CHAPTER 22: NIRVANA AND COSMIC REALITY
3.83 Mind and Matter
Original Text in Chinese
Three, the sutra says, the Tathagata-garbha does not increase or decrease, but provided with all merits of dharmas. If not understood, would think the Tathagata has self-contradictory features of form and heart. How to rectify? Explain the meaning according to the Tathagata; and according to life-death defilement, hence difference.
Thirdly, the sutra says that the Tathagata-garbha, or the Universal Storehouse of the Supreme Reality, does not increase nor decrease in its universal storage, but is provided with dharmas sufficient for use in all sorts of forms and characteristics in the phenomenal world. If this is not properly understood, one may think that the Tathagata has self-contradictory features of matter and mind, i.e. plurality of mind and matter.
How can this mis-conception be rectified? This can be done by explaining that the meaning of the teaching can be interpreted from the perspective of Absolute Reality, whereby the Tathagata-garbha is seen as undifferentiated mind; and from the perspective of the defiled phenomenal world, whereby the Tathagata-garbha is manifested as differentiated material entities.
Though the Tathagata-garbha, or Ju Lai Zang (or Ru Lai Zang) in Chinese, is an important concept in Mahayana Buddhism, it is surprisingly not widely known or discussed. While cosmic reality is the undifferentiated one and only Mind, it has the potential to be manifested in countless, limitless forms, characteristics and uses according to the sense perceptions and needs of sentient beings.
In scientific terms, while "ultimate reality" may be the undifferentiated united energy field, human beings may shape, internally and externally, the same energy waves or particles into differentiated objects and processes according to their sense perceptions and needs. Other sentient beings whom we know, like whales and microbes, and beings whom we may not know, like fairies and extra-territorials, will experience the same energy field differently because they have different needs and sense perception.
This potentiality of undifferentiated cosmic reality to be differen¬tiated in countless, limitless ways is termed the Tathagata-garbha, Ju Lai Zang or the Universal Storehouse of the Supreme Reality, where all the seeds for manifestations into phenomenal realms are stored.
3.84 Conditioned Origination
Original Text in Chinese
Four, the sutra says, all phenomena in the defiled world of life and death are possible because of the Tathagata-garbha; all phenomena are not independent of Zhen Ru. If not understood, may think that the Tathagata possesses all phenomena of life and death. How to rectify? The Tathagata-garbha since its origin has pure merits out-numbering the sands of Ganges, not independent of, not apart from and not different from Zhen Ru. Out-numbering the sands of Ganges are conditioned phenomena, due to illusion, their nature is originally non-existent. Since beginningless time they have had nothing in correspondence with the Tathagata-garbha. If the body of the Tathagata-garbha has defilement, realizing the Tathagata would eliminate defilement forever, has no sense.
Fourthly, the sutra says that all phenomena in the defiled world of samsara (endless cycle of rebirth) are possible because of the Tathagata-garbha, or Universal Storehouse of the Supreme Reality, and all phenomena are dependent of the Supreme Reality. If this is not properly understood, one may think that all the defiled phenomena in samsara are found in the Supreme Reality.
How to rectify this mis-conception? It should be explained that since the timeless origin, pure merits out-numbering the sands of Ganges are found in the Tathagata-garbha, and these merits are not independent, apart or different from the Supreme Reality. Phenomena, which also out-number the sands of Ganges, are conditioned, are due to illusion, and their nature is originally non-existent. Since beginningless time these phenomena have had nothing in them in correspondence with the Tathagata-garbha. If we take a hypothetical example and propose that the body of the Tathagata-garbha is defiled, then it makes no sense to say that one could eliminate defilement forever by realizing the Supreme Reality.
The "world of life and death" means the phenomenal world, or samsara, where sentient beings have to undergo endless cycles of birth and rebirth. The phenomenal world is defiled because it is perceived through our very gross senses.
Phenomena are, therefore, conditioned; their appearance depends on the conditions of our gross senses, as well as on the prior factors that cause their appearance. Originally phenomena have no real existence! Cosmic reality is unconditioned; its existence does not depend on any conditions. It is therefore absolute or ultimate.
