Advayavada Buddhism

ON COURSE WITH NATURE.

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The term Advayavada (Murti)

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, 1955, 1960, London 1968, p.217: “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 [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 and not on the known.” It is in this sense that we use the term ‘advayavada’. (from advayavada.org/qanda.htm)

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More Questions and Answers

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.

question I would agree with you that the objective of the Middle Way is to reconcile us with existence. Or to be more precise, it helps to understand life as it is. This is a condition for being to go forwards. However we are influenced by many things like greed, hatred and ignorance. These can take us backwards. The way to go forwards then is to develop the Eightfold Path. Or rather the Eightfold Path develops when there are conditions for its development. These conditions are the intellectual understanding of the Eightfold Path.

answer You are asked to accept the preeminence of existence over mankind, and that existence cannot, by definition, be anything but just right as it is, and that the Eightfold Path is an ongoing reflexion at the level of our personal lives of existence as a whole becoming over time. We must not see the Buddha’s Middle Way devoid of extremes as an attitude or method that will enable us e.g. ‘to escape from the realities of life’ or ‘to make it somehow in spite of things’, but we must understand the Buddha’s most fundamental teaching correctly as the means to reconnect and reconcile us with wondrous overall existence as a whole as it truly is. We must, in fact, accept that to live the way existence as a whole is, and not some idealized form of humanity, is what is to be sought after by men.

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.

Nagarjuna and the Madhyamika School (Ling)

Nagarjuna and the Madhyamika school (from A History of Religion East and West, by Prof. Trevor Ling, 1968, Basingstoke 1988)

We have seen that one of the earliest developments in Buddhist thought in the Mahayana direction was the idea that even dhammas (regarded by the Theravadins as the indivisible ultimate events of which all existence is composed) are in fact substanceless; all things, even dhammas, are void of substance, or shunya. This idea is first found in a Mahayana text which was translated into Chinese at the end of the second century C.E. and which may therefore be regarded as having had its origin somewhere in north-west India in the first century C.E.

Those who assert (vadin) this doctrine of the voidness of substance (shunya) even in dhammas, are called shunyavadins. Another name for this school of thought is the Madhyamika school, or school of the ‘middle position’ (madhya is cognate with Latin media). The middle position referred to was not that of the earlier period of Buddhism, when the Buddha’s teaching was known as ‘the Middle Way’, that is, between self-mortification and sensuality, but between the complete realism of the Sarvastivadins who asserted that all dhammas, past, present and future, were real; and the absolute idealism of the Yogacharin school.

The Madhyamika school is generally regarded as having been founded by Nagarjuna in the second century C.E. It is significant that Nagarjuna was a brahman from south central India (Andhra) who had thrown in his lot with Buddhism. The school of thought which he developed certainly has affinities with brahman philosophical thought; although it was developed in opposition to certain of the orthodox brahman philosophies (Sankhya and Vaishesika), it was generally more akin to these schools than to the early Abhidhamma of Pali Buddhism. An excellent account of the Madhyamika school has been provided by T.R.V. Murti (1955). His view of the development of this school is that it may be described in terms of a dialectic. The original thesis was the atma-affirming doctrine of the Upanishads; the antithesis to this was the denial of any enduring atta (atma) in early Buddhism, formalised in the Abhidhamma; the synthesis is found in the Madhyamika.

According to Murti is was the inadequacy and inconsistency of the Abhidhamma system, especially the Sarvastivadin Abhidhamma, which led to the development of the Madhyamika. The essential concern of the Madhyamika is with the relation between the empirical world of the senses, which in Buddhist thought generally is known as Samsara (the continued round of existence), and the transcendental reality Nirvana. According to the Madhyamika, Nirvana is present in Samsara, but men are prevented from recognising this and entering into it because of the false constructions they put upon the world. The removal of these false constructions (the negation of the negation) and the attainment of Nirvana is the religious goal, in the Madhyamika Buddhist view. The way to do this is by cultivating a view of the substanceless nature of things. To accomplish this, they hold, needs a long course of meditational training.

The Madhyamika Absolute is epistemic (Chatterjee)

The Madhyamika Absolute is epistemic (from The Yogacara Idealism, by Ashok Kumar Chatterjee, foreword by T.R.V. Murti, 1962, 1975, Delhi 2007)

Self-consciousness of Reason itself is the Madhyamika Absolute. The approach is purely negative here. Negation is not complete in the Vedanta and the Yogacara; it is in the service of an affirmation, which is really the guiding principle of these systems. Negation is simply the removal of the outer husk as it were, which hides the inner core, the affirmation. For the Madhyamika, it is bare negation, total and absolute, so far as thought goes. The Absolute is identified with nothing within thought, i.e. within phenomena. Though the Absolute in both other systems is said to be beyond thought, the transition is made easy by indicating something within phenomena themselves which is not exhausted in it and has a transcendent existence. The gulf between phenomena and noumenon is not frightfully abrupt in these systems. It is bridged by that which is itself not phenomenal but can yet be shown to work within it. This reality is pure Being in the Vedanta and pure Will in the Yogacara. But, for the Madhyamika, it is not anything within phenomena. His interest in phenomena is indirect; primarily he criticises the various views; but, as in metaphysics there can be had no neutral fact which is not coloured by one view or another, that is, which is not subject of any predication, affirmative or negative, his criticism of all views amounts to the rejection of phenomena in toto. It is not merely one aspect of it that is negated, the other being preserved and exalted as the Absolute. No aspect is preferred to any other; criticism is complete here. Avidya is not viewing things as objective which are really identical with consciousness [as it is in Yogacara], nor viewing things as different which are in reality identical [as it is in Vedanta], but it [i.e. avidya] is “viewing” as such, Reason itself.

The argument of both the other systems is that illusion is not possible without a substrate reality. For them the Madhyamika is an extreme position where there is an illusion without any underlying reality which alone makes it possible. This substrate is Consciouness for the Yogacara and Being for the Vedantin. The Madyamika does not deny the necesssity of a substrate; his contention is that it cannot be identified with anything within the context of the illusion itself; in that particular context everything is relative to each other and is therefore equally false. The substrate is the critical consciousness itself, which, when diversified by the views, becomes false. Remove all thought categories and the basic reality, the Dharmata or Tathata of things, shines forth. It has not to be led to in a particular way; it is just the cancellation of all ways.

The Madhyamika Absolute is therefore epistemic. At first sight it might seem to be utterly transcendent, but a closer inspection reveals the fact that it is nothing outside thought, not a thing-in-itself. The Vedantic as well as the Yogacara Absolute are both ontological. In the Vedanta it is one reality without a second, the only existent; it is rather existence itself. In the Yogacara also it has no other than itself, being the only reality. In the Madhyamika however, what is negated is not any second reality other than the Absolute, as in the former two systems, but rather any view about it. As has just been said, the Absolute is purely epistemic [epistemological] here. Contrasted with this, the Vedantic Absolute may be said to be ontological and the Yogacara Absolute psychological.

More Questions and Answers

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.

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.

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.

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