Sunday, September 20, 2009

Class 4a – The Middle Way Philosophy, Madhyamaka

Middle Way School Teachings on Emptiness

This view comes from the teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni, the cycle of teachings known as the Prajnaparamita teachings (the perfection of wisdom), which are the teachings that Buddha gave at Vulture Peak Mountain. This was known as the second historic teaching of the Buddha. The first was the four noble truths. The second was the Prajnaparamita, the main topic of which is emptiness.

Nagarjuna was born in India 500 years after the death of Shakyamuni Buddha. This cycle later on came to be known as Madhyamaka, the teachings of the Middle Way.

The word “madhyamaka” in Sanskrit -- one way of reading it is “middle way,” the perfect balance between not falling into the two extremes of eternalism and nihilism, existence and nonexistence. Also, it means “not even the middle.” “Madhya” means middle; “maka” here is taken as a negation. If there are no extremes, how can there be a middle? If you remove the four walls, how can there be a middle of the room? You go even beyond that.

Emptiness -- shunyata

The Heart Sutra says, “Seeing the five skandhas to be empty of nature,” or in a literal way, one should clearly and genuinely see that the five skandhas are empty of an inherent nature. The main statement being made in Madhyamaka is that all phenomena are in and of themselves empty of an inherent nature.

It’s not the case that we’re starting out with truly existent phenomena, then relying on an antidote, then later discovering the emptiness. Rather, from the very beginning, things are empty by nature.

This nature being emptiness is known as “the natural nirvana.” The basic state is free, right from the beginning. Free from existence, nonexistence, suffering, and causes of suffering. The nature of the world is in this nature of nirvana right from the beginning according to the Madhyamaka view. This is what we call the absolute truth.

Let’s look at that emptinesss from the middle way point of view.

Imputation and the basis of imputation

When we look at any phenomena, we usually experience things appearing in certain form, such as the skandha of form... body, flower, table, etc. But when you look at what we call a flower, it’s not really a “flower,” it is the basis of what we are labeling or naming. You have to separate the basis of imputation from the imputation itself.

One of the coarsest forms of ignorance we have is that we confuse the imputation with the basis of imputation. For example, with the flower, we take the basis of imputation which is the object and we think it is the same thing as the color, shape, smell, etc. of the flower. By mistaking all these things as being one thing, we give rise to clinging onto this object as being real in a particular way. Beautiful, pleasant, and so on.

We also view ourselves as individuals in the same way. We start with out skandhas, say our form skandha, and confuse our form skandha with the label. We look at all these qualities and think they are the same thing as ourselves. We might have a basis of imputation for which we give the word “John” and we confuse the person and the label as being the same thing. We see how we do this in everyday life… we see someone and immediately think of their name. On the basis of this, we have a lot of clinging to things as being real. Same for the label “friend” or “enemy.”

We call this object a table, yet there is no true correlation between the object and the table. You can label something anything. If everyone called it the same thing, you would understand. But the object itself has no inherent “tableness.” It’s like giving different names to children or dogs or cats.

Since there is no real relationship between the object and the label, we could call it anything. So we come to the conclusion that there is no real correlation between an object and its name, table. So “table” and “flower” do not exist; they are mere concepts.

So what do we have left? The label is a mere concept, so we’re left with the basis for imputation and we have to analyze that and see if it’s truly existent.

Beyond One and Many

When analyzing the basis of imputation, there are many ways of doing this in the Madhyamaka tradition. One of them is “beyond one and many.” This is a reasoning that analyzes the basis of objects.

If we look at the basis of imputation for “body,” we see that it breaks down to particles, then further particles. Ostensibly, we should be able to break down to a final “partless particle,” a very subtle particle. But if we get down to even that and analyze it, we won’t be able to find anything in the end. Even the smallest particles would have sides -- up and down, left and right, and so on. And if you kept getting smaller and smaller, you wouldn’t be able to find any stopping point. This non-finding is emptiness in the Madhyamaka analysis.

When you look at detail in subtle nature, you find no such existence of one single entity in the basis for imputation. It goes down to atomic, then subatomic, and finally not even the smallest particle exists. This is called the absence of a true unit.

It’s important to first come to certainty that there is no single unit existing. Having established that, you can establish that there is no group of existant units. If something doesn’t exist as a single, it can’t exist as a group.

It is clearly an illusion that we are experiencing. If you go to the smallest breakdown, everything is a beautiful illusion like a mirage. On a sunny day when you drive you can see a mirage. Sometimes you can see the reflection of another car, or colors, or trees. But as you get closer, there is no water. How did I see that reflection?

Similarly, we are experiencing the existence of relative reality. When the causes and conditions come together, we can have the experience of existence. Like the mirage, in the same way we can experience this existence here.

Mind Moments

So when you analyze according to the reasoning of “beyond one and many” we can find the nonexistence of the basis of all these labels. But if you try to analyze something like mind, you can’t do that in the same way as matter. We have to look at “moments of mind” and break them down into subtler and subtler moments.

If we look at our mind, we can see that thoughts appear and disappear moment by moment. In analyzing, we find that there is no thing that exists as a single thing that abides for a long time. We won’t even be able to find the most subtle instant of mind that is truly existent.

So even if we analyze the most subtle instant of mind, we’ll see they have three parts... the part that is arising, abiding, and ceasing. Past, present, and future. And these can each be broken down into these three categories. We can’t look for mind and say that it is abiding here. Analyzing this way, we discover that all perceiving subjects and all objects perceived are emptiness.

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