Buddhism: Demystifying Ucchedavada Materialism

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‘..the recluse Gotama is a Materialist, who teaches a doctrine of Materialism and trains his disciples in it.’

Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge: By KN Jayatilleke (2204)  – Page 375 – A VI 183ff

Throughout all the Buddhist schools, and irrespective of differences in philosophical interpretation, it is agreed that the Buddha advocated a ‘middle path’ between what is often termed in English as ‘nihilism’ (ucchedavada) and ‘eternalism’ (sassatavada). These definitions, although technically correct, do not convey the full philosophical context of these terms. Another set of terms used are ‘materialism’ and ‘beginningless’ – again technically correct, but not very helpful in understanding what the Buddha was attempting to convey.  Sassatavada translates as ‘eternal soul school’, or ‘beginningless theistic concept school’. Ucchedavada (ဥေစၧဒ) is a Pali term that translates as ‘Annihilation School’, and which refers to a ‘denial’ of the existence of an eternal  ‘soul’, ‘atma’ or ‘theistic concept’ which links each human-being to a divine creator. In and of itself, the term ‘ucchedavada’ does not make any reference to the material world as such, but appears to have been philosophically used during the Buddha’s life-time to suggest that anyone who denied the existence of a soul, automatically believed that all that existed was the material world. Within the Chinese language, the Pali term ‘ucchedavada’ is written as ‘断滅論 – Duan Me Lun’, and translates as ‘Cut off Extinguish Theory’. Ucchedavada then, refers to the philosophical position whereby an eternal soul concept is denied as being ‘non-existing’, and that any theistic construct built-upon such an assumption is equally ‘non-existant’. As the Buddha continuously and constantly ‘denied’ the existence of any eternal soul (atma), he certainly did not agree with the ‘sassatavada’ position, and it is logical that he distanced himself from that school, However, as he quite clearly understood and accepted the existence of the physical world (rupa), and made ‘matter’ the first of his five aggregates, it would seem a little odd that he would also distance himself from the ‘ucchedavada’, unless of course, the ucchedavada did not actually refer to the material world, but merely the ‘ending’ of all things. If this is the case, then the numerous commentaries that assume ‘ucchedavada’ correlates with ‘materialism’ are wrong. They are wrong because it gives a false impression of the Buddha’s teaching which is rooted in the existence of a material world – even if that material world lacks any permanency (or, as Nagarjuna later asserted – is an ’emptiness’ containing all insubstantial things). As ucchedavada does not make any mention of the material universe, why then is it associated with the material universe? This interpretation stems from the idea that the spiritual teachings of Brahmanism are obviously undermined. If there is no ‘atma’ (soul) residing in an individual, then there is no connection with Brahma, retributive karma (i.e. ‘moral law’), or agency to ensure a future rebirth. This is a complete denial of the validity of the Brahmanic world-view (both seen and unseen).

The Buddha was in full agreement with this criticism of Brahmanism, and so his rejection of ucchedavada could not have been on these grounds, indeed, in this context, the concept of ucchedavada appears to encapsulate the Buddha’s teachings. The reason that the Buddha rejected the concept of ‘ucchedavada’ was not because it denied the Brahmanic world view, but rather because as a concept it also assumed that every death equated to the attainment of nirvana. It is this latter point that the Buddha disagreed with, as simply ‘dying’ did not ensure an entry into the non-conditioned state of nirvana that he had discovered. The ucchedavada viewpoint is that all life and all suffering ceases at physical death. To assume that ucchedavada equates to materialism must be qualified and explained to make contextual sense. What is also important here, is the Buddha’s positive view of materialism. The Buddha disagrees with one aspect of ucchedavada, because within his system, ‘nirvana’ can be realised whilst an individual is still alive, whilst if an unenlightened individual dies – they remain unenlightened and subject to rebirth (whilst in the deluded state). To make his point, the Buddha developed elaborate dimensions of existence beyond the material plane, which he inhabited with gods, demi-gods and spirits, etc, through which deluded beings transmigrate. As many of these gods do not correlate with those known to be part of the Brahmanic pantheon, it is obvious the Buddha constructed these beings as a matter of illustration. We know this because in many suttas and sutras the Buddha clearly states that in the enlightened state, gods, heavens, rebirth and karma are all understood not to actually exist. Obviously, if these constructs only appear to exist in the deluded state, then they are not real, and were probably used by the Buddha to guide followers who believed these things to be true, until they were ready give-up these incorrect views.

