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The Early Buddhist Psychology of Philosophical Views

Y. Karunadasa

Most of us are familiar with the reductio ad absurdum dialectic adopted by Ngrjuna (c. 2nd cent.) for the
abandonment of all philosophical views and ideologies (sarva-di-prahnya). However, when we come to
early Buddhist teachings as recorded in the Pli suttas we encounter a completely different approach adopted
for the same purpose. This is what I would like to introduce here as the Buddhist psychology of philosophical
views. Without resorting to logic and dialectics, it seeks to transcend, rather than reject as false, all views and
ideologies through a diagnosis of their psychological mainsprings, the psychological factors responsible for
their emergence and prevalence in the world. This, of course, does not mean that the Buddhist critique of
views is confined only to psychology. What it means is that besides many other factors based on logic,
ontology, and epistemology, Buddhism takes into consideration the psychological dispositions that serve as
the causative factors for the emergence of ideological positions. The idea behind this is that our desires and
expectations have a direct impact on what we choose to believe in. Therefore, from the Buddhist perspective,
metaphysical speculations are but rationalizations of our deep-seated desires and innate anxieties. Some of
these speculative views, as we know, appear very lofty and profound, beautiful and awe-inspiring.
Nevertheless, the Buddhist position is that [End Page 213] they are external manifestations of our desire to
satisfy our innermost yearnings and compulsive urges. From the Buddhist perspective, therefore, any critique
of ideological positions or philosophical arguments should be supplemented with a psychological diagnosis of
their causal genesis.

The best evidence for what I maintain here comes from the first Buddhist discourse in the Collection of Long
Discourses, called The All-Embracing Net of Views.1 It mentions some sixty-two views, which is claimed to go
beyond the confines of any particular time and locale and is therefore capable of embracing all actual and
possible philosophical views on the nature of the self (atta) and the world (loka). They all have as their
epistemological ground either logic and pure reasoning (takka-vmasa), or experience gained in mental
concentration (ceto-samdhi), or a combination of both.

Among the sixty-two views, there are (1) some dealing with the notion of a creator god (issara-nimma-
vda), (2) some pertaining to eternalism (sassatavda), that is, the spiritualist view that the self (soul) is
eternal while the physical body is perishable, (3) some pertaining to annihilationism (ucchedavda), the
materialist view that the self is the same as the physical body and therefore comes to complete annihilation at
the time of death, with no prospect of postmortem existence, (4) some dealing with cosmological
speculations: whether the universe is eternal or noneternal in terms of time, or whether the universe is finite
or infinite in terms of space, (5) theories of fortuitous origination of the self and the universe
(adhiccasamuppanna), and (6) some versions of skepticism (amar-vikkhepa): the view that with our limited
faculties we cannot fathom the true nature of the self and the universe and hence its refusal to commit itself
to any philosophical stance.2

What is most interesting about the Buddhist approach to the sixty-two views is that it is neither argumentative
nor confrontational. In point of fact, not a single view is accepted as true nor rejected as false. What we find
here, instead, is a psychological diagnosis of how these views arise and why they persist in the world at large,
and more importantly, how they can be transcended by identifying and eliminating their psychological roots.

Buddhism distinguishes between two kinds of views. The first, called attavda, is the belief in a self, the notion
that there is a permanent individualized self-entity within the empiric individuality. The second, called
dihigata, embraces all forms of speculative metaphysics intended to explain the nature of the self (atta-
vda-patisayutta) and the nature of the universe (loka-vda-patisayutta). Of these two kinds of views, it
is the first that is primary