Limitations of the Dialectical Approach

The Cūḷa-suññata Sutta (MN 121), which brings out the early Buddhist attitude to suññatā, has a moral for the dialectician himself. The history of Buddhist thought bears witness to the fact that there is a danger lurking behind the dialectical skill to blow up concepts. The dialectician might sometimes develop a complex of his intellectual superiority and proceed to demolish indiscriminately all concepts and theories around him, subjecting them to ridicule. He might throw all ethics to the winds and lull himself into the belief that he has arrived at the Truth. He might even hide his sceptic head ostrich-like in a mass of dialectical verbiage, in a vain attempt to escape the concepts of the ‘dull-witted worldlings’. Such wiseacres are haunted and balked by those very concepts the moment they peep out—or maybe even before that—for the simple reason that the paradoxes true of the emancipated sage are not true of them.

The purpose of developing a dialectical consciousness is not to play intellectual hide-and-seek, but to be alive to the unsound facts of experience within and without oneself. Hence the dialectician has to realize the fact that he is at the mercy of concepts even in his dialectical attempt to demolish concepts. This chastening thought should humble him all the more and prod him on to transcend them with whatever tools there are within his reach. A dream may be proved false in the light of waking experience, but all the same, it is relatively true as a fact of experience. Similarly, the deluding character of concepts is a fact of experience and must not be ignored on that account. Concepts, for all their vicious potency to delude us, are not to be blamed per se, for they are merely objectifications or projections of our own taṇhā, māna and diṭṭhi—our cravings, our conceit and our views. Hence, in the last analysis, concepts have to be tackled at their source. They are not so much to be demolished, as to be comprehended and transcended. The attempt to dislodge concepts at the purely intellectual level leads to infinite regress in thought, as will be evident from the following dialogue between the Buddha and the wandering ascetic Dīghanakha.

“I, good Gotama, speak thus; I am of this view: ‘All is not pleasing to me’.”

“This view of yours, Aggivessana: ‘All is not pleasing to me’ — does this view of yours not please you?”

“If this view were pleasing to me, good Gotama, this would be like it too, this would be like it too.”

“Now, Aggivessana, when those, the majority in the world, speak thus: ‘This would be like it too, this would be like it too’ — they do not get rid of that very view and they take up another view. Now, Aggivessana, when those, the minority in the world, speak thus: ‘This would be like it too, this would be like it too’ — they get rid of that very view and do not take up another view.” — Dīgha­na­kha­ Sutta (MN 74)

According to the Dīgha­na­kha­ Sutta, Ven. Sāriputta attained Arahanthood having listened to this dialogue.

The Buddha granted that Dīghanakha’s view is nearer detachment when compared with its opposite view, ‘all is pleasing to me’. Dīghanakha was elated for a moment, thinking that the Buddha was praising and upholding his view without reserve. But he was disillusioned when the Buddha went on to show how the very dogmatic view that all views are unacceptable can itself give rise to suffering:

“As to this, Aggivessana, those recluses and brahmins who speak thus and are of this view: ‘All is not pleasing to me’, if a learned man be there who reflects thus: ‘If I were to express this view of mine, that: ‘all is not pleasing to me’, and obstinately holding to it and adhering to it, were to say: ‘This is the very truth, all else is falsehood’, there would be for me dispute with two [other view-holders]: both with whatever recluse or brahmin who speaks thus and is of this view, ‘All is pleasing to me,’ and with whatever recluse or brahmin who speaks thus and is of this view: ‘Part is pleasing to me, part is not pleasing to me’ — there would be dispute for me with these two. If there is dispute, there is contention; if there is contention there is trouble; if there is trouble, there is vexation.’ So he, beholding this dispute and contention and trouble and vexation for himself, gets rid of that very view and does not take up another view. Thus is the getting rid of these views, thus is the casting away of these views.”

