Advayavada Study Plan – week 1

Dear friends,

The purpose of Advayavada Buddhism is to become a true part of the whole.

The purpose of the autonomous Advayavada Study Plan (ASP) is that we study (and debate in a local group, the family circle or with good friends) the meaning and implications of the weekly subject, not as a formal and impersonal intellectual exercise, but in the context of whatever we ourselves are presently doing or are concerned with, or about, such as our health, relationships, work, study, our place in society, etc. Advayavada Buddhism does not tell you what to do or believe, but how to make the very best of our own lives by indeed attuning as best as possible with wondrous overall existence advancing over time now in its manifest direction.

In this respect, my own objective for the coming weeks is to try to deepen my joyous equanimity in face of the vicissitudes of life – what is yours?

To commence this new series, this week we again study the impermanence of all things as thoroughly as we can.

This task is based on the Buddhist aniccata (Pali) or anityata (Sanskrit) doctrine. Anicca or anitya means impermanent, changeable, unstable, transitory, and is one of the three (in Advayavada Buddhism, four) signs or marks or basic facts of being: that which arises, dwells, and passes away. Buddhism teaches that impermanence or changeability is the most fundamental property of everything existing, without which existence itself (and liberation) would not be possible.

Kind regards,
John Willemsens,
Advayavada Foundation.

Rejection of Material Attachments (Alan Fox)

Both Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and [the legendary and obscure ‘proto-daoist’] Yangzi seem to be as concerned with the quality of life as they are with its length. Thoreau further believes that the simple life is conducive not only to individual health, but also ultimately to social stability: “I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.”

That is, it is to a certain extent our emphasis on, and imbalanced distribution of, material goods that cultivates negative moral values. This concern is consistent with the Yangist and Daoist traditions. As A.C. Graham points out [in his Disputers of the Tao, Philosophical Argument in Ancient China, Chicago 1989]: “In the present-day version of the Lao-tzu there are many passages expressing this idea of prizing life and despising material things.” Besides the resemblance to, among others, chapter 3 of the Daodejing, where Laozi suggests that “not valuing what is hard to come by will prevent the people from considering thievery”, what is significant here is a utopic conception of primal simplicity. On the individual level, this kind of simplicity, for Thoreau as well as for Yangzi, constitutes a kind of efficiency, which conserves vital resources and ensures the maximum enjoyment or sense of fulfilment of life. On a social level, it leads to social stability and lack of friction and conflict in general social intercourse. In the broadest, most comprehensively ecological sense, we can also say that this kind of conservationism is also conducive to a healthy natural environment. Individuals, societies, and whole ecologies work better when they are allowed to operate in the most simple and efficient manner, according to this model.

In this regard, Thoreau and Yangist thought both seem inconsistent with adherence to formalities that involve affected manners and empty courtesies. On the other hand, such behaviour constitutes an unrecoverable waste of human and natural resources. But further, it also represents hypocritical distractions from the more subtle but truly important concerns of life. Thoreau says: “I delight to come to my bearings, not to walk in procession with pomp and parade, in a conspicuous place, but to walk even with the Builder of the universe, if I may, not in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, but stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by. What are men celebrating? They are all on a committee of arrangements, and hourly expect a speech from somebody.”

This is generally reminiscent of the very common critiques of Confucian rites and manners (li) found in the writings of the Mohists and some of the Daoists. In some of these accounts, superficial virtues are accused of crowding out more substantial and authentic ones. For example, chapter 5 of the Daodejing emphasizes that the imposition of moral standards tends to impede the natural course of events, and specifically repudiates the cardinal Confucian virtue of ren (often translated as humaneness, benevolence or perfect social integration) as artificial and arbitrary. And Thoreau says of the truly good person that “his goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious”. That is, it is better to be good than to act good. Thus, the artificial, ‘manufactured’ quality of ceremony is rejected by the ideal person as inhibiting one’s intrinsically determined evolution and development. (Adapted from Rejection of Material Attachments, in Guarding what is Essential: Critiques of Material Culture in Thoreau and Yang Zhu, by Alan Fox, in Philosophy East and West, Honolulu, July 2008)

Spinoza: Every Event a Necessary Part of the Whole (Cahn)

