Journey of Life and Mind

Public Talks on “Journey of Life and Mind”

 

The foundation invites the general public to attend  a conference/seminar on “Journey of Life and Mind” at Room 105 Mahachulalongkorn Building, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok.

There will be two public talks by Latri Khenpo Geshe Nyima Dakpa Rinpoche on “Samsara…Journey of Life and Mind” and “Life’s Last Journey”. There will also be an introduction of Rinpoche’s book “Opening the Door to Bon” in the occasion of  its being translated into Thai.

 

Program of Rinpoche’s Talks in English (with Thai translations)

Saturday 11 February 2012

9.10-10.15 hrs: Samsara…Journey of Life and Mind

10.15-10.30 hrs: Refreshments

10.30-11.30 hrs: Opening the Door to Bon. An introduction to Tibetan ancient wisdom

Sunday 12 February 2012

13.00-14.30 hrs: Life’s Last Journey

14.30-15.00 hrs: Refreshments

15.00-16.00 hrs: Discussion

For registration, please email us at 1000tara@gmail.com. There are no registration fees. Donation to support the activities are welcome.

 

Three Types of Compassion

When I was staying at the Khadiravana Center someone I had known before came to visit the Center and talked with me for a while. He was a student of Buddhism and used to translate a number of Tibetan Buddhist books. He had an interesting question which he told me many monks and scholars could not answer. It has to do with compassion and emptiness. Since everything is empty, that is, lacking in their inherent existence, when we have compassion, what exactly are we having the compassion for? If everything is empty, isn’t the thing for which we have compassion empty too? If it is empty, then wouldn’t our compassion be directed to an empty object, a compassion to nothing?

This is clearly a clever question, and it shows that someone who does not understand the Buddha’s teaching thoroughly could get mired in these conceptual web. Not that the Buddha himself planted these webs, but it seems that some of his followers created these webs for themselves because of their attachment and preconceptions.

In any case this question needs to be fully answered, and the answer is not an easy one. The question rests on a very fundamental tension in the Buddha’s own teaching – the tension between taking things as they appear, on the one hand, and seeing their ultimate nature as being empty through and through on the other. This tension lies at the heart of Buddhist teaching.

On the side of taking things as they appear, there certainly are beings who need compassion. They are suffering; there are innumerably many of them. They are beings in samsara. Clearly they are there as objects of the Buddha’s and bodhisattva’s and our own compassion.

On the other hand, things are empty of their inherent character. What this means is that things do not stay the same forever, and even at a moment when they are what they are, they are what they are only because of their being dependence of causes and conditions. These causes and conditions are no exception either; they depend on other causes and conditions too, and so on ad infinitum. In the end everything is what it is because of their dependent nature, which for Buddhists means that they are empty of their inherent character which would make them truly what they are without such dependency. Since this has no exception, any object of compassion, any suffering being, is ultimately empty too. So when we feel compassionate toward them, what exactly are we compassionate toward?

One way out of this is to treat things at two levels – that of ‘conventional’ truth and of ‘ultimate’ truth. This is the path Nagarjuna takes. In fact talking about levels is rather misleading, for in fact things do not present themselves in levels. They are one and the same things, but described differently. According to one way of describing, they are there as objects of reference and certainly of compassion, but according to the other description, they are empty. Since all things do not possess any essential properties from the beginning, there is no contradiction in the two descriptions.

However, there is another way of looking at this which is perhaps less philosophical. According to Deshung Rinpoche in The Three Levels of Spiritual Perception, when we practice compassion, we should do it with the realization that there are three types of compassion. We should always take into account all these three types whenever we feel compassionate toward other beings and practice compassion. The first type is the ordinary compassion we have toward other beings. The second type is the realization that these beings suffer because they are mired in avidya or fundamental ignorance. The third and most refined type is the realization that in ultimate reality there is no one to be compassionate to, no one who is being compassionate, and no such thing as compassion.

The trick is that the third type is classified as a kind of compassion. This neatly solves the problem that my friend asked me before. The tension between compassion and emptiness is only apparent and arises only if the first type is understood to be the only type. But when one takes into account the second and third types, then the tension dissolves, because the realization of emptiness is a kind of compassion too.

