A Taste of Mahayana

Basic Concepts

Mahayana has two core principles: wisdom and compassion. Wisdom means the realisation that all appearances are without substance. Compassion means the intention to liberate everyone from delusion. These two principles operate in the context of infinite universes filled with innumerable sentient beings that are born again and again because of the mistaken concept of identification with phenomena.

The World

The world is operated by habitual inclinations that define what each of us think and how we act. That's why the world that we experience is a mental product. Because the world is what is experienced, and experiences are mind made, the cause of the dissatisfaction with life is the mind, therefore the mind needs to be understood and purified.
The world of Mahayana Buddhism has not only the six impure realms of demons, ghosts, animals, humans, asuras, and gods, but also the four pure realms of arhats, pratyekabuddhas, bodhisattvas, and buddhas, and together they are called the ten realms. Beings within the six impure realms are trapped by their own self-centred delusions, endure pains and enjoy pleasures, but never attain true peace and contentment. Beings of the pure realms are free from compulsory rebirth, because they have discovered the false nature of the concept of identity, and let go of their habitual inclinations to varying degrees.
Although the world is infinite and sentient beings are uncountable, they are all found within a single thought. The world is both external and internal at the same time, it is not something out there, nor is it simply fictitious. It is what and how experience occurs to us.

The Bodhisattva

The bodhisattva is a being (sattva) who aspires towards ultimate awakening (bodhi). The intention (citta) for awakening (bodhi) is the defining element of any bodhisattva, and it is called the bodhicitta. From the moment that great aspiration is raised in the mind, one has started on the path to eventually attain buddhahood. The reason behind such an intention has to be the concern for the welfare of all beings in the entire world, the wish to liberate them from the struggles of samsara.
Thus the core principles of wisdom and compassion are equally present. With the wisdom the bodhisattva knows that beings are without self, without substance, and there is not a single individual to liberate. With the compassion the bodhisattva works indefinitely towards the peace and contentment of all beings, unconcerned with one's own happiness.
The reason that a bodhisattva can be both wise and compassionate is the realisation that all appearances that occur - i.e. the sensory experiences of body and mind - are unattainable, because they are without anything that subsists from one moment to the next, but at the same time they rise and dissolve depending on causes and conditions. In other words, the bodhisattva sees everything like dreams or illusions, therefore doesn't attach to anything, but acts with an open and clear view, with unbound compassion for all.

The Path

The path of the bodhisattva consists of the six paramitas: generosity, discipline, endurance, vigour, concentration, wisdom. Paramita means perfection that takes one to the other shore, that is, from this shore of samsara and delusion to the other shore of nirvana and enlightenment. The six paramitas are divided into two categories. The first five are the methods, the skillful means, while the last one is the perfection of wisdom. Wisdom and means are a pair that maintain and support each other. The perfection of wisdom is the indispensable basis and source of all the activities of a bodhisattva, and that is what makes all the means perfections.
The perfection of generosity is giving donations without holding on to concepts of any giver, gift, or receiver. The perfection of discipline is maintaining moral behaviour out of compassion without thoughts of good or evil. The perfection of endurance is not being upset by difficulties or elated by favourable events, as there is no identity to be moved. The perfection of vigour is not falling in despair or indolence, and exercising unremitting effort through seeing the ever functioning causality and the pain and suffering of all beings. The perfection of concentration is not giving in to either torpor or excitement, but having an unaffected and clear mindfulness. The perfection of wisdom is the knowledge that everything lacks any graspable essence, in other words, all is empty of substance, and because both the world and the beings are insubstantial, the bodhisattva is without attachment to any identity or view.
With the skillful means the bodhisattva accumulates infinite merit. This is different from ordinary merit, that only generates samsaric results, because it is based on the perfection of wisdom. The results of the bodhisattva's meritorious activities are for developing the means to benefit all beings by perfecting the buddha-qualities. Transference of merit in the case of a bodhisattva means dedicating all the good results toward the welfare of everyone, and at the same time practising non-attachment to one's own inclinations.
This dual character of the path forms a single, balanced practice, that does not lean on either the side of relinquishing, nor the side of holding on, but can equally apply both according to the situation. This equilibrium is applied in both one's inner and outer life. That's how a bodhisattva does not dwell in samsara, nor in nirvana, and can liberate all beings.


The buddhas are those who have fully perfected wisdom and compassion by completely developing the six paramitas. In an infinite universe there are infinite number of buddhas as well, and each of them presides over a specific area of the cosmos called a buddha-land. Bodhisattvas can visit those lands either through meditation or through being born there. Therefore the most common form of meditation in Mahayana is mindfulness of one or several buddhas. Mindfulness of a buddha establishes a connection between the practitioner and a buddha, and that way the bodhisattva benefits from focusing on what is ultimately the final attainment by gaining inspiration and cultivating the qualities of a perfectly enlightened being. Furthermore, one can recall a buddha and the buddha-land with the intention of being born their in one's next life.
However, besides the myriad buddhas, the ultimate buddha is one's own mind. It is called the buddha-nature, what means the true character of each being. The reason that not everyone is enlightened already is that instead of turning one's attention back to one's mind, one only clings to the sensory experiences and expects peace and contentment from unstable phenomena. The buddha-nature is not something hidden inside the mind, nor is it an ultimate subject, but it is the real characteristic of all experiences. That is, all experiences are without essence that could be held or rejected, and at the same time they are always apparent and recognised, hence the buddha-nature is also called unbound awareness, empty clarity, or simply suchness.


