Emptiness and the Institutional Suicide of Chinese Buddhism
by Neal Donner, Ph.D.
Neal Donner is an independent scholar and private teacher living in Los Angeles California. For more information, consult his "Mysticism and the Idea of Freedom: A Libertarian View", already posted. This essay was written in 1979 -- the use of "Orient" now seems dated, and is regarded as politically incorrect, although it simply means "East" in Latin (the venerable Northwest-Orient airlines is now just "Northwest"). It's replacement by "Asian" is confusing, since West Asians, like Arabs, Turks, and Iranians, are rarely meant by it, and South Asians, like Indians, only somewhat more often. "East Asian" would be best for Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, etc., but then it uses "East," which is what seems objectionable in "Orient." More substantively, whether the Mahayana has done better since 1979 is a good question.
|Mahayana Buddhism may not be quite dead in the countries of the Orient, but in the few places where it persists, it is little more than a mummified fragment of its ancient glory, having long ago ceased to furnish any inspiration for cultural creativity. This is perhaps a bitter truth for those in the modern Occident who find in Mahayana Buddhism certain potent keys to wisdom, tools that may perhaps be turned to use in the healing and regeneration of our own culture. Yet it is a thousand years since Buddhism vanished as the dominant cultural force both in its homeland, India, and its principal adopted home, China. Theravada Buddhism seems to have more staying power, as it continues to be a vigorous part of the national life in Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand, but for some reason Mahayana is dead or nearly dead throughout Asia.
Only in Japan do we find any movement left in the old body. Yet this exception proves the rule, for on the one hand the impressive works of scholarship produced by Japanese Buddhologists are antiquarian, records and discourses on the thoughts and practices of long ago, and on the other hand mass membership in Buddhist sects is almost entirely either pro forma, a convenience for families to dispose of their dead, or in the case of the Buddhist-oriented "new religions," an embarrassment to intellectuals and creators of culture. Modernized as it is, Japan functions uniquely as a conduit to the distant past, preserving countless tangible and intangible cultural relics. But ask a Japanese intellectual about the relevance of Buddhism to his own life, and he is likely to laugh at your naivety, and it is plain that his thoughts are molded far more by Karl Marx, Adam Smith, Hegel, Dewey or Mao than by anyone in the Buddhist tradition.
Various reasons have been proposed for the virtual disappearance of Mahayana. We find for example that in India, Buddhism was first overtaken by a revitalized Hinduism, the Vedanta of Sankara and others, and then dealt a coup de grace by the Moslem invasions. And in China a curiously parallel renascence of the native tradition, in this case Confucianism, exerted crippling political and intellectual pressure, though no Islamic conquest ensued, a fact which permitted Buddhism to limp along, eviscerated, right up to modern times. Without doubting that these external conditions militated against the survival of Buddhism, I would like to suggest that there were also internal reasons for this decline, reasons that go to the very heart of the Mahayana teaching. The perspective on this issue which I shall present can be applied to Mahayana and its disappearance from any country. I apply it here to the Chinese case.
My thesis is that emptiness or sunyata, which was the crowning concept of Mahayana philosophy, the fecund inspiration and focal point of the incalculably influential sutras on the Perfection of Wisdom (prajnaparamita) and of the treatises of Nagarjuna (texts accepted as definitive by all Chinese Buddhist schools), that this fertile concept of emptiness was simultaneously a self-destruct mechanism which doomed Chinese Mahayana by breaking its hold on the minds of the creators and leaders of Chinese culture. In short, the institution of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism could not long survive its own embrace of the doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism. It is in this sense that I speak of the institutional suicide of Chinese Buddhism.
Of course internal causes of the demise of Buddhism in China were not restricted to the conceptual realm. Confucian critics and modern scholars have listed many of these, ranging from the unprincipled sale of ordination certificates to Buddhism's aspersions on family life. I will focus instead on the core of Mahayana doctrine, so as to highlight the bittersweet irony that the glory of Mahayana was (and implicitly is) simultaneously its downfall. This is by no means to suggest that Mahayana should have (according to some supposedly higher standard) avoided its fascination with emptiness, or that there is something wrong with the concept of emptiness. Upon which human institution, after all, would we wish to confer immortality?
