Friday, 31 January 2014

Buddhist Soteriological Exclusivism

Apologies for not providing any source for this entry because it is just for collecting my thoughts. I have been interested in the idea of “soteriological exclusivism” in Buddhism for quite sometime and have discussed in some detail elsewhere. So I may not repeat it here. A careful, comprehensive, and systematic treatment of the theme is still wanting. By “soteriological exclusivism” (in the Buddhist context), I mean a kind of theory or doctrine according which one cannot obtain release from saṃsāra   (and obtain Arhatship or Buddhahood) without realizing the true reality of some kind or without realizing it to a minimum required degree (Wangchuk 2007; RZ1: on thabs shes; gNubs-chen, bSam gtan mig sgron, p 259: thabs dang shes rab ma rogs pas || ma grol khams gsum ’khor ba yin || [citing the rGyad bcu pa]). This is actually a quite a significant, complex, and knotty issue. We will have to leave up to the scholars specializing in Theravāda or Sino-Japanese Buddhism to inform us regarding the issue of “soteriological exclusivism” in these traditions. My study concerns primarily ideas of “soteriological exclusivism” found in Indian sources and their interpretations by various schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

(a) To be sure, the issue is naturally pertinent to only those Buddhist doctrines or theories that deal with soteriology. Most Buddhist traditions would perhaps agree that Buddhism also teaches ways of obtaining a fortunate destiny in saṃsāra. In other words, Buddhism is not all, though primarily, about obtaining Arhatship and Buddhahood. I argue, however, that Buddhism, like perhaps all major world religions, is unique because of its unique soteriology. A form of Buddhism that has no soteriology would be no Buddhism at all.

(b) Here comes the first difficulty. Historically speaking, Buddhist tradition eventually split up into eighteen (or more) Nikāyic schools. Are all these schools authentic? Importantly, this question is tantamount to the question as to whether one can, by following any one of these eighteen or more Nikāyic schools, obtain at least Arhatship. How do various Tibetan Buddhist scholars answer this question? This is the first venue for exploration. While most Tibetan scholars world not even doubt the Buddhist status of most of these schools, the ability of the doctrine of Vātsīputrīya school to lead one to Arhatship becomes an issue. How do the various Tibetan scholars view this issue? This is fascinating.

(c) Fundamentally in the Madhyamaka context, as I already suggest elsewhere, Tibetan positions seem to fall into two distinct camps: (1) one that follows either- everything-or-nothing kind of interpretation, and (2) each-according-to-his/her-capacity kind of interpretation. The former is represented mainly by the anti-Yogācāric interpreters of Madhyamaka (e.g. dGe-lugs-pas) and the latter by the pro-Yogācāric interpreters of Madhyamaka (e.g. non-dGe-lugs-pas). Each group has its own arguments. The issue now comes to be differentiated. The issue is no longer whether a Buddhist system x is capable of leading one to the soteriological goal but rather whether that system is “independently” able to lead one to the soteriological goal. For the former camp, the only system that is “independently” able to lead one to the soteriological goal is the Prāsaṅgika-Madhyamaka school.

(d) The next significant issue is how (or in what respects) is Mantric Mahāyāna superior to Sūtric Mahāyāna and whether the latter form of Mahāyāna is capable of leading one to the Mahāyānic soteriological goal, namely, the Buddhahood. The rNying-pa-pas are divided on this. According to one strand (i.e. Zur-lugs), the answer is in the negative. According another strand (i.e. Rong-lugs), the answer is in the affirmative. But even the Rong-lugs (RZ1: 202) proposes a kind of soteriological exclusivism, that is, there is no way of becoming a buddha without realizing the great reality of equality or homogeneity (mnyam pa chen po’i don). Is this also taught by the Sūtric Mahāyāna? If so, how and why should Mantric Mahāyāna excel Sūtric Mahāyāna? If not, it would be impossible for one to attain Buddhahood by following the Sūtric Mahāyāna. These are yet some additional venues for exploration.

