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Archive for the ‘Mahayana’ Category

…sounds like Zen, might be Zen, but is no Zen?

Hidden within in the scholastic bodies of ancient Theravadin commentarial literature dwell gems of wisdom taught by ancient Masters of Buddhist meditation. One such beautiful little gem, an allegory, really needs some more attention.

Everyone knows about the 10 pictures in the ZEN tradition of “Taming the Wild Ox” but only a few know that a similar story of a farmer who is out looking for his oxen can already be found in the Visuddhimagga, a commentary on Theravada Buddhism compiled about 500 AD. The Visuddhimagga, the crown jewel of commentarial literature is far more than a dry scholastic theoretical treatise. Based on the suttas, commentaries and Buddhist practice of the 1-3rd century the famous commentator Buddhaghosa put together many pragmatic meditation instructions both of concentration and insight meditation.

This particular story, the potential boilerplate version for the now famous ZEN story, appears in the Wisdom section of the Visuddhimagga, chapter XXI, and describes and compares the insight process of a meditator to a farmer’s different stages of search and discovery of his lost ox.

While in ZEN this story became quite mystical and, well, Zen-like 🙂 it is pretty down to earth and sounds Theravadin clear cut (bordering to boring) in pali. Have a look at the following few lines with an attempt in translation further below:

793. Goti ekassa kira kassakassa rattibhāge niddaṃ okkantassa vajaṃ bhinditvā goṇā palātā, so paccūsasamaye tattha gantvā olokento tesaṃ palātabhāvaṃ ñatvā anupadaṃ gantvā rañño goṇe addasa. Te ‘‘mayhaṃ goṇā’’ti sallakkhetvā āharanto pabhātakāle ‘‘na ime mayhaṃ goṇā, rañño goṇā’’ti sañjānitvā ‘‘yāva maṃ ‘coro aya’nti gahetvā rājapurisā na anayabyasanaṃ pāpenti, tāvadeva palāyissāmī’’ti bhīto goṇe pahāya vegena palāyitvā nibbhayaṭṭhāne aṭṭhāsi. Tattha ‘‘mayhaṃ goṇā’’ti rājagoṇānaṃ gahaṇaṃ viya bālaputhujjanassa ‘‘ahaṃ mamā’’ti khandhānaṃ gahaṇaṃ, pabhāte ‘‘rājagoṇā’’ti sañjānanaṃ viya yogino tilakkhaṇavasena khandhānaṃ ‘‘aniccā dukkhā anattā’’ti sañjānanaṃ, bhītakālo viya bhayatupaṭṭhānañāṇaṃ, vissajjitvā gantukāmatā viya muñcitukamyatā, vissajjanaṃ viya gotrabhu, palāyanaṃ viya maggo, palāyitvā abhayadese ṭhānaṃ viya phalaṃ.

The “ox”. Once there was a farmer, as they say, who in the night became overwhelmed by sleep and his oxen broke through the fence running away.

When we woke up in the early morning and went to where he kept his oxen he realized that they had run away [“palātabhāvaṃ ñatvā” – having known their running-away-nature]. Then he followed their tracks and saw the king’s oxen. He labelled [sallakkheti]  them “These are mine” (mistakenly) and took them with him. Later, when the sun had come out, he realized (sañjānitvā) “Not are these my oxen, they belong to the king”. When they will catch me thus “He is a thief” the king’s men will make me come into distress and misfortune. I will therefore quickly send them away. Full of fear he quickly ran away and later, free of fear found a place to rest.

In this story grasping the king’s oxen thus “my oxen” is the same as the foolish worldling’s grasping of the groups (khandhas) thus “I, mine”. The realization in the morning (when the sun came out) with “These are the king’s oxen” is similar to the Yogis realization of the groups thus “impermanent, suffering, non-self” with the help of the three characteristics. The time he is afraid resembles the arising of the insight knowledge of fear and the wish to expel them is similar to the insight knowledge of desire for freedom. The actual dismissing them is the gotrabhu-insight knowledge. Their running off is similar to the attainment of Nibbana (magga) and when he ran away, that place free from any fear is a synonym for the fruit of Nibbana (phala, the meditative state).

This was a pretty self explaining metaphor. A nice analogy which was intended to help understanding exactly what and how we react when vipassana meditation starts to uncover the true characteristics of life. From the insight into seeing and falling, over a period of fear and disorientation to the desire to let go and the eventual freedom ensuing with the peace of Nibbana. For further information read on “the insight knowledges

If this is really the same “Meme” then it is interesting to see how 300-500 years later this story surfaces in ZEN writings in Japan. Here is a short quote on the ZEN history and Chinese whispers [ :-), the story really went through China as the Visuddhimagga or more likely the Vimuttimagga where translated in China in the 6th century and found their way into the Chinese Chan culture. Especially the pragmatic aspect of the Vimuttimagga/Visuddhimagga must have had a strong influence on Chinese Chan masters].

Among the various formulations of the levels of realization in Zen, none is more widely known than the Oxherding Pictures, a sequence of ten illustrations annotated with comments in prose and verse. It is probably because of the sacred nature of the ox in ancient India that this animal came to be used to symbolize man’s primal nature or Buddha-mind. The original drawings and the commentary that accompanies them are both attributed to Kakuan Shien (Kuo-an Shih-yuan), a Chinese Zen master of the twelfth century, but he was not the first to illustrate the developing stages of Zen realization through pictures. Earlier versions of five and eight pictures exist in which the ox becomes progressively whiter, the last painting being a circle. [Hm, should we think Nibbana?! Like in our Visuddhimagga story…]

This implied,that the realization of Oneness (i.e., the effacement of every conception of self and other) was the ultimate goal of Zen. But Kakuan, feeling this to be incomplete, added two more pictures beyond the circle to make it clear that the Zen man of the highest spiritual development lives in the mundane world of form and diversity and mingles with the utmost freedom among ordinary men, whom he inspires with his compassion and radiance to walk in the Way of the Buddha. [Sources: Here]

“Since the ninth century, students of Zen Buddhism have drawn a parallel between the individual
path to enlightenment and the story of the herder and his missing ox. There are 10 stages in the
parable, beginning with the search for the ox, in which a boy is racked with doubt because “Nothing
has been lost in the first place,/ So what is the use of searching?” In the final stage, the boy
reappears as the Buddha of the Future, enlightened. The scroll reprinted here is the oldest
known version of the Japanese Ten Oxherding Songs, dating to 1278, and the only known
example with illustrations in color along with the calligraphy. [Source: Here]

This is a beautiful clear example for the differences but also joint history of Zen-Mahayana and Theravadin Buddhist practice. But of course, not necessarily do we have a connection here. The idea of using an oxen to display levels of progress suggests it, but oxen are all over the place and taming them could have been used regardless of any older tradition.

