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Bhagavat is one of the titles of the Buddha and often translated as “Lord.” This word has the connotation of sovereignty, authority, mastery. So who is the true master of our lives? Is it the Buddha? The historical Buddha is however, a teacher, and not a literal ruler or master, though in East Asian the Buddha was considered to embody the three virtues of parent, teacher, and sovereign.

Now here is an interesting thing – one of the ways the Buddha taught his doctrine of non-self, was to point out that  none of the things that make up our existence are really totally under our control. We cannot really control our body, because if we did we could live forever and would never feel hungry, thirsty, or tired, or so much as catch a cold. We cannot really control our feelings, because if we did then we would never feel pain and we could cause our pleasant feelings to last forever. We cannot really control our perceptions, because if we did we would never have to perceive unpleasant people, places, events, feelings or ideas. We cannot really control our mental formations, because if we could we would predetermine every thought and feeling that arose in us. Finally, even conscious awareness is not really in our control as we can lose it when we fall asleep, through accidents, and ultimately through death. So there doesn’t seem to be any real controller, master, or self as a fully in control determining agent. Therefore, the reality of our form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness is that they are all non-self, and those five categories include everything that constitutes life as we experience it. So we seem to have a self, but we really don’t. We just have a conglomeration of factors that are provisionally designated and related to as a self. Developmental psychology and neurology corroborate this.

In Mahayana, however, the “self” is seemingly rehabilitated. Since all conditioned phenomena (such as form, feeling, percpetions, mental formations, and consciousness) are impure, ultimately unsatisfactory (i.e. suffering), impermanent, and non-self; then the unconditioned (whether called nirvana, the Dharma-body of the Buddha, or buddha-nature) must be the opposite – pure, blissful, eternal, and the true self. It is that which is authentic and not a falsely identified self, it is that which is truly in control (and would anyone dare say the Buddha is not in control of himself?). Now nirvana is the impersonal way of relating to the unconditioned. The Dharma-body of the Buddha is to view all of reality as expressing buddhahood (or conversely, what is ultimately true about the Buddha is the ultimate truth about everyting), and buddha-nature is that aspect of the true reality of all things which is necessarily our truth as well and therefore something we can realize and actualize. As buddha-nature, it would seem that true selfhood or lordship is a secret and ineffable part of our lives (though not to be confused with all the conditions we falsely identify with, and not as something substantial that we can grasp).

Let us consider the Dharma-kaya for a moment. One way of personifying the Dharma-body, the universal aspect of buddhahood, in Mahayana Buddhism is as Mahavairocana, the Great Illuminator. In East Asian Buddhism this was translated with Chinese characters that mean Great Sun. In scientific terms all of our atoms came from the sun, and ultimately will return to the sun. In Buddhist terms, the Dharma-body is the truth about all causes and conditions, including those that directly and indirectly support what we experience for a time as our life.

This of course also means that as the personfication of the ultimate truth about causes and conditions, the Great Illuminator, is manifest in the fire of all generative creative power and the very air that nourishes all that breath. Here it is worth remembering that Shakyamuni Buddha pointed out that it is naive to measure life in terms of years and more realistic to measure it in terms of the moment it takes to inhale and exhale.

The Dharma-body is not only like the sun, or a generative organ, or fire, or air, but also like a womb, a great sea, and the earth. The Dharma-body when thought of in respect to the buddha-nature is called the tathāgata-garbha, which means “womb of the one who thus comes [from the real of truth].” Enlightenment is sometimes compared to a great ocean which contains and reflects all things and therefore is called the Ocean Mirror Samadhi. When the Prince Siddhartha required a testimony before the demon Mara as to his worthiness to attain buddhahood, he touched the earth and it was the earth goddess Pṛthivī who provided that testimony, and the bodhisattva became Shakyamuni Buddha.

Because of the buddha-nature, even every potential life is a potential buddha. Soon after the Buddha attained his awakening he was protected from an unseasonal monsoon by the naga (sometimes called a dragon but really more like a giant supernatural cobra) Mucalinda, who coiled around him seven times and spread its hood over him. When the Buddha taught, his teaching was called the “lion’s roar.” When the causes and conditions that cause life to arise come together, it is this kind of power, like a serpent or a lion, that may be brought forth if it is only realized.

