Ancient Philosophers who attempted to resurrect Buddha’s Dhamma
Posted on October 2nd, 2019

Professor  N. S. Amaratunga

As Buddha had seen by experience that life is Anithya, Dukka, Anathma” (impermanent, sorrow, no-self) and as he did not want to believe what he could not perceive with his senses, he had to fight against the two extreme metaphysical views that were present in his time; the theory of  a permanent self and the theory of nihilism or annihilation. In Kaccayanagotta sutta (Samyuttanikaya) Budda had said; Everything exists – this Kaccayana is one extreme. Everything does not exist – this is the second extreme.  Kaccayana without approaching both these extremes Tathagata  preaches the doctrine through the middle.” Then he went on to preach the Paticcasamuppadaya (Dependent Coorigination) . Buddha had also rejected another metaphysical view that attempted to introduce transcendentalism (lokuthara) into Nirvana, Buddha-hood and Arahath-hood. However, after Buddha’s Parinirvana” these views continued to be propagated and it had an impact on his disciples and Sanga. Consequently within the Sanga community itself dissenting views of permanence, nihilism  substantialism,and also  transcendentalism, took root and caused rupture and formation of breakaway groups. In addition to these internal conflicts there were other philosophies such as Brahmanism that were on the ascendancy. Thus there was a need for Buddhist philosophers to come forward and meet these challenges from time to time. 

Soon after Buddha’s parinirvana” the younger monks, saddened by the demise of their beloved teacher and also perhaps influenced by other religions and philosophies, started to make the historical Buddha a larger than life being and built stupas and monuments in his memory. They attempted to make Buddha a transcendental phenomenon. The elder monks resisted these developments but the trend among the younger monks continued to grow in strength. In an attempt to rid the Dhamma of these impurities and also to formulate a system to preserve the Dhamma the first Dhamma Sangayanava” was held three months after Buddha’s demise by the older monks. This caused the first rupture of the Sanga. The Sthavira” group consisting of elder monks was formed. Theravada (Elders’ School) the oldest of the existing schools is considered to be the descendant of Sthavira”.  The other breakaway group may have later developed into Mahayana and its branches.

Theravada could not continue without dissension and internal conflict. The same disruptive forces that promoted substantialist and nihilistic views continued to plague it. As a result the second Dhamma Sangayanava” was held about seventy years after Buddha parinirvana”. During this period Buddhism had undergone much decay due to lack of royal sponsorship. Further due to the challenge mounted by opponents of the theory of Anathma”, particularly regarding the question of responsibility in the operation of the theory of Karma” various ideas were introduced by groups of monks. This resulted in the formation of further breakaway groups such as Puggalavadins” who said there is a puggala” (person) in addition to the panchaskandya” (five aggregates) which could take responsibility for karma” ;  Sarvasthivadins” who attempted to get over the problem by introducing a permanent element called Svabhava” into the formula of being; and Sauthanthrika” who  advocated a nihilist approach through their Kshana Vadaya” . In addition to these challenges Brahmanism was in the ascendancy.

