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Tibetan Buddhism

ABOUT BUDDHISM

The greatest achievement is selflessness.The greatest worth is self-mastery.The greatest quality is seeking to serve others.The greatest precept is continual awareness.The greatest medicine is the emptiness of everything.The greatest action is not conforming with the worlds ways.The greatest magic is transmuting the passions.The greatest generosity is non-attachment.The greatest goodness is a peaceful mind.The greatest patience is humility.The greatest effort is not concerned with results.The greatest meditation is a mind that lets go.The greatest wisdom is seeing through appearances.

Atisha (11th century Tibetan Buddhist master)

HISTORY 

The History of Buddhism spans the 6th century BC to the present, starting with the birth of Buddha Siddhartha Gautama on the Indian subcontinent, in what is now Lumbini, Nepal. This makes it one of the oldest religions practiced today. The religion evolved as it spread from the northeastern region of the Indian subcontinent through Central, East, and Southeast Asia. At one time or another, it influenced most of the Asian continent. The history of Buddhism is also characterized by the development of numerous movements, schisms, and schools, among them the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana traditions, with contrasting periods of expansion and retreat.

Tibetan Buddhism is known for its rich mythology and iconography and for the practice of identifying the reincarnations of deceased spiritual masters.  Tibetan Buddhism has exerted extensive and profound influence on the Tibetan race. Someone think the Tibetan Buddhism is not an independent Buddhism system. They identify it as a mixture of the traditional Buddhism and the Bon religion. But in fact, it is a false perspective. Tibetan Buddhism contains the monks debating culture that is not existed in other religions. And the Buddhist figures in Tibetan Buddhism system are totally different in the appearances which may be a little frightening.

Tibetan Buddhism derives from the confluence of Buddhism and yoga which started to arrive in Tibet from India briefly around the late eighth century and then more steadily from the thirteenth century onwards. Indian Buddhism around that time had incorporated both Hindu yogic and tantric practices along with the classical teachings of the historical Buddha who lived around 500 BC. It acknowledged that there were two paths to enlightenment (complete transcendence of identification with the personal ego). One path was that taught in the sutras according to the historical teachings. The heart of sutra practice was based on morality, concentration, and wisdom (not identifying with the personal ego). The other path, which has become the cornerstone of Tibetan variations, was tantric. This practice blended the sutra teachings with techniques adapted from Hindu systems of yoga and tantra.

Tibetan Tantra (also known as the Vajrayana) incorporates the major aspects of both the Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhist teachings. It is basically an esoteric extension on these themes. Hinayana and Mahayana are two schools of Buddhist practice that have basically similar goals and techniques but somewhat differing philosophies. For instance, Theravadin Buddhism ( known for its Vipassana meditation ) is a Hinayana teaching and Zen Buddhism is a Mahayana teaching. Tantra itself has various schools which can be grouped by the relative emphasis they place on working with exoteric and esoteric practices.

Teachings of great Tibetan Khagyu master Kalu Rinpoche

Tibetan Buddhism

 

Tibetan Buddhism derives from the confluence of Buddhism and yoga which started to arrive in Tibet from India briefly around the late eighth century and then more steadily from the thirteenth century onwards. Indian Buddhism around that time had incorporated both Hindu yogic and tantric practices along with the classical teachings of the historical Buddha who lived around 500 BC. It acknowledged that there were two paths to enlightenment ( complete transcendence of identification with the personal ego ). One path was that taught in the sutras according to the historical teachings. The heart of sutra practice was based on morality, concentration, and wisdom ( not identifying with the personal ego ). The other path, which has become the cornerstone of Tibetan variations, was tantric. This practice blended the sutra teachings with techniques adapted from Hindu systems of yoga and tantra.

Tantric systems transform the basic human passions of desire and aversion for the purpose of spiritual development. Rather than denying such primal urges, tantra purifies them into wholesome and helpful forces. It is very much like trying to deal with a wild horse charging towards you. One way is denial: put up your hands and shout out, "stop, stop!" Probably you will be bowled over by the animal. Another, more clever, approach is to step aside and then jump on its back as it charges past you. In such a case, you have a chance to start coaxing it to move in certain directions, and over time you may be able to direct it into a stable. Truthfully, one needs some skill in both self-control and acceptance if one is to be successful with tantric work.

Tibetan Tantra ( also known as the Vajrayana ) incorporates the major aspects of both the Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhist teachings. It is basically an esoteric extension on these themes. Hinayana and Mahayana are two schools of Buddhist practice that have basically similar goals and techniques but somewhat differing philosophies. For instance, Theravadin Buddhism ( known for its Vipassana meditation ) is a Hinayana teaching and Zen Buddhism is a Mahayana teaching. Tantra itself has various schools which can be grouped by the relative emphasis they place on working with exoteric and esoteric practices.

Tantra

The tantric path includes the following steps:

Lamrim ( literally, stages of the path ) These are indispensable topics for reflection and contemplation and also the meditations and activities that should naturally follow on from them. The Lamrim embodies the necessary prerequisites for tantra. It is set out as a progressive set of steps.

Relying Upon a Spiritual Guide ( learning from someone already on the path )

The Preciousness of Human Life ( the importance of using life for something valuable )

Death and Impermanence ( uncertainty of death and the unsatisfactory nature of this world )

The Danger of being Reborn in a Lower Realm

Taking Refuge from Samsara ( the cycle of endless grasping and eventual disappointment )

Karma ( the law of cause and effect which works in this world as well as at esoteric levels )

Developing Renunciation for Samsara ( integrating spiritual understanding and values )

Developing Equanimity ( accepting, and seeing past, both good and bad experience )

Recognizing that all Beings are as Precious as our Mothers ( the beginnings of bodhichitta )

Remembering the Kindness of Others

Equalizing Self and Others ( realising that we all want, and deserve, to be happy )

The Disadvantage of Self-Cherishing

The Advantage of Cherishing Others ( loosening the hold of ego through caring )

Exchanging Self with Others ( this is the core practice for developing bodhichitta--it involves developing the wish to voluntarily take on others' problems and freely give them one's own happiness in exchange. A sketch of the technique is as follows: breathe in others' woes as black smoke--let it settle into the heart, then breathe out all one's own happiness as white light--let it expand to fill all the cosmos. A practitioner should imagine and rejoice at the effect of both the in- and out-breath. For, on the in-breath, the reality and weight of all the problems in this world sink into the heart and help to dissolve the ego. Likewise, the out-breath brings relief and joy to all others. )

Developing Great Compassion

Taking Responsibility to Relieve Others' Burdens ( "exchanging self with others" in action )

Sharing One's Own Good Fortune with Others

Bodhichitta ( the desire to attain full enlightenment for the sake of all beings )

Tranquil Abiding ( developing advanced stages of concentration )

Superior Seeing ( developing emptiness--that is, non-identification with the personal ego )

Common Preliminary Tantric Practices These are the beginning activities that are unique to the Vajrayana path.

 

Prostrations ( physical prostration, visualisation and prayer for taking refuge )

Vajrasattva Meditation ( visualisation and mantra recitation for purification )

Mandala Offering ( visualisation and prayer for developing surrender and gaining merit )

Guru Yoga ( visualisation, mantra recitation and prayer for developing devotion and receiving blessings )

Generation Stage of Tantra These are preparatory practices that utilise imagination and much visualisation. They prepare the psychological and psychic groundwork for the spiritual energy that will be developed and harnessed in the following completion stage practices.

Beginning Meditation ( visualisation of oneself as a deity in the centre of a mandala full of other deities )

Subtle Meditation ( visualisation of a body mandala which corresponds to points on the subtle nervous system )

Completion Stage of Tantra These are very advanced meditations that primarily utilise subtle energies known as winds ( prana and chi are some other names for this energy ). These winds normally circulate throughout the psychic nervous system. When they are collected into a central place they provide great stability and clarity for the meditator. The normal collection point is commonly known as a chakra. It corresponds to a node or plexus in the psychic nervous system and acts as a link between the psychic, or astral, level of existence and our normal level of experience.

Tibetan yoga employs a simplified version of the metaphysical structure that is used in Hindu yoga. According to the Tibetan scheme there are three realms to consider in spiritual practice. These correspond to the Emanation Body ( this world ), the Enjoyment Body ( the astral dimension ), and the Truth Body ( a dimension that is much deeper--that is, much more subtle--than the astral ).

Isolated Body, Speech, and Mind ( progressive isolation of consciousness from this level of reality )

Illusory Body ( development of an astral body. Consciousness now is based in the astral not the physical )

Clear Light ( development of a very subtle consciousness at the Truth Body level )

Union or Full Enlightenment ( linking the Truth Body consciousness to the Enjoyment, or astral, Body )

Meditation on emptiness is integral throughout this practice. A simple way to understand emptiness is as follows. In the physical world, the personal ego has a relative span and will cease when the body does. So relative to it, the soul, or Enjoyment Body, is much more important since it will continue on after death. Thus saying the ego or self is empty means it is better to ground awareness in the soul and experience the ego as a garment, rather than only experiencing the ego and having no real connection with the soul. Thus emptiness is a statement about priority--we should consider the bigger context of our experience in order to live more wisely and wholesomely.

The same principle of emptiness applies as progressively higher levels of reality are experienced. Hence, when the Enjoyment Body, or soul, becomes a living reality for the meditator, she or he continues to take it as relatively real and keeps grounding awareness in the encircling context. The context, or deeper level, for the soul is the Truth Body ( which is just a more subtle version of the soul ). So as a meditator realises the Truth Body, the Enjoyment Body becomes the new object for meditation on emptiness.

To recapitulate the entire process: at the beginning we have a body and mind (the personal ego or self ). Next an astral body ( Enjoyment Body ) is developed and it is as if the physical body and personal ego have become the "body" and the astral body has become the "mind". Next a very subtle body ( Truth Body ) is developed and the final result is that the astral body becomes the "body" and the Truth Body becomes the "mind". At each stage of this sequence, the "body" is subjectively experienced as being empty by the "mind".

What is the experience of emptiness like? At the beginning level of physical body and mind, emptiness means that one does not identify with any experience whatsoever. Any sight, sound, or other sense is recognised and honoured for what it is, but it is not clung to. Similarly, all thoughts and feelings are also taken in this way--as being real and valuable, but not as being in one's possession so that one does not cling to the experience of them. It is as if all experiences, whether external ( in the world "out there" ) or internal ( inner thoughts, hopes, feelings, and desires ), are viewed as clouds passing by. The reality is the sky which the clouds float by in. And if the sky is noticed, it too is taken as just another cloud wafting by. The result of this amazing relation to one's experience is an enormous sense of relief, peace, and clarity. At first it seems that one will die if one doesn't cling to experience, but after awhile it becomes apparent that one continues to live on anyway. We are more than just the experiences that we engage in.

The same process applies at progressively more subtle levels of experience. The contents of experience become more and more amazing and wonderful ( to our normal way of thinking ) but the most skilful way of relating to them still remains the practice of mindfulness ( emptiness meditation ). So once a yogi creates an astral body and can experience reality at that level, he or she works at non-identification with the astral body. And similarly, once a Truth Body exists, meditation on its emptiness continues as well.

Dzogchen

This is also a very advanced teaching whose end result is the same as for the tantric path. Its techniques and emphasis are a bit different. Primarily, Dzogchen underscores direct perception of the fundamental nature of reality. So instead of working to create higher energy bodies such as the astral body, it seeks to ground awareness directly back into the Truth Body. And as mentioned above, this Body reaches the limits of human experience and expression so that its subjective experience is one of all-encompassing emptiness. That is, there is nothing more to be said about this level with the common tools of human experience--words and emotions. The main practice is similar to Zen meditation and consists of holding a constant perceptual openness to all experience. For such practice to lead to more subtle insight, however, a Dzogchen practitioner needs to receive empowerments ( transmission of spiritual energy ) from a qualified teacher. These act somewhat as a self-correcting guidance system to help a meditator to gradually open to the deeper dimensions of reality. Some Dzogchen meditations are similar to tantric visualisation and energetic practices. The basic prerequisites for Dzogchen are similar to Tantra.

Tibetan Buddhism in Relation to Other Buddhist Traditions

The relationship amongst the major schools of Buddhism can be understand in terms of the four-fold classification shown in the following table.

The three yanas ( vehicles, or schools ) of Buddhism teach a similar approach to enlightenment. It consists of morality, concentration, and wisdom. They differ in the emphasis placed on these areas and also on the level of reality that is primarily worked with. The main goal and result of each school is moving beyond identification with the personal ego. The resulting wisdom, or enlightenment, is experienced at various levels of reality--from the physical-astral interface for Vipassana and Zen, to the astral-very deep interface for Tantra and Dzogchen.

The Sutra and Vajrayana teachings place great emphasis on building a proper moral basis upon which to build the insights of emptiness. In contrast, both Zen and Dzogchen place most of their focus upon directly working to develop the wisdom of emptiness. In practice, both the Gradual and Fast Paths have strengths and weaknesses. The gradual approach guarantees a steady mind and heart when one begins to experience very deep states of meditation. This is extremely useful as the power of the subconscious mind that can be unleashed in such states is enormous and can lead to psychological imbalance if one is not basically well-rounded by such a stage of practice. The drawback, of course, is that it takes a long time to really begin to purify one's mind and heart. Many great masters have spent their entire lives with the purification and transformation of mind and heart as their chief practice.

The fast approach provides the quickest means to experience awareness beyond that normally associated with the ego. Its drawback, is the potential fragility of the ego to withstand such rapid and deep-reaching change--the very thing gradual paths strive to guard against.

An analogous situation holds for the exoteric and esoteric schools. Exoteric traditions are more solid and balanced since they mostly work with the perceptions and energies of the physical plane. So even though it is not uncommon to be visited with various astral experiences during advanced stages of Zen or Vipassana meditation, the emphasis of such schools is to continue grounding back to this earth--to the sights, sounds, tastes and thoughts that comprise ordinary experience. The drawback is that the primal energies that underpin the physical world are only indirectly addressed.

Esoteric traditions, on the other hand, determine to apply themselves directly to the forces that underlie ordinary existence. They reach for the essential nature of the experience of living which manifests as subtle energy and consciousness. The drawback is that similar to reaching too far, too fast, into the psyche as for the fast traditions, esoteric work can reach too far, too fast into subtler fields of energy. This can manifest variously as, for instance, unwanted communication with other beings, energetic imbalances of the body and mind, and uncontrolled effects on the environment and other beings.

The confluence of Buddhism and other mystical teachings in the West is resulting in a blending of these various approaches to spirituality. It is likely that, along with the aforementioned paths, a blending of them which puts emphasis somewhere in between along both axes of the above table will develop as a useful approach for those who wish to remain in a regular lifestyle.

