The Project Gutenberg ebook of Hinduism And Buddhism, Volume II. (of 3)



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CHAPTER XIX



MAHAYANIST METAPHYSICS




Thus the theory of the three bodies, especially of the Dharma-kâya, is bound up with a theory of ontology. Metaphysics became a passion among the travellers of the Great Vehicle as psychology had been in earlier times. They may indeed be reproached with being bad Buddhists since they insisted on speculating on those questions which Gotama had declared to be unprofitable and incapable of an answer in human language. He refused to pronounce on the whence, the whither and the nature of things, but bade his disciples walk in the eightfold path and analyse the human mind, because such analysis conduces to spiritual progress. India was the last country in the world where such restrictions were likely to be observed. Much Mahayanist literature is not religious at all but simply metaphysics treated in an authoritative and ecclesiastical manner. The nature and origin of the world are discussed as freely as in the Vedânta and with similar results: the old ethics and psychology receive scant attention. Yet the difference is less than might be supposed. Anyone who reads these treatises and notices the number of apparently eternal beings and the talk about the universal mind is likely to think the old doctrine that nothing has an âtman or soul, has been forgotten. But this impression is not correct; the doctrine of Nairâtmyam is asserted so uncompromisingly that from one point of view it may be said that even Buddhas do not exist. The meaning of this doctrine is that no being or object contains an unchangeable permanent self, which lives unaltered in the same or in different bodies. On the contrary individual existences consist of nothing but a collection of skandhas or a santâna, a succession or series of mental phenomena. In the Pali books this doctrine is applied chiefly to the soul and psychological enquiries. The Mahayana applied it to the external world and proved by ingenious arguments that nothing at all exists. Similarly the doctrine of Karma is maintained, though it is seriously modified by the admission that merit can be transferred from one personality to another. The Mahayana continued to teach that an act once performed affects a particular series of mental states until its effect is exhausted, or in popular language that an individual enjoys or suffers through a series of births the consequences of previous acts. Even the instance of Amitâbha's paradise, though it strains the doctrine of Karma to the utmost, does not repudiate it. For the believer performs an act—to wit, the invocation of Amitâbha—to which has been attached the wonderful result that the performer is reborn in a blessed state. This is not essentially different from the idea found in the Pali Canon that attentions paid to a Buddha may be rewarded by a happy rebirth in heaven.[100]

Mahayanist metaphysics, like all other departments of this theology, are beset by the difficulty that the authorities who treat of them are not always in accord and do not pretend to be in accord. The idea that variety is permissible in belief and conduct is deeply rooted in later Buddhism: there are many vehicles, some better than others no doubt and some very ramshackle, but all are capable of conveying their passengers to salvation. Nominally the Mahayana was divided into only two schools of philosophy: practically every important treatise propounds a system with features of its own. The two schools are the Yogâcâras and Mâdhyamikas.[101] Both are idealists and deny the reality of the external world, but whereas the Yogâcâras (also called Vijñânavâdins) admit that Vijñâna or consciousness and the series of states of which it consists are real, the Mâdhyamikas refuse the title of reality to both the subjective and the objective world and hence gained a reputation of being complete nihilists. Probably the Mâdhyamikas are the older school.



