The Buddhist Way to Liberation - The Philosophy of Liberation

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The Abhidharmakosa of Vasubandhu helps to get an orientation to the Buddhist view of the path to liberation.
The Abhidharmakosa is organized into nine chapters. The first two chapters set forth the factors organized under categories such as aggregates, sense-bases and elements. The factors are distinguished as pure and impure, conditioned and unconditioned, etc. The work lists about 75 factors, which have come to be thought of as the definitive Abhidharma account relating to dharma.

The attention in the entire work is thus fastened on the proclivities. The basic proclivities are considered six, namely, attachment (raga), aversion or repugnance (dvesa, pratigha), pride (maana), ignorance (avidya), wrong view (drsti) and perplexity (vicikitsaa). By relating these proclivities to varied defilements, contaminants, floods, bonds, afflictions and envelopers, Vasubandhu generates a highly complex analysis in chapter 5.

Collet Cox relates the problems that arise on seeking abandonment of the proclivities related to different sources of bondage such as defilements thus.
‘Within post-Vibhaasaa Sarvaastivaadin abhidharma texts, categories of defilements come to be differentiated according to their functions, which in turn become the subject of heated sectarian controversy.

This controversy reflects the further refinement of theories concerning the operation of thought and proclivities, as well as the methods by which proclivities are to be abandoned. It is also interconnected with the development of more sophisticated ontological theories, which inevitably affected all aspects of Abhidharma doctrine. In particular, this controversy involves the possibility of a distinction between latent and active proclivities, and the relation between these proclivities (whether latent or active) and the thought processes of the individual life-stream that they characterize.

At issue is the development of a model that could successfully explain the apparent, persistent activity of certain proclivities, the reemergence of their activity after an interruption, and the mechanism by which they are to be abandoned. For example, can un-virtuous proclivities arise conditioned by a morally dissimilar virtuous factor? If not, then what is the causal mechanism by which defilements arise immediately after a virtuous moment of thought? Further, if defilements are associated with thought, since two associated thought-concomitants of differing moral quality cannot occur simultaneously, how can the virtuous counteragent that obstructs a particular proclivity arise simultaneously with it? If, however, proclivities are not understood to be associated with thought, their very activity of defiling thought is meaningless, and no abandonment is necessary. Finally, if proclivities are understood to exist as real entities in the past and future as well as in the present, then they can never be destroyed in the sense that they become nonexistent, so in what sense can they be said to be abandoned?'

Vasubandhu and Samghabhadra attempt to deal with the problems stated above. Vasubandhu makes a distinction among the proclivities, which he considers to be latent dispositions not necessarily present to consciousness, that is, unassociated with awareness (cittaviprayukta), and envelopers that are, in their nature, active and present in awareness. Samghabhadra does not, however, accept this distinction.

Making this distinction, Vasubandhu interprets these proclivities unassociated with awareness as seeds (bija) constituting a series of dormant factors initiated by an action, a later member of which series can emerge at the proper time to fulfill its karmic function. Samghabhadra, a Sarvaastivaadin, instead, explains the connection between a given defilement and the subsequent moments of differing moral quality in a stream by appeal to the notion of the possession (praapti) of a proclivity-moment by a factor in the stream of an individual existent. Vasubandhu, however, rejects vehemently the notion of possession. The notion of seeds naturally leads one to the conception of a place where the seeds can be stored. This appears to have helped Vasubandhu to develop his theory of Storehouse-consciousness.

As the primary task of the Buddhist seeker of liberation is to eliminate the factors that bind him, it is worth realizing what these factors are.

1. Proclivities (anusaya)
The six main proclivities are attachment, repugnance (or hatred), pride, ignorance, views and perplexity. If one distinguishes attachment to desire from attachment to existence, the will to live, the latter will be the seventh proclivity. Yogacaara states that these proclivities are inherited through karma from past actions, and are preserved sequentially as seeds in storehouse-consciousness (aalayavijnaana). They are in the nature of tendencies (hence proclivities) to think and act in relevant ways.
Harivarman, Dharmatraata and Vasubandhu list altogether 98 proclivities.

2. Defilements (klesa) or Contaminants (aasrava)
The thoughts and deeds that result from proclivities are considered defilements (klesa). They are classed under the relevant proclivity concerned. As such, these are the same in name as the main six or seven proclivities, but represent the actions actually performed as opposed to the proclivities, that is, the tendencies to act that way. Further, some defilements breed others. For example, where one has a tendency to gain an object unlawfully, one is prone to develop hate towards another. Where one is said to abandon or root out a proclivity, one actually destroys or heads off the defilements under the said proclivity.

