The Development of Mahayana Philosophy

By Peter Della Santina

 

In this chapter I would like to consider the further development of Mahayana philosophy in India, the relationship between the Middle Way philosophy and the Mind Only philosophy, and how these two influence the religious and practical traditions of Buddhism. We have discussed the Middle Way and Mind Only philosophies in Chapters 18 and 19, but have merely sketched the outlines of Mahayana philosophy. The philosophy of the Middle Way, as presented by Nagarjuna, and that of Mind Only, as presented by Asanga and Vasubandhu, are the twofold basis of the Mahayana tradition, forming its general foundation as it evolved during the first four centuries of the common era.

This period was followed by another eight hundred years of philosophical development of the Mahayana tradition in India, not to mention its continuing development in the other countries of Asia to which Buddhism traveled--China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, and Mongolia. To gain a comprehensive picture of this development in India, I would like to trace the interaction between the Middle Way and Mind Only schools from the fourth century C.E. to the end of the first millennium. Let us look first at what took place in the Middle Way school. The principles set forth by Nagarjuna were elaborated by his disciples and successors, beginning with Aryadeva. Whereas Nagarjuna's primary concern had been to establish the authenticity of the philosophy of emptiness in opposition to the earlier schools of Buddhist philosophy, Aryadeva's was to demonstrate that the philosophy of emptiness was equally valid in the case of the non-Buddhist Brahmanical and Vedantic schools.

The works of Nagarjuna and Aryadeva fall within the formative and fundamental period of the philosophy of the Middle Way. The period after Nagarjuna saw the emergence of two Middle Way sub-schools, the Prasangika and the Svatantrika. The division between these two schools is based on how they present the philosophy of emptiness. When we discussed the philosophy of emptiness in Chapter 18, we spoke about a characteristic method of argument, the reductio ad absurdum, that Middle Way philosophers used to reject the positions advanced by their opponents. In Sanskrit this form of argument is called prasanga, and it was from this term that the Prasangika school took its name. Arguments ad absurdum are designed to expose contradictions and absurdities in opponents' positions. For example, the theory of self-production (i.e., that entities originate from existent things) was advocated by a rival of the Prasangikas, the Sankhya philosophical school. Self-production can be refuted by the argument that if entities originated from themselves, then they would go on originating indefinitely and we would have an endless series of reproductions of the same existing entities. In other words, there would be nothing new under the sun. The prasanga argument is that entities do not originate from themselves because they already exist, and the origination of something that already exists is plainly absurd. Besides, if existent entities do originate, then they will go on reproducing themselves ad infinitum.

Alternatively, one might reject the Sankhya theory of self-production by means of a syllogism. This form of argument is called an independent (svatantra) argument, and it is from this term that the Svatantrika school got its name. One might illustrate this method of argument by saying, 'Entities do not originate from themselves.' This would be the proposition, the first so-called member of an independent argument. Then one might say, 'This is because they exist,' which would be the second member, the reason of the syllogism. Next, one might say, 'They exist like a jar does,' which would be the example, and the third and final member. By means of these three members of a syllogism, one might demonstrate the impossibility of origination from self--the same objective demonstrated by an argument ad absurdum.

We have, therefore, two forms of argument, a reduction and a syllogism conforming to the rules of formal logic. Buddhapalita and Chandrakirti are famous for their expositions championing the reductio ad absurdum, while Bhavaviveka is famous for championing syllogistic, independent argument. Both the Prasangika and the Svatantrika school enjoyed considerable popularity in India. The strength of the Svatantrika school reflected an increasing concern with conforming to accepted standards of logic. It was common for rival Indian philosophical schools to engage in public debates, which tended to require arguments that met accepted standards of validity. This led gradually to more formal requirements of discussion and influenced the philosophical arguments of the Middle Way school, contributing to the popularity of the Svatantrika sub-school, which favored the use of independent argument. This trend even led the Prasangika sub-school to gradually refine and formalize its argument ad absurdum, so that within the course of a few hundred years, a much more formal presentation of the philosophy of emptiness emerged.

Just as this was taking place within the Middle Way school, developments were also occurring within the Mind Only school. The next significant Mind Only philosophers in India were the fifth century Buddhist logicians Dinnaga and Dharmakirti, who also played a significant role in the development of the Mind Only philosophy. They rejected the existence of the objects of consciousness--of forms, sounds, and so forth--present in experience, and are therefore known as the philosophers who reject the representations of consciousness. Whereas both Asanga and Vasubandhu affirmed the existence of the objects of consciousness, insofar as these participate in the reality of mind, Dinnaga and Dharmakirti maintained that, although the reality of consciousness is indubitable, the reality of the forms, or objects, of consciousness is not.

