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The Tree of Enlightenment: An Introduction to the Major Traditions of Buddhism - Chapter Twenty-Four: Methodology

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The Tree of Enlightenment
An Introduction to the Major Traditions of Buddhism

Peter Della Santina



Chapter Twenty-Four
Methodology

As noted in Chapters 22 and 23, the Vajrayana and the Mahayana are identical in their views of the beginning and end of the path. Where the two differ is in methodology. The special claim of the Vajrayana is that it provides a more skillful and rapid means of getting from that beginning (the initial situation of suffering) to the end (the goal of Buddhahood). Therefore a look at its methodology is particularly important to an understanding of the Vajrayana.

Let us begin by discussing the mechanism of the initial situation of suffering. The fundamental cause of suffering has traditionally been called ignorance. But ignorance means the dichotomy or duality between subject and object, between self and other. There are different ways to deconstruct or dismantle this duality which is the substance of ignorance. In the Abhidharma literature (see Chapter 19), the emphasis is on the dismantling of the self. By taking apart the self--one pole of the duality-- the subject is dismantled. And ultimately, dismantling the subject implies dismantling the object, too. This is why great emphasis is placed on the analytical dissection of the self. This has been the main thrust of the Abhidharmic tradition, although not its exclusive contents, since the Abhidharma Pitaka also contains the important Book of Causal Relations (Patthana), in which the object as well as the subject is dismantled.

In the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, there is a slightly different approach, in that these traditions begin by attacking the object in various ways. For instance, in Chapter 23 we discovered that the object is not stable in its mode of appearance, and that an object can appear even without any external stimulus. Thus the object is like an object seen in a dream; it is unreal.

The discovery that the object is unreal raises the question of the status of the self, or subject. In the Mahayana and Vajrayana, the general procedure for deconstructing the subject-object or self-and-other duality follows these lines: We begin by showing that the object is dreamlike and unreal, and then apply our understanding of interdependence to reveal that, if the object is unreal, then the subject which is dependent on the object is also dreamlike and unreal. If the seed is unreal, the sprout, too, must be unreal. This brings us to the understanding of the emptiness of subject and object. This process is reflected to an extent in the attitudes of the two main Mahayana schools--the Mind Only school, which focuses on the dreamlike nature of experience, and the Middle Way school, which focuses on the idea of interdependence.

In addition to this fundamental duality--the subject-object or self-other duality--there are many others that must be removed if we are going to achieve enlightenment. The other major duality which produces suffering, and on which the Mahayana and the Vajrayana focus, is the duality between samsara and nirvana. In general, this is a duality between what is conditioned and what is unconditioned. Samsara is conditioned and nirvana is unconditioned. This is reflected in the technical description of the phenomena of samsara as conditioned phenomena and nirvana as unconditioned reality. Samsara is conditioned because it is characterized by origination and destruction, by birth and death, whereas nirvana is unconditioned because it is characterized by non-origination and non-destruction.

But is this duality real or is it merely constructed? The position of the Mahayana and Vajrayana is that the duality between samsara and nirvana is unreal. It is merely constructed by, and hence an illusion of, the mind. This is shown by an analysis of the characteristics of samsara--that is, by an analysis of origination and destruction.

There are various ways origination and destruction are examined within the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions. One is found in Nagarjuna's extensive examination of origination in his Foundation Stanzas of the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamakakarika.). There he considers the four possibilities of origination: (i) from self, (ii) from other, (iii) from both, and (iv) without a cause (see Chapter 18). But here we can content ourselves with an analogical examination of origination, in which it is said that if objects are like objects seen in a dream, then there is neither any real origination nor any real destruction.

In the Samadhiraja Sutra, it is mentioned that if a young, virgin woman has a dream in which she gives birth to a child, and in that same dream she sees that the child dies, she will (of course) experience first happiness and then sorrow in the dream. But when she awakes she will realize that there was no real birth or death of a child. Similarly, all phenomena have no real origination and no real destruction. If, in reality, all things have no origination and no destruction, then the characteristics of samsara no longer hold good as real characteristics. The distinction between samsara and nirvana collapses, and we are left with the conclusion that, as Nagarjuna puts it in the Mulamadhyamakakarika, there is not even the subtlest difference between samsara and nirvana. If there is no origination and no destruction, then samsara's characteristics are the same as nirvana's, since nirvana is characterized by the absence of origination and destruction. There is, therefore, no difference between samsara and nirvana.

To summarize, we arrive at the identity of samsara and nirvana first through a dismantling of our conception of samsara. We define samsara as conditioned. We say that the characteristics of the conditioned are origination and destruction, but find that there is no real origination and no real destruction. If samsara does not have these characteristics, then its opposite, nirvana, has no meaning. In this way we arrive at the identity of samsara and nirvana.

Everything I have said thus far about ignorance being the fundamental cause of suffering, about the duality of subject and object and of samsara and nirvana, and about the emptiness of each pole of these dualities--all this holds true for the Mahayana as well as for the Vajrayana tradition. There is complete agreement between the two up to this point. There is also complete agreement about the distinction between indirect knowledge and direct knowledge.

The distinction between understanding the truth intellectually and seeing the truth directly is, of course, recognized throughout the Buddhist tradition. For example, in the Theravada tradition, there is recognition of the difference between understanding the Four Noble Truths intellectually and seeing them directly. In the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, the crux of the matter is whether our knowledge of the identity of samsara and nirvana is intellectual or direct and experiential.

If we follow the procedures laid down in the Perfection of Wisdom literature--the arguments spelled out by Nagarjuna, Asanga, and Vasubandhu--we arrive at an intellectual, indirect understanding of the non-differentiation of subject and object, samsara and nirvana. It is with the quicker, more skillful methods by which indirect intellectual understanding is turned into direct and transforming understanding that Vajrayana methodology comes into play.

The key to an understanding of Vajrayana methodology per se is an understanding of the emptiness of all things. All phenomena (dharmas) are nothing in themselves. They are what they are insofar as they are conceived of by the mind. Let me refer to two examples from the Theravada tradition to illustrate this point of the emptiness, or neutrality, of all phenomena. In the Discourse of the Water Snake, Alagaddupama Sutta, the Buddha likens all phenomena to a water-snake and to a raft. He says that someone who is skilled at handling a water-snake can capture and handle it without coming to grief, but someone who is not skilled will come to grief if he tries to capture one. He also says that phenomena are like a raft, in that we do not need to hold onto them, just as we do not need to hold onto a raft once we have crossed a river.

The Buddha's discourse expresses very brilliantly and succinctly the emptiness and neutrality of phenomena. All phenomena are neither this nor that. They are neutral, dependent on how we take or use them. It is not in the nature of a water-snake to cause grief; rather, grief depends on the manner in which the water-snake is caught. Similarly, a knife is neither true nor false, but one who grasps it by the blade is surely in error. If we grasp a knife by its blade, we hurt ourselves, but if we grasp it by the handle, we are able to use it. If we use a raft to cross a river, we are using it properly; if we carry the raft on our shoulders after crossing the river, we are making a mistake. The usefulness or lack of usefulness of phenomena lies not in phenomena themselves but in the way we use them.

This is true not only of objects but also of mental states like desire and aversion. For example, there is the story of the Buddha's instruction to his cousin Nanda, who was persuaded to join the Order on the day he was to have married. After his ordination, Nanda began to miss his fianc?e and regret that he had entered the Order. The Buddha was aware of Nanda's state of mind, so he took him on a trip to the heavens to show him the lovely, heavenly damsels there. Nanda was so infatuated by the maidens in the heavens that, when he was asked how they compared to his fianc?e, he replied that, beside them, his fianc?e looked like the skeleton of a female monkey. The Buddha advised Nanda that if he wanted to enjoy the heavenly damsels in his next life, the best way to do so was to remain in the Buddhist Order and practice the Dharma.

Nanda went back to the Order with renewed zeal. When the other monks found out why Nanda was practicing so diligently, they teased him. Eventually Nanda realized the hollowness of his motivation and became an Arhat known as the foremost of those who are able to control their senses. This is an example of the neutrality of the mental state of desire. At a particular point in Nanda's progress, the Buddha used desire as a motivation to get Nanda to settle down and practice diligently.

Thus we can see that not only are objects like water-snakes, rafts, and knives neutral and dependent on how we take or use them, but mental states, also, are nothing in themselves: they depend on how we use them, whether for spiritual progress or spiritual retardation. This is why the Buddha said that 'killing anger benefits the killer.' Aversion is neither good nor bad. If one is averse to unwholesome actions, this is conducive to the goal of liberation, but if one is averse to wholesome actions, this is not conducive to good.

To reiterate, all phenomena are basically neutral or empty. How they affect our progress depends on how we take them and what we do with them. This is the insight or attitude which has been developed in the Vajrayana and which has enabled the Vajrayana to use particular methods that utilize all phenomena for spiritual progress. This is the key to the acceleration that Vajrayana methods bring to spiritual progress.

