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Echoes from an Empty Sky

Buescher, John B.


Editeur - Casa editrice

Snow Lion Publications

Religioni
Buddhismo
Vajarayana


Anno - Date de Parution

2005

Pagine - Pages

176

Lingua - language - langue

eng


Echoes from an Empty Sky  

The important Buddhist doctrine of the two truths- conventional truths and ultimate truths- is the subject of this book. It examines how the doctrine evolved within early Buddhism from efforts to make sense of contradictions within the collected sayings of the Buddha. The two truths, however, came to refer not primarily to statements or language referred. As such, the doctrine of the two truths became on through which Buddhist philosophers focused their efforts to elaborate an abhidharma, a "higher teaching," which allowed them to explain how the mind apprehends and misapprehends the world, how it attaches itself to objects that do not exist in and of themselves, thereby creating suffering. In effect, the doctrine then evolved into a distinction between different sorts of objects rather than a distinction between different sorts of statements. The doctrine of the truths, understood in this way, played a key role in the articulation of the Mahayana by its followers in distinguishing it from what they called Hinayana, especially in defining the central ideas of selflessness and emptiness. Unlike prior books on this topic, which concentrate on the doctrine within the context of the Mahayana, Buescher's examines it within the context of the Hinayana.

"Tibetan Buddhist syntheses of Buddhist doctrine provide a fascinating perspective from which to compare the positions of the major India schools. Such works, however, often lack the historical perspective from which to discern the development of these positions. In Echoes from an Empty Sky, John Buescher offers a clear and accessible translation of an early nineteenth-century Tibetan overview of one of the most famous doctrines in Buddhist philosophy, the two truths. In a substantial introduction, he traces the history of the relation between language and truth in ancient India, focusing especially on the question of the conventional and ultimate nature of the Buddha's words."-- Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Carl W. Belser Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies, Univ. of Michigan

"A terrific book crucial for understanding and penetrating the false veils of appearance."-- Jeffrey Hopkins, Professor, U. Virginia and author of more than thirty books including Maps of the Profound, Meditation on Emptiness, and Fluent Tibetan.

 


Recensione in altra lingua (English):

Introduction

Buddhists long ago developed a doctrine of two truths-conventional truth and ultimate truth. They have understood this doctrine in two ways. The first-which appears to have been its original meaning-referred to the sorts of true statements that the Buddha made: his "worldly," sometimes ambiguous, conventional discourse, and his statements or discourse that plainly referred to the ultimate truth. The second way referred to the sorts of objects in the world.

The first way to understand this doctrine dealt with problems Buddhists encountered in their exegesis of the scriptures, particularly in abstracting the Buddha's highest teachings from the mass of his discourses. Each of the many early schools of Buddhism used the doctrine in internecine debates to distinguish what it saw as the Buddha's highest teachings from what it believed other schools had mistaken as ultimate truths, or had invented altogether. In this sense, the doctrine covered much of the same ground as another early distinction-between scriptures that were literal or definitive, and those that were figurative or required interpretation.

This early development of the doctrine of two truths is traced here briefly. Some is excavated from fragmentary evidence of the scriptures of the early schools, and most particularly in the scriptures and commentaries of the Pali canon, which preserve the traditions of the Theravada School, a close descendant of one of these early Indian schools, the Sthaviravada.

The second way that Buddhists have understood the doctrine of two truths was as categories of all the objects in the universe or as the modes of objective reality. Treating the doctrine of two truths this way, however, moved the Buddhists' internal debates about the status of scriptures and statements away from the doctrine of two truths (now seen as categories of objective phenomena), and framed them as debates about which scriptures or statements needed interpretation and which did not. This was how matters stood in the period after the earliest proliferation of schools, that is, the period of early classical Indian Buddhism, depicted in the Tibetan Buddhist histories as comprising four major schools-the two Hinayana schools of the Vaibhashika (or Sarvastivada) and the Sautrantika and the two Mahayana schools of the Cittamatra (or Yogacara) and the Madhyamika.

Who was most responsible for shifting the doctrine of two truths from a way to talk about scripture to a way to talk about the objective world is not clear, although it may have been the result of efforts to distill lists of the most important things discussed in the discourses (sutra) of the Buddha's dharma ("teachings"). These lists were the essentials of the teachings of the dharma and so were the abhidharma ("higher teachings"). The Hinayana Vaibhashika School developed what it regarded as comprehensive lists of ultimate "truths"-that is, objects that ultimately existed, as distinguished from those that existed merely conventionally. They practiced their analytical skills-otherwise applied to distinguishing reliable statements or scriptures from unreliable ones-to an exacting, detailed elaboration of what exists. Nevertheless, the schools of this classical Indian period of Buddhism regarded the doctrine of the two truths in this way, as referring to two classes of objects in the universe. Debates between the schools about the nature of reality were conducted in terms of distinguishing objects in the universe that existed conventionally from those that existed ultimately. Or, to put it in other words, which objects were in the class of "conventional truths" and which were "ultimate truths."

The Vaibhashikas' doctrine of two truths involved an elaborate atomic theory because the distinction they drew between the conventional and the ultimate was between compounds and simples. They argued that compounded objects were not ultimately real, even though they had a conventional reality. Their goal was to specify the objects that were elemental and so were ultimate "truths" in the sense that they were not susceptible to further analysis. Their elaborate effort to specify these ultimate simples was important for the development of the discipline of philosophical analysis. But another effect they could not have anticipated or wished for was that their analysis of the objects of the world-their abhidharma-was the touchstone for the great protest that eventually identified itself as the Mahayana (the "great vehicle"), placing the Vaibhashikas with their analysis of the abhidharma in the Hinayana (the "little vehicle"). The Perfection of Wisdom (prajna-paramita) literature, beginning about the first century C. E., mounted an assault on the detailed lists of the Vaibhashikas' class of ultimate truths. All of the truths that the Vaibhashika abhidharma regarded as ultimate-that is, as incapable of further division-were shown to be no such thing. They were, in reality, compounds, or were conditioned, or, we might say, defined not in themselves but only by their causes, conditions, or contexts. All the ultimate truths of the Hinayana were dissolved in the Perfection of Wisdom, and were therefore shown to be mere conventional truths. What then, according to the Mahayana analysis, was an ultimate truth? It was a conventional truth's emptiness of being what it was in and of itself-it was incapable of withstanding such analysis.

This marked the major divide within Buddhism, in its historical development and among the various schools. The doctrine of the two truths-conventional and ultimate-became, for the Mahayana, and especially the Madhyamika School within it, the essence of the Buddha's teaching, which revealed the nature of the world and all things in it. Understanding that doctrine constituted enlightenment, and the achievement of nirvana. The Madhyamikas viewed the entire body of Buddhist teachings through the spectacles of the doctrine of the two truths. The Tibetan scholastic schools inherited the Madhyamika viewpoint from their Indian Buddhist teachers and preserved the sources for studying it. They also developed their own commentaries on these sources.

The heart of this book is a translation of a portion of a Tibetan text on the subject of the two truths. The text is Ngawang Belden's (Ngag-dbang dPal-ldan, b. 1797) An Explanation of the Meaning of the Conventional and the Ultimate in the Four Tenet Systems (Grub mtha'i bzhi'i lugs kyi kun rdzob dang don dam pa'i don rnam par bshad pa legs bshad dpyid kyi dpal mo'i glu dbyangs), which he wrote in 1835 in Urga, Mongolia. The first section of his book is a compendium of views on the doctrine of the two truths in the first of the four "tenet systems" (as the Tibetans classify them), the Vaibhashika system. One might wonder how valuable it might be to study the "lowest" of the systems on the subject that is of most importance to the "highest." But the Mahayana's central doctrine of emptiness-expressed in the teaching of the two truths-precipitated, as it were, out of the storm clouds of disputes within the early Buddhist schools over the nature of truth and reality. That doctrine was sparked into a flame by the winds of controversy, whose currents can be seen in the material preserved in this text's description of the Vaibhashika views on the two truths.

Ngawang Belden's exposition of his material follows the Gelukpa tradition of the Gomang College of Drepung Monastery, and so follows the earlier teacher and writer Jamyang Shayba ('Jam-dbyangs-bzhad-pa Ngag-dbang-brtson-'grus, 1648-1721). Ngawang Belden's book conveniently collects together a wealth of material from the scriptures and commentaries. The publication of this particular section of his book is justified by the fact that it depicts the Buddhist debate out of which the doctrine of two truths, through the critique of the Perfection of Wisdom, emerged into the foreground of Buddhist philosophy. It therefore opens a window (although refracted through centuries of commentarial layers) onto the historical beginnings of this doctrine. This piece of Ngawang Belden (and, indirectly, Jamyang Shayba) also supplements the ongoing publication of other portions of their work.



Recensione in lingua italiana

John B. Buescher received his Ph.D in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia. He currently heads the Voice of America's Tibetan Broadcast Service to Tibet and South Asia. He is the author of numerous books and articles.