Quest for Certainty: The Epistemological Implications of the Buddha’s notion of True Knowledge by Patrick Mbazuigwe

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In common parlance the question of knowledge is often taken for granted. The definition, origin, source or nature of knowledge is hardly an issue for serious concern. It is a most ordinary human experience yet discussing about it appears to be the most abstract of all. Although knowledge is a primary fact of human consciousness yet its brittle nature makes it to evade every attempt to limit it to a single definition. Ordinarily we know what it is and often engage in the knowing process yet we cannot easily grasp or clearly define it beyond reasonable doubt. We are aware of certain activities that go on in our mind like hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching etc.[1] We are capable of distinguishing one state of the mind from the other i.e. that we are conscious of the many forms of knowledge that go on in the human mind[2] from sense perception to intellectual knowledge like affirming, reasoning, intuition etc. yet at best most definitions highlight one aspect of knowledge while ignoring other aspects.

One simple way of looking at knowledge would be to consider certain instances when we employ the verb “to know.” If I say that “I know the University of the West” certain things come to mind here. It could imply that I have been to the university and I know how to get there if I need to. It could also imply that I have read about the University and I know about the activities that are going on there. My claim to knowing the University of the West thus could imply a certain form of an experiential awareness or a mental representation (intellection) or an awareness which enables me to distinguish the University from other Universities. It could also mean that I have read and known about the character and activities that take place in the university; that I have no doubt with regard to the existence of the University. A student may therefore claim to know a certain subject when he has mastered it and can engage in a reasonable discussion on the subject. This is a form of intellectual awareness that may not necessarily require experience to come about. In the field of science, our ability to grasp the principles, methods, conclusions etc and our ability to give a reasonable interpretation of the various facts and laws governing our scientific claim all fall within the sphere of our claim to knowledge.

From the above presuppositions we can make a list of some of our claims to knowledge or in some plausible general categories, give specific examples of things that I know or at least confidently seem to myself to know:

  • Certain facts about my present subjective experiences or states of consciousness – that I feel the heat that comes from my lap top; that I am looking for ways of explaining the problems pertaining to knowledge; that I am seeing the blue background of my laptop.
  • Facts about my present perception of my immediate environment including the state of my body; that I am typing now; I am looking at the computer screen; that there are books on my table etc.
  • The facts about the larger perceptible and social world beyond my immediate present experience; that there is an airport about 8 miles away from where I live; that the University of the West is in Rosemead; that there are people in Africa, Asia, Europe etc.
  • There are facts of knowledge about my personal past which I actually experienced and which continues to influence my worldview; that I was born in Nigeria; that I had cereals for breakfast in the morning; that I visited His Lai temple last month etc. Although some of these experiences are no longer distinct and clear to me yet they are part of my story.
  • Some historical facts that were not part of my personal experiences but were at least experienced in part by others – that there were first and second world wars; that America was a onetime colony of Britain and that George Washington is the acclaimed father of the American nation; that at some point in history the Roman empire ruled the entire world; that some people have been to the moon etc.
  • There are facts about the present experiences and mental states of other people, animals and other sentient beings that are not immediately known to me – that the dog is barking because it is sensing danger; that my office mate is proud of his achievements; that the athlete is tired after doing a 1500 meter race etc.
  • There are facts about my character and dispositional traits which I often notice in others (people and animals) - that I have the feeling of trepidation in the face of danger; that I am cautious when approaching the unknown; that most of my friends and I would like to be successful in life etc.
  • Bonjour includes “some general and causal facts concerning observable objects and processes – that small amount of sugar will always dissolve in large quantities of water; that green apples (of varieties that turn red or yellow when ripe) taste very sour; that indoor plants will eventually die if they don’t receive water; that a thrown baseball will bounce off a cement wall”[3]; that a stone that is thrown into the air will eventually fall to the ground; air occupies space etc.
  • There are also facts of knowledge that are based on future events – that the sun will rise tomorrow; that the next soccer world cup shall take place in South Africa; that presidential election in USA takes place every four years; that the pane of glass in my hand will break should I drop it on concrete floor etc.
  • Some facts of knowledge that are outside the range of anyone’s direct observation or that may not be directly observed but inferred: - that the center of the sun will be very hot; that tiny molecules make up what we call gas; that the stars are bigger than they appear to us etc.
  • There is also a priori knowledge that does not depend on sensory experience. A good example of this could be found in mathematics; - that 3 +3 = 6; that the total angle of a triangle is 180 degrees etc.
  • There are also logical principles that could be derived solely based on reason alone: - that a bachelor is an unmarried man; that if A is greater than B and B is greater than C, then A should be greater than C; or in logical syllogism – All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal etc.

This is certainly not a complete list. We could extend the list to include knowledge gained from cultural, moral and religious beliefs however the above list could provide us enough ground on which we could engage in a reasonable discussion on knowledge.

Knowledge is essentially about the conscious apprehension of an object i.e. of anything, fact or principle which belongs to the physical, mental or metaphysical order, that may in any manner be reached by cognitive faculties.[4] This includes events, material substances, geometrical theorem, mental processes, and religious, cultural and philosophical beliefs like the immortality of the soul, the existence and nature of God etc. which though metaphysical in nature yet could serve as facts of human knowledge. The common belief therefore is to see knowledge as “the antithesis of a knowing subject and a known object.”[5] Since true knowledge always possesses an objective character, any process that may be conceived as merely subjective is not considered a cognitive process. And any attempt to reduce the object to a purely subjective experience is commonly viewed as resulting only in destroying the fact of knowledge, which implies the object or not-self, as clearly as it does the subject, or self.[6]

Knowledge as a Human Activity:

Our presumption in the use of the concept of knowledge in this paper limits it to basically a human activity – it is an active process known to humans directly from their own consciousness as distinct from the response to stimuli and other forms of instinctual responses/representations which could be seen in lower animals. Our claim to knowledge would therefore include the power of communication by which through language we are able to express what we claim to know. “By it the knower actively possesses the object known in himself or herself. Through knowledge, the knowing subject is not only present in the midst of other existents but also as it were, transparent to himself or herself.”[7]

The questions that come to mind here are: - Is knowledge possible? How do we come to know? What am I doing when I am doing ‘knowing?’ What does it mean to say that I know each of the various things which I claim to know? These questions challenge us to establish the conditions or criteria that must be satisfied for a claim to knowledge to be true or correct. In order to advance our discussion on knowledge, we take it for granted that ‘I do know the things I claim to know’ “certain experience/belief transitions when ingrained in a subject are constitutive of good perception – thus the transition from the sort of visual experience characteristic of a snowball seen in good light to belief that there is such a snowball there. Other such experience/belief transitions are constitutive of good introspection, as when one’s headache prompts one to believe that one has a headache.”[8] The next question would be to ask – How do I know them? This question challenges us to establish the grounds, sources or basis of my claim to true knowledge.

The immediate and most obvious answer that comes to mind here is that I know about my immediate perceived environment via sensory perception and my knowledge of the past comes to me via my memory. As for the mental states of others, I may claim to know them by observing their bodily behavior which includes their words (verbal) and actions (responses, reactions etc) – if an object hits someone on the head and the person groans in pain, I would know that such a person is hurting.

We recognize that in knowledge, there is a unity through time. “Thus, I know that I am the same person today that I was yesterday and that I was the day before. I can look at this room, scanning different areas of space at different times and yet it remains a unified room for me. It is not a bit here, a bit there, a bit elsewhere as my eyes move. It is understood by me as belonging together, as a whole.”[9] This is made possible due to the power of the human mind to have a mental representation of its perceptions and the ability of the memory to piece one and one together to make two. Further questions that could be asked are: - How can we know facts about unobservable entities? How can we know with certainty facts about the future? – How can we know with certainty facts about mathematical facts which are not dependent upon experience?

The knowledge of ‘knowing’ is a special kind of knowledge. It is intuitive in nature in the sense that it has no need for intermediary concepts. Human beings are naturally capable of apprehending the universal character of things. We know the universal nature of dogs, trees, justice, truth etc and with this knowledge we are able to identify the particulars of their nature in individual trees, dogs etc. One may also evoke the power and authority of evidence (both experiential and logical reasoning). So, the assumption I am making in this discussion is that truth is the only source of knowledge and that only facts should be considered as true. Authentic knowledge therefore has more to do with facts that can be known rather than with the unknown or unknowable entities or notions.