The defilements range from gross to subtle. The work Tattvasiddhi offers an example. It relates to our habit of classifying people as male and female with urge for sex, and the resulting unhappiness in the event of the urge not being satisfied. The work counsels one to meet one's urge by analyzing a member of the opposite sex into a congeries of bones, flesh, hair and other uninteresting parts. Thereby one is to meet the tendency to desire the opposite sex. This process reaches its logical conclusion when one reflects that the member of the opposite sex is but a bundle of undesirable things, and as empty as everything else.

Defilements are no more entities in the real world than are the proclivities, which engender them. As they are based on delusion, one eliminates them by eliminating ignorance. It is, therefore, possible, according to the Buddhist philosophers, that proper vision eradicates most defilements under 88 of the 98 proclivities enumerated by Harivarman and others. The Buddhist philosophers indicate that the defilements under the other proclivities are eradicated through meditation.

Realized souls such as bodhisattvas are said to be able to block the defilements of others by their endeavours, especially through what is called diamond-like meditation.

3. Afflictions (upaklesa) or envelopers (paryavastaana)
Afflictions or envelopers comprise a wide variety of tendencies. They include sleepiness or lethargy, excitement, craftiness, shamelessness, heedlessness, forgetfulness, etc. They are very common among ordinary human folk. The Buddhist philosophers consider that human beings are born with these afflictions. Indeed, one's present body is formed from previous afflictions. On the other hand, the noble person is one free of his afflictions, though he may still harbour proclivities that require further to be rooted out.

Vasubandhu traces afflictions to our insistence on holding fast to illusions about entities that are actually non-existent. They are the subtle causes of defilements. He terms some of them such as lethargy, excitement, sleepiness as neutral in the realm of desire. In higher realms, all envelopers are bad forces, and so to be reckoned.

4. Petters (samyojana) or obstructions (aavarana)
Fetters or obstructions seemingly cut across proclivities, defilements and afflictions. Fetters include some proclivities and some defilements. Buddhist philosophers list 9 or 10 fetters in different texts.

How are these factors that constitute proclivities, etc are to be abandoned? Both Vasubandhu and Samghabhadra adopt a classification of four methods derived from Upasaanta's Abhidharmahrdaya and Dharmatraata's Samyuktaabhidharmahrdayasuutra. It is not that these four methods can be used on every proclivity. The use of any of the methods depends on whether the proclivity involves a supporting object. If it involves a supporting object, the method of abandonment includes the ascertainment (parijnaana) of the supporting object (first method), the destruction of those other proclivities that have that supporting object as theirs, too (second method), and the abandonment of the supporting object (third method). If no supporting object is involved, abandonment is to be obtained through the arising of an antidote (pratipaksa) (fourth method).

Vasubandhu discusses the antidotes at length in the fifth chapter of the Kosa. He classifies them into four varieties, and explains in which order and under what circumstances (stream-enterer, etc) proclivities are separated from the factors constituting a stream and so disconnected from that stream.

The distinction between the first three methods and the fourth is considered in terms of the distinction between the path of vision and the path of cultivation or spiritual practice. But Vasubandhu treats the matter in a complicated way, and a clear division between the two paths is lost. Cox argues that the very distinction is hardly any exclusive distinction. The two paths do not, in fact, involve mutually exclusive patterns of abandonment of proclivities, but only the different kinds of proclivities and the stage of advancement in practice of the aspirant in question.

The Theravaadin account of the path to liberation takes varied forms. One account relates to purifications, which are of different types. One is moral purification, that is, observance of Buddhist ethical precepts. Second is mental purification.

This involves meditation leading to eight attainments such as the four trance states and the four immaterial meditations on space, consciousness, nothingness and neither perception nor non-perception.

Third is purification of views, the mastering of the bases of Abhidharma metaphysics by way of categorizing and analyzing correctly the four great elements, five aggregates and the other classifications of factors. Fourth is purification by overcoming doubts. This is the stage where the seeker considers and resolves such questions, as whether the self is persistent, whether there is God and whether there is rebirth. Fifth is knowledge of what constitutes or does not constitute the path. This includes further consideration and rejection of wrong theory about the path. Sixth is the knowledge of the path itself. Up to this stage, the seeker is still bound by fetters and has not yet attained knowledge.

In the final stages of stage six, one may have obtained correct understanding of the four noble truths producing in him ‘change of lineage' (gotrabhumi), which leads to the seventh stage that is purification through the vision of knowledge. The seeker that arrives at this stage is called ‘noble' (aarya), and progresses through such stages as stream-enterer, once-returner, non-returner and perfected being.

