The Original Teachings of the Historical Buddha

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Sutta Pitaka of the Pali canon is the earliest record of the teachings the Buddha himself was eventually to give. These sutras, or discourses, do not specifically seek to give a connected account of the enlightenment and the ministry of the Buddha. Nonetheless, they include a surprising amount of material that captures actual historical events and people in remarkable detail for literature of that age. The Sutta Pitaka makes occasional reference to the Buddha's own search for truth. The following purports to be the Buddha's own description of the rigours of the ascetic discipline he imposed upon himself.

‘I was unclothed, indecent, licking my hands... I took food only once a day, or once in two or seven days. I lived under the discipline of eating rice only at fortnightly intervals... I subsisted on the roots and fruits of the forest, eating only those, which fell (of their own accord). I wore coarse hempen cloth...rags from a rubbish heap...clothes of grass and of bark... I became one who stands (always) refusing to sit... I made my bed on thorns. The dust and dirt of years accumulated on my body... I subsisted on the dung of suckling calves... So long as my own dung and urine held out, I subsisted on that... Because I ate so little, my limbs became like the knotted joints of withered creepers, my buttocks like a bullock's hoof, my protruding backbone like a string of beads, my gaunt ribs like the crazy rafters of a tumbledown shed. My eyes were sunken deep in their sockets... My scalp was shrivelled... The hair, rotted at the roots, fell out if I stroked my limbs with my hand.'

Noble Ross Reat records the manner of attainment of enlightenment by the Buddha as stated in the Sutta Pitaka.
‘After some six years of such rigorous ascetic discipline, the Pali sutras record the Buddha as saying that he realized that self-mortification would not lead him to the ultimate goal of enlightenment and spiritual liberation. He is said to have recalled that while his father was ploughing, as a child he had entered spontaneously into a tranquil condition later known as the first meditative trance (dhyaana). He resolved at this point to pursue this more natural and wholesome means of spiritual development and to practice a moderate, middle path between self-indulgence and self-mortification. Later the term ‘Middle Path' would name and epitomize the entire edifice of Buddhist doctrine and practice. As a result of this realization, the Bodhisattva Siddhartha resolved to begin taking food in moderate but adequate amounts. He had known the extremes of sensual indulgence and mortification. He now rejected both as inhibiting spiritual progress, and developed the moderate daily routine that governs the lives of Buddhist monks to the present day. His five companions regarded this change as backsliding, and abandoned him in disgust.

Siddhartha then carried on alone, going on an alms round in the morning, eating one moderate meal a day before noon, and spending the afternoon and evening in meditation, often late into the night. His progress was swift, and before long he sat before the fabled Bodhi tree (tree of enlightenment), a descendant of which still stands at Bodh Gaya, near Patna in modern Bihar. As he sat cross-legged beneath this tree on the night of the Great Enlightenment, it is said that he resolved not to stand until he had attained final spiritual enlightenment and release. In the morning, he stood, having realized at the age of thirty-five the ultimate attainment of men and gods: Buddhahood. From this point, it is proper to speak of him as the Buddha, ‘The Awakened One'.

Buddhist doctrine emphasizes that the specific content of the Buddha's experiences on the night of enlightenment can never be expressed in words. Sutra accounts say that the Buddha experienced ‘three knowledges'. They are remembrance of his past rebirths in detail, knowledge of the past and future rebirths of other beings, and knowledge that he himself was free of all faults and illusions and that he would never be reborn again. The ‘third knowledge' is synonymous with the realization of liberation (nirvana).
Because of the inexpressibility of enlightenment and liberation, and the difficulty of the path thereto, the Buddha is said at first to have despaired of ever being able to convey his discovery to others. Various deities are said to have intervened and encouraged him to teach the dharma (truth) and ‘to open the door of deathlessness' to gods and men. The Buddha then concluded that the people best qualified to understand his profound and subtle discovery were the five ascetics with whom he had undergone austerities, on realization that his two teachers had died. He is said to have perceived them with his ‘divine eye' as staying at Saranath. He journeyed to Saranath and won their approbation, overcoming their initial resistance. Thus he gained his first followers.