(e) For most Sa-skya-pas and dGe-lugs-pas, Mantric views does not excel Sūtric (Madhyamic) view. This is usually the position in a Sūtric context. But in a Mantric context, the issue becomes complicated. How about Sa-skya-pa’s ’khor ’das dbyer med kyi lta ba? Is this view identical with Sūtric (Madhyamic) view? For the dGe-lugs-pa, there is yet another issue. Is Sūtric Mahāyāna able to bring about saṃbhogakāya? If not, Sūtric Mahāyāna is after all not adequate in bringing about the full qualities of a buddha, and one must rely on the sexual yogic initiation offered by only the highest Yoga system.  

(f) Last but not the least, there is yet another venue for exploration. More or less every Tibetan Buddhist school associates itself with what it believes is its highest doctrine. Perhaps one might subsume all of these highest doctrines into the “Three Great Ones” (Chen-po-gsum), namely, dBu-ma-chen-po, Phyag-rgya-chen-po, and rDzogs-pa-chen-po. The most fascinating issue here is how the proponents of each of these Three Great Ones view the Great Ones of other competing schools. The elements of soteriological exclusivism among Tibetan Buddhist schools become very conspicuous in such contexts. For example, from a radical dGe-lugs-pa perspective, gZhan-stong-dbu-ma-chen-po falls outside the domain of the Buddha’s doctrine.



Monday, 27 January 2014

A Buddhist Theory of Anamnesis?

One may say it is needless and reckless to bring up etic words such as Greek anamnēsis (“remembrance”) to theorize emic Buddhist concepts. It maybe, but as a Buddhist theorist or a theoretician rather than a practician (by the way, this word is attested), I succumb to my temptation to do so. I believe, I have my personal reasons for doing so. Whatever and whenever I write or express anything abstract or philosophical, I can only try to do so in my acquired language, and never in my mother tongue. (My mother tongue, by the way, is not Tibetan or rDzong-kha. People who speak the language call their own language Tshangs-lha. There is no Tshang-lha script and Tshang-lha-medium schools.) Some would pity me. Oh, how sad, it must be terrible not to be able to express thoughts or things in his one’s own mother tongue! I have certainly disadvantages but never feel disadvantaged. If I knew and if I could, I would have learnt any language that I believe could help me express complex ideas in a possibly precise, nuanced, and pregnant manner. So long as I believe that a term can best capture or express a Buddhist idea, I would not, as a principle, refrain from using any word, be it etic or emic. Of course, care should be taken to avoid using terms that bring along wrong connotations and associations, which, I believe can be precluded by clearly defining the terms that one uses. In the end, terms and languages are mere conventions, and are like the proverbial finger that points to the moon.

I learn that the term “anamnesis” is used in Christianity, philosophy, and medicine, and in each case it seems to have a distinct meaning or usage. Now I propose to use it in the Buddhist philosophical context. For doing this, I will take its literal meaning “remembrance” as the point of departure. By “Buddhist anamnesis,” I wish to express the Buddhist idea of anusmṛti (rjes su dran pa) of which there seems to several kinds (usually six) and the idea of dhāraṇī. A proper understanding of the history and philosophy of anusmṛti and dhāraṇī might—and just might—help us to understand not only a piece of the history of Buddhism itself but also about a piece of the philosophy of Buddhism. I do not wish to delve into the role of the idea of buddhānusmṛti in the development of Buddhism, which I, believe is, more known. The role of the idea of vidyā (“cognitive formula”), mantra (“protective formula”) and dhāraṇī (“recollective formula”) is also being increasingly recognized.

