Mahayana-Sutras: Constructive Dialectic


Mahayana-Sutras: The Shunyavadin is neither a thorough-going sceptic nor a cheap nihilist who doubts and denies the existence of everything for its own sake or who relishes in shouting that he does not exist. 

His object is simply to show that all world-objects when taken to be ultimately real, will be found self-contradictory and relative and hence mere appearances. True, he indulges in condemning all phenomena to be like illusion, dream, mirage, sky-flower, son of a barren woman, magic etc. which suggest that they are something absolutely unreal. But this is not his real object. He indulges in such descriptions simply to emphasize the ultimate unreality of all phenomena. He emphatically asserts again and again that he is not a nihilist who advocates absolute negation, that he, on the other hand, maintains the empirical reality of all phenomena. He knows that absolute negation is impossible because it necessarily presupposes affirmation. He only denies the ultimate reality of both affirmation and negation. He condemns intellect from the ultimate standpoint only for he knows that its authority is unquestionable in the empirical world. He wants that we should rise above the categories and the contradictions of the intellect and embrace Reality. He asserts that it is the Real itself which appears. He maintains that Reality is immanent in appearances and yet it transcends them all, that Reality is the Non-dual Absolute, Blissful and beyond intellect, where all plurality is merged. This is the constructive side of the dialectic in Shunyavada which we propose to consider now. Here intellect is transformed into Pure Experience.   

                    The Saddharma-pundarika tells us that as long as we are entangled in the categories of the intellect we are like blind-born men completely in the dark; when we reach the limit where finite thought confesses its weakness and points towards Reality our blindness is cured but our vision is still blurred; it is only when we embrace Pure Knowledge of the Buddha that we gain true vision. This is Reality which is calm and deep and Pure Knowledge of the Buddha, which transcends intellect and which is to be directly realized through pure knowledge. It is the Most Excellent and the Final Enlightenment (uttama Agra bodhi) by which we become one with the Buddha.


                     There are six Perfections (paramitas) of which the last and the highest is the Supreme or Perfect Knowledge (Prajnaparamita). The Astasasharika Prajna-paramitas declares it to be clear and transparent like the sky, to be devoid of plurality, to be beyond finite thought, Indescribable, Divine Mother, One with the Buddha just as moonlight is one with the moon, terrible to the fools but most affectionate to the wise, the Seal of the Law, the Light of Existence, the Trumpet of Religion, the Vision of the Doctrine, the Body of Bliss, and the only Path towards Liberation. It is Reality itself. It is Indescribable and Unthinkable in the sense that intellect fails to describe it adequately. Here the cries of intellect are satisfied and its contradictions reconciled. It is subtler than the subtle, and profounder than the profound. Here all desires and all doubts are set at rest. There are two standpoints— the empirical and the absolute. The former deals with the categories of intellect (koti), with name and form (nama-rupa), with dependence (nimitta), with relativity (vikalpa or sanga), with practical compromises (nama-matra), with phenomena or appearances (Vyavahara or Samvrti) ; the latter transcends the former and deals with Perfect Knowledge  ( Prajnaparamita ) which is Non-dual ( advaya ) Independent (animitta) , Real (Sara) and Absolute (Paramartha). Ultimately it is the Real which appears. The Real is at once immanent and transcendent. The suchness of all dharmas is the suchness of Reality. The phenomenal is the noumenal and the noumenal is the phenomenal. Appearances are Reality. They are grounded in the Real, the Brahman which at once transcends the duality of the relative and the absolute. They are not two reals set against each other.

They are not diverse, they do not form a duality, It is only from the absolute standpoint that we realize the true nature of the world. But the phenomenal is not to be utterly condemned; intellect need not commit suicide because it is from the phenomenal that we can go to the noumenal, it is from the lower that we can go to the higher. From the empirical viewpoint, the Buddha, the Bodhisattvas, Religion, Morality, Doctrine, Truth, Nirvana, nay all the dharmas do exist. We shall rise to the Absolute, not by denying the relative, but by transcending it with its own help.

If a ship capsizes in the sea, those among the crew who catch hold of some small canoe or a piece of wood or a log or even a corpse will reach the shore. But those who will not are sure to be drowned. Similarly those who will take the help of the True Doctrine, of Rational Faith, of the Six Perfections, however phenomenal they may ultimately be, will reach the Absolute, the safe, the immortal and the blissful shore of Nirvana.

But those who deny the phenomenal will be surely drowned in it.  Just as an old man too weak to stand alone can be taken to the destination by his friends, similarly we who cannot realize the Truth with the help of the intellect alone, may be helped by our true friends, the Six Perfections.  In an unbaked earthen pot we cannot fetch water.

If we do so we shall spoil both the pot and the water. The pot will become a lump of mud and the water will become muddy. In order to have clear water we shall have to use a fully baked pot.  To transcend the phenomenal we shall have to take the help of the fully mature phenomenal intellect itself. Those who deny it will be themselves destroyed and will destroy others.


                    The Lankavatara also declares Reality to be Spiritual Experience which is beyond the categories of the intellect, beyond discrimination (vikalpa) and dualism (dvaita), and which can be directly realized by the Pure Knowledge of the Buddha. Buddha become Enlightened by transcending the dualism of the intellect, by realizing the ultimate unreality of all objects (dharma-nairatmya) and of empirical subjects (pudgala-nairatmya), by removing the screen of suffering (kleshavarana) and of ignorance in the form of objects covering the Real (jneyavarana). Reality is Silence. From that night when Buddha became Enlightened up to that night when he attained Nirvana, not a single word was uttered by him. The teaching of Buddha is truly beyond language. He who teaches with words merely babbles for Reality is beyond language and intellect. The Buddha is beyond all plurality.

And that which is beyond plurality is Reality for it is beyond intellect.  A finger is needed to point at the moon, but the finger itself should not be mistaken for the moon. Similarly the Absolute is preached through the phenomenal, but the phenomenal should not be mistaken for the Absolute.  Ultimately even this distinction is transcended. Appearances are Reality. Like Samsara and Nirvana, all things are non-dual.  Reality is not to be sought for apart from phenomena.

Shunyavada is not nihilism. True, the Astasasharika says that even if the Buddha, the Perfectly Enlightened shouts at the top of his voice for aeons and aeons innumerable like the sand-particles of the Ganga  that ‘a thing exists’, ‘a thing exists’ , there certainly can be no ‘thing’ that has had or has or will have an origination nor can there be a ‘thing’ that has had or has or will have a cessation. But this should not be understood in the sense of utter negation. It only means, as the Lankavatara says,  that all things are unoriginated and are indescribable because they can be described neither as existent nor as non-existent nor as both. They are merely relative and so ultimately unreal. Shunya, therefore, is not merely negative. It is far better to entertain, from the empirical standpoint, an idea of Existence or Affirmation, as big in magnitude as the Sumeru mountain, than to understand by ‘Shunyata’ a ‘mere nothing’.  

One who maintains in a self-contradictory manner the existence of a ‘mere nothing’ is a self-condemned nihilist. Of the seven kinds of Shunyata, mere negation is the worst (sarva-jaghanya). The best is the Paramartharyajnanamaha-Shunyata which is the Absolute itself that can be realized by Pure Experience which follows the knowledge that all things are essentially inexpressible (sarvadharmanirabhilapya- Shunyata). Existence and non-existence, purity and impurity, etc. , says the Samadhi raja Sutra, are the cries of intellect. The ‘Middle Path’ avoids the errors of both these extremes and at once transcends the extremes as well as the middle.


                    The practical way by which the intellect may be transformed into Spiritual Experience is indicated by four Meditations (dhyana), three Samadhis, and ten stages of Bodhisattva hood. In the first Meditation, there is the working of intellect (savitarka, savichara) and there is pleasure (priti, sukha). In the second, intellect is in the process of giving place to Vision (avitarka, avichara) and pleasure to higher happiness (samadhijapriti-sukha, atma-samprasada). In the third, intellect ceases (avichara) and pleasure ends (nisprltika) and there is only higher happiness (sukhavihara). In the fourth, intellect becomes one with Experience; pain and pleasure are transcended (aduhkhasukha) and this yields a sort of unique bliss (vihara). In the first Samadhi (Shunyata- samadhi) we know that the phenomenal is devoid of ultimate reality (Svabhava- Shunya) and that Reality is’ devoid of plurality (prapancha – Shunya).

In the second (animitta – samadhi) we know the real cause of everything, we know that it is the Real itself which through Ignorance appears as the world of plurality. In the third (apranihita-samadhi) we directly embrace Reality which transcends the categories of the intellect. In the first Stage (pramudita) a Bodhisattva, realizing the inability of intellect, begins, with great pleasure, his quest for true knowledge. In the second (vimala) he acquires the ten noble deeds. In the third (prabhakari) he knows the subject-object duality and the categories of intellect to be unreal. In the fourth (archismati) all doubts and cries of intellect are set at rest. In the fifth (sudurjaya) he understands the empirical and the absolute points of view. In the sixth (abhimukhi) the Ego is conquered and Dependent Origination is fully understood.

In the seventh (duran-gama) Shunyata in its double aspects is fully realized. In the eighth (achala) absolute non-duality of appearances and Reality is realized. In the ninth (sadhumati) constant contact with Reality is attained. And in the tenth (dharma-megha) he becomes one with the Real, the Absolute and like an heir-apparent is consecrated with ‘Pure Knowledge’. He then defers his Nirvana in order to liberate others. He carries the suffering humanity in the Great Ship of the True Doctrine from the stormy sea of birth-and-death to the eternal and blissful shore of Nirvana. He makes the people burning with suffering cool by the showers of knowledge. He blows the Trumpet of the True Law and the Conch of the True Doctrine; he lights the Torch of the Divine Truth and rains the showers of the Sacred Religion. If one does not understand the truth, it is his fault, not the fault of the teacher, nor of the doctrine, just as if a patient does not take the medicine, it is his fault, not the fault of the doctor nor of the medicine.

To know more about “Mahayana-Sutras: click here