Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Svātantrika-Prāsaṅgika Distinction, Pt. I

The differences and similarities between the Svātantrikas and Prāsaṅgikas, or, as these terms are translated in The Karmapa's Middle Way, the Autonomists and Consequentialists, form a de rigeur topic of philosophical exploration in most of the extensive commentaries on the Entrance to the Middle Way authored in Tibet. As has been thoroughly observed, in volumes such as the one compiled by Dreyfus and McClintock, these two terms, despite the veneer of their appearance in Sanskrit, were coined in Tibet, by Tibetan scholars, long after the Indian masters whose views formed the network of reference points for the distinction had lived and composed texts.

The Eighth and Ninth Karmapas' views on the distinction are presented largely in the context of refuting the views on this topic of the "later Followers of the Middle Way," i.e. Tsongkapa and his followers. Before summarizing the debate between the Karmapa and Tsongkapa, along with the case laid out by the Karmapa in The Karmapa's Middle Way, let's take a high-speed look at the key players on this topic from Indian Buddhadharma.

As many folks will know, the "Middle Way" began in earnest as a "philosophical" system with Nāgārjuna, who used logic to dismantle all the assertions of Buddhist and non-Buddhist philosophers concerning the inherent existence of phenomena. One of Nāgārjuna's earliest commentators was Buddhapālita, who wrote a commentary aptly entitled the Buddhapālita.

In commenting on Nāgārjuna's Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Buddhapālita adopted an approach that did not add any logical methods that had not come directly from Nāgārjuna's repertoire. The main method he used for refuting those who asserted true existence was the absurd consequence: statements that reveal the inherent flaw in the logic of the Follower of the Middle Way's counterpart but do not commit the Follower of the Middle Way who voices the statements to a philosophical stance of his or her own. In essence, therefore, the aim of using "consequences" is to use philosophy to undermine and go beyond philosophy. For a practice tradition such as the Kagyü lineage, which holds as paramount the ability to rest within meditative equipoise free from elaborations, this approach to logic is particularly harmonious.

Enter Bhāvaviveka, a contemporary of Buddhapālita who wrote a commentary to Nāgārjuna's works that refuted Buddhapālita's style of commentary. Bhāvaviveka disagreed with Buddhapālita's disinterest in adding more methods as a commentator to the logical repertoire of Nāgārjuna. This disagreement was partially founded in Bhāvaviveka's core views of what it was to comment upon a root text. To Bhāvaviveka, a commentator's responsibility was to offer something more in a commentary than what was made literally available by a root text. To defend Nāgārjuna's statements concerning the nature of things, one must employ further logic, otherwise one's commentary does not truly become illuminating; it rather becomes a prose-form rehash of the root text itself in substance. It seems that Bhāvaviveka has a reasonable argument.

After both Buddhapālita and Bhāvaviveka had split the scene, Chandrakīrti entered the philosophical fray by composing Lucid Words, his own commentary to Nāgārjuna's Fundamental Wisdom in which he explicitly took Bhāvaviveka's criticism's of Buddhapālita's commentarial logic to task.

He didn't leave the spice in the cupboard, either.

Chandrakīrti said that, in insisting on adding a slew of additional and complex logical arguments to the "defense" of Nāgārjuna's view, Bhāvaviveka was simply displaying his own (one tends to read the adjective "immature" into the tone of Chandrakīrti's remarks) fondness for logic and debate, his own desire to show that he's a real smarty pants. For Chandkrakīrti, the most troubling thing about Bhāvaviveka's logic is not that it attempts to uphold the way of emptiness of Nāgārjuna using a wide variety of methods. Rather, it is that, in attempting to help the counterpart of the Followers of the Middle Way understand emptiness by letting go of their misperceptions, Chandkrakīrti felt that Bhāvaviveka had created a wholly new philosophy which attempted to make Nāgārjuna's system logically watertight, whereas the real import of Nāgārjuna's Middle Way approach is that it uses philosophy to overcome philosophy, logic to undermine logic. According to the vast majority of Tibetan interpreters, it was this insight of Chandkrakīrti's that made him the preeminent heir of Nāgārjuna among Nāgārjuna's Indian commentators.

