Advayavada Buddhism


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Perfect Wisdom (Heinrich Dumoulin)

Perfect Wisdom (from Zen Buddhism: A History, volume 1, by Prof. Heinrich Dumoulin S.J., translated by James W. Heisig and Paul Knitter, New York 1988):

In the Prajñaparamita sutras the significance of wisdom for the pursuit of salvation is evident. It is wisdom that sets the wheel of doctrine in motion. The new doctrine of the Wisdom school is thus considered by Mahayana to be the ‘second turning of the Dharma wheel’, second in importance only to the first teachings preached by Shakyamuni.

The Prajñaparamita sutras also set forth the evangel of the Buddha by claiming silence as their highest and most valid expression. Wisdom, all-knowing and all-penetrating, is deep, inconceivable and ineffable, transcending all concepts and words. Most important, wisdom sees through the ’emptiness’ (shunyata) of all things (dharma). Everything existing is always ’empty’. The broad horizon of meaning enveloping this word, which occurs throughout the sutras, suggests that, in the attempt to grasp its content, feeling must take precedence over definition. In the Heart Sutra, the shortest of the Prajñaparamita texts, wisdom is related to the five ‘skandhas’, the constitutive elements of human beings, and to all things contained in them. The sutra is recited daily in both Zen and other Mahayana temples, often repeated three times, seven times, or even more. In drawn out, resounding tones the endless chanting echoes through the semidark halls (…)

In the Wisdom sutras the stress is put on demonstrating the doctrine of the emptiness of ‘inherent nature’ (svabhava). Free of all inherent nature and lacking any quality or form, things are ‘as they are’ – they are ’empty’. Hence, emptiness is the same as ‘thusness’ (tathata), and because all things are empty, they are also the same. Whatever can be named with words is empty and equal. Sameness (samata) embraces all material and psychic things as part of the whole world of becoming that stands in opposition to undefinable Nirvana. In emptiness, Nirvana and Samsara are seen to be the same. The identity of emptiness, thusness, and sameness embraces the entire Dharma realm (dharmadhatu). Like the Dharma realm, Perfect Wisdom is unfathomable and indestructible. Here the doctrine on wisdom reaches its culmination.

Of special importance for Zen is the fact that Perfect Wisdom reveals the essence of enlightenment. As a synonym for emptiness and thusness, enlightenment is neither existence nor nonexistence; it cannot be described or explained. “Just the path is enlightenment; just enlightenment is the path” (Conze, Selected Sayings – see for more relevant excerpts).


The Idea of Progress (Sidney Pollard)

With the decline in the belief of supernatural sanctions, which began with the Enlightenment, it has, indeed, become much harder to find a firm resting place, a fixed point on which a moral system or a social objective greater than the individual can be built up. What is a crime from one point of view, is heroic self-sacrifice from another, and all the civic virtues of one system become persecuted vices over the border, where political power is built on a different class structure. In this ocean of restless waves there has emerged only one firm island outside the temporal and biased perspective of each separate interest: the continuous improvement, that is to say, the progress of humanity itself. It is a yardstick against which the separate contributions of men, of classes, and of theories, can be measured, and it can give moral reassurance to those who are well aware of the relativity of their convictions, but who yet require, psychologically, the assurance of a firmer morality. Conversely, without the conviction of progress, there is no alternative to an inevitable despair in reason and in a rational, scientific approach to society, and to the decline into a mythology of nihilism. (from The Idea of Progress, by Sidney Pollard, London 1968, p.180-181)

Karma’s Ontological Importance (Matthew MacKenzie)

The Concept of Karma does Important Ontological Work within Buddhist Philosophy (from Enacting Selves, Enacting Worlds: On the Buddhist Theory of Karma, by Matthew MacKenzie, in Philosophy East and West, Honolulu, April 2013):
In addition to the important role it plays in Buddhist moral theory, moral psychology and soteriology, the concept of karma does important ontological work within Buddhist philosophy. Self, world, and action are taken to be three interdependent aspects of an ontologically and phenomenologically more basic and universal process of [inter]dependent co-arising (pratityasamutpada). Thus, not only do actions, as common sense would have it, arise from selves interacting with the world, but also, Buddhist philosophers insist, selves and the world are enacted in and through the process of [inter]dependent origination. It is perhaps not clear which idea is more paradoxical – that we enact ourselves or that we enact the world – but in any case I will begin with the former idea and take up the latter in the next section. [Neither exposition in this short excerpt.]

