Abhidhamma, Buddhaghosa, Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, conventional/ultimate, Maria Heim, phenomenology
I now begin my responses to Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad on the thought of Buddhaghosa. Let me first reiterate a point I made early on: what I refuse is the interpretation that Buddhaghosa’s understanding of ultimate, conventional and the aggregates are merely phenomenological and not ontological. That is, I reject Heim and Ram-Prasad’s claim that “Buddhaghosa does not use abhidhamma as a reductive ontological division of the human being into mind and body, but as the contemplative structuring of that human’s phenomenology.” Emphasis added. I am not, and never was, denying a phenomenological element to Buddhaghosa’s ideas; I would have no objection to the claim that Buddhaghosa uses abhidhamma categories as both an ontological division of a human being and as a structuring of that human’s experience (contemplative or otherwise). As far as I can tell, the ontology/phenomenology distinction is not one that Buddhaghosa employs; in Heim and Ram-Prasad’s article I do not see any evidence that Buddhaghosa makes such a separation.
Indeed that very distinction of phenomenology from ontology seems to me to depend on a distinction between subject (the topic of phenomenology) and object (the topic of ontology). Such a split seems to me one that Buddhaghosa is unlikely to want to make, given his commitment to deconstruct the self/subject. And I think the refusal of such a split may be lent support by Heim and Ram-Prasad’s article itself, on points which I did not refer to because I suspect I am in agreement with them: namely, that Buddhaghosa makes no significant split between mind and matter.
There are times where Heim and Ram-Prasad seem to attempt to deconstruct a subject-object split and yet reinforce it in the same passage. Consider Buddhaghosa’s description of the elements (bhūtas):
He should advert to the four elements in this way: “What are the characteristic, function, manifestation of the earth elemental?” The earth elemental has the characteristic of hardness. Its function is to act as a foundation. It is manifested as receptivity. The water elemental has the characteristic of flowing. Its function is to spread. It is manifested as accumulating. The fire elemental has the characteristic of heat. Its function is to bring to maturity. It is manifested as a regulation of softness. The air elemental has the characteristic of distending. Its function is to cause motion. It is manifested as acting outward. (XI.93)
Now here is Heim and Ram-Prasad’s exegesis of the passage:
What brings out Buddhaghosa’s phenomenological orientation is his standard utilization of not only description by function, but also by characteristic and manifestation. We should resist the temptation to think that this is one side of a subjective-objective divide, because when we turn to how he deals with the characteristic of each elemental, we note in fact that he details the quality of their feel: hardness and the like. So we can be sure that Buddhaghosa is not treating this crucial type of a crucial category of abhidhamma – one which, if anywhere, we might find a robust ontology – as a metaphysical postulate. (1097)
They are quite right to note that subjective feel is one part of Buddhaghosa’s description, which does indeed bring out his phenomenological orientation. This is indeed not one side of a subjective-objective divide. But the last sentence does not follow! The fact that the characteristics (lakkhana) of elements (bhūta) have to do with their subjective feel, does not imply that the elements cannot therefore be objective and metaphysical. They could be, and I think that for Buddhaghosa they are, both. But here Heim and Ram-Prasad appear to infer, without any textual evidence that I can discern, that because they are one they cannot be the the other. For that inference to work, I think we would have to assume exactly that subjective-objective divide that Heim and Ram-Prasad have elsewhere so ably shown that Buddhaghosa does not subscribe to.
One can turn around the first sentence here: Buddhaghosa describes the elements not only by characteristic and manifestation, but also by function. (The term for function is rasa; Heim, in her excellent first book on Buddhaghosa, points out that Pali commentary uses this term in a sense very different from the more familiar Sanskrit aesthetic one, with Buddhaghosa defining it in terms of duty or function, kicca, or attainment, sampatti.) And when Buddhaghosa specifies the element’s function, he specifies it in terms of what the element does in physical space – spreading, acting as a foundation – with no reference made to subjective feel. Unless we are seeking to superimpose our own purely phenomenological view onto the texts, I do not see any reason to view this function or attainment as something merely phenomenological – a way the element appears to function – and exclude ontology, the way the element actually does function. To do so seems to do exactly what Heim and Ram-Prasad have warned us against, and treat Buddhaghosa’s descriptions as one side of a subjective-objective divide – in this case the subjective.
