Buddhism - conceptual doubts

J.S.Pitanga jspitanga at OPENLINK.COM.BR
Tue Oct 12 20:32:36 UTC 1999

>I've some conceptual doubts on Buddhism and would be grateful for
>clarifications from Buddhist scholars on the list.

Since I am not a scholar, I am fully qualified not to deserve your
gratitude. All my answers pretend to reflect the viewpoint of Tibetan
Gelug scholarship and all quotations are from _Cutting Through
Appearances_, Geshe Lhundup Sopa & Jeffrey Hopkins, Snow Lion
Publications. The bracketed interpolated words are mine. My purpose
in answering is to clarify the subject for myself. If my message is not
welcome please delete it. If I insist, please remove me from the list.

>The central doctrine of the MAdhyamaka or the middle way
>is that, both the positions - Self and not Self - represents
>extreme view points and that truth is in the middle (as told
>by Buddha in the KAshyapa Parivartha, Ratnakuta SUtram

Specifically, what Maadhyamaka denies are the extremes of existence
beyond mere conceptual imputation (or of inherent existence) and of
utter non-existence.

Thus, the middle path propounded by the Kaas'yapaparivartha is
the merely imputed, nominal existence, of persons and other

>The VaibAshikas deny the Self

The negated self here is just a permanent, independent, and indivisible
person (according to the Sa.mmitya subschools) and also a substantially
existent person, which is a person that is each of the aggregates of body
and mind, but a person which is the mere collection of the aggregates of
body and mind is accepted.

>and claim that the eternal atoms or dharmas, which underlie existence,
>is the Reality.

"An ultimate truth [paramaarthasatya] is a phenomenon which is
such that when it is broken up or separated into individual parts,
the consciousness apprehending that object is not cancelled", the
examples given being "directionally partless particles, temporally
partless moments of consciousness, and uncompounded space

>Stcherbatsky claims that their nirvAna is a lifeless material
>state. I've some questions on this : For if Reality is only the
>atom, then how can a Buddha on attaining nirvAna know that he's
>attained nirvAna?

According to the above quotation not only atoms are held to be
ultimate truths, but also partless moments of consciousness (as
well as uncompounded space).

Also, "[a]ll Foe Destroyers [arhan], of the three vehicles [s'raavaka,
pratyekabuddha, bodhisattva, and thus all Buddhas] have a nirvana
with remainder [sopadhis'e.sanirvaa.na] because they assert that when
one attains a nirvana without remainder [nitupadhis'e.sanirvaa.na] there
is a severing of the continuum of consciousness, like the extinction of a
flame [p.217]."

Thus, there is no problem with a Buddha on attaining nirvaa.na with
remainder being aware that he has attained such nirvaa.na, because
the continuum of consciousness is not severed at this time, but there
is no room for such an awareness upon the attainment of nirvaa.na
without remainder, because the continuum of consciousness is then

>So what's the state of consciousness on attaining nirvAna?

Having attained a nirvaa.na with remainder but still not a nirvaa.na
without remainder, a Buddha has abandoned, as opposed to
non-Buddha arhans, non-afflictive ignorance preventing the
attainment of an all-knowingness, and thus his state of consciouness
is one qualified by such all-knowingness, which means that if a
Buddha thinks about objects, seen or unseen, he will know them
one by one, but not simultaneously (paraphrased from pp.205/206).

Upon attaining a nirvaa.na without remainder there is no state of
consciousness at all, because the continuum of consciousness is
then severed.

>Or is there a consciousness atom?

That would not be the case, as explained above.

>I would be glad for some information regarding the VaibAshika view
>of the Buddha before and after his parinirvAna.

I hope to have reported faithfully how Tibetan Gelug scholars
understand such view.

>The SautrAntikas deny reality to both the Self and atoms

The self negated by the Sautraantikas is the same negated by the
Vaibhas.ikas, but a person which is either the continuum of the
aggregates or the mental consciousness is accepted (p.238).

As to atoms, they are said to be accepted to be ultimate truths by
all Sautraantikas, either because they are irreducible, or because
they perform the function of producing effects (p.237).

>- so what's their Reality?

"[An] ultimate truth is a phenomenon that is able to bear reasoned
analysis from the point of view of whether it has its own mode of
subsistence without depending on imputation by terms or
conceptual consciousnesses [p.224]."