Six Centuries of Chinese Buddhism
Before we enter into the body of the argument, let us briefly outline the career of Buddhism in China, keeping in mind that oversimplifications are inevitable in this short a presentation. Emphasis will here be given to the role of the concept of emptiness.
While the time boundaries of Buddhism's thriving in China are ill-defined at both ends, we can roughly take the six hundred years between the third and the ninth centuries as the temporal field of our discussion; or to put it another way, the time from the fall of the Han dynasty around 220 AD up to near the end of the T'ang dynasty, where the great anti-Buddhist persecution around 845 provides an easy point of reference.
The collapse of the Han was associated with a loss of people's confidence in the old secular order and its ideological framework, Han Confucianism. Social and political decay stimulated renewed interest in the ancient non-Confucian schools of thought, much as the degenerate political conditions in Confucius' time long before were part of the inspiration for his own ponderings. Life's problems cried out for solutions, and intellectuals delved into Legalism, Mohism, and especially Taoism in a continuing search for standards and ideas that could put order or meaning into what had become such chaotic existence. Even before significant Buddhist influence, a strong trend had developed toward revised forms of Taoism, which now became a kind of counterculture to the discredited and establishmentarian Confucian orthodoxy. What concerns us is the rising fascination with Taoist nonbeing and associated concepts. For some this took the form of an antinomian disregard of social conventions; for others this was expressed in metaphysical researches into the invisible wellsprings of existence itself, as the Book of the Tao and the Book of Changes supplanted for many the Analects as guides for conduct.
With the first translation of a Perfection of Wisdom sutra in the Latter Han, a new element was injected into the turmoil. As their titles disclose, this class of Mahayana Buddhist scripture is devoted to investigating the nature of the highest forms of gnosis, the content of what the Buddhists called supreme enlightenment. Briefly stated, the known which corresponds to the enlightened knower's gnosis is none other than emptiness, sunyata. We may therefore take emptiness as the principal subject of those scriptures which set forth the definitive thought of the Mahayana. The works of Nagarjuna, who was accepted as virtually the second Buddha by all the Chinese schools, and is regarded today as the greatest of the Mahayana philosophers, may be characterized as essentially disquisitions on this emptiness.
The Mahayana concept of emptiness, then rather new even in India, bore a remarkable resemblance to the Taoist or Neo-Taoist nonbeing, a fact which helped to smooth the way for the penetration of Buddhism in China, but which also created for a time an obstacle to a proper intellectual grasp of emptiness itself. Now while it is true that emptiness involves a kind of suspension of intellectual discrimination and finally pertains to immediate experience rather than the description of experience, nevertheless when words are used, as they were by the Buddha and necessarily by the whole corpus of Buddhist literature, then there are right ways and wrong ways to use them, just as experience may be rightly or wrongly described. This is why it was a matter of crucial importance for the Chinese to come to a proper intellectual understanding of emptiness, if they were ever to incorporate Buddhist paths towards wisdom into their own high culture. Various confused and abortive efforts to understand this central conception of Mahayana Buddhism were finally superseded and swept away by the magnificent translations and commentaries of Kumarajiva at the beginning of the fifth century. Now at last it became clear that Mahayana emptiness was no Taoistic ontological source of being, except by metaphor, but represented rather the Buddhist refusal to confer ultimacy or absoluteness upon any kind of mental discrimination. We shall dwell more upon the actual meaning or function of this concept below; here note only that with the incorporation of a correct understanding of emptiness into the Chinese language, the way was cleared for a signification of Buddhism that was based upon understanding rather than misunderstanding. The apprentice had mastered the essentials of his craft and was now qualified to create a masterpiece of his own.
