Fellow Bloggers

I just had a look at the dashboard of my blog and found that it is linked to by another blog. This blog (Enlightenment Ward) put my blog here under the category of a Buddhist blog by a male practitioner. Some classification indeed. There are also categories of blogs by women practitioners, blogs by monks, nuns and others I didn’t remember.

It is indeed an honor to be linked to by a fellow blogger. And somehow I found it rather odd that this blog is put under the category of a ‘Buddhist blog by a practitioner.’ For one thing, this blog is “mostly” about Buddhism, but not “exclusively.” So I talk about other things, such as tennis, Thai politics, the internet, and right now in this blog I’m talking about other blogs. But thanks any way for linking to me. I am sure to link back.

Another thing is that this blog is even not always in English. So Thai readers find it rather difficult to follow it because about 80% of the time this blog is in English, but perhaps English readers might wonder what is going on in some of the posts in Thai. So you can pick and choose.

Maybe I’ll wait until somebody else picks this blog up for other things than Buddhism. Perhaps blogs about “all sorts of topics”. Sometimes there is a classification like this, you know. No, but seriously, this blog is for the most part about Buddhism, and I intend it to be that way.

Enlightenment Ward put me under the category of a “practitioner.” This kind of gave me goose bumps, because the word seems to conjure an image of someone who’s serious, with shaven head, sits cross-legged all the time, etc. But I think I am everything else but that. I do meditate from time to time, but perhaps that is not enough to dampen any surprise that will happen once someone sees me who has heard about me being listed as a practitioner.

But in any case, I am certain that I take at least this part of my Bodhisattva vow seriously — I would like this blog to contribute to sentient beings’s eventual realization of Buddhahood. But there are so many ways to Buddhahood….

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Bhavaviveka and Candrakirti

Those who study Mahayana Buddhism perhaps know about Bhavaviveka as one who espouses the position known as “Svatantrika Madhyamika”, and that this is opposed by Candrakirti, whose position is “Prasangika Madhayamika”. All schools of Tibetan Buddhism follow Candrakirti, and the Svatantrika school is kind of denigrated by the Tibetan schools as being incomplete or as having been soundly refuted by Candrakirti.

This is an arcane issue. At the heart of the dispute is the nature of argumentation leading to the conclusion of the doctrine of Emptiness. According to Nagarjuna, no views are tenable. That is, the correct “view” of the Madhayamika is the “extinguishing of all views.” This is deeply ironic, but the intent of Nagarjuna is that the correct view is not describable through language. Since it is language itself, together with conceptualization and mental fabrication that accompany it, that is the culprit, then any view that is expressible through language in propositional or logical form is ultimately misguided.

Bhavaviveka
Bhavaviveka

Bhavaviveka was known as one of the greatest exponents of Nagarjuna’s teaching. He was a Madhyamika after all. He tried to found Nagarjuna’s teaching on a sound logical basis by constructing a system of argument purporting to show, as logical conclusion, the truth of the Emptiness doctrine. By doing this, it is necessary to posit an existence of some referents of the statements used in the argument. Without it, no logical argumentation would be possible because if you do not posit anything as putatively real (perhaps only for the purpose of the argument), then you don’t have any fixed point at which to tie up the argument, so to speak.

So this is Bhavaviveka’s strategy. He is known to criticize the work of Buddhapalita, who claimed, on the contrary, that it was actually impossible to found Nagarjuna’s teaching on any logical argumentation because no fixture was possible. Then Candrakirti came about after Bhavaviveka’s time and defended Buddhapalita, thereby refuting Bhavaviveka in his celebrated works, Madhyamakavatara and Prasannapada.

We don’t have all the time and space to deal adequately with this dispute here. Works abound on this topic. My goal here in this post is to point out that perhaps Bhavaviveka has been unjustly portrayed in the scholarly literature, and perhaps the distinction between the Prasangika and the Svatantrika might not be as great as sometimes mentioned.

The strategy of Buddhapalita and Candrakirti was different from that of Bhavaviveka. Instead of attempting to formulate an argument aiming to establish as logical conclusion the truth of Nagarjuna’s Emptiness Doctrine, they employ the strategy of reductio ad absurdum. No positive statement is made. Any posited statement at all is deduced to get at their conclusions and these conclusions would be shown to be contradictory, thereby refuting the posited statement. This is the standard method of the reductio. The idea is that, since according to Nagarjuna no statement can be defended (“extinguishing of all views”), no posited statement can be allowed which is necessary to construct a positive argument purporting to prove the Doctrine. So no positive argument. Everything that is asserted of anything is refuted completely.

