Buddha and the Path to Enlightenment: III. The Dharma and the Sangha

by Raghavan Iyer @ Theosophy Trust


BUDDHA AND THE PATH
TO ENLIGHTENMENT

III. The Dharma and the Sangha


The Path is one for all, the means to reach the goal must vary with the Pilgrims.

           The Voice of the Silence

 There is a time-honoured tale that soon after Buddha's passing an aged monk chastised the disciples for being heavy-hearted. Since Buddha had gone, the monks were now free to do as they liked, no longer being bound to follow the exacting discipline he established. Many of the other disciples were stunned by this remark, and they now realized how rapidly the Sangha could become corrupt in the absence of Buddha. They decided to gather as many monks as possible into a general council to review, confirm and renew their understanding of the Teaching and the monastic code. According to tradition, the first sangiti or recitation was held at Rajagriha within a year of Buddha's Parinirvana. Owing to his prodigious memory and constant companionship with Buddha, Ananda was chosen to recite all that he had heard of Buddha's words. He began each discourse with the humble statement evam maya shrutam, "Thus have I heard", the memorable opening of every Buddhist scripture of whatever school. When Ananda completed a recitation, others would add or correct from their own recollections, until the sangiti as a whole approved the contents. Similarly, the vinaya or discipline was reiterated by Upali and confirmed by the assembly. Since Buddha had insisted that people should be instructed in the Dharma in their own languages, there was considerable resistance to putting the scriptures in writing, though some evidence suggests that at least two short discourses were written out even in Buddha's lifetime.

 A second sangiti is said to have been held at Vaishali some hundred years after the Parinirvana. By this time, diverse perspectives had emerged on a variety of issues. This comprehensive recital was convened by those monks who wished to preserve the purity of the Teaching, but their conservative stance precipitated the split they had sought to avoid. The monks who controlled the Council tried to be true to the transmitted Word of Buddha, which had been formulated by the first sangiti, and they were called Sthaviras for taking this stand. Another group of monks, who came to be known as Mahasanghikas – the Great Order – ventured with equal fervour to be faithful to the spirit of Buddha's Teaching. The First Council had endorsed only what all monks could recollect that they had heard Buddha utter, but he had spoken to many groups and individuals in different contexts, and numerous traditions survived indicating that his instructions were adapted to the spiritual and mental competence of his listeners. A large portion of Buddha's Teaching, the Mahasanghikas argued, could not be confirmed by all the monks present at the First Council, for only some of them had heard it directly. This made it no less valid, however. When the Mahasanghika standpoint won no support in the Second Council at Vaishali, its followers withdrew and compiled their own canon.

 The Mahasanghikas were the forerunners of the Mahayana or Great Vehicle, whilst the Sthaviras were pioneers of a number of schools later called Hinayana or Little Vehicle, though today they are often called Theravada or Way of the Elders to avoid the somewhat pejorative connotation of Hinayana. History has confirmed the vital concerns of both standpoints. Theravada has avoided a wide range of excesses, but in recent times its phenomenological emphasis and its doctrinal rigidity have sometimes led to atheism and even nihilism. Mahayana, on the other hand, has saved itself from such destructive tendencies but has often been vulnerable to arid scholasticism, and Vajrayana, avoiding both these extremes, has been periodically diverted into fetishism and grey magic. As Buddha himself taught, the battle for Enlightenment cannot be won in cloistered academies or congregational assemblies. It must be fought by each one in the forum of his individual conscience and in the sanctuary of his inmost struggles and deepest meditations.

 There is a story in the Sanyutta Nikaya which illumines the core of the earliest controversies. Once Buddha was with his disciples in the Simsapa Grove at Kosambi. He gathered up a handful of fallen simsapa leaves and said:

 "What do you think, bhikkhus? Which are more, these few simsapa leaves in my hand, or the other leaves in yonder Simsapa Grove?"

 "These leaves, which the Exalted One holds in his hand, are not many, and many more are those in the Simsapa Grove."

