Vasubandhu on the Vatsiputriyas' fire-fuel analogy

James Duerlinger
Philosophy East and West 32, no. 2(April, 1982).
(c) by the University Press of Hawaii.
pp.151-158


. P.151 In the final section of the Abhidharmako'sa, entitled Pudgalanivi'scaya, Vasubandhu criticizes the Vaatsiiputriiyas' use of an analogy to a fire and its fuel to defend their claim that a person is an inexplicable substance.(1) A person was said to be inexplicable in the sense that he is neither different from nor the same as the mind-body aggregates in reliance upon whose presence he is called a person. Vasubandhu's critique of this analogy has not, to my knowledge, been correctly translated or interpreted by modern scholars such as Stcherbatsky.(2) I shall here offer what I believe to be the correct translation and interpretation of his critique. Vasubandhu begins his investigation of the Vaatsiiputriiyas' view after reminding the reader that liberation is achieved only by destroying the inborn idea of a self totally different from the mind-body aggregates and that the term "self " is, in fact, a convenient label for the collection of the mind-body aggregates. The Vaatsiputriiyas, as Buddhists, agreed with the first of these two claims but not with the second, since they rejected the notion that the mere collection of the mindbody aggregates can be a self whose actions result in its own sufferings and whose efforts give rise to its own liberation. Instead, they asserted that the self or person who can perform these functions cannot be said to be either different from or the same as the mind-body aggregates, that is, a person is inexplicable, although he is called a person in reliance upon the presence of his aggregates. Vasubandhu first objects to this view by arguing that if a person is called a person in reliance upon the presence of the mind-body aggregates, whether in reliance upon their having been perceived when present or in dependence upon their presence in the way that one phenomenon arises in dependence upon the presence of another, then the term "person" would still seem to apply only to those aggregates. Then the Vatsiiputriiyas are represented as defending their claim that an inexplicable person is called a person in reliance upon the presence of his mind-body aggregates by claiming that this case is analogous to that in which a fire is called a fire in reliance upon the presence of its fuel. The analogy is also meant to defend the claim that a person is neither different from nor the same as his mind-body aggregates. Vasubandhu's exposition of the Vaatsiputriiyas' analogy I translate as follows: They claim that a fire cannot be called a fire unless its fuel is present and that it cannot be said to be either different from or the same as its fuel. Their argument is that if the fire were different, its fuel could not become hot, and that if it were the same, the very thing which is being burned would be that which burns it. Similarly, it is claimed that a person cannot be called a person unless his mind-body aggregates are present and that he cannot be said to be either different from or the same as his mind-body aggregates. Their argument is that if the person were different, the consequence would be eternalism, and that if he were the same, the consequence would be nihilism.(3) _____________________________________________________ James Duerlinger is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Iowa. p.152 Let us first comment on the Vaatsiiputriiyas' argument concerning a fire and its fuel, and then on their argument concerning a person and his mind-body aggregates. The Vaatsiiputriiyas argued that if a fire were different, that is, totally different, from its fuel, then, contrary to fact, its fuel could not become hot. This argument assumes the view that an agent (kart.r) like a fire could not act on its patient (karman) were it completely different from it. The argument, that if a fire were the same, that is, totally the same, as its fuel, then, contrary to fact, its fuel would itself be the fire, assumes the view that an agent such as a fire must be different from its patient if it is to act on it. The general assumption of the argument, then, is that an agent cannot be either totally different from or totally the same as the patient upon which it acts if it is actually to act on that patient. Among the Vaibhaa.sikas, only the Vaatsiiputriiyas had accepted the notion of a substantive agent which produces an effect in a patient. Other Vaibhaa.sikas rejected this notion precisely because a real agent could be neither different from nor the same as its patient. The Vaatsiiputriiyas elected to accept the substantive existence of such agents, with the proviso that their ontological status as either different from or the same as their patients is inexplicable, since all causal action, which is real, requires a real agent.