Most philosophers across the spectrum like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Descartes, Malebranche, Leibnitz, Spinoza, Hume, Berkeley, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Kant etc have subscribed to the understanding that it is within the power of human beings to arrive at non-empirical principles of reality. This is the immanent character of mind.[10] These philosophers would therefore admit of the possibility of the mind’s access to a metaphysical explanation of the universe. The reason for this kind of view is radically based on the nature of human knowledge itself and its justification based on the simple fact that humans simply know what they claim to know. Not only that they know; they do know that they know – they can make sense of the reality that surrounds them.

Nature of Human Knowledge:

Given the subtle nature of human knowledge, it becomes reasonable to agree with the age old Aristotelian and Scholastic view that knowledge begins entirely from the senses but does not end with it. “Man’s knowledge involves both sensation and intellection, and these two elements always go together. Man never has a sensation without the corresponding idea; he never has an idea without a sensation or image that is the residue of former sensations.”[11] We recognize the fact that this claim does not resolve the problems posed by the skeptics; the problem of meaning and the problem of other minds. Nonetheless, it does advance our cause on our discussion about human knowledge. This understanding would renew the interest on whether knowledge is a thing or the resultant effect of a process that humans undergo. And as to what point the knowing process should be seen as conclusive as to be regarded as knowledge becomes also an issue of interest.

Concern of the Skeptics:

What gives credibility to the doubts of the skeptics is the fact that there have been instances where what I claimed to know is not true or rather that I turn out in fact not to know something that I thought I knew – that the book I thought was on the table is actually in my school bag; that the drug store I thought was at the street corner was actually burned down yesterday; that the student I thought was following my lecture because of the way he nods his head is actually deceiving me; the person I thought was honest is actually a liar etc. If knowledge is based on the truth, what becomes of the pieces of knowledge gained from presumptions, speculations and guess works? What happens to my presumption that there is a monastic at every class in the University of the West; or my presumption that there is food in the UWest cafeteria at 12noon every weekday? There are four distinct kinds of epistemic evaluation to be put into consideration in the acceptance of a belief[12] – 1. Was the belief arrived at by way of an objectively correct, that is, a reliable process? 2. Was the belief arrived at by way of a subjectively correct process? 3. Were the actions that were performed objectively correct i.e. did they induce reliable belief acquisition? 4. Were the actions that were performed subjectively correct i.e. were they regulated by a desire for the truth? As we can see question 3 & 1 are not independent of each other as an affirmative answer to the former would require an affirmative answer to the latter.

This concern that apparent knowledge might not be genuine was what motivated the French philosopher Rene Descartes, often described as both the father of modern philosophy and the founder of epistemology to argue in his methodic doubt (see Cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am). He writes “Several years have now passed since I first realized how numerous were the false opinions that in my youth I had taken to be true, and thus how doubtful were all those that I had subsequently built upon them. And thus I realized that once in my life I had to raze everything to the ground and begin again from the original foundations, if I wanted to establish anything firm and lasting in the sciences.”[13] This understanding led him to doubt every argument and most accepted propositions and through his methodic doubt built them again into distinct and clear ideas that could easily be apprehended by the intellect.

We recognize the processes we go through in our effort to acquire knowledge. “Knowledge does not simply happen to man’s intellect. The intellect wants to know; it has an appetite for the forms of objects and strives towards cognition of these forms. But the term of its striving is known as other, distinguished from the striving subject, and thus is objectified. Objects are known as such, as ontologically distinct from man, because their forms fulfill the intellect’s natural appetite for being and intelligibility.”[14] There is always interplay between perception and intellection in the process of acquiring knowledge. The mind provides the avenue for this process and makes it possible for the objects of sense perception and reason to correlate with each other.

The Epistemological Divide – the Buddha’s point of view:

We are often not quite satisfied with gaining knowledge by seeing, imagining, reasoning, reflecting, reading etc. This is because these means of gaining knowledge are prone to error and have sometimes been found to mislead us. Another fundamental question to ask is whether two or more of our sources of knowledge in the above list/categories (Nos. 1 – 12 see pp 2-4) are much more prone to error than others? If yes, why is their propensity to error much greater than others? This would lead us to consider the traditional divide between empiricism and rationalism. Later we would come to see how the Buddha reacted to these views. This brings us to the fundamental question which this thesis wants to address - Is the Buddha’s notion of empiricism equivalent to the western understanding of empiricism?

There have been cases of disagreements between the emphasis rationalism, empiricism, logic, traditionalism etc place on the sources of true and certain knowledge. There have been many views, beliefs and knowledge claims we had in the past that are today proven to be false. There have been instances where my claims to experiential knowledge have turned out to be false e.g. seeing a mirage. This has led some people to deny all claims to objectivity, absolutism and certainty in knowledge but would rather hold on to the view that truth is subjective and relative. But come to think of it, does subjectivism or relativism proffer any reliable solution to the problems posed by knowledge or is it still a move from one shortfall to another? Is this the case of the blind leading the blind? The nagging question remains, is true and certain knowledge possible in a world of becoming and change? And if it is possible how can we arrive at indubitable knowledge?

The Cartesian Cogito ergo sum:

To address this question in a very reasonable way would demand that we now could come up with a working definition or a fairly good idea of what knowledge is and what it is not. The Cartesian account of knowledge is no doubt one of the most acceptable accounts of knowledge which has come to be generally referred to as “the traditional conception of knowledge.”[15] It asserts that knowledge requires the satisfaction of three conditions namely (a) a belief or acceptance condition (b) a truth condition and (c) a reason or justification condition. For the purpose of our discourse in this paper therefore, I would subscribe to the definition of knowledge as “justified true belief.”

“A belief is strongly justified if and only if it is well formed, in the sense of being formed by means of a process that is truth-conducive in the possible world in which it is produced or the like.”[16] Belief here should not be construed in the religious or moral sense of the term but rather in the philosophical sense of ‘to be is to be true and anything that is, is true and worthy of belief’ simply because it is. “A belief is weakly justified (in the modified sense) if and only if it is blameless though ill-formed, in the sense of being produced by an unreliable cognitive process while the believer neither takes it to be thus ill-formed nor has any available way of determining it to be ill-formed.”[17] Bonjour makes a distinction between two kinds/senses of belief namely “occurrent belief” which is what happens when a person has a proposition explicitly in mind and accepts or assents to it. There is also a “dispositional belief” which happens when a person does not have the proposition explicitly in mind but is disposed to accept or assent to it i.e. the person is willing to accept or assent to it if the correct issues were raised.[18]

The point being made here is that knowledge requires the satisfaction of certain conditions. If I say that there is a book on the table, you go there and find a book on the table then I end up becoming convinced that it is true. This proposition has led to knowledge and the knowledge claim is now believed to be true. To satisfy this condition would demand that the person in question be in a conscious state of explicitly considering and assenting to the proposition in question. This may also involve as the example above suggests, a two stage process – going to see if there is a book on the table or the proposition may strike me as obvious as soon as it enters my mind, hence I accept it without any preliminary stage of consideration or doubt. This example does not exhaust all the issues involved in the possibility of arriving at true and certain knowledge but it does draw our attention to important issues that could be ignored in our discussion on knowledge.

The Buddha’s Insight:

Just like some of these great philosophers (from Socrates/Plato up to Descartes/Kant); the search for true and universal knowledge that is beyond error was one of the main issues that was addressed by the Buddha. What is the basis if any, of true and reliable knowledge, (especially when we conceive of knowledge as justified true belief)?

There are many scientific questions that originated in the Greek tradition in Western philosophy. Aristotle and Plato were profoundly puzzled about the nature of space and time, and about the nature of substance. They wanted to know what matter is made of, how it is put together. The nature of how things change, and why they change, was also questioned. They noticed that certain things change systematically and other things change apparently at random. They wanted to know about the nature of motion. Additionally, of course, they wanted to know about the origins of life, where it all came from. They also asked particular questions about humans. They wanted to know how it is that humans can know the world outside them according to some kind of internal representation. How is it that with just a head and eyes and ears, it is nonetheless possible to know what’s going on outside in an immense and complicated world, and to know that sometimes how things seem to be is different from how they in fact are. These are basic mysteries.[19]

Granted that the Buddha did not find much pleasure in metaphysical speculations, yet he did express some views which show that he did share the concerns of the pre and post Socratic philosophers. The Buddha’s view on knowledge has an ethical dimension that identifies it within the traditions of Plato, Socrates, Thomas Aquinas etc who did not conceive of knowledge as knowledge for its own sake. Of interest to the Buddha is a type of knowledge that is certain, enlightens and liberates its possessor. This is knowledge that is conceived as virtue hence the true source of enlightenment, freedom and happiness. The second part of this paper will take a critical look at the Buddha’s notion of true knowledge. An attempt will later be made to contextualize it within the philosophical traditions, with the aim of drawing out its epistemological implications.