 "So also, bhikkhus, is that much more which I have learnt and have not told you, than that which I have told you. And why have I not told you? Because, bhikkhus, it would bring you no benefit; it does not conduce to progress in holiness; it does not lead to turning away from the earthly, to the conquest of desire, to cessation of the transitory, to peace, to knowledge, to illumination, to Nirvana. Therefore I have not declared it unto you."

 Yet in another discourse Buddha promised: "If you walk according to my Teaching...you shall even in this present life apprehend the Truth and see it face to face."

 The effort to adhere to the prescribed path of the Dharma, whilst remaining open to the vast range of Buddha's Word (Buddhavachana), gradually led to a remarkable variety of views which in time emerged as divergent schools of thought. By the time of Emperor Ashoka, perhaps two and a half centuries after that of Buddha, a Third Council was held at Pataliputra to establish the canon, and it is here that the Tripitaka was finalized. Although it appears that the texts had been written down by this time, their exact form is unknown. Ashoka's son Mahinda, a monk in the Sangha, went to Sri Lanka with a complete canon. He was welcomed, and following the custom initiated by Buddha, the texts he brought were translated into Sinhalese. It was not until the Fourth Council (as it is called in the orthodox Pali tradition, even though several other councils had already met in North India) held at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka in A.D. 1160 that monks of the Mahavihara edited the Pali canon in the form known today. Although the Pali scriptures are of indisputable antiquity, and despite fashionable views to the contrary, they have no greater claim to being the exact or pristine utterances of Buddha than do a number of other sacred texts, including some Mahayana sutras. However divergent and controversial Buddhist views later became, they all took as their common touchstone the Four Noble Truths and the life of Buddha, and so they combined abstruse debates over doctrinal matters with mutual toleration and genuine goodwill. Theravada, Mahayana and even Vajrayana schools flourished side by side for centuries in India, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.

 As the gospel of Buddha spread into South India and Sri Lanka, eastwards to Southeast Asia, northwards into Bactria, Nepal, China, Japan and eventually Tibet, and westwards as far as Alexandria in Egypt, its formulations multiplied and took on many tints. Buddha's Teaching fused the highest metaphysical clarity with an exacting ethical and mental discipline, but the basic Dharma had to be rendered into the cultural idiom of remarkably diverse peoples, many of whom had no formal education and whose languages and dialects could not readily render some of Buddha's recondite doctrines. Unlike the Christian Church, which had a sufficiently homogeneous creed of salvation to ensure fidelity to dogma, the Sangha was always more concerned with conduct than with belief. Buddha taught and exemplified the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment and therapeutic means to self-emancipation, but no doctrines and beliefs, however ardently held, can ever be more than provisional aids on the aspirant's journey. In practice, this implied that those who sought to spread Buddha's Word must become skilled in means, upaya, and employ only those formulations or expressions which really touch the hearts of listeners, encouraging them to take the first step on the Noble Eightfold Path. As different schools and traditions emerged, Buddhist teachers – more or less or hardly enlightened – adapted their discourses to rectify recurrent tendencies to absolutize, concretize or obscure the compassionate core of the Dharma. Schools and sects became as distinct as the differing temperaments of human beings, and as flexible and fraternal as the original Sangha. By hearkening repeatedly to the Four Noble Truths, they could hold one another in considerable mutual respect even whilst freely disagreeing on specific formulations of the truth, all of which must ultimately be swept aside in the climactic experience of Enlightenment.

 Some schools gradually emerged as uniquely transmitted traditions, owing to the comparative isolation of small groups of cloistered monks. Others arose out of specific disagreements over aspects of the monastic code, though the essentials of vinaya were never in serious dispute. Major differences were the unavoidable result of varying modes of conceptualization and of conveying the Teaching. Although Buddha seems to have spoken several Indic languages, including Maghadi, he must also have taught in the language of Koshala, the kingdom to which his own clan, the Shakyas, belonged. He insisted that monks and lay people learn the Dharma in their own languages, even though local tongues and dialects were not always capable of conveying his deepest thoughts. Thus there was no "official" language for the Buddhavachana, the Word of Buddha, and no single canonical set of texts emerged in the early years after his Parinirvana. 1 Ancient tradition asserts, however, that Buddha repeatedly referred to ten "inexpressibles", avyakatavatthu (Skt. avyakritavastu), for which language and conceptualization are inherently inadequate to provide definitive formulations. These include whether the world is eternal or not; whether it is finite in space or infinite; whether the Tathagata exists after death, does not exist after death, or both does and does not exist after death, or neither exists nor does not exist after death; and whether the soul is one with the body or different from it. Serious reflection on any of these metaphysical themes will soon show that a radical rethinking of familiar concepts is required even to begin to make sense of such thorny issues.

