‘Now is the time for anger!’ is the cry after a terrorist atrocity or reports of a dictator’s misdeeds, and it has been a worldwide cry in response to the American invasion of Iraq and the arrogant policy underlying it. Anger can take the cold form of indifference to, or even delight in, the deaths of innocents. Extremism can carry all the appearances of cool reason. Some war supporters frankly declare they do not care about Iraqi casualties, but those against the war can show the same callousness when they rejoice in military casualties of the Coalition in Iraq, or even greet terrorist slaughters of civilians that cause trouble for the USA. Rage, either hot or cold, is a choice weapon of war. In civil life, it is a weapon that is almost sanctified when used by the victims of crimes.
But rage is a treacherous weapon, often turning against its handler, and often having destructive consequences that go beyond what anyone intended. Behind the deaths of innocents in war, behind the lynchings or executions or wrongful convictions of innocents in civil life, lie the one-sided utterances of armchair theorists or ‘autocrats of the breakfast-table’ who forge public opinion. Democracy has to restrain rage, not glorify it; otherwise it becomes mob rule. Very often democratic freedom of speech is mistaken as a right, even a duty, to indulge in impulsive expression of extreme views. This leads to a polarization that in the end makes democracy unworkable. If democracy becomes only a struggle between two irreconcilable factions for the upper hand, then it becomes a tyranny of the majority, and no longer a communal project.
From the Buddhist point of view it is never the time for anger. Buddhism urges us to analyze our feelings of rage and to step back from them critically. To be sure there are angry deities in Buddhism who flank the entrance to temples and are guardians of the Law. These no longer rage unchecked, but are subordinated to the Buddhist insight into the fabric of the passions. Their rage is no longer impulsive or unmeasured, but becomes a wisely deployed skillful means. There may be a place in Buddhism of a more esoteric and tantric kind, as there is in the Sivaism of Kashmir, for a spiritual technique of deepening one’s rage and expressing it to the full. The purpose of such a technique would be to understand one’s passion, to overcome it, and to redirect its blind energy to a more constructive end. ‘Passions themselves are enlightenment’ is a catchword of Mahâyâna Buddhism. This could be taken as licensing an antinomian indulgence in passion. But its deeper sense is that insight into the fabric of our passions is already enlightenment. In the Bible too, we find a prophetic wrath in which one is not mastered by passion but deploys it in response to the sight of evil. In Mark 1:41 the alternative readings ‘moved by pity’ or ‘moved to anger’ suggest that anger is the other side of compassion. Jesus is master of a compassionate anger.
Buddhism, of all religions, is the one most skeptical towards any form of extremism – except perhaps in the tales of compassion, where bodhisattvas offer their lives to save humble animals. The Buddha at the very start struck out on a path that avoided the extremes of hedonism and austerity. His spirituality is guided by reason and based on analysis; all its expressions aim at spiritual liberation; and it never indulges in agonies of flagellation or ecstasies of devotion as if they were their own justification. Thus is it guarded against fanaticism at every turn. Intellectual extremes are also held at bay, both those that tend to the heresy of substantialism and those that tend to the opposing heresy of nihilism. Skeptical over against all substantive claims of existence and identity, especially when put forward by the ego, the Buddhist also keeps his distance from the excesses of skepticism that undercut the order and stability of the conventional world and make wholesome practice impossible. In the modern world, a Buddhist sensibility would cut through the impressive but hollow claims of capitalism, of media hype and political hubris, but it would also reject anything tending to the other extreme of anarchism. Any cause, however noble, is analyzed as a potential source of delusion and bondage.
Many people object to the Buddhist attitude. They see is as a self-serving posture. Is the middle way not the very epitome of smugness? And has it not in practice allowed Buddhists to identify uncritically with the status quo, notably in the Zen collusion with fascism as analyzed by Brian Victoria and others. Avoidance of extremes can be politically weakening, since the voice of moderation has little chance of being heard amid the thunder of demagogues.
