The External World

In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says,

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.”

Almost all Buddhists have accepted this core idea for 2500 years. The world is a construction of the mind. The words we use to describe the world, the names (nama) and signs (laksana), more thought constructions, are meaningless as they cannot be one with the referent they direct our attention to, and all of it is an illusion, because it’s all empty.

This is the view from the ultimate truth. The conventional truth is, well, conventional. Things exist, they have substance, at least temporarily. The palm tree outside my window was there years before I came along. It was made by a seed, not my mind. I’d like to make trees with my mind. I’d make a lot of money.

The ultimate truth is taught in order to break our attachment to these constructions of thought and to clear away the illusion. Now when we say that everything is an illusion, there is a small caveat involved. It doesn’t mean to suggest that nothing is real. It means that the way our mind normally constructs, or rather perceives, the world is illusory, as it often does not include interconnectedness. We tend to see things as being separate.

Our environment is an excellent example. Until recent times, human beings viewed their environment as something separate from them, in terms of individual parts rather than as a whole. Based on this illusion, we have polluted the earth, not realizing that the pollution of one part of the environment would have an effect on the other parts. Now, forced awake by climate change, we understand that this thing we call the world is a single living organism composed of smaller organisms functioning in a complex interrelationship.

The culture of human thinking has created the illusion of dualism, projecting a world of opposites, separate parts. To think holistically, focusing on the whole and the interdependence of its parts, is called non-dualism, although I think the Sanskrit word advaita, which means “not two” expresses it better. Human beings and their environment are “two but not two” (Jp. esho funi).

When we talk about seeing the external world as it truly is, we mean understanding the relationship between the ultimate and the conventional, recognizing that while there is some degree of separation between our-selves and the world around us, there is no real determinate essence of separateness.

We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh

As I wrote recently, this is such an important point it bears consistent repeating. Another term we use to describe the interconnectedness of all things is ‘emptiness’ or sunyata, a Sanskrit word, a noun derived from the adjective sunya, meaning ‘empty.’ All things are empty of a independent self or own-being.

For those of us who practice Buddhism, an understanding of emptiness is crucial. Because wisdom, in this case ‘emptiness-knowledge’ (sunyata-jhana), is the root of awakening Buddha-nature, in a sense, we can say that emptiness and Buddha-nature are synonymous.

In his Treatise on the Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra, Nagarjuna put it this way:

All that we see is a creation of the mind [citta]. How is this? It is through one’s thoughts that all things are perceived. Through mind one sees the Buddha and through the mind becomes a Buddha. Buddha is mind itself, and mind itself is our body. Because of ignorance, the mind does not know itself, cannot see itself. Ignorance causes one to seize the fixed nature of the mind. Under this state, the mind one seizes is false. The bodhisattva sees the true aspect of reality, the emptiness, through comprehending the real nature of mind.”

To wipe illusion from our mind, we must open it. Open our minds to the truth of interconnectedness and to the possibility of becoming a Buddha, which is not a fixed state either, but a continual process of re-opening the mind and acquiring wisdom.


Heart Sutra: The Heart Within The Heart

It hardly needs to be said that the Heart Sutra is one of the most popular and influential Mahayana sutras. And it is certainly the shortest of any text called a “sutra.” Kukai, the founder of Japanese Shingon, wrote “while brief it is essential and though concise it is profound.” Kukai maintained that the sutra encompassed all the Buddha’s teachings, or at least, all those in the Mahayana canon, a view shared by a more contemporary teacher, the Korean Jogye Seon master, Seung Sahn:

“The Heart Sutra has only two hundred seventy Chinese characters, yet it contains all of Mahayana Buddhism’s teaching. Inside this sutra is the essence of the Diamond Sutra, the Avatamsaka-sutra, and the Lotus Sutra. It contains the meaning of all the eighty-four thousand sutras.”

As I’ve observed previously, people have a tendency to focus on the sutra’s treatment of emptiness, often at the expense of the other themes, the Bodhisattva path, the practice of compassion, and Prajna-paramita or Transcendent Wisdom (the sutra is called the “Heart of Transcendent Wisdom”, after all).

The Heart Sutra is also an exposition on the Two Truths. To refresh our memory on this concept, let’s recall what Nagarjuna wrote in “Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way”:

“The teachings of the Buddha are based on two truths, the relative and the ultimate. Those who do not know the distinction between the two do not understand the profound meaning in the teachings of the Buddha.

