Earlier this year I examined the classic Pali Milindapañhā dialogue and its claim that while one can speak of oneself as a “convention” (vohāra), ultimately (paramattha) a person is not found. I referred in passing to the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification), the most famous work of the great Theravāda philosopher Buddhaghosa, as following this understanding. And I noted that on this view a person, or a chariot, can most accurately be described in reductionist terms, as atomized parts; the ultimate reality lies beyond that convention.
Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad took issue with this description in a comment, referring me to Maria Heim’s forthcoming book The Voice of the Buddha – and to an article he wrote with Heim in Philosophy East and West entitled “In a double way”. Neither of these has been officially published yet, but I could find a preprint version of “In a double way” on PEW’s site for “early release”.
The article claims that Buddhaghosa uses abhidhamma categories, such as the five aggregates (khandha), not as “as a reductive ontological division of the human being” but rather as “the contemplative structuring of that human’s phenomenology.” (1)1 That is to say that according to Heim and Ram-Prasad, Buddhaghosa is not trying to talk about what exists or what human beings and other entities really are, just about the kinds of experiences human beings have, and especially those found in meditation. The article comes to this conclusion through a welcome close reading of the Visuddhimagga, something which, the authors note accurately and unfortunately, “has rarely been attempted in competing views of him…” They add: “It would be a welcome development in the study of Buddhaghosa if other scholars were to offer further or contrasting interpretations – e.g., as that he engaged in constructing a metaphysical dualism – based on such textual analysis rather than on an a priori commitment to a picture of abhidhamma and its interpreters.”
To this I reply: challenge accepted. Continue reading