Monday, October 18, 2010

Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness

Book Review: Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness  by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche (Zhyisil Chokyi Ghatsal Publications – Prajna Editions 2001)

This is a book about the gross to the more refined views of reality in Buddhist Philosophy according to the Mahayana Tradition. The particular teachings given by Khenpo were derived from the famed 19th century non-sectarian teacher Jamgon Kongtrul from his,
“Encyclopaedia of Knowledge.”

First is the traditional Three Stages in the Process of Understanding Dharma Teachings: hearing/listening reflecting/pondering/contemplating, and meditation (by incorporating into one’s being). These three are also called the Three Fields of Investigation and the Three Ways to remove Doubt. There are Buddhist texts said to relate to these three activities. He gives as an example of hearing – The Jewel Ornament of Liberation – by Gampopa as a thorough exposition of relative truth. The Madyamakavatara by Chandrakirti is given as an exposition of the ultimate truth of emptiness. The Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra attributed to Maitreya is given as a text to meditate on after studying the texts on emptiness. This text is about Awakened Nature, or tathagatagarbha. This Buddha Nature forms the theoretical basis for tantra and mahamudra. These also refer to the three turnings of the dharma wheel. So first study relative truth, then absolute truth, then the more subtle versions of absolute truth that reveal themselves through direct understanding beyond conceptuality. The progressive stages of meditation on emptiness refer to these subtle-ward realizations. In this system there are fives stages:
1)      Shravaka stage – the stage of the hearer
2)      the Cittamatra stage – the stage of the mind-only school
3)      the Svatantrika-Madhyamaka stage
4)      the Prasangika-Madyhamaka stage
5)      the Shentong Madhyamaka stage

The example is given of clay as a solid substance as a relative truth and as a collection of atoms as a truth grading toward the absolute. The gradual refinement process is also likened to zooming in on a target – getting more and more precise.

The main Hinayana (smaller vehicle) schools are given as Vaibashika and Sautrantika. The Mahayana is subdivided into Cittamatra and Madhyamaka (Middle Way). The Madhyamaka in this system is divided into Rangtong and Shentong. I think this is a Tibetan division. Here the Indian Yogacara school is associated with the Shentong view. The Rangtong is divided into Sautantrika and Prasangika. There is debate among the Tibetan schools as to which view is the most subtle. The Kagyu school from which this book derives favors the Shentong View as the more refined. The Geluk school usually favors the Rangtong and the Prasangika as the most subtle view.

First is the approach of the Shravaka, or hearer. At this stage the emptiness of self is contemplated. This refers to the selflessness, or anatta, taught by the Buddha as a mark of existence. He said that the root cause of suffering is clinging to the idea of a permanent, independent, truly existent self. The main problem we have is a habit of behaving as if the self were permanent and independent. These arguments are difficult for most people as the existence of the self seems rather obvious. “The question is not whether or not the person, personality, or ego is a changing, composite train of events conditioned by many complex factors. Any rational analysis shows this to be the case. The question is why then do we behave emotionally as if it were lasting, single and independent. Thus when looking for the self it is very important to remember it is an emotional response that one is examining. When one responds to events as if one had a self, for example when one feels very hurt or offended, one should ask oneself who or what exactly is feeling hurt or offended.” The exercise of looking for the self and of asking who is having the comfort or discomfort is key to exploring the nature of our idea of self.

“Clearly, in order to end one’s own suffering, there is nothing more important than to realize that when one acts as if the body and mind constituted a lasting, separate, independent self, one unthinkingly attributes to them qualities which they simply do not have.” All in one’s stream of experience is constantly changing. The Buddha gave an example of the dream to illustrate his teachings on emptiness. In this book the dream example is applied with increasing subtlety to each stage of emptiness meditation.  When one has a dream one may suffer in the dream but when one realizes it is a dream then one realizes that it is not really happening to them – whether one continues the dream or not. Khenpo says that understanding the impermanent nature of self like this intellectually is not enough – that one must examine in this way over and over until one reaches a certainty, a conviction that goes beyond intellectual. Then one can meditate and the veils of habitual patterns will eventually dissolve. The method of investigation for this stage is first to examine how we use the language that describes our conception of self. An example given is, “I am sick ... because I have a headache” He asks if we mean the ‘I” is one thing and the head another. Or is the head the “I”? He says to examine these conceptions of “I” the doer and “I” the experiencer. Examine by trying to pinpoint where the “I” is experienced. He goes through the arguments of those who would equate the self with the brain and the brain with the mind. If so then where is the mind? he asks. To say the self is the mind is like saying the self is the self or the mind is the mind. In a quick examination of Descartes’ famous saying, “I think therefore I am” he notes that the idea of “I am” is merely a thought. He kind of reduces it to, “I think therefore I think.”

