Buddhist Philosophy
The Buddha and Wittgenstein: A brief philosophical exegesis.
A.D.P. Kalansuriya Asian Philosophy Vol. 3 No 2 1993 Copyright by Asian Philosophy
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The Buddha and Wittgenstein: A brief philosophical exegesis.
  A.D.P. Kalansuriya
Asian Philosophy
Vol. 3 No 2 1993
Copyright by Asian Philosophy

ABSTRACT An attempt is made to analyse the key notions in the Buddha's Dhamma--'truth', 'knowledge', 'emancipation'--by way of the philosophicaltechniques of the later Wittgenstein. The analysis hence is bothcomparative and noncomparative. It is comparative because two thought processes from two different traditions are brought together. And it is noncomparative since it brings into focus a philosophical exegesis asagainst a comparative exposition. In the process not only are philosophical errors in comparative exposition made explicit in our thesis but it also offers a genuine basis for modern Buddhist philosophy.

(1) Introduction

A philosopher of Buddhism is not tied by the kinds of restrictions that
limit a Christian or a Hindu philosopher. The Buddha himself encouraged his
followers to analyse, exposit and test his teaching in the light of
contemporary views, techniques and tools. The followers of the Buddha are
by no means bound to be faithful to the doctrine, and philosophical
exegesis, exposition and clarification of notions are deemed entirely
laudable. But, then, is it not the case that Western philosophical
techniques when applied, remain misapplied and wasted? Much scepticism can
spring up from such a question, and, therefore, serious study of Buddhism
by way of Western philosophical techniques may be conceived as both
misleading and superficial. We propose, however, that there is a scholarly
desire, namely, to apply a series of philosophical techniques to Buddhism
to monitor the possible consequences.

Treading this conceptual path, we shall apply the later Wittgensteinean
philosophical techniques to the Buddha-Dhamma. But why Wittgensteinean
philosophical techniques? There are two reasons. First, it is now widely
thought that Wittgenstein is one of the most important philosophers of our
century. Second, Wittgenstein avoids commonplace comparative thinking
involving the Buddha-Dhamma and philosophy. Characteristic of this
comparative thinking is an unusual enthusiasm for a modern Buddhism, for
men and women of modern cultural patterns, which uncritically commits
itself to Western empiricism, positivism and scientific philosophies. This
kind of discourse uproots the Buddha-Dhamma--the message of the
Buddha--from the life to which it naturally belongs, in which it is used,
and in which it has meaning and drive. These comparative expositions have
consequently bred distortions--the results being fallacies and
philosophical errors. A few passages from well known works are cited below.

(2) Some examples

The Dynamic Psychology of Early Buddhism, Johansson, R. E. A., Curzon
Press, Oxford, 1979, pp. 144-5

It is a well known fact that, according to Buddhism, all living beings are
reborn in accordance with their activities, kamma. This seems like a
metaphysical doctrine outside the domain of psychology; and, therefore, of
no interest in this treatise. But, to the Buddha, it was a verifiable
perceptual fact. Actually, it is said that anybody can, by concentrating
his mind, recollect at least one previous life (tathdnpam cetosamadhim
phusati yatha samahite citte tam pubbenivasanussatti, D.III.32). It was
considered a normal 'fruit of life as a recluse' (smanapala) to be able to
recall many, even a hundred thousand previous lives after reaching certain
levels of samadhi (D.I.81). It might, therefore, be relevant to ask whether
any psychological factors are at work in the process of rebirth.

The Dancing Wu Li Masters, Zukav, Gary, Williams Morrow, New York, 1979, p.

Until the general theory of relativity, Euclidean geometry had been
accepted without question as the underlying structure of the universe ...
Birkhoff and Von Neumann disproved the universality of classical logic ...
A powerful awareness lies dormant in these discoveries: an awareness of the
hitherto-unsuspected powers of the mind to mold 'reality' rather than the
other way round. In this sense, the philosophy of physics is becoming
indistinguishable from the philosophy of Buddhism, which is the philosophy
of enlightenment.

The Tao of Physics, Capra, F., Widewood House, London, 1975, p. 100

The essence of this experience ('awakening') is to pass beyond the world of
intellectual distinction and opposites to reach the world of acintya, the
unthinkable, where reality appears as undivided and undifferentiated.

Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, Jayatilleke, K. N., Allen & Unwin,
London 1963, p. 449

[About the cause-effect relationship in the Dhamma] ... a one-one
correlation is established between the conditions constituting the cause
and their effect. This is the scientific view of causation as opposed to
the practical common-sense view.

Zen and the Taming of the Bull, Rahula, W., Gordon Fraser, London, 1968, p.

What is nibbana? The only reasonable answer to this quite natural question
is that it can never be answered in words correctly and satisfactorily
because human language is too poor to express the real nature of absolute
truth or the ultimate reality which is nibbana. A language is created by a
mass of human beings to express things and ideas experienced by their sense
organs and their mind. A supra-mundane experience like that of the absolute
Truth is not of that category. Therefore, there can be no words to express
that experience. Words are symbols representing things and ideas and these
symbols do not and cannot convey the true nature of even ordinary things.

Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, Kalupahana, D. J.,
University of Hawaii, Honolulu, 1975, p. 98

. . . the causal principle as stated in the Pali Nikayas and the Chinese
Agamas seems to include all the features of the scientific theory of
causation--objectivity, uniqueness, necessity, conditionality, constant
conjunction, productivity, relativity--as well as one-one correlation.

(3) A Short Comment

In order to explain or exposit the Buddha-Dhamma, the above mentioned
scholars have made use of almost every significant trend of thought (except
those philosophical techniques of Wittgenstein which are so much at home
with the Buddha-Dhamma) in the Western world in a comparative sense, from
meaning-oriented logical positivism to various scientific discourses. But
we are perplexed, for less significant results have been accomplished. The
point that will be made explicit in this connection is the failure on the
part of these scholars and thinkers to provide a groundwork before
attempting to elicit the logical nature of the key notions in the Dhamma.
Hence they appear to oscillate between (i) positivism of the Vienna Circle
and the Dhamma, (ii) certain concepts of scientific discourse and the
Dhamma, and (iii) doctrines of 'reality' of the idealists and the Dhamma.
These discourse have resulted in philosophical errors and confusions of
contexts caused by their failure to elicit the criteria of meaning, aims
and conceptual bases of those trends of thought of the Graeco-Roman
conceptual structure.

(4) The Aim

The aim of this paper is to make the Buddha-Dhamma philosophical in a modem
sense. This will be done through an application of conceptual tools or
techniques to clarify the key Buddhist notions. Therefore, there is no
system-building but simply analysis--philosophical analysis, which makes
use of the following key philosophical tools from later Wittgenstein:

(a) 'language-game';
(b) 'tool-simile';
(c) 'model';
(d) 'form of life'; and
(e) 'conceptual family'.

The key Buddhist notions to be analysed on the above bases are:

(i)     truth--saccam; [1]
(ii)    knowledge--anna [2] and
(iii)   emancipation--nibbana.

(5) The Notion of Truth--Saccam

The philosophical tool borrowed from Wittgenstein here is: 'Do not ask for
the meaning; ask for the use'.

We are not concerned in this section with raising the question 'what is
truth' nor with attempting to formulate a solution. Instead, the following
question is raised:

"How did the Buddha use the word 'truth'?" To which, the following answer
is noted:

The 'truth' set rolling forth by the Buddha cannot be rolled back by a
recluse or brahman or god or Mara or Brahma or by anyone else in the world.
That is to say, it was a proclamation of the four Aryan truths, a teaching.

About the teaching:

'Suffering' is my teaching. The origin of suffering is my teaching. The
cessation of suffering is my teaching. The path that leads to the cessation
of suffering is my teaching. [4]

The four noble truths are noted in this passage. The fourth truth which
symbolises the path is the key as well as the most misunderstood one. The
following issues are raised, primarily, to clarify the notions contained
therein. They are as follows:

(i) What is the logical nature of the notion of the eightfold noble

(ii) Is it ethical or empirical?

(iii) If the eightfold noble path is the only way by which craving and
clinging are eliminated, then what kind of action is expected to be

(iv) Can that kind of action (when performed) be characterised as

(v) Can it be meditative also?

