A Continuous State of Creation

My last post featured remarks made by the Dalai Lama while giving a teaching on Nagarjuna’s “A Commentary on the Awakening Mind” (Bodhicitta-vivarana), a work that researcher in Sanskrit and Nagarjuna scholar Chr. Lindtner describes as a “regrettably neglected text.”

Although, as the Dalai Lama mentioned, some scholars have questioned the authenticity of the text because Nagarjuna’s disciples, such as Buddhapalita, Bhavaviveka, or Chandrakirti, never referred to it in their treatises, the Dalai Lama, Lindtner, and others consider Awakening Mind to be an authentic Nagarjuna text.

kuanyin3819As the Sanskrit title, Bodhicitta-vivarana indicates, the central theme of the work is bodhicitta, the  “thought of awakening” or “awakening mind.”  Vivarana means description, exposition, commentary.  In this text, Nagarjuna discusses the development of bodhicitta and explains the concept of the two truths, relative and ultimate.  He also refutes assertions made by the Vaibhashika (Realist), Sautrantika (Sutra) and Chittamatrin (Mind Only) schools.

In verses 6-9, Nagarjuna analyzes karaka, a Sanskrit word that means acting, causing or “who or what does or produces or creates.”  As far as I am aware, there are but three translations, one by Geshe Thupten Jinpa, a French/English version by the Padmakara Translation Group , and Lindtner’s.  In the first two karaka is translated as “agent.”  Lindtner used “creator” and I have retained that word in this excerpt I’ve adapted from the three translations.

If the so-called self does not exist,
How can the so-called creator be permanent?
It there were ‘things’ then might one begin
Investigating their characteristics in the world.

Since a permanent creator cannot create things,
Whether gradually or instantaneously,
So both without and within,
There are no permanent things.

Why would a potent creator be dependent?
He would produce things all at once.
A creator who depends on something else
Is neither eternal nor efficacious.

If it were an entity, it would not be permanent
For entities are always momentary.
Thus, concerning entities that are impermanent,
A creator is refuted, for there is no such thing.

Actually, Nagarjuna’s objections have more to do with the basic idea of creation, than with the notion of a creator.  Buddhism does not offer a creation theory.  The world is beginningless (anavaragra).  This is one of the problems with using the term dependent origination for pratitya-samutpada in that it conveys a sense of creation or beginning.  Lama Govinda suggests another way to look at it: “The world is in a continuous state of creation, of becoming, and therefore, in a continuous state of destruction of all that has been created.”

Nagarjuna neither confirms nor denies the existence of a supreme being; however, according to Hsueh-Li Cheng in Empty Logic: Madhyamika Buddhism from Chinese Sources, he does maintain that

God’s existence as creator of the world is unintelligible.  Nagarjuna presented several arguments to show that creation, making, production, or origination are ultimately empty, and that creator, maker, producer and originator, are not genuine names referring to reality.  Accordingly, it is unintelligible to assert the existence of God as the creator or maker of the universe.”

For Nagarjuna, “God” meant Isvara, the Divine Lord, but his questioning can apply to any so-called supreme being: how can a being exist out of itself, out of nothingness or “nowhere”?  He rejects the idea that things can come into existence from nothingness, or be created from self or from another, or from both, or without a cause.  Nagarjuna is also pessimistic about a “first cause,”  which is essentially an effect without a cause, because the “becoming” of all things is dependent on mutual causes and conditions.

For us, the matter of creation/creator is not the ultimate question.  For us, the critical matters at hand are:  The sufferings of life and death.  Daily life.  How to fare on the way of the bodhisattva.  How to find some peace.

Tranquil PondIn verse 70 of Awakening Mind, Nagarjuna wrote,

A happy mind is tranquil;
A tranquil mind is not confused;
To have no confusion is to know the truth;
By realizing truth one attains freedom.

