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Mâdhyamika Buddhism (Part II)
« on: March 07, 2015, 05:17:25 am »
The Religious Dimensions of Mâdhyamika Buddhism
based on a series of unpublished lectures presented by Fredrick Strengh, Ph.D

Part II: Language and Insight

Nâgârjuna begins his treatise Fundamentals of the Middle Way with the following stanzas:

       Never are any existing things found to originate from themselves,
       from something else, from both, or from no cause.

There are four conditioning causes: a cause, objective support of sensation, "immediately preceding condition" and, of course, the predominant influence -- there is no fifth.

Certainly there is no self-existence of existing things in these conditioning causes; and if no self-existence exists, neither does "other-existence."

The efficient cause does not exist possessing a conditioning cause. Nor does the efficient cause exist without possessing a conditioning cause. Conditioning causes are not without efficient causes. Nor are there conditioning causes which possess efficient causes.

Certainly those things are called "conditioning causes" whereby something originates after having come upon them. As long as something has not originated, why are they not so long "non-conditioning-causes"?

There can be a conditioning cause neither of a non-real thing nor of a real thing. Of what non-real thing is there a conditioning cause? And if it is already real, what use is a cause?

If a basic phenomenon (dharma) occurs which is neither real nor non-real nor both real-and-non-real, how can there be a cause which is effective in this situation?

This work by Nâgârjuna continues on and on with such detailed analysis of many standard Buddhist key terms. In order to see the religious significance of that analysis, we must ask ourselves why he goes to all this bother? The answer is simply that the Buddha's path, which Nâgârjuna also claimed to follow, rests on knowing the nature of existence, its arising and dissolution. This means that one should know the true facts of how earthly life, including one's own self -awareness, are formed. It also means becoming sensitive to how one produces the images and concepts by which we know anything. At the same time, the perception of the truth about life requires the development of an attitude which is calm but not slothful, which is vigorous but not agitated, which is insightful but is not attached to mental fabrications such as theories and doctrine. The detailed analysis of causal conditions as we find in the first chapter of Nâgârjuna's Fundamentals of the Middle Way is an expression of the concern to overcome ignorance, to avoid the illusory judgments that seem so habitual and prominent in daily life.

The role of cognition, of perception, and of emotional responses to sensation is seen early in the Buddhist tradition and continues into the Mâdhyamika school. You will recall the first verses of the famous text, the Dhammapada, where the Buddha is recorded as saying:

       We are what we think,
       Having become what we thought.
       Like the wheel that follows the cart-pulling ox
       Sorrow follows an evil thought.

       And joy follows a pure thought,
       Like a shadow faithfully tailing a man.
       We are what we think,
       Having become what we thought.

The Buddha's path was meant to be an elimination of suffering. This is a suffering caused by often unrecognized impulses arising from social, psychological and physical experiences. The living process of common everyday existence is seen as a burning fire fed by the fuel of actions that are based on involuntary desires and anxieties. These desires and anxieties themselves are conditioned by the way people think, perceive, and experience life in terms of their own selfhood. The enlightened person, the one who is truly awake to the nature of one's process of becoming-in-existence, knows that without getting behind the apparent form a person will just create more chaos. Without avoiding the habits of thinking and feeling that bring about fear and anger, there will be only continued suffering. As long as there is a concern only to improve an illusory self or to seek after illusory happiness a person will continue to be disappointed. Part of the problem is that there are deeply ingrained patterns of guilt, restlessness, self-hatred and apathy which lead a person to reinforce patterns of experience that lead to suffering.

The helplessness that so many people feel from the driving forces which compel them have to be recognized -- according to the Buddhist view -- as being produced by one's own ignorance and desire. Desire to attain short-term, illusory goals, which is the same thing as compulsive behavior, is dependent on ignorance (avija or avidya) in which one fails to view the impermanence and substancelessness of existence.

In the Buddhist view human beings are driven by unconscious motives; but unlike many contemporary psychologists, Nâgârjuna regarded these motives as controllable. These unconscious motives which cause suffering are prominent not only among psychotics but among all unenlightened human beings -- which means most of us. If we want to be free from suffering we have to see how we are constructing the bondage which we feel we are in. This bondage includes our wants, interests, strivings, and desires; and the Buddhist path requires insight into their conditioning causes. As you know, however, if you have read about Nâgârjuna's claim that all things are empty, these conditioning causes also are regarded as empty.

