Monday, December 25, 2017

Caveats, Corrections, and Clarifications: The meaning of ‘ Mind-only’


Caveat Lector:  Examples of false or misleading statements to beware of:

(1) “The ' Mind Only School’ is a Mahayana school founded by Asanga.”

(2)  The Chittamatra ( Mind-Only) Philosophical School.”

(3)  “[he]was influenced by the development of Buddhist ‘idealism’, the Yogacara or Cittamatra tradition.”

(4)  “Hsuan-tsang selected K‘uei-chi as the chief transmitter of the Mind-Only Buddhism that he brought back from India.”

(5)  “Ge-luk-ba scholars hold that even for the Proponents of Mind-Only the Perfection of Widsom Sutras are the supreme of sutras, even though their literal reading must be interpreted.”


(1) “ Mind-only” or cittamatra, is not synonymous with Yogacara and is not a formal “school” in the manner of the Yogacara school foundered by the half-brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu (or in the manner of the Madhyamaka school founded by Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, and their followers).  Mind-only is an orientation or perspective based on meditative realization whose coherence may be called a movement or tradition, not a doctrinaire school. There is no “founder” of the teaching of Mind-only awareness outside the Sutras.

(2)  Mind-only is not a philosophical school and is not “a philosophy” in any modern sense of the word. The terms “doctrine” and “philosophy” just do not apply to Mind-only.

(3)  Mind-only is not ‘idealism’ as that term is used in Western contexts.  Tibetan Buddhists, because of their emphasis on commentary over Sutra, erroneously hold that there are only two major streams of philosophical thought in Buddha Dharma: that of Madhyamaka and Cittamatra, and they mistakenly use the name Cittamatra or Mind-only as a term for the Yogacara tradition and teachings. Yogacara teachings are primarily  Consciousness-only (Skt. vijnanamatra) and  Conscious-data-only (Skt. vijnaptimatra), and only indirectly and tangentially connected to Mind-only.

(4) The Buddhism that Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang, 596–664) brought back with him from India was one of the Yogacara school’s branches as taught by Dharmapala, as opposed to the other 7th century Yogacara branch taught by Sthiramati. And neither of these two branches was the 6th century Yogacara branch perspective based on One Vehicle Buddhism brought to China by Paramartha 100 years before Xuanzang, and also taught by Wonchuk a student of Xuanzang who did not completely accept his version of Yogacara because he had previously studied Paramartha’s version and would not disavow its perspective as demanded by the other students of Xuangzang establishing their otrthodoxy. 

(5) Actually, Mind-only, i.e., cittamatra, is a core teaching of the One Vehicle (Skt. Ekayana) movement that appeared prior to Asanga and Vasubandhu and is found in the One Vehicle sutras, such as the Lotus Sutra, Avatamsaka Sutra, Samdhinirmocana Sutra, and Lankavatara Sutra, that the Samdhinirmocana Sutra termed “the Third Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma”. Thus, it is the One Vehicle Sutras that are received as “the supreme sutras” for the proponents of Mind-only, not the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom or Transcendent Wisdom) Sutras. In general, the Yogacara teachers who self-identified as such, with best intentions, appropriated the Mind-only teachings from the One Vehicle sutras, but they extracted them out of context to construct a separate system of doctrines that emphasized their own commentarial schemes. 


I learned about “ Mind-only” (Skt. cittamatra, while some translators capitalize the “-Only” I do not and follow the convention of other translators such as D.T. Suzuki.) through the so-called “East Asian” Buddhism of China, Korea, and Japan. In the Buddha Dharma that permeated China and flowed through to Korea and Japan, the “ Mind-only” movement and perspective is derived from the One Vehicle Sutras and expressed in such phrases as:

I designate not giving birth to antithetical conceptions and the complete realization that existence and nonexistence are nothing but the manifestations of one’s own mind.” (Lankavatara Sutra)  

That, in the clear and pure mind of one’s own nature yet there is contamination, is difficult to be able to comprehend.”  (Queen Srimala’s Lion’s Roar Sutra) 

“The three realms are vacant and false, and are only the doings of mind.”  (Dasubhumika-sutra, part of the Avatamsaka Sutra)

“Since there is only the ultimate meaning of mind, characteristics depend on the root emptiness, on objectless emptiness, on the emptiness of one’s own essence, on the essenceless emptiness of one’s own essence, and on the emptiness of the ultimate meaning, that sever those characteristics of difficult cultivation and practice.” (Samdhinirmocana Sutra)

Though the designation seems to be lost to modernity, Chan/Zen Buddhism was called the “Buddha Mind School (Lineage)” (佛心宗) for its emphasis of the Mind-only perspective through such teaching phrases as “ Mind is Buddha,” “ordinary Mind is the Way,” “the Dharma of the One Mind,” etc. And of course there is the famous Zen motto: 

"Not established by written words,
Transmitted separately outside the teaching,
Pointing straight to the human mind,
To see the nature and become Buddha.” 

Thus, the One Vehicle tradition found in Tiantai, Huayen, and Zen were the expressions of the Mind-only tradition.  For example, Chan/Zen Master Huangbo Xiyun (J. Obaku Kiun) (d. c. 850) said in the Synopsis of the Dharma of Transmitting Mind of Zen Master Duanji of Huangbo Mountain (黃檗山斷際禪師傳心法要) written by his lay disciple Pei Xiu (797-870), a government official and member of the Chinese literati:

The Tathagata appeared in the world and wanted to explain the True Dharma of the One Vehicle, however the multitude of beings did not believe and raised slanders, sinking in the sea of sufferings.  If he did not explain at all, however, he’d fall into stingy greed, and not serve as the subtle Way of universal renunciation for the multitude of beings.  He proceeded to establish the expediency of explaining there are three vehicles. For the vehicles there is great and small; for attainment there is shallow and deep. All are not the original Dharma.  For this reason it was said, “There is only the Way of the One Vehicle, two or more however, are not true.”  So, in the end, because he had not yet displayed the Dharma of the One Mind, he called Kasyapa to share the Dharma seat and separately handed over the One Mind, going away from words to explain the Dharma. The Dharma of this One Branch decrees a distinguished practice.  If you are able to agree with those who awaken, then you arrive at the Buddha stage! (My translation from [T48n2012Ap0382b03 to T48n2012Ap0382b09])

This distinction seemed straight forward to me with the Yogacara School being correctly labeled the Consciousness–only (vijnanamatra) or Conscious-data-only (vijnaptimatra) tradition as distinguished from the Mind-only (cittamatra) tradition of Huayen and Chan/Zen.  The term vijnapti is not uniformly translated in the way that vijnana is. Vijnapti has been translated as “representation” (e.g. D.T. Suzuki), “perception” (e.g. Stefan Anacker), “projection” (e.g., Ben Connelly and Weijen Teng), “forms of consciousness” (e.g., Wutai)  “cognition” (e.g. Sāgaramati), “consciousness” (e.g., Diana Paul), etc.  Because of the common root conscious “vijna” shared with conscious-ness (vijna-na), I say that the word vijna-apti (one of the “a”s is dropped in the conjunction) should be translated using “conscious” as the prefix and a term for “apti as the suffix. The term “apti” means that which is noticed and what is represented in consciousness, i.e., the information or data of consciousness. Thus, vijnapti has connotations suggesting of the modern notions of semiosis or sign process. So I am currently preferring to translate vijna-apti as “conscious-data” to indicate the meaning of the data points of consciousness. Other translations could be “conscious-sign,” “conscious-notice,” “conscious-information,” etc.   

