Shantideva’s Bodhisattvacharyavatara, The Way of the Bodhisattva, Ninth Chapter Analysis By Nick Barr (Spring 2004) Emory-IBD Tibetan Studies Program Dharamsala, India.
Before beginning, I would like to offer my deepest respect, prayers and thanks to all those who continue to serve as teachers of bodhicitta. This paper would not have been possible without my teachers in Dharamsala, most notably Geshe Dorji Damdul-la or Gen-la, to whom I owe whatever philosophical understanding I have gained over the last six months. It was, in addition, the goal of this project to further my own familiarity with and understanding of the text, rather than to offer any real “commentary”, which would require a lifetime of study.
This paper is meant to be read alongside the Padmakara Translation Group’s version of the ninth chapter of The Way of the Bodhisattva, a copy of which I have included.
I also feel it is important to mention that the format of the ninth chapter very much follows the question and answer debate style common to Buddhist monastic institutions of the past and present. During Shantideva’s life, Buddhist and Hindu philosophers debated fiercely over the logical underpinnings of their respective traditions, which is why so much of the ninth chapter is devoted to refutations of Hindu philosophical viewpoints.
DISCUSSION OF BASIC CONCEPTS AND TERMINOLOGY
In order to have a meaningful discussion of Shantideva’s work, one must first have a familiarity with certain fundamental elements of Buddhist terminology and basic philosophical conceptsiii. I will not, in this section, explore all the many nuances of these concepts or provide exhaustive explanations. Instead, I will simply equip those readers who have not come into contact with these ideas with the basic tools required to engage in a first reading of Shantideva’s text.
The Bodhicharyavatara is a seminal text in the cannon of the Mahayana, which means Great Vehicle; the particular school of Buddhism practiced in the Tibetan tradition. The term Mahayana is to be distinguished from the Hinayana, or Lesser Vehicleiv school of Buddhism, which is practiced in the southeast Asian countries of Laos, Cambodia, Burma, and Thailand. The fundamental philosophical difference between these schools can perhaps best be identified in reference to each school’s ideal practitioner. In the Hinayana tradition, the ultimate goal is to reach the state of the arhat, “the one who has overcome the foe… of disturbing conceptions and has attained liberation from cyclic existence.” An arhat is no longer a slave to samsara: the constant cycle of death and rebirth that characterizes the progressive pattern of all sentient life, because he/she has eliminated the production mechanism of the conditions that give rise to successive rebirths.
The Mahayana ideal proceeds farther. For a true practitioner of the Mahayana, the state of arhatship is merely one more measure of progress on the path to the ultimate goal of Buddhahood. An arhat is satisfied with removing him/herself from the bounds of suffering and samsaric existence; a Buddha’s self appointed task is to free every sentient being in the past, present and future from the suffering nature of the cycle of death and rebirth. This is the reason for the Mahayana characterization of the arhat as a practitioner of a lesser school of Buddhism. The great compassion of the Mahayana practitioner extends far beyond the desire for personal liberation, to the level of a constant and unremitting need to lift all sentient beings out of the suffering of never-ending death and rebirth, and help them deliver themselves to the never-ending bliss, serenity and wisdom that characterizes the state of Buddhahood.
This is the unwavering goal of the true Mahayana practitioner. It is this pure and selfless state of mind, the mind that desires freedom and peace for all others regardless of the sacrifice required, that forms the nucleus of the Mahayana path and the subject of Shantideva’s text. This is bodhicitta, the altruistic and enlightened mind, the fruition of the spark of Buddha-nature present in the subtlest mind of all living creatures. One who practices and lives with this mind as his/her constant measure and standard of truth, whose entire being is devoted unwaveringly to the ideal of perfect freedom and perfect compassion for all others no matter what the personal cost, this person is a bodhisattva. No one expresses the utter selflessness and faultless motivation of bodhicitta better than Shantideva himself, when he makes the following prayer.
May I be a guard for those who are protector less, A guide for those who journey on the road. For those who wish to go across the water, May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.
May I be an isle for those who long for landfall, And a lamp for those who long for light;
For those who need a resting place, a bed;
For all those who need a servant, may I be their slave.vi
Bodhicitta is divided into two types. The first is conventional bodhicitta, or bodhicitta in intention. The second is ultimate bodhicitta, or active bodhicitta.vii The difference between these two sorts of bodhicitta, in Shantideva’s words, is the difference between “wishing to depart and setting out upon the road.” Those who develop the mental impulse toward ultimate bodhicitta are able to do so because they have a direct, intuitive understanding of the truth of emptiness: the fundamental nature of all existence. It is this pairing of wisdom realizing emptiness and ultimate bodhicitta which is required for the achievement of Buddhahood.
The Buddhist concept of emptiness is one of the most difficult to define, especially because there is a significant gap in meaning and understanding depending on which Buddhist philosophical school is doing the defining. Competing characterizations of emptiness comprise the basis for much of the dialogue and debate between Buddhist schools, as well as a focal point of Shantideva’s ninth chapter on wisdom.