Our purpose in this lecture and the next chapter is to explore why a perception of the emptiness of causes and actions is an important religious concern. Briefly, we can say that the basic religious problem is to come to terms with the mental and emotional attachments that lead to more pain in the flow of existence. By bringing the nature of this pain before the mind, the attachments which arise in relation to the illusory awareness of our existence can be eliminated. The person who knows the source of his or her anger, the source of his or her fear, the source of his or her ambiguities can correct the problem. As the energies that we use in craving after certain desires are dissipated, our minds discriminate less and less between things as if they had self-sufficient importance or value. By recognizing that all conditioned phenomena are empty of self-nature, we empty the binding energies through which we lose the power to become enriched. When insight dissipates false images of expectations and desires, the heat of greed and hate are cooled.

The attachments that cause suffering arise from ignorance. This ignorance is something more than a lack of information or an inaccurate description of something. It is systemic; that is, it is inherent in the very system or procedure that one uses to know life. It involves not being aware of the power that images, words and concepts have to bind a person to them. The insight that frees one from this process is also a releasing energy whereby one is no longer caught -- or one no longer catches oneself -- in the conceptual net and the expectations of one-to-one correlations between a word and some non-verbal referent.

We can begin to see the problem that Nâgârjuna was dealing with when we recognize a fairly simple thing: our words and language can generate the expectation of entities that are totally nonexistent. Human beings can use language in such a way that the words can be meaningful while at the same time they are mere fabrications of the mind. We can, for example, refer to a square circle, or to the son of a barren woman, or to the horn of a rabbit. We can extend a notion of a particular thing to a generalized notion. For example, we can extend the awareness of a single, concrete human being to "humanity." Or we can extend the notion of a "good" act to "perfect goodness." Or we can create new notions that do not refer to direct experiences by negating a general principle such as "limitation" or "finitude" and thereby derive the notions of "unlimited reality" or "infinity."

These words that indicate immaterial verbal entities are meaningful expressions since they share with other expressions certain grammatical properties and leave us with an impression of some possibility. This turns out to be a very curious thing when we recognize that many other terms or words function by pointing out objects or calling objects to our attention. Words seem to carve out remembered experience by defining and manifesting general forms or characteristics of the world to us. A name is said to indicate something or a term specifies something. Thus, if I say the word "egg" you can immediately have an image of an egg in mind. My guess is, however, that if we would go around a room to see what the image of the egg is which you have in mind by drawing it on a piece of paper, we would have almost as many images drawn as we have people in the room.

The fact that words refer to general classes of things and to specific phenomena leaves us with the fascinating question of whether the term, e.g. "egg" as a general classification, has a meaning because it refers to some essence that pertains to each of the images that we have or whether the term is meaningful simply because we have learned to use the term in a certain way. As in Western schools of philosophy, there were in India some schools, e.g. the Nyâyâ school, that held that universals, like "egg-ness," which referred to a common element in all eggs, had as their universal reality some kind of objective basis or characteristic. The Buddhists, on the other hand, held that "universals" or general class terms are fictions, but they can be objects of propositions and can serve as subjects in order to function in popular, conventional communication.

For the Buddhists, the fact that the general term "egg" could be used knowledgeably by a variety of people whose specific experiences could be quite different indicated that they fabricated certain ideas and notions in order to communicate key easily identified aspects of specific experiences. They did not agree that the general property that can be specified as "egg-ness" is some timeless objective reality which is present in all individual eggs. For the Buddhists a general term simply distinguishes a particular class of items from another class of items. It does not indicate that there is some kind of universal reality that is found in multiple forms. By focusing on exactly these problems of the formation of ideas and human expectations that words identify and give form to certain perceptions and aspects of our experience, the Buddhists were pointing out how many people, unaware, were being pushed in a particular direction by the very language and assumptions of language that they thought were helping them understand their existence.

The issue of identifying objects in our common experience, however, is not simply a matter of the use of language. It also is related to the question of what we really perceive when we see something. There is a common view that human beings directly perceive physical objects -- that is, material things -- which are external to themselves. For example, we talk about seeing a tree, a chair, a building, or another person, and then act and talk as if these things existed as such. Thus, visually and in other ways we act as if properties such as color or form or weight belong to, or reside in, things that are external to us.

Similarly, most of us act and feel most of the time as if we were centered "selves." We experience life as "belonging" to a "person." For example, I can remember things that happened to "me", but I cannot remember things that happened to other people even though they may have entered my sphere of experience by talking to me or by responding to me when I saw them or touched them. This experience tends to separate the identity that we feel as an ego, an "I" or "me," from other people; we distinguish between ourselves as if we were entities separate from our environmental experience, both physical and social.