(4) The category of inexplicable substances, constituted by such agents, included fires and persons. All patients, however, were thought to be reducible to one of the seventy-two kinds of explicable substances, that is, those phenomena (dharmas) which are totally different from one another. Unlike other Vaibhaa.sikas, the Vaatsiiputriiyas believed that the person is the agency which produces the activities of the mind-body aggregates, just as a fire is the agency which produces the burning of its fuel. The Vaatsiiputriiyas' second argument, which concerns the inexplicability of the ontological relationship between the person and his mind-body aggregates, does not rely on the preceding causal principle, since its use would have begged the question. The first part of the second argument is that if the person were different, that is, completely different, from his mind-body aggregates, then, contrary to fact, his eternalism is implied. This part of the argument was accepted by all Vaibhaa.sikas, and the key to understanding it is that, in this circumstance, the eternalistic view of the person is that he is a causally unconditioned phenomenon (asa.msk.rtadharma). Since the Vaibhaa.sikas included all causally conditioned phenomena (sa.msk.rtadharmas) among the mind-body aggregates, they argued that if the self were completely different from the mind-body aggregates, it would have to be, if it existed at all, a causally unconditioned phenomenon. But the three kinds of such phenomena accepted by the Vaibhaa.sikas did not include the self. Moreover, the Vaibhaa.sikas claimed that a causally unconditioned self does not exist because it can be neither directly nor inferentially cognized. The second part of the argument is that if the person were the same, completely the same, as his mind-body aggregates, then the nihilistic view of self is implied. Nihilism, in this case, is the view that there can be no self which suffers the results p.153 of its actions according to the law of actions and their results. The Vaatsiiputriiyas realized that if the person is completely the same as the mind-body aggregates, conceived as a collection of momentary substances, the person is actually many persons, each existing for a single moment, with the result that the person who performs an action cannot be the same person who suffers its result. Thus, the law of actions and their results, which requires that the results of an action performed must be suffered by the same person who performs the action, is violated. Hence, the identification of the person with the aggregates entails the denial of the law of actions and their results, a denial which the Buddha labeled nihilism. Vasubandhu replies to the Vaatsiiputriiyas' analogy by considering three accounts of a fire and its fuel (actually offered, presumably, by the Vaatsiiputriiyas) and then showing that none of the three is consistent with their main thesis. A fire's fuel, of course, is what can be burned and a fire itself is what burns that fuel. Vasubandhu, however, demands a more exact account. The first attempt to give an account of a fire and its fuel I translate as follows: They say that the fuel of a fire is said by the world to be things such as unignited wood, which are the sorts of things which can be burned, and that a fire is said to be things such as ignited wood, which are the sorts of things which burn the fuel. A fire, blazing and intensely hot, ignites and burns fuel because it brings about a transformation in the fuel's continuum. Both a fire and its fuel are composed of the eight elemental substances, and the fire arises in dependence on the presence of its fuel, just as curds arise in dependence on milk and the sourness of milk on its sweetness.(5) The Vaataiiputriiyas' more exact account of a fire and its fuel includes [1] an explanation of fuel as ignitable material not yet ignited and a fire as an ignited material which is an agent acting on its fuel, and [2] an explanation of a fire and its fuel, so defined, which accords with the Vaibhaa.sikas' account of the elemental composition of gross objects, as well as their account of their dependent-arising. Vasubandhu's retort is short and to the point: But on this account of how a fire is called a fire in reliance upon the presence of its fuel, it is different from its fuel, since it exists at a different time. Moreover, if a person, in the same way, arises in dependence on his mind-body aggregates, not only must he be different from them, but also he must be impermanent.(6) The main point Vasubandhu has made is that, so defined and explained, a fire is not an inexplicable substance, since it arises in dependence on its fuel in the same way that one explicable impermanent substance arises in dependence on another. An ignited material arises after, and in dependence on, the unignited material which is to be ignited. Therefore, on this explication of a fire and its fuel their causal relation does not entail the ontological inexplicability of a fire, and so, neither does the causal relation between a person and his mind-body aggregates entail the inexplicability of a person. The point is added that a person, like a fire, thus explained, would also be impermanent, since a central concern of the Vaatsiiputriiyas was to deny that a person is impermanent. p.154 The crucial problem with the Vaatsiiputriiyas' first account is that a fire, as an ignitable material already ignited, must exist after its fuel, as an ignitable material not yet ignited, is present. Consequently, the Vaatsiiputriiyas' second account attempts to remedy this defect. Then, again, suppose that the Vaatsiiputriiyas reply that a fire is just the heat which occurs when things such as wood are being ignited and that its fuel is constituted by the three elements which co-exist with that heat.