This needs to be unpacked. Buddhist teachers usually say that compassion and emptiness (or wisdom) are the two wings that enable a bird to fly. A bird cannot fly with only one wing, so one cannot attain Buddhahood with realization of either compassion or emptiness only. One needs both to attain Buddhahood. And a way to achieve this is suggested in Deshung Rinpoche’s teaching that the third type of compassion is just this realization of the wisdom of emptiness itself.

How is this so? It arises from the understanding that the truly genuine way for true compassion to arise in one’s mindstream is for one to achieve the wisdom of emptiness – the realization that ultimately all beings are of one nature. Furthermore, it also arises from the understanding that the only way the wisdom of emptiness to arise in one’s mindstream is for one to have genuine compassion toward other beings. When one has genuine compassion, the apparent boundary separating oneself from the world and every being breaks down, but that is just emptiness in action.

So in the end the two, compassion and emptiness, are one and the same. Thus the question I mentioned earlier arose only out of some misconception. But it is a very strong misconception. This is why the practice of compassion is so crucial in Mahayana Buddhism. Without it there will absolutely be no way toward Buddhahood.

Buddha Nature

One of the important aspects of teaching in Buddhism is one on Buddha Nature. Actually this is more toward Mahayana, but it’s there in Theravada too but not much emphasized. The idea of Buddha Nature is that every sentient being has the seed of eventually becoming a Buddha inside of it. When the seed is fully realized, then the being becomes an enlightened Buddha.

This teaching is what gives meaning to the practice of bodhisattvas. For those who are new to Buddhism, bodhisattvas are beings who are committed to becoming a Buddha in order for them to be fully able to help ferry sentient beings across the ocean of suffering to the shore of Liberation. The Buddha Nature teaching tells us that it is possible for everyone to become a bodhisattva and a Buddha. This is not only limited to human beings, but since a human being is but one form that a sentient being can take and since a human being used to be a countless number of animals and other forms of being in their previous lives, an animal can also become a Buddha. Even Shakyamuni Buddha himself used to be born in all animal forms, so who knows that the lowly insect in front of you might actually be a bodhisattva. In fact the insect actually has the potential to become a bodhisattva and the Buddha. This is the gist of the teaching on Buddha Nature.

There is a passage in the Tripitaka that the “original mind” of all of us is essentially pure, and it is only because of adventitious defilements that the original mind become cloudy and thus is subject of wandering around in samsara. This can well be a point for reflection in meditative practice. When the defilements and their root are gone, and the root of all defilements is avidya, or the ignorance of the fundamental nature of reality, then the original mind shows itself forth in its primordial purity. That is the goal of practice, the showing forth of the original mind constitutes entering into nirvana, or the state of totally extinguishing all causes of suffering which lead one to wander in samsara.

But how can one get rid of avidya? That is the subject matter of the Buddha’s 45-year teaching career and countless number of texts and commentaries. The trick is that the original mind should not be thought of as something existing objectively for there to be cleaned. The original mind is not a crystal ball that you can clean up. Talks about the original mind being “pure” and adventitiously “polluted” by the “defilements” are only metaphors. At this level we can rely only on metaphors because language fails us. The reason is that it is the very nature of language itself that is part of the root cause of suffering itself. But we can get very far into this and easily get lost, so enough of this for now.

In any case, the original mind shows that there is Buddha Nature in all of us. When you come to Buddha Nature, then it can be said that you come to who you yourself really is from the beginning. Total disclosing, no concealment whatsoever. This is what the Zen masters say when they tell you to look for “your own face before your father and mother got married” …

(Actually I have written a post on this topic before, but the content is not the same, I think.)

Staying in the Present

One of the teachings given by Nyima Dakpa Rinpoche at the construction ceremony of the Tara Great Stupa in Hua Hin was that we should constantly be at the present moment. The past is already passed. We can’t bring the past back. The future does not yet happen. So if we keep on thinking about either the past or the future, then we are actually living in a dreamworld. Only the present is real. It is only in the present, the ‘now,’ that we are totally alive and that we are capable of doing anything. It is only in the present moment that we do exist, that we can make any changes, any transformations.

This is a simple yet profound teaching. We need to ponder what it means to say that only the present is real. We may begin by considering the past and the future first. Beings that are wandering in samsara do not live in the present. They are compelled by their past, by their worries, by habitual tendencies that cause them to perceive things in ways that are conditioned by their traces of karma. For example, we have a tendency to get angry when things do not go the way we want. Perhaps we get stuck in a traffic jam and we get annoyed and angry. We become angry because we are conditioned by our habits of wanting to satisfy ourselves and then when what we want does not come fast enough, we get frustrated, angry.