The Sutta Pitaka preserves what purports to be the first sermon of the Buddha after his enlightenment, the ‘Turning of the Wheel of Truth'. This sutra propounds the Four Noble Truths, which constitute an outline of the fundamental doctrines of Buddhism.

Writing was virtually unknown in India during the time of the Buddha. His sermons could be preserved only through memorization by his followers until they were written down in the Pali language at about the time of Christ. The literary form of the Pali sutras suggests that they are a record of such an oral tradition. There is a great deal of repetition from one sutra to another, not only in terms of the doctrines expressed, but also in terms of extensive verbatim repetition of such material. It, therefore, follows that the Sutta Pitaka is a sincere attempt to record memorized versions of individual sermons rather than an edited compilation of doctrine.

What are called the Buddha's original teachings are those accepted by the School of the Elders. The main philosophical text of this school is Aniruddha's Abhidharmaatthasangraha.

According to it, the Buddha taught the four Aryan Truths, also called as Noble Truths. They are the truth of suffering (duhkhasatya), the truth of causation (samudavasatya), the truth of cessation (nirodhasatya), and the truth of the way (maargasatya). These truths are interpreted thus. Everything is misery; everything is caused; if the cause is destroyed, the effect is destroyed; and there is a way to destroy the cause.

The Buddha taught the four simple truths so that common people could understand the nature and aim of a true philosophy of life, and how to follow the philosophy. Although the truths are simple, their interpretation and exposition gave rise to some of the grandest philosophies, and a large number of schools.

The first truth holds promise of a way to assessing the human predicament, a way that recognized the seriousness of the predicament while providing the possibility of a way to escape it, as the Buddha himself had done. The human predicament, in short, is that each being, having performed actions without beginning, carried residues laid down by past acts, residues which determined subsequent experiences, and thus conditioned present and future acts. As long as we remain ignorant of, and misunderstand, our karmic situation, we have no hope of being able to bring an end to the frustrations of the actions that karmic residues influence.

The doctrine of momentariness was developed out of the first truth. There is suffering in every particle of existence. For it is born, decays, and dies. Everything that is born must decay and die. So old age, disease and death are inevitable. There is nothing in the world that is not subject to change. The world is a continual flux. It is an unceasing becoming. Becoming consists of birth and destruction. Therefore, everything contains and carries.

No one denies that such a change involves pain and suffering for all living beings. For them, flux or change does not merely mean that a thing is born at one moment, exists for some moments, and dies at another moment. In that event, the thing lasts for some moments. According to the conservative Buddhists, every bit of existence is born, stays, and dies at the same moment, giving place to another bit of existence.

According to them, existence or being is a momentary event and contains its own non-existence or non-being. There is, therefore, no being without its non-being. Everything is both positive and negative at the same place and time. This doctrine of flux is called the doctrine of momentariness (ksanikavaada), which, the Buddhists thought, gives the soundest basis for their doctrine that everything is suffering. To be is to suffer. Suffering pervades being, and is basic and universal. This compares to the tragic sense in Christianity.

For them, the stability of things is only an appearance. Everything that appears to stay or live for a time is really a series of exactly similar moments of existence. A pattern of events, although dying every moment, passes on its pattern to the next group of events. We may think that the same object continues to exist. But, for them, it is really a series of aggregates of events following the same pattern. Apart from the aggregates, the thing is nothing.
It is, therefore, a whole of parts. Man is nothing but the parts that constitute him. Every ultimate part of man is a momentary event.

Although the events themselves are momentary, the patterns are not momentary. They can continue for a time. Practically, they play the role of universals in Buddhist thought. But they are neither real, nor eternal. The Buddhists do not accept the reality of universals.
The second Aryan Truth relates that every event has a cause. Applied to human beings, according to the Buddha, their situation itself is causally conditioned. If it were not so, there would be no hope of gaining release from the karmic cycle through any activity of theirs.

If human bondage has a cause, what constitute the conditions of such bondage? The Buddha points to the inexorable production of karmic residues by actions, and human ignorance, that is, wrong views about the actual nature of things.

