This study deals with the epistemological problems of the scriptural authority. It examines the various views on the valid source of knowledge (pramāna) in understanding of scriptural word in Mahāyāna traditions. The Buddha advises disciples to reject any form of transcendent authority. The Kālāma sutta teaches to reject the religious scriptures as a source of authority (pitika-sampadānena). The Buddha advises that one should not accept scriptural authority without proper rational grounds. Can Buddhist scriptures be sufficient grounds for the valid means of knowledge (pramāna)? Buddhists traditionally reject the validity of scriptural authority (sabda) as pramāna. In Mahāyāna Buddhist traditions, there are various views on the authority of Buddhist scriptures as a valid source of true knowledge. Buddhist logicians such as Dignāga and Dharmakīrti admit only two pramānas; perception (pratyaksa) and inference (anumāna). The Svātantrika-Mādhyamika, Bhāvaviveka, insists that the words of the Buddha have epistemic validity. The Prāsangika-Mādhyamika, Candrakīrti, do not agree with Dharmakīrti and Bhāvaviveka’s theory of scripture. For the Prāsangika, the scriptures cannot, indeed need not, be pramāna at all. The main Mādhyamika position is to deconstruct ontological or epistemological association of the scriptural word.
The present study deals with the epistemological problems of the scriptural authority in Mahāyāna Buddhism. It examines the various views on the valid source of knowledge (
Can Buddhist scriptures be sufficient grounds for the valid means of knowledge (
In the Mahāyāna Buddhist traditions, there are various views on the authority of Buddhist scriptures as a valid source of true knowledge. Buddhist logicians such as Dignāga (480–540 CE) and Dharmakīrti (600–60 CE) admit only two pramānas; perception (
On the other hand, the Svātantrika-Mādhyamikas, such as Bhāvaviveka (490–570 CE) insists that the words of the Buddha have epistemic validity. The Buddha gave privilege to knowledge, claiming that he speaks of what he knows and that others, too, can know what he himself knows. Bhāvaviveka emphasizes the role of reason (
The Prāsangika-Mādhyamikas such as Candrakīrti do not agree with Dharmakīrti and Bhāvaviveka’s theory of scripture. In their views, the scriptures cannot, indeed need not, be pramāna at all. The Mādhyamika position is to deconstruct ontological or epistemological association of the scriptural word. As for the She-ling school’s view of pramāna, it shall be noted that, because at the time of Chi-tsang, the Buddhist logician’s works had not been introduced in China, therefore, the She-lingians might just follow Nāgārjuna’s theory of pramāna.
1The Kālāma sutta in the Anguttara nikāya (Hare 1973, 172, verse 65).
The Dignāga school is primarily concerned with the sources of valid knowledge and language. Since Dignāga admitted only perception and inference as the valid sources of knowledge, scriptural authority and revelation are not considered as independent means of proof. He defines perception (
On the other hand, inference (
Following Dignāga, Dharmakīrti considers connecting the scriptures and the valid means of knowledge in chapter two of the
Then, does the scriptural word have no real connection with reality? However, Dharmakīrti has to admit epistemic validity of the scriptural word, especially inferential validity. The scripture is an inference which informs the Buddha’s intention. Dharmakīrti asserts that the scripture is not a perfect authority which refers to true reality of beings. Even sage’s words are nothing but an inference. Hence, Dharmakīrti’s opponent will raise a question:
For Dharmakīrti, “a person in this world cannot live without depending on the authoritativeness of the sacred tradition. This is because one learns from Dignaga's view of agama that great blessing and great misfortune result. When one performs some acts, albeit only mentally, the consequences of which are not within the reach of our present experience. And because some conviction that agama is right can be derived from the fact that we do not see a contradiction to this statement regarding acts and their future consequences. So it will be better that one acts in such a manner as prescribed by āgama. By taking such practical reason into consideration, Dignāga said that āgama is a pramāna, i.e., an anumāna” (Dharmakirti 1987, 6, verse 213). Thus, Dharmakīrti admits āgama as a pramāna, for it has a practical function, considering peoples’ ordinary act under its guidance. Then, he offers criteria for the validity of the scripture.
Such a statement as is internally connected (
Dharmakīrti further examines the meaning of “non-disagreement (
As Dharmakīrti tries to prove, the āgama serves for the attainment of the human goals and so is pragmatically useful for the same purpose. The speaker of āgama being so credible will give us useful-true teachings with regard to an object beyond our cognition. Thus, āgama as an anumāna also is closely related to the problem of an omniscience of the speaker, the Buddha. Therefore, if we can prove this, all scriptural words of the Buddha assume epistemic validity.
Dharmakīrti also deals with this subject in the
Therefore, for Dharmakīrti the scriptural word cannot be an absolute authority. The scriptures consisting of words are only a right inferential cognition.
2Dignāga’s Nyāyamukha was translated by Hsuan-tsang (596–664 CE) into Chinese for the first time. For this reason Seungrang and the She-lingians might not know the Buddhist Logicians. 3The two kinds of inference refer to vastubalapravtta-anumana, such as inference of fire based on the perception of smoke and agamasrita-anumana inference basis on agama teaching.
