Bodhisattvas Never Outside the World of Suffering

Here is a post from 2012 that has recently gotten a bit of attention.  Perhaps it was re-blogged or posted in a forum – I don’t know but all the sudden I am getting inquires about it.  A few people want to know where I found Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of the vows.  I wish I could remember.  I have no note about it, nor can I find the source among my files and books.  If anyone knows the source of this interpretation, please let me know.

A second inquiry I’v have received is about The Transcendental Bodhicitta Treatise by Nagarjuna.  The title and translation is D.T. Suzuki’s.  The Sanskrit title is Bodhicitta-vivarana, often rendered in English “A Commentary on the Awakening Mind” and “Exposition of Bodhicitta”, a work the Dalai Lama has been taught on many times.  Links to English translations at the bottom.

Many Buddhists are familiar with the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows.  Most of the Mahayana schools in China, Korea, Tibet and Japan, uphold and recite the Vows.  They are thought to have originated with the Chinese master Chih-i during the sixth century.  I don’t know whether this is true or not, but apparently there was some form of Bodhisattva Vows already in place during Chih-i’s time, and it is recorded that a prince of the Ch’en dynasty, Yang Kuang, received from Chih-i the “Bodhisattva Vows” for lay practitioners along with a Buddhist name, Tsung-ch’ih P’u-sa (“Bodhisattva of Absolute Control”) in 591.*

The Four Great Bodhisattva Vows (Shi gu sei gan) are as follows:

Shu jo mu hen sei gan do
Bon no mu jin sei gan dan
Ho mon mu ryo sei gan gaku
Butsu do mu jo sei gan jo

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to end them all.
The Dharma Gates are infinite; I vow to enter them all.
The Buddha Way is unexcelled; I vow to attain it completely.

In some versions, the last vow is given as a pledge to attain “complete, perfect enlightenment (Skt. anuttara samyak sambodhi).  It is said that if a bodhisattva does not accomplish the first vow of saving all sentient beings, he or she can never complete the fourth vow of enlightenment.  But, how is that possible?  How can one save all living beings?  In Taking the Path of Zen, Robert Aitken wrote, “Nobody fulfills these ‘Great Vows for All,’ but we vow to fulfill them as best we can. They are our path.”  In the long run, it doesn’t matter if we are unable to fulfill the Vows, what is important is that we engrave the spirit of the vows upon our hearts and minds.

We should also be aware that from the standpoint of the Mahayana doctrine of emptiness, a bodhisattva does not cling to the idea that there are beings at all, nor that there is anything such as “complete, perfect enlightenment.”  This is the doctrine found in the Mahayana Diamond Sutra.

While there are not quite as many English versions of the Vows as there are sentient beings or grains of sand in the Ganges River, there are quite a few.  Perhaps the most interesting one is by Thich Nhat Hanh:

tnh-bodhisattvaHowever innumerable beings are, I vow to meet them with kindness and interest.

However inexhaustible the states of suffering are, I vow to touch them with patience and love.

However immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to explore them deeply.

However incomparable the mystery of interbeing, I vow to surrender to it freely.

The hidden teaching within Mahayana Buddhism that it is more important to practice the Way of the Bodhisattva than it is to become a Buddha.  In actuality, the Way of the Bodhisattva is the Way of the Buddha.  However, people often miss this point and think that enlightenment is the ultimate goal.  There is no goal, there is only the path, and it is a path of compassion, and everything in Buddhism leads up to this one truth.

A work by Nagarjuna, The Transcendental Bodhicitta Treatise, reads:

The essential nature of all Bodhisattvas is a great loving heart, and all living beings constitute the object of their love . . . They are like the beautiful lotus-flower, which rises up from the swamp, its blossoms unsullied by the mud.  Their great hearts of compassion, which constitute the essence of their being, never leave suffering creatures behind in their journey.  Their spiritual knowledge is in the emptiness of all things, but their work of salvation is never outside the world of suffering.”

2016 note:   Some people approach Buddha-dharma in what I would term a casual manner, that is, they practice mindfulness to relieve stress, or use it a therapy, a psychology.  Others may engage in a more formal practice, chasing after the rapture of meditative states called jhanas.  From the Mahayana perspective, the focal point of Buddhism is suffering (harking back to the Four Noble Truths) and the purpose of dharma is to transcend suffering, which is accomplished by concentrating of the suffering of others before thinking of one’s own suffering.