When the above-mentioned masters' streams of explanation were passed down in Tibet, those who preferred Chandkrakīrti's emphasis on absurd consequences camed to be known as Prāsaṅgikas or "proponents of consequences," i.e. Consequentialists. Bhāvaviveka's followers were given the name Svātantrikas or "those who propound autonomous reasonings," i.e. Autonomists.

The debate between Bhāvaviveka and Chandkrakīrti (although the term "debate" must be used metaphorically, since Bhāvaviveka and Chandkrakīrti never met and were not even alive at the same time) rippled through the rigorous tradition of inquiry that took root in Tibet. In "The Svātantrika-Prāsaṅgika Distinction, Pt. II," a future post, we will look briefly at how Tibetan masters treated this issue. In particular, we will examine the Eighth and Ninth Karmapas' approach to the distinction, and how they highlighted differences in aspects of their approach with the approach of the Later Followers of the Middle Way, i.e. Tsongkapa and his heirs.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Three Natures Pt. II

Mike continues:

a) Your original post states the Aryas experience "appearances that are the results of ignorance and karma during post-meditation." I assume that although these arise, the Aryas are not deluded by them, unlike ordinary beings. I.e., they experience them as "dependently-arisen mere appearance" and this is what is meant by the "mere relative."

b) Your subsequent comments suggest "mere relative" may be somewhat comparable to the "pure dependent nature." I don't have my NB sourcebook handy but "pure dependent nature" indicates the appearances of the higher stages of the path, e.g., the pure lands, etc. Would these qualify as karmic visions? Also, how would this fit with the Bodhisattva vow and the idea of being reborn in any of the six realms of samsara?

Regarding a), I'm glad you addressed this, Mike. I think you hit the nail on the head with your suggested description of why the mere relative is called as such. Appearances arisen from ignorance manifest for realized beings in post-meditation, but the beings do not believe that they are real. The Tibetan phrase that describes this perceptive state is snang la ma zhen pa, perceiving but not clinging, fixating, reifying, or getting sucked in.

The topic you raised in b) is very interesting to consider in a Middle Way context. The Karmapa, in his commentary, doesn't make much mention of pure realms and kāyas, etc. In one telling line, he speaks of how the purification of clinging will eventually lead to the purification of appearances, but he doesn't really describe what that purification would "look" like. A safe reading of the Consequentialist system would be to say that all pure realms, etc., are appearances for others, but the Followers of the Middle Way (i.e. the noble ones) are free from any positions (and, it would seem, perceptions) of any existence, nonexistence, etc. of appearances. In terms of the benefit of others, I think the Consequentialist explanation would accord with the general Mahāyāna: that the bodhisattvas, on the level of what is commonly accepted by others, intentionally take birth in saṃsāra to perform the benefit of others. Any display of pure realms, etc., would be an extension of that altruistic vision.

I might have more to say about the purification of appearances later...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Mike's Question About the Three Natures

In the comments section of the posting about the relative truth and the mere relative, Mike Hennesy wrote:

Hi Tyler-

This distinction sounds similar to the mind-only school's distinction between the imaginary (imputed) nature and the dependent nature (when empty of the imag. nature).

Or is it better not to mix these?


PS Great blog-- long may it run.

Here was my response:

Hi Mike,

This is an interesting point. Some scholars have said that the dependent nature empty of the imaginary nature is the perfectly established nature. However, I wouldn't equate with imaginary nature to the relative truth as explained here by Chandrakirti and the Karmapa. For sentient beings, the relative truth consists of labels as well as the bases of the labels. If I were to attempt a comparison with the three nature, I would say that relative truth is the impure dependent nature, and the mere relative is the pure dependent nature.

Great question!



To amend these remarks slightly, it's important to say that these are only comparisons or parallels, not equivalents. The Middle Way presentation of relative truth has different foundations than the Mind Only presentation of the impure dependent nature. For some (purported) followers of Mind Only, the dependent nature is "substantially existent," a phrase that the Followers of the Middle Way would never use except in the context of refuting the people who use it. However, there are parallels, since both the impure dependent nature and the relative truth are what are perceived as real by ordinary beings; and both the pure dependent nature and the mere relative are what is perceived in post-meditation by the noble ones.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Three Stages of Analysis

On pages 4 and 80 of The Karmapa's Middle Way, Āryadeva's Four Hundred Verses is quoted:

In the beginning one reverses nonvirtue.
In the middle one reverses the view of a self.
In the end one reverses all views.
Those who know this way are wise.