 Starting with the earliest Council and the original recitation of Ananda and Upali, the Sangha rapidly recognized those who were reliable memorizers of the sutras, others who were trustworthy reciters of the vinaya and a gifted few who were skilful commentators. Ancient chronicles testify that eighteen schools and myriad subdivisions had emerged in the Sangha within three centuries of the Parinirvana, and they can be distinguished in terms of the emphasis each gave to the sutras, the vinaya and the various commentaries. Of the schools nurtured by the Sthaviras, Theravada alone survives and so is often held to be of the greatest significance. It postulates a three-tiered universe, consisting of kamadhatu, rupadhatu and arupadhatu – the planes of desire, form and formlessness – in which time moves in vast cycles, each comprising four ages – krita, the Golden Age, treta, dvapara and kali, the Dark Age in which present humanity struggles. Each human being is potentially a Buddha, and he or she can move in that direction through righteous thinking, feeling, speech and action. All phenomenal existence, which encompasses everything outside Nirvana, is unstable and transient, enmeshed in the endless flux of instants or dharmas. In order to tread the path to Enlightenment, it is essential to know the kinds of dharmas which make up one's fleeting existence in embodied form, and so Theravada places great stress upon the complex doctrine of skandhas (Pali khandhas), the vestures and avenues through which they operate and the basic elements of sensory experience. Though a careful and close analysis of these fundamental concepts presupposes an elaborate metaphysical framework, and has often been construed in predominantly psychological terms, its deeper purpose is to find the way to Nirvana, which necessarily reaches far beyond the range of critical metaphysics and analytical psychology.

Nirvana is asankhata (Skt. asanskrita), wholly unconditioned, and therefore can neither come into being nor cease to be. As such, it cannot be linked to the formidable chain of dependent origination. No one in search of Enlightenment can cause it to come about; nonetheless, like the wind which dispels obscuring clouds, the progressive removal of ignorance through traversing the Noble Eightfold Path must eventually enable the Sun of Enlightenment to shine forth. This arduous process can be demarcated into four distinct stages. One who has "entered the stream" or decisively commenced that constant endeavour which leads to the terrace of Enlightenment is in the first stage. One whose course is irrevocable but incomplete has definitely entered the second stage of the "once returner" who has only one more birth before him. The third stage is only entered when one has drawn so close to Enlightenment that there neither need be nor will be any more rebirth. The Arhant, however, has fully attained freedom even in this life and is able to savour Nirvana whilst still in a body. All this naturally suggests that Buddhas appeared on earth long before Prince Siddhartha and that a series of Buddhas will appear thereafter. Specifically, Theravadins anticipate the advent of Metteya (known in Sanskrit as Maitreya), the healing Buddha of universal love who will inaugurate a new epoch in the world. His liberating message, like that of all Buddhas, will be the timeless truth (Sanatana Dharma), yet wholly original in expression and fresh in its idiom.

 As with thought and action, Theravadin meditation, jhana (Skt. dhyana), also aims at purification. Starting with withdrawal from sensory indulgence, it moves swiftly to steadfast one-pointedness, ekaggata (Skt. ekagrata), the firm foothold from which all emotion, attraction and reaction is removed, leaving the solitary meditator serenely detached from every aspect of the phenomenal world, even whilst remaining fully conscious and supremely alert. Such a purity of apprehension permits the aspirant to enter into the transcendental states of awareness which Buddha himself experienced beneath the bodhi tree. Entering the state characterized by infinite space, he moves on to a direct immediate experience of infinite consciousness, and still pushes on to a stage which can only be called Nothingness. Beyond that, however, there is an indescribable condition known as "neither perception nor non-perception", the lofty terrace from which the final leap into Nirvana is possible. Although each school has its own priorities and preferences in classifying and characterizing exalted states of consciousness, along with its own distinctive practices of meditation, the entire system set forth in Theravadin doctrine is the original basis of every type of Buddhist meditation, furthering insight or vipassana through mindfulness and bare attention.

