Buddhism stands unique among the
world's spiritual traditions for its rich set of methods for integrating
rigorous conceptual inquiry with the art of meditation. In Buddhist meditation
we find intriguing techniques such as the Zen use of insight riddles (koan) and
the sophisticated Middle Path (Madhyamika) method of paradoxical deconstruction
(prasanga-vicara). These methods cut directly across the rift between
intellectual activity and deep contemplation by harnessing the tremendous power
and momentum of thought to effect an "inside job" in propelling consciousness
to a direct, un-mediated encounter with reality. Similarly, the time-honored
and ancient Buddhist tradition of mindfulness meditation (satipatthana) uses
discrimination as a resource to produce a simple, close, and uncluttered
appreciation of our immediate experience. Rather than fight against the
dominating and pervasive presence of thought, these traditions turn our need to
interpret and understand into a tool for penetrating spiritual inquiry. It
would seem that Buddhism has achieved a balance wherein thought is used to help
disclose rather than conceal the deepest spiritual truths.
Although this interpretation of Buddhist meditation might
appear comfort-ing to western "intellectual and scientific"
Buddhists, there often lurks a suspicion among "serious" meditators
and practitioners that any interpretation of the spiritual endeavor that values
conceptual inquiry is yet another manifestation of the dilution and
degeneration of Buddhism (the dharma). Thus, within spiritual traditions, we
often see a divide between the thinkers (the philosophers, scientists,
translators, and academics) and the practitioners (the meditators and yogis).
Moreover, this divide is not only a social phenomenon. At a more fundamental
level, it discloses a dilemma for all "thoughtful practitioners,"
that is, all practitioners who still find themselves thinking. The dilemma
revolves around the question of the role and value of spiritual inquiry and
understanding. To the extent that we acknowledge that purposeful inquiry and interpretation
can both conceal and disclose the liberating reality (tattva) that we seek, we
are forever in a dilemma about whether our own spiritual actions are bringing us
closer to our goal or pushing us further away. Is our inquiry progressive or
regressive? How can we tell? Is it helpful or harmful to search for, or invent,
a means to distinguish helpful from harmful forms of inquiry? We are not even
sure whether asking this very question is helpful or harmful. Is the time spent
reading and engaging with this essay merely an intellectual indulgence or is it
spiritually valuable? Is what I am doing right now central or tangential to my
In order to engage with these questions, I will begin by
contrasting two seemingly contrary positions about the role of inquiry in the
spiritual endeavor within Buddhism. I call these positions the
"orthodox" and "unorthodox." The orthodox position is
represented by the more mainstream Buddhist traditions, in which the claim is
made that spiritual inquiry can help disclose the insight that frees us from
ignorance and suffering. Within these traditions, spiritual inquiry is viewed
as a method or device (upaya) for helping students see through the illusions of
egoism and self-centeredness. The unorthodox position can be found within a
handful of more esoteric Buddhist traditions, such as the Complete Seal
(Mahamudra), Complete Fulfillment (rDzogs chen) and early Chinese Zen, which
teach that all forms of spiritual inquiry are irrelevant, or even counterproductive,
in terms of achieving spiritual awakening. Some texts and spiritual masters present
the unorthodox perspective selectively, while others present it in a quite
These two sets of traditions, the orthodox, in which
meditative investigation is advocated and used, and the unorthodox, in which
such methods are repudiated. focus on the dilemma we are addressing in an acute
and pronounced way. The radical difference in these two positions opens up the
possibilities that spiritual inquiry is (1) helpful, (2) harmful, or (3)
irrelevant to spiritual understanding.
While this essay will focus on the role of spiritual
inquiry in Buddhism, the predicament we are addressing is encountered by all
spiritual practitioners, because the question of whether "what one is
doing" has spiritual value or not is a concern for practitioners of any
religious, philosophical, or psychological system. Thus, though our discussion
is of Buddhism, the implications of our analysis can be applied to the methods that
occur in any religious or metaphysical tradition, such as prayer, liturgy,
textual study, and contemplation.
We will begin our own "inquiry" by briefly
examining some of the important and representative forms of spiritual inquiry
in Buddhism. In particular. we will look at mindfulness practice (sati-patthana
and zazen), insight riddles (koan), and paradoxical deconstruction
(prasanga-vicara). In order to provide the critique of spiritual inquiry we
will mainly draw on the Complete Fulfillment tradition (rDzogs chen), though we
will also refer to Zen, the Complete Seal (Mahamudra), and an unaligned Indian
master. The main material liar this critique will come from a text by a
fourteenth century Tibetan master, kLong chen pa. We will use extracts that
present a comprehensive critique of goal-oriented forms of Buddhism.
TYPES OF INQUIRY
In early Buddhism, which is most accurately represented
today by the Theravada tradition, we find a very basic and accessible form of
spiritual inquiry called mindfulness meditation (satipatthana). This method is popular
in the West, where it is taught as "mindfulness" or "insight meditation"
by Western and Asian teachers such as Joseph Goldstein (1983,1993), Jack
Kornfield (1993), Ayya Khema (1987), and Thich Nhat Hanh (1991, 1993). In this
meditative practice, we learn to recognize and observe the individual
components that make up the full range of human experience. The exercise is to
attend to the different processes and phenomena that occur in the here-and-now
as we are sitting in meditative posture or engaged in the various activities of
our lives. This involves systematically observing our experience to find out
what is there. The process of attending to our experience is assisted, in some
interpretations of mindfulness, by applying simple and generic labels to the
phenomena we observe. The intention is only to be aware of what is occurring in
the present moment; we are nol looking for an answer to a problem we might have
posed. Nor do we attend to our experience for the purpose of producing a theory
or explanation about why things behave in the ways that they do.
The Discourse on Mindfulness (Sati-patthana Sutta) taught
by the Buddha describes this science of systematic observation in great detail.
It lays out the processes and phenomena towards which the meditator directs his
or her attention. For example, with respect to one's body one may serially attend
to one's breathing and to the position of one's body--whether it is upright,
settled, or prostrate. Within these positions one observes whether one is
looking towards or away from something, whether one is moving or stationary,
bending, stretching, eating, drinking, chewing, savoring, falling asleep,
waking up. speaking, or remaining silent. With respect to one's feelings, one
identifies whether what one is feeling is pleasant, painful, or neither and
whether the feelings are of a worldly or spiritual form. One also observes the
arising and dissolution of these various feelings. With respect to emotions and
mental states, one recognizes the presence or absence of different moods and
emotions, such as desire, hate, excitement, anger, worry, joy, love, agitation,
torpor, and doubt. One also observes the presence or absence of ignorance and
whether one's mental state is contracted or expanded, inferior or superior,
concentrated or unconcentrated, free or constrained. With respect to the
different dimensions (skandha) of our experience, one observes whether one is attending
to a physical form (rupa), a Feeling (vedana), a perception (samjna), a drive
or impulse (samskara), or consciousness itself (citta). In the domain of
spiritual experiences one observes the presence or absence of mindfulness,
inquiry, energy, joy, relaxation, concentration and equanimity.