What is perhaps hardly known is the idea that the dhāraṇīs (like the bodhisattvabhūmis and pāramitās) are also regarded as the “great mothers” or “great feminine consorts” (yum chen mo) of buddhas (RZ2: 492): “These are yum (i.e. “mothers” and “female consorts”) because they procreate buddhas and engage [in/with them]” (de nyid sangs rgyas rnams bskyed pa dang spyod pas yum mo). Buddhists may often be confounded to see or know that Mahāyāna Buddhism, be it in its Mantric or non-Mantric form, is riddled (or some might even think “infested”) with depictions of all kinds of male and female deities; some that look pleasing and pacifying whereas others that appear unpleasing and terrifying. We cannot deny this fact. But how do we explain these phenomena? Proposing them to be historical figures like the historical Buddha himself would be as ludicrous as denying them together as foreign elements that complacent Mahāyānists incorporated into Buddhism and hence as having nothing to do Buddhism at all. I personally believe that we—again regardless of whether we see such developments as desirable or as aberration (Fehlentwicklung)—could offer a historically plausible explanation. For example, it would be difficult, if not impossible to defend that a historical person Mañjuśrī and Mahākāla lived in a certain period and in a certain place. In what place and in what century should they have lived (if they lived)? Were they Indians, Tibetans, Chinese, or Central Asians? The idea of Mañjuśrī, for example, I think, can certainly be traced. This is not just a position of a hypercritical and hypocritical (and what some might think self-serving) academician. I recall mKhan-po ’Jigs-med-phun-tshogs once telling us: “If you think Mañjuśrī is a person eternally holding a sword and utpala, you have missed the point.” Mañjuśrī is to be understood, so to speak, as an icon, a representation or crystallization, or, an iconic figure that stands for the embodiment of the insights (or cognitive aspects) of all buddhas and bodhisattvas (or if you will simply all beings).

Thus far I have believed that only the “perfection of insight” (prajñāpāramitā: shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyi pa) has been depicted as the “Great Mother” (Yum-chen-mo). But all ten pāramitās and bhūmis, a host of other feminine nouns which express central Mahāyāna concepts have been considered as “great mothers” and as “goddesses” (RZ2: 491–492). What seems to be desideratum, in my view, is to take all possible items/topics/categories (and subcategories) found in the Abhidharmic literature and see how these very items have been described in Prajñāpāmitā literature and then study how and with what/which (female or male) deity each item has been identified. As far as I can see, the five Tathāgatas, the eight Bodhisattvas, and all the female and male deities we see in Mantric literature are explained as the pure nature or purity of a particular phenomenon included in the phenomena of ground (gzhi)—five skandhas, twelve āyatanas, eighteen dhātus—and of the path (lam) including 37 bodhyaṅgas. I don’t know if this theory has ever been proposed by anyone thus far but I speculate that grammatical gender of a word that expresses a certain topic could have opened up the possibility for the eventual personification and deitification of all phenomena. Rong-zom-pa  (RZ2: 491–492) seems to suggest that one of the reasons why most of the phenomena have been considered “goddesses” (lha mo) and “mothers or consorts” (yum) is their female grammatical gender (mo’i rtags). The fact the upāya is grammatically masculine seems to have provided a possibility for one to call it “father” (and not “mother”) and the feminine grammatical gender of prajñā seems to have provided one with a possibility to call it “mother” (and not “father”). One feels that in a language where there is no grammatical gender, such a creative development would not have taken place, at least not so conveniently or readily. The grammatical gender or sex by itself and already seems to imply personification. That is, grammatically, prajñāpāramitā can only be a “she,” which is de facto a “female person.” It is said that one cannot become a buddha without prajñāpāramitā; prajñāpāramitā is said to procreate a buddha and thus she is said to be a “mother.” She is an extraordinary “mother” who procreates supernal awakened beings. The elements of femininity and divinity seem to merge into one in this way. So we see Prajñāpāramitā depicted as a female deity. No one, not even the tradition, would take the deity Prajñāpāramitā as a historical person allocable to a certain time and place. And this, in my view, is crucial for understanding the entire of world of Sūtric and Mantric Buddhism filled with various types of deities.

