Tuesday, July 10, 2018

On the Lords of the Three Families

This blog contribution is dedicated to Adele, a former student of mine, who inspired me to make a few thoughts on the “Lords of the Three Families” (rigs gsum mgon po). Mahāyāna sources abound in names of bodhisattvas. The two of the most famous clusters of bodhisattvas seem to be what are known as the “Eight Great Close Spiritual Sons [of the Buddha]” (nye ba’i sras chen brgyad) and the “Lords of the Three Families” (rigs gsum mgon po). The names of the eight have been listed, for example, in the Mahāvyutpatti (nos. 645–652). I do not know of any Western-language study or publication devoted exclusively to the eight figures as a group or to any individual figure. Among the traditional Tibetan works, however, the one that comes to my mind immediately is Mi-pham rNam-rgyal-rgya-mtsho’s (1846–1912) Byang chub sems dpa’ chen po nye ba’i sras brgyad kyi rtogs brjod nor bu’i phreng ba. What is remarkable is that in Tibetan Buddhism either the eight are revered collectively or the focus is placed on the “Lords of the Three Families” (rigs gsum mgon po). Iconographic depictions of these would be widespread. Unlike in East Asian Buddhism, Kṣitigarbha seems not to have played such an eminent position in Tibetan Buddhism. One wonders if the Chinese rendering of the name Kṣitigarbha and the role attributed to Kṣitigarbha coupled with the indigenous East Asian view of the yonder or (subterranean) world especially regarding the destiny of prematurely deceased children have contributed to the rise of Kṣitigarbha cult in a way that is not known in India or Tibet. By contrast, what are known as the Lords of the Triadic Families (rigs gsum mgon po), namely, Mañjuśrī (representing the Body family), Avalokiteśvara (representing the Speech family), and Vajrapāṇi (representing the Mind family) enjoy a prominent place. By the way, Maitreya, too, as a crown prince and regent of the Buddha and as the future Buddha, enjoys a special place in Tibetan Buddhism. In the case of Maitreya, it would be useful to study modern hypotheses of the provenance (e.g. Indo-Iranian origin) of the concept and figure Maitreya. At any rate, I do not know of any study devoted exclusively to the triadic group, or, for that matter, also to one of the three figures. I personally believe that each of the three figures would make an excellent topic of study, but one that would be tremendously challenging because a careful and comprehensive study that takes into account both its diachronic and synchronic perspectives must have both the breadth and depth of knowledge of Buddhist sources in many different sources languages and texts, and also the necessary methodic rigor. Scholars like myself who do not possess such prerequisites and expertise should not touch such topics lest we leave behind a huge mess and thereby hampering advancement of research in these areas.

As venues of exploration for a study of the triadic figures of Rigs-gsum-mgon-po in Tibetan cultural sphere, a few questions come to my mind. What would be earliest Indian sources where the three occur, if at all, as a group? What would be the Sanskrit (or other Indic term)? How probable is the Sanskrit word *trikulanātha (employed by Dan Martin in his Tibskrit) to reconstruct a work title? Can we take for granted that the term or concept of kulatraya is secured in Indian sources? What would be earliest textual or arte-factual sources that testify the three individual figures? Could it be possible that the concepts and cults of Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi had different and independent origins and milieu and latter they are brought together as a group? If so, what could have been factors or motives? Since the inception of these figures, how have they evolved in various non-Mantric and Mantric forms of Mahāyāna Buddhism within and without the Indic cultural sphere? What would be a possible relative chronology of the inception and evolution of these figures and cults? Can one perhaps assume that the concept of Vajrapāṇi (initially a yakṣa/yakkha) precedes the concepts of Mañjuśrī and Avalokiteśvara? Can we find concepts/figures of Mañjuśrī and Avalokiteśvara in pre/non-Mahāyāna sources? What roles were they initially and eventually attributed to? Is it not the case that Mahāyāna apologists have claimed that the Mahāyāna scriptures were codified by the triadic figures? What and where are the terrestrial and celestial abodes (kṣetra: zhing khams) of Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi supposed to be? What kinds of roles do they play in the Mahāyāna soteriology, ontology, gnoseology, epistemology, axiology, cosmology, iconology, eschatology, and so on? Most important of all, how are they relevant, it at all, to Mahāyāna soteriology? Because they have certainly not been conceived of as historical figures confined to a specific time and place, how do Mahāyāna traditions deal with these atemporal and ahistorical figures?