However, when I came into contact with Tibetan Buddhist teachings there was an immediate cognitive dissonance and frustration with their use of the term “ Mind-only.” The Tibetan traditions are derived from post-seventh century Indian Buddhism that had morphed into a Doctrinaire Buddhism based on Treatises over Sutras on the one hand and Tantric Buddhism on the other. While Chinese Buddhism is derived from pre-eighth century Indian Buddhism that was primarily Sutra based. 

For example, wanting to learn what the Tibetan teachings are on Mind-only entailed, I picked up Jeffrey Hopkins’ Emptiness in the Mind-Only School of Buddhism and was completely shocked to see that they use the label “ Mind-only” erroneously for the Yogacara teachings and do not have a distinct awareness or acknowledgement of Mind-only as a different tradition from Yogacara.  This erroneous designation is found in other books describing Tibetan Buddhism such as the generalist survey Mahayana Buddhism, The Doctrinal Foundations by Paul Williams. Caveat Lector: Williams does not advise the reader that he is presenting Mahayana Buddhism from his Tibetan Buddhist perspective, so that unacknowledged standpoint makes his presentation of Yogacara as Mind-only into an expression Tibetan Buddhist prejudice.  Reading these books using the label “ Mind-Only” when they mean Yogacara was nearly nauseating to me, in the sense of creating a vertigo sensation where many times on nearly every page I have to do a mental translation to read “Yogacara” or “ Consciousness-only” when they write “ Mind-only.”

Though I personally came to this understanding of the Tibetan usage of “ Mind-only” relatively late, as I had mostly ignored Tibetan Buddhism until a couple years ago, this problem was acknowledged in a paper from the journal Philosophy East and West, volume 27, No.1, January 1977, by Whalen Lai titled “The Meaning of ‘ Mind-only’ (wei-hsin): An analysis of a sinitic Mahayana phenomenon.”  His paper begins:

Modern Japanese Buddhologists, following a distinction that was evident already in the T'ang Buddhist circles, speak of a Mind-Only (Sanskrit: Cittamatra) school usually covering Zen and Hua-yen as being distinct from, and superior to, the Consciousness-Only (Sanskrit: Vijnaptimatra) tradition, represented by the Wei-shih school (Fa-hsing) of Hsuan-tsang's followers.(1) This distinction between the so-called Wei-hsin (Mind-Only) and Wei-shih (Consciousness-Only) is often assumed to be self-evident. However, there is, in Indian Buddhism, only one term, Yogacara or Vijnaptimatra, covering these two distinct branches in China. In the Tibetan Buddhist canon also, the section known as Cittamatra designates only Yogacara texts. There is no sharp distinction made in India or Tibet between Cittamatra and Vijnaptimatra,  Mind-Only or Consciousness-Only, or, for that matter, between citta, mind, or (alaya) -vijnana, (storehouse)-consciousness. In Yogacara traditions, citta is often another term for alayavijnana. How is it then that the Chinese and then the Japanese have this clear notion that Mind-Only is something other than, and superior to, Consciousness-Only? (Page 65, I have altered his style of writing the Sanskrit words.)

Yes, in my studies of Mind-only from the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Buddhist perspective , I too learned that Mind-Only is “other than and superior to Consciousness-Only.” While I agree with Lai on many points, especially the acknowledgement of the problem, I don’t agree with much of his analysis (as he tries to make the problem out to be a translation issue and not a systems issue), and I think that he too misunderstands the Indian sources for Mind-only when he denies their existence.  The problem seems to lie in the distinction between placing primary reliance on the Sutras themselves or on the Treatises (Shastras) of the Indian doctrinal masters, and as followed by the Tibetan masters of doctrinal scholasticism, that interpret the Sutras.  When Lai says, “There is no sharp distinction made in India between Cittamatra and Vijnaptimatra,  Mind-Only or Consciousness-Only” he is referring to the distinctions made by the Indian Yogacara teachers’ treatises, not in the Sutras themselves. This is not surprising in that the Yogacara teachers were confusing the mind and consciousness teachings of the Sutras and deliberately failing to acknowledge the distinctions between the terms. 

D.T. Suzuki refers to this problem in his Studies of the Lankavatara Sutra:

There is one thing in the foregoing account given by Tao-hsiian of the history of the Lankavatara that requires notice: that there was another school in the study of the sutra than the one transmitted by [Bodhi]Dharma and Hui-k'e. This was the school of Yogacara idealism. The line of Hui-k'e belonged to the Ekayana school (一乘宗) of Southern India which was also the one resorted to by [Bodhi]Dharma himself when he wanted to discourse on the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. To this Ekayana school belong the Avatamsaka and the Straddhotpanna as well as the Lankavatara properly interpreted. But as the latter makes mention of the system of the eight Vijnanas whose central principle is designated as Alayavijnana, it has been used by the Yogacara followers as one of their important authorities. (P. 55.)

The doctrine expounded in the Lankavatara and also in the Avatamsaka-sutra is known as the Cittamatra and never as the Vijnanamatra or Vijnaptimatra as in the Yogacara school of Asanga and Vasubandhu. (P. 181.)


     Suzuki adds in the introduction to his translation of the Lankavatara Sutra:  

This is the point where the Lanka comes in contact with the Yogacara school. The Yogacara is essentially psychological standing in contrast in this respect to the Madhyamaka school which is epistemological. But the Alayavijnana of the Yogacara is not the same as that of the Lanka and the Awakening of Faith. The former conceives the Alaya to be purity itself with nothing defiled in it whereas the Lanka and the Awakening make it the cause of purity and defilement. Further, the Yogacara upholds the theory of Vijnaptimatra and not that of Cittamatra, which belongs to the Lanka, Avatamsaka, and Awakening of Faith.  The difference is this: According to the Vijnaptimatra, the world is nothing but ideas, there are no realities behind them; but the Cittamatra states that there is nothing but Citta, Mind, in the world and that the world is the objectification of Mind. The one is pure idealism and the other idealistic realism. To realise the Cittamatra is the object of the Lanka, and this is done when Discrimination is discarded, that is, when a state of non-discrimination is attained in one's spiritual life. Discrimination is a logical term and belongs to the intellect. Thus we see that the end of the religious discipline is to go beyond intellectualism, for to discriminate, to divide, is the function of the intellect. Logic does not lead one to self-realisation.

The problem of confusionof terms can be traced at least back to Vasubandhu who at times failed to clearly distinguish the difference between Consciousness-Only (vijnanamatra) and Mind-only (cittamatra). Though in his Thirty Verses he appears to distinguish  Consciousness-only (vijnanamatra) from Conscious-data-only (vijnaptimatra) without mentioning Mind-only, and in his The Teaching of the Three Own-Beings he does mention Mind-only in a manner that can be construed as being superior to Consciousness-only (vijnanamatra) from Conscious-data-only (vijnaptimatra), the followers of the Yogacara school in general tend to overlook these distinctions and be comfortable with the confusion caused by conflation of the terms.  For example, Vasubandhu begins his “Twenty Verses and Commentary” stating:

In the Great Vehicle, the three realms of existence are determined as being perception-only [vijnaptimatra].  As it is said in the [Dasa-bhumika section of the Avatamsaka] sutra, “The three realms of existence are citta-only.” Citta, manas, conscousness, and perceptions are synonyms.” (Stefen Anacker translation in Seven Works of Vasubandhu, p. 161, brackets added by me.)

