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Mind, Matter and Nirvana in Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism, DhammaWeb OpinionMind, Matter and Nirvana in Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism
Prof. N. A. de S. Amaratunga, http://www.island.lk

Untitled Document

Mind, Matter and Nirvana in Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism

In Buddhism, the mind is central to the subjects of both matter and nirvana. By the word mind we mean ‘citt’ which according to Theravada Buddhism has four components namely ‘vedana’, ‘sangna’, ‘sankara and ‘vingnana’. These components participate in ‘paticca samuppada’ (dependent co-origination) and they are also four of the five ‘skandas’ (aggregates) which constitute the human being.

Regarding the physical world, the Buddha had spoken about the universe, the galaxies, and clusters of galaxies. He had spoken about the possibility of the presence of life in the universe outside earth. The question whether the cosmos is finite or infinite had been left unanswered. The Vibhanga sutra speaks about the atom (‘paramanu’), its structure and size which does not seem to be much different from what is being discovered by modern methods. What is more relevant to the present discussion however is the fact that the Buddha had said there is nothing permanent about the universe. But neither the Buddha nor the Theravada theorists have said that the universe does not exist. The Buddha had said the world and its phenomena arise, undergo change and disappear to to arise again. This means that the world exists even for a moment and therefore its existence cannot be totally denied. The Buddha had preached a middle path doctrine between the extremes of existence and non-existence. In the ‘Kachayana Sutra’ the Buddha is quoted to have said; "everything exists: this is one extreme. Nothing exists: this is the other extreme. Not approaching either extreme, the Tathagata teaches you a doctrine of the middle path….". Since the world is real in the original teachings, there is no question in early Buddhism of identifying the samsaric world of dependent co-origination (‘paticca-samuppadaya’ ) with the void (‘sunyata’) which would entail that it was somehow unreal. Thus, the Buddha had preached that the physical world exists independent of the mind .

The Theravadins had to a great extent gone along with the above original teachings and fathomed their theories on matter, Nirvana etc based on those original principles. The ‘Vinganavadins’ of the Mahayana school however took up a different position. They were of the opinion that the atom had no spatial dimensions. If it had it would be divisible and therefore cannot be an atom. If it has no dimensions it would follow that physical matter which has spatial dimensions cannot be composed of atoms. Therefore matter which is supposed to be composed of atoms has no existence and is only a construct of the mind. They said everything is mind only (vide: ‘Madhyantha-vibhaga’). In the very early Mahayana texts (vide: ‘Asta-sashrika-pranga-paramita’) it is mentioned that all dhammas are signless, wishless, unaffected, unproduced, unoriginated and non-existant. This is in total disagreement with the Buddha’s teaching of ‘paticca-samuppadaya’ and also the Dhamma theory of the ‘Abhidhamma’. Thus it was the Vinganavadins who were opposed to the Dhamma theory. The Dhamma theory is not just one of many theories of the ‘Abhidhamma’ but the foundation on which the entire ‘Abhidhamma’ system rests. It is not easy for Theravadins to refute the Dhamma theory without getting into philosophical difficulties. One cannot do that without totally giving up the basic tenets of Theravada and embracing those of Mahayana.

Then the question arises; if the world does not exist what is it that we experience? ‘Madyamikas’ which was the other major school of the Mahayana tradition (Ven. Nagarjuna was the main author of this school), answered this question by saying even the mind does not exist. They said the mind consists of ‘dhammas’ which too had no reality and therefore the mind does not exist. It can be seen that these theories are totally at variance with that of Theravada Buddhism and something that cannot be adopted into it without distorting original Buddhist preaching.

Now let us look at the Mahayana theory of Nirvana. Maahayanists believed that the ‘parinibbana’ of the Buddha did not result in the total extinction of His ‘samsara’ but that He entered what was called the ‘apratisthita-nirvana’in which He continued to work for the salvation of all beings who were suffering in ‘samsara’. This means the Buddha would have retained one or more of the ‘skandas’ after ‘parinibbana’. The assumption that the Buddha could continue to exist after ‘parinibbana’ in an existence that consists of the ‘skandas’ is a contradiction of the traditional teachings of the Buddha who said that suffering resides in ‘skandas’. There cannot be any suffering after attainment of Nirvana which envisages the total extinction of ‘samsaric skandas’.

