Non-contentiousness and the Spirit of Open Dialogue

There was a death in the family so I have been away for a week. I traveled up to beautiful Oak Harbor, Washington, a small community on Whidbey Island, some 30 miles north of Seattle, to attend the memorial service and to see my 93-year old father. I might write about this visit and Whidbey Island in a future post, but today I want to deal with something that has been on my mind for a few days. It’s a subject I have written about before and I may use some wording from those previous posts.

It is difficult to have a discussion with someone who speaks as though what a word means to him or her is the only meaning possible and when another person uses another meaning, it is ill-defined. I find it impossible to converse with anyone who insists there is but one absolute reality and any other other point of view is merely a false narrative. I must admit, however, that I am sometimes guilty of the same offense.

We Buddhists feel we have a pretty good grip on the true nature of reality, but I think, as a rule, we are not overly insistent about it, and our reality is somewhat open-ended. Additionally, those of us familiar with the Middle Way philosophy of Nagarjuna know that from the perspective of the ultimate truth (as opposed to the relative), views are empty. K. Venkata Ramanan, in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy, writes,

The rejection of views which is an essential point in the philosophy of the Middle Way means that no specific view, being specific, is limitless, and no view, being a view, is ultimate. The ultimate view is not any ‘view.’ ‘Silence is the ultimate truth for the wise.’”

It is easy to see that contentiousness is the root of the majority of our world’s problems. Ramanan tell us that Nagarjuna regarded non-contentiousness (anupalambha) as belonging to the very heart of the Buddha’s teachings. A Sanskrit word, anupalambha literally means non-perception, that is to say, things (dharmas) are ultimately ineffable, ungraspable. Nagarjuna used the word to refer to argumentativeness, and also non-clinging.  In philosophy, as in daily life, to make exclusive and absolute claims is an extreme form of clinging. It is a primary source of suffering. For Nagarjuna, non-contentiousness is upaya, the “skillfulness of non-clinging.”

A couple of weeks ago, President Obama, at a White House dinner, spoke of “the freedoms that bind us together as Americans,” including the “inviolable right to practice our faiths freely.” Note that he said “faiths,” plural. Some might deny that there is such a right, to practice whatever faith you choose. But “right”, in the plural, implies what is morally correct, good, just, and honorable. We should be tolerant of other faiths, lifestyles, and points of view. The great challenge for all of us, myself included, is not only to practice tolerance, but learn about things which with we do not agree.  If we are truly secure in our own ideology, acquainting ourselves with opposing ideas cannot harm but only benefit through enlarging our mind and our viewpoint.  The best way to learn is through the exchange of intellectually honest and open dialogue, another learning challenge, for each one of us should continually strive to improve our skillfulness of discourse.

Ramanan quotes Nagarjuna as saying,

The wayfarer that can understand this does not seize, does not cling to anything, does not imagine that this alone is true (and not that). He does not quarrel with anyone. He can thus enjoy the flavor of the nectar of the Buddha’s doctrine. Those teachings are wrong which are not of this nature (i.e., non-contentious and accommodative). If one does not accommodate other doctrines, does not know them, does not accept them, he indeed is the ignorant. Thus, then, all those who quarrel and contend are devoid of wisdom. Why? Because every one of them refuses to accommodate the views of others. That is to say, there are those who say that what they themselves speak is the highest, the real, the pure truth, that the doctrines of others are words, false and impure.”

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It’s About Liberation

In his commentary on Nagarjuna’s Middle Way Treatise, Buddhapalita (470–550) stated that Nagarjuna‘s purpose for teaching pratitya-samutpada (dependent-arising) was to help all beings become liberated from suffering. Chandrakirti (600–c. 650) added a supplement to Buddhapalita’s commentary in which he reaffirmed Nagarjuna’s commitment to liberation. He said that Nagarjuna was not interested in debate or contention; rather he was only concerned about presenting teachings on reality. Chandrakirti further suggested if one guided by that understanding should expose the flaws in another’s views through the natural course of explaining the true aspect of all phenomena, there was no fault.

