On Being Mindless: Buddhist Meditation and the Mind-Body Problem, By Griffilhs, Paul J.

Reviewed by Jackson, Roger R

Philosophy East and West
Vol. 38
pp. 443-445


Copyright by University of Hawaii Press





Toward the beginning of On Being Mindless, Paul Griffiths discusses possible approaches to the study of Buddhist philosophy, and comments regretfully in a note that "a meeting of careful scholarship in the exegetical mode with a critical spirit concerned to ask questions about truth, coherence, and so forth, has been, in the English-speaking academies of the twentieth century, rare in the extreme" (n. 25, p.143). It is the singular virtue of Griffiths' book that it is such a meeting, a responsible exposition of intra-Buddhist debate on a difficult philosophical point, combined with an unembarrassed inquiry into the adequacy of the Buddhist solutions. Perhaps even more extraordinary is the fact that Griffiths' exegesis is remarkably clear and jargonfree (it is recognizably in English!), and that his philosophical analysis, though pointed, is on the whole quite fair.

  The difficult philosophical point on which Griffiths bases his discussion is the "attainment of cessation" (Sanskrit, nirodhasamaapatri), an "enstatic" meditative state, usually said to be achievable after the final formless dhyaana, "in which no mental events of any kind occur" (p. 13). In particular, Griffiths is concerned to analyze the ways in which a number of major Indian Buddhist scholastic traditions attempt to solve the special philosophical problem posed by the attainment of cessation: how to account for the resumption of consciousness after a hiatus in which there have been no mental events. Griffiths astutely recognizes that, although debates on the attainment of cessation may not appear to be critical to Buddhist soteriology, epistemology, or metaphysics, they do, in fact, raise fundamental questions in all these areas. Griffiths poses soteriological questions about the compatibility between the attainment of cessation (or other "tranquillity"-oriented meditative states) and the more analytical tradition of "insight" meditation. He poses epistemological questions about the frequent assumption that consciousness must invariably be intentional. It is the metaphysical questions, however, that are most crucial, and it is on these that Griffiths focuses most carefully.

  Among the metaphysical problems that Griffiths sees exposed by the debate on the attainment of cessation are those of (a) substance versus nonsubstance ontology, (b) the nature of causal relations, and (c) the relationship between mind and body. Each of these may be illustrated briefly by considering how they would not be problems if the Buddhists had embodied assumptions other than those that they do. (a) Buddhists generally posit an ontology that asserts the existence only of transient events, and denies any "enduring, independent, uncaused, individuated" substance (p. 108); were




they to admit such a substance, the attainment of cessation would pose no problem, because a "personal" substance could bridge the hiatus between the last mental event before cessation and the first one after it. (b) Buddhists also tend to assume that "every event has, as a necessary condition for its occurrence, a cause which is (tempo- rally) immediately antecedent and (phenomenologically) of the same kind" (p. 111); were they to admit that a cause need not be temporally immediately antecedent to its effect, the attainment of cessation would pose no problem, since the last moment of consciousness prior to cessation could effect the first moment of consciousness after cessation at a temporal distance. (c) Buddhists also tend to assume that "transitory events...are of two basic types: mental and physical" (p. 108), and that the one cannot be the necessary and sufficient condition of the other; were they to admit that physical events can be the primary cause of mental events, the attainment of cessation would pose no problem, because the body, which has persisted through cessation, would then be the cause of the first mental event after cessation. The "admissions" through which the Buddhists might solve their problems clearly are unacceptable to them, however, for each admission threatens still other "gut convictions": to admit that there may be a persisting substance threatens to undermine the Buddhist conviction that our suffering is rooted in grasping at self; to admit that causes may work at a temporal distance vitiates the conviction no event can last more than an instant without being a "substance"; and to admit that body may be the cause of mind may be to undermine the possibility that anything survives physical death, hence to threaten the whole concept of rebirth.

