What about omniscience?

In my last post I wrote about ‘ignorance,’ or rather, as we’ve learned from Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa, ‘cognitive misorientation.’ Immediately afterwards I received a mail from a reader, asking: “But what about omniscience?” That is one of those questions where you better stop yourself before you come up with some quick Wikipedia-type answer. What about omniscience? A good question.

‘Omniscience’ (Skt. saravajña) is one of those terms with an enormous history and therefore, necessarily, with many developments.♦ 1 In the Vedas omniscience was an attribute of gods only, namely the power of “knowing all created beings.” Later, in the Upanishads, we find for the first time the proper term sarvajña, meaning here “knowledge of atman/soul,” which was thought to be an attribute of a spiritually developed human being.

The questions that naturally arise when we (and evidently also people in ancient times) come across the concept of omniscience are: Is it a mere potential for knowing everything, or is it an accomplished fact? Is it perhaps only a metaphor? What does it take to be omniscient? Does it mean ‘to know everything,’ or ‘to know what all things have in common, such as their nature (or the nature of things in general)’?

If we look into the sutras of early Buddhism, as so often, the Buddha replied to questions about omniscience strictly on a “need to know” basis. In the Tevijja-Vacchagotta Sutta (MN i 481), the wanderer Vacchagotta meets the Buddha and asks him: Are you omniscient like the Jaina? The Buddha replies (among other things) that he has three knowledges: He can recall his past lives, he is clairvoyant, and he has the knowledge that he became liberated by destroying the cankers (sense-desires, desiring existence, grasping views and, conditioning the others, cognitive misorientation, MN i 54-55). Of particular importance is the knowledge that he became liberated by destroying the cankers. This includes his understanding of how liberation is obtained. He does not speak here of a literal kind of omniscience, i.e. of a knowledge of every single object that can be known.

On another occasion the Buddha said: “It is not possible that a brahman or contemplative could know everything and see everything all at once.” (Kannakatthala Sutta, MN ii 125).♦ 2 And similarly, being asked about it, Nagasena says to king Milinda (Miln 102-107): “The Lord was omniscient, but knowledge-and-vision was not constantly and continuously present to the Lord. The Lord’s omniscient knowledge was dependent on the adverting (of his mind [i.e. where he turned his mind to]); when he adverted it he knew whatever it pleased (him to know)” (Naughton, p. 35). According to these two texts there was potentially more knowledge, and more of a ‘knowing everything’ type of knowledge, but such knowledge depended on the Buddhas conscious decision to focus on it; it was not a continuous and simultaneous presence in his mind. In still other words, omniscience is here a potential for knowing any particular thing, which can be actualised at any time by will. But it has to be actualised, because outside of that actualisation, he is not omniscient all the time.

The development in the mahayana literature is as diverse as the texts occurring starting from the first century: the Prajñaparamita Sutras and other mahayana sutras, the Abhidharmakosha, the Five Works of Maitreyanatha / Asanga, the logicians’ treatises, and many more. In them we find all of the above mentioned points, including at a late time (8th c.) a literal omniscience, but mostly a tendency to emphasize the Buddha’s perfection of knowledge relevant to methods of liberation.

How does the 17th century commentator of the dGongs gcig, Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa, deal with these multiple concepts of omniscience? Note, by the way, that he is, like several other great Tibetan masters from all lineages, called an “Omniscient One” (Tib. kun mkhyen pa).♦ 3

Knowing all …
In the context of discussing the three baskets and the four tantra classes as stages of the path (dGongs gcig 1.3) Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa quotes the Mahayanasutralamkara (11.2):

Sutra, abhidharma and vinaya
are, in short, held to be four topics [each].♦ 4
The intelligent ones understand these
and obtain omniscience.

