Philosophy Phridays – Sakya Pandita

Philosophy Phridays is a series where each Friday, I go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, click on “random entry,” and then write about whatever comes up. This week’s random entry is Sakya Pandita.

I should say right at the beginning that I’m way outside my comfort zone this week. My favorite philosophy tends to be English and American from the last 150 years or so. My only formal exposure to Eastern philosophies was an Indian Philosophy course I took in college. The professor was a disaster. Since then, I’ve explored a bit on my own, mostly by reading the big-deal, famous works like the Bhagavad Gita and the Analects of Confucius, but I know a lot less than I should. Frankly, I don’t even know how to pronounce many of the words in the article, and many have accents and dots around the words which I don’t know what they mean or how to type them. So, I’ll do my best, but don’t take my word on it. And if you’re at all interested, I recommend reading the actual entry or the primary sources.

Sakya Pandita lived in Tibet from 1182-1251. He was a Buddhist philosopher, and is one of Tibet’s all-time, most-important thinkers. He was influential in the areas of epistemology, philosophy of language, lexicography, grammar, and translations. One of the things that made him so important is that he studied many of the original, Indian writings instead of relying on translations like most other Tibetan philosophers.

He is so highly regarded that most of what we know about his early life is mythological. It is said that his mother had a prophetic dream about him when she became pregnant. They also say that he could read and write Sanskrit as an infant. As he got older he did study with many great masters and became, “the fourth of the “Five Great Throneholders” of Sakya.”

As for Sakya Pandita’s philosophy, most of the specifically Buddhist stuff went right over my head. I get the impression that it’s important to Buddhists in the same way that Christian philosophers try to answer questions about the Trinity and transubstantiation. He wrote a work known as The Three Vows. These three vows are the disciples’ monastic vows, the bodhisattva vows, and the Mantra/Tantra vows. If I understood it correctly, he seemed to be saying that enlightenment can only come through a true understanding of what the vows promise. There are no shortcuts.

As for his epistemology, I’m a little more comfortable. He was an anti-realist when it came to cognitive and linguistic objects. He was kind of the opposite of Plato. He didn’t believe that objects of thought or speech existed in the real world. We act as if they do because of a sort of pragmatism. Plato thought that when two people discuss something like The Good, there is actually some external good that they are both referring to. Sakya Pandita believed that when two people discuss something like virtue, they are referring to different mental representations, and they remove the differences to make communication possible. He seems to have arrived at that conclusion through the Buddhist beliefs about impermanence.

That’s the gist of what I got out of the article. I did learn some things. And if anyone out there is well-versed in Buddhist philosophy and wanted to clarify some things or point me in a direction for further study, I’m all ears.

Gold, Jonathan C., “Sakya Paṇḍita [sa skya paṇ ḍi ta]”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2017/entries/sakya-pandita/>.

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