Under the rose-apple tree

Under the rose-apple tree

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Nāgārjuna & Non-Doing

Yesterday on the ferry over to France I browsed through Nagarjuna, Buddhism's Most Important Philosopher, by Richard H. Jones. Finding the book to be much better than I had remembered it being, I thought of contributing on Amazon a review titled “A Step in the Right Direction.”

Last night, having cycled the 12 miles from Flers, in the rain, and lit a fire to warm up the place and air the bedding, I emailed to let my wife know that I had arrived safely.

My wife emailed back:

Hi Mike,
Otsukare sama,
Tiger come back to his den

In reply the purported tiger sent back the following selfie:


Why am I telling you this here? you may wonder.

For a start, on reflection, it occured to me that if I wrote a review on Amazon it wouldn't be out of a sincere desire to help prospective buyers of Richard Jones's book. It would be out of a desire to draw attention to my own efforts. And so this blog might be a better place to keep pursuing the latter agenda.

Second, my wife's email of last night, combined with the greater strength in my centre that I generally feel when I start to sit here by the forest, reminds me exactly what the direction of my own efforts is.


(The sound of a tiger not roaring?)

That those efforts, whether noisy or quiet, have so far not had much in the way of desired effect, was at the forefront of my mind a couple of weeks ago when I wrote to Nelly Ben-Or, an Alexander teacher who, among all the teachers I have known, stands out as being exceptionally clear in regard to the difference between doing and non-doing.

The late Marjory Barlow was another Alexander teacher who was similarly clear. Marjory often quoted the words of her uncle FM Alexander that “When you think you are thinking you are actually feeling. When you think you are feeling you are doing.” 

Lessons with Nelly Ben-Or were an invariably humbling experience in finding out that what one felt was non-doing was usually just another variation on the theme of one's habitual doing.

So the email I sent to Nelly started like this:

Dear Nelly, 
I hope the spring finds you and Roger well.

The translation I have spent the last seven years working on has been published, but nobody seems to have noticed. So far it has only sold two copies, apart from the few I bought myself.

I am afraid that the world is not ready to see the extent to which Alexander really did rediscover the secret of Zen for our time, and this grumpy old sod is not the person to cause everybody to see it -- in spite of your own sterling work.

Maybe if I had somehow included the word "Mindfulness" in the title, that would have been a better marketing ploy for the book -- given the growing popularity of the "mindfulness" movement, according to which people attend dutifully to sensory inputs emanating from their flabby extremities, in a futile effort to be present in a moment that has already passed.

When I go back to the oldest text recording what the Buddha said about mindfulness, what he said was something like, "Causing bodily doing to cease, I will breathe in" -- like this [the monk] trains. "Causing bodily doing to cease, I will breathe out" -- like this he trains.

So the emphasis is on non-doing, and the orientation is forward, into the future.

But everybody thinks the Buddha said, "Calming the breath, I will breathe in"..... 
So a teaching for non-doing, everybody turns into a doing. I wonder if that surprises you....

What I realized while reading Richard Jones's book on the ferry is that Nāgārjuna has really spoken to Richard Jones, over many years, as a philosopher. Richard Jones has clearly put a lot of effort over the years into studying Nāgārjuna's teaching and in return Nāgārjuna has spoken to Richard Jones as a philosopher. This comes through particularly clearly in the essay at the end of the book, titled “Emptiness – The Philosophy of Nagarjuna.” Reading that essay yesterday, I thought that in its own terms it was not bad. As philosophy, it was a step in the right direction.

When I first obtained Jones's book last summer, my first impression was that I wanted to ask for my money back. So reading that essay yesterday caused me to revise my opinion from “waste of bloody money” to “step in the right direction.”

The basis of the “waste of money” view was Jones' translation of MMK26.10:

Thus, the one who is subject to the root-ignorance forms the dispositions that are the basis of the cycle of rebirths. Therefore, the one who is ignorant is the one who forms a new rebirth, not the one who knows by seeing reality.

Jones (2010) thus followed Kalupahana (1986) in translating saṁskārān... saṁskaroti as “forms dispositions" -- whatever the hell that means. 
Thus, the ignorant one forms dispositions that constitute the source of the life process. Therefore, it is the ignorant who is the agent, not the wise one, because of his [the latter's] perception of truth.

Cf Michael Luetchford (2002):
Hence the ignorant produces the roots of saṁsāra, formings. From this the ignorant is the agent, not the wise, because of seeing reality.
Cf also Sideris & Katsura (2013):
Thus does the ignorant one form the volitions that are the roots of saṁsāra. The ignorant one is therefore the agent; the wise one, having seen reality, is not.
Cf also Garfield (1994), from the Tibetan:
The root of cyclic existence is action. Therefore, the wise one does not act. Therefore, the unwise is the agent.This wise one is not because of his insight.