The initial task in mindfulness meditation is to see
things as they are in order to filter out thoughts, feelings, attitudes, etc.,
that disturb the emergence of peaceful awareness. As Ayya Khema (1987, 16)
explains: When thoughts arise, look at them, give them a name. Whether it is a correct
label or not doesn't matter. Any label during meditation means the thought
needs to be dropped. When you have learned to label in meditation you will be
able to label thought as wholesome, profitable, skillful or otherwise in daily
living also. When you know it's not skillful or wholesome you can let it go.
The ultimate aim of mindfulness meditation is to bring us
into contact with the raw sensory information of our experience. When we get
beneath the interpretative filters with which we analyze and add complexity to
our experience, we discover that all compounded phenomena are impermanent, signless,
and self-less. This recognition does not come through looking for these
characteristics. They am not confirmed as the conclusion of an empirical
hypothesis. Rather, reality simply shows up as constantly changing and without
any abiding essence. As this practice matures the meditator also realizes that
there is no self within the aggregation of components that constitute people
and their experience. There is no stable observer observing what is being
observed. The very instant an observer is identified, it takes on the
characteristics of that which is being observed. At some level there is a
witnessing or registration of experience but this registration dissolves into
nothing as it is instantaneously replaced by another gestalt of sense datum.
There is no core entity linking experience together as our experience. Our
sense of personal continuity breaks down into an experience of disparate mental
constructs built on notions of time, space, and experience. We discover that
there is nothing within the physical body, feelings, perceptions, drives, and
mental events that constitutes a person, self, or soul.
This realization, which comes as the result of this
inquiry, progressively frees the meditator from pain and suffering because
there is no self to suffer. Ultimately the meditator ceases to exist as an
independent entity. His or her conditioned experience (samsara) transforms into
an experience of unconditional freedom (nirvana) which transcends all notions
of time, space, and existence.
The tradition of mindfulness meditation is also central to
Zen Buddhism. In Soto Zen, the main practice is zazen, or sitting meditation.
Traditionally, Japanese Soto is considered to have been established by Dogen
Kigen (1200--1253) The practice he advocated is known as "only zazen
(shikan taza)." In his great work, the Shobogenzo, he claimed that
"Zazen is the Buddha-dhar-ma and the Buddha-dharma is zazen." He
describes zazen in this way:
For sanzen [in this case, doing zazen as instructed by a
master], a quiet room is suitable. Eat and drink moderately. Cast aside all involvement
and cease all affairs. Do not think good or bad. Do not administer pros or
cons. Cease all movement the conscious mind, the gauging of all thoughts and
views. Have no designs on becoming a Buddha Once you have adjusted your
posture, take a deep breath, inhale and exhale, rock your body right and left
and settle into a steady, immobile sitting position. Think of not thinking. How
do you think of not thinking? Without thinking. This is the essential art of
zazen. (Kasulis 1981, 70 71)
The main difference between Theravada mindfulness
meditation patthana) and simply sitting (zazen) is that less texture is laid
over our experience in the practice of simply sitting. Whereas in mindfulness
practice we are offered a set of predefined categories through which to observe
our experience, in simply sitting, the practice is to be aware of our thoughts,
feelings, and physical sensations as they naturally present themselves to us.
We do not even distinguish between our thoughts, feelings, etc., unless this is
what we are already doing. In simply sitting (Kasulis 1981, 71-77) one enters a
state "without thinking (hishiryo)." This is not a state of not
thinking, for this would exclude thoughts. Nor is it a state of thinking, for
this, would preclude no thought. So in simply sitting we enter a space of
disclosure that allows whatever is there--thoughts or no thoughts--to be there,
just as they are.
In the Rinzai (Chinese, Lin-chi) school of Zen (Miura and
Sasaki 1965) the practice of simply sitting is combined with the use of insight
fiddles called koans (Chinese, kung-an). The koan method of inquiry began in China in the
twelfth century with the Sung masters. It was systematized in Japan in the
The koan is a kind of puzzle or problem given to a student
by a master. The idea is that the koan brings to the surface a fundamental
dilemma that lies within the student's mind and that obscures spiritual
awakening. The student of Zen is invited to solve a puzzle that defies
conceptual resolution. Sometimes the koans are dialectical in structure. For
example, they might report a terse historical exchange (mondo) between a famous
master and a student. A well-known koan of this type comes from an exchange between
the ninth-century Chinese master Chao-chou (Japanese, Joahu) in which a monk
asked Master Chao-chou: "Has a dog Buddha-nature or not? Chao-chou
answered: "Mu!" In tinge this has developed into the koan, "Show
Other koans are nonsensical claims or utterances that the
student is invited to resolve. Hui neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, often set
his students to work on the koan, "What was your original aspect before
your mother and father were born?" Hakuin Zenji, a great reformer of
Rinzai Zen, used to ask his students: "What is the sound of one hand
clapping?" Alternatively, a master might deliver the koan to a student by
holding up a staff and saying: "This is not a staff. What is it?"
koan inquiry, then, is driven by the need to find an intelligible solution to a
seemingly conceptual problem.
By working through a series of koans the student progressively
deconstructs the cognitive structures in her or his psyche that give rise to
personal and spiritual conflicts. If this process is handled skillfully and diligently,
the student will have a nonconceptual insight experience (satori or kensho)
that is a taste of the full-blown experience of illumination or enlightenment.
This experience, which is undeniable and revolutionary, then takes progressive
hold in the life of the student as it is assimilated and consolidated. The
first experience of insight (satori) was expected within two or three years of
beginning koan practice. The full integration of this experience could take
another ten to fifteen years (Miura and Sasaki 1965, 29).
One cannot underestimate the intensity of the process
leading up to the first experience of satori. D. T. Suzuki likens the process
to being asked by the Zen master to climb to the top of a hundred-foot pole and
then "execute a desperate leap utterly disregarding your existential
safety" (Suzuki 1970. 50). The leap, of course, is the transcendence of egocentricity.
The initial objective of the koan is to propel the student
into an experience called the "great doubt (daigi)." The immense
effort that the student has expended in working on the koan comes back in her
or his face as the "great doubt block (daigidan)." Everything that
the student believes he or she has left behind suddenly appears directly in
front as a massive and immovable boulder blocking any further progress. It is
as though the student, in attempting to transcend his or her ego, has in fact
been consolidating his or her distinctiveness. The history of inquiring into
the koan has been appropriated by the ego as evidence of the student' s commitment
and spiritual worthiness to gain satori. Any attempt to move the boulder only
adds to its size and sets it more firmly in place.
