1. Equivalence of Bodhichitta, Tathagatagarbha & Nembutsu
2. Buddha's Final Words of Advice
3. Effacement: The Sallekha Sutta
In today’s teaching I would like to point out the equivalence between certain principles or concepts in Mahayana Buddhism that are normally taken to be very different and are generally associated with different styles and theories of practice. These three are bodhichitta, tathagatagarbha and nembutsu.
Bodhichitta is commonly associated with self-power practices. It is the mind of the bodhisattva, the “way-seeking mind”, the pinnacle of altruism. The bodhisattva is willing to do anything and go anywhere in order to save sentient beings. However, when we examine this idea closely, we see that while the bodhisattva is irreversibly on the path to Buddhahood, he is not actually concerned about his own salvation. He simply takes it for granted that the path is its own reward.
Tathagatagarbha is the idea of a Buddha seed or embryo within the person. The concept is commonly closely associated with a certain idea of Buddha Nature and the principle of Original Enlightenment according to which all beings are, in principle, already enlightened and that what is necessary is that they wake up to this fact.
Nembutsu is the “thought of Buddha” that is expressed by calling the name of a Buddha, usually Amitabh, in complete trust that that Buddha will come and take the faithful to his Pure Land where enlightenment will one day inevitably follow. Followers of nembutsu do not generally believe in original enlightenment and do not think that they themselves are endowed with the abilities of Buddhas.
So, on the surface, these seem like three very different concepts designating quite different interpretations of what is going on in Mahayana Buddhist practice.
Mind toward Buddha
The core of Mahayana Buddhism is bodhichitta. The term bodhi refers to the enlightened vision that inspires us upon the path. Chita is the perceiving mind, the heart that is touched by the vision. Bodhi is the essence of Buddhahood.
I think it is fairly easy to understand, therefore, that nembutsu and bodhichitta are really very similar. Nembutsu means mindfulness of Buddha. Buddha is Buddha inasmuch as he is identified with body. Nen means mindfulness or heartfulness. Nembutsu is a matter of having Buddha in one’s heart and mind. That is the core meaning of bodychitta.
We should not, therefore, think that Pureland is one thing, centred on nembutsu, and Mahayana Buddhism is something else centred on bodhichitta. We should, rather, understand that nembutsu and bodhichitta are two ways of saying the same thing.
Lightning in the Night
They speak of great love, reverence and gratitude for the sublime vision that the Buddhas inspire and that somehow gets implanted, lodged within us. We can ponder how this happens.
Shantideva, speaking of bodhichitta, says
Just as, in a night all darkened by dense cloud
a lightning flash may for an instant illumine the whole land,
in this world, by the power of the Buddhas,
a virtuous thought may fleetingly appear.
Such a “virtuous thought” is the bodhichitta or nembutsu. The merit of such a thought is inestimable because it transports us beyond all calculation. It is simply unconditional love. As such it is something that we ourselves are not capable of. It does not arise as our own doing, but is, as it were, planted in us by the Buddhas.
Seed Planted by Buddha
In this sense we can say that it is no different from tathagatagarbha. So we can say that all three ideas, bodhichitta, nembutsu and tathagatagarbha are simply different names for the same thing, each emphasising a slightly different aspect, but in essence, identical. Nembutsu is tathagatagarbha in that it is implanted in us by the action and grace of Amitabha.
This being so it is interesting for us to think about nembutsu from these different perspectives. Nembutsu as nembutsu is the Name or image of Amida Buddha. Nembutsu as bodhichitta is the inspiration flowing to us from all the Buddhas. Nembutsu as tathagatagarbha is the seed planted in us that grows into Buddhahood.
One Leaf on the Tree
Whichever way we think about it, we feel ourselves to be caught up in a vast cosmic process that goes far far beyond our own little life. It is as if one were a leaf on a great tree or a pebble on a long beach. From one perspective one is insignificant, yet from another one is part of something much much bigger.