Incidentally, this dialogue is of refreshing relevance in view of certain misconceptions among modern philosophers who overestimate the value of dialectics. One might do well to compare it with these observations by Dr. T. R. V. Murti in his defense of the Mādhyamika system (the central philosophy of Mahāyana Buddhism):

“… The dialectic as śūnyatā is the removal of the constrictions which our concepts, with their practical or sentimental bias, have put on reality. It is the freeing of reality of the artificial and accidental restrictions, and not the denial of reality. Śūnyatā is negation of negations; it is thus a reaffirmation of the infinite and inexpressibly positive character of the Real.” (p. 160)

“Criticism of theories is no theory. Criticism is but the awareness of what a theory is, how it is made up; it is not the proposing of a new theory. Negation of positions is not one more position. Dialectic, as analysis, does not impose any new thing: it reveals rather than add or distort…” (p. 161)

“… The conflict of opposed theories and standpoints is resolved in the Mādhyamika by analyzing each theory and exhibiting its inner flaw; the dialectic dissolves theories without residue; it does not precipitate another theory…” (p. 305)

“… Criticism is deliverance of the human mind from all entanglements and passions. It is freedom itself. This is the true Mādhyamika standpoint…” (p. 41)

Dr. T. R. V. Murti: Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of Madhyamika System, 1960 (London, George Allen and Unwin Ltd.)

We are afraid that this picture of the dialectic is somewhat overdrawn. Such a complacent attitude towards the omnipotence of the dialectic is not without its dangers. This fact is revealed in certain strands of thought in the Mādhyamika system itself. A typical illustration of the regression in thought may be seen in the series of repeated negations which were supposed to culminate in absolute voidness (atyanta-śūnyatā). There was also a tendency to hypostatize the abstract concept of śūnyatā and make it an absolute—some eternal principle from which everything comes out and to which everything ultimately returns. As regards this latter trend, it is significant that in the Cūḷa-suññata Sutta the Buddha emphasizes—though in a very matter-of-fact tone—that suññatā is as much a relative term as any other. Hence a dual introspective analysis for ascertaining the experiential data of which one’s mind is void and of which one’s mind is not void, is seen to precede the determination of each stage of the experience of voidness. The recurrent phrase, “Thus he regards it as empty of whatever is not there. Whatever remains, he discerns as present: ‘There is this’,” brings out this criterion in simple terms. The criterion holds good even for the highest stage of the experience of voidness (paramānuttarā suññatāvakkanti) described in the Sutta. At this stage the mind is void of the cankers of sense desires, existence and ignorance, but there is still a fact of experience which is not void, namely, the painful physical experiences that might arise due to the fact that one is living. So then, there is no necessity to hypostatize the concept of suññatā. Instead of resorting to an absolutist conception of voidness by confusing the three pathways of conventional usage regarding temporal notions, one must be realistic enough to recognize the present as the present, the past as the past, and the future as the future. The stages of voidness would thereby harmonize with the levels of experience.

“Monks, there are these three pathways of conventional usage, of nomenclature, of designation, which are not being confused, have never been confused, will not be confused and are not despised by monks and recluses who are wise. And what three? Whatever material form that is past, has ceased, has undergone change, ‘has been’ is its reckoning, its appellation, its designation. It is not reckoned in terms of ‘is’ and ‘will be’. Whatever feeling… perception… preparations… consciousness…” — Cūḷa-suññata Sutta (MN 121)

It appears that two words coming up again and again in the Cūḷa-suññata Sutta would, if correctly appreciated, serve to keep the dialectician in his proper place. The first of them, darathā (distresses, disturbances), painfully reminds him of those unpleasant facts of experience which cannot be deceived by any amount of dialectical skill on his part. The second—which is perhaps the more insinuating—is the word avipallatthā, unperverted, used to describe the pure and proper descent into voidness. This word, by implication, would mean that any other supposed mode of descent into voidness, such as the dialectical method, would be a perversion. A perversion indeed would it be if one contrives to jettison the raft and jubilate over it, even before setting out for the further bank. A better illustration of such perversion may be seen in the parable which gave the Alagaddūpama Sutta (‘Discourse on the Parable of the Water-snake’) its name:

“Monks, it is like a man walking about, aiming after a water- snake, searching after a water-snake, looking about for a water-snake. He might see a large water-snake and he might take hold of it by a coil or by its tail; the water-snake, having rounded on him, might bite him on his hand or arm or on another part of his body; from this cause he might come to dying or to pain like unto dying. What is the reason for this? Monks, it is because of his wrong grasp of the water-snake. Even so, monks, do some foolish men here master dhamma—the discourses in prose, in prose and verse, the expositions, the verses, the uplifting verses, the ‘as it was saids’, the Birth Stories, the Wonders, the Miscellanies. These, having mastered that dhamma, do not test the meanings of these things by intuitive wisdom, and these things whose meaning is untested by intuitive wisdom do not become clear; they master this dhamma simply for the advantage of reproaching others and for the advantage of gossiping and they do not arrive at that goal for the sake of which they mastered dhamma. These things, badly grasped by them, conduce for a long time to their woe and sorrow. What is the reason for this? It is because of a wrong grasp of things.” — Alagaddūpama Sutta (MN 22)

The amusing story of the man who wished to carry the raft on his head after crossing over, out of a naïve sense of gratitude for it, may be compared with the tragic story of the man who seized the snake by its tail. If the former’s position is ludicrous, the latter’s is dangerous: nay, suicidal. It may also be mentioned that the parable of the water-snake was aimed at the recalcitrant monk Ariññha, who misrepresented the Buddha regarding his strictures on sense desires. Ariññha’s misconceived theory was couched in these words: “Insofar as I understand the dhamma taught by the Lord, it is that in following those things called stumbling-blocks by the Lord, there is no stumbling-block at all.” We have no clear indication in the Sutta as to the dialectical process through which he arrived at his paradoxical conclusion; but the fact that he obstinately held on to his view in the face of searching criticism by his fellow monks seems to suggest that he did have some dialectics in him. We seem to get a hint in the same direction in the Buddha’s words cited above. Perhaps here we are already dealing with an early instance of a perversion of dialectics leading to moral anarchy.

According to the Papañcasūdanī MN Commentary, Ariññha’s reasoning proceeded on the following lines: ‘These householders, while enjoying the five strands of sense-pleasures, become Stream-winners and Once-Returners. Monks also see pleasant shapes with their eyes… experience pleasant contacts with their bodies, and they use soft rugs and coverlets. All this is allowable. Why then, not the sight, the sound, the smell, the taste and the touch of women? These too are allowable.” 

The attempt to ignore the needs of psychology and ethics in the haste to grasp intellectually the metaphysical subtleties nearer the Goal may be figuratively compared with the attitude of the man who seized the snake by the tail before subduing it. Though there were attempts to assert the importance of ethics, the Mādhyamika system with its ruthless attack on concepts tended to overshoot itself in its dialectical ebullience. Thus much of the significant service rendered by that system of thought in exposing the futility of the preoccupation with concepts in ‘Hīnayāna’ circles, was ultimately offset by its own extravagances. It was rightly affirmed by the Mādhyamikas, that the Buddha had recommended the abandonment of all views, including śūnyatā. This affirmation, however, was belied as the system lacked those built-in safeguards against perversion that are to be found in the Pāḷi Nikāyas. According to the early Buddhist standpoint, the Middle Path consisted neither in the confrontation of every thesis with its antithesis, nor in their synthesis, nor again in their total refutation, but in a balanced understanding of the relative and pragmatic value of concepts.

“Śūnyatā has been preached by the Buddha as the abandonment of all views; but those for whom sūnyatā itself is a view—they are said to be incurable.” — Mādhyamika Kārikā XIII

Dialectical consciousness, therefore, as an intellectual experience of the ultimate futility of concepts, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the attainment of the Goal. Nor is it a panacea for the all-pervasive dukkha. It is no doubt an essential ingredient in sammā diṭṭhi, which is but the first step in the Path. The ethical Middle Path lies right through conceptual formulations as steps of training, which are to be made use of with circumspection and detachment. The dialectician pledged to logical consistency might regard this position as being riddled with contradictions. We have on record a typical instance of such an attitude in the words of the brahmin Māgaṇḍiya in the Māgaṇḍiya Sutta (Sn 4.9).

Buddha: “It is said that purity does not result from views, learning, knowledge, holy vows and ascetic practices, O Māgaṇḍiya, nor does it arise in the absence of views, learning, knowledge, holy vows and ascetic practices. Abandoning them, grasping none of them, and not dependent on any of them, one should not crave for existence.”

Māgaṇḍiya: “If you say that purity does not arise from views, learning, knowledge, holy vows and ascetic practices, and also if you say that it does not arise in the absence of views, learning, knowledge, holy vows and ascetic practices, then I consider that your teaching is foolish, for some arrive at purity through views.”