– – – – – – – – – –

Geshe Thupten Jinpa, A Commentary on the Awakening Mind, 2006
Master of Wisdom, Writings of the Buddhist Master Nagarjuna, translations by Christian Lindtner, Dharma Publishing, 1986
Bodhichitta-vivarana translation by the Padmakara Translation Group (according to the commentary written by Dagpo Gomchen Ngawang Drakpa
Lama Govinda, Creative meditation and multi-dimensional consciousness, Theosophical Publishing House, 1976
Hsueh-li Cheng, Empty Logic: M?dhyamika Buddhism from Chinese Sources, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1991

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When God Moves To Another Star

Tagore in 1925 - note the Buddha statues in the background
Tagore in 1925 – note the Buddha statues in the background

Today is the 152nd anniversary of the birth of Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet and philosopher whose phrase “the Endless Further” I borrowed for the title of this blog. Tagore was not a Buddhist per se, but he had great respect for the Buddha and his teachings. In Rabindranath Tagore His Life and Work, historian and translator Edward John Thompson, wrote, “He [Tagore] is almost more Buddhist than he is in sympathy with many forms of Hinduism that are most popular in his native Bengal.”

In The Religion of Man, Tagore wrote of our “constant struggle for a great Further.” This “further” is not mere knowledge, for as Tagore explained, “the further world of freedom awaits us there where we reach truth, not through feeling it by our senses or knowing it by our reason, but through the union of perfect sympathy.” By union, Tagore meant realizing the “eternal” within one’s own life. He called it an “inner inter-relationship.”

Although he often referred to God, Tagore’s God was different from our common conception. In The Religion of Man, he also talked about the “idea of the humanity of our God, or the divinity of Man the Eternal.” For Tagore, God was a “divine principle of unity,” the inner inter-relationship previously mentioned. Within this ideal of unity, we realize the infinite within life and appreciate the boundlessness of human love: “The unity becomes not a mere subjective idea, but an energizing truth. Whatever name may be given to it, and whatever form it symbolizes, the consciousness of this unity is spiritual, and our effort to be true to it is our religion.”

Tagore described his personal faith as “a poet’s religion.” I suspect he intended to mean that whatever one conceived as the Ultimate was ineffable and therefore expressible only through a language resembling poetry. The freedom mentioned above “is for expressing the infinite; it imposes limits in its works, not to keep them in permanence but to break them over and over again, and to reveal the endless in unending surprises.” As well, it is freedom from the bondage of suffering, or experiencing the infinite.

In experiencing the infinite, an individual is only realizing his or her own true nature, for we are already infinite in the sense that we participate in the timelessness of time. Our lives are moments in that time, and the space we occupy is a particle of infinite space. We are a part of the infinite, but we cannot be the whole of it, and whether we call the whole of everything – time, space, life – Ultimate Reality or give it the name of God, our journey to realize it will always remain incomplete.

In a story attributed to Tagore, a man goes searching for God, a search he has been on since the beginning of existence. Once in a while, he sees God on a faraway star, but by the time he reaches the star, God has moved to another star. This symbolizes the futility of searching for God or the Ultimate Reality outside of our lives, and trying to conceive God as a being or even as Being. The infinite is infinite, God is everywhere, as is Buddha, which is just a name for awakening, and the Ultimate is ultimately unknowable. Yet this does not negate the value of the journey, the searching.

In his collection of poetry, Gitanjali, Tagore wrote,

The traveler has to knock at every alien door to come to his own,
and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end.

My eyes strayed far and wide before I shut them and said `Here art thou!’
The question and the cry `Oh, where?’ melt into tears of a thousand
streams and deluge the world with the flood of the assurance `I am!’

Without the search, without wayfaring, we can never know ourselves, and least that much we can know. We search for unity with the infinite within ourselves. We maintain “the search, enjoy the very journey, the pilgrimage” understanding that it too is infinite, and will remain incomplete, never exhausted, and that the union we seek is a continuous coalesce.

The searching is our religion, and you can give it any name, call it God if you wish, but know that God is the Endless Further.

