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Buddhaghosa: Immeasurable Words

Interview by Richard Marshall.

Cover pic: Julio Larraz.

Buddhist scripture speaks differently to every person who comes in front of it because people are unique individuals and the meaning and application will speak to them in their particularity.  In this sense, its meaning unfolds in ever new ways as it works in the imagination of every reader.

We can see similar ideas in Paul Ricoeur’s idea that texts have a “surplus of meaning,” where the meaning of the text can be found, at least in part, in how it shapes the imagination of the interpreter, so that the meaning lies not so much behind the text in the author’s intention, but in front of it as it speaks, variously, to all readers.’

Buddhaghosa’s insistence that the Abhidhamma is an oceanic field of endless pedagogical methods and practices has led me to interpret it as open-ended phenomenological analysis, rather than, as the usual account would have it, a closed ontological system of ultimate reals.

The text that we have begins to list matrices that operate as a sort of table of contents introducing different types of causes and conditions among the phenomena of lived experience, and it operates in an algorithmic way of endlessly ramifying the possibilities for human experience. The Burmese scholars of old sometimes said it simply cannot be written down, and at others times tried to estimate how many cartloads of books it would take. There really is nothing equivalent to this style of thought about psychological experience in other traditions.’

Maria Heim is interested in the intellectual, religious, and literary history of ancient India, with a particular emphasis on Buddhism. Here she discusses Buddhaghosa, who he was, the notion of  immeasurable words, the special nature of Buddha’s omniscience, textual infinity and Paul Ricoeur, hermeneutical challenges,  contextual and categorical modes of interpretation, the genre of  matrices, karma, moral agency and psychology, the will and conscience as too freighted with western thinking to be helpful in framing Buddhist psychology, intention, and whether Buddhism can be assimilated into a secular, naturalist outlook.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Maria Heim: I think that I would more properly put it that I am a student of Indian philosophy. From the start, I have been fascinated by the complex and sophisticated thought systems of ancient India because they seem to me to offer fundamentally different starting places for thinking about what it is to be human than those offered by the modern west. This basic desire to find ancient alternatives to bedrock assumptions of modern western thinking is something I discovered as an undergraduate studying Sanskrit at Reed College and it drives me to this day.

3:AM: So, you’re an expert in Buddhism and in particular Buddhaghosa. Many of us will be ignorant about this so perhaps you could start by sketching for us what are the main features of Buddhaghosa thought and how it fits into Buddhism? Who was he and what did he do with the Buddha’s words and is  he relevant only to a distinct tradition within Buddhism, a Pali or Abhidhamma tradition perhaps , or does he resonate with all Buddhists everywhere?

MH: Buddhaghosa was a fifth-century CE Buddhist scholar who was entrusted with translating and editing most of the voluminous commentaries on the Pali scriptures, and he also produced his own text called the Path of Purification.  In stature, he is considered second only to the Buddha as a thinker and systematizer of doctrine and practice within the Theravada.  He has traditionally been known and relevant only to the Theravada tradition which developed historically in Sri Lanka and mainland SE Asia. But today as the main types of Buddhism have globalized, he is studied by many types of Buddhists and his instructions on meditation practice are known to many modern Buddhist practitioners.

3:AM: One of the claims about the Buddha’s words is that they are immeasurable, unlimited and omniscient. Is that right? What is meant by this – are we in the same territory of claims by other religions when they talk about the words of God in the same way – or is it a different claim?

MH: My recent book, Voice of the Buddha, argues that the idea that the Buddha was omniscient had important implications for commentators interpreting his words.  Buddhaghosa (whose name means “Voice of the Buddha”) emphasizes time and again that the Buddha’s words – that is, the scriptures – are “immeasurable.”  He means this in very specific ways.  For example, Buddhist scripture speaks differently to every person who comes in front of it because people are unique individuals and the meaning and application will speak to them in their particularity.  In this sense, its meaning unfolds in ever new ways as it works in the imagination of every reader.  I think that Buddhaghosa thought also that the voice of the Buddha continued to flow through him in his commentarial work.

