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On Being Mindless: Buddhist Meditation and the Mind-Body Problem

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Item Code: NAC769
Author: Paul J. Griffiths
Publisher: Sri Satguru Publications
Language: ENGLISH
Edition: 1919
ISBN: 817030606X
Pages: 240
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 Inch X6.00 Inch
Weight 390 gm
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Indian Buddhist philosophers say that it is possible to achieve, by specific meditational techniques, a distinctive ‘altered state’ which they call ‘the attainment of cessation’ In this state, the stream of mental events is temporarily brought to a complete halt: the practitioner becomes mindless.

The possibility and desirability of such an altered state was extensively discussed by Buddhist thinkers in India. In these discussions, they were compelled to consider the causal connections between the mental and the physical, and thus to clarify their positions on what in the West has usually been called the mind-body problem. On Being Mindless presents these discussions to an English- speaking readership for the first time, inducting analysis and translation of texts not previously available in English and, in some cases, of material not available in any Western language.

Opposing fashionably relativistic approaches to non-Western philosophical traditions, Paul Griffiths critically comments upon the analyses of mindlessness given by Buddhist thinkers. He maintains that “the functions, nature, and limits of rationality are conceived similarly in all cultures” and rejects “that humility which, all too often in those Western academic circles where the study of Buddhist thought is carried on, refuses to take its material with philosophical seriousness’:’ On Being Mindless is a study in cross-cultural philosophy which should do much to increase awareness among Western scholars of the precision and subtlety of Indian philosophical thinking. It may also encourage Western philosophers to look beyond the barriers of their own culture and language for serious philosophical analysis.

“Griffiths’ On Being Mindless is a truly intelligent book—with an acuteness and sensibility both philosophical and scholarly that one all too rarely encounters any more’:’


This book is about the philosophical implications of meditative practice. More specifically, it is a case-study of certain intra-Buddhist controversies about the nature and implications of a particular, precisely defined altered state of consciousness,1 attained by way of an equally well defined set of meditational practices. It may seem at the outset as though this has rather little to do with philosophy as understood in the analytical traditions of the West: it may be suggested that we are instead dealing here, as Louis de La Vallée Poussin put it, with:

Indian ‘philosophumena’ concocted by ascetics ... men exhausted by a severe diet and often stupified by the practice of ecstacy. Indians do not make a clear distinction between facts and ideas, between ideas and words; they have never clearly recognized the principle of contradiction.

Poussin was one of the greatest historians of Indian Buddhism the West has yet produced, and while he was clearly correct in his view that the practice of meditation was and is of fundamental importance for Buddhism, he was equally clearly incorrect, as I hope to show, in thinking that this resulted in any lack of clarity in philosophical argumentation, much less in a failure to recognize the ‘principle of contradiction’.

It is upon meditative practice that the religious life of the Buddhist virtuoso is based and from such practice that systematic Buddhist philosophical and soteriological theory begins. The experiences produced as a result of meditative practice have therefore historically been of great importance to Buddhist philosophical theory; it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the whole of the magnificently complex edifice of Buddhist philosophy is a drawing out and systematization of the implications of such experience. The Buddha himself (insofar as we can say anything about him; the historical problems associated with making judgements about the teaching of the historical Buddha are great) seems to have placed great emphasis on the significance of meditative experience and to have regarded it as both the origin and guarantee of his more strictly philosophical teaching.