Shantideva adhered to the teachings of the highest philosophical tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, the Prasangika division of the Madyamika, or Middle Way school. According to Prasangika, all beings and phenomena, both internal and external, are the product of dependent arising. No phenomenon is capable of coming into existence by way of its own power, nor is it capable of existing independently. Rather, it is the nature of experiential reality to exist reliant on a multitudinous variety of factors. Indeed, Prasangika philosophy contends that there is no essential component of any phenomena that exists as an isolate, uninfluenced and autonomous. Phenomena are thus empty of inherent existence. But emptiness, it is extremely important to note, does not mean nothingness. It does not point the way to despair, nor does it attempt to paint action as futile or somehow “empty of meaning.” Emptiness is simply the condition of all existence, the term that Prasangika philosophers apply to the understanding that nothing can exist self-sufficiently outside the requirements of context, without reference points, independently of other factors. As the Venerable Lobsang Gyatso writes in his book The Harmony of Emptiness and Dependent-Arising, “it is only in reliance upon the appearance of other phenomena, and in comparison with them, that any particular object can be designated as big or small, beautiful or ugly, good or bad, and so forth.”ix To one who has perceived the truth of emptiness, commonly perceived reality is the product of mistaken understanding and glaring oversimplification. Investing phenomena with inherent existence independent of a designating mind is thus philosophically untenable and spiritually disastrous.
The direct understanding and perception of emptiness, at the subtlest and most profound level, is a requisite of ultimate bodhicitta. This understanding is the white fire that melts away ego and leaves no trace, and the guarantor of personal and universal peace. In the perfect union of the qualities of wisdom and ultimate bodhicitta, the foundation for the supreme being is laid.
Stanzas 1-5 DISCUSSION OF THE TEXT In these opening stanzas, Shantideva begins by extolling the importance of wisdom, and highlights wisdom as the virtue essential for those who wish to put an end to suffering. Wisdom, in this context, can be understood as the wisdom realizing emptiness, while suffering, at the most essential level, refers to the samsara, or cyclic existence. With these definitions in mind, Shantideva goes on to outline the nature of the “two truths”, and the two sorts of people to whom these truths appear.
The two truths reflect two particular understandings of reality, and are described as “relative” and “absolute” respectively. Relative truth can be understood as a mistaken understanding of the nature of reality, the sort of understanding possessed by most of us. This understanding is one that attributes to observable phenomena a solidity and firmness of which they are undeserving, and encourages us, consciously or unconsciously, to invest in them an undo degree of meaning and importance. In other words, “when ordinary folk perceive phenomena, they look on them as real and not illusory.”xi In contrast, absolute truth refers to a mode of perception intuitively connected with the concept of emptiness. Ultimate truth is correct perception, or perception directed through the lens of emptiness. This sort of truth Shantideva declares “not within reach of the intellect, for intellect is grounded in the relative.”
This statement at first appears rather puzzling. Do we not depend on the intellect, especially in the Madyamika philosophical system, to direct us towards truth? Certainly, we must answer yes. And Shantideva, as a great proponent of the logical exercise, would unflinchingly agree with this answer. His point is simply that intellectual inquiry, the process of reaching affirmative understanding through the positioning of oppositional concepts, of progressively dividing problems into their core components, cannot uncover the fundamental truth of the universe, which is emptiness. Of course, intellectual groundwork is certainly invaluable, even essential. But for Shantideva, direct perception, outside the framework of traditional logical inquiry, is the only mode of true perception. Thus, when Shantideva refers to the “ranks of meditators”, and there are varying degrees to be sure, he confers the highest rank on those who possess precisely the sort of direct perception which is an understanding of the subtlest and most profound emptiness, and prepares us for the debates soon to follow.
Stanzas 6-14 In the 6th stanza, Shantideva again points to the falsity inherent in perceiving observable phenomena as solidly existent. (Solid, not in the physical sense, which is indisputable, but in the sense of existing as a solid conceptual unit, distinct from or somehow more than the parts which are its constituent elements.) The following passages are basically a catalogue of objections and their refutations with regard to the notion of deceptive truths.
An objection is quickly raised regarding Buddha’s classification of things as existing impermanently. How can this notion of impermanence, taught by the Buddha himself, be a relative truth? Indeed, the objector demands, how can things have no essential nature, and be of the nature of impermanence?!xiv The Prasangika philosopher is quick to retort that, while this Buddha’s word may appear to be inconsistent, closer analysis will yield are more satisfying answer. The Buddha does not suggest that impermanence is an inherent characteristic of inherently existing phenomena. On the contrary, from the viewpoint of accomplished “meditators”, all phenomena exist in a manner that is illusory and impermanent, and are possessed of an equally illusory and impermanent nature. To say that they have no inherent, singular nature is in fact a necessary condition of impermanence. The fault of the objector lies, as it often does, in according too much literal weight to the language. The trick is in negotiating the levels of illusion, and in cultivating the ability to discern increasingly subtle layers.
As is the case throughout the rest of the text, the standard of the meditator, the one who has penetrated the truth of emptiness, is the bar against which lesser truths are measured. Thus, even though the Buddha does not exist inherently, or independently of his causes, and is thus “illusion like”, he is still capable of conferring merit. The word “illusion like” simply does not devalue the Buddha’s gifts, nor denote a lack of importance. Rather, the fact that “illusion-like merits are obtained from venerating an illusion like Conqueror”xv simply reveals a specific mode of existence, and one that still has significant consequences.
The objector goes on to challenge the notion that beings, if they exist in an illusory manner, can be reborn. Shantideva’s answer to this challenge is beautiful in its elegance and simplicity. He simply states that, for as long as the conditions that give rise to illusions are present, those illusions will continue to be manifest. In this case, those conditions are the complex rules of karma, the force that shapes Buddhist cosmology. As long as the karmic conditions that ensure rebirth are present, rebirth will take place. Again, the illusory nature of the cycle of rebirth in no way affects the process of that cycle, it simply provides the philosophical language that allows for a more accurate characterization. The following objection concerning “mirages”, and beings possessed of “mirage-like” minds is answered in much the same way. Shantideva is providing the linguistic technique for tearing down the inherent falsity of our solid, impregnably misconceived reality. Causing harm to a being with a mind, even if its mode of existence is “mirage-like”, still results in negative consequences.
