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


The Dharma Door of Interconnectedness

Sunyata or “emptiness” is a difficult concept and many people find it confusing. One of the first misconceptions folks have about emptiness is that is nihilistic and implies nothingness. It doesn’t. Emptiness does not deny the existence of things. It merely says that things exist in a temporary, non-substantive way. The “self” that is an individual, has a personality, thoughts and feelings, is not negated, rather what is negated is the idea that “self” exists as an independent entity in the ultimate sense, that it is unconditioned and does not depend on anything else to come into existence.

Some people understand the non-substantiality part but do not fully grasp the crucial element, which is the relativity of things.

Nagarjuna, who, pardon the cliché, pretty much wrote the book on emptiness, as far as Mahayana Buddhism is concerned, famously stated:

All things which arise through pratitya-samutpada, I explain as emptiness. It is a conventional designation. It is itself the Middle Way.”

Pratitya-samutpada is a term that is variously translated as dependent origination, dependent arising, dependent co-production, dependent co-arising, and so on. I prefer to use interdependency, or sometimes openness. Today, I will call it interconnectedness.

Why are things empty? Because everything is interconnected. Nothing comes into being on its own, and therefore, nothing can exist on its own. Things exist because of other things. They are empty, devoid of svabhava, own-being or self-being.

Another well-known expression of this understanding is found in the Heart Sutra:

Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form.

Thich Nhat Hanh comments on this phrase by saying:

Emptiness is quite an optimistic concept. If I am not empty, I cannot be here. And if you are not empty, you cannot be there. Because you are there, I can be here. This is the true meaning of emptiness. Form does not have a separate existence.”

Understanding emptiness is prajna-paramita, transcendent wisdom. The central message of the Heart Sutra is that because of emptiness, the Bodhisattva path is possible. If emptiness meant only that the self is non-substantial, that alone would provide no important reason to practice compassion. But, because beings are also interconnected, compassion is not only possible, but paramount. Interconnectedness means that we are all equal, we are essentially one, therefore there can be no reason not to practice compassion. The Bodhisattva path is practice for “self and others.” Ultimately, self and others are like form and emptiness, they do not differ from one another.

The Diamond Sutra says,

A Bodhisattva does not entertain concepts such as self, a separate person, a being, or ego-entity. Thus, there is no “I” who liberates and no “they” who are liberated.”

Nagarjuna called this essential oneness advaya-dharma, which Dr. K. Venkata Ramanan in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy, translates as “the undivided being,” noting,

As an individual, one is different from another; this is the mundane truth where distinctions are essential. But in the ultimate truth, with respect to their ultimate nature, the individuals are not different; for the ultimate nature of one is itself the ultimate nature of all.”

Of course, emptiness has many other implications, such as the importance of non-clinging, the emptiness of views, even the emptiness of emptiness. Yet, this understanding of interconnectedness is the dharma door that opens to the Bodhisattva path that leads to awakening. And awakening means the journey to the Endless Further, awakening and ever re-awakening to transcendent wisdom, which in turn means walking the Bodhisattva path.

Even as we understand that reality is non-dual, that is no self or other in the ultimate sense, without the practice of compassion, that is making efforts for the benefit of others, on behalf of others, there is only knowledge, mere intellectual understanding, which is not sufficient enough to even generate real bodhicitta, the thought of awakening.

In his Compendium of Doctrine, Shantideva writes,

But what of the passage in the Talhagataguhya Sutra, where we read: ‘In whom is there the thought of awakening, Master?’ ‘In him, O King, who has the intact resolve to gain it.’ ‘And who has such a resolve?’ ‘He in whom is the spring of great mercy’ ‘In whom is this?’ ‘He who never neglects all sentient beings.’”


“Like the circles that you find, in the windmills of your mind.”

It’s been said that pratitya-samutpada is the foundation for all Buddhist concepts. One Buddhist scholar, Jeffrey Hopkins has called it the “king of reasons.” In Majjhima-nikaya I, the Buddha is recorded as saying, “Whoever sees pratitya-samutpada sees the dhamma and whoever sees the dhamma sees pratitya-samutpada.”

This term is known by many names: dependent origination, dependent arising, conditioned co-becoming, co-dependent production, and so on. I often prefer to use interdependency or interconnectedness. All of these renderings taken individually fail to capture pratitya-samutpada precisely, and actually, a precise, literal definition is hard to come by.

In general, it means, “the arising of things in dependence of causes and conditions” (Chandrakiirti). In Mahayana, pratitya-samutpada includes interconnectedness, the multiplicity or diversity of forms, emptiness, compassion, and the Middle Way.