These translations (in chronological order) of Kalupahana, Garfield, Luetchford, Jones, and Sideris & Katsura, do not speak to me of non-doing. 

These words of Nāgārjuna, in contrast, do indeed speak to me of non-doing.
saṁsāra-mūlaṁ saṁskārān avidvān saṁskaroty ataḥ | 
avidvān kārakas tasmān na vidvāṁs tattva-darśanāt ||26.10|| 
The doings which are the root of saṁsāra thus does the ignorant one do. 
The ignorant one therefore is the doer; the wise one is not, thanks to seeing reality.
Going still further in the direction of non-doing, tattva-darśana can be translated not only as “seeing reality” but also as “reality realizing itself”:
The doings which are the root of saṁsāra thus does the ignorant one do. The ignorant one therefore is the doer; the wise one is not, thanks to reality realizing itself.
It occurred to me on the ferry that Nāgārjuna for many years has been speaking to Richard H. Jones as my Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima would have enjoyed talking to a person who was not interested in sitting-Zen practice, but was interested in philosophy.

If that person who was interested in philosophy subsequently wrote a book about Gudo Nishijima's philosophy of action, action being in the middle way between the two polar opposite views of idealism and materialism, such a book might be a step in the right direction. 

It occured to me that I ought to see Richard H. Jones not so much as a competitor in the Nāgārjuna translation market as somebody who is aiming to cater to a different niche in the market from the niche I am aiming at. 

The back cover of Jones's book says:
Included here are the translations from the Sanskrit of [Nāgārjuna's] most important philosophical works into plain English, so that the general educated public interested in Buddhism or philosophy can understand his thought.
And so I suppose I sensed a certain integrity there, a certain congruence between back cover and content. But the point I wanted to clarify with this post is that Nāgārjuna speaks to me, the same way that Dogen speaks to me, not primarily of philosophy but primarily of non-doing. My efforts are not directed at the educated or at those interested in Buddhism or philosophy. The point to be clear about -- the last 35 years of sitting practice have caused me to see -- is just non-doing.

"The wise one does not do," does not mean, as Garfield's translation infers, that the wise one does not act. "The wise one does not act" would mean that the wise one did not sit. For anybody who knows Dogen's teachings even a bit, the assertion that the wise one does not sit, as a teaching of a patriarch in Dogen's lineage, makes no sense at all.

The point is that the wise one sits in such a way as to allow the right thing to do itself. The right thing doing itself is, in other words, reality realizing itself.

That's what non-doing means – not that I do it, but that it does itself.

When I, believing in myself, aspire to become enlightened through my practice of sitting-meditation ...
saṁsāra-mūlaṁ saṁskārān avidvān saṁskaroty ataḥ | 
the doings which are the root of saṁsāra thus does the ignorant one do.
avidvān kārakas tasmān na vidvāṁs tattva-darśanāt ||MMK26.10|| 
The ignorant one therefore is the doer; the wise one is not, thanks to reality realizing itself.
I come here to sit by the forest in France because I know from repeated experience over the years that when I sit here the right thing tends easily to do itself. Hence my wife's reference to the tiger returning to its mountain stronghold. She knows because she is a teacher of non-doing in her own right and she has spent not a few hours herself sitting in lotus here by the forest.

The right thing doing itself has got little or nothing to do with me and everything to do with the forest. Being here to experience it happening is a kind of reward. The fact that others, beginning with Gudo Nishijima, have failed to see how FM Alexander re-discovered for our time the non-doing which is the secret of the Zen of Nāgārjuna and Dogen, is a kind of punishment.

It reminds me of a joke I remember Dave Allen telling back in the 1970s about a Catholic priest in Ireland who commited some terrible sin. He confessed to God who told him to go and play a round of golf. Preparing to drive at the first tee, the cleric looked up with trepidation, fearing that he might receive retribution at any moment in the form of a deadly thunderbolt. But far from it. The priest teed off and got a hole in one. The same thing happened for the next seventeen holes. And so at the 18th flag, the father fell down on his knees and expressed to God his bewilderment: "I do not understand, Lord. I have deserved Your wrath and yet You have allowed me to experience this miracle. Is it through Your great mercy that I have escaped punishment?" Then God boomed down: "You have not escaped punishment, my son. Your punishment is that nobody will believe you."

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Being Connected with Emptiness

The Buddha's teaching from the beginning
was connected with emptiness.
The middle way is empty of two views.
Five skandhas are empty of self.
Dispassion is empty of the fire of the passions.
Whatever is dependently arisen is empty of itself.

