THE TWENTY VERSES (VIMŚATIKĀ)
THE TWENTY VERSES (VIMŚATIKĀ)
The Viṃśatikā or the twenty verses forms a part of the Vi a ti āt atā i i. Notable scholars (Murti, 1956/1960; Chatterjee, 1962; Raju, 1953) have asserted that Vasubandhu is advocating a theory of idealism through this text. However, recent readings by scholars such as Thomas Kochumuttom (1982) and Steven Anacker (1984/2005) have noticed problems with such a reading of the text. Kochumuttom even goes as far as suggesting that Viṃśatikā can be taken as a text advocating realism and pluralism, instead of idealism and monism. In this chapter, I have tried to analyze each of the twenty two verses of the Viṃśatikā. I argue that a careful analysis of Viṃśatikā would reveal that this text does not explicitly claim to be favoring either realism or idealism and is rather a text which deals primarily with epistemology and describes the nature
and scope of our knowledge. It does not make any claim about the ontological status of the world. Its contents are epistemological and psychological in character. When read under such a scope, the text makes better sense and seems more in line with the Buddha‟s way of understanding the nature of the world, which deals primarily with psychology and epistemology, reminding one of his often neglected advice that metaphysical questions and debates are futile as far as the understanding and alleviation of human suffering is concerned. With these considerations in mind, I now present a verse by verse analysis of the Viṃśatikā.
At a casual and unreflective glance, this verse seems to be pointing towards a thesis of idealism, and this is how it has been seen by many scholars. (Murti, 1960, p.316; Raju, 1953, p.269; Hamilton, 1938, p.6)
In his own commentary on the Viṃśatikā (Viṃśatikā -V tti), Vasubandhu starts the text by making a reference to a verse from an important ah y na t a, namely the aśa- ika t a. Thus the first lines of Viṃśatikā V tti are n the reat ehicle, the three realms of existence are determined as perception-only s it is said in the s tra,16 “the three realms of existence are citta- only ” (Anacker, 2005, p.161)
These first lines of the V tti have been quoted as a support by many who see Vasubandhu as advocating a strictly ideal nature of the world. However, in recent times there have been scholars who have noted that such a simplistic reading of Viṃśatikā can be misleading. To quote Steven Anacker:
Perhaps no work of Vasubandhu has been more consistently misunderstood than The Twenty Verses. It has frequently been used as an authoritative source for opinions that are in fact not even there. The main point here is not that consciousness unilaterally creates all forms of the universe, as has been supposed by harmp la and Hsuan-tsang, but rather that an object-of-consciousness is “internal” and the “external” stimuli are only inferable. (Anacker, 2005, p.159)
Anacker further writes in a footnote to the above quoted paragraph: Vasubandhu admits the possibility of the necessity of external stimuli in his a ā ā a a a ā a a, where he says, “ visual consciousness 16 ataṃ aka- t a aśa- ika.
t is interesting to note that Thomas Kochumuttom in his book „A Buddhist Doctrine of Experience (1982) makes a strong case in favour of a realist interpretation of Viṃśatikā by a different reading of the very same first lines of the Viṃśatikā-V tti discussed above. He digs out the etymological roots of the original Sanskrit verse17 and comes out with the following observation:
Hence what Vasubandhu describes as mere representations of consciousness are not the three worlds or things therein, but only cittas and caittas. Hence I refuse to accept such translations of the above quoted statement of asubandhu as “ n the ahayana it is established that the three worlds are representation only ” This latter translation ignores the fact that the term „t ai ātuka‟ is an adjective meaning „belonging to the three worlds‟ and that it is not a substantive meaning „the three worlds ‟ Thus, being an adjective the term „t ai āt ka‟ should qualify a noun or nouns, which the reader has to supply; and from the context of i śatikā and MV it is clear that the noun under reference is citta-caittas. Hence I understand the above statement as meaning that the citta and caittas belonging to the three worlds are mere representations of consciousness. (Kochumuttom, 1982, pp.165-166)
Such readings of Viṃśatikā by two of the most renowned scholars of ah y na Buddhism in contemporary times have helped us immensely to understand the philosophy of the Vi a ti āt atā i i on the one hand and have also challenged the traditional reading of Vasubandhu as an idealist, on the other. In any case, Kochumuttom not just refutes an idealist
interpretation of Vasubandhu but goes a step further to claim that Vasubandhu can be conveniently seen as a realist and pluralist. He writes: 17 a ā ā t āi at ka i ti āt a a a t ā at , (Viṃśatikā –V tti 1)
But I maintain that the entire system, when understood in terms of realistic pluralism, makes better sense and that, therefore, even those passages which apparently support idealistic monism, have to be interpreted in accordance with realistic pluralism. (Kochumuttom, 1982, p.1)
Thus, philosophically speaking, perception is a necessary condition for us to have any experience whatsoever. Hence Vasubandhu can be seen as advocating the claim that “All we can experience is our perceptions” However, from this epistemological claim that “ ll we can experience is our perceptions”, it is impossible to logically derive the ontological claim that
“ ll that exists is our perceptions ” and hence Vasubandhu does not commit himself to any such idealistic position. Thus we maintain that what Vasubandhu wants to emphasize is the fact is that our experience can make us know only our perceptions and the external world can at best only be inferred.