Thus an Omniscient One is a person who has mastered all the teachings of the three baskets. And while in the above quote omniscience is limited to the knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings, in another context, namely the discussion of ‘valid knowledge’ (Skt. pramana, Tib. tshad ma), it also is explicitly said to contain completely all valid knowledge:

‘Valid knowledge’ means ‘not deceiving’ and ‘true meaning,’ and that is precisely the sphere of omniscience.

This is a point in the dGongs gcig (1.16) with interesting consequences. While some Tibetan scholars held that ‘valid knowledge’ is an occasion of mere dialectic conceptualization (and thus not directly relevant for liberation),♦ 5 Jigten Gönpo, however, maintained that “valid knowledge is the gnosis that is the knowledge of the Buddha.” Not only is the Buddha himself praised as the “embodiment of valid knowledge” in the opening line of Dignaga’s Pramanasamuccaya, but it can also be shown by reasoning that valid knowledge “is precisely showing just the way how something is by nature … [and] … is both from the perspective of the example and the meaning certainly precisely the gnosis of the knowledge of the Buddha,” because “ultimately [y] does not follow [from x just] because [someone is] seeing [it that way], while [in reality y] would not exist in the nature [of x].”♦ 6 One further consequence of this view is, by the way, that anyone, including non-Buddhists, who utters valid knowledge is in accordance with the gnosis of the knowledge of the Buddha—an interesting case of trans-Buddhist non-sectarianism.

Disciplined conduct (shila)
In the dGongs gcig’s chapter on Vinaya/Pratimoksha, Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa quotes from a commentary composed by Acarya Jinamitra (the Pratimokshasutratika Vinayasamuccaya) where it is said:

With regard to [the term] ‘pratimoksha,’ it is called so since liberation and omniscience are actualised by practising the training of giving up (wrong conduct) and implementing (right conduct) without confusing [these two].♦ 7
And according to Jigten Gönpo it is not only so that both liberation and omniscience can only be achieved based on disciplined conduct, but actually “the precious disciplined conduct is the gnosis of omniscience” (dGongs gcig 3.3). This is to say that the whole of the vinaya itself is within the sphere of omniscience alone, or, in other words, that no one except the omniscient Tathagata is able to establish the basic training of the Vinaya-Dharma, not even a tenth-stage bodhisattva. The reason for that is that only the Omniscient One completely understands the reality of dependent origination, of karma, and of “what is possible and what is impossible.”♦ 8 In Jigten Gönpo’s understanding, all the rules established by the Buddha in the vinaya-pratimoksha are rules that accord to the nature of reality. None of them is a rule based on the Buddha’s own ideas. Thus, in contrast to other teachers, Jigten Gönpo does not accept the distinction introduced by some commentators according to which there are ‘natural rules’ (kha na ma tho ba) that apply to everyone (such as ‘not killing’) and ‘made rules’ (bcas pa) that are only for the monks and nuns (such as ‘not eating after noon’). This interesting aspect of Jigten Gönpo’s teachings (with far reaching consequences for the understanding of ‘ethics’) will have to be discussed in a posting specifically concerned with this particular problem alone.

Knowing the essence
In another section of his commentary, Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa quotes Maitreyanatha (Uttaratantrashastra 5.20):♦ 9

A scholar who is greater than the Victorious One does not exist in this world.
The Omniscient One knows perfectly the supreme true reality of everything, others not.

Here ‘omniscience’ is obviously understood as knowing the essential true reality of every single phenomenon, but with an emphasis on the fact that the ‘essence’ is being one and the same for all things. This theme, the one essence that can be found in everything, is with variations a topic of many mahayana scriptures. Conceptually, it is often combined with the idea that all teachings, too, have a single essence. In his introduction to the dGongs gcig (the Khog dbub), the 13th century commentator Dorje Sherab presents several quotations supporting the idea of a nucleus of the Dharma and of an underlying essence of all phenomena. He quotes for instance the Samadhirajasutra with these words:♦ 10

Whichever sutra I have taught
in a thousand world realms
has different words, [yet only] a single meaning.