The Four Noble Truths

1. Life means suffering.

2. the orgin of suffering is attachment.

3. the cessation of suffering is attainable.

4.the path to  the cessation of suffering .

1. Life means suffering.   

 Life to live means to suffer, because the human nature is not perfect and neither is the world we live in. During our lifetime, we inevitably have to endure physical suffering such as pain, sickness, injury, tiredness, old age, and eventually death; and we have to endure psychological suffering like sadness, fear, frustration, disappointment, and depression. Although there are different degrees of suffering and there are also positive experiences in life that we perceive as the opposite of suffering, such as ease, comfort and happiness, life in its totality is imperfect and incomplete, because our world is subject to impermanence. This means we are never able to keep permanently what we strive for, and just as happy moments pass by, we ourselves and our loved ones will pass away one day, too.

2. The origin of suffering is attachment.

The origin of suffering is attachment to transient things and the ignorance thereof. Transient things do not only include the physical objects that surround us, but also ideas, and -in a greater sense- all objects of our perception. Ignorance is the lack of understanding of how our mind is attached to impermanent things. The reasons for suffering are desire, passion, ardour, pursuit of wealth and prestige, striving for fame and popularity, or in short: cravingand clinging. Because the objects of our attachment are transient, their loss is inevitable, thus suffering will necessarily follow. Objects of attachment also include the idea of a "self" which is a delusion, because there is no abiding self. What we call "self" is just an imagined entity, and we are merely a part of the ceaseless becoming of the universe.

3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.

The cessation of suffering can be attained through nirodha. Nirodha means the unmaking of sensual craving and conceptual attachment. The third noble truth expresses the idea that suffering can be ended by attaining dispassion. Nirodha extinguishes all forms of clinging and attachment. This means that suffering can be overcome through human activity, simply by removing the cause of suffering. Attaining and perfecting dispassion is a process of many levels that ultimately results in the state of Nirvana. Nirvana means freedom from all worries, troubles, complexes, fabrications and ideas. Nirvana is not comprehensible for those who have not attained it.

4. The path to the cessation of suffering.

There is a path to the end of suffering - a gradual path of self-improvement, which is described more detailed in the eightfold path. It is the middle way between the two extremes of excessive self-indulgence (hedonism) and excessive self-mortification (asceticism); and it leads to the end of the cycle of rebirth. The latter quality discerns it from other paths which are merely "wandering on the wheel of becoming", because these do not have a final object. The path to the end of suffering can extend over many lifetimes, throughout which every individual rebirth is subject to karmic conditioning. Craving, ignorance, delusions, and its effects will disappear gradually, as progress is made on the path.

 

The Noble Eightfold Path?

 

1. Right view 

Wisdom

2. Right intention

3. Right speech 

Ethical Conduct

4. Right action

5. Right livehood

6. Right effort 

Mental Development

7. Right mindfullness

8. Right concentration

The Noble Eightfold Path describes the way to the end of suffering, as it was laid out by Siddhartha Gautama. It is a practical guideline to ethical and mental development with the goal of freeing the individual from attachments and delusions; and it finally leads to understanding the truth about all things. Together with the four noble truths  it constitutes the gist of Buddhism. Great emphasis is put on the practical aspect, because it is only through practice that one can attain a higher level of existence and finally reach Nirvana. The eight aspects of the path are not to be understood as a sequence of single steps, instead they are highly interdependent principles that have to be seen in relationship with each other.

1. Right View

Right view is the beginning and the end of the path, it simply means to see and to understand things as they really are and to realise the Four Noble Truth. As such, right view is the cognitive aspect of wisdom. It means to see things through, to grasp the impermanent and imperfect nature of worldly objects and ideas, and to understand the law of karma and karmic conditioning. Right view is not necessarily an intellectual capacity, just as wisdom is not just a matter of intelligence. Instead, right view is attained, sustained, and enhanced through all capacities of mind. It begins with the intuitive insight that all beings are subject to suffering and it ends with complete understanding of the true nature of all things. Since our view of the world forms our thoughts and our actions, right view yields right thoughts and right actions.

2. Right Intention

While right view refers to the cognitive aspect of wisdom, right intention refers to the volitional aspect, i.e. the kind of mental energy that controls our actions. Right intention can be described best as commitment to ethical and mental self-improvement. Buddha distinguishes three types of right intentions: 1. the intention of renunciation, which means resistance to the pull of desire, 2. the intention of good will, meaning resistance to feelings of anger and aversion, and 3. the intention of harmlessness, meaning not to think or act cruelly, violently, or aggressively, and to develop compassion.

3. Right Speech

Right speech is the first principle of ethical conduct in the eightfold path. Ethical conduct is viewed as a guideline to moral discipline, which supports the other principles of the path. This aspect is not self-sufficient, however, essential, because mental purification can only be achieved through the cultivation of ethical conduct. The importance of speech in the context of Buddhist ethics is obvious: words can break or save lives, make enemies or friends, start war or create peace. Buddha explained right speech as follows: 1. to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully, 2. to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others, 3. to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others, and 4. to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth. Positively phrased, this means to tell the truth, to speak friendly, warm, and gently and to talk only when necessary.

4. Right Action

The second ethical principle, right action, involves the body as natural means of expression, as it refers to deeds that involve bodily actions. Unwholesome actions lead to unsound states of mind, while wholesome actions lead to sound states of mind. Again, the principle is explained in terms of abstinence: right action means 1. to abstain from harming sentient beings, especially to abstain from taking life (including suicide) and doing harm intentionally or delinquently, 2. to abstain from taking what is not given, which includes stealing, robbery, fraud, deceitfulness, and dishonesty, and 3. to abstain from sexual misconduct. Positively formulated, right action means to act kindly and compassionately, to be honest, to respect the belongings of others, and to keep sexual relationships harmless to others. Further details regarding the concrete meaning of right action can be found in the precepts 

5. Right Livelihood

Right livelihood means that one should earn one's living in a righteous way and that wealth should be gained legally and peacefully. The Buddha mentions four specific activities that harm other beings and that one should avoid for this reason: 1. dealing in weapons, 2. dealing in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter as well as slave trade and prostitution), 3. working in meat production and butchery, and 4. selling intoxicants and poisons, such as alcohol and drugs. Furthermore any other occupation that would violate the principles of right speech and right action should be avoided.

6. Right Effort

Right effort can be seen as a prerequisite for the other principles of the path. Without effort, which is in itself an act of will, nothing can be achieved, whereas misguided effort distracts the mind from its task, and confusion will be the consequence. Mental energy is the force behind right effort; it can occur in either wholesome or unwholesome states. The same type of energy that fuels desire, envy, aggression, and violence can on the other side fuel self-discipline, honesty, benevolence, and kindness. Right effort is detailed in four types of endeavours that rank in ascending order of perfection: 1. to prevent the arising of unarisen unwholesome states, 2. to abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen, 3. to arouse wholesome states that have not yet arisen, and 4. to maintain and perfect wholesome states already arisen.

7. Right Mindfulness

Right mindfulness is the controlled and perfected faculty of cognition. It is the mental ability to see things as they are, with clear consciousness. Usually, the cognitive process begins with an impression induced by perception, or by a thought, but then it does not stay with the mere impression. Instead, we almost always conceptualise sense impressions and thoughts immediately. We interpret them and set them in relation to other thoughts and experiences, which naturally go beyond the facticity of the original impression. The mind then posits concepts, joins concepts into constructs, and weaves those constructs into complex interpretative schemes. All this happens only half consciously, and as a result we often see things obscured. Right mindfulness is anchored in clear perception and it penetrates impressions without getting carried away. Right mindfulness enables us to be aware of the process of conceptualisation in a way that we actively observe and control the way our thoughts go. Buddha accounted for this as the four foundations of mindfulness: 1. contemplation of the body, 2. contemplation of feeling (repulsive, attractive, or neutral), 3. contemplation of the state of mind, and 4. contemplation of the phenomena.

8. Right Concentration

The eighth principle of the path, right concentration, refers to the development of a mental force that occurs in natural consciousness, although at a relatively low level of intensity, namely concentration. Concentration in this context is described as one-pointedness of mind, meaning a state where all mental faculties are unified and directed onto one particular object. Right concentration for the purpose of the eightfold path meanswholesome concentration, i.e. concentration on wholesome thoughts and actions. The Buddhist method of choice to develop right concentration is through the practice of meditation. The meditating mind focuses on a selected object. It first directs itself onto it, then sustains concentration, and finally intensifies concentration step by step. Through this practice it becomes natural to apply elevated levels concentration also in everyday situations.

 

The Precepts

The precepts are a condensed form of Buddhist ethical practice. They are often compared with the ten commandments of Christianity, however, the precepts are different in two respects: First, they are to be taken as recommendations, not commandments. This means the individual is encouraged to use his/her own intelligence to apply these rules in the best possible way. Second, it is the spirit of the precepts -not the text- that counts, hence, the guidelines for ethical conduct must be seen in the larger context of the Eightfold Path.

The first five precepts are mandatory for every Buddhist, although the fifth precept is often not observed, because it bans the consumption of alcohol. Precepts no. six to ten are laid out for those in preparation for monastic life and for devoted lay people unattached to families. The eight precepts put together number eight and nine and omit the tenth. Lay people may observe the eight precepts on Buddhist festival days. Ordained Theravada monks undertake no less than 227 precepts, which are not listed here.

I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from ...

...harming living beings.

...taking things not freely given.

...sexual misconduct.

...false speech.

...intoxicating drinks and drugs causing heedlessness.

...taking untimely meals.

...dancing, singing, music and watching grotesque mime.

...use of garlands, perfumes and personal adornment.

...use of high seats.

...accepting gold or silver.

(adapted from The Word of the Buddha, Niyamatolika, The Buddhist Publication Society, 1971, p xii)

The above phrasing of the precepts is very concise and leaves much open to interpretation. One might ask, for example, what exactly constitutes false speech, what are untimely meals, what constitutes sexual misconduct, or whether a glass of wine causes heedlessness. And, the grotesque mime watching of the seventh precept sounds perhaps a bit outdated. The Buddhist master Thich Nath Hanh has formulated The Five Mindfulness Trainings, which are an adaptation of the first five Buddhist precepts. These are practised by Buddhists of the Lam Te Dhyana school. By virtue of their sensible phrasing and their relevance to modern lifestyle, these "trainings" provide a valuable foundation of ethics for all of humanity.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings?(according to Thich Nath Hanh, www.plumvillage.org)

-First Training-

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.

-Second Training-

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to cultivate loving kindness and learn ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am committed to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.

-Third Training-

Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct.

-Fourth Training-

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticise or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I will make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

-Fifth Training-

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practising mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I am committed to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by practising a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.

 Karma and Rebirth

The wheel of life, or "samsara", is an ancient symbol that has the same meaning in Buddhism and Hinduism. It is symbolises the cycle of birth, life, and death. When one revolution of the wheel is completed, life begins again with rebirth.

What is karma?

Karma is a Sanskrit word that literally means "action". The word is used to refer to volitional acts as well as the fruits or consequences that arise from these acts. The idea of karma had existed in ancient Indian philosophy before the time of Siddhartha Gautama, and it became an important element of Buddhist philosophy.

The Hindu and Buddhist concepts of karma are quite similar, although Hinduism makes a further distinction between different types of karma, such as present karma, latent karma, and future karma. In the understanding of both thought systems, the law of karma describes the connection between actions and the resulting forces, as follows: wholesome actions lead to wholesome states while unwholesome actions lead to unwholesome states, individually as well as collectively.

The ethical dimension.

To make this more intelligible, one has to account for (un)wholesome actions and (un)wholesome states and their respective meaning in Buddhism. The former is outlined in the Noble Eightfold Path. Action springs from volition, which springs from intention, which springs from thought, and so forth. The quality of actions can be described in ethical terms, simply as either good or bad, or both good and bad, or indifferent.

There are various grades of ethical qualities; and most people have an intuitive understanding that enables them to discern between good and bad, although the discerning ability depends on the person's state of mental development. A wise person at a high level of mental development can clearly discern mental activities and actions in an ethical dimension, while a deluded person has difficulties or is even unable to do so.

Good and bad vs. skilful and unskilful.

Wherever the three defilements - delusion, greed, and aversion - are present, they blur the view and increase the level of confusion in the individual or group. Consequently, if the defilements are present, there is a low level of skill in distinguishing between good and bad actions. Thus it makes sense to say that we have skilful (good) and unskilful (bad) thoughts, we speak skilful (good) and unskilful (bad) words, and we act either in a skilful (good) or in an unskilful (bad) way.

The Buddhist Precepts and the Ten Perfections give concrete meaning to good and bad and explain skilful and unskilful volitional acts in detail. Since everything in Buddhism is interrelated, the Eightfold Path must be seen in connection with the Four Noble Truths, the concept of karma, and the tenet of rebirth.

Moral quality of volitional acts determines karma.

The law of karma states that there is a connection between the moral quality, the level of skill in volitional actions, and the resulting states. What we are is determined largely by what we thought, said and did in the past, while what we are thinking, saying, and doing now will form our future. The karma of past, present, and future events are connected by the law of cause and effect.

For instance, if one generates bad karma by hurting or killing sentient beings, one will have to endure the negative consequences of these deeds in this or another lifetime. Similarly, if one generates good karma by observing the precepts, positive consequences will follow inevitably.

Buddhists understand karma as a natural law. There is no higher instance, no judgement, no divine intervention, and no gods that steer man's destiny, but only the law of karma itself, which works on a universal scale. Deeds yield consequences either in the next second, in the next hour, day, month, year, decade, or even in the next lifetime, or in another distant lifetime. To illustrate this, consider the following example describing a sequence of volitional acts, which yield instant karmic results:

Example: The arising of volition and karma.

An unpleasant sensation occurs. A thought arises that the source of the unpleasantness was a person. This thought is a delusion; any decisions based upon it will therefore be unskilful. A thought arises that some past sensations of unpleasantness issued from this same person. This thought is a further delusion. This is followed by a wilful decision to speak words that will produce an unpleasant sensation in that which is perceived as a person. This decision is an act of hostility.

Of all the events described so far, only the last is called karma. Words are carefully chosen in the hopes that when heard they will cause pain. The words are pronounced aloud. This is the execution of the decision to be hostile. It may also be classed as a kind of karma, although technically it is after-karma.

There is a visual sensation of a furrowed brow and turned down mouth. The thought arises that the other person's face is frowning. The thought arises that the other person's feelings were hurt. There is a fleeting joyful feeling of success in knowing that one has scored a damaging verbal blow.