Enlightened Approach

As I see it, it's not that mystical or complicated what the Buddha taught. Enlightenment means no attachment. Specifically, attachment stands for grasping at ideas and emotions that one wants to maintain or attain. Seeing that both situations and oneself are changeable and conditional, it becomes clear that no matter what idea or emotion one is attached to, on the one hand they rapidly expire and go out of sync with reality, and on the other hand one is not in full control of how things go down, so expectations easily turn to disappointments. Therefore, cultivating an open awareness is how one can live in harmony with oneself, others, and situations. And that is the enlightened approach.


Your Original Unbound Awareness

There are these teachings that one should "let go" and "be mindful". And of course, you can do that, again and again. It is a never ending struggle, a pointless and dissatisfying effort. That is because you try to maintain a state of mind, you try to be somebody.
The Buddha has stated numerous times that all experiences - physical and mental phenomena - are unstable, unsatisfactory, and impersonal. There is nothing to do but recognise them.
How do you recognise them? Observe the experience as you actually see, hear, sense, and think. Then you can perceive it first hand that the present reality of life is changing every moment, there is nothing that can be maintained or avoided.
But right when you think you can take control, you start to struggle with no lasting results. So, relax, and recognise that there is nothing to let go, because they all come and go as they are. There is nothing to be mindful of, because all experiences are already known as they are. That is the natural free mindfulness right here.


Sayings from Facebook

The belief that memory is something that has arrived from the past to the present is another form of conceiving a self.

Anicca - Animitta
Impermanence doesn't mean you should have no attachments, it means there is nothing to attach to.

One just has to see what is "right in front of one's eyes", that all experiences in the six fields change moment to moment, and even one moment cannot be grasped. Therefore, whatever is believed to be a reality is only a conceptual creation. Nevertheless, conceptual creations follow a certain pattern, they are interdependent, as a network of associations.

It is natural that beings want to take control and feel certainty. However, it is also a reason for suffering and feeling dissatisfied. Things change and we cannot manipulate them as we wish to, as everything depends on numerous causes and conditions. Even what we call our thoughts, feelings and body are often beyond our control. To contemplate this is how to gain insight into the true nature of the way things are.

In short, the basis of ignorance is conceptual attachment, that is, believing in essentially existing things and beings. From that come emotional attachments, and from that all sorts of deluded actions. One can go gradually by first restricting one's actions with the precepts, calming emotional states with meditation and eliminating false ideas through insight. Or one can go directly to the root cause, that is clinging to thoughts, and see that there is nothing to grasp. The result is the same.


Unconditional Peace

There is conditional and unconditional peace. Conditional peace is what we get in the right circumstances. That's when we have a short breather, take a walk in the park, or go on holiday. Another type of peace is when we are not bothered by other things or people, and can just do what we do without interruption. There is also the internal peace, when either because of good mood, or from a meditative state we feel calm. Unconditional peace is the lack of intention.

If we want peace, we want to remove ourselves from disturbing circumstances and be in an environment that pleases us. The coarse form of that desire is when we want to satisfy a craving, so that it disappears. The subtle form is when we just want to be left alone, free from worry and excitement. However, both types have only very limited and unstable results. We are easily get sick with too much sensory pleasures, and soon get bored when there is nothing to do. Therefore, what actually ruins our peace is ourselves, we always want to move on to something else.

To gain unconditional peace, we should see the process of how our peace becomes disturbance. In order to see it, we need to learn to be undisturbed, otherwise we just occupy ourselves with all sorts of other things we can crave for. And we also need to know what to look for. That's what the threefold training in discipline, meditation, and wisdom is about. In other words, that is the path taught by the Buddha.

What is lack of intention? It is when we clearly see that all conditions are completely unstable, therefore we cannot expect any peace from them, hence there is nowhere to hang on to. In other words, we do not establish ourselves as a condition (whereby we mistake something to be stable), nor in relation to a condition (again, supposing something stable). What is important to understand is that there is nothing else but conditions. Even our deepest thoughts, feelings, and whatever we regard as our being, is conditioned. When we see that it's conditioned, there is nothing to intend toward, nothing to aim for, nothing to rely on. At the same time, even intention is conditioned. So, there is no change of whatever is conditioned, it is just seeing all conditioned as conditioned, and that is unconditional peace.


Three Medicines for Detachment

There is the state where one feels detached from everything, one grasps at an indifferent position, and remains unmoved by whatever happens. Here are three ways to approach this.

