The Buddha's Omniscience.

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The Buddha's Omniscience.

Postby Jason » Mon Jan 05, 2009 5:27 am

Regarding the Buddha's omniscience, as it is generally understood by traditional Buddhists at least, there appears to be a fair amount of evidence suggesting that this was a later invention. In SN 54.9, for example, the Buddha gives a group of monks a talk praising foulness of the body meditation. After the talk, the Buddha goes into seclusion for half a month. While away, the monks practice foulness of the body meditation, but being repelled and disgusted with the body, many of them commit suicide or hire assailants to kill them. Upon returning, the Buddha asks Ananda why the Sangha looks so diminished. Ananda explains the situation and then asks the Buddha to give them another meditation method, which ends up being mindfulness of breathing.

Now, if the Buddha was indeed omniscient, it seems surprising that he would have had to ask Ananda what happened. This is especially true considering that Mahavira, who was also said to be omniscient, is ridiculed for going to an empty house for alms, asking for directions, etc. In fact, it is surprising that he did not simply give them a talk on mindfulness of breathing in the first place in order to avoid such a thing from even happening. The "orthodox" position that is supported by the commentaries, however, states that the Buddha already knew this was going to happen and basically played dumb.

The story given is that these monks were hunters in a past life that were reborn in hell, but due to some wholesome kamma, they gained rebirth in the human realm and became renouncers under the Buddha. Knowing that a portion of their original unwholesome kamma was about to ripen bringing on their deaths via homicide and suicide, and that there was nothing he could do to prevent this, the Buddha spoke of the foulness of the body in order to remove their attachment to the body so that they would lose their fear of death, to help them. Sounds like b.s. to me. Bhikkhu Bodhi even admits that "... the idea of kammically predetermined suicide seems difficult to reconcile with the concept of suicide as a volitionally induced act" (1951-52).

Furthermore, in MN 71, the Buddha rejects the assertion that he claims to be "omniscient and all-seeing." He says, "... those who say thus do not say what has been said by me, but misrepresent me with what is untrue and contrary to fact" (Bodhi), but the commentary states that all knowable things are potentially accessible to him. The issue, of course, is whether the Buddha is rejecting the claim that he is omniscient in the sense that all things are knowable to him at all times without interruption (i.e., that he is omniscient in the sense that all knowable things are potentially accessible to him) or whether he is simply rejecting the claim altogether.

There are suttas that supposedly support the commentarial position regarding the Buddha's omniscience. As Bhikkhu Bodhi notes, "At MN 90.8, the Buddha says that it is possible to know and see all, though not simultaneously, and at AN 4:24/ii.24 he claims to know all that can be seen, heard, sensed, and cognized. This is understood by the Theravada commentators as an assertion of omniscience in the qualified sense" (1276). But, I fail to see how MN 90.8 affirms this possibility. The Buddha does state that it is not possible for a recluse or brahmin to know and see all simultaneously, but he never explicitly asserts his own omniscience, and I have since found that many modern scholars share this view.

One example, from Edward Thomas in History of Buddhist Thought, states:

    "Already the Jains claimed omniscience for their leader. They are said to have held that he was "omniscient, all-seeing, and possessed complete knowledge and insight; that whether walking or standing, asleep or awake, knowledge and insight were continually present". This claim is ridiculed by the Buddhists, and the omniscient teacher is described as so ignorant that he goes for alms to a house not knowing that it is empty, or as having to ask his way to a village. Buddha is represented as denying that he claims such omniscience. What he claims is the three knowledges, (1) that he remembers numberless past existences, as far back as he wishes, (2) that with his divine eye he can see beings passing away and being reborn according to their karma, (3) that with the destruction of the asavas he has of himself attained and realized release of mind and knowledge in this life and abides in it." (148)

Another example, from David Kalupahana in A History of Buddhist Philosophy, states:

