Conceptions of the Ultimate

At the heart of the Samkhya school of Hinduism are the concepts of purusha and prakriti. Purusha is a passive, inert, witnessing consciousness. Prakriti is the active principle, the essence of subtle matter. According to the Samkhya school, the world we normally see -– called samsara or maya -– develops because purusha becomes fascinated with prakriti, which begins to divide and multiply. Soon purusha loses itself in the infinite variety of prakriti, which has now become the five elements of space, air, fire, water and earth in all their manifestations.

The Italian scholar Giuseppe Tucci writes:

“Having assumed all the characteristics of the prakriti . . . maya spreads out over all that exists, while God, the Absolute Soul, one or multiple – when imprisoned in the illusory individuality of maya – remains inert, taking colour, like a crystal, from the reflections projected on to him by the passions with which maya is stained.” (from ‘The Theory and Practice of the Mandala’, p55).

According to some Hindu yogis, the path to liberation can be described in terms of achieving a ‘oneness’ or unity with everything. Some yogis see maya as the active force of the Creator God, so that the phenomenal world, in all its variety, has a divine quality. Through identifying this divine quality both within himself and in the world, a divine ‘oneness’ is revealed within diversity, and the yogi becomes ‘one with everything’.

The Madhyamaka school of Buddhism puts ‘emptiness’ (shunyata) in a similar position to the Creator, because samsara is seen as an illusory manifestation of emptiness. For this reason emptiness is sometimes described as a ‘mother’. In ‘Song of Emptiness’ the Tibetan scholar Changkya Rölpai Dorje says:

“These various apprehended [objects] and apprehenders [minds] are the manifestation of the mother. This birth, death, and these changing [things] are the falsities of the mother.” (quoted, ‘Heart of Wisdom’, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso).

However, although all phenomena are said to be of ‘one taste’ in emptiness, the Madhaymaka school does not go so far as to say that emptiness is a ‘oneness’ pervading everything, because emptiness is not an entity in its own right and in emptiness there is no ‘number’, such as one or many. In the ‘Heart Sutra’, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara says:

“Shariputra, like this all phenomena are merely empty, having no characteristics [such as number] . . . They have no decrease and no increase.” (quoted, Heart of Wisdom, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso)

To say that all phenomena are empty does not mean that all phenomena are one entity, because emptiness is not separate from the diversity of phenomena. Emptiness does not possess positive attributes of its own such as oneness or manyness, it is a mere negation of the mistaken inherent existence of phenomena. Emptiness is, strictly speaking, a negative conception of the Ultimate.

In Hinduism there are both negative and positive conceptions of God, most prominently in the Advaita-Vedanta school (which owes a historical debt to the Madhyamaka). In Advaita-Vedanta God can be understood either as nirguna (without attributes) or saguna (with attributes). The negative way of understanding God is considered more profound. Negative ways of understanding God (viae negativae) can also be found in Christianity in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas and in Judaism in the work of Maimonides in his ‘Guide for the Perplexed’.

Within Buddhism the strongest assertion of the positive attributes of the Ultimate is found in the doctrine of Tathagathagarbha or (Buddha nature). The teachings on Buddha nature are sometimes considered to be part of the Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma along with the teachings on Mind-only (Chittamatra). The First Turning is preserved in the scriptures of the Theravada Buddhist school and includes the teaching on the Four Noble Truths. The Second Turning is the Perfection of Wisdom teachings, which are the core teachings of the Madhyamaka school.

Depending on whether a weak or strong interpretation of the Buddha nature teachings is employed, all sentient beings are either said to have the seed of Buddhahood within them (weak), or to be in some sense already enlightened (strong). In his book ‘Mahayana Buddhism’ Paul Williams says that the

“tension between innate, inherent enlightenment and becoming enlightened is a tension at the root of the Tathagathagarbha tradition” (p97).

Buddha nature is present in all living beings. While it is accompanied by defilements we remain ordinary, but when the defilements are removed the Buddha nature becomes the Dharmakaya (Buddha’s enlightened mind). A good example of positive qualities being attributed to the Dharmakaya and the Buddha nature can be found in the ‘Srimala Sutra’, where the Dharmakaya is described as:

“beginningless, uncreate, unborn, undying, free from death; permanent, steadfast, calm, eternal; intrinsically pure, free from all the defilement store; and accompanied by Buddha natures more numerous than the sands of the Ganges, which are nondiscrete, knowing as liberated, and inconceivable.”

Paul Williams also says that “the Tathagathagarbha is said to be a substratum which is permanent, steadfast, and eternal.” (ibid p101). This is a strongly positive view of the ultimate, so it is clear that there is considerable scope for disagreement between those who believe that the emptiness teachings are definitive versus those who believe in the Buddha nature teachings.

As we might expect, positive and negative conceptions of the ultimate have been a major point of debate within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It is possible to reconcile these views using a quote by the great Tibetan yogi Milarepa, who said:

“Everything is the nature of the mind. Mind is the nature of emptiness.”

When practicing the first part we can concentrate on positive qualities such as the radiant, brightly shining nature of the mind, when practicing the second we can emphasise the negative, empty qualities of the mind.

In the ‘Anguttara Nikâya’ I.8-ll the Buddha says:

“This mind, monks, is brightly shining, but it is defiled by defilements which arrive. But this is not understood as it really is by those who are spiritually uneducated, so they do not develop the citta [mind]. This mind, monks, is brightly shining, but it is freed from defilements which arrive. This is understood as it really is by those noble disciples who are spiritually educated, so they do develop the citta“.

Peter Harvey comments:

“A key idea is that whatever defilements or stains there may or may not be on the ‘surface’ of the mind, even if they have deep roots, these do not penetrate to the inner depths of the mind. The mind has a ‘radiance’ whether or not it is ‘corrupt’ and ‘defiled’ or ‘clarified’ and ‘freed from defilements’. Even the corrupt person destined for hell thus has a ‘brightly shining’ citta ‘covered’, so to speak, by the defilements which obscure it. The defilements ‘arrive’, like people arriving at a guest house . . . “Beneath the surface level of mind, which has such things as anger, pride, jealousy, worry etc., there is something ‘brightly shining’ – intrinsically stainless, a basic goodness, perhaps an ‘original sinlessness’. However terrible a person’s actions, which may lead to weighty karmic consequences over a long period, the seed of perfection is never destroyed, only more deeply covered over. Whatever heritage of previously developed character faults a child brings into this world, the seed of perfection is there to be developed. This expresses a very positive view of human nature and, indeed, of the nature of all beings.”


Posted on July 31, 2008, in Buddhism, Philosophy, Religion and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. What an excellent post.

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