According to Buddhist philosophy, an object like a bird, an emotion like joy, or a process like singing, appear to us as phenomena because of various condi¬tions. Their existence is provisional, not ultimately real! Earlier, Asvaghosha has explained that the illusory existence of these phenomena are condi¬tioned by ignorance, karma and gross sense perception; and also by the "three fine and six gross" transformations.
Another way of explaining, widely used in Theravada Buddhism, is the doctrine of causality, or the doctrine of dependent origination, which lists "twelve causes of dependent origination" ("paticca-samup¬pada" in Pali, and "shi er yuan qi" in Chinese) in the following cyclical developmental stages:
- Ignorance (avijja, wu ming).
- Activities (sankhara, xing).
- Consciousness (vinnana, shi).
- Modality (namarupa, ming se).
- Six Entries (salayatana, liu ru).
- Contact (phassa, chu).
- Perception (vedana, shou).
- Desire (tanha, ai).
- Attachment (upadana, qu).
- Becoming (bhava, you).
- Life (jati, sheng).
- Death (marana, si).
What conditions attachment? It is desire. What conditions desire? It is sensual perception. What conditions perception? Contact between the phenomena and the appropriate sense organs. Many sounds in the universe, for example, are non-existent to us because our ears fail to make meaningful contact with them. What conditions contact? The six entries, whereby the "six defiled realms" of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and thoughts are interpreted by our "six roots" of eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and intellect.
What conditions the six entries? The modality of the foetus, including the mental and material aspects of the father and mother at the time of conception. What conditions this modality of the foetus? The consciousness which affects the choice of his father and mother, and the time and place of his rebirth. What conditions this consciousness? The activities of his former lives which bring about his present karma. What conditions these activities? Ignorance. Because of his spiritual ignorance at the time of his previous death, this being, or karmic force as most Theravadins would say, perpetuates the cycle of samsara.
This doctrine of dependent origination certainly provides much food for thought, and hopefully action, for our modern psychologists and psychiatrists. May be the next time our psychiatrists examine a schizophrenic or a maniacal patient, besides prescribing drugs that they themselves know merely suppress his symptoms, they would check this list of causes, and if necessary seek the co-operation of therapists competent in past-life regression.
3.85 Nirvana has No End
Original Text in Chinese
Five, the sutra says, according to the Tathagata-garbha, there is life and death; according to the Tathagata-garbha, one can attain nirvana. If not understood, may think that sentient beings have a beginning, and seeing beginning, may think the nirvana attained in Zhen Ru has an end, return to become sentient beings. How to rectify? The Tathagata-garbha has no beginning, the characteristic of ignorance has no beginning. If say that beyond the three realms there is beginning of sentient beings, it is taught by scriptures of other religions. Then the Tathagata-garbha has no ending. The nirvana attained by all buddhas correspond to the Tathagata, without end.
Fifthly, the sutra says that in the Tathagata-garbha is contained the origination of the phenomenal world, as well as the attainment of nirvana. If this teaching is not properly understood, one may think that as there is a beginning of nirvana for sentient beings, there is also an end to nirvana in cosmic reality, whereby the enlightened being would return to the phenomenal world as ordinary people. How to rectify this mis-conception.
It should be explained that the Tathagata-garbha has no beginning. Similarly, the characteristic of ignorance also has no beginning. If someone says that there is a beginning for sentient beings beyond the three realms (the realms of desires, the realms of form and the realm of non-form, which together represent the total phenomenal dimensions), that is the teaching of non-Buddhist scriptures. The Tathagata or cosmic reality, therefore, has no beginning and no ending, and the nirvana attained by all buddhas, corresponding to the eternal cosmic reality, has no ending too.
The great commentator Fa Zang explained that this mis-conception is due to a faulty reasoning of dualistic concepts in a time sequence. It is easy for ordinary people to presume that concepts like ignorance and Enlightenment, samsara and nirvana are exclusive polarities, and that when one ends the other begins in a logical time order. They reason that when ignorance ends, Enlightenment begins, and when samsara ends, nirvana begins. Hence, logically but erroneously, they conclude that as there is a beginning for Enlightenment and nirvana, there is also an end.