In about the eighth century C.E., there arose in India a figure of note, a scholar who made a very important contribution to the integration of these different tendencies within Mahayana philosophy. His name was Shantarakshita. In addition to the fame he won as a result of his philosophical and literary production, Shantarakshita was the first to introduce systematic Buddhist thought to Tibet. He formulated what we now call the syncretic or synthetic philosophy that unites in a systematic way the philosophy of emptiness and the philosophy of Mind Only.

We have discussed the importance of mind in the thought of the Middle Way school, and also the parallelism between conventional truth and ultimate truth on the one hand and the illusory and perfected natures on the other. We indicated the parallel status of mind, interdependence, and the dependent nature in the Middle Way and Mind Only schools (see Chapter 19). What we have in the thought of Shantarakshita is a systematic integration of the major tenets of the Middle Way and the Mind Only schools, so that emptiness is acknowledged to be consistent with ultimate truth and the perfected nature, while the creative nature of consciousness is acknowledged to be consistent with the conventional truth and the illusory nature.
In addition to the reconciliation and stratification of the principle tenets of these two schools, Shantarakshita's philosophy integrates the elements of logical argument and treats systematically the role of mind in the origination and cessation of suffering. In his syncretic philosophy we have what we might term the apex of the development of Mahayana philosophy in India, in that Shantarakshita correlated and synthesized, in one coherent philosophical system, the principal insights of outstanding Mahayana masters like Nagarjuna, Asanga, and Vasubandhu. The synthesis of the tenets of emptiness and Mind Only had a direct and determining impact on the two major traditions that grew out of Mahayana philosophy: (1) the Vajrayana, which held sway in Tibet and Mongolia, and (2) the Ch'an Zen tradition, which was predominant in China and Japan. Although these two traditions of practice differ markedly in the forms of their religious expression, both rely very heavily on the tenets of emptiness and Mind Only for their function and effectiveness.

In the Vajrayana, it is the philosophy of emptiness which supplies the openness and fluidity that allows for the transformation of phenomena from an impure condition to a pure condition. If entities had an independent and unchanging nature and were therefore not empty, it would be impossible to transform impure experience saturated by suffering into pure experience suffused by great bliss. While emptiness supplies the ground upon which this transformation can take place, mind supplies the effective means of achieving that transformation, because it is the mind that shapes and determines the nature of our experience. By controlling, disciplining, and manipulating the mind, we can change our experience from an impure experience to a pure experience. In the theory and practice of the Vajrayana tradition, emptiness and mind are indispensable--both because, without emptiness, transformation of things would be impossible, and because it is mind that is the key to and means of achieving that transformation. In the Ch'an and Zen tradition, it is emptiness that is descriptive of the real state of things. It is the realization of emptiness that brings about the transcendence of duality and the attainment of enlightenment. And how is this emptiness realized in this tradition? By looking at the mind--by meditating on the nature of mind itself. Here, as in the Vajrayana, emptiness and mind perform similar functions and are indispensable.

Emptiness is the ground of transformation, while mind accomplishes that transformation. Thus it is not coincidental that both the Vajrayana and the Ch'an and Zen traditions look to these fundamental ideas of the Indian Mahayana for their inspiration. Nagarjuna and Asanga are traditionally regarded as the founders of the Vajrayana tradition; Nagarjuna is also one of the early patriarchs of the Ch'an and Zen tradition. Bodhidharma, who introduced Ch'an to China, is said to have favored the Lankavatara Sutra above all other texts. In this way, the Middle Way and Mind Only schools played an important role in the development of the principal traditions of Mahayana practice throughout Asia. Let us spend some time looking at the method of investigation that was developed in India in line with the insights of the Middle Way and Mind Only schools. The fundamental division of experience into subject (nama) and object (rupa), found in the scheme of the five aggregates and in many of the analytical schemes of the Abhidharma, is also present in the Mahayana context. We can see the investigation of reality unfolding in this binary way with respect first to the object and then to the subject.

In investigating the object and the subject, two methods are used that we have encountered in other Buddhist traditions also--namely, the analytical method and the relational method (see Chapter 16). Beginning with the object, we find first an analytical investigation of the object applied. This means, in the Mahayana context, a consideration of the infinite divisibility of the object. We have discussed the importance of the infinite divisibility of matter in the formulation of Mind Only philosophy (see Chapter 19). Here, too, we begin with the investigation and revelation of matter's infinite divisibility.
This analytical investigation of the object is followed by a relational investigation of the object, which reveals that the object depends on the subject--that is, on consciousness. In this way, we arrive at the rejection of the notion of an independent object both analytically and relationally.

We then proceed to analytical and relational investigation of the subject, the mind itself. When we investigate mind analytically, we do so in terms of its characteristics. The paradigm for this is in the Perfection of Wisdom literature, which says, 'Examine the mind: Is it long or short? Is it round or square? Is it white, blue, or otherwise?' Such an analytical investigation reveals that the mind is inherently unidentifiable.

