Buddhism arose in India during a period of intense reflection on the nature of knowledge and the true sources of knowledge. As with so many elements of scholastic traditions, Buddhists did not only engage in discussions of these issues among themselves; they read, reacted to, and debated against the positions put forth by proponents of other religions, notably the Hindus and Jains. Much attention was directed at the Vedas, the sacred oral scriptures of the Hindus, regarded by their adherents as the uncreated and eternal source of all knowledge, free from error because they have no author, they have always existed. Existing as sound in the perfect language, Sanskrit, knowledge derived from the Vedas therefore was claimed to be superior to any knowledge that humans might gain through either personal experience or reasoning.
Buddhists argued against this, asserting that the Vedas were not uncreated, but created; not eternal, but impermanent. Knowledge gained through the Vedas, or any body of scripture, therefore, was of limited value in and of itself. Buddhist philosophers therefore identified only two sources of valid knowledge – direct perception and inference. Of these, the former was more reliable because it was not mediated through language and thought.
Having dismissed the Vedas as a source of infallible knowledge, Buddhist thinkers were faced with the question of the status of their own sacred scriptures, the words of the Buddha. The philosopher Dignaga (C. 500 ce) argued that language is a system of signs governed by conventions established by a given community. Scriptures, therefore, whether they be Buddhist or non-Buddhist, are of limited value. Dharmakirti (600-660), whose work is excerpted here, argued that Buddhist scriptures, although not infallible, were nonetheless of great value because they contained advice on how to gain direct experience of the truth – specifically the four noble truths – and thereby bring an end to suffering.
Dharmakirti explored these issues in his most famous work, entitled Pramanavarttika, roughly translated as Commentary on Valid Knowledge. In order to establish that the Buddhist scriptures are valid, it was first necessary to establish the validity of their author. It had to be demonstrated that the Buddha is pramanabhuta, a difficult term to translate, but one which conveys the sense of the Buddha as an authoritative person, and as one who has become authoritative. The second chapter of Dharmakirti’s famous work is devoted to this topic. It is entitled ‘Proof of Authority’ (pramanasiddhi) and is 285 verses in length. A small excerpt from the chapter is presented here.
Dharmakirti’s general purpose in the chapter is to explain five epithets of the Buddha: that he is authoritative, that he is the seeker of the welfare of all beings, that he is a teacher, that he is a sugata (a term that can mean *gone well’ or’understood well’) and that he is a protector. But to do this, Dharmakirti must range over some of the most central concepts in Buddhist thought. For example, in order to establish the Buddha’s wisdom, Dharmakirti must discuss how that wisdom was gained over the course of many lifetimes, and in order to do that, he must prove that there is rebirth.
Dharmakirti’s text is written in poetry and is cryptic in style; it elicited a great deal of commentary, both in India and Tibet, where it became one of the ‘five books’ of the monastic curriculum of the Dge lugs sect (and was assiduously studied in all sects). It is also considered one of the most difficult works in the ocean of the scholastic treatises of Buddhism. Thus, readers should feel in good company if they are challenged by what they read below.
Homage to him who is universally good, whose manifestations are divested of the snares of conceptualizing and are profound and lofty, and whose light spreads in all directions. (1)
Usually people are addicted to vulgarity and lack empowering wisdom. They are not only uninterested in what is said well, but, being afflicted with the filth of envy, are even hostile towards it. Therefore, although I believe this work to be of no use to others, my heart, its determination increased through repeated study of eloquent works for a long time, has become eager for it. (2)
Knowledge is non-deceptive cognition. Non-deception consists in suitability for the accomplishment of a purpose. Non-deception occurs even in the case of what is acquired through language, because it is a means of communicating the speaker’s intention. (3)
Language is a source of knowledge concerning the object that, being the subject matter of the speaker’s efforts, appears in his mind. But language is not necessarily grounded in the object’s reality. (4)
A subjective cognition is not regarded as a source of knowledge, because it consists in grasping what has already been grasped. Thought is a source of knowledge, because (a) it is the principal source of action upon things that one should avoid and things that one should welcome, and (b) perception of thought varies as the image of the subject matter varies, since the perception always occurs when the image is present. Its particularity is self-evident. (5-6)
That something is a source of knowledge is known through practical matters. A scholarly work is a means of removing confusion. (7a)
Moreover, a source of knowledge is the disclosure of a previously unrecognized fact. The awareness of a universal that occurs after the perception of a particularity is included in this description, because the intention is a cognition that is about a previously uncognized particular, because investigation is of particulars. (7b-8)
The Lord [Buddha] is the latter kind of a source of knowledge. The statement ‘he has become’ is to rule out that he is unborn. Therefore his being a source of knowledge rightly requires demonstration. (9)
There is no permanent source of knowledge such as God, because knowledge is the cognition of the presence of an actuality. Such cognition is unstable, (a) because what it can cognize is impermanent, (b) because the birth of that which is born in a sequence is disconnected from what is permanent, and (c) because no dependence is possible since he is in no way capable of being assisted. Even if God is impermanent, he is no source of knowledge. (10)
With respect to action after resting, particular configuration, accomplishment of a purpose and so forth, this is establishing what is accepted. Either there is a lack of confirmation of the observed precedent, or uncertainty. (12)