The next objection concerns the Buddhist concept of nirvana, or “the state beyond sorrow.” Nirvana, unlike the traditional concept of heaven, is conceived of as a non-local conceptual space, in habited by Buddhas who have corrected their mistaken perceptions and terminated the causes that give rise to successive rebirths. According to Mahayana philosophy, all beings contain the spark of Buddha-nature. That is, all beings have the potential to reach the state of Buddhahood, though this potential has been obscured with lifetimes of distorted perception and negative action. Buddhahood is our “natural” state, so to speak; the mode of existence that reflects the true nature of being and reality. But the objector is unsatisfied. If nirvana is the natural state in which all beings exist, how is it that they can simultaneously inhabit samsara? And further, would not the Buddha also have to maintain some presence in samsara? Shantideva’s answer is, at this point, fairly straightforward. “Since sentient beings have not discontinued the conditions for cyclic existence, they are in cyclic existence, but since the Buddha has discontinued these conditions, even deceptively he does not exist within the nature of cyclic existence.” The karmic conditions necessary to propel a being forward in the samsaric cycle are absent for a Buddha, present for the rest of us. With this last answer, our first objector is silenced.
Stanzas 15-29 These stanzas concern certain debates between Prasangika Madyamika philosophers and the Chittamatra, or Mind Only school of philosophy. Chittamatra philosophers, in contrast to Prasangika Madyamika thinkers, posit the mind as truly, inherently, independently existent, indeed the only truly existent phenomena. For Chittamatrins, all seemingly external phenomena are products of mind, such that “the mind and its objects are one, and only nominally distinct.” The crux of the Chittamatrin argument revolves around the concept of the self-cognizing mind, with all elements of perception existing as mere extensions of the primordial substance of mind. It is also extremely important to note that, according to Chittamatrins, this self-cognizing mind is never mistaken or deluded. But, equally important is the notion that, like the Prasangikas, Chittamatrin philosophers posit “everyday” perception, perception not defined by an understanding of emptiness (in this case according to the Chittamatra definition) as mistaken. Geshe Dorji Damdul-la, in one of our philosophy classes, once likened the concept of the self- cognizing mind to a calm ocean, where waves, representing consciousnesses perceiving phenomena, fluctuate across the surface. These waves, even though they are of the same substance as the ocean, distort the essential nature of the ocean; calmness and serenity.
The subject of the debate between Prasangikas and Chittamatrins, then, is the philosophical viability of the foundational concept of the self cognizing mind. If the Chittamatrins are able to prove the existence of an inherently existing mind, the Prasangika’s philosophical cornerstone, the fundamental impossibility of permanent, independent and unitary phenomena, will be categorically destroyed. To my own mind, this particular debate is the most engaging.
The opening salvo between the Chittamatrins and the Prasangikas, represented by Shantideva, is an exchange of rather complex linguistic and logical problems. The Chittamatrins begin by asking what, if there is no truly existent consciousness which perceives a deceptive reality, is capable of “seeing illusion.” In other words, the Chittamatrins question how an entity that does not exist (inherently) manages to identify illusory external phenomena. What, they ask, would exist to be deceived? The Prasangikas rather deftly reverse the question and ask how, if phenomena are indeed comprised of all-pervading mind, there can be any external objects to perceive in the first place. If all is the same substance, what is doing the perceiving, and what is being perceived? Shantideva goes on to cite the Buddha’s admonition that “the mind cannot be seen by mind”, and offers various analogies to the same effect. This particular line of argument would seem to throw a rather serious hitch into the Chittamatra machinery, but they are undeterred.
Brilliantly, the Chittamatrins provide the example of a self-illuminating flame to counter the Prasangika claim that no single entity can engage in the simultaneous performance of outwardly directed and inwardly directed tasks of the same nature. A flame, the argument goes, both illuminates the outside environment and simultaneously illuminates itself. In other words, by virtue of the flame’s illumination, both the flame and its surroundings are visible. Likewise, the mind can both manifest itself outwardly as illusory phenomena, and formulate the consciousness that perceives those phenomena. I am still struck by the beauty of this argument, and was, I must admit, rather reluctant to pursue its refutation when I was first reading the text. Luckily, Gen-la managed, painstakingly, to convince me of the Prasangika position.
It is logically impossible for a flame, or light of any kind, to perform the feat of self-illumination. In order for something to be illuminated, it must, by definition, first be un-illuminated, because illumination performs the function of revealing something that was previously in the dark. To put it a different way, something that was never in the darkness cannot be brought into the light. Thus light, because of its very nature, cannot perform the function of illuminating itself; it is already illuminated. Undaunted, the Chittamatrins press on.
The next example offered by Chittamatra philosophers is that of an inherently “blue thing”, with an eye toward proving the possibility of independent existence. The blueness of a blue stone, they maintain, depends for its blueness on no other thing; it exists as an inherent characteristic. In the same way, the Chittamatrins argue, “some perceptions rise from other things⎯while some do not.”xix Here, the goal is to prove the difference between phenomena that “depend upon…lights that illuminate them and consciousnesses that know them…and feelings of pleasure and pain that are beheld without any such dependence.”xx Of course, with the aid of certain modern scientific discoveries, one could easily disprove the Chittamatrin argument of the independently existing blue stone with a fairly brief discussion of the refraction patterns of light and the nature of the visual spectrum.