When Buddhaghosa illustrates the key term rūpa, he does so with an analogy that goes beyond subjective feel and even manifestation. He quotes a passage from the Majjhima Nikāya which says (in the Ñāṇamoli translation): “Just as when a space is enclosed with timber and creepers and grass and clay, there comes to be the term ‘house,’ so too, when a space is enclosed with bones and sinews and flesh and skin, there comes to be the term rūpa.” (Vism XVIII.26) Here he is saying that rupa includes those inner elements that we would not normally perceive or feel subjectively, the things that are typically invisible to us: the bones in the body, the timbers of a house.
This point brings us to nāmarūpa, that compound at the heart of their article’s concernes. I agree with what I took to be their most basic point about nāmarūpa. That is: Nāmarūpa is most commonly translated, somewhat opaquely, as “name and form”. Some translators have tried to render it in a more English idiom as “mind and matter” or “mentality and materiality”. I think Heim and Ram-Prasad are quite right to resist that latter interpretation, pointing out that rūpa includes mental elements of subjective feel. I am in agreement with the “more careful scholars” they name, like Steven Collins and Sue Hamilton, who keep the “name and form” translation within “a metaphysical account of the human being where the disaggregative project of analyses for dismantling selfhood produces an account of smaller constituent parts, which are then affirmed as reals.”
Buddhaghosa asserts the paramount importance of nāmarūpa in Visuddhimagga XVIII.24-28, the key passage from which Heim and Ram-Prasad draw their title; we have discussed this passage before and will discuss it again. In this central passage Buddhaghosa says – in Heim and Ram-Prasad’s translation – “One concludes that there is only name and form and nothing beyond them such as a being, person, deity, or Brahmā.” (Nāmarūpamattato uddhaṃ añño satto vā puggalo vā devo vā brahmā vā natthīti niṭṭhaṃ gacchati, Vism XVIII.24) So too, he says paramatthato pana nāmarūpamattameva atthīti. Evaṃ passato hi dassanaṃ yathābhūtadassanaṃ nāma hoti (Vism XVIII.28), which they render: “seeing correctly is the seeing of one who sees in this way, that from the standpoint of further sense [paramatthatas], there is only name and form.” (34) Note the use of atthi/hoti and natthi, “there is” and “there is not”, in both these quotations – and in the translations. Not “there appears”, “there arises to consciousness”, but there is. Buddhaghosa is making claims about what exists – which is, by definition, exactly the subject matter of ontology.
Ram-Prasad claims in his reply to me that
to disaggregate the notion of ‘person’ is to come to ‘see correctly’ that our experience of ourselves is not of irreducibly single subjects. To then take this exercise to be an assertion that there is an ultimate reality of disaggregated entities is a further step, and not one that Buddhaghosa argues for epistemologically.
But there is no reference in this key passage, or in any other passage that Heim and Ram-Prasad quote, to any notion translatable as “experience”. Vism XVIII.28 explains seeing correctly, and it explains seeing correctly as “seeing that” – expressing what one sees within a dependent clause, using the iti particle. One could perhaps take this “seeing” in a very figurative sense and render it as “experience”. But Ram-Prasad’s comment goes further: he claims that what we come to see correctly, the object of our seeing, is “our experience of ourselves”. And there is no support at all for that claim in this passage. Buddhaghosa makes no claim that we see “our experience of ourselves” is not of subjects. Rather, what we see is that there are no subjects (but rather only name and form). There is no word here that can be translated “experience”. A “further step”, a step that Buddhaghosa does not argue for, is taken when we add that concept, the concept of experience – and not by adding the concept of existence, which is right there in the passage. For Buddhaghosa’s sentence simply does not say that one who sees correctly sees that his experience is only of nāmarūpa. Rather, he sees that there is only nāmarūpa. When we are seeing correctly, what we see is not that we do not experience single subjects – something Buddhaghosa does not say in these passages about correct seeing – but rather that there are no single subjects but only name-and-form. When Buddhaghosa says “there is”, I would prefer to interpret him as meaning not “there appears” or “we experience” but “there is”, unless he gives have explicit reason to believe the contrary.
As for whether this disaggregated existence of nāmarūpa is “ultimate”: well, in this passage Buddhaghosa explicitly qualifies the claim that “there is only nāmarūpa” with paramatthatas, an adverbial form of paramattha – and the word paramattha is most commonly translated “ultimate”. Indeed, in describing the same passage on page 1094, Heim and Ram-Prasad themselves use the word “ultimately” to explicate paramatthatas. There is more to say about paramattha, but that is for the next post.