“The Shravaka approach is to investigate experience by simply being as aware as possible every moment.” The Buddha’s thesis involves investigation of the five skandhas (the five heaps or aggregates). These are form, feeling, perception, mental construction, and consciousness. These, he says, are the five accumulations commonly mistaken for self. Form is body and environment. Khenpo says to examine the body limb by limb and see how it relates to the idea of self. The whole is merely a composite of parts that are dependent on other parts. When one sits in meditation one first notices the body as well as the environment so merely practicing the abiding meditation technique is a way of examining this skandha. Feeling is broken up into pleasure, displeasure, and indifference. If one examines one will find that these three take turns arising and falling, so none of the three are permanent. Perception refers to recognition of sensory input. This tends to happen continuously while we are awake. We tend to see the self as the experiencer of these perceptions but if we look – perhaps the experiencer has no validity without the perceptions themselves. Mental constructions include thoughts and emotions. In Sanskrit, these are the samskaras that arise due to previous habit patterns. He notes that feelings and perceptions are also mental constructions but are listed separately for the sake of teaching. If we examine thoughts and emotions we will find again that they are constantly changing. Referring to an idea of self one might say “I am sad” but it would be just as accurate and arguably more so to say, “there is sadness.” The Buddhist definition of consciousness, he says, refers to a moment of awareness. Consciousness as the doer or the experiencer of the other skandhas is the most amenable of them to be mistaken for self. A Sanskrit word referring to consciousness is vijnana, or divided knowing. Jnana is simply knowing, or wisdom. The division referred to is that of subject and object, knower and known. Each moment of experience has these two components. If one thinks the self is continuous awareness then one should examine and may find that consciousness is momentary in that it is merely a stream of vijnanas, of divided subject/object interactions. Thus the experiencer is constantly changing in reference to that which is experienced. So, he says, we find that our sense of self is a concept that we project onto a stream of experiences.

The idea of the self brings forth the idea of ‘other’, or ‘other than self.’ From the interaction of these divided concepts arise the unhealthy mental states of desire, aversion, and delusion which lead to suffering. The fruit of the shravaka is nirvana, or removal of suffering. This is the realization of ‘not-self.’ Thus the realization of the shravaka is quite profound. The veil of ignorance is removed since there is no clinging to self. His own suffering is removed. This paves the way for the higher vehicles where the goal becomes the removal of suffering for all beings. The meditation procedure is to reflect on the meaning of ‘not-self’ then, when one understands that self is only an appearance, simply to rest in that state as best one can.

Next we come to the Cittamatra approach. This is the first of the Mahayana approaches and is concerned with the enlightenment of all beings. The Shravaka realization of the Hinayana is said to remove the first of the two veils – the veil of the kleshas, or negative emotions that arise from karma. The more subtle veils of knowledge remain. He says that “the power to liberate others arises from seeing the true nature of reality more deeply.” Compassion for others is the motivation. The bodhissatva has two aspirations: to become enlightened and to liberate all others.

Cittamatra means ‘mind only’ or ‘merely mind.’ At this stage the reality of the conventional world is questioned. Here one is said to realize that the subject/object duality referred to before as defining our stream of momentary experiences is merely a conceptual notion. The Cittamatrin sees mind and matter as not separate. There is only the perceiving aspect of consciousness and the perceived aspect of consciousness. In response to the notion of some scientists that mind is a subtler form of matter he notes that if that is the case then the idea of matter would need to be redefined as capable of producing thoughts. The dream example at this stage is to ask oneself if one is dreaming right now and to examine whether this is possible. After examination one may find that “there is no characteristic of waking experience that clearly distinguishes it from dreaming.”

“Cittamatrins explain the phenomena of dreaming as the six consciousnesses which usually face outwards to the objects of the senses dissolving back into the base consciousness (Skt. alayavijnana) like waves into an ocean. It then starts to move within itself creating images of subjects and objects that the mind takes to be real and experiences like waking experience.” So they say there is a difference between waking and dreaming but that the substance of both worlds is the same. Rinpoche also notes the subjective nature of time – as in stories of meditators who go into samadhi for long periods of time and when they come out they think that very little time has passed. He kind of debunks the idea of consensus reality being real because of that consensus. He gives examples such as we see water as something to quench our thirst while to a fish it is home – or we see someone as a friend, others see him as an enemy, but a mosquito may see him as food. “ Consensus does not prove anything other than that certain relationships exist between different streams of experience.” The Cittamatrin might ask how something can be known without a knower. They say all is the mind experiencing itself.