To set oneself up as a sage, who has undone all the illusions of ego, and sees all ‘offences’ and ‘enemies’ as delusory constructs, towards which one many direct a compassion controlled by equanimity, but which one would never be so foolish as to be upset about – is this the summit of sanctity or is it a way of disconnecting oneself from humanity? I would say that in the circumstances of real life the claim to have attained a sage-like serenity is most likely to be a denial of hurts and resentment, which continue to operate at a hidden, repressed level, burrowing away in the unconscious, and likely to erupt in gestures of uncontrolled anger. To be sure, we can defuse many a lesser annoyance and not inflate it into a casus belli, we can turn a critical eye on our resentments and unmask them as reactions of slighted vanity, and even among peoples who are stereotyped as hotheaded there is a fund of pacific wisdom that variously serves to let the spirit of compromise and reconciliation prevail over touchiness and vengefulness. Many people say that they have no problem forgiving their neighbor because they have nothing to forgive, and indeed have probably hurt others more than they have ever been hurt themselves. But this placidity can be another name for complacency. It can be a failure to react when reaction is called for, especially when the rights of defenseless victims are at stake. The clergy are under fire for just such complacency at the moment, and if they affect a sage-like Buddhist calm they are likely to enrage their critics who will see in it the ultimate refinement of hypocrisy.
There are tensions and antinomies here which cannot be automatically resolved by an appeal to Buddhist dogma. I think it would not be in the spirit of Buddhism to iron them out. Rather they provide koans for further analysis. But we should not despair of the Buddhist path until it has been tried. It claims to be rooted in a clear vision of the way things are, and this is a strength that cannot be measured by the yardstick of immediate political efficacy.
In one respect, Buddhist wisdom is beyond criticism, and that is in its practical concentration on present facts. If the emotion of anger testifies to a vision of present reality or if it enables this vision, well and good. But very often it distorts vision and fixates our responses, so that it becomes part of the problem rather than of the solution. Serenity and equanimity are not an escape from painful reality but a precondition for tackling that reality lucidly, and that includes tackling the emotions of anger that may be an inherent part of that reality. Buddhist serenity may seem a disengaged, escapist attitude, a mockery of the grief of the downtrodden, a refusal of solidarity with them, and a return to the de-politicized complacency that gives a blank check to the oppressor. But it could also be an instrument of liberating action, enabling one to face the full horror of situations of suffering, to accompany the sufferers compassionately, and to work constructively with them toward bettering their situation.
The Riddle of Non-Duality
Non-duality is a central teaching of Buddhism, especially of the Perfection of Wisdom texts which are the founding scriptures of Mahâyâna Buddhism. The Madhyamaka school of Nâgârjuna and his commentators gave stark philosophical expression to this teaching (and influenced, beyond the Buddhist world, the Vedantic conception of non-duality). Though Madhyamaka no longer survives as a distinct sect, as in the ancient Three Treatise school (Ch. Sanlun; J. Sanron), its heritage has been fully received and integrated by Tendai Buddhism and by Zen Buddhism. One of the core texts of the teaching of emptiness and non-duality is the widely known Heart Sutra, which propagates that teaching throughout the Buddhist world and beyond. Embodied in a wider array of theories and practices in Tendai or given a practical and pragmatic twist in Zen, the idea of non-duality can seem inoffensive. One of the most attractive presentations of non-duality today comes from the pen of David Loy, who is both a Zen practitioner and an ‘engaged Buddhist.’ But when we confront the rhetoric of non-duality in the original texts, which preach it with such conviction and force and with an array of daunting paradoxes, we are likely to be bewildered and repelled.
Non-duality seems at first sight to combine logical madness with moral anarchy. It abolishes all differences, even the difference between good and evil. It insists over and over again that there can be no differences between things that have no real existence, and that nothing has any real existence. That might be a refreshing contrast to the Manichean rhetoric of Good against Evil, Us against Them, which foments so much violence. But the Buddhist rhetoric goes beyond that, luring us into a monistic never-never land, in which all cows are gray. Or is it all just meant to be a meditative exercise, with no practical consequence, and not to be taken seriously amid the bustle of real life.
There is non-duality in Christian tradition, as well. The Incarnation brings everyday human life into conjunction with the divine. It is by identifying with Christ’s humanity, and not by leaping beyond it, that we are ‘made partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1.4), and Christ himself is presented as existing in a non-dual relation with the presence of God the Father: ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 10.30). But Christian non-duality never compromises the sheer ontological distinction between Creator and creature. Even the human nature of Christ, though assumed by the hypostasis of the divine Word, is not divinized in such a sense as to melt its identity in fusion with the divine, or to annul the distinct human will of Christ. Neither is the divine nature subjected to creaturely weakness. To some the distinction between this Chalcedonian non-dualism and Indian non-dualism is the essential difference between East and West.
