Saturday, 2 December 2017

A Buddhist Philosophical Perspective on Sensibility and Vulnerability

It is already passed midnight. I drank a cup of strong coffee to keep myself awake to do some urgent paper works. I did manage to do some paper works but not all. Paper works are like waves. Incessant. The effect of coffee seems to linger. I am tired but still not sleepy. There is dead silence. I can only hear my conceptual waves lash against the shores of my brain.

I am thinking about sensibility and vulnerability from a Buddhist philosophical perspective. This is trigged by some recent turmoil (or incidents) in the Tibetan society. I am not a Tibetan, but an admirer of Tibetan people with all its strengths and weaknesses. And I try to intellectually engage with Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, this is all I can do. I consider myself apolitical, not because I have no political views on any given issue but because I consider political (or religious) ideology to be inherently beset with cognitional-emotional defilements (kleśa: nyon mongs pa).

Elsewhere, I once stated that there is no such thing as a perfect political system or a form of government. Of the many forms of imperfect political systems, democracy seems to be preferable, though not necessarily more efficient. I also claim that the degree of the efficiency and success of democracy is directly proportional to the gross national wisdom or insight (prajñā: shes rab) and compassion (karuṇā/kṛpā: snying rje) of the people. Democracy is doomed to fail and cause immense misery to the people if the majority of people become increasingly blinded by one’s political and religious ideology and if the benevolent attitude of compassion for all people is supplanted by malevolence and hatred. Majority per se can never be a criterion for prajñāic and karuṇāic correctness. Ignorance and malice of one hundred people would not transform them to wisdom and compassion. A country ruled by one wise and compassionate person would be much better off than a country ruled by one hundred ignorant and cruel persons. That is why sometimes one would think that a wise and benevolent monarchy is better than a dysfunctional democracy run by foolish and cruel people. Despite such risks, democracy should be promoted by trying to constantly enhance the gross national prajñā and gross national karuṇā. The two should ensure that the greater and long-term wellbeing of the people is not undermined. …

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Philology = Textology + Ideology + Historiology

Here is one more attempt to define “philology.” Philology is a discipline that combines textology, ideology, and historiology. Textology, here, does not mean only “text linguistics” but “the study of texts written in the past.” By the way, there is no such thing as “texts written in the present or future.” All written texts come from the past. Ideology here is not “a system or set of religious and non-religious ideals and beliefs characteristic of a social group or individual” but “the science of ideas transmitted via written texts.” Historiology here is to be understood as “the scientific study or knowledge of history” (of texts and ideas). Note that because manuscript is a manuscript only because of the text it bears, there is no “manuscriptology” without philology. If there were such a discipline, it would be like a life-less body.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Authenticism in Buddhism