    "The terms sabbannu, sabbavidu ("all-knowing") and sabbadassavi ("all-perceiving") occur in the early discourses. The general tendency among modern interpreters of Buddhism is to assume that this is a knowledge-claim comparable to the "omniscience" claimed by Mahavira or in the theistic tradition, where it is attributed to divinity. Although the Buddha disclaimed such knowledge in the Tevijja-Vacchagotta-sutta, insisting that he possessed only the threefold higher knowledge ... scholars are more inclined to interpret the last, namely, wisdom (panna), as "omniscience." It is true that some of the later Buddhist metaphysicians like the Sarvastivadins propounded ideas that can serve as a basis for such knowledge-claims. Modern interpreters therefore attempt to attribute these ideas to the Buddha himself despite a mass of evidence against doing so.
    "To understand what the Buddha meant by "all-knowing" or "all-perceiving," it is first necessary to analyze the use of the term "all" (sabbam) in the early discourses. Interestingly, an important discourse relating specially to this problem is attributed to the Buddha:

      Thus have I heard. Once the Fortunate One was living at Savatthi, in the monastery of Anathapindindika, [situated] in the Jeta's Grove. Then the Fortunate One addressed the monks: "O, monks!" They responded: "Yes, O Venerable One!" and the Fortunate One spoke thus: "Monks, I will preach to you 'everything.' Listen to it. Listen to it. What, monks, is 'everything'? Eye and material form, ear and sound, nose and odor, tongue and taste, body and touch, mind and concepts. These are called 'everything.' Monks, he who would say, 'I will reject this []everything[/i] and proclaim another everything,' he may certainly have a theory [of his own]. But when questioned, he would not be able to answer and would, moreover, be subject to vexation. Why? Because it would not be within the range of experience."

    "This discourse makes the Buddha's position abundantly clear. For the Buddha, "all" or "everything" represented the subject defined in terms of the six senses and the object explained in terms of the six sense objects. However, to be "omniscient" it is necessary that one knows everything, not only of the past and present but also of the future. It is possible to claim that the obvious past and future can be known directly if one can perceive the essence of everything. That essence being permanent and eternal, one glimpse of it at any point would mean knowledge of everything. This is certainly how the Buddhist school of Sarvastivadins attempted to justify omniscience, but such a view cannot be attributed to the Buddha. Not only did he refuse to recognize knowledge of such an essence or substance as exisiting in the future, he also claimed that he failed to perceive any such entity surviving in the immediate past or in the present.
    "This is the implication of a disciple's statement: Na tuyham adittham asutam amutam va ato avinnatam kincanam atthi loke. This statement is sometimes interpreted as "You are omniscient," that is, "There is nothing that you have not seen, heard or conceived." This is an extremely superficial and reckless rendering of an important statement. The statement is to be understood in light of the definition of an "enlightened one" in the early Buddhist context. In fact, the term akincana, "one who does not look for something" (kinci; other than what is given in sensory experience, a la discourse on "everything" quoted above), is used to refer to the enlightened one. Hence, the above statement in Pali is more appropriately rendered as: "You do not have (or recognize) something (na kincana) that is not seen, heard, conceived or cognized in this world," which would be a negation rather than an assertion of the very metaphysics that serve as the basis for "omniscience." This idea was highlighted centuries later by the famous Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (see Chapter XVI)." (43-4)

In conclusion, it is my opinion that the idea of the Buddha being an omniscient superman evolved over time, beginning not long after his death or possibily even while he was still alive. Theravada was relatively conservative in this transformation, though. An examination of the textual evidence suggests that some later traditions attempted to transform the Buddha into a transcendent being, and eventually, an emanation of the supramundane Buddha. This process can be traced, beginning with such works as the Mahavastu, and continuing on through works such as the Lalitavistara and the Saddharmapundarikasutra. Nevertheless, I believe that a similar scenario occurred in Theravada, albeit on a much smaller scale, and the Buddha was attributed with qualities that he himself rejected, or at the very least, qualities that were exaggerated. For what it is worth, I think that the Buddha knew and saw all when it came to suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the path leading to the end of suffering (which is impressive enough); but, to be honest, I have a hard time believing that the Buddha knew all and saw all in the biblical sense, and I see little evidence to suggest that he did.

Any thoughts, comments, criticism?
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Re: The Buddha's Omniscience.

Postby retrofuturist » Mon Jan 05, 2009 7:56 am

Greetings Elohim,

You won't get any arguments from me. As far as I'm concerned SN 54.9 definitely rules out full omniscience.

