Kant’s Metaphysics & Buddhist Pranama
Having established this groundwork, let’s return now to Kant’s big question:
"Are synthetic, a priori judgments about noumena possible?"
So Kant is asking here: can we know what is really-real (i.e. the noumena, beyond the mere appearances) in a way that is not dependent upon experience (i.e. is a priori, logically prior to experience) and is meaningful in the sense of not simply being tautological (but rather verifying synthetic propositions about the really-real).
As a segueway into a conversation between Kant’s formulation of this issue, and Buddhist tenets of valid cognition, let’s make explicit some of the assumptions that his exploration is based upon.
Assumptions Implicit In Kant’s Formulation:
(1) Experience of phenomena is necessarily conditioned
(2) Experiential knowledge can provide knowledge of appearances only, i.e. of phenomena but never of noumena
(3) Ways of knowing (i.e. principles of valid cognition) are identical for phenomenal and noumenal realms
(4) Experiential/empirical and logical/rational ways of knowing are mutually-exclusive
Direct Perception In Buddhist Pranama
In Buddhist Pranama (logic & epistemology), there are two generally accepted categories of valid cognition: (1) direct perception, and (2) inference. These would seem to correspond, in a general way, to Kant’s a posteriori and a priori ways-of-knowing -- but there are some very important differences, which we’ll now explore.
The category of inference encompasses the processes of deductive reasoning: conclusions reached via the axioms of syllogistic logic. This is more-or-less the equivalent of what Kant would call a priori knowledge.
The category of direct perception (Sanskrit: pratyakṣa) includes four sub-categories:
(1) sensory direct perception (Skt: indriyapratyakṣa)
(2) mental direct perception (Skt: mānasapratyakṣa)
(3) yogic direct perception (Skt: yogipratyakṣa)
(4) reflexive-awareness direct perception (Skt: svasamvedana pratyakṣa)
This category of “direct perception” within Buddhist Pranama might, at first glance, seem to be basically the equivalent of Kant’s a posteriori knowledge (i.e. knowledge that is empirical in the sense of being based upon experience). In fact, however, there’s little if any overlap. Why? Because, for Kant, empirical knowledge is necessarily conditioned (by space, time, cause and effect etc.) -- and hence is never “direct” in the way this is proposed within Buddhist Pranama.
Direct perception, within this Buddhist epistemology, is non-conceptual, i.e. not conditioned by anything like Kant’s “categories” or “forms.” This is true for all four categories of direct perception: sensory, mental, yogic and reflexive-awareness. Conceptual construction can (and often does) arise out of direct perception (particularly in the cases of sensory or mental direct perception); or it can precede it (in certain cases of yogic or reflexive-awareness direct perception). In and of itself, however, direct perception is wholly unconditioned, and nonconceptual.
Such a definition of “direct perception” -- articulated within Buddhist pranama -- presents a direct challenge to Kant’s assumption that “sensory experience of phenomena is necessarily conditioned.” In this sense, none of what Kant might refer to as “a posteriori knowledge” would qualify as “direct perception.”
The following passage (from a paper by Funayama Toru) draws out in a bit more detail the relationship -- as it is understood within Buddhist pranama -- between direct perception and conceptual construction, in relation in particular to sensory direct perception. The basic idea is that our first moment of sensory (or mental) perception/cognition is always fresh, naked, direct (i.e. non-conceptual and unmediated) -- but that, for most people, a strong habit-energy draws us immediately into conceptual elaboration.
“Direct perception is explained to be a cognition arising immediately after the occurrence of an object, which does not continue at all. It exists only for one moment and in the next moment, the image (ākāra) in our cognition is substituted by a very similar, but completely different cognition. For example, when we see a desk, we usually believe that we can continue to perceive the desk as a single entity, admitting the identity of the object for a certain length of time. However, such an assumption is wrong according to the Pramāṇa School. They claim that what there really is in our perceptual vision is a sequence of very similar, but completely different moments of time, which are wrongly constructed to be a duration/continuum (saṃtāna) of one and the same desk. In reality, the image of the desk manifests itself only in the very first moment after one perceives the object. Only the cognition in the first moment is called direct perception and the succeeding similar cognitions in later moments, which belong to conceptual construction, cannot be referred to as direct perception.”
The process of what in Tibetan Buddhist practice is known as “purifying perception” -- of bringing into alignment “how things appear” with “how they really are” -- has everything to do with learning how to remain, moment by moment, at the level of direct perception -- rather than flowing unconsciously into conceptual construction.
So, to recap: Kant’s a posteriori knowledge would seem not to admit the possibility of nonconeptual, unconditoned “direct perception” -- the latter of which, in Buddhist practice, is an important aspect of “knowing what is real.”