not to give a metaphysical thesis about the nature of the world. Now when Vasubandhu denies the possibility of knowing external objects all he wants to say is that things are not as they appear to us and it is only our mental categories that shape our experience and present a world before us which we experience according to our conceptual constructions on the incoming sense
of the world19 with the exception that whereas for Kant, the noumena is inaccessible to human perception, for Buddhists the real world beyond the phenomena is apprehended by the enlightened ones. In any case, Vasubandhu talks about the nature of perception but does not seem to be taking any categorical stance on the ontological status of the world.
In the latter half of the verse, Vasubandhu compares our ordinary experience of the world with a man who has an optical disorder and who sees things like hairs, moons etc. which do not exist in reality. The text, which starts with some religious overtones (by referring to the aśaika t a) starts to take the shape of a philosophical text from here onwards with
Vasubandhu himself building arguments for and against his Vi a ti- āt atā thesis. The text moves on in this fashion, until the ending verses, which again have more mystical/religious than philosophical connotations. In most of the subsequent verses, Vasubandhu raises certain objections himself which could be raised by his opponents against the Vi a ti- āt atā thesis. This is an effective style of presenting a good argument in philosophy and is used by many
scholars even in the contemporary philosophical world. However, due to the aphoristic style of the text, there can be some confusion as to what is really being meant by Vasubandhu in his objections and replies since he keeps on building his objections as well as the responses to these objections in way which can provide some space for a hermeneutical debate on the text. However, a careful reading of the text - by keeping in mind the religious and historical
background of the text - can definitely make things clear for serious readers. At a casual glance the text can give an appearance of unconditionally refuting the existence of anything other than the consciousness/perceptions. However, thanks to some modern readings, especially by Kochumuttom (1982) we are now sure that such a simple reading of the Vi a ti āt atā i i is
unwarranted. Kochumuttom in his book quite forcefully makes the point when he makes it clear on the outset that asubandhu‟s thesis here is not against realism but only against the correspondence theory of knowledge (Kochumuttom, p 164) Thus asubandhu‟s main argument is not that there are no external objects or that experience always happens without any extramental object, but rather that experience is possible without any extramental object being
appear to us. In other words, we as knowing subjects can only know things as they appear to us (phenomena), whereas the reality or the things as they really are (noumena) is inaccessible to our cognitive faculties.
there. However, one should not take this reading of Vasubandhu (by Kochumuttom) too far and must keep in one‟s mind that this is just another reading of asubandhu and that the latter never takes an explicitly realist position in the text. Further, the important point to be noted here is that any idealistic interpretation of the Viṃśatikā does not, in a similar manner, do justice to this text
Vasubandhu a position which is more compatible with the overall philosophy of Buddhism and, when we adopt such an approach, the best way to follow has to be the middle way. Hence we believe that instead of seeing the Viṃśatikā as an idealistic thesis, which is holding on to one extreme position about the nature of reality, or conversely taking this as a case of realism, which is the other extreme, this text can simply be seen as i) Epistemologically - a case for refutation of correspondence theory of knowledge, and ii) Psychologically - as an illustration of the deceptive power of our mind and how it constructs a false world of appearance.
In his work, Kochumuttom did not elaborate enough the reasons that could make Vasubandhu refute the correspondence theory of knowledge. One reason, in my opinion, can be to make us aware of the great potential for illusion and hallucination that our normal experience
contains and also to explain the inadequacy and falsity of our conceptualization of the incoming sense data which we receive from our environment. This conceptualization leads us into the formation of aṃ kā a and habit-energies, which make us act in an uninformed way in the
world. Without understanding this process we can never really get out of the cycle of ignorance. This, to me, seems the most obvious reason for Vasubandhu writing this text. To add to this argument, such a psychological reading of the Viṃśatikā fits well with the contents of the i śikā which are more psychological than metaphysical in nature. In any case, an extreme reading of the text can make the Vi a ti āt atā i i look like advocating a thesis of metaphysics - real or ideal - a position which can be problematic for any serious seeker of Buddhism since there is always the possibility of being trapped in such metaphysical
speculations. And if we are caught in these metaphysical debates, we would miss the valuable insights that Vasubandhu as a great Buddhist psychologist has to offer on the functioning of human mind and for the alleviation of suffering. It is with all these factors in consideration that I have proposed my own explanation of Viṃśatikā‟s next twenty one verses have added certain comments with some of the verses, wherever I have felt the same to be a necessity.