 If the Sthaviras focussed on the suttas, the Sarvastivadins emphasized the abhidhamma (Skt. abhidharma), or abstruse philosophical doctrines. They held that everything exists only in the sense that it comes into contact with a cognizing agent. Anticipating the phenomenalist Bishop Berkeley in this way, they nonetheless answered the question "What exists?" rather differently: name and form, namarupa, alone exists, rupa being material and nama its nominal definition by a cognizing agent. There is no room here for any enduring self, puggala (Skt. pudgala). Though the Sarvastivadins faded from history, Vasubandhu ingeniously interpreted their basic philosophy in terms of the Sautrantika thesis that there is a continuum of psychic states, each instantaneous and of no intrinsic reality but entirely conditioned by the stronger impulse which gave rise to all of them, and thus laid the basis for the Yogachara or "Mind-Only" school. The Dharmaguptakas accepted the scriptures which have come down to the present in the Pali canon, but they added two other collections of texts. One of these, the Bodhisattvapitaka, stressed the sacrificial nature of Buddha's mission. Holding that an Arhant produces no karma, his willingness to remain in the world is only for the sake of helping others. The Sammitiyas, on the other hand, were troubled that an Arhant could become obscured whilst dealing with ignorant humanity, and they therefore stressed that generosity of every kind provides the surest means for protection and purification. Although only the Theravadins survive from these interrelated schools, their distant descendants took root in China and Japan, where they flourished many centuries after the tradition waned in India.

 Like the Sthaviras, the Mahasanghikas are still represented today by their numerous offshoots. Although they looked to the life of Buddha as a pristine model for treading the Path, they ascribed to it immense metaphysical import, holding that Buddha is lokottara, transcendent, and indestructible. His entire message, Buddhavachana, is not limited by time and place but touches all beings, though they hear and understand it only in direct proportion to their individual purity. Bodhisattvas incarnate voluntarily out of compassion and remain amongst human beings as long as they choose – a hopeful teaching that is intimated in the Maha Parinibbana Sutta of the Pali canon. The Lokottaravadins, the descendants of the Mahasanghikas, taught that nothing in manifest existence is real, the sole reality being shunyata, which is twofold – the voidness of subjects and the voidness of objects. Thus Buddha, as he moved among men, was in truth an illusory if luminous appearance of a transcendent reality. Here the emphasis is shifted from the man who struggled to ultimate victory, to the transcendent being who cast a compelling series of sublime mental images on the screen of time for the instruction, edification and emancipation of humanity. Buddha is the perfected Bodhisattva, who assists, guides and benefits an ailing world from which he has nothing to gain.

 The Pudgalavadins took the bold step of affirming the reality of the pudgala or self as the reincarnating but transcendent source of consciousness, a view somewhat reminiscent of certain Upanishadic suggestions concerning the Atman. This unorthodox and heretical-seeming standpoint led them to assert that intermediate states of consciousness and modes of being exist between death and rebirth. Such views as sprang from the Mahasanghika perspective formed the doctrinal basis of the Mahayana or Great Vehicle. Mahayana placed the self and the world on the same level, thus holding that both seem real to the self precisely because self and dharmas – elements of existence – are inherently non-existent. Both are like empty space, characterized by shunyata, voidness. The removal of suffering cannot be seen in terms of some one individual escaping and evading the cycle of existences. Rather, the holy Arhant, though honoured, is superseded by the more exalted Bodhisattva, who sees no difference whatsoever between himself and any sentient creature and who ardently seeks the Enlightenment of all.