Let me begin this exegesis with the discourse about the noble quest. This
discourse notes both the rediscovery of the 'truth' and the decision to
preach the 'truth.' The Nikayas often note that the Buddha penetrated the
'truth' and decided to preach that 'truth' by way of some communicable
ideas--the four noble truths. As notions, the four noble truths function to
hold together all aspects of Buddhist philosophy that have to do with a
human person's craving, clinging and emancipation. The Dhamma is the four
truths--catusaccadhamma--the Buddha attained--ajjhagamama--by way of
mastering them according to this discourse. The fourth noble truth is
explained as 'ariyamagga'-the noble path. The notion of noble path
represents, undoubtedly, that of the path of emancipation--the path of

In respect of the four noble truths preached by the Master, two points are
made explicit:

(1) The attainment (patilabba) of the truths is profound, is difficult to
understand. It is an attainment and penetration by some kind of mastery
which involves a do-it-yourself technique. Accordingly, the four noble
truths are not hypotheses; nor are they empirical statements about the way
things go in human life. Therefore, they are not verifiable in

(2) The noble eightfold path which was known by way of super-perceptual
knowledge (abhinna), is made known as the fourth truth.

(1) above is metaphysical to us humans, but (2) is not. All the more so
because it comes in the form of a procedural guide called the eightfold
noble path in respect of emancipation. This is the 'teaching' we referred
to previously. This 'teaching' or 'procedural guide' comprises eight
components. The illumination, that is the effect of practice of the ethical
norms embedded, made explicit in the procedural guide, marks the cooling of
greed, hate and delusion, elimination of craving and clinging, to which the
Buddha referred as nibbana. The attainment of nibbana is but an
emancipation from the inflowing impulses of sensuous gratification; and,
therefore, the word 'truth' is used in the Dhamma in the sense of 'saving
truth'--a soteriology. Emancipation of the 'human person' from craving and
clinging, is signified here. This use of the word 'truth' is different from
the use of the word 'truth' in correspondence theories, coherence theories,
pragmatic theories, scientific theories, Marxist theories, and in
discourses on law and jurisprudence.

At this juncture, it is worth noting generally that the Buddha-Dhamma is
not attempting to discuss the criteria of meaning and truth. Instead, what
is being suggested is the need to grasp Buddha's uses of the word 'truth';
and, of course, for this to be possible we need to 'play the language

(6) The Notion of Knowledge--anna

The Wittgensteinean philosophical tool used here is 'engine idle'.

Such key notions or words as (knowledge) (anna) and 'emancipation'
(nibbana) readily follow from the Dhamma's procedural guide. However, they
need to be rearranged into a conceptual family. If this is not
accomplished, these notions or words may be pulled here and there, now and
then, making "the engine idle." [5]

Recently philosophers, especially those in the English-speaking world, have
increasingly felt that epistemological issues arise wherever it is
appropriate to speak of knowledge; hence, epistemological issues abound in
science, mathematics, history, ethics, and religion. [6]

To begin with, we contend that the Buddha's use of the word 'knowledge' is
within a set soteriology-oriented scheme--family--and, therefore, does not
have an epistemological basis. [7]

It cannot be denied that notions such as truth and knowledge in the Buddha
Dhamma invariably sound as if they are epistemological. However, the very
logical strand of the Dhamma is such that the most that this notion of
'knowledge' could convey is a soteriology (Greek 'soteria' = English
'emancipation'). In other words the core of knowledge is emancipation, even
though it appears juxtaposed with an epistemology. "The form of life" and
"the language-game" [8] of the Dhamma are such that the notion of knowledge
takes a striking turn to soteriology and is not concerned solely with
epistemology per se. 'Nibbana' or 'the blowing out' is the logical end of
moral excellence (sile), mental discipline (samadhi) and wisdom (panna).
This kind of knowledge, therefore, cannot be epistemological in a weak
sense or a strong one. The impossibility of having clear families of
notions recognisable as ontological or epistemological, is also clearly
evident. Where does a soteriological family of notions stand pertaining to
the Buddha-Dhamma? Certainly, the family of notions of the Dhamma
accommodates 'knowledge' but in a non-epistemological sense. This is a case
in which we wish to say that one could be misled by the forms of expression
[9], if one is unaware of the difference in the grammar of the two
significant uses. Wittgenstein notes this point thus: "That the confusions
which occupy us arise when language is like an engine idling, not when it
is doing work." [10] On this count, Johansson's "perceptual facts",
"psychological factors in the process of rebirth" are but notions used,
simply, without context; they are outside the Dhamma-message (or the
Buddhist language-game).

To amplify, Johansson states: (see quote no 1 above) "... it is a well
known fact that, according to Buddhism, all living beings are reborn in
accordance with their activities". However, there is a failure to master a
clear view of the use of words within the logical boundary of the
Dhamma-discourse. This point is elaborated in the following way: that
'kamma' in the Buddha's message is an ethical notion rather than a factual
one. Besides, to say that "'kamma' takes one from birth to birth", to put
it differently, if understood within the domain of factuality (empirical
fact), gives rise to a confusion of contexts. And, therefore, to the notion
that Buddhist ethical notions (or for that matter any other ethical
notion), because of their value-nature, are accommodated outside
factuality. The point is highlighted when the positive statement

"kamma takes one from birth to birth" (p)

is negated to read as

"kamma does not take one from birth to birth" (q)

The negative statement (q) cannot be established by way of factual
evidence; no more can the positive statement (p). Genuinely Buddhist
notions, words, statements, etc. are neither true nor false empirically
since they are characteristic of such natures as eternity (sanatano),
necessity (avitathata), and invariability (anannathata). [11] They are
assigned the truth-value 'true', figuratively only. That is to say, they
are values which are made explicit by way of ethical (value) statements and
judgements. And, therefore, the Buddhist truths (or values) are not liable
to falsity simply because of their nature. Within the Buddhist conceptual
structure, accordingly, kamma-activity is ethically true (value-judgement),
but has no meaning, drive and life outside this arena. The poverty of
Johansson's argument, hence, must be clear. Wittgenstein strengthens this
view: "A main source of our failure to understand is that we do not command
a clear view of the use of our words." [12]

Emancipatory final knowledge is referred to by the Buddha in this way: "I
do not say that one can win the final knowledge at the very beginning; it
is attainable by way of gradual discipline, a gradual mode of action and
conduct." [13] The gradual discipline comprises:

(a) the practice of virtuous life (ariyena silakkhandena samanna-gato);

(b) the restraint of the senses (indriyasamvara);

(c) the developments of mindfulness (satisampajanna); and

(d) the elimination of the five impediments (panchanivaranapaha-ya). [15]

These actions jointly characterise the equilibrium of perfection of
equanimity and mindfulness (upekkhasatipari-suddhim). It is in this state
that the six-fold super-perceptual knowledge is manifested. The sixth
super-perceptual knowledge (abhinna) gives the certainty that emancipation
has been attained. This is referred to as knowledge vision of emancipation
(vimuttinanadassana). Reaching a stage of elimination of craving and
clinging on the one hand and reaping the effects of knowledge vision of
emancipation on the other are but characteristics of a state of mind. The
Majjhima Nikaya.I.167, for instance, notes the unshakability of this
emancipatory knowledge. The point is emphasised again and again by the
notions (i) sammadannavimuatta (freed by perfect profound knowledge, [16]
and (ii) annaya nibbuta dhira (knowing, having attained nibbana here and
now). [17] The implications of the above are as follows:

(i) that it is possible to lay down once and for all what has to be done,
if the final knowledge is to be attained, in the sense of a state of mind;

(ii) that knowledge can be founded as a state of mind;

(iii) that the procedural guide called the eightfold noble path guarantees
the attainment of the final knowledge--a state of mind--anna. This is a
logical end, a certain end, without an alternative.

When the Dhamma's soteriology is clear, it is simply a misplaced emphasis
to bring about 'causality-talk' or 'science-talk' as done by writers such
as Capra and Jayatilleke. Probabilistic 'causality-talk' or 'science-talk'
has no relevance; they simply result in profanity.

(7) The Notion of Emancipation (a blowing out)

The Wittgensteinean philosophical tool utilised here is "In pursuit of the
purest essence". escribed by the Buddha is one who has eliminated craving
and clinging. According to the Buddhist language-game, he has attained
nibbana. Often, at this stage, it is not unusual to enquire: "What is
nibbana?" This query, however, has bred confusions of contexts as well as
high-flown dialectics. W. Rahula's statement provides one such
illustration. He claims that 'nibbana' or 'supra-mundane reality' is
inexpressible in languages created by human beings. Capra, too comes close
to this view when he says "... the essence of this experience ('awakening')
is to pass beyond the world of intellectual distinction ..." Both these
views not only create ostensible problems as there is a basic failure to
understand the nature of the Dhamma's language-game, but also run the risk
of being out of date. That is, if the Dhamma's language-game is accepted as
the original home of the word 'nibbana', then problems regarding it cannot
arise. Admittedly, if it is used in a way to refer to a thing and attempt
to grasp the essence of it, Wittgenstein's following reminder is timely:
"When philosophers use a word--'knowledge,' 'being,' 'object,' 'I,'
'proposition,' 'name,' and try to grasp the essence of a thing, one must
always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the
language-game which is its original home?" [18] Now, the key issue is: are
we to agree with Rahula here? If the answer is affirmative, philosophical
extrapolation, which is so much at home with Buddhist notions, needs to be
done away with.

Now let us see how the Buddha used the word 'nibbana' from the following

(i) 'possessing naught, and cleaving unto naught, That is the isle, the
incomparable isle. Nibbana do I call it, Kappa (said the Exalted one)--That
is the isle.' [19]

(ii) 'Formerly, I, monks, as well as now, lay down simply suffering and the
cessation of suffering.' [20]

(iii) 'For this monk, is the highest aryan truth, that is to say nibbana,
that is not liable to falsity.'

(iv) '... this is peaceful and excellent, namely, the cessation of all
processes, the abandoning of all limitations, the elimination of desire,
dispassion, cessation, nibbana.' [22]

Is it not fair to maintain that the above contentions, together with other
similar ones which are apparent in all strata of the Nikayas, suggest an
explanation, exposition and description of the word 'nibbana' in the
Dhamma's language-game? The Dhamma does not posit 'something' other than
the goal of holy life, namely, 'cooling of craving and clinging'. According
to Rahula's view of common-sense language(s), by implication, there can be
words which lack representations at the lowest point of the gradation. That
is, words can be schematised in grades of being nearest to reality or
farthest away from it. In this scheme, it is logically possible to have
words which lack representations. If so, obviously, they should be empty.
This view of language arises when what is looked at is a form of words and
not the use made of the form of words. Our view is that the Dhamma's
statements, which are framed out of the words of the then ethical
language(s), need to be given attention by way of the use made of the form
of words rather than the form of words itself.

Language approached in this way brings about the following:

(i) it frees us from the dead-end view of word-symbol-representation theory
and clarifies and intensifies our understanding;

(ii) it prevents us from the pursuit of the venerable bugbear, as J. L.
Austin puts it, by sending us in pursuit of the essence of a thing, or
sending us in pursuit of chimeras according to Wittgenstein. [23]

When the Buddhist language is approached in the above fashion it brings
about greater understanding and helps to dispel the many misconceptions in
which it is clothed.

In conclusion it would be fair to say that Buddhism can be best appreciated
by using a sotoriological conceptual framework. It would be a mistake to
unravel Buddhism through the sole use of epistemological or ontological


[1] The Suttanipata (London, Pali Text Society) verse no. 884.

[2] The Majjhima Nikaya (London, Pali Text Society) Vol. III. 29.

[3] Ibid., III. 248.

[4] The Digha Nikaya, (London, Pali Text Society) Vol. I. 191.

[5] WITTGENSTEIN, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations (Oxford, Basil
Blackwell) p. 51e.

[6] HAMLYN, D. W. (1977) Theory of Knowledge (London, Macmillan) p. 288.

[7] WITTGENSTEIN, op. cit., p. 116e.

[8] WITTGENSTEIN, op. cit., p. 11e.

[9] Ibid., p. 168e

[10] Ibid., p. 51e.

[11] The Samyutta Nikaya (London, Pali Text Society) Vol. II.26.

[12] WITTGENSTEIN, op. cit., p. 49e.

[13] The Majjhima Nikaya (London, Pali Text Society) Vol. I. 479-80.

[14] Ibid., 346.

[15] Ibid., 347.

[16] The Majjhima Nikaya (London, Pali Text Society) Vol. II. 43.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Wittgenstein, op. cit., p. 48e.

[19] The Suttanipata, op. cit., verse no.1091-1094.

[20] The Majjhima Nikaya, Vol. I., op. cit., 140.

[21] The Majjhima Nikaya, Vol. III, op. cit., p. 245.

[23] The Majjhima Nikaya, Vol. I, op. cit., 436.

[24] WITTGENSTEIN, op. cit., p. 44e.

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