Philosophy and the Contemporary World

The following is a talk I will give at the office of the UNESCO here in Bangkok. Today (November 18) is UNESCO World Philosophy Day, and I was invited to give a talk on this occasion.


Today is a joyous occasion. We are celebrating the World Philosophy Day. Usually philosophers do not receive much recognition from the society in which he or she is a part. So the establishment of World Philosophy Day by the UNESCO is very welcome. And today we are reflecting on the role of philosophy in society. The question is how philosophy is relevant in the contemporary world.

But before we do that let us pause for a moment and think of what philosophy actually is. Philosophy is a strange discipline in that it has always been in crisis. Philosophers have thought for a very long time that there are forces that threaten the very existence of philosophy. Not only are philosophers thinking about this problem nowadays, but they actually thought that philosophy had a precarious existence at best for almost as long as there is philosophy. It is no surprise that lay people tend to think of philosophers as woolly eyed visionary who are deeply impractical and do not fit with the world. The story of Thales immediately comes to one’s mind. As is perhaps well known, Thales, who was credited as the world’s first philosophy, thought that water was the key ingredient in all things. According to the story, one day Thales was walking, but his eyes were fixed on the heaven. As he did not see what was directly in front of him, he fell down a well while he was walking and watching the starts at the same time. Philosophers today are scarcely better than Thales in this regard.

So we are back to the question. Being thought to be a highly impractical subject, when then is philosophy? This is not an easy question to answer, and in fact philosophers have grappled with this question for a long time. One thing we can be rather certain is this: Philosophy is not a professional discipline in the same way as medicine or law is. Doctors and lawyers are very practical people; they know exactly what they are doing and what results get from that. But what about the philosopher?

Medicine and law become practical by answering to the immediate needs of the people, namely their sickness and their disputes with their neighbors. Philosophy, on the other hand, does not answer such immediate needs. The basic question of philosophy, one that also preoccupied Thales, is: What is the basic constitution of reality? Thales’ answer is only the beginning. One might think instead that this question is a scientific one, and physicists are better equipped than philosophers to provide an answer. Perhaps it is so, but the “basic constitution” here goes much deeper than the typical physical science would have it. In the views of some philosophers, the basic constitution of reality is not material at all. On the contrary reality as we perceive it is made up entirely by the mind. The whole reality is but a projection of some mind and most of us think of it instead as “hard rock.” This is something no physicist has tackled seriously yet.

So philosophy is a kind of asking questions and searching for answers, where the questions are very general, pointing to the deep seated desire of us human beings to look for ultimate meaning behind all things. Another philosopher, Martin Heidegger, asks a very poignant question: Why is it that there is something rather than nothing? This question points directly at our place in the world, our own reflective, meaning-finding characteristic. To ask this question and other philosophical questions is the predicament of us reflective human beings.

So we can say that philosophy is a kind of activity consisting of asking very general question and searching for answers. Since the questions are very general, answers are not easy to be found. It is understandable, then, that philosophers always disagree with one another. I think this is the most visible character of philosophy in the eyes of the general public. This is also reinforced by the way philosophy is taught in colleges. Teachers today almost always refrain from giving their own viewpoints and their own answers to philosophical questions, preferring instead to let the students believe that there are “no right or wrong answers” in philosophy. I myself, I have to admit, am also guilty of this. But to let people think that philosophy has no right or wrong answers is very dangerous to the health of philosophy, and could be the single most devastating reason for society to scrap all of philosophy to the junkyard of history.

Philosophers in ancient times certainly did not believe that philosophy admitted of no right or wrong answers. All of them believed that their views were correct, and each was at pain to refute the others’ argument. Perhaps teachers of philosophy should try to bring back this ancient passion of firmly believing that one’s version is “the truth” back to our classrooms. In fact, of all of the famous philosophers in the pantheon, not a single one actually believed that philosophy admits of no right or wrong answers.

So how could one account for the fact that there is no question in philosophy that has been answered definitively so that there is no need for any search for answer any longer? This is the predicament of philosophy as mentioned earlier. But the fact that all previous attempts to provide definitive answers in philosophy have failed should not lead us to conclude that there are no rights or wrong answers.We need to believe that there are right and wrong answers; otherwise philosophy will be nothing more than hot air.

This last point leads us back to our initial question. Philosophy’s being a very general discipline that asks foundational questions, and its method of finding answers through debates and discussions, makes it highly relevant in today’s world. Asking and searching for answers to very general questions not only helps us gain a bird’s eye view so that we can comprehend things better, it is also practical because it trains us to be able to imagine, to see things which are not there at the moment. Furthermore, debates and discussions encouraged by philosophy helps students to grasp the point or the main idea of talks and passages quickly and to hone one’s reasoning skills. This can be useful, if anything, in the courtroom. In fact many lawyers have had their first training as a philosopher.