It is funny though, that our Visuddhimagga text starts to get interesting where the Zen pictures stop. When the farmer realizes his deadly mistake, he quickly lets go of the oxen. Our Zen farmer, after bringing the oxen home, seems content. Maybe its his oxen after all 🙂

OR, if you look at some of the ZEN interpretations there are actually some which could be better understood if someone would take this Visuddhimagga text and check the pictures again…If  you follow this link you can see how the farmer now roams about, in a secure place and the oxen is gone…maybe he let it go,  like the Visuddhimagga suggests would be prudent 🙂 ! Just have a look at some of the descriptions of step 7 and 8 in the story of the oxen with the pali text.

Ox lost, man remaining

As an expression of the Theravada spirit of this Blog, however, we let our search for the oxen end in the beautiful empty circle, a synonym for Nibbana:

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(1)If you were to just follow the “idea” of taming a bull and look for references in the suttas, you might come up with an article like this by Ven. Walpola Rahula. My guess is he was not aware of this particular similie in the Visuddhimagga which fits the story of the bull much better than other references to the general theme of “taming” the mind like an unruly animal. The Zen story revolves around stages of development – exactly the same ideas as in the analogy given in the Visuddhimagga – a picturesque walk through a ZEN’s version of the insight knowledge…

(2) Other references: Herding the Ox

(3) Visuddhimagga/Vimuttimagga in Chinese Tripitaka: “Samghapala (459-524 C.E.), the translator of the Chinese ver sion of the A-yu-wang jing, was a monk from the kingdom of Funan (in the eastern part of present-day Thailand), who came to China during the Qi dynasty (479-501 C.E.) and stayed at Zheng guan Monastery in the capital, where he studied Mahayana texts under the Indian monk Gunabhadra and “mastered the languages of several countries”. When Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty came to power, he invited Samghapala in the fifth year of Tian jinn (506 C.E.) to translate Buddhist texts into Chinese. In the course of the subsequent seventeen years, he translated eleven Buddhist texts into Chinese, making a total of forty-eight fascicles, including the A yu-wang jing and the Vimuktimarga, with the assistance of Chinese Buddhist monks and lay scholars under imperial patronage. In the fifth year of Pu-tong (524 C.E.), he died of illness at the age of sixty-five at Zheng-guan Monastery.”

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…and started something else.

I admit – this was just for my amusement. Below you will find a Pali version of the famous Mahayana text the “Heart Sutra” which I attempted to “translate” (back) into Pali.

The purpose of this exercise was to learn how closely (or not) early Mahayana texts were to the Theravadin tradition – not just in letter but to a certain degree in spirit. On the other hand, I also wanted to see how they started to deviate from each other. The Heart Sutra belongs to a group of early Mahayana texts who seem to have started out to as a criticism on abhidharmic scholasticism but by doing so it seems that they triggered other misconceptions.

It is interesting to see how “Buddhism” deviated further and further from the simple original hands-on suttas which record Buddha’s training methods. It is interesting, because trying to keep the Dhamma authentic and workable is a never-ending struggle against the flow of samsara 🙂

In fact, this famous text could have been part of the pali canon (if the pali canon would have been allowed to incorporate new texts forever, that is. Luckily Ashokas 3rd Buddhist council prevented just that). If you do not know any pali you might still find the footnotes quite enjoyable 🙂

Blue highlighting is for expressions/terms uncommon to pali texts which are the “real” Mahayanic add-on or alternative Sanskrit usage which is alien to pali texts.

Translation of the text in English here, history and background here.

This is the Buddhist Sanskrit Version the following pali version is based on

My “would be” Pali version:

Paññāpāramitā-hadayasuttam|

|namo sabbaññāya(1)||

Evaṁ me sutam| ekam samayam bhagavā rājagahe viharati gijjhakūṭe pabbate mahatā bhikkhusaṁghena saddhiṁ mahatā ca bodhisattasaṁghena| tena kho pana samayena bhagavā gambhīrāvasambodhaṁ(2) nāma samādhiṁ samāpanno| tena ca samayena ariyo Olokitissaro bodhisatto mahāsatto gambhīraṁ paññāpāramitaṁ cariyaṁ caramānā evaṁ voloketi(3) (i.e. vipassati)| pañcakkhandhā. Tañca sabhāvasuññaṁ voloketi(4)||

Atha kho ayasmā Sāriputto buddhānubhāvena(5) ariyam Olokitissaraṁ bodhisattam etadavoca:- yo hi koci kulaputto vā kuladhitā vā ayaṁ gambhīraṁ paññāpāramitaṁ cariyaṁ caritukāmo, kathaṁ sikkhitabbam? evam vutte ariyo Olokitissaro  bodhisatto mahāsatto āyasmantaṁ Sāriputtam etad avoca- Yo koci Sāriputta kulaputto va kuladhitā vā gambhīraṁ paññāpāramitaṁ cariyaṁ caritukāmo, tena hidaṁ voloketabbam: – pañcakkhandhā -tañca sabhāvasuññam samanupassitum| rūpaṁ sūññatā(6), sūññatā hiva rūpam| rūpam na aññam(7) suññatā, suññatāya na aññam rūpam| yam rūpaṁ sā suññatā, yā sūnyatā tam rūpam| evaṁ vedanāsaññāsaṁkhāraviññānañca suññyatā |

Evaṁ Sāriputta sabbe dhammā suññatālakkhaṇā. Anuppannā aniruddhā amalā vimalā anūnā asampunnā| Tasmātiha Sāriputta suññatāyaṁ na rūpam, na vedanā, na saññā, na saṁkhārā, na viññānam, na cakkhum na sotaṁ na ghaṇaṁ na jihvā na kāyo na mano na rūpaṁ na saddo na gandho na raso na potthabbam na dhammo| na cakkhudhātu na manodhātu na dhammadhātu na manoviññānadhātu| na vijjā na avijjā na khayo na jarāmaraṇaṁ na jarāmaraṇakhayo, na dukkhasamudayanirodhamaggā na ñānaṁ na patti na-apatti| (8)