The ultimate truth cannot be taught except in the context of the relative truth, and unless the ultimate truth is comprehended, liberation is not possible.”

Over-emphasizing the teaching of emptiness in the Heart Sutra is an example of misunderstanding the Two Truths. It’s seizing the ultimate while neglecting the relative, often a source of confusion.

Emptiness by itself is neither ultimate reality nor ultimate truth; rather it refers to the relative truth. This is what the sutra means by “Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form,” telling us that emptiness is simply looking at phenomena from a different perspective – things do exist but in combination with causes and conditions. We know that emptiness itself is relative because it, too, is empty (sunyata-sunyata).

Through the series of negations (“Within emptiness there is no eye, ear, nose . . . no wisdom and no attainment with nothing to attain.”) the Heart Sutra denies all that Buddhism holds sacred. Ultimately, all Buddhist doctrine is relative, conventional truth, empty.

But then the sutra turns around and negates the negations, pointing to Transcendent Wisdom and the Bodhisattva Path: “Therefore, the Bodhisattvas rely on Prajna-Paramita . . . and awake to complete and perfect enlightenment.” Although all that is relative is empty, without the relative, the conventional, there is no path to the ultimate.

It is said that when Transcendent Wisdom is in harmony with emptiness-knowledge and compassion, there is suffering, but no sufferer; there remains no thinker, no thought: this is the state of non-duality, the bodhicitta (thought of awakening), and the luminous truth.

When the Heart Sutra refers to emptiness, it’s actually in a form of shorthand. What the sutra is saying “empty of self-being” (sunyata-svabhava), and this, Nagarjuna says, is the true nature of all phenomena. Without that which is empty, there is no emptiness.

Pretty heady stuff, or as Nagarjuna put it, “extremely profound and difficult to understand.” How does it relate to our daily lives? Frederick Streng says emptiness is ‘freedom.” In Emptiness, A Study in Religious Meaning, he wrote,

This is a freedom which applies to every moment of existence, not to special moments of mystical escape to another level of being, nor to the freedom attained by priestly activity at a sacred time and place . . . To know things as they actually are, frees the mind of presuppositions and the emotions from attachments. Thus this freedom is also a purification process; it removes such evils as hated, fear, greed, or nimiety . . .

In removing such hindrances there is no fear and no illusion, as the Heart Sutra states. The path is cleared and there is nothing to prevent us from engaging wholeheartedly in the practice of wisdom and compassion, the Heart Sutra’s ‘ultimate’ truth.

“The true heart is wisdom; wisdom is the true heart. Because prajna can be translated “true heart,” the two hundred fifty or so words of this sutra are the heart within the heart – the heart within the six hundred chapters of the prajna text of the Great Prajna Sutra”.

-Hsuan Hua, Ch’an Buddhist teacher


Thinking about No-thinking

“No-thought” is a concept rooted in emptiness philosophy. It is often misunderstood, not to mention misused. As a result, a misapprehension some detractors of Buddhism have is that it implies or endorses anti-intellectualism, which to me indicates a rather shallow understanding of Buddha-dharma.

Commonly associated with Ch’an/Zen, “no thought” (Ch. wu-nien; Jp. mumen) is a term that appears in Chinese translations of at least two Indian works, the Tathagatajnanamudrasamadhi and the Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra*, so its origins seem to predate Chinese Buddhism. It is rendered in Sanskrit as a-manana, “not-thinking,”

IMG_3820d4Heinrich Dumoulin** points out that no-thought or non-thinking “denotes the non-clinging of the mind. The mind that does not adhere to anything is free and pure.” As usual, we need to be remember that this is said in the context of the ultimate truth. Conventionally speaking, it is impossible to find a mind that does not seize and cling to something.

So rather than a mind that is literally empty, one that excludes all thinking and conceptualization, “no-thought” or “no-mind” (Ch. wu-hsin) actually refers to an open mind, a mind not fixed or locked, unreceptive to new ideas, lacking flexibility. Alan Watts described it as “a state of wholeness in which the mind functions freely and easily, without the sensation of a second mind or ego standing over it with a club.”

A natural mind, or the mind’s original nature. After all, we do not start out in life locked into specific ideas. We begin life not knowing anything, and really, open to all possibilities. “No-thought” represents a return to the purity of the child-like mind.

We also use this term or variations of it when we talk about meditation. We often describe mindfulness as no thinking, stopping of all thought. But that’s not quite correct. We can’t stop thought. We can, however, narrow its focus, and that’s all we are trying to accomplish with mindfulness. Simply narrow the scope of our thinking to our breath and the present moment for a relatively short period of time in order to calm the mind.