So what, then, is philosophy? It’s an attempt by us human beings to find meanings in the world, deep meanings, superficial meanings, all of them. The ancient character of philosophy of asking very general questions and searching for answers through debates and discussions makes it relevant in today’s world. It is all the more so when no other disciplines care to do this important task, appearing to let philosophy take it up, which we philosophers should not let pass by. And on the World Philosophy Day, we are now reflective and re-emphasize this important mission of philosophy when it serves us all in society.

Can a Buddhist be a Skeptic?

Georges Dreyfus came to Chulalongkorn University again for the third time, and this time he gave a public talk on “Can a Buddhist be a Skeptic?” The talk was really interesting and touched upon some of the very difficult issues in Buddhist philosophy. He started by recounting the tenet found in the Madhyamika system, especially as propounded by Nagarjuna. According to the Madhayamika, a thing does not have its own ‘inherent characteristic,’ which defines what it is to be that thing and none other. Thus Madhyamika is contrasted with a branch of Indian philosophy that asserts that there is an inherent characteristic in everything that makes it the caase that that thing is what it is. One might compare this to the Aristotelian essence — whatever that gives a thing its defining characteristic. Thus a chair, according to this view, is a chair because it possesses something called ‘chairness.’ By virtue of possessing the chairness a chair is a chair and not, say, a table.

For Nagarjuna that is unacceptable. In his Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamakakarika), he presents a barrage of arguments intending to show that no thing whatsoever possesses this inherent characteristic. However, that does not mean that a thing can be anything else. It means rather than a thing is what it is, for example a chair, only through its being related to other things and through its being an extension or instances of concepts. In short, a thing is what it is simply because it is recognized that way. A chair is a chair because people sit on it and call it a ‘chair.’

A consequence of this is that, ultimately speaking, for Nagarjuna it does not make sense to say of any thing that it exists. On the other hand it also does not make sense to say that it does not exist. The chair in a sense does not exist because it lacks any inherent characteristic (the Sanskrit term for this is svabhava). However, to say that it does not exist does not make sense either because the chair is there. Nagarjuna goes on to say that it does not make sense to say that it both exists and does not exist, because to say that would presuppose that there is something the existence and non-existence of which is being asserted. Furthermore, to say that a thing neither exists nor does not exist does not make much sense either for the same reason.

This is known as the tetralemma. The idea is to exhause any and all possibility of saying anything about any object whatsoever. If it does not make sense to say anything in the four sides of the tetralemma, then it is clear that it does not make sense to say anything of anything at all. For example, Nagarjuna says somewhere in the Fundamental Verses that it cannot be said that the Tathagata (the Thus-gone, hence the Buddha) exists, does not exist, both exists and does not exist, and neither exists nor does not exist.

The  tetralemma has been a subject of intense interpretation. Dreyfus cited an example of a relatively obscure Tibetan translator and philosopher, Patrap Nyima Drak (I have to look up whether this is correct), who asserted that what the tetralemma says is true literally. Other scholars, such as Chandrakirti himself and Tsong Khapa, shied away from asserting baldly that the tetralemma is true literally. For them to do so is very close to being irrational, for it means that one can’t say anything of anything at all. If that is so, then why is one saying anything at all? Why don’t keep quiet all the time?

Dreyfus said that for Patrap, he held that no statement could be held and believed, because ultimately speaking any statement at all falls into one leg of the tetralemma and is thus untenable. So Dreyfus compared his position to that of ancient skepticism, also known as Pyrrhonism. According to Pyrrhonism it is not rational to hold any belief. All statements are ‘suspended’ because no statement ever acquires enough evidence to support it.

Nagarjuna himself also could be interpreted as supporting this view in a way, since he says at the very last stanza of the Fundamental Verses that in the end the goal of the Buddhist philosophy is to “relinquish all views.” So in a way this is not a philosophy at all, if you hold that philosophy is nothing but putting out words and more words. Since nothing can be asserted in any way of anything, then according to Patrap the only course left is to suspend any and all judgments. (But is this philosophy?)

So this comes to Dreyfus’s own question at the beginning. Can a Buddhist be a skeptic? Yes, because at least one Buddhist, Patrap Nyima Drak, was a skeptic. But is this a valid position to hold in Buddhist philosophy? It can be useful as a guide for practicing, and of course in Buddhism this is in the end what counts.

This leads to a very difficult problem for Buddhism. On the one hand, if you can’t defend any position at all, then how can you show that any of the teachings of the Buddha is true? How can one teach Buddhism to anybody? There ae a number of Buddhist teachings thatmany Buddhists take to be true, such as the law of karma, the Four Noble Truths, and so on. If a Buddhist can be a skeptic, then how can one come to believe the law of karma or the Four Noble Truths, which are the central teaching of Buddhism?