Eventually, perhaps much later, there is an unpleasant sensation of regret, perhaps taking the form of a sensation of fear that the perceived enemy may retaliate, or perhaps taking the form of remorse on having acted impetuously, like an immature child, and hoping that no one will remember this childish action. This regret or fear is the unpleasant ripening of the karma, the unskilful decision to inflict pain through words.

Rebirth.

Buddhists hold that the retributive process of karma can span more than one lifetime. Rebirth has always been an important tenet in Buddhism; and it is often referred to as walking the wheel of life (samsara). It is the process of being born over and over again in different times and different situations, possibly for many thousand times.

As long as there is delusion, greed, and aversion, and as long as passions are not extinguished, we generate karma. Because we eventually accumulate unmaterialised karma, there is a next lifetime in which the accumulated karma will take form. Only when all accumulated karma is realised and the generation of new karma is calmed, one can enter the stream that leads to Nirvana. This process continues until Nirvana is reached, which signifies the cessation of rebirth and, hence, the end of suffering.

It is notable that this also entails the avoidance of "good karma". Once the stream that leads to Nirvana is entered, creating wholesome karma is not an object anymore. Although wholesome karma leads to entering the stream, it does not necessarily lead to Nirvana, only the extinguishment of all karma leads to Nirvana.

The Non-Self.

The concept of rebirth is unfamiliar to most Western people. Its philosophical and traditional foundation is found in India, where the theory of transmigration of souls had presumably existed long before it was written down in the Upanishads around 300 BC.

The Buddhist concept is subtly different from the classical Indian understanding, because it denies the existence of a self or a soul. In Buddhism, the idea of self is merely an illusion. Man wrongly identifies perception, consciousness, mind and body with what he calls self. In reality, there is no abiding entity that could be identified with a self, because the states of perception, consciousness, and mind and body constantly change.

The body is mortal and when it dies, all mental activities cease. That is why there is no soul. The idea of soul is simply an extension of the self; in fact it is an immortal version of the self that supposedly survives physical death. Buddhism denies the existence of such an entity. Instead, what we call self is just a stream of consciousness that draws identity from concepts and memories, all of which are impermanent.

The idea of an abiding self is deceptive, because it is derived from unenlightened reasoning. The word selfsimply provides a reference frame for the mind-body phenomena of sentient beings. We usually identify it with our body and the stream of consciousness that is sustained by sense perceptions and thoughts. In reality, what we call self is neither abiding nor detached from the rest of the world and other beings. Buddhists call this the "neither self nor non-self".

What is reborn if not the "self"?

If the idea of non-self sounds odd, then it must sound even more curious that non-self can be reborn. There is a seeming contradiction between the canon of rebirth and that of the non-self, which even many Buddhists find difficult to understand. The contradiction is, however, only on the surface and can be solved if one pictures the self as the result of karmic formation. This can be put into less abstract words:

If we imagine the world as an ocean, we are like the ripples on the ocean. Formations like ripples and waves occur, because of wind, tides, and other kinetic forces. In the Buddhist analogy, the universe is in motion due to karmic forces. A ripple, a wave, or a billow may seem as an individual entity for a moment, creating the illusion that it has a self, but it is gone in the next moment. The truth is that all individuals are one. A ripple is a temporary phenomenon; it is just water in motion. We know that kinetic energy causes wave forms on a body of water and it would be ridiculous to say that a single ripple or wave has a self.

Similarly, in case of beings, the process of coming into life and being conditioned in a particular way is caused by karmic forces. The up and down of the ocean's waves corresponds with the rotation of the wheel of life. The sea that surges, falls, and resurges, is the life that is born, dies, and is reborn again. It is therefore obvious that we should not focus on the temporary phenomenon of the wave, but on the force that causes, forms, and drives it. Nothing else is said, although in more practical terms, in the Eightfold Path.

 

 

Emptiness

Emptiness is a key concept in Buddhist philosophy, or more precisely, in the ontology of Mahayana Buddhism. The phrase "form is emptiness; emptiness is form" is perhaps the most celebrated paradox associated with Buddhist philosophy. It is the supreme mantra. The expression originates from the Prajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra, commonly known as the Heart Sutra, which contains the philosophical essence of about six hundred scrolls making up the Maha Prajna Paramita. The Heart Sutra is the shortest text in this collection. It belongs to the oldest Mahayana texts and presumably originated in India around the time of Jesus Christ.

The Heart Sutra.

Translation by Edward Conze

Homage to the Perfection of Wisdom, the Lovely, the Holy!

Avalokita, The Holy Lord and Bodhisattva, was moving in the deep course of the Wisdom which has gone beyond. He looked down from on high, He beheld but five heaps, and he saw that in their own-being they were empty.

Here, Sariputra, form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness; whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form, the same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness.

Here, Sariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness; they are not produced or stopped, not defiled or immaculate, not deficient or complete.

Therefore, Sariputra, in emptiness there is no form, nor feeling, nor perception, nor impulse, nor consciousness; No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; No forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables or objects of mind; No sight-organ element, and so forth, until we come to: No mind-consciousness element; There is no ignorance, no extinction of ignorance, and so forth, until we come to: there is no decay and death, no extinction of decay and death. There is no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path. There is no cognition, no attainment and non-attainment.

Therefore, Sariputra, it is because of his non-attainment that a Bodhisattva, through having relied on the Perfection of Wisdom, dwells without thought-coverings. In the absence of thought-coverings he has not been made to tremble, he has overcome what can upset, and in the end he attains to Nirvana.

All those who appear as Buddhas in the three periods of time fully awake to the utmost, right and perfect Enlightenment because they have relied on the Perfection of Wisdom.Therefore one should know the prajnaparamita as the great spell, the spell of great knowledge, the utmost spell, the unequalled spell, allayer of all suffering, in truth - for what could go wrong? By the prajnaparamita has this spell been delivered. It runs like this:

Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all-hail!

Translations and commentary.

Avalokita = Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion?Sariputra = disciple of the Buddha?sunyata = emptiness, void?prajna = wisdom?paramita = that which has reached the other shore?prajnaparamita = wisdom acquired experientially, by means of intuitive insight, and perfected through cultivation to the level of transcendental knowledge?hridaya = heart?nirvana = ultimate attainment?bodhi = awakened mind?sattva = being

According to Buddhist scholars, the dialogue between Avalokiteshvara and Sariputra is inspired by the Buddha. This is to say it occurs spontaneously without the speaker's intention. The content of the conversation is determined entirely by the power of the Buddha's concentration. The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara represents the idea of perfect universal wisdom, while Sariputra is regarded as one of the Buddha's closest and brightest disciples. The dialogue takes place at the Vulture Peak near the ancient city of Rajgaya where the Buddha and his community of monks stayed. Sariputra requests Avalokiteshvara to instruct him on the practice of the perfection of wisdom, which means prajnaparamita in Sanskrit.

The perfection of wisdom refers to the wisdom that directly and intuitively understands the ultimate nature of phenomena. Sariputra answers with the profound words, "Emptiness is form; form is emptiness," and proceeds to state the emptiness of the five aggregates (skandhas), the emptiness of the teachings (dharmas), and the emptiness of all phenomena. The sutra ends with the celebrated mantra "gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha" which can be translated with "Homage to the awakened mind which has gone over to the other shore." The one who has gone over means: the enlightened one, who has done away with views, ideas, and perceptions and who looks upon reality without any obstructions of mind.

What is emptiness?

The Buddhist notion of emptiness is often misunderstood as nihilism. Unfortunately, 19th century Western philosophy has contributed much to this misconstruction. Meanwhile Western scholars have acquired enough knowledge about Buddhism to realise that this view is far from accurate. The only thing that nihilism and the teaching of emptiness can be said to have in common is a sceptical outset. While nihilism concludes that reality is unknowable, that nothing exists, that nothing meaningful can be communicated about the world, the Buddhist notion of emptiness arrives at just the opposite, namely that ultimate reality is knowable, that there is a clear-cut ontological basis for phenomena, and that we can communicate and derive useful knowledge from it about the world. Emptiness (sunyata) must not be confused with nothingness. Emptiness is not non-existence and it is not non-reality.

What is emptiness then? To understand the philosophical meaning of this term, let's look at a simple solid object, such as a cup. How is a cup empty? We usually say that a cup is empty if it does not contain any liquid or solid. This is the ordinary meaning of emptiness. But, is the cup really empty? A cup empty of liquids or solids is still full of air. To be precise, we must therefore state what the cup is empty of. Can a cup be empty of all substance? A cup in a vacuum does not contain any air, but it still contains space, light, radiation, as well as its own substance. Hence, from a physical point of view, the cup is always full of something. Yet, from the Buddhist point of view, the cup is always empty. The Buddhist understanding of emptiness is different from the physical meaning. The cup being empty means that it is devoid of inherent existence.

What is meant with non-inherent existence? Is this to say that the cup does not ultimately exist? - Not quite. - The cup exists, but like everything in this world, its existence depends on other phenomena. There is nothing in a cup that is inherent to that specific cup or to cups in general. Properties such as being hollow, spherical, cylindrical, or leak-proof are not intrinsic to cups. Other objects which are not cups have similar properties, as for example vases and glasses. The cup's properties and components are neither cups themselves nor do they imply cupness on their own. The material is not the cup. The shape is not the cup. The function is not the cup. Only all these aspects together make up the cup. Hence, we can say that for an object to be a cup we require a collection of specific conditions to exist. It depends on the combination of function, use, shape, base material, and the cup's other aspects. Only if all these conditions exist simultaneously does the mind impute cupness to the object. If one condition ceases to exist, for instance, if the cup's shape is altered by breaking it, the cup forfeits some or all of its cupness, because the object's function, its shape, as well as the imputation of cupness through perception is disrupted. The cup's existence thus depends on external circumstances. Its physical essence remains elusive.

Those readers who are familiar with the theory of ideas of the Greek philosopher Plato will notice that this is pretty much the antithesis to Plato's idealism. Plato holds that there is an ideal essence of everything, e.g. cups, tables, houses, humans, and so on. Perhaps we can give Plato some credit by assuming that the essence of cups ultimately exists in the realm of mind. After all, it is the mind that perceives properties of an object and imputes cupness onto one object and tableness onto another. It is the mind that thinks "cup" and "table". Does it follow that the mind is responsible for the existence of these objects? - Apparently, the mind does not perceive cups and tables if there is no visual and tactile sensation. And, there cannot be visual and tactile sensation if there is no physical object. The perception thus depends on the presence of sensations, which in turn relies on the presence of the physical object. This is to say that the cup's essence is not in the mind. It is neither to be found in the physical object. Obviously, its essence is neither physical nor mental. It cannot be found in the world, not in the mind, and certainly not in any heavenly realm, as Plato imagined. We must conclude that the objects of perception have therefore no inherent existence.

If this is the case for a simple object, such as a cup, then it must also apply to compound things, such as cars, houses, machines, etc. A car, for example, needs a motor, wheels, axles, gears, and many other things to work. Perhaps we should consider the difference between man-made objects, such as cups, and natural phenomena, such as earth, plants, animals, and human beings. One may argue that lack of inherent existence of objects does not imply the same for natural phenomena and beings. In case of a human being, there is a body, a mind, a character, a history of actions, habits, behaviour, and other things we can draw upon to describe a person. We can even divide these characteristics further into more fundamental properties. For example, we can analyse the mind and see that there are sensations, cognition, feelings, ideas. Or, we can analyse the brain and find that there are neurons, axons, synapses, and neurotransmitters. However, none of these constituents describe the essence of the person, the mind, or the brain. Again, the essence remains elusive.

Emptiness of the five skandhas.

The Heart Sutra expresses the same idea by stating the emptiness of the five skandhas, i.e. the emptiness of the body, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. The five skandhas are commonly translated into English as the five aggregates. According to the Buddha, these aggregates are what constitutes a person. As adumbrated above, it is possible to deconstruct the five skandhas in the same manner as objects. However, this method of deconstruction assumes a third person perspective. It analyses phenomena perceived as external to the observer. When we talk about the essence of a person, the situation is slightly different, because we talk indirectly about ourselves. It may therefore be more intuitive to look at things from a first person perspective. The first person perspective allows us to make statements about the internal state of the observer thereby producing self-reference. What is observed is the observer. Perhaps this will lead to new insights into the essence of mind and body.

First, let's look at experience. What exactly is experience? - Obviously, we experience objects and phenomena through the senses. This is one form of experience. We also experience feelings, moods, thoughts, and emotions. The former can be called sensory experiences and the latter mental experiences. Upon contemplating the distinction we may find that there is no clear boundary between sensory and mental experience. As soon as we perceive a physical object, for example an apple, the corresponding mental experiences are immediately triggered. First, we think "apple". This is identification. Following this thought, a number of things we associate with apples may come to mind, for example "sweet, edible, green, red, healthy, delicious, juicy," and so on. These associations may be followed by the build-up of a desire to touch or to taste the apple. Once the desire is strong enough, our thoughts may be occupied with consuming the apple and we start weighing the merits and demerits of consuming the apple now or later. All these mental experiences are caused by, yet independent of the original object. If the apple is withdrawn, the memory of it may be able to sustain the chain of thoughts for a short time, yet it will eventually cease.

We can infer that mental experience requires sensory experience, or respectively memory of sensory experience. Sensory experience in turn requires the body. If we carried through a thought experiment and examined whether each of the skandhas is able to exist without the other four, we would find that this is not possible. The latter four aggregates all depend on the body. Without the brain and the nervous system there is no consciousness, no sensation, no perception, and no mental formations. On the other hand, we cannot imagine the body to function without the mind. The body and the mind depend on each other, the five skandhas depend on each other. We must conclude that none of the skandhas is fundamental. Body, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness are interrelated. Experiences emerge from the interaction of all five skandhas. Just as objects, experiences are conditioned by the interplay of multiple phenomena. Experience has no inherent existence either.

Our brain is advanced enough to reflect on its experiences. By means of self-reference we can direct mental activity onto itself. For example, we can think about thought. From this arises a division between subject, percept, and object. The percept is the mental impression, the subject is the owner of it, the thinker, and the object is that which causes the mental impression. This threefold division seems so natural to us that it is reflected in the grammar of most human languages. We perceive the separation of subject, percept, and object as real, because mind attributes an owner to experience and thought. This owner is the "self", the subject, the centre of consciousness, the supposed psychological entity. Surprisingly, this entity remains completely undetectable. Body, feeling, perception, and mental formations are not the self. Consciousness is not the self either, otherwise it would follow that the self temporarily ceases to exist during unconscious states, for example during deep sleep.