Because all things come into being as the result of causes and conditions, they are interconnected, and while all things have a reality, it is a transient one as none posses independent existence. By reason of the emptiness of both self and phenomena, everything is equalized, thereby eliminating any foundation for preference, prejudice and hatred. However, if we are all fundamentally one, there is a foundation for compassion. The Indian scholar Dr. Krishniah Venkata Ramanan, in his commentary on Nagarjuna’s Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sastra, writes,

Comprehension has its dimensions of depth and width and to the farer on the Great Way this means, on one hand, the penetration into the deeper nature of things which culminates in the realization that the ultimate nature of the conditioned is itself the unconditioned reality. On the other hand, comprehension stands also for the realization of the essential relatedness of determinate entities . . . with regard to the human individual it has the all-important bearing of one’s essential relatedness with the rest of the world. It is the insight into the true nature of things that is the basis of the universal compassion of the wise.

This is the same message the Heart Sutra imparts, and it’s the heart of Mahayana Buddhism.

Sufferings arise from causes. The Buddha’s method is to try to trace back the causes and reverse them. The primary cause for suffering is ignorance. Here, ignorance is different from our ordinary understanding of the word. It means un-knowing or mis-knowing, a deluded state of mind based on the idea of svabhava or self-being, the notion that we possess an inherent essential nature that is unconditioned, self-contained, self-supporting, and permanent.

Self-being is rejected because such an essence or nature would have to come into being on its own, without causes and conditions, it would have to stand on its own side as an entity independent from other things, and it would need to be able to persist indefinitely in an unchanged state. This is considered untenable. It’s a delusion.

In Mahayana, the general view is that ignorance is dispelled through a deep understanding of emptiness. In turn, emptiness is the ground of pratitya-samutpada or dependent arising, the foundation for this diverse world. Buddhapalita, the great master of the Prasangika tradition, said that to understand emptiness, you must understand dependent arising.

Sunyata (emptiness) is often discussed in terms of “relativity”, “relatedness”, “interconnectedness”, and “interdependency.” Even to take this holistic aspect of the term for its entire meaning is insufficient. In Emptiness, A Study in Religious Meaning, Frederick J. Streng states,

Sunyata is both relatedness and emptiness; it stands ‘between’ the absolute and the conditioned phenomena . . . If we use the symbolism of a circle, with its center and circumference, we would suggest that ‘emptiness’ is represented neither by the center (from which all points on the circumference radiate) nor by the points at the end of the radius. Nor is it even the relationship between the center and the circumference; but it is the recognition that ‘center,’ ‘circumference,’ and ‘radius’ are mutually interdependent ‘things’ which has no reality in themselves – only in dependence on the other factors.”

This, I believe, leads us to the true spirit of renunciation, which ultimately must mean leaving behind the idea of self-being. As Streng states, “The alleviation of suffering could not apply only to some single individual entity, since such an ‘entity’ could not come into existence or change. Release from the bonds of karma [is] feasible for ‘one’ only if it involve[s] a relationship to ‘all’.”

I feel true renunciation is a state of mind and it does not necessarily mean to renounce the material world. It’s not letting go of transient things themselves, but rather to letting go of our attachments to them. That’s not my contention because it’s a more modern or Western point of view, or because I’m picking and choosing and trying to bypass practicing austerities, it’s because I think it is a deeper view that goes right to the heart of the matter. It stands to reason that the highest form of renunciation is to let go of our attachment to the notion that things, including living beings, have an independent self or soul, a delusion that lies at the very heart of suffering. Renunciation is the genuine desire to transcend suffering for the sake of others.

You are independent, and I am independent; each exists in a different moment. But this does not mean we are quite different beings. We are actually one and the same being. We are the same, and yet different. It is very paradoxical, but actually it is so. Because we are independent beings, each one of us is a complete flashing into the vast phenomenal world. When I am sitting, there is no other person, but this does not mean I ignore you, I am completely one with every existence in the phenomenal world. So when I sit, you sit; everything sits with me. That is our Zazen [meditation]. When you sit, everything sits with you. And everything makes up the quality of your being. I am a part of you. I go into the quality of your being. So in this practice we have absolute liberation from everything else. If you understand this secret there is no difference between [Buddhist] practice and your everyday life. You can interpret everything as you wish,

– Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

The title of today’s post comes from the English lyrics to “The Windmills of Your Mind” (“Les moulins de mon cœur”) by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman, from the 1968 film, The Thomas Crown Affair