This is why Theravada Buddhists cannot accept the Mahayana theory of Nirvana. This Mahayana theory of Nirvana is linked to their ‘Sunyatha’ (emptiness) theory which is not acceptable to Theravada Buddhists. The word ‘sunya’ is used in Theravada Buddhism with a different meaning to that of Mahayana particularly the viewpoint of the Madyamikas. The Chula-sunnata Suthra of the Majjima Nikaya deals with the significance of the term ‘sunya" and its connection with the notion of ‘Nirvana’. In this ‘suthra’, the Buddha teaches that the cessation of suffering depends on the cessation of being and becoming. There is a passage in this "suthra" which describes emptiness (‘sunnata’) in terms of the analogy of the forest. It is clear that what is meant is that the world is empty of self or what belongs to a self. For the Theravada Buddhists, this did not mean that the world itself was unreal or literally void, but that there is no self or soul in a person or sentient being. This is the ‘sunyatha’ theory in Theravada which is totally different from that of ‘Mahayana’.

The Mahayanists rejected this interpretation of emptiness (‘sunya’) or to be precise thought that it did not go far enough. According to their thinking, even the constituent elements known as ‘Dhammas’ are unreal and void. As mentioned above, this idea could be traced back to the very early Mahayana texts like ‘Asta-shasika-prajna-paramita’ which states that all Dhammas are unoriginated and non-existent.

This theory raises the question; if the world is unreal what is it that we experience? The two major schools of the Mahayana differed in their answers to this question. The ‘Vingnanavadins’ said the world is nothing but mind (‘vingnana-matra’ ). They said the mind is real but the world is unreal, a mere illusion (‘maya’) or apparition (‘ abhasa’) of the mind (vide: ‘Madhyantha-vibhaga’ ).

The other school – ‘Madhyamikas’ was more radical. According to them even the mind is non-existent, empty and void (‘sunya’). Even experience is unreal. Their argument is that if the mind consists of ‘Dhammas’ and if ‘Dhammas’ are unreal it follows that the mind is also unreal (Mahayanists also has a Dhamma theory which is different from that of Theravada Buddhism).

This extremely radical point of view however does not make sense. It is not at all obvious how it could make any sense to say that both the world and the mind that seems to perceive it are non-existent.

The mistake the Mahayana schools committed was they tried to prove their point of view by pure reason. This contravenes the Buddhist methods of study. In the ‘Kalama Suthra’ the Buddha says that we cannot find out the nature of the world by pure reason. We must employ experience in combination with reason.

The Buddha and also Theravadins used the ‘Chathuskoti’ method of reasoning which involves four alternative possibilities. This method could be applied only to issues that conform to the middle path of Theravada Buddhism and not to extreme viewpoints such as the viewpoint of the Mahyanists which states that the world does not exist. According to Lord Buddha the world phenomena arise under conditions, undergo change and then disappear to arise again in a continuum of ‘samsara’. In this process the world does not exist as a permanent entity, neither does it non-exist as a permanent phenomenon. The Buddha had avoided both extreme points of view for that is the truth. Here the Buddha had clearly been able to apply the ‘Chathuskoti’ reasoning. What is suitable for analysis of extreme points of view such as that the world does not exist or it is a void or the mind does not exist is the Aristotelian logic.

From the above brief discussion, it could be seen that Theravada Buddhism categorically differs from Mahayana on several fundamental themes; Nirvana, reality of the physical world, and the mind. Anybody who tries to reconcile these theories or borrow bits and pieces to support dubious theories of their own fails. Xuan Zang attempted to reconcile Ven. Vasubandu’s (a Mahayanist) teachings with traditional Buddhist teachings and failed.

Prof. N. A. de S. Amaratunga