SuttaCentral

What kind of Knowledge is Early Buddhism concerned with? - EBTK

What kind of knowledge is Early Buddhism concerned with? And what kind of knowledge is Early Buddhism not concerned with?

There are many different things that we can seek to know; knowledge of mathematical proofs (2+2=4); knowledge by reasoning in law courts; medical knowledge; knowledge that killing is morally wrong; knowledge that the buddha taught the four noble truths; a personal knowledge of the four noble truths “‘This is suffering’ … ‘This is the origin of suffering’ … ‘This is the cessation of suffering’ … ‘This is the practice that leads to the cessation of suffering’…”; and more.

(Someone who is more well versed in epistemology than I am might be able to give technical terms for the different kinds of knowledge).

Some kinds of knowledge might be relevant to our moral life and/or our spiritual life, and some might not be. Some kinds of knowledge we might be able to know with more or less certainty, or know in different ways. We can know 2+2=4 with high certainty, and know whether it will rain on this day in three years time with low certainty. And we can know that we have a body in an embodied and undeniable way; and this is very different to the knowledge that ‘the Buddha was born in ancient India’.
(Sadly, again, I don’t know the technical epistemological terms)

Is Early Buddhism only concerned with certain kinds of knowledge, and not concerned with other kinds of knowledge? This seems to me to be an obvious answer - but I want to know for sure. This is important for considering where in our lives we should apply and live by the early Buddhist theory of knowledge; And where in our lives we should not apply and live by the early Buddhist theory of knowledge. We likely don’t want to apply the early Buddhist theory of knowledge to the situation of gaining knowledge about the cellular structure of Covid19. But where exactly do we want to apply the early Buddhist theory of knowledge in our lives? What kinds of knowledge is Early Buddhism concerned with, and not concerned with?

I have been reading the Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge (book) by K.N. Jayatilleke, as a number of people have, as part of Bhante Sujato’s current class on this topic.

In the Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge there is a section titled “The Critique of Reason; it’s inadequacy for knowledge” (paragraph’s 436-442, p272-276). What kind of knowledge is being discussed here? The text seems unclear as to if it is saying either (1) Early Buddhism critiques reason as inadequate for any kind of knowledge at all, or (2) Early Buddhism critiques reason as inadequate for a certain kind of knowledge (if so, what kind?).

My goal in asking this question is to clarify where to apply the Early Buddhist critique of reason as inadequate for knowledge, and where to not apply the Early Buddhist critique of reason as inadequate for knowledge. Reason is something that, I think there is strong reason to believe, can helpfully give us many kinds of knowledge (but not all kinds of knowledge, and perhaps not fully, and perhaps with only partial certainty). I want to be clear on what is inside and outside the scope of the Early Buddhist critique of reason as a means to knowledge.

In “The Critique of Reason; it’s inadequacy for knowledge”, Jayatilleke starts by quoting from the Sandaka Sutta (MN 76, SuttaCentral), where the Buddha critiques that one of forms of religion/spiritual life that is “unsatisfactory but not neccessarily false” (Jayatilleke’s words), is one founded on reason and speculation:

“Herein… a certain teacher is a reasoner and investigator;
he teaches a doctrine which is self-evident and is a product of reasoning
and the pursuit of speculation. But in the case of a person who reasons
and speculates, his reasoning may be good or bad, true or false’.” (MN 76, quoted in EBTK, 272)

Jayatilleke interprets this as saying:

“the truth or falsity of a
theory in relation to fact cannot be judged by the consistency of its
reasoning, for even a well-reasoned theory may be false in the light
of contingent facts and an ill-reasoned theory true.” (EBTK, 272)

In this section, “The Critique of Reason; it’s inadequacy for knowledge”, this is what Jayatilleke concludes:

“(442) It will be seen that one cannot hope to have perfect knowledge
(näna) of a proposition or theory by the consideration of some reasons
for it (äkära-parivitakka-) or by the conviction that dawns by merely
reflecting on it (ditthi-nijjhäna-kkhanti). Belief on the basis of these
two kinds of rational reflection, is placed on the same footing on
epistemological grounds as faith (saddhä), authority (anussava-) or
purely subjective considerations like likes or dislikes (ruci).” (EBTK, 276)

Is this saying that:
(1) consideration of reasons is inadequate for all kinds of knowledge; Or
(2) consideration of reasons is inadequate for a certain kind of knowledge?
On my reading, it is confusingly unclear.

I am not sure if this unclarity is due to the way Jayatilleke presents the information; Or if this unclarity is perhaps due to the distinction between (1) and (2), and the distinction between different kinds of knowledge, simply not being mentioned in the Buddhist Sutta’s Jayatilleke is using to explain the Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge (The Buddhist suttas, after all, can’t be expected to mention everything, and especially can’t be expected to mention all things tangential to or beyond the direct scope of the spiritual life).

The context of considering the basis of a spiritual life suggests it is (2) a certain kind of knowledge, and one that is relevant to the spiritual life, that is being considered in the critique of reason as a means to knowledge. But, some of what is said by Jayatilleke seems to suggest (1). The scope is not clarified. When Jayatilleke says “It will be seen that one cannot hope to have perfect knowledge (näna) of a proposition or theory by the consideration of some reasons for it (äkära-parivitakka-)” (EBTK, 276), it seems to suggest (1), and seems to suggest this critique of reason as inadequate for knowledge applies to all propositions and theories.

If (1) is meant, this seems to me to be un-defendable. There are so many counter examples - e.g. mathematical reasoning seems adequate for (almost) certain knowledge of the solution to 5+5=x. (I am vaguely aware that there is never perfect certainty (due to things like Gödel’s incompleteness theorems), but that is not relevent here). Reason, and knowledge based on reason, helped construct the theory of human rights, and aeroplanes. Reason does give us some kinds of knowledge.

If (2), this might very well be defendable. I think it can be defendable to say that for some kinds of knowledge reason is inadequate for attaining knowledge. But what kind of knowledge is this? And how is this kind of knowledge related, similar, and different, to other kinds of knowledge? What kinds of knowledge does this critique of reason apply to and not apply to?
What is “perfect knowledge (näna)”? And how is it different to other kinds of knowledge?

I think the answer is that (2) is the correct interpretation. And I think that it is just confusingly presented, and that there is a lack of nuanced consideration of different types of knowledge.

Taking (2) as the correct interpretation, I have some understanding of what kind of knowledge Early Buddhism is concerned with, and thus for what kind of knowledge early Buddhism has a justifiable critique that ‘reason is inadequate for this kind of knowledge’. (I have some understanding, however, I don’t have deep understanding, and I would love those with more understanding to please share their understanding).
This kind of knowledge, from my basic understanding, includes the central case of a personal and direct knowledge of the four noble truths, “‘This is suffering’ … ‘This is the origin of suffering’ … ‘This is the cessation of suffering’ … ‘This is the practice that leads to the cessation of suffering’…”. (Note, this personal and direct knowledge is different to knowledge gained by hearing Buddhist teachings). My understanding is that this is a knowledge, based on personal and direct experience, that can not be arrived at by reason, and can only be arrived at by practicing the noble eightfold path, gaining insight, and gaining direct and personal knowledge of the four noble truths.

I think that unfortunetly, despite all of it’s great strengths (and there are many!) Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge just might have a blind spot (if this really is a blind spot) such that it is unclear that it is talking about a certain kind of knowledge, and not all kinds of knowledge (it certainly is unclear on this point in this chapter (and maybe in the whole book, but I can’t be certain as I haven’t finished it yet)).
I think it is very misleading that Jayatilleke titles this section “The Critique of Reason; it’s inadequacy for knowledge”, if it really is only talking about one kind of knowledge.
I have only read half of Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge so far, but in the first half of the book, I don’t ever remember Jayatilleke talking about what kinds of knowledge Early Buddhism is concerned with, and what kinds of knowledge Early Buddhism is not concerned with. I may have missed a part, or forgotten a part, and I would appreciate it if anyone can show me that I have missed something.

