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.)

Music and Meditation

If you a regular reader of this blog, you might perhaps know that I am also interested in music. Many posts on this blog are about music. So perhaps it’s time to look at any connection there is between music and Buddhism.

Or between music and meditation, which is perhaps easier to write about. There are now many musical pieces designed to help one’s meditation. Look at and listen to the following:

So the question is how does music really help with meditation? As far as I know no Buddhist scriptures mention anything about music as an aid to meditation. If anything the texts tend to suggest that the practitioner find a quiet place free from distractions to do his or her meditation. But music seems to be very distracting. So how about these musical pieces? Are they really distractions? Or could they be of help in one way or another?

In fact some form of music has been in used in meditation practice for a long time. Those who are familiar with sadhana practice in Tibetan Buddhism know that many rhythmic and musical instruments are involved — a lot of cymbals, gongs, trumpets, clarinets, and of course the indispensable bell that always accompanies the vajra. So the practice can be a very loud affair. But if music is a distraction, then why do they have such a big role to play?

Moreover, if one looks at Theravada, which has far more simple rituals, one does find some music in there too. In Thailand there is the tradition of telling the tale of the Bodhisattva Vessantara, who assumed the last human form before eventually becoming Buddha Shakyamuni. The story is told is such beautiful and moving voice that bring tears to many listeners. The chant is indeed beautiful music.

This is a topic which is not well understood or thoroughly investigated, I think. On the one hand, music clearly can be a distraction. Try doing a meditation in a shopping mall filled with piped in music, and compare that to a quiet place in a park. But then there is the problem of employing music in many practices.

As a musician myself, I think my musical practice and performance can be a way of doing meditation. When I play a piece like Bach, all my attention will be glued to the music that I don’t think of anything else. I kind of “lose myself” to the music. There’s no consciousness of what is going on around me, no worries whether who is doing what around me. Just the music — the harmony, the counterpoint, the sheer tone of the piano, the sensuousness of it all.

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A recent article in the Economist explores the question why music is so important in our lives, and the answer is that music and sex are so related that musical prowess translates into more chances to pass on the genes to the offsprings. So the love of music and the pleasure derived from listening to it is perhaps hard wired into our beings. We are programmed to love music because our genes have been selected this way.  The Economist calls this the “food-of-love” hypothesis. Music and sex are deeply related to each other. The pleasures derived from music and from sex may be explainable through the same causes.

What this has to do with meditation and Buddhism is that, if music is really connected to meditation, then if the the “food-of-love” hypothesis is correct, then meditation could also be a skill which, akin to music, develops in tandem with the ability to find pleasure. The article quotes Stephen Pinker as follows:  “A brain devoted to turning sound into meaning is tickled by an oversupply of tone, melody and rhythm. Singing is auditory masturbation to satisfy this craving. Playing musical instruments is auditory pornography. Both sate an appetite that is there beyond its strict biological need.” The brain is hard wired to get pleasures from music in the same way as it does from cheesecakes. But how is this related to meditation?

Many meditators report having a lot of pleasures during their meditation. In fact the Buddha himself said that two components, “rapture” (piti) and “happiness” (sukha) are two main ingredients of successful meditation. And even though one goes to the higher stages where rapture and happiness are non-existent, this does not mean that no kind of happiness is available, because the texts say that those who have attained these higher stages of meditation are in some sense moving toward cessation of suffering. Even though the Buddha taught that this is not exactly the correct way to eliminate all sufferings, this can indeed contribute a lot to it.

So meditation seems to contribute a lot to pleasures, and the texts are clear in stating that as long as one remains in the meditative state, one in effect shuts the door from sufferings. However, the Buddha’s contribution is that this does not eliminate all possible sufferings, since one returns to the normal sufferings state once one is out of the meditation. The way toward total elimination of suffering is through realization of complete selflessness, but then a way toward such realization can be achived only through some forms of meditation, both shamatha and vipasyana. The vipasyana, or insight meditation, is also a meditation. Supreme happiness, the highest kind of happiness attainable by a human being (or indeed any sentient being), is only possible through meditation. And if music and meditation are related, then music could indeed be a way toward the realization.

But then what about music as a distraction? What happens when one practices a meditation session and the nearby house is having a wild rock party? This also can be compared with a musician who is practicing Bach while some other music is being played loudly. This is indeed a distraction, but that does not mean that music, per se, is a distraction. It depends on what we are doing at the moment.

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.