Conceivably, the Mahāyāna Buddhist perceptions of the triadic figures may fall into three groups. First, some may view Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi as historical figures in the same way we would view, for examples, Tsong-kha-pa, mKhas-grub-rje, and rGyal-tshab-rje. Second, possibly some may view the triadic figures to be complete fictional characters just like fictitious figures in a novel, and thus reject them as having anything to do with Buddhist soteriology. Third, some would neither accept them to be historical figures confined to a specific period and place nor would they reject them as complete nonsense. This group would recognize that although these figures cannot be treated strictly as historical in the same way the rJe-yab-sras-gsum are, but nonetheless, the idea of the triadic figures has its own history and that it has its own role in Mahāyāna soteriology just as the ideas of upāya and kāruṇā, and of the Buddhahoood and Bodhisattvahood are essential to Mahāyāna soteriology. I personally think that those who take the first and second stances would fall into extreme views of eternalism and nihilism, respectively, and the third position alone be consistent with the middle way. I personally do not subscribe myself to the former two views. The third view, in my view, is indispensable for understanding and appreciating Mahāyānic mentality and spirituality. If one is not interested in understanding Mahāyānic mentality and spirituality, it is, of course, a different matter. The attitude and approach of the third group, in my view, is crucial for those who pursue academic study of religions in general and for those who pursue academic study of Buddhism in particular. Otherwise, one would end up becoming a laughing stock of those who possess both science and conscience.     

According to the third group, who are these figures known as Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi? In my view, these are the idealized and idolized bodhisattvas of the highest and best kind and order. They have been conceived of as the embodiments of the wisdom, compassion, and power or strength of all conceivable buddhas and bodhisattvas! This way of looking at Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi is not confined to individuals like myself. I recall mKhan-po ’Jigs-med-phun-tshogs (1933–2004), from whom I have had the honor and privilege to receive teachings for two months, clearly stating that if we view Mañjuśrī as a person holding at all times a sword and uptala flower, we have not understood what or who Mañjuśrī is. Mañjuśrī is the representation of the knowing or gnostic mind of all buddhas (sangs rgyas thams cad kyi thug mkhyen pa’i ye shes)!  Mañjuśrī is primarily an idealized and iconized representation of the jñāna or prajñā of all buddhas and bodhisattvas. Avalokiteśvara is primarily an idealized and iconized representation of the karuṇā of all buddhas and bodhisattvas. Vajrapāṇi is primarily an idealized and iconized representation of the balas of all buddhas and bodhisattvas. When one thinks of Mañjuśrī, one thinks of the wisdom and insight of the Buddha or a buddha. When one thinks of Avalokiteśvara, one thinks of the compassion of the Buddha or a buddha. When one thinks of Vajrapāṇi, one thinks of the strength and courage of the Buddha or a buddha. When one invokes the three, one tries to inculcate one’s wisdom, compassion, and strength or courage. Mañjuśrī is thus an icon of the best possible cognitive element. Avalokiteśvara is an icon of the best possible emotive element. Vajrapāṇi is the best possible conative element. Those of us who wish to explore the best kind of cognitive, emotive, and conative elements that are inherent in us, naturally look up to certain idols. Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi happen to be precisely those ahistorical and atemporal idols.

In the world of Tibetan Buddhism, we can find countless triadic historical figures, who have been identified and associated (arbitrarily or otherwise) with Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi. Consider Chos-rgyal-mos-dbon-rnam-gsum, Khu-rngog-’brom-gsum, and so on. Here, too, one can see a purpose, a sense. We just cannot brush such phenomena  as nonsensical aside. Look at the current Dalai Lama. He is traditionally identified and associated with Avalokiteśvara. Unless one is psychically and intellectually blind or impervious, one cannot deny that he does represent Avalokiteśvara. He represents compassion. He stands for compassion. He promotes compassion. He breathes compassion. He is compassion. Regardless of whether he is indeed the rebirth of the previous Dalai Lamas or not, I personally think that it has been such a sheer luck that the search team discovered this A-mdo child. They made him Avalokiteśvara and he became Avalokiteśvara. He became compassion. He is now compassion.