Going back to the text, Vasubandhu feels that our normal experience of the world is like that of a man with cataract who sees non existent objects like flying hairs, moon etc. which do not exist in reality but are seen by the man because of his diseased eye.
===2.3 Perception, Dreams and Hell
can be an experience without an extramental object, then any restriction as to the time and place of an experience becomes illogical. In other words if the existence of the external object is not necessary for an experience to take place, then I can have an experience of any object anywhere and not at a certain place where that particular object is said to exist. Also, an object of experience would be found at any arbitrary time and not at a particular time. Further, we observe that an experience is not restricted to a single individual but is shared by everyone who happens
to be in the field of perception of that object. This is unlike the experience of a man with cataract who only sees the non existent hair subjectively and such hair is not seen by people who are standing near him. Further, such non existent objects as flying hair and moon cannot perform the function of real objects like the real moon or a real hair. 20 The term „moment-series‟ ( a tā a) is used to denote a „person‟ in Buddhism
In the seeing of pus-rivers, etc. by all of them.
Vasubandhu replies to these objections in the following way: First he gives the example of a dream and says that restriction as to time and place happens in case of a dream also. In a dream, we see objects at a certain place and at a certain time and not just at any random place and time. Thus I can have a dream of meeting my friend Ramesh at 5 PM in Jammu and hence we observe that the dream experience is also restricted as to the time and place of an experience.
4. Activity which has been performed is just like being affected in a dream And as in a hell-state, All of these (are demonstrated) in the seeing of hell-guardians etc. and in being tormented by them.
21 Throughout the text, objection of the opponent would mean the anticipated objection built by Vasubandhu himself.
To the objection that if perception can occur without an extramental object being present we would be at loss to explain how there can be causal efficacy that is the mark of particular external objects, Vasubandhu gives the example of a dream. It is well known that in a sexual dream, there can be real discharge of semen at the mere dream of a sexual act. Thus there can be causal efficacy without there being the need of an extramental object; in a similar way perception can occur without an extramental object being present. To make his claim more strong,
The hell guardians who torment the sufferers of the hell are according to Vasubandhu only the mental projections of the suffering pretas and not real extramental entities. However they are experienced by those condemned to hell at a particular place, that is hell and at a particular time,
that is the time when their kārmic deeds have ripened. Further, such an experience is restricted to those who have performed bad deeds and not to anybody else. Again these non-real hell guardians can result in real activity in the way of torments that they inflict on the hell inhabitants. Thus the hell analogy answers all the objections of the opponents, namely:
(i) Restriction as to time and place
(ii) Non restriction to moment-series
(iii) Activity that has been performed
In his Viṃśatikā-V tti Vasubandhu makes it clear to his readers why such hell guardians are not admitted as real beings and just seen as imaginary mental constructs by him. He says that to take them as real entities existing independently of the mental streams of sufferers would
involve some inconsistencies. If the hell guardians are real extramental beings then there is no reason for their inhabiting hell, since hell is a place which is meant for the moral retribution of those who have collected bad deeds through their karma. If the hell guardians have performed bad deeds, then they should also be suffering in hell like those whom they torment but this is not
To this the opponents may argue that it might be the case that these hell beings arise in the hell just to punish the pretas. This arising is possible because there is an arising of animals in heaven. So in a similar way, the hell guardians can arise in hell.
since they do not experience the sufferings that are engendered there. Vasubandhu replies to this objection by saying that we cannot equate the arising of animals in heaven with the arising of hell guardians in hell. This is because animals are born in heaven because of their good karmas and hence they enter heaven to reap the pleasant fruits of their karmas. However this is not the case with the hell guards since unlike the animals in heaven who reap their karmas in the pleasant environment of the heaven, the hell guardians are totally unaffected by the torments of hell that are all around them. Hence the hell guardians cannot be taken to arise in a manner similar to the animals in heaven.
Vasubandhu now says that if the traditional understanding of the hell guards is accepted, that is to say that if they indeed are external entities that exist to execute sufferings to the hellinhabitants,
it means that these hell guardians are result of the past karmas of the hell sufferers. However it would be better to assume that they are only the transformations of consciousness of the hell sufferers rather than being independently existing material beings in the hell. Vasubandhu explains the reasons for such a belief in the next verse.
Vasubandhu says that in case we assume that the hell guardians are a result of the bad karmic deeds of the hell sufferers, it would be holding the view that the locus of the impression a karmic deed (i.e. the hell sufferer) is different from the locus of its effect (the hell guardians).
asubandhu here gives an argument which reminds one of Ockham‟s razor 22 He argues that it would be more logical to assume that the impression of the deed and its result are located at the same place (in the moment-series of hell sufferers). Hence, Vasubandhu sees no need for positing an extra entity which can be quite easily done away with in his philosophy.