My possibly simplistic take is that the Buddha 'knew everything' by knowing sunnata, the inherent emptiness of all things. He knew everything conditioned as sunna, anatta, anicca etc. and he knew the unconditioned as nibbana. What else is there to know?

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Re: The Buddha's Omniscience.

Postby Dhammanando » Mon Jan 05, 2009 9:34 am

Hi Jason,

Elohim wrote:Any thoughts, comments, criticism?


Okay, let's start with MN. 90, the Kannakatthala Sutta:

    Then King Pasenadi of Kosala said to the Blessed One: “Venerable sir, I have heard this: ‘The recluse Gotama says: “There is no recluse or brahmin who is omniscient and all-seeing, who can claim to have complete knowledge and vision; that is not possible.’“Venerable sir, do those who speak thus say what has been said by the Blessed One, and not misrepresent him with what is contrary to fact? Do they explain in accordance with the Dhamma in such a way that nothing that provides a ground for censure can be legitimately deduced from their assertions?”

    “Great King, those who speak thus do not say what has been said by me, but misrepresent me with what is untrue and contrary to fact.”

    [...]

    Then King Pasenadi of Kosala said to the Blessed One: “Venerable sir, could something else have been said by the Blessed One referring to that, and the person understood it wrongly? In what way does the Blessed One recall making that utterance?”

    “I recall having actually made the utterance in this way, great king: ‘There is no recluse or brahmin who knows all, who sees all, simultaneously; that is not possible.’”

    “What the Blessed One has said appears reasonable, what the Blessed One has said appears to be supported by reason: ‘There is no recluse or brahmin who knows all, who sees all, simultaneously; that is not possible.”

You say of this:

There are suttas that supposedly support the commentarial position regarding the Buddha's omniscience. As Bhikkhu Bodhi notes, "At MN 90.8, the Buddha says that it is possible to know and see all, though not simultaneously, and at AN 4:24/ii.24 he claims to know all that can be seen, heard, sensed, and cognized. This is understood by the Theravada commentators as an assertion of omniscience in the qualified sense" (1276). But, I fail to see how MN 90.8 affirms this possibility.


I would say that it is implied, rather than affirmed. Consider an analogous dialogue:


    Then Queen Elizabeth said to David Cameron: “Mr. Cameron, I have heard this: ‘David Cameron says: “There is no socialist who is capable of organizing a booze-up in a brewery; that is not possible.”’

    “Mr. Cameron, do those who speak thus say what has been said by you yourself, and not misrepresent you with what is contrary to fact? Do they explain in accordance with the truth in such a way that nothing that provides a ground for censure can be legitimately deduced from their assertions?”

    “Ma’am, those who speak thus do not say what has been said by me, but misrepresent me with what is untrue and contrary to fact.”

    [...]

    Then Queen Elizabeth said to David Cameron: “Mr. Cameron, could something else have been said by you referring to that, and the person understood it wrongly? In what way do you recall making that utterance?”

    “I recall having actually made the utterance in this way, ma’am: ‘There is no socialist who could organize a booze-up in a brewery without Tory assistance; that is not possible.’”

    “What David Cameron has said appears reasonable, what David Cameron has said appears to be supported by reason: ‘There is no socialist who could organize a booze-up in a brewery without Tory assistance; that is not possible.’”

Don't you think that David Cameron's last answer implies the possibility of there being a socialist with a qualified capacity for organizing a booze-up in a brewery?

Best wishes,
Dhammanando Bhikkhu
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Re: The Buddha's Omniscience.

Postby Cittasanto » Mon Jan 05, 2009 9:39 am

I don't think the Omniscience of the Buddha is asserted anywhere!
I think the Buddha with the right information would understand things correctly but he would have to have some information to work from!
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Re: The Buddha's Omniscience.

Postby Dhammanando » Mon Jan 05, 2009 9:47 am

Hi Manapa,

Manapa wrote:I don't think the Omniscience of the Buddha is asserted anywhere!


It's asserted all over the place in Pali literature. The point of dispute is not the Buddha's possession of the epithet Sabbaññū, but rather, how this epithet should be understood.

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    ...and this thought arose in the mind of the Blessed One:
    “Who lives without reverence lives miserably.”
    Uruvela Sutta, A.ii.20

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Re: The Buddha's Omniscience.

