Five Kinds of Vision

I made a mistake the other day when I suggested that we should try to engage more in “inductive” reasoning. That should have read “deductive”. To me, the names are misleading. I get them mixed up because “deductive” calls to my mind the image of a detective assembling clues, moving toward the solution of some crime.

But now that I think I have it straight . . . Western science and philosophy is based on the inductive method, where examination is conducted systematically, step by step, until a conclusion is finally reached. Like my detective. Eastern philosophy, however, uses the deductive method, in which the conclusion comes first. In this approach, as utilized in Eastern philosophy, the conclusion is assumed to be valid until proven otherwise, and based on the conclusion it is hypothesized that if one does this, then that will happen.

So, here in the West, to even begin to understand Buddhism, we have acclimate ourselves to another way of thinking. The reason so many of us have a difficult time grasping Buddha-dharma is because we remain stuck in the inductive mode. Perhaps some of us are not even aware that this philosophy relies on a completely different mode of reasoning than we are accustomed to using.

It’s really a strange phenomena. Many people want to practice Buddhism, want to call themselves Buddhists, and yet, they are so resistant to many of its principles. There are quite a few people these days who are picking, tearing them apart, because, in my opinion, they don’t understand it. They don’t get it, so they want to prove to you that it’s not worth understanding, that it’s not really valid. I can’t begin to fathom how anyone could follow a philosophy and yet have so little confidence in it. I think that would change if they could develop more understanding of this deductive approach.

Related to this subject is the principle of the Five Eyes (panca-caksu), or five kinds of vision, which has its origin in Pali sources and was later explained in great detail by Nagarjuna in the Maha-Prajna-paramita Sastra.

The five eyes are:

(1) the physical-eye, or the faculty of sight, that sees the ordinary objects before it;

(2) the spiritual-eye sees birth and death, good and bad, causes and conditions;

(3) the eye of Wisdom sees the true nature of things, emptiness, nirvana;

(4) the eye of Dharma is inspired by the thought of universal compassion;

(5) the Buddha-eye, the eye of awakening.

It’s said that only a Buddha holds all five, but does not use them all at the same time. Only the physical-eye is innate at the beginning, the four other kinds of vision are potentialities that must be cultivated. In his translation of the Diamond Sutra, the great Ch’an monk, Hsuan Hua (founder of City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Ukiah, California), commented:

Are they produced from within or do they come from outside? The five eyes are not produced from within; nor do they come from outside: nor do they exist in the middle. Cultivate, use effort, and when your skill is sufficient you will have them naturally. Before sufficient skill is attained, no amount of seeking will cause them to function. Seeking is false thinking. Seeking without the thought of seeking brings a response.”

The four eyes preceding the buddha-eye are limited. However, the eye of the Buddha is said to be free from delusion and filled with compassion for all beings. Ascending the Five Eyes is a purification process, as Nagarjuna points out:

All the five eyes of the Buddha arise from prajna-paramita [transcendent wisdom]. The bodhisattva while cultivating prajna-paramita purifies his five eyes.”

The “five eyes” were once explained to me as five different ways of perceiving Buddhism:

(1) the Physical-eye is where we start from, simply apprehending physical objects; for instance recognizing that Buddhism is a religion with temples and priests and monks and lay people and statues, etc.

(2) the Spiritual-eye is also the eye of experience: Buddhism is viewed as a philosophy that contains excellent wisdom.

(3) the eye of Wisdom: Dharma becomes a tool.

(4) the eye of Dharma: Dharma become the focal point of life.

(5) the Buddha-eye: Buddhism is not merely a religion, a philosophy, discipline, or a way of life – it embraces all that and then goes beyond. With this eye, one has cultivated the two qualities of wisdom and compassion, but compassion becomes the primary motivation of life.

As previously stated, the first four eyes, or ways of viewing, are limited. The physical and spiritual eyes cannot see beyond mere form. The eye of wisdom sees the emptiness in form and embraces both the ultimate and relative, but compassion is not yet at the center. The eye of dharma, the aspiration to realize awakening for the sake of others, is the portal into the highest kind of vision.


When the bodhisattva becomes the Buddha the eye of wisdom itself comes to be called in turn the eye of the Buddha. As ignorance and other klesas [mental afflictions] including even their traces, will all have been concluded, (the bodhisattva) gains a clear comprehension in regard to every thing . . .  When one gains the eye of the Buddha nothing remains unseen, unheard, uncomprehended and unrecognized.”

