Monday, June 29, 2009

Lankavatara Sutra: Preface & Introduction

I recommend reading this; it's a self-explanatory tutorial of the "structure" of Mahayana Buddhism, as opposed to the list of precepts, which then is followed by an introduction to the Lankavatara sutra itself.

The Turning back (parāvṛitti)

To this philosophy, a special paragraph is devoted below. I wish here to say a few words concerning the important psychological event known as Parāvṛitti in the Laṅkā and other Mahayana literature. Parāvṛitti literally means "turning up" or "turning back" or "change"; technically, it is a spiritual change or transformation which takes place in the mind, especially suddenly, and I have called it "revulsion" in my Studies in the Laṅkāvatāra, which, it will be seen, somewhat corresponds to what is known as "conversion" among the psychological students of religion.

It is significant that the Mahayana has been insistent to urge its followers to experience this psychological transformation in their practical life. A mere intellectual understanding of the truth is not enough in the life of a Buddhist; the truth must be directly grasped, personally experienced, intuitively penetrated into; for then it will be distilled into life and determine its course.

This Parāvṛitti, according to the Laṅkā, takes place in the Ālaya-vijñāna or All-conserving Mind, which is assumed to exist behind our individual empirical consciousnesses. The Ālaya is a metaphysical entity, and no psychological analysis can reach it. What we ordinarily know as the Ālaya is its working through a relative mind The Mahayana calls this phase of the Ālaya tainted or defiled (klishṭa) and tells us to be cleansed of it in order to experience a Parāvṛitti for the attainment of ultimate reality.

Parāvṛitti in another sense, therefore, is purification (viśuddhi). In Buddhism terms of colouring are much used, and becoming pure, free from all pigment, means that the Ālaya is thoroughly washed off its dualistic accretion or outflow (āsrava), that is, that the Tathagata has effected his work of purification in the mind of a sentient being, which has so far failed to perceive its own oneness and allness. Being pure is to remain in its own selfhood or self-nature (svabhāva). While Parāvṛitti is psychological, it still retains its intellectual flavour as most Buddhist terms do.
Self-discipline and the Buddha's Power

As long as Parāvṛitti is an experience and not mere understanding, it is evident that self-discipline plays an important role in the Buddhist life. This is insisted upon in the Laṅkā as is illustrated in the use of such phrases as "Do not rely on others" (aparapraṇeya); "Strive yourselves" (śikshitavyam), etc. But at the same time we must not forget the fact that the Laṅkā also emphasises the necessity of the Buddha's power being added to the Bodhisattvas, in their upward course of spiritual development and in the accomplishment of their great task of world-salvation. If they were not thus so constantly sustained by the miraculous power of the Buddha, they would speedily fall into the group of the philosophers and Śrāvakas, and they would never be able to attain supreme enlightenment and preach the doctrine of universal emancipation. Indeed, when the Buddha so wishes, even such inanimate objects as mountains, woods, palaces, etc. will resound with the voice of the Buddha; how much more the Bodhisattvas who are his spiritual inheritors!

The doctrine of Adhishṭhāna gains all the more significance when we consider the development of Mahayana Buddhism into the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. The power of a Bodhisattva's original vows may also be judged as being derived from the Buddha. If the possibility of enlightenment is due to the Adhishṭhāna or Prabhāva of the Buddha, all the wonders that are to take place by the strength of the enlightenment must be inferred ultimately to issue from the fountain-head of Buddhahood itself.

At any rate the Mahayana idea of the Buddha being able to impart his power to others marks one of those epoch-making deviations which set off the Mahayana from so-called primitive or original Buddhism. When the Buddha comes to be considered capable of Adhishṭhāna, the next step his devotees are logically led to take would be the idea of vicarious suffering or atonement. Giving power to another is a positive idea while suffering for another may be said to be a negative one. Though this latter is strangely absent in the Laṅkā, the Gaṇḍavyūha as well as the Prajñāpāramitā are quite eloquent in elucidating the doctrine of vicarious suffering. According to this doctrine, whatever suffering one is enduring may be transferred on to another if the latter sincerely desires out of his unselfish and all-embracing love for others, to take these sufferings upon himself so that the real sufferers may not only be relieved of them but escape their evil consequences, thus enabling him to advance more easily and successfully towards the attainment of the blissful life. This goes quite against the idea of individual responsibility. But really religious minds require this vicarious suffering for their spiritual life.