Thus, whatever is not a concept is an ultimate truth, examples being
an atom, a pot, a table, and a person.

A concept is said to be a conventional truth, or a truth for an
obscured awareness (sa.mv.rtisatya) (p.224).

>Stcherbatsky claims that they thought there existed a subtle
>consciousness after nirvAna. (I would also appreciate any further
>information regarding the SautrAntika concept of nirvAna).

Their assertions concerning nirvaa.na are said to be mostly similar
to those of Vaibhaa.sikas, which were above reported (p.246).

> The YogAcArins also deny the Self, but also deny the world as
> well.

Yogacaarins are said to deny a self of persons, similar to that denied
by Vaibhaa.sikas and Sautraantikas, and also a self of other phenomena,
which is an object that is a different entity from the consciousness
apprehending it. Thus, the world is not denied, but only a world
that is not the same entity as the consciousness apprehending it

>For them the only Reality is vijnAna or consciousness, which upon
>purification is nirvAna.

An ultimate truth, or a thoroughly established nature, is said to be
the lack, or emptiness of difference of entity between an object and
the consciousness apprehending it (p.265).

A consciousness, which is the same entity as the object it apprehends,
is said to be a conventional truth, or a falsity (m.r.saa), because it does
not exist the way it appears to (p.264).

>Here it can be noted that all the schools - brAhmanical,
>sarvAstivAda as well as YogAcAra asserted that Reality was
>something inherent in the empirical world.

However, according to Yogacaarins, an ultimate truth (which is an
object's emptiness of existence as a separate entity from the
cognizing consciousness), does not exist as a different entity
from the consciousness apprehending it (pp.264/265)

>That the world as a whole is not Real, but something in it - the
>essence - the underlying Reality - Atman or anu or vijnAna - is
>the Real.

According to Vaibhaa.sikas, Sautraantikas, and Yogacaarins, the
world as a whole is real, that is, it truly exists, because it exists
independently of its appearance to the valid consciouness
apprehending it (although it is not a different entity from
the apprehending consciousness, according to Yogacaarins)

Thus, none has to assert an essence in the world, for it truly
already exists.

>NAgArjuna's basic attack is towards this - that there can be
>no substance without attributes or attributes without substance.
>So the concept of an "essence" or "inherent existence" is
>logically untenable. Further, he and his disciples explicitly
>attack and refute all the rival concets of Reality - Atman, anu,
>vijnAna etc
>So what's his nirvAna?

Here, a nirvaa.na without remainder is said to be liberation from
cyclic existence while directly cognizing emptiness (without any
appearance of other phenomena apart from emptiness, as well
as of inherent existence) which is followed by a nirvaa.na with
remainder, when other phenomena apart from emptiness
reappear together with their appearance of inherent existence

This is because such nirvaa.nas of arhans have eliminated only
the conception, but not the appearance of inherent existence -
which are eliminated only by Buddhas (id.)

Thus, conception and appearance of inherent existence are
eliminated, not phenomena themselves, which are merely
imputed but existent phenomena.

>Contrary to the claims that the mAdhyamika has no positions -
>NAgArjuna in his MUlamAdhyamaka KArikA - asserts that there's no
>difference between samsAra and nirvAna and that the limit of
>samsAra is the limit of nirvAna - in short he seems to be equating
>nirvAna with samsAra itself!

Emptiness of inherent existence is said to be a "natural nirvaa.na",
(prak.rtiparinirvaa.na) which is not a passing beyond sorrow, but an
emptiness that is naturally passed beyond inherent existence
(the conception of which being the source of all sorrow).

The equation of sam.saara and nirvaa.na thus just indicates that
phenomena and their ultimate mode of being (their emptiness)
are the same entity, not separate entities, and not that sorrow
and liberation from sorrow are the same (the last two paragraphs
paraphrased from Jeffrey Hopkins' _Meditation on Emptiness_,
Wisdom Publications, pp.218/219)

> For all of other schools, Reality is ontologically different from
> the empirical world as a whole - either as spirit or atoms or
> consciousness.

For Vaibhaa.sikas ultimate truths are the same entity as the
phenomena of which the former are the parts.

For Sautraantikas, ultimate truths are the conceived or appearing
objects themselves.