Tasmā Sāriputta apattiyā(9) bodhisatto paññāpāramitanissitā (10) viharati acittāvaraṇam| cittāvaraṇa-natthitā-anutrasto viparilāsātikkamānto niṭṭhitanibbānam| tividhavaṭṭhānā sabbe buddhā paññāpāramitānissitā  anuttaraṁ sammāsaṁbodhimabhisaṁbuddhā| tasmā ñātabbam: paññāpāramitā mahā-manto(11) anuttara-manto asamasama-manto sabbadukkhapasamana-manto saccam-amiccatā paññāpāramitā-vutto. manto tam yathā- “gate gate pāragate pārasaṁgate bodhi svāhā”| evaṁ Sāriputta gambhīrāyaṁ paññāpāramitāyaṁ cariyāyāṁ sikkhitabbaṁ bodhisattena (12)||

atha kho bhagavā tasmā samādhim uṭṭhāya ariyo Olokitissarassa bodhisattassa sādhukam adāsi- “sādhu sādhu kulaputta| evametam kulaputta, evametam gambhīrāyaṁ paññāpāramitāyaṁ cariyaṁ caritabbaṁ yathā tayā vidiṭṭham| anumodayate tathāgate arahate||

idam avoca bhagavā| attamano āyasmā sāriputto ariyo Olokitissaro ca bodhisatto sā ca sabbāva parisā devamānussāsuragandhabbaca loko bhagavato bhasitam abhinandunti||

iti paññāpāramitāhadayasuttaṁ samatittham|

Footnotes:

(1)In a proper pali text we would of course have a reference to the Buddha at this point like: “namo tassa Bhagavato”..instead this text venerates omniscience (sabbanna). With regard to the title: the ‘hadaya’, lit. meaning ‘heart’, i.e. ‘essence’ must be a Sanskrit expression as well. In pali such a ‘stamp’ or concise teaching by the Buddha would be called ‘uddesa

(2)sammasambodhim/animitta/phalasamapatti in pali. but that would be too arahantish, that’s why we need a new term here, after all, it’s a Mahayana text 🙂

(3)Hey, the Bodhisatta is doing vipassana!! vi-ava-loketi (to look at precisely) Well, why not! After all, this is about training the wisdom paramita of a Bodhisatta. So someone looking to become a Buddha sure needs training in vipassana. And, as we know from modern day vipassana trailblazers like Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw and Ven. Sri Matara Nyanarama, someone with a defined “prarthana/patthana” will not get beyond the vipassana stage of sankharupekkha-nyana :-). In this sense, this is nothing new to the ancient Buddhist tradition.

(4)Interesting: The Buddha would talk about the 5 groups always with regard to grasping (pancupadanakkhandha). The problem for him was the upadana – grasping/holding on to – the 5 groups. However, the methods he taught (esp. in Samyutta Nikaya, Khandha Vagga) to remove this inherent grasping involved labeling/seeing those 5 groups of grasping as “empty”. This seems to be exactly what the Bodhisatta Avalokitissaro or Olokitessaro does. Funny name, by the way. Is he really the Master of Compassion, as Mahayana traditionally explains his name (to look after or over beings from above, ava-lokita, in the same sense as the pali commentaries use this word such as ‘buddhacakkhunā lokaṃ oloketi – looking at the world with they eye of a Buddha’) or rather did he get his name from his mastery in insight meditation practice as the verb vi-ava-loketi in this context hints at…I guess it depends where the name of this fabled person appears for the first time.. On another note though, it implies some form of knowledge about the practice of vipassana/sammasati as seen in this sutta and could be taken as a Mahayanic acknowledgement of vi-passana to developing wisdom. Here is an example how oloketi is used in a similar context in the ancient (pali) Mahaniddesa:

“ākiñcaññāyatanaṃ samāpajjitvā tato vuṭṭhahitvā tattha jāte cittacetasike dhamme aniccato vipassati, dukkhato vipassati, rogato…pe… nissaraṇato vipassati dakkhati oloketi nijjhāyati upaparikkhatīti– tato tattha vipassati. – Having attained to the meditation stage (sphere) of Nothingness and from there having emerged whatever mindmental objects are born there he looks at them as impermanent, as suffering, as disease … etc…for escape, he looks closely (vipassati), sees (dakkhati), looks at (oloketi), muses (nijjhayati) and reflects (upaparikkhati) over them. [link]” –

as a side note: here you see how Buddhas advice to use these terms as labels (see: ‘this is empty’ – “rupam sunnam’ti pajanati) towards a more descriptive explanation (see as empty – sunnato vipassati). The former makes it a clear exercise to train with right away; the latter makes you wonder just how to do it. A fine but crucial difference – even if at the time when these commentaries were written this method of noting may have been still in place). See others posts on this topic on this blog, keyword “iti and sallakheti”.

(5) buddhanubhavena…a word which is found in later pali texts / commentaries as well. Especially in the context of pirit chanting…’by the power/might of the Buddha’

(6) “Emptiness”. Rather than a property in itself, the usage of “empty” in the old pali texts denotes the fact that sensing is based on forms-senses-and consciousness all three having to come together. They are thus void of a persisting independent entity, because they vanish as soon as the conditions for a sense impression vanish. This inherent characteristic of the empty nature of the sensory process (esp. how it presents itself to “us”) was substantialized in Mahayana and (as all other ‘names’ and ‘concepts’ ) it started to take on a life of its own. A text from the pali canon where a similar usage of the terms found so far can be  located is the Patisambhidamagga (which was ascribed to Sariputta himself. Maybe that pun was intended, especially if you think how Sariputta became a symbol for the conceptual excess in Abhidharma scholastic literature)

Katamaṃ vipariṇāmasuññaṃ? Jātaṃ rūpaṃ sabhāvena suññaṃ. Vigataṃ rūpaṃ vipariṇatañceva suññañca. Jātā vedanā sabhāvena suññā. Vigatā vedanā vipariṇatā ceva suññā ca …pe… jātā saññā… jātā saṅkhārā… jātaṃ viññāṇaṃ… jātaṃ cakkhu…pe… jāto bhavo sabhāvena suñño. Vigato bhavo vipariṇato ceva suñño ca. Idaṃ vipariṇāmasuññaṃ.

Important difference of course: To the Buddha, ’emptiness’ as any other mental concoction has no value in itself. Rather – and only for the purpose of meditative training – it is important to see the vanity/emptiness/unreliability of any of the six sense impressions. This is why the pali texts talk about ’empty (of)’ and use the adjective, whereas in this age of the game Buddhism (Mahayana) had turned this concept [sic] into a philosophic reality. This is how suddenly samsara and nibbana would look identical and instead of using the boat to get to the other shore we start building our house on the boat. That will defnitely make it more habitable for others and prolong the journey for all.

(7) In the Sanskrit text it says “pṛthak” which is pali “puthu”. However, in pali texts the word “añña” is used instead.