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Higgs boson and Nagarjuna’s no-God Particle

The universe may be finite. That what the science team at Europe’s Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator, have been thinking ever since they discovered the Higgs boson particle last year. And that could be bad news. Last week one of the team members, speaking at a science meeting in Boston, suggested that it is possible that tens of billions of years from now, another universe could come along and “slurp” ours up. Damn, and I had plans.

God Particle?
God Particle?

Higgs boson is a subatomic particle that scientists believe is what gives matter mass. The media has taken to calling it the “God Particle,” much to the chagrin of most physicists who say it has nothing at all to do with God or creation.

Speaking of which . . . Yesterday I tried twice to leave a comment on another blog and it never showed up. I don’t know if it was a glitch or if the blogger didn’t care for what I had to say, so I guess I’ll say it here.

The Buddha neither confirmed nor denied the existence of God as we understand that concept. In fact, the subject never came up. He had not heard of the God of Abraham and it seems that monotheism was unknown in India 2500 years ago. He was somewhat tolerant of the Indian gods, or devas, which Joseph Campbell described as like impersonal “bureaucrats” presiding over different aspects of nature and human activity. Yet, it is clear that the Buddha was pessimistic about the idea of relying on higher, holier beings for salvation or enlightenment.

Nagarjuna, the Buddhist philosopher who has been called the “second Buddha,” felt that Buddha’s rejection of the God-idea was explicit. In his Hymn to the Inconceivable Buddha, translated by Chr. Lindtner, Nagarjuna states, “Just as the work of a magician is empty of substance, all the rest of the world — including a creator — has been said by You to be empty of substance . . .”

Nagarjuna demonstrated that the existence of a creator god is, as Hsueh-Li Cheng, says, “unintelligible.” Cheng, author of Empty Logic: Madhyamika Buddhism from Chinese sources, explains in this way,

Nagarjuna examined the meaning and possibility of “Something is made or produced by someone or something.” He pointed out that whenever we say “Something is made or produced by someone or something” either (1) x is made by itself, (2) x is made by another, (3) x is made by both, or (4) x is made from no cause at all. Yet none of these cases can be established, therefore the proposition cannot be established, and hence it makes no sense to say that the world was made by God.”

"Ixora [=Ishvara],an East Indian god," by William Hurd, 1781 (columbia.edu )
“Ixora [Ishvara],an East Indian god,” by William Hurd, 1781 (columbia.edu )
Nagarjuna identified the “creator god” as Isvara, the Indian “Supreme Lord.” We don’t know if he was familiar with the God of Abraham, but it doesn’t matter, for the principle is the same. As far as I understand it, if a god did not create the universe, then it cannot be a supreme being. Nagarjuna used his logic to advance further arguments against the very existence of God.

But he was equally as hard on Buddhist concepts. For instance, he demolished any idea that nirvana is a substantial thing (dharma), ultimate reality, or transcendental state. He says that nirvana is neither existent nor non-existent (bhava/abhava), or both, or not-both.  Nirvana is empty, and he says that

There is not the slightest difference between this world (samsara) and nirvana. There is not the slightest difference between nirvana and this world.”

Middle Way Verses, Ch. 25, V. 19 & 20

To some the word “God” refers to a personal, anthropomorphic being who created the universe, while to others it may refer to a non-personal nature and/or force that determines and governs all things. To me, neither side of that coin seems logical. Nevertheless, acceptance or belief in God is not the same thing to all people. My feeling is that regardless of how one appreciates God, or names it – God, ultimate reality, “ground of being”, Tao – at some point, there is a suggestion, a hint, of something outside of our lives involved. Buddhism teaches that when we seek happiness or salvation outside of our lives, or outside of this world, it only makes for greater suffering. That’s why I think it is simpler, smarter, and less confusing to just drop the whole idea. Discover Nagarjuna’s no-God particle.

