Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My "Almost-Passing" Answer to the Midterm Koan

We got our midterms back. I did very well. The professor announced at the beginning of class that one person almost passed. So for your edification and enjoyment:

In their book Paths to Liberation, Robert Buswell and Robert Gimello posit that “the doctrine of emptiness [shunyata] [is] audible in any form of Buddhism if one but listens for it … and is still coursing through the Buddhist universe like a low-frequency basal pulse” (p. 375). In this essay I propose to answer all questions in one search through the five sutra texts for the basal pulse of emptiness [shunyata] noted by these modern American Buddhologists. I will begin with a definition and description of the concept of emptiness and then examine the sutras in the order of 1, 3, 4, 2, 5 before reaching my conclusion about 6. If I am able to find the thread of emptiness in all five texts, the premise will have been proven for this subset of Buddhist texts.

Robinson defines “shunyata” in the Sutra Pitika as “an attribute of phenomena—stating that they are empty of self or anything pertaining to self—and as a mode of perception, in which phenomena are viewed simply in terms of what is absent or present to awareness, without adding or taking away anything … Nagarjuna later expanded these two meanings … phenomena had no “own-nature” [svabhava]; as a mode of perception, it meant the relinquishment of all views” (327-328).
In his explication, Robinson relates emptiness to the third realization in the Buddha Shakyamuni’s enlightenment experience. After passing through the four dhyanas (levels of meditative concentration), Shakyamuni first saw his lives and past lives and the causes of his rebirths. Then in his second insight, he saw the causes of rebirth for all the sentient beings in the cosmos. From there he was able to work out the concept of dependent co-arising [pratitya-samutpada], that nothing is permanent and that there is “no self” [anatman]. All things arise because of past actions, words, or thoughts with intention; all things pass away when the effect has run its course. Thus, there is no reason to cling to anything because everything is suffering in the constant cycle of samsara. With this vision of the emptiness of existence, Shakyamuni was able to extinguish the outflows [asravas] and be awakened. Because he found a pattern amid the chaos of samsara and identified the twelve steps from ignorance to death, rebirth, and suffering, he was able to teach people how to be free. Gethin notes that in Buddhist practice, practitioners work their way up the eight steps of mental concentration to see the same thing as Shakyamuni and thus free themselves from samsara. This insight can be considered the view of emptiness and success in the steps of mental cultivation can be called the practice of emptiness that is hinted at in Robinson’s definition.

The first sutra text is the story of Channa being taught the middle way. Channa was a Buddhist practitioner after the parinirvana (death of Shakyamuni). He was with other monks at the Deer Park in Benares, and he was quite frustrated at his inability to go up the ladder of mental concentrations and see the emptiness of all things. Without this vision, he was unable to cut off the outflows [asravas] and be freed from samsara. The other monks told him to seek out Ananda, Shakyamuni’s former companion. Channa asked his question, and Ananda repeated the Buddha’s sermon to Katyayana (also transliterated Kaccana). In this sermon, the Buddha restated his doctrine of the Middle Way, which he had first posited as being the way between the extremes of indulgence in sensual pleasures and complete asceticism. This time the Buddha said that the extremes are existence and non-existence. The middle way is to see pratitya-samutpada or dependent co-arising. Things arise from past karma and then pass away. People change, but they are still connected to previous experiences. They do not, however, exist forever. Ananda then repeated the Buddha’s tracing back through the twelve steps of dependent co-arising to show how each factor causes the next, trapping sentient beings in the cycle of samsara. Ananda then said: “What arises is suffering; what ceases is suffering—one who knows this has no doubts, is not distracted.” Channa heard this and realized the dharma.

From this story, we see the importance of emptiness in the early mainstream sutras. Things are impermanent, but they do arise based on intentions, thoughts and actions that have gone before. So we find the seed of emptiness in Shakyamuni’s enlightenment, in his later teachings, and in the teachings of his closest disciple.

As time passed, Buddhist scholars attempted to categorize the components of what arose and passed away. Since Shakyamuni had found order and a pattern in the chaos of samsara, these scholars continued that pursuit. They were the Abhidharmists, and eventually they tried to systematize Buddhist thought in absolute terms. Other Buddhist scholars felt that because the Abhidharmists said that all components of being [dharmas] each had its own nature [svabhava], the Abhidharmists were falling into the error of eternalism. Anonymous Buddhist scholars wrote the Prajna-Paramita sutras to counter this tendency. The Prajna-Paramita Sutra of 8,000 lines, which according to Gethin was the first such sutra, says, “all dharmas are fabricated by thought construction, not born, not come forth, not come, not gone, that no dharma is ever produced or stopped in the past, future, or present.” It also says, “All dharmas are indeed unknowable and imperceptible because they are shunya [empty] and do not lean on anything.” The Abhidharmists of course responded that such an attitude was the other erroneous extreme of nihilism.