We can see from this excerpt that Vasubandhu can blithely gloss over the very important distinctions between the terms mind (citta), cognition (manas), consciousness (vijnana), and perceptions (vijnapti, i.e., conscious-data, not perception samjna).  Mind , consciousness, and conscious-data have all had the term “-only” (matra) attached to them in various teachings, while manas never has “-only” attached to it in that way. Thus, any approach to understanding Mind-only (cittamatra) must begin by distinguishing it from Conscousness-only (vijnanamatra) and Conscious-data-only (vijnaptimatra) which is exactly what the Yogacara teachers Asanga and Vasubandhu fail to adequately do. Instead Vasubandhu uses the terms mostly as synonyms because of, it seems, his preference for the terms Consciousness-only and Conscious-data-only which he uses much more frequently than Mind-only. However, while I think this “error of synonyms” is Vasubandhu’s greatest weakness, it should not suggest that I think any less of Vasubandhu’s great works overall.  

A further discussion of the differences between these three “-onlys” of Mind-only,  Consciousness-only, and  Conscious-data-only will have to wait for a subsequent post. For now, the important point is that Mind-only is inclusive of consciousness, and conscious-data but that the other two are not inclusive of mind in the sense of all things are only manifestations of mind. From the Mind-only perspective, mind is the ocean, consciousness is the dynamic surface of the ocean, and conscious-data are the apparently individual peaks of the waves on the ocean.  Thus, to say that either the peaks of the waves or the moving surface of the ocean are synonymous with the ocean is an absurdity. They too are the ocean, and they are not separate from the ocean, but they not the round fullness that includes the profound depths of the complete ocean. 

This leads us to the question of where genuine Mind-only teaching is to be found in the Tibetan doctrinal systems that mistakenly call the Yogacara “ Mind-only.”  It is found in two places. First it is hidden in the doctrinal discussion of the so-called Tathagatagarbha texts, which is actually a misnomer when applied to the One Vehicle texts. Tathagatagarbha means the “Inner Tathagata” of each person and is an interesting word composed of three elements thus (tatha), come (agata), and inner (garbha). “Tathagata,” the “Thus-come-one,” or “One who comes as thusness”, is the self-referential term used in the Sutras by the Buddha instead of the first-person pronoun “I.”  Without going into too much explanation, I translate garbha as “inner” to render the term Tathagatagarbha as “the Inner Tathagata” in the sense of the psychological term the Inner Child.  Garbha has several connotations, such as fetus, womb, matrix, and sanctum sanctorum, i.e., a very private or secret place.  The garbha of the tathagata is the private place or buried seed within each of us from where our Buddha Nature is germinated and brought forth.  In other words, it is the essence of our own mind’s most personal being that is identical with Buddha in the sense of Mind is Buddha. 

The scholars’ conflation of the Tathagatagarbha teaching with the teachings of the One Vehicle Sutras, and thus obscuring the One Vehicle teachings, is the second most important reason (after the confusion of synonyms) that Mind-only has not been sufficiently analyzed in the doctrine-oriented scholarship of both Tibetan monastic colleges and Western academies.  This is because the scholars (both of old and today, in both Tibet and the West) prefer to extract and appropriate specific teachings out of the One Vehicle Sutras to create doctrinal systems to ply against each other. 

However, the primary purpose (paramartha) of the One Vehicle Sutras is found in their synthesis and syncretism of the Buddha Dharma. So when the One Vehicle Sutras, like Queen Srimala’s Lion’s Roar Sutra and the Lankavatara Sutra address the various topics like the Eight Consciousnesses, the Three Own-natures, the Four Noble Truths, the Five skandhas, Emptiness (sunyata), Dharmakaya, Tathagatagarbha, etc. it is not listing them in order to be extracted by various schools, but listing them as notions already variously taught within the Buddha Dharma that must be synthesized and syncretised in order to personally know and see the Tathagata’s awareness as the inclusive, whole or compete teaching (圓教) known as the Third Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma. 

And second, from my reading of Hopkins, the genuine Mind-only teaching in Tibetan Buddhism is found in the Jo-nang-ba school promoted by Shay-rap-gyel-tsen (1292-1360). The Gelug-ba school’s founder Dzong-ka-ba (1357-1419) was a prolific author who appears to have written one of his most famous treatises The Essence of Eloquence in large part to refute the real Mind-only teachings of Shay-rap-gyel-tsen (diacritical marks omitted, hereafter “Shay” when not in quoted material) and his Jo-nang-ba school by presenting the Yogacara as the only legitimate and orthodox Mind-only school. Using a process of “synthesis” (a hallmark of the One Vehicle) Shay coined the term “the Great Middle Way” which appears to be his own version of the One Vehicle. (Yes, I need to study this more before making too firm conclusions.)  As Hopkins points out:

For instance, he [Shay] considered separate passages of the Sutra Unraveling the Thought [Samdhinirmocana Sutra], usually considered to be Mind-Only [i.e., Yogacara] to present the views of Mind-Only and the Great Middle Way, the latter being concordant with Ultimate Mind-Only, or Supermundane Mind-Only, which is beyond consciousness.” (Hopkins, p. 51.)

The terms Ultimate Mind-Only, or Supermundane Mind-Only appear to refer to the real Mind-only, not to Yogacara’s “ Mind-only,” as Shay notes his Ultimate Mind-Only is beyond the  Consciousness-only of the Yogacara. This concordance of “Ultimate Mind-Only” with the “Great Middle Way” indicates Shay is referring to a perspective consonant with the One Vehicle’s ultimate purpose (paramartha).  As stated, one primary hallmark of the One Vehicle is its syncretic approach to the plethora of teaching in the Buddha Dharma.  Hopkins says,

Thus Shay-rap-gyel-tsen’s synthesis was by no means a collage drawing a little from here and a little from there and disregarding the rest. Rather, he had a comprehensive, thorough, and overarching perspective born from careful analysis. For him, others had just not seen what the texts themselves were saying and, instead of that, red into the classical texts the views of single systems. (Hopkins, p. 52.)

This exactly describes my own observations of the usual scholarly systems built upon material extracted and appropriated into doctrinal teachings outside the context of the Sutras.  One point the previous quotation seems to overlook is that Shay’s perspective was not actually just “born from careful analysis.” Elsewhere Hopkins acknowledges that Shay’ new (as to Tibetan’s doctrinal systems) perspective was born of his own direct realization of the nature of reality through meditation during an intensive retreat.  Hopkins adds,

His view of “other emptiness,” based largely on his profound understanding of the Kalachakra Tantra and commentary by Kalki Pundarika and bolstered by the Lion’s Roar of Shrimaladevi Sutra, and so forth, was received with amazement and shock. (Hopkins, p. 49.)
           This reference to Queen Srimala’s Lion’s Roar Sutra is more evidence that Shay was taking the perspective of the One Vehicle, as the One Vehicle is the central teaching of that Sutra. The reference to the Kalachakra [Wheel of Time] Tantra indicates the profound meditation techniques of this method of Tantra. “Other emptiness” refers to the label used to indicate Shay’s challenge to the Yogacara model of seeing phenomenal things (dharmas) as having an inherent self-nature, so that while dharmas are ultimately empty, they are not empty of self-characteristics . Under the rubric of “other emptiness,” Shay “taught that conventional phenomena are self-empty, in the sense that they lack any self-nature, whereas the ultimate is other-empty, in the sense that it is empty of the relative but has its own self-nature.” (Hopkins, p. 49.)  This “own self-nature” of the ultimate is none other than the True Suchness of the One Mind of the One Vehicle teachings.

