[Buddha-l] Realism, anti-realism and Buddhism

Richard Hayes rhayes at unm.edu
Fri May 23 11:03:08 MDT 2008

On Fri, 2008-05-23 at 06:47 -0400, Dan Lusthaus wrote:

> > I see no evidence that Dharmakirti was a Yogacara.
> John Dunne, Dan Arnold and others today are comfortable thinking of him as a
> Yogacara (in fact, they insist on that).

Yes, I know they take that position. So does John Taber. I am not at all
convinced by their claims.

>  Your reticence may have something
> to do with what you think Yogacara is or is not.

I am not sure what you are saying here. Are you saying there is no truth
to the matter, for whether someone is or is not a Yogacarin depends
entirely on the rest of the things that they believe? Or are you saying
that there are definite criteria that make it unambiguously decidable
what counts as Yogacara and that Hayes has somewhat never managed to
learn what those criteria are?

>  You have said on numerous
> occasions that you don't really understand Yogacara, and, based on how you
> sometimes characterize it, I believe you. 

How do I characterize it? I have no recollection of ever writing
anything on the subject of Yogacara. When I say I don't understand it, I
mean I have never studied it. What little I have read about it does not
interest me very much, so I have put my attention on investigating other

> (They weren't "idealists.")

Quite a few people disagree with you. John Taber and John Dunne seem to
treat them as idealists. As far as I can see, so does Schmithausen. So
did Matitlal. I am more inclined to agree with Bruce Hall that the
positions outlined in Vasubandhu and Dignaga are not idealist positions
but rather phenomenalist positions. (I leave aside the question of
whether Vasubandhu and Dignaga were Yogacarins; I have no means of
deciding such things.) The texts by those gentlemen do not seem to
support any position as strong as, say, Berkeley's or Bradley's brands
of idealism, so I think it is hermeutically more responsible to assume
they were making a weaker claim than the one usually ascribed to them by
their opponents. Opponents have a tendency to put very strong claims in
the mouths of the people they are criticizing, because strong claims are
so much easier to attack.

>  Later Indian commentators,
> as you know, tend to read both of them as straddling Sautrantika and
> Yogacara. People in Vienna these days tend to exaggerate that.

As you no doubt know from reading my writings with great care, I find
the entire enterprise of pinning labels on Indian philosophers of very
little use. My own tendency is to read each of these people and try to
come up with some inkling of what the hell they were talking about. I
nearly always feel I have utterly failed, but the failure does not cause
me any misery. I have never yet found an instance when knowing what
label some Tibetan or Chinese doxographer pinned on a specimen (often
several centuries after the specimen had been pinned down in a museum
display) helped me to observe the specimen more acutely. So I tend to
remain agnostic on such questions as whether or Nagarjuna was a Mahayana
philosopher (a question that obsessed Tony Warder), or whether
Vasubandhu was a Sarvastivadin who later jumped ship and became a
Sautrantika and then underwent a dramatic conversion to Mahayana or
whether there were two Vasubandhus, or whether Dharmakirti was a
Sautrantika or a Yogacara or a
Sautrantika-Svatantrika-Madhyamika-Yogacarin (served with a twist of
tantra). I can almost hear him saying, as Foucault did much later,
"Leave it to the bureaucrats to decide which drawer to file me in."

> Actually not only is there a lot of Yogacara in Dignaga, there is a lot of
> Abhidharma as well.

Yes, as Hattori has shown quite convincingly, there is a great deal of
influence from Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakosha.

> > [Dharmakirti] is impossible to
> > fit into any doctrinal pigeonhole. Mostly he was a polemical Buddhist
> > who had tremendous confidence in the unique truth of a very minimalistic
> > version of Buddhist dogma and a robust contempt for those who disagreed
> > with him.

> I somewhat agree with that, especially the minimalist characterization.

As I have argued at some length in various places (such as in a book
that no one can afford), Dignaga's (and Dharmakirti's) "doxastic
minimalism" (as I called it in the intemperate days of my reckless
youth) was probably motivated by an irenic sentiment. I see them both as
saying "Hey, fellow Buddhists, instead of quibbling with each other a
myriad fine points that divide us, let us unite in opposition to those
stupid Brahmins who think the Vedas are a source of important truths."

>  don't see him as a skeptic, but as an ecumenicalist, who tried to
> de-sectarianize Buddhism

When I characterize Dignaga as having something in common with some of
the Greek Skeptics, the common something I have in mind is the
cultivation of an attitude of rising above the squabbles that divide
people into rancorously opposing doctrinal camps. I see Dignaga as
endorsing a kind of epistemological humility that is an antidote to the
hubris that often attends deeply held convictions. Given that he was (as
I read him) that sort of skeptic, he was also of course an ecumenist of
sorts. I see Dharmakirti as an entirely different sort of animal. He
seems to have been interested mostly in trying to get Buddhists to go on
the warpath against Brahmins. In short, Dignaga was like John Lennon
singing "All I am saying is give peace a chance," while Dharmakirti was
more like Snoop Dog. (I have given up explaining these fellows to my
students with this analogy, since most of them have no idea who John
Lennon was; after all, he died ten years before this year's freshman
class was born. And I have no idea who Snoop Dog is.)

Richard Hayes
Department of Philosophy
University of New Mexico

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