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
- "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
- "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:
"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.
- 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 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?