Take this with a grain of salt. It doesn’t mean that a Buddha is some sort of superhuman being. The most significant thing a Buddha sees, hears, comprehends and recognizes is (ala Avalokitesvara) “the cries of the world”, for as Nagarjuna stated, when a bodhisattva gains the vision of a buddha, compassion becomes the sole motivation of life.

And it should go without saying, that the sort of wisdom and compassion we are talking about is cultivated only through the twin paths of meditation and ethical conduct.


3 thoughts on “Five Kinds of Vision

  1. Actually, I think you were right about deductive and inductive reasoning the first time! As I understand it, deductive reasoning involves logically deducing conclusions from premises, for example “all dukkha is caused by tanha, therefore if I become free of tanha, I will be free of dukkha”, whereas inductive reasoning involves generalising from experience or observation, for example “whenever I have felt greater compassion, I have been happier, so if I feel more compassion in the future, I will be happier” – you can’t be certain that the past is a reliable guide to the future, but it makes sense to try to draw conclusions from it.

    As the examples above show, there are both kinds of reasoning in Buddhism. I find it hard to imagine any approach to understanding the world that does not use both. I think what you’re saying in the post contains a lot of truth, but I don’t think it’s about inductive vs deductive, and I don’t think it’s about Asian vs Western – there are traditions of meditation in the west as well. Arguments either make sense or they don’t, practices are useful or they’re not, regardless of cultural differences.

    I think the reason why what you’re saying seems to be about logical approaches is that the way we use logic most often in everyday life is tied up with desire – that continual analysis “what is wrong, why aren’t I happier, how do I need to change, what do I need to have, what needs fixing…”. Buddhism has an answer to this, but ironically it simultaneously answers the question logically and at the same time implies that it’s not a useful question to ask. The logic points to a practice which is about letting go of trying to analyse everything.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Paul. What I’m saying is based most on my own experience, and what I’ve seen is that Westerners in general seem to need to be able to have logical explanations for most things. We want to know the why’s, there where fore’s, the how comes, etc. Eastern students of Buddhism seems to be more willing to be accepting at first and content to let the logical aspects that care of themselves later on. I think we would be better served if we relied a little less on logic. I think it is far better to be master of Buddhist practice, than to be masters of why it works. Buddhism is a lifetime field of study and there will be some things that will defy our logic for years perhaps decades. If we use logic as the only determining factor, the going will be rather rough.

      Regardless of what you call it, the East and West do think differently from each other. I think that’s okay. I’m not saying one is better than the other, just that there are times one mode of reasoning is more effective than the other.

  2. I just found this webpage searching DDG for “five eyes” because I found varying explanations of them, but that’s a little besides the point; however, I would like to say that there DEFINITELY is an “eye” that DEFINITELY has “vision” of existence beyond the flesh/material world, similar to “vision” in a dream, but 100% beyond and outside the body/brain/senses/world. Thus, my search, to understand which eye that was, and the 5 eyes described here aren’t helping me at all to understand the eyes I wanted to understand. The eyes described here sound like a “westernized” dilution of something far more direct, experiential, and totally removed from the flesh/senses/material-world. The “glow of awareness” has it’s own eyes (along with “intent”, instantaneous conscience/knowing – not the brain-type knowledge of memory/thinking/time, and character/nature/kamma – the foundation from which intent arises).

    I would also disagree with the stereotyping of western-asian basis for logic/reasoning; in that, well – it’s stereotypical, and merely due to western deslusions of “human progress” (an impossibility in an expanding universe of ever-increasing entropy) and their drive to anihilate this world via usury-based plunder far beyond sustainable levels and into a chemtrailed-atmosphere, a melting and dying planet, and far into the realms of technological life-support, soon westerners are going to find that they are the “new kids on the block” that merely haven’t learned their lesson yet.

    And as things proceed, westerners are going to find that whatever they have done, the eastern part of the world is going to “be western” 10x better than westerners – and truly, this is going to spell complete disaster for this entire planet. Western usury-based technologically driven life-support along with its foundation in “western” logic/reasoning started a fire of materialistic desires that is going to burn this planet into complete desolation – and the remnant of humans will suffer for Aeons – now which kind of eye sees that?

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