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PHL 235 H5S – Philosophy of Religion:
An Introduction to the Indian Buddhist Philosophical Tradition
Week 6 – Abhidharma and Pugdalavāda
Class 10 – Introduction to the Abhidharma
1. Primer on the Abhidharma
Varieties of Self-Negation
Recall from our first discussion of the Not-Self teaching that there are at least
four different versions of the Buddhist view. Those are:
i. Soteriological strategy: Some interpretations of early Buddhism, especially
in the light of the above arguments.
ii. Not-Self with Emergent Personhood: The Pudgalavāda View
iii. Causal Reductionism with Intrinsic Identity: Vasubandhu’s
This view is most certainly a No Self view (vs. a Not-Self strategy). The
Abhidharmikas were all committed to the view that there are no selves.
o Instead, what ultimately exists are momentary mental and
physical events that are organized in a way that gives the
impression of a self.
E.g. the fan in snow
iv. Emptiness without Intrinsic Identity: The Madhyamika View
We have already examined (i). This week we will examine (ii) and (iii). In the
weeks that follow, we will examine (iv).
The Abhidharma as a Stratum of Texts and a Form of Analysis
Systematizing and attempting to resolve ambiguity from the discourses.
o The discourses represent contextual exchanges between the
Buddha and different sorts of people. What is taught is
context-sensitive and specific.
o The Abhidharma texts represent an attempt to explain the
Buddha’s teaching in a way that is not context-sensitive and
general, i.e. as an absolute system.
The construction of the system can be thought of in three ways:
Notes and Questions
Based on what you
know of Buddhist
philosophy, does such
an endeavor seem
i. Philosophical psychology (exhaustive typology of mental states)
ii. Scholastic ontology – an analysis of fundamental existents
iii. Polemical arguments against non-conforming schools
Ultimate and Conventional Truths/Realities
The cornerstone of Abhidharmic analysis is a distinction between two kinds
of truth or reality, or ways of speaking.
Samuti sacca
/ sa
(Pāli/Sanksrit): that which exists by conceptual
construction or conventional use of terms.
Paramattha sacca/paraārtha-satya
: that which exists ultimately without
conceptual construction.
The Abhidharmikas will use this distinction to argue that all composite
wholes can be reductively analyzed in terms of their metaphysically basic
o E.g. the chariot in terms of its parts, the self in terms of the
From Aggregates to Dhammas
Up until now, our investigations into mental processes has been framed in
terms of the five aggregates. This schema represents a kind of practical
approach to thinking about the various ways our minds help us stay in touch
with reality.
However, in the Abhidharmic taxonomy of what exists, the aggregates are
re-organized into a four-fold schema of ultimate existents (dhammas
form the basis for all that exists.
Every ultimate existent (dharma
) has its own nature that makes it the
kind of dharma
it is. This is called svabhāva
o A dharma
has svabhāva
if it cannot be dissolved by analysis.
“The topics of Abhidhamma spoken of therein in full are from the ultimate
standout four: consciousness, mentalities, materiality, and nibbāna”
(Abhid-s, 2).
: Synonymous with viññā
; moments of conscious awareness. These
are organized primarily according to which sensory receptor occasioned
them, whether they are karmically
active, and if so, whether they are morally
wholesome or unwholesome. There are thought to be 89 cittas
in the
Theravāda Abhidhamma.
Different schools will
use this distinction in
different ways. The
Madhyamikas will
make use of it to
criticize Abhidharmic
metaphysics in a
powerful way.
See Siderits BaP
, sect.
6.2, p. 111 ff.
: Mental factors (similar to the use of dhamma
in the
Mahāsatipaṭṭ hāna Sutta) that condition and structure citta
. Includes the
three non-conscious mental aggregates (vedanā
, sañña
, and sa
) along
with many others. There are 52 cetasikas
according to the Theravāda
: In the context of the five aggregates, this term referred to the sensitive
body of the subject. In Abhidharmic texts, it refers to any matter, it is
primarily organized around the four great elements (water, air, fire, and
earth) and their primary qualities (cohesion, mobility, temperature, and
All of these first three paramattha saccas
’s are causally conditioned by
the law of dependent origination and are therefore, anicca, dukkha
, and
: The unconditioned element that is apprehended by the fully
From Impermanence to Momentariness
The Abhidharmikas interpret the idea that all phenomena, all dhammas
are impermanent (anicca
) because they arise and pass away in a single
Different Abhidharma schools have different views about what exactly
constitutes a moment, and what the momentary life of a dhamma
actually like (for example, does it have a beginning, middle, and end?).
o These differences won’t concern us.
o What will concern us is how the metaphysics of momentariness is
utilized by Abhidharma thinkers to come up with an intriguing
way of thinking about the Not-Self teaching in terms of a No Self
2. Vasubandhu as a Figure in the History of Buddhist Philosophy
Vasubandhu 4
century Indian monk, who along with Nāgārjuna is easily
the greatest Buddhist philosopher after the Buddha himself. His major work
was the Abhidharmakośakārikā
and its auto-commentary the bhasya
. The
works we will explore this week come from this text.
Vasubandhu was a chief exegete of a number of Buddhist schools. He
changed his mind a lot and so switched his philosophical association
throughout his life. The main associations include:
Vaibhāsika – The kośa
is from this perspective
Sautrāntika The kośa’s
auto-commentary, bhasya
critiques the
Yogācārā Numerous works that we won’t concern ourselves with.