The Lankavatara Sutra

Yesterday I went to the office of the Thousand Stars Foundation and found that there were a number of new books waiting to be cataloged and arranged on shelves. The books were given to the Foundation by Anne Tuech, a friend of the Foundation who had helped us with a lot of things. She gave the books to the Foundation so that more could benefit from them. As we say in Thai, we “anumodana-ed” with her merits — that is, we rejoiced sympathetically with her good merits. 🙂

Now one of the books was a copy of D. T. Suzuki’s translation of The Lankavatara Sutra. It turned out that I was looking for this important text for some time and in fact I had been using the online text of this version for quite some time. Thus finding the book at the Foundation office was indeed a blessing.

Bodhidharma

The main idea behind the Sutra is that everything that we perceive is but a manifestation of our own mind. That is, when we perceive things around as being the things that they appear to be to the untrained, unpracticed eyes, we are in fact see our own projections. This is corroborated by a teaching on karma by Deshung Rinpoche, whose oral teaching on The Three Levels of Spiritual Perception I have been reading very closely. In that book, Deshung Rinpoche teaches that one of the results of the karma we did is that the environment in which we live is conditioned by that very karma that we did. This is very startling to me. The idea seems outrageous at first. In what way could it be the case that my own environment is conditioned by the karma or the action that I did?

But when one thinks about it, one begins to see how this is possible. Suppose somebody is full of anger all the time, his mind would then be filled with all the defilements and all the malices that go with anger. So he will very often meet with all these ill wills and hatred and things like that. This is just another way of saying that his environment is conditioned by his karma. Suppose you are full of anger, chances are that you will associate yourselves with those who share the same anger, or the same habit of mind that leads to anger and ill will. This is your environment.

On the other hand, it is quite easy to imagine that one whose mind is directed toward benevolence and compassion will find another environment which is very different from the one mentioned above. Moreover, our karma does more than that. It conditions the kind of life and the kind of world we are born into. Our environment then is conditioned by the karma.

The point is that the idea that the objectively existing environment is conditioned by the karma, which is action performed with intention, shows that there is an intimate connection between the subject and the object, so much so that it does not make much sense, ultimately speaking, to say which is which and how to distinguish among the two. This is also the message of the Lankavatara Sutra. In a way, the mind creates the world. In as much as our karma does condition the kind of environment we find ourselves in, our mind does create the world. Everything we perceive — rocks, trees, mountains, cars, traffic lights, and so on — are nothing but pictures that play itself out before our conceiving mind.

Moreover, deep down behind these pictures is what Suzuki calls “Mind” itself. This is neither subjective nor objective, since it is the condition by which both the subject and the object become possible in the first place. This Mind (with the big M) is not an individual mind, nor is it the case that ordinary things are made up of it in the Berkeleian sense. It is that the conception of the subject and the object itself owes its dependence to this primordial being which is self existing and has no beginning. Thus, when it is said in the Sutra that every individual objects are projection of the Mind, it should be understood as a projection of this universal, individual-transcending Mind, and not as individual minds in the Berkeleian sense. In Sanskrit the subject-object transcending Mind is the Alayavijnana and the individual, discriminating and conceptualizing mind is the manas.

Let us look rather closely at the text itself. On page 40 of the Suzuki version, which is on Section IX of Chapter Two, the Blessed One is speaking to the Bodhisattva Mahasattva Mahamati thus:

Then the Blessed One again speaking to Mahamati the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva said thus: The reasons whereby the eye-consciousness arises are four. What are they? They are: (1) The clinging to an external world, not knowing that it is of Mind itself; (2) The attaching to form and habit-energy accumulated since beginningless time by false reasoning and erroneous views; (3) the self-nature inherent in the Vijnaya; (4) The eagerness for multiple forms and appearances. By these four reasons, Mahamati, the waves of the evolving Vijnanas are stirred on the Alayavijnana which resembesl the waters of a flood. The same [can be said of the other sense-consciousnesses] as of the eye-consciouness. This consciousness arises at once or by degrees in every sense organ including its atoms and pores of the skin; the sense-field is apprehended like a mirror reflecting objects, like the ocean swepa over by a wind. Mahamati, similarly the waves of the mind-ocean are stirred, uninterruptedly by the wind of objectivity; cause, deed, and appearance condition one another inseparably; the functioning Vijnanas and the original Vijnana are thus inextricably bound-up together; and because the self-nature of form, etc., is not comprehended, Mahamati, the system of the five consciousnesses (vijnanas) comes to function. Along with this system of the five Vijnanas, there is what is known as Manovijnana [i.e., the thinking function of consciousness], whereby the objective world is distinguished and individual appearances are distinctly determined, and in this the physical body has its genesis. But the Manovijnana and other Vijnanas have no thought that they are mutually conditioned and that they grow out of their attachment to the discrimination which is applied to the projections of Mind itself. Thus the Vijnanas go on functioning mutually related in a most intimate manner and discriminating a world of representation.

