Pramana tradition

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Pramana tradition is a term of convenience used to refer to the system of Buddhist logic and epistemology developed by the Indian scholars Dignaga and Dharmakīrti.[1]

In Tibetan Buddhism, this system, or school of thought, is often referred to simply as pramāṇa (T. tshad ma), a term that has a specific meaning within this tradition. Pramāṇa is typically translated as "valid knowledge," "sources of knowledge," etc., and it is defined as "a consciousness that is not deceived with regard to its subject."[2]

Dignaga's and Dharmakīrti's discussions of pramāṇa (as "valid knowledge") "encompassed a range of topics in epistemology and logic that became very influential in medieval India (among both Buddhists and non-Buddhists), and then in Tibet; its influence was less strong in East Asia. Thus, although the term pramāṇa technically refers to [a form of valid knowledge], it comes by extension to refer to medieval and late Indian Buddhist epistemology and logic, in the latter case, especially as it pertains to the formal statement of syllogisms (prayoga) to an opponent."[2]

Mark Siderits states:

Since it was founded by the logician Dinnāga (480-540), modern scholars often refer to it as the school of Dinnāga. But it is also called ‘Yogācāra-Sautrāntika’, and sometimes just ‘Buddhist logic’. Scholars don’t have a single name for it because there is no one name that classical Indian Buddhists used for all the thinkers in this tradition. This is probably because it was a school in a different sense than those we have looked at so far. Its goal was not to articulate a distinctive path to nirvāna. Instead it set about developing philosophical tools that it hoped would be of use to people following any one of a number of different paths.[3]

Historical context and influence

Tom Tillemans states:

[Dharmakīrti], and his predecessor Dignāga (c. 480–c. 540 C.E.), were responsible for a school of Buddhist thought that actually had no name in Sanskrit, although in Tibetan it was known as “those who follow reasoning” (rigs pa rjes su ‘brang ba); in modern literature it is sometimes known by the convenient Sanskrit misnomer pramāṇavāda, or more simply, “the Epistemological School.” In any case, it is the Buddhist school that provoked the most sophisticated and most important philosophical debates with non-Buddhist rivals. It represented Buddhism in the pan-Indian debates on problems of universals, philosophies of logic and language, and issues of justification, and had an enormous influence on Mahāyāna Buddhism in Central Asia, especially in Tibet. Finally, although its influence was relatively limited in medieval China (only a few of the works of Dignāga were translated into Chinese, none of the works of Dharmakīrti were translated), it has nonetheless become increasingly important in modern Japan in supplying the epistemology for Buddhist thought.[4]

John D. Dunne states:

From the standpoint of traditional doxography, all Mahāyāna thinkers after Nagārjuna, Asaṅga, and Vasubandhu fall into one of two camps: Madhyamaka or Yogācāra. These two schools, however, are retroactively split into several subschools by doxographers in India and Tibet in an attempt to give some structure to the great variety of debates and disagreements that arise within both Madhyamaka and Yogācāra.
The divergent strands of Madhyamaka and Yogācāra arise largely in relation to a major development among a group of thinkers that, while not technically forming a “school,” exhibit considerable coherence and continuity. This new philosophical approach was developed especially by the Yogācāra thinkers Dignāga (c. 450 CE) and Dharmakīrti (c. 625 CE), but Bhāvaviveka, a Madhyamaka thinker, also plays a major role. In terms of its overall concern, this new style of philosophy can be called “Buddhist epistemology,” since its central aim is to give a detailed account of how one gains reliable knowledge, and how one justifies one’s claims to knowledge. This epistemic focus arises in part due to interactions with non-Buddhist thinkers who, at Dignāga’s time, were well ahead of their Buddhist counterparts in the study of such issues. One main topic was the analysis of oral arguments, and one way to trump an opponent in debate was simply to point out that his proofs were not well formed. Since formal debates within and between traditions may have been relatively common, Buddhist thinkers needed to come up with their own positions in this regard so as to defend their arguments against such a tactic.[5]

Key philosophical views

For an overview of the key philosophical views of this tradition, see:

  • Sep-man-red.png Tillemans, Tom ( 2021), Dharmakīrti, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Siderits (2007), Chapter 10

Distinction from other Indian Buddhist schools

Epistemological tools

According to Mark Siderits, all the other schools and movements of Indian Buddhism, excluding the pramana tradition, have their own metaphysical views.[3] Thus differing metaphysical views are found in: early Buddhism, Abhidharma, Mahāyāna, Theravāda, Vaibhāṣika, Sautrāntika, Yogācāra, and Madhyamaka.[3]

