Knowledge and Power in Buddhist Thought

Tue., Aug. 19th, 09:00-12:30

Knowledge and Power in the Representation of the Ṛṣi in the Pāli Canon and the Mahāvastu

Benedetti, Giacomo (University of Kyoto, Kyoto, JPN)

The figure of the Ṛṣi is one of the most fundamental and longstanding in Indian tradition, starting from the most ancient Vedic texts. We are inclined to identify the Ṛṣis with the Brahmanic tradition which saw in them the founders of the Brahmanic lineages as well as those who have seen and revealed Vedic mantras and rituals, but Buddhist texts not only mention these figures as representative of the Brahmanic tradition, but often also identify as Ṛṣi(s) the Bodhisattva in the Jātakas, the Pratyekabuddhas, the monk disciples of the Buddha and the Buddha himself.

In some Suttas of the Pāli canon, the knowledge of Vedic Ṛṣis is explicitly denied, using the image of a row of blind men for the tradition starting from them, but in the Jātakas the Ṛṣis (isi in Pāli) are ascetics living normally in the Himalayas as vānaprasthas, adopting what is called isipabbajjā (Sanskrit ṛṣipravrajyā, the ‘going forth’ to religious life proper of the Ṛṣi). Through intense meditation they achieve the five abhiññās, which include knowledge (the divine eye and ear, the knowledge of the others’ minds and of previous lives) and the miraculous power (iddhi), most typically represented by the capability of flying through the air, which can be considered a visible manifestation of transcending the world. The same is true of the Jātakas of the Mahāvastu, where we find standardized descriptions of the yogic path leading to the five abhijñās, and formulaic epithets related to the spiritual power of Ṛṣis (maharddhika and mahānubhāva). 
Traditionally, Ṛṣis were also regarded as endowed with the power of cursing the offenders, and although this idea and fear are present in some stories of the Mahāvastu, the ethics of compassion and patience followed by the Ṛṣis in the Jātakas prevents this potentiality from being realized.

Among the traditional qualities of Ṛṣis in Brahmanic texts, however, tapas (the ascetic practice of austerities) is retained in these representations, although it is criticized in canonical Suttas. Nonetheless, meditation is the main means of developing spiritual power, and the objects of knowledge (summed up in the abhijñās) are quite different from those seen by the Ṛṣis in the Vedic tradition (Mantras and rituals), and more similar to what we find in the Yogasūtras or the Mahābhārata, if we exclude the metaphysical tenets.
A particular aspect that should be considered is the reason behind the use of the epithetṛṣi for Buddhas and bhikṣus, whether it is simply due to the identification of the Ṛṣi with an ascetic, or whether the connection of Ṛṣis with special knowledge and power is also important for this choice.


Sovereignty in Surveillance: Knowledge and Power in the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya

Fiordalis, David (Linfield College, McMinnville, Oregon, USA)

What is knowledge, what is power, and how is their relationship conceptualized in Buddhist thought? This paper stems from asking this apparently basic set of questions, and finding the answers less than straightforward in either primary sources or modern secondary literature. It grows out of a close analysis of the sixth and seventh chapters of the Abhidharmakośa and its commentary (AKBh), where awakening is defined as a particular type of knowledge (6.67), which is then made the theoretical basis for discussing a range of qualities acquired through practicing the stages of the path of cultivation. Many of these qualities, such as the so-called “higher knowledges” (abhijñā) and “powers that derive from knowledge” (jñāna-bala), possess a semantic field closer to that of power. Vasubandhu also appears to recognize this fact, and it prompts him to discuss the nature of knowledge and its relation to power.

One of the overarching metaphors employed in Buddhist thought to express this relationship is that of the sovereign in whom knowledge and power intersect and from whom they emanate. Although this metaphor is evoked explicitly only once in the relevant section of the AKBh, in the commentary on 7.26, its appearance seems significant. Here, sovereignty is achieved through gaining mastery over one's own mind, a process that is said to involve thorough investigation of mental phenomena and objects of the senses, as they exist in reality. This process of observing, analyzing and cultivating dispassion towards these sensory objects and thoughts also results in knowledge of and power over them. By acquiring knowledge of various objects of knowledge, one gains power over those objects, power that manifests as both self-control in the form of confidence, strength, and equanimity, and control over others and nature through teaching the doctrine and developing institutions, demonstrations of superhuman power, reading others' minds and controlling their responses, and so on.

While Buddhist theoretical discourse on the path as exemplified by the AKBh invokes the trope of the sovereign individual as the locus of knowledge and power, it nonetheless outlines a set of paths to actualizing this state of sovereignty through internalization of a discipline, that is, a set of prescribed norms and insights. This might suggest an implicit justification of institutionalized regimes of power as the means through which knowledge is achieved. Moreover, the relationship articulated here between knowledge and power has roots in canonical sources, and finds further articulation in a wider range of scholastic and narrative literature. By working out from an analysis of the AKBh, this paper aims to sketch a broader conceptual paradigm through which the relationship between knowledge and power is conceived in Buddhist thought, one that appears to combine elements that are recognized, though distinguished in the modern critique of knowledge and power and their relationship to institutional dynamics of authority.  