A host of textual schools arose in the two centuries between Kumarajiva and the rise of the T'ang dynasty, schools which focused upon the study of one or another well-translated text, like the Mahayana Nirvana sutra, the Dasabhumika sutra, the Mahayana-samgraha. All these early schools accepted Nagarjuna, the sutras on the Perfection of Wisdom, and emptiness. The four most successful and most sinified of the schools of Chinese Buddhism had their roots in the last century before the T'ang, and one way to comprehend their significance is to realize that each of them first, is founded upon a proper understanding of emptiness through fine and accurate translations from the Sanskrit, and second, developed uniquely Chinese ways to apply this central insight of the Mahayana.
These four schools are traditionally divided into two of doctrine and two of practice. T'ien-t'ai and Hua-yen created a new doctrinal synthesis between Indian emptiness and what has come to be accepted as the characteristically Chinese affirmation of the phenomenal world, while Ch'an and Pure Land created new affirmative methods of Buddhist practice which were founded upon emptiness and also meant to lead toward its experiential realization.
The intensely creative efflorescence of the T'ang coincided with the high period of Chinese Buddhism, the only time in Chinese history that Buddhism was intellectually dominant in a unified and relatively stable China. It was no accident that this was also the beginning of the end for the religion's heyday; for the full implications of the central tenets of Mahayana could not long be postponed once the tenets themselves had been understood and progressively applied. Mahayana lived by the sword of gnosis, but having lived by that sword, was also condemned to die by it.
Confucian resistance to Buddhism waxed articulate and telling, and Buddhist creativity was spent. The Neo-Confucian revival imbibed much of its energy from the Buddhist challenge, leaving the Chinese culture permanently enriched by the alien religion, just as Sankara's Advaita Vedanta is finally unthinkable apart from its Buddhist context. Buddhism struggled on among the uneducated and the deeply pious, and continued too as an inspiration in artistic circles, yet it never again assumed intellectual leadership.
Emptiness and related concepts
What then were the elements in Mahayana Buddhism that contributed to its demise in China? If the concept of emptiness was so attractive, so profound, and ultimately so devastating, just what did it involve? Is there something about emptiness which makes it utterly indispensable in any Mahayana philosophy worth the name, or is it perhaps an adventitious accretion on a central core consisting of something else? In what follows I shall review a series of concepts in Buddhism related to emptiness, and discuss emptiness itself rather more carefully, in order that the full implications of this notion for the survival of Buddhism as an institution may be clarified. Thereafter I shall apply these considerations to the Chinese case, and where appropriate, generalize to include other historical situations.
Long before the development of Mahayana itself, Sakyamuni Buddha had already propounded his teaching on the status of his teaching, in his famous simile of the raft. Therein he twitted those who, having used a raft to cross the river, insist on carrying it with them on the further shore. We find therefore at the very outset of the Buddhist tradition a doctrine designed to eradicate attachment to doctrine, up to and including the most exalted and profound utterances of the Buddha. It is all just a tool, he clarified to his listeners, and not to be confused with the goal.
Also present in Buddhism's earliest layer is the notion of the impermanence of all entities, the denial of any persisting substratum that might be thought to underlie the shifting phantasmagoria that presents itself to our senses. Related to this is the denial of selfhood in beings, which can be understood as an application of the doctrine of impermanence to living things. In the Mahayana we find the implications of these thoughts worked out and extended to the point that no entity is conceded to exist in its own right, by its own power. Nagarjuna convinced the Mahayana world that own-being or self-existence is a mental fiction, that to perceive the world as a collocation of separate entities is to ignore their connectedness, the dependent nature of their coming-into-being, persistence and decay. Not only are there no persons, neither are there any things. At this early date these thoughts were not yet directed at the institution of Buddhism itself, but there is no mistaking their final purport.