This verse describes the three stages of Middle Way analysis, which are a very important component of especially the Kagyü presentation of the Middle Way. It would be difficult not to develop major misunderstandings of the view without a good understanding of these three stages. (That sentence sounded pretty professorial and pedantic, but, hey, it's hard to write a blog about this stuff!)

The first stage, which corresponds to "In the beginning one reverses nonvirtue," is called the stage of no analysis. At this stage, no analysis into whether things are real or not is conducted. The existence of things is taken at face value, and the student emphasizes rejecting nonvirtuous or harmful actions and adopting positive actions. I find a verse by Vasubhandu to harmonize with this meaning nicely:

Abiding in discipline and engaging in hearing and contemplating
Excellently prepares one for meditaton.

The second stage, which corresponds with "In the middle one reverses the view of a self," is called the stage of slight analysis. Here one begins to apply (actually, in contrast to the somewhat misleading name, quite a freaking bit of) analysis into whether things exist or not. Breaking down conceptions that falsely set up a status of existence, one concludes that one's perceptions of the existence or realness of things were false. To familiarize oneself with this conclusion, one emphasizes the thought of nonexistence. (Thus we find in the Heart Sūtra, "There is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind...")

The third stage, which corresponds with "In the end one reverses all views," is the stage of thorough analysis. "Thorough," according to Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, primarily means "beyond" here, for it is at this stage where one lets go of and transcends even the thought of nonexistence to nakedly experience the nature of things without any conceptual label.

So, in sum, you could say that the first stage provides one with a stable environment that prepares one to work with one's more subtle thoughts and assumptions about the way things are. The second stage robustly challenges our preconceptions about the solidness of the things to which we cling in our lives. And the third stage, following the "break down" stage, allows us to let go of even the concept of dismantling, to finally experience reality without any reifying concepts.

May we all genuinely traverse the path of these three stages! E Ma Ho!

Relative Truth and the Mere Relative

On page 212 and 213 of The Karmapa's Middle Way, the Karmapa details a key distinction in his Middle Way presentation, the distinction between the relative truth and the mere relative. Relative truth, he says, is that which appears as real to the confused minds of ordinary beings. The mere relative is a more interesting category, and applies to the post-meditation experience of the noble ones--beings who realize and dwell within the ultimate nature, but who still experience appearances that are the results of ignorance and karma during post-meditation.

So, in terms of unconfused perceptions, relative reality is not reality. There is no truth to relative truth. However, it is a reality for those for whom it appears to be real. I find this explanation to be a nice way of expressing the balance between the two truths. Even though the relative truth has no ontological status when subjected to an ontological analysis, it will entail real effects and real experience for everyone who perceives the phenomena of the relative to be real.

Ordinary beings perceive the relative truth; bodhisattvas in post-meditation perceive the mere relative.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Book Launch Tonight at Nalanda West

Join me and the leadership of Nitartha Institute tonight at 7pm at Nalanda West for our book launch and celebration extravaganza for The Karmapa's Middle Way. I'll be giving a talk, reading from the book, and fielding questions.

The main event is in the big shrine room upstairs, but it will be followed by refreshments and music downstairs in the dining room. It's good to have this book done finally, but I also still haven't finished celebrating what happened to our country thirteen days ago. So feel free to come by and shake that out as well!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Response to James's Comment: the Two Truths in Daily Life

James Vitale, in a comment on the original posting about the two truths, raised questions about how the two truths are applied in daily life, as well as about how they are used in formal meditation in our tradition. Good questions, James.

The first thought I had in reflecting on how to approach these questions led me to the first two lines of verse 6.80 of the Madhyamakāvatāra, which appears on p. 279 of The Karmapa's Middle Way:

The conventional truth is the method;
The ultimate truth is what arises from the method.

In terms of the personal experience of traversing the path, I think this couplet summarizes the utilitarian aspect of the two truths very nicely. The conventional (or relative) truth is composed of everything we engage in in order to develop further insight into the nature of things. The ultimate truth is the wisdom that arises from those engagements.

Ontologically, the meaning of the two truths is summarized in one of Chandrakīrti's most famous verses, verse 6.23, which is found on page 204:

Since all things can be seen genuinely or falsely,
Every thing bears two natures.
The Buddha taught that the object of genuine seeing is suchness
And that false seeing is the relative truth.