  After an introduction in which he ably defends his belief that when philosophical texts are "explicitly normative in their claims and methods we, as interpreters [must] take that aspect of them seriously and deal with them on that level" (p. xx), Griffiths devotes the next three chapters (the bulk of the book) to Buddhist debates about the attainment of cessation in the Theravaada, Vaibhaa.sika, and Yogaacaara traditions. In each case, he first contextualizes the tradition's discussion historically and doctrinally, then traces the actual debate about cessation, and concludes with remarks and questions of his own. Throughout, Griffiths alternates textual citations with his own restatements of Buddhist assertions in the form of numbered propositions. There always is a danger here of gross oversimplification, but 1 think that, by and large, Griffiths manages to recast the Buddhist arguments accurately and clearly, and that it is one of the most appealing aspects of his methodology.

His discussion of Theravaada focuses on Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga, where he finds the problem of emergence from cessation addressed, although in a manner that pointedly raisesbut does not solvethe metaphysical problems just mentioned. The Vaibhaa.sika tradition, as exposed in Vasubandhu's Abhidharmako`sa and the bhaa.sya upon it, recognizes the problem as a serious one, and offers as its solution the possibility of causality at a temporal distance (that is, the last mental event before cessation causes the first one after it.) The Sautraantikas, recognizing the substance view implied by the Vaibhaa.sika position, propose in reply that the first mental event after cessation results from the "seeds" of mental events carried by the body. This, of course, begs the question of whether such seeds are mental or physical; either possibility seems unacceptable, and the later Sautraantika suggestion (unmentioned by Griffiths) that the seeds are special dharmas that are neither mental nor physical is not without its difficulties. Further debate is carried on between Vasumitra and Gho.saka, the former



conceding that there is in fact unmanifest mental activity during cessation, the latter defending the orthodox Vaibhaa.sika view by pointing out that consciousness is intentional, so to admit mental activity during cessation is to admit intentionality, hence to contradict the definition of cessation.

  It is partially in response to difficulties posed by the intentional model of consciousness, Griffiths suggests, that the Yogaacaara finally went beyond it and posited a nonintentional store-consciousness (aalayavijnnaana) as the repository of the seeds of mentation, hence as that principle which allows a nonintentional attainment of cessation, but at the same time provides a basis for the resumption of mental activity at cessation's end. Griffiths feels that the Yogaacaara solution disposes of many of the problems left by previous schools, but at the price of coming very close to admitting a continuing "substance." This, of course, is a charge that Yogaacaarins themselves had to answer, and their success in refuting it hinges ultimately on a successful account of (a) the relation between the nonintentional store-consciousness and ordinary intentional consciousness and (b) how a nonsubstance-based ontology and causal theory might account for the world we experience. It is on the former point that Buddhist philosophers tended to press the Yogaacaara; it is the latter point that is probably of more interest to contemporary Western philosophers. Griffiths raises the latter point on several occasions and suggests its difficulty, but also recognizes that its full discussion is beyond the scope of his book, and so leaves it hanging.

  Griffiths concludes with a discussion of the Buddhist view of the mind-body problem that is exposed through the debates on cessation, noting correctly that it is "a non-substantivist event-based interactionist psyche-physical dualism" (p. 112). There follow three appendices: an analysis of the place of the attainment of cessation in the soteriological path of the Abhidharmako`sabhaa.sya; the Sanskrit text, English translation, and annotation of debates on cessation in the same text; and a similar treatment of the eightfold proof of the store-consciousness in Vasumitra's Abhidharmasamuc-cayabhaa.sya. The appendices, as well as the notes that follbw, are models of care and lucidity.

  There are a number of points of interpretation and emphasis on which I might differ with Griffiths (for example, the incompatibility of tranquil and insightful meditative states, or the unambiguously idealistic nature of all Yogaacaara)but my demurs are minor. In the final analysis, On Being Mindless has a great deal to offer both the Buddhist scholar and the philosopher, and it is, to my mind, as admirable a model of East-West philosophisizing as we have seen in a very long time.