A detailed exposition of the validity of this apparently contradictory position occurs in the Rathavinīta Sutta (MN 24) in the form of a dialogue between Sāriputta and Puṇṇa Mantāniputta. The simile of the relay of seven chariots, by which Puṇṇa illustrates the inner consistency of the seven stages of purity, will serve to drive home the twin principles of relativity and pragmatism.

“It is as though, brother, while King Pasenadi was staying in Sāvatthi, something to be done urgently should arise in Sāketa, and seven relay chariots would be arranged for him between Sāvatthi and Sāketa. Then, brother, King Pasenadi of Kosala, having left Sāvatthi by the palace gate, might mount the first chariot in the relay, and by means of the first chariot in the relay he would reach the second chariot in the relay… the third… the fourth… the fifth… the sixth… the seventh… and by means of the seventh chariot in the relay he would reach the palace gate in Sāketa.

“…Even so, brother, purity of moral habit is of purpose as far as purity of mind; purity of mind is of purpose as far as purity of view… purity through crossing over doubt… purity of knowledge and insight into the Way and what is not the Way… purity of knowledge and insight into the course… purity arising from knowledge and insight…purity arising from knowledge and insight is of purpose as far as utter Nibbāna without attachment. Brother, the holy life under the Lord is lived for the purpose of utter Nibbāna without attachment.” — Rathavinīta Sutta (MN 24)

It appears that the difference in approach between early Buddhism and the Mādhyamika system towards the problem of concepts hinges on what might be called a subtle shift of emphasis in the interpretation of the terms suñña and attā. In the Pāḷi Canon we find a definition of suñña given by the Buddha himself in reply to the following question of Ānanda:

“‘Void is the world! Void is the world!’ they say, O Lord. Pray, Lord, how far does this saying go?”

“Because the world is void of the self, Ānanda, or of what belongs to the self, therefore, is it said: ‘Void is the world’. And what, Ānanda, is void of the self or of what belongs to the self? Eye, visual objects… eye-consciousness… eye-contact… and whatever feeling, happy, unhappy or neutral, that arises due to mind contact, that too is void of the self or of what belongs to the self.” — Saṅ­khitta­dhamma­ Sutta (SN 35.85)

The world is called void in the sense that it is devoid of a self or of anything belonging to a self. It must be noted that this definition of ‘world’ corresponds to the totality of sense-experience based on the six senses. The implication is therefore that no element of experience can be regarded as one’s self or as belonging to oneself. Attā has to be taken in its subjective sense as the notion of a soul or an ego. Its characteristic is the power to own and control. The Buddha has clarified this fact in the very first sermon he delivered on the characteristics of anattā:

“Body, monks, is not self. Now were this body self, monks, this body would not tend to sickness, and one might get the chance of saying in regard to body, ‘Let body become thus for me; let body not become thus for me’. But inasmuch, monks, as body is not self, therefore body tends to sickness, and one does not get the chance of saying in regard to body, ‘Let body become thus for me; let body not become thus for me.’

“Feeling is not self… Perception is not self… preparations are not self… consciousness is not self… What do you think about this, monks? Is body permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, Lord.”

“But is that which is impermanent painful or pleasurable?”

“Painful, Lord.”

“But is it fit to consider that which is impermanent, painful, of a nature to change, as ‘This is mine’, ‘This am I’, ‘This is myself’?”

“It is not, Lord.”

“Is feeling… perception… preparations… consciousness…

“Wherefore, monks, whatever is body, past, future, or present, or internal or external, or gross or subtle, or low or excellent, whether it is far or near—all body should by means of right wisdom be seen, as it really is, thus: ‘This is not mine, this am I not, this is not my self.’

“Whatever feeling… perception… preparations… consciousness…”

Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta (SN 22.59)

Thus the main prong of attack is leveled at the concept of the soul as the controlling agent who is capable of experiencing happiness, which necessarily has to be permanent in order to be perfect. It is true that what gives rise to this notion is the idea of permanence or substantiality, but this latter is sufficiently rendered by the term nicca. The illusion of substantiality is linked with the psychological impulse for happiness (sukha), which in its turn sustains the illusion of the ego (attā).

