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Mâdhyamika Buddhism (Part I)
« on: March 07, 2015, 05:31:24 am »
The Religious Dimensions of Mâdhyamika Buddhism
based on a series of unpublished lectures presented by Fredrick Strengh, Ph.D

In one of his last public appearances, at the Krost Symposium on "Salvation!" at Texas Lutheran College, Frederick Streng reflected upon the commonalities and contrasts of expression among five symposium participants, representing the Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and Chan/Zen Buddhist traditions. Dedicated as he was to respecting the social and historical conditionedness of religious expression, Streng challenged the superficial idea of a common or underlying religious experience, but he saw in all five traditions a shared religious intent, which he expressed as a transformative power whereby persons can "...transcend the situation of their biological, social, and psychological life. A human being," he said, "is not just a product of physical, biological, and social forces, but has a freedom of choice," both moral and soteriological, that makes possible the "ultimate transformation" of religious salvation.

Part I: An Introduction to Mâdhyamika Buddhism

The term "Mâdhyamika" refers to a school of Buddhism that originated in India about the second century A.D. and continued there through approximately the eleventh century A.D. The influence of Mâdhyamika Buddhism is seen throughout Mahâyâna Buddhism. It continued as a recognized school in China and Japan for several centuries after Buddhism first became known in each culture, but eventually the doctrine and style of exposition found in Mâdhyamika was absorbed into other schools that have continued down to the present time. In Tibet, the Mâdhyamika and Yogacara schools combined to represent the dominant strain of Buddhist religious thought from antiquity to the present. In Zen Buddhism, the spirit of Mâdhyamika is seen in the use of koans and the dialogues (mondos) of masters and disciples. The impact of Nâgârjuna's negative dialectic in arguing for the emptiness of an essential nature of things, elements, or factors of existence has been important throughout Buddhist history.

Mâdhyamika, the "Middle-Path School," was founded by the Indian cleric Nâgârjuna. While there is little historical information about him, Nâgârjuna is regarded by Buddhists as a much-revered monk whose spiritual insight and power could destroy evil and overcome illusion. He was an astute philosopher who clarified the meaning of the notion of "emptiness" as an expression of the changing phenomena that we humans experience in conventional life.

The earliest available biographical account of Nâgârjuna is by the famous Buddhist translator Kumârajîva, written around 405 A.D. Kumârajîva agrees with other Chinese and Tibetan accounts that Nâgârjuna was born in south India into a family of the Hindu priestly caste. While stories of his boyhood are contradictory, they indicate that he had an exceptional intellectual curiosity and that he eventually underwent a spiritual conversion when he had access to the discussions that were eventually termed "Mahâyâna doctrines".

Nâgârjuna's expression of the "Middle Path" was not entirely new. A vigorous dialectic to show that all phenomena are empty, and the assertion that there should be no attachment to some preserved essential character of things as they are conventionally perceived and described, was already present in literature that predates Nâgârjuna by a century or two. We find these notions in the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñapâramitâ) literature and the Ratnakuta collection of sutras. Often Nâgârjuna is regarded as a precursor or an innovator of the forms of Buddhism that began the Mahâyâna tradition. However, key Mahâyâna notions predate Nâgârjuna, and in his two key philosophical treatises it may be better to recognize Nâgârjuna's role as one standing between the Theravada and the Mahâyâna traditions.

While historical information on Nâgârjuna's life is sparse, we can glean something of the philosopher's and ascetic's life from his writings. His critical analytical verses, his letters, and his hymns indicate a deep concern to practice non-attachment with reference to people, things, or experiences. This expresses his constant effort to perceive the emptiness of all things and hence a detachment from them. In his key treatise, the Mûla-Mâdhyamika-Kârikâs, he criticized both Buddhist and Hindu views of existence. In his negative dialectic he was interested to show that there is no eternal reality behind changing forms; even unconditioned nirvâna is not independent of the changing forms of existence. Those beings who have perfected wisdom perceive nirvâna and the changing flux of existence (samsâra) as interrelated aspects of the same reality. This insight transforms other moral and spiritual activities such as charity, morality, meditation, and effort. He did not regard his participation in scholarly debates or his explanations of the Buddha's teachings to be inconsistent with religious practice.

The analysis and logical dialectic that Nâgârjuna used is not unrelated to the major efforts made by previous monks to analyze the direct perception of reality in their abhidharma analysis, found in the texts of the Abhidarma-pitaka. For the abhidharma masters, everyday experience was defined and analyzed into classifications of factors or kinds of phenomena (dharmas). These factors were defined and contemplated upon by the monastic scholars in order to release them from the bondage of common, everyday attachments to "things".