Shantideva still manages the job, though in my opinion his argument is without the artfulness to be found in many other passages. Shantideva refutes the validity of an independently existing blue thing, not because the concept is philosophically illegitimate, but because it is used in the service of an improper analogy. A self-illuminating flame and the self-cognizing mind possess a similar functional integrity, or so the Chittamatrins claim. A blue stone, on the other hand, is a philosophically static concept; it does not perform any sort of interactive function in the way self-cognizing mind supposedly does. The following stanzas, though, segue into a more nimble debate. Perhaps because
Shantideva is fed up with the Chittamatrin strategy of argument through analogy, he simply restates his case. There has been no real proof of a truly existing self-cognizant mind yet offered, and so, Shantideva says, the discussion amounts to naught. He is asking for a challenge, and the Chittamatrins deliver.
The Chittamatrins shift the discussion to the battleground of memory. How is it, they inquire, that the mind is able to produce memory-consciousness if it is incapable of self-cognition? It follows that the mind must depend on its ability to recall, under examination, its own previous moments of consciousness. In order for this to be the case, those moments of consciousness, which are fleeting and mistaken by nature, must have been perceived by some other aspect of consciousness. Shantideva’s purely logical rebuttal is excellent, and rather technical. His analogy with the water rat, however, seems to me somewhat problematic. Shantideva argues that self-cognition need not be implied in the process of memory because, for one thing, memory does not arise based on the influence of a single factor. Further, the consciousness that perceives an external object, and the consciousness that subsequently encodes the encounter need not be succeeding states of the identical entity. Certainly, they are related states of mind, but wherein lies the proof of singularity?
Shantideva makes a slightly different argument when he states that “without consciousness experiencing itself, it [may be] remembered from its relationship to the experiencing of other objects…”xxi Certainly, one can use this language in support of a theory of mixed method encoding. Memory is stored in complex ways, and almost never as a result of a single mode of perception. Any sort of sensory perception can contribute to memory formation, which is why smells can remind us of feelings, sights of tastes and so on. But Shantideva’s analogy is, as was mentioned before, less than airtight. The literal example is of a hibernating animal who has been bitten by a water rat. The animal under discussion has no direct consciousness of receiving the bite, but nonetheless is able to “remember” the event after waking up in the summertime in some discomfort.xxii This example is dangerously close to a mere demonstration of inference, not true memory, and seems to make the case for “non-ascertaining” perception, a concept which to this day remains the subject of fierce debate. (Especially in our philosophy classroom!)
The next Chittamatrin query concerns the ability to “perceive [directly] the minds of others.” Whether or not one accepts the feasibility of this talent, the logical example offered by Shantideva is convincing. One may be able to see “treasure” by way of a miraculous substance worn on the eyes, but this fact does not necessarily imply the visibility of the substance itself. Simply because, through the use of his/her own mind, a person is able to exercise certain powers of external perception, does not in any way imply that this same power of mind can used to perceive its own existence.
The Chittamatrins proceed to dig themselves a rather serious logical hole. They claim that illusory objects cannot be of a substance other than the mind, but, because they are illusory, cannot be the self-cognizing mind itself, which is never mistaken and exists inherently. Shantideva quickly outlines the inconsistency of this position. How, he asks, “if something is a thing…can it neither be the mind nor other than it?”xxiii The position is logically untenable. In the same way the Chittamatrins allow for the perception of “mirage-like” external objects, the mind, or the “knower”, can persist in an illusory mode of existence. The mind does not have to exist inherently in order to perceive dependent, mirage-like, illusory phenomena. We can see the Chittamatrin’s foundation begin to crumble. To my mind, the next set of questions seem less like challenges, and more like genuine requests for teaching.
With a twinge of panic, the Chittamatrins make the claim that samsara must have something “real”, or inherently existent, as its basis. Without the self-cognizing mind as this solid, reliable foundation, the universe would exist solely in tenuous conceptual linkages with a heart “like empty space.” And this, of course, is precisely the case. If, Shantideva answers, the mind is “real” and exists inherently, it must be a singular unit capable of persisting independently; this is the definitional and logical demand of inherence. Thus, the mind must not be dependent on its parts or causes; phenomena whose existence are conceptually relative and subject to definitional fluctuation. If the mind exists inherently, it must exist as an intransient and static entity fundamentally unaffected by the demands of causality. In short, it could not perform a function, because function implies a mutual subject/object dependence, in which both parties are different at the end then they were at the beginning. An inherently existing mind is, as Shantideva puts it, “alone, in solitude, unaccompanied”, incapable of any experience, including “disturbing conceptions” or attachment to illusory phenomena.
Stanzas 30-39 The following stanzas seek to establish the primacy of the wisdom of emptiness as the path to truth, contrasted with the illusory nature of deceptive truth.xxv How, even if we have the intellectual understanding that our everyday perceptions are fundamentally mistaken, are we to defeat our tendency to form attachments and desires? The answer, Shantideva tells us, is in our hands. We must train and discipline our minds with meditation on emptiness, until we have an intuitive understanding of the interdependent nature of phenomena. With increasing mental progress, Shantideva says, our understanding of emptiness itself will be infinitely refined, beyond the limitations of conventional conception, such that the notion of emptiness itself no longer appears as truly existent. Emptiness itself will appear to be “lacking in entity.”
But a question must be posed. When we tear down the conceptual framework that supports the mistaken perception of true existence, in relation to what, then, do we formulate the notion of emptiness? If there are no truly existent phenomena, “how can non-true existence remain before the mind as truly existent?”xxvi It cannot, Shantideva answers. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama writes, echoing the Heart Sutra, “because there is form, we can talk about its nonexistence. If there were no form, there could not be emptiness of form.” The mental state that exists in this non-dualistic space, uncluttered by conceptual baggage, is the ultimate resting place of the mind.
