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.”


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


The Moon in Water

Tuesday was Bodhi Day, a celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment. I mentioned it only in passing because I wanted to focus on the anniversary of John Lennon’s death.

According to legend, after renouncing extreme asceticism, Siddhartha Gautama sat in meditation beneath a Ficus religiosa tree until on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month (Jp. rohatsu) he attained enlightenment and became Buddha.

In early Buddhism, individuals could only achieve enlightenment after engaging in Buddhist practice over the course of many lifetimes. In contrast, Mahayana Buddhism came along centuries after the Buddha’s advent and said that because all people inherently posses Buddha-nature, enlightenment was attainable in this very lifetime.

There are several different accounts of what happened under the bodhi tree. Because the Buddha’s time is so remote to us, it is unlikely we will ever know the facts. Bodhi is the state of awakening.

Naturally, there is diverse opinion as to the nature of enlightenment. In his writing, the Genjokoan, Dogen, offers this beautiful explanation:

moonlight2bAttaining enlightenment is like the reflection of the moon on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. . . For all the breadth and vastness of its light, it rests upon a small patch of water. Both the whole moon and the sky in its entirety come to rest in a single dewdrop of grass, in a mere drop of water.

Enlightenment does not divide you, just as the moon does not break the water. You cannot obstruct enlightenment any more than the drop of dew obstructs the moon in the sky. *

The analogy of “the moon in water” appears frequently in Buddhist literature. It symbolizes emptiness. Enlightenment is empty, in that it is not a fixed state of mind or being. Nevertheless, we say that enlightenment reflects the true reality. It does not divide us because reality is non-dual, there is nothing to divide.

Nagarjuna called the undivided (advaya) being the true nature of reality. Advaya is a Sanskrit word that means ‘not-two:

The ultimately true nature of enlightenment and the ultimately true nature of all things are in truth but one reality, not two, not divided.” **

Another way to express this not-twoness is harmony. Enlightenment or bodhi is realizing the world of harmony that has always been present within and without you.

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* Waddell, Norman and ABE, Masao, trans. Shobogenzo Genjokoan. The Eastern Buddhist, 1972, 136

** Venkata Ramanan, Nagarjuna’s Philosophy as Presented in the Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1987, 268


Reality, a process: Interdependence, Emptiness and Physics

At a teaching I attended in 2002, the Dalai Lama said that the principle of “dependent origination is the foundation for all the diverse concepts in Buddhism.”

bodhi-treeIndeed, it is. In one of the versions of the Buddha’s crucial night of analytical discovery via meditation beneath the Bodhi Tree, it is precisely dependent origination that he realized.  This analysis is a core teaching and the foundation for the philosophy of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school and nearly the entire Mahayana tradition.

In early Buddhism, dependent origination (pratitya-samutpada) was primarily used to explain the law of causation, the chain of cause, effect, and conditioning:

Ignorance > Karma > Consciousness > Name-Form > Senses > Contact > Feeling > Craving > Grasping > Becoming > Old age and death > Rebirth

The fundamental state of being is ignorance, conditioned by the imprints or seeds of past actions, habits and relationships (karma), which gives rise to consciousness, which is joined to name-form (the psycho-physical entity, specifically the embryo in the womb), which activates the six-senses; the senses come into contact with objects of desire and as a result, feeling, craving and grasping arise; these factors cause and condition the becoming of life and all that is becoming (existing) is subject to old age and death, and with the theory of rebirth, everything is set to be repeated in a future life, a continuum of consciousness within an seemingly endless cycle of birth and death.

By the time the Mahayana tradition was established, the focus of the analysis was less on how things come to be and more about how nothing can exist by itself, that everything is interconnected and inter-related. This is one reason why I prefer to describe pratitya-samutpada as interdependence. Dependent origination or dependent arising sounds too much like a form of creationism.