Asvaghosha points out that ignorance has no beginning but an end, Enlightenment has a beginning but no end, and Cosmic Reality has no beginning and no end. Similarly, samsara has no beginning but an end as the aspirant becomes Enlightened, whereas nirvana has a beginning at Enlightenment but corresponding with Cosmic Reality, it has no end.
These five mis-conceptions (the first two mis-conceptions are described in the previous chapter) are due to people's attachment to their selves. Because of this attachment to self, many people, including mis-informed Buddhists, mistakenly think that Cosmic Reality is empty space, nirvana is extinction into nothingness, the Tathagata-garbha has plurality of mind and matter, there is defilement in Cosmic Reality, and nirvana has an end.
It is also interesting to note that "attachment to self" means the self exists. If there is no self in the first place, "attachment to self" becomes irrelevant. Like the profound teachings mentioned above, the doctrine of non-self is employed by the Buddha and other masters to help followers overcome this attachment to self. Similarly, this non-self doctrine, if not properly understood, can be mis-interpreted to mean that the self, or soul, does not exist.
3.86 Faulty Concepts Regarding Nirvana
Original Text in Chinese
Attachment to dharma. Because of the shallow understanding of the Hinayanists, the Tathagata only explained the doctrine of non-self. Hence, the teaching was not complete. Expounding the doctrine of five yins in samsara, and fearful of life-death, they wildly cling to nirvana. How to rectify? The five yins are unborn by nature, thus there is no cessation, originally in nirvana.
Mis-conceptions resulting from the attachment to dharma are now described. Because of the shallow understanding of the Hinayanists, the Buddha only explained the doctrine of non-self, without explaining the doctrine of non-dharma. Hence the Buddha's teaching is not completely understood by the Hinayanists. Expounding the doctrine of five yins (skandhas or aggregates) in samsara, and fearful of the cycle of birth and rebirth, they cling to a mistaken concept of nirvana. How to overcome this mis-conception? It should be explained that the five yins or aggregates are unborn by nature; thus, there is actually no cessation of the five aggregates because they are originally in nirvana.
After describing the five mis-conceptions that result from the attachment to self, Asvaghosha now describes the mis-conception that result from the attachment to dharma. These two categories of attachment constitute the fundamental obstacles to nirvana.
According to the Mahayana tradition, soon after Guatama Buddha attained the highest nirvana, he gave a fascinating sermon on his Enlightenment and the mysteries of Cosmic Reality to a huge gathering of not only humans but also dragon kings, gods and other beings. However, his teaching was so profound that very few at that time could understand him. So he decided he would first teach the agama, the preliminary teaching on moral purity, and some basic doctrines so as to prepare his followers for later more profound teaching, which is now found in the Mahayana.
As the Hinayanists could not initially comprehend his deeper teaching on cosmic reality, so the Mahayanists claim, the Buddha first taught the doctrine of non-self, leaving the doctrine of non-dharma to when the followers were ready. Thus, those who did not progress to Mahayana philosophy did not have the complete teaching of the Buddha.
Vajrayana Buddhism, which was a later development, includes Mahayana philosophy. Theravadins, a term now loosely used to represent all Hinayanists, of course indignantly reject this Mahayanist claim, and postulate that the Mahayana as well as the Vajrayana teachings, including their most sacred scriptures, were later adulteration.
The Mahayanist stand on this issue is typically Buddhist in attitude, i.e. it does not really matter whether the teaching was personally from Guatama Buddha (though the Mahayanists honestly believe it was), so long as it helps devotees to attain the highest spiritual fulfilment; and in line with the Buddhist tenets of compassion and tolerance, Mahayanist teachers would expound this "higher teaching" of Buddhism, but sincerely respect the choice of Theravadins and other people in accepting or rejecting the teaching.
Needless to say, Asvaghosha's elucidation of what he considers as the mis-conceptions of the Hinayanists, is done in sincerity and good faith, certainly not in the least intended to chaff at the Hinayanists. If Theravada Buddhists or other people find the information disagreeable, they can of course disregard it as rubbish.
Let us hear what ancient Hinayana masters and modern Theravada teachers say about nirvana. In Pali, the language in which most of the Theravada scriptures are written, "nirvana" is called "nibbana".
"Nibbana, Nibbana, friend Sariputta, thus they say. But what, friend, is this Nibbana?" was the question asked by the wandering ascetic, Jambukhadaka. The Venerable Sariputta replied, "Nibbana is the extinction of lust, hatred and delusion."
Sariputta, a direct disciple of the Buddha himself, is one of the most venerated masters in Theravada Buddhism. The above quotation is taken from the Theravada scripture Samyutta-Nikaya.
The following is quoted from another Theravada scripture, Anguttara-Nikaya.
Freedom from conceit, destruction of thirst, the uprooting of attachment, the cutting off of continuity, the extinction of thirst, detachment, cessation, Nibbana.
From a metaphysical standpoint Nibbana is deliverance from suffering. From a psychological standpoint Nibbana is the eradication of egoism. From an ethical standpoint Nibbana is the destruction of lust, hatred and ignorance. Nibbana the final goal of Buddhism implies nothing else but the clear, pure condition of freedom from sorrow, based upon freedom from desire, this in turn being founded upon the highest apprehension of the truth.
According to Mahayana philosophy, such a Hinayanist (or Theravadin) concept of nirvana is faulty. Prof. Yoshito S. Hakeda, who represents a Mahayanist view, says that "Nirvana is conceived by the Hinayanists as a state of perfect annihilation, i.e. as non-being, in contrast to being, which undergoes constant transformation."
The great Mahayana master, Nagarjuna, explains that there is no absolute difference between nirvana and samsara. The difference is relative: when one exists in the phenomenal dimension, it is samsara; when he experiences transcendental reality, it is nirvana. In Chinese Buddhist literature, the term "Buddhahood" is often used in place of nirvana. The sixth patriarch of Chan Buddhism, Hui Neng, says, "The pure nature of Supreme Reality is the real Buddhahood." In other words, when an aspirant actualizes Cosmic Reality, he attains nirvana.
The Hinayanists' faulty conception of nirvana, as explained by Asvaghosha almost twenty centuries ago, is due to their attachment to dharma, although they have successfully freed themselves from attachment to self. They understand only the doctrine of non-self, but not the doctrine of non-dharma. So, in their zest to eliminate self, they eliminate the five aggregates or skandhas of forms, feelings, perception, activities, and thoughts, and arrive at a mental state which they believe is nirvana, and which, paradoxically, is a pseudo-extinction of dharmas.
What the Hinayanists should understand is that dharmas cannot be destroyed because they are, by nature, unborn, meaning they are neither born nor not born. In other words, the dharmas that constitute the five skandhas appear as phenomena in samsara; but when samsara is transcended, the phenomena disappear. The dharma, if they are real as many Hinayanists would believe, are still there though now they cannot be seen as differentiated phenomena.
Interestingly, quantum physics provides a useful illumination, if we are prepared to consider only the material form of the aspirant, leaving aside for the time being the other four skandhas of feelings, perception, activities and thoughts. Using his naked eyes (which represent his ordinary perception) he sees his own phenomenal body. Suppose he now sees himself through a huge and powerful electron microscope (which represents his Enlightened vision).
He no longer sees his phenomenal body; instead, he sees fascinating patterns of sub-atomic particles. If the microscope is even more powerful, he may not see any particles, but only undifferentiated energy field. What has happened to his phenomenal body, which he must have thought to be real? Don't worry, it has not been destroyed, because it cannot be destroyed. From the transcendental viewpoint, it was not there in the first place; the phenomenal body was an illusion.
Then, you may ask, is the body real or not real? Both the Mahayanist master and the quantum physicist will tell you correctly that it is real and it is not real, or it is either real or not real, or it is neither real nor not real. Perhaps the difference between Mahayana philosophy and quantum physics is that if you wish to get a specific answer at a specific point of time and space, the master would tell you it depends on the aspirant's state of consciousness, while the physicist would say it depends on the mathematician's matrix of probabilities. Another difference is that while the Mahayana masters have known this for centuries, the modern physicists are still trying to make sense of these "absurdities".
So, when Mahayana masters expound the doctrines of non-self and of non-dharma, they can mean that, depending on the situation, the self and the dharma are real, and are not real. These doctrines are not meant to be dogmatic facts; they are meant to aid aspirants attain Cosmic Reality.