The karmic traces work at a very deep level, and most of us are unaware of it. We believe that we have an “ego” — our own selves — our “I’s”, that need to be taken care of and satisfied. This trace goes back a very long way. We long for satisfying this “I” and when we do not get it, the “I” gets frustrated, bringing about suffering. But when it is satisfied, the “I” does not stop there. It then longs for another thing, and another, and another, and so on without end. That is why beings wander about in the life cycle of birth and death. In fact the life cycle or samsara is nothing but the projections of our own minds which is conditioned by past action or karmas.

Likewise, when we think about the future, we are really thinking of what does not exist. We make plans and when the plan is not realized, we also gets frustrated. Some may be so obsessed with future plans that they become neurotic, losing touch with the real world. Rinpoche said that those who habitually think about the future include those want to procrastinate because they fall under the spell of their egos which want things to remain the way they are. Since dharma practice has a direct effect on the ego, the ego does not want us to do that. So it keeps telling us of all sorts of excuses so that we don’t start practicing. The ways of the ego are so wily.

So what do we do? We remain focused in the present all the times. At least that is the goal. By doing this we do not follow any thoughts and lose ourselves in those thoughts. In fact those who stay in the past or the future are those who lose themselves in their thoughts. They are being led around by their own thoughts, which they believe to be really meaningful and tangible. But thoughts are only thoughts. They are fabrications created by the ego to “make sense” of the world. The problem is that by “making sense” one ironically loses sense of the real reality, which just cannot be said of through words.

Which comes to another of Rinpoche’s teachings that day. One should learn how to say it without actually saying it. This sounds paradoxical, but Rinpoche asked us to ponder its meaning. This is a way of practicing the Dharma itself.

Buddha, God, and Emptiness

During the symposium on Buddhism in German philosophy and literature, there was a lively discussion on how to compare Buddhism and Christianity on the topic of God and ultimate reality. There was a question from the audience whether the difference between Buddhism as a non-theistic and Christianity as a theistic religion would be a significant matter in an attempt to compare the two. In short, whether the fact that Buddhism is a non-theistic religion would make it inadequate in some way to answer the people’s needs.

This is an age-old matter. The talk started out with the comparison between the two religions on meditation. There is meditation in Christianity too, and it was kind of marginalized as a result of the movement toward rationality in the modern age. Thus meditation came to be regarded as some kind of mysticism. But it was there in the Christian tradition. So the question was posed whether the difference between Buddhism and Christianity on the existence of God would make any differences in meditative experiences. Christians presumably meditate on God and the purpose of the meditation is to get closer to God, but if there is no God in Buddhism, what do the Buddhist meditators meditate on?

For Buddhists this question sounds quite strange, because there are so many things one can meditate on, and there is no restriction that one has to meditate on God only. God does not have a monopoly when it comes to meditative object. In any case, I said during the talk that one way to find a common ground between the two religions is that, instead of looking at God as the creator, one might look at God rather as the Ultimate Reality, one whom the meditator tries to get closer to. If God is identified with this Ultimate Reality, then He would have a lot of affinity with Buddhism, because in Buddhism meditation the goal is also to get closer to Ultimate Reality, to become one with it, in effect.

This Ultimate Reality is known in some traditions of Buddhism as Emptiness. This is the ultimate nature of all reality; it is the real nature of everything. Thus God can be identified with Emptiness, and since Emptiness is just another word for Nirvana, God and Nirvana are in fact one and the same. The goal of the Christian is to become “one” with God, and the goal of the Buddhist is to realize Nirvana, which in other words is to become “one” with it too.

I also said that the perceptible world, according to the Buddhists, has no beginning nor end. The world has existed “since beginningless time,” as Buddhists are wont to say, and it will continue to exist so long as there are causes and conditions for it. Thus there is no creator God, but there is the God that is to be identified with this beginningless world. What both share in common is that they are eternal. God always IS, and reality, Emptiness, whatever it is called, always IS also.

The problem, of course, is that Christians do not accept this picture. Since to say of God that He is identified with the world is to destroy the distinction between the creator and his creation, and if there is no definite future, then no eschatology is possible. No dramatic story of Jesus coming down and give the final judgment.