The Buddha’s teachings are for the purpose of realizing true knowledge (in Sanskrit jñāna), of which there are many kinds such as the “knowledge and vision of things as they really are” or the “six higher knowledges.” In any case, it is the assembly (Sangha) of the noble ones who are able to accomplish their vows (or aspirations or pure will) and bring forth what is truly light, life, love, and liberty.

Those who follow their path to fruition, across all times and places, compose the noble Sangha (or assembly, note that the Greek word ekklesia translated as “church” also means “assembly”).

Everything that nourishes us, including but not limited to everything that we eat and drink, then becomes a part of our practice, and part of the expression of buddha-nature. In this way, as it is taught in East Asian Buddhism, even grasses and trees attain buddhahood.

It is therefore our aspiration to receive the supreme anointment or empowerment (S. abhiṣeka) from the buddhas so that we may accomplish our vow and also attain buddhahood.

Considering the teachings deeply, we should realize that we are one with all beings, because we are empty of any self-nature that would separate us from an other. And yet, provisionally we are an expression of a particular convergence of causes and conditions, embodying the all that is as a unique individual. At the same time, this unified convergence that embraces in one manner or another all time and space necessarily includes all that was, is, and is to come.

Many Buddhist chants begin and/or end with Om (or Aumgn). It signifies, among many other things, the beginning, middle, and end of a process, and by extension the silence or stillness in between. This is impermanence, what is impermanent is empty of self-nature, what is empty of self-nature is naturally at peace. May we realize this for ourselves and helps others to do as well.

Dedication

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The  Bodhicaryāvatāra comes to a conclusion with a relatively short chapter of only fifty-eight verses. There is not much that needs to be said about it that is not clear from just reading it. It is an extended dedication of merit such as is used at the end of just about all Buddhist ceremonies. Śāntideva begins saying:

“By the good that is mine from considering ‘Undertaking the Way to Awakening,’ the Bodhicaryāvatāra, may all people adorn the path to Awakening. Through my merit may all those in any of the directions suffering distress in body or mind find oceans of happiness and delight. As long as the round of rebirth remains, may their happiness never fade. Let the world receive uninterrupted happiness from the bodhisattvas.” (X.1-3)

The verses that follow express specific wishes for relieving the suffering of all the various sentient beings. These are all fairly straightforward except for verse thirty which requires some comment. “May all those in the world as women make progress, becoming men. May the lowly gain high status, but remain free from pride.” (IX.30) It must be remembered that in the patriarchal culture of India in the eighth century (and this is true for most Buddhist cultures until fairly recently in some areas of the world) to be born as a woman was to be born into a low status with little opportunities for education or the freedom to leave home and seek enlightenment such as men would have. The life of women then, as now in many parts of the world, was very oppressive. This verse can be seen not so much as relegating women to oppression and an inferior status, but recognizing that such was the case in the time and place in which Śāntideva was writing. Here he is wishing that they may make the causes to be reborn as men in future lives whereby it will be easier to have the education, freedom, and opportunity to overcome suffering for good.  The verse is not an endorsement of misogyny, though it does make the patriarchal presumption that birth as a male is always better. Rather, it is an unfortunately worded particular expression of the general wish that those born in difficult circumstances shall be reborn in easier less oppressive circumstances in the future.

All of these dedications end with the following grand resolve:

“As long as space abides and as long as the world abides, so long may I abide, destroying the sufferings of the world. Whatever suffering is in store for the world, may it all ripen in me. May the world find happiness through all the pure deeds of the bodhisattvas. The sole medicine for the ailments of the world, the mine of all success and happiness, let the dispensation [of the Buddha’s teachings] long endure, attended by support and honor. I bow down to Mañjughoṣa (i.e. Mañjuśrī) through whose inspiration my mind turns to good. I honor the spiritual friend through whose inspiration it grows strong.” (X.55-58)

Now a series of objections are raised by an interlocutor of no specific philosophical affiliation. The interlocutor first asks how there can there be two truths if conventional existence doesn’t really exist. How can it be considered a truth at all if the things it refers to are empty? Śāntideva responds that the things conventional truth refers to provisionally exist according to conventional relations. (IX.106) In other words, conventional truth concerns itself with agreed upon truths or realities for everyday living and for the sake of discussion and practical guidance about practice. Conventional truth is what is is true from a limited perspective and aware of its own limitations, it does not attempt to establish inherent existence through analysis.