And in the same sutra:♦ 11

I have taught all Dharmas as a single meaning.

This single meaning is taught in the dGongs gcig to be mahamudra, where ‘mahamudra’ is synonymous with ‘non-arising’ (phyag rgya chen po skye ba med pa). When one has understood that single thing, says Dorje Sherab, one has removed all the particulars of the classifications (dbye bsdu’i bye brag) with regard to all phenomena of samsara and nirvana (and that is where the two themes of ‘single essence of the teachings’ and ‘same essence of all phenomena’ coincide). A similar quote is attributed to the Prajñaparamitasutra:♦ 12

If one knows the true reality (de bzhin nyid) of any single one of whichever phenomena that can be known, such as ‘form,’ one understands in brief and in detail all phenomena.

And Atisha, too, said:♦ 13

Whichever of the 84.000
Dharma gates was taught—
it all boils down to this true reality.

In which way is this realisation of the true reality, the single essence of all phenomena, omniscience? To explain this point, Milarepa is quoted with a well-known line:♦ 14

Knowing one thing I am a master of all. Knowing all I understand it as one.

Combining the statements of the Prajñaparamitasutra and of Milarepa, Dorje Sherab summarises:

If one understands that meaning, one is able to differentiate the one single [thing] into many and to combine the many into one.

Thus it is precisely the understanding of the true reality of any single thing that enables the Buddha to unfold that essential true reality into the diversity of his teachings in a meaningful way. The variety in his teaching is of course necessary due to the different appetites of the beings to be trained: the Buddha, it is often said, understanding the various capacity of beings, taught 84.000 Dharmas. It is, however, essential that each of these Dharmas is not divorced from the essential nature: No matter how many Dharmas are taught by the Buddha, “since in the end there is nothing that is not included within uniform non-arising—the meaning of mahamudra and ocean of true reality (dharmata)—[they all have] a ‘single intention.’”♦ 15 Which also serves as a nice explanation of the title of the work dGongs gcig, which can be read as Single Intention.

Knowing liberation’s methods
Another important aspect of omniscience that was, as we have seen, already found in earliest Buddhism is the Omniscient One’s knowledge of how he himself has become liberated and consequently of how others are to be liberated skilfully. With this regard Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa cites the Extensive Prajñaparamitasutra (unidentified passage):

A bodhisattva must understand all causes, paths, and results of all of samsara and nirvana from the hell of beings up to omniscience.

Similarly we find many passages throughout the commentary stressing that it is only the Omniscient One who has the perfection of that knowledge and who knows perfectly how to establish the individual marks of a Buddha through all the individual causes, and it is only the Buddha who knows the thoughts, constitution, abilities, and latencies of the trainees perfectly. Therefore he alone is able to skilfully reveal the activities in perfect match with the constitutions of the sentient beings.

Individually and essentially
Yet apart from all these understandings of omniscience of ‘knowing all’ in the sense of ‘knowing all teachings,’ ‘possessing (or embodying) valid knowledge,’ ‘knowing the essence’ and so forth, there is also the aspect of omniscience that knows every single thing individually, as expressed in the Uttaratantrashastra 1.16:♦ 16

… [their] understanding, which has realised all knowledge objects [as well as their] ultimate [state],
perceives that the true reality of omniscience
exists in all sentient beings (…)