So, Ananda, you must be your own lamps, be your own refuges. Take refuge in nothing outside yourselves. Hold firm to the truth as a lamp and a refuge, and do not look for refuge to anything besides yourselves. “

Mahaparinibbana Sutta, Digha Nikaya 16

 

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The Mystery of God, The Problem of God

I saw something the other day on Facebook that impressed me. It was a quote by John Shelby Spong, a retired bishop of the Episcopal Church:

God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. All of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honor my tradition, I walk through my tradition, but I don’t think my tradition defines God, I think it only points me to God.”

I wish more “people of faith” had that sort of attitude. It’s refreshing, because the absolute truth is that no religion has a monopoly on truth. What’s more, all the metaphysical elements of religion are pure speculation. A believer in an Abrahamic faith cannot prove the existence of God, any more than I can prove rebirth or karma, assuming I wanted to do that.

I think many of us find it extremely tiresome to hear people tell others how they must think or what they should believe. As a Buddhist, I feel that all I should do is point to what I think is a logical way, a sound view, and say, it works for me. I can’t claim to know what is, or how things ultimately should be. Except in politics, but that’s a different matter. (Small attempt at humor.)

Now, I would be tempted to replace “God” in the above quote with “ultimate reality,” and the Buddhist tradition doesn’t try to define ultimate reality, because it is ineffable and can never be fully known through conceptual thinking, nor can it ever be expressed adequately using conventional language. That is one of the major points of Buddhist philosophy.

I may not know what is, but I must confess that I have rather strong views on what isn’t. I don’t believe in God, for instance. I’m also not a big fan of using the word “God” as a synonym for some kind of universal life-force, or ultimate being-ness. In my opinion, “God” carries just too much baggage with it to be useful. It is hard to divorce the word from the idea of a supreme being.

Still, having said that, I do realize that it’s just my opinion, and everyone is entitled to their own whether I agree with it or not.

There are some Buddhists who like to say that the Buddha neither confirmed nor denied the existence of a supreme being. I’m not sure if that is actually the case, but regardless, one thing is very clear and that is there is no foundation within the Buddha’s teachings to support the idea of reliance on a higher, holier being for enlightenment or salvation.

In Buddhism, we term such reliance “other-power” (tariki), and here is another place where I become rather dogmatic, for as far as I’m concerned, “other-power” is not Buddha-dharma. The Buddha taught “inner-power” (jiriki):

So, Ananda, you must be your own lamps, be your own refuges. Take refuge in nothing outside yourselves. Hold firm to the truth as a lamp and a refuge, and do not look for refuge to anything besides yourselves.”

Mahaparinibbana Sutta, Digha Nikaya 16

As far as the problem of a creator god is concerned, Nagarjuna, often called “the second Buddha,” demonstrated that the existence of such a being, in the words of Hsueh-Li Cheng, “as creator of the world is unintelligible.” [1. Hsueh-Li Cheng, Empty Logic: Madhyamika Buddhism from Chinese Sources, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1991] I’ll save the long and detailed explanation of his logic on this point for another post. But I will say that it would be wrong to think that Nagarjuna was out to prove anything. In the Vigrahavyavartani (“End of Disputes”) he says “If I made any assertion, I would be in error. But I make no assertion, thus I am not in error.”

Returning to my thoughts at the beginning of this post, again, it’s refreshing to encounter a “religionist,” like John Shelby Spong, who doesn’t claim to have all the answers. From what I have read, Spong is “seeking to experience Christianity in a new and vibrant way” (his words) by moving away from theistic belief and traditional doctrines. I’m sure that is not too popular in some Christian quarters.

The universe is too vast and beyond our comprehension for anyone to be absolutely sure about what made or sustains it. As Sam Cooke wrote in his song “A Change is Gonna Come”, “I don’t know what’s out there beyond the sky.” No one does.

No one has all the answers. Except in politics, where believe me, I know what’s what. So, listen, be a smarty and vote for Obama next Tuesday.