And so the Zen practitioner goes to an empty place,
like the foot of a tree.
Sitting down and directing the body up,
he aspires to the just sitting which is empty
of trying to be right,
of piecemeal self-adjustment,
of the body's habitual doing.

The cycle of saṁsāra is empty of substance:
it is like a circle of light
made by a sparkler on bonfire night.

Still, it is said that in the ending of ignorance,
the physical, verbal and mental doings
which are the root of saṁsāra, are no more.

Thanks to this knowing of emptiness,
Nāgārjuna wrote,
ignorance ends,
and so the cycle ends.  

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Ratnāvalī 1

sarva-doṣa-vinirmuktaṃ guṇaiḥ sarvair alaṃkṛtam |
praṇamya sarva-jñam ahaṃ sarva-sattvaika-bāndhavam ||Ratnāvalī 1|| 
To the one free of all the faults, 
To the one adorned with all the virtues, 
I shall bow down, to the all-knowing one,
To the one friend of all living beings; 


The FU of FUKAN-ZAZENGI means universal, for all living beings. 

Nāgārjuna begins his lesson to the king like Dogen begins the instructions for the sitting-meditation he recommends everybody to practice -- with words that are totally empty of sectarian arrogance. 

You say (though you are not even celibate) that you are a priest of the Soto Sect, following the teaching of Zen Master Dogen? 

I say you are full of nonsense. 

Like a Circle of Light from a Firebrand (or a Sparkler on Bonfire Night)

From Nāgārjuna's Ratnāvalī (A String of Jewels): 

skandha-grāho yāvad asti tāvad evāham ity api |
ahaṃkāre sati punaḥ karma janma tataḥ punaḥ ||
Ratnāvalī 35||
So long as there is skandha-grasping, 

So too is there the thought that "I am." 
There being "I"-making  turn, turn   there is karma, 
And from that karma  turn, turn  there is rebirth. 

tri-vartmaitad an-ādy-anta-madhyaṃ saṃsāra-maṇḍalam |
alāta-maṇḍala-prakhyaṃ bhramaty anyonya-hetukam ||Ratnāvalī 36|| 

three-track circuit with no beginning, end, 
Or middle, is this cycle of saṁsāra. 
Like a circle of light made by a sparkler, 
Round and around it goes, one thing leading to another.

From the Tibetan translation of Nāgārjuna's Śūnyatā-saptati-kārikā (Seventy Verses on Emptiness), which is no longer extant in its original Sanskrit: 

Produced phenomena [saṁskārāḥ] are similar to a village of gandharvas, an illusion, a hair net in the eyes, foam, a bubble, an emanation, a dream, and a circle of light produced by a whirling firebrand. 

Translated into English by David Ross Komito, in his book Nāgārjuna's Seventy Stanzas. 


ahaṃkāra, "I"-making, means in other words self-consciousness, or the processes leading to consciousness of a psycho-physical self. 

tri-vartman, the three tracks would be: 
1. "I"-making -- covering the arising of pyscho-physicality, grounded in divided consciousness, grounded in habitual doings, grounded in ignorance (and especially the ignorance in which the five skandhas are clung to as self); 
2. Karma; 
3. Rebirth, or further becoming. 
These three thus sort of summarize the twelve links in the chain of the dependent arising of suffering. 

alāta: [MW] n. a fire-brand, coal. 
The simile of the circle of light left behind by a whirling firebrand or a sparkler on bonfire night is a useful reminder that, of the twelve so-called links in the chain of the dependent arising of suffering, none exists independently as a separate thing-unto-itself. 

To conceive habitual doings as the enemy, or to conceive as the enemy the ignorance from which habitual doings emanate -- insofar as that conception includes seeing doings or ignorance as things in themselves -- is to miss the point. 

saṁskārāḥ in verse 66 of the Seventy Verses literally means what has been put together, constructed, concocted, compounded, fabricated, manufactured et cetera -- hence "produced phenomena" or "compounded phenomena." When categorized three ways, as in MMK26.1, saṁskārāḥ are bodily, verbal and mental doings. 

These are the two basic meanings of  saṁskāra  in MMK -- what is put together, and the ignorant doing that does the putting together.  For one English word that fits both meanings of saṁskārāḥ"doings" might come closest.  

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Emptiness as Motivation

  • The middle way is empty of two views. 
  • The five skandhas are empty of self. 
  • The buddha-mind is empty of any burning fire of passion. 
  • Whatever dependent arising there is, we call that emptiness.
Thus the first four discourses of the Buddha after his awakening are intextricably linked with emptiness.