On a personal note, I have had the fortune to receive many teachings from many Tibetan masters. Some are more prominent, some less prominent, but to whom I am nonetheless equally grateful. Among the prominent ones, we used to say, we have three masters who are Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi. mKhan-po ’Jigs-med-phun-tshogs is our Mañjuśrī master; the Dalai Lama our Avalokiteśvara master; and Pad-nor Rin-po-che (actually my main guru) our Vajrapāṇi master. I also have many teachers who are mkhan pos. Amongst the senior-most ones, mKhan-po rNam-grol is our Mañjuśrī mkhan po; mKhan-po Tshe-dbang-rgya-mtsho aka mKhan-po Guru our  Avalokiteśvara mkhan po; mKhan-po Padma-shes-rab our Vajrapāṇi mkhan po. I do not know if they would like this distribution of the role and identity. While each of these masters and teachers is endowed with all three aspects of wisdom, compassion, and integrity, what seem their prominent traits have been used to characterize them in this way. I am sure each one of you are, in your daily life, actually surrounded by your own Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi masters, teachers, friends, and family members.

In short Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi stand for mkhyen brtse nus/dpal gsum. In order to explore and fully exploit the potentialities of one’s own mkhyen brtse nus/dpal gsum, we need some visions, some models. Therefore it makes much more sense to look up to Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi as our models, and not up to those who pop up in the social and other media.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Buddhist Chromology

The study or theory of “color” (Greek khrôma) found in Buddhist sources will be called here “Buddhist chromology.” Some readers may not like this term. But it does not matter. Those who do like my term may simply replace it with “Buddhist theory of color.” Here are some venues of exploration. First, the idea of color found in Abhidharma sources should be explored. Second, the idea of color in Vinaya sources may be explored. For example, what are the permissible colors? Also the practice of dyeing should be discussed. Third, how have colors been conceived of in later Mahāyāna sources? Fourth, the idea of colors in Buddhist Tantric sources should be investigated. In short, an attempt should be made to gain a diachronic and synchronic perspective of the Buddhist idea and use of colors and their significance. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Buddhist Dharmology

Some venues for exploration: Buddhist Dharmology is the Buddhist theory and study of dharma. There are many meanings and usage of the word dharma. According to Vasubandhu, there are ten meanings of dharma (i.e. chos ni shes bya lam dang ni || mya ngan ’das dang yid kyi yul ||, etc.). If it is used in the plural, it usually means “phenomena.” And saddharma refers to the teaching of the Buddha. It is the dharmaratna, one of the Three Jewels. Thus all that is saddharma is dharma but not everything that is dharma is saddharma. Saddharma is said to be of two types: āgamadharma/deśanādharma and adhigamadharma. The first is instructional-scriptural and the latter realizational-experiential. The first is classified in many ways and on the basis of different criteria. Cf. gsung rab yan lag dgu or bcu gnyis, sde snod gsum, mdo sde snod gsum, sngags rgyud sde bzhi; bka’ ’khor lo rim pa gsum, 84,000 dharmaskandhas, etc. The relationship between buddharatna, dharmaratna, and saṃgharatna is interesting. According to some Mahāyāna sources, buddha can manifest as dharma and saṃgha. Each of the three can manifest as all three. Dharmology is as complex as Buddhology. What is criteria of the genuineness or authenticity of dharma in the sense of saddharma? Two kinds of criterion need to be discussed. What is the anti-thesis of dharma? Of course, adharma! Does dharma have any intrinsic value? Does it have any extrinsic value? What is the origin of saddharma? These are some points to reflect upon.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Buddhist Egology

Here are a few personal thoughts on Buddhist egology. Obviously I am not the first person to employ this term. No doubt, the Buddhist theory of anātman is well known. It seems to be uniquely Buddhist. But did the Buddha categorically and apodictically reject an ātman? There seem to be some indications that he was somewhat reticent about the rejection of an ātman. This is obviously because he knew that human beings tend to be categorical, radical, and extreme, and thereby turn even medicine into poison and thereby causing much pain, death, and destruction. The Buddha’s approach of teaching is compared to a tigress’s approach of handling her cubs. She neither holds her cubs too tight in her jaws lest she injures them nor does she hold them too loose lest she drops them. A categorical and apodictic rejection of an ātman would have robbed sentient beings of any basis of ethical-ascetical integrity thereby encouraging them to become ruthless and irresponsible monsters who are bent on ruining oneself and others. A categorical and apodictic proposition of an ātman would have encouraged sentient beings to further bind themselves to a fictitious core of existence and thereby causing them to go on suffering. This apparent reticence or caution or ambivalence of the Buddha seems to have provided his subsequent followers with two alternatives. While most Buddhist schools decided for anātman, Vātsīputrīyas opted for ātman. But unlike the non-Buddhist Ātmavādins, the latter maintained that ātman is actually inexpressible because it can neither be expressed and identified as being identical with or separate from a person’s psychical-physical complex (skandha: phung po). They actually seem to have preferred to call it pudgala. Vātsīputrīyas are said to have regarded this ātman/pudgala to be momentary as opposed to non-Buddhist Ātmavādins, for whom ātman is always eternal. But Vātsīputrīyas’ works on their ātman/pudgala theory have not been transmitted to us and thus what little we know about it is based on reports of it given by its opponents who might not have necessarily portrayed Vātsīputrīyas’ position fairly or accurately. It becomes clear that for Vasubandhu, Vātsīputrīyas’ theory of ātman/pudgala would be problem only if it is said to be “substantially existent” (dravyasat: rdzas su yod pa). If it is accepted to be only “nominally existent” (prajñaptisat: btags par yod pa), it would not be a problem at all.

