Threefold Knowledge?

A discussion on all aspects of Theravāda Buddhism

Threefold Knowledge?

Postby dcs » Tue Jul 19, 2011 6:21 pm

In the Pali Canon, it is stated that the Buddha and subsequent arahants acquired tevija or the threefold knowledge upon gaining Awakening. Aside from the knowledge of Nibbana itself, the Buddha and subsequent arahants attained knowledge of (1) their own past lives (2) the death and rebirth of beings through the cosmos and (3) the ending of the mental defilements.

I have a theoretical question with regards to the first knowledge, that of gaining knowledge of one's past lives. In what way could that be considered "knowledge"? To clarify, I do not have a problem accepting/understanding the other two knowledges. With regards to the knowledge of ending the mental defilements, if one has truly ended greed, anger, delusion, sensuality, etc. it would be quite obvious to oneself that such an insight is true. Furthermore, with regards to the knowledge of the death and rebirth of beings, if one actually gained the ability to observe beings/people dying and then re-arising somewhere else, one could fairly easily corroborate such observations (for example, if one observed, through using the Divine Eye, someone dying in New York and then re-arising in London, one could, through conventional means, verify whether that person in fact died in New York and then verify if their "successor" was in fact subsequently born in London).

But with regards to the insight into one's past lives. I do not readily see how such an insight could be considered reliable and therefore, a form of knowledge. In theory, how does one verify that the memories one has gained of their past lives are accurate/true and not false? Even if such memories were highly detailed and consistent, that alone would not guarantee their veracity. Furthermore, knowledge that beings in fact are dying and being reborn does not necessarily guarantee that one's own past-life memories are accurate or genuine (although it is certainly strong evidence that they are). Assume that rebirth is true for the purposes of this question.
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Re: Threefold Knowledge?

Postby santa100 » Tue Jul 19, 2011 10:20 pm

Actually, even for case number 2.: "the death and rebirth of beings through the cosmos", it'd be very difficult to verify thru "conventional means". If John Doe, the arahant lives in California and has never physically been to Kenya, Africa nor Brazil, South America, and if he sees John Smith dies in Brazil and reborn in Kenya, the only way to verify with 100% accuracy thru "conventional means" is to fly over to both countries and conduct long series of scientific experiments in both places. This hasn't accounted for incident of Jane Smiley, who dies on Earth and rebirth on a different Galaxy, which makes it even more difficult. So, for case 2., John Doe the arahant must be, through his years of dhamma training, pretty confident with his Divine eyes, which are able to see with 100% accuracy through physical space dimension. From this, it won't be too hard to imagine his Divine eyes could also be able to see with 100% accuracy through the time dimension (to satisfy case number 1.: "seeing his own past lives")..
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Re: Threefold Knowledge?

Postby dcs » Wed Jul 20, 2011 1:57 am

santa100 wrote:If John Doe, the arahant lives in California and has never physically been to Kenya, Africa nor Brazil, South America, and if he sees John Smith dies in Brazil and reborn in Kenya, the only way to verify with 100% accuracy thru "conventional means" is to fly over to both countries and conduct long series of scientific experiments in both places. This hasn't accounted for incident of Jane Smiley, who dies on Earth and rebirth on a different Galaxy, which makes it even more difficult.


Well what I was trying to say was that the ability to see beings dying and re-arising in various places appears to be more "reliable" than one's ability to recall past lives, since one is able to corroborate the former through additional evidence. In other words, suppose the arahant (who is located in California) was able to observe (through the use of Divine Vision) John Smith dying in Brazil and then re-arising as Jane Smiley in Kenya and then coincidentally, he happened to read in the newspaper that John Smith did in fact die in Brazil and that Jane Smiley was indeed born in Kenya. In this case, the newspaper would serve to corroborate his supranormal ability. The arahant was able to use his power to gain information he otherwise would not have known.

The same could be said for other supranormal powers an arahant or meditator might gain through the course of his or her practice. For example, in the case of clairaudience, suppose an arahant (who is located in California) was able to hear (through the use of clairaudience) President Obama, who is located in DC, saying in a top-secret meeting that he would make an unexpected television announcement to the public in 10 minutes. Then 10 minutes later, President Obama in fact makes such announcement. In this case, the occurrence of the President's announcement would serve to corroborate the arahant's power of clairaudience.

It seems that, with the exception of the ability to recall past lives, all the supranormal powers an arahant might gain could be verified or corroborated through such conventional means. However, I don't see how the ability to recall past lives could be. Anyway, just to be clear, I did not mean to start a trivial or picayune debate by creating this thread. As a matter of fact, I have strong conviction in the doctrine of rebirth. It's just that I want my conviction to be well-reasoned and not merely blind-faith. I was just hoping that others who have a better understanding of this topic could share it with me.
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Re: Threefold Knowledge?

Postby santa100 » Wed Jul 20, 2011 3:38 am

Also just to make it clear that it's never my intention to try to win a discussion. A discussion is there to help people arrive at the truth. I think you've set up the basic cases for investigation. Supranormal powers when extended beyond the "earth" scope will be very difficult to verify through conventional means. Going back to the Kenya/Brazil example, once we extend the scope to beyond the earth boundary (to another Galaxy, for example), then all "conventional means" would need to be re-defined. So, the Kenya/Brazil example serves a a mini test case for the "rebirth thru the cosmos" general case, which requires the arhant's mastery of the space dimension. Similarly, the Clairaudience /10 minute before announcement example serves as a mini test case for the "recall past lives" general case, which requires the arahant's mastery of the time dimension. Convenional means can help verify the mini cases since they are within-scope. The moment we extend them, then it's pretty much up to John Doe the arahant alone to see it for himself. Else If he knows another fellow arahant, Jane Roe, he could check with her to confirm..
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Re: Threefold Knowledge?

