunity to become aware of reality as it is, empty. So at that moment one may, with sufficient concentration, observe the arising of the normal manner of perception and so observe how it constructs the world of “real things.” Somehow, once normal consciousness is restored, a residual sense of the emptiness of things, and so an altered apperception, is the result, though many repetitions of the meditative trance and the moment of reentry into normal perception may be necessary to consolidate this. Soto seems to hesitate over the value of the immaterial dhyanas, and recommends a different sort of meditation, one of intensified, relaxed, ordinary awareness, with a close attention to one’s thoughts and their comings and goings without becoming identified with any of them. This is recognized to be an abandonment of the meditative tradition fo the eight dhyanas, and is defended as a return to the sort of relaxed sitting that the Buddha remembered engaging in as a young man while his father was ploughing, at the point of his final enlightenment under the Boddhi tree. The Rinzai style of meditation is taken to be distracting, something one comes to value in itself, and unnecessary for enlightenment. Indeed, some Soto masters seem to deny that a state of cessation is attainable, or to regard it as pathological. In effect, they take it to be a matter of forms of meditation practiced by non–Buddhists which became current in the Buddhist community. Rinzai Masters often, in their turn, show a certain contempt for Soto “quietism” (as Daisetz Suzuki put it), and suggest that the most complete Enlightenment is unattainable, or nearly so, without the immaterial dhyanas.
In the Scholastic period, one might expect to see these meditative experiences examined from another perspective, that of Abhidharma, in the attempt to provide a proper explanation of what occurs psychologically in the various trances. So the Visuddhimagga. The view that the state of cessation is a temporary halting of all mental processes, giving a chance to observe just how they work when they kick in once again, and so a chance to understand the emptiness of things and no–self.
Metaphorically, at least, as our quoted passage above suggests, the stage of cessation might be the same as the apperceptive recognition of emptiness, and a Rinzai type would suggest that it is, indeed exactly this. But one must return to a normal view, to illusion and samsara to lead one’s life, and so we make repeated visits to nirvana, always returning to samsara with a better, but never perfect, view. On this view, one might see that death (paravirvana) without any such return would be the final aim, and how putting off this aim to save all sentient beings might come to be conceived as a kind of final abandonment of self... Soto, as I understand it, would expect that one can be fully functioning while in one’s normal activities, and through “everyday practice” of mindfulness etc., even when not meditating, and so would hold that an apperceptive awareness of emptiness need not involve a state of cessation. it may be that Soto is the more authentic Mahayana position, and that Rinzai smacks of the abhidarmist approach of the Scholastic period just sketched. If that is right, Mahayana would reject the notion that mentation every stops, perhaps, and certainly the notion that it is inevitably defiled with false apperception of self–natures. On this, see discussion of Yogacara and Madhyamaka schools, and the double interpretation of their doctrines, of the three Bodies, etc.
In the Tantric tradition, we seem to have yet other styles of meditation, adapted to Buddhist
aims, in great profusion. An exchange with Hinduism is surely present here.]
* * * * *
Notes on Buddhagosa, Visuddhimagga I: Description of Virtue (Sila) (standard formulation of Theravada, ca. 420 C.E.)
Begins with a quotation: “When a wise man, established well in Virtue, develops Consciousness and Understanding, then... he succeeds in disentangling this tangle.” (Samyutta Nikaya I 13) It is explained that the tangle is the “network of craving.” The book is organized around these three items, Virtue, Consciousness, and Understanding. After a discussion of each, laying out a theory rich description of it, he then discusses how it is purified of craving, so that Nirvana, the extinction of craving, is attained.