The Buddhists have no idea whatsoever of eschatology. This only makes sense in the theistic setting and in the context of putting everything under a dramatic plot or a narrative. For the Buddhist future is an illusion created by the deceived mind, and there is no metanarrative that informs every event in the universe. Your future depends on what you do at this moment. You might be born as a god in heaven if you acquire some positive merits, or you go to hell. This is entirely up to your choosing. But there is no such story for the world as such. No, the world is definitely not going to be any particular way according to some preordained plan. The world is just there, and what it is like is up to the people inside it who do their various actions.

One way to understand what I am saying here is this. It is accepted that God creates Himself (sui generis), so isn’t there a problem here about the created and the creator? So why don’t we look at everything as God? God creates the world when we look at Him in one way, but in another way God does create Himself, and He does this continually.

I know I am encroaching upon Christian theology, a topic which I claim no expertise whatsoever. My aim here is only to find a common ground between Buddhism and Christianity and other monotheistic religions. This picture would be quite compatible with Buddhism, just change the word ‘God’ to ‘Emptiness’ according to the Madhyamika, or ‘Ultimate Reality’ according to the Abhidhamma, or the ‘Mind’ according to the Yogacara.

I also know that this picture is pantheistic, and thus unacceptable as a Christian doctrine. But that is not my problem. So Christian theologians would have to find their own solution if they do not want to go the pantheistic route. If the goal of the meditation is to enter the state of union with God, how is that going to be possible if there is this unbridgeable gulf between the creator and what is created?

Thought and Meditation

Those who have practiced meditation may have been told to stop thinking processes while doing the meditation. However, there are also other instructions where the practitioner is encouraged to think, such as thinking about impermanence, rarity of human birth, law of karma, and so on. So how can the two be reconciled? That is, when one is doing meditation the goal is, apparently, to stop thinking, but then there are these instructions where one should be thinking. So what should the practitioner do?

This pertains to the whole topic of Buddhist practice. A short answer is that the purpose of the two kinds of practice are not exactly the same. In encouraging one to think about such topics as impermanence and so on, the goal is to train the mind in such a way that the mind become familiar with these basic and important topics which are the backbone of the Buddhist teaching. How could one gain an appreciation of the need to practice and to release oneself from samsara if one does not fully appreciate impermanence?  Impermanence is a key concept in understanding what suffering is all about. So the purpose of such thinking is to engage the mind, to familiarize it, so that it has the habit of thinking along such lines. In other words, we are training the mind so that the mind realizes the truth and fully internalizes it.

One very effective way of training the mind in this respect is to constantly tell the mind about such topics as impermanence, rarity of human birth and so on. One can do this in a meditation setting. That is, one sits cross-legged and puts one’s hands on the lap, and so on. Then one reflects on these topics, aiming at fully understanding them. The terminology for this is “bhavana“, which literally means “to make happen.”

All this naturally involves thinking. So in a way thinking is necessary in meditation. But there is another kind of meditation, which is part of a more advanced practice. In this other kind one is advised to stop the thinking processes. The thinking process is likened to a waterfall, and the aim of the meditator is to stop the waterfall, to clear the mind so that the cascading thought processes stop. The aim is to realize the basic clarity of the mind which will enable the practitioner to see the absolute truth directly.

Now during the meditation should the meditator be thinking? Not if the goal is to stop thinking, of course. But there is a trick. If you are intent on stopping thinking, you won’t succeed because to be conscious of the desire to stop thinking is just another thought process, so you end up traveling in a circle. Instead the trick is to let the mind go and when thoughts arise you are only observing them. Notice when a thought arises and notice when it ends. Meanwhile do not develop another thought about those thoughts. Try to see the gap after a thought ends and before a new thought arises. At first this gap may be very short, but after a while when you are more skillful the gap will widen. This is what the masters have been teaching. Through this gap one can ultimately perceive absolute reality, or in other words Emptiness, or the Primordial Mind, directly.

Non-abiding Nirvana

An important concept of Mahayana Buddhism which is not there in Theravada is that of “non-abiding nirvana” or apraḍiṣṭhita nirvāṇa in Sanskrit. The word ‘apraḍiṣṭhita’ actually means ‘non-stationary’ or ‘not fixed in one place’ or something like that, so the translation as ‘non-abiding’ seems quite appropriate. Many Theravada followers, when they hear about non-abiding nirvana have a hard time understanding what it is really about.