3:AM: The scriptures are also infinite in the sense that, according to the tradition, they represent or embody the understanding of the Buddha, which is said to be so profound that there is no limit to it. Buddhaghosa puzzles over how it was that these words were captured in a set number of books because the unfolding meaning will always overspill any containers in which it is put.

MH: The Buddha’s omniscience may be a somewhat different conception than divine omniscience in other traditions. There are two main kinds of knowledge he had – he knew particulars, and he knew more abstract sets of formulations about how experience works.  For the first, it is not that he carried an encyclopedic knowledge of every detail, past, present, and future, in his head, but rather that when he turned his attention to, say, a particular person, he would come to know that person without ever reaching a limit in his understanding of her.  This ever-deepening activity of understanding is more a process than a fixed state of knowledge. I suppose that we can say that there is infinity rather than totality in this conception of encountering persons, if we may borrow from Levinas.

For the second dimension of the Buddha’s omniscience, he was said to have achieved, as a result of living countless previous lives that gave him the knowledge of enlightenment, a set of more abstract formulations about the conditions and causes of the phenomena of experience. This set of formulations can endless ramify to explore the complexities of experience. It is called the Abhidhamma and Buddhaghosa conceived of it is as methods of understanding that are oceanic, immeasurable, and endless.

3:AM:  “How does this idea of “textual infinity” compare to modern and premodern thinkers on hermeneutics and textual interpretation?

MH: Well, we can see similar ideas in Paul Ricoeur’s idea that texts have a “surplus of meaning,” where the meaning of the text can be found, at least in part, in how it shapes the imagination of the interpreter, so that the meaning lies not so much behind the text in the author’s intention, but in front of it as it speaks, variously, to all readers.  Every new context we bring to a text can give us, in effect, a new text.

For me, even more interesting is how similar Buddhaghosa’s ideas on this are to those of other medieval religious thinkers, who reach for the same metaphor of scripture as being oceanic.  The Sufi exegete, Ibn ‘Arabi, for example, describes the Qu’ran as the “shoreless sea” of God’s omniscience, and interpreting God’s inexhaustible words is a further expansion of it. Jewish and Christian interpreters (like Meister Eckhart) said strikingly similar things about the Bible.  In all of these cases, scripture is an ocean of unfathomable depth since it is the living representative of an omniscient mind, and it is experienced by commentators in these traditions as so deep that one may always discover more treasures in it.  I am not a religious person, but I think that this is a neat idea.

3:AM: What are the peculiar hermeneutical challenges that are raised by Buddhaghosa’s reading practices – are they different from those we might expect in the modern west – and how have they fed in to your own approach to ideas about genre, texts, discourse and meaning and their broader theoretical and philosophical significance?

MH: I have tried to point out that modern ways of reading based on historicist philology that began in the late 18th century in Europe are hardly universal. As we note that the theories and interpretative practices of modern philology are themselves products of a certain localized history, we can become aware of alternative ways of reading and thinking about texts from other times and places that were innocent of them.  For me this perhaps obvious insight has entailed wanting to know what Buddhaghosa’s “theory of text” is and what he thinks is required to interpret a text.  (Sheldon Pollock’s work has been good on helping us to think about how texts often suggest an implicit or explicit theory of text and alternative philologies.)

I have found Buddhaghosa to be remarkably explicit about this once I let myself be guided by his agendas. He tells us repeatedly that the “meaning and phrasing” of scripture are immeasurable, that we should look for beauty in every unit of text, that some kinds of Buddhist knowledge are particularist and context-dependent while other forms of it have a more abstract, view-from-nowhere quality, that the Buddha spoke in both colloquial and analytically-precise registers that should be interpreted differently, and so on.  These qualities of the Buddha’s knowledge suggest different ways of reading and interpreting it, and so can function as guidelines for us.  We then arrive at understandings of Buddhist ideas and intellectual practices different from what we would have if we limited ourselves to European philology’s interest in text criticism, historicism, etc.