In his article on “Knowledge” Reilly G C conceives of knowledge as “an act by which one becomes the other in an intentional way; the act by which one is aware of something in thought, with or without the aid of the senses; the habit or ability to recall such an act; or the matter that is the object of such an act or habit.”[20] Granted that we know a bit of this and that as we go on in life, the question of what constitutes genuine knowledge remains an issue of great concern. We live and thrive based on these acquired pieces of information and belief yet our knowledge is imperfect and liable to error of one sort or the other. One begins to wonder if ignorance, doubt and imperfect forms of knowledge are permanent qualities of human mind or is there a possibility of overcoming these imperfect levels of knowing in order to arrive at a more certain and reliable level of knowledge. The Buddha is of the view that there is a qualitative kind of knowledge within the reach of human beings that is capable of overcoming doubt thus leading to the state of perfection and enlightenment.

In his book, “Early Buddhist theory of knowledge” Jayatilleke K. N[21] identified three major classifications of the epistemological positions that are believed to be pre-Buddhist but whose school of thought (concept of knowledge/truth) was prevalent during the time of the Buddha. These would include the traditionalists, the rationalists and the experientialists. The following are listed:[22]

- takka-hetu or takka-gahena: comprehending by reason or adhering to logic

- naya-hetu

- akara-parivitakkena

- ditthi-nijjhana-kkhantiya

1. The “Traditionalists” (Anussavika) is a concept used to refer to a group of thinkers who claimed that true knowledge can only be derived from a scriptural tradition and the interpretations based on it. Prominent among them were the Brahmins of Hindu religion who upheld the sacred authority and truth content of the Vedas as the primary source of truth. Just like the time of Socrates and Plato, people evoked the gods in their explanation of reality and any knowledge that contradicts the wisdom of the sacred scripture was considered unacceptable or rather rejected as false. The authority of tradition based on the Vedas was to say the least regarded as unquestionable and true to the letter.

The Buddha recognized appeal to tradition as a possible source of knowledge but he did not go to the extent of regarding the authority of the Vedas as unquestionable and valid means of knowledge. Since tradition as a source of knowledge is still prone to doubt and error/mistakes, he did not settle with it as the ultimate means of knowledge. This is because in a notion of knowledge based on tradition, knowledge forces itself upon one’s attention as a number of activities occurring within the person and at the same time are related to things outside of himself/herself which are simply brought into the field of consciousness. “It is this reality sometimes referred to as Brahman (neuter) and more often as Brahma (masculine) who is the first teacher of the Vedas. We see in the list of successive teachers at Brh. 2.6.1-3 and again at Brh. 4.6.1 and 6.5.1-4 that the line is traced right up to Brahman (neut.) which is translated by Radhakrishnan ….”[23]

In chapter 8.15, it was stated that the Vedic knowledge comes from Brahma who disclosed it to Prajapati and who in turn disclosed it to Manu from whom human beings acquired the knowledge of the Vedas. Since these beings are considered perfect in a way, the knowledge gained from their teachings was also regarded as sacred and hence unquestionable. One of the earliest accounts of the divine origin of the Vedas[24] has it that the Vedas was the product of a Cosmic Person (Purusa, RV. 10.90). Some scholars are of the view that it was the influence of Purusa-sukta that the Vedas was attributed to the influence of a personal divine being. The Vedas were also believed to have been handed down by an unbroken succession of teacher’s right down to historical times and this continuity of the tradition has always been an essential part of the Buddhist critique of the Vedas, as such claimed sequence of successions cannot be reasonably authenticated.

From whichever tradition one views the origin of the Vedas as coming from the rsis as the authors or Prajapati[25] as the sole author/creator, the scenario itself presents a subject – object relationship in the process of acquiring knowledge. It is true that most of our knowing processes occur within this dualistic framework of subject – object relationship yet it is not an adequate means of acquiring true knowledge for the quality of knowledge the Buddha sought for has more to do with identity than with duality. For a being is recognized as an object only when it has some relation with another being that has the power of knowing. The truth of tradition is imposed on the subject and there is little or no possibility of self appropriation in this form of knowing since it is neither rooted in the experience of the truth nor does it lead to self emancipation of the individual in question. Since neither subject nor object can be viewed as an absolute, the Buddha rejected this means of knowing as being incapable of satisfying the human quest for certainty.

2. The Rationalists and Metaphysicians (Takki Vimamsi) is a term used to refer to the group of thinkers for whom true and certain knowledge can only be derived from reasoning and speculation without any claims to extrasensory perception. These are the second category of thinkers that were rejected by the Buddha. They include the metaphysicians of the early Upanishads, the Skeptics, the Materialists and most of the Ajivakas (logicians) etc. An interesting point to consider here is why the Buddha for whom the liberation of the mind was central to his thinking would reject the rationalists. It should be noted here that reason (takki D.I 16 – takkika Ud. 73) itself was not the main problem but the use that was made of it during the time of the Buddha. These rationalists were associated with a group of sophists who employed fallacious reasoning for destructive purposes in order to outwit their opponents in an argument or debate. They were regarded as a group of thinkers who had no theories of their own but would subscribe to any view that helps them to win an argument. In the Nyaya sutra, tarka was used to mean an indirect proof which was used to demolish the opponents’ theory. It later assumed the sense of tarka – a mere destructive criticism.[26]

Attempts were made in the Nikaya to give tarka a positive connotation as the reasoning that was employed to construct and defend metaphysical theories but these interpretations were later developments as the Buddha did not subscribe to knowledge for its own sake. The liberation of the mind from its attachment to matter is very essential in his scheme of things. Hence the fundamental purpose of knowledge is for the emancipation of sentient being from the bondage of samsara. And given the propensity of the rationalists to argument for its own sake, there was therefore little or no distinction made between them and the skeptics of the early Upanishadic era hence Oldenberg did not hesitate to refer to them as a ‘specie of Indian sophists’ – eine Art indischer Sophistik.[27]

The epistemological undertone here is that wherever Socrates appears Sophists are bound to follow. As at the time of the Buddha, the views of the rationalists were similar to those of the Greek sophists (Gorgias, Protagoras etc) who denied the possibility of objective knowledge hence the impossibility of true, certain and indubitable knowledge. By use of rhetoric they reduced knowledge to an art that was used to gain victory in a debate, discussion, arguments etc. hence sophistry assumed the sense of a false and baseless argument employed with the intention to deceive.[28] There are no clear indications in the Pali canon as to the origin of the term takki (reason sometimes used in the sense of logic). It could have probably belonged to the Buddhists, Jain or one of the Brahmanical communities. This could explain the reason why their members were said to have been recruited from different communities (Buddhists, Jainas and the Brahmanas).

The Ajivakas are considered as the most important of the skeptic schools. For the Ajivakas, the major source of knowledge is through syllogism whereby they follow a series of premises and are able to arrive at conclusions that are believed to follow from the sequence of reasoning. Strictly speaking the Ajivakas were more of argumentationists rather than logicians in our contemporary understanding of the term. To agree with every viewpoint is to agree with no viewpoint and to disagree with every viewpoint is to agree with no viewpoint. It is true this process of reasoning has the capability of expanding our thinking horizon and that a certain level of truth can be arrived at through logical reasoning, yet the propensity to deception in the sophist style of reasoning did not agree with the Buddha’s notion of true knowledge hence he regarded rationalism as not free from the bondage of error and is incapable of liberating the human mind.

As the saying goes, life is larger than logic.[29] In logical truths the possibility of error arises when one begins to arrange and unify his knowledge through judgments that apply a predicate to a subject. But when judgment is in harmony with being as it is in reality, there is the possibility of affirming the truth. Moreover, one can arrive at logical truths without ever getting involved with that knowledge. Logical truth often lacks the authority of experience which is at the core of true knowledge. “The truth-value of the ‘observational’ propositions cannot be indubitably decided: no factual proposition can ever be proved from an experiment. Propositions can only be derived from other propositions; they cannot be derived from facts: one cannot prove statements from experiences - no more than by thumping the table. This is one of the basic points of elementary logic, but one which is understood by relatively few people even today.”[30]

Logical truth/proposition may not affect its possessor in any way personal for it stands out there as a truth arrived at by merely following a grandiose process of reasoning. Logical truth is a truth acquired at a distance whereby the possessor is not one with the truth known. Logic has the tendency of reducing reality into inanimate series of propositions; it is the high probability level of this means of acquiring knowledge and arriving at the truth that made the Buddha to reject logic as a valid means of true knowledge that is capable of giving its possessor an insight into liberation.