Ignorance is wrong views. What causes wrong views? If it is said that the causes of wrong views are our past actions, our karma, it leads us nowhere. This ends in a circle, karma leading to ignorance and ignorance leading to karma. This leads to a state of despair, which the Buddha's message was intended to alleviate. A different approach is necessary to appreciate its import.

By ‘action' is meant something what one does, not just anything that happens to one. The word ‘karman' in Sanskrit is derived from the root ‘kr' meaning ‘to do' and ‘to make‘. Therefore, karma refers both to what is done, our actions, and what is made, that is produced by those actions. What are produced by actions are the residues that condition future actions. As regards ‘what is done', the Indian philosophy counts three kinds of deeds, namely, bodily, vocal and mental. Karman may, therefore, mean our bodily, vocal and mental acts and also the traces they lay down.

Is everything we make / do by our bodily, vocal and mental actions karma? It does not seem so. The Yogasutras state that there are three kinds of karmic results, that is, three aspects of life that are causally conditioned by karmic traces. These are the kind of birth one has, whether in hell, as ghost, as animal, as human or as a god; one's destined length of life in that birth; and the kinds of experience one has while living out that life. In other words, the karma produced by good deeds causes satisfying experiences while the karma produced by deeds causes frustrating, dissatisfying or even painful experiences.
This leads to the question as to what is it that causes us to do these kinds of things. In other words, what are the conditions in which one makes karma at all? Behaviour may not be intentional. It may not be action in every case; it may be reaction; though it is a movement.

Intention is important to relate to the motive of action. But it is a difficult concept, open to alternative interpretations. But it is clear that when we class a behaviour as intentional, we impute to its perpetrator at least an awareness of what he / she is trying to do, that is, a decision to exercise or withhold to exercise one's bodily, vocal or mental powers to some purpose or other. If such intentionality is absent, we exonerate the doer from blame for the results of his / her action.

If actions proper are intentional doings, and it is actions proper that produce karmic traces, then one way to escape karmic bondage is to stop acting including annihilation of awareness or inducement for such action. It is not easy to achieve as action includes bodily, vocal and mental doings. In this situation, what is needed appears to be not to stop action altogether, but to stop such actions that breed bondage involving intentionality and the desire to gain or avoid things.

The Buddha taught that such desires and aversions are bred by wrong views, views that lead us to act in the absence of which we would not be acting at all. If the cause of the bondage is ignorance, that is, wrong views, the wrong ones, engendering desires and aversions, are to be stamped out. They are to be replaced by right views.

The Buddha himself identified a number of wrong views. To begin with, there are the views that are eradicated by the Buddhist understanding of the fundamental doctrines that all is suffering or frustrating, that everything is momentary or fleeting and that there is no self. In line with these doctrines is avoidance of the two extremes, eternalism and nihilism, between which lies the Middle Way as preached by the Buddha.

The diversity of the Abhidharma systems can be seen as generated from differences in emphasis as to which views are the wrong ones. The doctrinal divisions among the sects that developed in Buddhist philosophy, right from the beginning, turned on differences in what kind of emphasis to place in classifying views. These differences were extrapolated several times over in the succeeding centuries. The record of who believed what provides the most confusing aspect of the records that survive from that period. On just about any point, the Buddhist philosophers provide divergent opinions among themselves.

For example, the Buddha taught that everything is non-eternal (anitya). Some schools interpreted this to mean that all factors are strictly momentary; others that they last a few moments only; still others that most, but not necessarily all, factors are evanescent; and some others that factors are eternal, only their occurrences being momentary. This is only representative of the differences galore that exist on almost every issue of philosophical relevance in the Buddhist thought.

Given this diversity of opinions on the fundamental theses of the Buddha, it was apparently going to be difficult to say just which views are the wrong ones. But an important exception is found in the position taken by Nagarjuna. As he sees it, any and all opinions constitute wrong views. Any view, implicitly or explicitly, ascribes an essential, independent nature to something. According to him, the truth is that nothing has an independent nature, that everything is ‘empty' (suunya). By suunya, the Buddha, according to Nagarjuna, meant that everything is dependently originated, causally conditioned.