In the sutras on the Perfection of Wisdom we find a determined onslaught against all the traditional doctrinal categories of Buddhism. The Heart sutra for example declares that there is "no suffering, no cause of suffering, no extinction of suffering, no path toward the extinction of suffering," whereby the Four Noble Truths is denied ultimacy. According to these scriptures, there is finally no wisdom, no attainment, and though a bodhisattva vows to bring all beings to salvation, there exist neither salvation nor beings to be saved. Emptiness is doing its inexorable work, and one might think that nothing finally exists save emptiness, yet Nagarjuna is quite explicit in denying this; "one may not say that there is emptiness."He is faithful to the Perfection of Wisdom sutras in this regard, for there it is stated that even emptiness is empty.
Emptiness is then a criticism of doctrine, a criticism of entities, and finally a criticism of our habit of believing that the distinctions we see in the world are really there inherently. In this way the Perfection of Wisdom transcends our ordinary noetic faculty, not indeed by wiping out all distinctions, but by re-cognizing them as mentally imposed. For as wisdom drains ultimacy from the categories of our experience, the ironic terminus of the process turns out to be that even the distinction between making distinctions and not making distinctions must be recognized as of only provisional validity. The insistence that "all is one" becomes a grotesque misunderstanding, based on the false belief that oneness is realer than manyness, and that we may legitimately create a distinction between the two. In Buddhist language, nirvana is no realer than samsara; it is merely a fiction created to liberate us from our small-minded habits of thought. Anticipating our conclusion then, we may ask, what are we to make of the distinction between the monk and the layman, between Buddhism as an institution and the rest of society?
The bodhisattva's compassionate vow to liberate all beings before his own entry into nirvana is by no means subsidiary to this crucial recognition of the mere provisionality of all distinctions, but is rather part and parcel of the latter. How could he ever liberate only himself (and not others) from the trap of discriminating consciousness, for to do so he would have to discriminate between himself and others, and would therefore remain unliberated. Compassion coalesces then with wisdom.
Lurking behind this holocaust of negation we find Suchness, that which somehow is (though not in the way we ordinary conceive or experience it), somewhere in the interstice between existence and inexistence. Measured against this standard, all statements, including this one, are false. It remained for the Chinese schools of Buddhism to pursue this aspect of the matter, though in doing so, they guaranteed their own irrelevancy.
Emptiness and the Chinese Buddhist Schools
How did the Chinese receive and apply Mahayana emptiness and the cluster of related concepts in their characteristic approach to Buddhism? Successive translations and commentaries on one of the most popular sutras in China, the Vimalakirti, reveal how Mahayana Buddhism was gradually Sinicized,or "emptified," in accordance with my thesis. The sutra presents to us the spectacle of the layman Vimalakirti besting the most brilliant of the Buddha's disciples in a series of debates centering around the correct interpretation of emptiness, while the Sanskrit text furnished the doctrinal raw material, the Chinese were able to draw out the implications for their own understanding of Buddhism, as for example when Kumarajiva's great disciple Seng Chao clearly if indirectly implied in his commentary that "the Buddhist doctrine of sunyata (emptiness) does not deny the hierarchical social distinctions which constitute the Confucian world. Seng Chao and his equally great fellow monk Tao Sheng "stressed the ultimate identity of leaving home and staying home, recognizing that this identity made an extra-monastic and fully filial form of Buddhism possible."
Nearly two centuries later, Chih-i, founder of the T'ien-t'ai, one of the two major doctrinal schools of Chinese Buddhism, was willing to be even more explicit, as he frequently quoted theVimalakirti as well as the Lotus and the Nirvana sutras to support his contention that "there is nothing which is not ultimate Reality...there is not a single shape nor smell that is not the Middle Way...and Ignorance and the defilements are identical with enlightenment." 