When we study the first four discourses, there is no record in the Pali or the Sanskrit of the Buddha mentioning emptiness. He does not discuss emptiness in the abstract. But every word he spoke, from the beginning to the end of his teaching career, can be seen as inextricably linked with emptiness, and totally bound up with emptiness. 

This motivates me to produce a translation of Nāgārjuna's MMK that help to clarify how the link with emptiness can be a factor towards unity. I would like to produce a translation, in other words, in the direction of dismantling of sectarian barriers. 

The Pali Suttas are full of emptiness. The Sanskrit of Aśvaghoṣa and Nāgārjuna is full of emptiness. The Heart Sutra in Chinese is an attempt at succinct expression of the very essence of emptiness. The Zen teaching of the Chinese Zen masters is full of emptiness. The Zen teaching of the Japanese Zen master Dogen is, from his first version of Fukan-zazengi to the final chapter of Shobogenzo, full of emptiness. 

Emptiness here means, for example, the five skandhas being empty of a self, a self being empty of the fire of the passions, the world being empty of any independently existing thing, and a moment of sitting in lotus being empty of those habitual doings which are the root of suffering in saṁsāra. 

To shed light on these things seems to me this morning like a worthy mission. I may never get to accomplish it. But, in the spirit of akatena me ettha kataṃ, I seem already to have made a start. 

Monday, 14 March 2016

śūnyatā-pratisaṁyukta - Inextricably Linked with Emptiness

Description of the Buddha's teaching as "connected with emptiness" jumped out at me when I noticed it in a Facebook post. A search led me to this page on the Sutta Central website. It is an English translation of  雜阿含經 (293) a Chinese sutra known in Japanese as Zo-agon-kyo, the Miscellaneous Āgama Sutra. The Chinese sutra is a translation of the Sanskrit Samyuktāgama, nearly all of which is no longer extant. The corresponding Pali sutta is Samyutta-nikāya, Connected Discourses. 

The Chinese records the Buddha as saying: 

= for, for the benefit of
= that, those
比丘= bhikṣu, monk, monks
= preached, expounded
賢聖 = wise & sacred, noble 
出世= world-transcending, out of this world, transcendent
空相 = emptiness-form, being the manifestation of emptiness 
應...隨順= being conformable to, in accordance with
緣起 = dependent arising, conditional origination 
法 = law, teaching, dharma 

The English translation as it appears on Sutta Central is:
"I teach monks the noble, the supramundane, connected with emptiness, conformable to the dharma of conditioned genesis."

The Chinese characters translated here as "connected with emptiness" are 
空相, which I know well from reciting the Heart Sutra. 

空 means empty or bare, and  means form, aspect, appearance, manifestation. So 空相 describes the Dharma not so much as "connected with emptiness" as "having the form/aspect/characteristic of emptiness," or "being the manifestation of emptiness."

When I translated the Heart Sutra for Shobogenzo Book One, I translated the sentence 
"these real dharmas are bare manifestations." 

My understanding at that time was that, for example, a white crescent moon in a blue winter sky is, when the observer has been practising Zazen, conspicuously hanging there as it is, empty of any obstruction between it and the eye of the observer. Hence a 空相 = a bare manifestation. 

When an attempt was made to reconstruct the Heart Sutra in Sanskrit, working back from the Chinese, 空相 was rendered as śūnyatā-lakṣaṇa, "having the characteristic of emptiness." Hence:

these real dharmas are bare manifestations.
sarva-dharmāḥ śūnyatā-lakṣaṇā, 

all things have the characteristic of emptiness,

So I wondered how the translator of  
雜阿含經 (293) had managed to come up with the translation "connected with emptiness" for 空相. 

The question was answered by a contribtor to Sutta Central who knew that Dr Mun-Keat Choong was the author of a book titled, "Translation of Sutras from the Chinese Samyuktagama relevant to the Early Buddhist Teachings on Emptiness and the Middle Way." 

In a footnote to that work  空相 is traced back to the Sanskrit śūnyatā-pratisaṁyukta (Pali suñña­tā­paṭi­saṃ­yutta). 

Saṁyukta, as in Samyuktāgama (Connected Āgamas), means conjoined, joined together, combined, united;  conjunct (as consonants); connected, related. 
With the addition of the prefix prati-, the meaning is strengthened so that MW defines pratisaṁyukta  as bound or attached to. 

In the Pali Suttas the phrase suñña­tā­paṭi­saṃ­yutta can be found for example in the Parisa Sutta (AN2.46):

Idha, bhikkhave, yassaṃ parisāyaṃ bhikkhū ye te suttantā tathā­gata­bhāsitā gambhīrā gambhīratthā lokuttarā suñña­tā­paṭi­saṃ­yuttā tesu bhaññamānesu na sussūsanti...
“There is the case, monks, where in any assembly when the discourses of the Tathagata—deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, inextricably linked with emptiness—are recited, the monks don’t listen,..."