Recent studies have indicated that this sort of “no-thinking” in meditation is actually good for thinking. For instance, earlier this year researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara studied 48 undergraduates who were required to take either a course in nutrition or in meditation. At the end of a two week period, the students were given a GRE (Graduate Record Examination; standardized tests for graduate school application). The researchers found that the scores of the meditation-trained group improved, while the scores of the nutrition-trained group did not, suggesting that meditation aids in improving cognitive functioning.

To sum up, Buddhism values the mind, and thinking. There is no hostility toward intelligent thought. The fact of the matter is that thinking is absolutely crucial, and practical, as the Dalai Lama explained during his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland in 1997, when he talked about the

three qualifications that are recommended on the part of the student in Santideva’s  ‘Four-hundred Verses on the Middle Way’, where he defines three principle characteristics that are necessary on the part of the student listening to the teachings.

One is open-mindedness. The second is intelligence, in the sense that one is able to employ his or her critical faculties. The third is that a person should have a good degree of enthusiasm and commitment.

If you lack the first qualification of objectivity, then you will be swayed by your prejudices and certain preconceptions that you may have and this would then color your judgment and you won’t be able to really appreciate what is being taught. Also, you won’t be able to engage in discourse.

The second qualification of intelligence is vitally important . . . one should be able to apply a critical faculty to be able to judge what are the definite true meaning of the texts and what are conditional, to what degree what is said explicitly in this text is contextual, relative to a particular context and cannot be applied universally across the board, or to what extent there is a deeper underlying subject matter that is being taught . . .

Without a critical faculty, one may not be able to judge the validity of what is being taught to you, especially when one comes across a teacher who either out of ignorance or pride or certain prejudices gives a teaching that is not in the true spirit of the Buddhist teachings. Then if you lack this critical ability to determine the validity of the teachings, there is a real danger of being led astray.”

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* Yün-Hua jan, Patterns of Chinese Assimilation of Buddhist Thought: A Comparative Study of No-Thought (Wu-Nien) in Indian and Chinese Texts, Journal of Oriental Studies, v.24 n.1 (1986)

** Heinrich Dumoulin, Zen Buddhism: a History: India and China, World Wisdom, Inc, 2005


The Healing Aspect of Emptiness

Sunyata, frequently described as the emptiness of all things, is not a term that naturally brings to mind thoughts about healing. However, it is a mistake to understand emptiness just in the negative sense, only as a negation of the “thingness” of things. We can use other words as a translation for sunyata, such as non-substantiality, transparency, and openness, which allow us to have a more comprehensive of the term. Openness, in particular, widens our view because within emptiness things are not static, rigid, predetermined, easily categorized or contained. In Buddhism, reality is not particle-like but rather space-like, and space represents the greatest openness.

Miyamoto Musashi's calligraphy of "ku" or emptiness.
Miyamoto Musashi’s calligraphy of “ku” or emptiness from The Book of Five Rings

Equality is another word that fits. As Nagarjuna taught, emptiness and interconnectedness (pratitya-samutpada) are synonymous. Because we are interconnected with one another, there is no possible way to maintain an attitude of superiority over others, nor can we immunize ourselves from the sufferings of others. Their life is equal to ours and their suffering is our suffering.

The great Tibetan lama Tsongkhapa (1357–1419)  taught that there are “three principle parts of the path”: renunciation, bodhicitta, and emptiness.

Renunciation does not necessarily mean to renounce the material world. It’s not letting go of transient things themselves, but rather to letting go of our attachments to them. Renunciation means to change our way of thinking.

Bodhicitta is the aspirational wish to realize awakening for the sake of others, the highest expression of selflessness and compassion.

By emptiness, Tsongkhapa was referring to a correct view of emptiness, or a deep understanding that things are devoid of an inherent self-being (svabhava). In other words, wisdom.

In Tibetan Buddhist Medicine and Psychiatry, Terry Clifford writes,

In the medical analogy of the general Mahayana, love and compassion is the medicine that cures the sickness of hatred and anger. In the higher Mahayana, shunyata [emptiness] is the ultimate medicine. Emptiness is the antidote for all poisons and defilements. Therefore, there is no need to withdraw from the world to be cured of its poisons. In fact, the love and compassion of the Mahayana demands that the bodhisattva stay in the world of passions in order to help other beings.”