Nembutsu opens the heart to this bigger process. We receive the great merit and grace bestowed by the Buddhas and this then works secretly in our lives.
Should bodhichitta come to be
in the heart of a being caught in cyclic existence
immediately that one becomes an heir of Buddhas
object of worship to gods and men.
Almost at the end of his life, Shakyamuni said
This has been variously translated, as
Be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge
You are the light, abide in this, rely on your self, rely on no one else, the Dharma is the light, abide in this, rely on the Dharma, rely on nothing else.
I would like to comment on some of the translation difficulties and offer an alternative.
What is Dīpā
Firstly, there is no consensus about whether dīpā means "light" or "island". Light seems more likely to me and the majority of commentators seem to agree although this was not always so. Early renderings tended towards "island". In some ways it makes little difference to the sense whichever way you translate the rest as i shall explain below.
What is the Punchline?
The crucial points are where you put the emphasis and how you render the term atta. Many commentators have taken the emphasis was being self-reliance and have taken the general drift as being "Rely only on yourself and use the Dharma as support for doing so." I think this is wrong. It seems to me pretty clear that the punch line is dhamma-saraṇā. Dhamma-saraṇā is what Buddha taught throughout his ministry. It was the teaching he gave to the first two people ever to become Buddhists whom he met on the road when travelling after his enlightenment, before even he gave the Setting in Motion of the Wheel of the Dharma discourse, and that discourse is also a commentary on how to take refuge in Dharma. All along, Buddha teaches, "Take refuge in Dharma," so it is totally consistent that this should be the teaching that he wants to leave people with. So this is not a teaching about self-reliance, as many Westerners and self-power Buddhists would like to make it. It is a teaching about taking refuge.
What About Atta?
Atta means self. The controversy about the term atta (Sanskrit atma) has generally revolved around whether it implies something about the Hindu idea of a soul (atma) or, at least, about an enduring self and what this says about other non-self teachings by Buddha. However, I think this misses the point. Here atta is a reflexive pronoun. The word atta means self and, as in English, it can become a noun, as in "the meaning of the self is a problem in philosophy", but it is more commonly used as a reflexive pronoun or adjective meaning roughly the same as auto- as in self-sufficient, self-contained, self-starting, self-generated, self-confident and so on. I think this is how it is used here and this means that the term atta-dīpā is a term of this kind, indicating a light that does not rely upon anything else, an unconditional light that needs no fuel. This is not a statement about the atma it is a statement about the Dharma. The Dharma is the only atta-dīpā - the only light that is eternally shining, that relies on nothing else, that is not impermanent. Such a light could be also described as an island, unconnected to other land.
I therefore suggest that this passage is a single whole in which all the lines give different perspectives upon the one vital theme which is take refuge in Dharma. It is not a combination of two statements, one about "the self" and the other about "the Dharma" with no apparent connection between them - even a hint of a contradiction. If you take it in the way most commentators do, there remains a difficult problem of explaining how the first four lines connect with the second four. It is quite common in Western Buddhist books for only the first four to be mentioned. We are told that Buddha's last words were that you should rely upon yourself. I think this is a gross distortion, trying to make Buddhism into Westernism.
The Dharma is "self-lighting". Atta-dīpā is the Dharma. Dharma is spontaneous truth, uncontrived, independent, unconditional. Therefore it is atta-dīpā.
Some Other Small Points
Viharatha means to dwell or abide. However, it is worth pausing over the word for a minute. The term vihara came to mean a small Buddhist monastery, but it seems to have originally meant a park. In the time of Buddha many towns had parks and it would be in such a park that ascetics would gather, stay and give teachings. In due course, the Buddhist sangha was given some lands which were generally parks, groves or orchards and they put up huts there and this was the origin of monasticism. However these base camps were mostly only used in the rainy season retreat when one needed some shelter from the monsoon. A few monks would remain through the year to look after the place, but the main basis of Buddhist life was wandering. This is why the term "monk" is not really quite right. Buddhist bhikkhus were friars. Anyway, the relevant point here is that at the time of Buddha's demise viharatha probably still had the implication of "dwell in the open" and therefore had an a sense of not getting enmeshed in the household life, the life of conditions, an implication of freedom. This implication is wholly consistent with the point that the Dharma is an unconditional light or unattached island.