 The Bodhisattva ideal, central to all Mahayana teaching, calls on all compassionate individuals to seek Enlightenment purely for the sake of the whole. Self-sacrifice is self-emancipation, for in truly giving up one's sensate and separative life, one who follows this all-demanding ideal attempts a progressive ascent through ten levels (bhumis) of spiritual attainment, which is made possible by cultivating and perfecting the ten paramitas or modes of purity in daily life. The first six stages constitute the strict prerequisites for the successful pursuit of the Bodhisattva Path. They are: dana, charity and loving kindness; shila, morality, "harmony in word and act" which mitigates and negates the formation of new karma; kshanti, "patience sweet, that nought can ruffle"; virya, unwavering vigour, courage and dauntless energy directed towards the goal; dhyana, deep daily meditation; and prajna, spiritual insight and wisdom. When these six paramitas are mastered, the Bodhisattva is fit for the seventh level, that of irreversibility, when the Buddha-nature manifests in him. He no longer struggles to purify himself, for the impulse to perfection now operates as the dynamic aspect of his own intrinsic nature and each subsequent stage is a rapid depletion of former karma, a radical dissolution of all limitations of consciousness and a resplendent dawning of that transcendental omniscience which is the Buddha-light. Thus upaya, skilfulness in action, leads to pranidhana, unshakeable resolution, and to bala, inward strength, culminating in the four transcendental (arupa) states of mental absorption (jnana).

 Mahayana elaborated the esoteric doctrine of the three bodies or modes of being, trikaya, of Buddha. Concern for proper attention to the physical body composed of the four elements, for the invisible mental body and for the hard-won body of Law, Dharma, is found both in the Dhammapada and the Udanavarga. When these powerful seed-ideas found their full fruition in Mahayana soil, the trikaya became three modes of existence. The Dharmakaya is ontologically prior to the others and the "highest". It is the quintessential nature of Buddha, identical in all Buddhas, absolutely unmanifest in itself, yet that upon which all manifestation is conditioned. "He who sees the Dharma sees me," Buddha once said, "he who sees me sees the Dharma." Here the open-textured conceptions of Dharma as the priceless Teaching of Righteousness and as the omnipresent operative principle of all existence (reminiscent of the rich Hindu concept of Rita) have been metaphysically fused into the fundamental idea that Dharma is the primordial reality out of which all manifestation must derive and into which all must dissolve. In the universe it is seen as Law; in sacred speech it is the Law-like Teaching, which is at once metaphysical and moral; in the human species it is the fully perfected Buddha. It is also the magnetic afflatus of the aspirant who has merged in consciousness with Absolute Truth, the Divine Wisdom that ensouls the cosmos.

 The Sambhogakaya or body of bliss is sometimes portrayed as the glorious body of omniscience to which meditative consciousness can ascend. It is the celestial seat of supramundane understanding and supernal splendour. Arcane schools of initiation teach that the progressive awakening of consciousness requires a conscious transformation of every aspect of the human constitution. The Sambhogakaya is a noumenal vesture created by alchemical transmutation of the basic elements of existence. It serves as the supreme focus of universal insight (prajna). It is wholly unconcerned with the world. The Nirmanakaya, sometimes thought of as the phenomenal body of a Buddha projected into Samsara through the power of illusion, is in the arcane schools the projection of the Sambhogakaya for the sake of contact with this world. Trishna, the thirst for embodied existence, has been utterly eradicated beyond recall. Nonetheless, the Bodhisattva can choose at will to renounce the total disconnection from the mundane world which he has fully earned, and he voluntarily continues to abide in a sensate world he does not need, cannot gain anything from and yet has freely vowed to serve. Seen in this soteriological context, the Nirmanakaya is the noumenal body which can be the powerful focus of universal intelligence and also the assumed vesture through which the Bodhisattva can aid humanity in its arduous search for Enlightenment. Althoguh the Nirmanakaya is the "lowest" or least ethereal of the three bodies, it is ethically the most exalted to all votaries of the Bodhisattva ideal. Since the three kayas abide at the cosmic level of universal cognition, they can be viewed as formless bodies, spiritual vestures of omnidirectional states of universal consciousness. Since these remote states cannot be adequately characterized outside of their direct realization by the initiated Adept, the full meaning of the trikaya necessarily remains a sacred theme, an incommunicable secret of initiation.

 All such esoteric doctrines presuppose the possibility of direct awareness that the transcendental states of consciousness discoverable in meditation have always been represented by divine beings constituted of the very essence of supernal awareness and noumenal substance. Just as Dharmakaya is beyond any hint or measure of conditionality, so too Adibuddha, the primordial reality, is beyond the seeming multiplicity of differentiated subjects. Just as everyday human consciousness manifests through permutations of the five skandhas, so the primeval Buddha emanates five cosmic Dhyani Buddhas (in some arcane accounts both are seven in number), who in turn manifest as fully realized cosmic Boddhisattvas. All spiritual activity in the phenomenal world is a manifestation and mirroring of their noetic thought and theurgic activity. The aspirant who has entered the stream that flows inexorably, though not automatically, towards the ocean of Enlightenement becomes an accredited member of one of these "Buddha families" on earth. He becomes part of the vital bridge between unenlightened human beings and a vast range of supermundane, ccelestial, supercelestial and untterly trascendental consciousnesses.2 On the one hand, Mahayana envisages a great chain of being which corresponds to the broad continuum stretching from perfect wisdom to incorrigible ignorance. On the other hand, it sees the Sangha neither as a simple unit nor as a collection of differing schools and sects, but rather as a shining host of lineages which constitute a single "Buddha family". Thus in the Mahayana a variety of daring perspectives spring from concentrated devotion to one or another sutra or from the striking formulations of one or another esteemed Teacher. All are accommodated within a single sacred family in which there is benevolent non-interference and authentic mutual respect amongst its diverse members. The trikaya doctrine reaffirmed the immemorial sanctity and inviolable privacy of the guru-chela relationship and the Guruparampara transmission.

 The Madhyamika school traces its origin to Nagarjuna, the brilliant philosopher and formidable dialectician who flourished in the late second century A.D. Taking Buddha's advocacy of the Middle Way between harmful extremes, between avid indulgence and austere asceticism, and between sterile intellectualization and suffocating mental torpor, Nagarjuna developed a rigorous dialectical logic by which he reduced every philosophical standpoint to an explosive set of contradictions. This did not lead to the closure of scepticism, as the less vigorously pursued pre-Socratic philosophies did, but rather to the elusive standpoint that neither existence nor non-existence can be asserted of the world and of everything in it. The Madhyamikas, therefore, refused to affirm or deny any philosophical proposition. Nagarjuna sought to liberate the mind from its tendencies to cling to tidy or clever formulations of truth, because any truth short of shunyata, the voidness of reality, is inherently misleading. Relative truths are not like pieces of a puzzle, each of which incrementally adds to the complete design. They are plausible distortions of the truth and can seriously mislead the aspirant. They cannot be lightly or wholly repudiated, however, for they are all the seeker has, and so he must learn to use them as aids whilst remembering that they are neither accurate nor complete in themselves.

 By the fifth century two views of Nagarjuna's work had emerged. The followers of Bhavaviveka thought that Madhyamika philosophy had a positive content, whilst those who subscribed to Buddhapalita's more severe interpretation said that every standpoint, including their own, could be reduced to absurdity, which fact alone, far more than any positively asserted doctrine, could lead to intuitive insight (prajna) and Enlightenment. Chandrakirti's remarkable defence of this latter standpoint deeply influenced Tibetan Buddhist traditions as well as those schools of thought that eventually culminated in Japan in Zen. Nagarjuna's dialectic revealed the shunya or emptiness of all discursive, worldly thought and its proliferating categories.

 For the Madhyamikas, whatever can be conceptualized is therefore relative, and whatever is relative is shunya, empty. Since absolute inconceivable truth is also shunya, shunyata or the void is shared by both Samsara and Nirvana. Ultimately, Nirvana truly realized is Samsara properly understood. The fully realized Bodhisattva, the enlightened Buddha who renounces the Dharmakaya vesture to remain at the service of suffering beings, recognizes this radical transcendental equivalence. The Arhant and the Pratyeka Buddha, who look to their own redemption and realization, are elevated beyond any conventional description, but nonetheless do not fully realize or freely embody this highest truth. Thus for the Madhyamikas, the Bodhisattva ideal is the supreme wisdom, showing the unqualified unity of unfettered metaphysics and transcendent ethics, theoria and praxis, at the highest conceivable level.