The interlocutor asks how there can be a liberated being if there is no one who inherently exists. Śāntideva says, the liberated being may be falsely imagined by others, but that does not mean that liberated being inherently exists on their own, even conventionally. If something has been established as independent, unanalyzable, and unchanging, then you can say it inherently exists; but if not, it does not even inherently exist, even as a conventional truth. (IX.106-107)

Śāntideva concludes saying, “The pair imagination and what is imagined are mutually dependent, just as all analysis is expressed in terms that are commonly understood. (IX.108) To which the interlocutor responds that it seems that analysis can itself be analyzed, and so on without end; and, so, nothing can ever be established. This implies that any particular analytic operation is limited so that emptiness cannot really be established because one can always propose that there is something outside the scope of that analysis that may escape being analyzed away. (IX.109) Śāntideva responds: “But when the thing which is to be analyzed has been analyzed there is no basis left for analysis. Since there is no basis it does not continue and that is said to be Enlightenment.” (IX.110) The end result of a thorough analysis is to reveal that there is nothing left to further analyze. In other words, there comes a point when the contemplative realizes that everything they can discern in relation to the object of contemplation (such as the body into its components and then the components of those components down to molecules and atoms) is relational and not an independent unchanging thing. When every part has been examined and there are no parts left that can be discerned, then analysis comes to an end with an awakening to the empty nature of all phenomena.

He then warns, “But whoever holds that these two both truly exist is on extremely shaky ground.” (IX.111) Analysis shows that inherent existence cannot be truly established either ultimately or even in conventional terms. Conventional truth cannot, and is not meant to, establish inherent existence or a Self, while emptiness of self-nature is the ultimate truth. These two truths are not contradictory but they have different scopes and different purposes. Conventional truth is a way of thinking and talking about things and activities that prepares the way for awakening to ultimate truth, while ultimate truth reveals what is ultimately true about conventional entities. Neither are the two truths themselves possessed of self-nature, they too are conventions used by bodhisattvas to bring about liberation from delusions about Self, inherent existence or self-nature so that they can awaken to the nonconceptual true nature of reality.

Śāntideva next returns to the question of the inherent existence of consciousness and its object. He asks:

“If an object does exist on the strength of consciousness, how does one arrive at the existence of consciousness? If the existence of consciousness is established on the strength of the existence of the object of which it is conscious, how does one arrive at the existence of the object? If they exist on the strength of each other’s existence, neither of the two can exist. If there is no father without a son, how can there be a son? If there is no son there is no father, so neither of them exist.” (IX.111-113)

If something is what it is through relation with another, then it is not inherently existent. A conscious subject must have an object or something to be conscious of.  For an object to be an “object,” it must have a conscious subject aware of it. Subject and object depend upon one another to be “subject” and “object,” just as the title “father” is meaningless unless another in relation to him has the title “son/daughter.” Therefore neither the subject nor object can be a “subject” or an “object” without the other, they do not inherently exist as a “subject” or  as an “object.”

The interlocutor objects, saying, “A shoot grows from a seed. The seed is indicated by that shoot. Why is the existence of an object of consciousness not verified by the consciousness which results from it?” (IX.114) In other words, if consciousness is conscious of something, then that something must definitely exist or there would be nothing to be conscious of, just as there cannot be a shoot unless there was at first a seed from which it germinated. Śāntideva replies, “The existence of the seed is verified by a consciousness which is not the same as the shoot. How is the existence of consciousness cognized so that it verifies the object of consciousness?” This means that while you can infer a seed from a shoot, this begs the question. The seed’s “existence” as the basis of the shoot is inferred by a consciousness that has not itself been established as inherently existent, which returns to the previous issue of a subject or consciousness and an object  of that subjective consciousness in mutual relation, neither able to be what they seem to be without the other.