For another example, the Buddha uses the same formula in the Dhammadinna Sutta (SN55.53): 
Tasmātiha vo, dhammadinna, evaṃ sikkhitabbaṃ: ‘ye te suttantā tathā­gata­bhāsitā gambhīrā gambhīratthā lokuttarā suñña­ta­paṭi­saṃ­yuttā te kālena kālaṃ upasampajja viharissāmā’ti
"Therefore, Dhammadinna, here you should train yourselves like this: 'From time to time we will enter and dwell in those discourses spoken by the Tathāgata that are deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, inextricably linked with emptiness.' "

In conclusion, then, that the Buddha's teachings have been, from the very beginning, "connected with emptiness," is not in doubt.

And maybe we are justified in stating the case even more strongly than that, saying that every teaching the buddhas have taught, from beginning to end, has been śūnyatā-pratisaṁyukta, inextricably linked with emptiness.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

How is the Fourth Discourse Connected with Emptiness?

1. Emptiness of Practice in the Middle Way

Practice in the middle way is empty of polar opposite views. In the first turning of the Dharma-wheel those two views are asceticism leading to self-mortification and hedonism leading to meaningless pursuit of pleasure. In the fourth discourse the polar opposite views are eternalism and nihilism, which we have examined (five posts ago) in connection with seeing straight (samyag-dṛṣṭi).

2. Emptiness of the Five Skandhas

As far as I have noticed, the Buddha himself is not recorded in the first four discourses as speaking explicitly of emptiness. Reading between the lines, however, the Buddha in the fourth discourse evidently described habitual doings (saṁskārāḥ, 4th of the 5 skandhas and 2nd link in the 12-fold chain of dependent arising) as empty.

This can be surmised from the question which the Māgādhans ask the Buddha...

Atha khalu teṣāṁ Māgadhakānāṁ brāhmaṇa-gṛhapatikānāṁ etad abhūṣi:
Then this occurred to those devotees and householders of Māgadha:

“Yato kila bho rūpam anātmā,

“Since bodily form, allegedly, is not self,

vedanā saṁjñā saṁskārā vijñānam anātmā,

since feeling, perception, habitual doings, and consciousness are not self,

atha ko tarhi kārako vā kārāpako vā,

then who in that case is the doer, or the agent,

utthāpako vā samutthāpako vā nikṣepako vā,

or the one that gives rise to, or stirs up, or casts off [these habitual doings]?

yo imāṁ saṁskārāṁ ādīyati vā nikṣipati vā,
Who takes up these habitual doings or casts them off?

yasyime saṁskārā śūnyā anātmanīyā, ātmena vā ātmanīyena vā?

For whom – [thinking practically] in terms of the self or of what belongs to the self – are these doings empty and not belonging to a self?

3. Whatever Dependent Arising There Is, We Call That Emptiness 

yaḥ pratītya-samutpādaḥ śūnyatāṁ tāṁ pracakṣmahe |
sā prajñaptir upādāya pratipat saiva madhyamā ||MMK24.18||

Whatever dependent arising there is, we call that emptiness. 
This teaching, when put into practice, is the middle path itself.

4. Emptiness as Realization

It is instructive to note where in the first four discourses two formulae appear: 
(A) Destroyed is (re)birth, lived is the spiritual life, done is what was to be done, no more is there of this mundane state
(B) minds, through not clinging, were freed from the polluting influences.

In the second discourse, the Buddha uses formula (A) to describe one who sees that the five skandhas are not self, and thus comes to know liberation. Using formula (B) the text then records that the group-of-five monks' minds, through not clinging, were freed from the polluting influences, so that at that time there were 
 in the world six arhats (worthy ones, enlightened beings).

In the third discourse, the Buddha similarly uses formula (A), this time to describe one who sees how the world is burning with the fires of passion, hatred, and delusion, and thus comes to know liberation. The text, again using formula (B), then records that one thousand monks' minds, through not clinging, were freed from the polluting influences.

In the fourth discourse, the Buddha again uses formula (A) to describe one who knows that the five skandhas are not self, and who thus, through not clinging, comes completely to quiet. At this point, however, the text does not describe anybody's mind as being freed from the polluting influences. Rather, the Māgadhans, being practical sorts, men of action, express a certain skepticism. How can it be, they seem to ask, that in the dropping off of habitual doings, there is no-one who takes responsibility for the dropping off? In actual practice, how can there be no practitioner?

It is in response to this doubt that the Buddha goes into detail into what sense saṁskārāḥ, habitual doings, are empty. 

