Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge: course outline for the Buddhist Library

Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge

Course details:


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

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.

1: The Buddha in context

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”.

Some terms to know

If you don’t know them, look them up!

  • Buddhist modernism
  • Early Buddhism
  • Empiricism
  • Ontology
  • Epistemology
  • Upanishad
  • Veda
  • Sophistry


  • 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?

2: The Buddha’s critique of non-Buddhist attitudes to authority and reason

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?

3: The uses and limits of logic and meaning

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?

4: Authority and reason within Buddhism

The Buddha himself claimed authority in matters of Dhamma, and that must be balanced with the role of reason and evidence.


Part 8.


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?

5: The means and limits of knowledge

More than reason or authority, the Buddha emphasized direct personal experience.


Part 9.


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?

A reminder that you can download a pdf of the book to read in advance.

Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge (EBTOK)


Will the sessions be recorded so a student could access it later?


Please could someone provide a zoom link for the course? I can’t find one on the Buddhist library website, maybe it’s too late to join?

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Yes looks like the registration link is gone

Here’s a sneaky back up option for you.

Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge
Time: Aug 21, 2021 03:00 PM Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 898 7494 2994
Passcode: 426116


Wish I could make it, but the time difference does not agree with my nāmarūpa :cry:


I am very interested in the topic, but do not have the time to read a dense book of 500+ pages. Hoping to see some youtube on this topic. 3 Sadhus.

In the next session on Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge do you think you could spend a few minutes talking through an important section we didn’t get to last time, “The Critique of Reason; it’s inadequacy for knowledge” (paragraph’s 436-442, p272-276)?

And, during the class as a whole, are you able to help us all understand exactly what kind of knowledge Early Buddhist is concerned with (and perhaps clarify what kind of knowledge it is not concerned with)?


Hi Mitchell, I’ll definitely want to address both these issues.

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Use some form of reading aloud, or voice view, or convert to audiobook. It’s very hard to listen to the audio alone if you’re not looking at the texts too. That’s because of the many pali, and other non english language terms liberally used in the text, as well as some logic truth tables. By looking at the book, you can mentally know when you can take a little break and ignore the non english parts, and when to pay attention back. The audiobook format advantage is that it pushes you though the boring, heavy parts so you don’t get to stop, you’ll have to increase mindfulness and read on.

I started the book 2 days ago, projecting to finish the last chapter today, 3 chapters per day. I don’t understand most of the book, cause I didn’t read and listen at the same time. Only today tried to do that.

Hi, is there a way to access recordings of these lectures?

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Thank you @NgXinZhao. I wonder if a summary of the the book can be done … 30-50 pages with essential points only?

ps. Also wondering if any Buddhist Scholar in the West has tried to study the translated Pali and Tibetan Buddhist works of Mahapandit [Rahul Sankrityayan - Wikipedia] who had very little formal education. Only read his travelogue ‘From Volga to Ganga’ as a teenager and it had some impact on me and my worldview. Not sure why I am mentioning it here.

Hi Stephen,

The Buddhist Library does post recordings on youtube:, but none from this series yet.


I’m very late… but is this link still working ?

And please, if at some moment, if there’s recordings of these classes could it be shared?

Thank you

The link should be the same for all the sessions.

The Buddhist Library is responsible for uploading the talks to their YouTube channel. You could subscribe to receive updates from them.


"Shared" and "shed"

I enjoyed Bhante @Sujato’s discussion yesterday regarding the necessity for shared understanding to have a meaningful discussion, or to get something done. The example of building a shed was great wordplay, so much so that sometimes I had difficulty distinguishing the words (I blame Zoom… :sweat_smile:). However, perhaps I could suggest that, rather than the two people having different opinions about how big to make the shed, perhaps they could be from different places that use different measurement units… Apparently this was a problem with one of the Mars probes:

The following is an excellent review of EBTK, written by Buddhist Scholar RH Robinson.

For anyone who does not feel up to reading the whole of EBTK, this review offers a comprehensive summary of the key points and conclusions of the book.
If you are just looking for a summary, you can skip pages 6-11 on the fourfold logic (an area where Robinson goes into great detail, as it seems to be his area of expertise).

The review highlights and articulates something really valuable, namely, the many strengths of EBTK, but also the major limitation:
“a major limitation of the book under review is
that, though it cogently demonstrates that Early Buddhist thought is the most
sophisticated and technically advanced of all the archaic Indian schools, it does not
indicate either its shortcomings or its relation to the later evolution of Indian
philosophy.” (Robinson, EBTK review, 69).

There are also some great clarifications and counter points against some of Jayatilleke’s arguments.
One of the most important ones, I think, is that "Jayatilleke is not justified in
agreeing with Warder when the latter says that “The Buddha legend synthesizes
the quest for truth on scientific principles regardless of past traditions; . . . " (p. 464)” (Robinson, EBTK review, 81). As Robinson says, in counter to Jayatilleke (and many who take a similar position), it is wrong and misleading to say that Buddhism seeks truth on “scientific principles”, as, among other things; science deals with non-definite knowledge while the buddha claimed definite knowledge; and science constantly disproves old theories and comes to new knowledge, while Buddhist practitioners seek to confirm by personal and direct knowledge what was known and taught by the Buddha, rather than disprove, prove, and discover new knowledge.


Thanks for this. It’s good to see that Robinson makes this point about the difference between Science and Buddhism. I’ve always been uneasy about presenting Buddhist practice as Science, for just this reason.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s draw parallels with Engineering, Gardening, Training, or some other activity that makes use of established knowledge to achieve something. This may sound like a picky distinction, but and engineer designing a bridge, for example, doesn’t need to produce any advance on Newton’s laws.


It is said that what David Kalupahana, one of the students of Jayatilleke, did was the very extension of Jayatilleke’s work into the later Buddhist philosophy. He read and re-read the works of Nāgārjuna and Vasubandhu, and wrote a classic overview on the continuity in the stream of Buddhist philosophy from the EBT to (early medieval) Mahayana.

For those who are not familiar with the concepts and logic of EBTK, including me, I found that another work by Jayatilleke, The Message of the Buddha, has a useful chapter on The Buddhist Conception of Truth.


Question on the role of the authority of the Buddha’s knowledge in Early Buddhism, and in various contemporary Buddhist traditions.

Bhante Sujato gives us these prompt Q’s:

I would love to know, are there any monastic Buddhist philosophers who disagree with the Buddha on certain points made in the Suttas?

I know of lay Buddhist philosophers who treat the Buddha as a philosopher to be critically engaged with and debated, and who say things of the form, ‘I agreed with the buddha on these points, but not on these points’ (e.g. Amod Lele, e.g.
Are there any monastic Buddhist philosophers (historical or contemporary) who disagree with the Buddha on certain points?
Are there any Buddhist monastic traditions that allow monastics to disagree with the Buddha on certain points?
(The sort of dissagreement I am asking about is dissagreement with the constructive purpose of supporting and developing Buddhist traditions, and engaging in cross cultural and cross-moral-tradition work; I do not mean dissagreement that seeks to dismantle or contest the overarching frameworks of the Buddhist tradition (admittedly, what does and does not fall into this second category might be contested)).

It is relevant that Robinson’s review of EBTK highlights (in a way that Jayatilleke does not) the limits of the Early Buddhist original norm of free inquiry.

“Do the disciples of the Buddha accept any doctrines on the authority of the Buddha?.. As evidence that free inquiry was the original norm, Jayatilleke refers to the scene of Gotama’s deathbed in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, which “still represents [the Buddha] as being anxious that his seeming authority should not stand in the way of the doubts of the monks being dispelled by questioning” (p. 401). Though this is more liberal than the dogmatist threat that whoever doubts the claims of the Tathagata will have an unhappy rebirth (p. 400), it is still a far cry from Socratic inquiry. Throughout the Suttas and Vinaya, though the inquirer may be at liberty to doubt or challenge Gotama’s statements, it is taken for granted that Gotama is right and the inquirer is wrong so long as he persists in disagreement. Gotama never once concedes that his opponent is right and he himself is wrong.” (Robinson, EBTK Review, 389)

Do any contemporary monastic traditions allow a stronger norm of free inquiry than what appears in the suttas?
Again, my question is if any contemporary monastic traditions allow one to not take it for granted that Gotama is right, and to disagree on certain points or take an alternative perspective.
If there are any such contemporary monastic traditions, I (and many people I know) would love to see what they say, and how they frame their dissagreement.
One way to phrase this is Q is: If I were to be a monastic, would I be prohibited from dissagreeing with the Buddha on certain points?

P.S Thanks Felix for the link to David Kalupahana’s writings!