Shantideva goes on to assure his audience that Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, though they are no longer bound by the mental confines that characterize samsara, are nonetheless able to affect change throughout cyclic existence by virtue of the “purity of disciples’ minds and the prayers…[Buddhas and Bodhisattvas] make for their welfare…”
Stanzas 40-55 These stanzas concern a debate between Shantideva and the Prasangika philosophical viewpoint, and that of the lowest (in terms of their understanding of emptiness) Buddhist philosophical school, the Vaibashika. The Vaibashikas begin by challenging the necessity of understanding emptiness, claiming that the Four Noble Truths (the Truth of Suffering, the Truth of the Origin of Suffering, the Truth of the Cessation of Suffering, and the Truth of the Eight-Fold Path to Cessation) constitute the sole requirements for escaping samsara. Shantideva responds by citing the Mahayana scriptural emphasis on understanding emptiness. (Of course, one could easily make the argument that understanding emptiness falls under a number of the requirements of the eight-fold path, but Shantideva has another direction in mind.) What follows is essentially a brief debate about scriptural authority, which the Vaibashikas must eventually abandon.
Instead, the Vaibashikas attempt to argue, essentially, that an understanding of emptiness is not required in order to halt the production of distorted perceptions and “defiled emotions.” Shantideva agrees that a knowledge of the most profound emptiness is not required to stop the process of emotional attachment, but denies that rebirth can be halted without the complete elimination of conceptual frameworks. Only a penetrating understanding of the essential emptiness, or “voidness” of phenomena is enough to end a being’s migration through cyclic existence. In an attempt to allay the fears of the Vaibashikas, Shantideva goes on to assure them of the rewards that meditation on emptiness brings; the cessation of suffering, desire, fear, ignorance and rebirth.
Stanzas 56-59 These stanzas offer a basic refutation of the notion of an inherently existing self; a self that exists independently, self-sufficiently and independent of its causes. Shantideva presents a list of physical and mental characteristics (the five senses plus an additional mental sense) upon which our “I” depends, but none of which can be said to fully encompass or contain our sense of self. Our “I” sense cannot be located within or teased out of our various parts, nor can it be conceived of as somehow distinct from any of those parts individually. As the Venerable Lobsang Gyatso puts it, “both a person and the parts of that person are effects and at the same time causes involved in a continual process of transformation.”xxx The self, according to Prasangika philosophy, is nothing more than a psycho-physical aggregate, the components of which are in a constant, mutually dependent state of flux.
Stanzas 60-67 In this next debate, Shantideva refutes the notion of the self according to the Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy. Samkhya philosophers posit the idea that “all phenomena−except the permanent and unchanging self−are created from an all pervading primal substance. When the self comes into contact with this primal substance…sense faculties and objects…issue forth…The primal substance is a permanent, partless and universal material…”
Samkhyas, then, posit the phenomena of a hearing consciousness as a permanent one. Shantideva quickly seizes on this notion, asking how it is possible for a permanent hearing consciousness to exist when there is no sound for it to come into contact with. It makes no sense to posit a permanent and independent conceptual entity, like a hearing consciousness, when hearing depends on outside stimulus as an integral part of its function. The Samkhyas quickly respond by claiming that this consciousness can maintain its permanence by morphing to “apprehend a [physical] form.” But Shantideva is quick to pick up on the fault. How is it possible, he asks, for a permanent, singular entity to have two completely different natures? For the same exact consciousness to perform the two distinct functions of hearing and seeing? “It is like an actor”, the Samkhyas reply, who, while retaining his essential nature, is able to take on a multitude of disparate roles. And here we reach the crux of the argument; Shantideva demands an explanatory account of this singular “essential nature” that remains un-impacted. The Samkhyas respond that their primal substance has the nature of “simply knowing,” or of “merely being conscious,”xxxii and their position falls into shambles. If the common characteristic that proves permanence and singularity is simply to know, or to be conscious, it would follow that all beings, in so far as they possess the common trait of consciousness, would share the same singular nature, and would thus be indistinguishable both from each other and from the primal substance with which they interact. In short, the entire universe of beings would collapse into a singular absurdity.
Stanzas 68-70 Here the discussion shifts to refute the point of another Hindu philosophical school; the Naiyayika. Naiyayika philosophers posit the existence of a “permanent, partless material phenomenon within the being of an individual as the self.” The mental facilities that permit consciousness, however, exist in relation to, but separate from, this self. Shantideva rejects the notion that the self could exist as something “destitute of mind”, without consciousness or mental faculty as a basis, as this would be tantamount to assigning consciousness to an inanimate object. The Naiyayika reply that the self is imbued with the properties of consciousness through its relationship with a mind; a sort of lend-lease theory of consciousness. But this notion Shantideva demonstrates to contain a clear logical contradiction. It is not possible for a phenomenon to exist in a permanent and partless manner fundamentally without mind, and come to posses mental faculties through a relationship with another phenomenon. In response, Shantideva points out that if, as the Naiyayika claim, the self is indeed immutable, this essential nature would have to be preserved regardless of the self’s interactions.
Stanzas 70-77 These stanzas offer a proof of the Prasangika position concerning personal identity lessness, in opposition to the notion of a permanent and independently existing self. The proponents of permanent self-hood open the debate with a fairly engaging question. If there is no self, they ask, how is it possible for actions to have any meaningful consequences? If, in other words, the self exists as the Prasangika’s claim it does, as a fluid concept designated on constantly changing aggregates, how are the karmic effects generated by the self who is the immediate “doer”, visited on the future self? If there is no fundamental and permanent element that unifies these two selves, in what way can action and result be linked in such a way as to protect the doctrine of karmic consequence?
