Sunday, January 10, 2016

Buddhist Hellology (cf. Buddhist Tartarology)

The term “hellology” can be found in the internet but does not seem to be attested in standard reference works. But never mind, I will use it here anyway in the sense of “the theory or study of hells.” Those of us new to Buddhism are often surprised/disappointed to know that Buddhism, too, has a concept of hell. Those of us who have been dealing with Buddhism for quite sometime either trivialize or banalize it away as a scare-mongering strategy or tactic of the Buddhists, or, rationalize it away somehow. Whether or not we like the idea of hell in Buddhism but we do have the idea of hell in Buddhism and hence we have to have a kind of “Buddhist hellology.” To begin with, Buddhist hellology would be a part of Buddhist cosmology (in the narrower sense of the “study or theory of the (external) world”). According to Buddhist sources, there are five or six kinds of worldly destiny/destination (or forms of existence) that a sentient being would land up. These fall into two sections: higher sphere of existence and lower sphere of existence. Importantly, neither are all higher spheres heavens or celestial realms nor are all lowers realms hell realms. Human realm belongs to the higher sphere but is still a human (though not always a humane) realm and not a celestial realm. Animal realms and realms of hungry ghosts belong to lower spheres but are not hell realms. Hell realms are the lowest in the domain of worldly existence. But there is not just one kind and level of hells. There are eighteen hellish realms. It will be imprecise to call hells in the Buddhist context as “Inferno” or “the infernal regions” because not hells are hot burning hells. There are cold hells too. Also the word “netherworld” would not suit our context because not all realms in the “netherworld” are hells. Importantly, there is neither the concept of “eternal damnation” nor of “eternal punishment.” No form of existence according to Buddhism is ever eternal (not even the deepest hell) and nobody can eternally punish anybody. But for pedagogical or didactic purpose, one might observe metaphors of punishment enacted during a theatrical performance. Pleasures or pains, which would be the consequences of one’s positive or negative attitudes and actions, are conceived of as being self-regulatory according to the karmic mechanism. Neutral attitude and actions, though possible, are karmically inconsequential. The depth of the hells and the intensity and duration of pain and suffering are obviously conceived of as being directly proportional to the gravity of the negativity of one’s karmic deed committed and accumulated. The most important cause for one’s birth in the hell realm is the deed committed and accumulated out of hatred, maliciousness, or malevolence. No bodhisattva would like to teach a sentient how to be born (karmically) in the hell, but if one insists he might tell us that the surest way to guarantee a place in the hell is to commit as much hatred- and maliciousness-motivated deeds as possible! There is also an interesting idea in Tantric Buddhism that there are only two destinations for a Mantric practitioner (like a snake in bamboo tube): one either attains Vajradharahood or takes birth in the hell. This hell is often called *vajranāraka (rdo rje dmyal ba). Although the Sanskrit source is not known to me, the Tibetan word can be found in some works in the bKa’ ’gyur and bsTan ’gyur. It is also used, for example, by gNubs-chen in his verses of epilogue of his bSam ta mig sgron (p. 503). The analogy of a snake in a bamboo pipe, I remember, has been used by A-ro Ye-shes-’byung-gnas in his Theg chen rnal ’byor la ’jug pa (Katja Thiesen’s Magister Thesis). It can also be found in what is known as the Jo bo’i gsung ’bum. See also the Bai ro’i rgyud ’bum (vol. 1, p. 288.5). The question is whether *vajranāraka is just another name for the lowest of the eighteen hells, or is it a separate hell, that is, one at the bottom of all hells. I think Tibetan scholars discuss this. What happens when our world dissolves? The hell habitats themselves will be dissolved but those hell inhabitants, who have not yet exhausted their karmic consequences, will be automatically be transferred to hells in other world systems. I thought Schmithausen has suggested, I do not remember where, that this problem of relocating hell inhabitants, who have not yet exhausted their karmic consequences, may have contributed to the development of Buddhist cosmology. Need to check! One last question: Do all Buddhist sources or systems really believe that such hells exist literally (and not just metaphorically)? What Śāntideva says might appeal to some modern rationality-inclined individuals, namely, that the damsels in the hell realms, who lure one to suffering, are actually nothing but projections of one’s unwholesome mind. But then is it also not said that our human realm, too, is just a projection of our mind? PS. (a) Si-tu-paṇ-chen in his bKa’ ’gyur dkar chag (p. 27) alludes to rdo rje khab rtse’i dmyal ba (according to the Kālacakra tradition), being the eighth hell. (b) See also Wangchuk 2009 (i.e. “A Relativity Theory of the Purity and Validity of Perception in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism”), where I also point out that, somewhat like what we find in John Milton’s poem, according to some Buddhist sources, too, one can make a heaven out of hell and hell out of heaven.