However, the advantage of Patrap’s standpoint (paradoxical again because the skeptic has no standpoint) is that it leads us to non-attachment even of doctrines and teachings. We realize that in the end these are only words and language, and being attached to them would only lead to suffering and further wandering in samsara, even though these words are the Buddha’s. The key is to ‘relinquish all views.’

So what gives? We have to wean ourselves from the belief that there is one true, correct version of things that we can arrive at. Language does not represent reality as it really is. Language is only a tool. The tetralemma shows that no matter how much we try, language still deceives us. The point is to get at reality without language. So practice is important, but philosophy and teaching the Dharma is important too. Otherwise how can we ever come to understand all this?

You can listen to Dreyfus’ talk right here on the podcast of the Center for Ethics of Science and Technology and the Thousand Stars Foundation.


Buddhism and Mathematics

One of the many topics that was raised during the talk on the Thai translation of Matthieu Ricard’s and Trinh Xuan Thuan’s book concerned the relation between Buddhist thought and mathematics. There have of course been quite a lot of talks about how Buddhism and science are related, but not much at all on Buddhism and mathematics. So that was a welcome change. Unfortunately we did not spend much time on this fascinating topic.

It was credit to Ricard and Thuan that they spend one entire chapter on this topic. The idea is how mathematics is related to reality and what the Buddhists think of that. The eleventh chapter of the book is entitled “The Grammar of the Universe” or something like that. What is interesting is how mathematics is an accurate description of reality at all. Which comes first, mathematics or the world?

On the one hand, this is a very simple point. We all know that two plus two equals four. So you have two things, add another two, and count the result, which is of course four. But the premise of mathematics is that you cannot get mathematics (or logic for that matter) out of empirical observation. You just cannot form a general statement “2 + 2 = 4” from just observing two things and another two things. The reason is that you have somehow to know before hand that two plus two equals four in order for you to be able to get the conclusion that these two things and these other two make four! This is Kant’s main argumentative strategy in his entire critical philosophy. And for Kant mathematics is a prime example of what he calls “synthetic a priori” judgments, e.g., judgments that are true by virtue of their correspondence with some outside measuring point but which is known entirely through thinking alone.

We are not actually discussing Kant here; the point is that if the truth of mathematics does not come from observation, then it must come from inside. Ricard and Thuan discussed that perhaps this situation implies that there is some universal and all powerful mind whose thinking made all mathematical statements true (all the true ones, of course). It is this big mind that guarantees that two plus two equals four, that the sum of the squares on the side of the two legs of a right angle triangle is equal to that on the hypotenuse, that the law of modus ponens (‘p’ and ‘if p then q’ always implies ‘q’), and so on.

So this big mind might refer to God. So here the discussion went on to see what the Buddhists think about this. I don’t quite remember what Ricard, the Buddhist representative in the book, made of this, so I am going to present my own thought. I also did this during the talk last Saturday, but time was so limited then.

I think the main difference between the theistic religions like Christianity and Islam and non-theistic one like Buddhism might not appear as large as one might think. Buddhism would have no problem recognizing the Big Mind alluded to above, so long as that refers, not to some external being, but in fact to our own minds. It is us who create mathematics and it is ultimately speaking our own minds, working together collectively, that create the world such that it is true of mathematics. In other words, we could also say that we human beings are gods unto ourselves. There is a Big Mind that creates reality corresponding to math, yes, but that Mind is not apart from us.

Whether this is shocking or not depends on your view on theism. If you believe that humans are apart from God, then you’d find this shocking. However, this is entirely correspondent with the Buddhist attitude that salvation is ultimately the person’s own responsibility and lies entirely within the person’s power to achieve. The Buddha is only a teacher. You don’t need to follow his teaching. The Buddha has no power to drag you to Liberation. No being does. You have to do it yourself.

Coming down from theological discussion and back down to earth, we see that the idea that it is human mind itself that creates mathematics to which reality belongs makes quite a lot of sense. We form mathematics and we perceive the world according to the same conceptual structure that formed the math in the first place, so no wonder the world corresponds to it. However, even thought mathematics looks very certain, it does not describe what reality is like ultimately speaking. This is because all mathematics depends on concepts and language (so is logic), and once you have concepts, you have to divide reality into separate chunks. So at best mathematics is a model or a map, and no map can become identical to the reality it is the map of. This refers to the doctrine of Emptiness or sunyata. We can say that math can always approach that, but never reach it, because if it does, then it would cease to be the math that it is.

Bhavaviveka and Candrakirti

Those who study Mahayana Buddhism perhaps know about Bhavaviveka as one who espouses the position known as “Svatantrika Madhyamika”, and that this is opposed by Candrakirti, whose position is “Prasangika Madhayamika”. All schools of Tibetan Buddhism follow Candrakirti, and the Svatantrika school is kind of denigrated by the Tibetan schools as being incomplete or as having been soundly refuted by Candrakirti.