If Early Buddhism doesn’t concern itself with certain kinds of knowledge, that seems perfectly acceptable. And if it does not have a nuanced conception of those kinds of knowledge that it is not concerned with, that also seems acceptable. For example, the Buddha never claimed to be teaching knowledge of mathematics, and so it is perfectly acceptable if the Early Buddhist Suttas have no nuanced epistemological theory of mathematical knowledge.

There are many questions here (both ones I have asked, and ones that could be asked). Some are questions about what is within the scope of the early Buddhist theory of knowledge, and some are questions about what are outside this scope. Here, in the context of studying and practicing Early Buddhism, I think the most suitable questions to seek answers to, are those questions about what exactly is inside the scope of the early Buddhist theory of knowledge (the other questions can be left for a different context). What exactly are the kinds of knowledge Early Buddhism is concerned with? As there are many excellent Pali and Early Buddhism scholars on this forum, it might even be possible that someone might be able to give exact textual references and specific answers as to what kinds of knowledge Early Buddhism is concerned with.

Could someone with more understanding please tell me what kinds of knowledge Early Buddhism is concerned with? And what are the central cases of this knowledge that Early Buddhism is concerned with?

To forms of knowledge does the Early Buddhist critique of reason as inadequate for knowledge apply? And to what forms of knowledge does the Early Buddhist critique of reason as inadequate for knowledge not apply?

And, can anyone else who is reading Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge tell me if there is, or is not, a section where Jayatilleke clarifies what kind of knowledge Early Buddhism is concerned with, and what kind of knowledge Early Buddhism is not concerned with?

3 Likes

Dear @MitchellStirzaker,

I am not a Pali or epistemology expert, so there are many aspects that I cannot answer to. Moreover, I haven’t yet had a chance to read Jayatilleke’s book.

I just would like to point out two suttas, MN71 and especially MN72, where Vacchagotta asks multiple questions that the Buddha refused to answer to, because they were misleading and not conducive to liberation. These two Suttas describe clearly what is in scope (MN71) and what is not in scope (MN72) of the EBT.

As a person trained in Physics, surely I appreciate a good theory, but what is most important is that whatever theory represents reality, otherwise it is something different, i.e. it is not in scope.

In a similar way, my current understanding is that the Buddha focused on what was conducive to liberation (please correct me if I am inaccurate).

Since his main insights were rebirth, kamma and the 4NT (including DO), I therefore appreciate experiments in these three aspects (the main one being someone’s personal practice (not to be discussed here), but personally also academic research, see Ian Stevenson’s research on rebirth, for example), in the EBT context. Other than that, my understanding is that we are discussing about something else, i.e. topics not in scope of the EBTs.

With Metta

2 Likes

“Two paths to Knowledge”—Bikkhu Bodhi
https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_42.html

Science is concerned with describing the mechanics of samsara for practical benefit. Buddhism understands nibbana, which is outside samsara, for release from individual suffering. The aims are different so the knowledges are different. Buddhism cannot be understood by attempting to place it within science. In Buddhist knowledge which has a limited aim, there are some subjects which are unconjecturable (AN 4.77).

3 Likes

I think that the presence of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, and that it’s applicable to daily life (i.e., computers and quantum stuff) shows that as an epistemological base reason is not perfect for every kind of knowledge. Sure we can thorough mathematical knowledge but Gödel proved that you cannot have perfect knowledge of mathematics using mathematics. We can use some knowledge that works to describe the world around using physics and have everything work like expected, but it’s still not complete, consistent, or effectively generatable. As you say, reason gives us some knowledge and this makes it imperfect knowledge. There is an underlying flaw in the source of knowledge, it’s incomplete! If the knowledge is incomplete then Jayatilleke is correct and we cannot have perfect knowledge of everything.

If you want to argue that this puts us on the same grounds as saddhā, anussava, and ruci that can be more debatable. There is a measure of faith in reason itself and the authority of the field and I think that’s what Jayatilleke is implying. I definitely wouldn’t say that I use my faith in science in the same way that I use my faith in the Triple Gem though.

2 Likes

EBT has a rather narrow and well identified topic - this body and this mind.
Knowledge on any other topics can only be clearing field for body-mind training.
For depth of knowledge, there is intellectual understanding. There is insight which is deeper. Last there is transcendental insight.