Now returning to “Buddhist Anamnesis,” some of the key terms and concepts that need to be explored are of anusmṛti (rjes su dran pa) and smṛti (dran pa). The six anusmtis as recorded, for example, in the Mahāvyutpatti, are buddhānusmti, dharmānusmti, saghānusmti, śīlānusmti, tyāgānusmti, and devatānusmti. Instead of śīlānusmti, Rong-zom-pa has ānāpānānusmti (Wangchuk 2007: 302). “Not forgetting bodhicitta (bodhicittāsapramoa), too, is important. From a viewpoint of axiology and epistemology, I think that although “recollection” or “remembrance” would be seen as instrumentally valid and valuable, but epistemically be considered invalid. That is, dran pa cannot be a tshad ma and it is not a tshad ma! From a viewpoint of psychology, dran pa would essentially be considered a wholesome mental factor (kuśala: dge ba), and depending on the stage of its development, it would it is one of the five faculties (dbang po lha) or five kinds of strength (stobs lnga). It can be defiled (zag pa dang bcas pa) as in my case or undefiled in the case of a bodhisattva on the second bhūmi, for instance. From a standpoint of ontology, how far can dran pa subsist? According to those who maintain that a buddha is nothing but purified dharmadhātu, dran pa, which is a cognitive element, would cease when its cause and conditions ultimately cease at the stage of a buddha.

As for dhāraṇī (gzungs or gzungs ma), we can find the concept of it in both Sūtric and Mantric forms of Buddhism. It may be translated as “mnemonic formula.” In contrast to mantra—which may be rendered as “magical formula” or perhaps better as “protective formula,” particularly considering its speculative etymology shes skyob “that which protects the mind”—and vidyā (rig sngags or rig ma), which may be translated as “cognitive formula,” dhāraṇī is a “recollective formula” or “retentive formula.” Just as a mathematical or chemical formula captures, encapsulates, expresses, and retains a great deal of information in just a few letters or numbers, so does dhāraṇī seems to be conceived of as a formula that captures, encapsulates, expresses, and retains a great deal of information about Buddhist theories and practice. One can easily understand how and why it can be maintained to carry out to play the role of the Buddha or a buddha and his activities in the world. In a way, it is as though dhāraṇī were a kind of chip or “memory card” that conserves, preserves, and reserves crucial information about the Buddhist doctrine for the present and future generations. Just as a mathematical or chemical formula might appear to a lay person nonsensical, gibberish, or, unintelligible, if we do not understand its nature, function, history, and philosophy, dhāraṇī might appear to be nonsensical, gibberish, or, unintelligible. But worth bearing in mind is not everything that appears to be hocus-pocus must necessarily be hocus-pocus. Again we may not believe in the actual efficacy of dhāraṇī but the question that we have to ask is whether we really understand the idea of/behind dhāraṇī.

In Mantric Buddhism, dhāraṇī came to be called a “Great Mother” (yum chen mo), “a goddess” (lha mo), or “a female consort” (yum or gzungs ma). It is perhaps only too apt to identify and personify dhāraṇī as a female principle or female person. With all due respect to the “male principles” and “male persons” (and with all possible exceptions), one does seem to get an impression in real life that “female elements/persons” tend to be more “protective,” “retentive,” and “attentive” of whatever or whoever is entrusted to them. In this connection, I find the idea of entrusting (a Tantric scripture) to a woman (bud med la yongs su gtad pa) seems to be very interesting. If I were Vajradhara and if I had a choice to entrust my tantra to a man or a woman, I, too, would chose to entrust it to the latter. Fellow men, I mean no offence to you! There would be no guarantee, of course, but the chances that my tantra will be protected and thus survives a little longer is perhaps a bit greater!


