The following article is from the Winter, 1994 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

Is Enlightenment Possible?

Dharmakirti and rGyal tshab rje on Knowledge, Rebirth, No-Self and Liberation

by Roger Jackson


Is Enlightenment Possible? is an exploration of the most sustained and sophisticated argument for the truth of the Buddhist world-view that of Dharmakirti.

Dharmakirti sets forth a rational demonstration that past and future lives are real, mind is separable from the body, mind's nature is such that enlightenment is possible, and the achievement of enlightenment requires the attainment of the uniquely Buddhist realization of no-self.

These arguments deeply influenced the Buddhist tradition of Tibet and have a cogency that makes them of interest not just to Buddhists, but to anyone concerned with problems of truth.

Is Enlightenment Possible? includes a lengthy introduction that situates Dharmakirti's work within the larger framework of Buddhist thought, against the background of Indian and Western attempts to deal with the problem of truth and truth-claims. It also includes an extensively annotated translation of Dharmakirti's arguments and a commentary upon them by the Tibetan thinker Gyal-shabje. Dharmakirti's thought is challenging and important, and Is Enlightenment Possible? makes it accessible and comprehensible as few works before it have. Here is an excerpt:

Enlightenment (Sk. bodhi, T. byang chub), and such cognates as nirvana (T. my a ngan las 'das pa), vimoksa (T. rnam thar) and vimuk-ti (T. rnam 'grot), all connote for traditional Buddhists the attainment of a state that radically and finally transcends the unsatisfactoriness that pervades existence in the cycle of rebirths known as samsara. Whether enlightenment is conceived of as merely the elimination of attachment, aversion and ignorance, or is invested with such qualities as omniscience, omnibenevolence and miraculous powers, it is a state far beyond anything most of us have ever believed possible, let alone experienced. In the West, in particular, where secular and psychological views of human possibility have by and large replaced religious notions, traditional Buddhist descriptions of enlightenment most often are greeted either with incredulity or with a demythologized reformulation along psychological or existential lines more palatable to the agnostic tastes of the late twentieth century.

Westerners usually must reformulate traditional descriptions in order to assimilate them at all, and Asian Buddhists often choose to so as to ease their communication with an increasingly non-traditional audience. This may be fine, and may simply represent another of the periodic transformations undergone by Buddhism in the course of its adaptation to different cultural circumstances, but it ought to be remembered that the meaning such a concept as enlightenment may have for contemporary Westernized Buddhists is not the meaning it has had for most Buddhists in most places throughout the centuries. For traditional Buddhists, enlightenment was, and is, precisely the radical transcendence of the suffering of samsara outlined above, no more and no less for the simple reason that traditional Buddhists still see the cosmos primarily through the lenses of the samsara nirvana cosmology so pervasive in Asia, particularly among Indians and peoples influenced primarily by India, such as the Sinhalese, Burmese, Thais and Tibetans.

When, therefore, Tibetan lamas expound the four noble truths and describe the enlightenment that is the culmination of the Buddhist path, they are not being fanciful, they are not being metaphorical, and they certainly are not joking; they are describing a set of facts that follow from their paradigmatic assumptions about how the cosmos functions. Now, just as most Westerners do not question the secular-scientific paradigm from which they operate, so most traditional Buddhists have been content to accept the cosmology presented by their culture, satisfied that it bore the weight of tradition, was socially and personally useful, and was not grossly contradicted by experiences they might have. On the other hand, there have been a great many Buddhists who recognized that Buddhist beliefs were not necessarily self-evident, could not simply be accepted on faith, and rested on problematic philosophical assumptions that needed to be defended rather than simply asserted. There were, in short, Buddhists who recognized that the Buddhist world-view, to be regarded as true taken in its most common usage, as corresponding to the way things actually are in the cosmos must be susceptible of validation by an uncommitted observer through the universally accepted means of perception and inference. Not all thoughtful Buddhists have believed that Buddhist religious beliefs can thus be validated some Madhyamikas and later logicians arguably are exceptions but there does exist a tradition that takes such validation seriously, stemming from the Indian pandit Dharmakirti (seventh century C.E.) and continuing to this day in Tibetan schools.

Few truths come unattended; they usually are surrounded by a wraith-like hose of presuppositions. The four noble truths are no exception, for implicit in them are a number of cosmological and philosophical assumptions. In the most general sense, the four noble truths are posited against the background of a two-fold cosmological vision. The universe, in this vision, holds open two, and only two, possible modes of existence for conscious beings: (1) the beginning-less, ignorance-rooted experience in life after life of pain, sorrow, the transience of joys, separation from the pleasurable, encounter with the unpleasant and unfulfilled desires; and (2) the incorruptible peace that is the cessation of suffering, and which results from the eradication of the ignorance and craving that perpetuate that suffering. The universe, in short, holds open the possibilities of samsara and nirvana.