Well, non-abiding nirvana is the state of Buddhahood itself. It is the goal that all bodhisattvas, namely those who have made a vow to become a Buddha for the sake of all sentient beings, aspire to. In fact to call it a ‘nirvana’ is not quite correct because it is the state which is neither samsara or nirvana. This is very hard to understand. But we can begin to approach it by looking at the usually perceived distinction between samsara and nirvana. Samsara is the ocean of sufferings. Beings drown in this and try to find solace and resting place in the ocean any way they can, but due to their own ignorance of the very nature of things as empty they keep on deluding themselves and as a result they keep on swimming in the ocean. The arhats are those who have destroyed all the ignorance and defilements that keep them within samsara. So they are, so to speak, ashore. They do not swim in samsara any more. Less metaphorically, they are not born again. They are forever cut off from samsara, residing in the blissful space of static nirvana.

This ‘static’ nirvana is what the Buddha talked about when he first taught to his students, and it is the goal of all Theravana practitioners. However, the Theravadins do not regard this nirvana as ‘static’ because for them there is only one kind of nirvana. In Mahayana, however, there is another kind, the non-abiding, or non-static nirvana, which is the state of attainment of perfect Buddhahood and not the arhats.

The main difference between static and non-abiding nirvana is that those who attain the latter actually speaking reside neither in samsara or nirvana. For them the distinction between samsara and nirvana breaks down completely. The arhats believe that there is such a distinction and they forever remain on the side of the static nirvana. The Buddhas and highly realized Bodhisattvas, on the other hand, do not remain in this static condition, for they are always motivated by their bodhicitta vows to help ferry sentient beings across to the other shore. So they cannot remain completely still and static. They have to move and act. So on the one hand we can say that they are in nirvana (or they have attained nirvana) because they, being Buddhas, have completely destroyed all causes of being compelled by the force of karma, but on the other they do not have to remain in that blissful, static state. As a result they can take up many forms in order to realize their vow. These forms are known as ‘nirmanakaya’ or emanation bodies. One who completely embodies the qualities of a Bodhisattva is an emanation body of that Bodhisattva.

However, being neither in samsara or nirvana, Buddhas and highly realized Bodhisattvas (such as Avalokiteshvara, Tara, Manjushri and others), are free to travel anywhere. They can take up emanation bodies and stay in samsara. They are even there in pure forms within samsara which only highly attained practitioners can directly perceive. So in a real sense the Buddha himself, as well as Avalokiteshvara, Tara and others are now here watching over us.

But don’t take this to mean that they really exist like those deluded beings in samsara are attached to existence. It is not like that at all. Once you see that they really exist, then you are deluded. Everything is empty of their inherent nature, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas not excluded. So they are empty too. So on the one hand they do exist, because they reside neither in samsara or nirvana, and hence can be in either way, but on the other since they are empty they are not there to exist anywhere to begin with. You will get a hang of this after you contemplate on emptiness for quite some time :-)

So how does one know that non-abiding nirvana actually exists? Well, the best we unenlightened beings can do is to use our reasoning faculty. Since nirvana (of either kind) is a state that results from total elimination of all causes of suffering which lead a being to continue to swim in the samsaric ocean, then one who attains nirvana (of either kind) does not have to be born again. But here is the difference between the arhat and the realized Buddha. The arhat does not make the bodhicitta vow, so once he (or she) attains nirvana, then everything is over for him (or her). The Buddha, on the other hand, is moved by the sufferings of all the sentient beings so he (or she) cannot remain still. Realizing that both samsara and nirvana are all empty, the Buddha transcends that distinction and can remain wherever he or she is needed. Hence his state is called “non-abiding.”

Three Stages of Compassion

In the practice of generating compassion toward sentient beings, Deshung Rinpoche teaches that we need to distinguish among three kinds of compassion. in fact they all go with one another and to focus on only one or two would not be complete.

The context is meditation on the need for compassion and on how to generate compassion. This is the beginning and end point of Mahayana Buddhism and in fact all Buddhism, because without compassion it becomes very difficult to go any further on the path of a practitioner.