Cognition and Objective Power in the Efficacy of Amulets that “Liberate through Wearing”

Gentry, James (Harvard University, Alexandria, VA, USA)

Radical claims that “buddhahood,” or “liberation” can be achieved not only through the meditative cultivation of knowledge, but also through sensory contact with certain powerful sacred media, is a standard feature of the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen) tradition of Tibet’s rNying ma school. During the sixteenth century such claims came under criticism. A document signed with the name of the Eighth Karmapa Mi bskyod rdo rje (1507-1554), perhaps the most powerful hierarch in Tibet at the time, vehemently argues that promises of “buddhahood without meditation” (ma sgom sangs rgyas) run counter to Buddha’s teachings, which highlight instead the role of effort in meditation and other methods of cognitive cultivation and personal karmic purification in the process of spiritual development. This critique prompted a series of responses from rNying ma scholars.

The present paper explores the apologetic response authored by Sog bzlog pa Blo gros rgyal mtshan (1552-1624) entitled Thunder of Scripture and Reasoning (Lung rigs ’brug sgra), specifically as it concerns the efficacy of amulets purported to confer “liberation through wearing” (btags grol). This discussion illustrates how Sog bzlog pa’s strategy is not to unilaterally defend direct material efficacy against his opponent’s emphasis on cognition, but to model a contextual, relational, and distributed sense of efficacy, in which potent sensory objects work in tandem with the sensate minds and bodies of beings in a variety of ways that cut across strict subject-object, person-thing distinctions. Sog bzlog pa’s argument demonstrates how in the case of amulets that “liberate through wearing,” power and knowledge span those divides, working off of each other to produce transformational opportunities that extend across a wide range of registers.

This paper argues that fundamental to Sog bzlog pa’s response is a tendency to play with the boundaries between subjective and objective sources of power, invoking a productive tension between these poles that he refuses to resolve once and for all. This unresolved tension invites comparisons with D.W. Winnicott’s notion of the “transitional object” and the role of such objects as focal points for the dynamic interaction between subjunctive as if and indicative as is approaches to the world. This discussion explores how in the case of Sog bzlog pa the tension between these two modalities may be characteristic of a more general orientation to action, rooted fundamentally in a ritual sensibility formed from immersion in specialized settings where the boundaries between objective and subjective spheres are blurred to enable the controlled flow of power between them. The paper closes by suggesting some implications of such boundary crossings for understandings of the roles of power-objects in the formation of identity and authority on the levels of person, institution, and state in Tibetan Buddhist societies.


Cultivating a Powerful Knowledge: Knowledge and Power in the Abhisamayālaṃkāra and Haribhadra’s Commentaries

Harter, Pierre-Julien (University of Chicago, Chicago, USA)

The concept of power or mastery (vaśitva/vaśitā) is interestingly used in the commentaries of the Abhisamayālaṃkāra written by the Indian scholar Haribhadra (8th-9th century) to describe the particular gnoseological progress of a follower of the Buddhist path. The relationship between knowledge and power is ordinarily conceived as an instrumental one where knowledge is a means to attain power and where power is the end. Such a conception runs from Greek philosophy and ancient Indian religious speculation to recent sociological research. My paper suggests exploring another type of relationship between the two concepts as instantiated in Haribhadra’s works. In such a relationship, the direction as well as the kind of relationship changes: it is no longer knowledge that is a means to power, but power that takes knowledge as its object. This original way of considering the relationship is a conscious choice by Haribhadra, as the multiple occurrences of the phrase in his commentaries testify. 

I will present a specific passage from Haribhadra’s Āloka to contextualize the conceptual innovation within the exegesis of the Abhisamayālaṃkāra. I will explain that Haribhadra’s usage of the concept of mastery expresses the sort of relationship the follower of the Buddhist path is supposed to establish with knowledge: knowledge should be firmly fastened to the practitioner’s mind, which is the condition for the full potency of knowledge to be produced. The concept of power thus allows Haribhadra to qualify an advanced form of knowledge. Indeed to unfold his conception, Haribhadra distinguishes two kinds of knowledge that are also two stages of knowledge, the theoretical stage of knowledge and the mastered stage of knowledge. 

The passage from the first to the second is operated by cultivation (bhāvanā), and this is what I will present in a second part of the talk. It will drive me to sketch a theory of the notion of cultivation in the Abhisamayālaṃkāra, a contribution to the investigation of the concept of bhāvanā that is still to be done in Buddhist studies. I will particularly pay attention to the different dimensions of cultivation (i.e. theoretical, gnoseological, ethical, affective, etc.) to determine how cultivation fosters empowerment for the practitioner. 