The basic idea is that the physical things arise (this is only a metaphorical speaking, for the Sutra does not say that the individual mind has the power to create physical things ex nihilo) because of the discriminating and conceptualizing function of the five sense consciousnesses and one mental, discriminating consciousness. What is really important is that the consciousnesses or the vijnanas here are mutually dependence on each other. There can be no recognition and conceptualization of this as, say, a table without the conceptualizing mind or consciousness, and this conceptualizing mind itself would have no object to conceptualize if there were no object for it to do that. So both the mind (ordinary one) and object do indeed depend on each other. Without the mind, no object is even possible, and without the object, the mind has no content, which then means that it ceases to function as what it is, namely as a conceptualizing mind.

France, Zen, and Musings

I still am fascinated by the conference of the Academie du Midi, which was held at the Hostellerie d’Eveche in Alet-les-Bains, southern France. Many of the people there were from Germany and in fact almost one whole day of the four-day conference (one day was off for excursion) was devoted to German papers. I tried to listen to some of them and could possibly understand about a third of one paper, but other than that it was as good as a complete blank.

Nevertheless, I met Guenther Wohlfart, the progenitor of the Academie du Midi and one who actually found Alet-les-Bains as the site of the conference. He is a Western philosopher who is very interested in Chinese and Buddhist thoughts. And in fact the Academie du Midi was found under the principle that there should be more interaction between the intellectual traditions of East and West. 

At the conference Wohlfart gave away his little book on Zen und Haiku, a collection of poems that he wrote. He also wrote a long introduction to the principle of Zen. Wohlfart said that according to Zen, one who does not know anything about it would think of a mountain just as what it is unreflectively. But those who have gone halfway into Zen would think that the mountain is not a mountain. However, those who have mastered Zen would think of the mountain just as what it is, a mountain, nothing more and nothing less. 

This parallels the stages of development of a Buddhist practitioner. One who does not know anything and who is nothing but an ordinary man or woman in the street would think of a mountain just as what it is. What’s the problem about it? But those who have studied the Buddhist thought for a while would think: This in fact is not a mountain at all, but a collection of atoms and the elements. So what looks like a mountain is not exactly a mountain. It only appears that way. This is the same for all other things. The self is composed of the five aggregates — bodily form, feelings, perceptions, mental fabrications and consciousness. So the self is what exactly what it is. This is of course contrary to the thinking of the ordinary man in the street who thinks there is nothing problematic about the self, or the mountain for that matter.

Nonetheless, for those who have mastered Zen and other Buddhist teachings would think that the mountain is in fact the mountain. According to Wohlfart, “everything is none other than what it is. It reminds one of nothing other than itself. It shows itself in its this-unique-thing-ness.” 

This is my translation from the German. When one is realized enough, the mountain returns to being itself. Instead of just a collection of atoms and elements, it *is* a mountain and *is* what it is since the beginning. Instead of there being two levels of thing-ness, one appearing and the other existing hidden behind the appearance, there is only one level. In fact there is no level at all. Just things as they exist as they are, in the very thing-ness of it. (Now I am speaking German style 🙂 )

This could be thought of as returning to the pre-reflective stage of development. But that is no longer possible. One might think of the awakened one as a baby who is wondering at everything, perceiving everything in its pure bareness. Strictly speaking this is not possible, but there is some grain of truth in it though. One might say that the arahat or the Buddha to see the world as does the baby, but with the full understanding lying behind.

 

รูปคือความว่าง

เมื่อไปประชุมที่ Alet-les-Bains ซึ่ง Academie du Midi เป็นผู้จัด มีคนมาถามว่า ข้อความในพระปรัชญาปารมิตาหฤทัยสูตร ที่ว่า “รูปคือความว่าง ความว่างคือรูป” หมายความว่าอย่างไร คนถามเป็นผู้ดำเนินรายการในการเสนอบทความในช่วงบ่าย ปรากฏว่าสนใจเรื่องนี้มาก และตั้งใจจะถามอยู่เป็นเวลานาน แต่ยังไม่ได้โอกาสในช่วงของการประชุม พอกินข้าวเย็นกันก็เลยได้โอกาสถาม คำถามแบบนี้ถ้าถามในที่ประชุม อาจต้องใช้เวลานานจนกินเวลาของคนอื่นไปก็ได้

