Atheology and Buddhalogy In Dharmakīrti's Pramānavārttika

Faith and Philosophy 16 (4):472-505 (1999)
This article seeks to clarify the relation between arguments for atheism and descriptions of the summum bonum in Indian Buddhism, through the analysis of one influential text. I begin by noting that a number of writers have detected a tension between, on the one hand, Buddhist refutations of the existence of “God” (īśvara, ātman, puruşa) and, on the other, Buddhist (especially Mahāyāna) claims about the nature of the ultimate (nirvāna, buddha, dharmakāya), which often appears to have God-like qualities. I then turn to a locus classicus of Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy of religion, the Pramānasiddhi (“Establishment of Authority”) chapter of the Pramānāvarttika (“Commentary on Authority”) of Dharmakīrti (7th century CE). After briefly introducing Dharmakīrti and the Pramānasiddhi chapter, I examine first the chapter’s atheological passages, which include a systematic attack on a Hindu (Nyāya) “argument from design” and a number of important claims about the implausibility of any permanent “spiritual” principle. The arguments are complex and varied, but most turn on the crucial Buddhist assumption that a permanent entity is by definition incapable of interaction with the impermanent, hence utterly unsuitable as a cause or effect. I then examine the chapter’s buddha logical passages, which tend to stress that a Buddha is defined above all by his knowledge of what is to be avoided and adopted by those intent on freedom, i.e., his knowledge of the four noble truths. The Buddha thus described is less notable for his transcendental nature than for his wise, compassionate, and skillful engagement with the world and its creatures---hence less obviously Mahāyānist than the Buddha described by those who articulate a “three-body” (trikāya) theory. I note by way of conclusion that, though Dharmakīrti’s buddhalogy did not prove as influential as his atheology, the juxtaposition of the two reveals an overall metaphysical consistency, in which axiomatic assumptions about permanence, impermanence, and deity are in harmony rather than tension
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