Having all their initial objections thus answered, the opponent may try to refute Vasubandhu by another strong argument. The opponent now makes appeal to the scriptural authority of Buddhism and says that if, as suggested by Vasubandhu, perceptual experience can happen without an external object being present and if the external objects can never be convincingly
known, then why is it that the exalted one (the Buddha) spoke of the externals in the form of sense field of visibles etc. (āyatanas)23 while giving his discourses. The mention of ā ata a by Buddha implies the fact that there are externals that can be known.
Ockham‟s razor is a philosophical principle given by William of Ockham. It states that “Plurality should not be posited without necessity” n other words, out of two competing theories about an event or situation, the one with the simplest explanation of the event is to be preferred.
23 The term ata as, meaning “sense-field” or “sense-base” is used in Buddhist epistemology to explain the entire range of human experience. The human experience, for the Buddhists, consists of 12 ā ata a : the six cognitive
Vasubandhu responds to the objection by saying that when Buddha used the words like the sense fields of visibles etc., he had a hidden intention in imparting such a teaching. By teaching in such a way, he could make his lay disciples understand him better since they would have found teachings like the vi a ti- āt atā too hard to grasp, especially at the level of a
beginner who was just at the initial stages of understanding the Dhamma. Vasubandhu adds that it was not the only time when Buddha talked with such an ā a-ka śa a.24 In fact Buddha used to make use of such notions, one example being the notion of spontaneously generated beings.25 This mention of spontaneously generated beings was done by the Buddha to ease off the perplexity of his followers since they could not understand the subtleties of the transmigration of consciousness series from one birth to another
Vasubandhu now makes it clear how his thesis is entirely compatible with the Buddha‟s teaching of the sense-fields. He says that when the Buddha talked about the sense field of 24 n Buddhism, especially in the ah y na, ā a a śa a or „skillful means‟ refers to the Buddha‟s use of a
variety of techniques and methods which he used in his teachings in order to make his disciples understand the gist of whatever he was trying to convey in his discourses. This might have sometimes involved words and concepts
which were not „true‟ but had to be used because it was the only way the Buddha could explain things to his disciples, who were too immature and deluded to understand the truth directly. 25 Spontaneously generated beings are those that arise all at once, with all their organs neither lacking nor deficient.
They do not have to undergo embryonic stages or any other development … asubandhu here assumes that the category of spontaneously generated beings really doesn‟t exist, and that the Buddha spoke of them, and in particular of spontaneously generated intermediate existences, only to demonstrate the non-discontinuity of the cittaseries.
visibles, for example, of eye and the visible, he meant nothing but i a ti- āt atā itself, because a sense organ is nothing but the manifestation of a seed in the store-consciousness (ā ā a i ā a) and similarly the visible is nothing but the form by which the seed in the ā ā a proceeds and makes itself appear as a visible. Thus when the sage spoke of the two fold [[sense fields]] he was in fact talking about the i a ti- āt atā, although in another manner, just to make things clearer to his disciples for whom the notions like i a ti- āt atā, ā ā a and jas could have been confusing.
10. What is the advantage of teaching with such an intention? In this way, there is an entry into the selflessness of personality. And in yet another way, this teaching is an entry into the selflessness of objects. in regard to constructed/imagined nature.
Now, the opponents may ask why the Buddha would teach in this way and not in the way of the i a ti t atā i.e., why would the Buddha make use of notions like ā ata a and not of i a ti ā a a and the like asubandhu replies that the Buddha‟s main concern was that his disciples should understand and realize the non substantiality of the self. When the Buddha taught by making use of the notions like the ā ata a , his disciples could grasp that what they considered as their self (pudgala) was nothing but only a collective name for the dynamic and collective functioning of the ā ata a . This dynamic functioning, which gave one the illusion of an independently existing self could thus be explained in terms of the twelve sense fields. In this
way the disciples could understand the non-substantiality of the pudgala ( a aāi ata a).26 By virtue of getting taught the notion of the sense fields, the disciple can enter non-substantiality of the person.
