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pramāṇa (T. tshad ma ཚད་མ་; C. liang 量) is translated as "instruments of knowledge", "means of knowledge," "sources of knowledge," "valid knowledge," "valid cognition," etc.
Mark Siderits states:
- A means of knowledge [pramāṇa] is a set of conditions that causes true cognitions. To call something a means of knowledge is to say that any cognition it produces will correctly represent how things are. A means of knowledge is a reliable cause of veridical cognition.
Many schools of Buddhism posit two forms of pramāṇa:
Direct perception is a non-conceptual cognition that directly apprehends an object, and inference is based on reasoning.
"The Buddhist study of valid cognition [pramāṇa] can be traced back to Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, and other early Indian masters, who discussed sources and types of knowledge in their writings." The school of thought based on the study of pramāṇa is referred to as the pramana tradition in this encyclopedia.
Contemporary English translations and definitions
There are two approaches to the translation of this term. The first approach emphasizes the cause of a correct cognition, and the second approach emphasizes the resulting cognition.
Examples of translations based upon the first approach are "instruments of knowledge," "means of knowledge," "sources of knowledge," etc. Examples based on second approach are "valid knowledge," "valid cognition," etc.
Both approaches to this translation are valid, because from the point of view of the pramana tradition, the "instrument of knowledge" and the resulting "knowledge event" are ontologically the same thing. John D. Dunne states:
- Buddhist philosophers, beginning with Dignāga and Dharmakīrti ... reject the notion of an agent, and in their view, the cognitive event identified as knowledge is ontologically identical to the instrument, which they conceive to be a mental image.
This topic is explained in detail in Dunne's text Foundations of Dharmakirti's Philosophy.
See below for a list of alternate translations for this term.
The definitions given for pramāṇa can reflect either of the two aspects of the term (i.e. the instrument or the resulting "knowledge event").
For example, the following definitions reflect the aspect of the "instrument":
- John D. Dunne - "the instrument used to acquire knowledge"
- Mark Siderits - "a set of conditions that causes true cognitions"
- Jan Westerhoff - "instruments that we can use to obtain knowledge of this world"
The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism provides a traditional definition that refects the aspect of the "knowledge event":
- "a consciousness that is not deceived with regard to its subject"
Tom Tillemans states:
- Dharmakīrti, who defines a “source of knowledge” in Pramāṇavārttika II.1 as a “reliable (avisaṃvādin) cognition (jñāna),” by which he means that the cognition is right and reliable as a basis for action.
- Some commentators, such as Dharmottara, have unpacked “reliability” as meaning that the cognition leads to one obtaining (prāpaka) the object one desires, a position which, along with passages concerning arthakriyā, might seem to reinforce the view of some modern scholars that Dharmakīrti was a pragmatist (see e.g., Powers 1994; Cabezon 2000; Katsura 1984). Tillemans (1999, 6–12) examines this would-be pragmatism, seeing the theory of truth in Dharmakīrti as a weak form of correspondence. The pragmatism is better taken as a pragmatic theory of justification rather than truth. We can justifiably affirm that a cognition is correct if we can “confirm causal efficacy” (arthakriyāsthiti), by which it is meant that we come to understand that the object does in fact have the causal powers we expected. We can justifiably conclude, for example, that we saw a vase and not some vase-like illusion because after the initial perception we then confirmed that what we saw does really hold water, as we expected and wished (iṣṭa).
Andy Karr states:
- The word pramana seems to be derived from the Sanskrit root ma, meaning to measure or ascertain; the prefix pra, meaning excellent or perfect; and the suffix ana, which indicates a method or instrument.
Hence, the term pramana refers to the methods for bringing about excellent knowledge.
The term is also used to refer to the study of these methods.
Two instruments according to Dignaga and Dharmakirti
This twofold division corresponds to the two types of object:
- particulars (svalakṣaṇa), which are known through direct perception and
- universals (sāmānyalakṣaṇa), which are understood through inference.
- the manifest (abhimukhī), which are known through direct perception and
- the hidden (paroksa), which are understood through inference.
Four instruments according to the Nyāya school
Mark Siderits states:
- Nyāya claims there are four means of knowledge: perception, inference, testimony and comparison. Buddhists disagree, and claim that only perception and inference are means of knowledge. This disagreement is not about whether a process like the testimony of a qualified expert is a reliable source of veridical beliefs. What is controversial is whether this is a separate means of knowledge. Buddhists claim, for instance, that testimony is just a case of inference.
For the sake of clarity and convenience, the Dignaga-Dharmakīrti school of thought is referred to as the pramana tradition in this encyclopedia.
Alternate translations for pramāṇa include:
- means of knowledge (Princeton Dictionary; Eli Franco, Dharmakīrti on compassion and rebirth; Mark Siderits, Buddhism as Philosophy)
- sources of knowledge (Tom Tillemans, "Dharmakīrti" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2021)
- instruments of knowledge (John D. Dunne, Foundations of Dharmakīrti's Philosophy)
- epistemic instruments (Jan Westerhoff, The Golden Age of Indian Buddhist Philosophy)
- instruments that we can use to obtain knowledge of this world (Jan Westerhoff, The Golden Age of Indian Buddhist Philosophy)
- means of valid cognition (Tom Tillemans, Dharmakirti's Pramanavarttika, 2000)
- epistemic criterion (Dan Arnold, Brains, Buddhas, and Believing)
- sources of authoritative knowledge (Roger Jackson, Is Enlightenment Possible?)
- valid knowledge (Princeton Dictionary)
- valid cognition (Hopkins 2015, 84000 glossary, Thomas Doctor)
- Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Donald S. (2014), The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University
- Karr, Andy (2009), "What is Pramana?", Lion's Roar, Lion's Roar Foundation
- Siderits, Mark (2007), Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction, Ashgate Publishing Limited, ISBN 978-0754653691
- Westerhoff, Jan (2018), The Golden Age of Indian Buddhist Philosophy, Oxford University Press
- Arnold, Dan (2014), Brains, Buddhas, and Believing: The Problem of Intentionality in Classical Buddhist and Cognitive-Scientific Philosophy of Mind, Columbia University Press
- Georges B. J. Dreyfus, Recognizing Reality: Dharmakīrti's Philosophy and Its Tibetan Interpretations, SUNY, 1997
- John D. Dunne, Foundations of Dharmakīrti's Philosophy, Wisdom Publications, 2004
- Tom J. F. Tillemans, Scripture, logic, language: essays on Dharmakīrti and his Tibetan successors, Wisdom Publications, 1999
- Ringu Tulku, The Ri-me Philosophy of Jamgön Kongtrul the Great (Boston & London: Shambhala Publications, 2006), pages 60-64.