As is perhaps well known, compassion, or karuna in Sanskrit, is the desire to rid sentient beings of their sufferings. We feel compassion when, for example, we perceive a suffering being and feel the same pain as it does and wishes to help free it from the suffering. If we can do it, certainly we will do it, such as when we see an insect being drowned or other situations. However, the most effective way of all is to generate a thought, a sincere wish out of the bottom of your heart, so that not only some beings here and there, but ALL beings there are in the six realms, be free from suffering. This is the beginning of the meditation on compassion.

Now we are entering into the three kinds of compassion mentioned earlier. The first kind is the compassion that naturally arises when you perceive the beings who suffer. There are so many beings around; the text says that they fill the entire space, and all of them do suffer. Now no one wants to suffer; everyone, every sentient being wants to be happy. We also want to be happy and don’t want to suffer. We keep on thinking of these beings and feeling the same feeling that they are having. We recognize their sufferings.

Now the second stage of compassion occurs when we realize that the reason why these beings do suffer is their illusory belief that there exists a self. Each being suffers because of this erroneous belief. It is the root cause of all sufferings in samsara. We survey all the suffering beings, and all of them do suffer because of this belief. How good it would be then for these beings to be free from the shackle of this belief!

So we contemplate during this stage on the root cause of suffering, which is the illusory belief that there is an existing, enduring self, and keep on doing this until this stage of compassion becomes our nature to the very bones. Now we enter the third stage of compassion, which Deshung Rinpoche calls “objectless compassion.” This is the awareness and understanding that in the ultimate reality there are no beings, no suffering, no meditator, nothing to be compassionate to. Beings do not realize this, instead they think that things have their inherent characteristics and their independent beings; that is why they continue to suffer in samsara. We meditate on this too.

Among all the practices in Buddhism, meditation on compassion is among the most powerful. This is a sure path toward true realization of non-self and emptiness. Emptiness and compassion do go with each other and cannot miss each other. You have genuine compassion when you realize emptiness, and you do appreciate and realize emptiness when you have the three stages of compassion described here.

Buddhist Ontology?

I am now writing this post in a gate at Singapore’s Chang-i Airport waiting for the plane to be readied to take me home. I came here to attend an international conference on “Science, Technology and Human Values in the Context of Asian Development,” which was held on the campus of National University of Singapore on July 27 to 29. Most of the papers at the conference dealed with how the intellectual resources of Asian religious traditions could provide answers to today’s challenges emerging through the recent advances in science and technology.

I presented a paper on “Nanotechnology and Asian Values” at the conference. However, during some of the discussions and debates at the conference, there was a talk about “Buddhist ontology.” The discussion was framed within the context of tradition versus modernity. Since the talk was about Asian values and science and technology, the key question was how the values could be useful for the development of science and technology, as well as for ethical deliberations on questions arising from the two. Then the ensuing debate focused on whether reliance on traditional Asian values be construed as a relapse onto the past and if not then how much could it be without so relapsing. The question is a very important one and the conference devoted much time discussing it.

As for Buddhism, the question then becomes how talks about samsara and rebirth and so on could fare with the modernist attitude that puts its trust on science and technology. If we are to see how Buddhist values could help solve problems arising from science and technology, such as bioethical problems, environmental problems and so forth, then how do talks about samsara and rebirth fare with the modern scientific mindset? One participant questions what he perceives as the Buddhist “ontology” which seems to be incompatible with modern science. Then in what sense could talks about relying on Buddhist values in the scientific age be meaningful?

What I answered was in fact in consonance with many others. Relying on Buddhist values does not mean that one is pre-modern and does not have anything to do with science and technology. One can well be a Buddhist and a thoroughly modern (or even ‘postmodern’) one who believes in the efficacy of science and technology and more importantly in the critical and rational mindset that accompanies basic scientific rationality. Meera Nanda calls this “scientific temper,” a concept which is enshrined in the Constitution of India.

There are in fact many ways to argue for this. One is to show that sooner or later science itself will come around and validates samsara and rebirth. In fact many scientists are beginning to appreciate the important role that meditation can play on how the brain works, what is known as neuroplasticity.  But in fact that is quite some time in the future. Another way is to keep talks about samsara and others inside as private issues and focus on what are now being shared by Buddhism and science. Compassion is a key element in Buddhism and the altruistic attitude is appreciated by science too. That is an example.