A certain pattern that has particular qualities is established to follow the presence or absence of a superintendent. Whatever is inferred from that is correct. (13)
An inference is not correct on the basis of what is similar owing to its having the same name as what is attested in a particular thing; for example, the inference of fire from
Otherwise, one could establish that since some pot, which is a transformation of clay, is a creation by a potter, then an anthill must also be a creation by him. (15)
The error of referring to a particular is supposed to be found equally in the effect, because in a demonstration by means of a similarity in the effect based on being pervaded by what is to be established, there is a difference in the relata. (16)
A demonstration based on the observation that a similar expression for a well-known thing is applicable to another class of things is not correct. For example, it is faulty to argue that language has horns because it happens to share some other feature of a cow. (17)
Because they depend on what the speaker wishes to say, to what are expressions not applicable? But if the conclusion is established by their presence, everything is established for everyone. (18)
By this same principle one can criticize Kapila’s argument that the rational intellect is material and therefore actually unconscious, since [unlike the permanent and conscious soul] it is impermanent. Similarly, one can criticize the Jain argument that trees are conscious because [like animals] they shed their skin upon dying. (19)
Suppose something is exactly the same way when it is not a cause as when it is a cause. If this is so, then why is it supposed to be a cause? Why is it not regarded as a non-cause? (23)
Owing to his contact with a weapon or with medicines, Caitra gets respectively wounded or healed. But why is an immovable object that is without activity not deemed to be a cause?(24)
Not even effort is possible without a change in nature. Since a permanent thing is unchanging, its capacity to act is hard to comprehend. (25)
If one considers a thing’s cause to be something other than those things in whose presence it surely comes into being, there will be no end of causes anywhere. (26)
Soil and so forth, owing to a transformation of nature, is a cause of a seedling’s arising, since one observes that that seedling changes when the soil is cultivated. (27)
But could this be similar to a sense-faculty’s contacting a sensible object, which without change is a cause of awareness? No. For there is a change even in that case. (28)
Things that are separately incompetent would have no capacity to act even in contact if they had no excellence by nature. Therefore it is established that they do have excellence. (29)
Therefore those things that are separately incompetent in which efficacy is possible are a cause when in contact. But God and other similarly eternal things are not causes, because they undergo no change. (30)
Some people assert that being a source of knowledge consists in knowing objects beyond the range of the senses. Since there is no demonstration of that supersensory knowledge in the Buddha, therefore one should not undertake to follow him. (31)
Those who fear disappointment in acting on the instruction of someone who does not know seek out some expert in order to undertake what he says. (32)
Therefore, what one should examine is the expert’s opinions about what ought to be undertaken. Of what use to us is his thorough knowledge about the total number of insects? (33)
The person who is regarded as a source of knowledge is not one who knows everything, but rather one who knows the truth about what ought to be avoided and what ought to be given up and who knows the method of doing that. (34)
Whether or not one can see far away, one must be able to see the truth that is desired.
If one who is far-sighted is a source of knowledge, then come here, let’s attend to the vultures! (35)
What demonstrates the Buddha’s authority is his compassion. It comes from habitual practice. One might think that there is no way of establishing the Buddha’s habitual practice over the course of many lifetimes, since the mind resides in the body and dies when the body dies. But that is not so, because there we deny that the body is necessary to support the mind. (36)
It is not the case that inhalation, exhalation, the sense faculties and thought are independent of antecedent causal conditions of the same type and arise from the physical body alone. For when there is an assumption that they arise from the body arising, there is a farfetched conclusion. (37)
One might ask this: What observable thing possessing the capacity for rebirth did one have while one was supposedly caught in transmigration that one does not have later upon being liberated, so that the liberated person no longer has the capacity for rebirth? (38)
We respond that there is no part of the material elements in which creatures, such as insects born of sweat, are not born. Therefore, if matter were the sole cause of sentient beings arising, it would follow that every material thing must have the nature of a seed. (39)
Therefore, if the sense faculties did not arise dependent on causes of the same type, then the transformation of every thing would be like that of any one thing, for there would be no difference in their causes. (40)
Even if there is destruction of the material sense faculties one at a time, there is no destruction of awareness in the mind. But it is observed that when there is a disturbance of that awareness in the mind, the physical senses become impaired. (41)
Therefore, something that is the support of the mind’s continuity, which support is dependent on the mind itself, is the cause of the sense faculties. Therefore, the sense faculties derive from the mind, not vice versa. (42)
The mind that arises later is like the karma-producing mind that existed earlier. Consciousness is said to be dependent on the body only because it is capable of being assisted by cognitions about the body. (43)
Although there is no awareness without the sense faculties, they also do not arise without consciousness. There is, nevertheless, a relation of reciprocal causality. From this reciprocal causality the two reciprocally caused things arise. (44)
Translated by Richard Hayes from Dharmakirti’s Pramanavarttika 2.1-19, 23-44, in Y. Miyasaka, ed. Pramanavarttika of Dharmakirti, Acta Indologica 2 (Narita: Naritasan Shinshoji, 1971/72).
Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.