One central focus of Indian Buddhism is the examination of the structure and dynamics of lived experience in the service of identifying and addressing the distortions and afflictions that perpetuate human suffering (duhkha). What is distinctive about Buddhist thought – both within its own historical and intellectual milieu and, to some degree, within the context of philosophy more generally – is its radical rejection of substantialism in favor of an ontology of interdependent events and processes. In the Buddhist view, phenomena arise in dependence on a network of causes and conditions. Thus, the Buddhist analysis of any particular entity, event, or process will not be based on the categories of substance and attribute, agent and action, or subject and object. Rather, the analysis will focus on the dynamic patterns of interaction within which events arise, have their effects, and pass away. The identity of any persisting object, then, is determined by its place in this vast pattern of relations. Indeed, even what we would normally conceive of as enduring substances are reconceptualized as more or less stable patterns of more basic and more ephemeral events and processes. It is against the backdrop of these basic analytical and ontological commitments, then, that we can understand the Buddhist account of the self and the claim that we create and recreate ourselves through karma. (more relevant excerpts at

The Self in Buddhism and Western Philosophy (Moore)

The Self in Buddhism and Western Philosophy (from Political Theory in Canonical Buddhism, by Matthew J. Moore, in Philosophy East and West, January 2015)

Yet, not surprisingly, the Western philosophical tradition contains several different strands of thought about the self, which are more or less close to the [no-self] Buddhist position. The view that is the furthest from the Buddhist no-self theory is the Greek and Christian idea that human beings are or posses selves, and that these selves are indestructible, immortal natural essences (i.e. souls). A view that takes one step toward the Buddhist position is the idea that human beings are or posses selves, but that these selves arise more-or-less contingently from the functioning of the body and/or mind. In this group we get thinkers like William James, who argues that the self is ultimately merely a way of talking about some aspects of the body, like Kant, who argues that the mind’s perception of a single, unified self is merely the logically necessary but empirically unverifiable corollary of the mind’s perception of external objects extended in space and time, and finally like the contemporary “embodied mind” school of thought [cf. embodied cognition], which builds off of phenomenology to suggest that our experience of being selves may be rooted in both bodily and cognitive processes. The closest that Western thinking about the self gets to the Buddhist perspective comes in the work of Hume, who suggests that the self is an illusion but one that we cannot get rid of, and Nietzsche, who suggests that the self is an illusion that we might turn to our own purposes. One influential line of contemporary Western thought (which roughly corresponds to “postmodernism”) has built on the insights of Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche to argue that identity is either largely or wholly contingent or constructed.

Given this range of ideas, we can see, first, that while the Buddhist no-self position goes further in one direction than any influential Westerm theory, there are similarities between the two traditions, and, second, that the Buddhist position extends one of the Western approaches to its logical conclusion. The anatta doctrine would not be shocking to Hume, Kant, or Nietzsche, though none of them would be prepared to embrace it, and it, at the same time, represents the logical next step for contemporary theories of the constructed and contingent nature of identity. Thus, the Buddhist theory is not so foreign that it could not enter into conversation with Western theories, and it presents the opportunity to extend more familiar theories in their natural direction of development. For both reasons, it is simultaneously distinct from Western theories and an appealing alternative (or supplement) to them. (this excerpt compiled by

Atomistic vs. Holist Composition (Harte)

Atomistic vs. Holist Composition, from Plato’s Metaphysics of Structure, in Plato on Parts and Wholes, by Verity Harte, 2002, Oxford 2005, p.276-8.

