Monday, August 9, 2010

Reading Vasubandhu: Madhyānta-vibhāga-bhāṣya (Part 1)

Found Ensō on Asphalt
Found Ensō on Asphalt, Helsinki, 2010

This is part of a series chronicling my encounters with Vasubandhu, the fourth-century philosopher who co-founded the Yogācāra school of Buddhism with his half-brother, Asaṅga. As usual, don't believe a word of what I'm saying and check it out for yourself instead, if you're really interested.

Vasubandhu's Madhyānta-vibhāga-bhāṣya, or Commentary on the Separation of the Middle from the Extremes, is a lot of fun to study. It's teaching me a whole new way to read. Normally, I wolf down books; it's not uncommon for me to finish a 500-page volume in one or two sittings. With this Commentary, that just doesn't fly. It's like every sentence is a little puzzle-box that starts out looking completely nonsensical, but when you pick at it a bit, it eventually unfolds and reveals a thought, clear as a little dewdrop. Some of those thoughts evoke an "Okay, I get it;" others are more like "Hey, that's pretty neat," and yet others are "Whoa, dude, that's deep."

But it's slow going.

Speaking of That whereof one cannot speak

The Separation of the Middle from the Extremes is an interesting text to start with. Its traditional author is one Maitreyanātha. However, when I tried to find out who that guy is, I ran straight into mythology. Some sources regard him as the third co-founder of Yogācāra. Others cite a story of Asaṅga withdrawing into the jungle for twelve years in order to study a sutra, which was subsequently explained to him by said Maitreyanātha. Yet others speak of him as Maitreya, the Future Buddha that dwells in Tushita Heaven waiting for the day when the Buddhadharma has been lost so he can be born on Earth to restore it. According to these stories, Asaṅga had the good fortune to study at his feet during his twelve-year retreat. Make up your own mind; the text, in any case, is interesting.

The Commentary is also on the long side, as these things go. It's divided into five parts, each of which builds upon the previous. There's no way I can do the text justice in any case, but I would totally butcher it if I tried to address it in one post, so I'm going to take it one section at a time.

Today's topic is Part I. In it, Vasubandhu and Asaṅga (or Maitreyanātha, as you like) take the bull (or the ox?) by the horns, and tackle a few pretty fundamental questions, such as "What is the fundamental nature of reality?" and "Where does the Universe come from?" and "How can the mind transcend the mind?"

In other words, Vasubandhu gives Wittgenstein the finger and goes right ahead and speaks of that whereof one cannot speak. He does it well, too, by using language in a whole new way, and one that's plumb near impossible to re-tell.

It's those puzzle-boxes that unfold when you pick at them, and create little "a-ha!" moments when they do. Each of those little dewdrops inside relates to the next one, which usually creates a paradox or a flat-out contradiction. The upshot is that once you add all those little thoughts together and try to summarize them, the whole text boils down to almost nothing. Or, perhaps, something like this:
Any statement you can make about Emptiness is self-contradictory.
Not very exciting, you might think. And, as such, it isn't. The process of getting there, however, is: that sequence of little thoughts created by opening those boxes left my mind feeling strangely dislocated, where I'm simultaneously holding a set of contradictory propositions, seeing that they're contradictory, and nevertheless considering each of them as unarguably true. It's a very weird feeling, and I think the closest I've gotten thus far to understanding nonduality (i.e., not very close). Unfortunately, there's absolutely no way I can communicate this strange sequence of states. I'll just end up gesticulating wildly and going "Well… you know… THAT!"

So that's what I'm going to do.

The construction of that which was not

In his previous works, Vasubandhu had already introduced the concepts of the three own-beings of the mind: the interdependent, the constructed, and the fulfilled. The constructed own-being is the phenomenal universe in which we live. You know, the world of "you" and "me" and "the cat" and "America" and "human rights" and "anthropogenic climate change."

In the Commentary, he introduces the concept of the construction of that which was not. It is the continuous process of constantly (re)creating this constructed own-being of the mind. It is the process of discriminating subject-apprehender and object-apprehended, from which the constructed, phenomenal universe arises. This happens simply from perceptions in sense-fields:
The appearance of sentient beings is that which appears because of there being sense-faculties in "one's own" and "others'" life-streams. … The appearance of perceptions is the taking shape of the six consciousnesses. "There is no real object for it," the author says, because of the lack of a fixed aspect in the appearance of objects and sentient beings, and because of the false appearance of the appearance of self and perceptions. "In its non-being, it itself is not," the author says…
Emptiness—śūnyatā—is that which transcends the interdependent, the constructed, and the construction of that which was not. Vasubandhu lists a bevy of synonyms for it, including the Ground of all events, Suchness, the signless, the ultimate, and the reality-limit. I could add "that whereof you cannot speak," "God," "Mu," "Omega," "Nothing," "Everything," "One Bright Pearl," or any of a mass of similar symbols we have created to signify the unsignifiable.

The crucial point Vasubandhu makes about Emptiness is that while it is indeed transcendent, it is also present. It is not something that's "out there," it is here, in everything, including the everyday mind we use all the time without even noticing it. 'To speak of the construction of that which was not as different from Emptiness would be as absurd as to speak of "impermanence" or "suffering" as different from beings that are impermanent or suffering.'1 Perhaps this hints at what Nansen meant when he famously said that ordinary mind is the Way.

Puzzle-boxes, I tell you. Hey, I'll let Vasubandhu speak for himself:
There is a further division: the sixteen kinds of emptiness, which are: the emptiness of the internal, the emptiness of the external, the emptiness of the internal and external, the great emptiness, the emptiness of emptiness, the emptiness of ultimate truth, the emptiness of the compounded, the emptiness of the uncompounded, the very great emptiness, the emptiness of inferior and superior, the emptiness of non-rejection, the emptiness of Nature, the emptiness of characteristics, the emptiness of all events, the emptiness of non-being, and the emptiness of the own-being of non-being.
Clear? Good.

Transcending the mind with the mind

The funkiest mind-trick Vasubandhu pulls in the Commentary is describing how the discriminating mind can transcend itself—how it can apprehend the fulfilled own-being of the mind. The first key, he says, is the idea of perception-only—that the phenomenal world we live in has no independent existence; that it is a "construction of that which was not." Apprehending this idea leads to a non-apprehension of objects, which leads to a non-apprehension of the subject, which finally allows one to "enter into the non-existent character of object apprehended and subject apprehender." This itself is, however, an apprehension, with non-being of a separate object as its object: a state where apprehension and non-apprehension meet.

This is pretty wild—if I'm parsing him correctly, he's describing a state where objects are and are not simultaneously; a kind of quantum superposition of states of the mind. It's yet another tantalizing glimpse of something that's clearly there, if I can only break through to it.

The point Vasubandhu & co are making is that Emptiness just is, that it's right here, in front of our eyes, in our eyes, in "front," in "eyes…" shit, I'm doing it too!… and the only trick is seeing it. He goes on about it a quite a bit, drilling that what we call "afflictions" and "antidotes" are all empty as well—useful concepts, but ultimately provisional, rafts to be discarded once across whichever river we're crossing on them.

Part II of the Commentary deals with obstructions—all the stuff preventing us from breaking through those barriers and apprehending Suchness. That, we will get to in the next installment of this series. I hope.

1Another body blow against idealism, there.

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