(8) In this last paragraph complete and utter relativism sets in. If it wants to show/prove the emptiness of concepts it definitely goes into a ZEN-like training mode: Instead of describing the way how to overcome the spell of overpowering concepts (even Dhamma-thoughts are thoughts after all) it trashes all Buddhist and worldly concepts. See my discussion on the Lankavatara Sutta where a similar Mahayana-trait emerges.

(9) Funny: “Even though I have not attained to anything (being a Bodhisatta) I am already at the final nibbana, because, well, after all everything is nothing – and I have attained to that. 🙂 Okay…

(10)The Sanskrit text has a word which in pali would be “āsitā” (relied on/ based on). However in pali a similar word is more common for this purpose: “nissita” – meaning is the same.

(11) The word “mantra” in pali “manto” appears in the commentarial literature as well and means a “spell” a magic formula.

(12) This final paragraph is the climax of decay from a Theravadin point of view. The highest quality a future Buddha has to train himself in is reduced to uttering a mantra. While we started out with a tone and voice related to the pali texts we now either are faced with a koan or a mythical phrase which this text wants to make us believe is the source of the ultimate development in wisdom. I have my doubts 🙂 But I guess there are many other (more subtler) ways of reading this text.

So, besides the mantra, the following summary found on the Wikipedi website seems to make sense. This Mahayana text looks and feels like a response to the Abhidharmic materialism (which the Theravadin commentaries and Abhidhamma are equally infected with):

The specific sequence of concepts listed in lines 12-20 (“…in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, … no attainment and no non-attainment” is the same sequence used in the Sarvastivadin Samyukt Agama; this sequence differs in the texts of other sects. On this basis, Red Pine has argued that the Heart Sutra is specifically a response to Sarvastivada teachings that dharmas are real.

Avalokiteśvara addresses Śariputra, who was, according to the scriptures and texts of the Sarvastivada and other early Buddhist schools, the promulgator of abhidharma, having been singled out by the Buddha to receive those teachings. Avalokiteśvara famously states that, “Form is empty (Śūnyatā). Emptiness is form.” and declares the other skandhas to be equally empty — that is, empty of an independent essence. [Because they appear based on conditions] Avalokiteśvara then goes through some of the most fundamental Buddhist teachings such as the Four Noble Truths and explains that in emptiness none of these labels apply. This is interpreted according to the concept of smaran as saying that teachings, while accurate descriptions of conventional truth, are mere statements about reality — they are not reality itself — and that they are therefore not applicable to the ultimate truth that is by definition beyond our comprehending. Thus the bodhisattva, as the archetypal Mahāyāna Buddhist, relies on the perfection of wisdom, defined in the larger Perfection of Wisdom sutra to be the wisdom that perceives reality directly without conceptual attachment. This perfection of wisdom is condensed in the mantra with which the sutra concludes.

As mentioned before, this idea and warning not to take concepts literally but to use them on the path to Nibbana can be found in the Suttas everywhere. It sure is a mirror of the times this text was written in that this kind of emphasis had to be made at all. Mahayana, the re-invention of the wheel.

To finish this little exercise let me close with a pragmatic word from the Buddha:

“Katamā cāvuso, suññatā cetovimutti”? “Idhāvuso, bhikkhu araññagato vā rukkhamūlagato vā suññāgāragato vā iti paṭisañcikkhati– ‘suññamidaṃ attena vā attaniyena vā’ti.

And what, o friend, is the emptiness mind-liberation [implies a meditative state of the mind]? Here, o friend, a monk goes to a forest or to the root of a tree or an empty house and he thinks thus: “This is empty of a self or something belonging to a self” [link].

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  • A grammatical study of this text can be found here and here
  • A little bit out of date now, but amazing compendium nevertheless: History of Indian Buddhism.
  • See another post on the related topic of the Lankavatara Sutra, another re-invention of the wheel

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What is the difference between a Buddha and an Arahant? Before “deciding” which way to go, lets hear what the Buddha has to say on this topic:

At Savatthi… “Monks, the Tathagata — the worthy one, the fully enlightened one, who from disenchantment with form, from dispassion, from cessation, from lack of clinging (for form) is released — is termed ‘fully enligthened one.’ And a wisdom-liberated monk — who from disenchantment with form, from dispassion, from cessation, from lack of clinging (for form) is released — is termed ‘liberated by wisdom.’

“The Tathagata — the worthy one, the fully enlightened one, who from disenchantment with feeling … perception … fabrication, from dispassion, from cessation, from lack of clinging (for feeling … perception … fabrication… consciousness) is released — is termed ‘fully enlightened.’ And a wisdom liberated monk — who from disenchantment with feeling … perception … fabrication… consciousness, from dispassion, from cessation, from lack of clinging (for feeling … perception … fabrication) is released — is termed ‘liberated by wisdom’

So what difference, what distinction, what distinguishing factor is there between one fully enlightened and a monk liberated by wisdom?

“For us, lord, the teachings have the Blessed One as their root, their guide, & their arbitrator. It would be good if the Blessed One himself would explicate the meaning of this statement. Having heard it from the Blessed One, the monks will remember it.”

“In that case, monks, listen & pay close attention. I will speak.”

“As you say, lord,” the monks responded.

The Blessed One said, “The Tathagata — the worthy one, the fully enlightened one — is the one who gives rise to the path (previously) unarisen, who engenders the path (previously) unengendered, who points out the path (previously) not pointed out. He knows the path, is expert in the path, is adept at the path.

And his disciples now keep following the path and afterwards become endowed with the path.

“This is the difference, this the distinction, this the distinguishing between one fully enlightened and a monk liberated by wisdom.” (SN 22.58)

This short sutta found in the Samyutta Nikaya directly contradicts one pillar of Mahayana philosophy, namely the idea that an Arahant is not finished in his spiritual development and that his attainment is not as complete or at least of an inferior quality as that of a Buddha.

In fact, this discourse by the Buddha shows that the path and the abilities of Arahants (those who follow the path pointed out to them and realize its goal) and Buddhas (those who in addition have to ‘discover’ the path by themselves before pointing it out to others) are differentyet the quality and completeness of the realization are the same!

If we read in the suttas even the concept of Arahants lacking compassion seems pretty narrow. Many circumstances are reported were we find the disciples of the Buddha showing compassion in teaching and sharing the Dhamma just like their teacher did. Following in the Buddha’s footsteps and passing on the information.

