Advayavada Buddhism


Archive for the month “May, 2012”

What did consciousness actually contribute? (Damasio)

What did consciousness actually contribute? (from Self Comes to Mind, by Antonio Damasio, New York 2010) The answer is a large variety of apparent and not-so-apparent advantages in the management of life. Even at the simplest levels, consciousness helps the optimization of responses to environmental conditions. As processed in the conscious mind, images provide details about the environment, and those details can be used to increase the precision of a much-needed response, for example, the exact movement that will neutralize a threat or guarantee the capture of a prey. But image precision is only a part of the advantage of a conscious mind. The lion’s share of the advantage, I suspect, comes from the fact that in a conscious mind the processing of environmental images is oriented by a particular set of internal images, those of the subject’s living organism as represented in the self. The self focuses the mind process, it imbues the adventure of encountering other objects and events with a motivation, it infuses the exploration of the world outside the brain with a concern for the first and foremost problem facing the organism: the successful regulation of life. That concern is naturally generated by the self process, whose foundation lies in bodily feelings, primordial and modified. The spontaneously, intrinsically feeling self signals directly, as a result of the valence and intensity of its affecive states, the degree of concern and need that are present at every moment.

As the process of consciousness became more complex, and as co-evolved functions of memory, reasoning, and language were brought into play, further benefits of consciousness were introduced. Those benefits relate largely to planning and deliberation. The advantages here are legion. It became possible to survey the possible future and to either delay or inhibit automatic responses. An example of this evolutionarily novel capacity is delayed gratification, the calculated trading of something good now for something better later – or the forgoing of something good now when the survey of the future suggests that it will cause something bad as well. This is the trend of consciousness that brought us a finer management of basic homeostasis and, ultimately, the beginnings of sociocultuiral homeostasis (to which Damasio turns later in the book).

Plenty of conscious, highly successfuil behaviors are present in many nonhuman species with complex enough brains: the examples are evident all around us, most spectacularly in mammals. In humans, however, thanks to expanded memory, reasoning, and language, consciousness has reached its current peak. I suggest that the peak came from the strenghtening of the knower self and of its ability to reveal the predicaments and opportunities of the human condition. Some may say that in that revelation lies a tragic loss, of innocence no less, for all that the revelation tells us of the flaws of nature and of the drama we face, for all the temptations it lays down before human eyes, for all the evil it unmasks. Be that as it may, it is not for us to choose. Consciousness certainly has allowed the growth of knowledge and the development of science and technology, two ways in which we can attempt to manage the predicaments and opportunities laid bare by the human conscious state.


More Questions and Answers

question I am not familiar with the term Advayavada.

answer We gave the name Advayavada Buddhism to the radical non-dual standpoint of the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism to which we specifically adhere. A sound explanation of the term ‘advayavada’ can be found in for instance professor T.R.V. Murti’s The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: “The sole concern of the Madhyamaka advaya-vada is the purification of the faculty of knowing. The primordial error consists in the intellect being infected by the inveterate tendency to view Reality as identity or difference, permanent or momentary, one or many etc. These views falsify reality, and the dialectic [of the Madhyamaka] administers a cathartic corrective. With the purification of the intellect, Intuition emerges; the Real is known as it is, as Tathata [advayata; non-dual suchness] or bhutakoti [reality-limit; the extreme limit beyond which there is nothing which can be known]. The emphasis is on the correct attitude of our knowing..” It is in this sense that we use the term ‘advayavada’.

question What you say seems to me to be an essential teaching of the Mahayana in its complete form. The Unborn Infinite Reality can never be less than Perfect and Whole, and is the True Essence of all Beings, and is ever present. All that is needed is that, in perfect simplicity, we turn to That, and realize that the human manifestation of life is just an imperfect reflexion of That. Simple! but not easy. That is the problem. If we realize what we are, how do we remember to continue to realize it moment by moment, rather than seeking to hold on to the vision of the past?

answer Everything is, indeed, as right as it can be, and the Middle Way devoid of extremes is a perfect reflexion of it at the human level. As for your question, our answer would be that you must see that ‘vision of the past’ for what it really is: a highly selective subjective recollection in the present of things no longer there – please understand that life only happens Now.

question Existence progresses towards better or worse only in a dualistic sense. Life goes towards better, towards worse, only when one has expectations. Current failings? Simply a state of mind brought on by expectations and judgements. That ‘infinite Reality’ (what other reality is there?) will continue to ‘become’ exactly as it must? No, it is, it is exactly as it is.

answer You and the writer obviously do not experience the passage of time, i.e. the duration, the sum duration of the successive phenomena, in the same way. Your ‘reality is exactly as it is’ as opposed to his ‘reality will continue to become exactly as it, by definition, must’ makes this important point very clear. As a result of his prolonged and deep meditation on the true nature of reality, the writer has come to share fully and wholeheartedly the Buddhist view that existence is a constant flux of ever-changing events with no known beginning or necessary end. As a serious student of the Madhyamaka theories of existence, particularly of the concepts of emptiness, interdependent origination and the two truths, he has come to understand the Noble Eightfold Path as an ongoing reflexion at the level of his own life of existence as a whole becoming over time. By learning to follow the Eightfold Path successfully, he hopes to live every time more and more in tune with wondrous overall existence. For the Advayavadin, Nirvana is when we experience our own existence as being completely in harmony with existence as a whole becoming over time. In Buddhism, there is no static being, only dynamic becoming: to live is to become. And in Advayavada Buddhism, the Eightfold Path is moreover seen, not as a means to become something else in the future, but as a way to become as something rightaway in the herenow. The Eightfold Path is seen as a proven method to achieve the abandonment of all fixed views and to become oneself in the here and now as existence, as wondrous overall existence becoming over time now in its right direction. It is by becoming herenow as wondrous overall existence becoming over time now that we free ourselves from suffering and realize happiness.

Advayavada Study Plan – week 22

Dear friends,
This week (22) we further develop our very best attitude to carry out our objective.
Kind regards,
John Willemsens
Advayavada Foundation

More Questions and Answers

question I am afraid that your discovery has already been heralded by the Buddha himself, although he does not call it a fourth sign or mark. The fourth mark is sometimes rendered as ashubha, or ugliness. The Buddha identified two modes of conditionality, one which is well known and is illustrated by the Wheel of Becoming, is the 12 nidanas moving from ignorance to old age and death. The other, which is not as well known but is in the Nidana Vagga of the Samyutta Nikaya, is positive and progressive. It moves from suffering through faith, delight, joy, calmness, bliss, concentration, knowledge and vision of things as they really are, disgust, dispassion, liberation, knowledge of the destruction of the biases. The importance of this dynamic sequence is that life can be made to flow towards better. However, life does not flow towards better automatically. It has to be cultivated and worked for, which is why we have to practice the four right efforts.

answer Each school will naturally interpret in its own way the many, often conflicting sayings attributed to the Buddha in the scriptures. It would however be going too far to maintain that the Buddha ever implied that ugliness was the Fourth Mark or Sign of Being. The “disgust for things as they are” of sutta 23 of the Nidana Vagga should be understood strictly within the very limited context of one’s own personal life. And our position is that not humanity, mankind, human beings, the human manifestation of life, let alone one’s own personal life, is the measure of things in space and time, but the overall all-embracing flow of existence itself, which, quite oblivious to our exertions or, for that matter, our disgust, goes on and on in its own one right direction. We take it for granted, as explained, that there is nothing wrong with existence and that the objective of the Buddha’s Middle Way devoid of extremes was and is the abandonment of all fixed views and to reconnect and reconcile us with its true nature as it is beyond our commonly limited and biased personal experience of it.

question I wonder what your support for this interpretation of humans experiencing Nature as progress might be. There’s abundant evidence in media of various sorts — good, bad, or indifferent in quality — of people who contrarily do not experience the overall course of Nature as progressive at all, but instead as destructive and teleologically negative, especially today in conditions of global warming, cyclones, tornados, earthquakes, oceans rising, meteorites, and so on.

answer If you look closely, all those unpleasantnesses you mention do not pertain to overall existence at all but are the result of mistaken views, immorality and mismanagement. When we say how man experiences the course of Nature we of course mean man unencumbered by these contingent shortcomings and mistakes that impair his vision, understanding and accomplishments – the reference standard is overall existence and not failing mankind.

Previous Questions and Answers

question According to your theory all we have to do is just wait and we will naturally become better. I do not think this is correct.

answer Advayavada Buddhism teaches that by following the Buddha’s Middle Way you get in tune with wondrous overall existence and your sorrow immediately starts disappearing. Sorrow is a symptom. It is the indication that one is going against the grain of things. Always bear firmly in mind that there is nothing wrong with existence – how can there be? Clearly, therefore, it is not life that should be improved upon, but man’s mistaken way of living it. What one must try to do is to come to terms with existence as it truly is, i.e. as it truly is beyond our commonly limited and biased personal experience of it. A proven way to follow to achieve this is the Buddha’s Middle Way devoid of extremes. And to be able to follow this Path one must adhere to the Five Precepts. The very first step is our acceptance of the Five Precepts. The five fundamental Buddhist precepts are not to kill, not to steal, sexual restraint, not to lie, and abstinence from alcohol and drugs [including so-called soft drugs].

question The defilements we have are rooted in our not understanding life or the realities of life as they are. The real cause of problems and sufferings are these defilements and unwholesome states of mind. The solution is to understand our life exactly as it is. By so doing we will understand more what is wholesome and thus we shall be more inclined to wholesomeness.

answer Our position is that the objective of the Middle Way devoid of extremes propounded by the Buddha as the right existential attitude and way of life is to reconnect and reconcile us with overall existence. We see the Middle Way in its dynamic Eightfold Path form as an ongoing and open-ended reflexion at the level of our personal lives and in human terms of wondrous overall existence moving forwards over time in the right direction. Overall existence, not man’s abstract and conceptualized understanding of life, is the measure of things.

The Madhyamika School (Ch’en)

The Madhyamika School (from Buddhism in China, by Prof. Kenneth K. S. Ch’en, Princeton 1964) The Hinayana doctrine of dependent origination, that all things depend on causes and conditions for their origination, provides the starting point for the Madhyamika viewpoint that ‘what is produced by causes is not produced in itself, and does not exist in itself’. Because all things are produced by causes and conditions, they do not have any independent reality; they do not possess any self-nature. When these causes and conditions disappear, these things also disappear. Hence they are said to be shunya or empty..

Thorough comprehension of the empty, unreal, or relative nature of all phenomena leads to prajña (intuitive wisdom or non-dual knowledge). When we achieve prajña, we reach the state of absolute truth which is beyond thought and conception, unconditioned, indeterminate. This absolute truth cannot be preached in words, but, in order to indicate it, it is called shunyata. “Shunyata is the synonym of that which has no cause, that which is beyond thought or conception, that which is not produced, that which is not born, that which is without measure” (Zimmer). This absolute truth contains nothing concrete or individual that can make it an object of particularization.

Nagarjuna is careful to point out, however, that this absolute truth can be realized only by going through the relative or worldly level of truth. Here we have the double level of truth of the Madhyamika. The relative level consists of man’s reasoning and its products. It causes man to see the universe and its manifold phenomena, and to consider them as real. He cannot dispose of this relative truth by his arguments, just as a person in a dream cannot deny his dream by any argument. Only when he wakens can he prove the falsity of the objects in the dream. In this relative level one sees the distinctions between subject and object, truth and error, Samsara and Nirvana. This relative level is necessary, according to Nagarjuna, because the absolute level can be understood and realized only negatively by the removal of relative truths. The removal of the relative truths must therefore precede the realization of the absolute truth. The truths attained through reasoning and the intellect are not to be discarded even though they are not final. Acceptance of the doctrine of shunyata, or the unreality of all phenomena, does not mean that we have to devaluate all human experience..

Distinction between Advaya and Advaita (Murti)

The Distinction between Advaya and Advaita (from The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, by Prof. T.R.V. Murti, 1955, 1960, London 1968)

In all the three absolutisms [Madhyamaka, Vijñanavada and Vedanta] the highest knowledge is conceived as Intuition, beyond all traces of duality. A distinction must, however, be made between the advaya of the Madhyamaka and the advaita of the Vedanta, although in the end it may turn out be one of emphasis of approach. Advaya is knowledge free from the duality of the extremes (antas or dristis) of ‘is’ and ‘is not’, ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ etc. It is knowledge freed of conceptual distinctions. Advaita is knowledge of a differenceless entity: Brahman (Pure Being) or Vijñana (Pure consciousness). The Vijñanavada, although it uses the term advaya for its absolute, is really an advaita system.

Advaya is purely an epistemological approach; the advaita is ontological. The sole concern of the Madhyamaka advaya-vada is the purification of the faculty of knowing. The primordial error consists in the intellect being infected by the inveterate tendency to view Reality as identity or difference, permanent or momentary, one or many etc. These views falsify Reality, and the dialectic administers a cathartic corrective. With the purification of the intellect, Intuition (prajña) emerges; the Real is known as it is, as Tathata or bhutakoti. The emphasis is on the correct attitude of our knowing and not on the known..

The Madhyamika has no doctrine of existence, ontology. This would be, according to him, to indulge in dogmatic speculation (dristivada). To the Vedanta and Vijñanavada, the Madhyamika, with his purely epistemological approach and lack of a doctrine of reality, cannot but appear as nihilistic (sarva-vainashika, shunya-vada). The ‘no-doctrine’ attitude of the Madhyamika is construed by Vedanta and Vijñanavada as a ‘no-reality’ doctrine; they accuse the Madhyamika, unjustifiably, of denying the real altogether and as admitting a theory of appearance without any reality as its ground. In fact, the Madhyamika does not deny the real; he only denies doctrines about the real. For him, the real as transcendent to thought can be reached only by the denial of the determinations which systems of philosophy ascribe to it. When the entire conceptual activity of Reason is dissolved by criticism, there is Prajña-Paramita.

Advayavada Study Plan – week 21

Dear friends,
This week (21) we again put our decision into words as precisely as possible.
Kind regards,
John Willemsens

Madhyamaka Schools in India (Della Santina)

Concluding chapter of Madhyamaka Schools in India, by Peter Della Santina.

As has been stressed, the Madhyamaka is a philosophy of a qualitatively different order. The Madhyamaka seeks to dismantle the phenomenal universe which is constructed by imagination through sustained dialectical analysis. In this way, the Madhyamaka attempts to reveal the unconditioned and non-differentiated nature of the ultimately real.

The Madhyamaka philosophy expresses the quintessence of the teaching of the Buddha Shakyamuni. In the Madhyamaka the full extent of the Buddha’s characteristic philosophical attitude is disclosed and elaborated. Thus the Madhyamaka constitutes a complete and systematic critical philosophy.

Through the expedients of concepts and language, the Madhyamaka attempts to indicate the actual nature of ultimate reality, which transcends thought and expression. The conception of the ultimately real offered by the Madhyamaka is a revolutionary one. It is for this reason that the advent of the Madhyamaka system represented a significant turning point in the development of Indian philosophy. Indeed, it may be said without fear of contradiction that nearly all the major philosophical systems of India were profoundly affected by the appearance of the Madhyamaka.

The fundamental characteristics of the Madhyamaka account, in large part, for the influence which the system had upon Indian philosophy as a whole. The Madhyamaka was, in the first place, acutely aware of the subjective character of thought which, according to the Madhyamaka conception, fabricates the universe of appearance. This awareness led, more or less directly, to a conception of ultimate reality as a state in which appearance is dispelled through the extinction of subjective imagination. Thus, it may be said that the cessation of subjective imagination results in the dissolution of the universe of appearance which obscures the non-differentiated and non-dual nature of the ultimately real.

The revolutionary character of these conceptions will be appreciated if it is recalled that no philosophy prior to the Madhyamaka realised the universality of the activity of subjective imagination or conceived of reality as an ineffable and unconditioned state altogether free from duality. Hence, the Madhyamaka clearly represents the first systematic formulation of a philosophy of absolute non-duality in India.

It is, however, important to remember that the implications of these conceptions elaborated in the Madhyamaka extend beyond the limits of what may be termed scholastic philosophy. The Madhyamaka, as it has been emphasised, is above all a soteriological philosophy. It is intended to produce an existential transformation in the individual. Philosophy, therefore, for the Madhyamaka is more than simply an intellectual exercise. On the contrary, philosophy supplies a means of achieving an actual transition from a condition of ignorance and bondage to one of knowledge and freedom. It is the critical awareness of the subjective origin of the universe of appearance which enables one to remove the subjective illusion which obscures the actual nature of the ultimately real.

It is a primary concern with any soteriological philosophy that it be successfully communicated to others. The extraordinary knowledge which has, in the case of the philosopher, engendered the desired existential transformation must be communicated to those who are ignorant of it. This communication must necessarily be accomplished through concepts and language, even when the extraordinary knowledge which is to be communicated ultimately transcends thought and expression. In this context, it is clear that the process of communication is an especially difficult one for the Madhyamaka, because, as it has been noted, the Madhyamaka is a philosophy of a radically different order.

The approach of the Madhyamaka to the problem of communicating the extraordinary knowledge achieved through philosophy to the uninitiated tends to be rational or analytical, rather than symbolic or suggestive. Thus, it is that the Madhyamaka philosopher employs various arguments which conform, to a greater or lesser degree, to the conventionally accepted patterns of logical discourse. Through these arguments, the Madhyamaka seeks to lead the uninitiated gradually to a comprehension of the existential import of the Madhyamaka philosophy.

In the process of communicating the extraordinary knowledge initially available only to the philosopher, ordinary facts must necessarily be employed. Only then can the extraordinary knowledge achieved by the philosopher be successfully communicated to the uninitiated. The arguments employed by the Prasangika and Svatantrika schools of the Madhyamaka system, therefore, represent attempts to communicate the extraordinary knowledge embodied in the Madhyamaka philosophy to the uninitiated through concepts and language.

Yet when the philosopher attempts to express extraordinary knowledge through concepts and language, amenable to the understanding of the uninitiated, he must take great care to preserve the essential purity of the extraordinary philosophical knowledge which he is anxious to communicate. Otherwise, the clarity and precision of his extraordinary philosophical vision will become obscured and distorted in the process of communication. If this occurs, the extraordinary knowledge embodied in the Madhyamaka philosophy will be only imperfectly communicated. Perhaps even more importantly, there exists the danger that the philosopher himself may unconsciously forsake, in some degree, the perfection of the extraordinary knowledge which it was his intention to communicate. The controversy between the Prasangika and Svatantrika schools must, in the final analysis, be seen in the light of this fundamental problem. The exponents of both schools clearly desired to communicate the extraordinary knowledge embodied in the Madhyamaka philosophy to the uninitiated. In their attempt to do so, they resorted to divergent modes of argument. The success or failure of their respective approaches to the problem of communication must be measured within the twofold context suggested earlier. It must be judged to what degree the arguments employed by the two schools succeed in communicating effectively the extraordinary knowledge embodied in the Madhyamaka philosophy, while, at the same time, preserving the purity and perfection of that very extraordinary knowledge.

The verdict delivered by the history of the development of the Madhyamaka philosophy eventually favoured the Prasangikas. Over the course of centuries, the approach adopted by the Prasangikas emerged as the predominantly accepted one. The Svatantrika interpretation, on the other hand, steadily lost ground after the collapse of Buddhism in India until, at present, only vestiges of it are preserved in the living Buddhist traditions of Tibet and Mongolia.

Though the controversy with which this study has been largely concerned may have been decided by the history of philosophy, the central problem which has been indicated in these concluding pages continues even today to be a very relevant one. Indeed, all those who are at present engaged in the communication of the knowledge contained in the ancient and now, for the most part, fragmented philosophical traditions of India to modern men cannot afford to ignore the central problem which divided the two Madhyamaka schools. Thus it is that all attempts to communicate the essential import of ancient Indian philosophical systems through concepts and language amenable to the comprehension of modern men must be judged within the twofold context which has been suggested. All such attempts must seek to accomplish satisfactorily two indispensable objectives. They must seek to communicate effectively the knowledge embodied in ancient Indian philosophy in contemporary concepts and language, while at the same time preserving the purity of the ancient philosophical vision. Only then will it be possible to ensure the vitality, purity and continuity of the philosophical wisdom of ancient India.

© Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, Delhi (India)

Advayavada Study Plan – week 20

Dear friends,
This week (20) we again take an appropriate and timely decision.
Kind regards,
John Willemsens
Advayavada Foundation

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