To the extent that we use only part of our experience to make progress toward the goal of liberation, our progress is, inevitably, slower. For example, how much time do any of us spend in meditation or in recitation? Most of our time is spent instead on eating, sleeping, or chatting with our friends. We are wasting all that time, and all that experience is not being used to make progress toward the goal of enlightenment. It is here that the Vajrayana makes use of the idea of the basic neutrality of all phenomena, for if all phenomena are empty, why not make use of them--all sights, sounds, and mental states--for spiritual progress?

This is why the Vajrayana is said to regard all sights, sounds, and mental states as deities, mantras, and the transcendental dimension of Buddhahood. Everything that we see, hear, and think is really neutral and empty. If we take these sights, sounds, and thoughts to be manifestations of the pure vision of enlightenment, we can utilize these elements of experience to contribute to our progress toward enlightenment. I will explain this in greater detail in the chapters that follow, but let me give you an example at this point. The cup that I am holding belongs to the aggregate of form, which is a manifestation of the celestial Buddha Vairochana. The object, which belongs to the aggregate of form, is therefore not simply a cup but a dimension of the Buddha Vairochana. This is what is meant when it is said in the Vajrayana that one regards all sights as the deities, as the particular manifestations of a purified reality. By a particular act of the mind, we can similarly regard all sounds as mantras and all mental states as the transcendental dimension of Buddhahood.

This careful utilization of sights, sounds, and mental states is especially evident in the form of the Vajrayana ritual of meditation. In this context the Vajrayana practice of meditation may be likened to a raft--a raft that is composed of sights, sounds, and mental states. In the Vajrayana ritual, for example, there is a visual component, which is the visualization of any one of the deities of the pantheon; an auditory component, which is the recitation of the mantra; and a mental component, which is the identification of the meditator with the object of meditation and the cultivation of the understanding of nonduality and emptiness.

This will become clearer in later chapters. For the time being, I would like to conclude by observing that the ritual of Vajrayana meditation practice employs these three components--visual, auditory, and mental--in order to create a 'raft of ritual' that utilizes a variety of phenomena, and that this provides a particularly efficient form of meditation.

Those of you who practice breathing meditation or other forms of meditation will appreciate the truth of this. If you are trying to meditate only on your breath, there may be a point at which your mind becomes tired of trying to concentrate only on the breath and begins to wander. If you are chanting, your mind may become tired of the words of the chant. If you are doing insight meditation, your mind may become tired of the penetrative analysis of phenomena. Because of the multifaceted character of Vajrayana meditation practice, when the mind becomes tired and irritated and is no longer able to concentrate on the visualized form of the deity, it can concentrate on the mantra; when it becomes tired of concentrating on the mantra, it can concentrate on emptiness; and when it becomes tired of that, it can go back to the visualized form of the deity.

Indeed, Vajrayana ritual is more effective as a means of meditation precisely because of its multidimensional character: rather than setting up a confrontation with the tendency of the mind to become distracted, it utilizes that tendency. Thus Vajrayana meditation actually lets the mind wander, although it is only allowed to wander within a particular compass of religious or spiritual meaning, so that no matter what the mind rests on--whether the visualized form of the deity, the mantra, the identification of the meditator with the form of the deity, or even the emptiness of that form--it is resting on something that has spiritual power.

The Vajrayana ritual is also like a raft in the sense that it is not anything to be grasped. It is a means, or method, and nothing more. This ritual is also not supposed to be confined to sessions of formal meditation but to be extended to all our activities, both within and outside of meditation sessions. While in the meditation session, we visualize the form of the deity, recite the mantra, and cultivate both an understanding of identity with the form of the deity and an understanding of the emptiness of that form. Thereafter, this view is extended beyond the limits of the meditation session to encompass all our activities.

Wherever we are and whatever we do, the totality of our experience is made a part of this 'raft of meditation practice,' so that we can incorporate and utilize all this energy and experience in our practice. As we go about our daily activities, we perceive sights, sounds, and mental states in this special, transformed way. In other words, we grasp the elements of our entire experience by the handle, not by the blade. Through the techniques of Vajrayana meditation, we learn to handle these sights, sounds, and mental states skillfully, so that we do not come to grief. We learn to handle sights that we see, sounds that we hear, and mental states that we experience so that, instead of being ensnared by these experiences, we can use them for our mental development and progress toward enlightenment.


Continue Reading

Part One: The Fundamentals of Buddhism

Part Two: The Mahayana

Part Three: The Vajrayana

Part Four: The Abhidharma

Source

by Peter Della Santina
peterdellasantina.org