So, you could say, that the Buddha is an Arahant with the special ability of a master in teaching and a long re-collectable experience from which to draw. In fact, you probably even say that regularly, chanting: “iti pi so araham sammasambuddho…”

Here is another nice story in which the Buddha qualifies himself vice versa his students:

It is just as if a man, traveling along a wilderness track, were to see an ancient path, an ancient road, traveled by people of former times. He would follow it. Following it, he would see an ancient city, an ancient capital inhabited by people of former times, complete with parks, groves, & ponds, walled, delightful. He would go to address the king or the king’s minister, saying, ‘Sire, you should know that while traveling along a wilderness track I saw an ancient path… I followed it… I saw an ancient city, an ancient capital… complete with parks, groves, & ponds, walled, delightful. Sire, rebuild that city!’ The king or king’s minister would rebuild the city, so that at a later date the city would become powerful, rich, & well-populated, fully grown & prosperous.

In the same way I saw an ancient path, an ancient road, traveled by the fully enlightened Ones of former times. And what is that ancient path, that ancient road, traveled by the fully enlightened Ones of former times? Just this noble eightfold path: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. That is the ancient path, the ancient road, traveled by the fully enlightened Ones of former times. I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of aging & death, direct knowledge of the origination of aging & death, direct knowledge of the cessation of aging & death, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of aging & death. I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of birth… becoming… clinging… craving… feeling… contact… the six sense media… name-&-form… consciousness, direct knowledge of the origination of consciousness, direct knowledge of the cessation of consciousness, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of consciousness. I followed that path.

“Following it, I came to direct knowledge of fabrications, direct knowledge of the origination of fabrications, direct knowledge of the cessation of fabrications, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of fabrications. Knowing that directly, I have revealed it to monks, nuns, male lay followers & female lay followers, so that this holy life has become powerful, rich, detailed, well-populated, wide-spread, proclaimed among celestial & human beings.” (SN 12.65)

He had to break-through all by himself. However, contrary to Mahayana belief, in their realization of Nibbana there is no difference between an “Arahant” and a “Buddha”. How could there be a difference in the extinguishing of a candle and the extinguishing of an oil lamp. The fire has been put out (nibbana) and the fuel consumed (upadanakkhaya), the preparations silenced (sankharasamatho), all resting places given up (sabb’upadhi patinissagga).

Monks, there are roots of trees, there are empty houses, concentrate, do not be negligent and repent later. This is our advice to you. (Sn 42.1)

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There are a couple of instances in the Pitaka, where the Buddha compares our moment to moment experience (zoom out and you would call it “life”) with a swift river.

In some similes he compares our journey from Samsara to Nibbana as crossing a stream and trying to reach the safe haven of “the other shore”.

But in some of those instances where the Buddha employs this simile, he actually puts us right in the middle of the water, comparing our moment to moment experience with a person caught in the middle of a wild mountain river.

Imagine yourself being washed away in a swift river, floating midstream. The waves push you up only to pull you down again. You are pulled under water, you may get close to drowning in the water. You stretch your legs and arms, paddling like crazy in the wild water just to find a hold on something. Catch something, grasp something to keep up with the pushing and pulling currents.

According to this simile (see below) each moment of our lives resembles such a scary situation. Because, in a certain sense, reality as such means constant change and the onslaught of sense impressions share a similarity with the currents of a stream. In order to “stay alive” we need to keep our head/ego above the water.

We could not live one moment, if sounds, thoughts, pictures, feelings would come into being and simply continue unchanged – never changing again. If such a thing would happen, there would be no thinking, no moving, no perceiving possible: Everything would freeze in a moment and unknowing eternity would be the result. Now, that is not the case. We know very well, that life comes with death and a new car will one day break. But on a much more intimate level, not one moment stays the same.

Because all life is a question of measurement of this against that, of object and subject …the sounds you hear, the pictures you see, the body you feel. It all is like a cocoon or a huge meshed echo of sense impressons and mental activity creating the seemingly robustness of a river in which you swim, but on zooming close to that little fellow in the water who so aptly learnt to survive in the waves you will see – that he is frantically trying to keep himself above the water in each moment of being…(that is the strange feeling in the back of your mind, deeply buried, that longing for final contentment which makes you skydive, found a family, go on demonstrations, buy new cloth…makes you “live” through objects).

So you try to keep your head above the water because of the fear of reality, because of the fear of:

  • impermanence which seems to take away our foundations – whatever water we just splashed against to pull ourselves upwards will give way and we loose ground again
  • exhaustion because of this eternal fight for being, fight for existence in a very fleeting fluid environment causes discontentment, unsatisfactoriness on a very deep level
  • and emptiness, as there seems to be no lasting hold – not in the seen, not in the heard, not in the felt, not even in the thought, the water arround us is so merciless natural.

Now on the rivers edges towards which such a flood victim is pushed there are some plants which he will try to hold onto in order to keep his head above the water:

At Savatthi. There the Blessed One said, “Monks,suppose there were a river, flowing down from the mountains, going far, its current swift, carrying everything with it, and — holding on to both banks — kasa grasses, kusa grasses, reeds, birana grasses, & trees were growing. Then a man swept away by the current would grab hold of the kasa grasses, but they would tear away, and so from that cause he would come to disaster. He would grab hold of the kusa grasses… the reeds… the birana grasses… the trees, but they would tear away, and so from that cause he would come to disaster.

“In the same way, there is the case where an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person — who has no regard for noble ones, is not well-versed or disciplined in their Dhamma; who has no regard for men of integrity, is not well-versed or disciplined in their Dhamma — assumes form (sense objects) to be the self, or the self as possessing form, or form as in the self, or the self as in form. That form tears away from him, and so from that cause he would come to disaster.

“He assumes feeling to be the self, or the self as possessing feeling – perception – preparations – consciousness, oror consciousness as in the self, or the self as in consciousness. That consciousness tears away from him, and so from that cause he would come to disaster. AN 22.93

A little bit later In the same discourse the Buddha goes on giving a vipassana instruction to the monks. Like we saw in prior posts he finally asks the monks to simply note whatever there is (appears in their meditation) :

“Thus, monks, any form whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every form is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment [noting] as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.’

The list of categories given here is not supposed to be a checklist. If you’d sit down and go through that list, trying “to think your way” through each of the phenomena in terms of “okay, let me see, what could a past feeling be” – doing it that way you would of course mean that you indulge in a number of feelings already NOT seeing them as they are but being hooked on them.

Instead “past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near” stands for “all possible” contents or “whatever the content be, which arises” or “regardless what form, feeling etc. you perceive”. A method where the insight meditator would disregard the “content” of the sense current and regardless of what the water would push under his nose he would exert himself NOT to hold it. Because holding / resting in a strong current brings disaster. The insight meditators approach instead is to simply acknowledge / note and then disregard it.

Now lets continue with this beautiful simile. How could that poor guy get out of the water?