Nagarjuna, therefore, applies a negative dialectical method to each and every kind of category, showing that each one is empty in that precise sense. The argument is general in nature. It even applies against the very idea of the Buddha's liberation. Everything is empty.

A third alternative to the conception of wrong views arose in the fourth century AD at the hands of Asanga and Vasubandhu. According to this third count, there is only one basic wrong view, and that derives from our natural but mistaken temptation to assume an external reality independent of our mental ideas and impressions. It is common sense realism that generates all mistaken ideas about persisting things, and persisting selves cognizing those persisting things. For the Yogacaara, as the Vijnaanavaadin is called, the only existent entities are the momentary flashes of awareness that constitute the streams of experience we refer to, in confusion, as ‘you' or ‘I'. The Vijnaanavaadin traces all the wrong views identified in the Buddha's teachings to this wrong view.
The main Buddhist doctrine of causation arises out of this second truth. Nothing happens without a cause. The causal relation is fixed between two events. Otherwise, anything can originate out of anything. The acorn can produce only the oak, but not an apple tree. But, since everything is momentary, the cause has to die before the effect originates. The acorn has to perish before the oak can sprout. There is, therefore, no material cause continuing into the effect.

Yet, there must be a material cause. The acorn is the material cause of the oak. There have to be other causes also like water, soil, oxygen, carbon, etc. But the sprout can come out only after they are destroyed. After the sprout comes up, we no longer find the acorn. So we have to say that the effect originates, depending on the cause, but not as a new form of the cause.

From the point of view of the effect, causation is to be considered as dependent origination (pratityasamutpaada). From the point of the cause, it only occasions the effect through its self-destruction. In other words, it becomes a necessary occasion for the appearance of the effect. Without it, the effect cannot arise.

The above conception of causation is applied to the problem of suffering, so that it can be overcome by removing the cause. The Buddhists generally accept twelve links in the causal process leading to suffering. The links, briefly, are as follows.

1. Nescience (avidyaa), ignorance, is the ultimate cause of suffering. It may be interpreted as the metaphysical Unconscious. It is not the ignorance or Unconscious of any individual. For it is the cause of the individual himself, and cannot belong to him as it is prior to him. It is not, however, clear whether there is an Unconscious for every individual as his ultimate cause, or whether it is the same for all and is, therefore, cosmic. The Mahayana is however clear in this regard. It asserts that the ignorance is cosmic. In any case, the doctrine of ignorance is as important for Indian thought as that of the original sin to Christian theology.

2. Depending on the Unconscious, the samskaras (forms) originate. These forms or formative forces are not those of an individual. It may be that they are inherent in the Unconscious lying at the roots of the individual. They generate him, and are ready to work through him after he appears.

3. Depending on the formative forces originates the embryonic consciousness (vijnaana) of the individual. This is an embryonic consciousness only without individuality.

4. Depending on this consciousness arises name-form (nama-ruupa). Name-form is interpreted as the combination of the mental and physical aspects of the individual. The individual, the psychophysical person is formed at this stage.

5. Depending on the name-form, the senses, namely, eye, ear, nose, touch, taste and mind come into being. For the Buddhists, mind also is a sense.

6. Depending on the senses, sense contact with objects arises.

7. Depending on sense contact arises feeling or sense experience (vedana).

8. Depending on sense experience arises craving (trsna) for the objects of pleasure.

9. Depending on craving, attachment or clinging (upaadaana) to objects makes its appearance.

10. Depending on clinging, becoming (bhaava) arises. This becoming is interpreted as the tendency to be born.

11. Depending on becoming, birth and rebirth (jaati) ensue.

12. Finally, depending on birth and rebirth, old age and death (jaraamarana) arise.

Of the above twelve links, every preceding one is the cause or ground of every succeeding one. Every succeeding one can be removed by removing every preceding one. Ultimately, ignorance itself has to be overcome when man becomes enlightened.

The third noble truth of the Buddha, therefore, relates that, as there is a possibility to overcome the necessary causal conditions, which bring about bondage, there must exist a sufficient condition for the annulment of the bondage, that is, for the attainment of liberation.
Just what constitutes that sufficient condition, depends on what are identified as the necessary causal conditions that can be overcome. Different Buddhist schools identify ignorance about various things as the causal conditions. Depending on what those conditions are thought to be, there are different accounts of how one eliminates bondage and gains liberation.