(7) Among the eight coexistent elemental substances which were believed to constitute such gross objects as ignited wood are the elements popularly called earth, air, fire, and water, whose physical functions, respectively, are repulsion, attraction, heat, and motion. The suggestion is made that a fire, which is a gross object rather than the fire element itself, is the heat present in the ignited materials by reason of the presence in them of the fire element, and that its fuel is comprised of the materials which are being ignited and are also in the ignited materials by reason of the presence in them of the earth, air, and water elements. If a fire and its fuel are so explained, then a fire does not arise after its fuel is present, since both exist only when materials are being ignited. Since heat present in the ignited materials is the agent which is transforming materials into ash, and so on, it is, properly speaking, the fire which burns the fuel. Vasubandhu raises his first objection to this account as follows: But then a fire will still be different from its fuel, since each has a different defining property.(8) The basis upon which the Vaibhaa.sikas distinguished as completely different from one another the seventy-five kinds of phenomena they counted as substances knowable to the mind is that each had its own defining property (lak.sa.na). Consequently, since the heat present in an ignited material is not other than the fire element present in it, and the materials being burned are not other than the elemental substances which constitute them, yet each of the four elements has its own defining property, if a fire is the heat present in the ignited material and its fuel is the material being burned, a fire is completely different from its fuel. Hence, a fire so defined is not an inexplicable substance, and if it is not, it is not a proper analog to the supposed inexplicable person. The second objection to the Vaatsiiputriiyas' second account is as follows: Moreover, what can "in reliance upon" mean now? How can a fire be called a fire on the basis of the presence of its fuel? The fuel would not be a cause of the fire or of a fire being called a fire, since the fire itself will now be the basis upon which it is called a fire.(9) The Vaatsiiputriiyas had originally claimed that a fire is called a fire in reliance upon the presence of its fuel, but if the fire itself is present, as here implied, why should its being called a fire depend upon the presence of its fuel? Moreover, if the fire and its fuel are both present, how can the fire arise in reliance unon the presence p.155 of its fuel? In other words, its fuel would not then be a cause of the arising of the fire. An obvious way to sidestep the last objection is to redefine "in reliance upon" so that when one thing relies upon another for its existence, the first need not exist after the second. If it is said that "in reliance upon" signifies that the fuel supports the existence of the fire and co-exists with it then it follows that the mind-body aggregates also support the existence of a person and co-exist with him, in which case it is also clear that the separateness of a person from his aggregates is accepted.(10) The point is that if the Vaatsiiputriiyas claim that this same relation obtains between a person and his mind-body aggregates, then the person is completely different from them, just as the fire element and its heat are completely different from the other three elements. Moreover, a person would not then exist when the mind-body aggregates are not present, just as a fire would not exist when its fuel is not present.(11) The Vaatsiiputriiyas did not hold the view that a person cannot exist apart from his mind-body aggregates. Strictly speaking, their view is that a person exists who cannot be given a name unless his aggregates are present, since he cannot be perceived unless they are present. Had they asserted that a person exists only if his aggregates are present, they would have been committed to a view they were trying to avoid, namely, that after death the Buddha no longer exists, since at death the Buddha's aggregates cease to exist.(12) The Vaatsiiputriiyas' view, therefore, conforms to the Buddha's own claim that his own status after death is an undeclared topic, since on their view, it cannot be said whether or not the Buddha, a person, exists after death, since the conditions under which the question could be answered no longer exist. For this reason Vasubandhu's objection hits the mark, since it shows that if the Vaatsiiputriiyas claim that a person coexists with, and his existence is supported by, his aggregates, then, contrary to their own view, he would not exist when his aggregates no longer exist. Vasubandhu's last objection to the second account of a fire and its fuel concerns its consistency with the Vaatsiiputriiyas' argument that if a fire is completely different from its fuel, its fuel could not become hot. Also, the Vaatsiiputriiyas' claim, that if a fire is different from its fuel, then its fuel could not become hot, becomes problematic. For what does "hot" name? If it names that whose nature is heat [au.s.nyam], then the fuel definitely lacks heat because it is constituted by the other three elements. But if it names that which possesses heat [au.s.nyavat], then something other than a fire, whose essence is heat, can also be hot, since it is joined with heat. Hence, the difference between a fire and its fuel no longer causes a difficulty.