The nuances of this “other-emptiness” verses “self-emptiness” debate are too convoluted to detail here, .As stated earlier, Hopkins’ book details the attempt by the Gelug-ba school’s founder Dzong-ka-ba to refute Shay’s teachings in the Mind-Only section of Dzong-ka-ba’s treatise The Essence of Eloquence.  However, as I read Hopkins translation and synopsis of the text, Dzong-ka-pa does not present persuasive arguments against Shay’s teaching of other-emptiness nor does Dzong-ka-pa present a clear rationalization for the validity of his separation of systems when contrasted to the One Vehicle’s and Shay’s syncretic approach.  Dzong-ka-ba fails to refute Shay’s accurate presentation of the relationship of the Three Own-nature (trisvabhava) and agues unsuccessfully in favor of the Yogacara misinterpretation.  Based on Hopkins book, Dzong-ka-ba’s doctrinal analysis appears to be mostly logical fallacies of smoke and mirrors, relying on intellectual wordiness and being oblivious to Shay’s (and Zen’s) necessity of actual meditation methods taking one beyond words to generate one’s own realization that all things are only manifestation of mind, which is the genuine Mind-Only teaching. 

            So be alert to the use of the term “ Mind-only,” and when you see it be sure to distinguish if it is being used wrongly as the synonym of the Yogacara school or correctly as label for the genuine Mind-only teachings of the One Vehicle school.

See Caveats, Corrections, and Clarifications for links to this series.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Difficulty of Receiving Buddhism in the West

A primary difficulty of receiving Buddhism into the West (as a psycho-social cultural context) is due to the peculiarity that Buddhism has nothing to teach, or to be more accurate, Buddhism is an un-teaching, not a teaching and not a non-teaching.  Buddhism, as a terminology, is a word created within the Western psycho-social context that adds the suffix “ism” to the core word “Buddha,” and that very process is among the first moves by the Western worldview to Westernize, appropriate, acclimate and accommodate the Buddha Dharma. This process of adaptation is human, normal, and indeed, inevitable, and took place on every occasion that the Buddha Dharma expanded outside its original context of Brahmanical culture in the India of 5th century BCE.  

The Sanskrit word dharma (Pali, dhamma) is very interesting and very difficult to translate into a single English word.  It has meanings that range from the minute to the all encompassing.  At one end of the spectrum, “a dharma” refers to a quantum of thingness, i.e., to that which makes a thing a thing, or in other words, to the fundamental pattern of a thing’s thinginess.  At the other end of the spectrum of connotations, “the Dharma” refers to the worldview or Weltanschauung of the person or context being described.  In the time of the Buddha, when two wandering spiritual mendicants (sramana) met each other on the road, they would inquire “Whose Dharma do you follow?” by way of sizing up and knowing where each other “was coming from” spiritually and intellectually.  A follower of Siddhartha Gautama, known by the two titles Shakyamuni Buddha, or simply the Buddha, would say, “I follow the Buddha Dharma.” It is because this is the widest and most inclusive connotation that it is conventionally capitalized in English.  Between these two ends of the spectrum, dharma can refer to a specific method of religious or skillful practice, to a teaching, to the law or duty of an individual, to the laws and duties of a society or culture, to a truth, to the Truth, to real things, to Reality, etc.   

In English, the myriad difficulties of translating the affective idea complex of “the Buddha Dharma” into English are dodged by simply using the suffix “ism” and saying Buddhism. While this has utility and is within lexicological validity, it creates some acculturation problems, because “ism” includes the two connotations of “a distinctive doctrine, cause, or theory” and “an oppressive and especially discriminatory attitude,” both of which are erroneous when applied to Buddha Dharma.  Thus from the get go, the term Buddhism has problematic and mistaken connotations as the English word for the Buddha Dharma.  For example, some Christians believe that Buddhism is not even a religion because it is an “ism,” without understanding that their term Christianity is simply a fancy way of saying ‘Christism’.

Most importantly for understanding Buddhism in the West, is the awareness that Buddhism, as an “ism,” is not “a distinctive doctrine, cause, or theory.”  This is immanently hard for Westerners to grok.  The best way to get this is to know that Buddhism is more like a mental medicine, a prescription for what ails us spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically (known by the term dukkha), and is not a doctrine or theory to be asserted, grasped onto, and promoted as a standard of belief.  The medicine of Buddhism requires a certain degree of faith in its efficacy, but it does not require any degree of belief in it as if it were a doctrine or dogma of tenets.  In other words, Buddhism does espouse a distinctive diagnosis of the cause of our suffering, dissatisfaction, and sense of imbalance in life (again, all coming under the term dukkha) and a prescription (which can be taken as a theory or hypothesis until personally proven to oneself) for the treatment and cure of that experience of off-centeredness.  In this sense, Buddhism does include a distinctive cause and theory to be put personally to the test of one’s own practice, proof, and realization, but without a doctrine or dogma to be taken merely on belief. It is only in this way that “ism” may be applied to the Buddha Dharma which is the .

This is the main source of the Western misunderstanding of how Buddhism relates to the stories of karma and reincarnation. Many Westerners feel some immediate, direct, and inherent affinity toward Buddhism, but are appalled, more or less specifically or vaguely, by the teachings of karma and reincarnation (or its synonym rebith) found in Buddhism.   What is not appreciated in the West is that the Buddhist views of karma and reincarnation are not truth assertions in themselves, but are truth responses to the Brahmanical doctrines about karma and reincarnation.  The Buddha’s awakening, for which he earned the title Buddha or Awakened One, gave him insight into the true workings of karma and rebirth, functions that the Brahmanical culture and doctrines were mistaken about. 

Brahmanical teachings on karma and rebirth emphasized the roles of atman, our essential or true self, and Brahman, the Universal Self of True Reality, and held that our psycho-spiritual liberation from what ails us is achieved when we personally realize that atman and Brahman are identical.  This was defined as the insight into the true nature of reality.  Buddha agreed with the frame of reference that our liberation is achieved when we realize an accurate apprehension and correct comprehension of the true nature of the universe, but based on his own insight into this true nature, he had to respond to the Brahmanical conceptual errors about the notion of self, both personal and cosmic, and therefore the Buddha taught the idea anatman, no-self, as the antidote to that mistaken idea of self.  Similarly, in response to mistaken Vedic and non-Vedic ideas about causation (including such views as a first cause similar to the ‘Big Bang’ and causation by a supreme being) , the Buddha taught the idea of dependent-origination (pratitya-samutpada) and that this was another aspect of the liberation arising upon viewing true nature of the universe accurately. 

Thus, the Buddhist response to the binding characteristics of the religions and philosophies of his day was to acknowledge the phenomenological basis of the worldviews he encountered, but to provide corrective analyses of the observed phenomena.  Integral to his analysis was the inquiry and examination of the mental constructs by which phenomena are observed, categorized, and analyzed.  That is, the Buddha Dharma is based on an approach to experience that inquires into its basis and an appreciation of that the phenomenological basis of reality lies in the phenomena of cognition and awareness.