Anañña-saraṇā means take no other as refuge. Saranā means refuge taken. Añña occurs in the Abhidhamma term añña-mañña (the 7th paccaya in the section on Conditional relations) meaning interdependence or co-dependence - the illustration given is the legs of a tripod that cannot stand without each other. Given modern usage codependence might be the better translation. Relying upon the Dharma frees one from codependency. We are inclined to seek refuge from dukkha in various forms of codependency and Dharma is the remedy. In anañña-saraṇā, therefore, there is also a hint of an injunction against codependency.
Viharatha and anañña-saraṇā, therefore, both have implications of steering clear of worldly involvement represented by the household life and enmeshed relationships. The whole passage tells us that the way to avoid such enmeshment is to rely upon the Dharma which is the natural, spontaneous radiance.
My preferred translation, therefore, runs as follows...
Seek no other
Seek no other
The Sallekha Sutta
The eighth sutra in the Majjhima Nikaya is called the Sallekha Sutta, which means the sutra on Effacement.
The sutra is basically in four parts which seem mildly in contradiction of one another, so it is possible that a degree of irony is intended. I am inclined to think that the Buddha was rather a master of irony, but it was sometimes lost on his more pious followers. However, it is evident that the sutra is about good character.
The scene is a conversation between the Buddha and an enquirer called Cunda. Cunda wants to talk about doctrines about the self and the world and he asks if those who are beginners can possibly understand these teachings. It is a reasonable surmise that by beginners, Cunda means those who have not attained high proficiency in meditation.
A Modern Question
Cunda, therefore, is not unlike many modern people who come to Buddhism. He is primarily interested in meditation and in abstruse doctrines and thinks that the height of attainment is to be proficient in meditation and to understand the nature of the self or the non-self doctrine and the nature of the world or reality. Many contemporary books on Buddhism are preoccupied with these topics. The implication of Cunda’s question is that those who do not do so cannot understand the important matter.
This is Not Me
The Buddha’s reply is to say that in order to have the right view of the world or of the self one needs to see what one is talking about in a certain way. What is that way? It is: This is not mine, this is not me, this is not myself. The Buddha says that is a person sees things in this way then they understand all that they need to (whether they are a beginner or not). “This is not mine, this is not me, this is not myself” constitutes effacement.
Dhyana is Peace & Pleasure Here and Now
The Buddha then rubs the point in by going through a description of all of the degrees of dhyana (meditation), starting from the first dhyana:
“It is possible that, secluded from sensual distraction and unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters into and abides in the first dhynana, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, rapture and pleasure, born of seclusion. He might think ‘I am abiding in effacement’ but this is not what is called effacement in the discipline of noble ones; this is called, rather, a pleasant abiding here and now.”
The Buddha then goes on to the second dhyana in similar fashion. then the third. If this is the first time that you have read the sutra, you probably tend to assume that effacement is going to be the final and highest dhyana. However, when the Buddha gets to the eighth and highest dhyana he says, “but this is not what is called effacement in the discipline of noble ones; this is called, rather, a peaceful abiding.” He calls the first four dhyanas pleasant and the second four peaceful, but neither set, not even the highest, constitutes effacement.
Good Character & Patience
So what is effacement? The Buddha goes on to list 44 items. Now it is quite possible, likely even, that the list has grown with the telling, so as to include as many items of Buddhist teaching as possible, or maybe the Buddha really did repeat 44 items three times as recorded in the sutra, but we can readily grasp the message from a small sample.
“Now, Cunda, here effacement should be practised by you. Though others be cruel, we shall not be cruel. Effacement should be practised like this. Though others kill, we shall not go killing. Effacement should be practised like this. Though other take what is not given, we shall not behave like that. effacement should be practised like this… though other be envious… avaricious… fraudulent…deceitful… though others adhere tenaciously to their own opinions, we shall not behave like that. Effacement should be practised thus.”