It should be noted that Ari Goldfield made a beautiful song arrangement for this verse, with which many of you will be familiar. The translation for that arrangement reads:

There are two ways of seeing everything,
The perfect way and the false way.
So each and every thing that can ever be found
Holds two natures within.

And what does perfect seeing see?
It sees the suchness of all things.
And false seeing sees the relative truth.
This is what the perfect Buddha said.

I think as a general rule of thumb in reading The Karmapa's Middle Way, it is helpful to be mindful of the distinction between Wangchuk Dorje's explanation of the basic principles of topics versus his unique presentations of those topics. For his basic presentation of the two truths, reading the first five paragraphs of page 205 in the book should be helpful. In sum, Wangchuk Dorje seems to say that relative truth includes everything that is perceived and experienced by a mind that has not realized the true nature of things, and, indeed, by a mind that is not currently abiding in the realization of the true nature of things (though in a future posting I will detail the distinction between relative truth and the mere relative, a distinction within which the "mere relative" would form a unique qualification to this definition). The ultimate truth is what is seen by noble beings, i.e. by those who are currently abiding in a realization of the way things really are. In other words, relative truth is what is seen by a mistaken mind; ultimate truth is what is seen by an unmistaken mind.

Given these definitions, it is therefore straightfoward to determine how to engage the relative truth in day-to-day life, because the relative truth is all that our minds can reach at present (please refer to my response to Nick's comments for a fuller explanation of the "realities" that are within the grasp of ordinary beings in a context of sūtrayāna): from the strict perspective of Chanrakīti's and the Karmapa's ontology, whatever we are doing on the path, that is relative truth.

Can we engage in the ultimate truth at all as ordinary beings? No and yes. We have already looked at why no is the answer, but we can study and talk about the ultimate truth from a conceptual vantage point. The Nyingma school makes frequent use of a way of categorizing the ultimate that is very helpful in this context: the ultimate, they say, is of two types: 1) the nominal ultimate truth, and 2) the genuine ultimate truth. The genuine ultimate truth is exactly "what perfect seeing sees." For everyone else, there is the nominal ultimate truth. The nominal ultimate truth is not the real deal, but it is helpful in that it helps us to form conceptual images of what the ultimate truth is like. These conceptual images are very important, because they form the basis of certainty that can become further refined until certainty itself serves as a springboard for direct realization. In his discussion of the paths and levels in the Treasury of Knowledge, Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye talks about the extremeley clear "object generality" of emptiness that the meditator forms on the path of juncture, the second of the five paths. This object generality is not genuine emptiness, but it is the fruit of intensive training in the concept of emptiness, and it is the final, most refined form of conceptual emptiness that is present before the final veils to direct realization are broken through. So gaining conceptual understanding of ultimate truth is very important: all our studies and contemplations of the ultimate are, strictly speaking, relative truth, but without them, there would be no way to approach the actual ultimate.

In this vein, the Karmapa, on pages 48 and 279 of the book, quotes the ever-important verse from Nāgārjuna:

Without relying on conventions,
One cannot realize the ultimate.
Without realizing the ultimate,
One cannot attain nirvāṇa.

In the final analysis, anything that depends on another concept is a relative truth. Therefore, ultimate truth in the context of the pair of relative and ultimate is nothing more than a relative truth. To paraphrase a quote from the Buddha, in true reality, there is only one truth, and that truth is the ultimate truth. Yet, of course, from the point of view of the Karmapa's thorough analysis, even that rendition of the ultimate truth would need to be released by the meditator aiming to dwell in the ultimate equipoise.

This is a very short, and undoubtedly severely truncated, description of the way the two truths play out in the Karma Kagyü Middle Way tradition (or at least the Middle Way tradition of the Eighth and Ninth Karmapas).

I want to stress again, for the general reader, that I think it is much more important in the beginning to learn and become familiar with the basic concepts of the two truths before one worries too much about the subtleties of Wangchuk Dorje's unique presentations.

A quick final thought on the two truths in meditative practice: roughly speaking, one can consider the first five pāramitās to be practices of the relative truth and the sixth pāramitā to be a practice of the ultimate truth. In our analytical meditation and in our lives, we employ as subjects of analysis the phenomena--our phenomena--of relative truth and reflect on their deeper nature using the teachings' scripture and reasoning.