We might ask how "self" can be independent of a surrounding world. Is it possible for the self to exist in a mental vacuum, a world devoid of sense impressions, thought, and mental images? Would the self not literally run out of fuel if it lacked thoughts and contents to identify itself with or to set itself apart from? It seems there is no basis an independent entity. It seems more that the self is an emergent phenomenon arising from the application of complex interpretative schemes to perception. In particular, it arises from the conceptual division between subject, object, and percept. Through introspection it is possible to realise that the "self" is not fundamental. It is created by the mind through identification and discernment. The "self" is itself a mental formation - a product of mind. It is therefore empty of inherent existence.

The emptiness of matter.

The ancient Greeks believed that matter is composed of indivisible small elements with certain characteristics, such as the characteristics of earth, water, air, and fire. They called these elements atoms and they held that atoms were solid and fundamental, like microscopic billiard balls. Ernest Rutherford invalidated the billiard ball theory by conducting an experiment, which suggested that atoms have an internal structure. He established that atoms have a nucleus containing most of its mass and that electrons orbit the nucleus. Moreover, he established that the nucleus of an atom is only about one ten-thousandth of the diameter of the atom itself, which means that 99.99% of the atom's volume consists of empty space. This is the first manifestation of emptiness at the subtle level of matter. Not long after Rutherford's discovery, physicists found out that the nucleus of an atom likewise has an internal structure and that the protons and neutrons making up the nucleus are composed of even smaller particles, which they named quarks after a poem of James Joyce. Interestingly, quarks are hypothesised as geometrical points in space, which implies that atoms are essentially empty. This is the second manifestation of emptiness at the subtle level of matter.

The terms "quarks" and "points in space" still suggest something solid, since they can be imagined as irreducible mass particles. Yet, quantum field theory does away even with this finer concept of solidity by explaining particles in the terms of field properties. Quantum electrodynamics (QED) has produced an amazingly successful theory of matter by combining quantum theory, classical field theory, and relativity. No discrepancies between the predictions of QED and experimental observation have ever been found. According to QED, subatomic particles are indistinguishable from fields, whereas fields are basically properties of space. In this view, a particle is a temporary local densification of a field, which is conditioned by the properties of the surrounding space. Ergo, matter is not different from space. This is the third manifestation of emptiness at the subtle level of matter.

An important class of phenomena in the subatomic world is defined by the various interactions between particles. In fact, there is no clear distinction between the notions of phenomena, particles, and interactions, although interactions can be described clearly in mathematical terms. For example, there are interactions between free electrons by means of photons that result in an observed repelling force. There are also interactions between the quarks of a nucleon by means of mesons, interactions between the neighbouring neutrons or protons, interactions between nucleus and electrons, and interactions between the atoms of molecules. The phenomena themselves -the nucleon, the nucleus, the atom, the molecule- are sufficiently described by these interactions, meaning by the respective equations, which implies that interactions and phenomena are interchangeable terms. Interestingly, the interrelations of quantum physics do not describe actual existence. Instead they predict the potential for existence. A manifest particle, such as an electron, cannot be described in terms of classical mechanics. It exists as a multitude of superposed "scenarios", of which one or another manifests only when it is observed, i.e. upon measurement. Therefore, matter does not inherently exist. It exists only as interrelations of "empty" phenomena whose properties are determined by observation. This is the fourth manifestation of emptiness at the subtle level of matter.

Emptiness in mathematics.

In mathematics the notion of emptiness finds expression in the number zero, as well as in contemporary set theory. The concept of zero was discovered in India prior to the sixth century A.D. The "Arabic" number system we use today is neither Arabic nor Greek in origin. In fact, the digits 0123456789 go back to India where they were first created. The ancient Indian number system distinguished itself from other positional systems by virtue of allowing the use of zero as a legitimate number. Interestingly, the number zero did not exist in Greek mathematics, because the Greeks were essentially geometricians and had no use for the mathematical concept of a non-entity, neither did it exist in Egyptian mathematics. The Arabs, who encountered the Indian number system during their early conquests in India, found it superior to their own traditional system which used letters, and thus adapted it to develop Islamic mathematics. The Arabic word for zero is "sifr", meaning "empty." In the 12th century, the Italian mathematician Leonardo Pisano Fibonacci studied Arabian algebra and introduced the Hindu-Arabic numerals to Europe. The word "sifr" thus became "zephirum" in Latin and "zero" in English.

In the ancient Indian context, the number zero did not originally refer to nothingness or nullity. The Sanskrit word for zero is shunya, which means "puffed up, hollow, empty." The zero stands for emptiness suggestive of potentiality. The discovery of the mathematical zero concurred with the emptiness of prajna-intuition in India around 200 BC. Both signify polar opposition between being and nonbeing. Zero is that which contains all possible polarised pairs such as (+1, -1), (+2, -2), etc. It is the collection of all mutually cancelling pairs of forward and backward movements. Put it another way, zero is fundamental to all existence. Because of it, everything is possible. Zero is the additive identity, the focal point of all numbers; without it, numbers cannot be created. India alone, among the great civilisations of antiquity, was able to fathom the depth of emptiness and willing to accept its consequences in mathematics.

Following the introduction of the Hindu-Arabic numerals into Western culture, zero became a number that was used in calculations like any other number. Consequently, it lost some part of its original meaning, namely the part that suggests potentiality. Today, most mathematicians do not associate the notion of emptiness with zero, but with the empty set, which is a construct of set theory. A set is a collection of objects or numbers. For example, the set { 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 } is a set of numbers containing five elements; it is therefore said to have the "cardinality" of 5. The empty set { } is a collection that contains nothing and has the cardinality 0. The mathematician John von Neumann (1923) invented a method, known as von Neumann hierarchy, which can be employed to generate the natural numbers from the empty set as follows:

Step 0:  

{ }

(empty set)

Step 1: 

{ { } }

(set containing the empty set)

Step 2: 

{ { }, { { } } }

(set containing previous two sets)

Step 3: 

{ { }, { { } } , { { }, { { } } } }

(set containing previous three sets)

Step 4: 

{ { }, { { } } , { { }, { { } } }, { { }, { { } } , { { }, { { } } } } }

(etc.)

This sequence is obtained by iterating a functor that creates a new set from the union of the preceding two sets, thus generating sets with the cardinalities 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, ad infinitum. In less mathematical terms, the principle can be described as follows: Beginning with emptiness (step 0), we observe emptiness. Through the act of observing we create an entity containing emptiness (step 1). Now we perceive emptiness, as well as an entity. From the combination of the former two we create another entity by observation, which is different from the first entity (step 2). This process is repeated again and again. Interestingly, if we define suitable operations on the obtained sets based on union and intersection, the cardinalities of the resulting sets behave just like natural numbers being added and subtracted. The sequence is therefore isomorphic to the natural numbers - a stunningly beautiful example of something from nothing.

Emptiness of emptiness.

In The Art of Living (2001) the 14th Dalai Lama says, "As your insight into the ultimate nature of reality is deepened and enhanced, you will develop a perception of reality from which you will perceive phenomena and events as sort of illusory, illusion-like, and this mode of perceiving reality will permeate all your interactions with reality. [...] Even emptiness itself, which is seen as the ultimate nature of reality, is not absolute, nor does it exist independently. We cannot conceive of emptiness as independent of a basis of phenomena, because when we examine the nature of reality, we find that it is empty of inherent existence. Then if we are to take that emptiness itself is an object and look for its essence, again we will find that it is empty of inherent existence. Therefore the Buddha taught the emptiness of emptiness."

 

Meditation Instructions in the Thai Theravada Tradition

Meditation is a centrepiece of Buddhist practice. It is a method to develop the mind. The emphasis is on concentration, focus, clarity, calmness, and insight. There are different techniques; most of them are easy to learn and very useful in daily life. The following is an introduction to samatha-vipassana meditation in the Thai Theravada tradition (adapted with minor amendments from the Bung Wai Forest Monastery, Thailand).

Introduction to Insight Meditation

The purpose of Insight Meditation is not to create a system of beliefs, but rather to give guidance on how to see clearly into the nature of the mind. In this way one gains first-hand understanding of the way things are, without reliance on opinions or theories - a direct experience, which has its own vitality. It also gives rise to the sense of deep calm that comes from knowing something for oneself beyond any doubt.

The term Insight Meditation (samatha-vipassana) refers to practices for the mind that develop calm (samatha) through sustained attention and insight (vipassana) through reflection. A fundamental technique for sustaining attention is focusing awareness on the body; traditionally, this is practised while sitting or walking. This guide begins with some advice on this technique.

Reflection occurs quite naturally afterwards, when one is 'comfortable' within the context of the meditation exercise. There will be a sense of ease and interest, and one begins to look around and become acquainted with the mind that is meditating. This 'looking around' is called contemplation, a personal and direct seeing that can only be suggested by any technique.

Sustaining Attention

Focusing the mind on the body can be readily accomplished while sitting. You need to find a time and a place which affords you calm and freedom from disturbance. A quite room with not much in it to distract the mind is ideal. Timing is also important. It is not especially productive to meditate when you have something else to do or when you're pressed for time. It's better to set aside a period - say in the early morning or in the evening after work-when you can really give your full attention to the practice.

Begin with fifteen minutes or so. Practice sincerely with the limitations of time and available energy, and avoid becoming mechanical about the routine. Meditation practice, supported by genuine willingness to investigate and make peace with oneself, will develop naturally in terms of duration and skill.

Awareness of the Body

The development of calm is aided by stability, and by a steady but peaceful effort. If you can't feel settled, there is no peacefulness; if there is no effort, you tend to daydream. One of the most effective postures for the cultivation of the proper balance of stillness and energy is the sitting posture.

Use a posture that will keep your back straight without strain. A simple upright chair may be helpful, or you may be able to use the lotus posture. These postures may look awkward at first, but in time they can provide a unique balance of gentle firmness that gladdens the mind without tiring the body.

If the chin is tilted very slightly down this will help but do not allow the head to loll forward as this encourages drowsiness. Place the hands on your lap, palm upwards, one gently resting on the other with the thumb-tips touching. Take your time and get the right balance.

Now, collect your attention, and begin to move it slowly down your body. Notice the sensations in each part of your body. Relax any tensions, particularly in the face, neck and hands. Allow the eyelids to close or half close.

Investigate how you are feeling. Are you expectant or tense? Then relax your attention a little. With this, the mind will probably calm down and you may find some thoughts drifting in - reflections, daydreams, memories, or doubts about whether you are doing it right! Instead of following or contending with these thought patterns, bring more attention to the body, which is a useful anchor for a wandering mind.

Cultivate a spirit of inquiry in your meditation attitude. Take your time. Move your attention, for example, systematically from the crown of the head down over the whole body. Notice the different sensations - such as warmth, pulsing, numbness, and sensitivity - in the joints of each finger, the moisture of the palms, and the pulse in the wrist. Even areas that may have no particular sensation, such as the forearms or the earlobes can be "swept over" in an attentive way. Notice how even the lack of sensation is something the mind can be aware of. This constant and sustained investigation is called mindfulness (sati) and is one of the primary tools of Insight Meditation.

Mindfulness of breathing - anapanasati

Instead of "body sweeping", or after a preliminary period of this practice, mindfulness can be developed through attention on the breath.

First, follow the sensation of your ordinary breath as it flows in through the nostrils and fills the chest and abdomen. Then try maintaining your attention at one point, either at the diaphragm or - a more refined location - at the nostrils. Breath has a tranquilising quality, steady and relaxing if you don't force it; this is helped by an upright posture. Your mind may wander, but keep patiently returning to the breath.

It is not necessary to develop concentration to the point of excluding everything else except the breath. Rather than to create a trance, the purpose here is to allow you to notice the workings of the mind, and to bring a measure of peaceful clarity into it. The entire process - gathering your attention, noticing the breath, noticing that the mind has wandered, and re-establishing your attention - develops mindfulness, patience and insightful understanding. So don't be put off by apparent "failure" - simply begin again. Continuing in this way allows the mind eventually to calm down.

If you get very restless or agitated, just relax. Practice being at peace with yourself, listening to - without necessarily believing in - the voices of the mind.

If you feel drowsy, then put more care and attention into your body and posture. Refining your attention or pursuing tranquillity at such times will only make matters worse!

Walking and Standing

Many meditation exercises, such as the above "mindfulness of breathing", are practised while sitting. However, walking is commonly alternated with sitting as a form of meditation. Apart from giving you different things to notice, it is a skilful way to energise the practice if the calming effect of sitting is making you dull.

If you have access to some open land, measure off about 25-30 paces' length of level ground (r a clearly defined pathway between two trees), as your meditation path. Stand at one end of the path, and compose your mind on the sensations of the body. First, let the attention rest on the feeling of the body standing upright, with the arms hanging naturally and the hands lightly clasped in front or behind. Allow the eyes to gaze at a point about three meters in front of you at ground level, thus avoiding visual distraction. Now, walk gently, at a deliberate but 'normal' pace, to the end of the path. Stop. Focus on the body standing for the period of a couple of breaths. Turn, and walk back again. While walking, be aware of the general flow of physical sensations, or more closely direct your attention to the feet. The exercise for the mind is to keep bringing its attention back to the sensation of the feet touching the ground, the spaces between each step, and the feelings of stopping and starting.

Of course, the mind will wander. So it is important to cultivate patience, and the resolve to begin again. Adjust the pace to suit your state of mind - vigorous when drowsy or trapped in obsessive thought, firm but gentle when restless and impatient. At the end of the path, stop; breathe in and out; 'let go' of any restlessness, worry, calm, bliss, memories or opinions about yourself. The 'inner chatter' may stop momentarily, or fade out. Begin again. In this way you continually refresh the mind, and allow it to settle at its own rate.

In more confined spaces, alter the length of the path to suit what is available. Alternatively, you can circumambulate a room, pausing after each circumambulation for a few moments of standing. This period of standing can be extended to several minutes, using 'body sweeping'.

Walking brings energy and fluidity into the practice, so keep your pace steady and just let changing conditions pass through the mind. Rather than expecting the mind to be as still as it might be while sitting, contemplate the flow of phenomena. It is remarkable how many times we can become engrossed in a train of thought - arriving at the end of the path and 'coming to' with a start! - but it is natural for our untrained minds to become absorbed in thoughts and moods. So instead of giving in to impatience, learn how to let go, and begin again. A sense of ease and calm may then arise, allowing the mind to become open and clear in a natural, unforced way.

Lying Down

Reclining at the end of a day, spend a few minutes meditating while lying on one side. Keep the body quite straight and bend one arm up so that the hand acts as a support for the head. Sweep through the body, resting its stresses; or collect your attention on the breath, consciously putting aside memories of the day just past and expectations of tomorrow. In a few minutes, with your mind clear, you'll be able to rest well.