In Cittamatra there is posited a third aspect of experience – that is the self-knowing, self illuminating aspect that is in essence the mind experiencing itself. This aspect explains how memories are stored as well as karmic impressions. Cittamatra doctrine divides experience into three natures: imaginary, dependent, and truly existent. The person, or self is of an imaginary nature (as in relative reality), the moments of consciousness (including the perceiver and perceived aspects) are of a dependent nature – since they derive from the causes and conditions of previous experience. The truly existent nature refers to the quality of emptiness, or absolute reality itself as not existing separately, permanently, and independently. When the self-aware aspect (the third aspect of experience according to the Cittamatrins) realizes no separation between perceiver and perceived it becomes Wisdom Mind, or jnana – so the alayavijnana, or base consciousness is said to be purified. The Cittamatrans refer to this Wisdom Mind as the absolute dependent nature which they say is real. They refer to it as absolute truth but the Madhyamakas reject this argument. Regarding the fruit of Cittamatra realization Rinpoche says that the experience of Wisdom Mind is a profound experience that is difficult to explain. The experience of the complete indistinction of mind and matter is said to purify more subtle veils related to knowledge. The Cittamatras tried to explain the experience as “a pure stream of self-aware moments of consciousness,” but apparently more refined teachings find contradiction in this explanation. The Method of examination at this stage is to reflect whether the inner perceiving aspect can be in any way distinguished from the outer perceived aspect. He gives suggestions for contemplating the nature of mind and matter both in the scientific frameworks and the philosophical ones. The meditation procedure is simply to reflect on the nature of dreaming and the three natures of experience given and to notice between sessions how all experience is like a dream. As the shravaka approach resolved the emptiness of self. the Cittamatra approach begins to resolve the emptiness of phenomena, or ‘other than self.’

The Svatantrika approach is the least subtle of the two Madhyamaka Rangtong approaches. These approaches aim to completely establish the “emptiness of self-nature of all phenomena, (dharmas).” The Svatantrika argues to refute the self-nature of phenomena and then further argues to establish their true nature as emptiness. The Prasangika View only refutes, it does not seek to establish that the true nature of phenomena is emptiness. The Svatantrika View is simply that the objective, conventional, relative reality is purely conceptual and the ultimate reality is emptiness free of concepts. The Cittamatra doctrine that is refuted by the Madhyamakas is that there is a truly existent substance called mind. So I guess they refute all concepts as imaginary. The dream example is that although fire may burn us in a dream it does not have the self-nature of fire yet it can still cause fear and suffering so in a relative sense it appears and functions like fire but when one realizes one is dreaming it no longer has that appearance or function. The conclusion of some Svatantrikas is the same as the Prasangikas – that relative and ultimate truth are inseparable. The former use arguments to establish this and the latter only refutations. The Svatantrika Views are based on the Prajnaparamita Sutras where Buddha states that, “all dharmas are emptiness.” Regarding his statement that ‘the three realms are merely mind” – they regard that as a provisional teaching meaning that relative reality is conceptual while the Cittamatras would regard it as a definitive teaching that ultimate reality is mind. The famous Nagarjuna was the founder of the Madhyamaka system of thought. One of his main analyzing arguments had to do with whether any thing is a whole or composed of parts. All parts can be subdivided into more parts so where or at what point would the whole be distinguished from the parts. The distinctions are only conceptual. The Nagarjuna asks’ “Is a moment of experience single or multiple?”  “If it is neither it cannot truly exist. If it were single it would not be able to have any duration.” Giving it a beginning, middle, and end would separate it into three separate moments of experience. Therefore it can be niether single nor multiple. Another way this is said is that there is ‘mere dependent arising of phenomena.’ If something arises dependent on something else, then by definition it has no self-nature. The meditation involves seeing all phenomena, both outer and inner as having no self-nature. Even though things appear both in waking and in dream, they are still empty and without self-nature. Meditating in such a way may help us see that because of this, enlightenment is possible for all.

The Prasangikas say that the Svantatrikas are still holding on to a little bit of conceptuality by trying to establish emptiness through reasoning. For this reason they do not attempt to use reason to establish the true nature of phenomena. All conceptual views are refuted so that one cannot say that something exists, does not exist, neither exists or doesn’t, or that it both exists and doesn’t. This is kind of a conceptual way to refute all conceptuality by refuting everything so that the mind may rest in non-conceptuality. The aim is to “free the awareness of its conceptualizing habit.” The Svantantrika View is said to be good for refuting all the non-Buddhist Views and the Prasangika View is good for refuting all grosser of the Buddhist Views. Regarding the dream, the Svantantrikas realize that the dream is not real but the Prasangikas would say - if there is no concept of real how can there be a concept of unreal? By keeping relative and ultimate reality separate there is still a conceptual component to the analysis. Really the distinction is merely conceptual. The meditational progression is that conceptual tendencies grow weaker while non-conceptual awareness grows stronger. Chandrakirti was the major exponent of the Prasangika View. Through this type of logic Chandrakirti refuted the notions of the non-Buddhist Indian Samkhyas who said that things arise from themselves. He refuted the ideas of the Buddhist Vhaibashikas and Sautrantikas who said that things arose from things other than themselves. He refuted the notions of the Jains who said that things arise from both themselves and things other than themselves. Finally, he refuted the views of the Ajivakas who taught that things arise from nothing. Of course, that was the end of it – he did not put forth any idea how things indeed arise but that by refuting these conceptual notions one may come to a profound understanding. In terms of base, path, and fruition Khenpo says that for the Svatantrika and Prasangika approaches the base is the two realities (two truths), the path is the two accumulations (conceptual merit and non-conceptual wisdom), and the fruition is the two kayas (Buddha bodies). In meditation on the Prasangika View one  rests without concepts on the inseparability of ultimate and relative reality, no time, no space, no body, no ideas, etc. In between sessions one practices the accumulation of merit through the six perfections as the best way to use relative reality as a means of support. The meditation is to rest without contrivance in the natural state.