For him, all existence was "immanent in a single moment of thought," and Buddha-nature present eternally in all things. Chih-i was certainly aware of the dangers such contentions portended, and often remonstrated against those who too eagerly applied this doctrine in their own lives. His assertions stopped short of the hearty iconoclasm of the Ch'an school. Yet for him the Lotus sutra contained the highest teaching, and it is after all the Lotus which declares, "Anyone who practices charity, is patient, observes discipline, is diligent in spiritual cultivation, makes offerings to the Buddha, builds a stupa with gold, silver, crystal, amber, sandalwood, clay, or even children in play, who with grass, sticks and brushes, or with their fingernails, draw Buddha images, or anyone who makes music, or produces so much as one tiny sound in praise of the Buddha, or who makes offering to a painted image, or merely joins his palms, or raises one hand, or inclines his head but slightly, or gives homage even once to the Buddha, or has ever heard this teaching-all these have achieved the enlightenment of the Buddha."6 And for those who are Buddhas, no matter how easily they may have come by this status, conventional distinctions are empty. In Chih-i's time, just before the T'ang dynasty, historical inertia still preserved Buddhist distinctiveness and separateness from the rest of society. Even so, the force of Mahayana doctrine was now only a few steps away from dissolving this distinctiveness.
Hua-yen, the other principal Chinese doctrinal school, assumed leadership in mid-T'ang. Once again, and more explicitly than ever, Chinese thinkers employed the Sanskrit scriptures in translation, in this case the Avatamsaka sutra, to fashion a world-view that had the capacity to swallow itself whole. As Francis Cook has observed, "This form of Chinese Buddhism has been acknowledged by Oriental religionists and students of Chinese culture to be the high-water mark of Buddhist philosophical effort." We scarcely need to be reminded of how waves recede after the high-water mark has been achieved-or how appropriately this dovetails with the ancient Chinese conception of the reversal of the Tao, which refers to the ineluctable decay that must follow the attainment of maximum growth.
Now the basic doctrine of Hua-yen may be identified as the infinite mutual interpenetration of all the elements of the cosmos. This is a more explicit denial of the boundaries between thing and thing than either Nagarjuna or Chih-i made, and at the same time consistent with them and also with the sutras on the Perfection of Wisdom. Drawing on the intricate mind-only philosophy of the Mahayana Yogacara tradition, the Hua-yen thinkers formulated similarly crabbed and tangled adumbrations of this simple central tenet. We need only note that they now conceived of insight into the interpenetrating relationship of elements in the phenomenal world as a higher level of insight than that which perceives the identity of the phenomenal with the noumenal, or in traditional Buddhist language, samsara with nirvana. In this way they, perhaps unwittingly, prepared the stage for the revival of the eternal Chinese fascination with interpersonal and political relationships, a fascination expressed for the next thousand years in the systems we call Neo-Confucianism, and expressed today in a different system of a different name. As for the elaborate metaphysic of Hua-yen, those who could understand it also understood how the notion of emptiness reduced it to an arcane game. More pellucid was the symbolism of the monk Fa-tsang, who to instruct the Empress Wu in this doctrine created around her a room of mirrors.
The Ch'an approach is better-known. No lengthy search is needed to find clear evidence that in Ch'an the Chinese finally found their way past Buddhism back to China. They did not have to be unfaithful to the teachings of the Perfection of Wisdom in order to proclaim that there was after all no defiling dust on the ordinary mortal's mind,  that the Buddha should be beaten and killed, that the Buddha was a fecal-cleaning stick (an early equivalent of toilet paper), that it was better not to seek anything, that enlightenment consisted of just being one's own ordinary self -- eating when hungry, sleeping when sleepy.  In Ch'an, Nagarjuna's admonition not to get stuck in mental categories was finally and relentlessly applied to Buddhism itself. Masters and abbots whose livelihood depended on maintaining the conventional fiction of the separateness from society of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, may certainly have succeeded in perpetuating the bondage of many of their disciples to these Three Jewels; and too, for centuries the tension between appearance and reality proposed in the more elementary stages of the Buddhist teaching continued to inspire the fine arts, which after all thrive on this tension in every culture. For art remains unwithered when exposed as fiction. But the teaching of the highest masters was not ambiguous, and its message was: Be Yourself. Can we still be surprised that this clear teaching was understood, accepted, and applied?
