Dignāga and Anātman

For the Buddhist segment in our series we need to turn to the general father of Buddhist epistemology, and additionally the doctrine of the No-Soul (Self). Dignāga (480-540 CE) was a profound Buddhist scholar and logistician and elucidates in his epistemology that there are essentially only two ‘instruments of knowledge’ or ‘valid cognitions’ (pramāṇa); “perception” or “sensation” (pratyaksa) and “inference” or “reasoning” (anumāṇa). In his magnum opus, the Pramāṇa-samuccaya, he writes:

“Sensation and reasoning are the only two means of acquiring knowledge, because two attributes are knowable; there is no knowable object other than the peculiar and the general attribute. I shall show that sensation has the peculiar attribute as its subject matter, while reasoning has the general attribute as its subject matter.”

In regard to the “soul” he would claim that it is not some form of absolute substrata and that due to the fluctuating manner of existence would not be able to posit any activity, voluntary or involuntary, on its part, and in reverse order would not be able to contact non-existent objects. Thus, the failure of a permanent soul to reinforce all the diverse elements of existence by a common link lies in the dialectical difficulties of reconciling permanence with change and continuity with diversity. One could say that this line of thought is the very seedbed of the No-Soul Theory.

Anātman: the no-self (soul) or absence of Self (Ātman) elucidating three aspects 1) lack of an essence 2) impermanence 3) interdependence on individuals and things.

The concept is considered as one of the key insights of the Buddha, and it is foundational to the Buddhist analysis of the compounded quality (SAṂSKṚTA) of existence: since all compounded things are the fruition (PHALA) of a specific set of causes (HETU) and conditions (PRATYAYA), they are therefore absent of any perduring substratum of being. In the sūtra analysis of existence, the “person” (PUDGALA) is said to be a product of five aggregates (SKANDHA)— materiality (RŪPA), physical sensations (VEDANĀ), perception (SAṂJÑĀ), impulses (SAṂSKĀRA), and consciousness (VIJÑĀNA)— which together comprise the totality of the individual’s physical, mental, and emotional existence. What in common parlance is called the person is a continuum. But when these aggregates are separated at the time of death, the person also simultaneously vanishes.

Buswell Jr., Robert E.; Donald S., Jr. Lopez. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Kindle Locations 3818-3819). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Both Dignāga and the concept of anātman claim that “all that is” is reducible to mere units of phenomena. What they both sorely lack is the transcendental factor, or the other side of the equation. The Zennist further extrapolates:

In Pali and Sanskrit, anattâ and anâtman do not mean there is no self.  Far from it.  For example, when the Buddha says that form, which is the first of the Five Aggregates (P., khandhas; S., skandhas), is anattâ or anâtman, this means in English that form is not the self or the soul. In this respect, anattâ could well be an adjective insofar as what it is applied to, in the example of form or rûpa, lacks a soul or a self.  Essentially, what the Buddha is teaching us is we should not mistake our psychophysical body for our true self—it is not our soul (anâtman). Understanding self or the soul in this way is much different than believing the Buddha taught there is no self.  When the Theravada monk Walpola Rahula asserts, in his book, What the Buddha Taught, “that the Buddha denied categorically, in unequivocal terms … the existence of Âtman, Soul, Self, or Ego,” he is clearly wrong.  Instead, the Buddha did not teach there is no self, soul or âtman rather he taught that the Five Aggregates, which make up our psychophysical body, lack the âtman or the self.  Thus, if we wish to know our true nature or self, we should not look for it in our psychophysical being which is impermanent and suffering.  It is not there.  In fact, the Buddha said of each constituent or aggregate such as form or feeling, “This is not mine, this am I not, this is not my self.”

In other words, the Buddha invites his disciples to cease identifying with what is not their true being or soul, namely, the aggregate form, feeling, conceptualization, volitions and consciousness. These aggregates or khandhas may seem to belong to me but they are not my true self.  Thus, the teaching of anâtman is not intended to deny the self or soul.  Its only purpose is to call on us to reject the Five Aggregates as being our soul. What I truly am as a self or a soul transcends the aggregates. (https://zennist.typepad.com/zenfiles/2012/06/the-real-doctrine-of-no-soul.html)

Another resource for this particular blog was referred by one of our readers, n.yeti, The Buddhist Philosophy of Universal Flux (Satkari Mookeijee). It is a masterful compendium of Dignāgaic thought and various Indian theories on the Soul—which are then largely refuted using Dignāgaic Logic. The following is an excerpt concerning Vedantic notions:

The Vedantists, who hold to the doctrine of absolute monism, consider the world of reality as an unsubstantial appearance floating over an eternal spiritual principle, which is absolutely homogeneous and destitute of all distinctions, subjective or objective whatsoever. As the Absolute Brahman, which is pure consciousness and pure existence, is the only reality and the multiplicity of the phenomenal world, both subjective and objective, is only an appearance as unsubstantial and unreal as an illusion or a dream, there can be no distinctions—external or internal in the spirit, which is one, uniform, unchanged and unchangeable, homogeneous Being. The subject-object distinctions are thus purely fictitious, as the objects have no reality outside the Absolute Consciousness.