คำตอบที่ได้บอกอาจารย์ท่านนั้นไปก็คือว่า องค์ดาไลลามะเคยให้คำตอบไว้ในหนังสือเล่มหนึ่งของท่านว่า ที่บอกว่า “รูปคือความว่าง” หรือ “Form is Emptiness” นั้น ได้แก่การที่ “รูป” ซึ่งเป็นศัพท์เทคนิคหมายความถึงสิ่งต่างๆที่เป็นวัตถุ จริงๆแล้วมิได้มีความเป็นอยู่ในตัวเอง ทุกสิ่งทุกอย่างเป็นอยู่อย่างที่เป็นได้เพราะสัมพันธ์กับสิ่งอื่นๆทั้งสิ้น ในขณะที่ตอบคำถามนี้ กำลังกินข้าวเย็นกันอยู่ แล้วบนโต๊ะก็มีแก้วหลายใบ ได้ตอบไปว่า แก้วนั้นก็เป็นรูปอย่างหนึ่ง ซึ่งก็มิได้มีความเป็นอยู่ในตัวเอง การที่สสารก้อนหนึ่งเป็นแก้วได้ก็เพราะว่า มีรูปร่างเป็นแบบแก้ว ดังนั้น สสารก้อนหนึ่งจึงขึ้นอยู่กับรูปร่างแบบเป็นแก้ว จึงทำให้เป็นแก้ว เรื่องนี้เป็นจริงกับแก้วทุกใบ แต่ในขณะที่ตอบนี้ก็ได้เอามือจับแก้วใบหนึ่งไว้ คำถามต่อไปก็คือ แล้วอะไรทำให้แก้วใบนี้เป็นแก้วใบนี้ ไม่ใช่แก้วทั่วไป และก็ไม่ใช่แก้วใบอื่น คำตอบก็คือว่า ในขณะที่กำลังพูดอยู่นั้น มือกำลังจับแก้วใบนั้นไว้ ดังนั้น การเป็นแก้ว ใบนี้ เลยอยู่ที่การที่มือกำลังจับอยู่นั้นเอง นอกจากนี้แก้วใบนี้ก็ยังมีความสัมพันธ์กับแก้วใบอื่นๆ เช่นอยู่ทางขวาของบางใบ อยู่ทางซ้ายของบางใบ อยู่บนโต๊ะ ห่างจากขอบโต๊ะเท่านั้นเท่านี้ หากปราศจากเงื่อนไขเหล่านี้แล้ว สสารก้อนนี้ก็ไม่มีทางเป็นแก้วใบนี้ไปได้เลย

ที่บอกว่า “รูปคือความว่าง” ก็คือตรงนี้นี่เอง รูปทั้งหมด ซึ่งก็คือสสารวัตถุทั้งหมด เป็นสิ่งอย่างที่มันเป็น เช่น เป็นแก้ว ก้อนหิน ก้อนกรวด ภูเขา น้ำ ทะเล ฯลฯ ก็เพราะว่าเรามีคำไปเรียกบางส่วนของมันให้เป็นอย่างนั้นอย่างนี้ ในตัวของมันเองแล้วไ่ม่มีลักษณะอะไรเลย ดังนั้นจึงไม่เป็นอะไรเลย ที่บอกว่า “ว่าง” นั้นก็คือ ว่างจากความเป็นสิ่งนั้นสิ่งนี้ ซึ่งมีอยู่ในสิ่งนั้นเอง ซึ่งลักษณะแบบนี้ไม่มีอยู่จริง แต่เราคิดไปว่าเป็นจริงเพราะมันตรงกับสามัญสำนึกของเรา และเราก็ไม่หยุดคิดว่าจริงๆแล้วมีสิ่งที่ว่านี้หรือไม่ เราคิดถึงแก้ว เรามองเห็นแก้ว เรากินน้ำจากแก้ว โดยทั่วไปเราไม่คิดว่า แก้วนั้นเป็นแก้วได้เพียงเพราะเราไปกำหนดเรียก หรือไป “บัญญัติ” เรียกมันเข้าเท่านั้น นั่นคือ เราไปกำหนดขอบเขตหรือขอบนอกของสิ่งนี้ ว่าเป็นอย่างนั้นอย่างนี้ นอกจากนี้ไม่ใช่ รูปร่างแบบนี้จึงเรียกว่า “แก้ว” ทั้งๆที่จริงๆแล้ว มันเป็นสสารธาตุ หรือเป็นของๆมันเองอยู่อย่างนั้นเอง การเป็นเช่นนี้ก็คือ แก้วเป็นความว่าง ก็คือรูปคือความว่างนั่นเอง…