K.N. Jayatilleke’s Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge is the single most outstanding work of Buddhist philosophy of the 20th century. Jayatilleke combined his extensive understanding of the Pali with incisive research into Indian culture and a rigorous background in modern analytical (British) philosophy to produce a work that illuminates every field that it touches on, and they are many. Sparkling with insights and ruthless in method, it is the classic “teacher of the teachers”, having influenced Bhikkhu Bodhi, myself, and a whole generation.
Whereas most books on “Buddhist philosophy” are there for easy-listening solace, and are generally pleasant but forgettable, Jayatilleke addresses, and often solves, hard problems that have real world implications. We are in the midst of what Barack Obama recently characterized as “an epistemological crisis”. Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge points to how the problem of how we know what we know is central to the Buddha’s teaching. The solutions it demonstrates are just as useful today as they were then.
Jayatilleke’s work was built on by others, notably his student David Kalupahana, who extended his teacher’s method to include the texts and teachings of other schools of Buddhism beyond the Pali. But his accomplishments remain under-recognized, and his solutions to critical problems such as the empirical nature of rebirth in Buddhism are routinely passed over.
I’m planning on teaching a course based on this book next year. Stay tuned for details!
You can read it online at the Internet Archive:
You can also purchase a hard cover edition at a very reasonable price from Motilal Banarsidass.