Nagarjuna stressed the importance of non-contentiousness (anupalambha). Buddha taught that the inclination to seize and cling was the chief source of conflict and suffering. One of the meanings, Nagarjuna gave to the Buddhist term upaya was “skillfulness of non-clinging.” That included being skillful at not clinging to views:

The wayfarer that can understand this does not seize, does not cling to anything, does not imagine that this alone is true (and not that). He does not quarrel with anyone. He can thus enjoy the flavor of the nectar of the Buddha’s doctrine. Those teachings are wrong which are not of this nature (i.e., non-contentious and accommodative). If one does not accommodate other doctrines, does not know them, does not accept them, he indeed is the ignorant. Thus, then, all those who quarrel and contend are devoid of wisdom. Why? Because every one of them refuses to accommodate the views of others. That is to say, there are those who say that what they themselves speak is the highest, the real, the pure truth, that the doctrines of others are words, false and impure.” *

This what Nagarjuna called “The State of Prajna-paramita” – the state of transcendent wisdom, freedom from conflict, the state of mind where all contention ceases. The term anupalambha, used here in the sense of “non-contentiousness”, literally means “non-observing, non-perception”, and refers to the absence of preferences and distinctions (see Seng-ts’an’s Verses on the Heart Mind).

To return to the point made by Buddhapalita and Chandrakirti, we can expand it to say that the purpose of any Buddhist teaching is liberation. The reason for discussing the true aspect of all phenomena is not to present an explanation of reality but to remove the causes for seizing and clinging.

In this way, pratitya-samutpada, the interdependency of all things, has a very practical application. In a recent book on a text by Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), teacher of the First Dalai Lama, English monk Graham Woodhouse translates pratitya-samutpada as “dependent relativity.” He notes,

An object’s dependence on causes and conditions and its dependence on the viewpoint of the observer are just a couple of relationships included in the term dependent relativity. A deep acquaintance with these factors – which can be gained through meditation – will help us to handle our own temper and other’s unreliability with confidence.” **

Nonstop contention, antipathy toward the views of others, and discrimination against teachings and practices not one’s own, does nothing to relieve suffering. It only invites suffering. The diverse teachings of Buddhism are like rivers that flow into the one ocean we call “dharma.” With so many arteries feeding into this ocean, there is enough water to provide sustenance for all people and plenty of different tastes to savor.

I try to stay away from criticism on this blog, in favor of more constructive commentary. Occasionally, I do feel the need to point out something of concern, things that could use some light shed upon them, as I did in my post some months ago about Nichiren and the Soka Gakkai. One of my concerns in that case was exactly what I am talking about here, the tendency in the Nichiren tradition to criticize and dismiss other forms of Buddhism. And I felt I did that in the natural course of explaining dharma, in the manner discussed by Chandrakirti.

But I should also mention that I don’t consider this blog as a forum for me to explain anything, rather I am presenting and restating the explanations of others, teachers who have far more insight and wisdom that I possess. I have nothing particularly original to offer.

There are some on the scene today who might view the teachers whose work I mention frequently as purveyors of New-Agey Self-Help nonsense and Comfort-Food Buddhism. But much of what these folks dismiss are things that scientists and psychologists are proving with new research. For instance, BBC News reports a new study that “suggests being kind might actually be good for your mental health.”

Good mental health sounds like a key factor in relieving suffering. That’s why I am proud to fare on the way of liberation, and say, let’s have a little more kindness, and less contention.

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* K.Venkata Ramanan, Nagarjuna’s Philosophy as Presented in the Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra, Motilal Banarsidass, 2002

** Graham Woodhouse and Losang Gyatso, Tsongkhapa’s Praise for Dependent Relativity, Wisdom Publications Inc, 2012

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Killing Birth and Death

I thought there were a few things in Tuesday’s post that might raise questions in some reader’s minds. First, one might wonder if it is possible to be a “good” Buddhist if you do not totally buy into rebirth.

