Showing posts with label Abhidharma. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Abhidharma. Show all posts

09 May 2014

Where and Why Did the Sarvāstivādins Go Wrong?

image: wisegeek
It's widely thought that both the Perfection of Wisdom texts and the writings of the Madhyamaka School attack the Realist position taken by the Sarvāstivāda School. The difficulty we have at 2000 years remove is understanding how any Buddhist could adopt a Realist position in the first place. Surely the Middle Way would have ruled this out?

However, as I showed in my essay about Action at a Temporal Distance, early Buddhists inherited a major problem: pratītyasamutpāda and karma as outlined in the early Buddhist texts are inconsistent with each other. I showed that Buddhist schools modified the doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda to preserve the doctrine of karma more or less as it was.  In the case of Sarvāstivāda, this solution required that dharmas be able to function as conditions -- tantamount to being real -- in all three times: present, future and past. But this was not the only influence pushing Sarvāstivādins towards Realism.

As with other early Buddhist schools, the Sarvāstivāda focus moved onto the Abhidharma project, with Abhidharma texts quickly attaining canonical status. Each of the surviving Abhidharma texts is distinct in it's content, if not in its overall project and methods. Thus Abhidharma is a product of sectarian Buddhist schools which often see each other as rivals. 

The key task of the Abhidharma is to identify dharmas, to catalogue and describe them and to explore the dynamic relationships between them. Colette Cox, one of the leading writers on the Sarvāstivāda, calls these two functions: evaluative and descriptive (2004). Ābhidharmikas evaluated dharmas for their contribution to liberation and used the descriptive analysis of dharmas to deconstruct perceived structures and realities (particularly the self). Cox notes that this analysis became increasing fine grained and abstract. This in turn created the conditions for treating dharmas as real entities (dravya). This essay will explore this second Realist influence on early Buddhism, again focussing on the Sarvastivāda as representative of Indian Buddhism.


Collette Cox (2004) sets out the process by which Sarvāstivādins grew into the idea of dharmas as real entities (especially 558-565). Since one of the main functions of the Abhidharma was to create a taxonomy it had to take the approach that all taxonomy projects must: it had to create categories, and criteria by which any dharma might fit into any category. The Sarvāstivādins concentrated on a method called "inclusion" (saṃgraha) in which for each dharma, they outlined what categories it fit into. Each dharma might fit into multiple categories, but it either fit or did not. 

All taxonomic projects have to proceed in a particular way in order to create meaningful and useful categories. And one of the main features of such projects is well defined categories, "...invariable criteria are demanded as the basis of unambiguous classification" (Cox 59). Human beings think about the world using categories. Contemporary understanding of these categories shows them to be based on resemblance to a prototype that sits somewhere in the middle of the taxonomic hierarchy (Lakoff 1990). The edges of such categories are fuzzy and membership is by degrees.

Categories are an efficient way of dealing with large amounts of information and also to assessing the potential of a new entity or event by seeing it's similarity to familiar entities or events. And Lakoff argues that the categories we use are in part defined by how we interact with the members of the category - either physically or metaphorically (where the source domain for the metaphor is itself a physical interaction).

The categories used by Ābhidharmikas, by contrast, seem to have been hard edged and made up of simple, artificial binaries and trinaries. For example a dharma was either samskṛta or asamskṛta; either kuśala or akuśala; etc. A Buddhist needed to know kuśala from akuśala dharmas for the purposes of pursuing liberation (cf Cox's two functions above). Kuśala dharmas are to be cultivated and akuśala dharmas to be abandoned. Matrices (mātṛka) of binary and trinary categories are thought to have made up the earliest Abhidharma "texts". Lists were memorised by the mātṛkadhāra (the counter part of the sūtradhāra and vinayadhāra) and the whole structure of Abhidharma categories could be (re)constructed from such lists. The descriptive enterprise of deconstructing apparent entities, particularly the self, into constituent dharmas gave rise to an encyclopaedic attempt to list all possible dharmas and the possible relations between them. Categories multiplied until we get the lists of 85 dharmas in the Theravāda and 75 in the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharmas respectively.

Each school of early sectarian Buddhism took a slightly different approach to constructing categories, placing dharmas in them, and elaborating their relations. This suggests that the impetus itself is pre-sectarian and indeed we can see examples of Abhidharma style thinking in the early sūtras, as well as as a common core in early Abhidharma texts. However, the manifestations which survive as canonical texts and commentaries are a product of sectarian Buddhism.