Postby tiltbillings » Mon Jan 05, 2009 10:23 am

Ven Dhammanando wrote:The point of dispute is not the Buddha's possession of the epithet Sabbaññū, but rather, how this epithet should be understood.


"All knowing" or "knowing the all."
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
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Re: The Buddha's Omniscience.

Postby Will » Mon Jan 05, 2009 4:50 pm

While poking around at Access to Insight, DN 32 uses this term "Kusalena" for Buddha's omniscience. Does it help clarify the meaning any?
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Re: The Buddha's Omniscience.

Postby Jason » Mon Jan 05, 2009 6:20 pm

Ven. Dhammanando,

Dhammanando wrote:You say of this:

There are suttas that supposedly support the commentarial position regarding the Buddha's omniscience. As Bhikkhu Bodhi notes, "At MN 90.8, the Buddha says that it is possible to know and see all, though not simultaneously, and at AN 4:24/ii.24 he claims to know all that can be seen, heard, sensed, and cognized. This is understood by the Theravada commentators as an assertion of omniscience in the qualified sense" (1276). But, I fail to see how MN 90.8 affirms this possibility.


I would say that it is implied, rather than affirmed.


Yes, I think that you raise an excellent point, i.e., that the idea of omniscience is implied in the Buddha's response. I have considered whether this is a discourse whose meaning needs to be inferred or one whose meaning has already been fully drawn out a la AN 2.25, and currently, my opinion based on the evidence at hand is that this is a discourse whose meaning has already been fully drawn out, i.e., that the Buddha was rejecting Mahavira's omniscience, as well as any claims to his own. That being said, I am open to correction if my understanding is in error; however, as it stands, my opinion is that in this context, "knowing the all" is a more accurate rendering of sabbannu than "knowing all."

Best wishes,

Jason
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Re: The Buddha's Omniscience.

Postby BubbaBuddhist » Mon Jan 05, 2009 6:28 pm

It occurs to me that a being capable of total recall of all his previous existences and having access to all possible planes of existences would be indistinguishable from omniscient. Eh?

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Re: The Buddha's Omniscience.

Postby Dhammanando » Mon Jan 05, 2009 9:43 pm

Hi Jason,

Your reply has me a bit puzzled. You start off sounding as if you're agreeing with me, that the possibility of qualified omniscience is implicit in the Kannakatthala Sutta (MN. 90):

Elohim wrote:Yes, I think that you raise an excellent point, i.e., that the idea of omniscience is implied in the Buddha's response.


But in the rest of your post (where you express a contrary view) it seems that it's actually the Culladukkhakkhandha Sutta (MN. 14) that you have in mind:

I have considered whether this is a discourse whose meaning needs to be inferred or one whose meaning has already been fully drawn out a la AN 2.25, and currently, my opinion based on the evidence at hand is that this is a discourse whose meaning has already been fully drawn out, i.e., that the Buddha was rejecting Mahavira's omniscience, as well as any claims to his own.


The Kannakatthala Sutta that I was asking you about has nothing to do with Mahavira.

It occurs to me that perhaps you acknowledge my reading of MN. 90 as a possible one, but then see this possibility negated by the Culladukkhakkhandha Sutta. Would that be right?

And one further question: do you regard the Buddha's claim to be the "foremost of bipeds" as a statement whose meaning is fully drawn out or as one whose meaning needs to be inferred?

Best wishes,
Dhammanando Bhikkhu
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Re: The Buddha's Omniscience.

Postby Jason » Mon Jan 05, 2009 10:55 pm

Ven. Dhammanando,

Dhammanando wrote:Your reply has me a bit puzzled. You start off sounding as if you're agreeing with me, that the possibility of qualified omniscience is implicit in the Kannakatthala Sutta (MN. 90):

Elohim wrote:Yes, I think that you raise an excellent point, i.e., that the idea of omniscience is implied in the Buddha's response.


But in the rest of your post (where you express a contrary view) it seems that it's actually the Culladukkhakkhandha Sutta (MN. 14) that you have in mind:

I have considered whether this is a discourse whose meaning needs to be inferred or one whose meaning has already been fully drawn out a la AN 2.25, and currently, my opinion based on the evidence at hand is that this is a discourse whose meaning has already been fully drawn out, i.e., that the Buddha was rejecting Mahavira's omniscience, as well as any claims to his own.