This refers to the ‘two kinds of knowledge’ (Tib. mkhyen pa gnyis), namely the Buddha’s knowledge of ‘how things are’ (ci lta ba) and the knowledge of ‘the various cases’ (ji snyed pa). This is defined in the context of dGongs gcig 3.3. as the ‘realisation of the nature of samsara and nirvana’ (= how they are in their essence) and as ‘knowing all the dependent originations of cause and result in that state individually and in an unmixed way’ (= in the various individual cases). Of these the first is an understanding of the underlying nature of everything as it has been discussed above, and here in particular it is explained as the realisation that right from the beginning the defilements never existed (which is the final one of the ten powers of the Tathagata). The second knowledge is one of all objects individually, in the sense that each specific dependent origination of cause and result of every individual thing is known, and this includes according to Dorje Sherab’s commentary the other nine powers, which are pertaining to such things as knowing what is wholesome and what not, the ripening of karma, the dispositions, abilities, and inclination of beings, their past and future births and so forth. Thus even though it is by name a knowledge of every single thing, the emphasis is clearly on all those things that are necessary to know for an expert guide of beings to liberation. Furthermore since it is stated here that the individual knowledge is one that knows ‘in that state,’ namely in the state of understanding the essence, the individual qualities are known understanding first the nature of everything, as it was said by Milarepa: “Knowing one thing I am a master of all.”

This may also be part of the answer to the question: does the Buddha know everything simultaneously? I think one can draw the conclusion from all that is said above that in this system he is believed to know the underlying true reality of all things at all times, but the individual ‘dependent originations’ etc. are only relevant when it comes to the taming of beings.

Interestingly, this point seems to be brought up again in dGongs gcig 7.5, which is in Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa’s commentary among other things a discussion of the Buddha’s relation to the individual beings-to-be-tamed. Here the question is asked that if the Buddha “never deviates from his meditative balance and mental constructions do not overpower him,” is such a “sphere of omniscience not incompatible with the teacher who tames whoever needs taming?” As a reply the commentator quotes Maitreyanatha’s Mahayanottaratantrashastra again:♦ 17

Immeasurable reflections of Sugata-suns
appear simultaneously
on the [surface of] all water receptacles
that are all the pure disciples.

In other words, the individualisation takes place simultaneously in the receptacles, i.e. the minds of the pure disciples. But to draw the conclusion from this that there is no individual knowledge in the omniscient state would probably be an over-interpretation. But it seems clear that such individuation depends on the causes and conditions of the Buddha coming into contact with the trainees.


1. [A good brief overview of the concept in the Vedas, and later of the term itself in the Upanišads and in early Buddhism, is provided by Alex Naughton (1991) “Buddhist omniscience,” Eastern Buddhist 24/1, 28-51, for the early history see especially pp. 28-37. The remaining part of the article I see with more sceptical eyes, because it is based on the assumptions that (a) ‘earlier’ must be ‘more original’ (and thus, also within early Buddhism, what feels to him ‘more original’ must also be earlier), and (b) that authors or teachers would never write or teach at one time this and at another time something which (in Naughton’s eyes) does not seem to fit to that. I think that both of these concepts, in their rigid form, have become outdated and that they arose from a philological fixation on ‘the text’ alone, neglecting biographical, didactical and other perspectives. There is an interesting critique of these and related concepts in Christian Wedemeyer’s forthcoming bookMaking Sense of Tantric Buddhism: History, Semiology, and Transgression in the Indian Traditions (Columbia University Press).]

2. [Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, see the web-page Access to Insight.]

3. [A brief sample of well-known Omniscient Ones in Tibetan Buddhism is the following:
– among the Jo-nang-pas Dol-po-pa (1292-1361)
– among the rNying-ma-pas Long-chen Rab-‘byams-pa (1308-1364)
– among the Sa-skya-pas Go-rams-pa (1429-1489)
– among the ‘Brug-pa bKa’-brgyud-pas Pad-ma-dkar-po (1527-1592)
– and among the dGe-lugs-pas ‘Jam-dbyangs bzhad-pa (1648-1722).]

4. [Each of the three, i.e. sutra, abhidharma and vinaya, are explained in Mahayanasutralamkara (11.2) to have four topics. Sutra, for instance, has the topics (1) ‘context’ (of the discourse), (2) ‘nature’ (i.e. relative and absolute truths), (3) ‘teaching’ (i.e. contents of the discourse), and (4) ‘meaning’ (i.e. its implication). See Jamspal et al., The Universal Vehicle Discourse Literature (2004: 113-115).]