It is like the insight meditator had someone standing on the shore of the river seeing him being carried along by the swift current. The man on the river would shout: Look, there! Not far from you there is an elevation in the river bed. If you make it against the current and paddle up there you can stand with your feet! You won’t loose any further ground! So not excepting the pushing and shoving of the water but simply letting it float through his empty hands to push forward he dives into the water against the current parting it in his effort (getting better and better while fighting forward) and coming closer and closer to that elevation.

What is his biggest obstacle before reaching that first safe elevation in the river from which a sand bank leads to the shore where the other man gave him such a helpful advice? Well, think of all the piranhas (bad company) and logs in the water (disease and sudden death) which may appear and knock him out immediately. Or him losing faith in the message or the man on the river before even trying to do as he suggested. And don’t forget his exhaustion after swimming against the stream!

It is sure that the odds are way against him arriving on that safe little island in the water.

Lets suppose he makes it nevertheless. Now feeling that high ground with his toes for the first time he immediate feels relief (stream entry). Doubt whether the man on the shore really was trying to help him subsides, because now he knows that the instructions where correct. He can experience it as a fact. Would other people still floating in the water belief him? They may or may not, there is no way to “proof” it to them, that his feet feel ground. The only way for others would be to follow in his footsteps (paccattam veditabbo vinnuhi). But again, although the feet touch the ground, he is still 3/4 under water and the sense stream and “in-fluxes” (a-sava, lit. in-streamings) will push him in one or the other direction. However, as strong as they may push, he cannot lose that ground, he knows this spot now, tugging his toe into the ground.

Eventually, going further up on that elevation in the river bed he still can feel the tugging of water currents, but now the water reaches only up to his hips (once returner)! The karmic pushing and pulling lost its power over him and those unwholesome influxes (effluents) like greed and hatred which used to helplessly push him in their direction carrying him with them loose their grip on him. He still feels their slight nudging against his legs, but that does not mean that he has to follow them, the water falls back, the foundation under his feet is sound.

Next comes the moment where he completely leaves the water (anagami). Losing contact with the water will probably feel funny after all that time in the river.

Eventually he will reach the shore and be in the same position as the man who helped him escape in the first place. His skin will completely dry. No water left. The stream will be a remote detached event for him…still be there, but somehow completely separate. A feeling of aloofness, of ultimate freedom and release from the state of being trapped in the river currents.

In the Anguttaranikaya we find a very interesting simile with a similar context. Here the Buddha uses the river simile to show the different stages of the enlightened ones who successfully escape the full force of the water, the streaming sense experience delivering karmic ups and downs:

‘‘Cattārome, bhikkhave, puggalā santo saṃvijjamānā lokasmiṃ. Katame cattāro? Anusotagāmī puggalo, paṭisotagāmī puggalo, ṭhitatto puggalo, tiṇṇo pāraṅgato thale tiṭṭhati brāhmaṇo. etc.:

“These four types of individuals are to be found existing in the world. Which four? The individual who goes with the flow, the individual who goes against the flow, the individual who stands fast, and the one who has crossed over, gone beyond, who stands on firm ground: a brahman.

“And who is the individual who goes with the flow? There is the case where an individual indulges in sensual passions and does evil deeds. This is called the individual who goes with the flow.

“And who is the individual who goes against the flow? There is the case where an individual doesn’t indulge in sensual passions and doesn’t do evil deeds. Even though it may be with pain, even though it may be with sorrow, even though he may be crying, his face in tears, he lives the holy life that is perfect & pure. This is called the individual who goes against the flow.

“And who is the individual who stands fast? There is the case where an individual, with the total ending of the first set of five fetters (Anagami), is due to be reborn [in the Pure Abodes], there to be totally unbound, never again to return from that world. This is called the individual who stands fast.

“And who is the individual who has crossed over (Arahant), gone beyond, who stands on firm ground: a brahman? There is the case where an individual, through the ending of the mental fermentations, enters & remains in the fermentation-free awareness-release & discernment-release, having known & made them manifest for himself right in the here & now. This is called the individual who has crossed over, gone beyond, who stands on firm ground: a brahman. AN 4.5

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Even at Buddha’s time insight meditators went through times of doubt regarding their meditation practice. In the following case one monk thought he might simply ask his fellow monks how they practice and solve his own uncertainty. Unfortunately, they practiced differently. What was he to do?

Read this nice episode found in the Samyuttanikaya; it has a happy end:

taṃ bhikkhuṃ etadavoca – ‘‘kittāvatā nu kho, āvuso, bhikkhuno dassanaṃ suvisuddhaṃ hotī’’ti? ‘‘Yato kho, āvuso, bhikkhu channaṃ phassāyatanānaṃ samudayañca atthaṅgamañca yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti, ettāvatā kho, āvuso, bhikkhuno dassanaṃ suvisuddhaṃ hotī’’ti.

He then asked the other monk: “How, now, dear brother, is one’s insight-vision very clear? (Or: how does my seeing/bare awareness/attention has to be. How do i need to observe in order to make progress?)” – “When you, brother, perceive [*NOTE BELOW] the rising and falling of the six sense realms as they become/as they are, then, o dear brother, such monk’s insight-vision is all cleared.

However, the monk was not satisfied with this response and went to his next fellow-ascetic…only to get a complete different answer. Lets not repeat the whole text here, because even the second answer dissatisfied him and he continued getting expert tips from a couple of meditating monks. In the end he was completely confused. Lets list all expert responses on what would make our insight vision an excellent one:

  1. perceiving the rising and falling of the six sense realms as they are/or become
  2. perceiving the rising and falling of the five groups of grasping as they are/or become
  3. perceiving the rising and falling of the four great elements as they are/or become
  4. perceiving thus: ‘whatever arises will vanish’ as it becomes

Now lets study this neat list of vipassana instructions. It is hard to say whether those developed over time and all derive from the Buddha or whether the Buddha used all at the same time just applying them to different characters/tastes. All of them share the following strong similarities:

In each case the activity involved is pajānāti – to perceive/know/mentally see one or the other ‘object’ in a way or in the manner of yathābhūtaṃ. This term, as we saw here, usually translated as ‘as it really is’ and that being not a wrong translation but it too has a literal nuance of ‘as has become’, ‘as came into being’ which seems not unimportant in the context of insight meditation.

Especially when we have a look at the various ‘objects’ stated as valid insight meditation topics: all of them describe our experiential moment-to-moment reality in certain ‘categories’ which all imply motion. A rising and a falling. A coming and a going. Not just in spatial terms (sound coming from a bird behind me) or time (sound coming and going over time) but at a deeper level even depending on consciousness itself…no consciousness there, no one knowing, then no ‘being’. But that is something for your meditation cushion.