This is an arcane issue. At the heart of the dispute is the nature of argumentation leading to the conclusion of the doctrine of Emptiness. According to Nagarjuna, no views are tenable. That is, the correct “view” of the Madhayamika is the “extinguishing of all views.” This is deeply ironic, but the intent of Nagarjuna is that the correct view is not describable through language. Since it is language itself, together with conceptualization and mental fabrication that accompany it, that is the culprit, then any view that is expressible through language in propositional or logical form is ultimately misguided.


Bhavaviveka was known as one of the greatest exponents of Nagarjuna’s teaching. He was a Madhyamika after all. He tried to found Nagarjuna’s teaching on a sound logical basis by constructing a system of argument purporting to show, as logical conclusion, the truth of the Emptiness doctrine. By doing this, it is necessary to posit an existence of some referents of the statements used in the argument. Without it, no logical argumentation would be possible because if you do not posit anything as putatively real (perhaps only for the purpose of the argument), then you don’t have any fixed point at which to tie up the argument, so to speak.

So this is Bhavaviveka’s strategy. He is known to criticize the work of Buddhapalita, who claimed, on the contrary, that it was actually impossible to found Nagarjuna’s teaching on any logical argumentation because no fixture was possible. Then Candrakirti came about after Bhavaviveka’s time and defended Buddhapalita, thereby refuting Bhavaviveka in his celebrated works, Madhyamakavatara and Prasannapada.

We don’t have all the time and space to deal adequately with this dispute here. Works abound on this topic. My goal here in this post is to point out that perhaps Bhavaviveka has been unjustly portrayed in the scholarly literature, and perhaps the distinction between the Prasangika and the Svatantrika might not be as great as sometimes mentioned.

The strategy of Buddhapalita and Candrakirti was different from that of Bhavaviveka. Instead of attempting to formulate an argument aiming to establish as logical conclusion the truth of Nagarjuna’s Emptiness Doctrine, they employ the strategy of reductio ad absurdum. No positive statement is made. Any posited statement at all is deduced to get at their conclusions and these conclusions would be shown to be contradictory, thereby refuting the posited statement. This is the standard method of the reductio. The idea is that, since according to Nagarjuna no statement can be defended (“extinguishing of all views”), no posited statement can be allowed which is necessary to construct a positive argument purporting to prove the Doctrine. So no positive argument. Everything that is asserted of anything is refuted completely.


In fact both sides can’t avoid their own paradoxes. Bhavaviveka has to answer how it is possible to posit fixed statement in order just to argue that no fixed statement is possible. Candrakirti, on the other hand, also has to say how it is possible that understanding anything through language is possible at all. No fixed category, no fixed meaning. Furthermore, the reductio itself is a form of an argument, so in order for even the reductio to work, some fixed categories have to be presupposed too.

The typical answer is that one has to bear in mind the distinction between the conventional truth (samvrtti-satya) and the ultimate truth (paramartha-satya). But this is equally applicable both to Bhavaviveka and Candrakirti. So it appears that their disagreement is only superficial and deep down they completely agree on the import of Nagarjuna’s and in fact the Buddha’s teaching. Since emptiness is very difficult to spell out through language, one either has to remain silent, or if one ventures out loud, one has to be willing to accept the paradoxes.

Class on Nagarjuna

The class on Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā) that I taught today and yesterday is now finished. There were seven students in the course; not much, but enough for intensive questions, answers and discussions. We worked together to understand the deep meanings behind the dense text of the Fundamental Wisdom, and I think we succeeded quite well in doing so.

The teaching was based on the text of Fundamental Wisdom that I translated into Thai. We were all exhausted in the end because we spent the whole day from 9 am to 4:30 pm both Saturday and Sunday reading almost all the chapters of the book. There are twenty-seven chapters in the Mula, so it was quite a feat covering almost all of them. We read all the verses in the chapters that we read closely, which were about twenty-five, and in the chapters that we skipped I tried to give a summary of the conclusion and the main argument.

We began by praying to Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom, to invoke his blessings so that we succeed in understanding the text. Then we began with the Dedicatory Verse, which according to the Garfield translation is as follows:

I prostrate to the Perfect Buddha
The best of teachers, who taught that
Whatever is dependently arisen is
Unceasing, unborn,
Unannihilated, not permanent,
Not coming, not going,
Without distinction, without identity,
And free from conceptual construction.

This verse kind of summarizes the main point that Nagarjuna would like to make. Things are unceasing, unborn, unannihilated, unmade, not coming, not going, and so on. Understanding this thoroughly amounts to understanding the whole text. Whatever is dependently arisen is of the nature of being ’empty’ or śūnya in Sanskrit. As such, it is free from any kind of imputation as to its essential or substantive characteristic, either being made or born, being unborn, being permanent, being impermanent, and so on. This is an outstanding feature of the Madhyamika philosophy. It uses logic, but in the sense it apparently violates any possible laws of logic. The idea is to force us to come face to face to the real nature of things itself — the nature that is completely free from any conceptual construction and imputation.