Cultivating The Heart

Cultivating goodwill (metta) gives another dimension to the practice of Insight. Meditation naturally teaches patience and tolerance or at least it shows the importance of these qualities. So you may well wish to develop a more friendly and caring attitude towards yourself and other people. In meditation, you can cultivate goodwill very realistically.

Focus attention on the breath, which you will now be using as the means of spreading kindness and goodwill. Begin with yourself, with your body. Visualise the breath as a light, or see your awareness as being a warm ray and gradually sweep it over your body. Lightly focus your attention on the centre of the chest, around the heart region. As you breath in, direct patient kindness towards yourself, perhaps with the thought, "May I be well", or "Peace". As you breathe out, let the mood of that thought, or the awareness of light, spread outwards from the heart, through the body, through the mind and beyond yourself. "May others be well".

If you are experiencing negative states of mind, breathe in the qualities of tolerance and forgiveness. Visualizing the breath as having a healing colour may be helpful. On the out-breath, let go of any stress, worry or negativity, and extend the sense of release through the body, the mind, and beyond, as before.

This practice can form all or part of a period of meditation - you have to judge for yourself what is appropriate. The calming effect of meditating with a kind attitude is good for beginning a sitting but there will no doubt be times to use this approach for long periods, to go deeply into the heart.

Always begin with what you are aware of, even if it seems trivial or confused. Let your mind rest calmly on that-whether it's boredom, an aching knee, or the frustration of not feeling particularly kindly. Allow these to be; practice being at peace with them. Recognise and gently put aside any tendencies towards laziness, doubt or guilt.

Peacefulness can develop into a very nourishing kindness towards yourself, if you first of all accept the presence of what you dislike. Keep the attention steady, and open the heart to whatever you experience. This does not imply the approval of negative states, but allows them a space wherein they can come and go.

Generating goodwill toward the world beyond yourself follows much the same pattern. A simple way to spread kindness is to work in stages. Start with yourself, joining the sense of loving acceptance to the movement of the breath. "May I be well." Then, reflect on people you love and respect, and wish them well, one by one. Move on to friendly acquaintances, then to those towards whom you feel indifferent. "May they be well." Finally, bring to mind those people you fear or dislike, and continue to send out wishes of goodwill.

This meditation can expand, in a movement of compassion, to include all people in the world, in their many circumstances. And remember, you don't have to feel that you love everyone in order to wish them well!

Kindness and compassion originate from the same source of good will, and they broaden the mind beyond the purely personal perspective. If you're not always trying to make things go the way you want them to: if you're more accepting and receptive to yourself and others as they are, compassion arises by itself. Compassion is the natural sensitivity of the heart.

 

 

Nargajuna (c.150-c.250)

Often referred to as “the second Buddha” by Tibetan and East Asian Mahayana (Great Vehicle) traditions of Buddhism, Nagarjuna offered sharp criticisms of Brahminical and Buddhist substantialist philosophy, theory of knowledge, and approaches to practice. Nagarjuna’s philosophy represents something of a watershed not only in the history of Indian philosophy but in the history of philosophy as a whole, as it calls into questions certain philosophical assumptions so easily resorted to in our attempt to understand the world.  Among these assumptions are the existence of stable substances, the linear and one-directional movement of causation, the atomic individuality of persons, the belief in a fixed identity or selfhood, and the strict separations between good and bad conduct and the blessed and fettered life.  All such assumptions are called into fundamental question by Nagarjuna’s unique perspective which is grounded in the insight of emptiness (sunyata), a concept which does not mean “non-existence” or “nihility” (abhava), but rather the lack of autonomous existence (nihsvabhava).  Denial of autonomy according to Nagarjuna does not leave us with a sense of metaphysical or existential privation, a loss of some hoped-for independence and freedom, but instead offers us a sense of liberation through demonstrating the interconnectedness of all things, including human beings and the manner in which human life unfolds in the natural and social worlds.  Nagarjuna’s central concept of the “emptiness (sunyata) of all things (dharmas),” which pointed to the incessantly changing and so never fixed nature of all phenomena, served as much as the terminological prop of subsequent Buddhist philosophical thinking as the vexation of opposed Vedic systems. The concept had fundamental implications for Indian philosophical models of causation, substance ontology, epistemology, conceptualizations of language, ethics and theories of world-liberating salvation, and proved seminal even for Buddhist philosophies in India, Tibet, China and Japan very different from Nagarjuna’s own. Indeed it would not be an overstatement to say that Nagarjuna’s innovative concept of emptiness, though it was hermeneutically appropriated in many different ways by subsequent philosophers in both South and East Asia, was to profoundly influence the character of Buddhist thought.

1. Nagarjuna’s Life, Legend and Works

Precious little is known about the actual life of the historical Nagarjuna. The two most extensive biographies of Nagarjuna, one in Chinese and the other in Tibetan, were written many centuries after his life and incorporate much lively but historically unreliable material which sometimes reaches mythic proportions. However, from the sketches of historical detail and the legend meant to be pedagogical in nature, combined with the texts reasonably attributed to him, some sense may be gained of his place in the Indian Buddhist and philosophical traditions.

Nagarjuna was born a “Hindu,” which in his time connoted religious allegiance to the Vedas, probably into an upper-caste Brahmin family and probably in the southern Andhra region of India. The dates of his life are just as amorphous, but two texts which may well have been authored by him offer some help. These are in the form of epistles and were addressed to the historical king of the northern Satvahana dynasty Gautamiputra Satakarni (ruled c. 166-196 CE), whose steadfast Brahminical patronage, constant battles against powerful northern Shaka Satrap rulers and whose ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful attempts at expansion seem to indicate that he could not manage to follow Nagarjuna’s advice to adopt Buddhist pacifism and maintain a peaceful realm. At any rate, the imperial correspondence would place the significant years of Nagarjuna’s life sometime between 150 and 200 CE. Tibetan sources then may well be basically accurate in portraying Nagarjuna’s emigration from Andhra to study Buddhism at Nalanda in present-day Bihar, the future site of the greatest Buddhist monastery of scholastic learning in that tradition’s proud history in India. This emigration to the north perhaps followed the path of the Shaka kings themselves. In the vibrant intellectual life of a not very tranquil north India then, Nagarjuna came into his own as a philosopher.

The occasion for Nagarjuna’s “conversion” to Buddhism is uncertain. According to the Tibetan account, it had been predicted that Nagarjuna would die at an early age, so his parents decided to head off this terrible fate by entering him in the Buddhist order, after which his health promptly improved. He then moved to the north and began his tutelage. The other, more colorful Chinese legend, portrays a devilish young adolescent using magical yogic powers to sneak, with a few friends, into the king’s harem and seduce his mistresses. Nagarjuna was able to escape when they were detected, but his friends were all apprehended and executed, and, realizing what a precarious business the pursuit of desires was, Nagarjuna renounced the world and sought enlightenment. After having been converted, Nagarjuna’s adroitness at magic and meditation earned him an invitation to the bottom of the ocean, the home of the serpent kingdom. While there, the prodigy initiate “discovered” the “wisdom literature” of the Buddhist tradition, known as the Prajnaparamita Sutras, and on the credit of his great merit, returned them to the world, and thereafter was known by the name Nagarjuna, the “noble serpent.”

Despite the tradition’s insistence that immersion into the scriptural texts of the competing movements of classical Theravada and emerging “Great Vehicle” (Mahayana) Buddhism was what spurred Nagarjuna’s writings, there is rare extended reference to the early and voluminous classical Buddhist sutras and to the Mahayana texts which were then being composed in Nagarjuna’s own language of choice, Sanskrit. It is much more likely that Nagarjuna thrived on the exciting new scholastic philosophical debates that were spreading throughout north India among and between Brahminical and Buddhist thinkers. Buddhism by this time had perhaps the oldest competing systematic worldview on the scene, but by then Vedic schools such as Samkhya, which divided the cosmos into spiritual and material entities, Yoga, the discipline of meditation, and Vaisesika, or atomism were probably well-established. But new and exciting things were happening in the debate halls. A new Vedic school of Logic (Nyaya) was making its literary debut, positing an elaborate realism which categorized the types of basic knowable things in the world, formulated a theory of knowledge which was to serve as the basis for all claims to truth, and drew out a full-blown theory of correct and fallacious logical argumentation. Alongside it, within the Buddhist camp, sects of metaphysicians emerged with their own doctrines of atomism and fundamental categories of substance. Nagarjuna was to undertake a forceful engagement of both these new Brahminical and Buddhist movements, an intellectual endeavor till then unheard of.

Nagarjuna saw in the concept sunya, a concept which connoted in the early Pali Buddhist literature the lack of a stable, inherent existence in persons, but which since the third century BCE had also denoted the newly formulated number “zero,” the interpretive key to the heart of Buddhist teaching, and the undoing of all the metaphysical schools of philosophy which were at the time flourishing around him. Indeed, Nagarjuna’s philosophy can be seen as an attempt to deconstruct all systems of thought which analyzed the world in terms of fixed substances and essences. Things in fact lack essence, according to Nagarjuna, they have no fixed nature, and indeed it is only because of this lack of essential, immutable being that change is possible, that one thing can transform into another. Each thing can only have its existence through its lack (sunyata) of inherent, eternal essence. With this new concept of “emptiness,” “voidness,” “lack” of essence, “zeroness,” this somewhat unlikely prodigy was to help mold the vocabulary and character of Buddhist thought forever.

Armed with the notion of the “emptiness” of all things, Nagarjuna built his literary corpus. While argument still persists over which of the texts bearing his name can be reliably attributed to Nagarjuna, a general agreement seems to have been reached in the scholarly literature. Since it is not known in what chronological order his writings were produced, the best that can be done is to arrange them thematically according to works on Buddhist topics, Brahminical topics and finally ethics Addressing the schools of what he considered metaphysically wayward Buddhism, Nagarjuna wrote Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamakakarika), and then, in order to further refine his newly coined and revolutionary concept, the Seventy Verses on Emptiness (Sunyatasaptati), followed by a treatise on Buddhist philosophical method, the Sixty Verses on Reasoning (Yuktisastika).. Included in the works addressed to Buddhists may have been a further treatise on the shared empirical world and its establishment through social custom, called Proof of Convention (Vyavaharasiddhi), though save for a few cited verses, this is lost to us, as well as an instructional book on practice, cited by one Indian and a number of Chinese commentators, the Preparation for Enlightenment (Bodhisambaraka). Finally is a didactic work on the causal theory of Buddhism, the Constituents of Dependent Arising (Pratityasumutpadahrdaya). Next came a series of works on philosophical method, which for the most part were reactionary critiques of Brahminical substantialist and epistemological categories, The End of Disputes (Vigrahavyavartani) and the not-too-subtly titled Pulverizing the Categories (Vaidalyaprakarana). Finally are a pair of religious and ethical treatises addressed to the king Gautamiputra, entitled To a Good Friend (Suhrlekha) and Precious Garland (Ratnavali). Nagarjuna then was a fairly active author, addressing the most pressing philosophical issues in the Buddhism and Brahmanism of his time, and more than that, carrying his Buddhist ideas into the fields of social, ethical and political philosophy.

It is again not known precisely how long Nagarjuna lived. But the legendary story of his death once again is a tribute to his status in the Buddhist tradition. Tibetan biographies tell us that, when Gautamiputra’s successor was about to ascend to the throne, he was anxious to find a replacement as a spiritual advisor to better suit his Brahmanical preferences, and unsure of how to delicately or diplomatically deal with Nagarjuna, he forthrightly requested the sage to accommodate and show compassion for his predicament by committing suicide. Nagarjuna assented, and was decapitated with a blade of holy grass which he himself had some time previously accidentally uprooted while looking for materials for his meditation cushion. The indomitable logician could only be brought down by his own will and his own weapon. Whether true or not, this master of skeptical method would well have appreciated the irony.

2. Nagarjuna’s Skeptical Method and its Targets

At the heart of what is called skepticism is doubt, a suspension of judgment about some states of affairs or the correctness of some assertion. There are of course many things, both in the world and in the claims people make about the world, which can be doubted, questioned, rejected, or left in skeptical abeyance. But in addition to the many different things which can be doubted, there are also different ways of doubting. Doubt can be haphazard, as when a person sees another person at night and is unsure of whether that other person is his friend; it can be principled, as when a scientist refuses to take into account non-material or divine causes in a physical process she is investigating; it can be systematic, as when a philosopher doubts conventional explanations of the world, only in search of a more fundamental, all-inclusive explanation of experience, a la Socrates, Descartes or Husserl (Nagarjuna was for the most part a skeptic of this sort). It can also be all-inclusive and self-reflective, an attitude demonstrated by the Greek philosopher Pyrrho, who doubted all claims including his own claim to doubt all claims. Consequently, there are as many different kinds of skeptics as there can be found different kinds or ways of doubting. Nagarjuna was considered a skeptic in his own philosophical tradition, both by Brahmanical opponents and Buddhist readers, and this because he called into question the basic categorical presuppositions and criteria of proof assumed by almost everyone in the Indian tradition to be axiomatic. But despite this skepticism, Nagarjuna did believe that doubt should not be haphazard, it requires a method. This idea that doubt should be methodical, an idea born in early Buddhism, was a revolutionary innovation for philosophy in India. Nagarjuna carries the novelty of this idea even further by suggesting that the method of doubt of choice should not even be one’s own, but rather ought to be temporarily borrowed from the very person with whom one is arguing! But in the end, Nagarjuna was convinced that such disciplined, methodical skepticism led somewhere, led namely to the ultimate wisdom which was at the core of the teachings of the Buddha.

The standard philosophical interpretation of doubt in Indian thought was explained in the Vedic school of logic (Nyaya). Gautama Aksapada, the author of the fundamental text of the Brahminical Logicians, was probably a contemporary of Nagarjuna. He formulated what by then must have been a traditional distinction between two kinds of doubt. The first kind is the haphazard doubt about an object all people experience in their everyday lives, when something is encountered in one’s environment and for various reasons mistaken for something else because of uncertainty of what precisely the object is. The stock examples used in Indian texts are seeing a rope and mistaking it as a snake, or seeing conch in the sand and mistaking it as silver. The doubt that can arise as a result of realizing one is mistaken or unsure about a particular object can be corrected by a subsequent cognition, getting a closer look at the rope for instance, or having a companion tell you the object in the sand is conch and not silver. The correcting cognition removes doubt by offering some sort of conclusive evidence about what the object in question happens to be. The other kind of doubt is roughly categorical doubt, exemplified specifically by a philosopher who may wonder about or doubt various categories of being, such as God’s existence, the types of existing physical substance or the nature of time. In order to resolve this latter kind of philosophical doubt, the preferred method of the Logicians was a formal debate. Debates provided a space wherein judges presided, established rules for argument and counter-argument, recognized logical fallacies and correct forms of inference and two interlocutors seeking truth all played their roles in the establishment of the correct position. The point is that, according to traditional Brahminical thinking, certain and correct objective knowledge of the world was possible; one could in principle know whatever one sought to know, from what that object lying in darkness is to the types of causation that operated in the world to God’s existence and will for human beings. Skepticism, though a natural attitude and a fundamental aid to human beings in both their everyday and reflective lives, can be overcome provided one arms oneself with the methods of proof supplied by common-sense logic. For Nyaya, while anything and everything can be doubted, any and every doubt can be resolved. The Brahminical Logician, the Naiyayika, is a cagey and realistic but staunch philosophical optimist.