5. [Leonard van der Kuijp (Journal of Indian Philosophy 15, 57-70) has dealt with this and the next vajra statement at some length. He points out that the opponents were in this case identified to be Ngog Lotsava Loden Sherab (1059-1109) and Jayananda. They are criticised in the dGongs gcig because they maintain only a “provisional” function of valid knowledge, which means that according to them it has no soteriological range and that madhyamaka analysis is superior. This was also claimed by the Kadampas of this period (and later by Sakya Pandita), who held that valid knowledge had only a kind of secondary function in that it provided tools for the elimination of misconceptions and doubts concerning the doctrine. As such, they explain, it was also used by non-Buddhist philosophical schools in India.]

6. [These lines are from Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa’s commentary. According to van der Kuijp, Tsongkapa might have been inspired in his views by Jigten Gonpo.]

7. [I was unable to verify this citation; it is said to be from the fiftieth section of the commentary. The term pratimoksha is here explained through a didactic etymology (at least regarding prati). The first element, prati (Tib. so sor) is explained as ‘without confusing them for another’ (so sor ma ‘dres par); the second, moksha (Tib. thar pa) is as usual ‘liberation.’]

8. [Skt. sthanasthanajñanabalam. This wisdom is the first of the “ten powers of the Tathagata” (dashatathagatabalani). This power is in general explained as the knowledge that karma and defilement are the cause of the birth of beings, and that a self and a creator (ishvara) are not that cause, and that it is possible that higher spheres arise through the wholesome, but impossible that lower spheres arise through it, etc. Cf. Ratnagotravibhaga, ch. XV, v. 2-5; Abhidharmakoshabhashya, Pradhan (1967: 411, 133; 414, 3).]

9. [Mahayanottaratantrashastra, D vol. 123, this passage is on 72v, 5-6. In Takasaki’s translation (1966) see pp. 386, 394, and in Fuchs’s translation (2000) p. 292.]

10. [Samadhirajasutra (D vol. 55, fol. 104v): ‘jig rten khams ni stong dag tu// ngas ni mdo sde gang bshad pa// tshig ‘bru tha dad don gcig ste//.]

11. [Khog dbub (p. 225 f.): chos kun don gcig par ni rab bshad do//. Variant in D vol. 55, fol. 43v: rab shes do//.]

12. [Khog dbub p. 226: gzugs nas rnam mkhyen gyi chos gang yang rung ba gcig gi de bzhin nyid shes na chos thams cad kyi mdo dang rgyas pa shes par ‘gyur ro//. This is an abbreviation of passages that enumerate dharmas, whose true reality is known in this way, starting with gzugs and ending with rnam pa thams cad mkhyen pa nyid. See in D vol. 28, no. 9 (fol. 112v) and vol. 30, no. 10 (fol. 300r f.).]

13. [bDen pa gnyis la ‘jug pa (Satyadvayavatara), P vol. ha (110), no. 5298, fols. 70r5-71v2, D vol. A (109), no. 3902, fols.72r3-73r7 (72v, line 4): chos kyi phung po brgyad khri dang // gzhi stong gsungs pa gang yin pa// chos nyid ‘di la gzhol zhing ‘bab//.]

14. [Khog dbub p. 226, and Rupa’i Gyan-chen (gTsang-smyon Heruka Rus-pa’i-rgyan-can), Complete Biography of Milarepa, Varanasi 1971, p. 204.): nga gcig shes kun la mkhas pa yin// kun shes gcig tu go ba yin//.]

15. [Khog dbub 226: thams cad mthar thug tshul gcig pa’i skye med phyag rgya chen po’i don chos nyid kyi rgya mtsho chen por mi ‘du ba med pas des na dgongs pa gcig pa zhes bya ste.]

16. [D vol. 123, fol. 55v. See Takasaki (1966: 175); Fuchs (2000: 110).]

17. [Mahayanottaratantrashastra, D vol. 123, fol. 70r.]

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