question Your contention that “the absolute and phenomena” are “exactly the same thing” but “observed subjectively from a different perspective” is reminiscent of Japanese Tendai’s hongaku thought, the chief characteristic of which is world-affirmation (genjitsu kotei). The major problematic of this doctrine, as you are aware, is that identity (advaya) amounts to the equivocation of phenomena with enlightenment – a quasi-pantheism. On the other hand, some Buddhists argue that identity takes place at the level of final enlightenment, sub specie aeternitatis. After a careful reading of your letters, I must assume that the so-called advayic identity of “absolute and phenomena” takes place at a phenomenal level for you, which I take is your position. By analogy, you are postulating that grasses and trees realize Buddhahood because of the identity (advaya) of subject and its environment. Yet it is easy to see that “grasses and trees” remain such as the environment remains such, neither losing its separate identity. How therefore is this identity, seems puzzling? In what way are even the grasses and trees identical? How is the sky identical with the trees and so on? I apologize if I am not making myself very clear. I enjoy our correspondence. We are like two old fools playing chess in the park!
answer Your closing remark, which made us laugh very much over here, is very zenny and almost like a haiku. Two old fools playing chess in the park, indeed! We are very grateful for your pleasant and forthcoming attitude. We are also enjoying this correspondence very much.
Tendai Buddhism, you might agree, risks becoming in the end, as a result of the exaggerated syncretistic zeal of its followers, no more than a well-meant ontological fantasy. The non-dual and life-affirming philosophy and way of life that we call Advayavada Buddhism is, on the other hand, purely an epistemological standpoint. In accordance with the doctrine of shunyata all distinctions are understood to be fundamentally illusory and artificial – dualisms as Nirvana and Samsara, or absolute and phenomena, are revealed as figments of our imagination. The term advaya in Advayavada means not-two in the sense of knowing that objectively there are not two realities nor two conditions or aspects of reality. When we say that Samsara and Nirvana are the same thing, we do not mean that they are identical in the sense of being two-but-the-same, as is meant by the Hindu term advaita, but that they are simply not two, that they are very literally one-and-the-same thing: rather simply put, Samsara is the name we give to reality as experienced conventionally and Nirvana is the name we give to the same one reality but as experienced by the fully enlightened mind – this identity is, indeed, also the third truth of basic Tendai philosophy.
The tendency to view reality as two is a result of our fundamental ignorance of the true nature of reality, as professor Murti writes in The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. The Spinozean expression sub specie aeternitatis is frequently used by Buddhists to indicate that we would see for ourselves that there are not two realities if we were able to view existence from the completely non-conceptual standpoint of eternity. We can however ascertain rightnow, as indeed Madhyamaka proves, that there is no basis whatsoever to suppose that besides phenomena there is a second, transcendent and, moreover, superior reality. The specific purpose of Advayavada Buddhism, which literally means not-two-ism, is to actively propound the conclusions of Madhyamaka philosophy in this respect. Your grasses and trees are indeed two of the many different manifestations of vegetable life. Advayavada Buddhism does not maintain that they are identical phenomena; what Advayavada Buddhism maintains is that there is no reason at all to believe that there is a further second reality, invisible to the eye, parallel to these life forms or any other phenomena. In Advayavada Buddhism there are no other two than part and whole, numerator and denominator.
There are not two realities, but there are, Madhyamaka teaches, two ways of seeing, of experiencing, of understanding the one reality: there are two truths, conventional everyday truth (samvriti-satya) and ultimate truth (paramartha-satya). In our everyday application of conventional truth, though we are aware of the intrinsic emptiness of all dharmas or phenomena since we know that all things are interdependently arisen and exist conceptually only by virtue of our idea of them or of their alleged opposite, we nevertheless do take into account and make use of the relative, conceptual aspects of phenomena in our commonplace interaction with other sentient beings and with our environment. As a matter of fact, the Noble Eightfold Path operates throughout exclusively at the level of conventional truth. As we advance along the Buddha’s Middle Way responding to his promise of Nirvana by ridding ourselves of the so-called ten fetters (dasha-, dasasamyojana) that restrict us to Samsara, the fallacies in our perception of Samsara are progressively transformed, purified first into conventional truth, and it is through conventional truth that we shall eventually come to understand the non-conceptual import of ultimate truth. The dialectic of Madhyamaka, with its exhaustive analysis of the nature of reality, indeed takes place at the level of conventional truth. By ultimate truth is meant our awareness of the underlying field of experience where all phenomena stripped of their relative aspects are known to happen: it is our insight into the void beyond all concepts. This field of experience where the real events are known to take place is that of non-dual emptiness, advayata, shunyata, the realm of prajña, non-dual, contentless intuition. To experience existence at this level, which we can truly say lies between the notions of being and non-being, is nothing less than Nirvana.
question What are those ten fetters you just mentioned?
answer In Advayavada Buddhism, the ten samyojana or fetters that restrict us to samsaric life are: 1) belief in the self, 2) scepticism regarding the Path, 3) attachment to rituals, 4) partiality for certain things, 5) prejudice against certain things, 6) clinging to physical life, 7) hope of a hereafter, eight) conceit and pride, 9) intolerance and irritability, and 10) the last remnants of our ignorance.
question Do I count three realms of experience in your description of the dvaya-satya doctrine: Samsara, conventional truth, and ultimate truth or Nirvana (more or less along the lines of the three kinds of knowledge in Spinoza: opinion, reason and intuition)?
answer Though Nagarjuna’s dvaya-satya teaching is very much a two-truths doctrine, as its Sanskrit name indicates, some aspects are comparable to Spinoza’s teaching. Our application in Advayavada Buddhism of this essential Madhyamika doctrine is as follows: Samsara is to experience the phenomenal world at the level of conventional everyday truth (samvriti-satya). However, our initial perception of the phenomenal world normally contains many fallacies (mithyasamvriti) and the conversion of these fallacies into true conventional truth (tathyasamvriti), by following the Noble Eightfold Path, occurs entirely within the realm of Samsara. At the same time the fetters that restrict us to Samsara are broken one by one. Ideally, our perception of Samsara becomes in the end wholly pure conventional truth, whilst all ten of the restraining fetters have also been shattered along the way. Now, it is as a result of this thorough purification of our perception of the phenomenal world, at the level of conventional truth, that we shall come to understand the significance of ultimate truth. Ultimate truth (paramartha-satya) is truth divested of all our preconceptions, including eventually those expressed here. Nirvana is to understand and experience the one phenomenal world at this level of ultimate truth – to experience the phenomenal world thus, brings about the complete extinction (nirodha) of all suffering (duhkha, dukkha) as a direct result of our full reconciliation with reality as it truly is. The fully liberated person has continually at his or her disposal, then, two truths: the everyday conventional truth of the phenomenal world and the ultimate truth of its pure, unblemished becoming, its Emptiness.