The various Abhidharma schools teach that through a thorough understanding of which factors (dharma) constitute the universe, one would, by the same token, understand which ideas constitute right views. Having gained such clarity of understanding (the path of vision), one must still internalise it through meditative practice (the path of cultivation).

It may be that one meditates first to gain that understanding. Meditation serves to train one to eschew all temptations to think, speak and act in ways that stem from wrong views.

The perfection of meditation does not often happen suddenly, or even in forty days, as it did for the Buddha. It takes several lifetimes. Different schools indicate divergent accounts of the number of lives it takes one who has ‘entered the stream' to liberation to gain the final life of a perfected being, a Buddha. The most common account, however, distinguishes stream-enterers, those with only seven lives to live, those with only one more life to live, and the perfected non-returners.

The work Abhisamayaalamkaara, attributed to Asanga, gives a good account of the eight perfections of wisdom (prajnaapaaramitaa). These are not stages in a progression, but bringing together of what are presumably the most important notions involved in spelling out the path to liberation. All these notions are drawn from Abhidharma traditions testified to in the literature, although the doctrine of the three bodies of a Buddha reflects the encroachment of specifically Mahayana emphases supposed to be enshrined in the Prajnaapaaramitaa works.
The Abhidharma approach to removing ignorance stresses the stepwise treatment of many factors in many ways. On the other hand, Nagarjuna's Maadhyamika treats one thing in just one way, a dialectically based rejection of belief in the actuality of anything. This rejection is on the mundane or language-based plane. But it is accomplished in full realization that empirical beings require such worldly distinctions.

On the empirical level, the world can be accepted as it is found to be. The Abhidharma-like advice on how to improve oneself in the empirical world is by no means deprived of scope. It does not mean that because something is dependent on other things, it cannot function. On the other hand, our experience attests quite the reverse. It is precisely things born of causes and conditions that themselves occasion their own particular results. It would seem to follow that the way to escape bondage is not to dig up more causes and conditions for old or new factors, but rather to desist from digging, to stop thinking in terms of causes and conditions.

The Yogacaara method, in essence, combines the approach of Abhidharma and Maadhyamika. Yoga is, essentially, a system of meditative practice designed to release the soul from rebirth, rebirth being regarded as a tedious and pointless repetition of suffering, old age, illness and death. It considers release from rebirth as a cessation of mundane existence. It uses the negatively dialectical approach to refute all claims of, and beliefs in, externally real objects. What remains is the stream of consciousness. It is a perspicuous account of the flux of awareness, the different categories of mentality and their relationships.
The levels of mentality are considered to be of three types. They are the level of ordinary or constructed awareness, the level of causally dependent awareness that constitutes the stream of consciousness itself and the level of perfected construction-free awareness achieved in meditation. The way of distinguishing the different levels of mentality is one way of classifying awareness.

Another way to distinguish the three levels of consciousness is there. The three levels are the abode-consciousness (aalayavijnaana) in which the karmic seeds are stored, the mental consciousness in which the stream constituting the abode-consciousness evolves, and the full discrimination of objects sensorily apprehended as desirable or undesirable, good or bad, black or white, etc.
When the dialectical critique of distinctions, the critique of identifications, is accomplished in meditation, all that is left is the stream of undifferentiated awareness. It is the abode-consciousness without any distractions and no seeds to nurture. Once the life of such an enlightened person ends, there is nothing left to cause classifications or discriminations in that stream. This is liberation, which, in essence, is the third noble truth of the Buddha.
So far as suffering is concerned, the twelve-linked chain of causation explains the second and third truths.