Shantideva attempts to refine our understanding of action and experience. Certainly, the doer must experience the resultant state of his action, but only insofar as that person exists as a continuity of certain elements. A continuity, however, does not imply sameness. As Shantideva says, “a cause coterminous with its result is something quite impossible to see.” The agent at the moment of action and the recipient have a meaningful connection, but they cannot be said to be the same entity; at the very least they function in divergent capacities and occupy separate states of being. As Gen-la put it, “the very word action means a series of different moments”, and cannot be attached to a permanent phenomena.
Shantideva moves forward in his effort to disprove the possibility of permanent self-hood. There cannot be a permanent self, he maintains, because there can be no permanent corresponding mental state. Past thoughts cannot be the self because they have already ceased. Neither can future mental states be counted as the self, as they have yet to occur. Finally, the immediate mental state of the present moment, which has not yet ceased, cannot be the permanent self, because at the inevitable moment of its passing, the self too would cease to exist. In this manner, the picture of an impermanent continuity, which for a variety of linguistic and psychological reasons we mislabel as a permanent “I”, begins to come into focus. As Shantideva points out, no amount of internal analysis will yield the discovery of an unchanging and independent self. It is a non-locatable concept, both mentally and physically.
But this discovery draws larger questions into the fray. If there is no self, no selves, then what is the purpose of acting compassionately, and towards whom are we meant to generate the virtue of compassion? In other words, what is the point of cultivating bodhicitta? Shantideva is quick to point out that, despite our mistaken imputations of true existence, practicing compassion still produces positive results. One must simply keep the goal, which is the cessation of suffering, in the foreground. Even though the vow to lead beings out of samsara is made with a mistaken mind as its basis, it nonetheless aids in the renunciation of ego and the development of the other-regarding impulse.
Stanzas 78-88 Here, Shantideva deconstructs the commonly held notion of the body as a singular unit or entity somehow endowed with identity beyond the simple sum of its parts. In other words, through close analysis of the nature of the physical self, he sets out to refute the conceptual abstraction of the body as something akin to a platonic form. This idea of the body, Shantideva says, is not locatable in any one part or group of parts that make up its constituent elements. If, he points out, the body is a “pervading” idea that permeates the structure of its connected parts, then we may certainly say the parts of the body exist in the parts of the body; but that is the extent of our conclusion. Where, though, are we to locate the conventional notion of “body” as something that exists as a true and independent whole? We cannot say that “body” exists in its entirety in each part, because we would be forced into the absurd conclusion that there are as many “bodies” as there are parts.
Now, Shantideva is not making the claim that bodies do not exist. He is simply trying to demonstrate the mistake of conceiving of the body as a unit that exists conceptually outside of its parts. If one considers the parts of the body, one can see that in none of them is the concept “body” fully contained. But just as surely, “body” does not exist separately and in distinction from its parts. Rather, Shantideva says, the idea of a conceptual entity called “body” is mere illusion, “to be affixed to a specific shape.” Shantideva proceeds to demonstrate the infinitely reducible nature of physical phenomena, or “forms.” As long as they are composed of parts, which has been previously demonstrated as a necessity for activity and engagement, those parts will always be reducible to their parts, and so forth. Physical reality, then, is empty of independent existence; its interdependence is its only defining characteristic. Who, Shantideva asks by way of conclusion, after genuinely engaging in this process of analysis, would wish to continue their attachment towards physical phenomena?
Stanzas 88-93 Next, Shantideva applies similar logic to refute the inherent existence of feelings, beginning with the experience of suffering. If suffering were a truly existent feeling, it would have to exist independently of causes and conditions; in other words, it would have to maintain itself in perpetual existence. Suffering would have to be a constant presence in the consciousness of a particular being. Clearly, however, this is not the case. Feelings of suffering can be superceded by feelings of pleasure, and vice versa, and both sensations are affected enormously by circumstance; they are subjective by definition. This is why, in Shantideva’s example, a man in agony is not affected by an otherwise pleasurable experience, such as eating delicious food. If the act of eating delicious food were inherently pleasurable, it would follow that pleasure would arise regardless of mitigating circumstances.
An objection is raised concerning the possibility that, though a feeling may be overridden by a more powerful rival, and thus not directly experienced, it still exists in a veiled manner.xxxviii Shantideva is quick to point out the logical inconsistency. One cannot “ascribe the nature of feeling” to something that is not being felt. A feeling, defined as such, cannot maintain itself as a feeling and fail to be experienced. The very language becomes absurd. Again, Shantideva’s counsel is to engage the mind in careful observation and meditation on emptiness, in order to better understand the nature of feeling.
Stanza 93-101 The first three of these stanzas refute the true existence of contact between sense-faculties and the objects of their apprehension, as posited by the proponents of the theory of the partless particle. Certain lower philosophical schools posit the partless particle as the fundamental, indivisible unit from which all phenomena are constructed.
Shantideva, in the opening of this debate, explains the only two possibilities for the interaction of partless particles involved in sense-perception. Either the sense-faculty makes direct contact with the object of its apprehension, or it does not. If there is no contact between these two, and a space remains between them, there are no grounds for interaction, and no sense-perception would be generated. But, neither could the partless particles of the sense-faculty (a problematic concept in itself), succeed in producing perception through meeting with the particles of the object.
