Readers know that I am not familiar with Buddhism. The little I know is about Pramāṇavāda. And the little I know beside Pramāṇavāda I learnt through interesting people who raised my curiosity and made me have a look at this or that text. Yesterday I had one such experiences, spending 4 hours discussing with Greg Seton (scroll down here to read about his research) on Ratnākaraśānti, Haribhadra and Ārya Vimuktisena. We read some paragraphs of a Prajñāpāramitāsūtra, the Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā. This is a Mahāyānasūtra and it seems to summarize some chief characteristics of Mahāyāha Buddhism. I do not mean by that to say that it summarises its tenets. In fact, the text might even be said to be hardly understandable, as I hope to show.
After the first lines, the Sūtra goes on as a (Pāli) Sutta would, namely as a dialogue framed into what seem to be formulaic repetitions. But soon one is struck with something unexpected: there is no Prajñāpāramitā teaching, nor there is a Bodhisattva who might be instructed in it. Yet, if one were not afraid in hearing this (sad, allegedly, or at least scary) news, s/he would be the Bodhisattva, and this would be the teaching.
My usual chategories have been further challenged by the statement immediately following:
The Bodhisattva should be so instructed in the Prajñāpāramitā, that he does not conceive thoughts (na manyate), not even through the Awakening-Mind (bodhicitta). What's the reason for that? His/her mind is a non-mind (taccittam acittam).
What shall the interpreter do with this cittam a-cittam (literally: "the mind [is] no-mind")?
- 1. Imagine that the Sūtra does not make sense.
- 2. Assume that it is a narrative text and has no propositional logic to follow. Hence, a different attitude towards the text should be developed (for instance, one could suggest that Śariputra –the narrator– is telling us the story of the journey of one's experience from the state of citta to that of acitta.)
- 3. Try some logical explanation (for instance, adding a temporal dimension to the statement, so that what is cittam at point t1 is no longer one at point t2, or reframing the seemingly contradictory terms).
I tend to avoid in any case option 1., because it is a bad exegetical rule to give up (too soon). Personally, I also think that it is part of a philosophical enterprise to engage with a text and try to deepen one's own understanding through it. This is what has happened in many religions, when acute theologians have been confronted with folkloric relics and have interpreted them in a theologically stimulating way.
I oscillate, instead, between 2 and 3. I guess that 2 is of crucial importance within a religious path. The Mahāyāna Sūtras were part of a path, they were recited and copied again and again. The narrative dimension had, hence, a religious value, and was possibly thought as entailing also a transformative character.
Something similar is often narrated in Zen as the need for the disciple to listen again and again to a paradox until his conventional mind is "pierced" by it. In order to avoid such an extreme (in an Indian context) interpretation, I would partly emend view 2 through view 3. For instance, the two "citta" might have a different shade of meaning. Hence:
The Bodhisattva should be so instructed in the Prajñāpāramitā, that he does not conceive thoughts (na manyate), not even through the Awakening-Mind (bodhicitta). What's the reason for that? His/her mind is [in fact] not a [conventional] mind (taccittam acittam).
Immediately thereafter a possible reason is stated:
[Because] the nature of [his/her] mind is translucent.
Hence, if my interpretation is correct, the Bodhisattva's mind is a not-mind insofar as it does not function like a normal one. For instance, it does not conceive thoughts. It is luminous, but like a crystal is, which can receive and reflect light, without being in itself a source of light.
Of course, if there is anything correct or thought-provoking in this post, the credit goes to Greg, who has, however, probably failed to adjust all my erroneous conceptions about the Prajñāpāramitā literature.