The discussion now shifts to the question of causality. Buddhism teaches that all things arise for a time and then disappear in accordance with the flow of causes and conditions. This is the teaching of dependent origination. As the Buddha taught, “When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases.” (SN 12:37; Connected Discourses of the Buddha, p. 575) It is further understood that there is never just a single cause but a network of causes and conditions (or supporting causes) and that there is never just a single effect that is produced. Neither is any cause or effect a thing in-and-of-itself, for each is analyzable into other causes and conditions ad infinitum. Therefore, there is process but no self-nature to be found in the process. Śāntideva states this as follows:

“Ordinary people, through direct perception, observe all sorts of causes, since the distinct parts of a lotus, such as the stalk, result from distinct causes. If you ask what caused the variety of the causes, [the answer is:] it results from the variety of the preceding causes. If you ask how the cause results in its consequence, [the answer is:] they resulted through the power of the preceding causes.” (IX.116-117)

 A proponent of the Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika schools of orthodox Vedic philosophy then proposes that “God is the cause of the world.” To which Śāntideva says, “Then explain what God is. If he is is ‘the elements,’ so be it, but then why the fuss over a mere name?” (IX.118) If it is claimed that God (S. īśvara) is immanent in the elements (as in pantheism) or works indirectly through the elements as the ultimate cause of the world, then Śāntideva is arguing that God is superfluous, because there is no need to talk about God if causation comes about through the elements which are the actual causes and conditions.

If God can pantheistically be identified with the earth and the other elements, then God would be, like the earth and other elements, a plurality, inanimate, insentient, and impure, an object that animate beings can walk on. Such a being would not be worthy of being called God. If God is, on the other hand, like space, then God would be inert and therefore not really God. God cannot be the Self, because the concept of a Self that is eternal, simple, independent, and changeless had already been refuted previously. If God is inconceivable then the whole idea of him is incoherent, because an inconceivable being would not be part of our experience, therefore ‘God’ would be nothing more than a name or unprovable hypothesis. (IX.119-120)

Śāntideva goes on to observe that if phenomena have inherent existence then there is no need for God to create them, while on the other hand, if phenomena arise from causes and conditions then there is still no need for God to create them. If God is the sole cause and God is eternal, unchanging, and independent then he would always be creating the same phenomena repeatedly without end. But if God depends upon causes and conditions in order to create, and/or if his own desire is needed to create, then God is not really unchanging and independent and fully in control, and so not really God. (IX.121-125) The concept of God is therefore either superfluous, as a theoretical immanent being who allegedly works through other causes and conditions, or incoherent, as a theoretical transcendent being that is inconceivable and therefore not part of our experience.

Śāntideva quickly rejects the Vaiśeṣika concept that it is atoms or indivible minute particles that are the cause of everything by referring to the argument in verses IX.93-95 wherein it was shown that such partless particles could not come into any kind of contact with each other and therefore cannot give rise to feeling or experience. (IX.126)

The Sāṃkhya the make their own proposal for what is the actual substantial cause of reality. “Primal nature (S. prakṛti) is the permanent cause of the world with its three qualities (S. gunas) of purity (sattva), passion (rajas), and darkness (tamas) in equilibrium. The universe is explained by their disequilibrium.” (IX.126-127) Śāntideva refutes this, pointing out that:

  “A single simple thing cannot have three natures. And each of these natures would itself have to have three natures to explain them according to your theory. Furthermore, since primal nature and its three qualities cannot inherently exist, then the inherent existence of sound and other sense objects is beyond possibility. Moreover, feelings such as pleasure are not possible in something which has no consciousness, such as cloth.” (IX.128-129)

 Primal nature or matter cannot explain the arising of feelings. How does it make sense to say that material things inherently have subjective qualities like purity, passion, and darkness, which would give rise to feelings? It also makes no sense to speak of a primal nature with three qualities as eternal, singular, independent, and unchanging. If the primal material nature can have no inherent existence, how can it give rise to feelings with inherent existence? Furthermore, feelings such as pleasure are never seen to have any permanence. (IX.130-131) The Sāṃkhya view that primal matter can be the cause of everything, and in particular of feelings, is therefore incoherent.

