23 February 2007

Buddhism and Hinduism

I'm just back from a foray down to London where I picked up a copy of Alexander Studholme's book The origins of Om Manipadme Hum : a Study of the Karandavyuha Sutra. I read enough on the train coming back from Cambridge to have a major realisation.

Some time ago in pursuing my interest in mantra I began to delve into Vedanta and Veda. Buddhists seem not to write that much about mantra. Leaf through any book on Tibetan Buddhism and it will contain at most a couple of paragraphs about mantra - usually they trot out the folk etymology from the Guhyasamaja Tantra, and something about mantras being symbols of Awakening. Given that this is not really what mantras are used for, either popularly or in the Tantras themselves it has always puzzled me. Kukai, the Japanese Vajrayana master, by contrast is preoccupied with what mantra is, and how it works and is a lot more informative. In any case Vedic scholars of mantra, while not exactly abounding, outnumber the Buddhists by at least 10 to 1. I became especially interested in those linguists from the pragmatist school, and in the cognitive linguistic approach of George Lakoff.

It emerges, when one takes the time to study them, that Buddhism is rather heavily indebted to the Vedic religion. This had already begun to dawn on me when I discovered Richard Gombrich. His How Buddhism Began is misnamed but goes a lot further into this area than I had managed (it helps if you can read Sanskrit!). While attending his lecture series last year I became even more deeply acquainted with Gombrich's ideas, and with those of Joanna Jurewicz who has explored some of the same territory from the Vedic point of view. It became obvious that the Buddha knew the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, and probably the Chandogya as well. He quotes and parodies these texts, and what's more makes use of metaphors that only make sense if you know the Upanishads. It's clear that the people who wrote down the Pali Canon had already lost the sense of some important metaphors - Brahma Vihara is a stand out - by the time the Canon was finalised in about the first century BCE. Jurewicz, also a fan of Lakoff, has shown that the well know sequence known as the Nidana Chain, can be viewed as a Buddhist polemic of Vedic cosmogony. To me this is a revelation. What it says is that despite Buddhist chauvinism against Hinduism, some central features of our discourse - going for refuge for another instance - are directly traceable to the Vedic discourse current in the 5th century BCE when the Buddha was active.

In tracing the arc of mantra as it traverses the Rigvedic period and into the Vedantas there is a reasonably logical progression which relates to the abstraction of the meaning of rituals. The basic shift was from external rituals to imaginative internal rituals. To put it a little simplistically here was a movement away from the fire rituals and the development of meditation as a substitute. The connection with early Buddhism is detectable in the Paritta texts, and in certain magical rites especially the so-called Saccakiriya or Act of Truth.

However from there the trail is quite faint. Dharanis, which are not quite mantras as they appear in the Vajrayana, and yet very different from any use of words/language in early Buddhism. They begin to appear in texts such as the White Lotus, the Golden Light, the Lankavatara etc, in about the 4th or 5th century CE. You will often hear that a Dharani is a sort of aide de memoir for Dharma teachings, but I'm here to tell you that none of the Dharanis that appear in the above named sutras look like that. It is true that as early as the Lalitavistara there were "alphabets of wisdom" where the syllables of Sanskrit (more or less) were associated with aspects of Dharma teachings about the nature of phenomena. But the link between this idea, which is followed up in the Perfection of Wisdom texts and the Mahavairocana Sutra, and the actual dharanis in sutras is not credible. It has always seemed to me that the presence of those dharanis, in the absence of any exegetical tradition, must remain a mystery. I'm not so sure now.

It began to seem as though the appearance of what were called mantras in the Tantric texts came out of nowhere as far as Buddhism is concerned - and yet the obvious presence of magic speech in the Pali texts made it seem a rather unsatisfactory conclusion. Did the practices and ideas completely die out and have to be re-imported several centuries later? Or was there a link I was missing? But one more back-track. Many years ago now Sangharakshita noted, almost in passing, that the presence of the goddesses Sri (aka Laksmi) and Sarasvati in the Golden Light Sutra represented some lumps of only partly digested Hinduism. Of course we know that the Vajrayana contains a fair number of the lumps at various stages of assimilation. Studholme, in his study of the Karandavyuha Sutra seems to have caught a snap shot of the historical processes at work, and to explain how those lumps might have got their.

Early Buddhism existed in a milieu which was largely twofold, with the old Vedic religion on the one hand, and the more experimental and disparate Samanas on the other. The Pali texts are full of polemic and critique of Brahmins, Jains, Ajivakas and non-Buddhists of every sort. Brahmins and their theology get the bulk however. Five of six centuries later however a change in the religious landscape had taken place. Probably in response to the success of Buddhism in the centuries following Asoka, the Brahminical tradition began to reorient itself away from the Vedas, and towards almost equally ancient texts known as Puranas. These texts emphasise a different set of gods, so that Indra, Agni, and Brahma, give way to Vishnu. At the same time the assimilation of the tribal religion which worshipped Siva was more of less complete. Sacrifices gave way to devotional practices known as puja. This is more of less Hinduism as distinct from Vedism. Not that the Vedic tradition disappeared completely - India doesn't seem to ever completely abandon any religious idea.

So the Mahayana grew up in an entirely different milieu to early Buddhism. And what Studholme has shown is that Mahayana Buddhism was in as close a dialogue with devotional Puranic Hinduism as early Buddhism was with Vedism and Vedantism. This accounts for the apparent discontinuities which I have observed in the use of magical words. One of Studholme's main theses is that the Om Manipadme Hum mantra was part of a response to Puranic Shaivism, and bears a close relationship to the Saivite mantra Om Namah Shivaya. I haven't read far enough to know what to think of that yet, but from what I've seen it promises to be fascinating!

17 February 2007

The White Rite

White Lotus, White RiteThe colour white has a very interesting range of associations. In Herman Melville's book Moby Dick the white whale became the focus for all the rage and hatred of Captain Ahab. Melville devoted a chapter of Moby Dick to exploring the negative symbolism of white: the white of pus and maggots and putrefaction for example. However we more often associate white with purity and cleanness in a ritual sense. Virgin brides are married in white. Fresh snow is also sometimes referred to as virginal. The Pope wears white. Being the opposite of black, it symbolises good, light, positivity, and space. From India we have the wonderful image of the while lotus rising unstained up from the mud. White light may be split into the colours of the rainbow by a prism, or a rain drop; but the same process in reverse combines the colours of the rainbow back into pure white light: an important observation for our understanding of the White Rite. The White Rite is the rite of purification - or more traditionally the rite of pacification. This rite is used to pacify impulses arising from greed, hatred and delusion, hence the association with purity. In the more mundane sense the white rite is also to pacify demonic forces in the world around us.

In terms of the mandala the white figure sits at the centre. There are a number of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who appear in white forms, the most important being Vairocana, Avalokiteshvara and White Tara. The white figure at the centre of the mandala possesses and integrates all of the qualities of the other figures - Love, Fearlessness, Wisdom, Abundance; and yet adds some new subtle quality that is difficult to quantify. Vairocana - the Illuminator - is an ancient Indian figure who predates Buddhism by many centuries. He is the sun, of course, in its most benign aspect. Spiritually he illuminates the darkness of ignorance. Holds the dharmacakra, which identifies him with the Dharma - it is not that he possesses or teaches the Dharma: no, he is the Dharma.

The wisdom of Vairocana is known as the Wisdom of the Dharmadhatu (dharmadhātujñāna). Dharmadhatu is synonymous with śūnyatā, tathatā, and the dharmakāya: i.e. it stands for the Reality Principle. These Buddhist technical terms are rather abstract and abstruse, and do not really convey much. Indeed it is sometimes said that one cannot say anything definite about the dharmakāya. Which leaves us with a puzzle: if this wisdom is so abstract as to be inconceivable, then of what practical value is it to us. In terms of the Tantric Rites, how might we bring this quality into our practice? I have explored a number of ways to do this. As I mentioned in my essay on the Red Rite, I do not follow the tradition closely because it is not easy to see how the old magical rites would work in a modern context.

Purity in Buddhism is equated with purity of intention, since it is intention which underlies actions (karma), and it is the results of actions that prevents us being truly free. So one aspect of the Wisdom of the Dharmadhatu is moral purity - in Buddhist terms keeping the precepts. In terms of the ten precepts followed by members of the Western Buddhist Order (and in Shingon) this means: kindness, generosity, contentment, truthful kindly harmonious helpful speech, and tranquillity (non-greed), love, and wisdom. Each time we exercise our moral judgement, each time we decline the act that we know will lead to suffering, we are exercising the White Rite. Of course if we do find ourselves acting unskilfully we can confess it to some appropriate person. This too is an example of the White Rite - the experience, and acknowledgement of remorse can be a powerfully transformative practice. This of course has nothing to do with guilt or atonement. Remorse is simply turning the moral spotlight on our own actions. Neither has it to do with sitting in judgement on others.

Something that Kūkai writes about in connection with the dharmakāya gives us another clue to the White Rite. He says that all forms are the body of the Dharmakāya Buddha, all sounds are his voice preaching the Dharma, and all mental activity is his Awakened mind. This sounds a little theistic at first, but Kūkai was not suggesting that Vairocana is a creator god, but pointing towards something more subtle. All things are marked by impermanence, insubstantiality and unsatisfactoriness. So everything can be said to be of the same nature. If we anthropomorphise the metaphor then we may say that everything is a manifestation of Vairocana, who is reality itself, who is the very impermanence of all things. Putting this into practice we can try to see the Buddha everywhere, hear the Dharma everywhere, and cultivate a sense of identification with every living being. To give a more concrete and contemporary example: we know that human impact in the environment is causing problems. So each time we consciously, for example, minimise our own impact by recycling, or reusing, or using low energy light bulbs - then we are acknowledging the truth of interconnectedness and exercising the White Right. This is interesting because it suggests that the colour of the Buddhist environmental movement might be white rather than green which has quite different traditional associations.

We know that Tantra adopted the old Vedic magical principle of bandhus or associations between levels of reality. So in each quarter of the mandala there is a Buddha who has a colour, and various other associations. At the other end of the scale there is a kleśa - a defilement - associated with each Buddha. In the case of Vairocana the defilement is ignorance. This kind of ignorance is sometimes known as viparyasa or topsy-turvy views. We see the impermanent as permanent for instance or the painful as pleasant. The White Rite is concerned with dispelling this kind of ignorance. We can only doing this by paying attention. After my first brush with the Dharma I wrote this in my journal, although I no longer recall the source, that an aspect of suffering is "a desperate will to live unrelated to serious or systematic attempt to understand what life actually involves". Practising Buddhism is precisely the opposite - it is an attempt to live on the basis of a serious and systematic attempt to understand what life involves. And this again is the function of the White Rite.

As with the Red Rite I'm suggesting here that the magical tantric rites can operate in an everyday way. In this case every time we acknowledge and act in accordance with the way things are - when we choose to act skilfully, when we see ourselves as interconnected, or when we try to see more directly how things really are - that is the White Rite in action. This is Buddhism as the path of purification.
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