Rather than judging the significance of meditational practice in Buddhism to allow no place for clear philosophical analysis, a useful method of gaining access to the rationale and significance of some key Buddhist doctrines might be to examine their connections with those meditative practices with which they almost always operate in symbiosis. It is not that specific meditative practices straight forward by give rise to specific doctrines, though this kind of simple and direct causal relationship is sometimes suggested both by Western critics of Buddhism and by Buddhist scholars working from within the tradition.4 Rather, philosophical beliefs shape meditative techniques, provide specific expectations, and thus have a formative influence on the kinds of experience which are actually produced, as well as on the philosophical conclusions which are drawn from these experiences. 5 Similarly, the results of meditative practice inform the philosophical views of practicing Buddhists with new experiences, and thus suggest new ways in which the philosophical system can be modified and developed. To examine the philosophical use made of (the results of) a specific set or sets of meditative practices may therefore provide useful insights into both the origins of Buddhist philosophical doctrine and the functions of Buddhist psychotropic technique.6 This work is therefore intended as a case study in the relationship between philosophical theory and soteriological practice in Indian Buddhism. It takes as its presupposition the idea that there is indeed such a relationship something which is not always obvious from a reading of the works of students and critics of Buddhism from both within and without the tradition and applies the presupposition to a particular case: that of the ‘attainment of cessation’ (nirodhasamapatti) as this was described, recommended, analyzed and discussed in the philosophical texts of early Indian Buddhism.

The attainment of cessation is a particularly interesting case for the kind of study envisaged here. The term, and its equivalent, ‘cessation of sensation and conceptualization’ (samjnavedayitanirodhya), denote a specific very precisely defined altered state of consciousness, one which occurs as the direct result of specified meditative techniques. While the term is rooted in the earliest strata of the texts available to us, and though the altered state of consciousness denoted by it is attributed by such texts to the Buddha himself, its unusual nature, coupled with the fact that it has no obvious connections with mainstream Buddhist soteriology, meant that from the beginning it produced a set of problems for Buddhist theoreticians. These problems arise from the fact that the term ‘cessation of sensation and conceptualization’ denotes a state of (un)consciousness in which no mental functions occur, and that such a condition is frequently given high recommendation in the texts, and sometimes seems to be i’t1uated with Nirvana, the ultimate goal of all virtuoso Buddhist soteriological practice. Given that this is the case (and the evidence for it will be presented in the body of this work) a number of interesting philosophical problems arise.

The first set of problems has to do with the nature of salvation, the ultimate goal of virtuoso religious practice as this was conceived by Indian Buddhists. There appears to be some tension between a view which regards dispassionate knowledge of the way things are9 as a sine qua non and constituent factor of enlightenment, and a view which sees complete unconsciousness, the cessation of all mental functions, as essential to, or even identical with, enlightenment. This is, therefore, a problem for Buddhist soteriological theory, a problem created by a witness within the tradition to variant and even contradictory sets of soteriological practices. Some of the significant elements of this debate will be presented and analyzed in what follows.

The second set of problems has to do with the relationship between mind and body—or, more precisely, between the mental and the physical—as this was conceived by Buddhist thinkers. If there is indeed a condition in which all mental events come to a halt (as the canonical texts say), and if this condition is sometimes temporary and reversible (that is, if mental events can sometimes, as it were, start up once again from a condition of cessation), then some explanation of the mechanism by which this occurs is called for. The canonical definitions of the condition denoted by the term ‘attainment of cessation’ make it clear that no mental events—and thus by extension only physical events—occur when any given individual is in this state. How then is it that the stream of mental events (brought to a halt b’, the meditative techniques which produce the attainment of cessation) can begin once again when there exist only physical events from which they can arise? Almost all the possible answers to this question were suggested by Buddhist philosophers in the course of the early Indian debates on the issue, and the examination of these debates will provide an interesting set of perspectives on Buddhist views of the mind—body problem.

My study will restrict itself to an analysis of the debates on the attainment of cessation in early Indian Buddhism. I shall therefore consider mostly material from the systematic philosophical texts of Indian scholastic Buddhism,° beginning with the discussions in the Pali Collections (Nikaya) as representative of the earliest available traditions. The Collections are a body of texts which present themselves as verbatim reports of the discourses of the historical figure now given the honorific title of ‘Buddha’ (enlightened one). Historical research makes it clear that these texts do not in fact give us access to the ipsissima verba of the Buddha, but they do preserve a witness to a reasonably early stage in the development of the Buddhist tradition, and thus make a useful starting point for the investigation.