The upshot is that virtue is conceived to exist before it is purified, and is conceived to be a necessary foundation for progress in purification of Consciousness and Understanding. Virtue “shows” (commends to us? results in and so shows itself in?) (a) doing what is good (relieves suffering) and avoiding what is bad (produces suffering), (b) the avoidance of devotion to indulging sense desires , (c) the means for overcoming loss, (d) the abandonment of defilements (anger or aversion, craving, and deliberate ignorance) by the substitution of their opposites (rather than suppression in purified Consciousness, or cutting them off where they arise in purified Understanding). These opposites would presumably be opposed mental states, and perhaps actions that they give rise to. One can work out the ten precepts on these lines, so that (i) one abandons anger, by refraining from ill will, but also from actions of anger, for instance, killing, (ii) one abandons craving through avoidance of covetousness, and also through such actions as giving, and refraining from theft, bad sex, and the like, and (iii) one abandons willful ignorance through wisdom, and such actions speaking the truth, avoiding the use of drugs for the sake of escapism, and so on. (e) the prevention of actual transgression or misconduct (expression of the defilements in action) due to defilements (rather than prevention of obsession, or craving, which is rooted out by concentration, i.e. purified Consciousness, or the prevention of the inherent tendency to defilement, i.e. false views, which is destroyed by Understanding).
In discussing what virtue is, Buddhaghosa identifies several ways of viewing virtue: (i) Virtue as volition is the will to act, and is especially present in keeping the first seven precepts—refraining from killing, from taking what is not one’s own, from false speech, from stupid sex, from the use of drugs and other means to escape awareness, and from actions out of anger, and giving to others. (ii) Virtue as a concomitant of consciousness, which is the abstinence from mental states likely to lead one to violate the precepts rather than action, and it is shown especially in following the last three precepts, which forbid covetousness and ill-will and enjoin right view). Here no volition to act is involved, but rather a determination to shape one’s consciousness in a certain way, by abstaining from certain bad states likely to eventuate in wrong actions. (iii) Virtue as restraint is a deliberate restraint from (as opposed to a will to) action or from the formation of a concomitant of consciousness, and Buddhaghosa suggests five varieties depending on the source fo the restraint: (a) restraint by the Patimokkha rules, the obligatory rules of the Sangha, (b) restraint by mindfulness (guarding the senses so as not to give rise to sensory cravings), (c) by knowledge (recognition of the foolishness of craving, deliberately kept in mind and recollected as necessary), (d) by patience (bearing patiently whatever evils one must endure), and (e) by energy (maintaining one’s focus on the task). (iv) Virtue as non-transgression is the non-transgression of the precepts. [I’d like to say that various criteria of virtue are identified here, and all happen to coincide. Throughout, Buddhaghosa clearly is avoiding the identification of an essence of virtue. In any case, as an analysis of the notion of virtue along the lines common in the Analytic School in the West, this is not bad work.]
In the discussion of the etymology of the term, Buddhaghosa suggest that it is derived from a word meaning “composing”, and interprets this in two ways: (a) virtue renders our actions consistent, and (b) virtue is the basis for profitable states. (a) May mean only that it renders our actions consistent with the goal of Nirvana, but there may be more, for they perhaps aim for freedom from suffering, and cannot consistently do so unless they aim for Nirvana. If there is any single essence or definition of virtue for Buddhaghosa, this is it.
The benefits resulting from virtue: Above all is non-remorse. This does not mean no feelings of guilt, but rather, that one does not regret one’s actions, since they do contribute to freedom from suffering. Here a kind of consistency in one’s will seems certainly to be introduced. There are in addition a number of worldly profits to be derived from virtue, i.e. one becomes wealthy, gains a good reputation, self-confidence, mental clarity at one’s death, and a favorable rebirth. Morevoer, one earns the love of others. Of course, virtue also contributes essentially to the attainment of Nirvana.