Candrakirti
Candrakirti

In fact both sides can’t avoid their own paradoxes. Bhavaviveka has to answer how it is possible to posit fixed statement in order just to argue that no fixed statement is possible. Candrakirti, on the other hand, also has to say how it is possible that understanding anything through language is possible at all. No fixed category, no fixed meaning. Furthermore, the reductio itself is a form of an argument, so in order for even the reductio to work, some fixed categories have to be presupposed too.

The typical answer is that one has to bear in mind the distinction between the conventional truth (samvrtti-satya) and the ultimate truth (paramartha-satya). But this is equally applicable both to Bhavaviveka and Candrakirti. So it appears that their disagreement is only superficial and deep down they completely agree on the import of Nagarjuna’s and in fact the Buddha’s teaching. Since emptiness is very difficult to spell out through language, one either has to remain silent, or if one ventures out loud, one has to be willing to accept the paradoxes.

Seeing Nirvana

A perennial issue in the minds of students of Buddhism is what it means for one to “see” nirvana. There are so many different teachings about this very important topic, and the student is understandably baffled by the many interpretations and teachings here. One teaching is that nirvana is similar to a place where one enters once one attains it. Another claims that nirvana cannot be compared to anything on earth, and thus language cannot describe what it is like exactly. Thus nirvana is not a place where one can enter, and it is by no means anything that one can see because presumably to see anything is only possible if the thing to be seen is of this samsaric world.

Naturally there are a lot of confusions on this. Luang Pu Doon, one of Thailand’s greatest meditation masters, told this moving story about nirvana. For one who is still practicing, nirvana is something like a far away destination full of glories and goodies. This is like when the practitioner, who is living in the Northeast of Thailand and has never been to Bangkok, is told how wonderful and beautiful the city of Bangkok really is. There are, the practitioner is told, “jeweled walls” and a “golden mountain” in Bangkok. So the practitioner sets up his mind intently on being able to see the jeweled walls, the golden moutain and other goodies that he was told exist in Bangkok. This is analogous to the practitioner who has been told about all the wonders of nirvana and sets out his mind and his practice to attain it eventually.

However, Luang Pu Doon said that, when the practitioner really gets to Bangkok, he then is told that this is in fact the “jeweled wall” and the “golden mountain” and the like. So his doubts are all banished, and he realizes, after all these years, that the “jeweled wall” and the “golden mountain” are just really ordinary things that do in fact exist in his home town! He is told that this wall is in fact a “jeweled” wall, and this stupa on top of a man made hill is the “golden mountain.” Nirvana, then, is not something far away, a fabled place where all the goodies and wonders exist, but something very mundane and has been with the practitioner all along.

The moral of the story, of course, is that nirvana is not to be compared with a place where one can enter and reside in all the glories, etc. But perhaps this is true in a way. The problem is that our language is so limited that it is impossible to describe exactly and adequately what nirvana really is. So it would in fact be misleading to say that nirvana is absolutely nothing like the wonders of Bangkok for the practitioner who has never been there. This is how language is used to tell story, to make a parable, to engage in metaphors. So the “jeweled wall” and so on are metaphors. But when the subject matter is nirvana, everything that can be said through language becomes metaphor. The usual distinction between metaphors and literal meanings break down completely.

So what does it mean to say that one “sees” nirvana. Here one can distinguish two sense of “see.” On the one hand, one sees a thing just in case one’s visual faculty is not impaired and that certain circumstances obtain, such as there is enough light, the thing seen is not completely transparent and reflect some light back, and so on. On the other hand, the word “see” is also used in another way, as when we say that one “sees” something when one completely understand it. So we say, “Ah, I see,” where in fact there might not be anything to be seen. (Just like when one says “I see” when one comes to understand something which might not have anything to do with seeing with eyes at all.

So there is another sense of “seeing” nirvana. One competely understands. One realizes one’s wisdom in toto and thus becomes utterly liberated. The Buddha “sees,” so do the arahants and highly realized Bodhisattvas. But what exactly do they understand then? Is the subject of their understanding something that exists materially, or only mentally? Is what they understand subjective, existing in their minds only, or objective, its precise spatio-temporal location to be determined later?