(13) Vasubandhu is claiming that if a fire is identified with the heat present in ignited materials and its fuel with the materials constituted by the other three elements, then the complete difference between a fire and its fuel only implies that its fuel p.156 cannot get hot in the trivial sense that heat is not the essence of the materials constituted by the earth, air, and water elements, since heat is conventionally ascribed to all gross objects on the basis of the presence in them of the fire element. Consequently, the Vaatsiiputriiyas must abandon either this second account of a fire and its fuel or their argument for the claim that a fire cannot be different from its fuel. Thus far, a fire and its fuel have been equated, on the one hand, with ignited materials and unignited but ignitable materials, and on the other hand, with the heat present in ignited materials and the remaining materials of the ignited material, respectively. Both accounts, however, are faulty primarily because a real difference between a fire and its fuel is still implied, since, in the first case, they are really distinct objects, and in the second case, they are really distinct parts of the ignited ma terials. Consequently, to avoid this problem, the final alternative account is given. Then, again, suppose that the Vaatsiiputriiyas reply that both a fire and its fuel are comprised of the whole of the ignited wood, etc.(14) Vasubandhu's reply is that this alternative implies the sameness of a fire and its fuel, which is inconsistent with the idea that the first is given a name in reliance upon the presence of the second. And so, with regard to their analogs: But then how can it be explained that a person is called a person in reliance upon the presence of his mind-body aggregates? For if the aggregates themselves are also the person, the view cannot be avoided that they are the same.(15) The Vaatsiiputriiyas initially claimed that a person is called a person in reliance upon the presence of his mind-body aggregates because they believed that a person could not be said to be the same as them. Therefore, this third account of a fire and its fuel must be abandoned. Having determined that none of these three acounts of a fire and its fuel shows that a fire is an inexplicable substance which receives its name in reliance upon the presence of its fuel, Vasubandhu concludes that the Vaatsiiputriiyas' conception of a person as an inexplicable substance which receives its name in reliance upon the presence of the mind-body aggregates is not analogous to the idea of a fire being called a fire in reliance upon the presence of its fuel, since a fire is not an inexplicable substance. Therefore, it is not established that a person is called a person in reliance upon the presence of his mind-body aggregates in the same way that a fire is called a fire in reliance upon the presence of its fuel.(16) The general argument for this conclusion has been that the three ways in which the Vaatsiiputriiyas have (or could have) explained what a fire and its fuel are do not justify the claim that a fire, because of its causal relation to its fuel, is an ontologically inexplicable substance. p.157 NOTES 1. Ahhidharmako'sa and Bhaa.sya of AAcaarya Vasubandhu with Sphu.taarthaa Commentary of AAcaarya Ya'somitra, Part IV, ed. D. Shastri (Varanasl: Bauddha Bharati Series, 1973), PP. 1189-1234, esp. pp. 1193--1195 (hereafter cited as ADK IV). 2. I have been able to discover only T. Stcherbatsky's translation and interpretation, which may be found in The Soul Theory of the Buddhists, (Varanasl: Bhaaratiiya Vidyaa Prakaa'sana, 1970), PP 15-19 (hereafter cited as STB). 3. ADK IV., p. 1193. Stcherbatsky translates as follows (STB, pp. 15-16): Vaatsiiputriiya. If there is no fuel, neither (is there anything) we can apply the name of fire to. Nevertheless we neither can maintain that fire is something different from burning fuel nor can we assert that it is the same. Were it altogether different, fuel could not contain any caloric element, (which we know it always does contain). But if there were no difference at all, then the substance that burns and the something that singes would be (one and the same substance). This illustrates (the relation b etween the Individual and its elements). If the elements of a personal life are absent, we do not use the term Individual. Nevertheless we neither can maintain that the Individual is something different from its component elements, nor can we assert that they are identical. (In the first case) the consequence would be an eternal (Soul), (in the second) its total absence. In a long footnote (pp. 93-96) to this passage Stcherbatsky explains "the Buddhist theory of matter" so that the Vaatsiiputriiyas' argument against the total difference between fire and fuel may be understood. He believes, as his translation makes clear, that they are arguing that the elemental substance, called fire, could not be present in fuel if fire were totally different from fuel. However, on this interpretation the Vaatsiiputriiyas are made to equivocate on "fire" (agni), since the fire which is said to be not different from its fuel is not the elemental substance called "fire," but what the world calls fire. The Vaatsiiputriiyas accepted the standard Buddhist account of the elemental fire, which was held to he different from the other elements which also compose all gross material objects. 4. Cp. STB, p. 62. In his footnote (p. 107) to this passage, Stcherbatsky fails to make the important point that the Vaatsiiputriiyas themselves accepted the view that the real existence of causal action requires the existence of an agent. 