This cosmology, in turn, entails certain philosophical assumptions, which are, above all, assumptions about the nature and function of the mind: (1) the reality of past and future lives, which are contingent on the mind's independence of particular bodies; (2) the existence of a universal moral law, karma, that works with the same predictability in the psychological realm as causality does in the physical realm; (3) the fundamental perfectibility of mind, such that when its adventitious defilements have been removed one attains an undecaying liberated state that is beyond suffering, and makes the greatest of worldly joys seem infernal by comparison; (4) the possibility of control of the causal factors related to the universal moral law such that the liberated state can be attained. Assumption (1) bears most strongly on the truth of suffering, assumption (2) on the truth of origination, assumption (3) on the truth of cessation and assumption (4) on the truth of path. Common sense would dictate that if these four assumptions are true, the four noble truths are true, and that if any or all of them are false, then the four noble truths and thus the Buddha's teaching are at best partially true and at worst simply false.

Here, however, there is a still more fundamental question that must be asked, namely:

In precisely what sense are the four noble truths, along with their cosmological and philosophical presuppositions, "true"?

The answer is not as self-evident as common sense might dictate, for the word "true" is in fact ambiguous - a fact recognized not only in the Western, but also in the Buddhist philosophical tradition. Thus, we find that there are, in fact, at least three possible ways of interpreting the statement, "The four noble truths, along with their cosmological and philosophical presuppositions, are true":

  1. The facts and processes described by the four noble truths are literally true. In other words, such facts and processes as rebirth, karma, nirvana, etc., have a reality independent of the terms that describe them or the conceptual schemes out of which those terms arise. Furthermore, even if the terms that describe such facts and processes are limited by their location in a particular cultural-linguistic system, there nevertheless do exist facts and processes corresponding closely enough to those terms that they can be said to be true and true not only for those in the cultural-linguistic world in which the terms are found, but in all possible worlds. In short, statements about the four noble truths and their presuppositions are literally and universally true: such facts and processes as rebirth, karma, nirvana, etc., occur just the way Buddhist texts indicate they do, and they occur for every possible person, even if that person has never heard of them.
  2. The facts and processes described by the four noble truths are only figuratively or symbolically true. In other words such facts or processes as rebirth, karma, nirvana, etc., either do not reflect realities independent of the terms that describe them, or cannot be ascertained to reflect such realities. Furthermore, such considerations are secondary, for the terms were taught not as a reflection of an inalterable extrinsic reality, but for their utility in providing images, symbols or stories that assist us in finding meaning in our lives, whoever or wherever we may be. Thus, not only is it possible (probable, even) that rebirth, karma, nirvana, etc., are not realities in the literal sense in which they are described in Buddhist scriptures, but this probability is unimportant: their value - indeed the value of any truth-claim - is purely heuristic and utilitarian.
  3. The facts and processes described by the four noble truths are true not independently and universally, but only within the context of a particular conceptual scheme, world-view or language-game. In other words, such facts and processes as rebirth, karma, nirvana, etc., may in fact be true, but only relative to the particular thought-world out of which they emerge, that of Indian Buddhism. If statements that describe rebirth, karma, nirvana, etc., cohere comfortably within a Buddhist conceptual scheme according to Buddhist standards of rationality, then the statements can be accepted as true, though they may not be true within another thought-world that is based on a different set of presuppositions e.g. that of a Yoruba, Christian or secular humanist. The reason that they can be accepted as true is that we never can discover an independent or neutral world outside the conceptual schemes that merely give us versions of the world. If reality thus is viewed as a collection of partially overlapping, non-ultimate conceptual schemes, then truth never can be more than adequacy to a particular conceptual scheme. Thus, statements about rebirth, karma, nirvana, etc. are relatively true (and, of course, relatively false), and to expect more of them is to misunderstand the nature of truth-statements, which always are limited by and to the world in which they are made.

Readers familiar with Western philosophy will have recognized in each of the preceding interpretations one of the classic theories of truth, namely truth as correspondence, pragmatic utility or coherence. Buddhists, of course, had no exact equivalents to these terms, nor for the majority of terms and issues that have concerned Western philosophers of religion. Nevertheless, I think that it is possible with all appropriate caution and sensitivity to cultural context to argue in general that Buddhists, like religious people everywhere, have had to concern themselves with questions of truth, and therefore to develop explicit and implicit criteria for determining how truth is to be found. Thus, to apply Western theories to Buddhist truth-claims is by no means utterly arbitrary, for as we shall see shortly, each is a possible option from a Buddhist point of view as well. Before we examine Buddhist attitudes toward truth, and decide just what Buddhists mean by the claim that the four noble truths are true, we may do well to explore at least generally the modern Western discussion of the problem of truth, and then see how that discussion bears on the more particular problem of the nature of religious truth-claims of which Buddhist claims are a sub-set.

To read more about the Four Noble Truths, click on the Snow Lion Newsletter article: "The Four Noble Truths" by Ven. Lobsang Gyatso.

To see other works by Roger R. Jackson, click here.

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