Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Reading Vasubandhu: Triṃśikā-kārikā

Star, Streetlight, and Smoke
Star, Streetlight, and Smoke, Helsinki, 2007

This post is part of a series chronicling my encounter with Vasubandhu, a fourth-century Indian philosopher, who co-founded Yogācāra Buddhism with his half-brother. I mean those warnings about my cluelessness. I honestly don't know squat about this topic, other than what I'm reading now. This isn't easy, and I am misunderstanding a lot—I've already figured out some of my screw-ups from my previous posts, but there's plenty more left. Proceed at your own risk, and if you're really interested, ask someone who does know what they're talking about, or, even better, give it a shot yourself. 

Vasubandhu's Triṃśikā-kārikā, or Thirty Verses (on Representation-Only) continues and summarizes the ideas outlined in the Twenty Verses and their autocommentary. It is a short work in almost poetic style; all in all, it makes up about four printed pages. Like the Twenty Verses, I found it a good deal easier to parse and digest than the Discussions. There are plenty of translations available on the Web; you might want to go and read it yourself before going on. Here's one that's a lot more pleasant but, perhaps, less accurate than the one I've been reading.

In the Thirty Verses, Vasubandhu briefly summarizes his metaphysical suppositions, his model of the personality and cognition, and its soteriological implications. That's not bad for four not-too-densely printed pages of text.

A excursion to Avicenna

The other day, I read the biography of Ibn Sina (Avicenna), one of the great Arab philosophers from the golden age of the Caliphate. It included a bibliography. Here's a snippet:
Sum and substance. Twenty copies.
Piety and sin. Two copies.
Healing. Eighteen copies.
Canon. Fourteen copies.
Comprehensive observations. One copy.
Just verdict. Twenty copies.
This, from someone who was the Leonardo da Vinci or Albert Einstein of his times. One copy! Fourteen copies! None of his books even existed in more than twenty copies!

We're spoiled, first by the printing press, now by stuff like this blog, which lets anyone flood the world with words. If everything has to be copied by hand, every word must count. That's why Vasubandhu's stuff is so dense, multilayered, and pithy. I'm sure you could easily lecture a day on any one of his Twenty or Thirty verses.

Architecture of the Mind

Vasubandhu kicks off his description of the architecture of the mind by a reminder of his metaphysical basis—his main disagreement with the Abhidharmika dharma-theory. He describes the "self" and "events" as metaphors for transformations of consciousness,1 rather than anything with "own-nature," or independent existence. Neither they, nor any other concept, should be regarded as "really existing." His model of "representation-only" is just like any other model, a provisional, metaphorical description of a reality that cannot be fully apprehended by the constructed mind.

At the root of the personality lies the store-consciousness. This contains the "seeds" of all past actions. The seeds are consciousness-streams just like the ones constantly flowing on at the surface levels of the mind, with feelings, cognitions, and volitions. These seed-streams color everything that goes on in our surface levels of consciousness.

From the store-consciousness arises manas, the mental consciousness, which gives us a sense of self and all it entails (confusion, pride, and love of self). Together with manas arise the other five consciousnesses related to each of the senses. These six consciousnesses cannot exist independently of each other: they arise "either all together or not, just like waves in water." These consciousnesses are emergent properties of the store-consciousness and the senses; nothing more, really, than the citta-streams that make them up.

The mind is the whole universe

This is where things get a bit wild, and I'm certainly way out of my depth here, so please, dear reader, put an extra big sprinkle of salt on what comes next, 'cuz I may be getting it completely wrong. Be as it may, this is what I think Vasubandhu is saying.

He defines three "own-beings," by which I think he means something like "essential qualities" of the mind. (Yes, it sounds like a contradiction of his metaphysical basis, but bear with me.)

The first own-being is the constructed. By this, he means the world of discriminations we usually inhabit, consisting of discriminated objects like you, me, the dog, the cat, hunger, and the general theory of relativity. Even if these objects are connected to more or less vaguely-defined areas in the Universe, they have no independent existence of their own; they only exist as constructs in the consciousness.