Friday, 24 January 2014

Buddhology-Related Typology

Rong-zom-pa (RZ2: 38) seems to recognize the following typology of buddha:

(a) ontological buddha (sc. dharmatā = buddha)
(b) gnoseological buddha (sc. advayajñāna = buddha)
(c) physiological buddha (sc. rūpakāya = buddha)

He maintains that this concept is found in Sūtric scriptures. Note that, as pointed out in Almogi 2009: 224, n. 121, for Rong-zom-pa, one of the arguments for positing that all phenomena are already/primordially/inherently/immanently awakened is that all dharmas can impossibly be not buddha if dharmatā is buddha. And for him, dharmas and dharmatā are essentially connected.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Buddhism on Epilation/Depilation!

Just a random thought on how Buddhism would view the custom/practice of “hair removal.” (a) Of course, we know that according to the Vinaya, monks and nuns must shave their heads and beards/moustaches. It is said to be a sign of “renunciation” (or Vinayic asceticism). Lay Indians usually must have kept long hair and moustaches. But monks and nuns are not supposed to shave their other body hair, mainly, pubic hair. Perhaps shaving pubic hair was rather seen as related to sexuality and sensuality. Lay people in ancient India seem to have shaved even pubic hair. Thus the rule in this case seems to have been the reverse of the custom of the laity. (b) If I remember correctly, Sa-paṇ discusses the issue of shaving “eye-brows.” According to some Vinayic traditions, it is a transgression to shave eye-brows, according to others, it is a transgression not to shave eyebrows. (c) Now what about the case in Mantric forms of Buddhism? According to the Subāhuparipṛcchātantra (cited by Rong-zom-pa) and which is said to be a Mantric Vinaya, prohibits shaving of any body-hair (p. 297): byin pa dag dang mchan khung spu rnams ni || lag pas kyang ni btog par mi bya zhing || me yis mi bsreg spu gris breg mi bya || spu med bya phyir sman gyis mi byug go ||. Interestingly, this text reveals several ways of hair-removal and various kind of hair that people must have removed. Removing hair with fire (for example facial hair or hair in and around nose and ears) is perhaps not uncommon amongst some Middle-Eastern or Kurdish/Persian barbers. The text also suggests that people even used hair-removing ointments or creams! 

For Mantric practitioners (particularly when they are in strict retreat), shaving hair would be an act of artificiality and vanity, or at least a waste of time. What happens if such a Mantric practitioner happens to be someone ordained? In Tibetan traditions, there seems to be at least two positions or rather practices. Most monks and nuns would at least shave their heads even when staying in strict retreat but by all means once the retreat is over. But some bKa’-brgyud monks seem to keep their long hair even after the Mantric retreat is over. During my stay in Dharamsala, I often met a bKa’-brgyud yogin, a dge tshul who wore normal monk’s robes but kept long matted hair. Once while attending the fourth-nightly confession ceremony (gso sbyong) in the mTshan-nyid-grwa-tshang, I happened to see that yogin. He, too, was attending the gso sbyong, wearing chos gos, like everyone else in the gathering but with his usual long matted yogic hair. With such abhor, one dGe-lugs monk tugged at his chos gos, and whispered contemptuously: “What are you doing here, you disgrace to the Buddha’s doctrine?” (’dir ga re byed kyi yod, bstan pa’i zhabs ’dren khyod). While my heart ached for the yogin, I could also understand the monk's horror (though not his contempt) at seeing a yogin (clad as a monk) with long matted hair attending the gso sbyong!

Monday, 20 January 2014

Eternal Oblivion?


Can nirvāṇa in a conservative sense called “eternal oblivion”? In a sense perhaps, one could.

Cf. “Oblivion, or eternal oblivion, is the philosophical concept that the individual self ‘experiences’ a state of permanent non-existence after death. Belief in oblivion denies the belief that there is an afterlife (such as a HeavenPurgatory or Hell), or any state of existence or consciousness after death. The belief in ‘eternal oblivion’ stems from the idea that the brain creates the mind; therefore, when the brain dies, the mind ceases to exist. Some reporters describe this state as ‘nothingness.’ Many people who believe in an eternal oblivion, believe that the concept of an afterlife is scientifically impossible. Such views are typically held by atheists” (Wiki, s.v.).