To suffer or atone vicariously is still negative and fails to entirely satisfy our spiritual needs. The latter demand that more good must be done in order to suppress the evils which are found claiming this world for their own glorification. So the Mahayanists accumulate stocks of merit not only for the material of their own enlightenment but for the general cultivation of merit which can be shared equally by their fellow-beings, animate and inanimate. This is the true meaning of Pariṇāmana, that is, turning one's merit over to others for their spiritual interest.

As I said elsewhere, this notion of Pariṇāmana is not at all traceable in the Laṅkā, which is strange. The Laṅkā cannot be imagined to have been compiled prior to the Prajñāpāramitā, nor to the Gaṇḍavyūha or Avataṁsaka; if so, why this absence? How can this be explained?
Buddha the Enlightened and Sarvasattva the Ignorant

To conclude this section, Buddhism is the story of relationship between the two groups of beings: the one is called Buddha who is the enlightened, the Tathagata, the Arhat, and the other is generally designated as Sarvasattva, literally "all beings", who are ignorant, greedy for worldly things, and therefore in perpetual torment. In spite of their hankering for worldly enjoyments, they are conscious of their condition and not at all satisfied with it; when they reflect they find themselves quite forlorn inwardly, they long for real happiness, for ultimate reality, and blissful enlightenment. They look upwards, where the Buddha sits rapt in his meditation serenely regarding them with his transcendental wisdom. As he looks down at his fellow-beings inexplicably tormented with their greed and ignorance and egotism, he is disturbed, for he feels an inextinguishable feeling of love stirring within himself—the feeling now perfectly purified of all the defilements of selfishness, which embraces the whole world in pity though not attached to it. The Buddha leaves his transcendental abode. He is seen among sentient beings, each one of whom recognises him according to his own light.

Transcendental wisdom (prajñā) and a heart of all-embracing love (mahākaruṇā) constitute the very reason of Buddhahood, while the desire or thirst for life (tṛishṇa), and ignorance as to the meaning of life (avidyā), and deeds (karma) following from the blind assertion of life-impulse— these are the factors that enter into the nature of Sarvasattva, all ignorant and infatuated ones. The one who is above, looking downward, extends his arms to help; the other unable to extricate himself from entanglements looks up in despair, and finding the helping arms stretches his own to take hold of them. And from this scene the following narratives psychological, logical, and ontological, unfold themselves to the Buddhist soul.

As for the Lankavatara sutra itself:

All these and other sutras of Mahayana Buddhism may seem to exhaust the many-sided aspects of this school, but another is needed to tell us that mere understanding is not enough in the Buddhist life, that without self-realisation all intellection amounts to nothing. To tell us this is the office of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra, and Bodhidharma, father of Zen Buddhism, made use of the text quite effectively; for it was through him that a special school of Buddhism under the title of Zen or Ch'an has come to develop in China and in Japan. While Zen as we have it now is not the same in many respects as Bodhidharma first proclaimed it about fifteen centuries ago, the spirit itself flows quite unchanged in the East. And this is eloquently embodied in the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra. It is not, however, necessary here for us to enter into details, for the point has been fully dwelt upon in my recent work, Studies in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra. Suffice it to touch lightly upon the characteristic features of the Sutra, which constitute its special message as distinguished from the other sutras already referred to.

There is no doubt that the Laṅkā is closely connected in time as well as in doctrine with The Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna generally ascribed to Aśvaghosha. While he may not have been the author of this most important treatise of Mahayana philosophy, there was surely a great Buddhist mind, who, inspired by the same spirit which pervades the Laṅkā, the Avataṁsaka, the Parinirvāṇa, etc., poured out his thoughts in The Awakening. Some scholars contend that The Awakening is a Chinese work, but this is not well grounded.

In a way The Awakening is an attempt to systematise the Laṅkā, for all the principal teachings of the latter are found there developed in due order. As far as the theoretical side is concerned, both teach the existence of the Garbha as ultimate reality. While this lies in ordinary people defiled by the evil passions and does not shine out in its native purity, we cannot deny its existence in them. When the external wrappage of impurities is peeled off we all become Buddhas and Tathagatas. In fact, the birth of a Tathagata is nowhere else than in this Garbha.

The Garbha is from the psychological point of view the Ālayavijñāna, all-conserving mind, in which good and bad are mingled, and the work of the Yogin, that is, one who seeks the truth by means of self-discipline, is to separate the one from the other. Why is the Ālaya found contaminated by evil thoughts and desires? What is the evil? How does it come out in this world? How is the truth to be realised? These questions are answered by postulating a system of Vijñānas and by the doctrine of Discrimination (vikalpa), as has already been expounded above.

This is the point where the Laṅkā comes in contact with the Yogācāra school. The Yogācāra is essentially psychological standing in contrast in this respect to the Madhyamaka school which is epistemological. But the Ālayavijñāna of the Yogācāra is not the same as that of Laṅkā and the Awakening of Faith. The former conceives the Ālaya to be purity itself with nothing defiled in it whereas the Laṅkā and the Awakening make it the cause of purity and defilement. Further, the Yogācāra upholds the theory of Vijñaptimātra and not that of Cittamātra, which belongs to the Laṅkā, Avataṁsaka, and Awakening of Faith. The difference is this: According to the Vijñaptimātra, the world is nothing but ideas, there are no realities behind them; but the Cittamātra states that there is nothing but Citta, Mind, in the world and that the world is the objectification of Mind. The one is pure idealism and the other idealistic realism.

To realise the Cittamātra is the object of the Laṅkā, and this is done when Discrimination is discarded, that is, when a state of non-discrimination is attained in one's spiritual life. Discrimination is a logical term and belongs to the intellect. Thus we see that the end of the religious discipline is to go beyond intellectualism, for to discriminate, to divide, is the function of the intellect. Logic does not lead one to self-realisation. Hence Nāgārjuna's hair-splitting dialectics. His idea is to prove the ineffectiveness of logic in the domain of our spiritual life. This is where the Laṅkā joins hands with the Madhyamaka. The doctrine of the Void is indeed the foundation of Mahayana philosophy. But this is not to be understood in the manner of analytical reasoning. The Laṅkā is quite explicit and not to be mistaken in this respect.

So far, the Laṅkā may seem to be only a philosophical treatise with nothing religious in it, but the fact is that the Sutra is deeply tinged with religious sentiments. For instance, the Bodhisattva would not enter into Nirvana because of his vows to save all sentient beings, and his vows are not limited in time and space, and for this reason they are called "inexhaustible". Not only are his vows inexhaustible but the "skilful means" he uses for the emancipation of all beings know no limits. He knows how to make the best use of his inexhaustible resources intellectual and practical for this single purpose. Here we may say that the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra of the Avataṁsaka or the Gaṇḍavyūha is reflected.

In the Laṅkā all the most fundamental conceptions of the Mahayana are thrown in without any attempt on the part of the compiler or compilers to give them a system. This is left to the thoughtful reader himself who will pick them up from the medley and string them into a garland of pearls out of his own religious experience.

The one significant Mahayana thought, however, which is not expressly touched upon in the Sutra is that of Pariṇāmana. Pariṇāmana means to turn one's merit over to somebody else so as to expedite the latter's attainment of Nirvana. If anybody does anything good, its merit is sure to come back to the doer himself—this is the doctrine of Karma; but according to the Mahayana the recipient need not always be the doer himself, he may be anybody, he may be the whole world; merit being of universal character can be transferred upon anything the doer wishes. This transferability is known as the doctrine of Pariṇāmana, the turning over of one's good work to somebody else. This idea comes from the philosophical teaching of Interpenetration as upheld in the Avataṁsaka.

It is interesting that in most Zen temples in most services there is a "dedication of merit" that is chanted, and yet the foundational sutra of the Zen school (to the extent that there is such a sutra is in a school of "no words or letters") lacks this concept.

Of course, there is no reliance on words or letters ultimately; the experience of realization is self-validating. But then again it's easy to confuse one's self and others that one has had such an experience anyway. Zenmar, if I recall correctly has mentioned that this sutra is a good way to "test" one's realization. Hakuin gives another in the Orategama (and I won't go into the relation between the two).

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