The teaching of 12-fold dependent arising in the fourth discourse is therefore a clarification of the teaching of the emptiness of the five skandhas which was the subject of the second discourse. 

At the same time, because habitual doings are the 2nd link in the 12-fold chain of dependent arising of suffering, this same teaching of dependent arising is a clarification of the four noble truths – the subject of the first turning of the wheel of Dharma. 

What strikes me as interesting is that at the end of this exposition of 12-fold dependent arising, as also at the end of the first turning of the Dharma-wheel, there is mention of attainment of insight (= "the dustless Dharma-eye") and there is mention of being uplifted and greatly rejoicing. But neither in the first nor in the fourth discourse does the text say, using formula (B), that minds, through not clinging, were freed from the polluting influences.

Seeing this, although it has made for progress even slower than the snail's pace at which I translated Aśvaghoṣa's Buddhacarita and Saundarananda, I feel particularly glad that something prompted me, 
 in laying the ground for the translation of Nāgārjuna's MMK, to go back and study the first four discourses. The cautionary message I take from the above nit-picking is that a translator should never be unduly proud of, and still less cling to, any philosophical understanding, even if it is philosophical understanding of emptiness. 

The point is that, for causing there to be worthy ones in the world, it was sufficient for the Buddha to teach those who had gone forth as monks not to cling to the five skandhas as if they were a self. Seeing the emptiness of the five skandhas, the group-of-five monks in the second discourse and a thousand monks in the third discourse, through not clinging, realized the enlightenment in which the mind is freed from the polluting influences of desire, becoming and ignorance.

For the Buddha, as also one suspects for Nāgārjuna, detailed exposition of 12-fold dependent arising was not so much something they aspired in the first place to teach; the teaching of a 12-fold chain was rather 
an expedient they resorted to in order to help towards insight people whose eyes were not so free of dust. 

When we see him from this perspective, we might begin to wonder whether those who have looked up to Nāgārjuna as a great philosopher may have in fact been insulting him by describing him in those terms.

A truer way to revere Nāgārjuna might be as a monk, and as a master of sitting-meditation, whose mind, through not clinging, was empty of the polluting influences of desire, becoming, and ignorance. 

Nāgārjuna's purpose in writing MMK, I tentatively submit, might not have been the laying down of the philosphical foundations of Māhayāna Buddhism. His purpose might rather have been compassion for people with more than a little dust on their eye -- like King Bimbisāra and eleven myriad other self-made men of Māgadha who, at the end of the fourth discourse are praised as being possessed of the stainless, dustless, pure Dharma-Eye. None of them is praised yet as having become free, through not clinging, of the polluting influences.

So the implication is that the doings which are the root of saṁsāra they, as ones still steeped in ignorance, continued habitually to do. Therefore they were not free of the divided consciousness which is grounded in habitual doings. They had not dropped off the psycho-physicality which is grounded in divided consciousness. Similarly they were not free of six senses, feeling, and thirsting. Not being free of thirsting, they remained in a state of clinging to the five skandhas of clinging -- like fuel and fire that have taken hold of each other. And so, through clinging, they were not free of the polluting influences. 

The point, to spell it out one more time, mainly for my own benefit, is this: 
Clarification of the various meanings of emptiness, intellectually appealing though that task may be, is not the original aim. If not a dirty trick, it might be a kind of dusty trick. 
The ultimate aim is freedom of the mind, through not clinging, from the polluting influences. 

From then on, through investigation of what is, he applies his mind to eradicating the polluting influences, / For on this basis he fully understands suffering and the rest, the four true standpoints: // SN16.3 //This is suffering, which is constant and akin to trouble; this is the cause of suffering, akin to starting it; / This is cessation of suffering, akin to walking away. And this, akin to a refuge, is a peaceable path. // 16.4 // Understanding these noble truths, by a process of reasoning, while getting to know the four as one, / He prevails over all pollutants, by the means of mental development (bhāvanayā), and, on finding peace, is no longer subject to becoming. // SN16.5 // For by failing to wake up and come round to this four, whose substance is the reality of what is, / Humankind goes from existence to existence without finding peace, hoisted in the swing of saṁsāra. // SN16.6 //
"Mental development" in "by the means of mental development" (bhāvanayāis "cultivation" or "bringing-into-being" in Nāgārjuna's "because of the cultivation of just this wisdom" or "because of the bringing-into-being of just this act of knowing" (jñānasyāsyaiva bhāvanāt)

If we say that "just this wisdom," means the wisdom of emptiness, or the wisdom of dependent arising, in saying that we had better be clear that the wisdom in question is ultimately not intellectual, and not philosophical, but is connected, most fundamentally, with a particular act of knowing -- namely, sitting in full lotus as the dropping off of body and mind. 

