Realizing the unreal: Dharmakīrti’s theory of yogic perception [Book Review]

Journal of Indian Philosophy 34 (6):497-519 (2006)
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Abstract

The Buddhist epistemologist Dharmakīrti (fl. ca. 7th century C.E.) developed a theory of yogic perception that achieved much influence among Buddhist thinkers in India and Tibet. His theory includes an odd problem: on Dharmakīrti’s view, many of the paradigmatic objects of the adept’s meditations do not really exist. How can one cultivate a meditative perception of the nonexistent? This ontological difficulty stems from Dharmakīrti’s decision to construe the Four Noble Truths as the paradigmatic objects of yogic perception. For him, this ontological problem manifests in an epistemological corollary: “impermanence” (anityatā) and other features of the Noble Truths are conceptual, but the adept’s meditative perception of them must be nonconceptual. How can a nonconceptual cognition apprehend a conceptual object? A key aspect of Dharmakīrti’s theory of concepts provides a solution to this problem. Specifically, Dharmakīrti maintains that a concept, when taken as a mental event, can be considered a particular and thus an object of nonconceptual cognition. Taking this approach, Dharmakīrti downplays the notion that yogic perception is an encounter with real things in the world, in part because it is phenomenally akin to hallucination. Instead, what counts for Dharmakīrti—and what differentiates the adept’s realization from the madman’s hallucination—are the salvific effects induced by the meditative experience.

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