The second is the interdependent, which means everything that causes these discriminations to arise. When you think about that for a moment, that includes pretty much... everything. The whole Universe. Either I've got my head up my ass, or Vasubandhu is saying that the whole Universe is an essential quality of the mind.

The third is the fulfilled, which is the separation of the former from the latter, i.e., what you get when you remove the constructed own-quality from the interdependent own-quality. It's not really an essential quality at all; it's a lack of essential quality.

What Vasubandhu is saying is that if you subtract our constructed, conceptual, phenomenological reality from the mind, what's left is the whole Universe!

With meditational attainment, manas ceases, and the root-consciousness stops coloring our perceptions. It's still there—otherwise it wouldn't be possible for the "everyday" consciousness to resume after coming out of meditation—but it devolves or disengages from the surface levels of the mind. This is the "revolution at the basis." Removing the constructed leaves... the whole damn Universe:
It is without citta, without apprehension, and it is supermundane knowledge;
It is revolution at the basis, the ending of two kinds of susceptibility to harm.
It is the inconceivable, beneficial, constant Ground, not liable to affliction,
bliss, and the liberation-body called the Dharma-body of the Sage.

Oh my!

That was wild, and I'm not really sure what I should make of it. Clearly, Vasubandhu is attempting to describe the indescribable. It's striking how similar this description is to a whole bunch of descriptions of "it" that I've come across—about Siddhartha Gautama himself, from Dogen, Philip Kapleau and various people whose stories he included in Three Pillars of Zen, Brad Warner, Sante Sensei, Isaac Luria, Jalaleddin Rumi. I don't think whatever "it" is, is really describable, but it's stuff like this that makes me think that there's something there, and whatever it is, it's deeply significant.

This whole universe thing is a bit above my pay grade. However, thinking of the personality in terms of citta-streams has gotten me to see a few things differently.

I've always been sensitive—some would say overly sensitive—to emotional affects in my surroundings. If someone around me is nervous, anxious, depressed, angry, happy, friendly, excited, or whatever, I tend to pick up on it and reflect it, and often amplify it. Lately I've become more aware of it happening when it happens, and have felt these affects more keenly. It's not altogether pleasant, because, let's face it, most people you interact with on a daily basis aren't exactly jumping with joy all the time.2

In Vasubandhu's terms, we have other people's citta-streams conditioning mine, and vice versa, I'm sure. Thinking of the situation in this way suddenly makes the barrier between people look a lot more porous: if your cetasikas are conditioning my cittas, where, exactly, does your citta-stream end and mine begin? If I get angry and snap at you, which kicks off an angry citta-stream in you, what is my anger and what's yours? How, exactly, is this different from a seed-citta of mine kicking off an angry citta in my mind?

Not in any really important way, as far as I can tell. If the world really is consciousness-only, things do take on a whole different aspect. You and I and George really are all the same.

Heady stuff, this. It's one thing to talk about it, though, and another thing to actually live and experience it. I may not be a lot closer to that revolution at the basis, but at least I have some idea of where to go if I want to get there.

That would be the zafu, of course.

The next work in the collection I'm reading is another doozy. It's called Commentary on the separation of the middle from the extremes, and it's right back to the argumentative Abhidharmika style. It'll be a while before I'm able to wrap my head around it sufficiently to be able to write anything coherent about it.

1By "events" I think he means cittas as well as events in the aggregate of materiality. I just realized that Vasubandhu had, in fact, been saying this all along. I just missed it in the Discussions, when he wrote of cittas as "transformations of the consciousness-stream." He didn't think of them as atomic after all; he was merely using Abhidharmika language for them! I really ought to start over, once I finish this round.

2The upside is that the affects seem to pass more quickly than before, too. I may get knocked down more easily, but I bounce back more easily as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment