Friday, October 28, 2016

Essay: Actualizing the Profound View of the Middle Way


            In the First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, the Buddha gave teachings on the Four Noble Truths, laying a foundation and framework by which all of his teachings could be understood.  In the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha identified ignorance as the root of all suffering.  Ignorance is a state of confusion about how the self exists.  We perceive of an independent, autonomous self, one that is the basis for all experience and continues from moment to moment.  Through the teachings on the skandhas, ayatanas and dhatus, the Buddha broke down the self, revealing the wisdom of selflessness as well as the path to the cessation of suffering. 
            The teachings of the Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma don’t depart from the teachings of the First Turning.  The understanding of the truth of origin and the abiding reality of the truth of cessation become more subtle and profound in the Second Turning. 
            The basis for the Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma are the Prajnaparamita Sutras.  The 8000 verse Prajnaparamita Sutra is the earliest known sutra from around 100 BCE.  This was later expanded into the 10,000, 18,000, 25,000 and 100,000 verse sutras, which bear close resemblance to the 8,000 verse sutra but expand on abbreviated sections and enumerate lists.  The shorter Prajnaparamita Sutras include the Heart Sutra, also called the 25 verse sutra, as well as the Diamond Sutra, also called the 300 verse sutra. 
            We can see in the Heart Sutra how the understanding of the truth of origin becomes more subtle and profound in the Second Turning.  Remember, in the First Turning we use the skandhas, ayatanas and dhatus to deconstruct self-grasping and realize the wisdom of selflessness.  In the Second Turning we find Avalokiteshvara exploring this even futher in the Heart Sutra:

At that time, the Blessed One entered the meditative absorption on the varieties of phenomena called the appearance of the profound.  At that time as well, the noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva, the great being, clearly beheld the practice of the profound perfection of wisdom itself and saw that even the five aggregates are empty of intrinsic existence.

            The Heart Sutra starts by stating that the Buddha entered into meditative absorption called the appearance of the profound.  Profound here is emptiness, the appearance of emptiness.  It is profound because it is not easily realized, that it is beyond concepts and ideas about how things exist.  In the First Turning, we used the five skandhas to uproot self-grasping, but here Avalokiteshvara is saying that even the five skandhas or aggregates are empty of intrinsic existence.  The teachings of the Second Turning examine not only the selflessness of the person, but also of all phenomena. In order for bodhisattvas who aspire to realize this perfection of wisdom Shariputra and Avalokiteshvara engage in discussion on how to practice the perfection of wisdom.  Avalokiteshvara expands on the practice saying bodhisattvas should see clearly in this way:

Form is emptiness, emptiness is form;
Emptiness is not other than form, form too is not other than emptiness.

            This famous verse describes the Middle Way free from extremes.  We should analyze that form is empty of inherent existence, eliminating the extreme of eternalism or existence.  We should also analyze that emptiness is form, eliminating the extreme of nihilism or non-existence.  The last two verses reiterate this union of appearance and emptiness. 
            In order to clarify the view of emptiness as presented in the Prajnaparamita Sutras, Nagarjuna wrote his famous Mula-Madhyamakakarika, or the Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way.  In it, he presents the teachings on the two truths, conventional and ultimate truth, so that we can eliminate doubt and uncertainty about the view of emptiness.  In Nagarjuna’s Mula-madhyamakakarika:

The Buddha’s teaching of the Dharma
Is based on two truths:
A truth of worldly convention,
And an ultimate truth.  XXIV.8

Those who do not understand
The distinction between these two truths
Do not understand
The Buddha’s profound teaching.  XXIV.9

Without depending on the conventional truth,
The meaning of the ultimate cannot be taught.
Without understanding the meaning of the ultimate,
Nirvana is not achieved.  XXIV.10

            Nagarjuna’s presentation of the two truths reveal our confusion about the way that things appear versus the way that they actually exist.  Things appear very solid, concrete and independent.  We appear as independent autonomous selves.  But if you examine the nature of the self or of phenomena, you find that self is actually dynamic, connected and interdependent. 
            Traditionally there are Four Great Arguments of the Madhayamaka or Middle Way that logically establish all phenomena as being empty of inherent existence.

1.     Vajra Splinters, investigating the cause.
2.     Investigation of the result.
3.     Chariot argument, being neither one nor many.
4.     Great Interdependence.

            Nagarjuna’s famous tetralemma forms the basis for the Vajra Splinter argument and refutes production or arising from any of the four alternatives:

Neither from itself, nor from another,
Nor from both,
Nor without a cause,
Does anything anywhere, ever arise. I.1

            For our purposes, the easiest and perhaps best method of establishing emptiness is the Argument of Great Interdependence.  This king of reasonings includes all of the other logical arguments because it examines the seemingly real appearances of dependent origination.  According to the Middle Way as presented by Nagarjuna, all the illusory appearances of dependent origination and emptiness arise as the union of the conventional and ultimate truths.  In the Mula-Madhyamakakarika:

That which is dependent origination
Is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation,
Is itself the middle way.  XXIV.18

There does not exist anything
That is not dependently arisen.
Therefore there does not exist anything
That is not empty.  XXIV.19

            Nagarjuna makes it clear that whatever is dependently originated is empty of inherent existence, form is emptiness.  To be dependently originated and to have some kind of independent existence are logical contradictions that cannot be maintained once they are revealed.  The wisdom of the two truths illuminates our confusion about how phenomena exist versus how they appear to us.  This simple insight that all phenomena arise dependently based on causes and conditions reveals the nature of suffering, how that suffering arises and whether we are able to eliminate it, as well as the actual path to be free from suffering.  As Nagarjuna states in his Mula-Madhyamakakarika:

Whoever sees dependent arising
Also sees suffering,
And its origin,
And its cessation, as well as the path.  XXIV.40

For whom emptiness makes sense,
Everything makes sense.
For whom emptiness does not make sense,
Nothing makes sense.  XXIV.14

            The correct view of emptiness is not that complicated.  Logically we can see that it is relatively easy to establish that all phenomena are empty of inherent existence.  But to fully appreciate this profound wisdom we have to move beyond a simple intellectual understanding, beyond mere logic and conceptual analysis.  We need to apply this view of emptiness to our own mind and our own experience.  Like the Buddha in the Heart Sutra, we need to meditate on the appearance of the profound.
            In the Essence of the Path, Younge Khachab Rinpoche encourages us to apply the two truths to our own mind and experience, for this is truly the doorway to the Middle Way.  It is not necessary to undergo extensive philosophical and logical analysis, we simply need to carry a direct understanding of the union of dependent origination and emptiness, or appearance and emptiness, into our own meditation. 
            Focusing on our own mind, Rinpoche teaches the view of emptiness with five features- profound, peaceful, free of elaboration, luminous clarity, and uncompounded.  By recognizing this view of emptiness with five features in our own meditation and relying on the union of shamatha and vipassana, we can enter into absorption on the appearance of the profound and realize the perfection of wisdom, the essence of the Middle Way.

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