So when Buddhism teaches about karma and rebirth, it is not positing a dogmatic assertion, but a corrective treatment for the misunderstandings about karma and rebirth.  To the extent that someone holds a wrong view of karma and rebirth, then the Buddha Dharma addresses that mistaken notion.  But we should remember that a view that denies there is any phenomenological basis for the ideas of karma and rebirth is just as mistaken as the Brahmanical or Christian views of karma and rebirth that depend on the literalization or essentialization of a self.  However, and this is the nuanced and subtle point that Westerners almost always miss, if a person has no view at all about karma and rebirth and neither denies their workings nor asserts a mistaken view of their workings, then Buddhism has no need “to correct” that person’s views on karma and rebirth because there are none and so Buddhism is able to leave well enough alone.  But in truth, it rarely happens that a person genuinely has no view of karma and rebirth, and the Christian idea of a cul-de-sac heaven or the atheist idea of nothing continuing after death both need correction by the Buddha Dharma. 

So when Buddha Dharma comes to the West and presents its ideas, we should remember that it is presenting responses to the ideas that are encountered in the West in terms of the Buddha’s awakening.  At least that is the ideal. But of course, in practice, Buddhist teachers and students have a wide range of personal insights and degrees of awakening, and therefore, many things get said and transmitted about Buddhism that are either merely fuzzy or downright inaccurate.  

The goal of Buddhism is liberation from what produces our psycho-spiritual ills and ailments.  Fundamentally, it is our own bifurcated and polarized consciousness that is the trunk of the branches and leaves of those ills.  As Buddhism comes to the West, Buddhism does not need to impose any specific set of dogmas onto Westerners because the whole project of Buddhism is to free Westerners from our own presuppositions, not to inculcated a new and foreign set of presuppositions.  This is the only very narrow seed or grain of truth in the secular Westerner’s doubts about karma and rebirth.  And since many new students or converts to Buddhism don’t fully understand the Buddhist view of karma and rebirth there has been much confusion sown.  Likewise, some foreign teachers of Buddhism have come to the West and mistakenly attempted to teach karma and rebirth as if they were speaking to members of their own culture and have thus muddied the waters unnecessarily and inappropriately. 

When Buddhism came to China, it met and had to deal with the preexisting religions of Taoism and Confucianism.  For example, as with Buddha teaching a correct view of the preexisting idea of karma, Buddhists in China had to teach a correct view of the preexisting Taoist idea of “the Way,” the Dao (Tao), and they did so by accepting and acknowledging the phenomenal basis for the idea, not by rejecting the idea.  Then they acculturated Buddhism by providing a re-visioning and re-articulating of what that idea was conveying but from a Buddhist perspective in order to liberate people from the bondage that the mistaken attachment to the idea had generated.         

Likewise, with Buddhism coming to the West, its goal is not to inculcate foreign ideas like karma and rebirth where they have not already arisen.  But actually, many if not most Westerners do not themselves know how deeply the ideas of karma and rebirth are already embedded in Western culture through Greek, Pagan, Jewish, and Christian sources just to name a few. The Christian idea of “you reap what you sow” is basic karma, and the idea of going to hell or heaven after we die is a teaching of rebirth.  But much of modern Western culture is a stream that flows away from religious views and embraces a secular view of materialist science, and this current of modernism dismisses all views that hint of religion as mere superstition.  So Buddhism has two main rivers of Western culture that it must simultaneously address: Western religion and Western science. 

It is the Western stream of secular scientism that gives rise to the voices proclaiming and advocating an anti-karma and anti-rebirth secularization or normalization of Buddhism.  That’s okay, and these voices need to be responded to, but we should not neglect or forget that the voices of Western religion must just as necessarily be responded to by Buddhists if Buddhism is to acclimate and acculturate in the West.  Buddhism must respond to and address both Western science’s mistaken views of materialism and consciousness as well as Western religions’ mistaken views of God and spiritual salvation.  But in order to do so, Buddhism does not deny God and salvation and does not deny science.  Buddhism addresses both God and science by acknowledging that they are each systems of conceptual response to experienced phenomenological reality. Buddhism then adds the nuances of its perspective that arise in the light of Buddha’s awakening. 

As Buddhism comes to the West, it provides a revisioned approach to both science and God.  In a sense, Buddhism will “blow up” the preconceptions of both God and science as it accustoms itself to the West. As for God, Buddhism sees God without anthropomorphism in the same way that it sees both the individual person and the cosmic personage of Brahma without a self (anatman).  As for science, Buddhism asks what is “matter” and how can matter be maintained as a substance or a thing in light of the relationship between energy, mass, and light in the same way that it asked how can karmic energies and influences be reborn when there is no self or substance to carry them? And of course Buddhism asks science how does consciousness arise if there is only brain matter and no mind?  In these ways, Buddhism does not deny science and instead encourages science to delve deeply into its own assumptions and premises and to not stop short by clinging to comfortable notions of matter as if the fundamental questions have been resolved.   The answer to the questions of karma and rebirth lie exactly in this questioning of science’s own presumptions of matter and materialism by using the scientific method itself.     

The preeminent psychologist Carl G. Jung pointed out that some variety of the notion of reincarnation and rebirth appears in every culture and therefore should be taken as a universal psychological phenomenon worthy of study.  This is the view of a Western scientist who takes psychology as an empirical science based on the psyche, not on matter.  In Western culture, the inquiry of the universe can be done in two modes: that of matter or mind, i.e., physics or psyche.  Aristotle called the first physics and the other metaphysics, or what was beyond physics.  Sadly for Western science, scientific inquiry in the 20th century became dominated by the first, and scientific study via the second was usurped and almost entirely atrophied by disuse. This conceptualization of metaphysics as the study of the non-physical obfuscated and relegated the field of psychology away from empirical scientific inquiry because it was not physical and created for psychology the guilt by association with religion and superstition which were metaphysical.  That is, Western materialists who studied natural phenomenon as “matter” denigrated and despised the study of natural phenomenon as mind and psyche.  The term psychology as the scientific study of the psyche as mind has been nearly entirely usurped by the study of the mindless but measurable physical reactions of a material body and brain matter.  This is one of the core problems of Western science and materialist secularization that Buddhism is and will address in order to liberate people from the bondage that Western materialism has imposed on its own Western science and the Western worldview. 

Western secular Buddhists may be skeptical about what they imagine that Buddhism is asking them to believe about karma and rebirth (when in fact Buddhism is not asking them to believe anything), but as yet, those who are vociferous about this skepticism have not seemed to glimpse that the real danger that Buddhism poses for their Western worldview has nothing at all to do with karma or rebirth but with their own closely and dearly held beliefs about matter and mind.  Buddhism asks that they inquire into their own materialistic worldview along with its presumptions and its assumptions of observer and the observed that their science utilizes in forming its dominant and domineering relationship to the universe as matter and energy.  Whether they know it yet or not, this is the genuine difficulty that secularists face with receiving Buddhism in the West.


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A response to James Ford’s Blog on Modernist Buddhism

James Ford’s take on Modernist Buddhism seems to present a noble hope for an integration of Buddhism with a Western world view that is just doomed to failure, because it attempts to straddle a divide that cannot be straddled.  Buddhism can accommodate itself to science but not to the religion of scientific materialism, because scientific materialism is a belief system that should not be confused with the activity of science.  

The label “Modernist Buddhism” is about as useless as the label Modernist Art. The adjective provides no descriptive content and only detracts and demeans the noun being modified.  The complete failure of the term is shown by the suggestion that Thich Nhat Hanh and Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, could be considered as such within its penumbra. 