Toward forcing the student into an experience of the
"great doubt," koan practice is combined with the practice of zazen,
or strict meditation. This combination produces a potent and highly charged
environment in which the chances of achieving breakthrough insight (satori) are
greatly enhanced. On top of the regular daily practice are frequent periods of
still more intensified koan work called sesshin. During these periods the
student meditates for up to eighteen hours a day and is required to have a
formal interview with the master a number of times each day offering a
"solution" to the koan. At times the intensity and seeming
significance of these "encounters" is such that the student has to be
forcibly dragged into the master's room by other students. As Richard De
Martino (1970, 161) writes:
Under the stimulation of such a regimen with its taut and
serious atmosphere, the given koan may begin to take effect. The student, prodded
by the stick of the head monk when dozing comes upon him, exertion wanes, or
stiffness and tiredness set in, and spurred, inspired, goaded or even driven by
the master, finds himself to be more and more caught by his koan. As his each
response to it is rejected, he becomes increasingly dislodged, shaken, and
unsteady in whatever assurance or complacency he originally had.
The koan takes on the dimensions of a life-and-death
struggle for the ego. "The koan thus comes to be... a living crisis,
taking over as the central and exclusive concern of... [the student's] entire
being" (De Martino 1970, 161).
In working with a koan, the Zen student attempts to keep
his or her inquiry active at all times. The student becomes totally obsessed by
the koan. Every attempt to solve the puzzle intellectually is rejected by the
master. But the search goes on unabated and with ever increasing intensity. The
bankruptcy of the mind to find a solution places the student under tremendous
pressure. The ego "holding onto this last remnant of itself... feels that
it can still, at least for the present, preserve itself, albeit in an almost
intolerable condition... The ego, in an existential quandary which it can
neither compose, endure, abandon, or escape, is unable to advance, unable to
retreat, unable to stand fixed" (De Martino 1970, 162-163). Yet, the
master continues, unrelentingly, to demand that the student resolve this insane
predicament. The master demands that the student fully experience and live the
contradiction that being an ego entails.
Finally, when the student is at the point of total and
utter desperation, the intellect can break open and allow the nature of the
mind itself to appear in a satori experience. This represents a cataclysmic
breakdown of the ego's defenses in which the student simultaneously dies and is
reborn as simply a focus of awareness. It is a "great awakening" in
which the student is irrevocably propelled into an infinitely more spacious and
unrestricted level of awareness. Mind gives way to no-mind, and from here on the
student allows the experience to permeate his or her entire being.
The Middle Path and
The most rigorous and exacting form of meditative inquiry
within found in the method of paradoxical deconstruction (prasanga-vicara)
employed by Middle Pathers (Madhyami-ka). This method, which is also
referred to as "middle-path analysis," "consequential
analysis," and "unfindability analysis," was originally
developed in India
by the great second-century philosopher Nagrjuna. With this method Nagarjuna
brought contemplative inquiry to a new level of rigor and precision. The form
of spiritual inquiry he developed was subsequently refined by Tibetan
meditators into a streamlined and powerful method that is central to their
discernment meditations syana) on openness (sunyata).
"Paradoxical deconstruction" refers to a
rigorous method of inquiry that is designed to reverse the tendency of thought
to automatically fragment and perpetuate itself. This particular form of
inquiry systematically deconstructs our belief that all things, ourselves
included, have a real or intrinsic existence. The great seventh-century
Indian Middle Path philosopher Candrakirti (MA: 6.116-117) writes:
When things [are conceived to intrinsically] exist, then
conceptuality (kalpana) is produced. But a thorough analysis shows how things
are not [intrinsically] existent. [When it is realized that] there are [intrinsically]
existent things, conceptualization does not occur, just as for example, there
is no fire without fuel.
Ordinary people are restricted by their
conceptualizations, but practitioners [by achieving a] non-conceptual
[realization of the nature of things (dharmata) become liberated. The learned
have said that the result of analysis (vicara) is the reversal of
Candrakirti's Commentary (MABh: 229-230) adds that the
disappearance of conceptuality comes as a direct result of analysis, and that
such dissipation of conceptuality is concomitant with the onset of the insight into
This particular form of inquiry performs an "inside
job" in which thought is used to bring about its own destruction. The
gradual breaking down of ontologizing forms of conceptuality results in a
progressive induction of the insight into openness (sunyata). This insight
exposes the open texture of reality wherein nothing has a substantial,
independent, or autonomous existence (svabhava). It is an experience in which
nothing exists in and of itself. Everything is seen to be coexistent and
interdependent with everything else.
Paradoxical deconstruction involves the structural
manipulation of thought in conformity with certain formal patterns of reasoning
while in a deep meditative state. If these deconstructive meditations are
performed diligently and with sufficient precision and intentionality, they thoroughly
dissolve all conceptual fragmentation (prapanca), thereby leaving the mind of
the meditator clear and spacious (prabhasvara). This form of inquiry is also
called "unfindability analysis" because it logically leads to the
conclusion that what we thought had existed does not in fact exist. If, for
example, we were investigating the reality of our personal identity (pudgala),
the inquiry would experientally disclose our nonself-existence (nairatmya-pudgala).
When Middle Pathers meditate on openness, they first
develop their concentration so that they can focus their thoughts in a firm,
precise, and sustained way. As in many Buddhist traditions, they begin by
developing serenity (samatha) and mental integration (sa-madhi). These
practices stabilize their emotions (klesa) and bring a new level of coherence
and stability to previously fragmented and diffused thought processes.
In beginning the actual deconstructive meditation, Middle
Pathers establish the logical principles upon which their inquiry will be
based. Specifically, they commit themselves to basing their thinking on the principles
of identity, non-contradiction, and the excluded middle. In the traditional
meditational manuals, this commitment is established in two steps: (1)
determining what is to be refuted, and (2) ascertaining the pervasion. In the
first step the meditator distinguishes an object to be investigated and then
determines that it is this object and not something else that is to be
analyzed. This involves making a firm commitment about the defining
characteristics (svalaksana) of the object in question and deciding not to
reconsider this definition during the investigation, nor to query the
identifying characteristics or introduce any ambiguity about what it is that he
or she is analyzing once a deconstructive meditation is underway. Thus, if the
meditator is examining him- or herself, he or she will take a firm fix on what,
for the purposes of any particular meditation, will be regarded as the self. He
or she may decide to focus on a set of feelings, or memories, or ambitions, or
physical appearance, or all of these and any other aspects of what he or she
considers him- or herself to be.
In the second step, called ascertaining the pervasion, the
Middle Pather selects a logically contrasting relation within which to analyze
the object that is chosen in the first step. When ascertaining the pervasion,
the meditator commits her- or himself to the validity of the principle of the excluded
middle or what is alternatively called the principle of joint exhaustion. This
principle says that A and not A exhaust all the possible ways in which
something can exist. This principle is invoked in order to ensure that no residue
of intrinsic existence is left over at the completion of a meditation.
Having established these two steps the meditator then
chooses a contrasting relation through which to investigate the object selected
in the first step. If the analyst is seeking to develop insight into the open
nature of his or her own person then he or she will usually look at the
experience of selfhood in relationship to his or her psychophysical
organism--what we will call the "body-mind". The two contrasting
relations with which to structure the analysis will be: (1) that one is one's
body-mind, and (2) that one is not one's body-mind. A logical paradox is then
generated for both of these alternatives. The conclusion that we are not our
body-mind is logically derived from the position that we are our body-mind and
the conclusion that we are our body-mind is logically derived from the belief that
we are not our body-mind. Paradoxical analysis thus decontructs two mutually
excluding and jointly exhaustive positions leaving the meditator in a radically
transformed state of consciousness wherein one is neither the same as nor
different from the body-mind.
This analysis is based on a template called "identity
or difference." A template is an abstracted analytical framework that is
superimposed on a "live" philosophical issue. The live issue is then
reformulated around the template for the purposes of producing logical
contradictions. The identity or difference template is the standard one for
analyzing personal identity. The Tibetan Middle Path meditators have in fact
developed a range of templates based, for example, on how something is
produced, whether it exists as a unit or as a composite of parts, or whether
its existence precedes, is concomitant with, or postdates its identification.
With a rich armory of templates, meditators are able to gradually interrupt the
flow of proliferating conceptuality by exposing self-contradictions within the thought
process. This is a refined process that calls for both robust and refined
analyses, with different templates being used to arrest conceptual flows that
are based on personal identity, conditioned phenomena, and unconditioned things
such as space and freedom.
The Destructuring of
The process of paradoxical deconstruction, where a
position and its opposite mutually entail each other, can be thought of
figuratively as a series of steps that logically induce contradictory beliefs
to coalesce at a common spatial and temporal location. As Shohei Ichimura
(1981, 92) writes: "The predicament created by this dialectic is due to
the unexpected contradiction which our convention implies, and this feature is
suddenly disclosed by the particular context in which two contrary entities are
juxtaposed over the same sphere and moment of illumination."
Deconstructive meditation forces two contradicting beliefs to be held in
consciousness at the same time. However, because the beliefs mutually exclude
each other, each belief deconstructs or dissolves the other (Fenner 1994b;
Fenner and Fenner 1994).
Thus, two opposing beliefs that had previously achieved an
artificial autonomy of existence collapse into and destroy each other. In this
way deconstructive meditation experientially demonstrates that the intrinsic identity
and seemingly independent existence of ourselves and other things is imposed on
reality (tattva) because of the tendency of thought to bifurcate. The meditator
directly sees that reality is boxed in and cut up purely as a function of
conceptual designation (prajnaptisat). In the absence of conceptual splitting
(vikalpa), independently existing things return to a ground of being that
cannot be said to be dual or nondual.
Though effort and application is required on the part of
Middle Path meditators to counteract the energy and momentum of conceptual
splitting, such splitting is viewed as an artificial condition that is
maintained only through the constant investment of effort. At root it is
propelled by the need to secure our own solid and independent existence. When
that effort is relaxed conceptuality tends to naturally fold in on itself and
dissipate. According to Middle Pathers, openness (sanyata) is a natural,
effortless, and primordial condition of existence whereas conceptual
proliferation is characterized by the continual expenditure of effort and
struggle (duhkha). Thus, for Middle Pathers, conceptual bifurcation is the
source of our suffering in the whirlpool of cyclic existence (samsara).
In their meditations Middle Pathers plumb the deepest and
most entrenched (sahaja) forms of conceptuality--modes that can only be
penetrated through long and quiet meditation. By deconstructing the very
foundations of their worldview, they gain experiences that are deeper and more
lasting than the mere manipulation of conscious thought. Tibetan meditators
often quote a line from Santideva's Introduction to the Evolved Lifestyle (BCA:
9.140a) in this regard that says, "Without contacting the thing that is
imagined there is no ascertainment of its non-[intrinsic] existence." The
import of this line is that one must get to the very center, or solid core, of
one's beliefs if one is to liberate them through deconstructive meditations. Thus,
when meditators work on realizing the open and insubstantial nature (nihsvabhava)
of themselves they progressively connect with all aspects and dimensions of
their personality structures. They begin by connecting with the more
superficial or surface (parikalpita) aspects of who they are, such as the
beliefs they have acquired in their formal education and upbringing. As these
are deconstructed they move to more basic beliefs and emotions, such as the
very need for survival. By locating and dismantling the deepest and most
foundational flows of conceptuality they gain existentially far-reaching
results from their deconstructive meditations.
Through practice, Middle Pathers hone and refine their
meditations so that their conceptual trajectories, as specified by the
analytical procedures, are controlled, penetrating, and focused, thereby
producing a predictable and consistent reversal of conceptual fragmentation.
Through repeated meditations over many thousands of hours, they progressively
and thoroughly eliminate all traces of the belief that they are unique and
self-existent. Insight necessarily follows from rigorous analysis.
Fulfillment and the Negative Value of Inquiry
Up to this point we have outlined a number of different
types of inquiry used within Buddhism to facilitate the development of
spiritual insight. In the following sections, we will study the claim,
developed in a number of different Buddhist traditions, that spiritual inquiry
of the type we have just been considering is a counterproductive influence for
the emergence of real spiritual understanding. The traditions within which one
can find this critique of spiritual investigation include Zen, the Complete
Seal (Mahamudra), and the Complete Fulfillment (rDzogs chen). Our own investigation
will focus on the Complete Fulfillment tradition, though we will also draw on
the observations of Zen and Complete Seal masters. We will also draw on the
comments of a contemporary nonaligned spiritual teacher whose roots are in the
We will base this section on a particularly forthright
text written by fourteenth-century Tibetan master kLong chen pa. The sections
are extracted from a text titled The Natural Freedom of Being in the Complete
Fulfillment Tradition (rDzogs pa chen po chos nyid rang grol), which in turn is
the second book of a series titled Trilogy on Natural Freedom (Rang grol skor gsum).
We will begin by looking at the claims made by these unorthodox schools and
then move on to explain why spiritual inquiry of the type exemplified in
mindfulness practice, insight riddles (koan), and deconstructive meditation are
viewed as a hindrance to the emergence of spiritual understanding.
kLong chen pa begins:
Even though one may take sides and give allegiance to a
philosophical system, or even [Cultivate] the innumerable types of
philosophical viewpoints, meditational methods or [traditions of] action, still
it is difficult to see the authentic meaning of the essential mind-in-itself
(snying po'i sems nyid). Through their different analyses of selflessness of
persons and things, the disciples [of the fully evolved teachers], those who
have evolved by themselves, the Phenomenalists and the constructive Middle
Pathers [lose sight of] the real practice of view, meditation and action, and
get sidetracked in the four [types of diversions], such as getting spaced out.
By [going astray in this way] innumerable creatures seem to [prolong their] existence.
According to kLong chen pa it is impossible to understand
the mind-in-itself by relying on any of the philosophical systems (siddhanta) or
meditative methods that have been developed in Buddhism. By the mind-in-itself,
kLong chen pa means the mind as distinct from mental activities such as
thinking and perceiving. Mind-as-such is unconditioned and unstained by thought
activity. It is likened to a mirror that reflects the world just-as-it-is
without preferring any percept over any other one. The mind-in-itself is the
Zen no-mind. From the large range of Buddhist philosophical systems, kLong chen
pa specifically targets the Phenomenalists (Cittamatra or Yogacara), who held
the view that all phenomena are mental, and the Middle Pathers (Madhyamika).
According to kLong chen pa, the very deconstructive meditations that Middle
Pathers claim reverse conceptuality in fact divert meditators from gaining any authentic
An identical assessment about the negative value of
spiritual inquiry was voiced earlier by powerful exponents (mahasiddha) of the
Complete Seal (Mahamudra) such as Saraha, who boldly proclaimed that:
"Mantras and tantras, meditation and concentration are all a cause of
self-deception. Do not defile in contemplation thought that is pure in its own
nature, but abide in the bliss of yourself and cease these torments"
(Conze 1954, 227).
In Zen too, we can find similar declarations. The
eighth-century Chinese master Mazu, for example, wrote, "To grasp the good
and reject the bad, to contemplate emptiness and enter concentration, is all in
the province of contrivance--and if you go on seeking externals, you get
further and further estranged" (Cleary 1989, 1). Similarly, Yuanwu, a
Chinese master from the East Mountain School of Zen, wrote, "To study Zen
conceptually is like drilling in ice for fire, like digging a hole to look for
the sky. It just increases mental fatigue. To study Zen by training is adding
mud to dirt, scattering sand in the eyes, impeding you more and more"
(Cleary 1989, 37).
Continuing his critique, kLong chen pa writes:
Some say that the purification (sangs) of the mind is the
goal of view, meditation and action.
Some suppress their drives and feelings. Some say that cutting their connection
with the three times is the unimpeded state of immediate awareness. Others note
the arisings and cessation [of whatever appears in their awareness]. They say
these are the real aim [of practice, but here there are only] turbulent waves
of proliferating conceptualization (rtog pa).
In this paragraph kLong chen pa isolates more meditational
methods. is Here he mentions the tantric methods of purification, the monastic
method in which one suppresses emotions such as desire and anger, the
trance-like meditations in which one is completely disconnected from the
temporal world, and even the time-honored method of mindfulness meditation. All
of these, he claims, precipitate rather than attenuate conceptual activity.
After critiquing the methods of Buddhist tantra on the
grounds that they stimulate desire, kLong chen pa continues:
Alas! Because these people do not know how to recognize
the precious jewel they appear to be searching for junk jewelry, having
discarded the wish-fulfilling gem. Having rejected what is supreme, the veritable
nature of the mind itself, [and instead] conditioning themselves with
fabricated techniques [based on] hope and fear (re dogs) they are trapped in a
nest of snakes. One can never become free with an obsessive mind. The defect
Lies in the seeker who seeks for the meaning of that which is sought after. After
emphasizing how seriously misguided the aforementioned practices are, kLong
chen pa comes to the heart of the problem. The assumption in all the above
methods of spiritual practice and inquiry is that our present condition is
inadequate or impoverished and that it should not be this way. They are all
predicated on the belief that "something is missing." For example, in
Theravada we lack the experience of egolessness. In Zen we lack the
breakthrough illumination of satori. In the Middle Path we lack the insight
(prajna) that corrects our fundamental ignorance. The methods of these
traditions are all designed to bring forth whatever is thought to be missing.
Because the assumption that something is missing is so pervasive and constant,
kLong chen pa refers to it as the "obsessed mind." This problem is
inherent in the identity of the seeker because the seeker is driven by the
belief that there is something of value to find. Yet for as long as the
practitioner is a seeker, she or he is doomed to be dissatisfied because she or
he has not reached the goal that is sought. Hence kLong chen pa writes that
"the defect lies in the seeker who seeks for the meaning of that which is
sought after." Centuries earlier Saraha made the same point--that reality
is present and available yet elusive if deliberately sought--when he stated,
"The nature of the sky is originally clear but by gazing and gazing the
sight becomes obscured. Then when the sky appears deformed in this way, the
fool does not know that this is the fault of his own mind" (Conze 1954,
229). The ninth-century Chinese Zen master Linji made the same observation,
claiming that "when you look for it [enlightenment] you become further
from it, when you seek it you turn from it all the more" (Cleary 1989, 6).
kLong chen pa's text
Hey! If one wants to apprehend the meaning of the nature
of the mind itself what is the use of many investigations and analyses?
Whatever appears is fight there without the grasping of the appearance. When one
has no fixations and doesn't adopt a position one does not need to accept or
reject (blang dot) [anything at all]. Because everything is beyond mental orientation, don't meddle or
The claim by Middle Pathers that they can reconstruct
conceptuality and bring about a cessation (nirodha) through analysis is a myth
according to kLong chen pa. The Middle Pather using deconstructive techniques
and the Zen practitioner who is working with a koan are just living in hope if
they believe that these methods can precipitate a nonconceptual experience of reality.
Thus, while mainstream Rinzai Zen practitioners rely on
koans to achieve satori, some Zen masters criticized their use.
Seventeenth-century Japanese master Bankei rejected both sitting meditation
(zazen) and koan practice, calling them "tool Zen." He is quoted
(Waddell 1973, 147) as saying:
Zen masters of today generally use "old tools"
when they deal with pupils, apparently thinking they cannot raise the barriers
[to enlightenment] without them. They do not teach by thrusting themselves directly
forward and confronting their students without their tools. These men who teach
with tools and cannot do without them are the blind men of Zen.
The contemporary nonaligned teacher U.
G. Krishnamurti is an outspoken critic of all forms of spiritual and religious
inquiry. According to Krishnamurti (1982, 62):
If you practice any system of mind control, automatically
the "you" is there, and through this it is continuing... Nor can you
practice mindfulness, trying to be aware every moment of your life. You cannot be
aware; you and awareness cannot co-exist. If you could be in a state of
awareness for one second by the clock, once in your life, the continuity would
be snapped, the illusion of the experiencing structure, the "you,"
would collapse, and everything would fall into the natural rhythm. In this
state you do not know what you are looking at--that is awareness.
The reason why we cannot reverse the thinking process is
that thought only moves in the direction of producing more thought. Hence,
according to Krishnamurti, if a reversal of the thinking process is ever to
occur, it must be acausal because every attempt to cause it to invert only
guarantees its continuation. It is impossible to willingly stop thinking
because every effort to do this only adds momentum to conceptual activity. In
other words, we cannot think our way to the end of thought.
Under this interpretation, and contrary to the stated aim,
every spiritual theory and method is in fact designed to perpetuate the
practitioner's independence and individuality. It does not matter whether we
are controlling our thoughts or letting them be, intensifying our emotions or releasing
them, because the experiences that arise are all appropriated by the ego. The
ego designs progressively more sophisticated methods for disguising its
commitment to self-maintenance. The most sophisticated methods are found in the
domain of spirituality where the name of the game is to "transcend the
self." Thus, within the domain of spirituality we find a number of
inventions that are designed to disguise our finite and ego-based existence. We
have notions such as "timelessness," "non-conceptuality,"
and "non-self," which all act to maintain the status quo.
For example, the continuation of time is guaranteed by
inventing the concept of a "timeless dimension" and then pursuing an
experience of "the timeless." In similar fashion, thought cremes the
possibility of a state of "no-thought" and then ensures its own
maintenance for as long as no-thought is sought. One of the most sophisticated
ways of perpetuating the ego is found in the Buddhist theory of egolessness.
Within this theory the ego denies its own existence, thereby creating the ideal
and goal of realizing egolessness as a way of sealing the on-going existence of
the ego. The game plan of the ego goes undetected in this theory because the
ego is merely an illusion.
The dilemma we are confronted with is now apparent. On the
one hand we have the orthodox traditions of Buddhism that teach meditation and
other forms of spiritual inquiry and provide the circumstances for such
practices through the creation of monasteries, temples, and lay organizations.
On the other hand we have highly accomplished sages from well-respected
Buddhist traditions declaring that orthodox methods for spiritual advancement
At a philosophical level the contrast is between those who
in one way or another say that spiritual inquiry can causally produce a
nonconceptual awareness and those claiming that spiritual inquiry can never be
an agent for the emergence of spiritual insight. For example, Middle Pathers
writing in the philosophical tenets (siddhanta) literature state that insight arises
in dependence on deconstructive analysis. They thereby reject that insight
occurs adventitiously or through no cause at all. Advocates of the Complete
Fulfillment claim that spiritual methods perpetuate conceptualization and do
not give rise to spiritual insight.
Spiritual seekers relate to these philosophical positions
personally as conflicting beliefs and attitudes that accompany the spiritual
endeavor. They are experienced as pairs of polarized feelings and orientations
that can change from year to year and day to day, such as the following pairs:
There is something to do/There is nothing to do
This isn't it/This is it
There is something to get/There isn't anything to get
There is something I need to know/There is nothing I need
I need to think about this more/Thinking won't help me
In general terms the first orientation in each polarity
relates to orthodox traditions. The second orientation in each polarity is
closer to the perspective of the unorthodox traditions.
There are two ways that we can become resolved about the
issue. One possibility is to take a position in favor of the orthodox or
unorthodox interpretation. The position that we adopt might be consistent with
how we have thought about this question in the past or it could represent a
change in our thinking. We might also achieve a point of resolution by settling
into the position that there is no right interpretation, or that it is impossible
to decide which approach is correct. We are certain that the problem is
unsolvable as a simple decision in favor of one or other interpretation.
If we are unable to come down unequivocally on either
side, or are uncomfortable with declaring that the dilemma simply cannot be
resolved, we are in a state of irresolution. In other words, we do not know
where we are--we have lost our beatings and cannot respond decisively to the question
of where we are situated vis-a-vis the correctness or adequacy of the orthodox
versus unorthodox interpretations of the spiritual endeavor.
With respect to the state of resolution we should note
that in validating one interpretation and invalidating the other we have
settled into a philosophical position. By agreeing with either the orthodox or
unorthodox interpretation, we adopt a viewpoint and thereby also forsake the
claim by Zen, the Middle Path, and the unorthodox schools that they are positionless.
Strictly, there is nothing that they would defend as representing their own
philosophy or refute as a misrepresentation. By preferring the orthodox or
unorthodox interpretation we ignore a common guiding vision that is to be free
of any viewpoint. Acceptance and rejection represent an intellectual resolution
of problems, and the Middle Path, Zen, and Complete Fulfillment all close off such
a conceptual resolution on the grounds that it has no spiritual value.
Retracing Our Steps
It is also instructive to see why you are persevering with
this essay and the dilemma it is exposing, for it tells us something about how
we live the spiritual life.
We began this essay with the suggestion that the practice
of Buddhism and of spiritual inquiry in general can be problematic, and herein
lies the first clue to what has transpired. The claim that the spiritual life
is problematic has a particularly seductive pull to it. We are ready consumers of
the story that spiritual practice is demanding and difficult. We also subscribe
to the belief that the dynamics of spiritual evolution can be subtle and
mysterious. Consequently, in many of the traditions we have mentioned it is
necessary to commit oneself to a rigorous discipline and consult a teacher if
one is to successfully negotiate the spiritual path.
Further, the fact that this discussion appears in this
publication adds to the problematic nature of spirituality because serious
papers typically tackle "real" problems and work toward furthering
our understanding of the issues if not to resolving them. As readers of this
article in this context we are already poised to accept the suggestion that
there are conflicting approaches to living the spiritual life. We are
spring-loaded, ready to bite into any "deep issue" surrounding our
In other words, our discussion has thus far been
structured as "a problem"
for which we are seeking "a solution." In doing
this we have done what we always do. This is how we live our lives. We have
created a problem--be it conceptual, personal, or spiritual--and then set about
trying to find a solution for it. The earnestness and sincerity with which we
read our spiritual source books or even this essay belies the fact that the
problem this essay has constructed is our problem. Whether you have agreed or disagreed
with how we have set up the problem or with the specific positions within our
framework of discussion makes no difference, since it all points to the fact
that we are searching for understanding and some degree of certainty.
So how did we construct this problem? First, we simply
declared that the role and function of spiritual inquiry is problematic and often
ambiguous. We then pointed to a divide between scholars and practitioners that
most people would recognize and acknowledge. We also personalized the problem
by suggesting that an earnest spiritual seeker quite legitimately and appropriately
finds her- or himself wondering from time to time whether the best or most
profitable spiritual activity is to do their sadhana—their insight meditation,
zazen, koan practice, etc.--or transform their regular activities into a
spiritual activity by adding the "right" type of attitude or
motivation, or just do what they are doing without any concern at all that it
is or is not a "spiritual" activity.
We then went on to suggest that two important sets of
traditions—the orthodox and unorthodox--have something of interest and value to
say about the role of spiritual inquiry. The high regard with which the representative
traditions are held helped to trigger the assessment that we are dealing with a
real and important issue, even though this flies in the face of the fact that
they say they have nothing to defend.
Having distinguished the orthodox and unorthodox
approaches to spirituality we then suggested that their positions were
different. In fact we said that they contradicted each other. Having juxtaposed
these conflicting positions we then invited you, the reader, into our dilemma.
And as any clear thinker knows, a dilemma is constricting and binding. A
dilemma paralyses one. If we are stuck inside a dilemma we cannot move easily
and naturally! It is uncomfortable to say the least! Having set the stage, we
invited you into the "important" task of seeking a solution to a real
problem. This need, I suggest, has provided the motivation for persevering with
this essay up to now.
Given that you have decided to continue, we now need to
discover some means of working toward increased clarity and resolution. Let us
consider two kinds of resolutions.
Under the orthodox interpretation of Buddhism, the radical
differences between the orthodox and unorthodox versions of spirituality
present us with a problem that can be appreciated and resolved through recourse
to the distinction between insight (prajna) and method (upaya). Under this
device the different philosophies and systems of practice can be reconciled or harmonized
by the notion that different spiritual perspectives are needed to penetrate the
ultimate spiritual reality of egolesness (nairatmya) or suchness (dharmata).
According to this theory, there is no right
interpretation. Every interpretation has a purpose and is validated through
fulfilling that purpose. Each interpretation is like a different story, the aim
of which is to awaken different listeners to the fact of who they are--their
pains, accomplishments, and possibilities.
In fact, we need look no further than kLong chen pa if we
wish to substantiate and validate this kind of orthodox resolution. In the very
same text that we have quoted at length where he is highly critical of the value
of spiritual methods, he describes and recommends a wide range of meditative
methods drawn from the Tibetan Expansive Career (Mahayana) and Dynamic
Transformation (tantra) tradition (Fenner 1994a).
If we consider the text as a unit we would conclude that
he rejects that meditative tools have any ultimate value while validating their
capacity to produce a whole range of experiences that support and facilitate
realizing the nature of reality itself (dharmata). An ultimately false
connection is drawn between these methods and spiritual awakening in order to
introduce students to a level of awakening that completely transcends the need
for further practice or strategic intervention.
A less-gratuitous explanation is that the methods are
merely devices (upaya) that give temporary satisfaction to the illusion that
there is a path, a goal, and something to do. As the fourteenth-century Chinese
Zen master Yuansou said, the expedient means "are all simply means of
stopping children from whining" (Cleary 1989, 77).
A related way to resolve the dilemma is to invoke the
theory of two levels of reality (satyadvaya). Under this interpretation, the
orthodox methods are valid but only at the relative level of truth
(samvrti-satya). At this level we are invited to believe that mindfulness
practice, koans, and paradoxical deconstruction are valid and effective within
the fictitious world that we create as a product of our interpretations. These
ultimately unnecessary practices allow us to break through the illusions of our
interpretations and directly experience the ultimate reality. In contrast, the
unorthodox traditions present the ultimate viewpoint (paramartha-satya) in
which there is no path, goal, or spiritual practice.
An extension of the above explanation that accounts for
contradictory philosophical frameworks is that such frameworks arise as
corrections to each other. For example, when our spiritual life is shaped by
the belief that there is something to do, this is viewed as a limit, and to
balance this belief we need to let things be as they are. Conversely, if we
believe that there is nothing to do at all, this is suitably balanced by a
system of praxis suggesting specific things to think or do. In this interpretation,
the orthodox and unorthodox emerge in contrast to each other, as corrections to
two extreme points of view. While these frameworks do not present themselves in
this way, it can be argued that they are created as practitioners swing away
from upholding one or another position to the primary question of whether there
is something specific they should be doing. The reasons behind such a movement
are usually the presence of moods such as boredom, frustration, or some other
form of dissatisfaction.
This might sound useful, and this or any other explanation
could no doubt be developed in an interesting way, but the real point here is
that we are just constructing another "orthodox" interpretation of
the spiritual endeavor in which methods of spiritual inquiry have a valued
Once we begin the standard talk about these positions
being heuristic devices (upaya) that provide the appropriate adjustment for
people at different points in their spiritual growth, we fall into the orthodox
extreme. In other words, if we say that the orthodox and unorthodox are complementary
approaches to the ultimate viewpoint that adheres to neither one nor the other,
we fall to the extreme of believing that we are located on a path and heading
for a goal. Similarly, if we invoke the theory of two levels of reality, this
signals that we have acceded to the orthodox extreme, since it presupposes that
there is something to attain, that is, the ultimate viewpoint. In each of these
orthodox interpretations, we are seeking a resolution to the dilemma by trying
to "explain" our way out of it.
The important point to appreciate is that the need for these
explanations and the explanations themselves only arise within an orthodox
orientation to spirituality.
However plausible and satisfying these orthodox
interpretations may be, they do not resolve the problem we have constructed
because such interpretations are roundly rejected by the unorthodox systems and
by those sections of Complete Fulfillment, Complete Seal, and Zen texts where
this position is presented. According to the unorthodox interpretation there is
no problem to be resolved either in the spiritual life or in this article, and
hence a distinction between insight and methods is unnecessary and irrelevant.
Whereas in orthodox systems the methods (upaya) give rise
to insight (prajna) or wisdom, in the unorthodox systems there is no difference
between wisdom and method.
As Manjusdmitra (1987, 61) says, "The state of pure
and total presence of the Joyful One does not exist, it is a magical apparition
of that [state] that appears to those who are deluded." If sublime or ecstatic
experiences occur, they occur simply because they occur. They have no
significance. They aren't indicative either of enlightenment or progress, since
there is nowhere to progress to. Experiences are experienced as what they are,
as lasting for as long as they last, and as changing into whatever follows them.
They occur without any theological and mystical fabrication.
If this perspective sounds attractive, it signals that we
are sliding into the unorthodox extreme in which there is nothing to do and nothing
In summary, while we are now beginning to recognize how
and when we fall into either an orthodox or unorthodox extreme, we still do not
know how to resolve the fundamental dilemma of two contradicting
interpretations of the role and value of spiritual inquiry. Of course, whether
or not we take this seriously depends in turn on whether our perceptions at
this point are conditioned through orthodox or unorthodox eyes.
If we are still intent on persevering with this problem
then we are located within an orthodox framework. Alternatively we might be
inclined at this point to give up and declare that this game is absurd. Perhaps
we recognize that, yes, we have been caught in a structure of seeking a
solution to a fabricated problem but that now we can step outside this and see
it for what it is. However, in making this move we simply slide into an
Falling to the
If we are still in this and have not given up (i.e.,
become unorthodox), then the problem that presents itself is to be in a way
that does not fall into either the orthodox or unorthodox extreme. However,
immediately upon trying to do this we fall into the orthodox extreme of
"trying" to do or not do something. On the other hand, if we just let
things be as they are, without any concern for observing how we might fall into
these extremes, we have fallen into the extreme of "letting go."
Perhaps our mistake is taking this notion of "falling
to an extreme" too seriously. Perhaps there is no such thing as an extreme
at all. We might declare that we are simply thinking what we are thinking when
we think we are falling to an extreme. In other words, thinking that we are
falling to an extreme is not "falling to an extreme," it is just
thinking that we are falling to an extreme. However this is a position that
stands in contrast to believing that we can fall to an extreme, and as a
position it falls to the unorthodox extreme of nonreferentiality and
So, like it or not, it seems that we are left with the
notion of falling to an extreme. In fact, at this point it seems that all we
can ever do is fall to an extreme. If we want to forge ahead we fall to the
If we decide to give up, we fall to the unorthodox
Furthermore, as soon as we distinguish a middle ground
from the extremes this becomes a new extreme in the sense that the options are
that we are either in the middle or on the edge. We are either balanced or
unbalanced, appropriate or inappropriate. So to the extent that the middle
ground is the place where we should be, it becomes a pole in another dualistic structure.
At this point we might be inclined to boldly declare that
ultimately "there is nothing to do or not to do," or that we are
"neither orthodox or unorthodox." However, if we do this in a mood of
insight and understanding we fall to the extreme of overvaluing what we are
saying. We believe that the binegation really says something and that we know
what this is. If, on the other hand we find that we are thrown into silence, or
mouth a binegation "knowing" that it really does not say anything, we
fall to the unorthodox extreme of meaninglessness and nonreferentiality.