A debate about the permanence and inherent existence of feelings then ensues. Śāntideva asks, “If the manifestation of pleasure really exists, why is the feeling not perceived?” (IX.132) The interlocutor responds, “That same feeling becomes subtle.” (IX.132) In other words, the feeling is still there but has become subtle so that you can’t feel it anymore. To this, Śāntideva asks, “How can it be both gross and subtle?” (IX.132) The interlocutor responds, “Relinquishing the state of grossness it becomes subtle. It is the state of grossness or subtlety which is impermanent.” (IX.133) Śāntideva rejoins, “Why not accept the impermanence of everything, as of them? If you argue that grossness is not separate from the feeling of pleasure, it is evident that pleasure is impermanent.” (IX.133-134)

I would note that the Sarvāstivāda school of Nikaya (or non-Mahāyāna) Buddhism maintained that dharmas are ultimately real and actually exist throughout the past, present, and future, but only in the present moment are they manifest. Śāntideva is pointing out that, esp. in the case of a feeling of pleasure (or pain) it doesn’t make sense to insist that something is really there when it is not there. To do so is to enter into metaphysical speculations that are basically unprovable and end up creating strange contradictions. Śāntideva points out that if his opponents think that something can’t come into existence if it did not already exist in some form, then with this argument about things only manifesting at certain times they are still, despite themselves, accepting the manifestation of something which was not present before. (IX.134-135)

Another way of thinking that something exists before it exists (or manifests) is to say that an effect somehow exists in its cause. This way of understanding causation is taught by the Sāṃkhya. The idea is that the material nature undergoes various transformations from one thing to another without undergoing any real change of the underlying substance. Śāntideva takes this to mean that a full grown tree (an effect) is somehow already existent within the seed (a cause), and points out that this does not make any sense.

“If you think that the effect is in the cause, someone eating rice is eating dung! Cotton seed would be bought at the price of cloth and worn as clothing! If you argue that ordinary people do not see this because of ignorance, even sages don’t behave differently. Anyway, even ordinary people know about that. In what way do they not see it? If you argue that there is no validity in the knowledge of ordinary people, then we cannot trust as real even the direct perception of something manifest.” (IX.135-137)

What is being pointed out is that the view that effects exist within their causes leads to nonsensical conclusions and defies even the conventional truth that guides people in their practical everyday lives, let alone the ultimate truth. At this point the argument turns towards how this method of deconstructing (or reducing to absurdity) other views can be a valid means of knowledge or prove that things are empty.

The interlocutor asks, “If a means of knowledge is not a means of knowledge, surely knowledge gained by that means is false. Therefore, the emptiness of phenomena is not in reality ascertained.” (IX.138) A means of knowledge here is taken to mean – a way of showing that there is something true or inherently real. The Consequentialist Middle Way school’s dialectic does not attempt to show what is true or inherently real, only to show that inherent existence cannot be found and that arguments that presuppose inherent existence can be reduced to incoherence. So the interlocutor wonders how can this kind of negative dialectic prove or establish that emptiness is the case?

Śāntideva replies, “When there is no perception of something falsely projected as existent, there is no understanding of the non-existence of that entity. For it follows that, if an entity is not real, the negation of it is clearly not real. Therefore, in a dream, when a son dies, it is the projection ‘he does not exist’ that prevents the projection of his existence from arising, but that is also false.” (IX.139-140)

What all of this means is that Consequentialists like  Śāntideva are not trying to prove that there is something called “emptiness.” Emptiness is itself just an empty concept, a product of causes and conditions. It does not need to be established as inherently existing, it only needs to be used as a method to show that inherent existence cannot be found. It is a thorn to remove a thorn, or an illusion that disillusions. The purpose of the Consequentialist Middle Way dialectic  is to make it clear that the assertions that phenomena have inherent existence or a Self are baseless or empty, and when this is clearly understood then it will also be understood that there was never an inherently existing phenomena to negate in the first place apart from the deluded belief that there was such a thing. The end result is that one is free of the baseless assertion of inherent existence and all the attachment and aversion derived from it, and even free of the need to negate what never existed at all in the way that it was formerly imagined.