This analytical investigation of the subject is followed by a relational investigation, which reveals that the subject (mind) is relationally dependent on the object. Shantideva, one of the renowned masters of the Middle Way school said that, without an object, consciousness is unintelligible, incomprehensible. Consciousness must have an object in order to function, in order to exist. Consciousness independent of an object is impossible. Explanations of the truth of this statement date back a long way. For example, in the Abhidharma literature, it is said that consciousness arises dependent on an object.

The analytical and relational investigations of object and subject lead to an understanding of reality as ineffable--as beyond existence and nonexistence, as empty and luminous. In the Mahayana tradition, this is the ultimate realization: Reality cannot be described in terms of existence and nonexistence. It is empty, luminous, and pure. Reality is beyond existence because all existence is relative and dependent. It is beyond nonexistence because, despite its emptiness and transience, reality does appear and is experienced. Therefore, reality is not altogether nonexistent. You may recall our use of the word 'pure' as a synonym of empty. Here we have another word used, 'luminous.' You need not be confused by this. It is simply a restatement of that equivalence set forth in the Heart Sutra's assertion that 'Emptiness is form, and form is emptiness.' Reality is not only empty: it is also form; it is also luminous, bright with the potential for appearance. This luminosity--this potential inherent in the real state of things--manifests itself to the impure, afflicted consciousness as samsara, but it manifests itself to the purified consciousness as the pure universe of the exalted Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. It is within the context of this luminosity, this potential appearance of reality, that we have the manifestation of the celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas like Amitabha, Akshobhya, Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, and the rest. They are luminous, pure, and the bright manifestation of reality--that reality which is simultaneously emptiness and luminosity, emptiness and purity. Emptiness and luminosity are the characteristics of reality that emerge from the Mahayanic investigation of the subject and object of experience.

Let me conclude by describing a practical mode of contemplation which reflects this progressive insight that eventually reveals the ineffable character of the real. This contemplative technique of meditation unfolds through four stages. The first stage involves contemplation of the mind-dependent nature of all experience. On this stage we are asked to regard all experience as similar to a dream. This is reinforced by recourse to examples that illustrate the mind-dependent nature of experience: not only the experience of dreaming, which is perhaps the most telling but also that of illness, when one perceives a white conch as yellow because of jaundice, and the experience of altered perception as a result of the ingestion of hallucinogenic substances. On the second stage we contemplate all experience being like a magical show. Like dreaming, this example has an old and venerable history in Buddhist literature, both in the Perfection of Wisdom discourses and in the writings of the Middle Way and Mind Only traditions. Here the example of a magical illusion is used as a paradigm for experience: When the apparatus needed to produce a magical illusion is present, the magical illusion appears, but when the apparatus is absent, the magical illusion does not.

In the same way, entities appear only when the right causes and conditions are present, and fail to appear when the right causes and conditions are absent. We might feel that this example of magical illusion is no longer relevant today, but this is not the case if we understand magical illusion in a broader sense. Some of you may be familiar with holography--the projection of a laser beam so as to produce a three-dimensional image of an object. The image does not really exist; if we reach out for that object--an apple, let us say--it is not there. When the holographic apparatus is present, the illusion of the three-dimensional object appears, but when it is absent, the illusion does not. Like a magical illusion and a holographic image, all experiences appear relative to the presence of certain causes and conditions, and do not appear when the right causes and conditions are not present.

On the third stage, we are encouraged to contemplate all experience as relative, as interdependent. This follows very closely from the consideration of all experience as similar to a magical illusion. All experience appears relative to causes and conditions. The sprout exists relative to the seed, earth, water, sunlight, and air. The flame in an oil lamp exists relative to the wick and the oil. In this way all phenomena appear relative to causes and conditions, and all experience is interdependent.

The fourth stage in the process of progressive realization of the ultimate nature of things is contemplation of the inexpressibility of experience. The interdependence of experience means that experience is inexpressible in terms of existence and nonexistence, identity and difference, and so forth. Entities and their causes can be said to be neither identical nor different. For example, whether the sprout and the seed are identical or different is inexpressible: they cannot be described in terms of either identity or difference. Experience in general is intrinsically indescribable, like the sensation of being tickled or the feeling that ensues as a consequence of sexual intercourse. Similarly, all entities that exist dependent on causes and conditions are inexpressible in terms of absolute existence and nonexistence. Hence this last stage involves the contemplation of all things as inexpressible and ineffable.

By means of this four-stage process of contemplating all experience as mind-dependent--like a dream, like a magical illusion, interdependent, and, finally, inexpressible--we can arrive at some understanding of the Mahayana view of reality. For the Mahayana tradition, reality is empty, luminous, and beyond existence and nonexistence, identity and difference, and all the other dichotomies of discriminating thought.


From The Tree of Enlightenment: An Introduction to the Major Traditions of Buddhism, by Peter Della Santina. With permission of the author.