In addition to this material I shall also make use of Buddhaghosa’s commentarial discussions of the Collections together with his systematization of the material contained in them in the influential text called Path to Purity (Visuddhimagga). The comments by Dhammapala, the author of a large commentary on the Path to Purity, will also be discussed. An examination of the material on the attainment of cessation in these texts should thus provide an historically accurate overview of the understanding of this phenomenon arrived at by the Theravada tradition, a tradition to which all these texts belong.

The Theravada tradition was not the only one of the early schools to carry on extensive discussions of the attainment of cessation. With the Theravada view I shall compare the extensive discussions found in Vasubandhu’s important text called Commentary on the Treasury of Metaphysics (Abhidharmakosabhasya), a work which sets forth the views of the Vaibhasika’ school, and which offers in addition a critique of these views from the Sautrantika viewpoint.’ Use will also be made of the major Indian commentaries to this work, especially those of Sthiramati and Yasomitra 15 These texts contain full discussions of the views of all the major Indian Buddhist schools on the issue.

Finally, I shall analyze the discussion of the same issue found in some key Yogacara texts; in these works the same issue is treated from the standpoint of the Yogacara School, a perspective which results in a radically different philosophical solution to the problem.

The intentions of this study as a whole, therefore, are (at least) threefold: 1) to shed some light on the history of Buddhist views about a specific altered state of consciousness and its relationship to specified soteriological goals; 2) by analyzing the philosophical discussions surrounding this altered state, to increase our understanding of the way in which the relationship between the physical and IIIL• mental was conceived in early Indian Buddhism; and 3) to ask and attempt to answer some questions about the adequacy of the Buddhist view of the causal relations between the mental and the physical.

This third goal, the asking of questions about the adequacy of Buddhist views on the relations between mental and physical, raises philosophical difficulties, which requite some methodological remarks. I originally conceived this work as a historical and exegetical study of a set of Indian Buddhist controversies about certain kinds of meditational practice. In the process of research and writing It has come to be something both less and more than that. In addition to the planned descriptive and historical study it is now also an exercise in cross-cultural philosophizing; the philosophizing found In this work both rests upon and illustrates an important general thesis about rationality. Briefly stated, this thesis is that philosophy 114 a trans-cultural human activity, which in all essentials operates within the same conventions and by the same norms in all cultures. These are, broadly speaking, the conventions and norms which demarcate what in the West has sometimes been called ‘rationality’. This is not an uncontroversial view; it is probably true to say that the current intellectual orthodoxy in the Western academic disciplines of philosophy, anthropology, sociology history (especially history of religions) and literary criticism is opposed to it. The development of a sociology of knowledge,’7 superficial understandings (and misunderstandings) of the late Wittgenstein and the classical Quine,’8 the pervasive adherence to varieties of relativism in the work of important anthropological theorists,’9 the fuss in philosophy of science over the early Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis and Feyerabend’s fulminations against method,20 and the vogue for deconstructionist readings of any and all genres of text—all these have combined to create an intellectual climate in which it is problematic even to suggest that rational discourse may be a phenomenon which operates by recognizably similar rules and with effectively identical goals cross-culturally, and is thus a tool available in a relatively straightforward manner for cross-cultural communication and assessment.

The view that the functions, nature, and limits of rationality are conceived similarly in all cultures has as its corollary the idea that cross-cultural assessment of philosophical views and arguments is possible. It suggests that I, as a twentieth-century English-speaking Westerner, am theoretically capable of both understanding and passing judgement upon philosophical arguments and conclusions presented by fifth-century Indian Buddhists writing and thinking in Sanskrit. This too is problematic, given the current intellectual climate in which terms such as ‘pluralism’ and ‘dialogue’ have become almost numinous, denoting an orthodoxy in the direction of which it is necessary to make at least a ritual obeisance.22 Even if such cross- cultural attempts at normative judgement can avoid offending against one or more of the intellectual orthodoxies just mentioned, they tend to be regarded as symptoms of cultural imperialism and intellectual triumphalism.

