Saturday, 29 June 2013

Buddhist Eschatology

According to a dictionary, “Eschatology” is said to be “the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.” Etymologically eschatology said to be derived from Greek eschatos/eschatē/eschaton meaning “last” and logia “theory/study.” I would like to tentatively define it as a kind of “theory of the final destiny of the world and its inhabitants,” according to any religious or non-religious ideology or philosophy. Some of us might object to using terms such as eschatology in the Buddhist context with the argument the term and concept are alien to Buddhism. I do not necessary buy this argument. If one writes in Sanskrit, Pāli, Tibetan, or Chinese, one might forgo using such terms but as long as we attempt to express in a European language, I think we cannot avoid employing these terms. Sometimes, such terms might even help us to capture Buddhist ideas (for which there is not fixed technical term) in a precise, pregnant, and crystal-clear manner. As far as I am concerned, we do not seem to have, for example, a Sanskrit or Tibetan term for eschatology. Admittedly, utter care should be taken that the terms we employ are clearly defined so as to minimize wrong associations and ambiguities. Needless to state that terms are like the proverbial finger that points to the moon.

There is a Wikipedia entry on “Buddhist eschatology,” which is, however, pretty poor. “Buddhist eschatology” would be like Buddhology. Every Buddhist system or scripture might have its own ideas of eschatology. The challenge is, therefore, how best can we gain a diachronic and synchronic view of Buddhist eschatology. The kind of eschatology that a Buddhist system proposes or presupposes would depend on the theories of cosmology, cosmogony, soteriology, Buddhology, ontology, epistemology, gnoseology, and what I call “Sentientology” (i.e. theory of sentient beings) that that particular system would presuppose or propose. So we will have to first try to trace, examine and determine eschatological ideas found in the most conservative form of Buddhism and then study how these ideas have developed. This is obviously not an easy task.

Here are some avenues of exploration: (a) What are the ideas of evolution and devolution (and dissolution) of the external and internal world? (b) What forces sustain external and internal world? (c) Can one speak of an individual or personal eschatology and a universal eschatology in Buddhism? (d) Where do the Buddha and his teaching (or more so their disappearance from the world) fit into the broader picture of Buddhist eschatology? (e) How absolute are the Buddhist eschatological ideas? (f) Is an absolute end of the world and its inhabitants at all possible? Is nirvāṇa the eschatological absolute (LS 1969: 159, referring to de la Vallée Poussin)? If so, is nirvāṇa possible on a universal scale, or is it possible only on a personal level? What about the ideas that buddhas never pass away, and dharma would never disappear? Is emptying of saṃsāra possible? What about sems can gsar skye? 

On “Variatio delectat” in Buddhism

Schmithausen once, in the context of discussing die Textgeschichte, Ideengeschichte, Kompositionsgeschichte of the concept of the four smṛtyupasthānas, has stated (LS 1976: 247): “Die kanonischen Texte des Buddhismus neigen ja dazu, parallele Darlegungen — der Einprägsamkeit und Eindringlichkeit zuliebe — möglichst gleichförmig zu gestalten; unserer ‘variatio delectat’ gilt dort nicht.” As always, a delicious, small and yet significant observation! 

Upon being asked why she always joins her fingers so as to form a kind of rectangular shape, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, replied “maybe because of ‘eine gewisse Liebe zur Symetrie’ (a certain affinity for symmetry).” Possibly for Buddhist authors, too, asymmetry meant anomaly, abnormality, irregularity, inconsistency, and so on. An asymmetrical or irregular original formulation might face a greater risk of getting regularized and thus distorted in course of the transmission than a text that has been initially regular. But a Tibetan dictum of guiding principle for the scribes and calligraphers states that “purity” (dag pa), that is, “correctness” is the predominant criterion, which would overrule all other criteria, such as “beauty” (mdzes pa), “symmetry” (snyoms pa), and “rapidity” (mgyogs pa). The absence or presence of the concept of variatio delectat in Buddhism can be thus also useful for understanding Buddhist “Axiology” (particularly aesthetical values). But what in Buddhism can be said to have an aesthetical value, if at all, and why? The idea and sense of “purity,” in my view, seems to be crucial here. It is, so to speak, a body or mind that is in “equilibrium” or is symmetrical is also “wholesome/healthy” and “pure” and hence “beautiful” or “delicious.”

Wednesday, 19 June 2013


So it turned out that we had to participate a podium discussion following a wonderful lecture on “Pleasure and the Emotions in Tantric Saiva Soteriology” (18.6.2013) by Prof. Dr. Alexis Sanderson (Spalding Professor of Eastern Religion and Ethics, All Souls College, Oriental Studies, University, Oxford). We were supposed to discuss “emotions.” The discussions made me think of emotions in a Buddhist doctrinal context.

§1. Which word in Sanskrit or Tibetan would best express what one calls “emotion”? Would tshor ba be a word pretty close to it though never coextensive with it? What about lus kyi tshor ba? Is it emotion? Perhaps all types of nyams (rasa) can certainly be called emotions.  

§2. Can emotions or emotions-like sems byung can be a starting point? Of the many nyon mongs pas, many would certainly be emotions, right?

§3. How should one, if one is compelled to do so, define emotion from a Buddhist perspective?

§4. How does emotions arise? Think of: phra rgyas spang pa ma yin dang || yul ni nye bar gnas pa dang || tshul bzhin ma yin yid byed gsum || tshogs pa las ni nyon mongs skye || (adapted by Mi-pham from the Abhidharmakośa, and cited from memory). This refers to only negative emotions but it would apply also for positive ones.

§5. What would be the status and role of emotions in Buddhism? Certainly positive emotions would be better than negative ones? Can we say that there are also neutral emotions in Buddhism? Perhaps? If so, neutral would be better than the negative. But positive emotions alone would not be sufficient for causing the soterical breakthrough because salvation in Buddhism is not an emotional episode but rather an cognitive one.

§6. Some negative emotions (such as rāga) are said to be compatible with bodhyaṅga? What about dveṣa? I would think never! What about dveṣa in sgrol ba practices? Not even there! 

§7. Is a buddha or the Buddha said to possess emotions?  Well, it would depend on the definition of emotion and the Buddhology according to various Buddhist systems. 

§8. What about devotion? There would be all kinds of devotions but generally positive. Ultimately : rgyal la sogs la chags pa phra.

§9. For Chos-thams-cad-rab-tu-mi-gnas-par-smra ba, all emotions will have to go away in the end.