In Mahayana Buddhism, emptiness is the foundation for both renunciation and the compassion of bodhicitta. However, these are not three separate parts, they are an integrated whole.

Changing one’s way of thinking is not easily done. In this respect, developing a deep understanding of emptiness helps transform our view of suffering and disease. The Buddha taught that everything comes from our thoughts, that we create the world with our mind. Lama Zopa Rinpoche, in Ultimate Healing The Power of Compassion, notes that “the mind itself is fundamental to healing disease . . . we have to heal the causes of suffering, which are in our mental continuum.”

The world we create with our mind consists largely of concepts and names (nama). Names are merely labels. We label a chair a “chair” or a door a “door,” and so on. These labels, however, are not the ultimate reality of these things. We label ourselves “I” or “self” and come to believe that “I” or “self” has some sort of substantial reality. From the false sense of “I,” distinctions are imagined and everything becomes a specific, determinate entity.

I should remind you that this is from the standpoint of the ultimate truth. In the conventional truth, of course, I exist and so do you. Yet, owning to the fact that we are interconnected, we are, in a sense, one. Therefore, no separate, substantial “I” or self-being can be asserted.

Now, as Ramanan* points out,

To seize the determinate is really to allow oneself to be misled by names; it is to imagine that different names mean separate essences; this is to turn relative distinctions into absolute divisions. When names are not seized as separate substances, then they cannot be made objects of clinging.”

With a firm grasp on the concept of emptiness we can learn to un-name, un-label. We should be able to see how “disease” is just a label. Lama Zopa writes,

All our sickness is the creation of our own mind . . . unless our mind makes up the label “I” there is no way that we can see the I. in the same way, unless our mind makes up the label “cancer” or “AIDS,” there is no way that cancer or AIDS can appear to us.”

This is a difficult concept to grasp, because I, like many others, can tell you that cancer is very real. It not only appears to me, it is substantially destroying me. And yet, cancer is empty. Lama Zopa helps us resolve this disparity in this way:

Understanding how our illness and all our other problems come from our mind is an important point in healing, because if something comes from our mind, we can control it, we can change it. Since this means that our mind has the power to eliminate disease we have no need to feel depressed or upset. Knowing how much freedom we have should inspire us and give us hope.”

We cannot say that perceiving the emptiness of cancer will cure or eliminate it. When Lama Zopa says that we can control and change it, this means that we can eliminate the control illness has over our mind. Additionally, as with any kind of suffering we might face, we can resist the temptation to give in to resentment and anger.

Having a disease need not destroy our happiness, our peace, or the quality of our life. On the other hand, the practice of meditation where we rest and calm the mind, giving it an opportunity to heal and rejuvenate, has been proven to improve both physical and mental health.

Mahayana teachings state that the cause for enlightenment is meditation on emptiness, but this is a bit of a misnomer as there is no specific “meditation of emptiness,” except perhaps in Vajrayana and tantra. I’ve heard the Dalai Lama talk about “space-like meditation on emptiness” and “illusion-like meditation on emptiness” but he has never explained these in detail. Lama Zopa talks about loving-kindness and tong-len, or “taking and giving” (a technique for developing bodhicitta where exchanges self for others, taking on the sufferings of others), as examples of emptiness meditation. Mindfulness meditation, along with reflection teaching on emptiness  presented in the Heart Sutra, can also take us there.

You might read or hear about meditations where dissolving into a state of emptiness. That only leads to nothingness. While emptiness is not anything substantial in itself, such as an absolute reality, it is not nothing. Realization of emptiness is a state of mind, a way of looking at reality differently. Emptiness itself cannot heal, but it can open our minds to healing possibilities we were not aware of before, and the mind is where a significant part of the battle against disease and suffering must be fought.

That which cannot be known is called emptiness. And yet, by knowing form, one knows emptiness. Knowing of nonexistence while knowing of existence is also emptiness. People in this world look at things mistakenly, and when they cannot understand something, call it emptiness. This is not the true emptiness. It is delusion.”

Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

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



Nagarjuna was badass

Someone on Reddit called Nagarjuna a badass. Damn right. He was. He kicked butt, philosophy speaking. As far as I’m concerned he was far superior to any Western philosopher. You can keep your Nietzsches and Rousseaus and all the rest, because to me, they Kant compare.

badass-nagarjuna2Just what made Nagarjuna such a badass? The existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers said that in Nagarjuna’s philosophy “everything can be formulated negatively and positively . . . Not only is the opposition between true and false transcended but also the opposite of this opposition. In the end no definite statement is possible.”

