TA 109 (Bhatt)


Commentary 2 (to TA109, S R Bhatt, and to C1 to TA109, F Holmgren)


by Herbert FJ Müller
26 July 2008, posted 9 August 2008

Both of these very helpful outlines of the Buddhist theory of knowledge evoke Karl Jaspers’ concept of the ‘Pivotal’ or ‘Axis Time’ (in the first millennium BC) in the history of thinking, when important developments took place simultaneously in several great cultures (China, India, the Middle East, and Greece), apparently independently of each other :  reflection and self-awareness then began to confront traditional shamanism and mythos.  This, one might add, was an important early step in a development that still continues.

Of particular concern to me is what Bhatt describes in part I [2] of TA109 as the ‘no-substance ontology’ of Buddhism, which corresponds to ‘reality’ as unstructured and as directed toward realization of Nirvana.  It may also correspond to what I have called ‘structuring in the unstructured background’ or ‘zero-derivation (0-D) structuring’.  Such a start point is in my opinion a necessary condition for dealing with the mind-brain relation, which is my primary interest.  The unstructured start point has frequently been re-invented (see my TA1 [8]); the reason is that it was often forgotten, because in the wish for external certainty a primary pre-existing mind-independently structured reality was desired and posited, and that is not compatible with an unstructured start-point.

This meaning of ‘no substance’ seems also compatible with the ‘ineffability of the real’ (part VIII [56] of Bhatt’s TA109), and there are of course some parallels to the Western metaphysics-tradition concerning this point. But because there are no given structures, I don’t think that the word ‘ontology’ in the traditional meaning is helpful in characterizing it (since ‘onta’ are meant to be mind-independently pre-structured entities).  Instead it would appear that the needed structures are created ad-hoc within experience, and that they are in principle temporary even if of long duration.

From the descriptions by Bhatt and Holmgren it thus appears that there has been a development in Indian, particularly Buddhist, epistemology, which can be understood as zero-structure based.  They occurred in parallel to the efforts in Occidental thinking which were mainly shaped by Platonic-Aristotelian metaphysics.  Of course these various theories of knowledge originate in a common underlying process. 

In Buddhist epistemology, a stable metaphysical state was apparently not perceived as evident for either subject or object.  The result was that onta were treated ‘as-if’ they were given, using Vaihinger’s expression (Holmgren in TA109 C1 <5>).  This is compatible with the opinion that philosophy cannot be rid of metaphysics (TA109 C1<7>). 

It is also entirely compatible with a status of ontology-metaphysics as a mental tool, rather than as an impossible and unknowable experience-transcending reality (cf. ‘working-ontology’, or ‘as-if-ontology-metaphysics’, see my TA57 in KJF).  Such transformation of the understanding of metaphysics can deal, in a contradiction-free manner, with the traditional dilemma of metaphysics, which is both necessary and impossible. 

Metaphysics-ontology then becomes a structural tool for the design of prototypes suitable for handling ongoing experience.  It is an instrument like gestalt-formation, language, or mathematics, which do not require an experience-transcending status.  In my opinion this change does not invalidate the term ‘epistemology’ as such, since one still deals with (working) ‘knowledge’, albeit in a more operational sense than is commonly used.  The latter seems to agree with the Buddhist notions of ‘process-ontology’ (TA109 [16]), and that the notion of cognizing coincides with the cognition of an object (TA109 [19]). 

One should add that the split between subject and object is not primary but pragmatic and secondary, which means that ‘reality’ always includes the subject(s).  Taking the requirements of the mind-brain relation puzzle as criterion for the adequacy of theories of knowledge, a subject-inclusive operational understanding of metaphysics is needed, since without that the mind disappears from discussion (as it does for instance in Crick’s ‘Astonishing Hypothesis’, where it is a consequence of the strict use of ‘naturalism’, i.e., traditional Western metaphysics with subject-free forms or ideas). 

The subject-inclusiveness of Buddhist epistemological views also seems to be implied, for instance, in the inter-dependence of knowledge and reality, as described in TA109 [22].  Although subject-inclusiveness has so far remained incomplete in the Western epistemologies, it has apparently been an aspect, to varying extent, of Buddhist epistemology, for quite some time.  If this is correct, that fact might help to overcome possible hesitations about the needed change in the Western theories of knowledge.

That the perception of objects is, according to Dignaga, free from mental construction (TA109 [29]ff) is on the other hand not only in conflict with the 0-D view, but also contradicts experiences such as the perception of ambiguous figures.  Has this point been discussed in the more recent Buddhist epistemological literature ?

I would be much interested in commentaries regarding these points.



Crick, F  (1994) The Astonishing Hypothesis.  The scientific search for the soul.  Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York.

Jaspers K (1955), Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte.  Fischer Bücherei (Piper, München).


Herbert FJ Müller
     e-mail <herbert.muller (at) mcgill.ca>