Saturday, February 13, 2021

Main Doctrine - Sengzhao - 082


Main Doctrine - Sengzhao (The introductory chapter of the Essays)

(From the Translator’s Introduction: 

Thematic Overview: The collection of texts translated here, four essays and an exchange of letters, plus an introductory chapter, attributed to the scholar-monk Sengzhao (374–414 C.E.) is perhaps best seen, in the most general terms, as an extended meditation on a perennial theme in Chinese religio-philosophical reflection, the theme of sagehood. As the Essays investigate the nature and attributes of the sage—the sage’s cognition, his world, his activities, and his mode of being in time—they take up a broad range of religio-philosophical topics, from self-cultivation and charisma to ontology and language, action and power. While Sengzhao draws on Indian Buddhist religio-philosophical resources (mainly, the Madhyamaka critique of substantializing language and its distinction of two levels of truth), as well as on the native Chinese tradition of philosophical and aesthetic reflection (especially those associated with the “Daoist” classics, the Laozi and the Zhuangzi), the Essays resist simple reduction to either, nor can they be explained as a straightforward case of influence or adaptation. Instead, these writings present an original response to a set of concerns unique to Sengzhao, his community, and his times, and as such are an important voice in the religious speculation of early medieval China. 

Among the issues explored in these Essays are such questions as:

  • Who is a sage

  • How is the “sagely mind” different from the mind of the ordinary person? 

  • What are the properties of the world that the sage inhabits? 

  • If that world is empty (i.e., empty of “substantial being”), what happens in it to the reality of individual things, and what does it mean to say (as is said in the Essays) that in it “the power of myriad things is greatly amplified”? 

  • If emptiness is not a simple eradication of being, what, then, is it exactly—a state prior to the beingness of beings? 

  • An inherent quality of linguistic expression that can never reach any transcendental signifier? 

  • Or a mental attitude of withdrawal from engagement with things? 

  • Who is capable of becoming a sage? 

  • Is this a universal capacity or is it limited to a select few? 

  • And how does one attain sagehood? 

  • Is this attainment akin to “worldly” attainments and thus it can be made into a human project? 

  • Is such attainment at all possible if all things are really empty, without anything to be attained? 

  • Assuming the possibility of sagehood, is it brought about by a process of practice and learning, or rather by letting go and unlearning? 

  • Or is it not a process at all but rather a sudden breakthrough? 

  • How does the extraordinary cognition of the sage, prajñā (transcendental wisdom), affect the functioning and applicability of language

  • Can the wisdom of prajñā be communicated in language or does it inevitably confound all attempts at linguistic expression, ultimately rendering one silent? 

  • On the emotive-active side, if for the sage individual desires have ceased, how is it that he or she is able to “respond to things and events with an inexhaustible acuity”? 

  • Finally, what about time: if in emptiness things do not display temporal extension (they neither pass away nor endure unchangingly but rather exist in an eternal “now”), does this not present the possibility of a unique type of immortality? 

Biography of Sengzhao: According to Sengzhao’s traditional biography, he was born to an impoverished family in 374 in the vicinity of Chang’an. As a young man he earned his living as a copyist, which exposed him to the literary canon of the day. He was especially fond of the Laozi and the Zhuangzi, but ultimately found these texts unsatisfactory. An encounter with the Teaching of Vimalakīrti (in the old third-century translation by Zhi Qian of the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa) proved pivotal—he was captivated by the text and resolved to direct his efforts toward Buddhism. He studied various forms of Buddhist doctrine, including the Prajñāpāramitā literature and also Mainstream (non-Mahayana) texts. Word of his intellectual prowess and debating skills spread quickly throughout the Chang’an area. In 398 Sengzhao joined Kumārajīva in Guzang, far west of present-day Gansu province, and became his disciple. In early 402, when the king of the Later Qin, Yao Xing, brought Kumārajīva to his capital in Chang’an, Sengzhao accompanied the master to the city. Kumārajīva was put in charge of the translation academy and Sengzhao joined the team that included Sengrui, Daorong, Sengdao, Tanying, and others, in time becoming one of Kumārajīva’s chief intellectual collaborators. 

The text: … Initially the four essays and Sengzhao’s letters circulated independently. They appeared together for the first time in a commentary, Zhaolun shu (X. 866), by the late sixth-century exegete Huida. However, the sequence in which they appear in Huida’s commentary differs from that in the standard Taishō version, an arrangement first seen in the slightly later commentary, also titled Zhaolun shu (T. 1859) by Yuankang (fl. mid-seventh century). The introductory chapter of the Essays, “Main Doctrine,” is also first found in Yuankang’s work, and may have been authored by Yuankang himself. In this translation I make frequent use of Huida’s and Yuankang’s commentaries, as well as of a commentary by Wencai (1241–1302), the Zhaolun xinshu (T. 1860), for insight on particularly difficult passages, as well as for variant readings that I find preferable to those in T. 1858.)