Postby dcs » Wed Jul 20, 2011 5:02 pm

santa100 wrote:Supranormal powers when extended beyond the "earth" scope will be very difficult to verify through conventional means.


Yes, that's true. Furthermore, in no case do I think it's at all possible to empirically prove the accuracy of one's own psychic powers or the knowledge of Awakening itself (although I do not doubt that such attainments would be true and possible)...But I'm still very curious as to why the Pali Canon considers the ability to recollect past lives to be a type of "knowledge." Also, as you pointed out, seeing beings dying on Earth and then re-arising in some place other than Earth, such as another galaxy or in another realm would be impossible to corroborate through "conventional" means. Therefore, why would the Pali Canon refer to the ability to see beings dying and re-arising across the cosmos as a type of "knowledge" as well?

I found a two excerpts from a sutta (MN 39) that you might be interested in or familiar with:

With his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it to knowledge of the recollection of past lives. He recollects his manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two births, three births, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, one hundred, one thousand, one hundred thousand, many aeons of cosmic contraction, many aeons of cosmic expansion, many aeons of cosmic contraction and expansion, [recollecting], 'There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.' Thus he recollects his manifold past lives in their modes and details. Just as if a man were to go from his home village to another village, and then from that village to yet another village, and then from that village back to his home village. The thought would occur to him, 'I went from my home village to that village over there. There I stood in such a way, sat in such a way, talked in such a way, and remained silent in such a way. From that village I went to that village over there, and there I stood in such a way, sat in such a way, talked in such a way, and remained silent in such a way. From that village I came back home.' In the same way — with his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability — the monk directs and inclines it to knowledge of the recollection of past lives. He recollects his manifold past lives... in their modes and details.


With his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it to knowledge of the passing away and re-appearance of beings. He sees — by means of the divine eye, purified and surpassing the human — beings passing away and re-appearing, and he discerns how they are inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate in accordance with their kamma: 'These beings — who were endowed with bad conduct of body, speech, and mind, who reviled the noble ones, held wrong views and undertook actions under the influence of wrong views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell. But these beings — who were endowed with good conduct of body, speech, and mind, who did not revile the noble ones, who held right views and undertook actions under the influence of right views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the good destinations, in the heavenly world.' Thus — by means of the divine eye, purified and surpassing the human — he sees beings passing away and re-appearing, and he discerns how they are inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate in accordance with their kamma. Just as if there were a tall building in the central square [of a town], and a man with good eyesight standing on top of it were to see people entering a house, leaving it, walking along the street, and sitting in the central square. The thought would occur to him, 'These people are entering a house, leaving it, walking along the streets, and sitting in the central square.' In the same way — with his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability — the monk directs and inclines it to knowledge of the passing away and re-appearance of beings. He sees — by means of the divine eye, purified and surpassing the human — beings passing away and re-appearing, and he discerns how they are inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate in accordance with their kamma...


I think what the Buddha is saying here is that with regards to the ability to recollect past lives, one recalls those lives no differently than how one would recollect a very accurate memory. You might remember quite accurately everything you did yesterday. Although you cannot empirically prove that those memories are true, as far as you're concerned, you do not doubt their veracity because you really do recall those memories. In that way, they could be considered a type of "knowledge."

Furthermore, with regards to the ability to see beings dying and re-arising across the cosmos, the Buddha appears to be saying that one literally sees that process happening. In other words, your physical eyes gain the ability to see beings dying and re-arising all over the place. Although you cannot necessarily prove that everything you see with your own eyes is true, as far as you're concerned they are true, because you are actually seeing it. Therefore, it's in this way that the ability to see the death and rebirth of beings might be considered a type of knowledge.

However,I am not sure if I am satisfied with my own explanation. santa100, do you have any thoughts?
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Re: Threefold Knowledge?

Postby santa100 » Wed Jul 20, 2011 6:42 pm

All good thoughts there Dcs. It's ok that at this stage we aren't 100% satisfied with the concept. To the fishes in the water, the concept of a cool breeze in a summer afternoon would be a tough one to get a good grasp at. We're those poor fishes swimming in the ocean of suffering. Train hard and hopefully one day we'll see it all nice and clear. For now, we could only use what we currently have in our arsenal: a rational brain, some good logic, and hopefully lots of compassion for others. So, speaking within the given "constraints", I think there's one way for John Doe the arahant to sort of empirically verify his knowledge. Since he's an arahant, he should be able to tell if some other people are arahants as well. If his fellow arahant Jane Roe could do a "peer review" for him, that will be a good approach for the verification process. In fact, there's a sutta in the Nikaya (couldn't find the source at the moment) which talks about an ascetic who thought that he has achieved arhantship while in fact he has not. His friend, a true arhant, knows that his poor friend might stray from the path due to his mistaken view. He then sees the guy and points out where he still need to work on. The guy recognizes his mistake, go back and trained hard and finally attain arhantship like his friend. So basically, the lesson learned is about the importance of association with good noble friends who help one another progress along the path. Let's never forget that lesson. Good luck..
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Re: Threefold Knowledge?

Postby Gena1480 » Sat Jul 23, 2011 10:48 pm

my undersdaing how you can prove the recollection of past lives.
You can remeber two ways.
one way to remember is from a point of yesterday to the day before yesterday (remember backwards)
second way to remember is from a point of day before yesterday to yesterday (remember forward)
when you remeber backward and from that point you remember how you got to present.
thats how you prove your past lives are true.
that is how i see it
metta
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