“Therefore, with this kind of analysis, nothing exists without a cause, nor contained in individual or combined causes. Neither has anything come from another, nor does it remain, nor does it go. What is the difference between an illusion and that which is taken by fools to be real? Reflect on this: What is created by illusion and what is created by causes? Where does each come from and where does it go? How can there be real existence in something factitious like a reflection, which is only seen in conjunction with something else and not seen in its absence?” (IX.141-144)”

 An inherently existing unchanging, uncompounded, independent, indivisible, eternal phenomena has not been found. All provisionally existing phenomena have causes and conditions, so it is not uncaused. It does not cause itself, or it would have been present all along and would just keep perpetuating itself. It does not exist as the fully realized phenomena we are thinking of in any of its causes or again it would have been there all along in the cause. It also makes no sense to say it existed as the fully realized phenomena in itself and in its cause since, again it would have to have been present all along and it would no longer be unitary. Even when causes and conditions combine to bring about something provisionally existent, no inherently existing phenomena has been produced. In fact, it is contradictory to talk about production and inherent existence. So in terms of inherent existence, all phenomena are unborn or unproduced (S. anutpāda; J. mushō; 無生). Like images in a mirror, phenomena only appear according to causes and conditions, they do not exist in and of themselves.

“For a phenomenon which already exists, what purpose would be served by a cause? Also for something which does not exist, what purpose would be served by a cause? Even hundreds of billions of causes will not produce any change in something which does not exist. How can something in that state become existent? And what else can come into existence? If something is not an existent thing at the time when it is a non-existent thing, when does the existent thing become existent? For that non-existent thing does not go away while the existent thing has not been produced. And while the non-existent thing is not gone there can be no opportunity for the existent thing. Something which exists does not become non-existent, since this would have the contradictory consequence that one entity would have two natures. It follows that there is no cessation and there is no coming into existence at any time. Therefore none of this entire universe has come into existence or ceased.” (IX.145-149)

To think in terms of something absolutely not existing or something absolutely existing creates contradictions. Something that absolutely or inherently exists doesn’t need causes and something that inherently doesn’t exist at all cannot be made to exist by causes. Causal processes are not about things that have inherent existence or being, or inherent non-existence or non-being. Dependent origination is the Middle Way between asserting that something definitely exists or does not exist in-and-of-itself.

The arguments of this chapter come to an end at this point. Śāntideva concludes with a description of what it would be like to realize emptiness and a series of reflections meant to strengthen the resolve to realize it. He says:

“Rather, the states of existence are like dreams, on analysis the same as the trunk of a banana tree. There is in substance no difference between those who have attained liberation and those who have not. When all things are empty in this way, what can be received, what taken away? Who can be honored or humiliated by whom? From what can there be happiness or misery, what can be liked and what loathed? What craving can there be? For what is that craving, when examined as to its true nature? On analysis, what world of living beings is there? Who, then, will die in it? Who will come to exist? Who has existed? Who is a relative? Who is whose friend?” (IX.150-153)

 Following this, Śāntideva expresses the wish, “May all of my kind accept that everything is like space.” (IX.154) He then recounts the sufferings that sentient beings meet in saṃsāra and the rarity of  finding the way to liberation from suffering. He ends by longingly asking himself when he shall be able to fulfill the bodhisattva practice and be able to teach beings to rid themselves of projecting the idea that phenomena have inherent existence and can be substantial objects of attachment or aversion.

“When shall I provide relief for those tormented in the fire of such suffering, with offerings of happiness flowing from the clouds of my merit? When shall I teach emptiness and the accumulation of merit, by means of conventional truth, without reliance on projection, respectfully to those whose views are based on projection?” (IX.166-167)