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Saturday, February 19, 2011

How do Bodhisattvas think?

How is it, to be awaken and yet part of the normal world? How can one at the same time know that everything is illusory (or only conventionally true) and yet undertake actions within this conventional frame?

Jayarava rightly pointed out (see here) that Bodhisattvas must be able to conceive thoughts, since else no interactions would be possible between them and the 'normal' people, be it through language or through actions. Hence, the paradoxical statement of the Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā saying that

[bodhisattvaḥ] tenāpi bodhicittena na manyeta


cannot mean:

even through his bodhicitta, he should not conceive thoughts (man-).

What else could it mean? The following lines explain:

What is the reason of that? His mind (citta) is a non-mind (acitta), [since] its nature is translucent.

Hence, the key to understand what the Bodhisattva should not do through his mind lies in the understanding of what his mind actually is. He can use it withouth doing the act designated by the root man- beacuse his is a translucent "non-mind". In fact, the following paragraphs keep on discussing the nature of such a non-mind. At a certain point, one can read:

avikārā […] avikalpā acittatā


That is:

The condition of non-mind is formless and conceptionless.


The vikāras are "derived forms" of the actual reality, whereas the vikalpas are assumptions one resorts to in order to make sense of something. They are conceptual in nature and hence (mostly) not ultimately true. Hence, the statement seems to mean that a non-mind is a mind which can think without needing assumed supports (that is, conventional forms). The Bodhisattva's mind thinks directly, without needing extra explanatory devices. Can this mean that it sees without thinking, with "thinking" in the sense of "constructing thoughts"?

I am extremely grateful to the readers who richly commented on my previous post on Mahāyāna texts expressing paradoxes. Read Patrick's comment if you want to compare a different understanding of the term I translated with "translucent" (prabhāsvarā).

8 comments:

Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa

Nice one. Thanks for expanding on this for us.

I think citta is better translated as 'thought' here rather than 'mind'. My feeling is that there is no traditional Buddhist concept that directly relates to the Western concept of 'the mind' - Buddhists see mental processes as arising only in conjunction with an object and a sense faculty in contact. As I understand it, broadly speaking manas is the mental sense faculty, citta is the content it deals with (i.e. thoughts and emotions), and vijñāna is the knowledge or understanding that results from thinking. This is the outcome of some juggling in the early Buddhist tradition where the words are all synonyms.

I wonder if acitta means 'without thought' rather than 'non-thought'. That is to say that the bodhisattva's thinking is without any substantial entities conventionally called 'thoughts', i.e a 'thought' is not conceived of as a thing - the 'thought' is an experience (as I keep saying to myself in the hope that one day I will understand what that means!)

I have a growing suspicion that what we are looking at here, and elsewhere, is a description of the kind of meta-knowledge that results from looking into the workings of how thoughts arise - knowledge that does not have an object as such (and is therefore asaṅkhata etc), but which illuminates the underlying process of thoughts arising so that we understand and unhook from that process. It's difficult to describe, hence the confusion. If it is a thought, a mental event with an object causing it to arise, then that is not the insight sought.

Perhaps this is why meditation which attenuates the awareness of, and response to, sense experience is so highly valued? It is only in these refined states that one avoid being swamped by sense experience (Pāli vedanābhitunna) and sees what one needs to see.

Have you seen Jill Bolte Taylor's TED video? I think her experience is very interesting to consider in this kind of discussion - if we over look the fact that she had a massive stroke and focus on the phenomenology of her experience which is so like the experience of the mystics, then I think we get an idea of the kind of experience the Aṣṭa and other prajñāpāramitā texts are getting at.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Jayarava. I think you are right. "Mind" is a translation which is too ontologically committed. Unless one explains what one means by this term, the reader runs the risk to presupposes that there is a "thing" called "mind" which can "perform" the activity of thinking or not. On the contrary, if I am understanding enough of Mahāyāna (and perhaps of Indian Buddhism in general), there is no mind apart from the event of thinking (understood in a very broad sense).
Hence, what about "He should not conceive [discursive] thoughts (=the kind of thoughts which postulate a duality between us and the world)"? Then, one could either follow with "In fact, his thinking is not a [conventional] thinking", or "In fact, his thinking is thoughtless (i.e., it does not construe thoughts in the sense referred to above)". By the way, grammatically the fact that the sūtra later speaks of acitta-tā might support your intepretation of acitta as a bahuvrīhi (but other interpretation of the abstract are possible, again, ask Greg Seton).

