Convocation Address by Professor Emeritus Y. Karunadasa

The World of Buddhism: A Search for the Common Ground

As we all know, during its long history of over two thousand five hundred years, Buddhism gave rise to a large number of schools and sub-schools, sects and sub- sects, all resulting in an immense variety of doctrinal interpretations. In this situation one pertinent question that can be raised is whether we can identify the core doctrine which, while uniting all schools of Buddhist thought, separates Buddhism from all other religions and metaphysical philosophies, and thus whether we can speak of a transcendental unity of Buddhism, a unity that transcends all sectarian differences.

In this connection it is worth examining why Buddhism gave rise to a wide variety of Buddhist schools. One reason that comes to mind is the clearly expressed idea that the Dhamma, that is, the corpus of the Buddha's teachings, is a means to an end and not an end unto itself. In the Parable of the Raft' the Buddha compared the Dhamma to a raft; it is for the purpose of crossing over' and not to be grasped as a theory.[1] Thus the Dhamma has instrumental value. Its value is relative, relative to the realization of the goal.

As an extension to this idea, it is also recognized that the Dhamma as a means can be presented in many ways. As recorded in the Bahuvedaniya Sutta of the Majjhimanikaya, when two disciples of the Buddha a monk and a layman, had an argument on the nature of feeling, the Buddha told them that both of them were correct because they adopted equally effective approaches to the subject. It is on this occasion that the Buddha told Ananda, "pariyaya-desito ayam Ananda maya dhammo".[2] What this means is that the Dhamma has been presented in many different ways and in many different forms (aneka-pariyayena). What is true and real needs not be repeated in the same way as a holy hymn or as a sacred mantra. It can be re-stated in many different ways. For the Dhamma is not something esoteric and mystical. As the Buddha says, "the more one elaborates it, the more it shines" (vivato virocati).[3]

In connection with this what we need to remember is that the Dhamma is not actuality as such, but a description of actuality. The Dhamma is a conceptual model or framework which describes the nature of actuality. We find this idea formally expressed in a Pali commentary thus: "Pannattim anatikkamma paramattho pakasito".[4] Here the term pannatti means both word and meaning as concepts. Therefore, what this statement amounts to is that the nature of actuality has been presented as a conceptual model through the symbolic medium of language. Thus here, as elsewhere, Buddhism avoids absolutism. There is no one absolutist way of presenting the Dhamma, which is valid for all times and climes.

We can, thus, consider different schools of Buddhist thought as different conceptual models. The validity of each conceptual model is to be determined by its ability to lead us to the goal, i. e., from bondage to freedom, from ignorance to wisdom, from our present human predicament to our final emancipation. The best way to illustrate this situation is the well-known Chinese Buddhist saying that the Dhamma is like a finger pointing to the moon (the goal). This analogy has many implications. One is that any finger can be pointed out to show the moon. What matters is not the kind of finger that is pointed out but whether the finger is properly pointed out so that we can see the moon. Another important implication of the saying is that if we focus our attention only on the finger we will never realize the nature of actuality. It will only make us erudite scholars of Buddhism.

The presence of a number of conceptual models does also mean that what is true can be re-stated in different ways. Therefore we can consider different schools of Buddhist thought as different re-statements of the same truth in different ways. If we approach them in this manner then we need to identify the particular Buddhist doctrine that unites them all. Of course there can be more than one doctrine which can be so considered. But in our considered opinion it is the doctrine of non-self (anatta) that is eminently qualified as a candidate for this choice.

From its very beginning, Buddhism was aware that the doctrine of non-self (anatta) was not shared by any other contemporary religious or philosophical system. In fact this has been clearly recognized and expressed in one of the early Buddhist discourses. In the Culasihanada Sutta of the Majjhimanikaya[5] it is said that there are four kinds of clinging, clinging to sense pleasures (kama-upadana), clinging to speculative views regarding the self and the world (ditthi-upadana), clinging to rules and observances, i. e. to external rules, rituals and austerities in the belief that they lead to liberation (silabbata-upadana), and clinging to a doctrine of self (attavada-upadana), i. e. to a view of a truly existent self. The discourse goes on to say that there could be other religious teachers and philosophers who would recognize only some of the four kinds of clinging, and that at best they might teach the overcoming of the first three forms of clinging. What they cannot teach, because they have not comprehended this for themselves, is the overcoming of clinging to a doctrine of self, for this, the last type of clinging, is the subtlest and the most elusive of the group. It will thus be noted that as clearly articulated in the Buddhist scriptures themselves, the doctrine of non-self (anatta) is the unique discovery of the Buddha and the crucial doctrine that separates his own teaching from all other religious and philosophical systems. The title given to this discourse, Culasihanada, means the Shorter Discourse on the Lion's Roar. The title is clearly intended to show that the Buddha's proclamation of the non-self doctrine is "bold and thunderous like a veritable lion's roar in the spiritual domain".[6]