The bodhisattva is like the captain of a ship that ferries beings across the great sea of suffering.  To captain such a ship requires courage, commitment and strong determination.  The four vows are like the charts used to set the course, but without preparation a captain cannot command a ship, let alone follow a course, and this necessary preparation requires the generation of altruistic intention or bodhicitta.  Those who tread the path of the bodhisattva do not seek enlightenment outside of themselves, and they realize there is no nirvana or bliss apart from this mundane world.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Denis C. Twitchett, The Cambridge History of China: Volume 3, Sui and T’ang China, 589-906 AD, Part One, Cambridge University Press, 1979]

Links to translations of Nagarjuna’s treatise:

Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki (Google books)

Commentary on Awakening Mind (opens PDF)

Translation by Chr. Lindtner

Exposition of Bodhicitta (opens PDF)


Deplorables and Name Calling

Some people think Hillary Clinton’s remark about “basket of deplorables” was a strategic mistake.  Others are making the argument that she was setting a trap for Trump, forcing him into the position of having to defend racists like David Dukes.

On CNN, Pence was asked if Dukes, the former KKK leader and a Trump supporter,  was a deplorable. Pence said the Trump campaign was “not in the name calling business.”  That’s a laugh.  Name-calling seems to be an obsession with Trump. His behavior has been, um, deplorable.

Well, this is nothing new.  Name calling has always been a part of politics.  According to Wikipedia, “Name calling is a cognitive bias and a technique to promote propaganda. Propagandists use the name-calling technique to incite fears or arouse positive prejudices . . . “  There is nary a politician alive who has not engaged in it.  From what I’ve read name calling in presidential elections used to be much worse, but I don’t recall that in my lifetime.  I have not seen nothing like the 2016 election.

peanuts-sticksandstonesName calling is actually a form of bullying.  And it’s not just politicians.  People everywhere, young and old, from the schoolyards to the boardrooms engage in name calling, perhaps not always directly or consciously or with malice.  This is an important issue  given that racial slurs have become more prevalent than ever in American society.

In trying to stem the use of racial slurs and name calling, I think we may be going about it the wrong way.  We want to prevent people from name calling, but we need to also toughen our skin so that names won’t hurt or cause outrage.  They’re just words.  We can also try to diminish the power of certain words.

Nagarjuna told us that words are only signs, dependent designations ( prajnaptir-upadaya ), and names nothing more than derived names (upadaya-prajnapti).  They exist as convention designations and have no real substantiality.

As I mentioned once before, legendary outlaw comedian Lenny Bruce used the N-word 22 times in a routine.  At the end of the bit he said, “Well, I was just trying to make a point, and that is that it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness.” He went on to say that if you used the word repeatedly until it “didn’t mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.”

Lenny’s point coincides to some extent with the Buddhist teaching on this subject.  In his essay on Nagarjuna, German existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote,

The final step is to perceive the untruth of all signs and hence of language.  Once it is understood that a word is a mere sign without any real meaning, the word disappears and that is deliverance.  Consciousness, which created suffering by shaping emptiness into many worlds, is carried back to its source.

The aim of all true thinking is a return from the unfolding of thought to nonthinkng.  What happened through the unfolding of thought can be undone by better thought in the dissolution of thought.”

Clinton is right, of course.  Many of Trumps supporters are worthy of strong condemnation.  But then, they feel the same way about us.  Liberals, left-wingers, extremists, tree huggers destroying America . .  .  It all depends on your view . . . and hopefully you recall from previous posts Nagarjuna’s injunction about the emptiness of views.


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


Nagarjuna’s Golden Bowl

Evidently, there was a Tibetan guru, an alchemist and tantric master, named Nagarjuna who lived during the 7th century.  This Nagarjuna and the legends surrounding him were mixed up with the earlier Nagarjuna (c. 250), known as the “second Buddha,” the founder of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy.

There is a story about how one of these two Nagarjunas, who was also a metallurgist, turned an iron begging bowl into gold bowl.

bowlOne day, as he was taking a meal, Nagarjuna saw a thief passing by his open door.  The thief noticed the golden bowl and wanted to steal it.

But Nagarjuna saw into the thief’s heart, and to save time, he went outside and gave him the bowl, encouraging the man to go ahead and take it.

The next day, the thief returned and handed the bowl back to Nagarjuna, saying, “Great teacher! When you gave away this bowl so freely, I felt very poor and desolate.  Show me the way to acquire the wealth that makes this kind of untroubled detachment possible.”

The short tale empathizes an aspect of non-attachment that we probably don’t appreciate enough, which is, that letting go of attachments to material things is actually a way to realize great wealth and abundance.

A key element in cultivating non-attachment is said to be renunciation, a word that means to reject something, e.g. a belief, claim, or course of action.  It also coveys sacrifice, giving up.   Naturally, in the context of Buddha-dharma and Taoism, there is more to it.  The Dalai Lama says, “True renunciation is a state of mind.  It does not necessarily mean that someone has to give up something.”

In his version of the Tao Te Ching, the late Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii, Chung-yuan Chang translated chapter 59 this way:

In guiding people and working according to nature,
It is best to follow renunciation.
Following renunciation means returning soon.
Returning soon means accumulating attainment.