King Dharmasoka in the 3rd Century BC was planning to propagate the Dhamma by sending Dhammaduta” to foreign countries. He wanted to hold a council before he undertook this task to make sure that the Dhamma thus spread would be free of flaws and consequently the Third Dhamma Sangayanawa” was held. The Third Dhamma Sangayanava was conducted by Venerable Moggaliputha-tissa who delivered the sermon called Kathawattu” (Points of Controversy) which is included in the Pali Tripitaka. The venerable monk had at this council refuted the three major flaws that had crept into the Dhamma ; puggalavada”, sabbatthavada” (realism) and lokuttaravada” (transcendentalism).What was his method of argument? To refute transcendentalism he showed that Buddha was a normal human being who was born, lived and died naturally by referring to historical events and suttas where Buddha had begun the preaching in the first person language. Venerable Moggalliputha-tissa’s argument against Puggalavada” (Personalism) and Sabbatthavada” (Realism) was to show that there is no ultimately real person who exists under all circumstances. He first asks Does a person exist as absolute truth and ultimate reality?” and when the answer is in the affirmative he asks Whether a person who is absolute truth and ultimate reality arises out of whatever is absolute truth and ultimate reality”. Then the answer was one should not say so” which goes to prove that something that is absolute and real cannot arise from another thing that is not absolute and real. When the constituents of the panchaskandya” is not absolute or real the person who is formed of the panchaskandya” cannot be absolute or real. Venerable Moggalliputha-tissa goes onto prove that an absolute and real existence cannot occur under any circumstances.  Thus Venerable Moggaliputha-tissa was the first Buddhist philosopher who made a major attempt to resurrect Buddha’s Dhamma. However other Buddhist philosophers like Buddhagosa who subscribed to a transcendentalist viewpoint has attempted to misrepresent Moggalliputha-tissa’s Kathavathu” (see – Pancappakaranatthakatha”).

There were three other great Buddhist philosophers of a later period whose work has been misunderstood, misinterpreted and changed to suit ulterior motive. Nagarjuna (1st to 2nd Century CE), Vasubandu (4th to 5th Century CE) and Dinnaga (400 – 485 CE) were the philosophers who attempted to cleanse Buddhism of the material that was not in keeping with what Buddha taught and its uniqueness based on the doctrine of Anathma”. Their work  has been distorted by their commentators, Chandrakirti, Sthiramati and Dharmakirti respectively. By these means these great philosophers and their work  were converted to other schools; Nagarjuna to Madhyamaka, Vasubandu to Yogachara, which are both branches of Mahayana and Dinnaga also to Mahayana. This conversion was done by misrepresenting their work disregarding and nullifying the fact that  the purpose of those works was mainly the resurrection of Buddha word. This may have been possible due to the enormous political power the Mahayanists and Brahamanists could wield. It must be remembered they almost succeeded in converting the Buddha into Vishnu’s avatar.

Nagarjuna, also called the second Buddha, wrote Mulamadhymaka-karika” (Fundamentals of the Middleway) mainly to refute substantialist and nihilistic views which are not found in the Suthra-pitakaya. He had analyzed the word sunya” (emptiness) which appears in Buddha’s preaching to show that what Buddha meant by sunya” was that mind and matter are devoid of anything that could be identified as self. This fact is evident when one carefully studies Mulamadhyamaka-karika”. However the Mahayanists latched on to Nagarjuna’s idea and they used it to support their idealism which said everything is sunya” in the sense that everything is a construct of the mind. Subsequently this point of view was further developed and the school known as Madhyamaka was created with Nagarjuna as its author, after his demise.  Further Nagarjuna had written Vigrahavyavartani” (Reversal of Refutation) mainly as a response to the re-emerging Brahmanism and the concept of Brahamma. In this work or in any other Nagarjuna has not deviated from his purpose, his intention was to resurrect Buddhism which was being ruined by Buddhist substantialists and transcendentalists and also by Brahmanism. His works had no Mahayana features like transcendentalism, idealism etc.

In Mulamadhyamaka-karika” Nagarjuna shows that the word sunya” or concept of emptiness is based on the Paticcasamuppadaya” a non-absolutist but empirical explanation of the existence of the world and life. Further in this work he attempts to meet his critics who were trying to misinterpret his views and give it a Mahayanic twist. He uses the logic known as Chathuskotiya” or four cornered refutation also known as tetralemma. Several very important doctrinal concepts which were being distorted by metaphysicians were examined by Nagarjuna in this text. These included the concept of condition and an analysis of the four types of conditions which are important in dependent coorigination, the Buddhist concept of time in order to refute the kshana theory” of Sauthanthrika, the faculty of the eye to show the unreliability of human perception and the theory of realism, the agregates (panchaskanda”) to show the absence of a self, the psychology of lust, dukka” to explain in Buddha’s words the causation of suffering, Sankara” to show its role in life and how it could be prevented from progressing into suffering by its appeasement, Tathagata” to show there is nothing transcendental in it, the deed and the doer to explain the theory of karma”, Four Noble Truths and host of others in twentyseven chaptors in all. Though Nagarjuna’s detractors and Mahayanists have attempted to misinterpret his arguments and views a careful study of Mulamadhyamaka-karika would show that his was a very successful attempt to debunk the ideas of breakaway groups such as Sarvasthavada and Sauthanthrika.