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Buddhist Temporalogy and Spaceology

Apologies for employing weird terms such as “temporalogy” and “spaceology” but I do need some terms to express the ideas of “study/theory of time” and “study/theory of space.” But nowadays, one looks up for any conceivable word in the world-wide-web and lo, you find that someone somewhere in some context has already employed the term. If we remind ourselves that terms are like the proverbial finger that points to the moon, I am sure we can be quite relaxed about using any term that helps us to best express an idea.

To begin with, Buddhist philosophy does not seem to deny the ideas of time and space. Time in the sense of duration (i.e. span of time including moments, days, weeks, months, seasons, years, decades, centuries, and eons, all of which can be subsumed under the so-called dus mtha’i skad cig ma and bya rdzogs kyi skad cig ma), time in the sense of past, present, and future, even of a fourth dimension of time called the dus bzhi mnyam pa nyid (mostly popular in rNying-ma philosophy). The expression phyogs  bcu dus bzhi is quite common. Space here is more in the sense of “spatial direction” (not necessary in the sense used, for example, in astrophysics). And there is also the notion of good time and bad time, good space and bad space.

What interests me and provokes me to write this entry is the question of the nature of time and space as understood by Tibetan Buddhist thinkers. Many years ago, I recall sitting under the Bodhi tree (i.e. on the spot the Buddha became a buddha), not because I was at the brink of getting awakened myself but because I was there trying to make aspirational wishes with thousands of fellow Tibetan Buddhist monks. One day, as is common, we received donations of copies of certain Buddhist texts. Among them was the Thub chog byin rlabs gter mdzod, that is, a buddha-sādhana, by Mi-pham. During one break, I was reading through it, particularly the text printed in small letters, which is meant as a kind of theoretical explanation of the text one is supposed to recite. As a typical Buddhist logician and epistemologist, Mi-pham offered a syllogism, which I paraphrase approximately as follows: “If one thinks that the Buddha is in front of you, he would by all means be there in front of you, because the Body of the Buddha, being a Body of Gnosis, has no limitation/discrimination (nye ring) with regard to space and time.” He then goes on to cite some authoritative scriptures. What he means that we cannot say that the Buddha was there and then and not here and now. This idea is linked with the Buddhist idea of the notion of self. To begin with, notion of self according to Buddhism is a mistaken notion because there is no corresponding content of that notion. But interestingly, notion of self is the center of one’s identity and existence. It is the center of one’s universe. It is the point of reference for everything. It is particularly a point of reference for the notion of space and time. This notion of self allows us to make an existential distinction between “myself” and “others,” a (temporal) distinction between “now” and “then,” and a (spatial) distinction between “here” and “there.” Without the notion of self and when it disintegrates, all these distinctions seem no longer possible. And indeed for the Buddha or a buddha, who has eliminated the notion of self, what would time and space mean?

Rong-zom-pa, my Tibetan intellectual mentor, also offers an interesting idea on time and space. He, in his commentary of the *Guhyagarbhatntra (p. 173) states that time is sems kyi snang ba (“appearance/projection/representation of [one’s] mind,” and as long as one does not obtain complete command over one’s mind, time and space would “appear to be fixed/definite” (nges par snang) but once one attains complete command over one’s mind, time and space would “appear as one wishes (i.e. arbitrarily)” (ci dgar snang).


Just like some spots or points in space are considered sacred so are points in time (i.e. hours, day, month, and year) are considered special, sacred, and suitable for certain activity. In the Sarvabuddhasamayogatantra (RZ2: 527), 8th, 14th, and 15th are considered “special times” (khyad par gyi dus).