Sufferings are Nirvana

Sufferings are nirvana is what the Heart Sutra means when it says, “Within emptiness there is . . . no suffering and no beginning and no ending of suffering . . .”

The Heart Sutra is emptiness from the Bodhisattva point of view. At times, I think it is easier to see things from the point of view of Buddha, for it is relatively undemanding to learn emptiness as the oneness of all beings. The Bodhisattva view is harder because you must grasp emptiness in terms of the liberation of all beings.

In the phrase sufferings are nirvana, “sufferings” stands for this world we live in, or samsara, the world of suffering. We all know that it is impossible to go through life without the experience of suffering, so Buddha’s first teaching was “Life is suffering.” What he meant was “Life is peace, nirvana.”

Mu Soeng, in his book on the Diamond Sutra*, writes,

[Although] the bodhisattva chooses to stay in samsara, she or he is not seduced by the things of samsara and thus dwell in nirvana, free from any kind of clinging.”

Clinging is a root cause of suffering; it can be clinging to the false sense of self, clinging to the relative as absolute, or clinging to sense-pleasures or possessions. Sometimes we can cling to suffering and see nothing but suffering.

By practicing non-clinging a bodhisattva cultivates the transcendent wisdom (prajna-paramita) that brings to light the universal emptiness and enables all beings to realize the kind of liberation in which all things are nirvana.

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* Mu Soeng, The Diamond Sutra: Transforming the Way We Perceive the World, Wisdom Publications, 2011, 110


What’s In A Name

Well, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge didn’t take my advice and name their royal son Gomez after all, or anything even remotely interesting as I had hoped. But as a famous British subject once wrote, “What’s in a bleedin’ name?”


You know, many of our English words have their origins in Indian Sanskrit. My last name, for instance, is derived from the Indian word raja, meaning ruler or king. It was mispronounced by the Gypsies and carried to the British Isles where it ended up as Riley. As a matter of fact, the very word “name” comes from the Sanskrit nama.

Nama is name or concept. A name is a symbol, used to indicate and symbolize a referent. In addition to names, referents have laksana, signs or marks, which allow the referents to be cognized.

Station Fire - Los Angeles - August 27, 2009
Station Fire – Los Angeles – August 27, 2009

In his treatise on the Prajna-Paramita Sutra, Nagarjuna uses the example of fire to describe the relationship between nama and laksana. Fire is the name, and smoke is one of its signs. When we see smoke, we know there is fire.

Likewise, “man” and “woman” are names, while bodily features are the signs by which we recognize man and woman. In this way, nama and laksana, names and signs, are interdependent. “Laksana is the root and nama is the branch.”

Then Nagarjuna explains that

When one sees with one’s eyes the bodily form, one seizes with a bias only such characters that one likes and cling to them; the others do not have the same interest in regard to these characters. [These] characters are capable of giving rise to passion and clinging . . .”

A name or sign cannot be the same as the referent. Nagarjuna says that if a name and a referent were the same, then the word “fire” would burn the mouth. On the other hand, owing to their mutual dependence, name and referent cannot be different, for it that were the case, there would be no cognizance of any phenomena.

The best way to sum up these relationships is with the Japanese expression nini-funi, or “two but not two.” On the conventional level, we see separation, but from the ultimate view is there is no separation.

The bias Nagarjuna spoke of causes us to make distinctions between things, to have preferences. Abiding only with nama and laksana, names and signs, is merely seizing upon appearances, which obscure the true nature of things. He notes,

The Buddha reveals the true nature of all things by means of nama and laksana, in order to enable all to understand the truth of things. [Most] people dwell only in nama and laksana, the thought-constructions that are devoid of substantiality.”

What is the true nature? It is akincana, “not anything specific,” and frankly, it is easier to explain what the true nature is not, that is to say that things do not exist as separate entities, nor do they posses any separate essence. Seizing upon names and signs, clinging to appearances, causes us to think that things have a separate nature, and to believe that they are ultimate in their separateness.

For Nagarjuna, who was engaged in a critical analysis of the possibility of finding anything in reality that is self-existent, which stands on its own, independent and separate from other things, and who investigated every proposition, every argument, and concluded that self-existence was not tenable, nama and laksana are conventional entities that need to be transcended in order to see the true aspect of all phenomena.

That’s why Pema Chodron, the wonderful American-born nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, tells us

The cause of our discontent is our mistaken feeling of separateness. This isn’t based on anything tangible. It’s based on beliefs and concepts. The duality of subject and object, self and other, is an illusion imputed by the mind.”

– – – – – – – – – –

Nagarjuna quotes from N?g?rjuna’s Philosophy as Presented in the Maha-prajñ?p?ramit?-?s?tra, K. Venkata Ramanan, Motilal Banarsidass Publ. 2002

Pema Chodron quote from No Time to Lose, Shambhala Publications, 2005


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.


The Two Truths

Although he credited the Buddha with the doctrine of the Two Truths (it is mentioned in the early suttas and in a few commentaries to the Abhidharma), it was really Nagarjuna who developed this concept of two levels of truth.

Why are the Two Truths important? A primary cause for suffering is that we do not see reality as it truly is, and by reality, we mean first and foremost the reality of our everyday world, the realm of appearance and experience we inhabit. Although doctrinal discussions of the Two Truths may be wrapped around such subjects as being and non-being, the actual focus, as far as we are concerned, is on daily life.

Our basic tendency is to hold onto “things” (dharmas) as though they were real and endowed with some sort of self-nature. It might be the sense of self, or some other person, possessions, our preferences or prejudices. Buddhism teaches that when we seize upon these things and cling to them, we invite suffering into our lives. This point alone could be dealt with in depth, but for now it is suffice to say that the Two Truths are a tool to help us understand the actual nature of “things” and end the confusion that causes seizing and clinging, and gives rise to suffering.

In Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, Nagarjuna says,

The Buddha’s dharma is based on two truths: the relative or conventional truth and the ultimate truth. Those who do not understand the relationship between the two do not understand the profound point of the Buddha’s teachings.”

It is very important to understand that the Two Truths do not posit two separate realities (the world and some other “ultimate” reality), rather, this concept deals with how we perceive reality and the “things” in it. The first kind of truth that we call relative, conventional, mundane, worldly, veiled, and so on is valid for the practical affairs of daily life. However, our perception of the everyday world is often based on the mis-perception that “things” have an existence or self-nature independent from other things. From the view of the ultimate truth, all things are produced by causes and conditions, and are thereby interdependent, and without self-nature. So, in this way, they are said to be impermanent and “unreal.”

In Nagarjuna’s logic, if there is no self-nature, then it follows that there is no “other-nature” as well. And, as he says in the Middle Verses,

Further, how can a thing exist without either self-nature or other-nature. Existing things can only be maintained when there is self-nature and other-nature.”

David Kalupahana, in Nagarjuna, The Philosophy of the Middle Way, notes, “It is not merely self-nature and other-nature that are rejected, but also existence and non-existence.” About this, Nagarjuna says,

Those who perceive self-nature and other-nature, as well as existence and non-existence, do not understand the truth of the Buddha’s teaching.”

First, Nagarjuna show us that there are two ways of perceiving the world. In terms of the conventional truth, things exist – they are real. In terms of the ultimate truth, they are unreal. Not only are they unreal, but Nagarjuna systematically removes the foundations on which we perceive them, and as well, any basis upon which we can seize and cling.

Nagarjuna rejects the perception of existing and non-existing things,and he also rejects all views, concepts, designations, modes of thought – all things (dharmas) are null and void. Things do not exist by themselves, from their own side. Yet, as Karl Jaspers writes in his essay on Nagarjuna,

[At] the same time, they are not nothing. They are midway between being and nonbeing, but they are empty. There is no dharma that has come into being independently, hence all dharmas are empty.”

They are empty of self-nature. But, while emptiness may be the ultimate nature of things, it is not the ultimate truth. Nagarjuna understands emptiness to be another “view,” another thought construction. The ultimate truth is not any view. In the ultimate truth, all views dissolve into silence. So, in the end, Nagarjuna rejects emptiness itself: sunyata-sunyata – the emptiness of emptiness.

Because we seem to be hard-wired to look at things dualistically, there are those who mistake the Two Truths to be separate.

Nagarjuna says,

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

In other words, we use the relative to convey the ultimate, and we use the ultimate to understand the relative. Here we should see that the point is not so much that in this sense the relative is false, it’s more about being be able to skillfully use knowledge of the ultimate in order to understand the relative world, and to able to live more fully in it, without clinging to either truth. The trick is to know when the ultimate applies and when it does not.

While there are certainly distinctions between the relative and the ultimate, in the end, there is just one truth, one reality. The relative and the ultimate are but two sides of the same coin.

It is within nirvana that liberation from suffering is obtained, so nirvana is one of many terms used to express the ultimate. Nagarjuna makes clear, though, that there is no separation between the ultimate truth of nirvana and the conventional world:

Whatever is the extreme of nirvana is also the extreme of conventional existence. There is not the slightest bit of difference between the two.

Conventional existence is represented as the world of samsara – the world of suffering, misperception, of seizing and clinging. But we say, “Samsara is nirvana.” When there is a difference between the two, it is a matter of perception, or perhaps we should say an error of perception, because it makes no sense take a principle that points to the non-dual nature of reality and then look at it dualistically.

So that is a kind of brief overview of the subject, and I certainly don’t offer it as any kind of final word. It’s just my take, as far as my understanding goes.


Nagarjuna’s Process of Realization

This is a fragment of what was certainly a longer work that has been lost. According to Bu-ston, the Tibetan historian,  Vyavaharasiddhi was written “to show that through there is no own-being (svabhava) in the ultimate sense (paramarthatah), still the empirical is justified conventionally.”

I like this because it is short, like a poem, and so is a succinct exposition of a major point of Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy.

The translation is Chr. Lindtner’s, from Nagarjuniana, Studies in the Writings and Philosophy of Nagarjuna (with a couple a changes):

Vyavaharasiddhi/The Process of Realization by Nagarjuna

One syllable is not a mantra. On the other hand, many syllables are not a mantra either:  dependent upon syllables that are therefore insubstantial, this mantra is neither existent nor non-existent.

Likewise no medicine appears independently of it specific ingredients. It appears like an illusory elephant; it is not identical with them nor is it absolutely different from them.

It arises in dependent co-origination. Who would be so ignorant as to maintain that it is existent or non-existent? Actually visual consciousness arises similarly when it is based on eye and form.

Projected by the power of karma and passion, the appropriator arises out of existence. Form also arises in the same manner. Who would be so ignorant as to maintain that it is existent or non-existent?

Similarly, all the twelve members of existence are simply conventional designations. Consequently all phenomena such as extinction have only been advocated by the Buddhas with a specific purpose.

As it appears to be a mantra without really being a mantra, and as it appears to be a medicine with really in itself being a medicine, thus all phenomena are stated to be dependent. Neither of the two can be established independently.

Lindtner’s explanation: “Though all phenomena, such as mantras, etc., arise dependently and thus neither are existing nor non-existing, they are none the less efficient. Likewise all interior and exterior phenomena arise dependently, and though they are thus mere metaphorical concepts. Buddha has formulated his dharmas with a specific practical purpose (samdhaya . . . “