a a ai āt a and dha a ai āt a. The first ( a a- ai āt a ) implies that what we normally take as an individual or person is only a name for the five aggregates and is devoid of any unbroken, unchanging and eternal
However, if we understand the reality by means of i a ti- āt atā, then there is an entry into the selflessness of all objects ( a a- ai āt ya). This is because when one knows that whatever we perceive is nothing other than transformation of consciousness, we know that what one takes as permanent entities and objects have nothing substantial and essential to them as all of it is just a projection of the consciousness on the incoming sense data. In this way there is an entry into the non substantiality of the object ( a a- ai āt a).Vasubandhu adds that
this non substantiality of the objects is with regard to their imagined nature only and not with regard to their ineffable nature. Kochumuttom has again used this point effectively to make a claim about realism.27 I would again say that such a reading is as problematic as the one he is criticizing, that is, the idealist one. In any case Vasubandhu has shown that when Buddha spoke
about the sense field of visibles etc., he was doing so only because he had a special intention in mind. Thus in one philosophical masterstroke, Vasubandhu saved his i a ti- āt atā thesis and at the same time gave a novel interpretation of one of the Buddha‟s fundamental thesis on
Having the aforementioned objections overruled, the opponent may question as to why we should believe that the Buddha while speaking of the sense field of visibles etc. has the intention of a a ai āt a in mind as Vasubandhu suggests, and why not simply believe that the Buddha when talking about colour etc. was simply pointing to the objects that we see all
Vasubandhu says that although in our unreflected experience of the world, things like material objects and color may appear as existing real entities, a deep phenomenological reflection can start putting question marks on such a naive view of reality. Now, the realists
believe in the correspondence theory of knowledge and hold that we know the objects exactly as they are in themselves. Since objects are known to us as they are, some realists, like those devoid of a fixed or intrinsic nature or in other words, are without a self (e.g. the five aggregates which constitute the notion of a self are themselves without a fixed nature).
far beyond the range of his experience. (Kochumuttom,1982, p.173)
belonging to the Vaiś ika School describe these objects as being made up of atoms.28 In the next five verses, Vasubandhu attacks such a realist position about the existence of atoms and by implication attacks the certainty of the existence of external objects as well as the claim that such externals are known to us exactly as they are.
===2.5 The Refutation of Atoms
help explain the sense object in terms of atoms and shows that each involves a logical contradiction. First, a sense object cannot logically be a single thing, as the Vaiś ika believe,29 since no single entity is observed over and above the parts of an object. What we experience is only the parts and the whole is never perceived. Also, it cannot be called a combination of
various atoms since we cannot perceive the individual atoms that constitute an object and hence we cannot claim that the object is made up of atoms. Further, it cannot be called an aggregate of atoms since even a single atom is not obtained in experience and so there is no question of obtaining an aggregate of atoms. In this way there is no possibility for the existence of atoms. 28 For the ai e ika chool, the atom ( a a ā ) is the smallest, partless, indivisible and eternal particle of matter.
The physical objects of the world are produced by the different combinations of these atoms. 29 For the ai e ika school, the whole (avayavin) is a new creation with its own identity, over and above the sum of
12. How is it that it cannot be demonstrated?
Now Vasubandhu takes on the theory that it is only the combination of six atoms that is perceptible to the human visual perception.30 Vasubandhu says that there is no way in which this combination can take place. If we assume that one atom is joined to six different atoms, then this joining of atoms can take place in two ways:
(i) Either the six atoms are joined to one atom from six different sides. But this would imply that the atom has six different parts, each of which is joined to another atom. Hence an atom would have parts, which would be a contradiction to the very definition of atom, according to which the atom is partless.
(ii) The other case can be that the atoms do not join from different sides but there is a common locus for the atoms and they join at this common locus only. If this is the case, then an atom would take only that much space which is taken by a single atom. Hence these six atoms would be of the same size as that of a single atom and then such a combination would also be imperceptible, like a single atom.
According to the Vaiś ikā , although we cannot perceive a single atom, we can perceive a combination of six atoms. Two atoms can join together to from a dyad ( i-a ) and three such dyads combine to form a triad. The triad or the t i-a is the smallest perceptible object of experience.
Now the opponents may argue that although it is true that atoms cannot combine with each other because of the problems involved therein, it is possible that their aggregates can combine, thus giving rise to the objects of our sense experience. In this verse, Vasubandhu replies to this objection of the opponents. He says that when it has been already shown that the
atoms cannot combine with each other, there is no way that their aggregates can combine because at the first place the formation of such an aggregate is problematic. An aggregate is nothing but a cluster of atoms but since the atoms cannot combine, as shown previously, therefore their aggregates cannot exist and hence there is no question of the aggregates combining with each other.
14. That which has different parts cannot make a unity [On the contrary if it has no parts,] How come it is subject to shadow and concealment? It cannot be argued that they [shadow and concealment] belong to the aggregate of atoms, Unless the aggregate is admitted to be different from atoms.