The Vedantists are certainly wrong in holding this consciousness to be a homogeneous, unitary principle. If this consciousness were one eternal substance, then why should there be any diversity in our ideas? Certainly colour-consciousness is not the same thing as sound-consciousness and if they are different, you cannot consistently hold the doctrine of unitary, eternal consciousness.

What logic fails to recognize is that the “diversity in our ideas” is, in actuality, the function side of the Monistic Mind THAT does indeed fluctuate through Its outflows. And the soul is that knowing function that gets to experience all manner of diversity. Also, what logic sorely lacks is the understanding of Spirit THAT is the animator of all phenomena. At the same time It does stand above and beyond formal dharmatas and is the ultimate quest in transcending those excessive outbursts of functionality. Logic has its place, in particular in formulating sound argumentive stances; yet on its own merit is insufficient to encapsulate the wonderment of that transcendent factor. As an overview of our series thus far, one can clearly discern that logic plays very little part (apart from Aristotle) in the exploration of the Soul whose preeminence can be likened to the Poetic heart vs. the cold logic of the intellect. Give me soul over intellect anytime. Better yet, give me both intellect AND soul. Furthermore, why would one postulate sensation as the primary regulating factor in obtaining knowledge? Wisdom is not a regulating agency but a veritable gift from divine agencies and gives birth to the Noble Self-realization that at its core bespeaks the transcendent tongue of Buddha-gnosis.

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3 Responses to Dignāga and Anātman

  1. n. yeti says:

    Vajragoni, as one of the leading contributors to Yogacara thought and indeed, one who, after suffering a near-fatal attack by a jealous Brahman, met face to face and was protected by Manjushri himself as a kalyana-mitta, I think Dignaga deserves far more exposition here than is contained in this short blog.

    Dignaga, who by all accounts was a refreshingly troublesome fellow* for his teachers, developed an epistemology that could engage the contemporary philosophers of his day who held (among other things) that the weight of tradition or words alone constituted a valid category of knowledge, a position which could be demolished only through logically consistent arguments and critical debate skillfully applied to the challenges they offered. I believe it was through this context that he argued pratyakṣa (perception) and anumāna (inference) are the only valid criteria, and that all other means of establishing knowledge were reducible to these. It should also be mentioned that through such debates and refinements, he arrived at the doctrine of exclusion (apoha) for linguistic theory which is, in my opinion, a masterful expression of non-duality and is by many considered his magnum opus.

    Suffice to say I think there are some missing pieces to fully appreciate his contributions to the dharma treasury. In fact I think it would be possible to elaborate Dignaga’s many virtues for kalpas before coming to an end in describing them all. Dignaga’s philosophy is difficult, nuanced and extremely profound, and not given to quick interpretations. In short I think he deserves an entire series and I hope one day you might approach it.

    * He was, in an amusing anecdote, supposedly kicked out by his preceptor Nagadatta of the Vatsiputriya school for stripping naked and examining his body in minute detail when he was asked to search for his “indescribable self”.

    • Vajragoni says:

      n.yeti, thank-you for further expounding about Dignaga–truly edifying. For the purpose of this blog let us consider the following:

      “I believe it was through this context that he argued pratyakṣa (perception) and anumāna (inference) are the only valid criteria, and that all other means of establishing knowledge were reducible to these.”

      In response, consider the following letter by Dionysius the Areopagite to his disciple, Timothy, that will be included in our subsequent blog:

      And thou, dear Timothy, in thy intent and practice of the mystical contemplation, leave behind both thy senses and intellectual operations, and all things known by sense and intellect, and set thyself, as far as may be, to unite thyself in unknowing with Him who is above being and knowledge; for by being purely free and absolute, out of self and all things, thou shalt be led up to the Ray of the Divine Darkness, stripped and loosed of all.”

      • n. yeti says:

        Understood, though I think it would be a drastic misreading of Dignaga’s philosophy to presume he stopped at the mere fermentations of the sixth consciousness. He meditated quite deeply on the limits of knowledge and logic. As pointed out by R.P Hayes in his celebrated book _Dignaga on the Interpretation of Signs_, “for [Dignaga] the central task was not to construct and defend a rationalized system of thought, but to examine the fundamental assumptions on which all our claims to understanding rest.”

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