Hence, again, in Dogen's words: 
To learn the Buddha's truth is to learn the self. To learn the self-is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be experienced by the myriad dharmas. To be experienced by the myriad dharmas is to let our own body and mind, and the body and mind of the external world, fall away.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

How is the 3rd Discourse Connected with Emptiness?

How are dispassion and liberation, as taught in the 3rd discourse, connected with emptiness? 

1. The aim is to be empty of, for example, anger.

2. Trying to suppress anger is just the habitual doing that one steeped in ignorance does do. (I speak in this from plentiful personal experience.) But true mindfulness is, in the first place, the mindfulness that long is long, short is short, feeling bad is feeling bad, anger is anger, a weed is a weed and, ultimately, a flower is a flower. 

True mindfulness is empty of trying to be right, empty of trying to suppress anything. 

3. Anger is dependently arisen. As such it is empty of its own substantial existence as a thing-unto-itself. 

Again, anger is originally empty: there is no such thing as anger that is worth worrying about. 

(“Oh, but I dooooo worry.”)

4. Intellectual recognition, based on the doctrine of dependent arising, that anger is empty, is not the point of sitting practice. The point is cultivation of what is to be cultivated. The point is cultivation of the real wisdom of emptiness.

As Nāgārjuna put it: The ending of ignorance is because of the cultivation of just this wisdom (avidyāyā nirodhas [tu] jñānasyāsyaiva bhāvanāt). And cultivation, whether of the wisdom of emptiness or of potatoes, takes time and sustained effort.

At the same time, the ending of ignorance is because of the bringing-into-being of [the wisdom of emptiness as] just this act of knowing (avidyāyā nirodhas tu jñānasyāsyaiva bhāvanāt).

And perhaps this was why it was possible that right there and then, as the Buddha delivered the Instruction about Burning,

tassa bhikkhusahassassa anupādāya āsavehi cittāni vimucciṁsu.
those one thousand monks' minds, through not clinging, were freed from the polluting influences [of desire, of becoming, and of ignorance]. 

Monday, 7 March 2016

How Is the 2nd Discourse Connected with Emptiness?

How is the emptiness of the five skandhas, as taught in the 2nd discourse, connected with emptiness? 

I am not sure exactly what prompted me to ask the question, “How, exactly, is the Buddha's teaching connected with emptiness?” but I am glad that something did. Investigating the connection with emptiness seems to be a good way of leading oneself in the direction of greater clarity in regard to what the Buddha's teaching exactly is.

The Heart Sutra begins by describing the Bodhisattva Free-In-Reflection as he deeply reflects that the five skandhas – SHIKI, JU, SO, GYO, SHIKI – are totally empty.
The five skandhas are the five aggregates, or the five constituent parts, viz:
SHIKI = rūpa, bodily form, matter
JU = vedanā, feeling
SO = samjñā, perception
GYO = saṁskārāḥ, habitual doings
SHIKI = vijjāna, consciousness.
And so the Buddha taught the group-of-five in the 2nd discourse that the five skandhas are totally empty of anything that can be called a self.

Seeing this, the noble disciple grows weary of form, feeling, perfection, doings and consciousness; through weariness he becomes dispassionate, and through dispassion he is liberated, so that there is nothing more for him to do.

As they listened to this teaching, the group-of-five monks' minds, through not clinging, were freed from the polluting influences.

First Connection – Emptiness as a Principle

In the first instance, the five skandhas being empty of a self is the principle of emptiness. With reference to the five skandhas, which are empty of self, the Buddha introduces the principle of emptiness – though he does not yet speak explicitly of emptiness.

Second Connection – Emptiness as Dispassion

In the second instance, the Buddha says that the noble disciple becomes dispassionate. And being dispassionate (virāga) means being empty of rāga, being empty of redness, being empty of the red taint of passion, in short, being empty of passion. In the second phase, Gudo Nishijima would say, emptiness is the balanced state of the autonomic nervous system.

Third Connection – Emptiness as Liberation from Habitual Doings Born of Ignorance

In the third instance, the Buddha teaches the group-of-five that through dispassion the noble disciple is liberated. And this liberation, synonymous with arhathood, is described using the following traditional formula which occurs again and again in the Pali Suttas:

Khīṇā jāti
"Destroyed is (re)birth,
vusitaṁ brahmacariyaṁ
lived is the spiritual life,
kataṁ karaṇīyaṁ
done is what was to be done,
nāparaṁ itthattāyā’ ti 
there is no more of this mundane state." 

What exactly is the connection here with emptiness?

What, in actual practice, is the connection between the liberation in which nothing remains to be done, and emptiness?