And what of the fourth of the principal Chinese schools, the Pure Land? This stream of Buddhism survived the anti-Buddhist persecutions, the crisp resurgence of Confucian vigor, and even the devastating Perfection of Wisdom. In the Pure Land was postulated a celestial savior Buddha or bodhisattva, and according to those Pure Land patriarchs who still understood Nagarjuna, dualism was transcended through faith, emptying of the self in total dependence on this external figure. There is no question but that this was a concession to the multitudes, the only one of the four principal schools consciously designed to appeal to the illiterate majority of the populace. Shan-tao and the other educated Pure Land masters knew well that the status of this teaching was, like all Mahayana teachings, non-ultimate. Had not Kumarajiva stated clearly in his commentary to the first chapter of the Vimalakirti sutra that the Pure Land was in the mind of the devotee? The people needed something they could comprehend, however, and why dwell on the emptiness of mental structures when suffering could be relieved by placebos?
This salvationism filled a niche which Confucian teaching left vacant, and furnished a simple method, the incessant repetition of the Buddha's name. It gave structure and meaning to the lives of countless peasants, and even today remains the most popular of the branches of Japanese Buddhism. Blending effortlessly with non-Buddhist folk religion throughout the Far East, it neither retained much of Buddhist insight nor posed a challenge to high intellectual culture. But observe: the Pure Land teaching was considered even within the Pure Land tradition itself to be an appropriate vehicle of salvation only because the final stage of the transmission of the Dharma had been reached, that which has been called the Degenerate Law. Preceded by the time of the True Dharma and the time of the Reflected Dharma, this third era is when Buddhists acquiesce in the dying and the death of Buddhism, the disappearance of both its substance and ultimately its form. The Pure Land tradition, as different as it was from the other three, pointed toward Buddhism's dissolution just as surely as they had.
We are now in a position to summarize the argument and make a few additional observations. Institutions are oddly similar to living beings in that their own continuance becomes in time a goal superseding whatever purpose they were originally established to fulfill. Then just as humans are apt to lose life's joy by trying to maximize their own security, the survival instinct also owned by institutions may finally militate against their proper functions. This is the sensible rationale behind the push toward so-called sunset laws in our own political system — that government agencies and programs be required periodically to show they are doing what they were set up to do, or else be abolished. Ordinarily we cannot expect them to commit suicide once they have lost a sense of purpose, perhaps through having achieved their purpose. Nor can we reasonably call corrupt their striving for survival.
Mahayana Buddhism is a unique case of an institution which exists to spread the knowledge that life requires death, that the old identity must die to make way for the new, that categories are but rigid superimpositions, ignorant attachment to which separates us from the endless participation that is the only true life. In order to fulfill the goal of liberation, Mahayana Buddhism as a teaching cannot aim above all for the preservation of Buddhism as an institution, for as long as the Buddhist institution is upheld as something separate, so long will its members continue to be held in bondage to the habit of making distinctions between what is sacred and what is profane. The institution, insofar as it continues to exist, must be devoted to a higher end than its own continuance.
When certain members of the Buddhist institution perceive the institution and its other members as taking the teachings, the precepts, the practice and the monastic community to be absolutes, or even to be anything truly separate from the ongoing business of life (politics, family, intellectual endeavor, pleasure-seeking), they must, in being true to the insight of emptiness, speak out and live out their insight. A Mahayana Buddhist then ceases to identify himself as a Buddhist, having learned from his digression into Buddhist thought that, as T.S. Eliot puts it, "The end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time." Mahayana can then be said either to disappear or to expand infinitely, to vanish from a society or become coterminous with it. It comes to the same thing, just as zero is a symbol both for nothing and for everything.
Mahayana in its highest form presents its adherents with nothing to hold on to, nothing to believe. Newcomers find this hard to grasp, and Christians for example typically ask, "What do Buddhists believe?" The final answer to this question must be — Nothing. Not Nothing in the sense that a belief is held and the object of that belief is a certain "Nothing," but that finally belief is beside the point.