 Madhyamika thought rooted itself in the remarkable collection of Mahayana sutras known as the Prajnaparamita (or perfection of wisdom) literature. These sutras, from the one hundred thousand verses of Shatasahasrika Prajnaparamita to the terse Heart Sutra and the short Vajrachchedika (literally, "Diamond Cutter", but commonly called Diamond Sutra), share the same themes skilfully expounded at different lengths. According to these sutras, all dharmas or elements of existence are shunyata or void. Although many human beings are terrified of voidness, as is shown by the instinctive dread of the dark and the unknown, this arises from a basic misunderstanding of shunyata. It is unchanging, deathless, unqualified reality. If one understands shunyatashunyata, the Voidness of the Void, one recognizes that it is not any "nothing" one knows or can imagine. Being truly unknown, there is no sufficient reason to dread it. Rather than entertain vague, ill-conceived and inchoate images of the imageless, one would do better to practise the paramitas, the dynamic virtues of the Noble Eightfold Path leading to the inestimable glory which the ignorant world calls shunyata solely because it is beyond its ken. The Bodhisattva, however, sees the plenitude of that Void as well as the emptiness of the phenomenal world, and so he labours in joy for the redemption of those who suffer from abject ignorance.

 Madhyamika led almost effortlessly to the emergence of the Yogachara school, founded by Asanga and his younger brother, Vasubandhu, in the fifth century A.D. Sometimes called the "Mind-Only" or Chittamatra school, especially in China, it held that consciousness is the key to understanding reality and so quintessentially is reality. Yogachara thought is based on the Lankavatara Sutra, wherein Buddha, abiding in a realm accessible only through the exercise of high spiritual powers, discoursed to Mahamati, chief of the Bodhisattvas. Adopting the "Mind-Only" standpoint, the Lankavatara provides a detailed metapsychology which explains the efficacy of treading the paramita Path. The consciousness of an incarnate human being reflects the architectonic range of consciousness itself. There are the six vijnanas consisting of the five senses and manovijnana – that aspect of mind which synthesizes them. Manas uses manovijnana to grasp the world, but it also knows, apart from the vijnanas, that there is something higher than itself. In this crucial respect, therefore, Manas is dual and hence the indispensable pivot upon which redemption and Enlightenment depend. Chitta is the storehouse of thoughts and deeds, a complete record of the progress of consciousness through time, and in exalted states of meditation it seeks to attune itself to Alayavijnana.

Alayaviynana is the universal storehouse, containing the seeds of all that has been and ever will be. It is neutral in that it contains every possibility of consciousness, but does not thrust forward any of them. Since it contains the seed of Enlightenment, it is also Tathagatagarbha, the womb of reality. It is Atman, the Self, but it is also devoid of individuality. Manas is the principle of individuation, whilst Alayavijnana is the principle of universality. Through ignorance and desire, avidya and trishna, Manas becomes entangled in things, conditions and states – all of which arise out of consciousness itself. It is somewhere conscious of Alayavijnana, however, and Enlightenment is the result of a "turning around of consciousness", paravritti, in which Manas detaches itself from involvement in manovijnana and beholds Alayavijnana. The seed of Enlightenment in the universal storehouse is guided by the gaze of Manas, and it will come to fruition through practice of the paramitas. Though Alayavijnana, being universal, has no distinct self, the fusion of Manas with Alayaviynana is the union of individuation and universality. This is the fully awakened, supreme Buddha, the farthest limit of noumenal reality which is neither one nor many, but which understands both.

 In religious language, Manas ascends to Alayavijnana through paravritti, the turning upwards of consciousness. Metapsychologically, it does so through self-purification by cultivating the paramitas. As in all Buddhist thought, Buddhas can only point the way to Enlightenment, and the aspirant has to strive single-mindedly to attain it. The Lankavatara, however, gives a mystical dimension to this principle. Buddhavachana, the Word of Buddha, is his adhishthana, his sustaining power, his anchor in manifest existence. It is his call or summons in consciousness to Enlightenment, affirming its possibility and indicating the Path to it. Every dimension of Nature responds at some level to that powerful summons and is also supported by it. Below Manas, and so in the lower kingdoms, that call quickens the collective impulse towards individuation and the threshold of self-consciousness. In the human family it is the stirring summons to self-purification and conscious effort. Those who do their utmost to honour that call are mystically yoked to Buddha, which Shantideva memorably phrased as "joining the Buddha family". To enter a lineage is not simply to give allegiance to a school of thought: it is no less than to accept a sacred bond, to enter a mystic communion the fruition of which is Enlightenment.