This, for me, is where the teaching of FM Alexander has come in incredibly handy.

One vignette that stands out in my mind played out in the teaching room of Alexander's niece Marjory Barlow. She asked me to show her what I meant by the instruction I had been given in Japan to keep the neck bones straight by pulling in the chin. Marjory took one look and said, “There is no freedom in it.” And she was right – there was no freedom in it, and nor had there been any freedom in it. There had been a whole lot of fixing going on.

I have been going on about the Alexander Technique for more than 20 years now. To be frank, I seem to have recapitulated the situation circa 1961 when I was screaming from the pain of a twisted testicle, whereupon a locum doctor prescribed for me a course of antibiotics, and the screaming continued for however many hours it took for the testicle – its blood supply having been cut off – to atrophy. 

Considering the extent to which I have used anger as my fuel on this quest to get back to the real essence of what the Buddha taught, it is surprising that, if nowhere else, I have got, relatively unscathed, to the age of 56. 

When I came back to England at the end of 1994, aged 34, to train as an Alexander teacher, I did so because I intuited that it would be a step towards greater clarity in regard to what the Buddha taught. 

But my Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima wrote to me from Japan in 1996, "I hope you come back to Buddhism." Not only did he express this view, but he acted on it. Thus I found out in 1997 that Gudo and a small group of his Dharma-heirs had got together and made a joint decision, metaphorically speaking, to cut the rope from which a member of their team -- yours truly -- was distantly dangling. 

What is the secret of Zen? The secret of Zen is non-doing.

The secret of Zen is just to sit. And just sitting is sitting which is empty of -- or liberated from -- habitual doings born of ignorance.

This is the connection between the Buddha's teaching and emptiness which my late Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima failed exactly to see. And failing exactly to see this connection with emptiness, that noble disciple of the Buddha failed, on some level, to be liberated.

Thus, more than a pinch of cosmic irony was in play when Gudo wrote, in his Introduction to his own translation (using the term loosely) of MMK:
“Some individuals may insist that when trying to understand true Buddhism we should refer only to the words of Gautama Buddha himself as preserved in the most ancient strands of the Pali Canon, the oldest written records of Buddhism. [MC: Who exactly are those straw men?] But I cannot agree. Although Gautama Buddha certainly founded and established Buddhism, it is not by any means certain that the recorded texts reflect either what he actually said or, more important, how what he said was understood by those who learned directly from him. To be truthful I have begun to doubt whether Gautama Buddha's Buddhist teachings themselves have ever been properly understood.”
In Gudo's thoughts in his old age, the Pali Suttas were faulty but the true teachings of Gautama Buddha were contained in his own brain. In fact, it turns out that the true teachings of Gautama Buddha are very faithfully preserved in the Pali Suttas, while the thoughts in Gudo's brain were faulty. Those thoughts of his were fabrications, mental doings born of ignorance. When he wrote to me of his hope that I should come back to Buddhism, those words of his were verbal doings born of ignorance. And above all, when he used his fingertips in the Zazen Hall to pull the chins of his students several inches backwards, those doings of his were doings born of ignorance. 

So if anybody would like a conspicuous example of what Nāgārjuna meant in MMK26.10, voilà.

saṁsāra-mūlaṁ saṁskārān avidvān saṁskaroty ataḥ. avidvān kārakas tasmān ...
The doings which are the root of saṁsāra thus does the ignorant one do. The ignorant one therefore is the doer...

Fourth Connection – Not Clinging even to Emptiness

In the final analysis, the Mahākhandhako records not only what the Buddha taught but also what the group-of-five monks realized in their own practice and experience:

Idam-avoca Bhagavā,
The Glorious One said this,
attamanā pañcavaggiyā bhikkhū Bhagavato bhāsitaṁ abhinanduṁ.
and the group-of-five monks were uplifted and greatly rejoiced in what was said by the Glorious One.
Imasmiñ-ca pana veyyākaraṇasmiṁ bhaññamāne,
Moreover, as this sermon was being given,
pañcavaggiyānaṁ bhikkhūnaṁ anupādāya āsavehi cittāni vimucciṁsu,
the group-of-five monks' minds, through not clinging, were freed from the polluting influences,
tena kho pana samayena cha loke arahanto honti.
and at that time there were six worthy ones in the world.

To recap, that the five skandhas are empty of self is

1. The Buddha's first teaching of the principle of emptiness.
2. Not only a principle to be studied intellectually, but a Buddhist truth whose seeing is connected with the emptiness which is dispassion.
3. Liberation itself, as the Buddha taught it – an act of knowing emptiness, in which are caused to cease those habitual doings which are the root of suffering in saṁsāra.
4.  None of the above.  Even emptiness might be something to be abandoned.