The above is only a metaphysical explanation of suffering. How are we, in practice, to effect the removal of suffering? To answer the question, the Buddha preached the eight-fold Aryan Way as the fourth truth.
The eight-fold Aryan Way consists of

1. Right views (samyagdrsti) or understanding of the nature of the world, the self, and the goal of life;

2. Right resolve (samyagsankalpa) to follow the truths;

3. Right speech (samyagvak) consisting of truthfulness, avoidance of slander, unkind words and frivolous talk;

4. Right action (samyakkarma) including non-killing, non-stealing, non-sensuality, non-lying and non-intoxication;

5. Right livelihood (samyagajiva) or following a profession that does not involve be performing of prohibited actions as means of livelihood;

6. Right endeavour (samyagvyayaama) to overcome the temptations of evil;

7. Right mindfulness (samyaksmrti), which consists of constantly placing before oneself one's ideal, without forgetting it; and

8. Right concentration (samyaksamaadhi) or meditation.

When meditation becomes perfect, man attains to nirvana, a state of absolute non-disturbance, equanimity and peace. It is the state of liberation from the world of becoming.

The above categories are treated at length in Buddhist texts. They continue to constitute the largest part of the Buddhist corpus of literature. As for right view, the first category, there are different conceptions of, or at least different emphases on, what constitutes right view.

As for the last five categories, namely, action, living, effort, mindfulness and concentration, they relate to the specifics of the path to be followed. Right resolve and right speech pertain to more theoretical aspects of Buddhist thought. Nagarjuna repudiates all views. His pupil Aaryadeva follows suit. The views that Nagarjuna and Aaryadeva discuss for repudiation cover the entire spectrum of Buddhist thought, the entire Abhidharmic position in the second-third century AD. The Abhidharma systems presume that the Buddha taught the following truths literally.

1) There are no persisting entities. What exist are factors (dharma), evanescent flashes of energy, which last only for a moment. Nothing persists, so nothing moves; nothing acts.

2) So causality has to be understood as a relation among momentary factors. When we say A causes B, what is really the case is that a momentary flash of a type we call A is followed by a flash of a type we call B, where we have experienced flashes of type A regularly accompanied or followed by those of type B.

3) Our common sense beliefs in the existence of tables and chairs, bodies, organs and objects have to be rethought to accord with (1) and (2).

4) In particular, my natural belief that I am a persistent seat of consciousness, that there is an essentially identical self that underlies my fleeting varied experiences, has to be abandoned.

5) It is belief in persisting entities, especially one's self, that breed the karmic traces that occasion subsequent rebirths and frustrations. Even satisfactions - such as pleasant experiences - are karmically conditioned. As long as we operate under such beliefs, our actions - mental as well as bodily and vocal - will lay down karmic traces that are subsequently worked off in the course of later actions.

6) The factors that actually constitute our streams can be either defiled or pure. They are defiled as long as they result from actions performed under misguided beliefs in selves, persistence, and objects. Purified factors occur when realization has taken place, the stream of factors no longer breeding karmic residues that require further lives to work them off.

7) Purification is likely to be gradual. The series of truths that constitute (1) - (6) above dawns on one slowly, and full understanding and appreciation of them requires serious meditative practice. When one meditates, one gains the ability to internalise right views in a non-discursive manner, so that one learns not to be the victim of conceptual categories of the sort that pervade ordinary discourse and thought.

8) When one has corrected all wrong views and has internalised insight through meditation, one becomes a perfected being. Without karmic traces, purified and liberated, such a Buddha teaches by his very example until ‘his body' drops off of natural causes, that is, his stream ceases. This is Gautama's final liberation, a goal available to all beings, though difficult to attain.

Nagarjuna produces a systematic critique of all views outlined above. What Nagarjuna criticizes is the failure of the Abhidharma schools to carry the Buddha's logic through to conclusion. Nagarjuna applies the four-fold logic to what are taken to be the Buddhist tenets.

The first thesis is the thesis of momentariness. The Buddha taught that nothing persists for more than a moment. Thus ‘factors' are actually momentary flashes. Then the question arises, ‘what are the flashes of?' Nagarjuna's insight is that factors are not flashes of anything. To suppose that there is something that flashes is to return precisely to the viewpoint, according to Nagarjuna, that the Buddha was trying to avoid. When the Buddha taught that there are no eternal things, he did not mean to say that there are non-eternal things. In truth, nothing originates al all. So the question whether things that arise are really eternal, momentary, both, or neither does not arise.