Most Buddhist schools subsequently proposed anātman. In this regard, we have to ask this question, which was probably asked by past Buddhist philosophers. That is, if the Buddha was reticent about the ātman and anātman, was it because both of them were epistemically wrong or right but he did not specify as such for therapeutic, propaedeutic, or pedagogic reasons or purposes? Most Buddhist schools seem to have taken for granted that the Buddha indeed taught that ātman does not exist, which is the truth, but nonetheless, he was careful because not everyone can digest the truth and benefit from it. From a Prāsaṅgika-Madhyamaka’s perspective, one could perhaps state that there are actually no ‘I’ and ‘Mine’ but nonetheless, the Buddha, in accordance with the conventions known in the world (lokaprasiddha: ’jig rten grags pa), spoke in terms of  ‘I’ and ‘Mine’ for the benefit of sentient beings. Similarly, there are actually no psychical-physical complexes (skandha) and entitative elements (dhātu: khams) but nonetheless, the Buddha, in accordance with the conventions known in the world, spoke of the psychical-physical complexes and entitative elements for the benefit of sentient beings. Likewise, there is actually not even cittamātra, but nonetheless, the Buddha, in accordance with the conventions known in the world, taught the doctrine cittamātra for the benefit of sentient beings. And finally, there is actually not even śūnyatā, but nonetheless the Buddha taught the doctrine śūnyatā for the benefit of sentient beings. The teaching of śūnyatā itself is an antidote against the view that phenomena exists in reality. Once the illness is cured one should no longer cling to even medicine. Thus, let alone hypostatizing ātman, one should not even hypostatize śūnyatā. By hypostatizing the ultimate medicine, one would turn it into poison. If this happens, the illness would become incurable and there is no other cure.    

Schmithausen has pointed out that the term anātman has been interpreted in two ways, namely, as (1) a tatpuruṣa (bdag ma yin pa) “non-Self” and as (b) a bahuvrīhi (bdag med pa) “no-Self” (Schmithausen 2007: 221, n. 27). These two interpretations also seem to serve as doctrinal basis of what are called the two kinds of negation with regard to nairātmya (“non/no-essentiality”) or śūnyatā (“emptiness”), namely, “implicatory negation/exclusion” (ma yin dgag) and “non-implicatory negation/exclusion” (med dgag). I personally feel that these two were not seen as mutually contradictory but rather complementary. That is, if none of the phenomena are ātman (i.e. ma yin dgag), there is no ātman (i.e. med dgag). If none of the persons present in a room is a thief (i.e. ma yin dgag), one could conclude that there is no thief in the room (i.e. med dgag).

The basic Buddhist philosophical argument against the existence of an ātman is that ātman, which is explicitly or implicitly understood to be autonomous, eternal, and unitary core of a person, is impossible because all conditioned phenomena are heteronomous, transient, and multiple. A person or self is nothing but a vague fuzzy and arbitrary label given to a collection and continuum of heterogeneous and heteronomous psychical-physical complexes, and there is such thing as an ātman in the sense of a kind of meta-psychical or meta-physical core or essentiality (ātmya) that underlies a person. Thus all conditioned phenomena are transient. All defied phenomena subjected to or associated with pain, suffering, and discontentment. All phenomena are characterized by non-essentiality and emptiness. The cessation of the suffering and discontentment and their causes alone is characterized by tranquility or quiescence.