An atom by definition cannot have different parts as it is defined as an indivisible unit. Vasubandhu now raises more objections against a conception of the world which is made up of indivisible and partless atoms. This is because such a notion of atoms cannot explain phenomena like shade and blockage which are a common experience of our perception of the
world. We observe that at sunrise there is shade in some part of a perceptible object while there is light on the other part. Now if the world is really made up of partless atoms, this phenomenon cannot be explained since it would require an atom blocking another atom, for it is only by way of blocking of one material complex by another that the phenomenon of shade can be explained. But such material blocking would imply one side of an atom obstructing another side of another
Now the opponents may claim that these phenomena of shadow and concealment can be explained not on the basis of individual atoms but on the basis of aggregate of atoms. Vasubandhu says that this is also wrong since the aggregates are nothing over and above the atoms and hence their properties are same as those of atoms. To explain these phenomena consistently, it has to be assumed that the aggregate has some different properties than those possessed by atoms. But this cannot be the case. Hence the difficulties with the notion of atom,
15. If their unity existed, one could not arrive at anything gradually, There could not be grasping and non-grasping simultaneously, Nor would there be discrete state of many [[[beings]]], and there would be no reason for non seeing of the very subtle.
Vasubandhu now considers the hypothesis that the entire world is made up of a single, indivisible and extensionless unit (since he has already shown that no possible combination of atoms is possible, he is assuming the only option left for the atomists - that the world itself is only a single, extensionless and indivisible unit).
Vasubandhu says that if the world were really a single partless unit, then there could be no possibility of gradual movement by any living being since walking even one step would mean covering the whole earth. There would be no possibility of grasping one thing while nongrasping another because grasping one particular thing would amount to grasping everything in
the world, the world being a single entity. Also the discrete states of a multiplicity of beings like a horse, an elephant and the like cannot be explained since they all would be occupying the same locus that is available (if the earth is to be considered a single unit). Further, the variation in size
between gross beings (like us) and the subtle ones (like the small insects in the ocean) cannot be explained since - the earth being a single unit - everything would be of equal size. On similar grounds, the variation between the visible and invisible beings also defies explanation.
In this way Vasubandhu refutes the theory of atoms. Kochumuttom makes an interesting point when he observes that throughout the verses containing refutation of atoms (verses 11-15), not once has Vasubandhu explicitly said that the atom does not exist. He just says that the atom cannot be proved. He writes:
Nowhere during the discussion does he (Vasubandhu) say that there is no extra-mental world nstead he has thrice said that “an atom is not obtained” ( a a ā -na sidhyati) The term translated here as „is obtained‟ is sidhyati To be sure, this term does not mean „to exist‟ (asti).
Therefore, to translate the above sentence as “an atom does not exist” would be a gross mistake. The usual meanings of the term sidhyati are „to be obtained‟ (in experience) or „to be proved to be true‟ etc he is not prepared to admit that things-in-themselves which are ineffable, could be conceived in terms of atoms. (Kochumuttom, 1982, p.180)
However, unlike Kochumuttom, I would not be jumping to claim the existence of an external world from such a reading. It is indeed true that the atomic conception of the world is refuted by Vasubandhu to implicitly refute the claim that we can know the world as it really is. However, for Vasubandhu, the knowledge of the true nature of the world is beyond the scope of
2.6 More Objections to Perception-Only
Now the opponents raise another objection to asubandhu‟s theory They say that the existence of external objects can be postulated by the means of knowledge ( a ā a ) that we have and of all the means of knowledge, sense perception is the most recognized and foundational one. And in cases of direct perception, we are all convinced that we have perceived an external object at such and such place and at so and so time.
when we are in a dream and on waking up, we know that such objects do not exist at all. However, Vasubandhu does not rest content with this answer only. He says that even in the act of a waking perception, we can never have a true „perception‟ of the object of perception This is because at the time when our sense organs come into contact with the object of perception, we
have only a sense impression of the object and it is only in the next moment of reflection that we form conceptual knowledge of the object. However this knowledge happens in the subsequent moment of the contact with the object and in the meantime the object that our senses came into contact with is already lost. Thus what we take to be an act of perception does not give us the true picture of reality and we only get only our conceptualized constructions (vikalpa) over the manifold of data that we receive through our senses. So, a deeper philosophical analysis would reveal that even perception cannot give us the correct picture of objects of experience.
And remembering takes place from that, The next claim that the opponents put forward is that memory is also a valid source of knowledge. Now memory is only recalling a past episode of perception. Therefore we cannot know (remember) objects through memory if we have not known them in an act of perception, and an act of perception in turn involves perceiving external objects. The reliability of memory thus proves the existence of external objects.
constructed in the act of perception which we are now remembering. As already shown in the previous verse, the act of perception itself is constructed and cannot prove the existence of external objects. In the same way memory also cannot prove it since memory is nothing but the moment series remembering an act of constructed perception which can never prove the existence of externals.