The Shentong approach returns to the Cittamatra terminology – emptiness of the three natures: imaginary, dependent, and truly existent. Shentong does not accept mind or consciousness as truly existent as do the Cittamatrins. They hold the Madyhamaka View that it is non-arising and without self-nature. They see the Wisdom Mind as entirely non-conceptual rather than subtly conceptual as the Cittamatrins do. They see it as something that cannot be refuted by the Prasangikas. In a way it is kind of like saying – infinity plus one – but it works. They say it is something that is realized by non-conceptual direct means. This is the approach of Mahamudra and Dzogchen. They say that the self-knowing, self-illuminating awareness of the Cittamatrins is incorrectly interpreted by them to be a consciousness, particular a purified form of divided consciousness (vijnana).
Shentongpas would call the Wisdom Mind the Clear Light Nature of Mind that is beyond concepts and division. It is also called dharmata and tathagatagarbha (Buddha Nature). They say that Rangtongpas still hold some subtle conceptuality even in their total refutations of concepts. Shentong attributes the three turnings of the dharma wheel teachings thusly: the first cycle teaches the Shravaka level of meditation on selflessness, the second level teaches the Madhyamaka Rangtong View, and the third teaches the Madhyamaka Shentong View. Each successive one corrects the faults of the former. The third turning is explained in the Mahayanauttaratantrasastra attributed to Maitreya. Here it is taught that the nature of mind is Clear light and that tathagatagarbha pervades all being. In this text are given five reasons for teaching about this Awakened Nature – 1) it encourages all to try to arouse bodhicitta and attain enlightenment, 2) it humbles those who would feel superior after arousing the bodhicitta, 3) it removes the fault of taking unreal stains to be the true nature of beings. 4) it removes the fault of taking the Clear Light to be unreal, and 5) by showing that all beings are of the same nature as Buddha it allows beings to see no difference between self and other and so to arouse true compassion. Buddha Nature is the base, path, and fruit. The base is the time when it is completely obscured by stains, the path is when it is partly obscured, and the fruit is when it is purified, or unobscured.

Rinpoche also analyzes some of the other five treatises of Maitreya in order to show in different terminologies the profundity of the Shentong View which equates the unimaginable non-conceptual Wisdom Mind with Clear Light Mind and Buddha Nature.
This idea is said to be the basis of the notions of Buddha bodies (kayas), Buddha fields or realms and the mandalas of sambhogakaya tantric deities. For Shentong the dream example has to do with the Clear Light Nature of Mind in that dreams can manifest whether the mind is aware or unaware. “In the same way the Clear Light Nature of Mind is the basis for both samsara, which is when the mind is unaware of its own nature, and nirvana, which is when the mind is aware of its own nature.” In the state of Wisdom Mind whatever arises does not disturb the mind. The meditation at this stage is non-meditation, or simply realizing the continuous state of Wisdom Mind. He emphasizes the importance of a guru and devotion to the guru in unraveling this profound understanding. But he says that one can prepare the mind for such understanding by studying such works as this very text (from Jamgon Kongtrul’s Encyclopaedia of Knowledge). Kongtrul says that “Rangtong is the view for when one is establishing certainty through listening, studying, and reflecting. Shentong is the view for meditation practice.” At this stage one just rests in the natural state and there is no more investigation. All effort is non-rest so if one strives then one has not yet stabilized the realization. One rests until one is enlightened.

My review of this book was an exercise in hearing and contemplating these ideas. I have read the book twice now and studied it through this analysis. Now I have notes as well for
further contemplation. Through this conceptual understanding of the nature of reality as defined by so-called enlightened masters perhaps we can undertake such practices as might lead to such states since the possibility of doing just that is said to pervade all being. I have personally met this teacher and found him to be quite interesting as well as unconventional and rather refreshingly unpredictable.

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