Other works refer to other accounts of the path to liberation. The work Astasaahasrikaaprajnaapaaramitaasutra, for instance, distinguishes world-lings (prthagjana), disciples (sraavaka), self-enlightened (pratyekabuddha), bodhisattvas and Buddhas. The work Dasabhumikasutra divides the path into ten stages. The Yogacaara School provides a five-fold division of stages on the path. The stages are of equipment (sambhaara), of preparation (prayoga), of vision (darsana), of practice (bhaavana) and of completion or beyond instruction (nistha, asaiksa).

As for the stages on the path to liberation, in the Buddhist literature going back to Pali canon, there is a significant distinction between the preparatory stages and the higher stages. In the preparatory stages, the aspirant is to practise Buddhist moral virtues and meditate on the factors. This distinction is sometimes identified as ‘change of lineage'. After this change, that is, in the higher stages, the aspirant becomes a stream-enterer (srotapanna). In some accounts, the stage of stream-entry is the second of eight such stages, the first being ‘stream-entry candidate' corresponding to the final stage of knowledge of the path.

The four-fold classification of stream-enterer, once-enterer, non-returner and perfected being is expanded to eight-fold classification, distinguishing candidates from achievers for each of the four stages, in some accounts.

Some texts like Tattvasiddhi, Yogacaarabhumi and Abhidharmakosa refer to as many as thirty-six stages on the path to liberation.

A stream-enterer is one who has overcome belief in individual self, and doubts about Buddhist doctrines, through performance of rituals and by divine Will. He cannot be reborn lower than the human stage, unless he backslides. He is to be liberated by the time he lives seven more lives.

The once-returner is one who has weakened the hold of the three ‘poisons' of desire, hatred and delusion. He will be reborn only once. The non-returner does no more karma, and is reborn only among the gods.

The ‘perfected being' (arhat), according to the Pali-canon, the Theravaada and the Sarvaastivaada literature, is one who has destroyed all his contaminants and who is free from all proclivities. He is, however, distinguished from a ‘noble' (aarya) who is one that has just undergone the initial stage of lineage. A perfected being is still a disciple (sraavaka), given the parlance of classical Buddhism. He is the one that has attained a kind of enlightenment (bodhi), that is, the enlightenment of a disciple (sraavakabodhi). Thus he is a kind of Buddha. He remains in an embodied state for the reason that the karmic residues slated to work themselves out in his current lifetime need the remainder of time and opportunity to do so.

A perfected being may arrive at his state of perfection in more than one way and under more than one kind of circumstances. Such differences may constitute the basis to indicate degrees of perfection to individual perfected beings. A perfected being may or may not have both to master meditation and attain insight. Either or both ways may lead one to that stage.

Some perfected beings attain enlightenment on their own, and are termed pratyekabuddhas (self-enlightened). Such a state arises during a period or at a place where there is no Buddha to teach, or order to join, though preparation for this state takes several lives. The self-enlightened goes through the same kinds of ascetic, instructional and meditative practices as do other Buddhist disciples. He has to understand the same truths and eliminate the same kinds of proclivities. Pali-sutras indicate that a self-enlightened may not offer instruction to others. However, he teaches by example, and through brief and cogent remarks.

A perfected being does not backslide. He has, by definition, destroyed all the proclivities that occasion backsliding. The Buddha provides a list of questions that should be addressed to one who claims to be a perfected being. He himself, as well as others, knows whether he is a perfected being based on his answers to the questionnaire.

A perfected being is a bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas are of two categories. One is the Buddha himself. The other category is that of disciple bodhisattvas. The Buddhist literature frequently refers to perfected disciple bodhisattvas such as Sariputra, Maudgalyaayana, Mahaakaasyapa, Anuruddha, etc.

A perfected disciple bodhisattva can be a Buddha. But, by his own choice, he does not become Buddha, as he chooses to remain ‘in the world' to help others achieve enlightenment.
A perfected being is one that has attained nirvana. As liberation is defined as the termination of proclivities, and as the perfected being has attained that state, he is considered to have attained nirvana.

As for parinirvana, it differs from nirvana in that while a perfected being attains nirvana (liberation) in his present lifetime, a perfected being is said to attain parinirvana in some future life when the karmic traces, still in need of expiation, will be fully lived out.

In the Mahayana Prajnaapaaramitaa literature, there has been a change in the depiction of a perfected being. There is no doubt, writes Harrison, ‘that the level these venerable figures represent, that of the arhats and the one that is to be transcended by the bodhisattvas...A hierarchy of attainments is in fact envisaged, leading from the state of an ordinary person at the bottom, through those of a ‘stream-winner', a ‘once-returner', a ‘non-returner', an arhat and a pratyekabuddha to the state of a Buddha or a tathaagata at the top. In aiming for the top, bodhisattvas, aspirants to the full awakening of a Buddha, are warned repeatedly not to fall back to the level of the arhats / sraavakas and the pratyekabuddhas or to join their ranks, and such a regression is represented as a fearful misfortune...The sraavakayaana is characterized by attachment and limitation, and those who opt for it do so primarily out of fear of samsaara, which renders them incapable of aspiring to buddhahood. Not only is their courage thus inferior to that of the bodhisattvas, but their wisdom is too.'

Thus, ‘what the (Prajnaapaaramitaasutras) tell us is that the early adherents of the bodhisattvayaana - who were probably very much in the minority - were prepared to go to great lengths to uphold their ideal against what they conceived to be the traditional goal of Buddhist practice, namely arhatship or nirvana for oneself alone, but they were not prepared to write off the rest of the Buddhist sangha or sever their own connection with it, by the wholesale use of such terms as ‘Hinayana' and ‘Mahayana' as sectarian categories.'

But one finds increased attention paid precisely in the works ascribed to Asanga and Vasubandhu as to how one achieves liberation, how the factors that bind can be rendered like burnt seeds, unable to generate further karma and so non-existent.

This new approach to liberation is often equated with the rise of the Yogacaara School. One of the wide-ranging and important concepts associated with Yogacaara is aasrayaparaavrtti, meaning ‘revolution at the base', prominently mentioned in the work Yogacaarabhumi by Asanga.
The main task for a Yogacaara aspirant is to get rid of his proclivities. If he tries to do this sequentially, it is likely to be a never-ending thought. This is for the reason that the aspirant may breed new proclivities while attempting to rid himself of the earlier ones. Reflection on this possibility must have led the Buddhist philosophers of the period to consider not only the specific nature of seeds and what lays them down, but also on the general nature of seeds and the way of eradicating them without taking root.

It is possible to presume that from this reflection arose the idea of revolution at the base, which is a transformation in approach which would render one no longer subject to the growth of seeds into actions that breed proclivities, and, therefore, more seeds.
One way of looking at this problem is to view the actions that lay down seeds as dependent on depravities (dausthulya). They are the kinds of physical and mental shortcomings that block the aspirant's way to his goal. For example, physical depravity is over exhaustion. Mental depravity is just being depressed. The work Yogacaarabhumi provides eighteen kinds of depravities.

How is the aspirant is to deal with the depravity? The Buddhist literature indicates that he should replace these depravities with clean thoughts (prasrabdhi). In other words, the aspirant is to cleanse his mind by ridding his awareness of the factors that constitute and generate depravities. It is possible to attain to it by meditation. What one attains by thoroughly cleansing one's mind of depravities is what is called ‘revolution at the base'.
The section Sraavakabhumi in the work Yogacaarabhumi distinguishes four ways of meditative attention (manaskara). They are the directing of one's attention first towards factors, which need attention, second towards the outflows of such factors, third towards that which generates defilement-less-ness, and fourth towards that which cleanses the vision of knowledge. The fourth attention, in other words, is to produce the higher insight achieved by the enlightened Buddha. The same section also states that through proper meditation one purifies one's body and mind of all depravities, purifies supporting objects by examining the actual nature of the objects one is aware of, purifies one's mind by eliminating all desires, and purifies one's knowledge by eliminating ignorance.

The concept of the ‘revolution at the base' is applied to the six senses and put to use in addressing distinctions within the penultimate stages on the path to liberation. The question arises whether the noble person still utilizes the six senses in the same way as before. In such a case, it is difficult to presume that there can be any ‘revolution at the base' by which one terminates the proclivities. Asanga avoids the question stating that it cannot be said whether or not ‘revolution at the base' applies to the senses.

There is a kind of distinction drawn between two kinds of liberation, one with residues (sopadhisesa) and the other without residues (niruupadhisesa). In respect of liberation with residues, one still has the sensory experiences requiring the six senses. In respect of liberation without residues, there arise no sensory experiences for one. In this case, it can be said that there is ‘revolution at the base'.

Liberation without residues is generally explained in mystical language. It is considered to be lacking in manifoldness (nisprapanca), and to deal with purification of the realm of factors (dharmadhaatuvisuddhi), and to involve stability and blissfulness. What one knows in liberation without residues is termed Thusness (Tathataa).
The state of bliss resulting from the ‘revolution at the base' is, according to the Yogacaara literature, the storehouse-consciousness (aalayavijnaana) itself transformed through purification of all the proclivities by meditation, into ‘nothingness'.

What happens at liberation is precisely that the storehouse-consciousness ceases to exist. Because of this state of no storehouse-consciousness, there is no longer any state where the karmic seeds can be stored. All that is left at this stage is pure-consciousness, but not consciousness of any temporal thing.

K. R. Paramahamsa is an author of book Buddhism In Scripture and Practice

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