The Kannakatthala Sutta that I was asking you about has nothing to do with Mahavira.

It occurs to me that perhaps you acknowledge my reading of MN. 90 as a possible one, but then see this possibility negated by the Culladukkhakkhandha Sutta. Would that be right?


I am not sure what you are so confused about. I begin by saying that you raise a good point. This does not mean that I agree with your conclusion, only that I acknowledge the possibility that one could infer the Buddha's omniscience, as it is generally understood by traditional Buddhists, from his response in MN 90. In other words, one could have the opinion that in MN 90, the Buddha states that he recalls saying it is not possible for a recluse or brahmin to know and see all simultaneously (which, incidentally, is the type of omniscience claimed by Mahavira) while leaving the possibility open that it is possible for a recluse or brahmin to know and see all, just not simultaneously. But, as I go on to state, I feel that this is a case where such inferences should not be made based upon the evidence at hand, i.e., what I have read in the Suttas, as well as what I have read from modern scholars on this issue. So, in conclusion, I do acknowledge that your reading of MN 90 is plausible; but at the same time, considering the fact that the Buddha never explicitly asserts his own omniscience in MN 90 and, in my mind, the more plausible rendering of sabbannu as "knowing the all," I choose to read it differently. As for MN 14, it has no bearing on my point besides highlighting the type of omniscience claimed by Mahavira.

Kindly regards,

Jason
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Re: The Buddha's Omniscience.

Postby Cittasanto » Mon Jan 05, 2009 11:46 pm

Hi Dhammanando

Dhammanando wrote:Hi Manapa,

Manapa wrote:I don't think the Omniscience of the Buddha is asserted anywhere!


It's asserted all over the place in Pali literature. The point of dispute is not the Buddha's possession of the epithet Sabbaññū, but rather, how this epithet should be understood.

Best wishes,
Dhammanando Bhikkhu


Sabbaññū as another has said all knowing or knowing the all, well the thought arises here for me as to what is meant by knowing! is it in a sense of knowing everything or able to understand anything?

in a christian perspective of "God", "knowing the all" or "all knowing" if of little importance, but we are not considering Omniscence of a deity, but of a Man, whom happens to be enlightened! (sorry cant think of a better way of making this point), is knowing understanding and the ability to understand or simple knowing? I think the suttas are of use here! has the Buddha ever been stumped when asked a question?
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Re: The Buddha's Omniscience.

Postby Dhammanando » Tue Jan 06, 2009 2:16 am

Hi Jason,

Elohim wrote:So, in conclusion, I do acknowledge that your reading of MN 90 is plausible; but at the same time, considering the fact that the Buddha never explicitly asserts his own omniscience in MN 90 and, in my mind, the more plausible rendering of sabbannu as "knowing the all," I choose to read it differently.


But setting aside all other suttas for the moment, and just attending to MN. 90, doesn't it strike you as very odd that the Buddha would go out of his way to introduce the qualification "simultaneously", when (on your interpretation) he could have simply replied:

    “Great King, those who speak thus do not say what has been said by me. Nonetheless, that does happen to be my view.”

??

Best wishes,
Dhammanando Bhikkhu
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Re: The Buddha's Omniscience.

Postby Dhammanando » Tue Jan 06, 2009 2:33 am

Hi Manapa,

Manapa wrote:Sabbaññū as another has said all knowing or knowing the all, well the thought arises here for me as to what is meant by knowing! is it in a sense of knowing everything or able to understand anything?


Well, the commentarial view, as stated by Bhikkhu Bodhi in the opening post, is that all knowable things are potentially accessible to [the Buddha's understanding, paññā], but that they are not all simultaneously accessible. My exchange with Jason so far has focussed on the question of whether the possibility of non-simultaneous all-knowingness can reasonably be derived from the Kannakatthala Sutta. We haven't yet got around to the question of what is meant by a knowable thing, but this too is an important qualification, for nowhere is it asserted that all things are knowable things. And so the Buddha's "omniscience" as the commentators understand it, is far from being the Allah-like or Jehovah-like omniscience that some Mahayana Buddhists posit. For example, there must be at least some future things that are not knowable things, since for all future things to be knowable would require all future things to be predetermined, which would conflict with the Buddha's rejection of fatalism.