The next objection of the opponent pertains to the comparison between dream and waking experience. The opponents argue that when someone dreams about certain event or objects, this experience is subsequently found to be false once the person wakes up from his sleep. He now knows that the objects which he saw were unreal. However, this is not the case in waking experience. If, as Vasubandhu says, the contents of our waking experience are also falsely constructed realities, we must know subsequently that this experience is false. But this is not the case and we keep on taking our waking experience to be real.
Vasubandhu replies to this objection by stating that such a sublation of the waking experience is also possible in the manner of dream experience. However, such understanding is possible only after one gets enlightened and knows that what he took as the real world was nothing but the thought constructs of his own mind. In case of unenlightened persons, however, the world will keep on appearing as real since they are in a state of a transcendental dream.
The opponent again raises an objection to asubandhu‟s epistemology which explains knowledge without postulating an external object. The opponent asks that if no external objects are needed in the explanation of knowledge, how can one explain the difference between coming into contact with a good or bad teacher, or between listening to a noble religious discourse or an ignoble one. There can be no explanation of such differences until the existence of different external objects is permitted.
Vasubandhu replies that such discriminations can be very well explained by realizing that they only mean that one „moment-series‟ is affecting another „moment-series‟ and there is no need to postulate external material objects like good person, bad person or events like religious and nonreligious discourse. Thus such objects and events can be explained on the basis of the interplay of „streams of consciousness‟ and their effects on each other and there is no need to postulate an external.
Kochumuttom again notes that the very fact that Vasubandhu gives an explanation to such questions about interaction between individuals clearly indicates that he admits to the existence of individuals.31 However, a careful analysis of Viṃśatikā would reveal that Kochumuttom is reading too much in these lines. For Vasubandhu is only talking about the interaction between streams of consciousness and not claiming what actually exists- or what does not exist. In other words he is just dealing with epistemology and not ontology of the individuals concerned.
18. (contd). In a dream the mind is overpowered by sleepiness, and therefore fruits(of the actions done in a dream) are not on par with[the fruits of the actions done in a waking state]. The next objection pertains to the fruits of actions, or the theory of Karma in general. Karma is such an important dimension of Buddhist philosophy that a theory can never be complete until it can accommodate the notion of Karma within its ambit. The opponent is now 31 “Thus, asubandhu clearly admits that there are different individuals inter-acting and influencing each other ” (Kochumuttom, 1982, p.190)
Vasubandhu responds that since in a dream the mind is overpowered by sleepiness, a person lacks the free will to choose her actions and hence karma is not applicable. In philosophical terms, the volition or free will is not there. Dream is an unconscious process. However, in waking state, one is more responsible since the moment-series is free to choose between the varieties of options that are available to it. As a result, the law of karma is applicable only in the waking state and not in the dream state.
The next objection of the opponent concerns the event of death. Since there is no need to postulate an external in the system of Vasubandhu, how can one individual kill another individual and subsequently why is one considered morally responsible for the killing of another person?
Anacker has rightly pointed out that Vasubandhu has satisfactorily explained the event of death in his a a i i aka a a (Anacker, 2005, p.177). However, Vasubandhu uses a different line of argument here which goes very well with his refutation of correspondence theory of knowledge and also with his insistence that the external object is not required to explain any knowledge episode. He says that death can be explained as the cessation of a moment-series caused by another moment-series. Unlike in a a i i aka a a, he does not
bring the notion of „volition‟ to explain the ethical nature of a moral act Here he just says that it is possible for a moment-series to be fatally altered by another moment-series and there is no need for an external object to explain such an alteration of one moment-series by another. He cites some examples from the Buddhist scriptures to show how powerful mental energy can be
In this verse Vasubandhu cites the story in which the a aka forest was made empty by the sheer mental power of some sages.32 Also, it is a well known fact even to the modern readers that mental torture in some cases can be more dangerous than some physical form of torture. These instances show the power of mental streams of energy and suggest that no external object is really required to explain events like death.
asubandhu‟s use of the aforementioned story may seem like folk mythology to some readers. However his bringing into use of these notions is not unfounded. As Kochumuttom has observed, mental power is such an important force in all the yogic traditions of India that there are innumerable stories in the scriptures which go overboard in telling about the mental exploits of the yogis. This topic about the ability of mental power to alter the physical surroundings without making use of the body, is beyond the scope of this text. Such yogic siddhis were probably meant to encourage the practitioner, Buddhist or otherwise to achieve more control of one‟s mental faculties
My point is thatVasubandhu is merely quoting a few instances where the power of the mind is described. He is just describing how mental states can alter physical environment without the need of a bodily act. However, the possibility of an extra mental world is not denied by these examples. No number of examples can prove that only mental entities exist and I am sure this is asubandhu‟s point also ore than proving the ontological reality of mind-only, he is trying to show that there is every possibility of experience without any extra mental object.