In this way, Nagarjuna was a demolition expert. He blew-up all operations of thought, all points of view, and all statements by clarifying how everything is ultimately empty, and then he demolished emptiness with sunyata-sunyata, the emptiness of emptiness.

For those unfamiliar with Nagarjuna’s thinking, and even for some who are, it is easy to mistake emptiness for a negative or nihilistic concept. But this is not the case.  As Jaspers also wrote, “Emptiness permits the greatest openness, the greatest willingness to accept the things of the world as a starting point to make the great leap.”

And Nagarjuna himself said,

Everything is in harmony for the person who is in harmony with emptiness; but nothing stands in harmony with the person who is not in harmony with emptiness.”

To understand Nagarjuna, it’s important to have an appreciation of his dialectical method, and a good grasp of the Two Truths. The latter is crucial, for without knowing the difference between the Conventional Truth and the Ultimate Truth, one can easily become lost.

Other than the Buddha himself, no other historical Buddhist figure is more revered than Nagarjuna, or as legendary. Throughout the centuries, he has been called a “second Buddha,” and almost all the Mahayana schools of China, Tibet, and Japan have regarded him as a paramount spiritual ancestor. He is considered the founder of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school, as well as the founder of eight other Buddhist schools.

We are in possession of very few facts concerning Nagarjuna’s historicity. Nearly all of his story is pure myth. The Buddhist historian, Kenneth Inada once wrote that Nagarjuna’s “veneration at times reached such ridiculous heights that his name was sanctified and stamped everywhere with reckless abandon . . .” If all the stories are to be believed, Nagarjuna was not only a great scholar, but also a tantric master, a magician, a scientist and physician, an alchemist. He is said to have built innumerable temples, written hundreds of books, and was abbot of the Nalanda monastic university. But most of this, and certainly stories like the one in which he brought the world the Mahayana sutras by diving into the ocean and retrieving them from underwater dragons, are not historically credible.

As I said above, Nagarjuna is thought to have been a prolific writer, although it is doubtful that he composed all of the texts attributed to him. It was a custom in India (and China) to give credit to the founder of a school for the composition of texts authored by later followers. This was done as an act of homage to the teacher, not as an attempt to mislead anyone, and it may be that this is the case with Nagarjuna.

There is, however, scholarly consensus that a teacher named Nagarjuna did live, most likely in the 2nd century of the Common Era; and that he did write at least two works: Treatise on the Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra and Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way. Either one of these two texts alone is worthy enough to justify the great respect he is afforded.

Nagarjuna’s name is virtually synonymous with emptiness., but there is much more to his philosophy than that. Equally esteemed are his teachings on the Four Sublime States, also known as the Four Immeasurable Minds, mentioned in Monday’s post: equanimity (upekkha), loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna); and sympathetic joy (mudita).

Here is a passage on the subject of metta, translated by Thich Nhat Hanh from Etienne Lamotte’s French translation of Nagarjuna’s Treatise on the Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra. It’s found in Hanh’s book Teachings on Love (Parallax Press, 2009):

When we want beings in all directions to be happy, there arises in us the intention to love. This desire to love enters our feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness; and it becomes manifested in all our actions, speech, and other mental activities. Events that are neither mental nor physical arising after that are in accord with love and can in themselves be called love, as love is their root. These events determine our future actions, and they are directed by our will, which is now suffused with love. Will is the energy that drives our actions and speech. The same is true with regard to the arising of compassion, joy, and equanimity.”

I’ve devoted plenty of space on The Endless Further to discussions of Nagarjuna’s badass side, that is, his complex philosophical corpus. However, my simple explanations barely scratch the surface of his profundity. Labyrinthine as they may be in places, his teachings on emptiness, concepts and entities, ignorance, knowledge, and reality, all point to the very simple truth of love. Only when we give up forming attachments to unimportant things can we fix our mind on the one important matter of practicing compassion, of faring on the Bodhisattva Way. That, in my opinion, is the “great leap” that Karl Jaspers referred to, and considering this, we should know that compassion is the raison d’être for emptiness.

Great compassion is the root of the Path of the Buddha.”

Treatise on the Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra

Nagarjuna was a revolutionary. A bold outlaw philosopher. Like Billy the Kid, his aim was true. Like Lenny Bruce, he was bad, he was the brother we never had.

Apologies to Messrs. Costello and Dylan.