So even the parallels we may draw with Christian spirituality end up creating another obstacle to the reception of the Buddhist teaching of non-dualism. Politically inept, morally dubious, ontologically unsound, it now turns out to be heretical as well! Without seeking to resolve these tensions, let us approach the Buddhist world and become familiar with it. As we see how non-dualism operates in practice, we may find that it is not really in any palpable tension with common sense or with Christian faith after all. As a step to this, I take up a classical Buddhist sutra and try to expose myself to its world. As in the case of Western spiritual and philosophical classics, it would no doubt take long years of study to really grasp what the sutra is talking about. But the reassuring thing about classics is that even a superficial or confused brush with them need not be fruitless.
Vimalakîrti: The Benevolent Eye of Wisdom
Vimalakîrti: The Benevolent Eye of Wisdom
The sutra concerns one of the most famous Buddhist sages, no doubt a fictional character, namely, the lay bodhisattva Vimalakîrti. The Vimalakîrti-nirdesa-sûtra is a major Mahâyâna scripture, akin to the Perfection of Wisdom literature, dating from the beginning of our era, and it is probably the most satisfying of all Buddhist sutras from a literary point of view. Until recently it was extant only in Chinese and Tibetan versions, the most influential being the fifth century one by Kumârajîva, but the original Sanskrit has now surfaced in Tibet and is being edited at Taishô University, Tokyo – a very exciting discovery. The French translation by Canon Étienne Lamotte, L’Enseignement de Vimalakîrti (Leuven, 1962), is a masterpiece of elegant erudition, which has been rendered into English by Sara Boin. (I give page references to Boin, adding the corresponding page in Lamotte.) He follows the Tibetan version, with the seventh century Chinese version of Hsüan-tsang (which is closer to the original Indian character of the work than Kumârajîva’s work. It is interesting to see how Lamotte’s reconstructions of the original Sanskrit fare when compared with the rediscovered text. My initial impression is that they fare very well, thanks to the fidelity of the Tibetan translator. Other recent translations include those by Burton Watson and by Robert Thurman.
The action of the twelve chapters of the sutra concerns the visit of the Buddha’s leading disciples to the bedside of Vimalakîrti, who is ill (an illness which is a skillful means for teaching). In various witty jousts of wisdom, the conversations rehearse the fundamentals of Mahâyâna teaching. Lamotte claims that the sutra represents the pure state of Madhyamaka thought: ‘Like the Prajnâpâramita, the Avatamsaka, the Ratnakûta and the Mahâsamnipâta, it represents that Madhyamaka in the raw state which served as the foundation for Nâgârjuna’s school’ (Boin, lxii; Lamotte, 40). The basic Madhyamaka theses defended on every page of the sutra are that all dharmas are (1) empty of self-nature or inherent existence; (2) unarisen and unextinguished; (3) originally calm and naturally nirvana-ized; (4) without marks and, in consequence, inexpressible and unthinkable; (5) the same and without duality; (6) that emptiness is not an entity; (7) that ‘the luminous thought or mind is, purely and simply, the inexistence of thought… the absence of all thought’ (lxxxi; 60). These ideas are familiar to all who have wrestled with Nâgârjuna’s Stanzas of the Middle Way (now available in a luminous French translation by the late Guy Bugault). Indeed, all the distortions in recent readings of Nâgârjuna come from divorcing him from his background in the sutras that teach emptiness and non-duality.
At the beginning of Chapter VI, Vimalakîrti’s chief interlocutor, the Boshisattva of Wisdom, Manjusrî, puts the question: ‘How should a Bodhisattva see all beings?’ (153; 263). If we meditate on this question, we can find in it a contemporary resonance. How should the Christian view beings and events? What eye do we bring to our fellow-creatures and their activities? If they seem threatening and hostile, that is no doubt a mirror of the hostility lodged in ourselves that we are projecting out on them. If they, and our daily world, seem drab and boring, the fault again lies in our unappreciative way of looking at them.