No, karma and rebirth are not “an explanation for human hurt” any more than gravity is an explanation for the art of Jackson Pollack.  Buddhism’s response to the question of original sin is the chain of causation, in which ignorance about our own true nature is the key link, not a projected anthropomorphic creator who is the cause.   The Three Marks are about the marks of conditioned things, not about our own true nature of awakening which is unconditioned.  Things don’t “exist within their moments,” unless those moments are seen as a dream. Because moments don’t exist either, both the “thing” and the “moment” only appear as a dream. 

To believe that one can “capture the teachings of Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha of history,” is a delusion that rests upon the failure to fully digest the meaning of the Three Marks.  Historical materialism was not created by modernists, but has been a central problem of human consciousness since the dawn of history.  Both historical anthropomorphism and historical materialism are cognitive illnesses resting on the mental activities of reification and literalization. 

The literalizations of rebirths is the problem, but the denial of rebirth is not the solution, deliteralization is.  That people believe there is an entity that is reborn is the problem, not rebirth.  You, the reader, are the living proof of rebirth, whether or not you know it to be so.  Do you remember your first day out of your mother’s womb? Just because you don’t remember your first day of breath does not mean it never happened.   The “entity” that you are today is not the “entity” of your first day. Not a single cell remains. Yet through the magic of memory you have crafted a reification of identity that you believe is reborn from day to day.  Don’t let memory fool you, the no-self that is reborn from day to day is the no-self that is reborn from life to life.   Rebirth is not merely a motivational ploy, it is a fact of the universe that won’t go away by ignoring it, any more than the laws of physics will cease when people don’t pay attention to them.

If the books Buddhism Without Beliefs to After Buddhism are the standard of Modernist Buddhism, then the Buddha Dharma is in good shape because those books show how their author is not really interested in Buddha Dharma, and is only interested in his own views.  However, one could say that readers are in deep trouble when they read those books and are mistakenly lead to believe they are learning about Buddhism.  Here is where the label Modernist Buddhism becomes a negation of actual Buddhism.

I recently saw and heard Richard Wright at my local independent bookstore Copperfield's Books in Sebastopol, CA, during his book tour for Why Buddhism is True and while he may be entertaining to people who have no knowledge of Buddhism, and he does give a credible outline of some of the basic ideas in Buddha Dharma, overall, his attempt to wed Buddhism with modernist scientific materialism is an utter failure.  His portrayal of the scientific view is filled with the anthropomorphic creationist jargon of what is oxymoronically called “evolutionary psychology.” For example he says that "natural selection has designed us" and "natural selection has created ur minds" and "the way we are wired."   

That Modernist Buddhists “do not believe in a literal rebirth” is not the problem with Modernist Buddhism.  As I noted above, the belief in a literal entity being reborn is the problem for which the Buddha provided the medicine. But Modernist Buddhists want to throw out the baby of rebirth with the dirty water of literalizing. The Modernist Buddhist believes in the birth of the literal person in this life, but not in the rebirth of the deliteralized currents of the life streams that make up the karmic seeds and perfumes.  The whining about karma and rebirth by Modernist Buddhists only shows their lack of scientific inquiry.  The presumption that karma and rebirth are merely superstitious supernaturalism is held with religious fervor as a doctrinal tenet.  

From whatever perspective, if karma and rebirth are denied, then that stream is not in the Buddha Dharma watershed. This is because the unique perspective on karma and rebirth is an essential part and parcel of the greatest discovery of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. The story is that under the Bodhi Tree, the Buddha realized the Three Direct Knowings:  The first was that of his past lives and the past lives of all beings. The second was of the laws of karma. The third was that he was free of all obstacles and released from attachments.
There is absolutely nothing in the discovery of the Buddhist view of karma and rebirth that is contrary to or incompatible with modern science. To suggest otherwise only shows that the suggestor has a warped and perverted view of science. Saying karma and rebirth are silly because there is no good theory for their application is just like a time when a person said that gravity is silly because there is no good theory or “proof” of its existence (i.e. before Newton). Likewise it is like a time when we said that people’s characteristics were transferred by the blood, before anyone knew of DNA. Karma and the rebirth of karmic characteristics are vastly more complex and difficult to describe and analyze than DNA or the laws of physics, but those laws of karma exist just the same whether or not we have the language to scientifically describe them with accuracy, just like the laws of physics existed before they were adequately described.
When a person has a genuine kensho experience, then the vision of karma and of rebirth as  characteristics conditioned by karma become intuitively clear, even while the scientific language for it is lacking. In my view, this could even be used as a litmus test for genuine, or at least genuinely profound, kensho. That is, an intuitive knowing of rebirth and the laws of karma.  There may be something like a genuine kensho, even it if is shallow, that does not touch the knowing of karma and rebirth, but that should not be used as confirmation for a genuinely adequate kensho, and a person should not be encouraged to use such a shallow kensho, if indeed it is a real kensho, as the measurement for the truth of karma and rebirth.  .
Yet, even with a deeply profound kensho, because the person lives within a social context, they are reduced to using concrete metaphors and imagery for describing it. Yes, the concrete imagery is susceptible to literalization and a falling back into pre-Buddhist paradigms for expressing the understanding of karma and rebirth in which a “person” or “soul” is discussed as transmigrating. But if this type of language is used by a Buddhist, it is a Buddhist using non-Buddhist terminology and thus causing confusion.
The great discovery of the Buddha was that karma and rebirth function absent the need to hypothesize a “person” or “soul.” It is not until modern physics and science that we are now in the position to begin a scientific study of the karma and rebirth phenomenon. The traditional Buddhist view, as expressed in the Lankavatara Sutra uses the image of the wave and the ocean. Karma is the wave action and what is reborn is the ocean itself, not an individual person or soul. Thus, we can see that the “modern” Buddhist can and should accept that karma and rebirth are pre-scientific descriptions of laws that are similar to wave formations, the ambiguity of analyzing light as a wave or a particle, etc.
The notion that “We are birthed out of the conditions of existence, live, and then as we die, it all falls apart. There is no extra or after for most modernist Buddhists.” is a result of not being able to deal with the ambiguity of the “wavicle” phenomenon of karma and rebirth. If a person says, “it is all too confusing for me, so I won’t make an opinion about karma and rebirth”, then that is not at all problematic to me. However, if someone says, “based on my limited view I assert there is no karma or rebirth, there is no extra or continuation of life” then to me, that person is not a Buddhist, even though, they may be friendly to Buddha Dharma otherwise.  

Likewise, a focus on “ethics and purpose” in Buddhism is well and good, but severely limited. Zen master Guefeng Zongmi listed five levels of profundity in Buddhism from shallow to deep, and “ethics and purpose” are teachings found in the two shallowest levels. The question “I wish I were happier” is in the shallowest level, and “why is there so much suffering” is found in the second shallowest level.  This means that they are questions common to all levels of Buddhism, as the surface levels of the ocean are common to the entire ocean. But sticking to “ethics and purpose” in such a way is like telling an oceanographer to only study the sea to a depth of 36 inches. Sure you will map the perimeter of the ocean’s shoreline that way, but you will overlook the depths entirely.   