The attempt to systematize the phenomenal world and to develop a theory of their inter-relationships was for these scholars a distinctly religious goal. The detailed analysis of how each moment of experience arose and dissipated was intended to eliminate false assumptions about humanity and existence -- an intent that was directed toward inner freedom, not speculative thought.

Nâgârjuna addressed this program directly, employing his negative dialectic to challenge the assumption that the classification of factors or the particular elements that compose human experience were any more real than the things people commonly perceive as real.

The goal to perceive how emotional, perceptual, and mental conditions contribute to the human experience of pain or happiness is expressed in the earliest recorded statements of the Buddha. For example, in the Samyutta-nikâya, we find Sariputta expressing to the Buddha what understanding the nature of the arising of existence means for the Buddha's path. They have been discussing the meaning of the experience of coming into existence.

'This has come to be,' lord -- thus by right insight he sees, as it really is; and seeing it in this way he practices revulsion from it, and that it may fade away and cease. He sees by right insight continual becoming from a certain sustenance, and seeing that in this way as it really is, he practices revulsion from continual becoming from a sustenance, and that it may fade away and cease. From the ceasing of a certain sustenance that which has come to be is liable to cease -- so he sees by right insight as it really is, and seeing that in this way, he practices revulsion from that which is liable to cease, and that it may fade away and cease.

To see for oneself the nature of existence is also expressed by another famous early sutta. It is found in the Majjhima-nikâya:

This was said by the Lord: "Whoever sees [dependent co-origination] sees dhamma, whoever sees dhamma sees [dependent co-origination]." The five groups of grasping are generated by conditions. Whatever among these five groups of grasping is desire, sensual pleasure, affection, catching at -- that is the uprising of anguish. Whatever among these five groups of grasping is the control of desire and attachment, the ejection of desire and attachment -- that is the stopping of anguish.

In like manner, when we consider the Mâdhyamika view and practice of enlightenment we want to understand that this is a religious orientation whose goal is release from suffering, and we want to remain in contact with the concrete religious goal in both the content of Mâdhyamika and our procedure for understanding it.[7]

For example, we might profitably recall the Jâtaka story about the wandering ascetic.

The future Buddha was sitting talking with the disciples when a wandering ascetic came to debate him. As the ascetic approached, the future Buddha asked: "Will you have a drink of Ganges water, fragrant with the scent of the forest?"

The ascetic replied: "What is the Ganges? Is the sand the Ganges? Is the water the Ganges? Is the hither bank the Ganges? Is the further bank the Ganges?"

But the future Buddha said to him: "If you take exception to the water, the sand, the hither bank, the further bank, where can you find any Ganges River?"

The wandering ascetic was confounded and rose up and went away. When he was gone, the future Buddha began teaching the assembly that was seated about. He spoke the following stanzas:

       What he sees, he does not wish for,
       But something that he does not see;
       I think that he will wander long,
       And what he wishes, not obtain.

       He is not pleased with what he gets;
       No sooner gained, it meets his scorn.
       Insatiable are all wishes!
       Those who are wish-free, therefore, we adore!

This concern with concrete experience and everyday existence -- a concern clearly evident in the teachings of the Buddha -- continued in the Mâdhyamika understanding of existence. The basic Mâdhyamika notions of emptiness, dependent co-origination, and the two-fold truth should be understood in reference to what they mean for releasing human beings from pain.

In understanding the religious meaning of these concepts, we want to try to avoid two extremes in interpretation. (1) The first is that the Mâdhyamika orientation to life is simply the product of a certain social-cultural pattern of experience; if it were, then a study of cultural history would be the dominant clue to the meaning of emptiness. (2) The other extreme that we want to avoid is to consider the "content" of emptiness as something external to its realization in the concrete experience of Nâgârjuna during his time and culture, or in the particular cultural experience in which we find ourselves today.

The hope here is that "emptiness" can be understood as a contribution to vital change and transformation in everyday life, including all the limitations and possibilities of which we are aware. In this sense, spiritual life is seen as integrating the perfection of wisdom with technology, communication, and the economic and political spheres of existence. If we take seriously the claim that things arise in a co-dependent way, then it becomes important to obtain coherent and corroborating experience from as many different sources in our daily lives as possible. Because of this, it is appropriate to appeal to psychological studies, to studies of physics, to history, to social sciences, and to philosophy to uncover the meaning of the emptiness doctrine.