For Yogacaarins, as well as Maadhyamikas, phenomena and their
ultimate truths - their emptiness- are the same entity, although
different phenomena.

Thus, no Buddhist school asserts a reality different from the
empirical world as a whole, or from the observed objects, or
from phenomena.

>So considering NAgArjuna's refutation of the concept of essence
>(and also identifying Reality with Atman or anu or vijnAna) and his
>assertion that nirvAna is no different from samsAra, he's saying
>that Reality is not ontologically different from the world.

Yes, phenomena and their emptiness are the same entity but
nevertheless different phenomena, or objects of knowledge.

How is it possible? Because the sameness of entity is just imputed
by conception.

> So then what's Reality?

Ultimate truth is phenomena's lack, or emptiness of inherent existence.

>NirvAna is samsAra free of conceptual activity.

A natural nirvaa.na is sa.msaara's ultimate mode of being, or its
emptiness, which is directly perceived in a concept-free manner.

>NAgArjuna's reality is more epistemological than ontological.

An emptiness is said to exist, to be a truth - an ultimate truth.

>When the mind wheel ceases, samsAra is nirvAna.

When conception of inherent existence, which is the source of
sa.msaara, ceases, one attains nirvaa.na.

When conception of inherent existence ceases while in meditative
equipoise, one directly cognizes a natural nirvaa.na.

>But isn't this stance which denies the Self and also equates
>nirvAna with samsAra, in contradiction to the fundemantal doctrine
>of the middle way, which tries to take a middle position between
> the existence and the non-existence of the Atman or Self?

An aatman, or self, which means inherent existence is utterly denied;
persons and other phenomena that are merely imputed are not
denied, this being the middle way.

Thus, phenomena which are sa.msaara are empty if inherent existence,
and thus inseparable from their own emptiness, which is their natural

Thus, denial of a self and equation of sa.msaara and nirvaa.na are
fully compatible, as is assertion of merely imputed phenomena.

>One more thing that I've against the MAdhyamika is that - if
>nirvAna is but samsara devoid of conceptual activity - why
>wouldn't the Buddha himself said so?

A natural nirvaa.na is the ultimate mode of being of any phenomenon
such as sa.msaara, and is its emptiness of inherent existence, which
is directly apprehended in a non-conceptual manner.

Also, nirvaa.na comes about not upon mere cessation of conceptual
activity, but upon cessation of conception of self, or inherent existence.

Besides, such suutras as the Kaas'yapaparivartha explicitly state that
"that which is in the center between these two is unanalyzable,
undemonstrable", and so forth.

>Clearly this is not a very difficult concept to understand. So I find
>it difficult to accept that something as simple as this, is the truth
>behind the TathAgatha's thundering silence!

Probably what you think is so simple has nothing to do with what
the Tathaaghata meant, both with his speech and with his silence.

>And this hardly relates favorably to the TathAgatha's dialogue with
>KAshyapa, where he says that nirvAna is something which cannot be
>predicated of anything in relation to the empirical world.

An emptiness, or a natural nirvaa.na, is not an object certified, or
directly cognized, by a conceptual consciousness, as all other
phenomena such as sa.msaara are, and thus such predication
indeed cannot take place.

>In the Buddha's teachings itself there's no firm proof that he
>denied a supersensible mystical reality different from the
>empirical world.

What the Buddha denied is a self.

>But all the bauddha schools (except NAgasena
>perhaps?) with their rationalistic ideals denied it and tried
>to equate it with something in relation to the empirical world

What Buddhist schools denied is a self.

And, what is denied cannot be put in relation to whatever.

>NAgArjuna though professesing to take the middle
>between these two positions,

The middle taken by Naagaarjuna is between inherent existence
and utter non-existence, which means merely imputed, nominal

>also seems to be doing the same
>(equating the Reality with something in realtion to the
>empirical world - in his case it's the empirical world itself
>devoid of thought),

Emptiness is indeed related to other phenomena, because it is
phenomena's mode of being. Emptiness is not an absolute, or
something unrelated to phenomena.

>thus cutting off any scope for mysticism in Buddhism.
>Or is it so?

If you equate mysticism with non-conceptuality, then a direct
understanding of emptiness would be a mystic experience.

> Grateful for any clarifications.

Sorry for any obscurations,


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