Morality was practised, not because one could attain release directly by doing good deeds and accumulating merit, but because its practise undermined and destroyed the common causes of doing evil to others and the misery of ego-bound existence. The perfected Arhat can’t commit immoral deeds simply because all the tendencies that lead to immorality have been destroyed in him. Morality is provided with a naturalistic basis, then. It is not determined by a moral sense that is, at least in part, a social construction, but rather by what practises toward others in fact conduce toward enlightenment. The theory is rather like Aristotle’s account of virtue as whatever traits lead to the flourishing of the individual in the kind of life appropriate to its species. Like Aristotle, Buddhism has no use for supernatural virtues since it has no conception of a supernatural aim, and it does not consider that the structure of rationality, or the metaphysical structure of the world, imposes any duties on us. Moreover, like Aristotle’s list of virtues, the Buddhist list of moral virtues includes much that has little to do with moral duty. Indeed, meeting one’s obligations and doing one’s duty is recognized as just one part of morality, and one is to do good for others, for instance, not because it is one’s duty but because this contributes to the end of suffering. The good is defined straightforwardly as whatever leads away from suffering, and the bad as what conduces to it. So it is bad to torment oneself, as an ascetic does, or others, as a hunter does, or both oneself and others, as a king making sacrifices does.
There are various lists of moral duties for laymen. The basic five are drawn from the Vinaya, not to take life, not to take what is not given, to maintain chastity in keeping with one’s position, not to tell falsehoods, and not to use intoxicants to the point of indolence. Five more are often added. One source gives the first four above, and then adds, not to slander, not to use harsh or rough speech, not to chatter frivolously, not to covet, not to be malevolent, and not to hold heretical views. The basic rules all seem to be other-regarding, though the third and fifth have more of a direct regard for effects directly on oneself than the others. The tenth rule in the second list looks like no moral rule at all, but the chief idea here may be that one is not to espouse and defend heretical views before others, thus drawing them away from the Dharma. The usual line seems to enjoin respect and sympathy for others as people like oneself, facing the same difficult world, the same torments, and with the same capacity for enlightenment.
The general tenor of Buddhist ethics lends itself more easily to theorizing in terms of vices and virtues than in terms of moral rules, since every rule must, of course, be no more than prima facie. Among the vices on the various lists we may mention the five lower fetters: Belief in a permanent individual, doubt or hesitation, belief in mere morality and rites, sensual passion, and malice; the five higher fetters: Desire for existence in the world of form, and in the formless world, pride, distraction, and ignorance. The five hindrances are sensual passion or longing for worldly things, malice, sloth and torpor, distraction and agitation, and doubt. Later on, the five depravities are described: Greed, hatred, stupidity, pride, false views, doubt, sloth, distraction, shamelessness and recklessness. The tendency is for the vices to be defined, and then the virtues to be treated as the absence of vice. This is due to the tendency to deal with the causes of ego-consciousness and consequent suffering in detail, viewing the effort to enlightenment as removal of the cause. Thus a positive characterization of the virtuous man is often hard to get.
The prohibition against eating meat is not natively Buddhist, and the Buddha himself ate meat. It arose as a requirement for the monk in the Mahayana schools, and the Lankavatara sutra makes it clear that it is rooted in the desire not to look bad in comparison to heretical sects, though there are also reasons given for the practise—It causes harm to living creatures, is unhealthy, and, given reincarnation, one may be eating an unfortunate relative. The Vinaya forbids certain types of meat for the monk (that of working domestic animals), and requires that it not be killed expressly for the recipient.
As for heaven and hell, the manner of speech is allowed, but it is quite explicit in a number of places that Hell is in reality only a state of mind, and the same for heaven. The question of the Gods is treated as one of the questions that does not tend to edification, and should not be answered either way. Here, perhaps, the intention is that there are none, literally speaking, but there is a psychological state that one can speak of in terms of god-hood.
Of practises other than meditation and morality, and popular practises, something should be said.
Gautama rejected the use of severe asceticism, holding that morality and the practise of friendliness without ill-will, concentration for the purpose of destroying the fetters (ignorance, desire, desire for existence), and knowledge are sufficient by themselves for salvation. Gautama was said to have tried all the austerities himself, but when he had given up on austerities as fruitless and taken food, he recalled a trance in his youth when he sat in the shade of a tree watching his father work, in the absence of austerity, and to have returned to that approach. The idea is, perhaps, that he was aiming for a shift in his apperception that would seal his wisdom, and realized that some similar shift had occurred in the past without austerities figuring in it.
Similarly, the efficacy of sacrifices to the gods and other external observances was questioned by Gautama. Only reform of one’s self holds any promise of salvation.