A famous Buddhist scholar from the 2nd Century BCE named Nagarjuna jumped into this argument with his text “Root Verses on the Middle Way.” Nagarjuna began each chapter with the objections of his abhidharmist opponents. Then he proceeded to deconstruct those arguments using the concept of emptiness as the middle way. Nagarjuna based his writings on the Buddha’s sermon to Katyayana and on the sutra text discussed above. In Chapter 24 “On the Four Noble Truths,” Nagarjuna repeated the passage in the Channa sutra that the Four Noble Truths involve the arising and passing away of suffering. He argued that if something is to arise and pass away, then it cannot have its own nature [svabhava]. To Nagarjuna the possession of a svabhava is eternalism and means that all beings are frozen and unchangeable. The only way that dependent co-arising [pratitya-samutpada] can exist is if all things are empty of “own nature” [svabhava]. Nagarjuna said, “Interdependent origination—that is what we call emptiness. That is a conventional designation. It is also the Middle Way. There can be found no element of reality [dharma] that is not interdependently originated; therefore, there can be found no element of reality whatsoever that is not empty. If everything were not empty, there could be no arising or passing away … How could suffering not be interdependently originated?” (v. 18-20)

Thus, Nagarjuna strongly emphasized and expanded the earlier idea that all things are impermanent and thus empty. He continued in Ch. 25 to discuss the concept of Nirvana and noted that even this is empty. He eventually concluded that “there is no distinction whatsoever between samasara and nirvana; and there is no distinction whatsoever between nirvana and samsara.” In the end, for Nagarjuna emptiness means that the distinction between the finite and the infinite is blurred. A gloss to the Chinese commentary on Nagarjuna Ch. 25 says, “The tathagatas [Buddhas] at no time and at no site for people preach that nirvana is a fixed/established characteristic.”

In addition to stretching the meaning of emptiness and its implications, Nagarjuna used a schema that became popular among Mahayana Buddhists. He said that there are a conventional knowledge and discourse and an ultimate knowledge and discourse. He felt that the Abhidharmists had gone wrong because they took the conventional notion of “own nature” [svabhava] and made it absolute.

As time went on, Mahayana scholars took Nagarjuna’s teachings to an extreme and taught nihilism. So the story of Sudhana was written to show that within emptiness there is fullness and that all things are interpenetrated. Sudhana traveled all over India seeking teachers. In the end, the bodhisattva Maitreya showed him a vision that within one pore of the bodhisattva Samantabhada there was a cosmos containing an infinite number of cosmoses. This works going infinitely small and out infinitely large. Only emptiness makes this work. This is how nirvana and samsara interpenetrate each other.

Escaping from samsara was no longer the most important thing to Mahayana Buddhists. They wanted awakening [bodhi] to transcend samsara and then in a state that straddled the divide, they wanted to cross over all sentient beings. To achieve this goal they required wisdom [prajna] and tactical skill [upaya]. Tactical skill gives a teacher the way to enlighten or awaken others or to at least awaken in them “bodhicitta” or a desire for awakening. The Mahayana Buddhists said that the Buddha gave his teaching in three stages: first he gave a lower way, then the way of emptiness, and finally the teaching of the conventional and the ultimate.

The Lotus Sutra is a Mahayana sutra that according to Tenabe embodies the concept of emptiness. The entire sutra is a long discourse of praise for a sutra that is about to be, but never actually is taught. Thus, we find emptiness at the core of the Lotus.

The story given from the Lotus Sutra is the story of the three carts and the burning house. This story represents a skillful means of awakening bodhicitta. The story talks about children playing in a burning house. The father coaxes them out with promises of dog carts, goat carts, and ox carts. When the children get out, the only cart given them is an ox cart. We all are symbolized by the children. The burning house symbolizes samsara. The father symbolizes a Buddha. The Buddha uses any means to save his children, but in the end, the only path is the Mahayana, the path of the bodhisattva.

The Vimalakirti Sutra is another sutra that uses skillful means to teach its readers the Middle Way. Vimalakirti is a pattern of a person who lives in emptiness. He straddles all things, but is attached to none. He eats and drinks, but delights in meditation. He goes to brothels to show the follies of lust. He is able to deconstruct the teachings of all the great bodhisattvas. And in the end, after all have given their views on how to enter the gate of oneness, Vimalakirti remains silent. This might mean that the others have spoken well, and Vimalakirti will not refute them. Or it means that he cannot, and his life is empty, too. Or perhaps it means what Manjusri just said, “When you can neither speak nor talk of any event, when you neither indicate nor know anything, when you pass beyond both questions and answers. This is to enter the gate of oneness.” So Vimalakirti takes the middle way of silence and enters that gate.

Thus, we see that sutras 1, 3, and 4 specifically speak of dependent co-arising or emptiness. Sutras 2 and 5 do not mention emptiness explicitly, but the concept is there. Thus, emptiness can be called the basal pulse of these Buddhist texts, at least, and the 6th quote can be considered proven.


Cloudia said...

how strange

to speak at length

of emptiness...

over my head

Aloha from Waikiki :)

Comfort Spiral



Teresa said...

Hi Cloudia,

This course has stretched my brain to its limits. I guess if you redefine emptiness as "impermanence" it helps.

Cloudia said...


Teresa said...

Love your Chinese, Cloudia!!

Lemmiwinks said...

Happy thanksgiving!

Cloudia said...

Thanks for the sweet e-card!

Teresa said...

Glad you liked the e-card, Cloudia. Thanks for stopping by.

murat11 said...

Nice pulse taking, Teresa. I like Nagarjuna's indistinction between samsara and nirvana.

Love the word co-arising.

Congrats on the Almost Pass, Never Pass, Beyond Pass . . .


Teresa said...

Hi Murat,

Thanks for stopping by. This essay was really hard, but it really helped me understand the concepts. The term "dependent co-arising" is a translation of the Sanskrit term "pratitya-samutpada" which is also rendered "dependent origination." I like the idea of "dependent co-arising." Nagarjuna was fun by about the fifth time through reading his texts. It took awhile for his ideas to penetrate.