A dharma fits into a particular category because it has a particular function or nature which is referred to as svabhāva. This term originally had no ontological implications. Initially svabhāva is simply what enables us to distinguish one dharma from another (Cox 561-2).


The early Buddhist worldview centred around the idea that experience is a flux of conditional processes, arising and passing away as our minds and sensory apparatus are impacted by objects, mental and physical. In this view a dharma was primarily the object of the mind sense (manas), though of course the word dharma is confusingly used in at least six main senses (see Dharma: Buddhist Terminology). But in relation to Buddhist thinking about experience, a dharma is a mental object. In this sense, perhaps, dharma comes closest to it etymological meaning of "support, foundation" - a dharma is the "objective" support process for a mental event to arise (i.e. for an experience to be conscious) when it interacts with the "subjective" perceiving processes. 

The first step on the road to seeing dharmas as real seems to have been the fixed categories into which they were put.
As such we know that dharmas were all impermanent, unsatisfactory and insubstantial. I've already outlined the Sarvāstivādin argument for the "existence" of dharmas in the part and future as well as the present. Arguably one could maintain this kind of view without insisting that dharmas are absolutely real. The first step on the road to seeing dharmas as real seems to have been the fixed categories into which they were put. Whereas in the early Buddhist worldview everything was process, the introduction of fixed categories introduced an artificial reference point into the picture. A dharma was a member of a category in an absolute sense (pāramārthika) and thus a dharma had an identity (ātmabhāva) which was not contingent (Cox 560). It was not inevitable that Buddhists would come to think of their categories as territory rather than map, but it was a slippery slope.

We suffer a similar problem today. For example physicists who study the regularity and similarity of experience can produce highly sophisticated mathematical models which describe the motion of bodies at difference scales and they may or may not be naive realists who believe they are describing reality (in fact most distinguish the map from the territory). But a few tiers down, those doing undergraduate physics are more likely to be unsophisticated about the distinction and to be naive realists. I know this from experience, for as one reproduces the results of, say, Isaac Newton and derives the laws of motion from first principles, the compelling conclusion is that one is describing reality (no one who has not done this can really understand how compelling it is). Once the information goes through the hands of science journalists and into the general public, most of the potential sophistication is lost. Most of us are naive realists with respect to experience, even when we intellectually espouse various philosophies about ontology, in practice we feel ourselves to be in contact with reality.

It is all too easy for human categories to start to seem natural.
Sectarian Buddhist intellectuals were still pre-scientific and produced a variety of speculative views about the world of experience with varying degrees of realism and idealism. In such a milieu the critique of views was simply a clash of opinions. It is all too easy for human categories to start to seem natural, that is to be an aspect of the world rather than something we impose on the world to help us make sense of it.

Think of categories like large and small. These are defined on the basis of prototypes of various kinds of item. When we mention, say, 'dog' each of us has a prototype image of what a representative dog looks like. From this we know that great-danes are large dogs, and chihuahuas are small dogs. We don't usually stop to wonder why, or even pause to apply the label for extreme cases like these. To us it just seems natural. And so, mostly like, the Ābhidharmikas began to think of their artificial categories as natural and therefore real. They begin to blur the distinction between map and territory because the map is an internal, almost a priori construct, that transparently structures the way we interpret experience. Thus began the reification of dharmas by Ābhidharmikas.

Putting Dharmas Into Categories

Colette Cox, with respect to the Sarvāstivāda, and Noa Ronkin, with respect to the Theravāda, both argue that ontological thinking is not obvious well into the Abhidharma project - into what Cox calls the mid-period texts. However dharmas were thought to fit into categories by virtue of their svabhāva - which early on means their 'particular nature'. It is the svabhāva of the dharma that gives it a particular quality and/or function and allows us to categorise it. At first it is simply that we are able to perceive certain regularities in our experience and thus to conceive of different kinds of dharmas. There is something particular about the the experiences that we learn to recognise and give a name to.

By fixing the definition of categories one almost cannot avoid fixing the members of the category.
The problem is that when the category is fixed and hard-edged, then the quality which qualifies any item for membership in that category can also come to seem fixed. Just as categories that move around and are not fixed don't make for very useful taxonomies, it is also practically unhelpful if the members of the categories are able to move around at random. By fixing the definition of categories one almost cannot avoid fixing the members of the category. And thus the meaning of the word svabhāva drifts from 'particular nature' towards 'intrinsic existence' and dharmas start to become real entities (dravya). 