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) viewed the world as possessing an intelligible structure according to which every event was in principle comprehensible as a necessary part of the whole. The logical order of that whole was to be understood only ‘through itself’ and was variously termed ‘substance’, ‘Nature’, or ‘God’. The geometric format of [his masterpiece] the Ethics illustrates this central thesis, since the propositions, corollaries and notes are all intended as deductions from the initial definitions and axioms, which are presented as self-explanatory. Part I contains Spinoza’s detailed demonstration of the essence of God. In Part II he offers his solution to the traditional philosophical problem of the relation between mind and body, regarding these not, as Descartes had, as two separate substances, but rather as two aspects of the one Substance. The remainder of the Ethics contains Spinoza’s moral theory and his view of the ideal life. The term ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are, according to Spinoza, merely words we use to express our own desires. In order to achieve salvation, we need to free ourselves from the bondage of these emotions and strive through reason to achieve knowledge of and identification with the order of the universe, thus coming to possess ‘the intellectual love of God’ which is ‘blessedness’. By thus reinterpreting the concept of God and imparting spirituality to the study of Nature, Spinoza fused his commitment to the scientific model of knowledge with the monotheistic vision of his religious heritage. (from Baruch Spinoza, in Classics of Western Philosophy, edited by Steven M. Cahn, Indianapolis 1977)

The Three-Treatise School (Wing-tsit Chan)

The Three-Treatise School (from The Philosophy of Emptiness: Chi-tsang of the Three-Treatise School, in A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, by Wing-tsit Chan, Princeton 1963, 1969, 1973)

The Three-Treatise School and the Consciousness-Only School [Vijñanavada] represented the two major developments of Mahayana or Great Vehicle philosophy in India. The former insists that dharmas (elements of existence) and their causes are unreal and has therefore been known as the School of Non-being, while the latter insists that they are real and has therefore been known as the School of Being. Both were introduced into China by outstanding philosophers. Both had something profound and subtle to offer which China had never known. Both lasted for several centuries. But both failed to exert lasting influence on Chinese thought. It is important to understand why this has been the case.

The Three-Treatise School, called Madhyamika (Middle Doctrine) in Sanskrit, was founded in India by Nagarjuna (c.100-200 A.D.). Kumarajiva (344-413) introduced it into China by translating Nagarjuna’s two most important treatises, the Madhyamika sastra (Treatise on the Middle Doctrine) and the Dvadasanikaya sastra (Twelve Gates Treatise) and his disciple Aryadeva’s Sata sastra (One Hundred Verses Treatise). Hence the school is called the Three-Treatise School.

The central concept of the school is Emptiness (Sunyata) in the sense that the nature and characters of all dharmas, together with their causation, are devoid of reality. Thus all differentiations, whether being or non-being, cause or effect, or coming-into-existence or going-out-of-existence are only ‘temporary names’ and are empty in nature. The only reality is Emptiness itself, which is the absolute, Ultimate Void, the Original Substance, or in Chinese terminology, the correct principle (cheng-li). As such it is equivalent to Nirvana and the Dharma-body.

The doctrine was transmitted in China through Kumarajiva’s pupil Seng-chao (384-414) and played a dominant role there from the fourth to the seventh century. It had a tremendous attraction for the Chinese because its philosophy of Emptiness suited the temper of Chinese intellectuals of Wei-Chin times (220-420), who were then propagating the Taoist doctrine of non-being. Its highly developed and systematic method of reasoning was a stimulating novelty to the Chinese. Its spirit of criticism and refutation gave the rebellious Chinese philosophers, including the Neo-Taoists, a sense of emancipation. Its nominalism reinforced the Chinese opposition to the Confucian doctrine of ranks and names, especially in the sixth century. In addition to all this, it had the great fortune [sic] of having as its systematiser the outstanding figure, Chi-tsang (549-623). […]

Ironically, Chi-tsang’s success was at the same time the failure of his school, for it became less and less Chinese. As mentioned before, Seng-chao was still a bridge between Taoism and Buddhism. He combined the typical Chinese concept of identity of substance and function, for example, with the Buddhist concepts of temporary names and Emptiness. In Chi-tsang, substance and function are sharply contrasted instead. In that, he was completely Indian in viewpoint, although he quoted Taoists. As a systematiser and transmitter of Indian philosophy, he brought about no cross-fertilization between Buddhist and Chinese thought. And it happened that the Indian thought which he promoted was so utterly unacceptable to the Chinese that the school declined in the ninth century. […]

To this [the Middle Doctrine] school, refutation of erroneous views is essential for and indeed identical with the elucidation of right views. But when a right view is held in place of a wrong one, the right view itself becomes one-sided and has to be refuted. It is only through this dialectic process that Emptiness can be arrived at, which alone is free from names and character and is ‘inexplicable in speech and unrealizable in thought’.  The specific method in this dialectic process is Nagarjuna’s Middle Path of Eightfold Negations, which denies that dharmas come into existence or go out of existence, that they are permanent or come to an end, that they are the same or different, and that they come or go away. The basis of all arguments is the so-called Four Points of Argumentation. By the use of this method of argument, a dharma as being, as non-being, as both being and non-being, and as neither being nor non-being are all refuted and proved to be untrue. Chi-tsang illustrates this method fully in his refutation of causation.