The Buddha says that by practising effacement, one rescues oneself from all unwholesome states and only one who does so can rescue others.
He then concludes by saying that he has thus taught effacement and thereby done his duty as a teacher and ends by telling Cunda that he can now go and meditate.
Actions Reveal Attitude
There appear to be a number of subtleties and ironies in the sutra.
1. Buddha demonstrates his consummate understanding of meditation practise yet says that that is not where it’s at. Yet, nonetheless, at the end, sends Cunda away to meditate.
2. The Buddha does not affirm Cunda’s implication that only those who have reached an advanced state can understand. He reiterates the teaching that he gave in his second sermon to the five ascetics. This implies that Buddhism is simple in concept.
3. Buddha defines effacement in terms of noble behaviour and attitude, thus subtly undermining Cunda’s belief that what matters is a clear understanding of doctrine.
So the Buddha is saying that actions speak louder than words, but also that underlying doctrine there is perspective and perspective is a matter of how we regard things, especially how we regard the things that come and go. How we regard things shows in behaviour. In terms of Buddhist theory this means not identifying with the skandhas. This, therefore, is a teaching on non-self but in an entirely practical, non-doctrinal form. Buddha is interested in people living the holy life. Theory is there to support that, not to substitute for it.
Not Taking Credit Builds Long Term Benefit
So what is effacement? Effacement is a combination of noble action and refusal to take the credit. When Buddha says that meditation is a pleasant abiding here and now he is saying something similar to the words of Jesus when he says, “They have their reward already.” We generally translate dhyana as meditation, but this probably gives a too intellectual turn to what Buddha is saying. What he is talking about might be better rendered by the word rapture. The holy life yields all kinds of immediate benefits as well as longer term ones. Modern taste takes this as suggesting that one should grasp the immediate and ignore the other, but the Buddha’s meaning is almost certainly the converse. Rapture brings an immediate satisfaction that is equally immediately exhausted whereas effacement brings long term benefit to self and other.
Of course, this is an over-statement because meditative disciplines can help in the process of training oneself in effacement, but there is a contrast intended in the sutra.
The Buddha is describing noble behaviour. A noble person is one who does his duty and then retires. It is what is expressed when somebody says, “It was nothing. Don’t think of it.” The true bodhisattva is often not conscious that he or she has done anything good. They just do what needs doing. Afterwards, if somebody comments, they are likely to say something like, What? No, anybody would have done the same.” This might not be literally true, but the noble person has a good opinion of everybody, so it is sincere and genuine for them.
Clashing with Contemporary Values
In the contemporary world, values of this kind have been in retreat. We are nowadays expected to advertise ourselves to a much greater degree than used to be considered proper. A value system of helping oneself and speaking for oneself has grown up. I remember that when I was younger gestalt psychology was much in vogue and it preached an extreme form of self-responsibility. The slogan was that nobody could make one feel anything - one was to be completely responsible for one’s own feelings. However, Buddha says to regard one’s feelings with the attitude, “This is not mine, this is not me, this is not myself.” The gestalt idea was intended to counter-act the tendency to blame others. So far so good. Buddha is not advocating blaming others, nor denying the facticity of feelings, but he is advising us to acknowledge that many of these things are out of our control, but though they are that does not mean that one cannot still act in a noble way. A popular speaker, Susan Jeffers, used to be known for the saying, “feel the fear and do it anyway.” This is closer to the Buddha’s prescription. Effacement means to do what is good, generous and noble no matter what feelings one might have.
Effacement is also a matter of equanimity. It is about the patience to not be swept away by short term considerations, nor by concern for one's own fame and gain. This is the real meaning of non-self in practice.
I think we see clearly in this sutra what the Buddha is aiming for, and, while not easy, it is not something that is out of the reach of ordinary people.