Framing the question as one of “human flourishing” is exactly the kind of commercialization of the self-help genre that is selling nowadays.  Human flourishing has been the perennial project of all spiritual projects since humans became self-reflective. In this context, the fact that the idea of rebirth is swimming against the tide of contemporary materialism is one of its chief arguments for being a medicine of our modernist ailment and materialism disease.  The roll that materialist naturalism plays in the disease of our culture is exactly what the medicine of Buddha Dharma is well placed to cure.  By adhering to the disease and denaturing Buddhism into a materialist naturalism only perverts Buddhism. It is the appropriation of the medicine by the disease, not the cure of the disease by the medicine.

The idea that “consciousness can be fully accounted for by reducing it to material processes” is anathema to Buddhism. This is not Buddhism.  This is the materialism that removes the psyche from psychology, usurps the word psychology for what is actually physiology, and then presents this perversion as science.  

Let me say this plain and simple: any person, in the West or the East,  who truly believes that our best knowledge of the world is achieved by analyzing phenomena as the outcome of processes of physical causation; posits that there’s no world behind or beyond the material world of physics, chemistry, and biology; and believes  that consciousness can be fully accounted for by reducing it to material processes JUST IS NOT A BUDDHIST. They may be an artificially Buddhist flavored modernist, but they are not an actual Buddhist.  Today, Buddhists do not capitulate themselves to the “modern sense of the world” any more than they did to the then modern sense of the world in the past centuries and millennia ago.   To capitulate to the conventional sense of the world is just not Buddhism.  Yes, one must accommodate one’s views in public to a certain extent if it seems that an Emperor would chop off our head for stating the truth that challenges that conventional truth.  So to the extent that modern materialists would chop off the heads of Buddhists who go against the materialist sense of the world, then it behooves Buddhists to somewhat go along to get along. 

The idea that modernists need a “glue” to hold together traditional Buddhist ethics because they are shaped by modern materialist culture is just another way of saying modernists want to appropriate Buddhism to suit their own purposes.  Aristotle had some good ideas, but his concept of the dilemma is at the root of everything that is wrong with modernist materialism.  Aristotle said that life can be examined as physics and as metaphysics, i.e., that which is not physics. That was good. But he then formulated the concept of the dilemma which states that a proposition is either true or false.    When Aristotle’s concept of the dilemma became directed at his own outline of inquiring about the universe as physics and metaphysics, the materialists in favor of physics said their side was true and the other side, the metaphysics, was false. Thus Aristotle’s eudaimonia became, in the hands of the materialists, both one sided and narrow minded as merely a flourishing of their materialist perspective.  

The project of Buddhism is to transplant itself into the West, not to transplant Aristotle into Buddhism.  The “endpoint” of Buddhist practice has NEVER been about “ending rebirth,” except to the extent as envisioned by the shallowest surface understanding of Buddhism by those who are attached to their view of the person as an entity.  The endpoint of Buddhism has always been awakening, as the title Buddha means an “awakened one.” 

To formulate the endpoint of Western or Modernist Buddhism as “living the best kind of life one possibly can” is like saying the endpoint of one’s vacation is to have a well functioning car.  This is a reinterpretation of the Buddhist awakening that trivializes its scope and depth. Labeling it “eudaimonic enlightenment” is just a fancy name for genetically modified enlightenment. This is clear by the need to immediately provide the warning that Aristotle’s virtues are not Buddhist virtues. And there is a whole lot more to the Buddhist wisdom of prajna and jnana than mere insight into impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and the absence of self-nature. 

So while one may be sympathetic with Modernist Buddhism, it is not Modernist Buddhism to accept the presence of Tathagatagarbha in the human heart-mind. So while I agree that the wisdom of the Mahayana Mahaparinivara Sutra, the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Lankavatara Sutra, the Diamond Cutter Sutra, and the Treatise on the Mahayana Awakening of Faith are absolutely congruent with the foundations of Zen awakening, the awareness of the exact identity of the causal world and awakening, that is, of delusion and enlightenment, is something that completely blows up modern materialism, not something that affirms materialism.

James Ford arrives at a destination with a panoramic view of Zen and the Heart Sutra. But it is only with a rationalizing sleight of hand that the Heart Sutra or any other Mahayana Sutras, as well as many if not most of the Suttas of the Pali Canon, can be made consistent with the materialist Buddhist Modernism.  In other words, it is no defense of Modernist Buddhism to describe a Buddhism that burns away the materialist superstructure yet pretends there is no inconsistency. 

To say “things are real but they are temporary” is another toy rattle to give to a crying child that has no greater or lesser degree of fact than to say “you are reborn from one life to another.”  Once awakening, even by the names kensho or satori, is acknowledged, we have left the precincts of Modernist Buddhism, and I don’t think it does anyone any good to pretend otherwise.  An admonition that any emergent Modernist Buddhism must take awakening into account is doomed to failure exactly because materialism cannot coexist with awakening.  


Some links in Ford’s original post:

by Marjorie L. Silverman

Why Secular Buddhism is Not True
by sujato.

A MoreEnlightened Way of Being, The entrance of Buddhist ethics into the modern world 

By Seth Zuiho Segall

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Zen Soliloquy

To sit, or not to sit, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous karma

Or to be mindful against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end samsara: to nirvana, to cessation
No more; and by cessation, to say we end
the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
that Flesh is heir to? 'Tis a cessation
devoutly to be wished. To nirvana, to cessation,
To cessation, perchance to be reborn; aye, there's the rub,
for in that cessation of death, what rebirths may come,
when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
must give us pause. There's the respect
that makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
the Oppressor's wrongdoing, the proud man's insults,
the pangs of despised Compassion, the Dharma’s delay,
the insolence by police, and the spurns
that patient merit of the unworthy takes,
when he himself might his quietude make
with a bare samadhi? Who would these burdens bear,
to grunt and sweat in weary samsara,
but that the dread of something after death,
the undiscovered country, from whose bourn
no traveler returns with memory in tact, puzzles the will,
and makes us rather bear those ills we have,
than fly to others that we know not of.
Thus egoism does make cowards of us all,
and thus the native hue of the Bodhisattva Vow
Is sicklied o'er, with the pale cast of Erroneous Thought,
And from sitting with great pith and moment,
to this regard their practice turns away,
And loses the name of Bodhisattva Action.

[With due apologies to The Bard, dashed off in a flash of FaceBook fun, so begging the reader's pardon for any wrinkles of confusion.]

Monday, July 17, 2017

So the Universe rests on imperfection, who would have guessed?


The Dharma, incomparably profound and minutely subtle,
Is rarely encountered, even in hundreds of thousands of millions of kalpas.
We now can see it, listen to it, accept and hold it,
May we completely realize the true meaning of the Tathagata.

This (or a close variation) is the verse chanted before Dharma talks in Zen centers through out the world. The line about the rarity of being able to encounter the Dharma is often taken as some kind of self-aggrandizing hyperbole. A kalpa is an eon of very long time with several colorful analogies, such as the length of time it would take for a butterfly's wing brushing up against Mt. Everest to erode it to smooth ground   But the article, "This One Imperfection In Nuclear Physics Allowed Earth To Exist" by Ethan Siegel, explains how the rarity is literally true, because of the crazy quilt of conditions that must occur in order for planets to arise and for life on those planets to appear.

Of course, it begs the question of how those early sages of India were able to conceive of the inconceivable eons of time and the innumerable numbers of galaxies as many as the sands of the Ganges River that are the context for this one precious life, a couple thousand years before Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for daring to propose that the universe is infinite.  