Now this is clearly not so for the simpler Buddhist adherent, no matter what the school or sect. Mahayana has always made room for all kinds of beings, and the essence of skillful means is that a teaching be found to fit every capacity, no matter how humble. Thus the Mahayana tradition has it that the Buddha even taught the existence of an atman or self to those who were not yet ready for the teaching of no-self: "The self does exist, the Buddhas have declared," Nagarjuna lets us know. T.R.V. Murti, an accepted authority on Madhyamaka, the tradition that follows Nagarjuna, puts it this way: "The first task is to wean one away from vice; and to achieve this end the existence of self as meaning continuity of karma and its result is taught; then to get rid of attachment the no-self doctrine is preached; finally for realizing complete freedom the giving up of all views is insisted upon." The sutras even speak of Buddha-lands where the teaching is conveyed entirely by means of wafting smells instead of words.
In the Chinese case, the teaching which developed the most popularity posited, as we have seen, a savior Buddha, Amitabha, who would do the work of moving one upwards on the scale if only one had faith in him; similarly the Lotus sutra had declared that whoever so much as raised a finger in honor of the Buddha would attain salvation. Just as in the twentieth century, the franchise was continually being extended, except that instead of voting, employment and other legal rights, it was the "right," if you will, of enlightenment which the Mahayana critique of distinctions conferred on all beings. Now when actual accomplishment is made irrelevant, and the goal may be had without the slightest real effort, then the incompetent, the lazy, and the regrettably undereducated rejoice, while the talented and diligent become resentful. In China the unlettered peasant could now, with the development of Lotus and Pure Land Buddhism, believe that, and act from the belief that, salvation was already his. For him, what a satisfaction, what a relief!
On the other hand, the intellectuals and the serious practitioners of Buddhism could by this time take seriously the frequent assertions in Mahayana that all doctrine and teaching is sham in any absolute sense. Moreover, since the time of the Vimalakirti sutra's popularization in China, no one with much knowledge of Buddhist literature could miss the clear denial in the sutras that for a seeker of wisdom there was nothing to be preferred in monastic life over lay life. Did not the householder Vimalakirti soundly defeat in debate all the Buddha's great disciples, including even the bodhisattva of wisdom, Manjusri? If the Ch'an monk could say his Buddhahood consisted in chopping wood and drawing water, why could not the lay intellectual say his Buddhahood consisted in the art of government and the composition of poetry?
We have in this way a firm denial from deep within Buddhist doctrine that there is anything ultimate about Buddhist doctrine and that there is anything special about Buddhism as an institution. The final attachment which the Mahayana serves to eradicate is the attachment to Mahayana Buddhism itself. The only groups remaining who identify with it must then be those for whom it is just a profession -- after all, one has to have one's livelihood-and those who are unable to see, or refuse to see, that their objects of faith are phantoms, according to even their holiest scriptures. Emptiness must finally be turned back on Buddhism.
And emptiness is turned back on emptiness too. As far back as Nagarjuna, it was made clear that an attachment to emptiness is the worst of attachments; the this-worldly affirmative temper of Chinese Buddhism was certainly in sympathy with this stand. Where emptiness leads then is not to collapse into a universal black hole, but to something beyond -- the whole universe with all its variety and fascination. In accordance with the traditional metaphor of Buddhism as a system of healing, we may say that when the medicine has done its work and the patient is cured, he is a fool if he continues taking the medicine. Now it is time for him to rise from his bed, open the door, and walk out into the world.
Copyright (c) 1979 Neal Donner, All Rights Reserved
1) The Sanskrit text and Kenneth Inada's English translation may conveniently be found in Kenneth Inada, "Nagarjuna: a Translation of his Mulamadhyamakakarika with an introductory essay (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1970), chapter 22, verse 11. My English, as below.
5) Translated in N. Donner, "The Great Calming and Contemplation," Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993, p. 112. This text is No. 1911 in the standard Taisho Chinese Buddhist canon. The passages quoted are at 46.1c in the Taisho.
6) Chapter Two, passim. Of five English translations of the Lotus in print now or recently, perhaps the most reliable is Leon Hurvitz, "Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma (New York: Columbia University press, 1976). This text is no. 262 in. the Taisho. My English, as below.