The only (?) problem, at this point would be: how can s/he interact in the saṃsāra if s/he is to avoid any such sort of thought? "Thoughtless thinking" is not appropriate for worldly interactions. Just like Jill Bolte Taylor's experience (thanks! I had not seen it and I enjoyed it a lot) of non-duality made it impossible for her to make a phone call, speak, read, "see" her arms as being hers, etc. etc. In other words, one would like to imagine the Bodhisattva as a creature who can swift from one level to the other, whose deep insight enables him/her to see the ultimate truth through the conventional one. But a "thoughtless thinking" seems to be incompatible (at least simultaneously incompatible) with ordinary thinking.

Patrick said...

I think citta (Tib. sems, Chin. xin 心) is rather an instant of consciousness the triggering object (causal, âlambhapratyaya?) of which isn't necessarily "outside" the nature of consciousness (cittatâ?) -- this Cittamâtrins & Vijñânavâdins and/or Yogâcâravâdins explain in great details either in sûtras like the Lankâvatâra or in shâstras by Asanga, for instance.

I do not know the Sanskrit Vajracchedikâ (late Guy Bugault had the intention to translate into French), but in chapter 14 of the Chinese version of it by Kumârajîva, the way a bodhisattva thinks goes like this : "s/he must have thoughts (instants of consciousness) without any fixation place" -- 應無所住而生其心, where "wu suo zhu" 無所住 must be apratishthita (Fr. sans "faire fond sur les processus ordinaires de la pensée, de la mémoire, etc.). Pratishthita is when an experience is "fixed". So, the bodhisattva has wordly thoughts but "at the same time" their unborn quality (anutpâdatâ?) is a "luminous & clear" evidence.

You may ask "an evidence for whom" ? For the conventional "I" of the bodhisattva (that's why tenth bhûmi bodhisattvas like Manjushrî and Avalokiteshavara or Samantabhadra are not an undifferenciated brew of I don't what egoless bliss...).

Does it make sense ?

@Jayarava : namaste kalyânamitra ! I'm not really interested in the etymological tathâgata ; I'd rather follow the explanations I could get from great Mahâyâna authors & teachers I trust(logically -- at least -- as their follower).

Can we imagine that the author of the Mûlamadhyamakakârikâ (who could have been a kind of ghost-writer of the greater & lesser Prajñâpâramitâ texts) saw in cittamacittam anything else than the union (yuganaddha) of appearence and emptiness (Tib. snang stong zung 'jug -- sorry I don't know the Ssk. for "appearence") ?

Hi Elisa : the phrase "thoughtless thinking" is but another proof of the ineffable quality of realisation (abhisamaya)... ;-)

Patrick said...

Excuse the typos : Avalokiteshvara, and "I don't know what kind of an undifferentiated brew", etc.

elisa freschi said...

You are right, Patrick (as far as I can judge). "Thinking" might be too general. In fact, we should rather refer to events of thinking.
On the other hand, when the text says "He should not conceive discursive thoughts (man-), not even with his bodhicitta. Why? Because his citta is a non-citta. Its nature is translucent", it refers to the nature of the kind of event recurring in a continuum (in Yogācāra I would call it a santāna). What do you think?

As for the union of appearance and emptiness… I am afraid I do not know how to cope with it. It looks like seeing emptiness through the appearance. But if it is claimed (like Jill Bolte Taylor and the way Jayarava refers to her) that the Bodhisattva's reality is "something", although very different from ours, then how coudl s/he see at the same time absolute truth, conventional truth and emptiness (of the latter and of their distinction)? Sorry for putting the question in such a naive and straightforward way.

Patrick said...

Hi Elisa !

Appearence is possible because it is empty ; it would otherwise be static, fixed, paralysed in its « being » (=substance) ; appearence is a nonconceptual perception : its object being considered extramental, mental or neither doesn’t matter. In Mahâyâna, empty, as you know, is the « fifth leg of the tetralemma » : for some beyond it, and for others, like Fazang in Huayanzong, the equal conventional value of each – depending on the condition of the « beings to be ‘disciplined’ ». As in the Diamond the Buddha says to Subhûti, and in the Lankâvatâra to Sumati : he’s never uttered the slightest syllable.