3. The Experientialists are the group of thinkers that were recognized by the Buddha as being capable of arriving at true and authentic knowledge. In response to the question raised by a student versed in the Vedas and Vedic lore, the Buddha recognized two other pre-Buddhist sources of knowledge and settled for the third. He said, “There are other recluses and Brahmins who profess the basis of a religion after finding a final and ultimate insight in this life by gaining a higher knowledge personally (samam yeva) of a doctrine (dhammam) among doctrines not traditionally heard of before. Now … I am one of those who profess the basis of a religion after finding a final and ultimate insight in this life by gaining a higher knowledge personally of a doctrine among doctrines not traditionally heard of before.”[31] This group depends for their theories on direct personal knowledge and experience including extrasensory perception. Many of the thinkers of the middle and late Upanishads, some of the Ajivakas and Jains belong to this group. Both the Materialists and the Empiricists would have belonged to this group except for the fact that they deny the validity of claims to extrasensory perception.

In the Madhupindika Sutta, the Buddha is quoted as arguing as follows with regard to experiential knowledge which could develop into a concept;

Visual consciousness, brethren, arises because of eye and material shapes; the meeting of the three is sensory impingement; because of sensory impingement arises feeling; what one feels one perceives; what one perceives, one reasons about; what one reasons about, one turns into ‘papanca’ (papanceti); what one turns into ‘papanca’ due to that ‘papanca-sanna-sankha’ assail him in regard to material shapes cognizable by the eye, belonging to the past, the future and the present. And, brethren, auditory consciousness arises because of ear and sounds … olfactory consciousness arises because of nose and smell … gustatory consciousness arises because of tongue and tastes … bodily consciousness arises because of body and touches … mental consciousness arises because of mind and mental objects … belonging to the past, the future and the present.[32]

For the Buddha papanca or concept is the final stage in the process of sense cognition. Care should therefore be taken in understanding the Buddha’s notion of sense perception in order to avoid reducing his view to that of an empiricist like John Locke for whom experience is the only basis of true knowledge. “The Kinsman of the Sun (the Buddha) has compared corporeality to a mass of foam, feelings to a bubble, perceptions to a mirage, volitional-activities to a plantain tree and consciousness to an illusion.”[33] Jayatilleke would immediately give a note of warning that the above classification is a loose one and should be understood as such. The schools of thought are so grouped based on their acclaimed primary source of knowledge. It is true that some Traditionalists did recognize the importance of perception and reason in the process of acquiring knowledge while the Rationalists of the early Upanishads likewise the Jains and Ajivakas had high regard for Scripture even though the Materialists did not. The Experientialists of the Middle and Late Upanishads rejected reason and placed scripture on a secondary position.

Of the ten possible sources of knowledge[34] rejected by the Buddha (Supra 251) six of them are based on claims to authority. They include the following:

  • The Vedic tradition as accepted on anussava (report, tradition).
  • Tradition in general, not necessarily Vedic (parampara –).
  • Scripture in general as a collection of sacred sayings or dicta theologica of a religious group (pitaka sampada).
  • Testimony of experts (bhavyarupata -, samano no garu).
  • Report or hearsay (itikira)

Having dismissed these erroneous means of acquiring knowledge, the Buddha began to address his audience oftentimes the monastics on certain forms of awareness that are necessary for acquiring true knowledge. In the Madhupindika-formula of sense perception, the Buddha connects on an impersonal note reminiscent of Dependent Arising (paticca-samuppada) thus; “Because of eye and material objects, O brethren, arises visual consciousness; the meeting of the three is sensory impingement, because of sensory impingement arises feeling ….”[35]

Another important view expressed by the Buddha in this Sutta is “What one feels, one perceives; what one perceives, one reasons about; what one reasons about, one proliferates conceptually ….”[36] These views underscore the hidden connection which the Buddha sees between sense perception and the reason faculty in the process of acquiring true knowledge. “… What one proliferates conceptually, due to that, concepts characterized by the prolific tendency assail him in regard to material shapes cognizable by the eye, belonging to the past, the future and the present ….”[37] In a recent conversation with Dalai Lama on brain science and Buddhism, a similar view was also expressed by Patricia Churchland thus “representations can be perceptual or conceptual. You can have sensory representation from touch as well as from vision, hearing, and other sense modalities. I would also include memory representations that occur in the course of just thinking about things. We consider all of these brain processes as constituting representations… all these are occurring in the brain.”[38]

The Buddha’s acceptance of direct personal knowledge and experience including extrasensory perception could be likened to the views of David Hume who in his book, “Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” divided all objects of knowledge into two kinds – relations of ideas and matters of fact. The first kind includes geometry, algebra and arithmetic, and “…every affirmation which is either intuitively or demonstratively certain. That the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the squares of the two sides is a proposition which expresses a relation between these figures. That three times five is equal to the half of thirty, expresses a relation between these numbers. Propositions of this kind are discoverable by the mere operations of thought, without dependence on what is anywhere in the universe.”[39] Hume goes on to argue that “though there never was a circle or a triangle in nature, the truths demonstrated by Euclid would forever retain their certainty and evidence.”[40]

The second kind of knowledge refers to matters of fact. According to Hume, a matter of fact is not ascertained in the same manner as facts of reason; “nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing. The contrary of every matter of fact is still possible; because it can never imply contradiction, and is conceived by the mind with the same facility and distinctness, as if ever so conformable to reality.”[41] Hume posits the following example to justify his claim - That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction than the affirmation, that it will rise. We should in vain, therefore, attempt to demonstrate its falsehood. If it were demonstratively false, it would imply a contradiction, and could never be distinctly conceived by the mind since the mind is incapable of grappling with such contradictions.

The Buddha sees a direct co-relation between the activities of the senses with those of the mind. In his own unique way of connecting the activities of the senses to those of the mind or rational faculties he argues in the Nidana Samyutta of the Samyutta Nikaya, as follows:

This is the meaning of the passage beginning with ‘cakkhuncavuso’; ‘Brethren, because of the sensitive surface of the eye as the support and the four originating material elements as the object, there arises ‘eye-consciousness.’ ‘Tinnam sangati phasso’; by the meeting of those three arises ‘contact.’ Because of that contact arises feeling, with contact as its condition by way of co-nascence etc. Whatever object is felt by that feeling, that, ‘perception’ perceives; whatever perception perceives, ‘reasoning’ reasons about that very object; whatever reasoning reasons about, ‘papanca’ transforms into papanca that very object. ‘Tatonidanam: with these factors such as the eye and visible object. Purisam papancasannasankha samudacarantiti: Parts of papanca overwhelm that man who is ignorant of those facts; that is, they exist for him.[42]

The inter-connectedness between sense perception and reason, point to the fact that empirical truths could hardly in themselves be said to be intuitively certain or demonstrable. Left to themselves alone facts of experience would remain meaningless unless reason intervenes to decode it, hence render it meaningful. They are neither derivable by thought alone from truths whose contraries are self contradictory nor are truth of reason totally isolated from sense experience. We know that empirical objects do provide facts for knowledge but how we can establish the truth of such facts remains an epistemological problem. The most we can do is to appeal to the senses and memory but according to Scheffler such appeals are hardly sufficient “for we believe all sorts of empirical propositions whose content reaches far beyond what is presently under observation or presently remembered.”[43]

Hume would try to resolve this difficulty by appealing to the principle of cause and effect. The simple understanding is that an effect is the result of a cause but it should be noted that the principle of cause and effect as used by Hume differs from its understanding in Buddhism where it is understood within the context of dependent co-origination. Thus, for the Buddhist, the conventional understanding that there is a cause for every effect would not suffice. This is why some philosophers still find it difficult to establish a direct relationship between cause and effect. But for Hume, it is the principle of cause and effect that enables us to extend our knowledge enormously beyond the immediate content of the senses and immediate memory.