We were all exhaused at the end of the day, but after the course was completed around 4:30 pm I think everybody came back with a better and deeper understanding of the Madhyamika teaching. What I emphasized during the course was that the distinctions between the different schools of Buddhism was not as great as some might think. For example, the two main schools of Mahayana Buddhism are the Madhyamika and the Yogācāra. The latter is known for its teaching of “Mind Only,” that is that everything that appears is ultimately speaking a projection of the mind itself. There appears to be a clear difference from that of the Madhyamika. However, when we examine closely, we find that the ultimate reality spoken of by the Madhyamika — emptiness or ordinary things themselves considered as free from any conceptual imputation — is not too different from the basic projection of the mind position of the Yogācāra. In both cases the idea is that reality as ordinarily conceived, as things with their own seemingly permanent nature and substantive identity, is not tenable. The difference seems to be only on how this basic reality itself — we might call this ‘things as they are as such’ or ‘suchness’ or ‘dependent origination’ — is called.

I think this is a very promising start, and it marks another occasion where a serious attempt to understand Madhyamika philosophy is made. Another thing I said during the course was that Nagarjuna’s teaching was not in any way any addition or deviation from the Buddha’s original teaching and had nothing that the Theravadin could not accept, if understood properly.


One of the most difficult teachings in Buddhism is the one on emptiness. The Sanskrit term for this is “sunyata” (I don’t want to bother with the diacritical marks, so if you like to know how the diacritical marks are to be applied on this word and other Sanskrit or Pali terms in my posts, you have to search elsewhere. 🙂 ) Basically this says that no thing has ‘inherent existence.’ A thing is what it is simply because it is we who impute characteristics to it so that it fits with our conceptualization of what that thing is. In plain English, a thing is what it is because we say that it is so, because it fits with our description of that particular thing.

For example, a table is what it is because it has certain shapes — four legs, flat top, and so on. But it is we who say that characteristics such as having four legs, flat top etc. are those of a table. It is we who say “this is a table.” From their own side (that is, without us who does the conceptualizing and name calling) this particular appearance is just plain “nothing.” It is “nothing” not because it is an apparition, as if it were a hologram shown to us by some fiendish scientists, but because whatever characteristics it has that fit it into certain categories such as being a table, is our own work as language user. This I think pretty much captures what ’emptiness’ means. The table is empty of its inherent characteristics, or inherent substance that makes it a table and not, say, a balloon.


Nagarjuna, following the Buddha’s teaching, says that everything whatsoever is empty. So long as it is a thing at all, it is empty. Genuinely realizing this truth is a key element in entering and progressing along the Path to Liberation, or nirvana. All kinds of sufferings arise because of the mistaken belief that things can stay the same and keep their identities. This always fail because there is simply no identity that a thing can keep.

But does this mean that, if all human beings all of a sudden vanish, then all things will vanish also? One is reminded of Berkeley who says just about the same thing. Well, it is not a matter of physical causation where the disappearance of one thing causes a disappearance of another. Things are much deeper than that. Buddhism is centered around human suffering and how to get rid of it. It does not presuppose the distinction between self and other, or the subjective and the objective, as does science. If you have the subject/object distinction, then it is straightforward to see that the disappearance of the subject has nothing to do with the object. But if you don’t have the distinction, then there is no basis on which you will be absolutely certain that objective reality will continue to exist without subjective thought. When the distinction is done away with, one does not separate between the two. So it is not the matter of the subject affecting the object, or vice versa. There is no subject, and no object to affect each other.

What this means is that when Nagarjuna says that it is human (or the conceptualizer’s) imputation that explains why a thing exists, this should not be taken to mean that the conceptualization causes things to exist or to cease to exist. But it is the conceptualization that brings the thing up to consciousness so that it is cognized as a table, a rock, or whatever. WHen the practitioner genuinely and deeply sees that things do not have their own inherent identity, then he is “liberated” in the sense tht all the causes and conditions leading to suffering will be totally eliminated.

