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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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.

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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

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Nagarjuna’s Golden Bowl

There was a Tibetan guru, an alchemist and tantric master, named Nagarjuna who lived during the 7th century, and who has been confused with Nagarjuna (c. 150–250 CE) the “second Buddha” and founder of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy.  The legends surrounding both are numerous.

Nagarjuna-2016-1In one story, the Tibetan Nagarjuna, who was also a metallurgist, turned an iron begging bowl into gold. One 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.

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

The next day, the thief returned and handed the bowl 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 story is about the importance of non-attachment, emphasizing that to let go of attachments to material things is to realize a state of wealth and abundance.

A key element in cultivating non-attachment is renunciation, a word that to me always seems to convey sacrifice. 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.

Chang comments that “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.”

When I did an internet search for se, I found it defined as “stingy, mean.” But as the story of Nagarjuna’s golden bowl allegorizes, the state of mind of non-attachment includes generosity of spirit.

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

The greatest generosity is non-attachment.”

And in Nagarjuna’s Guidelines for Social Action [found in Engaged Buddhist Reader], 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.”

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It’s Time

The New Year marks a passage or change in time, according to a calendar. A year is fixed, being the amount of time it takes for our planet to completes a revolution round the sun, yet some people believe that time itself is infinite. On that subject, Stephen Hawkings says, “All the evidence seems to indicate, that the universe has not existed forever, but that it had a beginning . . . We are not yet certain whether the universe will have an end.”

We talk about changes in time, the movement of time, how fast or slow time seems to go, but actually time does not change, nor move, and is neither fast nor slow. It is only through observing and experiencing change that time is apprehended, and yet, without time, there could be no change.

The concepts of past, present and future provide us with a more general way of dividing time. David Kalupahana, in his translation of Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, says that according to Nagarjuna “Time, as experienced, cannot be analysed into three water-tight compartments as past, present and future.”*

Chapter Nineteen, “Examination of Time,” consists of a mere six verses, in which Nagarjuna maintains because everything is related to other things, time is only a dependent set of relations, not an independent entity. Yep, time is empty.

If time exists depending upon an entity,
how can there be time without an entity?  
No existent entity is found to exist.  
So how can time exist?

That’s one philosophical view of time. Now, time in literature, poetry and song is another matter.

For instance, I once read a science fiction short story by Samuel R. Delany with the very cool title Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones. As I recall, it has nothing to do with the subject of time, (I probably should reread the story to make sure I’m right about that, but I haven’t the time).

In Hazy Shade of Winter, Paul Simon lamented, “Time, time, see what’s become of me.” Nowadays, he sings, “Hair, hair, I can’t see what’s become of you.” Time may be empty but it’s also weird. As some men get older, they lose the hair on their head and start growing hair in their ears. I tell you, there is no end to the indignities of aging.

The Rolling Stones had time of their side. Dr. Frank N. Furter did the Time Warp. Jim Croce had Time in a Bottle. Chicago wanted to know Does Anybody Know What Time It Is? Cindi Lauper wrote, “If you’re lost you can look and you will find me, time after time.”

And finally, a San Francisco band of the 60s, the Sons of Champlin, believed “It’s time to be who you are”:

It’s time for New Year’s Eve, so whatever you do tonight, have a good time.

* David J. Kalupahana, Nagarjuna Philosophy of the Middle Way, State University of New York, 1986, 277-78

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