Levels of Cognitional Activities:

The first level of cognitional activity is traditionally known to be experiential knowledge - the internal and external sensory activities which includes seeing, tasting, smelling, hearing, touching and some internal activities like feeling, imagining, remembering etc. These activities do not necessarily occur in single patterns but in schemes which are fundamentally interrelated. Since they also involve unconscious, organic levels as well as conscious activities, they are often referred to as “psychosomatic or psychobiological schemes of activities.”[44]

This aspect of the knowledge process refers to concrete objects of human experience. It is the “given as given.” It is the unquestionable, indubitable, residual and diffuse materials for inquiry and reflection. Appearance here is often synonymous with “visual appearance”[45] but epistemologically sense perception would necessarily incorporate those materials into which the psychologist, methodologist or cultural historian inquires. Hence it includes not only the concrete but also images, dreams, illusions, hallucinations, personal equations, subjective bias etc. Experiential objectivity thus becomes “the field of materials about which one inquires, in which one finds the fulfillment of conditions for the unconditioned, to which cognitional process repeatedly returns to generate series of inquiries and reflections that yield the contextual manifold of judgments.”[46]

In the process of acquiring knowledge, sense perception of empirical reality or experience as often used, is always considered as the lowest level yet it is an essential level since we often return to it in order to establish certain forms of objectivity e.g. that a Toyota Camry is different from a Toyota Corolla may not necessarily need logic but experience in order to establish the difference. As one advances in the knowledge process, we see that experience though important still is the least certain level of knowing. Experience is the most subjective of all levels of knowing. It is prone to mistake not because of its subjective character but because it does not always go beyond correct sensing of things to the more interesting and challenging questions about what a thing is and why it is what it is.

An unimpeded and unmitigated desire to know may not allow the mind to limit itself to sense perception of reality. Common sense as often used to talk about experiential knowledge, is nothing but a specialized pattern of knowing that is interested in solving our day to day problems so that human beings could live in an intelligent and reasonable ways. This pattern of cognitional activities develops to deal with concrete particular issues in daily life. It is not prepared to deal with theoretical, comprehensive concerns like the a-priori aspect of knowledge which transcends materiality to supra temporal realities. “What is a-priori is that the conclusions follow from the axioms and postulates, and this is not at all affected by the (empirical) discovery that not all the axioms and postulates exactly apply to the physical world.”[47]

It should be noted that the dividing line between empirical knowledge and a priori knowledge may not always be clear cut for common-sense knowledge must learn how to cooperate with other members of the knowledge process (perception, judgment and choice) in order to be understandable and meaningful. As in child development, studies have shown that:

“… a developing dual-coding ability, resulting from an increasing awareness of subjectivity and mental representation, helps young children understand how something could simultaneously have two seemingly incompatible properties or identities: one apparent to the self and the other real (in appearance-reality situations) or one apparent to the self and the other apparent to another person (in Level 2 perspective-taking situations). We speculate further that such dual coding may first occur, not in these two situations, but in pretend play situations.[48]

A recent study by Dalai Lama on consciousness has also revealed that it is plausible to think of memory as an extension of perception. “Ordinarily, perception can be transformed into memory. We use the word “encoding” to refer to memory deposition, or memory registration, at the time of learning. We know that encoding depends on many different factors such as the amount of attention that is being given to an event, how important the event is to that individual and the extent to which that individual can categorize or otherwise organize the event in relation to preexisting knowledge.”[49]

Any attempt to know what a thing is and why it is what it is would necessarily take us beyond empirical knowledge – from the descriptive, extrinsic answers to the search for explanations. The human mind is conditioned to ask questions. This is what initiated the art of philosophizing among the Ionian philosophers and this desire to know continues to hunt the human mind. The desire to know, which Lonergan describes as unrestricted, detached and disinterested; advances to the level of seeking for the understanding of the facts of experience. This stage of the process seeks for “objectivity as opposed to the subjectivity of wishful thinking, rash or excessively cautious judgments, of allowing joy or sadness, hope or fear, love or detestation, to interfere with the proper march of cognitional process.”[50]

The subject’s normative operations correctly confirm that the given experiential data meets all the necessary conditions to make an affirmative judgment that ‘X is tall’ or ‘Y is good’ or ‘this is a car.’ In this scenario, the objective of knowledge and the means of attaining that objective are both defined. It involves giving free rein to the pure desire, to its questions for intelligence (understanding) and to its quest for reflection. At this juncture, the mind is able to distinguish between sound questions from meaningless, incoherent or illegitimate ones. It desires intelligently and reasonably to comprehend reality as it is, and upon it rests the validity of all logic and all methods. Both the transcendental methods and the logical principles of identity, non contradiction and excluded middle; the classical, empirical and scientific methods are derived from this objective process of understanding.

Once judgment is unconditionally withdrawn from relativity to its source, it becomes accessible not only to the knower that utters it but also to any other knower who has the disinterested desire to know. Lonergan gives this example - Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon was a contingent event occurring at a particular place and time, but a true affirmation of that event is of an eternal, immutable, definitive validity. For if it is true that he did cross the Rubicon, then no one, whatever at any place or time could truly deny that he did. Such a denial would lead to a contradiction which the mind may not be comfortable to accept. This is because a thing cannot be and not be at the same time or which simply put, would mean that if a thing is therefore it is.

After understanding the facts of experience, our desire to know reaches an absolute level of objectivity in the act of judgment. This is a radical affirmation of the subject to the barest minimum so that it will not pose a problem between the object and me (or the individual). Any philosopher or epistemologist who blurs the difference between the concrete and the theoretical modes of knowing will be confused about objectivity. As portrayed by Mahakaccana’s formula, “the latent illusion of the ego awakens at the stage of ‘vedana’ and thereafter the vicious duality is maintained until it is fully crystallized and justified at the conceptual level.[51] This conceptual level would comprise of the stage when the mind could employ the principles of reason in order to pass judgment on the facts presented to the mind by experience. When it comes to understanding how the mind knows, one typically pictures a thinker who already knows that s/he really thinks. The absolute component lies neither in the object alone nor in the subject alone but in the integration of both. Judgment is absolute by virtue of its own affirmation of the unconditioned. It must pertain to single judgments as single, however, both universal and particular judgments, if correct, could be said to be absolutely objective.

Certainty in knowledge is the fruit of evidence. It helps in the clarification of the reasons that lead to our judgment and ultimately our decision. Flanagan in his analysis of the role of judgment uses the scenario of the court of law[52] to explicate this point. In the court room both the judge and juror listen to the evidence and eventually must arrive at the conclusion of a guilty or not guilty verdict. In instructing the jurors in a criminal case, the judge informs the jurors that they must find the defendant guilty if they are certain beyond reasonable doubt. The jurors may have doubts about their prospective judgment, but the issue for consideration is whether there are reasonable doubts to proceed with the case or to abandon it. What is it that makes a doubt reasonable and what makes a doubt unreasonable? A reasonable doubt here would refer to the reflective process a person undergoes in weighing the evidence to determine if there is sufficient ground for valid judgment. Where there is sufficient evidence to prove the defendant guilty, the jurors would be considered unreasonable should they fail to do so.

Important though the weight of evidence may be considered, the human mind does not always settle with the understanding and judgment of the empirically given aspects of reality, it reaches its goal in its ability to make a choice. This refers to the moral dimension of knowledge. This choice is a form of commitment to act or to contribute positively to the advancement of knowledge, society or the elimination of suffering. An informed mind is empowered to act as a further expression of true knowledge of the good, reality, truth etc. Hence, from the choices someone makes we could come to the understanding of how informed or knowledgeable the person is.

In the process of knowing, the mind is prone to judge and judgment cannot be complete without a definite choice between options. This is when the mind could authoritatively say what a thing is as s/he has known it to be known in the mind. What I am alluding to here is to recognize the distinction between intentionality and actuality even in the act of judgment. “Judging gives objectivity its absoluteness, its factualness, its independence, its irrefutability. Judging commits you to a truth that is not only yours, but that may belong to every knower who wishes to know it”[53] but choice is all about personal commitment to that which one knows, allowing it to transform oneself by so doing one would aim at advancing knowledge of reality.

Contextualizing this notion within the language of Lonergan, we see that the Buddha’s “come and see” carries with it these aspects of empirical objectivity, which is truth grasped by the senses; normative objectivity, which is truth realized through understanding, absolute objectivity which is truth reached by way of judgment and the fourth level which is decision where a seeker of knowledge proactively engages in a self appropriation of what is known and moves on further to enrich other forms of knowing.

