Advayavada Buddhism


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question Do you not agree that the vast common ground shared by all people without exception everywhere is predominantly secular? Is it not crucial to develop awareness in society of this fact so that it may become the universally accepted basis for conflict prevention and resolution all over the world?

answer The common ground shared by all ‘isms’ is indeed essentially secular or non-religious. Whether they admit to it or not, all religions and beliefs contain and share a very large secular, nonmetaphysical component. Take, say, the universal struggle against evil, caring for our children or, more simply, eating. We must all eat, whatever our religion or belief. The need to eat, the biological requirement to nourish ourselves, obviously belongs to the neutral common ground of all people without exception. Now, some people say grace before eating. Clearly, only this ritual of saying grace can be said to belong in any way legitimately to the particular religious belief involved, but certainly not the basic need to eat as such. The universal need to eat pertains entirely to the shared secular component we speak of, and it is in our view quite presumptuous for any religion to interfere with this natural human necessity and others, like clothing and sexuality, which all obviously belong unconditionally to the whole of existence. (cf. radical mediocrity)

We therefore say ‘First our common ground, then our religion or belief’, and the ten principles underpinning all our Foundation’s initiatives all essentially belong to, and sustain, the common ground we speak of. They are, for your ready reference, the following unequivocal principles of (1) the secular state; (2) a multicultural society; (3) liberal democratic government; (4) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; (5) gender equality and education for all; (6) fair trading and sharing; (7) non-violence and peace; (8) Common Ground conflict resolution; (9) the care for health and environment; and (10) international cooperation and solidarity.

question The human community cannot reclaim its common ground until it can move religion completely off of the property. The various religions of the world are sitting directly on top of it, having hijacked the common ground from its rightful owners. I am referring to the community property of morality and ethics and to the common cause and condition that is fully addressed by the Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Path and The Four Signs of Being of Buddhism and certain other secular sources of practical wisdom.

answer Though officially less radical than you, deep in his heart the writer could not agree more – what religion as the main rationale for the present socio-economic organisation of humanity is doing to his beautiful world, to the only world we have, is a source of much pain to him. Nevertheless, he of course accepts and supports that, as stated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; that this right includes freedom to change his or her religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his or her religion or belief in teaching, worship and observance’. When we speak of a multicultural society we indeed mean one freely allowing cultural and religious pluralism and diversity of choice.

question What is ‘radical mediocrity’?

answer La condition humaine postmoderne (Henk Oosterling), utopia vulgaris (John Willemsens). Radical mediocrity, as we understand the term, is our common ground with the cultural overlay caused by our dependency on modern media (tools and appliances, travel, communication, and access to information) which stifles our individuality and, with it, our critical ability. Some see the concept ‘radical mediocrity’ more positively, as having a potential for a new kind of person, an ‘interbeing’ or ‘zwischenmensch’, a ‘dividual’, instead of an ‘individual’, the challenge being to uncover and develop the spiritual and creative dimension of such a postmodern society – the core of radical mediocrity would be affirmative because ‘we want to be connected to all others’. (cf. Chapter 80 of the Tao Te Ching, which propounds the opposite.)


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question In what you say in your web pages there is a flavor of some sort of an underlying absolute reality. In some sense, of course, that must be true. As we investigate reality, we might imagine ourselves digging deeper and deeper into its fundamental reality. Absolute reality would be like the center of the earth – maybe it is beyond the capacity of human language to express, but there it is all the same. The contrasting view I prefer is more like probing out into space. The more we investigate, the vaster the universe appears. Eventually maybe we realize that space is boundless and that our investigations will be limited only by how far we push them.

answer The results of that digging or probing, however sophisticated, still belong to conventional truth. They are only so many more conventional ontological facts, about phenomena, that one has been able to collect. They do not belong to an underlying reality nor do they have an underlying reality themselves. There is in Advayavada Buddhism no underlying reality, separate from phenomena, to be investigated. What we are after is ultimate truth. It is as a result of the purification of our perception of the phenomenal world, indeed at the level of conventional truth, that we shall come to understand the significance of ultimate truth. Nirvana is to experience the phenomenal world at this level of ultimate truth – to experience the phenomenal world thus, brings about the complete extinction of all suffering as a direct result of our full reconciliation with reality as it truly is.

question Nagarjuna says something like this: “However confused people are who take ordinary appearances as substantially existent, even more confused are those who take emptiness as substantially existent.” So how can we be after something that is not a thing at all? I think of absolute truth, of emptiness, as something like the inevitable ungraspability of things. And it isn’t just ordinary things that are ungraspable. Also Buddhahood and emptiness are ultimately ungraspable. Emptiness simply already is, it’s the nature of everything already, completely and thoroughly. But I nevertheless have the bad habit of grasping at things as if they were ultimately graspable, and I suffer and create suffering for others because of the incompatibility of my actions with the way things actually are. I need to bring myself into harmony with the nature of things, with their ungraspability, which is inseparable from their mutual interdependence.

answer To realize what in Advayavada Buddhism we term ‘to become a true part of the whole’ one must follow the Eightfold Path. In Advayavada Buddhism the Path is interpreted dynamically as a fully autonomous process of progressive insight and, let us clarify further here, as strictly non-dual and non-comparative, this in the sense that it bears no reference at all to anything predetermined by others or oneself. A prescriptive method with preset demands and expectations is antithetical to all progress, both of the individual and the group to which he or she belongs. The Path is moreover not seen in Advayavada Buddhism as a means to become something in the future, but as the way to become as something rightaway in the herenow. It is seen as the way to become oneself herenow as existence interdependently becoming over time now in its overall right direction – it is by becoming herenow as the whole of existence as it is beyond our commonly limited and biased personal experience of it, that we free ourselves from suffering. Nirvana is when we experience our own existence as being completely in harmony with existence as a whole becoming over time, with natura naturans – Nirvana is, if you wish, the ultimate reconciliation with his or her Buddha-nature achievable by man.

question We normally wander around sensing that phenomena are imbued with their own self-possessed selfness that marks them to be what they are, independent of anything else. We innately and intellectually perceive them to exist from their own side alone, self-established and intrinsically identifiable. They may be related or interact with other phenomena, but we generally see them to contain their own distinguishing identity. Doctrinally and experientially this is the selfness that is refuted in Buddhism. Emptiness (shunyata) is the non-affirming negation of such inherent selfness. Emptiness is a negation that only negates without affirming some other possibility. It is not someplace occupied by mystics and seers. It is not a state of mind where no thoughts echo. It is not something we can detect by staring at things hard enough. In no way is anything else asserted. Also emptiness is empty. Teachings and meditators hold that emptiness can be perceived directly, but nowhere do they assert that emptiness becomes a something. Emptiness is the absence of what seemed to be obviously manifest.

answer Well said. The fully liberated person has two truths at his or her disposal: the conventional everyday relative or ‘veiled’ truth (samvriti-satya) of the phenomenal world and the ultimate truth (paramartha-satya) of its pure, unblemished becoming, its Emptiness. We say that it is as a result of the purification of our perception of the phenomenal world, at the level of conventional truth, that we shall come to understand the significance of ultimate truth. Nirvana is to experience the phenomenal world at this level of ultimate truth – to experience the phenomenal world thus, brings about the complete extinction (nirodha) of all suffering (duhkha, dukkha) as a direct result of our full reconciliation with reality as it truly is. Note, however, and always bear in mind, that man is the only being able to eventually view and experience reality under this aspect of eternity. In other words, Nirvana is a human concept.

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question Your contention that “the absolute and phenomena” are “exactly the same thing” but “observed subjectively from a different perspective” is reminiscent of Japanese Tendai’s hongaku thought, the chief characteristic of which is world-affirmation (genjitsu kotei). The major problematic of this doctrine, as you are aware, is that identity (advaya) amounts to the equivocation of phenomena with enlightenment – a quasi-pantheism. On the other hand, some Buddhists argue that identity takes place at the level of final enlightenment, sub specie aeternitatis. After a careful reading of your letters, I must assume that the so-called advayic identity of “absolute and phenomena” takes place at a phenomenal level for you, which I take is your position. By analogy, you are postulating that grasses and trees realize Buddhahood because of the identity (advaya) of subject and its environment. Yet it is easy to see that “grasses and trees” remain such as the environment remains such, neither losing its separate identity. How therefore is this identity, seems puzzling? In what way are even the grasses and trees identical? How is the sky identical with the trees and so on? I apologize if I am not making myself very clear. I enjoy our correspondence. We are like two old fools playing chess in the park!

answer Your closing remark, which made us laugh very much over here, is very zenny and almost like a haiku. Two old fools playing chess in the park, indeed! We are very grateful for your pleasant and forthcoming attitude. We are also enjoying this correspondence very much.

Tendai Buddhism, you might agree, risks becoming in the end, as a result of the exaggerated syncretistic zeal of its followers, no more than a well-meant ontological fantasy. The non-dual and life-affirming philosophy and way of life that we call Advayavada Buddhism is, on the other hand, purely an epistemological standpoint. In accordance with the doctrine of shunyata all distinctions are understood to be fundamentally illusory and artificial – dualisms as Nirvana and Samsara, or absolute and phenomena, are revealed as figments of our imagination. The term advaya in Advayavada means not-two in the sense of knowing that objectively there are not two realities nor two conditions or aspects of reality. When we say that Samsara and Nirvana are the same thing, we do not mean that they are identical in the sense of being two-but-the-same, as is meant by the Hindu term advaita, but that they are simply not two, that they are very literally one-and-the-same thing: rather simply put, Samsara is the name we give to reality as experienced conventionally and Nirvana is the name we give to the same one reality but as experienced by the fully enlightened mind – this identity is, indeed, also the third truth of basic Tendai philosophy.

The tendency to view reality as two is a result of our fundamental ignorance of the true nature of reality, as professor Murti writes in The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. The Spinozean expression sub specie aeternitatis is frequently used by Buddhists to indicate that we would see for ourselves that there are not two realities if we were able to view existence from the completely non-conceptual standpoint of eternity. We can however ascertain rightnow, as indeed Madhyamaka proves, that there is no basis whatsoever to suppose that besides phenomena there is a second, transcendent and, moreover, superior reality. The specific purpose of Advayavada Buddhism, which literally means not-two-ism, is to actively propound the conclusions of Madhyamaka philosophy in this respect. Your grasses and trees are indeed two of the many different manifestations of vegetable life. Advayavada Buddhism does not maintain that they are identical phenomena; what Advayavada Buddhism maintains is that there is no reason at all to believe that there is a further second reality, invisible to the eye, parallel to these life forms or any other phenomena. In Advayavada Buddhism there are no other two than part and whole, numerator and denominator.

There are not two realities, but there are, Madhyamaka teaches, two ways of seeing, of experiencing, of understanding the one reality: there are two truths, conventional everyday truth (samvriti-satya) and ultimate truth (paramartha-satya). In our everyday application of conventional truth, though we are aware of the intrinsic emptiness of all dharmas or phenomena since we know that all things are interdependently arisen and exist conceptually only by virtue of our idea of them or of their alleged opposite, we nevertheless do take into account and make use of the relative, conceptual aspects of phenomena in our commonplace interaction with other sentient beings and with our environment. As a matter of fact, the Noble Eightfold Path operates throughout exclusively at the level of conventional truth. As we advance along the Buddha’s Middle Way responding to his promise of Nirvana by ridding ourselves of the so-called ten fetters (dasha-, dasasamyojana) that restrict us to Samsara, the fallacies in our perception of Samsara are progressively transformed, purified first into conventional truth, and it is through conventional truth that we shall eventually come to understand the non-conceptual import of ultimate truth. The dialectic of Madhyamaka, with its exhaustive analysis of the nature of reality, indeed takes place at the level of conventional truth. By ultimate truth is meant our awareness of the underlying field of experience where all phenomena stripped of their relative aspects are known to happen: it is our insight into the void beyond all concepts. This field of experience where the real events are known to take place is that of non-dual emptiness, advayata, shunyata, the realm of prajña, non-dual, contentless intuition. To experience existence at this level, which we can truly say lies between the notions of being and non-being, is nothing less than Nirvana.

question What are those ten fetters you just mentioned?

answer In Advayavada Buddhism, the ten samyojana or fetters that restrict us to samsaric life are: 1) belief in the self, 2) scepticism regarding the Path, 3) attachment to rituals, 4) partiality for certain things, 5) prejudice against certain things, 6) clinging to physical life, 7) hope of a hereafter, 8) conceit and pride, 9) intolerance and irritability, and 10) the last remnants of our ignorance.

question Do I count three realms of experience in your description of the dvaya-satya doctrine: Samsara, conventional truth, and ultimate truth or Nirvana (more or less along the lines of the three kinds of knowledge in Spinoza: opinion, reason and intuition)?

answer Though Nagarjuna’s dvaya-satya teaching is very much a two-truths doctrine, as its Sanskrit name indicates, some aspects are comparable to Spinoza’s teaching. Our application in Advayavada Buddhism of this essential Madhyamika doctrine is as follows: Samsara is to experience the phenomenal world at the level of conventional everyday truth (samvriti-satya). However, our initial perception of the phenomenal world normally contains many fallacies (mithyasamvriti) and the conversion of these fallacies into true conventional truth (tathyasamvriti), by following the Noble Eightfold Path, occurs entirely within the realm of Samsara. At the same time the fetters that restrict us to Samsara are broken one by one. Ideally, our perception of Samsara becomes in the end wholly pure conventional truth, whilst all ten of the restraining fetters have also been shattered along the way. Now, it is as a result of this thorough purification of our perception of the phenomenal world, at the level of conventional truth, that we shall come to understand the significance of ultimate truth. Ultimate truth (paramartha-satya) is truth divested of all our preconceptions, including eventually those expressed here. Nirvana is to understand and experience the one phenomenal world at this level of ultimate truth – to experience the phenomenal world thus, brings about the complete extinction (nirodha) of all suffering (duhkha, dukkha) as a direct result of our full reconciliation with reality as it truly is. The fully liberated person has continually at his or her disposal, then, two truths: the everyday conventional truth of the phenomenal world and the ultimate truth of its pure, unblemished becoming, its Emptiness.

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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.

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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.

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