The citta-santâna (or santati) is a conventional sautrântika & yogâcâra description of « mind », its appearing individual continuity forming the individual series called « I » or « Upagupta », etc. In absolute truth it has not an atom of real existence : try to imagine that what « appears » is a whole set of pratyaya-s ; their state at a given moment (so to say) may be called a thing (Whitehead would say an ‘actual entity’) ; that ‘thing’ is the phala. But, as Nâgârjuna has it, a cause is a cause when it has produced a result : so, when does the causal aspect cease to ‘become’ the effect aspect ? And thus back we are in the anabhilâpya !

Yes, seeing appearence is seeing emptiness – and vice versa. There has never been any emptiness per se ; and appearences are not only transient, they have never begun, they’re never born ! Some wise guy writes somewhere : seeing the emptiness of things is great ; seeing that they’re never born is far greater. And I don’t mention the seer nor the act of seeing ! But I must be kinda desperately ‘irrecuperable’ vacuist. That’s why I think it’s nice to never forget beings. Once you’ve discovered that there was nothing, you also discover tons of means and ways to share it with all those (you’ve a conventional connection with) who thing that there is something – something a fortiori disturbing in a way or the other (duhkha).

Adesso bisogna andarmene : I’ll try to sviluppare il suggetto un po’ più tardi. Thank you for the opportunity to think of these incredible things…

Avec tout mon respect et mon amitié.

Anonymous said...

Hi Elisa,

I liked your attempt to comprehend the 'no thought' mind by means of lots of thinking! As you know, I am trying to do the same as I write about a medieval yoga text text called the Amanaska, the no-mind state. In it, amanaska is a synonym for samādhi and in yoga traditions outside the Pātañjala tradition, that was generally understood as something equivalent to asaṃprajñātasamādhi. In the Amanaska, amanaska is described as non-dual (advaita), pure (amala/nirmala), innate (sahaja), aspectless (niṣkala), unchanging (nirvikāra), stainless (nirañjana), imperishable (nirapāya), undifferentiated (niṣprapañca) inexpressible, bestowing bliss, intelligible only to oneself, beyond the body, a meditative state in which all volition is cut off and all movement has ceased (niḥśeṣāśeṣaceṣṭita). The yogi in this state is also described as neither living nor dead, no breathing, no mental activity like 'a piece of wood' but obviously conscious. I imagine it to be close to some sort of state of hibernation. Your blog entry interests me because it seems the Buddhists were attempting to define a no-mind state while (I assume) the Boddhisattva continues to live in the world and help others. Outside meditation, acittatā seems inconceivable to me if its taken literally... so, is this an attempt by the Buddhists to create a type of 'samādhi' in daily life?

Jason Birch

elisa freschi said...

Hi Jason, nice to see you here.
Yes, I cannot avoid thinking, even in order to understand non-thinking! And thanks a lot for the parallel.

I am no expert, as you know, but it seems that the Yogic description you refer to better fits with our expectations, insofar as a radical interruption of the general characteristics of the mind is said to be tantamount to an interrumption of all intercourse. It is hard to imagine that such a pure mind can be achieved, but at least the faith in it does not contradict all our other assumptions about human interactions in the world.
Buddhists, by contrast, especially the ones having a Mahāyāna background seem to presuppose a completely alternative world, one in which non-subjects can help other non-subjects, though knowing that no one is really helped. Is this conceivable? Hardly, at least for us, non-enlightened beings. All descriptions seem to elaborate on intuitions one might have conceived during meditation, but they then need to generalise this state and to imagine it possible throughout one's life. This obviously radically contradicts our common experience (which depends on the fact of having a "normal" mind), but this would not bother a Buddhist author, who tends to mistrust experience (as you know, all our perceptions of, say, chairs, dogs and pots are sheer vikalpas and what is really there is completely different). Thus, the fact of de-constructing the possibility of experience is no longer a problem. On the other hand, the only problematic aspect, in my opinion, is the epistemological foundation of such a belief. As already hinted at, one can partially count on one's experience in meditation, but the chief evidence in favour of the attainment of such a state is the word of the Buddha (possibly re-interpreted, but this is another issue).
OT: I met yesterday Mark Singleton and it was a pleasure to discuss (positively) your article on hatha-yoga with him.

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