Clearly, then, there are important systematic problems involved with the view that it is legitimate to move from historical and expository writing about philosophical debates located in a culture distant in space and time from one’s own, to an analytical and critical study of such debates which is in part concerned to pass judgement upon them. Among these systematic problems are the questions of whether the functions, goals and limits of rationality are understood in essentially similar ways cross-culturally; whether cross-cultural assessments of truth (in propositions) and validity (in arguments) can escape the pitfalls of parochialism and arrogance; and whether, pace the sociologists of knowledge,23 there are distinctions to be made between the contingent causes for the holding of a particular belief, and the non-contingent grounds for holding that belief. Ideally, such systematic problems should be resolved systematically; only thus can the objections of the adherents of the pluralistic view be properly answered. Such a systematic enterprise is possible, I think, but is a task too large for this study. Instead, the presence of attempts at critical assessment of the arguments and conclusions of the sources with which I deal in this work, are best understood as an attempt to provide some indirect evidence for the truth of the thesis that rationally grounded normative discourse is an appropriate tool for undertaking the activity of cross-cultural philosophizing. At the very least, the effective completion of a case-study of the kind essayed here requires (logically) the falsity of the thesis that cultures (and their norms of rationality) are radically incommensurable. Its effective completion does not, of course, demonstrate the truth of the proposition that they are straightforwardly commensurable; much less that rationality operates under much the same rules in all cultures. At most it provides contributory evidence for the truth of a limited version of that thesis.

I shall, then, undertake in what follows the analysis of a set of rational) arguments from the Indian Buddhist traditions about the nature of the relationship between the mental and the physical.

Where it seems appropriate I shall not hesitate to offer critical assessments of both the arguments presented in those traditions and of the truth of the premisses involved therein. I undertake this enterprise with the humility appropriate to all philosophical enterprises—the knowledge, among other things, that I am likely to be frequently wrong. But I reject that humility which, all too often in those Western academic circles where the study of Buddhist thought is carried on, refuses to take its material with philosophical seriousness. As I hope will become clear, this material presents interesting and complex arguments which claim to be valid and which also claim therefore (given the truth of their premisses) to lead to true conclusions. We do the tradition a disservice if we refuse to move beyond the exegetical mode of academic discourse to the normative, the judgemental.

A close study of the material discussed in this work makes it increasingly apparent that the authors of these texts took themselves in be engaging in a normative enterprises and one, moreover, that they thought to be capable of support by persuasive and at times demonstrative, rational arguments. To ignore? as is so often done by historians of religion this fundamentally important dimension of the material is a failure to seriously consider the intentions of the texts’ 4uthors in their own terms, and such a failure necessarily results in partial and inadequate views about the importance of normative discourse in almost all religious and philosophical traditions. It was, in part, an increasingly strong desire to avoid such a partial and inadequate representation of my sources that reshaped what was originally conceived as a j5torico-eXegetlcal study into what is now also a philosophico-critical study. The presence in the following study of normative elements—of the putting to my sources such potentially unpleasant questions as: ‘Is that a good argument?’ or ‘What reason tin we have to think that the premisses of that argument are true?’— proceeds, then, from the logic of the sources themselves.

A full defence and explanation of asking (and the theoretical possibility of answering) such normative questions of texts (or persons) 1mm different cultures and different periods would require the elaboration of (negatively) a critique of the varieties of relativism, 4d (positively) a theory of rationality and a theory of truth. Aside I mm these prefatory remarks I shall offer neither, but will content myself for the moment with a utilitarian and hermeneutical defence: on the first (utilitarian) ground the directing of normative questions to philosophical and religious traditions foreign to those of the questioner is almost certain to result in an increased awareness on the part of the questioner of the weaknesses and strengths of his own position, something which I take to be an intrinsic good; also, this approach makes it possible to ask questions which, by using traditional history of religions methodology, simply cannot be asked. And this also is an intrinsic good, even if the questions should turn out finally to have been misconceived. On the second (hermeneutical) ground, a serious listening to our sources, a genuine fusion of horizons (to use Gadamer’s phrase in a sense of which he would be unlikely to approve), 24 requires that when those sources are explicitly normative in their claims and methods we, as interpreters, take that aspect of then seriously and deal with them on that level. Neither the utilitarian nor the hermeneutical defence will serve for long as a justification of this way of doing cross-cultural philosophy; they are stated here only as pointers toward what needs to be done, and as a stop-gap rationale for the undertaking of a study in what is very close to being a new field of enquiry: the attempt to address, in a cross-cultural mode, normative questions as these relate to large- scale and sophisticated conceptual systems, and to elaborate and state cross-culturally valid norms of rationality on the basis of which such assessment can properly take place.

I intend that this work should be of use and interest to at least three groups which do not communicate with each other as often as might be hoped. First, I hope that the philosophical discussions of the mind—body issue, as these arise from the historical and textual analyses of the work, will be of interest to those philosophers concerned with the same issue in the Western traditions, and to that (happily increasing) group of Western philosophers interested in Indian philosophical thought in its own right. Second, I hope also that the discussions given here of a particular type of Buddhist soteriological practice and its resultant altered state(s) of consciousness will be of interest to those trained in the history of religions; we have here a case study of an especially interesting type of virtuoso religious technique, one, moreover, which has interesting connections with techniques fostered and recommended in other traditions. Finally, on the technical and historical level this monograph is intended to be of use to Buddhologists, those who are professionally concerned with the history of Buddhist thought and practice. It is at this group that the textual, historical and linguistic discussions in the extensive notes are aimed.

Since this work is written with the intention that it will be accessible and useful to those who are not specialists in the history of Buddhism and not competent in the major Buddhist canonical languages, the use of technical terminology in the original languages (principally Pali and Sanskrit, but also occasionally Tibetan) in the body of the text has been kept to an (unavoidable) minimum. Where technical Buddhist philosophical terminology is concerned, my practice is generally to give the original term, in parentheses upon its first occurrence in the text, to establish my preferred translation, and thereafter to use only English. A glossary is provided at the end, giving my standardized English equivalents and the terms which they translate. A similar practice is followed for text-names in the body of this study: they are given consistently in English with the original provided in parentheses upon the first occurrence of the text-name in question. In the notes, in contrast, extensive use is made of (sometimes untranslated) technical terms in the relevant languages and of abbreviations for text-names. Most of these technical terms and abbreviations will be familiar to those professionally concerned with the history of Buddhism—at whom the notes are primarily aimed—but a complete listing of all abbreviations is to be found at the end of the work. Brief bibliographical essays on the texts which have been of major importance for this study are also included in the bibliography; these essays describe the editions I have used, discuss any major problems0 and explain the system of reference adopted.

There are three types of exception to this practice of eschewing the use of Sanskrit in the body of the text: the first concerns technical terms (in Sanskrit) which have become effectively naturalized into English: the obvious examples are Buddha, dharma, karma and Nirvana. These will generally be given (as here) without italicization or diacritics and with a somewhat inconsistent set of practices in regard to initial capitalization. The second concerns names of persons, which will be left in the original without comment or translation. (The non-Sanskritist, sadly, will miss a great deal here since Indian Buddhist philosophers tend to have delightful names. For example, Jnanasrimitra means ‘he whose beloved friend is knowledge’ and St Sthiramati means ‘he whose intellect is firm’.) The third exception concerns school and sect names which will also be left in the original in the body of the text (largely because of the difficulty of finding English equivalents which stop short of polysyllabic multi-hyphenated chaos), but which will be discussed in full where relevant, either Iii the notes or in the body of the text.

All discussions that have to do primarily with technical matters, textual, philological or historical, have been relegated to the notes. All translations are my own unless a specific translation credit is given, although where I provide translations of previously-translated texts I am, of course, indebted to and dependent upon the work of my predecessors, even in cases where I have chosen not to follow them. Full details of all translations consulted will be found in the bibliography. I have supplied in the notes the full original text of all extracts translated from canonical Buddhist languages; this, as anyone who works in this field is aware, is a courtesy verging upon the essential, since few of us have access to libraries in which all these texts are easily available. For the representation of Sanskrit and Pali in roman type I follow the systems introduced at the end of the last century and now universally accepted among scholars;76 for the representation of Tibetan I follow the system developed by Turrell V. Wylie and other scholars of the Inner Asia Project at the University of Washington:27 this system is simple and consistent and has been gaining ground as the standard in the West, though sadly it is less frequently used by Japanese scholars; for the representation of Japanese I follow the system used in Andrew Nelson’s dictionary;28 finally, in the (rare) cases in which Chinese characters are represented in roman type, the Pinyin system has been used.


Acknowledgements xi
Introduction xiii
Chapter One – The Attainment of Cessation in the Theravada Tradition 1
1.1 The Theravada Tradition 1
1.2 The Nature of the Attainment of Cessation 5
1.3 Methods of Reaching the Attainment of Cessation 13
1.3.1 Soteriological Methods and Soteriological Goals 13
1.3.2 Obtaining Cessation: The Basic Unit of Tradition 17
1.3.3 Contextual Analysis 19
1.4 Evaluations of the Attainment of Cessation 27
1.5 Debates on Emerging from the Attainment of Cessation 31
Chapter Two – The Attainment of Cessation in the Vaibhasika Tradition 43
2.1 The Vaibhasika Tradition 43
2.2 The Significance of the Treasury of Metaphysics 46
2.3 The Attainment of Cessation in the Treasury of Metaphysics and Its Commentaries 58
2.3.1 The Vaibhasika Position 60
2.3.2 The Sautrantika Position 63
2.3.3 The Debate Between Vasumitra and Ghosaka 67
2.4 Critique of the Positions 70
Chapter Three – The Attainment of Cessation in the Yogacara Tradition 76
3.1The Yogacara Tradition: History and Texts76
3.2 The Yogacara Tradition: Key Philosophical Ideas80
3.2.1 Ontology: Representation and Mind 80
3.2.2 The Functioning of Ming 84
3.2.3 The Store-Consciousness 91
3.3 The Eightfold Proof of the Stone-Consciousness 96
3.3.1 The Impossibility of Appropriating a New Body 97
3.3.2 The Impossibility of Origination and Simultaneous Functioning of the Sense-Consciousnesses 99
3.3.3 The Impossibility of Clear Mental Consciousness 100
3.3.4 The Impossibility of Mutual Seeding 101
3.3.5 The Impossibility of Action 101
3.3.6 The Impossibility of Physical Experience102
3.3.7 The Impossibility of Mindless Attainments103
3.3.8 The Possibility of Death104
3.4 Critique of the Yogacara Position 104
Chapter Four – The Attainment of Cessation and The Mind-Body Problem 107
Glossary 114
Abbreviations 117
Appendix A: The Place of the Attainment of Cessation in the Soteriological Path of the Abhidharmakosabhasya120
Appendix B: Debates on the Re-emergence of Consciousness from the Attainment of Cessation in the Abhidharmakosabhasya [72.19-73.4]: Sanskrit Text, English Translation and Annotation 122
Appendix C: The Eightfold Proof of the Store-Consciousness in the Abhidharmasamuccayabhasya [11.18-13.20]: Sanskrit Text, English Translation and Annotation129
Notes to Introduction 139
Notes to Chapter One 144
Notes to Chapter Two 162
Notes to Chapter Three 173
Bibliography: Texts 184
Bibliography: Works Cited 193
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