The early Buddhists were not nearly so sure about the possibility of ultimate knowledge of the world. Indeed, the founder of the tradition, Siddhartha Gautama Sakyamuni (the “Buddha” or “awakened one”), famously refused to answer questions about such airy metaphysical ponderings like “Does the world have a beginning or not?”, “Does God exist?” and “Does the soul perish after death or not?” Convinced that human knowledge was best suited and most usefully devoted to the diagnosis and cure of human beings’ own self-destructive psychological obsessions and attachments, the Buddha compared a person convinced he could find the answers to such ultimate questions to a mortally wounded soldier on a battlefield who, dying from arrow-delivered poison, demanded to know everything about his shooter before being taken to a doctor. Ultimate knowledge cannot be attained, at least cannot be attained before the follies and frailties of human life bring one to despair. Unless human beings attain self-reflective, meditative enlightenment, ignorance will always have the upper hand over knowledge in their lives, and this is the predicament they must solve in order to alleviate their poorly understood suffering. The early traditional texts show how the Buddha developed a method for refusing to answer such questions in pursuit of ultimate, metaphysical knowledge, a method which came to be dubbed the “four error” denial (catuskoti). When asked, for example, whether the world has a beginning or not, a Buddhist should respond by denying all the logically alternative answers to the query; “No, the world does not have a beginning, it does not fail to have a beginning, it does not have and not have a beginning, nor does it neither have nor not have a beginning.” This denial is not seen to be logically defective in the sense that it violates the law of excluded middle (A cannot have both B and not-B), because this denial is more a principled refusal to answer than a counter-thesis, it is more a decision than a proposition. That is to say that one cannot object to this “four error” denial by simply saying “the world either has a beginning or it does not” because the Buddha is recommending to his followers that they should take no position on the matter (this is in modern propositional logic known as illocution). This denial was recommended because wondering about such questions was seen by the Buddha as a waste of valuable time, time that should be spent on the much more important and doable task of psychological self-mastery. The early Buddhists, unlike their Brahminical philosophical counterparts, were skeptics. But in their own view, their skepticism did not make the Buddhists pessimists, but on the contrary, optimists, for even though the human mind could not answer ultimate questions, it could diagnose and cure its own must basic maladies, and that surely was enough.

But in the intervening four to six centuries between the lives of Siddartha Gautama and Nagarjuna, Buddhists, feeling a need to explain their worldview in an ever burgeoning north Indian philosophical environment, traded in their skepticism for theory. Basic Buddhist doctrinal commitments, such as the teaching of the impermanence of all things, the Buddhist rejection of a persistent personal identity and the refusal to admit natural universals such as “treeness,” “redness” and the like, were challenged by Brahminical philosophers. How, Vedic opponents would ask, does one defend the idea that causation governs the phenomenal world while simultaneously holding that there is no measurable temporal transition from cause to effect, as the Buddhists appeared to hold? How, if the Buddhists are right in supposing that no enduring ego persists through our experienced lives, do all of my experiences and cognitions seem to be owned by me as a unitary subject? Why, if all things can be reduced to the Buddhist universe of an ever-changing flux of atoms, do stable, whole objects seem to surround me in my lived environment? Faced with these challenges, the monk-scholars enthusiastically entered into the debates in order to make the Buddhist worldview explicable. A number of prominent schools of Buddhist thought developed as a result of these exchanges, the two most notable of which were the Sarvastivada (“Universal Existence”) and Sautrantika (“True Doctrine”). In various fashions, they posited theories which depicted causal efficacy as either present in all dimensions of time or instantaneous, of personal identity being the psychological product of complex and interrelated mental states, and perhaps most importantly, of the apparently stable objects of our lived experience as being mere compounds of elementary, irreducible substances with their “own nature” (svabhava). Through the needs these schools sought to fulfill, Buddhism entered the world of philosophy, debate, thesis and verification, world-representation. The Buddhist monks became not only theoreticians, but some of the most sophisticated theoreticians in the Indian intellectual world.

Debate has raged for centuries about how to place Nagarjuna in this philosophical context. Ought he to be seen as a conservative, traditional Buddhist, defending the Buddha’s own council to avoid theory? Should he be understood as a “Great Vehicle” Buddhist, settling disputes which did not exist in traditional Buddhism at all but only comprehensible to a Mahayanist? Might he even be a radical skeptic, as his first Brahminical readers appeared to take him, who despite his own flaunting of philosophy espoused positions only a philosopher could appreciate? Nagarjuna appears to have understood himself to be a reformer, primarily a Buddhist reformer to be sure, but one suspicious that his own beloved religious tradition had been enticed, against its founder’s own advice, into the games of metaphysics and epistemology by old yet still seductive Brahminical intellectual habits. Theory was not, as the Brahmins thought, the condition of practice, and neither was it, as the Buddhists were beginning to believe, the justification of practice. Theory, in Nagarjuna’s view, was the enemy of all forms of legitimate practice, social, ethical and religious. Theory must be undone through the demonstration that its Buddhist metaphysical conclusions and the Brahminical reasoning processes which lead to them are counterfeit, of no real value to genuinely human pursuits. But in order to demonstrate such a commitment, doubt had to be methodical, just as the philosophy it was meant to undermine was methodical.

The method Nagarjuna suggested for carrying out the undoing of theory was, curiously, not a method of his own invention. He held it more pragmatic to borrow philosophical methods of reasoning, particularly those designed to expose faulty argument, to refute the claims and assumptions of his philosophical adversaries. This was the strategy of choice because, if one provisionally accepts the concepts and verification rules of the opponent, the refutation of the opponent’s position will be all the more convincing to the opponent than if one simply rejects the opponent’s system out of hand. This provisional, temporary acceptance of the opponent’s categories and methods of proof is demonstrated in how Nagarjuna employs different argumentative styles and approaches depending on whether he is writing against the Brahmins or Buddhists. However, he slightly and subtly adapts each of their respective systems to suit his own argumentative purposes.

For the Brahminical metaphysicians and epistemologists, Nagarjuna accepts the forms of logical fallacies outlined by the Logicians and assents to enter into their own debate format. But he picks a variation on a debate format which, while acknowledged as a viable form of discourse, was not most to the Nyaya liking. The standard Nyaya debate, styled vada or “truth” debate, pits two interlocutors against one another who bring to the debate opposing theses (pratijna or paksa) on a given topic, for instance a Nyaya propoenet defending the thesis that authoritative verbal testimony is an acceptable form of proof and a Buddhist proponent arguing that such testimony is not a self-standing verification but can be reduced to a kind of inference. Each of these opposed positions will then serve as the hypothesis of a logical argument to be proven or disproven, and the person who refutes the adversary’s argument and establishes his own will win the debate. However, there was a variety of this kind of standard format called by the Logicians the vitanda or “destructive” debate. In vitanda, the proponent of a thesis attempts to establish it against an opponent who merely strives to refute the proponent’s view, without establishing or even implying his own. If the opponent of the proffered thesis cannot refute it, he will lose; but he will also lose if in refuting the opponent’s thesis, he is found to be asserting or implying a counter-thesis. Now, while the Brahminical Naiyayikas considered this format good logical practice as it were for the student, they did not consider vitanda to be the ideal form of philosophical discourse, for while it could possibly expose false theses as false, it could not, indeed was not designed to, establish truth, and what good is reason or philosophical analysis if they do not or cannot pursue and attain truth?

For his own part, Nagarjuna would only assent to enter a philosophical debate as a vaitandika, committed to destroying the Brahminical proponents’ metaphysical and epistemological positions without thereby necessitating a contrapositive. In order to accomplish this, Nagarjuna armed himself with the full battery of accepted rejoinders to fallacious arguments the Logicians had long since authorized, such as infinite regress (anavastha), circularity (karanasya asiddhi) and vacuous principle (vihiyate vadah) to assail the metaphysical and epistemological positions he found problematic. It should be noted that later, very popular and influential schools of Indian Buddhist thought, namely the schools of Cognition (Vijnanavada) and Buddhist Logic (Yogacara-Sautranta) rejected this purely skeptical stance of Nagarjuna and went on to establish their own positive doctrines of consciousness and knowledge, and it was only with later, more synthetic schools of Buddhism in Tibet and East Asia where Nagarjuna’s anti-metaphysical and anti-cognitivist approaches gained sympathy. There was no doubt however that among his Vedic opponents and later Madhyamika commentators, Nagarjuna’s “refutation-only” strategy was highly provocative and sparked continued controversy. But, in his own estimation, only by employing Brahminical method against Brahminical practice could one show up Vedic society and religion for what he believed they were, authoritarian legitimations of caste society which used the myths of God, divine revelation and the soul as rationalizations, and not the justified reasons which they were purported to be.

Against Buddhist substantialism, Nagarjuna revived the Buddha’s own “four error” (catuskoti) denial, but gave to it a more definitively logical edge than the earlier practical employment of Suddhartha Gautama. Up to this point in the Indian Buddhist tradition, there had been two skeptics of note, one of them the Buddha himself and the other a third century sage named Moggaliputta-tissa, who had won several pivotal debates against a number of traditional sectarian groups at the request of the Mauryan emperor Asoka and had as a result written the first great debate manual of the tradition. While the Buddha had provided the “four error” method to discourage the advocacy of traditional metaphysical and religious positions, Moggaliputta-tissa constructed a discussion format which examined various doctrinal disputes in early Buddhism, which, in his finding, represented positions which were equally logically invalid, and therefore should not be asserted (no ca vattabhe). Perhaps inspired by this logically sharpened skeptical approach, Nagarjuna refined the “four errors” method from the strictly illocutionary and pragmatic tool it had been in early Buddhism into a logic machine that dissolved Buddhist metaphysical positions which had been growing in influence. The major schools of Buddhism had accepted by Nagarjuna’s time that things in the world must be constituted by metaphysically fundamental elements which had their own fixed essence (svabhava), for otherwise there would be no way to account for persons, natural phenomena, or the causal and karmic process which determined both. Without assuming, for instance, that people had fundamentally fixed natures, one could not say that any particular individual was undergoing suffering, and neither could one say that any particular monk who had perfected his discipline and wisdom underwent enlightenment and release from rebirth in nirvana. Without some notion of essence that is, thought Nagarjuna’s contemporaries, Buddhist claims could not make sense, and Buddhist practice could do no good, could effect no real change of the human character.

Nagarjuna’s response was to “catch” this metaphysical position of Buddhist practice in the coils of the “four errors,” demonstrating that the change Buddhism was after was only really possible if people did not have fixed essences. For if one really examines change, one finds that, according to the catuskoti, change cannot produce itself, nor can it be introduced by an extrinsic influence, nor can it result from both itself and an extrinsic influence, nor from no influence at all. All the logical alternatives of a given position are tested and flunked by the “four error” method. There are basic logical reasons why all these positions fail. It would first of all be incoherent (no papadyate) to assume that anything with a fixed nature or essence (svabhava) could change, for that change would violate its fixed nature and so destroy the original premise. In addition, we do not experience anything empirically which does not change, and so never know of (na vidyate) fixed essences in the world about us. Once again, the proponent’s method has been taken up in an ingenious way to undermine his conclusions. The rules of the philosophical game have been observed, but not in this case for earning victory, but for the purpose of showing all the players that the game had all along had been just that, merely a game which had no tenable real-life consequences.

And so, Nagarjuna has rightly merited the label of skeptic, for he undertakes the dismantling of theoretical positions wherever he finds them, and does so in a methodically logical manner. Like the skeptics of the classical Greek tradition, who thought that resolved doubt about dogmatic assertions in both philosophy and social life could lead the individual to peace of mind, however, it is not the case that for Nagarjuna skepticism leads nowhere. On the contrary, it is the very key to insight. For in the process of dismantling all metaphysical and epistemological positions, one is led to the only viable conclusion for Nagarjuna, namely that all things, concepts and persons lack a fixed essence, and this lack of a fixed essence is precisely why and how they can be amenable to change, transformation and evolution. Change is precisely why people live, die, are reborn, suffer and can be enlightened and liberated. And change is only possible if entities and the way in which we conceptualize them are void or empty (sunya) of any eternal, fixed and immutable essence. Indeed, Nagarjuna even on occasion refers to his special use of the “four error” approach as the “refuting and explaining with the method of emptying” (vigraheca vyakhyane krte sunyataya vadet) concepts and things of essence. And like all properly Buddhist methods, once this logical foil has served its purpose, it can be discarded, traded in as it were for the wisdom it has conferred. Pretense of knowledge leads to ruin, while genuine skepsis can lead human being to ultimate knowledge. Only the method of skepticism has to conform to the rules of conventional knowing, for as Nagarjuna famously asserts: “Without depending on convention, the ultimate truth cannot be taught, and if the ultimate truth is not attained, nirvana will not be attained.”

3. Against Worldly and Ultimate Substantialism

By Nagarjuna’s lifetime, scholastic Buddhism had become much more than merely an institution which charged itself with the handing on of received scripture, tradition and council-established orthodoxy; it had grown into a highly variegated, inwardly and outwardly engaged set of philosophical positions. These schools took it upon themselves not merely to represent Buddhist teaching or make the benefits of its practice available, but also to explain Buddhism, to make it not only a reasonable philosophical discourse, but the most supremely reasonable of them all. The ultimate goal of life, liberation from rebirth, though in general shared by all soteriologies in Brahmanism, Jainism and Buddhism, was represented uniquely by Buddhists as the pacification of all psychological attachments through the extinguishing (nirvana) of desires, which would lead to a consequent extinguishing of karma and the prevention of rebirth. One particularly unique doctrine of Buddhism in its attempt to thematize these issues was the theory of no-self or no-soul (anatman) and what implications it carried. In the empirical sense, the idea of no-self meant that not only persons, but also what are normally considered the stable substances of nature are not in fact fixed and continuous, that everything from one’s sense of personal identity to the forms of objects could be analyzed away, as it were, into the atomic parts which were their bases. In the ultimate metaphysical sense, it meant that no one, upon release from rebirth, will live eternally as a spiritual, self-conscious entity (atman), but that the series of births caused by inherited karma will simply terminate, reducing, as its cash-value, the total amount of suffering in the world. These theories prompted sharp and deep questions and criticisms, such as, “if the things and persons of the world are nothing more than atoms in constant flux, how can a person have an orderly experience of a world of apparent substances?”, “if there is no enduring identity or self, who is it that practices Buddhism and is liberated?”, and “how should we account for the differences between enlightened beings like the Buddha and unenlightened ones, like ourselves?” Answering such questions intelligibly for the inquiring minds of the philosophical community were a number of distinct schools which came collectively to be known as schools involved with the “analysis of elements” (abhidharma). Nagarjuna received his philosophical training in the texts, vocabulary and debates of the Abhidharmikas.