It is the inherent dynamics of encyclopedic projects that, almost inevitably it seems, causes those who pursue such a project to first see their categories as real, and then to see the distinctions they make to fit objects into their categories as real, and in the Buddhist case to see the members of categories, i.e. dharmas, as real. despite the fact that the real/unreal distinction is specifically said to be unhelpful by early Buddhist texts. Be that as it may, the Abhidharma project has had a massive influence on Buddhism and leaves us with a legacy of ontological thought that frequently obscures the true intent of pratītyasamutpāda, i.e. explaining the arising and passing away of mental processes.

It may be that this is why the anti-Realist and anti-Idealist ideas epitomised in the Kaccānagotta Sutta feature in the first chapter of the Aṣṭasāhasrika Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra as well as in Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamaka Kārikā. The early Prajñāpāramitā sūtras tackle Realism head on with an uncompromising anti-Realism. Where Sarvāstivādins proposed real dharmas, authors of the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras said "no dharmas". The seem to have meant "no real dharmas", but the polemic is phrased in apparently nihilistic terms, presumably for rhetorical purposes. No dharmas. No arising. No ceasing. No pure dharmas. No defiled dharmas. And so on. This approach is sampled and remixed in the Heart Sutra.

However we should not look down on the Sarvāstivādins. No other Buddhist school did much better. Theravāda ontology is scarcely more tenable. The predominant Mahāyāna solution to the problem of action at a temporal distance (the Yogacāra ālayavijñāna) involved the invention of metaphysical entities that only disguised the problem. While the Abhidharma was very intellectually productive, it was ultimately a dead end in terms of practice and soteriology.

This essay started by arguing that understanding the Sarvāstivāda was important for seeing Prajñāpāramitā in context. However it also highlights that we are not yet able to say how Prajñāpāramitā deals with the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance. The solution widely adopted by Mahāyāna schools is from the Yogacāra, but there were several centuries between the composition of the Prajñāpāramitā and Yogacāra texts. Nāgārjuna's proposed solution is to treat the everything as an illusion (!) which seems an even less successful answer than the pudgala. I hope in the near future to explore if and how the early Prajñāpāramitā dealt with Action at a Temporal Distance.

We've always known that Buddhism splintered into sects and that the sects had different doctrines. I hope that this trilogy of essays on the Sarvāstivāda has shed some light on how and why sectarian Buddhist developed in the way it did. The early Buddhists were struggling to make sense of the legacy of confusion in the early texts.



Cox, Collett. (2004) 'From Category to Ontology: The Changing Role of Dharma in Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma.' Journal of Indian Philosophy 32: 543-597.
Lakoff, George (1990). Women, Fire and Dangerous Things:  What Categories Reveal About the Mind. University of Chicago Press.
Ronkin, Noa. (2005) Early Buddhist Metaphysics. Routledge.

13 January 2012

Arising in Dependence on Conditions

FOR SOME YEARS NOW I have been interested in the the question: what is it that arises in dependence on conditions? I treat the question as a kind of koan, digging deeper though textual scholarship, and using it as a focus for reflection on my own experience from moment to moment, hoping to see through it. My studies have led to the conclusion that the important thing is that experiences arise in dependence on conditions. This may not exhaust the possibilities, but it's the most useful thing to focus on.

Recently I came across a short text, the Selā Sutta (SN 5.9; S i.134), which gives an interesting answer to my koan. This analysis seems to anticipate later developments in Buddhist theory - particularly the elaborations of the Abhidhamma.

Yathā aññataraṃ bījaṃ, khette vuttaṃ virūhati;
Pathavīrasañ cāgamma, sinehañca tadūbhayaṃ.

Evaṃ khandhā ca dhātuyo, cha ca āyatanā ime;
Hetuṃ paṭicca sambhūtā, hetubhaṅgā nirujjhareti.

Just as a kind of seed, sown in the ground will sprout,
Resulting from both nutrients in the earth, and moisture

Thus the masses, elements and six sense spheres
Are produced from a condition, and cease when the condition disappears.
So here the answer to my question is that what arises (sabhūtā) in dependence (paṭicca) on conditions (hetu) is threefold: the 'masses' (khandha), the elements (dhātu) and the sense spheres (āyatana). I will deal with them in the order: khandha, āyatana, dhātu for reasons which will become obvious.

I have dealt with the khandhas before now (see: The Apparatus of Experience), so I'll be brief here. I follow Sue Hamilton in seeing the khandhas as analysing experience into the most important factors. The five khandhas are: 1. the living body (kāya) which is the locus of experience, sometimes more specifically referred to as 'body endowed with cognition' (saviññāṇa kāya e.g. M iii.18; S ii.252); 2. feelings (vedanā); 3. apperception (saññā); 4. volitions (saṅkhārā); and 5. consciousness (viññāṇa). Hamilton emphasises the collective nature of the khandhas - they do not represent a lasting self either singly or all together. As far as I am aware the khandhas always occur in this order, but are not treated a sequence in the Pāli texts.