There are all kinds or degrees of egotism, egoism, egocentricity, or egomania, such as the seven kinds of ‘ego’ (sapta mānāḥ: nga rgyal rnam pa bdun = nga rgyal bdun): mānaatimānamānātimānaabhimānaūnamānamithyāmāna, and asmimāna. There is also a list of nine. But the root of all seems to be asmimāna, the notion of self or self-identity/self-identification. It is the notion of an ego (ahaṃkāra: ngar ’dzin pa). This is also the basis of “grasping to [someone or something as] mine” (mamakāra: bdag gir ’dzin pa = nga yir ’dzin pa). One grasps to one as “I” and to other persons and things as “mine.” This fuels the motor of one’s saṃsāric engine.

In course of time, there arose two kinds of non/no-essentiality (nairātmya: bdag med pa) corresponding to the two kinds of “essentiality” (ātmya: bdag): non/no-essentiality of person (pudgalanairātmya: gang zag gi bdag med pa) and non/no-essentiality of phenomena (dharmanairātmya: chos kyi bdag med pa).

The classical argumentative reasoning for pudgalanairātmya is the “sevenfold analysis of a chariot,” that is, the rnam bdun shing rta’i rigs pa. Candrakīrti’s employment of it is more popular in Tibet. But this seems to go back in some form already to earlier sources such as the Millindapañha and Vajjirasutta.

The doctrines of pudgalanairātmya and dharmanairātmya have obviously been seen not only as being key to soteric goals but also to therapeutic purposes. The therapeutic value of the doctrine of pudgalanairātmya seems to be gained through the depersonalization of phenomena. That is, the realization that there is no pudgala (“person”) involved in whatever terrible and horrible happens in the world would help one cope with the world. Persons and their actions, too, are mere phenomena (dharmamātra: chos tsam) determined through constellation and interaction of causes and conditions. If this does not make sense, just compare how humans psychologically deal with pudgala-made (i.e. men-made) and dharma-made (i.e. natural) disasters!   

The most important critique against the nairātmya theory is the lack of an agent or bearer for the karmic and salvific mechanism. For Buddhists, there is no need for an owner or bearer of karmic and salvific consequences. These just take place like a wild fire in an empty village. Just as one employs the term “chariot” so does one employ the term “I” or “self.” In other words, there is no problem even for the Buddha and philosophers such as Nāgārjuna to resort to the convention of the first person singular “I” (or “self”). This convention is used, so to speak, naively and analytically. Some scholars call this “mere I” (nga tsam). Some Buddhist responses to the critiques, however, had far reaching consequences. It gave rise to many doctrines and ideas that were not directly related to Buddhist soteriology.

Buddhist sources recognize two kinds of ātman or rather notions of ātman. The first notion of ‘I’ is instinctive, inborn, and natural (lhan skyes). We are born with a notion of ‘I.’ It is  erroneous and arbitrary. But apparently this is of existential necessity. ‘I’ is the spatial and temporal point of reference for everything. Ironically, this vague, feeble, blurry, erroneous, and arbitrary notion of ‘I’ is the center of one’s universe. That is, a premature loss of personal identity; split-personality; multiple-personality complex; and the like, would lead to an identity crisis in our saṃsāric existence, thereby rendering us unfit for taking up any kind of responsibility. The second notion of ‘I’ is the notion of a meta-psychical and meta-physical ātman acquired through indoctrination. It is conceptually constructed (kun brtags) and artificial. Although this artificial notion of ‘I’ is certainly erroneous, it is not the actual cause of our saṃsāric existence and thus the cognition that such an ātman does not exist will not free us from our saṃsāric bondage. The instinctive notion of ‘I’ is the actual culprit. It is responsible for our saṃsāric bondage. Gaining direct jñānaic access to the non-existence of such a ‘self’ would uproot the root cause of saṃsāric bondage thereby causing one’s freedom from saṃsāric shackles. The second notion of ‘I’ cannot exist without the first notion of ‘I’ but the first notion of ‘I’ can exist without the second notion of ‘I’.        

Later trans/ultra-phenomenal reality (e.g. tathatā and tathāgatagrabha) came to be called ātman, not in the sense of traditional non-Buddhist Ātmavādins’ theory of ātman, but in a sense that transcends the two extremes or poles of ātman and anātman. The trans/ultra-phenomenal reality that transcends the dichotomy of ātman and anātman has been described as the ātmapāramitā (“perfection of self”). The transcendence of what has been referred to as the extremes of ātman and anātman is not limited to cataphatic Mahāyāna strands of Buddhism (e.g. in Tathāgatagarbhic scriptures) but also found in apophatic strands of Mahāyāna strands of Buddhism (e.g. in the Kāśyapaparivarta). These, in a way, are continuation of the approach of the Buddha as insinuated by the analogy of a tigress’s handling of her cubs.