32 The story occurs in the ā i tta of the a i a ikā a.
Thus, Viṃśatikā, which at its face value appears as a text advocating idealism, is found to be noncommittal on either realism or idealism on a careful and detailed reading. The fact that notable scholars have given elaborate arguments in support of either an idealist (S. N. Dasgupta, T. R.V. Murti, A. K. Chatterjee) or a realist (Kochumuttom) interpretation of Viṃśatikā with the debate still unsettled in favor of any of the camps only means that the real nature of this text is beyond the narrow philosophical confines of realism and idealism. The next two verses bring this point out clearly.
The next objection pertains to the well known philosophical problem of the knowledge of other minds: If all that people can know is nothing but their own subjective mental states, as Vasubandhu seems to be claiming, then how is knowledge and hence the existence of other minds possible? Vasubandhu, like a true Buddhist master not just responds to the objection but also points to us the limitations of our knowledge about ourselves. For Vasubandhu there is no question of knowing other minds since in the first place, we have no true knowledge of what is
really happening in our own minds. He further believes that this is because the true nature of one‟s mind can only be known when one has realized that the subject-object dichotomy that is the necessary condition of our perceptual knowledge in a ā a is just the false way of perceiving things. This realization is available only to the enlightened ones and not to ordinary unenlightened beings who always take the subject-object dichotomy to be something real.
This constant hammering on the falsity of the subject-object dichotomy is a hallmark of the Buddhist tradition This is itself a reminder that the „episteme‟ of which asubandhu is talking is a different one from our usual discourse in modern academic philosophy since in the latter case, any knowledge episode essentially involves a subject (who knows) and an object (which is known). Now a perceptual state bereft of the subject-object dichotomy (which is a defining feature of the knowledge of the enlightened ones in the Buddhist tradition) can be considered a mere neurotic fancy; or on the other extreme it can be taken as a state of elevated consciousness. In any case, however, it is clear that it is impossible even to conceive of such a state and even if we can imagine such a state of knowledge, questions like whether the external world is dependent or independent of our mind would not arise at all since the very notion of question involves a Questioner and hence a Subject and would always presuppose a subjectobject dichotomy.
22. This treatise on the theory of perception-only has been composed by me according to my ability; It is not possible, however, to discuss This (theory) in all its aspects It is known (only) to an enlightened one.
2.7 Concluding Remarks
The concluding verse of the Viṃśatikā is in itself the crux of this text. The problem in giving any narrow dimension to this text is clearly brought out in the light of this masterly statement of Vasubandhu. In spite of defending his thesis like a hardcore philosopher right from the first verse, he seems well aware of the fact that no amount of dialectic can fully explain the nature and scope of this text. He says that although he has given his best in explaining the perceptiononly theory, yet this theory can be known in its full scope only to an enlightened Buddha. In an
implicit way, he has pointed towards the great divide between theory and practice as understood in the Buddhist tradition. The true crux of a theory like this is beyond the scope of language and logic and one must be a follower of the Buddhist way and subsequently enlightened to know all its details. It is beyond the range of thought and dialectic.
Talking about this final verse, Kochumuttom ponders whether Vasubandhu is asking for an excuse because of any inconsistencies that might have been crept into this text (Kochumuttom, 1982, p.196). It is true that there are logical inconsistencies in the Viṃśatikā, but it is only because we are looking for a philosophically consistent text that we come across these „inconsistencies ‟ believe that any text such as the Viṃśatikā, which is not written purely for academic purposes but has its roots in a great tradition of religious and spiritual practice such as Buddhism, is bound to be somewhat logically inconsistent since it tries to point beyond the dimensions of logic and dialectic, as is the case with many religious and spiritual texts. Such a text can never be completely accommodated in any of the philosophical and logical categories that we are accustomed with in our usual philosophical discourse.
Thus we observe that this text can never be conveniently called either an idealist or a realist text in its essence. This inability to fit it into a philosophical compartment should not be seen as any sort of failure in analysis. Instead, we suggest that such a non-metaphysical reading fits entirely well with the approach of the Buddha towards philosophical issues. Although - as discussed in later chapters - there is no doubt that there have emerged from Buddhism
philosophical schools of great merit and that such schools have substantial metaphysical and ontological claims to make, yet Vasubandhu, like g rjuna and unlike many Buddhist philosophers, must be read as being noncommittal regarding metaphysical debates and the nature of reality. Only by such a reading can we understand the immense wisdom and insights that he has to offer to the mankind in general, and to serious students of Buddhism in particular. 33 It is important to note that no such divide between the knowledge of unenlightened and enlightened beings is
found in the normal schema of philosophy with which we are usually accustomed to, especially in the academic discourse, and hence we have to understand this text keeping in mind such non- philosophical categories as are foundationally presupposed by this text. I have discussed these issues in detail in the concluding chapter of my thesis.