The status of the doctrine of non-self as the most crucial doctrine that separates Buddhism from all other religions came to be recognized in the subsequent schools of Buddhist thought as well. Acarya Yasomitra's Abhidharmakosavyakhya (Sphutartha), for instance, categorically asserts that in the whole world there is no other religious teacher who proclaims a doctrine of non-self.[7] Again in the Commentary to the Vibhanga, Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa focuses on this point, stating: "the characteristics of impermanence (anicca) and suffering (dukkha) are known whether Buddhas arise or not; but that of not-self is not known unless there is a Buddha; for the knowledge of it is the province of none but a Buddha." [8] "The Blessed One in some instances shows no-selfness through impermanence, in some through suffering, and in some through both. Why is that? While impermanence and suffering are both evident, no-selfness is not evident; for the characteristic of not-self seems not evident, obscure, arcane, impenetrable, hard to illustrate and hard to describe".[9] This explanation is in perfect conformity with a canonical statement which goes on to say: "The self-less is difficult to see, for truth is not easy to fathom" (Duddasam anatta, na hi saccam sudassanam). [10]

In the history of Buddhist thought there has never been a Buddhist school that has openly acknowledged a theory of self. If there is one doctrine which every school is committed to defend it is the doctrine of non-self. What is more, every Buddhist school was very sensitive to the charge of being criticized as upholding some sort of self-theory. At the same time, it is of course true that some Buddhist schools may have developed certain theories which amounted to a veiled recognition of the self-theory. For instance, the Vatsiputriyas admitted a sort of quasi-permanent self, neither identical with nor different from the mental states. However, what matters here is the fact that the Vatsiputriyas themselves vehemently denied that their theory is a veiled recognition of the self-theory (atmavada). Despite their protests and denials, they nonetheless came to be rather sarcastically referred to by other Buddhists as "heretics within our midst" (antascara-tirthaka), as outsiders masquerading as insiders.[11]

If the doctrine of non-self is unique to Buddhism, it is obvious that this particular doctrine separates Buddhism from all other religions. However, what is most important to remember here is that the doctrine of non-self not only separates Buddhism from all other religions and metaphysical speculations; it does also provide a comprehensive explanation as to their causal genesis.

The idea of self, according to Buddhism, has a psychological origin. In every cognitive act, which consists of a series of cognitive events, the latent tendency for the ego- consciousness awakens and gradually solidifies, eventually becoming fully crystallized at the final stage called conceptual proliferations (papanca). Once the ego-consciousness has arisen it cannot exist in a vacuum; it needs concrete form and content. In this regard, what the unenlightened worldling does is identifies the ego-consciousness in relation to the five aggregates into which individual existence is analysed. The process of identification takes the following form: This is mine (etam mama), This I am (eso ham asmi), This is my self (eso me atta). Of these, the first is due to craving (tanha), the second to conceit (mana), and the third to wrong view (ditthi). What is called self-conceit arises at a pre-rational level, whereas the idea of self, although conditioned by craving, arises at an elementary reflective level. [12] It is also called sakkaya-ditthi, the personality- view. It affirms the presence of an abiding self in the psycho-physical organism in one of twenty ways. If consciousness (vinnana), for instance, is to be assumed as self, such an assumption could manifest itself in four ways:

(1) consciousness is the same as self (vinnanam attato samanupassati), as in the case of a flame of a lamp which is identical with its visual appearance,
(2) the self possesses consciousness, just as a tree has a shadow,
(3) consciousness is within the self, just as the scent is in the flower, and
(4) the self is in consciousness, just as a gem in a casket. This description is extended to the other four aggregates as well. Thus there are in all twenty possible relations between the five aggregates and the hypothetical self. This is how Buddhism explains the origin of the erroneous belief in a self-entity (sakkaya-ditthi-samudaya).[13]

But what is important to remember here is that once the self-notion has arisen it becomes the base for a countless number of metaphysical, cosmological, and theological ideologies. Thus we read in the Samyuttanikaya, the Book of Kindred Sayings:

"Now, householder, as to those diverse views that arise in the world and as to these sixty two views set forth in the Brahmajala [Sutta] it is owing to the personality-view that they arise and if the personality-view exists not they do not exist" [14]

As the above quotation clearly shows, all metaphysical ideologies whether they are religious or philosophical, which seek to explain the nature of the self and the world, can be traced to the false belief in a permanent individualized self. What we find here is, not an intellectual attempt to disprove ideological positions, but a purely psychological diagnosis of their causal genesis.