The negative dialectic that we find in Nâgârjuna can be seen as part of a spiritual discipline that helps to release people from their fantasies. If emptiness is true, then it must apply to our own most immediate experience. In later lectures we will examine how the very conditions which constitute the limitations of our experience can be transformed into a new possibility of release. In this way we can begin to understand how the essential problem is not the "elimination" of particular forms, or persons, or historical contexts; rather it is a problem of using the forms found in the particularities of the moment -- of the mountains, the fresh air, of the various sights, of each other -- as being the means whereby we can perceive further than ever before. Thus, the particular form of existence that we experience as "ourselves," living in a modern technological society, being the particular men and women that we are, having the kind of intellectual training or lack of it that we have -- none of these are in themselves the particular problem.

The basic problem will be something like the wandering ascetic who could not accept a glass of Ganges River water without getting into a debate which bound him further to his thirst. What we want to see is that every conscious experience is an interpretation of oneself in an environment, whether we are aware of it or not aware of it. There is indeed a historical and cultural character, a biological and neurological conditioning process, pervading every human experience, even the most profound religious awareness. In that context, which is the reflective apprehension of the dependent co-origination of things, we can begin to grasp several ways of becoming aware that all things are empty.

(1) The epistemological: The first general area of our discussion will be the question of how we can know anything. Here we will try to understand that the very words that we use to communicate knowledge or emotions are both vehicles for engaging with each other and limitations for such an engagement.

(2) The psychological: Human beings have an enormous potential for enhanced living. They can gain access to new capacities and develop or re-develop old ones by releasing themselves from habits of perception and sensitivities. A major aspect of the Buddhist understanding of the human being -- whether it is from the suttas, from the abhidharma, from Mâdhyamika, or later developments -- is that there are various processes of consciousness; there is a recognition that an expanded attitude is necessary in order to be released from the habits and limitations of experience. The actualization of an expanded attitude means that one can be psychologically de-habitized, de-programmed, de-conditioned, non-automatized. Openness to new experiences allows for access to unused capacities; and we must remember that unused capacities are seen within the Buddhist context to be self-imposed restrictions. Such an openness requires the development of experiental skills that open inner doors and gateways to new vistas, that build bridges and runways into spaces that were previously inaccessible due to fear or ignorance.

(3) The ethical: The third general area that we will explore is the practical, social and inter-personal dimension of our daily lives. If emptiness has any significance to us it will also pertain to social and institutional forms that seem to be so coercive in their impact. This includes education, the institutions of law and justice, government, family life, and economic processes.

(4) The ontological: The fourth area is the understanding of emptiness as an expression of the nature of existence. This is sometimes called ontology, the study of the way things really are. The notion of dependent co-origination can be seen to correlate with a number of recent studies in physics as well as studies in perception that are followed by the natural and social scientific communities. If we perceive the world not as a pile of building blocks or as little entities laid upon each other, causing each other to change particular form, we will get a new vision of the very existence we live in. It will mean that the basic concept of reality will be "co-dependent relationships," "energies in tension," "systems of experience," "matrices of interacting energy."

The attempt to understand Mâdhyamika as a religious expression is something that is automatically "self-involving". This means that the historical expression, the concepts, the ideas, the discussions about the meaning of various terms, are more than just guides for knowing what somebody else once thought or used as a basis for life. What we need to see is the possibility that these concerns involve us as individuals, as a community and society. This is true of all religious phenomena. In the very constitution of our existence, these forms attempt to reflect the most profound and hidden reality in which we participate. Engagement with these sorts of things is powerful, for it can radically alter one's own life. It is both dangerous and potentially enhancing.

When we can engage ideas or concepts as religious phenomena, we are dealing with the basic matrix of assumptions that people have for meaning. This matrix of axioms, concerns, and processes of awareness make specific questions of value, of self-identity, and of meaning possible. To deal with the content of religious experience is something like dealing with the notion of "color". If we view "color" simply as a word that is in a dictionary and then relate it to other words, we will not realize that the reality of color is a mode of perception that is presupposed by our visual experience. As such a mode of awareness, it is the very basis for experiencing specific colors rather than an item discovered within a vocabulary. Some terms stimulate a profound awareness about the nature of experience, other terms indicate something which is an inference from our experience. All this talk, however, about a concept or series of concepts should not divert our attention from the fact that throughout the four areas of our discussion, we are going to probe different processes of awareness as fundamental conditioning factors for how human beings participate in the arising of their own experience and existence.

In summary, a person who understands religious life in terms of its power to transform life will be concerned both with the specific cultural forms and with what is true or real in one's own life. The ultimate dimension of religious experience refers to the reality in which all things, including ourselves, participate. We are aware of that ultimate dimension when we live within an extraordinarily deep sensitivity to life or formulate a profound strategy for our actions. Such a process of deciding what is real and what is significant for us is central to the approach we will take to understand the formulation and meaning of Mâdhyamika Buddhism.

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)


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