And if we focus further on the intricacy of the Buddhist thought, it appears that the term ‘Buddhist ontology’ is a misnomer. According to the teaching on Emptiness, no things whatever, ultimately speaking, exist. In other words, no things exist in virtue of their inherent characteristics. In this sense it does not make much sense to say that there is an ontology, for ontology is talk about the ‘to on’ or ‘being’ in Greek. But in Buddhism this is precisely the contested concept. So the idea is that Buddhism does not have an ontology in the sense in which Plato and Aristotle had their ontologies. For Plato and Aristotle, things do have their inherent characteristics; this is precisely a very Greek thinking. But that is opposite to what the Buddha taught. Since things are all in flux, so much so that it does not make much sense speaking of one thing rather than another, then how can there be an “ontology”?

This is also supported by Nagarjuna’s argument that ultimately speaking the Buddhist “philosophy” is the “relinquishing of all views.” This is deeply ironic because philosophy is nothing if not promoting of some views, not relinquishing them. But if all views are to be relinquished, then no version of any ontology can be held. So no Buddhist ontology. (This, by the way, does not imply that the Buddhist one is a skeptical or an agnostic viewpoint; this is very complicated — more on it later.)

This position of Buddhism of critical assessment of any ontologies make it clearly not incompatible with the modern scientific attitude. For what could be held to be against it? Thus it perfectly makes sense to talk about relying on the Buddhist principles to support ethical deliberations about science and technology in society. For when things are in flux and have no inherent characteristics, they are pliable and malleable enough to be molded, so to speak, so that they fit with the modern agenda. But that will actually have to be a topic of a later post…

Emptiness of Karma

Talking about karma and empitness, Nagarjuna says that ultimately speaking there is no karma — no perpetrator, no action, no recipient of action. So karma is empty. This is one of the most difficult teachings in the Fundamental Verses on the Middly Way. But we can unpack the difficulty as follows:

First of all, for karma to take effect, there must be the perpetrator of the karma (let’s not forget that karma is just Sanskrit for ‘action’). And since there is the doer of the action, there also has to be the action itself and the benefiary or recipient of the action. These follow logically. So for example, I am offering a flower to a monk. I am doing a karma. There is the I who offers the flower; there is the action of offering, of putting the flower inside the monk’s almbowl, and so on, and there is the monk who receives the flower and gives me blessings. So far, so good.

However, the main doctrine of the Fundamental Verses is that everything whatsoever is empty of its own inherent characteristics. Ultimately speaking, there is just no thing. Everything that seems to exist, be it flowers, monks, laypeople, etc., are results of conceptual imputation – the act of naming things and thus apparently grasping the names things as if they exist by themselves. So at this ultimate level there is no giver, no thing given, and no receiver.

But if that is the case, then how could Nagarjuna explain the fruits of karma? In the Tipitaka there are a lot of stories of people who are reborn in heaven because of their merit making activities in their past lives. So who gets reborn as gods in heaven? Nagarjuna argues that karma has neither existence nor non-existence, and this is his standard way of arguing in the Fundamental Verses. Since karma has neither existence nor non-existence, we can put karma in either way. So it is wrong both to say that karma does exist and also wrong to say that it does not exist. This is a very difficult and mind boggling point.

I think Nagarjuna’s point is this. In arguing that karma does not exist, Nagarjuna is saying that we can’t just get rid of the concept and go on as if there is no karma. In that case, no action would bear any fruit and all the stories about reincarnation and being reborn in heavens and hells would make no sense. This is of course totally wrong. So karma does exist. But it does not exist in its own substantial being. To say that karma exists is just to say that there are some causes and conditions that let to the karma existing. Without these causes and conditions there is no karma.  Karma exists because the perpetrator believes that things have inherent characteristics. Believing that by offering the flower to the monk, a person who has not realized the whole truth still has some grasping to his constructed self, so in a way that self is reborn in heaven. But strictly speaking it is not *he himself* that is reborn because there is no substantial soul in Buddhism. But the god who is reborn is a result of that person’s merit making nonetheless. All this is possible because of the ingrained belief (a false one) that there is a self, and that things exist on their own. And since being a god is just being in samsara, so we see the process of samsaric circle going on here.

Here is Nagarjuna’s point:

Defilements, karma, bodies,

Those doing karma, those receiving fruits of karma

Are like the city of Gandharvas,

Illusionlike and dreamlike.