It is obvious that this approach is as nihilistic as it is destructive. The school had little new substance to offer and nothing constructive. It is true that Emptiness as the Absolute is as pure and perfect as anything conceivable, but being devoid of specific characters and divorced from mundane reality, it becomes too abstract for the Chinese. It might be hoped that its novel and radical method of reasoning at least aroused the Chinese mind and led to a new approach to life and reality, but it did not. That opportunity was left to the Zen (Meditation, Ch’an) School.

Karma is Pratityasamutpada at Sentient Level

In Advayavada Buddhism we say that karma is basically and simply the operation of incessant pratityasamutpada (interdependent origination) at the sentient level (pratityasamutpada, that is, as in Madhyamaka philosophy, where ‘all causes are effects and all effects are causes’). Our own karma is the everchanging knotlet of biopsychosocial events in which we are personally embedded. These events include traditionally the consequences of one’s actions (the kamma niyama), the laws of heredity (the bija niyama), the environment (the utu niyama), the will of mind (the citta niyama) and Nature’s tendency to perfect (the dhamma niyama).

Buddhism and the Issue of Religious Fundamentalism (Y. Karunadasa)

Buddhism and the Issue of Religious Fundamentalism, from Early Buddhist Teachings, by Y. Karunadasa, Hong Kong 2013.

The term ‘religious fundamentalism’ embraces all religious phenomena and movements which emerge as a reaction against some kind of perceived danger, as for instance, the marginalization of religion, due to the onset of science and technology. According to Fundamentalisms Comprehended: An Anthology of Articles, edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (University of Chicago Press, 2004), some of the basic ingredients that go to make religious fundamentalism are as follows:
* Ultra-orthodoxy: The recognition of the absolute inerrancy of the religious scriptures.
* Ultra-orthopraxis: The attempt to practise religious life, based almost on a literal, rather than on a hermeneutical, interpretation of the rules and regulations laid down in the religious scriptures.
* Exclusivism.
* Militant Piety.
* Fanaticism.

Exclusivism the Root Cause of Fundamentalism

There can be many reasons for the emergence and prevalence of religious fundamentalism. Nevertheless, we can identify exclusivism as its root cause. Other kinds of fundamentalism, as for instance, those arising in relation to one’s own race, nationality, ethnicity, or political ideology also have exclusivism as their root cause.

How the Buddha defines Exclusivism

As a matter of fact, the most precise, and therefore, the most acceptable, definition of exclusivism can be found in the teachings of the Buddha. Exclusivism, as defined by the Buddha, is the attitude of mind that manifests in relation to one’s own view, as “This alone is true, all else is false” (idam eva saccam; mogham aññam). This kind of dogmatic and exclusivist assertion is due to what is called “sanditthi-raga“, i.e. “infatuation with the rightness of one’s own view/dogma/ideology”. Another Pali expression with a similar connotation is “idam-saccabhinivesa“. It means “adherence to one’s view, while asserting that this [alone] is the truth”. All such categorical assertions in respect of one’s religion or ideology lead to what Buddhism calls “ditthi-paramasa“, “tenaciously grasping views”.

The Danger of Attachment to Views whether they are Right or Wrong

An attitude of mind, driven by exclusivism, can easily provide fertile ground for bigotry and intolerance, indoctrination and unethical conversion, militant piety and persecution, interpersonal conflicts and acts of terrorism. From the Buddhist perspective dogmatic attachment to views and ideologies, whether they are true or false, is very much more detrimental and fraught with more danger than our inordinate attachment to material things. A good example for this is today’s fast-growing ‘industry’ of suicide-bombing. A person committing the act of suicide-bombing is prepared to sacrifice his own life for the sake of the ideological agenda he is pursuing. Inter-religious and intra-religious wars, often referred to by the misnomer ‘holy wars’, are another case in point.