“Original nonbeing,” “reality-mark (Ground / Union of the Two Truths),” “Dharma-nature,” “emptiness by nature (2nd truth),” “dependent origination (1st truth)”: all these are one doctrine. (i.e. One Truth.)

How so? 

[View: Union of the Two Truths about all dharmas:] All dharmas arise through dependent origination (1st truth): before they arise, they do not exist; when the conditions of their existence perish, they too cease to exist. Were they to exist substantially, then—once in existence— it would be impossible for them to perish. From this it follows that though they presently manifest as being, in nature they are always fundamentally empty. This is referred to as “emptiness by nature.” (2nd truth) This empty nature is called “Dharma-nature.” Dharma-nature being thus, it is called “reality mark.”  Reality-mark is a nonbeing by itself—it is not made a nonbeing merely through analysis. Thus it is called “original nonbeing.” (i.e. The so-called Union of the Two Truths is the true nature & dynamic of Reality as it is here & now, the Ground, Buddha-nature, Genuine-emptiness, Dharmadhatu, Suchness, Freedom from all extremes & middle. )

[The Middle Way free from all extremes & middle:] Negations of being and nonbeing are not expressions of a belief in a substantial, eternal being (eternalism) and in an annihilationist (annihilationism), nihilistic nonbeing (nihilism).
(i.e. This is the Middle Way free of all extremes & middle. Extremes like: existence / naïve realism, non-existence / nihilism, both existence & non-existence together / dualism, neither existence not non-existence / holism / monism / radical oneness; eternalism, annihilationism; subjectivism, objectivism, relationism / processism; etc.) 

To take being as being leads one to take nonbeing as nonbeing. But to perceive dharmas without attachment to nonbeing (i.e. to directly perceive any / all dharmas as the Ground, as the inconceivable Union of the Two Truths free from all extremes & middle) is to discern the reality-mark of dharmas (i.e. the Ground, the true nature & dynamic of Reality as it is here & now): in this manner, though one perceives being (1st truth), one does so without grasping to marks (2nd truth). 

[Union being without being; acting without actions; characterising without characterising:] Since the dharma-marks thus perceived are markless marks (i.e. Union of being conventionally dependently co-arisen relatively functional impermanent appearances / marks (1st truth) <==> and being empty of inherent existence (2nd truth)), the mind of the sage is established in that which has no location (i.e. Ground / Reality).

[Reality = the Ground = Buddha-nature = Genuine-emptiness = Union of the Two Truths free from all extremes & middle -- a markless mark / mere pointer to the moon, not the moon itself:] Beings in all three vehicles attain the Dao through insight into emptiness by nature (free from all extremes & middle = the Ground / Buddha-nature / Genuine-emptiness / Suchness / Dharmadhatu = Union of the Two Truths free from all extremes & middle). Emptiness by nature is called the reality-mark of dharmas. 

To see the reality-mark of dharmas (i.e. Buddha-nature / Genuine-emptiness = Union of the Two Truths free from all extremes & middle) is called correct contemplation; to see differently is called wrong contemplation. Whoever should think that beings of the two vehicles have no insight into this principle would be gravely mistaken. The Dharma perceived by all three is the same, what differs are merely the mental capacities of beings.

[Path: Union method / upaya <==> wisdom / emptiness:] Upāya and prajñā are called “great wisdom.” 

  • To see the reality-mark of dharmas (2nd truth) is called prajñā;

  •  to then not claim final liberation is the work of upāya (skillful means) (1st truth). 

  • To adapt to beings and transform them is called upāya (1st truth); 

  • to not be tainted by karmic afflictions is the power of prajñā (2nd tuth). 

  • Thus, the gate of prajñā is the contemplation of emptiness (2nd truth), 

  • the gate of upāya is immersion in being (1st truth). 

  • In the midst of being (1st truth) vacuity (2nd truth) is never lost, therefore one can dwell within being while not becoming polluted by it. 

  • Contemplation of emptiness (2nd truth) does not reject being (1st truth); 

  • thus while contemplating emptiness (2nd truth) one can refrain from claiming final realization. 

  • In this way within one moment of thought both skillful means (upāya) (1st truth) and wisdom (prajñā) (2nd truth) are fully activated. Reflect on this well, and you will understand fully.