Both schools attach importance to the distinction between relative and absolute knowledge. Relative knowledge is true for human beings living in the world: that is to say it is not more false than the world of appearance in which they live. The Hinayanist doctrines are true in this sense. Absolute knowledge rises above the world of appearance and is altogether true but difficult to express in words. The Yogâcâra makes three divisions, dividing the inferior knowledge into two. It distinguishes first illusory knowledge (parikalpita) such as mistaking a piece of rope for a snake or belief in the existence of individual souls. Secondly knowledge which depends on the relations of things (paratantra) and which though not absolutely wrong is necessarily limited, such as belief in the real existence of ropes and snakes. And thirdly absolute knowledge (parinishpanna), which understands all things as the manifestation of an underlying principle. The Mâdhyamikas more simply divide knowledge into samvṛiti-satya and paramârtha-satya, that is the truth of every-day life and transcendental truth. The world and ordinary religion with its doctrines and injunctions about good works are real and true as samvṛiti but in absolute truth (paramârtham) we attain Nirvana and then the world with its human Buddhas and its gods exists no more. The word śûnyam or śûnyatâ, that is void, is often used as the equivalent of paramârtham. Void must be understood as meaning not an abyss of nothingness but that which is found to be devoid of all the attributes which we try to ascribe to it. The world of ordinary experience is not void, for a great number of statements can be made about it, but absolute truth is void, because nothing whatever can be predicated of it. Yet even this colourless designation is not perfectly accurate,[102] because neither being nor not-being can be predicated of absolute truth. It is for this reason, namely that they admit neither being nor not-being but something between the two, that the followers of Nâgârjuna are known as the Mâdhyamikas or school of the middle doctrine, though the European reader is tempted to say that their theories are extreme to the point of being a reductio ad absurdum of the whole system. Yet though much of their logic seems late and useless sophistry, its affinity to early Buddhism cannot be denied. The fourfold proposition that the answer to certain questions cannot be any of the statements "is," "is not," "both is and is not," "neither is nor is not," is part of the earliest known stratum of Buddhism. The Buddha himself is represented as saying[103] that most people hold either to a belief in being or to a belief in not being. But neither belief is possible for one who considers the question with full knowledge. "That things have being is one extreme: that things have no being is the other extreme. These extremes have been avoided by the Tathâgata and it is a middle doctrine that he teaches," namely, dependent origination as explained in the chain of twelve links. The Mâdhyamika theory that objects have no absolute and independent existence but appear to exist in virtue of their relations is a restatement of this ancient dictum.

The Mahayanist doctors find an ethical meaning in their negations. If things possessed svabhâva, real, absolute, self-determined existence, then the four truths and especially the cessation of suffering and attainment of sanctity would be impossible. For if things were due not to causation but to their own self-determining nature (and the Hindus always seem to understand real existence in this sense) cessation of evil and attainment of the good would be alike impossible: the four Noble Truths imply a world which is in a state of constant becoming, that is a world which is not really existent.



But for all that the doctrine of śûnyatâ as stated in the Mâdhyamika aphorisms ascribed to Nâgârjuna leaves an impression of audacious and ingenious sophistry. After laying down that every object in the world exists only in relation to every other object and has no self-existence, the treatise proceeds to prove that rest and motion are alike impossible. We speak about the path along which we are passing but there is really no such thing, for if we divide the path accurately, it always proves separable into the part which has been passed over and the part which will be passed over. There is no part which is being passed over. This of course amounts to a denial of the existence of present time. Time consists of past and future separated by an indivisible and immeasurable instant. The minimum of time which has any meaning for us implies a change, and two elements, a former and a subsequent. The present minute or the present hour are fallacious expressions.[104] Therefore no one ever is passing along a path. Again you cannot logically say that the passer is passing, for the sentence is redundant: the verb adds nothing to the noun and vice versa: but on the other hand you clearly cannot say that the non-passer is passing. Again if you say that the passer and the passing are identical, you overlook the distinction between the agent and the act and both become unreal. But you cannot maintain that the passer is different from the passing, for a passer as distinct from passing and passing as distinct from a passer have no meaning. "But how can two entities exist at all, if they exist neither as identical with one another nor as different from one another?"

The above, though much abridged, gives an idea of the logic of these sûtras. They proceed to show that all manner of things, such as the five skandhas, the elements, contact, attachment, fire and fuel, origination, continuation and extinction have no real existence. Similar reasoning is then applied to religious topics: the world of transmigration as well as bondage and liberation are declared non-existent. In reality no soul is in bondage and none is released.[105] Similarly Karma, the Buddha himself, the four truths, Nirvana and the twelve links in the chain of causation are all unreal. This is not a declaration of scepticism. It means that the Buddha as a human or celestial being and Nirvana as a state attainable in this world are conceivable only in connection with this world and therefore, like the world, unreal. No religious idea can enter into the unreal (that is the practical) life of the world unless it is itself unreal. This sounds a topsy turvy argument but it is really the same as the Advaita doctrine. The Vedânta is on the one hand a scheme of salvation for liberating souls which transmigrate unceasingly in a world ruled by a personal God. But when true knowledge is attained, the soul sees that it is identical with the Highest Brahman and that souls which are in bondage and God who rules the world are illusions like the world itself. But the Advaita has at least a verbal superiority over the Mâdhyamika philosophy, for in its terminology Brahman is the real and the existent contrasted with the world of illusion. The result of giving to what the Advaita calls the real and existent the name of śûnyatâ or void is disconcerting. To say that everything without distinction is non-existent is much the same as saying that everything is existent. It only means that a wrong sense is habitually given to the word exist, as if it meant to be self-contained and without relation to other objects. Unless we can make a verbal contrast and assert that there is something which does exist, it seems futile to insist on the unreality of the world. Yet this mode of thought is not confined to text-books on logic. It invades the scriptures, and appears (for instance) in the Diamond Cutter[106] which is still one of the most venerated books of devotion in China and Japan. In this work the Buddha explains that a Bodhisattva must resolve to deliver all living beings and yet must understand that after he has thus delivered innumerable beings, no one has been delivered. And why? Because no one is to be called a Bodhisattva for whom there exists the idea of a being, or person. Similarly a saint does not think that he is a saint, for if he did so think, he would believe in a self, and a person. There occur continually in this work phrases cast in the following form: "what was preached as a store of merit, that was preached as no store of merit[107] by the Tathâgata and therefore it is called a store of merit. If there existed a store of merit, the Tathâgata would not have preached a store of merit." That is to say, if I understand this dark language rightly, accumulated merit is part of the world of illusion which we live in and by speaking of it as he did the Buddha implied that it, like everything else in the world, is really non-existent. Did it belong to the sphere of absolute truth, he would not have spoken of it as if it were one of the things commonly but erroneously supposed to exist. Finally we are told of the highest knowledge "Even the smallest thing is not known or perceived there; therefore it is called the highest perfect knowledge." That is to say perfect knowledge transcends all distinctions; it recognises the illusory nature of all individuality and the truth of sameness, the never-changing one behind the ever-changing many. In this sense it is said to perceive nothing and know nothing.

One might expect that a philosophy thus prone to use the language of extreme nihilism would slip into a destructive, or at least negative system. But Mahayanism was pulled equally strongly in the opposite direction by the popular and mythological elements which it contained and was on the whole inclined to theism and even polytheism quite as much as to atheism and acosmism. A modern Japanese writer[108] says that Dharma-kâya "may be considered to be equivalent to the Christian conception of the Godhead." This is excessive as a historical statement of the view current in India during the early centuries of our era, but it does seem true that Dharma-kâya was made the equivalent of the Hindu conception of Param Brahma and also that it is very nearly equivalent to the Chinese Tao.[109]



The work called Awakening of Faith[110] and ascribed to Aśvaghosha is not extant in Sanskrit but was translated into Chinese in 553 A.D. Its doctrine is practically that of the Yogâcâra school and this makes the ascription doubtful, but it is a most important treatise. It is regarded as authoritative in China and Japan at the present day and it illustrates the triple tendency of the Mahayana towards metaphysics, mythology, and devotional piety. It declares that faith has four aspects. Three of these are the three Jewels, or Buddha, the Law and the Church, and cover between them the whole field of religion and morality as generally understood. The exposition is tinged with a fine unselfish emotion and tells the believer that though he should strive not for his own emancipation but for the salvation of others yet he himself receives unselfish and supernatural assistance. He is remembered and guarded by Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in all quarters of the Universe who are eternally trying to liberate mankind by various expedients (upâya). By expedient is meant a modified presentment of the truth, which is easier of comprehension and, if not the goal, at least on the road to it, such as the Paradise of Amitâbha.[111]

But the remaining aspect of faith, which is the one that the author puts first in his enumeration, and treats at great length, is "to believe in the fundamental truth, that is to think joyfully of suchness." By suchness (in Sanskrit bhûta-tathatâ, in Chinese Chên ju) is meant absolute truth as contrasted with the relative truth of ordinary experience.[112] The word is not illuminating nor likely to excite religious emotion and the most that can be said for it is that it is less dreary than the void of Nâgârjuna. Another and more positive synonym is dharma-dhâtu, the all-embracing totality of things. It is only through our ignorance and subjectivity that things appear distinct and individuate. Could we transcend this subjectivity, isolated objects would cease to exist. Things in their fundamental nature cannot be named or explained: they are beyond the range of language and perception: they have no signs of distinction but possess absolute sameness (samatâ). From this totality of things nothing can be excluded and to it nothing can be added. Yet it is also śûnyatâ, negation or the void, because it cannot be said to possess any of the attributes of the world we live in: neither existence nor non-existence, nor unity nor plurality can be predicted of it. According to the celebrated formula of Nâgârjuna known as the eight Nos there is in it "neither production (utpâda) nor destruction (uccheda) nor annihilation (nirodha) nor persistence (sasvatâ) nor unity (ekârtha) nor plurality (nânârtha) nor coming in (âgamana) nor going out (nirgama)." But when we perceive that both subject and object are unreal we also see that suchness is the one reality and from that point of view it may be regarded as the Dharma-kâya of all Buddhas. It is also called Tathâgatagarbha, the womb or store-house of the Buddha, from which all individual existences are evolved under the law of causation, but this aspect of it is already affected by ignorance, for in Bhûta-tathatâ as known in the light of the highest truth there is neither causation nor production. The Yogâcâra employs the word śûnyatâ (void), though not so much as its sister school, but it makes special use of the term âlaya-vijñâna, the receptacle or store of consciousness. This in so far as it is superindividual is an aspect of suchness, but when it affirms and particularises itself it becomes citta, that is the human mind, or to be more accurate the substratum of the human mind from which is developed manas, or the principle of will, self-consciousness and self-affirmation. Similarly the Vedânta philosophy, though it has no term corresponding to âlaya-vijñâna, is familiar with the idea that Brahman is in one aspect immeasurable and all-embracing but in another is infinitesimal and dwells in the human heart: or that Brahman after creating the world entered into it. Again another aspect of suchness is enlightenment (bodhi), that is absolute knowledge free from the limitations of subject and object. This "is the universal Dharma-kâya of the Tathâgatas" and on account of this all Tathâgatas are spoken of as abiding in enlightenment a priori. This enlightenment may be negative (as śûnyata) in the sense that it transcends all relations but it may also be affirmative and then "it transforms and unfolds itself, whenever conditions are favourable, in the form of a Tathâgata or some other form in order that all beings may be induced to bring their store of merit to maturity."[113]

It will be seen from the above that the absolute truth of the Mahayanists varies from a severely metaphysical conception, the indescribable thing in itself, to something very like an all-pervading benevolent essence which from time to time takes shape in a Buddha. And here we see how easy is the transition from the old Buddhism to a form of pantheism. For if we admit that the Buddha is a superhuman intelligence appearing from time to time according to a certain law, we add little to this statement by saying that the essence or spirit of the cosmos manifests itself from time to time as a Buddha. Only, such words as essence or spirit are not really correct. The world of individuals is the same as the highest truth, the same as the Dharma-kâya, the same as Nirvana. It is only through ignorance that it appears to be different and particularized. Ignorance, the essence of which consists in believing in the distinction between subject and object, is also called defilement and the highest truth passes through various stages of defilement ending with that where under the influence of egoism and passion the external world of particulars is believed to be everything. But the various stages may influence one another[114] so that under a higher influence the mind which is involved in subjectivity begins to long for Nirvana. Yet Nirvana is not something different from or beyond the world of experience; it does not really involve annihilation of the skandhas. Just as in the Advaita he who has the true knowledge sees that he himself and everything else is Brahman, so for the Mahayanist all things are seen to be Nirvana, to be the Dharma-kâya. It is sometimes[115] said that there are four kinds of Nirvana (a) absolute Nirvana, which is a synonym of the Dharma-kâya and in that sense universally present in all beings, (b) upadhiśesha-nirvâṇa, the state of enlightenment which can be attained during life, while the body with its limitations still remains, (c) anupadhiśesha-nirvâṇa, a higher degree of the same state attained after death when the hindrances of the body are removed, (d) Nirvana without abode or apratishṭhita-nirvâṇa. Those who attain to this understand that there is no real antithesis between Samsâra and Nirvana:[116] they do not seek for rest or emancipation but devote themselves to beneficent activity and to leading their fellows to salvation. Although these statements that Nirvana and Samsâra are the same are not at all in the manner of the older Buddhism, yet this ideal of disinterested activity combined with Nirvana is not inconsistent with the portrait of Gotama preserved in the Pali Canon.

The Mahayanist Buddhism of the Far East makes free use of such phrases as the Buddha in the heart, the Buddha mind and the Buddha nature. These seem to represent such Sanskrit terms as Buddhatva and Bodhicitta which can receive either an ethical or a metaphysical emphasis. The former line of thought is well shown in Śântideva[117] who treats Bodhicitta as the initial impulse and motive power of the religious life, combining intellectual illumination and unselfish devotion to the good of others. Thus regarded it is a guiding and stimulating principle somewhat analogous to the Holy Spirit in Christianity. But the Bodhicitta is also the essential quality of a Buddha (and the Holy Spirit too is a member of the Trinity) and in so far as a man has the Bodhicitta he is one with all Buddhas. This conception is perhaps secondary in Buddhism but it is also as old as the Upanishads and only another form of the doctrine that the spirit in every man (antaryâmin) is identical with the Supreme Spirit. It is developed in many works still popular in the Far East[118] and was the fundamental thesis of Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen school. But the practical character of the Chinese and Japanese has led them to attach more importance to the moral and intellectual side of this doctrine than to the metaphysical and pantheistic side.

 

FOOTNOTES:




[100] E.g. in Mahâparinib. Sut. IV. 57, the Buddha says "There has been laid up by Cunda the smith (who had given him his last meal) a karma, redounding to length of life, to good fortune, to good fame, to the inheritance of heaven, and of sovereign power."

[101] Strictly speaking Madhyamaka is the name of the school Mâdhyamika of its adherents. Both forms are used, e.g. Madhyamakakârikâs and Mâdhyamikasûtra.

[102] Nâgârjuna says Śûnyam iti na vaktavyam aśûnyam iti va bhavet Ubhayam nobhayam ceti prâjñâptyartham tu kathyate, "It cannot be called void or not void or both or neither but in order to somehow indicate it, it is called Śûnyatâ."

[103] Sam. Nik. XXII. 90. 16.

[104] Gotama, the founder of the Nyâya philosophy, also admitted the force of the arguments against the existence of present time but regarded them as a reductio ad absurdum. Shadworth Hodgson in his Philosophy of Reflection, vol. I. p. 253 also treats of the question.

[105] The Sânkhya philosophy makes a similar statement, though for different reasons.

[106] Vajracchedikâ. See S.B.E. vol. XLIX. It was translated into Chinese by Kumârajîva (384-417 A.D.).

[107] Or in other repetitions of the same formula, beings, ideas, good things, signs, etc., etc.

[108] Soyen Shaku, Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot, p. 47.

[109] See for a simple and persuasive statement of these abstruse doctrines a charming little book called Wu-Wei by H. Borel.

[110] Translated from the Chinese by Teitaro Suzuki, 1900. The translation must be used with care, as its frequent use of the word soul may lead to misunderstanding.

[111] Asaṅga's work Mahâyâna-sûtrâlankâra (edited and translated by S. Lévi) which covers much of the same ground is extant in Sanskrit as well as in Chinese and Tibetan translations. It is a lucid and authoritative treatise but does not appear to have ever been popular, or to be read now in the Far East. For Yogâcâra see also Muséon, 1904, p. 370.

[112] The discussion of tathatâ in Kathâvatthu, XIX. 5 seems to record an early phase of these speculations.

[113] Awakening of Faith, Teitaro Suzuki, pp. 62 and 70.

[114] The process is generally called Vâsana or perfuming.

[115] Vijñânamâtra Śâstra. Chinese version quoted by Teitaro Suzuki, Outlines of Mahâyâna Buddhism, p. 343. Apparently both upâdhi and upadhi are used in Buddhist Sanskrit. Upâdi is the Pali form.

[116] So the Mâdhyamika Śâstra (XXV. 19) states that there is no difference between Samsâra and Nirvâna. Cf. Rabindranath Tagore, Sadhana, pp. 160-164.

[117] E.g. Bodhicaryâvatâra, chap. I, called praise of the Bodhicitta.

[118] E.g. the Ṕu-t́i-hsin-li-hsiang-lun (Nanjio, 1304), translated from Nâgârjuna, and the Ta-Ch'êng-fa-chieh-wu-ch́a-pieh-lun, translated from Sthiramati (Nanjio, 1258).



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