Nagarjuna wrote Vigrahavyavartani” mainly to counter the resurgence of Brahamanism which was promoting the idea of an ultimate reality with a fresh interpretation of Brahmma.  He partly uses his theory of sunyatha” for this purpose. Similarly he refutes the idea of a cause, a beginning as such of the world. If something is caused by another thing the former must be found within the latter. The tree is not found within the seed. Nagarjuna asks how the knowledge of the cause was arrived at. If this knowledge was obtained from the scriptures how did it come to the scriptures? In this regard Nagarjuna says if the source of knowledge were to be established by other sources of knowledge, there would be infinite regress” (DJ Kalupahana, 2008) which may end up with a metaphysical explanation such as god. In the vedic tradition not only the human being (Athma) and the Ultimate goal (Brahamma) but also the moral order was based on metaphysical theory. Moral code was based on the caste which was decided by Brahamma. Nagarjuna rejected the theories of Athma and Brahamma in his work Vigrahavyavartani”

After rejecting those metaphysical concepts Nagarjuna in his other major work  Suhrllekha” (Letter to a Friend) thoroughly discusses the Buddhist moral order. He writes this text in the form of a letter to his friend King Gauthampura Satakarni. He is comprehensive in his reference to Buddhas philosophy on morals and draws from every statement Buddha had made on moral behaviour suitable for a Buddhist as they appear in suttas. In D.J.Kalupahana’s opinion the collection of Sinhalese verses Lovadasangarava” by Venerable Vidagama Maitreya is an adaptation of Suhrllekha”. There were several other writers who were influenced by Surhllekha” including monks in Abhayagiriya monastery. These monks may have had contacts with Nagarjuna when he lived in Nagarjunakonde, South India where there had been a Sinhalese temple. Nagarjuna’s work is not just a description of morals suitable for lay persons but a comprehensive discourse on the moral philosophy of Buddha where the final goal is Nirvana and is based on Paticcasamuppada”. 

Vasubandu was the half brother of Asanga who is believed to be the author of the school of Buddhism known as Yogachara , a branch of Mahayana. Vasubandu’s major work was Vijnapatimatratasiddhi (The Establishment of Mere Concept). This work has been deliberately changed with the intention of making the text and its author Mahayanist and a metaphysical idealist (DJ Kalupahana, 2008). Vasubandu in this work has criticized the metaphysical theories of the opponents who were trying to introduce such ideas into Buddhism. He also summarizes Buddha’s psychological theories and his philosophy of language.

Vasubandu’s main intention in this work was to develop a theory to explain the evolution of consciousness. His theory starts by looking at the end result of the evolution of consciousness rather than the beginning. In Buddha’s Paticcasamuppadaya” too Buddha had looked at the end result and worked out the beginning which is the empirical method of analysis where one begins from what one could perceive. Thus Vasubandu was adhering to Buddha’s method and his empiricism in order to avoid metaphysical views. Vasubandu invented the phrase Alaya-vinganaya” to denote the final resultant consciousness which carries all its seeds accumulated through one’s karmic experience. These views had made his detractors interpret them as idealism (Vignanavadi).  Sthiramati apparently has radically altered the content and the altered versions have been adopted by other translators and commentators which resulted in wide acceptance of the distorted version. And hence Vasubandu had been accepted as one of the major authors of the Yogachara branch of Mahayana which subscribes to an idealist (Vinganavada”) philosophy. The other major branch of Mahayana is Madhyamaka  and Nagarajuna has been made its founder by his disciples after his death which is a gross injustice committed against one of the greatest Buddhist philosophers. What Vasubandu achieves in this work is a refutation of both idealism which says everything exists only in the mind while nothing exists outside it and realism which says objects have an existence quite independent of the mind.