Siderits states:

Sautrāntika, for instance, teaches that all things are momentary, while Yogācāra has its claim that only impressions exist. As the alternative name [for the pramana tradition] ‘Yogācāra-Sautrāntika’ suggests though, the school of Dinnāga does not take a stand on at least one important metaphysical issue – whether there are physical objects. After all, Yogācāra denies that there are, while Sautrāntika affirms their existence. So someone could be a ‘ Yogācāra-Sautrāntika’ only by refraining from entering into this controversy. The teachings of the tradition that starts with Dinnāga are meant to be compatible with both positions. This must mean that they don’t actually answer an important question about what reality is like. And a Buddhist path to liberation is supposed to be based on an account of the nature of reality. This does not mean the members of the school of Dinnāga were not interested in nirvāṇa. Nor does it mean they thought philosophy is irrelevant to attaining nirvāna. Instead they seem to have thought that the dispute over certain metaphysical issues like the existence of an external world would never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Philosophy could still contribute to liberation, though, if it could at least tell us what constitutes a means of knowledge. What Dinnāga and his followers did was develop a Buddhist answer to Nyāya epistemology. Their thought was that if this epistemology was acceptable to both Sautrāntika realists and Yogācāra idealists, then it would help people progress toward liberation regardless of their stance on the metaphysical issue. So this school does not offer a total package – a complete picture of the world, plus advice about how we should act based on that picture. It can be thought of as a group of philosophical specialists who leave much of that work to others. It sees its job as just equipping them with the best epistemological tools available.
To say this is not to say that there are no metaphysical doctrines whatever in the school of Dinnāga. [...] this school can be thought of as the culmination of the Abhidharma project. And that project was one of developing the metaphysics of empty persons. It is rather to say three things: that Yogācāra-Sautrāntika does not teach a distinctive path to nirvāna, that any metaphysical teachings it contains are grounded in its epistemological views, and that its epistemology is meant to be acceptable to all Buddhists regardless of their views on certain metaphysical issues.[3]

"Sautrantikas following reasoning" theory of perception, according to Mipham

Within Tibetan Buddhist discourse, the pramana tradition of Dignaga and Dharmakirti is often referred to as “Sautrantikas following reasoning”.

Padmakara Translation Group states:

Doxographically, Dignaga and Dharmakirti are usually referred to as “Sautrantikas following reasoning” (rigs pa rjes ’brang gi mdo sde pa). This classification identifies them as philosophical realists (who accept the existence of an extramental world) but distinguishes them from the position of the Vaibhashikas and the “Sautrantikas following scripture” (lung gi rjes ’brang gi mdo sde pa), owing to, among other things, their complex and sophisticated theory of perception. Dharmakirti, whose view for present purposes will be identified with that of Dignaga, refutes the naïvely commonsense approach of the Vaibhashika system, according to which nonmental objects are known directly by the sense organs. Taking as axiomatic the essential difference between mind and matter, the Sautrantikas following reasoning explain the process of perception by positing the existence of mental aspects. These are understood to bridge the gap between the inner consciousness and the outer world. Being of a radically different nature from matter, the mind cannot enter into direct contact with physical entities but detects them indirectly via the aspects, or mental images, that these same entities are said to cast upon it, in the same way that things cause their reflections to appear in a mirror. The aspect, which is considered to be an accurate representation of the nonmental object that causes it, does not constitute a discrete entity within the mind but is best understood as a configuration of consciousness whereby consciousness itself assumes the form of the external thing. Being consciousness, this configuration is said to be automatically self-cognizant and does not require additional conscious activity for knowledge of the object (or more directly the aspect) to take place. The impression that we have of being directly in touch with an external world is therefore an illusion. The mind is in direct contact only with the mental aspect, which is therefore said both to reveal and to veil phenomena.
[According to Mipham Rinpche] ... for those who posit the existence of an external world, no epistemology is “more coherent than this, and more tenable.[6]

Key texts



Influence in Tibetan Buddhism

Within Tibetan Buddhism, texts from the pramana tradition are studied in all traditional monastic universities (shedras), where they is the basis for scholastic debate.


  1. The term "pramāṇa tradition" is also used by Kellner & McClintock (2014) and Padmakara Translation Group in Shantarakshita (2005).
  2. 2.0 2.1 Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. pramāṇa.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Siderits 2007, Chapter 10.
  4. Sep-man-red.png Tillemans, Tom ( 2021), Dharmakīrti, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  5. Dunne 2005, pp. 1212.
  6. Shantarakshita 2005, Translator's Introduction.


External links