- The Forerunner of All Things: Buddhaghosa on Mind, Intention, and Agency by Maria Heim
Maria Heim’s The Forerunner of All Things: Buddhaghosa on Mind, Intention, and Agency is a valuable contribution to the study of Buddhist philosophy and in certain respects signals a new stage in the field. This is especially true regarding the study of Theravāda Buddhist thought or the philosophy that is rooted in the Pāli Buddhist tradition. Clearly, leading Buddhist philosophers that history has chanced to include in the Mahāyāna camp, such as Nāgārjuna, Vasubandhu, Diṅnāga, Dharmakīrti, Candrakīrti and Tsongkhapa, have received considerable scholarly attention, and detailed studies of their work and ideas are available, including philosophical analyses from both historical or philological and theoretical or comparative perspectives. The same cannot be said for the Pāli tradition, which ostensibly, if we were to judge from existing studies, has not produced any real philosophers. One of the achievements of Heim’s book is to look at the luminary of the Pāli tradition, Buddhaghosa, through a philosophical looking glass, thereby enriching the study of traditional Buddhist thought and suggesting new ways in which Buddhism can be thought to be philosophical.
To many, the Buddha was indeed a philosopher, perhaps the prime philosopher and most authoritative spokesman of the Buddhist tradition. Thus, an understanding of the Buddha’s philosophical voice has generally been considered a reliable representation of “Theravāda,” or “early” — that is, all that is not Mahāyāna1 — Buddhist philosophical positions. There have been, of course, divergent presentations of the Buddha’s teachings. Yet few would contest the view that the heart of the Buddha’s philosophical position is encapsulated in the doctrines of the four noble truths, dependent origination, and selflessness (to which some may add the doctrine of karma). These “doctrines” — they are not only about theory — are normally taken to stand for the philosophical views of non-Mahāyāna Buddhism. Specifically, in accord with the still influential Buddhist modernist framework, these doctrines are presented as free of any type of metaphysics or “belief” and as empirical discoveries made by the Buddha that demand no commitment to ontology.
Let us quickly recall one of the most eloquent voices of this approach to the Buddha, Walpola Rahula’s seminal What the Buddha Taught: “Among the founders of religions the Buddha (if we are permitted to call him the founder of a religion in the popular sense of the term) was the only teacher who did not claim to be other than a human being, pure and simple. … He attributed all his realization, attainment and achievements to human endeavor and human intelligence.”2 Rahula continues [End Page 360] to quote the emblematic Kālāma-sutta, which is considered a paradigmatic expression of the Buddha’s empirical approach and which is also the starting point for Heim’s analysis of intention (cetanā) in the Pāli Tipiṭaka and in Buddhaghosa.3 The Buddha teaches the people of Kālāma about the way they are to identify the correct teacher to follow. He gives them advice “unique in the history of religions”: “When you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome (akusala), and wrong, and bad, then give them up … And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome (kusala) and good, then accept them and follow them.”4 This one-sided view of the Buddha’s teachings may be outdated, but it continues to be influential in contemporary scholarship. Heim may not have freed herself completely from this approach with its powerful over-emphasis on experience, but she approaches the tradition in a fresh, creative manner, which produces new, fruitful philosophical insights.
The book is first and foremost a study of intention in the Pāli Tipiṭaka and in Buddhaghosa’s commentaries. It is composed of four chapters, preceded by an introduction that sets the stage for what is...