Why does the belief in a separate permanent self give rise to a countless number of metaphysical ideologies? The reason is that as long as the belief in a separate individualized selfhood persists so long will our ideational framework be conditioned by the ego-centric perspective. When we look at the world through the ego-centric perspective reality appears as a duality, a duality between the percipient individual and what is perceived.

The above quotation is important from another aspect. A number of modern scholars have given many explanations as to why the Buddha deemed it necessary to observe silence on some ten questions. They sought to interpret the Buddha's silence in the light of skepticism, agnosticism, pragmatism, and logical positivism. All these interpretations become totally unwarranted, totally uncalled for in the light of the above quotation. For, the quotation clearly indicates that the ten theses involved in the ten unanswered questions (avyakata) are also based on the erroneous personality-view (sakkaya-ditthi), the view that there is an abiding self-entity within the constantly changing psycho-physical organism.

According to Buddhism the notion of self has two varieties. One is the materialist (ucchedavada) version of the self. It is based on the identity-principle, the identity between the self and the physical body (tam jivam tam sariram). We can introduce it as the theory of the physical self. The other is the spiritualist (sassatavada) version of the self. It is based on the duality-principle, the duality between the permanent self and the perishable physical body (annam jivam annam sariram). We can introduce it as the theory of the metaphysical self.

The theory of the physical self logically leads to the practice of sensual indulgence (kamasukhallikanuyoga). For, if the self is the same as the physical body, at the time of death, with the break-up of the physical body, it necessarily comes to complete annihilation. Accordingly, there is no need to eschew sensual pleasures in the pursuit of an elusive bliss in a dubious future. On the other hand, according to the theory of the metaphysical self man consists of two mutually opposing principles, the spiritual and the physical. What prevents the upward journey of the spiritual self is the gravitational pull of the body. Therefore, in order to liberate the spiritual self it is necessary to punish the body, to mortify the flesh. This is what Buddhism calls the practice of self-mortification (attakilamathanuyoga). According to the Buddhist diagnosis of these two ideologies, the materialist version of the self is due to the desire for eternal death (vibhava-tanha), the desire to see an end of oneself at the time of death. On the other hand the spiritualist version of the self is due to the desire for eternal life, the desire to perpetuate oneself into eternity (bhava-tanha).[15]

From what we have observed so far, it should become clear that if there is a doctrine which is unique to Buddhism, it is the doctrine of non-self. If there is a doctrine which is unanimously accepted by all schools of Buddhist thought, it is the doctrine of non-self. If there is a doctrine, on the basis of which we can speak of the transcendental unity of Buddhism, it is none other than the doctrine of non-self. If there is any doctrine which, while uniting all schools of Buddhist thought, separates Buddhism from all other religions and philosophies it is the doctrine of non-self. Finally, if there is any doctrine on the basis of which Buddhism explains the psychological genesis of all other religions and philosophies it is the Buddhist doctrine of non-self.

In point of fact, we can go to the extent of saying that the whole of Buddhism, the whole of Buddhist thought, is a sustained critique of the erroneous belief in a self. If Buddhist philosophy explains why this belief is wrong, Buddhist psychology shows how it arises purely due to psychological reasons. If Buddhist ethics shows how this erroneous belief can be eliminated, Nibbana, the Highest Goal of Buddhism, shows where this erroneous belief is completely eradicated.

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[1] Majjhimanikaya (PTS), Vol. I, p.134.
[2] Ibid. p. 398.
[3] Anguttaranikaya (PTS), Tikanipata
[4] Dhammasangani Atthakatha (PTS), p. 101.
[5] Majjhimanikaya (PTS), pp. 66 ff.
[6] Venerable Nanamoli Mahathera, The Lion's Roar: Two Discourses of the Buddha, The Wheel Publication No. 390/391
[7] Abhidharmakosavyakhya (Sphutartha), ed. U. Wogihara, p. 45.
[8] Vibhanga Atthakatha (PTS), pp. 49-50.
[9] Ibid. p. 49.
[10] Majjhimanikaya (PTS), Vol. III, p. 212.
[11] Bodhicaryavatara-panjika, BI, 1901-5, p. 193.
[12] See Madhupindika Sutta of the Dighanikaya and the relevant commentarial exegesis.
[13] Patisambhidamagga (PTS), Vol. I, pp. 144-5.
[14] Samyuttanikaya (PTS), Vol. 3 p. 123.
[15] See Y. Karunadasa, The Buddhist Critique of Sassatavada and Ucchedavada, The Middle Way, Vol. 70, London , 1994.
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Citation for Honoured Speaker, Professor Emeritus Y. Karunadasa