As well as Materialists and Sceptics in ancient India, there were a class of intellectuals known as the ‘vinnu’ or the ‘elite’, with whom the Buddha was keen to address, in Suttas that record this encounter, the Buddha adopts a far more obvious materialist approach in his teachings. This can be seen in the Apannaka Sutta and the Sandaka Sutta (amongst many others). By ‘materialist’ in this context is meant ‘logical’ and ’empirical’. The Buddha moves the dialogue away from rebirth, karma and gods, and towards a much more rational approach to assessing reality. He suggests that even if these things were not ultimately true, it might be more conducive for humanity to voluntarily adopt a mode of disciplined behaviour – as if these ideas were potentially true. Interestingly, evidence suggests that a belief in rebirth was not widespread or prominent prior to the rising of Buddhism and Jainism in ancient India, even though there were ideas of survival that did not require the notion of rebirth as an agency. Ironically, this might suggest that the Buddha’s expedient use of the notion of rebirth could have made the idea popular – even though he himself did not think it ultimately correct. As matters stand, the Buddha defined reality as an integration of the material world with the immaterial mind – with both being inherently linked. He was probably the first thinker in history to develop a ‘psychology’ or ‘philosophy of mind’ which replaced a belief in gods and spirits. In the last analysis it is clear that he rejects rebirth, karma and gods as being ‘real’ in the enlightened state. In this regard, even if the material world is ‘translucent’, and ’empty’ of any substantiality and permanency, the Buddha’s philosophy is premised upon its apparent existence – and this would steer his philosophy nearer to the ‘materialist’ camp than any other mode of thought.

The reason the Buddha rejected the ‘ucchedavada’ viewpoint in the final analysis, is not because of its apparent ‘materialist’ emphasis (which the Buddha shared in many respects), but because this school of ancient Indian thought adopted a sceptical position with regards to knowledge and its limitations. Although what was sensed through the bodily sense organs could be said to be ‘true’ (in the sense that such stimuli appeared to materially ‘exist’), nevertheless, the followers of ucchedavada held the opinion that this sensory data did not represent ‘ultimate’ knowledge, and could not be used to ascertain ‘universal’ understandings. All that was known for sure, was that sensory data was ‘sensed’. Furthermore, the followers of the ucchedavada denied that ‘sound’ theoretical knowledge could be gained from ‘inference’ (anumana). This was problematic for the Buddha, who although stating that nothing ‘sensed’ was viewed ‘correctly’ whilst observed through a deluded mind, also taught that ‘correct’ knowledge was possible if the mind was purified and non-inverted in operation (i.e. ‘enlightened’ to its own true essence). He also arranged his thinking around the concept of correct perception, and correct inductive inference premised upon this correct perception. For the Buddha, things could be definitely ‘known’, despite the fact that for most people, things were ‘incorrectly’ known. This observation demonstrates that the Buddha partly agrees – and partly disagrees with the followers of the ucchedavada on this point. It also follows that as those perceiving the world through a deluded mind-set cannot gain any ‘true’ knowledge of the world, they also cannot ‘infer’ any correct conclusions from this faulty perception. The Buddha also agrees with the ucchedavada on this point – but the major disagreement lies in the fact that the Buddha believes that he has proven (through personal realisation) that this situation can be changed through behaviour modification and meditation – and this is exactly where the Buddha’s theory parts ways with ucchedavada thinking, which assumes this situation cannot be altered. The ucchedavada views humanity as existing existentially in a material world that cannot be correctly perceived through the senses, the understanding of which cannot be ‘inferred’ through the mind. There is no science and no religion, or requirement for morality. There is no way out of this situation. The Buddha agrees that there is a material world, but disagrees with the ucchedavada notion that nothing can be ‘correctly’ known, or that the situation cannot be changed. On the contrary, the Buddha logically expounds a sophisticated philosophical appraisal of reality, and clearly explains how its perception and manifestation can be radically transformed.

Further Reading:

Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge: By KN Jayatilleke

The Conception of Buddhist Nirvana: BY FI Stcherbatsky

The Message of the Buddha: By By KN Jayatilleke

What the Buddha Taught: By Walpola Rahula

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