Dream doctrines (rmi lam gyi chos) is usually frowned upon, if not outrightly rejected. But so are revealed treasures (gter ma). The authenticity issue of scriptures and doctrines continue to fascinate me. I do not wish to go into the details. But I have once suggested that two kinds of authenticity criteria have been presupposed by Tibetan scholars, namely, what I am wont to call a “genetic” criterion and a “generic” criterion. According to the genetic criterion, only those scriptures that have been genetically transmitted from India (i.e. in form of Sanskrit manuscripts) and eventually in some form from the historical Buddha himself can be considered authentic. Strictly speaking, many Buddhist scriptures might fail to fulfill this criterion, although each tradition would take for granted that its scriptures somehow stem from the historical Buddha himself. According to the generic criterion, any teaching that is generically “well-expounded” (subhāṣita/sūkta) should be acceptable as “Buddha-expounded” (buddhabhāṣita/buddhokta). That which is well-expounded is to be understood as that which teaches beneficiality (phan pa) and verity (bden pa). To be sure, “beneficiality” is a word that I have created myself. I personally think that while the first criterion, if fulfill-able, is ideal, we should also admit the second criterion. Some Tibetan scholars in fact did. Neither of the two criteria seems to be without problems. Let us, for the time being, skip the first criterion, and issues such as why, and to what extent it has been used in Tibet. The second criterion is my concern now. It seems that there are two interpretations of the commonality or similarity of certain ideas or doctrines that might occur in both Buddhist and non-Buddhist sources, namely, a rejective and a receptive one. According to the rejective interpretation, the similarity of certain Buddhist ideas or doctrines is sheer coincidence just like a woodworm’s creation of the shape of the letter “A” and has no value whatsoever. According to the receptive interpretation, anything that is subhāṣita/sūkta should be accepted as buddhabhāṣita/buddhokta. Such commonality or similarity of beneficial and true doctrines is, however, said to be owing to the beneficial influence of the Buddha. One of my professors gave me one more insight. According to him, some Buddhists might have believed that a teaching that appeared to them so inspiring could have only been taught by the Buddha. Such an explanation might not have an epistemic value, but it certainly seems to have a positive instrumental value insofar as it would help Buddhist thinkers to focus on the objective content of any teaching regardless of its spatial and temporal provenance and help them to be perceptive and receptive to and appreciative of any idea that seems noble. Nobility, again, is to be defined by beneficiality (phan pa) and verity (bden pa). From the perspective of the history of ideas, it seems that the teachings taught by the Buddha (buddhabhāṣita/buddhokta) have initially been eulogized as “well-expounded” (subhāṣita/sūkta). Such an idea seems not far away from the idea that if A is X, why can’t X be A. Thus, if all that is buddhabhāṣita is subhāṣita, then all that is subhāṣita must also be buddhabhāṣita. In short, I personally think that both genetic and generic criteria should be applied while trying to investigate the authenticity of Buddhist scriptures and doctrines.
         This small essay was triggered by a small passage in the rJe tsong kha pa’i rnam thar chen mo by Cha-har-dge-bshes Blo-bzang-tshul-khrims. rJe dGe-’dun-grub (1391–1475), one of the foremost disciples of Tsong-kha-pa (1357–1419) and who is retrospectively called the first Dalai Lama and who also founded bKra-shis-lhun-po monastery, once dreamt a dream. In the dream, Tsong-kha-pa appeared to him and said: “dGe-’dun-grub, are you practicing bodhicitta which involves [meditatively] switching [the identities of] oneself and others?” He replied: “Yes, I am.” Thereupon rJe-btsun Shes-rab-seng-ge (1383–1445), another disciple of Tsong-kha-pa, in the physical form of Tsong-kha-pa, gave him two swords, and said: “The ultimate dharma is the generation of bodhicitta. The ultimate view is the [view of] śūnyatā. The ultimate tantra is the Guhyasamāja.” This small anecdote made me pause and reflect. Isn’t this a beautiful thing? Isn’t this inspiring? Admittedly this was only a dream. But what difference does it make whether these statements were made and heard in a dream or whether these statements were made and heard in a wake state? Should one accept this dream doctrine as authentic? If not, why not? What is wrong with it? Can we consider this teaching as dGe-’dun-grub’s? Or Tsong-kha-pa’s? Or perhaps rJe-btsun Shes-rab-seng-ge’s? Can one consider this teaching to be precious? If so, why not consider de facto a treasure? Theoretically rJe dGe-’dun-grub could claim that he received this teaching from Tsong-kha-pa or from rJe-btsun Shes-rab-seng-ge. Should we say he did not? What if he were to say he discovered this teaching in a dream or in his mind? Should we say that he did not and ridicule him? Should we accuse him of being a charlatan and this particular teaching as bogus? Does such a teaching have any spiritual or soteriological value? Does it really matter who taught this teaching, how, and where? What if one were to take, for example, these bodhicitta and śūnyatā teachings seriously and practice them diligently, thereby observing immense and direct benefit such as an obvious decrease of one’s intellectual-emotional defilements (kleśa) and an increase of one’s compassion (karuṇā) and discriminating insight (prajñā)? I think one of my Tibetan mentors has maintained that within the bounds of efficient strategies (upāya) and discriminating insight (prajñā), there is no limitation or restriction with regard to what can be employed as soterical means and what not. To those of us who are not endowed with upāya and prajñā, even dharma or medicine may turn out to be detrimental to one’s wellbeing. To those of us who are endowed with upāya and prajñā, even adharma or poison may turn out to be beneficial to one’s wellbeing. The key from the standpoint of special Mahāyāna is therefore not to ignorantly and arrogantly waste one’s life trying to label other people’s teachings as false and bogus but to ensure that one is capable of making use of both medicine and poisons as means of one’s curatio et salvatio.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

A Note on Buddhist Eudaimonism (or Saukhyaism)

You may have heard thousands of times about Bhutan being a land of “Gross National Happiness” (GNH). Some would simply scoff at the very idea and some would be fascinated by it. Others may choose to maintain a safe (not necessarily a sagely) silence because of the risk of becoming a “prisoner of Shangrila.” By the way, I interpret “prisoner of Shangrila” as someone who creates, believes in, live or wishes to live, or propagates a fabulous image of a society or a country that is not consonant with the actual state of affairs. If you say you are from Bhutan, people would expect you to know about GNH. In the past, I have been invited to give lectures on GNH. As a rule, I politely declined by explaining that although I hail from Bhutan, I am not an expert on Bhutan, not particularly on GNH. Instead I often offered to give talks on Buddhist philosophy of happiness.

While I am still unsure about the feasibility of GNH as a practical political guideline, I hold the philosophy of GNH a very noble source of inspiration insofar as it is a crystallization of the concept of the maximization of the over-all wellbeing of a society. Why would anyone have a problem with it? The only challenge is how best to gain a clear picture of the causes and conditions of GNH and to make real difference to the society without becoming complacent. Bhutan is neither a heaven nor a hell. It is just a tiny fleck on the earth. While non-Bhutanese might afford to create a heavenly or hellish image of Bhutan, Bhutanese cannot. Bhutanese alone must live the reality.

Actually I love what Aung San Suu Kyi in her Nobel Lecture (Oslo, June 16, 2012) stated: “Absolute peace in our world is an unattainable goal. But it is one towards which we must continue to journey, our eyes fixed on it as a traveller in a desert fixes his eyes on the one guiding star that will lead him to salvation. Even if we do not achieve perfect peace on earth, because perfect peace is not of this earth, common endeavours to gain peace will unite individuals and nations in trust and friendship and help to make our human community safer and kinder.” Indeed according to Buddhist philosophy, absolute happiness is not of this earth. I hope and pray that the Bhutanese leadership and people will continue to strive towards the goal of maximizing the wellbeing and happiness of the nation, unaffected and undeterred by the hellish or heavenly image of Bhutan that is likely to be created and recreated. But why am I talking about this here?

Let me get back to my initial and actual theme: Buddhist Eudaimonism (or Saukhyaism). I do think that Buddhist sources belonging to various systems and degrees of antiquity reveal fascinating philosophies of happiness. I am still in the process of exploring and exploiting them purely for personal interests. To express the Buddhist philosophy of happiness, I employ the word “eudaimonism.” But why do I also add here an alternative word “Saukhyaism”? It is possible that some readers may not like the word “eudaimonism” because of the possible unnecessary implication or connotation or association. Saukhyaism is a neologism I created myself. The Sanskrit word saukhya is a neuter abstract noun built from sukha and it sufficiently renders the idea of “happiness.” Before delving into pressing works that require immediate attention,  I am often tempted to read something that is not connected to work but something that is soothing and inspiring to my soul. I know Buddhists do not use the word “soul.” But it seems somehow befitting here. Nāgārjuna is one who never ceases to inspire me. In this case, I am speaking of his Ratnāvalī and I think authorship is not an issue here. Or is it? So I grab Michael Hahn’s edition of it and just open a page and start reading it as I simultaneously take a sip of hot Indian chai that I recently started to make. Ratnāvalī 4.98 prevented me from reading further. It made me think and rethink. So in Ratnāvalī 4.98, Nāgārjuna clearly suggests that happiness of all kinds is actually a by-product of the highest state of awakening! Or, perhaps as one strives for the highest goal of awakening, one would obtain happiness on the way and by the way (antarā: zhar la). What kind of implication would such an understanding of happiness have on the understanding of Buddhist Eudaimonism (or Saukhyaism)? This idea, which I need to explore and exploit further, would be significant for my understanding of Buddhist Eudaimonism (or Saukhyaism). Does he imply that happiness is not the Summum bonum? Is there such a thing as Summum bonum according to Buddhist philosophy? If so, what would be it?

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Innate Luminousism

The expression “Innate Luminousism” is a neologism that I am coining here to express the Buddhist philosophical idea that the nature of mind is luminous. Readers who know this Buddhist concept well may, for the time being, withhold their enlightening lecture on the topic, because this is not my motive for addressing the issue here. My interest here is how precisely does Rong-zom-pa, an eleventh-century Tibetan scholar, understand this concept. Those readers who can provide insights on Rong-zom-pa’s understanding of the concept based on concrete, explicit, and unambiguous textual sources are, of course, welcome to comment. I shall propose my own understanding of how he understands the concept. As far as I am concerned, the most fundamental understanding of the statement that the nature of mind is by nature luminous is that mind in its elemental state is untainted and ”untaintable,” unpolluted and ”unpollutable.” All stains, pollutions, or contaminations are thus adventitious and are foreign to the actual pure nature of the mind. It is because of this quality of the mind, that is, the natural purity of the mind and its quality of pollutability and purifiability, that purification and pollution are at all possible. This seems to be the very crux of Buddhist soteriological mechanism. The pure nature of mind at its elemental level or state may be compared to water in its molecular state and level (i.e. H20). The question is if mind can be reduced to non-mind, that is, to the extent that it loses the identity and quality of mind. I have a feeling that some Buddhist philosophers believed that it is possible. This would be like splitting hydrogen and oxygen present in H20, thereby losing the identity and quality of water. But what about Rong-zom-pa’s understanding of the statement that mind is by nature luminous? If to carefully examine the way he explains the concept of rang bzhin gyis ’od gsal ba’i rnam par thar pa (obviously according to the special soteriology of what he calls “special Mahāyāna”), it seems to be clear that rang bzhin gyis ’od gsal ba’i rnam par thar pa is the realization that both pollutants and purifiers are not substantially existent. For him, therefore, mind and its pollutants and purifiers are not only like water, its pollutants and purifiers but more so like mirage-water and its pollutants and purifiers. Apparent mind may appear to polluted and purified, but like mirage-water, there has never been mind, nor its pollution, nor its purification, even when the apparent mind appears to be polluted or purified. So it seems that for Rong-zom-pa, it is not so much because of the natural purity of the actual mind and its quality of pollutability and purifiability that one speaks of the luminosity of the mind, but rather that one speaks of the natural luminosity of the mind because of the innate non-substantiality of the apparent mind and its immaculate nature which is always and essentially devoid of pollutants and purifiers. Perhaps one might say that for Rong-zom-pa only that quality or reality that transcends the duality such as of pollution and purification, day and light, light and darkness, and so forth, can be called naturally luminous. My understanding might become a little more plausible if we consider the expression “the nature of space is luminous” that he, if I am not mistaken, also  employs. That is, for him, we cannot say that the nature of space is luminous only when the sun shines or only when there is light. Luminosity in its ultimate sense should be, I think according to him, that quality or reality of the space that is inherently, intrinsically, and primordially pure (i.e. empty) of anything that does not belong to the quality of space. For the time being, I cannot think of a better explanation of his understanding of innate luminosity. There are many shades and levels of understanding the concept of luminosity, but the two that I alluded here seem to be crucial or significant.