Understanding the Dharma

เมื่อวันที่ 10 มีนาคมที่ผ่านมา Georges Dreyfus จาก Williams College ได้มาบรรยายที่คณะอักษรศาสตร์ เรื่อง “Learning to Philosophize the Tibetan Way” หรือแปลเป็นไทยได้ว่า “การทำปรัชญาแบบทิเบต” คำว่า “การทำปรัชญา” หมายถึงการทำกิจการต่างๆที่เกี่ยวกับการแก้ปัญหาปรัชญา ซึ่งรวมถึงการคิดปรัชญาและการถกเถียงอภิปรายต่างๆ และการอ่านกับการเขียนด้วย อย่างไรก็ตาม การทำปรัชญาแบบทิเบตที่ Dreyfus เสนอมีแต่การพูดกับการถกเถียงกับการอ่านเท่านั้น ไม่รวมถึงการเขียน ด้วย Dreyfus เล่าถึงการศึกษาของพระภิกษุในวัดทิเบตนิกายเกลุกปะ ที่เขาได้ไปศึกษามาเป็นเวลากว่า 15 ปี จนได้ปริญญา Geshe Lharampa ซึ่งเป็นปริญญาสูงสุดของระบบการศึกษาในพระพุทธศาสนาทิเบต Dreyfus เข้าไปเป็นพระภิกษุในวัด Namkyal ที่ประเทศอินเดีย ซึ่งเป็นวัดของสมเด็จดาไลลามะ


การศึกษาของพระภิกษุเริ่มขึ้นตั้งแต่ก่อนพระอาทิตย์ขึ้น งานประจำของพระภิกษุประกอบด้วยการประกอบพิธีในวัด เช่นการสวดมนต์และทำพิธีต่างๆ นอกจากนี้ส่วนสำคัญก็ได้แก่การศึกษาเล่าเรียน ซึ่งการทำพิธีกับการศึกษานี้กินเวลาทั้งวัน และวันหนึ่งของพระภิกษุจบลงที่เวลาประมาณ 23 นาฬิกา เป้าหมายของการศึกษานี้ก็ได้แก่การบรรลุถึง “พระพุทธภาวะ” อันเป็นเป้าหมายหลักของผู้ปฏิบัติธรรมมหายานทุกคน

ในการศึกษาเล่าเรียนเพื่อบรรลุพระพุทธภาวะ พระภิกษุต้องศึกษางานสำคัญๆ ของพระพุทธศาสนามหายาน ที่ทิเบตรับมาจากอินเดีย จำนวนห้าเล่ม ได้แก่

  • อภิสมยาลังการะ ของท่านไมเตรยะ (หรือบางตำราก็บอกว่าของพระโพธิสัตว์ไมเตรยะโดยตรง) เล่มนี้เป็นบทอรรถาธิบายคัมภีร์ปรัชญาปารมิตา
  • ประมาณวรรติกะ ของท่านธรรมกีรติ ซึ่งเป็นคัมภีร์เกี่ยวกับตรรกวิทยา และญาณวิทยาของพระพุทธศาสนา
  • มาธยมิกะ ซึ่งประกอบด้วยคัมภีร์ มูลมัธยมกการิกา ของท่านนาคารชุน
  • คัมภีร์อรรถกถาพระวินัย และ
  • อภิธรรมโกศะ ของท่านวสุพันธุ

การศึกษาเหล่านี้เป็นไปเพื่อพัฒนาปัญญา และแนวทางในการปฏิบัติเพื่อให้บรรลุพระพุทธภาวะ ซึ่งปัญญานี้ประกอบด้วยสามระดับ เริ่มจากปัญญาจากการฟัง (สุตมยปัญญา) ปัญญาจากการคิด (จินตมยปัญญา) และปัญญาจากการภาวนา (ภาวนามยปัญญา) การศึกษาเล่าเรียนของพระภิกษุนั้นเป็นไปเพื่อพัฒนาปัญญาในสองระดับแรก คือจากการฟังกับการคิด และในท้ายที่สุดหากพระรูปใดประสงค์จะปฏิบัติเต็มที่ ก็จะออกไปจำศีลภาวนาเป็นเวลาระยะหนึ่ง เช่นสามปีหรือมากกว่า เพื่อพัฒนาภาวนามยปัญญา แต่ในวัดเกลุกปะตามปกติแล้วพระภิกษุจะออกไปจำศีลได้ ก็ต่อเมื่อสำเร็จการศึกษาในหลักสูตรนี้แล้ว



Dreyfus เล่าว่าการศึกษาของพระภิกษุนั้นประกอบไปด้วยส่วนสำคัญที่สุด คือการท่องจำคัมภีร์ และนอกจากนี้ก็มีการอธิบายความหมายกับการโต้วาที การท่องจำเป็นส่วนสำคัญของการศึกษาของพระภิกษุในทุกๆแนวทาง ส่วนการอธิบายความหมาย ก็เป็นการศึกษาคำอธิบายความหมายที่อาจารย์สั่งสอน แล้วก็นำไปศึกษาให้เข้าใจ เมื่อเข้าใจดีแล้ว ก็จะมีการโต้วาทีอันเป็นการทดสอบความเข้าใจเนื้อหาของคัมภีร์ ซึ่งเรื่องการโต้วาทีก็เป็นเนื้อหาหลักของการบรรยายครั้งนี้