 If the Prajnaparamita Sutras point to shunyata as the hidden core of manifold existence and the Lankavatara Sutra provides the underpinnings for the journey to its realization, the Avatansaka (Garland) Sutra, of which the Gandavyuha comprises the last section, views the world from the threshold of reality. Delivered by the Dhyani Buddha Vairochana, it depicts the supreme abode of Buddhas as Dharmadhatu, the universal principle, the realm of pure perception. Beyond space and time, it abides without individuation, for it is anabhasa, shadowless, and admits of no distinctions. Human beings dwell in lokadhatu, the world of particulars conditioned by the senses, and for them Dharmadhatu defies both sensory experience and conventional logic. Yet its unconditioned luminosity suffuses lokadhatu at every point, for the two realms are reflective of each other. From the standpoint of lokadhatu, the entire manifest world arises all at once; all dharmas are so inextricably dependent on one another that none could arise without all of them appearing. From the standpoint of Dharmadhatu, this is because of the mutual interconnection of all things. Each dharma implicitly expresses all dharmas, and all phenomena express shunyata, the Void, in its particularity.

 Fa-Tsang, who spread Avatansaka teachings across China as the Third Patriarch of the Hua-yen school, explained the principle of mutual interpenetration to the Empress Tze-t"ien with the aid of a room filled with mirrors. Having arranged her enormous collection of mirrors so that they would catch the light of a single candle, he drew curtains over the window of the chamber. When he lit the candle, its light was caught and reflected back and forth amongst the mirrors, giving the impression of myriad candles where there was in fact only one. The single candle represented the Dharmadhatu, the mirrors stood for the particulars of the lokadhatu, and the reflected light the mutual interpenetration of all things. Dharmadhatu is causal to lokadhatu as well as its source and ultimate nature.

 Since the two realms – the lofty abode of Buddha and the true home of Bodhisattvas, as well as the sense-bound world of unenlightened beings – are one, the paramita Path can be seen as the alchemical process of transmuting lokadhatu into Dharmadhatu. The paramitas are virtues on the level of ordinary thought and action, but when fully understood they are revealed as transcendental powers which bring the two realms together in consciousness. Just as Buddha is peerless wisdom, prajna, so too the Path which he set forth is pure compassion, mahakaruna, and the paramitas are jewelled facets of that adamantine compassion. As Dharmadhatu is present in every nook and corner of lokadhatu, so Buddha is within each being. The Bodhisattva Manjushri, embodiment of transcendental wisdom and supernal insight, is in each human being the sovereign principle of irreversibility, which makes possible that change of consciousness whereby lokadhatu becomes Dharmadhatu. The work of universal Enlightenment, implicit in Buddha's first vow in the palace at Kapilavastu and explicit in the Bodhisattva ideal, is the timely entrance of all awakened beings into the refulgent world of unshadowed light wherein all suffering, desire, space and time come to an end.

Hermes, July 1986
by Raghavan Iyer



Footnotes

1 An excellent and judicious examination of the language of Buddha and the problem of a canonical authority in relation to Buddhavachana is found in The Eternal Legacy by Sangharakshita, Tharpa Publications, London, 1985.

2 Modern man, despite science fiction, has still to catch up with the awesome world of Leibnizian monadology or the calm recognition by the Victorian scientist T.H. Huxley that "there must be things in the universe whose intelligence is as much beyond ours as ours exceeds that of the black beetle, and who take an active part in the government of the natural order of things". He also said: "Without stepping beyond the analogy of that which is known, it is easy to people the cosmos with entities, in ascending scale until we reach something practically indistinguishable from omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience."