PARAVRITTI (Part 7): Negation

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Paravritti, turning back, is negation.  To turn back or let go is to negate something that was previously considered important.

Western people are often puzzled by the way that Buddhist teachings are often framed in the negative form. We are enjoined to practice non-hatred, non-greed, non-delusion and so on.  This has led some teachers to search for “positive” forms of the teaching - virtues rather than restraints.  This is a worthy endeavour, yet something is lost in the process.


In so-called Esoteric Buddhism, which includes Tibetan Tantra and Japanese Shingon, there is much use of mantras and among these the syllable “A” plays a central role.  In T Yamasaki’s book on Shingon it says “The entire system of doctrine and practice set forth in the Mahavairocana Sutra (key text in Esoteric Buddhism) is symbolized in concentrated form in the single seed syllable ‘A’. The commentary on the Mahavairocana Sutra says, ‘The ‘A’ syllable gate is the king of all mantras.’”

The syllable “A” in Sanskrit and also in English and generally in Indo-European languages signifies negation.  It means “not” or “to be without” or is equivalent to the suffix “-less”.  Thus asymmetrical means lacking in symmetry, amoral means lacking in morality, and so on.  Most notably, Amitabha means “measure-less light” and Amitayus means “measure-less life”.  So we see that the central objects of devotion in Buddhism incorporate this principle of negation.


In Western philosophy, the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about the importance of absence.  When something that we expect is missing, it can provoke a powerful emotion.  Losses are some of the greatest markers in the course of a life.  Yet, from a Buddhist perspective, it is precisely at the time of loss that the possibility of illumination arises.  Many great figures in Buddhist history, such as Nagarjuna, Honen, Dogen and, very probably, Shakyamuni himself, were stimulated to launch themselves upon the spiritual path due to the impact of a loss.  We say that loss brought home to them the reality of impermanence.  Impermanence is the manifestation of the negation of what has come to be regarded as established.


A sense of what is distinctive about the Buddhist message can be gleaned from a reflection upon the teaching about pure and impure mind in relation to ordinary beings, pratyeka-buddhas, bodhisattvas and buddhas.  The term pratyeka-buddha refers to a person who becomes enlightened on his or her own, sometimes called a “solitary buddha”.  The term prat(y)eka literally means “toward-one”.  In the Buddhist scheme of things pratyeka-buddhas do not enjoy a very high status because although they achieve their own realisations, they are of no use to others.

According to the teaching, ordinary beings have impure minds and pratyeka-buddhas have pure minds. This division accords with much popular thinking about spirituality.  However, in Buddhism there are other more important ideals.  Thus, bodhisattvas have minds that are both pure and impure and (real) Buddhas are those whose minds are neither pure nor impure.


This teaching gives us a sense of how a Buddha has turned back even from spiritual achievement.  A Buddha is not interested in achieving sainthood or getting to his own nirvana.  A Buddha is simply full of love and compassion for all sentient beings, but in a natural way.  Having seen the actual existential situation, nothing else is possible.  Thus, Shakyamuni turned back from his ascetic disciplines, whereby he was trying to become a pratyeka-buddha, doing it his own way, on his own, for his own spiritual benefit, and realised his second great going forth into the world in search of those “with but little dust in their eyes”.

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  • Dayamay, that is very well said.
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