David Lewis [1941-2001] has what one might call an ‘atomistic’ approach to composition. By this I do not mean that Lewis is committed to the existence of atoms. What I mean is that Lewis approaches composition from the bottom up. One starts with things, which are candidate parts, as the building blocks of composition. And one builds up to composites from these things by taking various sets of things, which are more or less related to each other in various ways. But the various ways in which the things in question are related (including their composing something) seem somehow secondary to the things themselves. […]

In contrast to such an ‘atomistic’ approach to composition, the alternative model of composition that I have attributed to Plato might rather be described as a ‘holist’ conception. Rather than working from the bottom up, it proceeds, as it were, from the top down. The identity of a part is determined only in the context of the whole of which it is part. Thus, whether or not there is something such that it is a part of something else is determined only in the context of the whole in question. Wholes come first; and parts – and the things that are parts – only thereafter.

The contrast between these two approaches to composition has consequences for the evaluation of Lewis’ argument against the imposition of any restrictions upon composition. Lewis’ ‘things’ are all candidate parts. Indeed, by the Axiom of Unrestricted Composition, they will all in fact be parts, and, in almost all cases, parts of very many fusions indeed. But each such thing has perfectly good identity conditions independently of the fusion(s) of which each is part. Such an assumption is necessary, if, in arguing against restrictions upon composition, Lewis is to argue that any attempt to impose restrictions on which ‘classes of things’ compose something must perforce result in vagueness, since, Lewis supposes, it will be ‘a vague matter whether a given class satisfies our intuitive desiderata for composition’. But, Lewis argues, ‘The question … whether a given class does or does not have a mereological sum … cannot have a vague answer’. If this argument is to get purchase, things must come first. If, alternatively, parts are to be found only in the context of the whole they compose, Lewis’ argument appears to be blocked at the first move.

The nondualist difficulty with theism (Loy)

The nondualist difficulty with theism (from Nonduality in the Bhagavad-Gita, in Nonduality, A Study in Comparative Philosophy, by David Loy, 1988, Amherst, New York, 1998, p.290-291, spelling slightly modified)

The nondualist difficulty with theism is not just that God is a person, but that this person is an ‘other’ to us – ‘Wholly Other’ as the early Karl Barth stressed and later repudiated. Of course, the two concepts are closely related. My awareness of being a person is dependent on there being other persons; a sense of self arises only in dialectical relation to other selves. Then is God a person only in relation to myself? If so, what will happen if I ‘merge’ with God – which is the goal of most theistic mystics, just as nondualists wish to realize their oneness with Brahman, and so on. In this union with God, I am of course transformed – but then won’t God be transformed too? Into what?

In samadhi the meditator seems to merge with the object of his concentration; my awareness of the object (physical or mental) is no longer distinguishable from the object. Usually this is only a temporary trance state, for the mind later becomes preoccupied with thoughts again. But the nondualist claims that this is not a delusion. On the contrary, it is a glimpse of the true nondual nature of phenomena: they are not other than ‘my’ mind. Because he was able to let his individual mind and body “drop away”, Dogen realized that “mind is nothing other than mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars” – the essential Mahayana claim that is equally crucial to Advaita. But unlike Buddhism, Advaita finds a role for God in Shankara’s distinction between Saguna (with attributes, i.e. Ishvara) and Nirguna (without attributes, i.e. completely empty of any phenomenal characteristics) Brahman. The transcendental latter, like Meister Eckhart’s Godhead, is inactive and immutable, whereas the former is not immanent ‘in‘ the world but ‘is’ the wold as the totality of Brahman’s self-luminous manifestations. Yet how is this description of Saguna Brahman equivalent to God? And, more generally, how can we understand the relation between these two Brahmans?