What does the Mādhyamika have to say about the claims of the logicians’ that scriptural word has epistemic authority? First of all, let it be conceded that Buddhist logic, as all others, is not innocent. It has ontological commitment and functions as a tool through which to defend a particular world view. By refuting the metaphysics of the Sautrāntika-Yogācāra, the Mādhyamika is able to deconstruct epistemology and logic. The Mādhyamika thinks that the Buddhist logicians claim the theory of pramāna to establish the existence of knowledge of the independent being, such as particular mark (
For Nāgārjuna, perception like all other entities, is empty. So also are inference, analogy, and verbal testimony. The person who apprehends the things through pramānas is also empty. Thus, there is no cognition of things, and a negation of the instinctive nature of things that are not apprehended is logically odd (Nāgārjuna 1978, 6–7).
In Nāgārjuna’s system, there are neither cognition nor the objects obtained through it. The pramānas cannot be established either intrinsically or extrinsically. The objects and the cognition of objects are dependent on each other, neither makes any sense in itself. Both of them are empty. Nāgārjuna observes that if pramāna are self-established (
There is vicious circularity between cognition and objects. The circularity is stressed with the example of the son and father: “If the son is to be produced by the father, and if that father is to be produced by that very son, tell me which of these produces which other. In exactly the same manner you say; the prameyas are to be established by the pramānas, and those very pramānas in turn are to be established by those very pramānas. Now which of these are to be established for you by which others?” (Nāgārjuna 1978, 33). There will be neither son nor father, neither pramāna nor prameya, in this relationship.
Following Nāgārjuna, Candrakīrti also insists that Dignāga’s argument on the possibility of knowledge cannot be a valid means of attaining a true nature of thing, for it has already presupposed the realistic concept of self-nature as the object of knowledge. There is nothing to guarantee that the attainment of knowledge rests on the pramāna. Candrakīrti asserts that if the Buddhist logician cannot refute this objection, their correct definitions have no true explanatory power. Candrakīrti’s objections are:
The self-characterizing particular (
Although knowledge is itself instrumental and the svālaksana is an integral part of this, the subject cannot be itself the means of characterization. In the
Thus, Candrakīrti criticizes the Buddhist logician’s ideas of perception. For Candrakīrti, the logicians accept the non-Buddhist views of the pramāna which are devoid of sense.
On the other hand, Bhāvaviveka, an exponent of the Svātantrika–Mādhyamika, insists that all the words of the Tathāgata have epistemic validity. He further asserts that there is the speakable ultimate truth (paryaya-
The role of reason is important to discern the deep meaning of the scriptural words. However, reason cannot verify scriptures, but it only helps a proper understanding of scriptures. In the Mochizuki’s Buddhist dictionary, it is said:
Shotaro Iida criticizes Mochizuki’s translation and interpretation on the Bhāvaviveka’s
Candrakīrti may agree with Bhāvaviveka’s stance that reason is the means to correctly understand the scriptures. Actually no Buddhist can be given to a blind acceptance of scriptural authority. Bhāvaviveka has a point in not giving reason the authority to determine the truth or falsity of scriptural assertions. In fact, Buddhist scriptures suspend such an evaluation. Bhāvaviveka simply wants to use reason as a hermeneutical tool, as a means to understand scriptural meaning.
4Prasannapadā is abbreviated as PSP hereafter. 5For discussions on the Mādhyamika view of language, see Daye (1975, 77–96), Streng (1967), Gudmunsen (1977), Robinson (1967), Yadav (1992), Huntington (1983, 325–39), Williams (1980, 1–45). 6Bhāvaviveka, Mādhyamakahrdaya, vol. 9. 91-3-2, 3. as translated by S. Iida (1966, 82–83). Bhavaviveka’s theory of agama and yukti and a study of chapter 5 of the Madhyamakahrdaya are found in Yamaguchi (1964).
We concede that reason has a hermerneutical function in understanding the scriptures, especially in the case of the Mahāyāna scriptures. The hermeneutical functions and its limit of reason are observed by Shotaro Iida as follows:
A critical reasoning is required to distinguish the scriptures of definitive meaning and interpretable meaning. Furthermore, the role of reason is to realize the final meaning of the scriptures through inference. Bhāvaiveka, as seen in chapter two, extends the two levels of scriptures into the two levels of reality, i.e., worldly realty and ultimate realty. Candrakīrti also distinguishes the two levels of teaching, but for him, the two truths are not two sets of reality, but two types of discourse. Also ultimately all scriptures are neyārtha; they all point toward something beyond themselves.
Candrakīrti does not agree with Bhāvaviveka concerning the validity of knowledge of the scriptures. If all forms of sutra have epistemic validity, how can Bhāvaviveka explain non-Mādhyamika sutras such as Yogācāra scriptures which he criticized. By yukti one can grade scriptures nitārtha and neyārtha. However, reason alone is not an arbiter of the authority of scriptures.
Bhāvaviveka’s emphasis on pramāna, especially inferential reason, is criticized by the Prāsangikas. Bhāvaviveka as a Mādhyamika deviates from the school’s main point. He appropriates validity to pramāna and tries to employ inference to his position which is against Nāgārjuna’s doctrine. Candrakīrti will not say that all the words of the Buddha are pramāna, for pramāna bounds the scriptural word to ontological claims. But he may say that all Buddha-words are merely realization of path (