I am going to close this essay now with two observations.
The first is that the question of when, how, and what would constitute
finishing this article only arises when one is positioned within an orthodox
interpretation of the role of spiritual inquiry. The second thing to say is
that if one is positioned within an unorthodox framework then the question of "finishing"
this article is totally irrelevant and nonsensical since there is nothing for
it to show, resolve, or demonstrate.
BCA = Santideva, Introduction to the Evolved Lifestyle (Bodhicaryavatara)
MA = Candrakirti, Introduction to the Middle Path (Madhyamakavatara)
MABh = Candrakirti, Commentary on the Introduction to the
Middle Path (Madhyarnakavatara-bhasya)
MK = Nigarjuna, Principal Stanzas on the Middle Path (Mulamadhya-makakarika)
I would like to thank Ven. Traleg Rinpoche and David
Templeman for assistance in translating sections of kLong chen pa's Chos nyid
rang grol, which appear in the article. This article has also benefitted
through the presentation of sections at a "Festival of Tibet"
sponsored by Buddhist Studies at Columbia
University and Tibet House in New York, the IXth World Sanskrit Conference in Melbourne, Australia,
and a graduate seminar at the Saybrook Institute. I am also grateful to
Professor Donald Rothberg for detailed feedback and suggestions that have
stimulated my own thinking and improved this essay.
1. I have thought about using different terms for these
two broad traditions, such as constructive--deconstructive, causal--acausal, linear-nonlinear,
and progressive-nonprogressive, but all of these suffer
in that there are always specific schools or traditions
that are exceptions to the usual meaning of these terms. For example, the
Middle Path (Madhyamika) is deconstructive, yet with respect to the distinction
we are creating, it is orthodox. For this reason, I have stuck with the terms orthodox
and unorthodox. However, in using these terms, we need to remember that I am
expanding the common usage of orthodox to include Buddhist traditions that are
normally thought of as radical and unorthodox, such as Madhyamika, Tantra, and
some approaches to Zen. Under our definition, these traditions are orthodox
because they presume that some activities are more useful than others in
supporting or causing spiritual insight.
2. To add room texture to these possibilities we may also
wish to consider whether spiritual inquiry is (1) always helpful (or harmful);
(2) never helpful (or harmful); or (3) helpful (or harmful) at some times and
not at others.
3. These are outlined in the Satipatthana-sutta, which is
sutta number 10 in the Majjihima Nikaya. See Walpola Sri Rahula, (1974, 19-19),
for an abridged translation.
4. Ibid. p. 29.
5. Middle Pathers are traditionally divided into two
types: Middle Pathers who use paradoxes (Prasangika Madhyamika) and Middle Pathers
who use their own independent arguments (Svatantrika Madhyamika). Throughout
this study we use Middle Path and Middle Pathers in a generic sense.
6. This term often translates as emptiness. However, it
does not signify the absence of phenomena. Rather, it points to the phenomena
as open and lacking any substratum or core.
7. According to Middle Pathers, a state of liberation
(moksa) or unconditional freedom (nirvana) can only be gained through the
skillful and diligent use of paradoxical analysis (prasanga-vicara). Later
Tibetan philosophers and especially those of the dGe lugs pa school incorporate
this claim as a central tenet in their philosophical system. The founder of the
dGe lugs pa school, rJe Tsong ka pa, writes, for example, that "analytical
meditation is necessary, since without practicing analytical meditation which
cultivates the discriminating wisdom analysis of the import of selflessness,
meditative realization will not emerge.... One seeks the understanding of
selflessness repeatedly analyzing its meaning." (Thurman 1982, 114). It
should be pointed out that the picture here is complicated by the fact that the
dGe lugs pa's distinguish between a conceptual and a nonconceptual insight into
egolessness. This distinction, though, is used in a confusing way. It is the
conceptual insight that is produced through logical analysis. This leaves us,
however, with the problem of how the conceptual insight is converted into a
nonconceptual insight. In response to this, Tsong ka pa seems to say that
"inference is necessarily conceptual, but can with repeated meditational
familiarization be brought to a level of nonconceptual experience," as
quoted in Elizabeth Napper (1989, 136). If analysis (equals inference) is a
necessary factor in bringing the conceptual insight to the level of a
nonconceptual insight, then the distinction in no way provides a solution for
the problem we are addressing. If, on the other hand, analysis is immaterial to
the conversion, we are squarely back with our original problem. Is the conversion
causal or acausal?
A number of western scholars of the Middle Way agree with the assessment that
analysis produces insight. Frederick Streng, (1967, 156), has written that
"dialectical activity is reality-being-realized." Robert A. F.
Thurman (1984, 126), says, for example, that "enlightenment as wisdom is
perfected as the culmination of the most refined rational inquiry, not at the
cost of reason."
8. Santideva, in his Introduction to the Evolved Lifestyle
(BCA), similarly claims that Middle Path analysis leads to liberation. In reply
to a concern that analysis could get bogged down in an infinite regress with no
natural conclusion, he writes (9.111), "Once an object of investigation
has been investigated, there is no basis for investigation. Since there is no
basis [further analysis] does not arise, and that is called unconditional
9. These are the same as Aristotle's "laws of
10. See MK 10.14 and 22.1 and MA 6.121-165. For a detailed
reconstruction of this analysis, see Peter Fenner (1991, 54-73). A contemporary
interpretation of Middle Path analysis appears in Peter Fennet, 1994b.
11. See Peter Fenner (1991, 122-127).
12. Candrakirti also says (MABh: 100.12) that "there
isn't an existence separate from the two (gnyis ka clang bral ba yod pa,... ma
yin) [of existence and nonexistence]
13. The first book of kLong chen pa's Trilogy, titled Sems
nyid rang grol, has been translated twice, by Herbert V. Guenther (1975), and
also by Tulku Thondup Rinpoche as "Naturally Liberated Mind" (1989,
14. The lives of the masters from the Complete Seal and
Complete Fulfillment traditions make very interesting reading. They provide
another window on the unorthodox expressions of Buddhist enlightenment, Sample literature
includes David Templeman, trans. (1983; 1989; 1992, 309-13); Keith Dowman
15. In earlier sections, he also refutes the methods of
16. There is no point in trying to track these back to the
Middle Path or Complete Fulfillment, because both traditions have advocated
most of these attitudes at one time or another.
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By PETER FENNER
Peter Fenner, Ph.D., is a senior lecturer in philosophy
and religious studies at Deakin University in Australia. He has lectured in
Buddhism and East-West psychology at universities in Australia
and the United States.
His books include The Ontology of the Middle Way (Dordrecht, Holland: Kluwer,
1990), Reasoning into Reality (Boston: Wisdom, 1994), and, with Penny Fenner,
Intrinsic Freedom (Australia: Millenium Press, 1994). He was a Buddhist monk in
the Tibetan tradition for nine years and is presently teaching innovative
courses based on the perspective of the Middle Path (Madhyamika) and Complete
Fulfillment (rDzogs chen).
ReVision, Vol. 17 No.
2 Fall.1994, Pp,13-25
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