Reading practices that Buddhaghosa describes can lead us to fresh – and philosophically significant — understandings of Buddhist ideas. For example, Buddhaghosa’s insistence that the Abhidhamma is an oceanic field of endless pedagogical methods and practices has led me to interpret it as open-ended phenomenological analysis, rather than, as the usual account would have it, a closed ontological system of ultimate reals.

3:AM: You say that the Buddhist commentators didn’t develop their claim of omniscience via philosophical argument – so how was this claim articulated and developed?

MH: Well, they were devout Buddhists operating in a world of devotional and highly extravagant claims about the Buddha.  But I think that he emphasizes this quality of omniscience because it is something he is experiencing when reading the texts – he keeps plumbing them for more and more meaning and he does not see where their meaning and application stop.  This suggested (or confirmed) for him the idea that the font of knowledge from which the scriptures came must be immeasurable.

3:AM: How  is the distinction between contextual and categorical modes of distinction important for understanding what is being claimed?

MH: I have always been fascinated in how context can change the meaning of an utterance.  The utterance “I love you” has different reference, feeling-tone, and purpose when whispered the first time to one’s lover, called out to one’s five-year old on the school bus on the first day of school, spoken to one’s dying parent, or shouted out to fans by a celebrity.  What it “means” seems to differ in these cases. Buddhaghosa is also sensitive to this when he reads the Buddha’s sermons, which are always embedded in stories of the people with whom the Buddha spoke when he gave his sermons. In Buddhaghosa’s reading these narratives can be one key for unlocking some of the meaning and significance of the doctrinal message of the sermon because the commentary can show how the message spoke to them in their particular circumstances. Sometimes the narrative enacts or performs the doctrinal message. And intriguingly, as we come to see how it does so, it speaks in a new way to us as we appreciate the Buddha’s omniscience that knew those particulars. Buddhaghosa called this kind of teaching “contextual,” and he contrasts it to teachings that are delivered in a more categorical and analytical register that is more or less decontextualized.  The paradigmatic form of these teachings is the Abhidhamma, in that it speaks to all sides and to all cases.

We then emerge with two kinds of philosophy:  dialogical philosophy, much like that found in ancient Greek philosophical dialogue, on the one hand; and abstract phenomenological analysis, on the other.

3:AM: And how do the abstract modes of analysis found in the Abhidhamma arrive at the same conclusion regarding the Buddha’s omniscience?

MH: The Abhidhamma is a collection of seven books that consist of a huge number of matrices of phenomena.  (Matrices are lists that generate further lists).  This genre has sometimes baffled modern scholars. Buddhaghosa has guided me to a reading of it as a series of methods that are therapeutic in that they dismantle conditioned habits and constructs of psychological experience that are confining and distorting. There are two main kinds of analysis: the first breaks down certain units of experience into smaller parts (such as perception, feeling, intention, motivation, aspects of temperament, etc.), and this process of disassembly dismantles the essentialism we tend to impute to constructs of experience.   There are very long lists of these phenomena and the lists are open-ended, so it is a very fine-grained and yet not totalizing treatment of human experience.

The second method classifies and reclassifies these phenomena into various groupings that help one to see various aspects in the workings of them, and the conditional relationships among them.  This is a modal practice in the sense that these classifications pick up on different aspects or modes of the phenomena of experience without attempting to drill down to find any sort of putative substance of them. Both types of analysis are inherently pragmatic since these are the tools of contemplative introspection for liberation.

Buddhaghosa says that the Buddha’s omniscience only began to find room when he contemplated the methods of the Abhidhamma, particularly the 7th book.  This book is a book too large, perhaps, to ever be written down. The text that we have begins to list matrices that operate as a sort of table of contents introducing different types of causes and conditions among the phenomena of lived experience, and it operates in an algorithmic way of endlessly ramifying the possibilities for human experience. The Burmese scholars of old sometimes said it simply cannot be written down, and at others times tried to estimate how many cartloads of books it would take. There really is nothing equivalent to this style of thought about psychological experience in other traditions.

3:AM: The moral phenomenology advanced in this and other Buddhist sources suggests a complicated moral agency, and the notion of karma is important in trying to get to grips with this isn’t it? So how do you think we should understand moral agency and moral psychology as developed by Buddhaghosa, and why is karma/ intention so important?

MH: Karma is everywhere emphasized in the early Buddhist teachings since it is the intentional action that brings future results, and it is the past actions that shape one’s present experience.  But what is intentional action?  The Abhidhamma tradition and Buddhaghosa’s development of it describe a complex moral phenomenology that identifies many causal factors that go into intentional action, none of which, by the way, involve a notion of choice, or reduce intentional action to a matter of desires, beliefs, and reasons.

Instead, we see long matrices of affective, conative, and cognitive phenomena that are mutually conditioning and constitutive and that interact to produce actions.  Matrices produce and interact with other lists in ways that break down and reconstitute the phenomena on them variously.  The system is very granular, very precise, and very dynamic as it explores how large numbers of phenomena can interact to produce how humans construct experience.  For example, one list gives 56 different phenomena that can be at work in single moment of awareness, ranging from perception, feeling, and intention, to phenomena we would call emotions and various forms of attention, motivation, and disposition.  Intention is a phenomenon in all moments of experience that assembles and constructs how these phenomena work to create experience.  At bottom, this moment-by-moment and rather rudimentary activity of constructing experience is what action or karma is.

3:AM: How do you think we should understand Buddhist notions of the will – you point out that medieval and early modern theories of the will were scaffolded by Augustine’s notion of the will? How far does the Buddhist conception build itself from very different materials, and how much does it overlap? For instance, can we ask whether Buddhists think we have free will if the questions assumes a western conception?

MH: There is no equivalent idea of the will in Buddhist psychology. The notion of the will was more or less invented by Augustine when he clustered a large range of phenomena together in a single faculty, assigned it freedom and responsibility, and then invested it with tremendous moral and salvific significance.

This idea is foreign to Buddhists so I don’t frame Buddhaghosa’s thinking around the “will” nor around the question of “free will.” This is not to say that he was not interested in freedom – indeed his entire program is an effort to achieve it. Freedom is not treated as an abstract, either-or philosophical question of whether humans qua humans possess it (although we do have clear scriptural evidence that the Buddha rejected determinism).  Rather, freedom is something to be gradually achieved through the difficult path of purification that Buddhaghosa prescribes (since nirvana is the ultimate liberation).  Insofar as practitioners remove greed, hatred, delusion and other toxic afflictions that distort and constrict their perception and awareness they gradually achieve freedom. Freedom is the goal of the entire effort to understand human experience and to transform it with the practical techniques that comprise Buddhaghosa’s Path of Purification – and it is within this project that we should look for it.

3:AM: Are things like conscience, understood as a special faculty, bearing witness to and judging our actions, too entwined with medieval Christian thought to have any place in Buddhism? To understand Buddhist views on the mind and morality do we need to try and not take any western presupposed concepts in this area for granted? Are Buddhists not really talking about any of the issues we’re used to discussing regarding agency, will, mind and so on so really, the philosophical questions Buddhists raise are not the same either?

MH: Like the notion of the will, conscience is a concept heavily freighted with western, and largely Christian, assumptions.  We always need to understand the genealogy of these terms before we willy nilly apply them to traditions outside of the western contexts where they were invented.  For me comparative philosophy can explore these different conceptions in a way that reveals the assumptions and historical development of each tradition. This can undercut the naive western universalism that takes its conceptions to be natural and universal.

Buddhists have their own distinctive ways of describing the emotions of self-assessment (such as a rich vocabulary of shame, apprehension, remorse, and so on), modes of self-knowledge, and the operations of intentional action (which I have alluded to), that account for moral knowledge and action.  None of these requires the notion of an inner court of judgment or source of moral knowledge residing and sacrosanct within the individual.  I think too that the idea of conscience is not only a medieval Christian construction, but that it was developed and amplified by the individualism of the Reformation, and of course plays an important role in secular, liberal contexts as well.

3:AM: Moral considerations are mixed in with the way Buddhists understand how the mind creates actions, and this therefore links morals with motivations, causes and elements of disposition and temperament. Is this right? Can you sketch for us the larger psychological frameworks in which intention is a chief component of the constructive activities of the mind – and what difference this picture makes when considering Buddhist soteriology?

MH: Buddhaghosa does not discuss intention qua intention (like Anscombe or Davidson do, for example). Instead, he is working within lists that classify phenomena according to good, bad, or indeterminate thoughts and actions. By “good” he means experiences that are skillful, healthy, blameless, free of distress, and productive of good results.  “Bad” experiences are the opposite of these; “indeterminate” are neither.  So there is no abstract, morally-uninflected treatment of intention as such.  Intentional agency — or any other phenomenon — is not a matter to be considered abstracted from the discursive contexts, practices, and analytical schemas in which it is being considered.  This is how a modal or aspectual system works:  intention won’t have an essential definition arrived at through abstraction from the contexts and purposes in which it is being analyzed.  Like any good Buddhist, Buddhaghosa is not interested in essences, and modal analysis is itself anti-essentialist practice.  And so for his pragmatic and therapeutic purposes, intentional action is usefully considered according to the ways it is healthy, skillful, blameless, etc. or not.  As scholars of these thinkers, we have to learn to follow their choices about the level of abstraction they wish to engage.

In terms of soteriology, there are also important entailments of this theory.  Intentional action that is morally good or bad is, by definition, operative in the world of karma and rebirth in that it produces good or bad results.  A fully liberated being like the Buddha is said to be beyond the kind of action that is conditioned by previous karma or that results in karmic result, so in this sense, the Buddha’s intentionality and agency are beyond good and bad.

3:AM: Along with all this, monastic rules demonstrate Buddha’s infinite knowledge of past, present and future. All of this seems to show that claims for a naturalistic view of Buddhism that is in line with Stoic ethics seems a long way off the mark. Although there can no doubt be elements of human moral psychology and agency and the intersubjective dimensions of moral experience in Buddhism, doesn’t the metaphysics of an omniscient Buddha undermine any claim that it can be easily assimilated into a modern secular outlook?

MH: I do think that if there are elements of Buddhist thought that resist being assimilated into secular outlooks, it is not such a bad thing.  Why does everything have to yield to modernist conceits?  For me these Buddhist texts are simply good to think with on their own terms.

I would also say that it is hardly the case that Stoic views are metaphysically neutral, nor is a modern secular outlook. The latter rather uncritically either assumes a mind-body dualism of early modernity, or collapses the one term into the other to presuppose a reductive physicalism. Buddhaghosa shares neither of these metaphysical presuppositions.

But, at the same time, while Buddhaghosa’s overall project might be framed by metaphysical views (due to his doctrinal commitments) that would be challenging for many of us to endorse, much in his actual thinking about moral psychology does not depend upon them, and instead involves an analysis of experience that can make sense to, and perhaps even challenge, philosophers, cognitive scientists, and others working in very different contexts.

3:AM: And for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you can recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world?

MH:

Readers should probably read Buddhaghosa’s own words if they are interested in this – Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s translation of the Visuddhimagga is a gem.

I find myself in much sympathy with Nyanaponika Thera’s Abhidhamma Studies.

Sheldon Pollock’s work is always worth reading for anyone interested in new philology, Indian systems of knowledge, and the world of Indian literature (World Philology, edited by Sheldon Pollock, Benjamin A. Elman, and Ku-ming Kevin Chang).  Philology is terribly out of fashion these days, but I think that considering and reconsidering how we read texts needs to be carried out prior to, or at least along with, studying premodern philosophy.

My current work is on emotions and tracking the ways in which treatments of emotions and other aspects of experience are dependent on the discourses that describe them.  Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad’s recent book, Human Being, Bodily Being, has been very helpful to me along these lines, and he has a chapter on Buddhaghosa.

Finally, may I refer your readers to the wonderful and astonishingly ambitious Murty series of Indian classics?  There has never been a better time for readers in English to explore the stunningly rich world of Indian thought and literature.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Richard Marshall hanging around with some older interviewees.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

End Times Series: the first 302

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, November 3rd, 2018.