Though his half-brother Asaga was the founder of this school and was
primarily responsible for his conversion.
o The difference between the Yogācāra school and the previous two
schools is substantial enough that some have advocated for there
being two Vasubandhu’s.
o We will spend a week exploring Vasubandhu’s Yogācāra works in
the coming weeks.
The selections you were asked to read for this week are from the ninth
chapter of the Abhidharmakośa
and its auto-commentary.
o This treatise attacks the Pudgalavādin school of Buddhist thought
and the non-Buddhist schools (especially the Nyāya-Vaisesikas)
that affirm the existence of a substantial self.
o Today we will explore Vasubandhu’s argument against
non-Buddhist schools that affirm the reality of a self. In our next
class, we will explore his arguments against the Pugdalavādin
school of Buddhism.
3. Vasubandhu’s Arguments against the Ātman
It is known that the expression, “self,” refers to a continuum of aggregates and
not to anything else because [direct perception and correct inference establish
that the phenomena in dependence upon which a person is conceived are the
aggregates, and] there is no direct perception or correct inference [of anything
else among these phenomena].
[If anything else exists among these phenomena, its existence would be
established by direct perception or correct inference,] for of all phenomena
[that exist] there is direct perception [that establishes their existence], as there
is of the six objects and the mental organ unless [direct] perception of them is
impeded, or there is correct inference [that establishes their existence], as
there is of the five [sense] organs (BP
Ch. 24, pp. 288-9).
: Selves vs. Collections of Aggregates
1. For something to exist as a conditioned phenomenon, we must be able to
establish its existence by either direct perception or correct inference.
This passage is
from the first two
paragraphs of the
readings you’ll
tackle for next
a. This is a basic Buddhist epistemological position that would be
carried forward by other Buddhist thinkers who develop Buddhist
philosophy into a serious system of logic and epistemology.
b. Valid means of knowledge are called pramāna
in Indian
philosophy. A partial list of potential pramānas
are: perception,
inference, comparison or analogy, derivation, scriptural authority,
and testimony.
2. Direct perception of the five aggregates establishes their existence as valid.
3. There is no correct inference or direct perception of a self.
4. Therefore, the notion of ‘self’ refers only to a collection of the five
This argument would not convince a non-Buddhist, for premise (2) relies
on the authority of the Buddha’s meditative insights into the ultimate basis
of mental function.
o Nevertheless, this phenomenological claim paired with arguments
that focus on impermanence and dukkha give the reader some
indication of why the Buddhist rejects the substantial self.
The Tīrthika Argument Against Vasubandhu
1. If there is no self and minds are just the momentary causal relations
between the aggregates, then the mind cannot have mental functions =
2. The mind does have mental functions = x.
3. Therefore, there is a self and not just the momentary causal relations
between the aggregates.
This form of argument uses different values for x. Such values include:
memory, apprehension of an object, intentional action (the necessity of an
agent), etc.
The debate here is whether or not causal density of momentary mental
processes can provide the mind with enough unity to provide a basis for the
various functions we enjoy in daily life.
o Vasubandhu says causal density of momentary mental events is
o His opponents, disagree.
Vasubandhu’s reply for the case of x = an agent responsible for intentional
action (cf. BP
Ch. 26, pp. 299):
1. All that is required for agency is an appropriate causal relation between
an intention and an action forming an unbroken continuum.
2. Momentary mental events related appropriately in a causal stream can
provide this relation. No self or soul is required.
3. Therefore, it is not the case that if there is no self, that the mind cannot
have mental functions = x (in this case, agency or intentional action).
One might object to (2) on the grounds that the self or soul is something over
and above the changing momentary flux of the contents of our experience.
“If there is no soul, who is the agent of an action, and who is the recipient of the
consequences of an action?” (BP
Ch. 26, p. 305).
The argument here seems to be, again, that without some unchanging principle
which has the mental events in question (x=intentions) and who is able to
initiate independent action, then there is no way to attribute agency or
consequence in action. But we need to be able to make such attributions,
therefore there is an independent soul.
Vasubandhu’s reply (BP
Ch. 26, p. 305):
1. If the soul were uncaused and independent, then the soul would not be
able to cause anything.
2. If the soul were unable to cause anything, then it would have no role to
play in a theory of intentional action.
3. Therefore, either the soul exists and doesn’t do what it is supposed to
do in a theory of action or there is no independent soul at all.
In Vasubandhu’s words:
“Nothing has any kind of independence. All beings arise in dependence on
contributing causes.”
His approach is not without its difficulties.
4. On the Problem of Individuating Streams of Consciousness
In a number of places, Vasubandhu refers to streams of consciousness as
being clearly individuated in some way; it is an ‘unbroken continuum’.
Thus, the objection arises:
“If the body could support an identification of the self, why don’t we identity
our self with the bodies of others?”
Vasubandhu replies:
“The identification of the self arises from the connection involving the body
and the mind. It won’t occur with respect to a body that is not part of the
continuum in question. This process has been repeating itself eternally in
beginningless cyclic existence” (BP
Ch. 26, p. 304).
However, the question remains, in virtue of what
can it be said of a series
of causally connected mental events that they belong to one particular
continuum rather than another?
o We would not want to say that the experiences associated with this
mental stream are mine
, and those associated with that
stream are
, for this would recruit the language of ownership and
o Thus, it seems that Vasubandhu owes us a more nuanced
explanation of why he thinks he is entitled to a principle of stream
individuation that does not commit him to the existence of some
kind of self that owns or otherwise makes it the case that some
mental events are associated with each other and some are not.