In Mahayana Buddhism, I’m not so sure that rebirth is presented as anything to “buy into.” Especially in the case of Nagarjuna. Here is someone who rejected assertions of both existence and non-existence, who saw all things as empty because they posses no intrinsic essence of their own, and realized that it was the tendency to find things to seize, to assert, to cling, that is the primary cause of suffering. It is difficult for me to accept that a person with such a mind would then take an absolute stand on rebirth, a theory that is really little more than rank speculation.

Rebirth has to be a metaphor. And for many other “Mahayanists” it must have been the same case. Jung might have classified rebirth as an archetype. We get confused by the translations and the layering on of our own prejudices and Western way of thinking.

I think many people misunderstand the significance of rebirth. They mistake it for an ultimate truth, when actually it belongs with the conventional truth. Teachings on rebirth are upaya or skillful means, preparatory teachings leading to the ultimate truth, which unfolds only when we free ourselves from thought constructions and “enter” into emptiness, which is neither existence nor non-existence.

We get a clue about this from K. Venkata Ramanan in Nagarjuna`s Philosophy, who notes that The Maha-Prajnaparamita-Sastra

points out that when one sees only the birth and endurance of things, then there arises the existence-view, and when one sees only the decay and death of things, there there arises the non-existence view.”

Both views, existence and non-existence, are regarded as extremes. Indeed, all views are extremes, and they are all empty. Ramanan says further that

all schools [of Buddhism] recognize the denial of views . . . and the denial of views means the denial of such view as are based on extremes, especially the extremes of externalism and negativism, both of which are traced back to the false sense of self.”

The cycle of birth and death (and rebirth) represents the continuous flow of reality in which nothing is created or destroyed, comes into existence or goes out of existence, and where neither being nor non-being are tenable, let alone the notion of self-being (svabhava). Looking at it this way, the principle of rebirth is a tool for us to use in breaking free of the notion of a self that persists eternally. Part of the key to understanding this is having a good grasp of what Buddhism means by “rebirth.” It requires some further explanation, but in short, its literal sense does not suggest that the same person is reborn.

I wonder, though, if the question of whether or not there is literal rebirth should such take up much of our time. I feel what’s more important is how birth and death plays out in our mind. Nagarjuna himself says,

The single instant of a snapping of the finger contains sixty “moments,’ and in every one of these moments there are phases of birth and death. It is by virtue of the birth of the continuity of these mental elements that is possible to know that this is the mind of greed, this is the mind of anger ect. The wayfarer comprehends the stream of birth and death of the mental elements like the flow of water or the flame of the lamp. This is known as the door to the comprehension of emptiness (sunyata).”

The challenge for us to go beyond our usual thinking processes. To think anew. To have a rebirth of thought. That’s what we really mean by putting an end to thought construction. We can’t put an end to thinking. But we can transform it, construct our thoughts differently. We can empty our mind, and open it.

If this is a subject that is of interest, you may want to check out this post from a few months back that suggests yet another practical and rational way of looking at rebirth.

In the meantime, here is an excerpt from a dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hanh,

There is a classic Buddhist gatha:

All formations are impermanent.
They are subject to birth and death.
But remove the notions of birth and death,
and this silence is called great joy.

. . . It means you have to kill your notions of birth and death. As someone who practices the way of the Buddha, you have [a] sword . . .  which is sharp enough to remove wrong perceptions and cut through all notions, including those of birth and death . . .

The true practitioner understands real rebirth, real continuation . . .

Before you can answer the question, “What will happen to me after I die?” you need to answer another question, “What is happening to me in the present moment?” Examining this question is the essence of meditation. If we don’t know how to look deeply to what is happening to us in the here and the now, how can we know what will happen to us when we are dead?

. . . I don’t care at all what happens to me when I die . .  When I walk, I want to enjoy every step I take. I want freedom and peace and joy in every step. So joy and peace and lightness are what I produce in that moment. I have inherited it and I pass it on to other people. If someone sees me walking this way and decides to walk mindfully for him or herself, then I am reborn in him or in her right away—that’s my continuation.

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