Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge (EBTOK) is a seminal book of Buddhist philosophy by the eminent scholar K.N. Jayatilleke. A student of Lugwig Wittgenstein, Jayatilleke applied a rigorous analytical style to examine the early Buddhist approach to one of the central problems of philosophy: how we know what we know.
Jayatilleke’s work is dense and he does little to accommodate his readers. While his vast erudition and fluency in philosophy East and West has rarely been equaled, today his influence is mainly felt as the teacher of the teachers. Shortly after his time, his constructive historical approach lost favor as philosophy took other directions. In Asia, Buddhism grew inward-looking and traditionalist, while in the West, sterile postmodernism and wan subjectivism rule the day. The Buddha’s critique of all these approaches is, ironically enough, spelled out in Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge.
Jayatilleke’s work stands as an example of what might have been, and might yet be. What if we were to take the Buddha’s teachings seriously, neither as a bolster for nationalist pride, nor as a balm for agitated nerves, but as something more meaningful? A guide to reality; or, more to the point, a guide to how we might know reality for ourselves.
We living through an epistemological crisis. We have access to unprecedented knowledge, yet are less sure than ever how to discern what is right and wrong, what is true and what is false. The Buddha was constantly engaging with people of all different backgrounds, making competing claims as to what was true and what was false. He showed a path through the thicket that is always balanced, reasonable, and effective. To learn from him is not merely to appreciate how wise he was in his time, but to understand how to manifest the same wisdom in our time.
The course takes five classes, which will cover all the chapters of EBTOK. Try to read all relevant chapters before the class. You can skip the bits with lots of Pali, or that get into strictly logical analysis, or that develop comparisons with ancient Greek philosophy (unless you’re into that sort of thing.) But if you want to get something out of the course, read as much as you can. If you read it before, then take the course, then read it again, I think you’ll get a lot out of it.
I try to structure the course with a heavier reading load at the start, so that there will be more room for discussion as the course progresses.
Studying the Buddha without knowledge of his contemporaries is like listening to a stranger talk on the phone, without knowing who they are talking to or what the other person is saying.
Parts 1, 2, and 3 “The Historical Background”.
If you don’t know them, look them up!
- Buddhist modernism
- Early Buddhism
- Vedic knowledge—knowledge stems from faith in tradition
- Materialist knowledge—empirical and rational critique of metaphysics
- Skepticism—knowledge is impossible
- Do Buddhists blindly believe based on tradition?
- Do non-Buddhists do the same?
- Is there a role for traditional knowledge?
- Are modern materialists similar to those found in the Suttas?
- What about skepticism? Are the ancient skeptics like moderns or not?
Is knowledge something that is inherited from the ancients? Or can we discover the truth by logical inquiry?
Parts 4 “The Attitude to Authority” and 5 “The Attitude to Reason”.
This section focuses on the means of knowing that were championed among the non-Buddhist schools, especially insofar as they were subject to criticism by the Buddha. The specific terms used in the Suttas are analyzed and found to correspond to terms used in non-Buddhist texts.
- Which is better: obedience to authority? or the whims of the mob?
- Does authority admit of degrees?
- How do we assign authority today?
- Are all opinions equally valid?
- How do we test our own opinions?
Rather than falling back on a single source of absolute knowledge, the Buddha allowed a limited and relative value to multiple ways of knowing. Not just that, but he showed the relation between them and how they work together to firm up knowledge.
Parts 6 on analysis and meaning, and 7 on logic and truth.
Finally we turn to the Buddha’s own constructivist and empirical approach to knowledge. Having dismissed the absolute reliance on skepticism, logic, or authority, the Buddha allowed each of these in a reasonable and balanced way. We look at the difference between meaningful and meaningless statements, and discuss the Buddha’s fourfold logic.
- Is black and white logic always wrong?
- What’s the difference between a statement that is incorrect and one that is meaningless?
- Can something be correct and meaningless?
- How do we know when to use the different methods of answering questions?
- Can these approaches be applied to social media?
The Buddha himself claimed authority in matters of Dhamma, and that must be balanced with the role of reason and evidence.
The Buddha denied omniscience, yet spoke with deep authority. His words are regarded as the authority on Dhamma, yet we are simultaneously urged to test them and see for ourselves.
- What happens when we disagree with the Suttas?
- Did the Buddha make mistakes?
- What happens if we meditate and it doesn’t work?
- What kinds of modern evidence do we have that the Buddha didn’t?
More than reason or authority, the Buddha emphasized direct personal experience.
Experience is a crucial part of knowing, but itself is not infallible. Meditation removes the things that distort experience, but even then, it may be misinterpreted. Experiential knowledge is also inferential, and subject to verification. Extra-sensory perception is a form of empirical knowledge. Controversially, Jayatilleke ends by implying that Nibbana is a transcendental reality beyond the empirical.
- When is experience unreliable?
- How does experience relate to reason?
- Is cause observable?
- Is it valid to describe the Buddha as an empiricist?
- How cool is Nibbana?