The article describes the rarity like this:

In order to create a rocky planet that's teeming with life, the Universe needed to create large amounts of the heavy elements required for life's processes. To make many of those elements, such as Tin, Iodine, Selenium, Molybdenum, Zinc, and Copper, you need supernovae to have occurred many times in our galaxy's past. To get many more, such as Iron, Calcium, Cobalt, Sulfur, and Potassium, you need stars massive enough to create them....The only reason we can exist, today, is because one tiny imperfection in the early Universe allows the stars to grow hundreds of times as massive.

Since we are only able to appear on the basis of that one original "imperfection" then all appearances can be said to be the continuation of that imperfection, which gives credence to Zen master Dogen's phrase, ‘Shoshaku jushaku,” which according to Shunryu Suzuki Roshi in his book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, means “'to succeed wrong with wrong,' or one continuous mistake.”

Buddhism is the religion of the science of mind, or the psychological religion.  I recognize that is a controversial claim, even for some Buddhists, but it is stated from a perspective in which it is a valid statement, so instead of saying why it appears invalid from one perspective, I would ask that the critic make the effort to stand, if only for a moment, in the spot where the view makes sense. Here are a couple Tibetan Buddhist perspectives adopting the Buddhism is a science of mind approach.

Buddhism, as the science of mind, empirically observes, investigates, and analyzes mind with its mental states, conditions, and phenomena, that comprise all our cognitions, thoughts, emotions, feelings, views, desires, joys, etc. (i.e., the Tin, Iodine, Selenium, Molybdenum, Zinc, and Copper of our mind). This empirical study of mind was Carl G. Jung's definition of the science of psychology (i.e., "psych" = mind; "ology" = study or science).  In other words, Buddhism explores the universe as mind not as matter.  What we are now discovering by Western Science's exploration of the universe as matter, not mind, is that there is a confluence and congruence of findings.  Over the preceding 400 years,(Bruno was killed by the Catholic Church in 1600 C.E.)  the exploration of the universe as matter has grown to include such previously inconceivable (at least to the West) ideas as infinity, laws of cause and effect, unseen forces of gravity, the strange nature of light (constant speed and indeterminacy as wave or particle),  dark matter and dark energy, etc., all of which have their analogues in the discoveries of Buddhism's exploration of the universe as mind.

The classic early Buddhist scripture The Dhammapada begins in the first two verses from this startling vantage point:

1. Mentation is the precursor of things; mentation is the ringleader; mentation is the producer.

If mentation is corrupted, just so the voice, just so the act,

Thereupon unease is enabled, just as the wheel follows the transporter’s (e.g., ox or man) foot.

2. Mentation is the precursor of things; mentation is the ringleader; mentation is the producer.
If mentation is clear, just so the voice, just so the act,
Thereupon ease is enabled, just as the shadow follows and does not depart.

Here, "mentation" (Pali and Sanskrit, mano & mana(s)) means the cognitive activity of mind, and "things" (P. dhamma, Skt. dharma) means both discrete things and the thingness of all phenomena.  So we find many variations in translation from the strict to the loose, from the prosaic to the poetic, such as:

All the phenomena of existence have mind as their precursor, mind as their supreme leader, and of mind are they made.

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.
Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought.

The important point here is that mentation (manas, also known as the 7th consciousness in Mahayana analysis), as the basic cognitive activity of mind, can be either corrupted or clear, and when it is corrupted all manners of antithetical conceptions and oppositional dualities arise that are taken as literal, fixed, and substantial.  This is what Buddhism calls the primordial ignorance, or in the words of Siegel's article "a tiny imperfection," in the arising of consciousness that leads to the 'creation' of the universe and life on a planet.  But there is the inherent possibility that what begins as corrupted and the source of all unease (dukkha) in life, can become clear and the source of ease (sukkha).

The Treatise on the Mahayana's Arousing of Faith (date unknown, translated into Chinese in 553 C.E. by the Indian monk Paramartha (499-569 C.E.)) contains an outline for how the universe appears (using the mind paradigm, not matter paradigm) that was elaborated on by Zen master Guifeng Zongmi (780 – 841 C.E.) and used by him to establish his taxonomy of the teachings (panjiao) of Buddhism.   In Zongmi's Treatise on the Origin of the Person (原人論 Yuan Ren Lun), based on the Arousing of Faith, the universe is the One True Mind and "initially there is only one true numionous nature, that is not born, does not die, does not increase, does not decrease, does not become, and does not change.  

The "big bang" of the appearance of consciousness occurs with the bifurcation of this unity into enlightenment, i.e., the clear mentation of the Dhammapada, on the one hand and unenlightenment, i.e. the corrupted mentation of the Dhammapada, on the other.  The word corrupt is used, not in a moral sense, but in a phenomenological sense of having a "broken" view of the phenomenon of thingness. This broken view is what is called "false conceptions" or "false thinking" and is taking the bifurcated view of consciousness as substantially existing and seeing things as fundamentally separate rather than unified.   Zongmi cites the Flower Garland Sutra's version of the Buddha's calling out upon his enlightenment:

“Children of the Buddha, there is not one of the multitude of beings who nevertheless does not completely possess the Tahtagata’s innate awareness and wisdom. Yet by means of false thinking and clinging they nevertheless do not verify getting it."     

The analogy to this question of unity or separation in the Western science of taking the universe as matter has been revealed through the changing nature of the theory of the universe from mechanics to quantum physics. Once things were taken as essentially separate, independent, and discrete things, and now their nature is seen as energetic fields of potential and actuality of non-thingness.

When the big bang of mental bifurcation takes place, the "world of birth and death" begins to appear, and by natural evolution, consciousness flows in a stream of ignorance called unenlightenment that reverberates into the condensation of subject and object (i.e., inner and outer orientations) and with further evolution becomes discrimination, continuation, attachments, conceptual elaborations, karma, and the fruit of karma in varying degrees of suffering within the six paths of birth and death (i.e., hell, ghosts, animals, humans, titans, and celestials).  

The Dhammapada's promise of clarifying mentation is seen by the Zen of Zongmi as the promise of enlightenment which begins (and ends) in the mind of enlightenment (bodhicitta) that first appears as a dawning intuition or intimation, then as a faith or trust in it's actual possibility, then as turning toward it as a path to cultivate, then the practical acts of cultivation, experiencing the fruit of that cultivation, and ultimately having one's own realization of enlightenment with its unassailable clarification of what had previously been thought of as broken ("mentation corrupted") and the manifestation of the mind of suchness.  As Zongmi points out, this teaching of the manifestation of the One True Mind, indistinguishable from one's own Buddha Nature, is the One Vehicle.         

"That Which Is The One Vehicle's (Ekayana) Teaching Of Manifesting Nature clarifies for everyone having sentience that everybody has the root enlightenment of True Mind.  Beginningless is how it comes, and it always abides clear and pure.  Its luminosity does not darken and is completely and constantly aware.  It is also called Buddha Nature, and is also called the Inner Tathagata (tathagatagarbha)."

So we can appreciate how this Dharma teaching is incomparably profound and minutely subtle and why it is so rarely encountered, even in hundreds of thousands of millions of eons, because, in the context of the universe as mind, the evolution of consciousness is synonymous with the evolution of the universe, and only after the process of evolution comes to the realization of its own nature can we see it, listen to it, accept and hold it, and completely realize the true meaning of the Tathagata as the coming and going of True Suchness.