The two most prevalent schools of Abhidharma were the school of “Universal Existence” (Sarvastivada) and the “True Doctrine” school (Sautrantika). These schools held in common a theory of substantialism which served as an explanation to both worldly and ultimate metaphysical questions. This theory of substantialism, formulated in slightly different ways by each school, had two fundamental linchpins. The first was a theory of causality, or the strict necessity of one event following from another event. The theory of causal necessity was essential for all Buddhist thought, for Gautama Siddhartha himself had firmly asserted that all suffering or psychological pain had a distinct cause, namely attachment or desire (tanha), and the key to removing suffering from one’s life and attaining the “tranquility of mind” or contentment (upeksa) of nirvana was to cut out its causal condition. Suffering was brought about by a definite cause, but that cause is contingent upon the human behaviors and practices of any given individual, and if attachment could be exorcized from these behaviors and practices, then the individual could live a life which would no longer experience impermanence and loss as painful, but accept the world for what it in fact is. Buddhist theory and practice had always been based on the notion that, not just psychological attachment, but all phenomena are causally interdependent, that all things and events which come to pass in the world arise out of a causal chain (pratityasamutpada). Buddhism is inconceivable without this causal theory, for it opens the door to the diagnosis and removal of suffering. For the Universal Existence and True Doctrine schools however, the second linchpin was a theory of fundamental elements, a theory which had to follow from any coherent causal theory. Causes, their philosophical exponents figured, are not merely arbitrary, but are regular and predictable, and their regularity must be due to the fact the things or phenomena have fixed natures of their own (svabhava), which determine and limit the kinds of causal powers they can and cannot exert on other things. Water, for example, can quench thirst and fire can burn other things, but water cannot cause a fire, just as fire cannot quench thirst. The pattern and limits of particular causal powers and their effects are therefore rooted in what kind of a thing a thing happens to be; its nature defines what it can and can’t do to other things. Now in their theoretical models, causal efficacy was contained not in any whole, unified object, but rather in the parts, qualities and atomic elements of which any object happened to be constituted, so in their formulation, it was not fire which burnt but the heat produced by its fire molecules, and it was not water which quenched thirst but the correspondence of its molecules to the receptivity of molecules in the body. Indeed, fire in these systems was only fire because of its molecular qualities, and the same with water. But these qualities, molecules and elements had fixed natures, and thus could emit or receive certain causal powers and not others.

The basic difference between the Universal Existence and True Doctrine schools in their advocacy of both Buddhist causal and fundamental elements theories were their respective descriptions of how such causes operated. For the Universal Existence school, the effect of a cause was already inherent in the nature of the cause (satkaryavada). My thirst is quenched not by any fundamental change in my condition, but because the water that I drank had the power to quench my thirst, and this power does not rest in me, but in what I am trying to drink; this is why fire cannot quench thirst. Change here is only an apparent transformation already potential in the actors who are interrelating. For the True Doctrine school, on the other hand, any effect by definition must be a change in the condition of the receptor of the causal power, and as such, causal potential only becomes actual where it can effect a real change in something else (asatkaryavada). Again, using water as an illustration, the properties of water effect a change in the properties of my body, transforming my condition from a condition of thirst to one of having my thirst quenched. Change is change of what is effected, otherwise it would be silly to speak of change.

This seemingly abstract or inconsequential difference turns out in these two opposed systems however to be quite relevant, for the substantialist ideas of fixed nature and essence provide the basis not only for conceptualizing the material, empirical world, but also for conceiving the knowledge and attainment of ultimate reality. For just as only metaphysical analysis could distinguish between phenomena and their ultimate causal constituents, such analysis was also the only reliable guide for purifying experience of attachments. Those causes which lead to enmeshment in the worldly cycle of rebirth (samsara) cannot be the same as those which lead to peace (nirvana). These states of existence are just as different as fire and water, samsara will quench thirst just as little as nirvana will lead to the fires of passion. And so, it is the Buddha’s words, for those who advocated the theory of the effect as pre-existent in the cause, which had the potential to purify consciousness, as opposed to the words of any unorthodox teacher; it was the practices of Buddhists, for those who championed the notion of external causal efficacy, which could liberate one from rebirth, and not the practices of those who perpetuated the ambitions of the everyday, workaday world. These schools were, each in their uniquely Buddhist turns, true exemplars of the age-old assumptions of the karma worldview in which a person is what he or she does, and what one does proceeds from what type of fundamental makeup one has inherited from previous lives of deeds, a worldview that is which intimately marries essence, existence and ethics. To be a Buddhist means precisely to distinguish between Buddhist and non-Buddhist acts, between ignorance and enlightenment, between the suffering world of samsara and the purified attainment of nirvana.

In his revolutionary tract of The Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, Nagarjuna abjectly throws this elementary distinction between samsara and nirvana out the door, and does so in the very name of the Buddha. “There is not the slightest distinction,” he declares in the work, “between samsara and nirvana. The limit of the one is the limit of the other.” Now how can such a thing be posited, that is, the identity of samsara and nirvana, without totally undermining the theoretical basis and practical goals of Buddhism as such? For if there is no difference between the world of suffering and the attainment of peace, then what sort of work is a Buddhist to do as one who seeks to end suffering? Nagarjuna counters by reminding the Buddhist philosophers that, just as Gautama Sakyamuni had rejected both metaphysical and empirical substantialism through the teaching of “no-soul” (anatman) and causal interdependence (pratityasamputpada), so Scholastic Buddhism had to remain faithful to this non-substantialist stance through a rejection of the causal theories which necessitated notions of fixed nature (svabhava), theories which metaphysically reified the difference between samsara and nirvana. This later rejection could be based on Nagarjuna’s newly coined notion of the “emptiness,” “zeroness” or “voidness” (sunyata) of all things.

Recapitulating a logical analysis of the causal theories of the Universal Existence and True Doctrine schools, Nagarjuna rejects the premises of their theories. The basic claim these schools shared was that causal efficacy could only be accounted for through the fundamental nature of an object; fire caused the burning of objects because fire was made of fire elements and not water elements, the regularity and predictability of its causal powers consistent with its essential material basis. Reviving and logically sharpening the early Buddhist “four errors” (catuskoti) method, Nagarjuna attempts to dismantle this trenchant philosophical assumption. Contrary to the Scholastic Buddhist views, Nagarjuna finds that, were objects to have a stable, fixed essence, the changes brought about by causes would not be logically intelligible or materially possible. Let us say, along with the school of Universal Existence, that the effect pre-exists in the cause, or for example, that the burning of fire and the thirst-quenching of water are inherent in the kinds of substances fire and water are. But if the effects already exist in the cause, then it would be nonsensical to speak of effects in the first place, because in their interaction with other phenomena the pre-existent causes would not produce anything new, they would merely be manifesting the potential powers already exhibited. That is, if the potential to burn is conceived to exist within fire and the potential to quench thirst already inhered in water, then, Nagarjuna thinks, burning and thirst-quenching would be but appearances of the causal powers of fire and water substances, and this would make the notion of an effect, the production of a novel change, meaningless. If, on the other hand, we side with the True Doctrine school in supposing that the effect does not pre-exist in the cause, but is a novel change in the world, then the category of substance breaks down. Why? Because if fire and water are stable substances which possess fixed natures or essences, then what sort of relation could they bear to other objects which have entirely different fixed natures? How could fire be thought to effect a human being when the latter possesses a nature and thus takes on a form that is entirely dissimilar to fire? For the person to be effected by fire, his nature would have to change, would have to be destructible, and this vitiates the supposition that the person’s nature is fixed. Stable, fixed essences (svabhava) which are conceived to be entirely heterogeneous could have no way of relating without their initially supposed fixed essences being compromised. The conclusion is that neither of these two proffered substantialist Buddhist explanations of causal efficacy can survive logical examination.

We may be tempted, faced with these failures, to adopt alternative theories of causality advocated outside the Buddhist tradition in order to save the intelligibility of substance. We may suppose, along with Jaina philosophers, the effects somehow proceed both from inherent powers of substances as well as the vulnerabilities of objects with which these substances interact. This obviously will not do for Nagarjuna the logician, for it would be tantamount to suggesting that things and events arise or come about due both to their own causal powers and as effected by other things, that event A, such as burning or thirst-quenching is caused both by itself and by other things. This violates the law of excluded middle outright, since a thing cannot be characterized by both A and not-A, and so will not serve as an explanation. Exhausted by the search for a viable substantialist principle of causality, we may wish to opt for the completely anti-metaphysical stance of the Indian Materialist school, which denies both that events are brought about through the inherent causal powers of their relata and are caused by extraneous powers. This thorough denial would have us believe that no cause-and-effect relationship exists between phenomena, and Buddhists may not resort to this conclusion because it militates against the basic teachings of the Buddha that all empirical phenomena arise out of interdependence. This was the teaching of the Buddha himself, and so no Buddhist can allow that events are not caused.

What are we to draw from all this abstract logical critique? Are we to infer that Nagarjuna’s philosophy boils down to some strange paradoxical mysticism in which there is some ambiguous sense in which things should be considered causally interdependent but interdependent in some utterly unexplainable and inscrutable way? Not at all! Nagarjuna has not refuted all available theories of cause and effect, he has only rejected all substantialist theories of cause and effect. He thinks he has shown that, if we maintain the philosophical assumption that things in the world derive from some unique material and essential basis, then we shall come away empty-handed in a search to explain how things could possibly relate to one another, and so would have no way of describing how changes happen. But since both our eminently common sense and the words of the Buddha affirm unremittingly that changes do indeed happen, and happen constantly, we must assume that they happen somehow, through some other fact or circumstance of existence. For his own part, Nagarjuna concludes that, since things do not arise because phenomena relate through fixed essences, then they must arise because phenomena lack fixed essences. Phenomena are malleable, they are susceptible to alteration, addition and destruction. This lack of fixed nature (nihsvabhava), this alterability of things then means that their physical and empirical forms are built not upon essence, as both the Universal Existence and True Doctrine schools posit, but upon the fact that nothing (sunya) ever defines and characterizes them eternally and unconditionally. It is not that things are in themselves nothing, nor that things possess a positive absence (abhava) of essence. Change is possible because a radical indeterminancy (sunyata) permeates all forms. Burning happens because conditions can arise where temperatures become incindiary and singe flesh, just as thirst can be quenched when the process of ingestion transforms water into body. Beings relate to one another not because of their heterogeneous forms, but because their interaction makes them susceptible to ongoing transformation.

The Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way is a tour de force through the entire categorical system of the Buddhist metaphysical analysis (abhidharma) which had given birth to its scholastic movements. Nagarjuna attacks all the concepts of these traditions which were thematized according to substantialist, essentialist metaphysics, using at every turn the logically revised “four errors” method. But perhaps most revolutionary was Nagarjuna’s extension of this doctrine of the “emptiness” of all phenomena to the discussion of the relationship between the Buddha and the world, between the cycle of pain-inflicted rebirth (samsara) and contented, desire-less freedom (nirvana). The Buddha, colloquially known as “the one who came and went” (Tathagata), cannot properly be thought of for Nagarjuna in the way the Buddhist scholastics have, that is, as the eternally pure seed of the true teachings of peace which puts to rest the delusions of the otherwise defiled world. The name and person of “Buddha” should not serve as the theoretical basis and justification of distinguishing between the ordinary, ignorant world and perfected enlightenment. After all, Nagarjuna reminds his readers, all change in the world, including the transformations which lead to enlightenment, are only possible because of interdependent causality (pratityasamutpada), and interdependent causality in turn is only possible because things, phenomena, lack any fixed nature and so are open (sunya) to being transformed. The Buddha himself was only transformed because of interdependence and emptiness, and so, Nagarjuna infers, “the nature of Tathagata is the very nature of the world/” It stands to reason then that no essential delimitations can be made between the world of suffering and the practices which can lead to peace, for both are merely alternative outcomes in the nexus of worldly interdependence. The words and labels which attach to both the world and the experience of nirvana are not the means of separating the wheat of life from its chaff, nor true cultivators of the soil of experience from the over-ambitious “everyday” rabble. Rather, samsara and nirvana signify nothing but the lack of guarantees in a life of desire and the possibility of change and hope. “We assert,” Nagarjuna proffers to say on behalf of the Buddhists, “that whatever arises dependently is as such empty. This manner of designating things is exactly the middle path.” A Buddhist oath to avoid suffering cannot be taken as a denunciation of the world, but only as a commitment to harness the possibilities which already are entailed within it for peace. Talk about the Buddha and practices inspired by the Buddha are not tantamount to the raising of a religious or ideological flag which marks off one country from another; rather, the world of suffering and the world of peace have the same extension and boundary, and talk about suffering and the Buddha is only there to make us aware of the possibilities of the world, and how our realization of these possibilities depends precisely on what we do and how we interact.

4. Against Proof

The apparently anti-theoretical stance occupied by Nagarjuna did not win him many philosophical friends either among his contemporary Buddhist readers or the circles of Brahminical thought. While it was certainly the case that, over the next seven centuries of Buddhist scholastic thought, the concept of emptiness was more forcefully articlulated, it was also hermeneutically appropriated into other systems in ways of which Nagarjuna would not necessarily have approved. Sunyata was soon made to carry theoretical meanings unrelated to causal theory in various Buddhists sects, serving as the support of a philosophy of consciousness for the later illustrious Vijnanavada or Cognition School and as the explication of the nature of both epistemology and ontology in the precise school of Buddhist Logic (Yogacara-Sautrantika). These schools, deriding Nagarjuna’s skepticism, retained their commitment to a style of philosophizing in India which allowed intellectual stands to be taken only on the basis of commitments to thesis, counter-thesis, rules of argument and standards of proof, that is, schools which equated philosophical reflection with competing doctrines of knowledge and metaphysics. This is all the more ironic given the overt attempt Nagarjuna made to head off the possibility that the idea of emptiness would be refuted or co-opted by this style of philosophizing, an attempt still preserved in the pages of his work The End of Disputes (Vigrahavyavartani).