Buddhist Tartarology (cf. Buddhist Hellology)

Some of us might think: What the hell is “Tartarology” and what the hell is “Buddhist Tartarology”? Well, it is supposed to be a doctrine concerning hell and punishment in the afterlife. “Buddhist Tartarology” may be defined as the Buddhist conception and perception of hell (naraka: dmyal ba). Those of us who are new to Buddhist ideas might be surprised to learn that there is a concept of hell also in Buddhism. Regardless of whether we like or dislike the idea of hell (naraka: dmyal ba) in Buddhism, it is a fact. All we can try to do is to understand it and explain it as accurately as we can. Some random points regarding Buddhist Tartarology may be made simply as a venue for exploration. First, the conception of hell in Buddhism seems to be connected with the Buddhist concept of cosmology, which is turn is taught within the context of the “Four Noble Truths” or “Four Truths [that are Accessible to the] Noble Ones [only],” namely, in the context of Truth or Reality of Suffering (duḥkhasatya: sdug bsngal gyi bden pa), specifically in the context of the external “receptacle world” (bhājanaloka: snod kyi ’jig rten), so to speak, the world as a “biosphere” (in the broadest sense possible). Thus it is somehow related with the Buddhist soteriology. By the way, the word “biosphere” seems to be quite suitable here because “receptacle world” is conceived of the terranean (sa steng), subterranean (sa ’og), and superterranean (sa bla) world that support and sustain the so-called “world consisting of sentient beings” (sattvaloka: bcud kyi / sems can gyi ’jig rten), that is, so to speak, “world of habitants.” Hell is, from a Buddhist perspective, a part of the “world of habitats” and a special “biosphere.”  Second, hell-realm or sphere of hell is seen as one of the five or six possible destinations in Buddhism. It is the lowest realm among the three “bad destinies” (durgati: ngan ’gro), the other two being the realms of hungry ghosts (preta: yi dwags) and animals (tiryak: dud ’gro). (a) Unlike, for example, in Christianity, one is not sent to hell as a punishment by God. No one can send one to the hell. One can only go to hell by oneself, or, rather, one lands up in the hell-realm on accounts of the multiple causes and conditions that a person would have brought upon oneself. One cannot thus blame anyone else for one’s hellish existence. (b) For most persons, going to hell is not an option or choice. If causes and conditions for one’s hellish existence are absent, incomplete, or not ripe, one cannot go to hell even if one wishes. If causes and conditions for one’s hellish existence have been exhausted, one cannot stay in the hell-ream a minute longer, even if one wishes to stay. Hellish existence may appear long but it is never permanent. Highly realized beings such as buddhas and certain bodhisattvas may willingly go to hell to help hellish beings. They have a choice; not those who are under the sway of their karmic and kleśaic forces. Third, one’s hellish existence is one’s karmic consequence (or self-regulating karmic retribution) and as such one must have accumulated the right karmic deeds by means of the right kind of intellectual-emotional defilements (kleśa: nyon mongs pa). Although several intellectual-emotional defilements may be involved in guaranteeing one’s hellish existence, the dominant cause that can guarantee one’s hellish existence is said to be hatred and maliciousness. From a Buddhist perspective, one may hate and be malicious at one’s own risk. No one else is responsible for one’s  hatred and maliciousness and the ensuing karmic consequences. So those of us who wish to be born in the hell can be extremely hateful and malicious. Fourth, Buddhism presupposes various layers or domains of hell corresponding (or proportional) to the intensity and durability of pain and misery. There are said to be eighteen domains of hell (dmyal khams bco brgyad), namely, eight cold hells (grang dmyal brgyad), eight hot hells (tsha dmyal brgyad), auxiliary or peripheral (nye ’khor ba) hells, and micro (nyi tshe ba) hells. The last one is said to be a form of existence in which microorganisms identity with the objects or supports  in which they dwell. Fifth, historically, it will be worthwhile to explore how and why Buddhist Tartarology has undergone changes in the intellectual history of Buddhism. Depending on the various doctrinal layers of Buddhism, and depending on the time and place in which Buddhism spread and developed, the conception of hell, too, must have undergone augmentation, modification, and reinterpretation. Two examples may be mentioned here. (a) Śāntideva seems to suggest that hell is nothing but a projection of one’s mind infused with unwholesome deeds. Given the very subjective nature of pain and pleasure, suffering and happiness, one can understand what Śāntideva is trying to suggest. To someone whose mind is pāpa-ridden, everything might appear as hell. But on other hand, some Buddhists might argue that the fact that our miserable destiny is created by our unwholesome resources (pāpa: sdig pa) does not mean that the hellish existence is all in our mind or imagination unless we also posit that other forms of existence, such as animal existence, too, are nothing but mind. The way a Buddhist system conceives hell would thus be influenced by the ontological commitment of that system (e.g. a system’s commitment to realism or idealism). (b) Buddhist Mantric system seems to have introduced a new and deeper level of hell called the vajranaraka (rdo rje’i dmyal ba), that is, so to speak, a biosphere where those who have transgressed cardinal Vajrayānic precepts will be born. Sixth, it may be possible that the conception or rather the depiction of hells in Buddhist sources, systems, and societies had primarily a pedagogical or didactical function. It may have been primarily designed for educating common people about the karmic mechanism. Although Buddhist conception of hell does not presuppose theistic intervention and retribution, Buddhist societies may enact theatrically as if there were a “day of judgment” (metaphorically) where all the “black” and “white” points of a person are counted and accordingly sent to hell headlong.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

A Note on Bya-bral Sangs-rgyas-rdo-rje’s (1913–2015) Vegetarianism

I have neither studied the life and works of Bya-bral Sangs-rgyas-rdo-rje (1913–2015), a leading Tibetan Buddhist master of the rNying-ma (“Ancient”) Order, nor am I an expert on the subject of vegetarianism. Nonetheless, I wish to make a note on Bya-bral Rin-po-che’s endorsement of vegetarianism. One of his legacies is certainly his active propagation of vegetarianism and his engagement in the freeing animals. Modern scholars have begun  to take interest in the phenomenon of vegetarianism in societies of the past and present impregnated with Tibetan Buddhism. I recently came to know sNying-byams-rgyal (I hope my orthography is correct) in Cracow, a young bright scholar from A-mdo, who is studying the phenomenon of vegetarianism in present Tibetan society (especially in East Tibet). I was told that a scholar in Japan (i.e. a student of Professor Chizuko Yoshimitsu from Tsukuba University and whose name I have not registered) has also been studying the effects of vegetarianism in the traditionally meat-eating nomadic society, and especially impacts of practicing vegetarianism on pregnant nomadic women. There seem to be also other unanticipated problems that practice of vegetarianism brings along for the Tibetan society. Let us, however, wait for the findings of sNying-byams-rgyal. A few points that he shared with us during the recent conference in Cracow struck me. According to him, vegetarianism in Tibet has also become an instrument of polemical or sectarian divide. The popular cliché is that the rNying-ma masters propagate vegetarianism whereas the dGe-lugs masters propagate meat-eating. Like  any other cliché, there are some elements of truth in it but, as a cliché usually is, it is also dangerously over-simplifying and caricatural. We cannot, however, deny that Tibetan masters in Tibet who propagate vegetarianism are rNying-ma masters (e.g. mKhan-po Tshul-khrims-blo-gros from gSer-rta). But many master from other schools, too, propagate vegetarianism. I personally happen to know, for example, Jo-nang master ’Jam-dbyangs-blo-gros Rin-po-che from ’Dzam-thang), who also practices vegetarianism. Outside Tibet,  Bya-bral Rin-po-che has been the main proponent of vegetarianism among the