The cardinal Buddhist virtues of wisdom and compassion can dissolve hostility and fear, but it might be thought that they can do nothing to give us a loving appreciation of our fellow mortals, since they stress so much the emptiness of existence and the illusoriness of the ego. Vimalakîrti’s answers confirms our worst fears: ‘A Bodhisattva should see all beings as an intelligent man sees the moon in the water’. It looks as if Buddhist serenity is bought at the cost of seeing human life as just a flickering illusion, surely a formula for impregnable apathy. Thirty-four other images in the same vein follow. All beings are as the print of a bird on the ether, as the erection of an eunuch, as the giving birth of a sterile woman, as the visions of a dream on awakening. The basis of all this is the doctrine of non-self, or rather of the non-existence, the lack of self-nature, of all dharmas whatsoever..
Manjusrî then asks a question that may mirror the readers’ unease: ‘If a Bodhisattva considers all beings in this way, how does he produce great goodwill (mahâmaitrî) towards them?’ (155; 265). This is a central conundrum of Mahâyâna Buddhism. Insight into emptiness seems to undercut any concern for suffering beings, since their suffering and their being itself are delusory, and it is only by clinging to the delusion of their substantial existence that they continue to suffer. The serenity of wisdom seems to lead directly to a disengagement from all concern with the plight of common mortals. Vimalakîrti offers the following reply: ‘A Bodhisattva who considers them thus, says to himself: “I am going to expound the Law to beings in the way that I have understood it”. Thus he produces towards all beings a goodwill which is truly protective’ (155; 265-6). The sage, it seems, engages with his fellow humans by teaching them, by sharing with them his wisdom. This is better than complete disengagement, but at first sight it seems coolly intellectualist.
The chief quality of this benevolence seems to be its detachment. It is described as pacified, because without attachment; as without heat, because without passion; as true to the real, because it is the same in the three times; as firm, because its resolution is indestructible like a diamond; as without gratuitous assertions, because it is exempt from affection and aversion; as without repugnance, because it is cognizant of emptiness and non-self. It exercises the six perfections of giving, morality, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom. It has the power of an arhat, of a bodhisattva, of a Tathâgata, of a Buddha, as it brings beings to release and enlightenment. Each item on these lists is no doubt intended as a theme for meditation. The theme seems always the same, namely, empty wisdom poised in the attitude of compassionate benevolence. The meditation is calculated to produce just this spiritual posture.
The only concrete action here is the action of giving (the first of the six perfections):
‘What is the great compassion (mahâkaruna) of the Bodhisattva?’
‘It is the abandoning to beings without retaining any of all good roots enacted or accumulated.’
‘What is the great joy (mahâmuditâ) of the Bodhisattva?’
‘It is rejoicing in and not regretting giving.’
‘What is the great equanimity (mahopeksâ) of the Bodhisattva?’
‘It is benefiting [doing good] impartially without hope of reward’. (158; 268-9).
This exchange alludes to the four Brahma abodes, a well-known meditative exercise taken up in early Buddhism, whereby one sends forth the energies of benevolence, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity to all beings. The bodhisattva is not simply a teacher. His communication of wisdom is a disinterested communication of the good qualities he possesses, and indeed of his very being. His giving is an expression of wisdom, not merely of sporadic and spontaneous reactions of pity or generosity, but conversely his wisdom seeks concrete expression in outgoing goodwill and compassion.
The reader in quest of philosophical pyrotechnics may be disappointed that the sutra falls into the Indian propensity for long lists and resumes such clichéd topics as the Brahma abodes. But the insertion of the well-known material in the new dramatic context of the sutra is in itself a way of renewing the meditator’s appreciation of it. Faced with the blindness and persistence of the passions, we cannot invoke the antidotes to them often enough. The literary reworking of these tried and tested antidotes cannot bring anything new, but functions only as a kind of advertisement. We can be grateful that for each of the other three Brahma abodes the text does not give a list of thirty-eight descriptions as it does for benevolence!
Manjusrî asks: ‘A Boshisattva beset by the fear of rebirth, to where should he withdraw (158; 269). Vimalakîrti answers that he should ‘withdraw into the magnanimity of the Buddhas’ (159; 269). One establishes oneself in this magnanimity by abiding in the sameness of all beings, and one does this by seeking to deliver all beings. Here it is suggested that the wisdom that sees the sameness (samatâ) of dharmas is acquired by the practice of compassionate engagement with them. Wisdom and compassion are mutually supportive. This teaching offers a corrective to warlike rage, in that it views all beings compassionately, the aggressors as victims of passion, and those who are hurt by them as victims of this passion at a second remove.