Now all listed methods seem to be set up in the same way, except for the objects they ask the meditator to observe. That is probably giving our newbee vipassana monk a hard time. How to solve this? Meditate all at the same time? One after the other? One in the morning, one in the evening? Or create a new one according to personal tastes? All wrong! Before we show Buddha’s answer to this tricky question, lets quickly make sure we are all on the same page and go through those objects once again:

  1. object: all six sense impressions (vision, hearing, smell, taste, tangibles, thoughts)
  2. object: all five groups of grasping (form, feeling, perception, (mental) preparations, consciousness)
  3. object: all four elements (heat, fluidness, air quality, hardness)
  4. whatever there is, tagging it promptly

If you compare your own personal vipassana instructions (be it Mahasi, Pa Auk, Goenka, Nyanananda etc. etc.) with this list you would probably find yourself in either group number 4 using some kind of label or you would use 1. or 2. derived from or combined with using labels.

Not going into details, but there are quite some techniques out there which do forget that it is NOT JUST the object of concentration but the manner in which the objects are noted which is quite (shall we say, even more?) important. See the above paragraph where we dwelled a little bit on the similarities between these descriptions but we will make this maybe a separate posting another time. Just to close this second off-topic remark: Mental chatter, whatever the content be, is not “yathabhuta pajanati” but often conceived as such. Beware of the content, it catches you and invites you to take a rest on something.

Let us listen to how the Buddha resolves this “insight meditation technique competition”:

As he was sitting there he [reported to the Blessed One his conversations with the other monks. The Blessed One then said:]”Monk, it’s as if there were a man who had never seen a riddle tree (lit. ‘What is this’ – tree). He would go to another man who had seen one and, on arrival, would say to him, ‘What, my good man, is a riddle tree like?”

“The other would say, ‘A riddle tree is black, my good man, like a burnt stump.’ For at the time he saw it, that’s what the riddle tree was like. (Tena kho pana, bhikkhu, samayena tādisovassa kiṃsuko yathāpi tassa purisassa dassanaṃ)

“Then the first man, dissatisfied with the other man’s answer, went to still another man who had seen a riddle tree and, on arrival, said to him, ‘What, my good man, is a riddle tree like?’

“The other would say, ‘A riddle tree is red, my good man, like a lump of meat.’ For at the time he saw it, that’s what the riddle tree was like.

“Then the first man, dissatisfied with this man’s answer, went to still another man who had seen a riddle tree and, on arrival, said to him, ‘What, my good man, is a riddle tree like?’

“The other would say, ‘A riddle tree is stripped of its bark, my good man, and has burst pods, like an acacia tree.’ For at the time he saw it, that’s what the riddle tree was like.

“Then the first man, dissatisfied with this man’s answer, went to still another man who had seen a riddle tree and, on arrival, said to him, ‘What, my good man, is a riddle tree like?’

“The other would say, ‘A riddle tree has thick foliage, my good man, and gives a dense shade, like a banyan.’ For at the time he saw it, that’s what the riddle tree was like.

“In the same way, monk, however those intelligent men of integrity were focused (yathā yathā adhimuttānaṃ) when their vision became well purified is the way in which they answered. (Transl. by Bh. Thanissaro, SN 35, 204)

So the Buddhas answer is a very interesting one, and the simile has a humorous overtone. The tree, which dramatically changes it appearance over the course of the year ( Butea frondosa ) was called a “What is this tree” or Kimsu-ko tree, in Pali. That is beautiful: We may ask: What is this name and form and consciousness? How can we “name” and “label” it properly for others to understand what we mean, if it changes so dramatically. We could rightly call this mind a “What is this” – mind.

It is not easy, coming up with a systemization of such an illusive process as the perception of our world and how we identify from moment to moment and proliferate into concepts, thought-constructs and finally views. Buddha’s great achievement as a very good teacher was in part that his Dhamma made it easy for many to immediately get a very good understanding of what he was talking about. Even though talking about most subtle things.

Therefore, when we go back at the list of those 4 different objects, the Buddha asks us to “judge” them as essentially the same. He gives a hint towards the fact, that those categorization of the perceived “world” may just differ in a “temporal” perception of basically one and the same process / thing: The process we experience and the perception of our world in each moment.

In our vipassana practice we could start with simple tags like “whatever arises will vanish” noting whatever arises to our attention and immediately see, when doing it, certain facts which we did not realize before. Just by repeatedly stopping and thus prolonging a sense processing sequence we allow this direct insight to grow into “wisdom” of what is really going on.

Applying this perceiving process of noting to whatever arises we eventually will witness the workings of illusive elements which are hidden behind form and are “sensed” only trough the poking of many sense impressions, or get to see feelings and perception and thoughts arise and pass away individually. Or we might even break down the frame rate further and perceive the six sense realms in yet another level of observation of the one and same tree changing its appearance.

Moral of the story: Make sure that the fundamentals of your technique (yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti) as such are correct and whatever is the object of your insight meditation will play only a secondary role (and, like in this case, may just be related to how quick or slow your “swing-by” in the moment was).

* perceive – seems like good translation for ‘pajānāti’. Using this one the noun pannya would than become ‘Perceiving’ instead of ‘Wisdom’ … that makes so much more sense… the English word ‘wisdom’ sounds like an old man’s experience…but that is clearly not meant by Buddhist pannya. This context makes it clear that pannya, or ‘wisdom’ in the Buddhist sense is a direct ‘perceiving’ of reality – not perception though, perceiving, or the ability to perceive.

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This posting, in a way, continues the discussion on whether there can be craving for Nibbana.

We concluded that there well can be such a desire which is more like a motivation for the goal and the craving for Nibbana would eventually subside on the path towards the goal (or more specific: when the raft is close to the other shore, the meditator has to leave even the boat.

In sankharupekkha (a stage in insight meditation), noting of phenomena is so refined, that even thoughts and shadows of “I”, “mine” as well as notions on the path and practice itself have to be given up. However, the boat has to get there somehow and a lot of paddling is necessary.)

Having said that, from a Mahayana perspective this seems wrong and we mentioned that modern day Buddhism’s answer to that question resembles more a Mahayana understanding of the path towards enlightenment (Tenor: Nibbana is so far away, lets stick with compassion – that is easier).

Taking up for discussion just one such source for this mainstream understanding let us try to “tackle” the great grand Lankavatara Sutra, the “foundation of Zen”. This will be hard for me to do, as you know from other posts, because of my “attachment” towards ZEN’s simplicity and no-nonsense focus on the practice of the path :-). But rest asured, this post will have a happy ending.