rNying-ma masters. Although a bundle of different motives and arguments are possible, his main argument seems to be an ethical one, that is, meat-eating is not in tune with the fundamental Buddhist ethical-spiritual precept of non-injury and of refraining from taking life. The ethical argument is perhaps the primary argument for all proponents of  vegetarianism within and without Tibet. In addition, vegetarianism within and without Tibet seems to have been compelled by societal circumstances. That is, it sounds simply inappropriate for a Tibetan Buddhist master who has a great number of Chinese disciples hailing from a Chinese Buddhist society with a strong  tendency for vegetarianism. Similarly, in Dharamsala, for example, one would not usually get beef dumplings. Not selling or consuming beef in such a societal context is a mark of certain consideration for the social environment. It seems simply inappropriate to eat beef in a largely Hindu society, where cows are regarded sacred. If one were to live in a Jewish or Islamic society, it would be similarly appropriate to relinquish pork. Such a Buddhist compliance to society is expressed by the Buddhist dictum: “The code of discipline should conform the place” (’dul ba yul dang bstun). Śāntideva, too, has advised (Bodhicaryāvatāra 5.93cd): “All those that would cause disproval of the world should be abandoned after having seen and asked” (’jig rten ma dad gyur pa kun || mthong dang dris te spang bar bya ||). So Buddhist monasteries in South Asia now seem to serve only vegetarian food. This does not, however, mean that all Buddhist monks living in monasteries are vegetarian. When one hears of Tibetan Buddhist masters such as Bya-bral Rin-po-che propagating vegetarianism, one might suspect these masters to be somewhat like the so-called “peace activists” who, with full of hate, resort to violence. In other words, one may suspect them to be vegetarian dictators or despots, who threaten or employ psychological terror: “If you eat meat, you are not my disciple.” Or worse still: “If you eat meat, you are not a Buddhist.” Such rigidity or radicality would seem to be contrarious to what one would believe is the very attitude and approach of the historical Buddha. I heard my German professor often say that the historical Buddha is often attributed of stating: “One should refrain killing even an ant.” But, according to him, he never prescribed to what extent one should refrain from killing. A total refrainment from killing a sentient being is practically impossible, that is, if one continues to exist. But just imagine the Buddha telling me: “If you kill a microorganism (e.g. bacteria), you are not my follower (or a Buddhist).” This would mean that to be a Buddhist, I should cease to exist! Ānanda, having obtained clairvoyance one day, is said to have stopped drinking water, because he could see that his drinking water was full of microorganisms. But the Buddha just told him: “Drink!” So to what extent should one refrain from harming other sentient beings? The Bodhisattvabhūmi would have told us: yathāśakti yathābalam. Indeed, the answer really seems to be “as much as one can” or “to the best of one’s capacity.” But how much is “as much as one can”? That has to be decided by oneself. One alone is a witness to whether one has done one’s best. Returning to Bya-bral Rin-po-che, I was curious to know how apodictic or radical is his propagation of vegetarianism. So I tried to listen to some videos containing his statements on vegetarianism. It became clear to me that he recommends (but does not demand or dictate) a vegetarian diet primarily on ethical grounds. More importantly, however, he clearly states that one should refrain from meat-eating “if one can.” If one cannot at all give up meat-eating (i.e. for whatever reason), he suggests to refrain from meat-eating at least on the four auspicious days (dus bzang) in the Buddhist calendar, such as on the Buddha’s birthday. In short, he is not at all apodictic or radical about his propagation of vegetarianism. One should refrain from meat-eating as much as one can. If the Buddha were to live today, he would have said the same thing. In this and many other regards, I would say that Buddhavajra (Sangs-rgyas-rdo-rje) is very much like the Buddha (Sangs-rgyas).