Already the earliest Buddhist suttas contain the recognition that this naive-real sensitivity to things must be questioned. By "naive reality" I mean regarding things as if they existed as material entities, or ourselves as independent entities. The assumption about naively real physical things was called into question with the doctrine of the anatta, that is, non-individual soul. The individual person was seen to be not a single thing or an essence that had a variety of changing forms throughout life, but was an interaction of various factors -- factors that belonged to what we would call internal and external phenomena.

While in our daily conversations, we may say things like, "I see that chair," or, "I see that tree," the Buddhists from the beginning suggested that it was not the case that a material body or entity saw or perceived another material body or entity. Rather, perception is actually a construction, or mental-emotional-physical synthesis that includes memory, inference, sensation, and synthetic apprehension through consciousness. Any perception was seen as a combination of various factors; for example, one classification included the following three factors: the object of sight, e.g., a tree, the sensitivity of the eye (that is, the power of sight which in physical terms we correlate with the eye and the optic nerve), and an act of sight-consciousness.

The tree or chair as a datum of experience should not be mistaken for some kind of external entity as such, or as a "whole." What we actually perceive are instantaneous energy-moments which we integrate into our experience that is also based on memory and inference; when we have sensation of dark brown length and green splashes on top, we interpret this as a tree. With a bit of reflection, we can see that when we perceive an object, we actually perceive only a part of it, only one side of it, and then we have to extend from our imagination, memory, or inference the other sides and interior as well as the function and purpose of what we perceive.

The recognition that human experience is a complex of interacting factors that are both internal and external to what we normally call "a person" led later Buddhists -- the Abhidharma masters -- to analyze the sutta material in light of their own meditation experiences by formulating and classifying various factors that we would now call psychological and physical factors of experience. Since they did not affirm a permanent essence within the person or a real general thing which we call the object of perception, they recognized only a changing conglomerate of material, mental, and psychic factors of experience called dharmas. These factors, they claimed, interact to form the experienced world as we are aware of it in everyday living. All objects of perception or ideas are seen to be without independent bases of existence. Rather they are seen to arise in an interdependent or co-dependent way. The "arising of existence" which generally is also the arising of turmoil -- because it is influenced by illusion -- comes through these interdependent and reciprocal forces (dharmas) which find their roots in a person's ignorant clinging to the objects that "he" or "she" unwittingly is fabricating!

In order to discuss and specify how each of these factors, or dharmas, arise in experience, there were elaborate classifications proposed in that section of the literature called the Abhidharma Pitaka. This was not a speculative concern: the intention was to eliminate the false assumptions that most people have when they deal with their feelings, anxieties, and frustrations. Originally the Abhidharma literature systematized the tenets found scattered in different sermons by the Buddha as an aid for instruction. In time it developed a technique of its own for analysis in which the nature of reality and the cause of suffering were organized and classified topically.

By way of example, we can look at the classification of names and phenomena found in the Dharmasamganî, according to the headings of the five groups or "heaps" (skandhas) of phenomena. Under matter we find such dharmas as earth, water, heat, and air; sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch; visible object, sound, scent; taste object, lightness of matter, malleability, accumulation, extension, impermanence. Under sensation are such factors of experience as happiness, unhappiness, depression, equanimity. Under perception, there is only one member of this group which is perception itself. Then, under the group of samskaras, which are impulses or forces, we would find concentration, energy, confidence, self-possession, understanding, right livelihood, wrong theory, wrong intention, self-respect, fear of blame, desire, non-desire, non-aversion, aversion or non-delusion. Under the group called consciousness we find thought, mind, consciousness of sight, consciousness of hearing, consciousness of smell, consciousness of taste, consciousness of touch, and consciousness of mind. There is also an unproduced dharma which is a special form, namely nirodha, which means extinction or elimination (it is equal to nirvâna).

If we look at the Sarvastivada Abhidharma text called Jñâna Prasthana, we find a discussion of six causes of the arising of phenomena. These are, for example, a cause being conjoined with something else, or simultaneously existing, or the continuing unchangeable character of some element between two phenomena, or a universal cause which is an innate, morally significant tendency, or the result and instrumental cause. The concern of this discussion was to explain how a combination of various conditions and forces could combine in any given instantaneous moment to produce the sensations of experience which we call life. By penetrating into the process of becoming, every monk, as the Buddha before him, could reverse the process of pain and construction and then be released from this continuing process. To do this it was important to know the marks, or signs, characteristics, and inherent character, the "own-being" (svabhava), of the factors that made up existence and then to contemplate these various characteristics.