Dinnaga was a pupil of Vasubandu. He is believed to be the foremost Buddhist logician and he had used his expertise to clarify the relationship between object and knowledge. His was a highly sophisticated analysis of epistemology. He thought that the proper understanding of the object depends on the source of knowledge. He was of the opinion that there are only two sources of knowledge, perception and inference. He identified  two aspects of the object that corresponds to the two sources; the particular and the universal, the former being the object of perception and the latter being the object of inference. For the Realist, who thinks what one perceives exists as reality, the Object is substantial whereas for the Idealist, who thinks what one perceives exist only in one’s mind, the source of knowledge (which here is the mind) is substantial. Dinnaga steered clear of both these extreme views and supported Buddha’s non-substantialist empirical point of view. One could see that Dinnaga’s views are empirically based arguments and there are no metaphysical elements in them. There are no Mahayana ideas in any of Dinnaga’s work including his masterpiece Pramanasamuccaya” (A Digest of the Sources of Knowledge) where he discusses epistemological aspects of Buddha’s Dhamma. His had been a genuine effort to strengthen Buddha’s preaching as found in the Pali suttas. His commentator Dharmakirti, however, had deliberately misrepresented his major work in an attempt to convert Dinnaga to a Mahayanist.

Another very important Buddhist text which has been misunderstood and interpreted as belonging to the School of Buddhism known as Vajrayana  is Vajracchedika-prangnaparamita” authorship of which is disputed. Philosophers who recognized an ultimate reality that transcends language as well as logical analysis” attempted to interpret this text in accordance with their point of view (D.J.Kalupahana, 2008). This text is written in the form of a conversation between Buddha and monk Subhuti whose name has appeared in the Pali Suttas including Aranvibanga-sutta (Majjhima-nikaya) which forms the basis for the Vajracchedika-”. Aranvibhanga-sutta” (Discourse on the Analysis of Non-conflict) deals comprehensively on the causality of conflict. In Buddha’s estimate Subhuti was the best in leading a peaceful life. In Aranvibhanga-sutta”  Buddha discusses seven issues that may be relevant to peace and the seventh is about the extremist approach to the use of language. Buddha advices the importance of not adhering to grammatical language as being the most correct and also not rejecting the common usage of language. According to Kalupahana (2008) Vajracchedika” could be considered as an attempt to avoid the extremist use of language.  Buddha had been an excellent linguist who had coined new words and phrases to explain his Dhamma for example Paticcasamuppada”. The term prangnaparamita” appears in Mahayana texts and it is also the name of Buddha’s queen according to Tantrayana school of thought which advocates sexual practice for Bodhisathva” in order to expedite the attainment of Nirvana. The use of terms such as pragnaparamita”, Bodhisathva vehicle” in the Vajracchedika may have caused its wrong interpretation. The word Vajra means a special weapon that could be used in achieving Nirvana. In Vajrayana the route to Nirvana involves chanting of manthra”, dharanis”,  use of mudras” and also visualization of deities and Buddhas. Vajracchedika has no reference to any of these methods and in fact has no elements of Vajrayana doctrine in it. All these attempts to distort Buddhist texts and misinterpret their authors and convert them to Mahayana and Vajrayana was carried out with the intention of transforming Buddha’s Dhamma into a form that is closer to the Vedic tradition and Hinduism for Buddha had taken up a strong and irrefutable stand against metaphysical views that cannot be supported by empirically perceived evidence. 

Professor  N. S. Amaratunga PhD, DSc
47/4, Louis Peiris Mawatha, Kandy

[email protected]

0812223547, 0774411777

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