การศึกษาทั้งหมดนี้กินเวลายาวนานถึงราวๆสิบห้าปี และในการผ่านการทดสอบครั้งสุดท้ายผู้ศึกษาก็จะต้องผ่านการโต้วาที ต่อหน้าพระภิกษุจำนวนมากจากวัดหลักๆของสายเกลุกปะ ได้แก่กานเต็น เซราและเตรปุง เมื่อผ่านการศึกษาแล้วก็จะได้ชื่อว่า Geshe อันเป็นคำเรียกพระนักวิชาการที่ได้ศึกษาคัมภีร์มาอย่างช่ำชอง ในการโต้วาทีนั้นจะประกอบด้วยพระสองรูป รูปหนึ่งเป็น “ผู้ป้องกัน” ซึ่งจะนั่งเฉยๆ ส่วนอีกรูปหนึ่งเป็น “ผู้ตั้งคำถาม” ซึ่งจะป้อนคำถามไปยังผู้ป้องกัน ผู้ตั้งตำถามจะพยายามถามคำถามต่างๆเกี่ยวกับเนื้อหาในคัมภีร์ เพือให้ผู้ป้องกันจนมุมไม่สามารถตอบได้ หรือตอบคำตอบที่ขัดกันเอง ซึ่งหากเป็นเช่นนั้นก็จะถือว่า ผู้ป้องกันเป็นฝ่ายแพ้ ในการถามนั้นก็จะมีกระทู้ขึ้นมา เช่น กระทู้เกี่ยวกับความเป็นอนิจจัง

ตัวอย่างมีกระทู้ว่า “สิ่งใดๆล้วนเป็นอนิจจัง” ผู้ตั้งถามคำถามก็จะถามคำถามเกี่ยวกับกระทู้นี้ เช่น “ดังนั้นจึงตามมาว่าสิ่งทั้งหลายต่างก็อยู่เพียงชั่วขณะ เพราะเป็นอนิจจัง” จากนั้นผู้ป้องกันก็จะพยายามตอบตำถามของผู้ตั้งคำถาม ซึ่งจะพยายามทำให้คำตอบของฝ่ายแรกขัดกันเอง คำตอบของผู้ป้องกันมีได้เพียงสามลักษณะเท่านั้น ได้แก่ (1) ยอมรับข้อสรุป (2) ปฏิเสธว่าข้อเสนอไม่ถูกต้อง และ (3) ปฏิเสธว่าเหตุผลไม่ถูกต้อง ดังนั้นคำตอบ (1) เกี่ยวกับเรื่องความเป็นอนิจจัง ก็จะได้แก่ “ข้าพเจ้ายอมรับว่าสิ่งต่างๆมีอยู่เพียงชั่วขณะเท่านั้น” แบบ (2) ได้แก่ “สิ่งทั้งหลายไม่ได้อยู่เพียงชั่วขณะ” และ (3) ได้แก่ “การเป็นอนิจจัง ไม่ได้เป็นเหตุผลของการมีอยู่เพียงชั่วขณะของสิ่งต่างๆ” คำตอบแบบ (2) เป็นคำตอบที่ขัดกับหลักการของพระพุทธศาสนา ดังนั้นหากผู้ป้องกันตอบเช่นนี้ ก็จะถูกถามอีกมากมายเกี่ยวกับความเข้าใจเนื้อหาของพระพุทธศาสนา และก็จะมีการโต้วาทีในหัวข้ออื่นๆตามมาอีกมาก เกี่ยวกับการป้องกันคำสอน คำตอบแบบ (3) ก็เป็นไปไม่ได้ เพราะจะเป็นการขัดแย้งกับความที่ตกลงกัน ระหว่างผู้ป้องกันกับผู้ตั้งคำถามตั้งแต่ต้น คือการตกลงกันว่า “ความเป็นอนิจจัง” เป็นเหตุของการที่สิ่งต่างๆอยู่เพียงชั่วขณะ ดังนั้น หน้าที่ของผู้ตั้งคำถามคือ พยายามให้ผู้ป้องกันตอบในแบบที่ (1) คือยอมรับข้อสรุป ดังนั้น เมื่อผู้ตั้งคำถามถามว่า “ดังนั้น ภูเขาก็จะอยู่เพียงชั่วขณะละหรือ?” และหากผู้ป้องกันตอบว่า “เป็นเช่นนั้น” ก็จะแพ้ทันที เพราะคำตอบของผู้ป้องกันขัดแย้งกับความเป็นจริง ดังนั้น เพื่อป้องกันสถานการณ์เช่นนี้ ผู้ป้องกันก็จะต้องชี้แจงว่า มีความแตกต่างกันระหว่าง “อยู่เพียงชั่วขณะ” กับ “อยู่มากกว่าหนึ่งชั่วขณะ” หรืออะไรทำนองนี้ ซึ่งผู้ตั้งคำถามก็จะพยายามนำให้ผู้ป้องกันกลับมาที่การขัดแย้งอีก เนื่องจากคำตอบแบบ (2) กับ (3) เป็นไปไม่ได้ ผู้ป้องกันมีทางเลือกทางเดียวคือแบบ (1) ซึ่งผู้ป้องกันจะต้องพยายามไม่ให้เกิดการขัดกันเอง ด้วยการอธิบายไปเรื่อยๆว่า การยอมรับข้อสรุปจะไม่ก่อให้เกิดการขัดแย้งได้อย่างไร และหากผู้ป้องกันสามารถทำกระทู้ให้กระจ่างชัด จนผู้ตั้งคำถามจนปัญญา ไม่รู้จะตั้งคำถามอะไรได้อีก ก็แปลว่าผู้ป้องกันชนะ หรือไม่เช่นนั้นหากการโต้วาทีจบลงก่อนที่จะรู้่ผล ก็หมายความว่าทั้งสองฝ่ายเสมอกัน