Because it is a necessity of the partless particle that it be without volume or directional faces, any meeting between these units would have to result in interpenetration. A partless thing, as Stephen Batchelor puts it, cannot “be met on one side by another partless atom”xl; there can be no sides to a partless unit. Further, if the particles did interpenetrate, there would be no grounds to differentiate between the particles composing the sense-faculty and those of the object. They would collapse out of necessity into a single entity. At the end of this discussion, Shantideva adds that an aggregate of physical particles could never form the basis for consciousness, which is an immaterial phenomenon. There can be no physical contact between material and a non- material phenomenon, and no inherent and independently existing perception that proceeds from forms empty of inherent existence. This is Shantideva’s grounds for claiming that “seeing, then, and sense of touch are stuff of insubstantial dreams.”xli It seems almost Shakespearean in scope and language.
Shantideva goes on to refute the possibility of the aggregates of sensation and those of perception arising simultaneously; in short, because the cause and its resultant state cannot inhabit the same instant. Neither, though, could perception arise subsequent to the cessation of its stimulus, because in this case “memory occurs, and not direct sensation.”
Stanza 102-105 These stanzas concern, in Stephen Batchelor’s words, the “close placement of mindfulness on the mind.” In the same way that Shantideva deconstructed the notion of “body”, he now seeks to deconstruct the notion of an inherently existing, singular entity of mind. The sense-faculties themselves are devoid of inherent existence, so the mind clearly cannot be located within them. By the same token, an independent mind cannot be located within the aggregate responsible for memory formation or the consciousness of feeling. But, neither can mind be located in the arena of physical forms, or in the conceptual space between form and the mental aggregate. Mind, as a functional entity, cannot exist entirely within any of these spheres, but neither can it exist wholly separate from their influence. As Shantideva points out, there is no phenomenon that exists somehow “not within the body, and yet nowhere else…” The notion of mind, then, is simply an aggregate of interdependent functions, both physical and non-physical. It is the human tendency to obfuscate this truth that leads us to view our minds as inherently existing, albeit mysterious, self-defining units. It is this constant layering of mistaken view upon mistaken view which prevents us from realizing our true nature, our Buddha-nature. Once the stratum of clouded understanding and misperception are permanently swept away by understanding emptiness with respect to our “selves” and external phenomena, we are capable of recognizing our natural state of existence; nirvana.
But the objection is raised that, though the mind may not exist inherently, surely the five basic sense-consciousnesses truly make contact with their objects. In response, Shantideva offers his three-pronged mode of analysis, similar to the one offered in the 100th stanza. Basically, he says, there are only three possible periods of time in which this true encounter can take place. Either the sense-consciousness is formed simultaneously with its object, before the object, or after the object’s cessation. If the two arise simultaneously, where are we to locate the cause of consciousness? When to things arise at the same instant, one cannot have caused the other. But, if the consciousness arises before the object, the problem remains; what triggers the causal mechanism? Finally, if the consciousness arises after the object has ceased its stimulus, that object is no longer the direct and singular cause for consciousness. One might say that certain events that lead to the production of a sense consciousness were set in motion by the object, but just as it is impossible to point to a single cause for the production of that object, no bilateral causal relationship can be established between object and sense- consciousness. By extending this method of analysis, Shantideva says, it becomes clear that there is no true production of singular phenomena, because they simply do not exist.
Stanzas 106-110 The objection is raised concerning how, if there are no truly existent phenomena, one can characterize the phenomena of relative and ultimate truth. Further, if relativity depended simply on the mistaken minds of beings trapped in samsara, then nirvana, as it exists conceptually, would be limited and changeable based on the relative understanding of beings bound by cyclic existence. The reply to this question, to my mind, is fairly complex, in part because it hinges on the understanding of beings already inhabiting nirvana, whose minds those of us still trapped in samsara are fundamentally incapable of knowing. In any case, Shantideva replies that the standard of truth for judging the relative nature of nirvana is not the relative perception of beings in samara, but the pure and complete understanding of those in nirvana. Since, for those already freed from cyclic existence, nirvana exists in a permanent way, the conceptual relativity imposed on it by samara’s inhabitants has no bearing. In nirvana, the inherent limitations of the conventional thought process, which proceeds from conceptual understanding, are entirely absent; “the relative has truly ceased.”
Next, an objection is raised concerning the process of analysis itself. How is one to trust the product of the analytical process when it is dependent upon the interaction of an object and a subject (the mind), neither of which are said to exist truly? Shantideva replies that, if a truly existent mode of analysis were required to validate every analytical process, (analysis “made in turn the object of our scrutiny”) then we would reach an “infinite regress”; we would require a truly existing mode of analysis to verify every preceding analytical product. Nirvana is attained when, having found both the process of analysis and its object to be empty of inherent existence, the thought process dependent on subject/object dualities ceases.
Stanza 111-115 Shantideva proceeds to refute the position of those philosophers who hold that both the objects of consciousness and the mind that apprehends them exist truly, or inherently. They cannot prove their inherence through mutual dependence, as dependence is the definitional opposite of inherence. But, neither can the truth of the object be used to support the truth of consciousness, because this would leave the object without proof of support. The same logic can be applied with the terms reversed; and Shantideva utilizes the analogy of the father and the son to this effect. But, the objection is raised, in the same way we can deduce the existence of the seed from a sprout, we can deduce the true existence of an object from the consciousness it produces. Shantideva dismisses this argument with a simple proof. The sprout itself, he says, is not responsible for proving the existence of the seed. Rather, it is a third party consciousness that performs this task. There is no third party equivalent for deducing the existence of the object from observing the consciousness it produces. In short, there is still nothing to bear witness to the true existence of the object.
