Friday, June 18, 2010


Dripping Water
Dripping Water, Luberon, France, 2010

I'm getting a sneaking suspicion that Zen teachers—at least the ones here in the Western Paradise where practice is easy—might be neglecting the Indian ancestors. Over the past year, I've heard and read a quite a few teishos from a number of teachers, several books about Zen and Buddhism, and, not least, a quite a lot of blogs and shorter articles on the Internet. Lots of this stuff cites various teachers and thinkers. However, most of these are either contemporary or near-contemporary—Shunryu Suzuki, Taizan Maezumi, Chögyam Trungpa, the current Dalai Lama or the current Karmapa, Pema Chödrön, etc.—or one of a handful of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, or Tibetan masters, like Dōgen, Hakuin, Hui-neng, Chinul, or Je Tsongkhapa. It's as if they jump straight from the Shakyamuni to Bodhidharma, even if names like Nagarjuna, Ashvaghosha, and Vasubandhu appear in the lineage of ancestors that gets chanted on occasion.

That ain't cool. I'm almost feeling a little cheated here—first by my regular plain ol' Western education, that never even mentioned any of these guys, and second by the imaginary, real, and virtual community of Buddhists I follow and interact with. I just came across Vasubandhu when reading Patañjali, and looked him up, and damn if he didn't earn his place in that lineage. It's as if I stubbed my toe on a rock and then noticed that it was a massive gold nugget.

I'm going to have to do some rabid reading to get my bearings in this entirely new and immensely interesting intellectual landscape. I'll be chronicling some of it here. For anyone stumbling on this blog, please keep in mind that (a) I'm very much a newbie to this whole Buddhist show, and (b) I'm only discovering these guys for the first time now. In other words, I'm probably misunderstanding most of it. And, of course, I am in no way qualified to comment on any of the transcendent shit, not having transcended anything much yet.

So please take anything you read here with even more salt than usual, and please feel free to set me straight when I go into the woods. I'm really only writing because it helps organize my own thoughts. I'm not going to be doing any real serious sutra study or stuff like that at this point; just random reading, fitting the pieces together, and trying to get a big picture of what some of these people were about and how it fits together.

With those preliminaries, Vasubandhu.

Vasubandhu comes up in the short version of the line of ancestors we chant on Sundays, between Nagarjuna and Bodhidharma. He appears to have been a quite a colorful character; he comes with a traditional and somewhat mythologized biography that (tangentially) features Maitreya and some dragons.

Dragons aside, it appears that he lived for 80 years in the fourth century CE, traveling, debating, and teaching extensively in northern India, Nepal, and Kashmir. He started out studying with the (now defunct) Sarvāstivāda school of Buddhism (about which I don't know jack shit either), sneaking to study at their university in Kashmir by pretending to be a lunatic, and then sneaking back the same way four years later. Apparently, they had rakshasas as border guards at the time, which is bound to have done wonders to control immigration. Something for Arizona to consider? But I digress...

Back home in Gandhāra, he started to give lectures on Sarvāstivāda teachings. He condensed each day's talk into a single line, which he then had paraded around on an elephant, challenging anyone to refute it, which nobody managed, naturally. Once he had put together a bunch of these lines, he sent the collection back to the Sarvāstivādins, along with a big ol' pile of gold as an expression of his gratitude. (Presumably lecturers were paid rather better back then than they are now.) The Sarvāstivādins liked it so much that they sent the gold right back, with another big pile of it added (presumably universities were rather better funded as well), asking him to write a commentary on the synthesis he had written. Unfortunately for the Sarvāstivādins, he had converted to Mahayana Buddhism in the meantime, and the commentary he sent back meticulously refuted every single one of their doctrines. The Sarvāstivādins were not pleased, but these two works—the Abhidharmakośa and the Abhidharmakośa-bhāsya—are still considered some of Vasubandhu's greatest contributions to Buddhist philosophy.

Eventually, Vasubandhu went on to start his own university and found the Yogācāra school of Buddhism. Along the way, he wrote a big bunch of stuff, including the first systematic treatise of logic in India.

Vasubandhu also had a great deal to say about the mind. The Yogācāra school is also known as the "mind-only" school of Buddhism (that's cittamātra, for those of you who like to drop Sanskrit terms.) In contrast to Nagarjuna's Mādhyamaka school, it put meditation practice—yoga—front and center. Måns Broo called Mind Only philosophy "idealistic," which I've come to realize is something of a put-down among enlightened folk, although I'll be damned if I can see which definition of idealism it would fit, since it's very much centered on practice on the one hand, and the philosophy itself explicitly denies the validity of unchanging essences (or ideas, in the Platonic sense).1

His core ideas of the mind are brilliantly summarized in his Thirty Verses on Representation-Only. According to a few commentators I've read—as, in fact, Måns Broo appears to have done—Vasubandhu's philosophy is often misunderstood as the simplistic position that nothing exists apart from the mind. It's clearly more nuanced than that.

Vasubandhu doesn't deny the existence of an objective reality. He says so right there, in verse 22 of the Thirty Verses:
Ultimately, perfect nature, the fully real, arises
When there is an absence of mental projection onto appearances.
For that reason, the fully real is neither the same nor different from appearances.
If the perfected nature is not seen, the dependent nature is not seen either.
His point is that phenomena—things, what he calls dharmas—have no independent existence. The universe is continuous; when we observe it, we project our mental constructs on it, and come up with stuff like "chair" or "rock" or "mountain" or "you" or "I" or "subject" or "object." It's these things that only exist in the mind, and they can exist in the mind quite independently of the universe, such as when you're dreaming, imagining, or (what we but not Vasubandhu would call) hallucinating. The point is to practice meditation—yoga—in order to transcend these mental constructs and see the universe as it really is (verse 29):
That is the supreme, world-transcending knowledge
Where one has no mind that knows
And no object that is known
Abandoning twofold grasping
The storehouse consciousness is emptied
Hey, that's Zen, right there!

That "storehouse consciousness" (ālayavijñāna for you Sanskrit snobs) is from Vasubandhu's theory of the mind. He divides the mind into three basic components: the storehouse consciousness, which accumulates and contains all of our experiences, including memories, tendencies, behavior patterns, and so on; the "reflective consciousness" (mānovijñāna), which does the thinking and reflecting, and the "volitional consciousness" (upalabdhavijñāna), which does all the fun stuff like grasping and avoiding. All these are, however, continuously flowing and changing transformations of Mind (citta), and the point of the whole exercise is to go beyond them and see things as they really are.

I'm struck once again how closely this stuff relates to relatively modern Western philosophy—we have Kant's Ding an sich, Husserl's phenomena, and Popper's rejection of essentialism in favor of fluid, contextually constructed definitions—all in a rigorously constructed conceptual framework, about 1500 years before any of our team stumbled onto them. And to think that these guys never even get mentioned in our philosophy courses!

I think I'll be doing a good deal more delving into Vasubandhu. The problem for a dilettante like me is, though, that he—like Ashvaghosha or even Nagarjuna—hasn't gotten anywhere near enough attention. That means that there isn't all that much stuff available about them in languages that I understand, and much of what is, is academic stuff like doctoral dissertations that analyze the Sanskrit on a word-by-word basis. Pretty dense. I found one promising book that's in print, and will be reading it once I'm back home, but so far, I feel a bit like I'm a dog by a table hoping for scraps to fall on the floor. There are plenty of highly approachable commentaries on Dōgen around. I should hope these Masters from the West deserve some of their own, because as far as I can tell, Vasubandhu's a very clear and incisive thinker, and the main obstacles to understanding him lie in the distance between me and some guy writing in Sanskrit in fourth-century Gandhāra. I would really appreciate some help bridging that gap.

1Actually, on further thought, Vasubandhu's philosophy does veer close to something called "subjective idealism," as described by "when-a-tree-falls-in-the-woods" Berkeley. It's more complex than that, though, I think.

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