Now, the Mādhyamika system often seems to stress this notion of substantiality underlying the illusion of an ātman, thereby giving an objective twist to that word. As already indicated, the word nicca by itself does sufficient justice to this primary notion of substantiality which originates at the cognitive level. In sukha and attā we have the affective and conative reactions to the illusion of permanence. Hence selfhood is to be found in the innermost conative impulses within the mind. It is not something out there in the material objects or in concepts, for that matter. It is what we attribute to them or superimpose on them. Therefore, to believe that by merely demolishing concepts or theories one can rise above them is to stop at the fringe of the problem.

In coining the two expressions, pudgala-nairātmya and dharma-nairātmya, the Mādhyamikas seem to have ignored the original significance of the term anattā. According to the early Buddhist point of view, there can be no basis for such a distinction since the dharmas or elements, when they are regarded as being one’s self or as belonging to one’s self, would thereby become objects of his mind and part of his five aggregates. When it was said that one should look upon all dhammas as anattā, it only meant that one has to regard them as not being one’s own self or a part thereof. Perhaps a better way to bring out the crux of the present argument would be to pose the question whether there will be any dharma-nairātmya left over to be realized, once one has realized the so-called pudgala-nairātmya. It might of course be urged in mitigation that what gave rise to the above two expressions, was the very dogmatic attitude of the ‘Hīnayānists’ in clinging to the dharmas. But this does not appear to be sufficient justification, since that dogmatic attitude of the ‘Hīnayānists’ is merely an indication that they have not grasped the full significance of the nairātmya doctrine. If they had, they would no longer be dogmatic with regard to the dharmas which are the objects of the sixth sense. In any case, this confusion as to the basic issues involved seems to have had its repercussions on the Mādhyamika conception of śūnyatā.

As against this, the conception of suññatā in the Pāḷi Nikāyas was always defined in relation to experience. Even when it is said that one should always look upon the world as void, with mindfulness, it is to be taken as a step of training in detachment.

“Regard the world as void; and e’er
 Alert, uproot false view of self.
 Thus, Mogharajah, thou wouldst be 
 Death’s crosser; and regarding thus
 The world, death’s king doth see thee not.” 
— Mogha­rāja­māṇa­vapuc­chā (Snp 5.16) 

However, as regards the experience of suññatā, one has to conform to the levels of suññatā described in the Cūḷa-suññata Sutta. We find further illustration of this particular approach in the Suññakathā (Pañisambhidāmagga 2.10), where twenty-five modes of voidness are enumerated and defined. Even the concept of suñña-suñña, for all its apparent similarity to śūnyatā-śūnyatā of the Mādhyamikas, merely implies the voidness as to selfhood in its specific application to the six senses. The principle of relativity in the determination of voidness may be seen all along the list of definitions. The last, which is called paramatthasuñña, is particularly significant in its formulation. As the highest stage of voidness, one would expect it to be termed an absolute, devoid of relation to anything. But this is not so, and it still has relation to awareness since this stage of voidness is called sampajānassa pavattapariyādānam sabbasuññatānaṃ paramattha-suññaṃ: “The highest of all forms of voidness wherein one mindfully exhausts all existence”. In view of the fact that this refers to the final attainment of Parinibbāna of the Emancipated One we may regard this as a clear indication that the conception of suññatā in early Buddhism was always relative and experiential.

“Or else, in him who is mindfully passing away into the Nibbāna-element leaving no substrata, this visual process is extinguished and no other visual process arises, this auditory process is extinguished and no new one arises… olfactory process… gustatory process… tactile process… mental process… This is the highest of all forms of voidness in which there is a mindful extinction of all processes.” — Suññakathā (Pañisambhidāmagga 2.10)

The upshot of the above discussion on suññatā would be the revelation that the dialectician, if he seriously intends escaping from all views and concepts, should disown and transcend them rather than demolish them in toto. As the objects of the sixth sense, concepts are as much a fact of experience as are the objects of the other senses. Hence they will continue in the world as worldly conventions in spite of all their flaws and contradictions. The Middle Path, therefore, consists essentially in the pragmatic approach of choosing and using what is essential for the purpose, without attachment. This approach is abundantly clear in a certain criterion which the Buddha is seen declaring so often in the Suttas. For the purpose of quotation, we may choose the following context which has a striking relevance to the present discussion.