5. ADK IV, pp. 1193-1194. Stcherbatsky translates (STB, pp. 16-17) as follows: Vaatsiiputriiya. Now, as used in common life (these terms have the meaning of wood and flames). When wood or any other fuel is bursting into flames, people say: "this is fuel", "it is burning". With regard to the flames they say: "This is fire", "it singes". Flames and intense heat are the agency which burns, i.e. destroys, fuel in the sense that the continuity of its existence undergoes a change, (it is turned into ashes). But (from the scientific point of view), both fuel and fire are composed of (exactly the same set) of eight primary constituents (the sole difference consisting in the circumstance that in fire the caloric element is more prominent than in fuel). If the production of fire is conditioned by the presence of fuel, it is just as the production of curds which is conditioned (by the previous existence of milk), or the milk's sour taste which is conditioned by its previous sweet taste. Stcherbatsky's rendition of this account of a fire and its fuel falsely suggests that a fire is merely the flames and beat which burn a fuel, which is merely the wood, and so forth, which are being burned by the flames. In fact, it is essential to the account given that a fire is ignited material and its fuel is unignited material. Vasubandhu's criticism of this account would not apply to the view Stcherbatsky ascribes here to the Vaatsiiputriiyas, since the flames can only exist simultaneously with the mat- erials being burned by them. The Vaatsiiputriiyas' first vew, as represented by Vasubandhu, is that a fire is a burning material and its fuel is a material which can be burned by the burning material or fire. 6. ADK IV, pp. 1193-1194. 7. ADK IV, p. 1194. Stcherbatsky translates (STB, pp. 17-18) this passage as if it were a continuation of Vasubandhu's critique of the first account of a fire and its fuel. However, Vasubandhu clearly marks off this new account, as he does the third (ADK IV, p. 1195), with the words "atha puna.h." Also, Stcherbatsky translates "u.s.nya.m" as "caloric element" rather than as "heat," which creates the false impression that the Vaatsiiputriiyas meant to identify a fire with the elemental fire rather than with its physical function. 8. ADK IV, p. 1194. 9. Ibid. 10. Ibid. p.158 11. Ibid. Stcherbatsky seems to have interpreted this sentence (STB, p. 18) not as a criticism of the Vaatsiiputriiyas' position, but as a confirmation of the Vaatsiiputriiyas' view that, when a fire and its fuel are construed in this way, a person cannot exist apart from his mind-body aggregates: (Then indeed it would follow that) no Individual can exist in the absence of its component elements, just as well as no fire can exist in the absence of fuel. However, had the Vaatsiiputriiyas espoused this view, they could not have claimed that a person is a substance (dravya). 12. Cp. Vasubandhu's later dispute with the Vaatsiiputriiyas about the undeclared topics, especially where the Vaatsiiputriiyas (BTS, p. 52) are represented as saying that the Buddha did not state whether he existed after death for fear of being misunderstood as maintaining the position that a person is an eternal substance completely different from his mind-body aggregates. 13. ADK IV, p. 1195. Stcherbatsky translates this passage (BTS, pp. 18-19) quite differently: Vaatsiiputriiya. To this we have already answered, that if fire be altogether different from fuel, the latter could not contain any element of heat, (which it always does contain). Vasubandhu. (Yes, you did say so), but what do you understand by heat? If it is the caloric element fuel never will be the same as heat, since it is (in this case) represented by the other constituents of matter. (They will be as different as one constituent differs from the others). Vaatriiputriiya. But then the other coexisting element may be possessed of heat. In this case it will be established, that they are different from fire, as far as the latter is represented by the caloric element, but they nevertheless will represent heat also, in as much as they will be pregnant with heat. Hence there is no fault in them being different substances, (since they are thus united). Stcherbatsky interprets the last part of the passage to be the Vaatsiiputriiyas' reply to the charge that their second account of a fire and its fuel is inconsistent with their argument for the claim that a fire cannot be completely different from its fuel. Their reply, he thinks, is that a fire is not completely different from its fuel because both can be hot, although only the fire "is represented by the caloric element," that is, has heat as its essence. However, I cannot see how the Sanskrit can be made to fit Stcherbatsky's interpretation, He was most likely led to this view by his misinterpretation of the Vaatsiiputriiyas' initial argument. 14. ADK IV, p. 1 195. Stcherbatsky failed to notice that an entirely new account of a fire and its fuel are now being given ("atha puna.h") in order to avoid the difficulty that, on the two previous accounts, they are substantially different. He interprets the sentence as Vasubandhu calling attention to an implication of the Vaatsiiputriiyas' reply to the charge that their second account is inconsistent with their denial of the total difference between a fire and its fuel. 15. Ibid. 16. Ibid.