He goes on to write, “The key word in this chapter is se, or renunciation, which means returning soon to one’s original nature . . . Thus [Te-Ching’s commentary says]: What Lao Tzu means ‘in guiding people and working according to nature, it is best to follow renunciation,’ is that nothing is better than the cultivation of returning to one’s original nature.”

I did an internet search for se and found it defined as “stingy, mean.”  But as the story of Nagarjuna’s golden bowl suggests that non-attachment requires generosity.

Atisha, in Kadamthorbu or “Precepts collected from Here and There”, is quoted as saying,

The greatest generosity is non-attachment.”

And in Nagarjuna’s Guidelines for Social Action, Robert Thurman writes,

Those who . . . simply consume and hoard, soon lose their wealth, just as Nagarjuna states.  It is a fact of economics that the basis of wealth is generosity.”

For us, a key aspect of non-attachment means to go beyond the mere rejection of materialism. Go beyond ‘giving up.’  Spread out into giving.  Non-attachment is a state or quality of mind that helps us develop openness, spaciousness of being.


Sartre and Nagarjuna, Being and Emptiness

The impact of Buddhism on Western philosophy is still a relatively new field of study. J. Jeffrey Franklin of the University of Colorado in “Buddhism and Modern Existential Nihilism: Jean-Paul Sartre Meets Nagarjuna” * delves into the subject.  According to the abstract, Franklin’s essay contends “that modernist nihilism owes a largely unexamined historical debt to the nineteenth-century ‘discovery’ of Buddhism. It demonstrates that Jean-Paul Sartre’s nihilism was influenced by a debate that occurred as part of the Western struggle to assimilate Buddhism: the nineteenth-century nirvana debate.”

I bring this up because Jean-Paul Sartre was a key figure in Western philosophy of the 20th century, a founder of French Existentialism, and today is the 111th anniversary of his birth.  Sartre died in 1980.

He was also a novelist and playwright.  During the early part of World War II, Sartre was imprisoned by the Germans, escaped and joined the resistance movement.

How deeply Buddhism may have influenced Sartre, I don’t know. And I can’t get access to Franklin’s paper. However, I am aware that Sartre’s ‘nothingness’ is comparable to the Buddhist concept of sunyata (emptiness) in some respects, but we should not carry this comparability too far.

Hazel Barnes in the 1943 English translation of Being and Nothingness writes,

sartre2If an object is to be posited as absent or not existing, then there must be involved the ability to constitute an emptiness or nothingness with respect to it.  Sartre goes further than this and says that in every act of imagination there is really a double nihilation.  In this connection he makes  an important distinction between being-in-the world and being-in-the-midst-of-the-world. To be in-the-midst-of-the world is to be one with the world as in the case of objects.  But consciousness is not in-the-midst-of-the-world; it is in-the-world.  This means that consciousness is inevitably involved with the world (both because we have bodies and because by definition consciousness is consciousness of a transcendent object) but that there is a separation between consciousness and the things in the world.”

This comes close to emptiness and interdependence but doesn’t go all the way.  It seems dualistic to me.  For Nagarjuna, emptiness demolished all notions of separation and distinction, even though he recognized it was not possible to avoid using such terms.   An article on Buddhanet says, “All phenomena have a relative as opposed to an absolute existence . . . Nagarjuna used the dialectic method to ruthlessly negate all pairs of opposites.”  This is correct but I don’t understand how the article can go on to say that “Sunyata is the absolute reality.”

Emptiness is not a truth so much as it is a condition or state of existence.  We can say it is an aspect of reality, but even that is problematic.  Previously, I have quoted the famous verse from Chapter 24 of Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses on The Middle Way, “Whatever arises through interdependency is emptiness. However, this is a conventional designation. It is the meaning of the Middle Way.” These words summarize Nagarjuna’s whole philosophy as he identifies the non-duality of the relative and absolute or ultimate truth.  But the next verse in the chapter is equally important:

Whatever does arise through interdependency does not exist.  Therefore, something that is not empty does not exist.”

In his commentary on the verse, Buddhist scholar Jay Garfield** says,

Nagarjuna is asserting that the dependently arisin is emptiness.  Emptiness and the phenomenal world are not two distinct things.  They are, rather, two characterizations of the same things.  To say of something that it is dependently co-arisen is to say that it is empty.  To say of something that it is empty is another way of say that it arises dependently.”

The way I see it is that absolute reality is the absence of an absolute reality.  The ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth.  And emptiness is relative, which, as I have also mentioned before, Nagarjuna expressed as sunyata-sunyata or the emptiness of emptiness.

Anyway, it’s Sartre’s birthday.  Thought I would pass that along.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Franklin, J.J.: “Buddhism and Modern Existential Nihilism: Jean-Paul Sartre Meets Nagarjuna.” Religion and Literature

** Arya Nagarjuna. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way,, Translation and Commentary, Jay Garfield, 1995

Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hazel Estella Barnes, Simon and Schuster, 1992