“Some things, Poṭṭhapāda, I have preached and laid down categorically and some other things non-categorically. And what, Poṭṭhapāda, are those things that I have preached and laid down non-categorically?… Is the world eternal?… Is the world not eternal?… Is the world finite?… Is the world infinite?… Is the soul the same as the body?… Is the soul one thing and the body another?… Does the Perfect One exist after death?… Does he not exist after death?… Does he both exist and not exist after death?… Does he neither exist nor not exist after death?…

“And why, O Poṭṭhapāda, have I preached and laid down those things non-categorically? Because, Poṭṭhapāda, these are not calculated to profit, are not concerned with the Dhamma, they do not redound even to the elements of right conduct, nor to detachment, nor to purification from lusts, nor to quietude, nor to tranquilization of heart, nor to real knowledge, nor to insight, nor to Nibbāna. Therefore is it that I have preached and laid down those things non-categorically.

“And what, Poṭṭhapāda, are those things that I have laid down categorically? This is suffering—this, Poṭṭhapāda, is a thing I have preached and laid down categorically. This is the arising of suffering… This is the cessation of suffering… This is the path leading to the cessation of suffering…

“And why, Poṭṭhapāda, have I preached and laid them down categorically? These, Poṭṭhapāda, are calculated to profit, are concerned with the Dhamma, redound to the elements of right conduct, to detachment, to purification from lusts, to quietude, to tranquilization of heart, to real knowledge, to insight, to Nibbāna. Therefore is it that I have preached and laid down these things categorically.” — Poṭṭhapāda Sutta (DN 9)

From this it appears that the Buddha was sometimes categorical and sometimes not, in preaching or in answering questions, and the criterion is declared to be pragmatic and ethical. The validity of this criterion as regards the Buddha’s consistent refusal to give a categorical reply to any of the ten indeterminate points (dasa avyākata-vatthu) has often been disputed by scholars both ancient and modern. Some, like Prof. A. B. Keith (Buddhist Philosophy, p. 63), saw in it a “general poverty of philosophical constructive power” on the part of the Buddha, and treated him as “a genuine agnostic”. Some others, similarly convinced that the criterion lacked in depth and cogency, proceeded to unravel the secret of the Buddha’s silence in regard to the avyākatas in purely dialectical terms. One of the earliest attempts in this latter direction is to be seen in the Mādhayamika system. It is very likely that they succeeded to some extent in unravelling this secret. But it appears that in their enthusiasm to discover the secret of the Buddha’s silence, they lost sight of the value of that secret. The value of a secret lies not so much in the secret itself, as in the reasons which made it a secret. In order to find these reasons, one has to retrace one’s steps to the above pragmatic criterion given by the Buddha himself. If one needs a deeper evaluation of this criterion one will get it in the Cūḷa-Māluṅkya Sutta (MN 63).

The inquisitive monk Mālunkyāputta gets it into his head to solve once and for all the problem of the Indeterminate Points. He approaches the Buddha and challenges him to give categorical answers to those points on the threat of his leaving the Order. He even makes bold to say that the Buddha should be honest enough to confess his ignorance, instead of evading the issues. Here then, we have an open revolt in the ranks against the Buddha’s attitude. But it was not the Buddha who gave in. He rejoined in a sterner fashion, retorting whether there was any prior agreement between him and Mālunkyāputta that he would declare those ten points if the latter entered the Order. Mālunkyāputta confessed that there was not, and the Buddha humbled him with the words: “This being so, foolish man, who are you that you are disavowing?”

A very unkind and agnostic attitude indeed, on the part of a teacher who professes to be compassionate and fully enlightened—one might be tempted to conclude. But the Buddha goes on. He goes on to explain to Mālunkyāputta that even if one were to declare that one would not live the holy life under him until he answered those ten points, he would never give in. Now comes a parable which, as in so many other instances, embodies a deep truth. It gives the tragic instance of a man shot with a poisoned arrow who refuses to allow the surgeon to treat him until he gets answers to a series of delirious questions regarding the man who shot him, and the bow and arrow used. That obstinate man is prepared even to sacrifice his life for his curiosity. With this parable the Buddha emphasizes the fact that he has laid aside the ten points because they are irrelevant to the attainment of Nibbāna, and advises Mālunkyāputta to treat the indeterminates as indeterminates, and the determined points as so determined. These latter refer to the Four Noble Truths.

We are told at the end of the Sutta that Malunkyaputta was satisfied with this exhortation. But not so the dialectician who valued the critical spirit of inquiry above everything else. To him, the compassionate reticence of the surgeon, and the pragmatic reasons given by him, were not at all acceptable. So he pressed on regardless, and by the time he returned to the Peerless Surgeon (sallakatto anuttaro), burdened with dossiers of his exhaustive as well as exhausting critical inquiry into the culprit, the bow and the arrow, his condition was well nigh critical. He had used the dialectical principle with such rigor that it shook the very pragmatic and ethical foundations of Buddhism. The value and wisdom of the Buddha’s silence thus came to be proved in retrospect. This approach shows a lack of appreciation of the vital link—dukkha—that obtains between anicca and anattā. The early Buddhist attitude was to realize the imperfections of language and logic by observing the internal and external conflict it brought about. This is extremely clear in the Aṭṭhaka Vagga (Snp 4). It was not considered necessary to counter every possible thesis with an antithesis or to turn every theory inside out by the reductio-ad-absurdum method merely as an exercise in dialectics, thereby adding to the conflict. It took the more radical attitude of grasping the general principle involved, namely that of suffering, which provides the true impetus for the spiritual endeavor, to transcend all theories by eradicating the subjective bias.

From the foregoing it should be clear that in early Buddhism we have the unique phenomenon of an enlightened dialectical awareness paving the way for a down-to-earth ethical consciousness. Far from undermining spiritual values by encouraging vain sophistry, it reasserted their importance by elevating experience above theoretical knowledge. The pragmatic reasons given by the Buddha with regard to his preaching.of the Four Noble Truths in categorical terms, should not be taken as a mere edifying call to practice the Dhamma. In view of the Buddha’s attitude towards the totality of concepts as such, we may say that pragmatism is the only justification for his preaching those Noble Truths. Words have a value only to the extent that they indicate elements of experience. However, even where words fail, experience triumphs. By defining voidness in terms of experience, early Buddhism also pointed out that what is void as to concepts is not devoid of happiness. A discussion of the Goal of spiritual endeavors in Buddhism in philosophical terms, so as to mean the utter cessation of the world of concepts, might sometimes give the impression that here we have the dismal prospect of a mental vacuity. Hence it is that the Buddha, towards the end of a philosophical discourse on the gradual attainment of the cessation of perceptions and sensations, forestalls a possible objection by Poṭṭhapāda and reassures him of the positive experiential content of happiness characteristic of that attainment:

“Now it may well be, Poṭṭhapāda, that you think: ‘Evil dispositions may be put away, the dispositions that tend to purification may increase, one may continue to see face-to-face and by himself come to realize the full perfection and grandeur of wisdom, but one may continue sad!’ Now that, Poṭṭhapāda, would not be accurate judgment. When such conditions are fulfilled, then there will be joy and happiness and peace, and in continual mindfulness and self-mastery, one will dwell at ease.” — Poṭṭhapāda Sutta (DN 9)

We have already seen how the Cūḷa-Suññata Sutta puts across the same idea in negative terms, with the help of the word darathā. But by far the most edifying of all attempts to suggest the positive experiential content of Nibbāna is the use of the lotus metaphor. The whole philosophy of the transcendence of the world, which we have earlier stated in paradoxical terms, finds fuller expression through the lotus motif.

“Even as the drop of water on the lotus-leaf does not smear it, or as water smears not the lotus flower, so aloof is the sage who does not cling to whatever he has seen, heard or sensed.” — Jarā Sutta (Snp 4.6)

“Being detached from whatever views one wanders forth in this world, the perfect one does not enter into dispute grasping them; even as the white lotus sprung up in the water with its thorny stalk is not sullied by water and mud, even so the sage who professes peace and is free from avarice is not sullied by sense desires and by the world.” — Māgaṇḍiya Sutta (Snp 4.9)

Abiding in the Void | CONTENTS |The Lotus and the Fire