Now we are being bewitched by language again. Note that language will always take us to either the extreme of saying “yes” to meanings, thus reifying them, or saying “no” to them, thus affirming their negativities. In either case the Buddha said that we are still mired in the net of Mara. Language is really Mara’s net that bind us with samsara, preventing any means of escape. So when we unenlightened beings hear of nirvana, language comes to work. Nirvana has to be either this or that; it has to be here or there, and so on. But when language itself is at fault, then what are we to do?

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.

Politics of Translation

I am fascinated with language. Well, this is mainly what I do for a living. What else would you expect a university lecturer in an arts faculty to do? Teaching philosophy has a lot to do with language. J. L. Austin has a book on “How to Do Things with Words,” and teachers of philosophy, literature and history basically have close to nothing to do except manipulating words around.

The recent controversy in Thailand surrounding Jakkrapob Penkhae, the Minister attached to the Prime Minister’s Office, when he gave a talk at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club and said something about the desirable, in his view, form of government for Thailand is a case in point. It sparked an uproar, and those of you who are following the events in Thai politics perhaps know about this already.

My point is that Jakkrapob’s speech has become a political issue, but for that to work in this country, the speech, which was given in English, has to be translated into Thai. Now the interesting situation is that there are now several versions of the translations of the same text which are not entirely compatible with one another. Jakkrapob’s own translation has been accused of omitting some key texts which would be damaging to him, and the version prepared by the opposition Democrat Party has also been accused by the other side of not being a fair one. 

So somebody proposed that the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University do the translation themselves. Being regarded as the most trusted authority in linguistic matters, the professors of Chulalongkorn will be asked to decide on the issue. Well, this happens to be the place where I go to work teaching philosophy. I believe I won’t be asked to do the translation myself, as I am not teaching translation or anything. But this is a good point for a reflection.

As those who have even a slight acquaintance with translation know, translating a text from one language to another is an imprecise science at best. Unless you are translating a mathematical statement, you are likely to have to face decisions on word choices and other things which translators have to face everyday. Even translating mathematical texts sometimes requires making such decisions too. And when the translation of Jakkrapob’s speech is such a highly charged political issue, what could happen is that the faculty at the Faculty of Arts, well, my beloved colleagues, will have to bear political brunt. If their translation goes well with one camp, they will be reviled by the other. And if they tweak the translation they will have to suffer loss of credibility and this will harm the reputation of the university. They need to find the most accurate translation. But exactly what is the most accurate translation?

So they are in an unenviable situation. I only wish them all the best. I think what will happen is that when one camp finds an expert to translate the text, the other will find their own expert to translate the text to their own liking. All will be done within the limit of the allowable and interpretable range of meanings of the text. 

Some people would like to resolve political issues through technical means like finding experts to translate the text, but that would not be forthcoming. This is a typical attitude of many in the Thai bureaucracy and other circles. They trust the expert in all areas. But then political issues cannot be resolved through technical means. They have to be resolved politically. It is one thing whether Jakkrapob’s text violates Thai law or not. For that the judge will ask for an accurate translation from expert witness (and both sides can well produce their own expert witnesses). But this has become a political issue and the way to resolve that won’t come from the easy way of asking for expert opinions. Well, translation can be part of politics too, as are many other areas.

Thai or English?

In writing the blogs I have had a kind of dilemma in deciding whether to write in Thai or English. There are advantages on both sides. Writing in Thai enables audience in Thailand who are not that fond of reading English posts to read my views and ideas, but English posts certainly carry wider. So what to do?

I think I will find a middle way. If I think a particular post is perhaps of more local concern, then I’ll write in Thai. For example, if I write about something about Thai politics or Thai universities (a subject that I am very interested in), then I’ll write in Thai, but if it’s Buddhism, then I have decided to write in English. But then there are some in Thailand who would like to read things about Buddhism but not in English. So in the end the rule does not work consistently. That is, I judge by my feeling. In some cases I write in Thai, and in others I’ll write in English.

Some bloggers are very diligent and duly translate everything they write into the other language. I am not diligent, so if you want to read some of my posts which are written in the language you don’t know, drop a note to me and I’ll consider this case by case.