In light of this great concern by the Abhidharma masters for classifying the factors of existence and then contemplating the particular self-existent characteristics, Nâgârjuna's claim that all dharmas are empty of essential characteristics of self-sufficient reality is a dramatic shift in spiritual effort. Nâgârjuna's first verses, with which we began this lecture, indicate that even the techniques and skills that were used to overcome a naive-realistic sense of the arising of existence could themselves become part of the pattern of thinking in which words functioned as if they referred to self-existent things. Nâgârjuna analyzed the teaching of the Abhidharma from the perspective that all ideas and all perceptions are constructs that depend on other constructed things. By formulating his stanzas in direct opposition to the assumption of inherent characteristics and the own-being of particular instantaneous phenomena, he tried to overcome what he felt was the attachment to those factors which were themselves intended to break down naive thinking.

Thus, when he says in verse 3 of chapter two in The Fundamentals of the Middle Way, "Certainly there is no self-existence of existing things..., and if no self-existence exists, neither does 'other-existence,'" he is then declaring that we can fall into a bifurcating way of conceiving the world of "self" and "other" even in the most intense religious practices. In chapter three Nâgârjuna analyzes the dharma of "seeing" or "vision" as one of the six sense faculties and says:

       There is no "seer" with vision or without vision;
       Therefore, if there is no "seer" how can there be vision and the object seen?

       As the birth of a son is said to occur presupposing a father and mother,
       Knowledge is said to occur presupposing the eye being dependent on the visible forms.

       Since the "object seen" and the vision do not exist there is no fourfold consequence:
       knowledge, cognitive sensation, affective sensation, and desire.

       Also, then, how will the acquisition of karma and its consequences
       [existence, birth, aging, and death] be produced?

Similarly, in chapter four of The Fundamentals of the Middle Way, Nâgârjuna denies the assumptions of the self-existence of the groups of factors (skandhas) when he says:

       Visible form is not perceived without the basic cause of visible form;
       Likewise, the basic cause of visible form does not appear without a visible form.

       If the visible form existed apart from its basic cause, it would logically follow that visible form is without cause;
       But there is nothing anywhere arising without cause.

       On the other hand, if there would be a basic cause apart from visible form,
       The basic cause would be without any product;
       But there is no basic cause without a product.

       Just as when there is a visible form, no basic cause of form obtains,
       So, when there is no visible form, no basic cause of form obtains.

Nâgârjuna then goes on, chapter by chapter, analyzing key notions -- such as the irreducible elements (dhatus), desire and the one who desires, and constructed existence (sanskrta) -- until he also says that even nirvâna, which was classified under the unconditioned factor according to the Abhidharma, is not regarded as having a self-existence or an own-being. Nâgârjuna says in chapter twenty-five:

       There is nothing whatever which differentiates the existence-in-flux (samsara) from nirvâna;
       And there is nothing whatever which differentiates nirvâna from existence-in-flux.

Subsequent verses reinforce this denial of every absolute identification:

       Since all dharmas are empty, what is finite? What is infinite?
       What is both finite and infinite? What is neither finite nor infinite?

       Is there anything which is this or something else, which is permanent or impermanent,
       Which is both permanent and impermanent, or which is neither? 

In summary, then, we can see that from Nâgârjuna's perspective, language and naive experience are themselves possible vehicles for erroneous understanding of ourselves and our experience. This does not mean that Nâgârjuna himself discarded language or even logic. It did mean that insight into the nature of things required taking seriously the very processes by which human beings can know anything. It means that one should always be aware that even the most profound attempts to interpret the meaning of life may lead to an inappropriate fixation on their meaning. In the next lecture we will look at the process whereby Nâgârjuna hoped to avoid having his hearers focus on the word "emptiness" as if it were a thing-in-itself.

Part I: An Introduction
Part II: Language and Insight
Part III: Truth and Emptiness

Copyright ©2004 by the Estate of Fredrick J. Streng, Ph.D
Reprinted on FreeSangha Forum with Permission
(07 March 2015)
« Last Edit: March 07, 2015, 05:34:50 am by Dharmakara, Reason: link to other pages »


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