I have seen in answers on this site (about consciousness in connection with rebirth) that Theravada adhere to a phenomenological perspective on consciousness. Can anyone explain for me what it means to have a phenomenological perspective? And which schools does not have this perspective?


Generally, "a phenomenological perspective" refers to phenomenology as expounded by Husserl, and so forth. It is a way of speaking that is typical of contemporary students. It refers to a perspective that underlies the manner in which phenomena appear to one's consciousness, or (a step further) the aspects one's consciousness take.

Therefore, in relation to 'lower rebirth', a so-called phenomenological perspective would approach the way one experiences suffering. The aspect one's consciousness takes when it is subject to this or that suffering.

Generally, such a perspective entails suspending facts and factual inquiries (as in "let us not take rebirth altogether as a fact or a non-fact, and let us not bother with determining whether there is indeed rebirth"). When one suspends all judgments about the supposedly external world (or its quality of being external), that suspension is called epokhē, an ancient Greek term.

From that viewpoint, a phenomenological perspective relates to a form of skepticism.

Some people take another stand by even negating (not just suspending) such or such a phenomena as a fact, as in: "there is no such thing as rebirth and hells, but that doesn't matter because we might very well experience the world in a hellish way". This amounts to a form of criticism.

| improve this answer | |

In Buddhism there are:

  • Concepts or mental construction - pannatti
  • Atomic, indivisible constructs - paramattha

If something is a mental construct it should be constructed in the mind of a being using the atomic building blocks. These constructs form as reaction to stimuli which is felt through consciousness. The related constructs are also felt and known though the mind sense door. Also consciousness need to be directed to the object which needs feeling or experiencing. Since there needs to be an observer with consciousness to know and feel phenomena you can say "Theravada adhere to a phenomenological perspective on consciousness".

| improve this answer | |

Our everyday perspective is what I call "the Fish-in-the-tank Perspective" (or more formally "the Agent Perspective"). There are all these fishes in the tank, competing for resources and occasionally making love or fighting, and we identify with one of them.

Instead, the Buddha offered a perspective I call "phenomenological reductionism". Everything is reduced to the experiences of five senses and "the inner eye" (mind). Switching from the fishtank perspective to the phenomenological perspective helps the student get away from the focus on chasing some external objects and avoiding others - and to focus instead on one's own reactions, emotions, mindstate etc.

So instead of the objects being "real" and your reactions being involuntary "caused by the objects" we flip the perspective and take ownership of our reactions, while reducing the objects to merely projections of our interpretation. The idea is that this way we can 1) optimize our behavior because we now can modify our reactions instead of being driven by the objects and 2) we can control our own level of happiness independently of what happens in the external world.

The phenomenological perspective plays the dominant role in Theravada and Yogacara schools. This is not the only perspective utilized in Buddhism though - there are also the "Dharma Path perspective" (karma, rebirth, levels etc.) used for beginners - which is really just a modified version of the fishtank perspective; as well as the global/objective/non-dualistic perspective which in Early Buddhism surfaces as the practice of the Four Immeasurables and the Three Marks of Existence, culminating in the attainment of the "divine eye" (dibba-cakkhu) - and in Vajrayana as the lower levels of Dzogchen. Then there is the perspective of Emptiness - or perspective of no perspective - famously cultivated as Prajnaparamita and on the higher levels of Dzogchen...

So in (Mahayana?) Buddhism the perspective is not something dogmatically declared to be true - it is used as a tool. This pragmatic attitude to perspectives is itself a perspective as well, cultivated e.g. within the Mahamudra tradition - as much as I can assume to understand it.

But yeah, coming back to what I said in that comment - what I meant was, that Theravada (within the larger perspective of phenomenological reductionism) specifically as pertains to explaining "consciousness" - sees it as a linear single-threaded sequence of experiences discussed exclusively in the first-person's perspective. In this sense, any idle talk about rebirth should be seen as a mere slippage back into the fishtank perspective.

My point in that discussion was that from errr.... my perspective, consciousness is not a single threaded series (santana) but rather a network of influences spanning time, space, and a number of media - some of which happen to be sentient beings. So from this perspective, consciousness is not one or many, in fact it's not an entity at all - it is a name for an activity of imprinting/reflecting/influencing that takes place in the world at large.

| improve this answer | |

My assumption is that this would have something to do with the Theravada's reluctance to speculate on ontological matters, preferring instead to investigate consciousness as it is experienced while bracketing any metaphysical or ontological questions.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.