I think the suttas are of use here! has the Buddha ever been stumped when asked a question?


No, the suttas never present him as being stumped.

Best wishes,
Dhammanando Bhikkhu
    ...and this thought arose in the mind of the Blessed One:
    “Who lives without reverence lives miserably.”
    Uruvela Sutta, A.ii.20

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Re: The Buddha's Omniscience.

Postby robertk » Tue Jan 06, 2009 2:55 am

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Re: The Buddha's Omniscience.

Postby Jason » Tue Jan 06, 2009 3:09 am

Ven. Dhammanando,

Dhammanando wrote:But setting aside all other suttas for the moment, and just attending to MN. 90, doesn't it strike you as very odd that the Buddha would go out of his way to introduce the qualification "simultaneously", when (on your interpretation) he could have simply replied:

    “Great King, those who speak thus do not say what has been said by me. Nonetheless, that does happen to be my view.”


No. Even if one were to read MN 90 as I do, rendering sabbannu as "knowing the all," the Buddha's response still makes sense in that it clarifies his position by rejecting the type of omniscience Mahavira claimed but not his own knowing the all as per SN 35.23.

Best wishes,

Jason
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Re: The Buddha's Omniscience.

Postby Cittasanto » Tue Jan 06, 2009 9:16 am

Hi Dhammanando
Dhammanando wrote:No, the suttas never present him as being stumped.


So the Suttas do not show the Buddha unable to answer in any way any question?
how about the speed a mind reverses itself? can a simile be envisioned for this? (AN 1.48)

I am not saying the Buddha can not answer the question but the Buddha did not know of a simile for this which was adequate, so was stumped for a simile!
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Re: The Buddha's Omniscience.

Postby Dhammanando » Tue Jan 06, 2009 9:39 am

Hi Manapa,

Manapa wrote:So the Suttas do not show the Buddha unable to answer in any way any question?
how about the speed a mind reverses itself? can a simile be envisioned for this? (AN 1.48)

I am not saying the Buddha can not answer the question but the Buddha did not know of a simile for this which was adequate, so was stumped for a simile!


No, the Buddha wasn't stumped. He simply knew that since the arising and passing of a citta is the fastest thing in the universe, likening it to familiar things (flashes of lightning, bursting of bubbles etc.) would fail to do it justice.

Best wishes,
Dhammanando Bhikkhu
    ...and this thought arose in the mind of the Blessed One:
    “Who lives without reverence lives miserably.”
    Uruvela Sutta, A.ii.20

    It were endless to dispute upon everything that is disputable.
    — William Penn Some Fruits of Solitude,
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Re: The Buddha's Omniscience.

Postby Dhammanando » Tue Jan 06, 2009 9:47 am

Hi Jason,

Elohim wrote:No. Even if one were to read MN 90 as I do, rendering sabbannu as "knowing the all," the Buddha's response still makes sense in that it clarifies his position by rejecting the type of omniscience Mahavira claimed but not his own knowing the all as per SN 35.23.


But what grounds are there for supposing that the sabba in sabbaññū is the same as the sabba of the Sabba Sutta (i.e., the 6 sense bases and their objects) other than Kalupahana's saying so?

Given what sabbaññū seems to have meant to the Buddha's contemporaries in general, and given the claims that the Buddha indubitably makes for his vast cognitive range (i.e., three knowledges, six higher knowledges, ten Tathagata powers etc.) why do you find Kalupahana's take to be more plausible than that of the commentaries?

Best wishes,
Dhammanando Bhikkhu
    ...and this thought arose in the mind of the Blessed One:
    “Who lives without reverence lives miserably.”
    Uruvela Sutta, A.ii.20

    It were endless to dispute upon everything that is disputable.
    — William Penn Some Fruits of Solitude,
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Re: The Buddha's Omniscience.

Postby Will » Tue Jan 06, 2009 4:21 pm

I prefer to think of "all-knowing" as being instantaneous, not simultaneous. The latter would give a very cluttered mind, even for a buddha. All he has to do is turn his attention to a subject or area and he will fully understand, instantly.
This noble eightfold path is the ancient path traveled by all the Buddhas of eons past. Nagara Sutta
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