Metaphysics of awakening

Some metaphysical considerations

Let us begin with the obvious. If anyone has ever become a buddha, an awakened being, then there must have been a potential for awakening to occur. If we look at that potential in the way that Indian Buddhists would approach it, we would naturally ask: what is the nature of that potential, and where does it reside?

The second of these two questions is easier to answer, so let us begin with it. The Theravāda tradition makes a distinction between three kinds of being who have attained nirvāṇa,1 the elimination of the afflictions (kilesa, kleśa2) that are the conditions for the arising of unhappiness (dukkha, duḥkha). Someone who has eliminated the afflictive conditions from his or her mental continuum (cittasaṃtāna) is called an arahan (arhant). The Buddha is said to be an arahan, but differs from other arahan in that he discovered for himself the way to eliminate the afflictive conditions and then followed that way, whereas all other arahan follow the way that has been pointed out to them by the Buddha.3

In the case of the ordinary arahan, the potential for awakening can be said to be placed partly within the sentient being who eventually becomes awakened and partly in external factors that help the awakening take place. Traditionally, the most important of these external factors is the teaching (sāsana, śāsana) of the Buddha and the institutional structures that facilitate the transmission of the teaching from one generation to the next. While the teachings of the Buddha may be a necessary condition, it is clearly not a sufficient condition, as is suggested by a famous pair of verses in chapter 5 of the Dhammapada:

64. Though all his life a fool associates with a wise man, he no more comprehends the Truth than a spoon tastes the flavor of the soup.

65. Though only for a moment a discerning person associates with a wise man, quickly he comprehends the Truth, just as the tongue tastes the flavor of the soup.4

What these verses suggest is that there must be something within a person that responds to the teachings of the Buddha and the examples of the wise and accomplished. But what is that something?

One answer to this question was given in some literature from the Mahāyāna tradition. In all the new literature produced in Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism, some is devotional in nature, some is strictly polemical, while some is more philosophically oriented. The Āryasaddharmalaṅkāvatāra Mahāyāna Sūtra (Noble Mahāyāna Sūtra about the Introduction of the True Dharma to Laṅka) is among these more philosophical sūtras. It is one of the principal scriptural sources for the Yogācāra school of Mahāyāna Buddhism. The Laṅkāvatāra, to use its more familiar shortened title, is also one of the principal sources for the vegetarian ethic. Among the most important recurrent themes in this sūtra are

  • that the entire world is mind only;
  • that there is no dualism, since there is no difference between nirvāṇa and saṃsāra, or between presence and absence, or between pure and impure, or between subject and object;
  • the notion of different Buddhist paths or vehicles is an illusion;
  • that nothing has a nature of its own (svabhāva) .

The text also teaches that every sentient being has an innate capacity to become awakened. This capacity is poetically called the embryonic buddha or tathāgatagarbha. According to the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, all beings have the potential, but the essence of tathāgatagarbha is realized only when one casts aside discriminating, dualistic forms of thought. The term “tathāgatagarbha” is said to be synonymous with “dharmakāya”, that is, the totality of phenomena. On a personal level, it is synonymous with “buddhatā” (buddhahood or buddha nature), which in turn is another name for the ālayavijñāna, the receptacle of all past experiences and the storehouse of potentials of all future experiences; since it contains the potential for all future experiences, it contains the potential for being a Buddha. The text raises the question, if the notion that there are many paths within Buddhism is an illusion, why do there even appear to be many paths? The answer provided is that the infinite compassion of the Buddha ingeniously contrives methods (upāya) of reaching the hearts of all sentient beings and therefore speaks to them in the delusive terms they can comprehend. Eventually, however, he leads them out of delusion and out of discriminating, dualistic thought into a direct experience of the essential nature of the mind, which is pure, calm and non-dualistic.

If the message of the Laṅkāvatāra is fully unpacked, it is saying that a person’s potential to become awakened is the dharmakāya, which is really saying that the potential for awakening is nothing less than everything that is or can be experienced. The entire universe is filled with this potential for the awakening of every sentient being in the universe. This teaching is no doubt the basis of the doctrine, found in much of East Asian Buddhism, that every being is inherently enlightened from the very beginning. Like Aristotle’s God, which is pure actuality with no potentiality at all, the buddhatā of some East Asian Buddhists is actual awakening that is constantly taking place. There are no potentials for awakening for the simple reason that everything is everywhere at all times fully participating in awakening, which is the very nature of all that exists.

The somewhat misleading name for this doctrine is “sudden enlightnment.” The Sanskrit word that is being translated as “sudden” is “yugapad,” which might more accurately be translated as “simultaneous.” The idea is that everything is simultaneously awakened at every moment. The locus classicus for this doctrine is the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra that we have been discussing. While the doctrine is explained in philosophical detail throughout the text, it is summarized very nicely in the story with which the sūtra opens. A paraphrase of that story is as follows:

The opening passage makes the claim that it is the text of a talk on the Dharma that was delivered by the Buddha for the benefit of Rāvaṇa, king of the terrifying and hideous demons known as Rākṣasas. The purpose of the Dharma talk is described as that of helping Rāvaṇa understand that the self is not to be found in any of the dharmas and that no dharmas have permanent natures of their own.

In order to help make this point, the Buddha begins his talk by creating a magical illusion of a continent filled with mountains and cities and people. Having dazzled the demons and their divine attendants with this display, the Buddha makes it vanish as quickly as it was created. He then explains that all dharmas are like this magical illusion. All dharmas are created by the bewildered and frightened mind and have no reality independent of the mind. To perceive these dharmas (such as colors, sounds, tastes, smells, feelings and ideas) is not to perceive the Buddha. To perceive the Buddha is to see the mind in its original purity, unobscured by phenomena.

On witnessing this conjuring trick, the demon king Rāvaṇa experiences a dramatic transformation, literally a turning of the mind (cittaparāvṛtti), that is, a loss of interest in the phenomenal world, since he understood that the phenomenal world was nothing but the creation of his own previously deluded mind.

As a result of this radical change of mentality, the demon king becomes a great practitioner of meditation, as a result of which he 1) comes to see things as they really are, 2) becomes completely self-sufficient and no longer dependent on others for knowledge or emotional support, and 3) abandons all speculative thinking.

The Buddha then explains to Rāvaṇa that those who have experienced the same sort of turning of the mind that Rāvaṇa has experienced have freed themselves not only from false teachings but from all teachings. They no longer require teachings, since they can see things as they really are on their own. Seeing things as they really are, they do not make false theories and hypotheses. Not making false theories, they do not need true theories to correct the false. Not relying in any way on true teachings, they make no discriminations between true and false. And not making any discriminations between true and false, they are entirely liberated.

The practice of awakening


  1. The Pali word is nibbāna. ↩︎
  2. In citing words used by the Theravāda tradition, I shall first give the Pali word used by that tradition and then the Sanskrit words used by most other Indian traditions. When the Pali and the Sanskrit terms are the same, of course, only one word will be cited. ↩︎
  3. Theravāda and other Buddhist traditions distinguish also between two kinds of buddha: those who teach and those who do not. The former kind is called sammāsambuddha (samyaksambuddha), and the latter is called paccekabuddha (pratyekabuddha). That distinction is not relevant to our discussion here. ↩︎
  4. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.05.budd.html ↩︎

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