Buddhist Social Pluralism (Y. Karunadasa)

Buddhist Social Pluralism, from Early Buddhist Teachings, by Y. Karunadasa, Hong Kong 2013.

Another area where we find many instances of pluralism is in the Buddhist attitude to society. As a religion Buddhism does not interfere with people’s ways of living by imposing on them unnecessary restrictions. We never hear of a Buddhist Dress, Buddhist Food, or Buddhist Medicine, laid down as valid for all times and climes. For, these are things that change from place to place and from time to time, depending on the progress of our knowledge.

This situation is true when it comes to marriage, too. There are many forms of marriage, monogamy, polygamy, polyandry, and so on. Today in the modern world the legally recognized practice is mostly monogamy. Nevertheless, nowhere does Buddhism say that other forms of marriage are immoral. The form of marriage, too, could change from time to time, from place to place. If it changes, then there is no problem for Buddhism. For Buddhism marriage is only a social institution. It is something entirely mundane, not a religious “sacrament”. Nor does Buddhism say that marriage is an indissoluble bond. Therefore if two married partners are incompatible, they can certainly divorce, provided, of course, they follow the laws of the country as enacted for such situations.

Buddhism has no prohibitions against birth control. If a married couple decides to practise contraception to prevent children being born, that is entirely their private business. They are not committing anything that is morally evil. Nor will the Buddhist Sangha, whether Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana ever promulgate an edict condemning and prohibiting such acts.

Abortion is of course a different matter. Since abortion involves taking a life, it goes against the First Precept. However, in our opinion abortion can be condoned in cases of serious [biopsychosocial] health hazards, if abortion is the lesser evil. In this connection it is instructive for us to remember two things: One is that according to Buddhism what really matters is the intention/volition (cetana). It is, in fact, intention/volition that the Buddha has identified as kamma. The other thing is that in following morality, Buddhists are not expected to do so by absolutely grasping moral precepts (aparamattham).

Why are the Five Aggregates of Grasping Dukkha? (Y. Karunadasa)

Why are the Five Aggregates of Grasping Dukkha? (from Early Buddhist Teachings, The Middle Position in Theory and Practice, by Y. Karunadasa, Hong Kong 2013)

Why are the five aggregates of grasping suffering? What we need to remember here is that it is not the five aggregates (pañca-khanda), but the five aggregates of grasping (pañca-upadanakkhandha) that are described as suffering. This distinction should show that although the five aggregates in themselves are not a source of suffering, they constitute suffering when they become objects of grasping (upadana). Strictly speaking, therefore, what Buddhism calls the individual in its samsaric dimension is not the five aggregates, but the five aggregates when they are grasped, appropriated, and clung to. That which is called individual existence can thus be reduced to a causally conditioned process of grasping. It is this process of grasping that Buddhism describes as suffering.

A yet another question that arises here is by whom are the five aggregates grasped? The answer to this question is that besides the process of grasping, there is no agent who performs the act of grasping. This answer may appear rather enigmatic; nevertheless it is understandable in the context of the Buddhist doctrine of not self and the Buddhist doctrine of dependent arising. What both doctrines seek to show is that the individual is a conditioning and conditioned process, without an agent either inside or outside of the process. The grasping-process manifests in three ways. This is mine (etam mama), this I am (eso’ham asmi), and this is my self (eso me atta). The first is due to craving (tanha), the second to conceit (mana), and the third is due to the mistaken belief in a self-entity (ditthi). It is through this process of the three-fold self-appropriation that the idea of “mine”, “I am” and “my self” arises. If there is a phenomenon called individuality in its samsaric dimension, it is entirely due to the superimposition of these three ideas on the five aggregates.

A this juncture, another question arises: why and how does the process of grasping lead to suffering? In answering this question, it is important to note here that the five aggregates that become the object of self-appropriation and grasping are in a state of constant change, in a state of continuous flux with no persisting substance. Their nature is such that they do not remain in the way we want them to remain. As such, the aggregates are not under our full control. Thus by identifying ourselves with what is impermanent (anicca), with what does not come under our full control (anatta), we come to suffering [dukkha]. This should explain why Buddhism traces the fact of suffering to the fact of impermanence (yad aniccam tam dukkham). When the process of self-appropriation and self-identification is terminated [by following the Noble Eightfold Path], suffering too comes to an end. As long as this process persists, there is suffering. The moment it stops, the samsaric process also ceases to be, and together with it all suffering comes to an end.