Dreyfus ยกตัวอย่างของวิธีการอ้างเหตุผลในการศึกษาพระพุทธศาสนาในอินเดียสองแบบ ได้แก่แบบ “ประโยคะ” กับแบบ “ประสังคะ” แบบแรกเป็นการเสนอข้อเสนอออกมาแล้วมีเหตุผลสนับสนุน ส่วนแบบหลังเป็นการเสนอข้อสรุปเชิงตรรก แล้วหาความขัดแย้งจากข้อเสนอนั้น โดยมิได้เสนอข้อเสนออะไรของตนเอง ในอินเดียนั้นการอ้างเหตุผลแบบประโยคะดูจะใช้กันมากกว่า ในขณะนี้ในทิเบต จะใช้แบบ “ประสังคะ” มากกว่า แนวคิดของการอ้างเหตุผลแบบ “ประสังคะ” ก็คือว่า ในพระพุทธศาสนานั้นไม่อาจเสนออะไรที่เป็น “ความจริง” ที่เป็นเช่นนั้นตรงตามที่ภาษาในประโยคบรรยายได้ ซึ่งตรงกับที่ท่านนาคารชุนในงานเรื่อง มูลมัธยมกการิกา หรือ โศลกพื้นฐานว่าด้วยทางสายกลาง ได้สอนไว้ว่า ไม่ว่าทรรศนะใดๆก็ไม่อาจเป็นที่ยอมรับได้ทั้งสิ้น เนื่องจากธรรมทั้งหมดเป็นศูนยตา จึงไม่มีอะไรเลยในความเป็นจริงที่เราใช้ภาษาเรียก ที่เป็นจริงในตัวของมันเอง ทั้งนี้รวมทั้งส่วนประกอบย่อยๆของความเป็นจริงทั้งหมด เช่น อณู หรือปรมาณูด้วย พูดอีกอย่างหนึ่งก็คือว่า คำเช่น “อณู” หรือ “ปรมาณู” นั้น เป็นเพียงคำที่ใช้เรียกความเป็นจริง ซึ่งเป็นการปรุงแต่งของจิต ไม่มีอณูหรือปรมาณูในความเป็นจริงในตัวของมันเอง ยิ่งไปกว่านั้น คำว่า “ศูนยตา” หรือ “ความว่าง” ก็เป็นเช่นเดียวกัน คือเป็นเพียงคำพูดที่ไม่มีความหมายรองรับในด้านของความเป็นจริงของตัวเอง พูดอีกอย่างก็คือว่า แม้แต่ศูนยตาเองก็เป็นของว่าง ประโยชน์ของการโต้วาทีก็คือ ทำให้ผู้ศึกษาเข้าใจคำสอนของพระพุทธเจ้าได้ดียิ่งขึ้น การเรียนไม่ใช่เพียงแต่ท่องจำ และพยายามเข้าใจความหมายตามที่อาจารย์อธิบายเท่านั้น แต่ยังนำความเข้าใจนี้มาทดสอบ เพื่อให้เกิดความตระหนักว่า ที่ตนคิดว่าเป็นความจริงนั้น อาจถูกเปิดโปงว่าเต็มไปด้วยความข้ดแย้งและไม่เป็นความจริงจริงๆก็ได้ ซึ่งจะทำให้ผู้ศึกษาเกิดความอ่อนน้อมถ่อมตน คิดว่าความเข้าใจของตนเองนั้นอาจไม่ถูกต้องเมื่อใดก็ได้

ไฟล์คำบรรยายของ Dreyfus ในรูป mp3

Audio file of Georges Dreyfus’ Talk on “Learning to Philosophize the Tibetan Way,” given at Chulalongkorn University on March 10, 2008.