————————

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Wasting Valuable Time on Rhetorical Nonsense

“If we are going to teach creation science as an alternative to evolution, then we should also teach the stork theory as an alternative to biological reproduction.”
– Judith Hayes

“Creationist critics often charge that evolution cannot be tested, and therefore cannot be viewed as a properly scientific subject at all. This claim is rhetorical nonsense.”
– Stephen Jay Gould

Recently, the Indiana Senate approved a bill that would allow public schools to teach Christian creationism alongside evolution in science classes as long as the schools include origin of life theories from various religions including Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Scientology.

On the surface, it would look like the lawmakers are attempting to forge a fair and balanced approach. But in reality, this is just nuts.

First of all, whether you want to call it creationism or intelligent design, this theory is little more than fantasy. I don’t think I need say more in that regard. And Scientology? Their creation story is about as crazy as you can get. Something about a galactic overlord 75, 000, 000 years ago who ruled a number of planets, killed all his people and froze their souls (thetans), and sent them to Earth. These lawmakers really want school children exposed to that?

Another small problem: Buddhism has no creation story per se. So, it would be hard to teach. When I say no “creation story,” I am referring to the notion that life and the universe were created by a supernatural being. As  Nyanaponika Thera writes in “Buddhism and the God-idea”,

From a study of the discourses of the Buddha preserved in the Pali canon, it will be seen that the idea of a personal deity, a creator god conceived to be eternal and omnipotent, is incompatible with the Buddha’s teachings. On the other hand, conceptions of an impersonal godhead of any description, such as world-soul, etc., are excluded by the Buddha’s teachings on Anatta, non-self or unsubstantiality. … In Buddhist literature, the belief in a creator god (issara-nimmana-vada) is frequently mentioned and rejected, along with other causes wrongly adduced to explain the origin of the world.”

This notion doesn’t fly in Mahayana either. Nagarjuna explained with his logic that creation would be impossible since there is neither a subject or object of creation.

Now, Buddhism does have a story about a man named Malunkyaputta who approached the Buddha and asked him explain the origin of the universe.  According to this tale, the Buddha refused to answer basically because it would amount to rank speculation. The Buddha was not there at the beginning of the universe, so how could he know?

Malunkyaputta had some others questions as well, and you’ll find more on that at the end of this post.

But back to creationism: I have never really understood why Christians in particular have such an aversion to evolution. It certainly has more of an empirical foundation than their present theory. And why couldn’t God have created evolution? How would that in any way diminish their god’s greatness? Sounds reasonable to me, but no, say the creationists, evolution is false.

From what I have heard in the public discussions about this issue, most Christians are unable to come up with a coherent explanation for why evolution is false. I suspect most of them don’t understand why either, but have come to that opinion merely because their parents and church elders and teachers have told them it’s false. I have also long suspected that the seeds of this aversion to evolution are racial in nature. For instance, when reading about the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925, it becomes obvious that those opposed to evolution didn’t mind being related to monkeys as much as they objected to being related to “Negros.”

In any case, I think the bottom line is summed up very well by Claire Vriezen at iowastatedaily.com

Creation stories are not equivalent ideas to tested and refined scientific theories and, as such, should not be taught alongside evolution. They cannot be falsified, nor do they have predictive power. On a further note, the state legislature of Indiana should not be spending time arguing about whether to amend the curriculum to allow for the addition of religious ideas in a science classroom. There are surely better uses of the time and resources of the state legislature.”

Or, as the Buddha is quoted as saying below, “wasting valuable time on such metaphysical questions and unnecessarily disturbing their peace of mind.”

Here’s how Walpola Rahula tells the story of Malunkyaputta in What the Buddha Taught:

The Buddha was not interested in discussing unnecessary metaphysical questions which are purely speculative and which create imaginary problems. He considered them as a ‘wilderness of opinions’. It seems that there were some among his own disciples who did not appreciate this attitude of his. For, we have the example of one of them, Malunkyaputta by name, who put to the Buddha ten well-known classical questions on metaphysical problems and demanded answers.