Stanza 116-150 These stanzas concern a refutation of two separate non-Buddhist creation theories; the first (quite brief), that all phenomena are produced causelessly by way of their own power, and the second, that all phenomena proceed from a single cause. To refute the rather unobservant notion of causeless production, Shantideva simply points to the everyday evidence around him. One can perceive causation at work in the world, along with the fact that differing causes are responsible for differing results. These causes, in turn, were preceded by their own causal networks, and so forth.
The more involved refutation of a singular and permanent cause for every phenomenon comes in the form of a refutation of the claims of certain non-Buddhist schools, which posit a deity named Ishvara, who possesses both singularity and permanence, as the creator of everything. Seeking clarity, Shantideva requests that Ishvara’s precise nature be explained. The non-Buddhist schools respond that “he is the great elements of earth, water, fire, air and space.” Each of these elements, however, is fundamentally different from each other; they cannot, in aggregate, form a separate and unitary being. Further, as Shantideva says, these elements are devoid of a life force, besides being entirely mutable; they do not satisfy the requirements of divinity, permanence or creatorship. If Ishvara is simply the constituent elements of the universe, what exactly is it that he created? Upon hearing the reply that Ishvara is the creator of the self and the particles that form the elements, Shantideva points out the fact that these phenomena are held by Ishvara’s own devotees to be permanent and perpetually self- sustaining, and so cannot have a creator.
Shantideva has already proved that consciousness does not arise from any one singular cause. And if Ishvara is indeed the permanent creator of permanent phenomena (such as pleasure and pain), why are these qualities not found in constant measure and supply? The only answer is that Ishvara is dependent on certain conditions in order to engage in the act of creation, and this clearly precludes the possibility of his omnipotence.
To those Hindu schools who posit the existence of a “primal substance” composed of a balance of the truly existent qualities of “pleasure, pain and neutrality”, Shantideva offers this refutation. There cannot be, he says, a singular phenomenon with one nature composed of three oppositional elements. And, because every phenomenon must be of the nature of these three phenomenaxlix, they themselves would have to possess this “triple nature”, and would thus be clearly lacking in the quality of true existence.
In addition, Shantideva proceeds, it would be difficult to for material phenomena, “cloth and mindless objects,” to be composed of mental qualities; pleasure, pain and neutrality. Foundering, the objector replies that “things possess the nature of their cause.” This, of course, is not really an advancement of the argument. Shantideva’s point still stands; mental phenomena cannot act as the single cause for physical production. One can say, on the contrary, the cloth can cause pleasure, but, since cloth as a physical phenomenon lacks inherent existence, so to must the quality it produces.
We begin to re-enter familiar territory when Shantideva again refutes the permanence of sensations like pain and pleasure, as well as their ability to maintain their integrity in the face of overpowering sensations of the opposite nature. Feelings of pleasure do not simply refine and reduce themselves in the face of agony; they are gone, and hence impermanent. A phenomenon with the nature of permanence does not, by definition, possess the ability to wax and wane. Neither can a permanent phenomenon manifest a certain aspect of itself, for the simple reason that manifestation implies previous non-existence. In a last ditch effort to escape, the objector claims that manifest phenomena are present already in their causal conditions. This argument Shantideva dismisses with a rather visceral analogy and the statement that, were the product present in its causes, people could simply by cotton grain instead of clothes.
The objector is not yet ready to cede Shantideva the victor’s ground, and replies that cloths are indeed present in cotton grain, but worldly people are too ignorant to recognize it. But by the same token, Shantideva says, those who “know the truth” (the objector’s “wise men“) would be present in their preceding cause, worldly people bound in ignorance, whose views are never in accordance with reality. Thus, because “there is no truth in their cognition, all that it assesses is perforce deceptive.”l The question is posed; what then, if all cognition is deceptive, is the purpose of meditating on the emptiness of phenomena? Shantideva responds that while it is true that emptiness lacks inherent existence, and depends for its existence on the apprehension of deceiving phenomena, it serves nonetheless to “eliminate the apprehension of true existence”, li which is the source of suffering.
Shantideva concludes by reminding his audience that, while every phenomenon must have a cause, the resultant state is never wholly present in its causes, nor present in any way distinct from its causes. He encourages us to closely examine the causal mechanisms at the heart of the process of production, and to remember that that which is dependent on conditions, and ceases with their dispersal, is “mirage-like” and cannot be said to exist inherently. It is a definitional requirement of inherent existence that it not be dependent upon causal factors or conditions. Thus, there can be no truly existent phenomena. Everything proceeds from its causes, and everything is contingent upon the manifestation of certain conditions. Hence Shantideva’s assertion in the 149th stanza that there is no (truly existent) being, and no (truly existent) cessation. They are inextricably linked concepts, mutually dependent opposites, like two sides of a coin.
Conclusion: Stanzas 151-167 These stanzas conclude Shantideva’s ninth chapter with a final warning concerning the woes of cyclic existence, and praise of wisdom realizing emptiness as their only lasting remedy. When wisdom has demonstrated the foolishness and self-destructive nature of the mistaken view of an all important and truly existing self, the logical foundation for the practice of compassion becomes clear. Just as Plato does with Thrasymachus, Shantideva shows us that real happiness is never gained through selfishness.
From the point of view of my own very new and limited practice, I can assuredly agree with Shantideva’s assessment of the benefits of meditation on bodhicitta and emptiness. I can only hope that the benefit I received from thinking through the problems posed by this chapter will be reflected in this product.