The six āyatanas are the six sensory 'spheres' - āyatana is from ā√yam 'to reach out, to extend'. We often read about the 12 āyatanas which are the 6 internal (ajjhatika) and 6 external (bāhira) spheres. The internal āyatanas are the sense organs: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind; while the the external āyatanas are the respective objects: forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, and mental activity (also confusingly called dhammas). It is this set of 12 that is referred to as "everything (sabbaṃ)" in the Sabba Sutta (SN 35.23 PTS: S iv 15). Here we have a resonance with Vedic texts which refer to the cosmos as idaṃ sarvaṃ 'all this' meaning all of the created world. The Buddhist Sabba Sutta seems to be explicitly contradicting the ontological and cosmological implications of the Vedic texts such as Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad (e.g. BU 1.4.1) or Ṛgveda (8.58.2):
éka evā́gnír bahudhā́ sámiddha
ékaḥ sū́ryo víśvam ánu prábhūtaḥ
ékaivóṣā́ḥ sárvam idáṃ ví bhāti
ékaṃ vā́ idáṃ ví babhūva sárvam

Only one fire kindles many times
One sun penetrates everything
Dawns as one, shines on all this
From this one, unfolds the whole
I read this aspect of Buddhist doctrine as saying something very important about epistemology. In saying that "everything" is the senses and their objects what the Buddha is doing is articulating limits on what we can know about. Although it feels real to us, our experience is a construction which relies equally on the thing being observed and the observer. And note carefully that this is a statement about the nature of experience, not a statement about the nature of reality. Reality remains at arms (or more accurately eye's) length from us, because our cognitions are constructed (saṅkhata) from sense impressions and mental activity.

The next set categories for analysing experience take the 12 āyatanas and add the 6 corresponding kinds of consciousness to make a set of 18. This brings together two basic ideas about the processes of consciousness. The first is that when cognition (viññāṇa) arises it is always associated with the sensory modality.
Yaññadeva, bhikkhave, paccayaṃ paṭicca uppajjati viññāṇaṃ, tena teneva viññāṇaṃtveva saṅkhaṃ gacchati.

Whatever kind of condition gives rise to cognition, it is known as that kind of cognition. (M i.259)
With the eye (cakkhu) and form (rūpa) as condition, eye consciousness (cukkhuviññāṇa) arises, and so on so up to mind cognition (manoviññāṇa) which gives us six kinds of conscious. The second important idea is that the process of having an experience is always constructed from at least three elements:
Cakkhuñca, paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ, tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso, phassapaccayā vedanā, yaṃ vedeti taṃ sañjānāti, yaṃ sañjānāti taṃ vitakketi, , yaṃ vitakketi taṃ papañceti,... (M i.111)

With the eye and form as condition arises eye cognition, the three together constitute contact; with contact as condition there is feeling. What one feels one comes to know. What one knows one thinks about, and what one thinks about proliferates...
Each of these groups of factors (dhammas) - khandhas, āyatanas and dhātus - is a way of analysing experience. One of the key practices in relation to experience is examining it for any permanent, satisfying or substantial content of which one could truly say "this is mine" or "I am this", or "this is me" (etaṃ mama, eso'haṃasmi, eso me attā). Variations on this practice remain central to many forms of Buddhism from Theravāda to Madhyamaka.

As I suggested above these categories were foundational for the Abhidhamma which endlessly analysed them and their relationships. I have complained that the Abhidharmikas lost sight of the experiential nature of all this and at least some of them started to speculate about the reality or otherwise of the dhammas. (The Post-Abhidharma Doctrine Disaster) Such speculation was a dead end. I also think Buddhists are wasting their time trying to apply this analysis outside the sphere of experience. The sphere of experience is "everything" in the sense both of what we have to work with, and what we can know about the world. These categories acknowledge the pragmatic and epistemological limitations on human experience, though liberation from dukkha is still an option from within this framework. It's not illogical to argue that this idea has broader implications. For instance the Buddha sometimes used examples from nature to illustrate the principle of dependent arising, which suggests that we see analogues of dependent arising in nature. However I believe the Buddha, especially in texts such as the Sabba Sutta, warned us to stay focussed on experience as the most fruitful course.


21 October 2011

The Post-Abhidharma Doctrine Disaster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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