Shankara says that Brahman reflected in maya [illusion] is Ishvara (God), whereas Brahman reflected in avidya [delusion, ignorance] is the jiva (ego-self). Given that Shankara (unlike Gaudapada) generally seems to identify maya with avidya, this seminal statement must mean that the mystical experience of God as the true nature of the phenomenal world is still somewhat illusory (maya), the ‘other side’ of the delusion (avidya) of myself as still other than the world. A bit of maya persists if I perceive Brahman (Eckhart’s deitas) as God, but only because I experience him as other than myself. God is the Absolute viewed from outside, as it were: still a bit dualistically. Then the Impersonal Absolute is the true nature of God – nondual because completely incorporating ‘my’ consciousness as well. In other words, to experience God is to forget oneself to the extent that one becomes aware of a consciousness pervading everywhere and everything. To experience the Godhead/Absolute is to ‘let go’ completely and realize that consciousness is nothing other than ‘me’, fully becoming what I have always been. The sense of ‘holiness’ (Rudolf Otto’s ‘the numinous’) is not something added onto the phenomenal world in such mystical experiences but is an inherent characteristic of ‘my’ self-luminous mind, although realized only when its true nature is experienced.

Outward and Inward (Kathy Kundalini)

These terms “outward” and “inward” [as in ‘looking outward at the Universe’ and ‘looking inward into this body and mind’] have a way of revolving into one another, twisting and turning around like a möbius strip – on one side is written “mind” and the other side is written “world”. The world I see is contained in my mind, yet my body/mind are also contained in the world. The world appears “outside” of me as a fantastic and infinite field of events, yet all I perceive is the result of impacts upon my body, all I perceive is happening on me and in me, like I am a shining glow of perceptions, moving in and through the world. My body feels like a container within which is “me”, yet my body also feels exterior, like it is already in that world beyond my mind, and thus I see it “out there” like any other perception. I feel myself to be singular, a single being, yet I know I am made up of multitudes. I feel I am “this body” — because I can move, feel, see myself wrapped in this container of flesh, yet all that I am is immediately connected with energies, flows, and structures well beyond my physical container. I am this air, this earth, this electromagnetic energy, this gravity, this atmosphere, this sun, this galaxy… my body literally extends throughout all creation, as I am its expression, its mode of embodiment, a moment of its evolution. I live, breathe, walk, think, perceive, engage, and feel in an interplay of energies, life-forms, consciousnesses that are alive, communicating, intelligent, with rich vibrancy beyond my imagination. It all appears separate from me, yet is also who I am – the field and flow are my energy and form, my existence is dependent on the field, and it flows through me as my life-energy and my experience. I am my experience, yet also more than I can ever experience. I am a nexus of interdependent origination, which paradoxically makes me a kind of “nothing”, or rather a mere appearance, a momentary “something” that seems to singularly exist, yet this “nothing”, or appearing “something”, is also an overflowing “everything” – a cosmos expressing itself in time and space, in and through this body, and through this mind, this spirit. I am singular, multiple, dual, non-dual, finite, and infinite, all seemingly at the same time. What are my boundaries are only borderlines, or really, gateways, pathways, conduits of energies and waves which conspire to create this living, moving form. The Universe and I are one, yet also interpenetrating opposites, in a dialectical dance. The world is my body, my mind, everywhere I look, there I am. Yet like my body, it overflows with energies and events which I just cannot contain within this mind that knows itself as “I”. They are beyond me yet within me at the same time. This is a gift, a mystery, a puzzle, a source of suffering, as well as amazement, perplexity, and wonder. It invites both acceptance and transcendence…

“There is a memory of ocean,
the swelling of waves.
the movement of great things,
just beneath the surface.
My conscious mind staggers,
a part sleeping begins to waken.
What is this great thing
That has caught us up?”

Upon attaining Enlightenment, the Buddha was not only looking within, but he was also looking outward, into the world, into the universe. Looking out into the sky he saw the Morning Star. Here the seeing and the seen are not two, they are one. “I together with all beings and the Great Earth attain the Way.”

~ by Kathy Kundalini, 2014; the poetic excerpt is from “Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm” by Stephen Harrod Buhner.

Rejection of Material Attachments (Alan Fox)

Both Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and [the legendary and obscure ‘proto-daoist’] Yangzi seem to be as concerned with the quality of life as they are with its length. Thoreau further believes that the simple life is conducive not only to individual health, but also ultimately to social stability: “I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.”

That is, it is to a certain extent our emphasis on, and imbalanced distribution of, material goods that cultivates negative moral values. This concern is consistent with the Yangist and Daoist traditions. As A.C. Graham points out [in his Disputers of the Tao, Philosophical Argument in Ancient China, Chicago 1989]: “In the present-day version of the Lao-tzu there are many passages expressing this idea of prizing life and despising material things.” Besides the resemblance to, among others, chapter 3 of the Daodejing, where Laozi suggests that “not valuing what is hard to come by will prevent the people from considering thievery”, what is significant here is a utopic conception of primal simplicity. On the individual level, this kind of simplicity, for Thoreau as well as for Yangzi, constitutes a kind of efficiency, which conserves vital resources and ensures the maximum enjoyment or sense of fulfilment of life. On a social level, it leads to social stability and lack of friction and conflict in general social intercourse. In the broadest, most comprehensively ecological sense, we can also say that this kind of conservationism is also conducive to a healthy natural environment. Individuals, societies, and whole ecologies work better when they are allowed to operate in the most simple and efficient manner, according to this model.

In this regard, Thoreau and Yangist thought both seem inconsistent with adherence to formalities that involve affected manners and empty courtesies. On the other hand, such behaviour constitutes an unrecoverable waste of human and natural resources. But further, it also represents hypocritical distractions from the more subtle but truly important concerns of life. Thoreau says: “I delight to come to my bearings, not to walk in procession with pomp and parade, in a conspicuous place, but to walk even with the Builder of the universe, if I may, not in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, but stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by. What are men celebrating? They are all on a committee of arrangements, and hourly expect a speech from somebody.”

This is generally reminiscent of the very common critiques of Confucian rites and manners (li) found in the writings of the Mohists and some of the Daoists. In some of these accounts, superficial virtues are accused of crowding out more substantial and authentic ones. For example, chapter 5 of the Daodejing emphasizes that the imposition of moral standards tends to impede the natural course of events, and specifically repudiates the cardinal Confucian virtue of ren (often translated as humaneness, benevolence or perfect social integration) as artificial and arbitrary. And Thoreau says of the truly good person that “his goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious”. That is, it is better to be good than to act good. Thus, the artificial, ‘manufactured’ quality of ceremony is rejected by the ideal person as inhibiting one’s intrinsically determined evolution and development. (Adapted from Rejection of Material Attachments, in Guarding what is Essential: Critiques of Material Culture in Thoreau and Yang Zhu, by Alan Fox, in Philosophy East and West, Honolulu, July 2008)

Spinoza: Every Event a Necessary Part of the Whole (Cahn)

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) viewed the world as possessing an intelligible structure according to which every event was in principle comprehensible as a necessary part of the whole. The logical order of that whole was to be understood only ‘through itself’ and was variously termed ‘substance’, ‘Nature’, or ‘God’. The geometric format of [his masterpiece] the Ethics illustrates this central thesis, since the propositions, corollaries and notes are all intended as deductions from the initial definitions and axioms, which are presented as self-explanatory. Part I contains Spinoza’s detailed demonstration of the essence of God. In Part II he offers his solution to the traditional philosophical problem of the relation between mind and body, regarding these not, as Descartes had, as two separate substances, but rather as two aspects of the one Substance. The remainder of the Ethics contains Spinoza’s moral theory and his view of the ideal life. The term ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are, according to Spinoza, merely words we use to express our own desires. In order to achieve salvation, we need to free ourselves from the bondage of these emotions and strive through reason to achieve knowledge of and identification with the order of the universe, thus coming to possess ‘the intellectual love of God’ which is ‘blessedness’. By thus reinterpreting the concept of God and imparting spirituality to the study of Nature, Spinoza fused his commitment to the scientific model of knowledge with the monotheistic vision of his religious heritage. (from Baruch Spinoza, in Classics of Western Philosophy, edited by Steven M. Cahn, Indianapolis 1977)

The Three-Treatise School (Wing-tsit Chan)

The Three-Treatise School (from The Philosophy of Emptiness: Chi-tsang of the Three-Treatise School, in A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, by Wing-tsit Chan, Princeton 1963, 1969, 1973)

The Three-Treatise School and the Consciousness-Only School [Vijñanavada] represented the two major developments of Mahayana or Great Vehicle philosophy in India. The former insists that dharmas (elements of existence) and their causes are unreal and has therefore been known as the School of Non-being, while the latter insists that they are real and has therefore been known as the School of Being. Both were introduced into China by outstanding philosophers. Both had something profound and subtle to offer which China had never known. Both lasted for several centuries. But both failed to exert lasting influence on Chinese thought. It is important to understand why this has been the case.

The Three-Treatise School, called Madhyamika (Middle Doctrine) in Sanskrit, was founded in India by Nagarjuna (c.100-200 A.D.). Kumarajiva (344-413) introduced it into China by translating Nagarjuna’s two most important treatises, the Madhyamika sastra (Treatise on the Middle Doctrine) and the Dvadasanikaya sastra (Twelve Gates Treatise) and his disciple Aryadeva’s Sata sastra (One Hundred Verses Treatise). Hence the school is called the Three-Treatise School.

The central concept of the school is Emptiness (Sunyata) in the sense that the nature and characters of all dharmas, together with their causation, are devoid of reality. Thus all differentiations, whether being or non-being, cause or effect, or coming-into-existence or going-out-of-existence are only ‘temporary names’ and are empty in nature. The only reality is Emptiness itself, which is the absolute, Ultimate Void, the Original Substance, or in Chinese terminology, the correct principle (cheng-li). As such it is equivalent to Nirvana and the Dharma-body.

The doctrine was transmitted in China through Kumarajiva’s pupil Seng-chao (384-414) and played a dominant role there from the fourth to the seventh century. It had a tremendous attraction for the Chinese because its philosophy of Emptiness suited the temper of Chinese intellectuals of Wei-Chin times (220-420), who were then propagating the Taoist doctrine of non-being. Its highly developed and systematic method of reasoning was a stimulating novelty to the Chinese. Its spirit of criticism and refutation gave the rebellious Chinese philosophers, including the Neo-Taoists, a sense of emancipation. Its nominalism reinforced the Chinese opposition to the Confucian doctrine of ranks and names, especially in the sixth century. In addition to all this, it had the great fortune [sic] of having as its systematiser the outstanding figure, Chi-tsang (549-623). […]

Ironically, Chi-tsang’s success was at the same time the failure of his school, for it became less and less Chinese. As mentioned before, Seng-chao was still a bridge between Taoism and Buddhism. He combined the typical Chinese concept of identity of substance and function, for example, with the Buddhist concepts of temporary names and Emptiness. In Chi-tsang, substance and function are sharply contrasted instead. In that, he was completely Indian in viewpoint, although he quoted Taoists. As a systematiser and transmitter of Indian philosophy, he brought about no cross-fertilization between Buddhist and Chinese thought. And it happened that the Indian thought which he promoted was so utterly unacceptable to the Chinese that the school declined in the ninth century. […]

To this [the Middle Doctrine] school, refutation of erroneous views is essential for and indeed identical with the elucidation of right views. But when a right view is held in place of a wrong one, the right view itself becomes one-sided and has to be refuted. It is only through this dialectic process that Emptiness can be arrived at, which alone is free from names and character and is ‘inexplicable in speech and unrealizable in thought’.  The specific method in this dialectic process is Nagarjuna’s Middle Path of Eightfold Negations, which denies that dharmas come into existence or go out of existence, that they are permanent or come to an end, that they are the same or different, and that they come or go away. The basis of all arguments is the so-called Four Points of Argumentation. By the use of this method of argument, a dharma as being, as non-being, as both being and non-being, and as neither being nor non-being are all refuted and proved to be untrue. Chi-tsang illustrates this method fully in his refutation of causation.

It is obvious that this approach is as nihilistic as it is destructive. The school had little new substance to offer and nothing constructive. It is true that Emptiness as the Absolute is as pure and perfect as anything conceivable, but being devoid of specific characters and divorced from mundane reality, it becomes too abstract for the Chinese. It might be hoped that its novel and radical method of reasoning at least aroused the Chinese mind and led to a new approach to life and reality, but it did not. That opportunity was left to the Zen (Meditation, Ch’an) School.

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