The End of Disputes was in large measure a reactionary work, written only when philosophical objections were brought against Nagarjuna’s non-essentialist, anti-metaphysical approach to philosophy. The work was addressed to a relatively new school of Brahminical thought, the school of Logic (Nyaya) Philosophical debate, conducted in formalized fashions in generally court settings, had persisted in India for perhaps as much as eight hundred years before the time of the first literary systematizer of the school of logic, Gautama Aksapada. Several attempts had been made by Buddhist and Jaina schools before Nyaya to compose handbooks for formal debate. But Nyaya brought to the Indian philosophical scene a full-blown doctrine not only of the rules and etiquette of the debate process, but also an entire system of inference which distinguished between logically acceptable and unacceptable forms of argument. Finally, undergirding all forms of valid argument was a system of epistemology, a theory of proof (pramanasastra), which distinguished between various kinds of mental events which could be considered truth-revealing, or corresponding to real states of affairs and those which could not be relied upon as mediators of objective reality. Direct sensory perception, valid logical argument, tenable analogy and authoritative testimony were held by the Logicians to be the only kinds of cognitions which could correspond to real things or events in the world. They could serve as proofs to the claims we make to know. With some modifications, the approach of Nyaya came to be accepted as philosophical “first principles” by almost all the other schools of thought in India for centuries, both Vedic and non-Vedic. Indeed, in many philosophical quarters, before entering into the subtleties and agonism of advanced philosophical debate, a student was expected to pass through the prerequisites of studying Sanskrit grammar and logic. All thought, and so all positive sciences, from agriculture to Vedic study to statecraft, were at times even said to be fundamentally based on and entirely specious without basic training in “critical analysis” (anviksiki), which, according to Gautama Aksapada, was precisely what Nyaya was.

The Logicians, upon becoming aware very early of Nagarjuna’s thought, brought against his position of emptiness (sunyata) a sharp criticism. Certainly no claim, they insisted, should compel us to give it assent unless it can be known to be true. Now Nagarjuna has told us that emptiness is the lack of a fixed, essential nature which all things exhibit. But if all things are empty of a fixed nature, then that would include, would it not, Nagarjuna’s own claim that all things are empty? For one to say that all things lack a fixed nature would be also to say that no assertion, no thesis like Nagarjuna’s that all things are empty, could claim hold on a fixed reference. And if such a basic and all-encompassing thesis must admit of having itself neither a fixed meaning nor reference, then why should we believe it? Does not rather the thesis “all things lack a fixed essence, and are thus empty,” since it is a universal quantifier and so covers all things including theses, refute itself? The Logicians are not so much making the claim here that skepticism necessarily opts out of its own position, as when a person in saying “I know nothing” witnesses unwittingly to at least a knowledge of two things, namely how to use language and his own ignorance, as in the cases of the Socratic Irony and the Liar’s Paradox. It is more the direct charge that a philosophy which refuses to admit universal essences must be flatly self-contradictory, since a universal denial must itself be essentially true of all things. Should we not consider Nagarjuna as a person who, setting out on what would otherwise be an ingenious and promising philosophical journey, in a bit too much of a rush, tripped over his own feet on his way out the front door?

Nagarjuna, in The End of Disputes, responds in two ways. The first is an attempt to show the haughty Logicians that, if they really critically examine this fundamental concept of proof which grounds their theory of knowledge, they will find themselves in no better position than they claim Nagarjuna is in. How, Nagarjuna asks in an extended argument, can anything be proven to a fixed certainty in the way the Naiyayikas posit? When you get right down to it, a putative fact can be proven in only two ways; it is either self-evident or it is shown to be true by something else, by some other fact or piece of knowledge already assumed to be true. But if we assent to the very rules of logic and valid argument the Vedic Logicians espouse, we shall find, Nagarjuna thinks, that both of these suppositions are flawed. Let us take the claim that something can be proven to be true on the basis of other facts known to be true. Suppose, to use a favorite example from the Logician Gautama, I want to know how much an object weighs. I put it on a scale to measure its weight. The scale gives me a result, and for a moment that satisfies me; I can rely on the measurement because scales can measure weight. But hold on, Nagarjuna flags, your reliance on the trustworthiness of the scale is itself an assumption, not a piece of knowledge. Shouldn’t the scale be tested too? I measure the object on a second scale to test the accuracy of the first scale, and the measurement agrees with the first scale. But how can I just assume, once again, that the second scale is accurate? Both scales might be wrong. And the exercise goes on, there is nothing in principle which would justify me in assuming that any one test I use to verify a piece of knowledge is itself reliable beyond doubt. So, Nagarjuna concludes, the supposition that something can be proven through reference to some other putative fact runs into the problem that the series of proofs will never reach an end, and leaves us with an infinite regress. Should we commit ourselves to the opposite justification and propound that we know things to be true which are self-evident, then Nagarjuna would counter that we would be making a vacuous claim. The whole point of epistemology is to discover reliable methods of knowing, which implies that on the side of the world there are facts and on the side of the knower there are proofs which make those facts transparent to human consciousness. Were things just self-evident, proof would be superfluous, we should just know straightaway whether something is such and such or not. The claim of self-evidence destroys, in an ironic fashion which always pleased Nagarjuna, the very need for a theory of knowledge!

Having tested both criteria of evidence and come up short, the Logician might, and in fact historically did, try an alternative theory of mutual corroboration. We may not know for certain that a block of stone weighs too much to fit into a temple I am building, and we may not be certain that the scale being used to measure the stones is one hundred percent accurate, but if as a result of testing the stones with the scale I put the stones in the building and find that they work well, I have reason to rely on the knowledge I gain through the mutual corroborations of measurement and practical success. This process, for Nagarjuna, however, should not pass for an epistemologist who claims to be as strict as the Brahminical Logicians. In fact, this process should not even be considered mutual corroboration; it is actually circular. I assume stones have a certain measurable mass, so I design an instrument to confirm my assumption, and I assume scales measure weight so I assess objects by them, but in terms of strict logic, I am only assuming that this corroborative process proves my suppositions, but it in fact does nothing more than feed my preconceived assumptions rather than give me information about the nature of objects. We may say that a certain person is a son because he has a father, Nagarjuna quips, and we may say another person is a father because he has a son, but apart from this mutual definition, how do we know which particular person is which? By extension, Nagarjuna claims, this is the problem with the project of building a theory of knowledge as such. Epistemology and ontology are parasitic on one another. Epistemologies are conveniently formulated to justify preferred views of the world, and ontologies are presumed to be justified through systematic theories of proof, but apart from these projects being mutually theoretically necessary, we really have no honest way of knowing whether they in fact lend credence to our beliefs. Again, Nagarjuna has used tools from the bag of the logician, in this case, standard argumentational fallacies, to show that it is Brahminical Logic, and not his philosophy of emptiness, which has tripped itself up before having a chance to make a run in the world.

This, as said above, was Nagarjuna’s first response to the Logicians’ accusation that a philosophy of emptiness is fundamentally incoherent. There is however, Nagarjuna famously asserts, another pettito principii in the Nyaya charge that the thesis “all things are empty and lack a fixed nature” is incoherent. The statement “all things are empty” is actually, Nagarjuna says, not a formal philosophical thesis in the first place! According to the Nyaya rules of viable logical argument, the first step in proving an assertion true is the declared statement of the putative fact as a thesis in the argument (pratijna). Now in order for something to qualify as a formal philosophical thesis, a statement must be a fact about a particular object or state of knowable affairs in the world, and it is a matter of doctrine for Nyaya that all particular objects or states of affairs are classifiable into their categories of substances, qualities, and activities. Nagarjuna however does not buy into this set of ontological categories in the first place, and so the Logician is being disingenuous in trying to covertly pull him into the ontological game with this charge that the idea of emptiness is metaphysically unintelligible. The Brahminical Logician is insisting that no person can engage in a philosophical discussion without buying, at least minimally, into a theory of essences and issues surrounding how to categorize essences. It is exactly this very point, Nagarjuna demurs, that is eminently debatable! But since the Logician will not pay Nagarjuna the courtesy of discussion on Nagarjuna’s terms, the Buddhist replies to them on their terms: “If my statement (about emptiness) were a philosophical thesis, then it would indeed be flawed; but I assert no thesis, and so the flaw is not mine.”

With the exception of his two major commentators four centuries later, this stance of Nagarjuna satisfied no one in the Indian philosophical tradition, neither Brahmanas nor fellow Buddhists. It was the stance of the kind of debater who styled himself a vaitandika, a person who refutes rival philosophical positions while advocating no thesis themselves. Despite all their other disagreements, Brahmanas and Buddhists in following centuries did not consider such a stance to be truly philosophical, for while a person who occupied it may be able to expose dubious theories, one could never hope to learn the truth about the world and life from them. Such a person, it was suspected is more likely a charlatan than a sage. Despite the title of his work then, Nagarjuna’s attempt to call into “first question” theories of proof fell far short of ending all disputes. However, Nagarjuna closes this controversial and much-discussed work by reminding his readers of who he is. Paying reverence to the Buddha, the teacher, he says, of interdependent causality and emptiness, Nagarjuna tells his audience that “nothing will prevail for those in whom emptiness will not prevail, while everything will prevail for whom emptiness prevails.” This is a reiteration of Nagarjuna’s commitment that theory and praxis are not a partnership in which only through the former’s justification is the latter redeemed. The goal of practice is after all transformation, not fixity, and so if one insists on marrying philosophy to practice, philosophical reflection cannot be beholden to the unchanging, eternal essences of customary epistemology and metaphysics

5. The New Buddhist Space and Mission

There may be some extent to which the age-old debate as to whether Nagarjuna was a devotee of the traditional Theravada or Classical Buddhism or the Mahayana (Great Vehicle) sect turns on the authorship of the two letters attributed to him. Very little can be gleaned from the other works in Nagarjuna’s philosophical corpus that would lend much support to the supposition that the second-century scholar was even much aware of Great Vehicle doctrines or personages, even though the ground-breaking notion of emptiness was the one which Mahayana fixed on as its central idea. The two “ethical epistles” addressed to the historical Satvahana liege Gautamiputra Satkarni (r. ca. 166-196) would certainly give Nagarjuna a plausible historical locus. With their abundant references to the supremacy of the Great Vehicle teachings, they would also depict Nagarjuna as unequivocally within this movement. However, the non-existence of original Sanskrit versions of the Suhrllekha (To a Good Friend) and Ratnavali (Precious Garland), as well as their obviously heavy redactions in the Tibetan and Chinese editions, make any definitely reliable attribution of them to Nagarjuna practically impossible.

The familiar distinctions between the Classical and Great Vehicles are well-worn; the conservative scriptural and historical literalism of the former pitted against the mythological revisionism of the latter, the idealization of the reclusive ascetic pursuing his own perfection in the former as opposed to the angelic and socially engaged bodhisattva of the latter. Nagarjuna’s other works are filled with honorific passages dedicated only to the Buddha himself, while the two epistles abound in praise of the virtues of angelic bodhisattva-hood, though even these are found amidst passages extolling the perfections of the eightfold path and the nobility of the four truths. Whatever Nagarjuna’s precise sectarian identification, he never loses sight of the understanding that the practice of Buddhism is a new sort of human vehicle, a vehicle meant not to carry people from one realm to another realm, but a vehicle which could make people anew in the only realm where they have always lived.

Nagarjuna’s letters to the war-mongering Gautamiputra are somewhat conspicuous for the relative paucity of advice on the actual art of statecraft. Long sermons in To a Good Friend on the correct interpretation of subtle Mahayana teachings are intermingled with catechism-like presentations of the excellence of monastic virtues, and these are so numerous that even the author concedes toward the end of the correspondence that the king should keep as many of the enumerated precepts as he can, since keeping all of them would tax the fortitude of the most seasoned monk. But with all of these somewhat disconnected sections of the letter which even internally are wont to jump from one topic to another, a motif emerges which does seem to cohere with the more thematic approaches to the idea of emptiness in the other works, and that motif is the primacy of virtuous conduct and practice, which takes on even a higher and more relevant role than the achievements of wisdom.

This motif is surely significant, given the fact that the Classical and Great Vehicles, while both submitting that ultimate wisdom (prajna) and compassion (karuna) were the two paramount virtues, argued over which one was highest, the Theravada opting for wisdom and Mahayana for compassion. In these epistles, while Nagarjuna warns that the intentions behind moral acts must be informed by wisdom lest the benefits of the deed be spoiled, he stresses repeatedly the importance of steadfastly ethical conduct. Dharma or behavior upright in the eyes of the Buddha’s law of existence has two aspects, one which is characterized by meditative non-action and the other through positive action, and the road to Buddhahood, he says, passes through the positive action of the bodhisattva. For even though dharma is subtle and hard to comprehend, particularly where the notion of emptiness is involved and so easily misunderstood, its practice through the cultivation of moral intentions and attitudes will lead unerringly through the tangle of doctrinal debates. Beyond this general advice, which would apply to any monk or nun, counsel is given to the king that dharma as positive ethical conduct is also “the best policy,” for when one socially promotes adherence to ethical conduct, justice will prevail in the kingdom and benefits will accrue to all, benefits which rivals will envy beyond any transient material wealth and false senses of power.

In the worlds of the present and the future, it is after all only actions which matter. It is indeed the very physicality of deeds which leads to the accumulation of either meritorious or detrimental karma, and so one’s fate lies squarely in ones own hands. But through acts performed in the field of samsara, all conceivable changes are possible. A prince can become a pauper, either willingly, like the Buddha, or unwillingly. Young men become old, beauty morphs into decrepitude, friendship descends into enmity. It is this piercing contingency of samsara which is so often experienced with such anguish. But, Nagarjuna quickly reminds his readers, all these transformations can just as easily go in the opposite direction, with material poverty blossoming into spiritual riches, fathers reborn as sons and mothers as young wives, and the wounds of conflict sutured with the threads of reconciliation. Interdependent causality and the emptiness which change depends on mean that things can always go either way, and so which way they in fact go depends intimately on one’s own deeds. And this leads one to grasp that the proper site of practice for the Buddhist cannot be just the monastery, removed as it tries to be from the machinations of state, economy, social class and the other tumultuous and sundry affairs of suffering beings. As there is no difference between samsara and nirvana owing to the emptiness and constantly changing nature of both, so the change which a Buddhist effects upon herself and those around her is a change in the world, and this constant and purposeful change is the rightful mission of Buddhism. With his own peculiar and visionary interpretation of the concept of the emptiness of all things then, Nagarjuna has woven an anti-metaphysical and epistemological stance together with an ethics of action which was, true to its own implications, to transform the self-understanding of the Buddhist tradition for millennia to come.

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