7. Epistemology | Vaibhashika


7. Epistemology

The Vaibhāṣika epistemology defended a form of realism that is established through experience.

Their theory of knowledge held that one could know dharmas as unique forces with unique characteristics by 2 means of knowledge (pramāṇa):

1) Direct perception (which includes spiritual vision) or
2) Inference (anumāna), which relies on direct experience.

For Vaibhāṣikas like Saṁghabhadra the characteristic of an existent (sal-lakṣaṇa) is that it can serve as an object producing cognition (buddhi).

Because of this, an object of knowledge is necessarily existent, though it can be either a true existent (dravyata) or a conceptual existent (prajñapti).

This view was rejected by Sautrāntikas like Śrīlāta, who argued that a cognitive object could be unreal, pointing to examples such as optical illusions, dreams, the false cognition of a self or really existent person (pudgala), and so on.

The Vaibhāṣika response to this is that even in the case of such mistaken cognitive constructs, there is a real basis which acts as part of the causal process:

An absolute non-existent (atyantam asad) has no function whatsoever and hence can never engender a consciousness.

Thus, in the case of the perception of the unreal pudgala, the perceptual object is not the pudgala which is superimposed, but the 5 skandhas which are real existents.

Furthermore, sensory perception as a pratyakṣa experience is fully accomplished only in the 2nd moment on recollection:

This is because the external object must first be experienced by "direct perception supported by a sense faculty" (indriyāśrita-pratyakṣa) before a discerning perception (Buddhi-pratyakṣa) can arise, since the discerning perception uses the previous sense faculty perception as a cognitive support (ālambana).

Vaibhāṣika defended the real existence of external objects by arguing that mental defilements arise in different ways because of the causal force of the mind's intentional object.

Likewise, sensory perception (pratyakṣa) is said to arise due to various causes and conditions, one of which is a real external object.

For Vaibhāṣikas like Saṁghabhadra, a sensory consciousness necessarily takes a physical assemblage or agglomeration of atoms (*saṁcaya, *Saṁghāta, *samasta).

What is directly perceived is just these atoms assembled together in a certain manner, not a conceptualized object such as a jug, etc."

For Vaibhāṣika knowledge (jñāna) is a caitta (mental factor) that has the distinguishing characteristic of being "understanding that is decisive or definite (niścita)".

There are various kinds of knowledge, for example,

a) dharma-knowledge (dharma-jñāna), is the knowledge that realizes the true nature of dharmas,

b) conventional-knowledge (saṁvṛti-jñāna) deals with conventional (not ultimate) things

c) knowledge of non-arising (anutpāda-jñāna) refers to the knowledge one has when one knows nirvana has been achieved.