For Nagarjuna, the architect of Madhyamaka philosophy, interdependence was synonymous with emptiness (sunyata). In one respect, Nagarjuna’s teachings were a response and rejection of earlier Buddhist teachings presented in the Abhidharma (Sanskrit) or Abhidhamma (Pali), texts that contained detailed analyses of dharmas or “things”, which became the theoretical foundation for the Buddhist conception of reality. In the Abhidharma view, individuals are empty of “self”, but dharmas have own-being (svabhava). These dharmas are the building blocks of the universe and while they have only a momentary duration, their nature is fixed and irreducible. This concept projected a reality that was particle-like, similar to the Newton/Cartesian view of reality. In science, quantum physics deconstructed that view. In Buddhism, it was the Prajna-Paramita sutras and the commentaries by Nagarjuna which destroyed the Abhidharma view.

The true nature of reality (paramarthasatya) can be termed as the “emptiness of own-being” (svabhava-sunyata) and “interdependency” (pratitya-samutpada). Nagarjuna and the Madhyamaka’s taught that neither an individual nor dharma have an own-being that exists by its own right.

In a recent post, I mentioned the Sanskrit word parikalpita, meaning imaginary or the “imagined.” The Soothill Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist terms defines it as “Counting everything as real, the way of the unenlightened; The nature of the unenlightened, holding to the tenet that everything is calculable or reliable, i.e. is what it appears to be.” Paraikapita is one of the three natures (tri-svabhava) that imagines a duality between subject and object. This imagined reality is an illusion, a thought construction superimposed on the true reality. Like a veil, it conceals the truth of emptiness/interdependency and all we see in our ordinary experience is an apparent reality, in which things appear to exist by their own right and seem to possess a nature or being that is permanent, independent, unconditioned and designed.

Mu Soeng Sunim in his book Heart Sutra Ancient Buddhist Wisdom in the Light of Quantum Reality, gives us a glimpse into how emptiness and interdependency compare to modern physics:

Energy, whether of wave of particle, is associated with activity, with dynamic change. Thus the core of the universe – whether we see it as the heart of the atom or our own consciousness – is not static but in a state of constant and dynamic change. This energy – now wave, now particle – infuses each and every form at the cellular level. No form exists without being infused by this universal energy; form and energy interpenetrate each other endlessly in a ever-changing dance of the molecules, creating our universe. This universal energy is itself a process . . .”

In this way, we could also say that reality is a process.

In Madhyamaka philosophy, any duality between subject and object is considered to be imagined (parikalpita again); there is no independently existing ‘experiencer’ apart from the experience, and experience can be also designated as a process. As Sumin notes, in the world of subatomic physics there are no objects, only processes. Atoms consist of particles but these particles are literally empty.

2001a2So, we are aware now that reality is not particle-like but more like the nature of space. The common idea of space is an empty three-dimensional area. But there is no empty space (if by empty space, one means nothingness), space is actually permeated with an impalpable continuum. But the three dimensional aspect we perceive is somewhat of an illusion, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it is not the full reality. Not long ago some researchers, attempting to find a solution to the puzzle of space-time dimensionality, using a supercomputer, found that when the universe was created by the Big Bang, it had 10 dimensions – 9 spatial and 1 temporal – but only 3 of the spatial dimensions expanded. As I understand it, since only 3 dimensions expanded, and ours is an expanding universe, this accounts for the appearance that we live in a 3 dimensional reality. As Shakespeare said, “there are more things in the universe than are dreamt of in your science books.” Or, something like that.

One of the great benefits of Buddhism is that it helps us to see things as they are without having to become physicists, and we are encouraged to consider the possibility of seeing things differently, from various angles. Nothing is fixed, static. Many people tend to equate emptiness with nothingness. A better way to look at it is to think of emptiness as an expanse, particularly an expanse of mind, for one aspect of emptiness is that it means awareness, it is the penetrating insight into the actual nature of reality. Since Buddhism is also concerned with the problem of suffering, it’s helpful to view it as an expanse as well. Lex Hixon, in The Mother of the Buddhas, writes,

The relative truth of existence is that it is an expanse of suffering beings, a condition which is the motivation for the precious Mahayana commitment to universal conscious awakening. This relative truth of suffering must not be swallowed up, even subtly, by the absolute truth that Reality is an inherently selfless expanse, empty space, intrinsically peaceful.”

2001bAwareness is an expanse and like the universe, it should be ever expanding. That is why I don’t accept anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, “supreme perfect enlightenment.” If awareness is not static, then neither is enlightenment; it too is a process.

Finally, interdependency or pratitya-samutpada – the insubstantiality, the interconnectedness, the expansiveness of reality – is not only the foundation for all the diverse concepts in Buddhism, it is also the ground of the diverse world. Emptiness is the cause of interdependency and emptiness is not only a synonym for interdependence, it is also a synonym for something else:

That which is of the nature of coming and going, arising and perishing, in its saha (mundane) nature is itself Nirvana in its unconditioned (ultimate) nature.”

– Nagarjuna, “Treatise on the Maha Prajna-Paramita Sutra”


Crime and Punishment

The United States is world’s largest jailer, with 2.2 million people currently incarcerated. That is a statistic I would expect to see for a totalitarian regime, not the “land of the free.” But we have more of our people in prisons than Russia, China, and North Korea combined. Nearly half of the people jailed in the U.S. are there because of non-violent crimes, or because they are mentally-ill, or too poor to pay court-ordered fines.

Last week, President Obama in his remarks to the N.A.A.C.P. annual convention addressed the situation and he noted that “There are a lot of folks who belong in prison.” But he also said, “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off. And we need to do something about it.”

Speaking to the same group a day later, former President Clinton acknowledged his role in exacerbating the situation when in 1994 he signed into law a omnibus crime bill that increased prison sentences and “made the problem worse.”

As a proud American, I am embarrassed, and outraged, by the statistics cited above. However, I doubt that anything will change anytime soon. Not as long as so many people cling the notion that vengeance is justice and focus on punishment instead of rehabilitation. I might add that according to Craig Haney, PhD, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, , rehabilitation was a key part of U.S. prison policy, until the mid-1970s when it began to recede in favor of a “get tough on crime” approach that sees punishment as prison’s main function.*

It’s an old debate. In terms of legislation or reforms, I’m not certain about the best solution. However, as I am always interested in Buddhist ideas for modern problems, I feel we can take a cue from a few verses by Nagarjuna. It is not the specifics in his words that are important, but rather the spirit of compassion behind them.

I may be guilty of repeating myself on certain topics, such as compassion. However there are concepts which require constant repetition. In Buddhism, repetition is very important. As Shunryu Suzuki once remarked, “If you lose the spirit of repetition, your practice will become quite difficult.” This wise maxim applies to study, as well as practice.

Nagarjuna’s The Precious Garland (Ratnavalli) is a classic Buddhist text, written in the 2nd century (CE) for a Shatavahana king. Naturally, the bulk of the text deals with dharma, but for the 4th chapter, “Royal Policy,” Nagarjuna chose to give the king some practical advice. The excerpted verses here are from the translation by John Dunne and Sara McClintock prepared especially for the Dalai Lama’s teachings on the work in Los Angeles in June 1997.

Even if they rightly fine, imprison
or corporally punish (wrongdoers),
you, being always moistened by compassion,
should show kindness (to those punished).

King, out of compassion you should always
make your mind focused upon
benefiting all beings, even those
that have committed the most serious sins.

You should particularly have compassion for
those that have committed the serious sin
of murder; these ones who have ruined themselves
are indeed worthy of great persons’ compassion.

Either every day or every five days
release the weakest prisoners.
And see that it is not the case that the remaining ones
are never released, as is appropriate.

From thinking that some should never be released
you develop (behaviors and attitudes) that contradict your vows.
From contradicting your vows, you continually
accumulate more negativity.

And until they are released,
Those prisoners should be made content
by providing them with barbers, baths,
food, drink, and medical care.

As if you had the intention of making
unruly children behave properly,
you should discipline them out of compassion –
not out of anger or the desire for material gain.

Having properly examined and indentified
particularly hateful murderers,
you should send them into exile
without killing or harming them . . .

If the tree your kingship offers
the shade of tolerance, the open flowers of respect,
and the great fruit of generosity,
then the birds, your subjects, will flock to it.

More on the Dalai Lama and The Precious Garland

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* Craig Haney, The Psychological Impact of Incarceration: Implications for Post-Prison Adjustment, University of California, Santa Cruz, 2001