In the Buddhist perspective the effort to overcome the destructive power of passions is based in a realization of the emptiness of these passions, uncovered by tracing them back to their root: ‘The bad [unwholesome, akusala] dharmas do not arise and good ones are not extinguished… They have “aggregation” [accumulation] as their root… The root of aggregration is craving… The root of craving is false imagination… The root of false imagination is distorted perception… The root of distorted perception is the absence of a basis… This absence of a basis has no root; that is why all dharmas rest on a baseless root’ (159-60; 270-1). The absence of basis means the absence of the imagined object of the passion, as when one discovers that a fearful scarecrow is not a man but only a pole. In thus conducting the passions back to the emptiness that underlies them, one uses the passions as a propaedeutic to wisdom. In a world over-heated by aggressiveness, rage, bitterness, vengefulness, such cool analysis can bring healing. It traces fear behind the aggressiveness, false imaginations behind the fear, a rigid substantializing habit of projection behind the imaginations, and behind this nothing at all, just an absence we transform into a substantial presence.
Is it basically a fear of absence and emptiness that launches the entire chain of delusion? Instead of taking refuge in the gracious freedom of emptiness, we clutch at somethingness, and end up enslaved to a passion. All the busy destructive activity that this passion produces suffers from an inherent want of reality, and thus bears unwilling witness to the truth of emptiness from which it is in full flight.
The Paradoxes of the Goddess
After so much pedagogy, a little dramatic relief is welcome, and it is provided by the entry of the Goddess. This goddess is not a spectacular apparition such as we meet in the Lotus Sutra, but has a quite domestic status, since she lives in Vimalakîrti’s house. That is in keeping with the tenor of the entire sutra, which conveys a sense of the world of the lay householder and brings the grandiose figures of Buddhist mythology down to earth, in a humorous and sometimes irreverent way. The goddess, thrilled by Vimalakîrti’s teaching, causes flowers to rain down on the hearers. The flowers cling to the Listeners (representing earlier Buddhism) but not to the Bodhisattvas (who have acquired the higher Mahâyâna wisdom). Sâriputra tries to shake off the flowers, claiming they are unfitting to a religious, but the goddess explains that the flowers are without concept or imagination, that it is the hearers alone who conceive and imagine them, and that it is just such fabrications and discrimination of fixated conceptual thought that are unfitting to a religious. They do not cling to the Bodhisattvas, because the latter have dropped concepts and discriminations.
One might say that the flowers are flowers of emptiness, and are to be discerned as such by the eye of wisdom; and that all phenomena, when viewed rightly, are flowers of emptiness. Even the phenomena that enrage and embitter us and even the most evil things, viewed rightly, can reveal their texture of emptiness. In this way, the flowers confirm what Vimalakîrti has just been saying about the passions and the absence of basis.
Sâriputra, not too upset at being used as an object-lesson, since it is his customary role in Mahâyâna scriptures, asks the goddess how long she has been living in the house. She replies: ‘I have been here since the instant that Sâriputra the Elder entered deliverance (vimukti)’ (162; 273). Sâriputra asks how long that is, and is told that he himself should know. This silences him, and the goddess notes his silence in an ironic comment. Sâriputra explains: ‘Deliverance being inexpressible, I do not know what to say concerning it.’ This is a pre-Mahâyâna attitude, and once again the goddess corrects the elder: ‘You must not speak at all of deliverance being apart from syllables. And why? Because the sameness of all dharmas constitutes holy deliverance… It is for the distracted that the Buddha said: “The exhaustion of craving, hatred and delusion, this is what is called deliverance.” But for those who are not at all distracted he has said that craving, hatred and delusion are in themselves deliverance’ (162-3; 273-4). Here we meet the central Mahâyâna paradox, the identity of samsara and nirvana, of passions and enlightenment. The three poisons themselves are flowers of emptiness, if we can see and handle them wisely.
Does it make any sense to say that the greed of conquerors, the stubbornness of patriotism, the hate directed against the stranger and the enemy, the foolishness of the countless projections that foment war and provide the stuff of propaganda, are themselves deliverance? The goddess does not address this question, as she develops a richly imaged discourse on the superiority of Mahâyâna to the less comprehensive vehicles of the Listeners and the solitary realizers. Perhaps out of mischief, Sâriputra asks her why she does not change her female nature. This betrays a monkish narrowness which Mahâyânists saw themselves as overcoming, though they, too, thought a change of sex was a prerequisite for buddhahood. She replies: ‘For the twelve years that I have lived in this house, I have sought after womanhood, but without ever obtaining it. How then could I change it? Honourable Sâriputra, if a skillful illusionist created through transformation an illusionary woman, could you reasonably ask her why she does not change her womanhood?’ (170; 281). The point is that all dharmas are empty and illusory, and that Sâriputra has become fixated on an apparent substantial identity. Could we say that, in the same way, a moralistic demand that greed, hatred, pride and folly be transformed into correct attitudes is an inadequate response to these ills?
The goddess floors Sâriputra by a comic feat of magic: ‘Sâriputra the Elder appeared in every way like the Devî and she herself appeared in every way like Sâriputra the Elder. Then the Devî changed into Sâraputra asked Sâriputra changed into a goddess: “Why then, O Honourable Sir, do you not change your womanhood”’ (170; 282). Is there a similar magic that can transform the above-mentioned ills into their opposites (as in Wilfred Owen’s touching line: ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’)? Forgiveness, understanding, wide and tolerant human sympathy, and a sense that one shares with others the evil passions that one deplores in them, can no doubt effect this magic to some extent. Buddhists do not confront the unwholesome attitudes from a position of moralistic judgment over against them, reifying them as substantial evil, but rather work on them as material for transformation. Or rather, since ‘dharmas, all just as they are, are neither made, nor changed’ (171; 283), the evils are considered to lack inherent existence and it is the understanding of this lack that liberates us from them.
The chapter ends in the key of lofty paradox:
‘Devî, how long will it be before you reach supreme and perfect enlightenment?’
‘When you yourself, O Sthavira, return to being a worldly one with all the attributes of a worldly one, then I myself will reach supreme and perfect enlightenment.’
‘Devî, it is impossible and it cannot occur that I return to being a worldly one with all the attributes of a worldly one.’
‘Equally, Honourable Sâriputra, it is impossible and it cannot occur that I ever attain supreme and perfect enlightenment. And why? Because complete enlightenment rests on a non-base. Consequently, in the absence of any base, who could reach supreme and perfect enlightenment?… Tell me, O Sthavira, have you already attained the state of holiness?’
‘I have obtained it because there is nothing to obtain.’
‘It is the same with Bodhi: it is achieved because there is nothing to achieve.’ (171-2; 283-4)
This exchange might prompt us to meditate on the humbler theme of achievement in general, on the goals we set ourselves and the way we pursue them. Authentic creativity is very much a matter of living in the present and of not being shackled by past failures or future ambitions. Many people live unnecessarily servile lives, struggling to prove themselves in their own or in others’s eyes, working under the lash of a competition taking place before the eyes of external judges, or more often before the eye of their own ego or superego, which they project onto others, or onto God imagined as a jealous taskmaster. Even when their achievement is massive, it does not savor of liberation, but bears the harsh marks of steely ambition.
‘I have obtained it because there is nothing to obtain’ is the declaration of a truly successful person. All that is to be attained is to live and breathe in the here and now, disembarrassed of the burden of ego. To engage the present one must practice the middle way between the strained drivenness that seeks to clutch it and the laxity that lets it slide away. But surely this does not apply to the great achievers, who lay out a massive architectural plan that takes decades to accomplish, and that pursue their goal with unremitting discipline – figures like Milton and Dante for example? No, even in their case, ‘if poetry does not come as naturally as leaves on a tree, it had better not come at all’ (Keats). The plan becomes the framework of their daily effort, but unless they live in the present moment it will not be blessed with the grace of inspiration, but remain a dead monument of forced labor. The best praise they could give their own work would be: ‘It is achieved because there is nothing to achieve.’
The Silence of Vimalakîrti
In the eighth chapter of the sutra Vimalakîrti asks the bodhisattvas present to expound ‘the entry into the doctrine of non-duality’ (188; 301). Insight into non-duality is variously located in the thirty-two replies he receives. Lamotte gives a synoptic translation of two Chinese and one Tibetan version of these rather cryptic responses, and in the following sentences I offer a paraphrase that attempts to make the best sense of them. Non-duality overcomes the dualism of (1) ‘arising’ and ‘extinction,’ through the insight that dharmas do not arise and thus are not destroyed; (2) ‘me’ and ‘mine,’ through non-assertion of ‘me,’ which cuts off ‘mine’ at its root; (3) ‘defilement’ and ‘purification,’ by perceiving the true nature of ‘defilement,’ which is such that it does not give rise to the notion of purification; one leaves these notions behind by following the path of cessation (nirodha); (4) ‘distraction’ and ‘attention,’ by cutting off at the root the reflection and interest that gives rise to both of them; (5) ‘Bodhisattva mind’ and ‘Listener mind,’ by seeing them both as empty and illusory, and therefore the same; (6) ‘grasping’ and ‘rejection,’ by abstaining from affirmation and negation, and by non-action in regard to all dharmas; (7) ‘singleness of mark’ and ‘absence of mark,’ by seeing that the single mark of dharmas is their absence of mark; (8) ‘wholesome’ and ‘unwholesome,’ by not seeking one or the other, by neither grasping nor letting go, thus breaking through to a signlessness beyond such conceptions; (9) ‘blamable’ and ‘blameless,’ by seeing their identity, and that there is neither bondage nor liberation; (10) ‘impure’ and ‘pure,’ by seeing the sameness of all dharmas; (11) ‘happiness’ and ‘suffering,’ by excluding all calculation by a pure knowing; (12) ‘worldly’ and ‘transcendental,’ by realizing that the world is inherently empty and calm, and thus transcendental; (13) ‘samsara’ and ‘nirvana,’ by seeing that samsara has no real existence (and thus attaining nirvana), or by seeing that nirvana is empty and not a place to be reached; (14) ‘destructible’ and ‘indestructible,’ by seeing that the destructible is instantaneous and already destroyed, and that since it thus does not exist, neither does the indestructible; (15) ‘self’ and ‘non-self,’ by seeing that self lacks inherent existence, and a fortiori so does non-self; (16) ‘knowledge’ and ‘ignorance,’ by grasping the true nature of knowing as non-knowing, which is indeterminate and incalculable; (17) ‘form’ and ‘emptiness,’ by insight into the emptiness of form and the other skandhas (as in the Heart Sutra); (18) ‘the four elements’ and ‘space,’ by seeing that the true nature of the elements is space; (19) ‘eye’ and ‘color,’ by detachment from color (and other sensibles) and penetration of the true nature of the eye (and other sense-organs); (20) ‘giving’ and ‘application (parinâmâna) of the gift to omniscience (sarvajnâna),’ by seeing that the true nature of giving (and the other five perfections) is omniscience and that the true nature of omniscience is application; (21) ‘emptiness,’ ‘signlessness’ (ânimitta), and non-attending (apranihita), by seeing that the latter two are implied in the first; (22) ‘Buddha,’ ‘Dharma,’ and ‘Sangha,’ by seeing that the true nature of the Buddha is the Dharma and that the true nature of the Dharma is the Sangha, and that all are unconditioned, like space; (23) ‘accumulation of perishable things’ and ‘destruction of the accumulation,’ by seeing that accumulation itself is destruction, in that it is a false imagining which brings with it the imagining of destruction; (24) the disciplines of ‘body,’ ‘voice,’ and ‘mind,’ by seeing the inactive nature of these and of all dharmas; (25) ‘meritorious,’ ‘unmeritorious,’ and ‘neutral’ actions, by insight into their emptiness, to which no merit or demerit can attach. Non-duality overcomes (26) dualism rooted in ‘self,’ by true insight into self; (27) dualism based on ‘objects,’ by awareness of the absence of objects, which leaves nothing to be taken or rejected; (28) the duality of ‘darkness’ and ‘light,’ by their disappearance in the meditative state of cessation; (29) ‘delight in nirvana’ and ‘repugnance for samsara,’ by not being bound by samsara and thus no longer seeking release; (30) the duality of ‘path’ and ‘ bad path,’ by following the path alone, so that the very notions of path and bad path no longer arise; (31) the duality of ‘reality’ and ‘falsehood,’ in that the one who sees reality cannot conceive its ungraspable nature, and a fortiori does not conceive its opposite.
The last response comes from Manjusrî who says: ‘You have all spoken well; however, in my opinion, all that you have said still implies duality. Excludiong all words and not saying anything, not express nothing, not pronounce nothing, not teach nothing, not designating point to nothing, this is entering into non-duality’ (202; 316-17). Then Manjusrî turns to Vimalakîrti and asks for his own answer. The climactic sentence of the chapter follows: ‘The Licchavi Vimalakîrti remained silent.’ His act confirms and illustrates Manjusrî’s statement, while eliminating its residual performative contradiction. Vimalakîrti’s silence would not carry its full weight without the context provided by Manjusrî’s pronouncement, and this in turn gains its weight from the exhaustive preceding discussion. Note that the bodhisattvas’ replies are a review of all the concepts in Buddhism that are likely to give rise to a dualistic understanding, and that usually are understood in a dualistic way, perhaps because of the dualistic-sounding rhetoric of earlier Buddhist texts.
The language of the sutra is extremely lofty, but we can cash it in the small change of everyday life if we look out for occasions of overcoming dualisms that bind us in different ways. Many people feel that dualisms give them a strong identity. They cultivate strong attachments and strong aversions in order to bolster their sense of self. On the level of feelings, this leads to partiality, to blind loyalty to those one admires and contemptuous dismissal of others, or to patriotic or religious chauvinism. On the level of ideas, it leads to opiniatedness, a mental vice which fuels the bulk of the world’s impassioned discussions. To refrain from excess in one’s feelings and ideas seems a formula for ‘playing dead,’ but we should understand the Buddhist attitude not as one of prudent timidity, but as a freedom from affects and from views that allows one to live more fully and to act more effectively. When we observe prejudiced people from the outside, we pity their mental bondage, yet to them it seems like freedom, the freedom to be themselves. In the eyes of the Buddha we are all in the grip of such imprisoning distortions. The analysis and dismantling of extremes brings us back again and again to the middle path, which is free of delusion.
Seeing Christ in one’s neighbor is a way of practicing non-duality. There is no distinction between rich and poor, male and female, ugly and beautiful, kin and stranger – to all we direct the same energy of goodwill in the moment of encounter. We shrink up in the presence of some people, expand in the presence of others, shun those who repel us and chase after those who attract us. There is a lot of high-handedness and injustice in this way of behaving, and it causes us to miss out on the full riches of the humanity around us. To bring the same respect, the same affirmation, to every other person, and to affirm especially of the less attractive person that ‘this is Christ!’ is a way of correcting the imbalance caused by our instinctive likes and dislikes.
By the same token, we should stop picking and choosing, and complaining about what is lacking in our living conditions. Each moment should be affirmed and accepted as a moment of grace. The Zen monk is privileged to clean the latrines, as an affirmation of non-discrimination. Samsara itself is nirvana, or at least it is our only current connection with nirvana. People generally live badly, chasing shadows, and making fools of themselves. Buddhism calls on us to stop, to affirm the reality present to hand, and to bring out energies to bear on it, and so to become wise.
This moralizing may be rather platitudinous, but it is a way of digesting and acclimatizing the language of the sutras. The cumulative value of such efforts at application can be seen in the emergence of engaged Buddhism as one of the prominent liberating forces in the globalized world of today, filling the void left by the collapse of Marxism. Marx penetrated the economic fabric of oppression, but Buddhism goes deeper, deeper than Freud too, in penetrating the spiritual roots of oppression and of self-oppression. And there is a non-duality between spiritual bondage and freedom on the one hand and political and economic bondage and freedom on the other. The analysis of both is mutually enhancing. Marxism failed not because of flawed economics, but because of its inability to integrate economics and comprehensive spiritual insight, an inability that left it a victim to the projections of class hatred and of a dogmatism that bred tyranny. Buddhism can enhance its critical force by taking on board economic and political analysis, and indeed must do so in order to be faithful to its own vision of non-duality, for economics and politics are of the essence of samsara, which is not different from the essence of nirvana.
The US President’s State of the Union speech for 2004 contained a great number of references to terrorism, war, and killing. How many of these were subjected to a Buddhist critique of projections, or even to a Christian evaluation, in the months taken to prepare the speech? Was the only consideration short-term electoral appeal? Faced with such a frenzy of fear-mongering, the words of Buddhism will seem utopian and ineffective. But Buddhism is essentially progressive to the degree that the projections of fear and hatred are essentially regressive. Like the Christian message, it is never out of season, and never fails to bear fruit. We need to release both messages from the dust of accumulated tradition and allow them to join forces in overcoming the false dualisms that keep people divided from one another and themselves.
From THE JAPAN MISSION JOURNAL 58 (2004)