As nothing is actually caused, there are no causes at all. As there are no causes, there are no effects either. It is not just that though there are not any tables or chairs, there are factors constituting a stream we call tables or chairs. There are no such factors. In particular, the same argument applies to oneself. It is not that though there is no self, there is a stream of mental factors we call our ‘self'. There is no such stream either.
One's beliefs in persisting things, especially in one's self, appear to breed karmic traces that have to be worked off later. Since nothing can actually be bred, that appearance of traces cannot ultimately be defended. By the same logic, no factors can be defiled, and none pure, since nothing can cause them to be so. As such, Nagarjuna argues, the whole gradual path to purification and enlightenment, postulated by Abhidharma schools, must only be an appearance. Nothing of the sort can actually be caused to happen.

So all views are wrong. In particular the view that we are now bound and can be freed, that the Buddha was bound and later freed, is a mistake. No one is bound; no one is liberated; no one is frustrated; and no one is satisfied. It is not even that one is in some third state, a combination of the states or something else entirely. The whole set of categories such as cause and effect, motion and rest, action and inaction, bondage and liberation, real and unreal, identity and difference, pure and defiled, self and other, frustration and satisfaction is all empty, without any actuality.

It may be argued that if all views are wrong, Nagarjuna's view itself must be wrong. It is tempting to figure him a nihilist. But Nagarjuna states, ‘I have no view'. If he has no view, why does he tell us to take heed of the Buddha's ethical advice. If liberation is itself empty, does it not cut at the very root of Buddhism?

‘Empty' (suunya) is a technical term for Nagarjuna. When he calls something empty, he is implying that it does not really exist. But he does not suggest that it does not seem to exist with its concomitant results such as misery or satisfaction, pain or pleasure. It is the seeming that is all-important. For feeling, seeming is being. So the fact that a thing is empty, that it is completely dependent on causes and conditions, does not at all render it non-functional.

On the other hand, functioning things are precisely those that are involved in causal relations. They appear to arise when and only when certain kinds of other things appear to arise. Satisfaction or frustration, pain or pleasure, etc seem to us effects of causes and conditions. That both causes and effects are empty does not lessen pain or pleasure, frustration or satisfaction, etc we experience of them.

Someone who believes that everything is empty is in a position to counsel moral behaviour. Nagarjuna's work Vigrahavyaavarthani displays a moral seriousness and leaves his stamp of moral authenticity.

Nagarjuna's dialectic does not undermine Buddhist morality. On the other hand, we gain a renewed respect for the Buddha and his teaching by understanding what it is not. For Nagarjuna, the Buddha is not a philosopher proposing arguments, not a religionist propounding doctrines, not even a spiritual advisor offering counsel. Instead, the Buddha is someone who managed to expunge from his mentality all contentions, all views of how things really are, serving, instead, as a sounding board from which, we, who are not yet un-contentious can hear how we sound as we contend.

For Nagarjuna, Buddha does not teach views, but helps save those who have them. That causes and effects are empty does not lessen the pain or pleasure we experience of them. But knowing them to be empty, one does no longer strain to gain satisfaction or avoid frustration, or to gain pleasure or avoid pain, as they seem to produce. According to Nagarjuna, the equanimity that the Buddha had and taught emanated from his knowledge of emptiness.

It is, therefore, evident that nothing in Nagarjuna's position undermines the account that the Abhidharma schools give of the path to liberation. That factors are unreal, dependently co-arising, does not lessen the necessity to purify them. Purification may take time as the truth of emptiness dawns on one only gradually. That purification does not really cause liberation does not, in any way, lessen the need to fulfil. This is for the reason that the meditation one accomplishes in purifying constitutes or leads into non-conceptual insight, the abandonment of attachment to any views, which is true liberation.

For Nagarjuna, there is no difference between nirvana and samsara, by which he means that no conceptualisation of any such difference is correct. Both are equally empty.
It is commonly believed that Nagarjuna is a Mahayanist. There is not much evidence to support that view. If the foregoing analysis of his teaching is correct, the question of his affiliation with one or another school of Buddhism becomes mute. If the method is to abandon all views, it is not relevant to consider which views are correct.

 

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

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