[Fruition: Union spontaneous enlightened activities / upaya <==> wisdom / emptiness:] The truth of nirvana, of cessation: once afflictions are eradicated, life and death are forever extinguished (i.e. Nirvana is purifying / transcending / transmuting all appearances, samsara, by directly realising their true nature & dynamic. Ex. transcending apparent opposites like: existence vs. non-existence, manyness vs. oneness; differentness vs. sameness; permanence vs. impermanence; eternity vs. annihilation; the three stages of becoming -- origination / birth, duration / life, cessation / death, the three spheres -- subject, relation / action, object --, etc.)—“cessation” is only this, not some other place to be reached. (i.e. This is the Middle Way free from all extremes & middle: nothing to accept / affirm / seek / do / add in absolute terms, nothing to reject / negate / abandon / not-do / subtract in absolute terms, just conventionally / relatively / inter-subjectively if it helps someone to get closer to the liberating Truths.)


(Résumé: The real meaning of ‘non-being / emptiness’ is ‘emptiness of inherent existence’ (non-substantiality).
And the real meaning of the Ground / Dharmadhatu / Buddha-nature / Genuine-emptiness / Reality ... is the Union of the Two Truths about all dharmas, a ‘Union’ beyond all extremes & middle, beyond all conceptual proliferations.

Reality can be pointed using concepts like the Union of the Two Truths free from all extremes & middle: Union relative reality <==> ultimate reality; Union of conventionally dependently co-arisen relatively functional appearances (1st truth) <==> and emptiness of inherent existence (2nd truth). Everything is dependently appearing but empty, empty but still appearing and relatively functional. One aspect / truth implies the other (<==>).

Also: The two truths themselves are like a Union of being empty of inherent existence (2nd truth) <==> because/then conventionally dependently co-arisen (co-dependent) relatively functional impermanent appearances / tools / antidotes. That is the Union of the Two Truths about the two truths themselves

So, in the end, there is nothing to grasp as the absolute: not the first truth alone / relative reality / causality / karma (the extreme of realism), not the 2nd truth alone / ultimate reality / emptiness (the extreme of nihilism), not both truths together (a form of dualism / opposition between the two levels of reality), not neither truths (a form of holism / monism / radical oneness).

Everything is not existent, not non-existent, not both together, not neither; not different / separate / multiple / dual, not identical / united / one / non-dual, not both together, not neither; not this, not non-this, not both together, not neither; etc. Meaning the true nature of Reality is beyond all conceptual proliferations, beyond all extremes & middle, beyond all dualities, beyond all conditioning / karma. It cannot be described, it has to be directly perceived / realised.)


(Note: ‘Union’ or ‘<==>’ means that the apparent opposites (of any duality / triad / quad / etc, including the two truths) are not really in opposition, but are more like a Union of being empty of inherent existence (2nd truth) <==> because/thus inseparable, interdependent, co-defined, co-relative, co-dependent (1st truth), co-emergent, co-evolving, co-ceasing / co-transcended, in harmony, equal / non-dual / one -- in the non-dual sense of those terms: ex. Not existent, not non-existent, not both together, not neither; not different / separate / multiple / dual, not identical / united / one / non-dual, not both together, not neither; not permanent / continuous / eternal, not impermanent / discontinuous / annihilated, not both together, not neither; not good / pure / perfect / divine, not bad / impure / imperfect / ordinary, not both together, not neither; not dependent / conditioned, not independent / unconditioned, not both together, not neither; not empty, not non-empty, not both together, not neither; not dependently arisen (1st truth), not empty of inherent existence (2nd truth), not both together (two truth together), not neither (neither of the two truths); not this, not non-this, not both together, not neither. Meaning the true nature of the opposites and of their co-relation is inconceivable for our flawed conceptual dualistic mind, beyond all conceptual proliferations, beyond all extremes & middle, beyond all conditioning / karma.).







[The Dazhi dulun] says that dissociation from all verbalism and quenching all workings of thought is termed the real-mark of all the dharmas. The real-mark of the dharmas is conventionally termed suchness, dharma-nature, and reality-limit. In this [suchness] even the not-existent-and-not-inexistent cannot be found, much less the existent and the inexistent. It is only because of fantasy-conceptions that each one has difficulties about existence and nonexistence. If you will conform to the cessation-mark of the Buddha’s Dharma, then you will have no discursive fictions [prapanca]. If you figment fictions about existence and inexistence, then you depart from the Buddha’s Dharma. (Robinson 1978:184-185)

- Sengzhao  (c. 378—413 C.E.)

Via: Chinese & East Asian Philosophy Study Group 





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