In the last section of the talk, I will highlight the fact that by “mastering knowledge” the Buddhist practitioner triggers the transformative power of knowledge. At the highest stages of the path, knowledge is intrinsically powerful because it is intrinsically transformative: by mastering knowledge the practitioner subdues at the same time all phenomena and afflictions (kleśa). Hence the last part of the talk will reveal the attributive relationship between power and one kind of knowledge. Philosophically considered, this talk aims to bring about a reflection on the concepts of knowledge and of practice of knowledge. 

Freedom, Truth and Insight on the Path of Purification

Meyers, Karin (IABS, Bethesda, USA)

In the Vitakkasaṇṭhāna sutta (M. i.118-122) the Buddha describes a monk who has mastered the “ways and courses” of thought as able to think any thought he wishes to think and to not think any thought he does not wish to think. This speaks to a conception of freedom and self-control well beyond what most modern philosophers have in mind when they debate the existence of free will, but it leads, somewhat paradoxically, to a kind of freedom some would consider antithetical to free will, the freedom to experience one's own actions without identifying as the agent, to see them as the mere result of various mental and physical events. Abhidharma schools envision this freedom as the result of abandoning or destroying adventitious defilements through the cultivation of moral and sensory restraint, concentration and, finally, insight into “the way things really are,” viz., into ultimate materiality and mentality.

This paper examines this soteriological strategy as presented in the Visuddhimagga and as interpreted in the modern Burmese Pa Auk tradition of practice, which is renowned for its rigorous investigation of ultimate materiality and mentality as defined by the Theravāda Abhidhamma. I will consider, in particular, 1) the relationship between insight and power in the forms of self-control and non-identification with self, 2) how these forms of power relate (or fail to relate) to the kinds of freedom commonly valued in the modern debate over free will, and 3) how the freedoms of self-control and non-identification with self are cultivated and experienced by modern yogis.

In addition to outlining the dynamic relationship between knowledge (in the form of conceptual knowledge and meditative insight) and power (in the form of the freedoms mentioned above) according to the soteriological strategies of the Visuddhimagga and Pa Auk system, the paper will also address critical questions about the relationship of text and textual interpretation to meditative practice and truth claims: How is the soteriological strategy outlined in the Visuddhimagga interpreted and implemented in the Pa Auk training regime? In what ways does this modern system of practice rely on the authority of the classical textual tradition (as presented by both Burmese and Western teachers)? How does the truth authorized by these texts relate to the authority of individual experience? What kind of truth is the “ultimate truth” thus authorized? Is it objective and ontological or provisional and pragmatic? Finally, how do modern Western practitioners who submit themselves to the Pa Auk regime of practice negotiate between the worldviews and truth claims authorized by modern science and psychology, the Abhidhamma and their own contemplative practice?


Power in Practice: Cosmic Sovereignty Envisioned in Buddhism’s Middle Period

Stuart, Daniel (University of South Carolina, Columbia, USA)

The Buddha’s biography is a narrative of conquest; first of the entire cosmos, and second of the teachers of his time. This conquest gets played out in the context of meditation, when the Buddha conquers Māra, and in the context of teaching, when the Buddha brings his inner state of conqueror to the knowledge of others. An additional mode of conquest involves the coalescence of the power of meditation and teaching in the miraculous, perhaps best exemplified by stories of the Buddha’s Twin Miracle, which he is said to have carried out in order to trump the powers of other ascetics or to assuage the doubts of his own relatives and countrymen.

This powerful narrative legacy influenced conceptions of Buddhist practice throughout the history of the Buddhist tradition in India. The Buddha’s story—his actions, his wisdom, and his powers—formed the foundation for many practitioners’ conceptualization of their own identities. In this paper, I look at how the elements of this legacy get appropriated in a single Buddhist text—the second-fourth century CE Saddharmasmṛtyupasthāna(sūtra) (Saddhsu)—in a description of the individual spiritual development of an ideal practitioner, as he works towards becoming a master practitioner (yogācāra).

I argue that the Saddhsu represents an explicit attempt to theorize the way in which meditation allows a Buddhist practitioner to experientially negotiate a variety of epistemological registers, from the ethical to the deconstructive, and to thereby acquire knowledge of the world that serves as a powerful force in the development of cosmic sovereignty, power comparable to that of a Buddha. I also show how the depiction of practice in the Saddhsu is presented in an idiosyncratic literary form, in which a number of fundamental philosophical questions come to the fore regarding the ontological status of the external world and the role of the mind in constructing human experience. I suggest that such philosophical issues cannot be separated from an understanding of the development of insight practice traditions, and that meditation, philosophical inquiry, and soteriological power constructions are deeply intertwined in the Saddhsu.

This paper reveals that the Saddhsu is an exceptional literary form that allows scholars a glimpse into a largely unstudied early cult of yogācāras, whose theoretical engagement with the path of Buddhist practice presents an expansive vision of spiritual power founded on insight knowledge and supported by ethical mastery.



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