Towards a better Understanding of the Buddha’s “come and see:”

The process of knowing is by no means a simple activity. Since the Buddha responded to the young monk “come and see” many scholars including Jayatilleke have come to the conclusion that the Buddha is an empiricist but as I said earlier, the Buddha’s response can hardly be reduced to the limited view of empiricists like Locke hence the need for us to explore the epistemological implications of the Buddha’s ‘come and see.’ “For classical empiricists the right mind is a tabula rasa, emptied of all original content, freed from all prejudice of theory. But it transpires from the work of Kant and Popper – and from the work of psychologists influenced by them – that such empiricist psychology can never succeed. For there are and can be no sensations unimpregnated by expectations and therefore there is no natural (i.e. psychological) demarcation between observational and theoretical propositions.”[54]

Epistemology is the science that deals with the validity or objectivity of human knowing but such a science ultimately depends on a prior cognitional theory that begins not by asking about the validity of human knowledge, but rather by discovering what one is doing when a concrete knowing subject is ‘doing’ knowing. Our exploration of this idea will preoccupy the rest of our discussion in this paper.

For a profound appreciation of the insight of the Buddha in his “come and see” response to the young monk versed in Vedic knowledge, I have chosen to employ the methodological approach of Bernard Lonergan in his notion of Knowledge as the self appropriation of the knower. The Buddha was aware of the fact that though knowledge is often considered a single activity yet it involves different levels of cognitional activities namely perception/experience, intellection/apprehension, judgment and decision. In the “come and see” response, the Buddha implies that knowledge is a process which involves series of activities that are dynamically interrelated by our own spontaneous sense of wondering which not only correlates the processes involved in performing these activities, but also leads to successive transformations from one level to another, essentially culminating in the act of decision making.

The picture to have in mind in this discussion is to imagine a novice who has come to be educated in the dharma. The Buddha does not encourage anyone to swallow his views hook and sinker but to critically examine it and if convinced, to appropriate it as one’s own. In Anguttara-nikaya, the Buddha said,

Now look you, Kalamas. Do not be misled by report or tradition or hearsay. Do not be misled by proficiency in the collection, nor by mere logic and inference, nor after considering reasons, nor after reflection on some view and approval of it, nor because it fits becoming, nor because the recluse (who holds it) is your teacher. But when you know for yourselves: these things are not good, these things are faulty, these things are censured by the intelligent, these things, when performed and undertaken, conduce to loss and sorrow – then do you reject them.[55]

This radical option naturally begins with an utter sense of wonder which could be initially mixed with doubt. This sense of wonder manifests itself first as an inquisitive wondering, which when properly channeled would lead one from experience to understanding, which in turn would later mature into a critical wonder that directs one from understanding to judgment reaching its climax at the decision to appropriate what is known as ones’ own and not just a hear-say from an authority, reason or logic.

Having appropriated what one is doing when one is doing ‘knowing,’ the next step is to move from self appropriation of one’s own operations of knowing to the goal intended in all the different patterns of knowing. This is a radical shift from wondering to knowing as a cognitional concern to an epistemological concern. In the case of a monastic who has come to deepen his knowledge of the dharma, instead of asking what he is doing when he is appropriating the knowledge – what am I doing when I am knowing, would rather ask in the Lonergian language – Why do I do knowing?

The answer to this fundamental question comes when one understands the objective that is sought. In Buddhism it would be enlightenment or purification, liberation of the mind from the samsaric cycle while for a disinterested observer who pursues knowledge for its own sake, it would be the self appropriation of the knowledge of the real otherwise referred to as being, goodness, beauty, truth etc. It is this disinterested desire to know that marked the beginning of philosophy as a discipline especially among the Ionian philosophers of the pre-Socratic era.[56]

Epistemological Implications:

In our everyday encounter with knowledge as a process, being or reality is grasped in some limited way in the valid judgments that we make. The implication here is that one’s knowledge is thus limited to what one has experienced, understood and judged. These are also connected to the decisions and choices one makes in life. But there is the inborn desire of the mind to go beyond facts of experience so that one’s wondering would spontaneously move the mind from limited, correct judgment toward an unlimited objective judgment, where the mind has a free rein to explore the true nature of reality.

The Buddha was of the view that the ability to overcome the dualistic conception of the reality has a liberating effect on the mind. Responding to Kaccayana, the Buddha said, “The world, is for the most part attached to two (propositions): existence as well as non-existence. If anyone sees, through right wisdom, the arising of the world as it really comes to be – whatever is not existent in the world that does not come to be. If anyone sees, through right wisdom, the stopping of the world as it really comes to be – whatever is existent in the world that does not come to be.”[57] This is a radical move from the material to the immaterial, from bondage to freedom, from the limited to the limitless, from ignorance to knowledge/insight/wisdom. This is probably why Flanagan would argue that the final comprehensive goal of knowing is to know everything about everything.

One could see a transition here which makes being or reality to become what makes knowing what it is. Our knowing therefore becomes true knowledge whenever you know what reality is or what it is not. This level of knowing is no longer based on hear-say or parampara. Positing being, goodness, truth (i.e. reality) as your objective is what propels one to objectivity and we could argue that it is what makes one an objective, knowing subject. This is the result or rather the fruit of one’s faithfulness to the desire to know. Being open to this desire to know (or knowledge of the dharma as in Buddhism) and by letting it unfold and direct one’s questioning, would ultimately lead to objectivity in knowledge. It is the one who is well grounded in the knowledge of the dharma that is well positioned to comprehend reality as it is. This view does not in any way deny or diminish the notion of the individual as a subjective being but would rather recognize human objectivity as a subjective objectivity which is directly approximated on our knowledge of being – reality as it is.

We need to appreciate the fact that this view would completely agree with Kant but partially with Locke that ‘knowledge begins from sense experience but is not limited to it’ and with Aquinas who argued that there is nothing in the mind/intellect that was not first in the senses. Reflecting on the consciousness of the individual as a subject who is constantly engaged in ‘knowing’, Bhikkhu Nanananda makes the following observation, “given the ego-consciousness, the ever-prolific process of conceptualization in all its complex ramifications, sets in. From one aspect, the notion ‘I’ with its concomitant notions of ‘my’ and ‘mine’ …. Viewed from another aspect, as inevitably and inextricably bound up with the notions of ‘not-I’, of ‘thou’ and ‘thine’, it is a form of measuring or value-judgment (mana). Yet another aspect is the dogmatic adherence to the concept of an ego as a theoretical formulation.”[58] The point being made here is that even our conceptual or theoretical formulations could be traced back to our basic experiential knowledge of reality.

The common epistemological mistake which the Buddha wanted to avoid is the tendency to separate the knowing subject from the known object. This separation poses another problem of how ‘I can be sure that what I know within my mind corresponds to what is actually out there beyond my knowing mind or reality as it is in itself.’ This argument is weakened as it presents a duality between the knowing subject and the known object. Kant would later address this problem in the distinction he made between phenomenon – the object as it appears to the senses and noumenon – the thing (reality) as it is in itself which may not be accessible to the human mind. Our presumption in ‘come and see’ is the presupposition that we already know what subjects and objects are in supposing that immediate experience or perception is knowledge to me hence the basis for any notion of objectivity.

There is need to note that the Buddha’s “come and see” in its original formulation has more to do with the knowledge of the dharma than with the epistemological processes that the individual subject undergoes in his/her desire to know. Hence, most of the analysis of knowledge made by the Buddha would revolve around its moral character. The dharma is not just a doctrine, it is the truth hence the totality of true knowledge. It is only after you know your own knowing do you come to know yourself as a subject and this is only possible through your own knowing. The possibility of an immediate and direct knowledge of oneself still remains dubitable. Knowledge of oneself remains an indirect and mediate process. You can have an immediate and direct awareness of your feelings “but feeling is an experience, an awareness that may or may not become the object of your wondering, understanding and judging.”[59] It is only when our feelings are mediated by acts of understanding and correct judgment can we lay claim to any knowledge of what the feeling is all about.

The Subjective nature of our notion of Objectivity:

The act of seeing, which is a form of experiential knowledge is also a subjective experience. It is one’s perception of a known object. Knowledge gained from seeing is not based on a known subject confronting a known object. Knowledge in this instance assumes a limited identity between knower and what is known for each person sees according to one’s own predispositions. It takes an unlimited knower for his/her knowledge to be perfectly identical with what s/he knows. This is not the basis of our daily encounter with the realities that surround us. Our knowledge comes to us in bits and pieces. The mind grasps these bits and pieces and builds them into an intelligible sequence. Depending on the predisposition of our mind, something or an event may make sense to one person and not to the other person.