One day Malunkyaputta got up from his afternoon meditation, went to the Buddha, saluted him, sat on one side of the road and said:

‘Sir, when I was all alone meditating, this thought occurred to me: There are these problems unexplained, put aside and rejected by the Blessed One. Namely, (1) is the universe enternal or (2) is it not eternal, (3) is the universe finite or (4) it is infinite, (5) is soul the same as body or (6) is soul one thing and body another thing, (7) does the Enlightened One exist after death, or (8) does he not exist after death, or (9) does he both (at the same time) exist and not exist after death, or (10) does he both (at the same time) not exist and not not-exist. These problems the Blessed One does not explain to me. This (attitude) does not please me, I do not appreciate it. I will go to the Blessed One and ask him about this matter. If the Blessed One explains them to me, then I will continue to follow the holy life under him. If he does not explain them, I will leave the Order and go away. If the Blessed One knows that the universe is eternal, let him explain it to me so. If the Blessed One knows that the universe is not eternal, let him say so. If the Blessed One does not know whether the universe is eternal or not, etc, then for a person who does not know, it is straightforward to say “I do not know, I do not see”.’

The Buddha’s reply to Malunkyaputta should do good to many millions in the world today who are wasting valuable time on such metaphysical questions and unnecessarily disturbing their peace of mind:

‘Did I ever tell you, Malunkyaputta, “Come, Malunkyaputta, lead the holy life under me, I will explain these questions to you?” ’

‘No, Sir.’

‘Then, Malunkyaputta, even you, did you tell me: “Sir, I will lead the holy life under the Blessed One, and the Blessed One will explain these questions to me”?’

‘No, Sir.’

‘Even now, Malunkyaputta, I do not tell you: “Come and lead the holy life under me, I will explain these questions to you”. And you do not tell me either: “Sir, I will lead the holy life under the Blessed One, and he will explain these questions to me”. Under the circumstances, you foolish one, who refuses whom? (i.e., both are free and neither is under obligation to the other).

“Malunkyaputta, if anyone says: “I will not lead the holy life under the Blessed One until he explains these questions,” he may die with these questions unanswered by the Enlightened One. Suppose Malunkyaputta, a man is wounded by a poisoned arrow, and his friends and relatives bring him to a surgeon. Suppose the man should then say: “I will not let this arrow be taken out until I know who shot me; whether he is a Ksatriya (of the warrior caste) or a Brahmana (of the priestly caste) or a Vaisya (of the trading and agricultural caste) or a Sudra (of the low caste); what his name and family may be; whether he is tall, short, or of medium stature; whether his complexion is black, brown or golden; from which village, city or town he comes. I will not let this arrow be taken out until I know the kind of bow with which I was shot; the kind of bowstring used; the type of arrow; what sort of feather was used on the arrow and with what kind of material the point of the arrow was made.” Malunkyaputta, that man would die without knowing any of these things. Even so, Malunkyaputta, if anyone says: “I will not follow the holy life under the Blessed One until he answers these questions such as whether the universe is eternal or not, etc,” he would die with these questions unanswered by the Enlightened One.’

Then the Buddha explains to Malunkyaputta that the holy life does not depend on these views. Whatever opinion one may have about these problems, there is birth, old age, decay, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, distress, “the Cessation of which (i.e. Nirvana) I declare in this very life.”

‘Therefore, Malunkyaputta, bear in mind what I have explained as explained, what I have not explained as unexplained. What are the things that I have not explained? Whether the universe is eternal or not, etc, (those 10 questions) I have not explained. Why, Malunkyaputta, have I not explained them? Because it is not useful, it is not fundamentally connected with the spiritual holy life, is not conducive to aversion, detachment, cessation, tranquility, deep penetration, full realisation, Nirvana. That is why I have not told you about them.

‘Then, what, Malunkyaputta, have I explained? I have explained dukkha (suffering), the arising of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and the way leading to the cessation of dukkha. Why, Malunkyaputta, have I explained them? Because it is useful, is fundamentally connected with the spiritual holy life, is conducive to aversion, detachment, cessation, tranquility, deep penetration, full realisation, Nirvana. Therefore I have explained them.’

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