On the creation of knowledge…….. (Part 3)

Dharma ChakraIn Buddhist philosophy, the world that we experience is the one created through our senses (5 sense organs and the mind – yes, the mind is a sense organ!).  The reality of our experience is the reality experienced by our senses operating within its limitations. This begs the question on the reliability of our senses? What is reality?

 While philosophies of the Shramana[1] tradition in India and later on Vedantaism[2] have been grappling with this basic metaphysical question for millennia, in the modern western tradition it was Rene Descartes (1596-1650) who first began posing this question. He approached this question with hyperbolical (sceptical) doubt as his methodology and finally arrived at the conclusion that the only thing one can be sure of is that the self exists to ask the question of whether the self exists! He summed this up in a catch phrase whose popularity few statements in the history of western philosophy have matched- Cogito ergo sum[3]!

 However, Buddhist philosophy goes even further in its analysis and states that the reality of our experience is nothing but a creation due to the non-realization of the ultimate reality or Nirvana. In this analysis, the self (cogito) is also the creation of the mind. In fact, nothing exists outside of the mind. Let us explore this question further.

MindHow do you know that you are reading this on a computer screen? You could say because you can see and touch it and because everyone calls this type of object a “computer[4],” you also call it a “computer.” What if we had a different set of sense organs? Would a bee, which sees the world in ultra-violet, see the computer, table, chair or a plant or an animal as we see it? What if we had sense organs that detected electricity and magnetism instead of certain wavelengths of the electro-magnetic spectrum? The answer is that the world we experience would be vastly different if we had other senses. The world we experience is nothing but the experience of our senses! Moreover, it is due to our ignorance[5] that we create the delusion of self which in turn creates our experiences and the world as we come to know it. Therefore, according to Theravada Buddhist philosophy, when we create knowledge, we do not understand a world that exists independent of our senses but the world that we create through our senses. This is the essence of Paticcha Samuppada or the Theory of Dependent Origination outlined in Part 2. Venerable Nagarjuna, in the 2nd century A.D, founded his Madhyamika school of Buddhism based on this epistemology which states that what is beyond Paticcha Samuppada is Shunya or nothingness.

This view is in stark contrast to the western world-view where the world as we know it exists, as created by God, and independent of our existence. With advances in scientific knowledge and the seeming secularization of this knowledge, God gradually became relegated to the background but his creation (the world) continues to exist without the creator.

dualism and monismMoreover, western philosophy and western science has still not grasped properly the role of the mind in the creation of our reality. This is more likely attributable to the metaphysical foundation laid by Descartes with its mind-body dualism. In this Cartesian analysis, the human being is ‘a thing that thinks’. The moment one is aware of the self one becomes aware of the extension[6] of the self which is the measurable physical body. The mind is deemed as being something fundamentally thinking and the body as fundamentally extended. Nothing in the idea of mind depends on the idea of body and nothing in the idea of body depends on the idea of mind. Descartes postulated that mind and body are two fundamentally different entities. Thus he generated a quantifiable conception of the body which can be the basis of physical science and a separate idea of the mind which is simply something that thinks. This Cartesian analysis laid the philosophical basis for the emergence of western sciences and its associated mind-body dualism.   

In his theory of constructive relativism, Professor Nalin de Silva takes the argument in Dependent Origination, a step further. Since the world and everything in it is a creation of the mind due to ignorance, he argues that the mind is the creation of the mind! What we know as the mind is created through two processes – memory and stimulation (both through the sense organs and thoughts that generate without the sense organs). Without a memory, we would not have a recollection of events that builds our sense of experience and without stimulation we wouldn’t have any input that generates our experience. When these two processes occur we generate the concept of mind. Therefore, all knowledge generated is a delusion since the mind in itself and by extension the body is a delusion. 

If then, the whole basis of knowledge is delusion, what foundation do we have  to rest, what arche point to base our sense of right and wrong, good or bad, thought and action?

In response, Professor de Silva, again based on Buddhist thought, distinguishes between two different types of truths. The conventional truths (Sammuthi Sacca) which are important to creating knowledge of the world we live in and the ultimate truth (Paramatta Sacca) arising due to the realization of Nirvana. When we create knowledge, it is conventional truths that we create such as the existence of self, computer, table, language, mind, theories etc. These conventional truths are relative to the Chinthanaya and culture in which the individual/s lives. Thus, Greek-Judaic-Christian Chinthanaya gives rise to theories such as the Big Bang (creation without the creator) and Evolution (animate life arising from inanimate matter)[7]and so on. The ultimate truth is beyond this conceptual world and can be realized through the path enunciated by Lord Buddha but only through Prathyaksha. It is a self-realization through practice and cannot be achieved through teaching, learning or discussion though these methods enable one to gain knowledge on how to practice. However, as the late Venerable Walpola Rahula said, “Lord Buddha showed the path to the mountain (Nirvana) but the mountain is not the result of the path.”

This world-view which realizes the limits of our knowledge as conventional truths has similarities (though not same) to the framework of knowledge creation in the Derridean analysis as stated in Part 1. Both agree that there is no complete knowledge of a situation and what we have are partial theories that try to minimize contradictions. However, one must remember that the Derridean analysis is limited to knowledge or reality generated through language and does not speak of an ultimate truth beyond language that can be realized through Prathyaksha or abstract thought.

With only partial theories to go by, the validity of any knowledge system is determined by power and those who wield power. It was power and greed that colonized the world and sustains the neo-colonial projects of the Greek-Judaic-Christian Chinthanaya, be they in Latin America, Africa or Asia. Its theories of teleological progression (continuous economic growth, progress of societies from one phase to the other as in Rostow and Marx etc.) are vastly different from the cyclic theories of existence in dependent origination, Taoism or Yin-Yang in China. The latter preserves the world building a sustainable way of life, the other generates continuous wants with development and progress being measured by an increase in consumption (economic growth) with greater destruction to the environment and ultimately to man himself.

Today, in the current phase of its anti-colonial struggle Sri Lanka needs theories generated in its Chinthanaya as well as other knowledge absorbed into its Chinthanaya to evolve as an independent nation. More about this in the coming blogs!


[1] Buddhism, Jainism, Yoga emanate from the Shramana tradition

[2] which gave rise to Hinduism around the 6th century AD

[3] “I think, therefore I am” was first mentioned in 1637 by Descartes in his Discourse on Method

[4] see Part 1 for Derrida’s approach to this question based on convention and iteration

[5] non-realization of Anitta, Dhukka, Anatta

[6] length, breadth and height

[7] Notice the similarities to the story of creation in The Bible


One thought on “On the creation of knowledge…….. (Part 3)

  1. This is an excellent concise article on this very important, yet not gain due recognition, work done by Dr. Nalin de Silva in relation to the contemporary knowledge. Thanks for the enlightenment!

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