Emptiness is empty. Grasping at whatever state, whatever feeling, is still attachment. One has to let go of everything. Or as for instance Baizhang put it in three stages: Do not grasp anything. Do not grasp not grasping. Let go of even that. Daehaeng says practically the same, instructing to die again and again. The same can be seen in Jizang's formulation of the four levels of two truths. The point is, when everything is truly released, boundless wisdom and compassion can function unhindered.

Focus on interdependence. After cessation comes clear observation, as described in the Awakening of Faith in Mahayana. It is seeing clearly how karma works, how suffering emerges, how beings are bound by their ignorance. It is letting go of the hundred-foot pole (aloofness) to "appear with his whole body in the ten parts of the world". Or as the Genjokoan says "To forget ourselves is to be experienced by millions of things and phenomena." This is where one can learn not to fear appearances, because they are all illusory. These are the 9th and 10th pictures of the ten bulls. This is contemplating the function of the mind instead of its essence, because eventually it turns out to be not two different things.

Trust in buddha-nature. There can be this fear that if everything is let go, it will be just a big nothingness, total obliteration. Because of that fear, we want to keep control to ourselves, want to be able to influence things. That is basically our core belief in a self, and the source of all problems. The first option mentioned is when we see there is nobody in control. The second option is to see that all things change according to causes and conditions, so there is nothing to control. This third option is to let our inherent buddha-nature manage everything. This can be mistaken in two extreme ways: either as inactivity, or as following impulses mindlessly. Instead of those two, one should face every situation openly, so that buddha-activity can manifest. How to be open? When something comes, let it come. When something goes, let it go. When something is present, let it be. Letting go is not worrying about the past and the future. Letting be is embracing without hesitation. This is possible because one has faith that all is taken care of by the buddha-nature.


The Illusion of Memory

Since yesterday I have been thinking about memory again. The reason was that during a debate the topic of latent afflictions (anusaya) came up, and I wasn't really sure where to put them. They seemed fairly irrelevant there. Nevertheless, it started a chain of thought in me, the result of what is this post. But even before that I had gone through similar thoughts about how memory is possible. It was almost three years ago (this topic), and my conclusions at that time you can see here and in the following posts where I think I couldn't really move forward on deciding on anything. However, the real reason behind this post is that I have now managed to think of putting this in a way that might be useful to consider.

The problem with memory is the same as with any latent mental factor: one is not conscious of them. Any object of mind - or rather instance of consciousness - that can exist without oneself actually being aware of it is a contradiction. Practically speaking, an impossible situation. When asked where karma is stored, Narada Thera (The Buddha and His Teachings, ch 19) put it this way: "Neither wind nor fire is stored in any particular place, nor is kamma stored anywhere within or without the body." Even if we conceive the mind as a stream that somehow contains the seeds that ripen in an appropriate condition, those seeds are still latent mental factors.

The error I made and what stopped me from coming up with a good solution was that I wanted those hidden thoughts to be somewhere. Because if they are not carried over (through a causal continuum, as explained in Yogacara for instance) from the past to the present, then really there are no latent afflictions, no past karma, no memory. By the way, now that I think of it, when they say that the manas takes the alayavijnana as the self, what it can be translated to is that people identify with their personal history.

The solution I have eventually arrived to is that if we take a close look at it, memory and the rest do not arise from any storage, but they are always brought about by specific conditions. The difference between stating that they are seeds ripening based on conditions, and simply being generated by conditions is an important one. Memories, habits, and afflictions are in fact thoughts like all the others. Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates anusaya as obsessions, and being obsessed about something happens as actual conscious activity, like when one needs to go to the toilet but cannot. That is, when I think I remember something, it is a thought (generated by preceding thoughts and such), to what I attribute the quality of coming from the past. This is a very clear case of assuming a substance, a self, that persists over time. And that assumption of a substance is what makes us conceive a storehouse of memories. Just like we think of ourselves as being the same person from one day to another.

So, conventionally speaking, it is fine to talk about memories and habits from the past, just like we accept that there are places beyond the walls of the room where we happen to be. But when we take a look at our actual experience, there is no basis for any past memory or latent habit, nor a personal history. It's all just empty appearances, an illusory world, conceived to be something what it is not.

"For those who believe that actions and effects possess inherent reality, an action that is over and done with cannot produce effects. They are therefore obliged to speculate about a medium in which actions are supposed to leave imprints of some kind, or about some sort of continuum that links causes with their effects—without which karma could not function. But from our point of view, neither action nor effect has inherent existence; they arise in interdependence. And we do not investigate whether the cause and its effect meet or do not meet, whether there is a space between them or not. It is like looking into mirror: there is a face and there is the reflection of a face—something has simply arisen in dependence on a cause. Nevertheless, if you inquire whether the cause and its effect contact each other, you will never be able to devise an acceptable explanation of how the seed is the cause of the shoot."
(Mipham: Introduction to the Middle Way, p 222-223)