What eventually develops into concepts could sequentially be traced back to intentional processes or the mind’s active representation of an empirical reality. This is not to deny a priori knowledge but to point out the possibility of a transition from the material to the immaterial through the intentional process of representing ideas. “Intentional is here not opposed to real, but rather to physical. While forms are really present in the knowing subject, they are in that subject not as the subject is in its natural reality, but they inform it as it is actually in the act of knowing. Intentional existence is the existence of something in a knowing power precisely as such.”[60]

This view agrees with the epistemological position which argues that ‘Nihil est in intellectum quod non prius fuerit in sensu’ – there is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses. This principle appears to be a reasonable paradigm for us to work with. Self knowledge in this case would be considered a special instance of knowing. Most of our knowledge come from experience derived from either the sensible world or from the knowing self in which through act of understanding and judging knowledge gained from the senses could develop beyond the senses that first grasped it. This level of knowing eliminates the difference between the knowing subject and the known object hence every correct knowing is a further experience of oneself as a knower. We can then argue that ‘you are what you know’ and this is nothing but the perfection of knowledge.

The understanding that “come and see” is an invitation to greater awareness of being, dharma, reality, truth etc would support the argument that knowing is by identity and not by confrontation hence our interest in understanding what one is doing when one is knowing. Our other interest is to appreciate what makes knowing objective, in other words it is to ask whether objectivity is possible. The answer given earlier would still suffice that objectivity is nothing but a subjective objectivity which is come about whenever the knowing subject becomes identical with the known object in an intentional and true manner.

The Buddha’s Methodological Approach - ‘come and see’:

From the foregoing, we could argue that the Buddha’s “come and see” approach is a methodical one which acts as a heuristic structure of understanding. It aims at overcoming the duality seen in most theories of knowledge. It recognizes the multi-dimensional nature of knowing which includes experience, perception, judgment and decision. Human knowing is on a different pattern from those of animals. As animals instinctually respond to stimuli – an immediate, direct experience toward the outer world of objects which gives immediate satisfaction to the longings of animals, human beings undergo a radical process in their effort to know. “Human knowers also have inner and outer sensibly conscious poles of experiencing, and if they do not explicitly appropriate and mediate these sensory-motor vectors and re-center them within a strictly intelligibly mediated framework, then there is a recurring tendency to mistake the single level objectivity of animal knowing with the three-level objectivity of human knowing. However, if you appropriate and mediate your own three levels of cognitive activities, you realize that objective knowing has three quite different, but relatable objectives that together make your knowing valid.”[61]

In the case of a monastic or any seeker of truth who has come to accept the dharma, s/he begins to practice in order to achieve liberation from ignorance. And as one in quest of true knowledge, s/he would come to the following realization:

- I am a knower (of the truth)

- There are existing objects, truth, goodness etc if I know them through correct judgments (only if I know such distinctions through correct judgments).

- I am only one of these known objects that I have judged as real, existing objects.

Through “come and see” the seeker of truth undergoes the four levels in the process of knowledge and eventually comes to an objective knowledge which one can relate to in a more personal and intellectual manner.

This manner of thinking has a strong link with another strong philosophical theory of the Buddha on detachment. Coming to the understanding that all of reality is characterized by nothingness, reduces our tendency to cling to them. By realizing that ‘I am a knower’ – This is a book. This is a pen. The simple proposition - ‘I am not a book’ becomes an objective judgment which is empirical, normative (intelligible) and critically objective in nature. “The intentional species explains how the knower becomes in some way what he knows. Yet, since the forms thus become his own forms, it seems that he should know them as his own forms, it seems that he should know them as his own; what requires explanation is how, through them, he can know the other as other, i.e., as non-subject, as object.”[62]

Final thought on ‘come and see’ as a Methodic notion:

‘Come and See’ as a methodic process of acquiring knowledge would essentially recognize as the primary or first level of outer or inner sensible experiences as - not knowing, but only as a part of knowing. Similarly, the second level of understanding is, not knowing but only a part of knowing. For some epistemologists, the third level which is judgment would complete the process of knowing since it is believed to embrace all the others, but given the high esteem which the Buddha has for the dharma, I would think that for him, decision (choice) would be considered the highest form of knowledge as it is the one that unites the other levels of knowing into a single structured activity which ordinarily we refer to as knowledge/knowing. Knowing the truth radically consists in living by the truth as it has come to be known.

A fundamental question that arises here is how to affirm that one has come to true and certain knowledge without entering into a cyclic form of knowing. It is true that no knowledge is purely independent as the activities that are involved in knowing are interrelated. Yet there is need to establish the criteria for coming to the conviction that one is no longer thinking about an idea but asserting it. Having reflected on an idea it is necessary that one is able to come to a conclusion that a certain idea is right or wrong, correct or incorrect, worthy of adherence or not worthy of adherence, hence should be accepted or rejected.

Another issue worthy of consideration is whether right or wrong, correct or incorrect ideas are permanent or changeable. Epistemologically it would sound more plausible to work with a concept of knowledge that is unchanging as that would help us to establish permanent structures/principles of understanding and judgment. But what happens in a situation where what is true today becomes untrue tomorrow? Is it simply our understanding of these concepts that is susceptible to change or is it due to the impermanent nature of reality? These are some of the issues worthy of consideration in our wider discussion of the strength and weakness of tradition as a source of true knowledge.

We have earlier recognized the role of evidence as a truth factor. No evidence stands in isolation. All our evidences are interconnected. The weight of evidence is thus determined by the context of one’s prior judgments. “Just as direct insight into viewpoints, prior judgments coalesce into the wider context or horizon of knowing within which you raise the question ‘Is it so?’ New judgments correct, complement and extend the field of your past judgments.”[63] This process entails that one reviews and reevaluates his prospective judgments in the context of prior judgments. By calling for a thorough and critical examination of an idea before accepting it the Buddha would have recognized the inter-connected nature of reality and the power of the evidence they present. The point still remains that working with the right evidence; a properly informed mind would necessarily accept the truth for what it is and endeavors to live by it.

For Lonergan, prior judgments would serve as a heuristic structure within which one “anticipates making further new judgments.”[64] Insight gained from such reasoned judgment could ultimately lead to enlightenment. This permanent character of the mind is concerned about the good, and is often referred to as virtue. Traditional scholastic philosophers would refer to such previously acquired judgments as ‘habits of the intellect’ that operate in certain circumstances spontaneously, guiding your questioning and bringing correctives into play as you reflect in preparation for making new judgments and broadening your field of expertise.

Knowledge is something that could be transferred from teacher to student. As in a classroom setting, teachers acquire through learning and experience how to communicate the subject matter of their discipline to their students. Their pedagogy is a skill or art that has to be learned, teachers have to observe, listen to advice, experiment and test different approaches. In the process of transmitting knowledge, they have to experiment and test different approaches thus adjusting and correcting the different strategies until their students reach a certain mastery of what he is communicating. At that point a teacher could claim to have acquired a context of judgment which he could use to see how the students have grasped what he taught them.[65] This explains how the carpenter’s apprentice is able to acquire mastery and familiarity of an experienced carpenter and how a person is able to gradually develop the reputation of becoming an enlightened person; one who is wise, a careful critic; capable of making reasonable, well-balance judgment which empowers him/her to make the right decision especially in critical situations. This is for most epistemologists what perfection of knowledge is all about.

Both the Buddha and the Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas would agree that the concept of knowledge as perfection can only be found in living beings, for they alone can perform immanent or self-constructing operations i.e. actions that increase rather than decrease the perfection of the agent (as pointed out above, lower animals at best respond either to instincts or to reward and punishment measures). The notion of perfection preached by the Buddha can only be found in human beings. It culminates in the intellectual knowledge of a human being, who, although limited as a creature, is nevertheless open through knowledge to unlimited perfection – meaning that there is no limit to what the human mind/intellect can know.“Man not only knows objects; he knows also that he knows them. He is aware of being aware, conscious that he is conscious. This fact, important in that many thinkers insist upon it as the note that distinguishes man from animals, is undeniable. He, who attempts to deny it, affirms it in his very denial. For how can he know that he does not know, except that, in examining his own knowledge – and thus knowing it – he does not discover in it any self-knowledge?[66]

According to Thomas Aquinas the natural end and purpose of human existence is to have, through knowledge, the perfection of the entire universe. In De Veritate 2.2 Aquinas said, “The ultimate perfection to which the soul can reach is that in it there be found the whole order of the universe and its causes.”[67] This is the ultimate end of man. The quest and ability of the mind to arrive at true and certain knowledge of reality is an irreplaceable desire in human beings for it is only by so doing can we make meaning out of the random nature of the realities that surround us. Classical empiricism would argue against the possibility of infallible assurances of truth in the realm of empirical enquiry. This is an issue we need to explore further as we try to understand the Buddha’s approach to knowledge in the light of the wider epistemological theories of knowledge.

Finally, we should note that ontologically knowledge is neither an action nor a motion. It belongs to the category of quality. Knowledge is not doing something but overcoming something i.e. ignorance. It is a self-modification brought about by the subjective – objective possession of something other than oneself but in the final analysis both become one. For the Buddha, the ultimate source of knowledge is experience including extrasensory perception. This is knowledge understood as perfection. This level of knowledge eliminates the possibility of viewing knowledge as a physical or mechanical process. It overcomes doubt, empowers its possessor and being perfect, it is free from error. This is true knowledge; this is enlightenment; this is the kind of knowledge that empowers and liberates. This is the Buddha’s ideal of knowledge. And this kind of knowledge can only be gained through meditation.


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Patrick Mbazuigwe to Prof. Bruce Long
University of the West. University of the West.


<references / >
  1. Dalai Lama “Consciousness at the Crossroads – Conversation with Dalai Lama on Brain science and Buddhism” ed. by Houshmand Z et al (New York: Snow Lion Publications, 1999) p18
  2. Flavell, J. H et al “Development of Knowledge about the Appearance-Reality Distinction” with commentaries by Watson W.M & Campione J.C serial #212 vol 51, No 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986) p1.
  3. Bonjour, L “Epistemology: classic problems and contemporary responses” (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2002) pp2-4.
  4. Dalai Lama “Consciousness at the Crossroads – Conversation with Dalai Lama on Brain science and Buddhism” ed. by Houshmand Z et al (New York: Snow Lion Publications, 1999) p18
  5. New Advent Encyclopedia art on “Knolwedge”
  6. Ibidem
  7. Onyeocha, I.M, Introfil: A first encounter with Philosophy (Washington DC: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 1995) p133.
  8. Flavell, J. H et al “Development of Knowledge about the Appearance-Reality Distinction” with commentaries by Watson W.M & Campione J.C serial #212 vol 51, No 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986) p106
  9. Dalai Lama (op cit) p19
  10. New Catholic Encyclopedia vol 8 art. on “Process of Knowledge” by J. F. Donceel (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co, 1967).
  11. Ibid p231
  12. Axtell, G. “Knowledge, Belief and Character; Readings in Virtue Epistemology” (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2000) p49
  13. Descartes R. “Meditations” trans by Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett publ. 1993) p 13
  14. NCE vol 8 p232
  15. Bonjour L, op cit p28
  16. Axtell, G. “Knowledge, Belief and Character: Readings in Virtue Epistemology” (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2000) p21
  17. Golman A, “Epistemology and Cognition” (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1986) “Strong and Weak Justification” in Philosophical Perspectives, vol 2: p56
  18. Bonjour, L. op cit p 29
  19. Dalai Lama “Consciousness at the Crossroads – Conversation with Dalai Lama on Brain science and Buddhism” ed. by Houshmand Z et al (New York: Snow Lion Publications, 1999) pp18-19
  20. New Catholic Encylopedia vol 8 art on “Knowledge” by G. C. Reilly (New York: McGraw Hill Co, 1967)
  21. Jayatilleke K. N. “Early Buddhist theory of Knowledge” (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1963) p 170
  22. Ibid, p.205
  23. Jayatilleke (op cit) p179
  24. Sarvadarsanasamgraha, ed. V. S Abhyankar, Poona 1951, pp 270f
  25. Prajapati Somam rajanam asrjata, tam trayo veda anvasrjyanta (Tait. Br. Prajapati has sometimes been identified with Brahma in the Brahmanas – Prajapatyo Brahma (Tait. Jayatilleke (op cit) p.178
  26. Ibid. p206
  27. Buddha, Sein, Leben, Seine Lehre, Seine Gemeinde, 13 Anflage, Stuttgart, 1959. p79
  28. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed. (USA: Merriam Webster Incorporated, 1994).
  29. This is of course a special case of the general thesis that logical relations like logical probability or consistency, refer to propositions. Thus, for instance, the proposition ‘nature is consistent’ is false (or if you wish, meaningless), for nature is not a proposition (or a conjunction of propositions). Lakatos, I & Musgrave A (ed.) “Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge” (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977) p99
  30. Lakatos, I & Musgrave A (ed.) “Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge” (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977) p99
  31. Sangarava Sutta M.11.211 quoted in Jayatilleke 1963 p 171
  32. MLS 1-145. Nanananda B, Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1971) p3
  33. Phenapindupamam rupam – vedana bubbulupama. Maricikupama sanna – samkhara kadalupama. Mayupamanca vinnanam – dipitadiccabandhuna – S.N. III 142 (ibid), p7.
  34. Jayatilleke, 1963 p175
  35. “Cakkhuncavuso paticca rupe ca uppajjati cakkuvinnanam tinnam sangati phasso, phassa paccaya vedana …” ibid p 5
  36. “Yam vedeti tam sanjanati, yam sanjanati, tam vitakketi, yam vitakketi tam papanceti ….” Ibidem.
  37. Bhikkhu Nanananda, “Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought” p6
  38. Dalai Lama (op cit) pp19 - 20
  39. Hume D, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Section IV (parts 1 & 11) and Section V (part 1) (USA: Hackett Publishing Co. Inc. 1993)
  40. Ibidem
  41. Ibidem
  42. M.A. 11 75 – Nanananda B, “Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought” p7
  43. Scheffler, I. Conditions of Knowledge: an introduction to Epistemology and Education. (USA: The University of Chicago Press, 1983) p.34
  44. Flanagan J. “Quest for self-Knowledge: An essay in Lonergan’s Philosophy” (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997) p124
  45. Flavell, J. H et al “Development of Knowledge about the Appearance-Reality Distinction” with commentaries by Watson W.M & Campione J.C serial #212 vol 51, No 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986) p14
  46. Morelli M & Morelli E, ed. “The Lonergan Reader” (Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1997) p218
  47. Ewing, A. C. “In defense of a priori knowledge” as in “The Theory of Knowledge” edited by Louis P. Pojman (USA: Wadsworth, Thomas Learning Inc. 2003) p389
  48. Flavell, J. H et al “Development of Knowledge about the Appearance-Reality Distinction” with commentaries by Watson W.M & Campione J.C serial #212 vol. 51, No 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986) p61
  49. Dalai Lama “Consciousness at the Crossroads – Conversation with Dalai Lama on Brain science and Buddhism” ed. by Houshmand Z et al (New York: Snow Lion Publications, 1999) pp78-79
  50. Morelli M & Morelli E, ed. “The Lonergan Reader” (Canada: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1997) p217
  51. Nanananda B, Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought (Kandy: BPS, 1971) p10
  52. Flanagan J. (op cit) p123
  53. Flanagan J. (op cit) p143
  54. Lakatos, I & Musgrave A (ed.) “Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge” (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977) p99 – True most psychologists who turned against the idea of justificationist sensationalism did so under the influence of pragmatists like William James who denied the possibility of any sort of objective knowledge. But even so, Kant’s influence through Oswald Kulpe, Franz Brentano and Popper’s influence through Egon Brunswick and Donald Campbell played a role in the shaping of modern psychology; and if psychology ever vanquishes psychologism, it will be due to an increased understanding of the Kant-Popper mainline of objectivist philosophy.
  55. “World of the Buddha: A reader – from the Three Baskets of Modern Zen” edited with commentaries by Lucien Stryk (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1969) p179.
  56. Dalai Lama (op cit) p18
  57. Ibid p183.
  58. Bhikkhu N, (op cit) p10
  59. Flanagan J. (op cit) p141
  60. NCE (op cit) vol 8 p231
  61. Flanagan J. (op cit) p142
  62. NCE (op cit) vol 8 p231
  63. Ibidem
  64. Lonergan B, “Insight: A study of Human Understanding” ed by Fredrick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran, collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, vol 3 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992) #275-8
  65. NCE (op cit) vol. 8 p232
  66. Ibidem
  67. NCE (op cit) vol 8 art on “The Process of Knowledge” also see De Veritate 2.2