Presented by Professor Charles Willemen, Vice Rector for Research and Postgraduate Studies

I consider it a great honour and a privilege as well to have been asked to introduce Professor Emeritus Y. Karunadasa, who has been invited by the Council of the IBC to deliver the convocation address today.

Professor Y. Karunadasa graduated from the University of Ceylon in 1958, obtaining a First Class Honours Degree in Pali, and was placed first in order of merit. In recognition of his brilliant performance at the Final Degree Examination he was awarded the Woodward Prize for Pali and a Research Scholarship in Oriental Studies. Two years after his graduation, he became the first-ever recipient of a Postgraduate Studentship awarded by the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London. It was this award that enabled him to obtain the Ph.D degree in Indian Philosophy from the University of London in 1963, for his doctoral thesis on the Buddhist Analysis of Matter. In 1974 he was awarded a Commonwealth Academic Staff Fellowship to pursue post-doctoral research for one full year at SOAS of the University of London. For three consecutive years beginning from1988 he had the rare privilege of being awarded the Status of Associate Researcher by the Shin Buddhist Comprehensive Research Institute of the University of Otani at Kyoto in Japan.

Professor Karunadasa had the rare distinction of being invited to join the SOAS of the University of London for the third time, the third time as the Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai Visiting Professor of Theravada Buddhism during the academic year 1993. In 1999 Professor Karunadasa completed 30 years as Professor of Pali and Buddhist Studies at the University of Kelaniya and in recognition of his long service the University of Kelaniya elevated him to the position of Emeritus Professor in Pali and Buddhist Studies. Two years after his retirement from the Kelaniya University, he was invited by the University of Calgary in Canada to serve as Numata Chair Professor of Buddhist Studies during the fall 2001. During the Summer Semester in 2004 Professor Karunadasa served as a Visiting Fellow at the University of the West in California in the USA. In 2005 Professor Karunadasa was decorated with the title of Sri Lanka Sikhamani by the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka in recognition of his meritorious service to the country of his birth. In 2002 the University of Kelaniya where Professor Karunadasa served for forty long years on its academic staff awarded him the degree of D. Litt. Honorary Causa. It was only three months ago that he joined the University of Toronto in Canada as its first-ever Tung Lin Kok Yuen Visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies.

Among the many academic positions Professor Karunadasa held, the one that was most productive was the post of Director of the Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies of the University of Kelaniya. In this capacity he served for ten years and during this period he was able to establish the institute as a centre of excellence for Buddhist studies attracting both local and foreign students. Prior to this position he also served twice as the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and once as the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Kelaniya in Sri Lanka.

During his long academic career beginning from 1959 to this date, Professor Karunadasa has served in a number of universities both in Sri Lanka and abroad. As a Visiting Professor he taught at the University of London (SOAS) in England, Universities of Calgary and Toronto in Canada, University of Otani in Japan, Mahachulalongkorn University in Thailand, Foreign Studies University of Shanghai in China, University of Hong Kong, International Buddhist College of Thailand, and the Buddhist Library in Singapore. He was also invited to serve as a guest lecturer at the University of Oxford in England, Princeton University and the University of the West in the USA, Lethbridge University in Canada, the Universities of Bukkyo, Riyyukuku, and Komozawa in Japan. At present he is serving as the visiting professor of Buddhist studies at the University of Hong Kong.

In concluding this citation I must mention here that Professor Y. Karunadasa has developed a special relationship with the International Buddhist College even before its inception. It was the Venerable Wei Wu, the founder of this College and Professor Y. Karunadasa who first conceived the idea of establishing a Buddhist educational institute of this type with the primary vision of eventually developing it to the level of an international centre of excellence for Buddhist Studies.

Venerable Rector, it is with much pleasure that I now invite Professor Emeritus Y. Karunadasa to deliver the Convocation address at this Second Convocation of the International Buddhist College.

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