Now, lets have a look at this passage from the Lankavatara Sutra:

The Bhagava replied: The world where love grows, i. e., the desire for sexual embrace, showing itself in beating, slapping, suggesting, kissing, embracing, smelling, looking-sidewise, or gazing may give one momentary pleasures but is productive of future grief. [With the Stream-entered] there is no greed for such. Why? Because they are abiding in the bliss of the Samadhi which they have attained. Hence this casting aside, but not of the desire for Nirvana….

If you look up the stages a vipassana practicing person is going through you will find out that, at the very end, even duality between an I here and a world out there will vanish. Until up to that moment (see Bahiya’s Bodhi) lots of effort, determination and wisdom is necessary to get to such a subtle point. Here the Lankavatara wants to make the reader believe that a “Stream-enterer” abiding in his samadhi of realizing nibbana (“phala samapatti/attainment of the fruit” or “animitta cetovimutti/objectless freedom of mind”) still harbors a desire.

With other words: Craving for words this text implies that the one who went beyond craving for words still craves for words.

LOL. 🙂

It is like two athletes. One runs and reaches the goal. The second one does not run. When he hears the first one saying he reached the goal the first one says: you are not there yet! Because if you can still talk about the goal you must be looking at it, ergo still be in front of it, ergo not behind the finish line. Now we all know, that one can cross the finish line and talk about it – maybe not at the same time 🙂

Mahamati, here in these paths and abodes of existence they give out varieties of teachings which are based on discrimination; [relating to Theravada] that is to say, as they are above such things as the attainment of the fruit, the Dhyanas, the Dhyana-practisers, or subjects for meditation, and as they know that this world is no more than what is seen of the Mind itself, they discourse on the fruit attained [for the sake of all beings]. Further, Mahamati, if the Stream-entered should think.”These are the fetters, but I am disengaged from them, ” they commit a double fault: they still hold to the vices of the ego, and they have not freed themselves from the fetters.

You may want to read the last paragraph again: It expresses a very modern notion in Buddhism, i.e. that you cannot talk about Nibbana in technical terms like “phala samapatti” (or attainment of the fruit) because then you use language, so you are discriminating, so you are bound by samsara, thus you cannot be enlightened. If you ever wondered why the ZEN masters prefer to clap on your back instead of talk about the details of the fourth jhana, now you know why.

But did not the Buddha himself come up with this unique “system” where a gradual development is possible up to the point where discrimination is done away with? Why not talk about the path up to that moment? Well, i guess this is a very fundamental difference between Mahayana/ZEN and Theravada. The latter, in the spirit of the Buddha, presents a scientific program for salvation, whereas, for the mystic, this sounds like a sacrilege.

A different “point of view” on the matter of fetters for the stream enter would probably look like this.

Further, Mahamati, in order to go beyond the Dhyanas, the immeasurables, and the formless world, the signs of this visible world which is Mind itself should be discarded. The Samapatti leading to the extinction of thought and sensation does not enable one to transcend the world of particulars, for there is nothing but Mind. So it is said:

176. The Dhyanas, the immeasurables, the formless, the Samadhis, and the complete extinction of thought (nirodha)–these do not exist where the Mind alone is.

177. The fruit of the Stream-entered, and that of the Once-returning, and that of the Never-returning, and Arhatship–these are the bewildered states of mind. [wow, Mahayana and Theravada were not friends in those days, it seems :-)] (1)

178. The Dhyana-practiser, the Dhyana, the subject for it, the destruction, the seeing of the truth, –these are no more than discriminations; when this is recognised there is emancipation. [well, this is true. but then that is exactly what the terms “stream-enterer…arahant” stand for :-). seems like the pali canon or at least a deeper understanding of it had been lost when the lankavatara sutra was written]

The strange thing is, that the Lankavatara Sutra which brought about Bodhidharma and Zen does, in many instances, gets it right, down to the core:

But none of these views are logical, and none are acceptable to the wise
  • They all conceive Nirvana dualistically and in some causal connection

  • These people believe that they discriminate Nirvana, but where there is no rising and no disappearing, there can be no discrimination

  • The only result in these discriminations is that the mind wanders and becomes more and more confused — because Nirvana cannot be found by mental searching {here}

Maybe in those days many monks and lay people ran around claiming to be stream enterer whose explanations of their attainment where not really in accordance with what was perceived to be Nibbana in the early days as described in the suttas. Maybe the study of the early suttas had declined or they were only available in Sri Lanka at that time, the Sanskrit version of the pali canon always lack some comprehensiveness in comparison to the Theravada Tipitaka.

Another reason – much more in respect towards the effort undertaken by the Lankavatara may be the opposite: What if there was so much theoretical speculation and discussion that someone wanted to radically stress the point that ultimately you would have to let go even of these terms? Well, as in many other areas of expertise, some things you only understand when you are ready to understand.

But then again, if just one smart and devout person in that day and age would get back to practice and work on himself, he probably felt very disillusioned with contemporary Buddhism and, not being able to relate to the texts or text understanding of his time started writing something which he believed stressed the important -practical- points. The last point to overcome. Unfortunately those who came later started venerating this insight and showed disregard to the 90% of practice leading up to this sphere.

Now i personally think that it was not really a proper thing to put those words into the mouth of the Buddha who clearly did not speak the Lankavatara nor any other of the Mahayana Sutras, but at least we can appreciate the effort and the fact, that the Pali Canon finally survived and is more accessible than ever before. In fact, if you are looking for similar topics and texts taking you to the edge of language, thought and understanding, i recommend reading the Salayatana and Khandha Samyutta. And in real ZEN manner, they are – unlike the Lankavatara Sutra – refreshingly clear and to the point.

So, what do we learn from this? Maybe that the Mahayana foundation of ZEN re-invented Buddhism? As i said, this post has a happy ending:

“A tangle inside, a tangle outside,
This generation is entangled in a tangle.
I ask you this, O Gotama,
Who can disentangle this tangle?”

Buddha:
“A man established on virtue, wise,
Developing the mind and wisdom,
A bhikkhu ardent and discreet:
He can disentangle this tangle.

Those for whom lust and hatred
Along with ignorance have been expunged,
The arahants with taints destroyed:
For them the tangle is disentangled.

Where name-and-form ceases,
Stops without remainder,
And also impingement and perception of form:
It is here this tangle is cut.

Samyutta Nikaya I:23

 

(1) srotāpattiphalaṁ caiva sakṛdāgāminastathā | anāgāmiphalaṁ caiva arhattvaṁ cittavibhramaḥ || 175 ||

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