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Three Jewels - Chapter 11 The Nature of Existence

by Sangharakshita

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... any parts. Now this is not a very easy
concept. It’s perhaps even a somewhat contradictory concept, one might say. But anyway I go into it because
it is so important in Buddhist thought. Now, I’ve fairly recently been having thoughts about the conditioned
and the Unconditioned, using those expressions, in relation to the samskrta and the asamskrta. I think a bit
of confusion has crept into our English terminology - I think this goes back to Conze - because one has
obviously the conception of conditionality in the sense of pratitya-samutpada, and one has these conditioned
nidanas - the positive nidanas, the sequence of positive nidanas, also arise in dependence - the succeeding
in dependence on the preceding. These also are called transcendental nidanas, lokuttara-nidanas. So one gets
what might seem terminologically a rather paradoxical situation in which the Transcendental is the
conditioned. Do you see what I mean? Transcendental states themselves arise in dependence upon
conditions, but you are supposed to be saying at the same time that the Transcendental is the Unconditioned.
Yes? Because it is the asamskrta. So what does one mean by that? In other words the word ‘conditioned’
and ‘unconditioned’ seems to be used rather ambiguously and I think perhaps it’s time that that was cleared
up.
Kulananda: If the Unconditioned was Unconditioned in the full sense you couldn’t aim to be Enlightened.
You couldn’t move towards Enlightenment - nothing you could do.
S: Yes, yes.
Nagabodhi: Is it not a matter of allowing or creating the conditions in yourself for the Unconditioned to
manifest - is it not?
Kulananda: But then it would manifest in dependence upon those conditions. [5]
S: Yes.
Nagabodhi: Well it would be the manifestation - the Unconditioned...
S: But also supposing one, this goes back to our discussion previously about potentiality, if supposing you
say that something manifests but does that really add anything to the statement that in dependence upon A,
B arises? Do you really need to say that there is a manifestation of B as though it sort of pre-existed?
Nagabodhi: Doesn’t it?
S: Well, do you need to make that statement? I mean from the standpoint of pratitya-samutpada, it would
seem that you don’t. As though that’s quite superfluous. I mean is it literally that that state, let us say, the
next nidana on, is sort of waiting there to manifest? Does it pre-exist? Is its potential existence in some way
actual? Do we need to think in that way? Is it not sufficient, as the Buddha himself appears simply to say,
in the Pali Canon, that in dependence upon A, B arises, in dependence upon B, C arises. Do you need to go
further than that? Because if you feel a need, you also get yourself into certain metaphysical difficulties. I
mean, the sort of metaphysical difficulties that I went into a little when discussing this whole concept of
potentiality previously, but those difficulties or similar difficulties arise if we start speaking in terms of a sort
of Absolute manifesting itself, even if you speak of it as manifesting itself in dependence on certain
conditions. But can you not say that in dependence upon those conditions such and such factor, nidana,
experience, arises? Is that not enough? Do you need to go beyond that, because the Buddha, as far as we can
tell, did not seem to feel a need to go beyond that, with a certain exception that I’ll go into in a minute.
Kulananda: Didn’t he say to Ananda, ‘There is, Ananda, one condition...’?
S: Yes, that was the exception that I was about to go into. But I’ll go into it now since you’ve introduced it.
It seems to me that how the question has arisen, how this apparent conflict has arisen is this. One’s whole
experience is, as it were, conditioned in the sense of being limited. If one thinks of oneself as a perceiving
subject, if one thinks of oneself as perceiving, as a perceiving subject, an objective world, a universe, an
object out there, then that perception would seem to take place under certain conditions or limitations. One
would seem to perceive, or experience, not the thing directly, but to perceive or experience it through veils,
in accordance with the nature of the perceiving instrument. And I think it’s generally agreed in Western
philosophy, since the time of Kant, that space and time are not objective realities, but part of the apparatus
of perception itself. This would certainly be the Buddhist point of view, the traditional Buddhist point of
view, that space and time (suttaktis? or pannatis?) are concepts, are not entities. You don’t see space and
time. Space and time are part of the way in which you see things, primarily. Do you get the idea? So your
mind, your individual consciousness, is of such a nature, is so structured, so constituted, that it perceives
things through that particular medium. Not that the medium is separate from the perceiving mind itself, but
it’s part of your apparatus of perception. Space and time are built into your perceiving process. So when you
think of things, you cannot but think of them in terms of space and time because you cannot but perceive
them in terms of space and time. So even when you’re thinking about the spiritual life, even when you are
thinking about Reality itself you cannot but envisage it either in terms of space, or in terms of time. Either
by way of an analogy with space or by way of an analogy with time. It seems to me that early Buddhism, the
Buddha himself, seems to have done both, in a way, to have oscillated between the two modes of expression.
So you can - let’s speak provisionally in terms of, say, the Absolute with a capital A - but taking that not as
a sort of cypher like X. Well, let’s say just X - even drop Absolute - just say X - but a big capital X. And it
can indicate something like Reality - something like - so just X - a capital X. You can think of this X in terms
of space, or you can think of it in terms of time. When you think of it in terms of space, it is static, it exists
out there. It is a sort of object, even a sort of ground. Do you see what I mean? And it’s thinking of it in that
way, envisaging it in that way that the Buddha said, ‘There is, O monks, that sphere of Reality which is
permanent, fixed, unchanging etc, etc, where there is no earth, no water, no fire, no air, etc, etc. If it were
not for that etc, etc, monks, there would be no release from this Samsara.’ Here that X is envisaged in terms
of space. It is static. It is unchanging.
But then again the Buddha also speaks in terms of pratitya-samutpada. So in these terms the Buddha speaks
of even the series of transcendental nidanas, of which there seems to be no definite end, it goes on and on.
So here you have got a conception of, let us say, X, not as something static, not as something fixed, not as
something conceived in terms of space, but as something conceived in terms of time. That is to say what I’ve
called a process of irreversible creativity. That corresponds to the unchanging Absolute. The one is in terms
of space, the other is in terms of time, and the Buddha seems to oscillate a bit between these two modes of
expression. Now this samskrta/asamskrta distinction seems to be speaking rather the language of space, not
the language of time. Because your asamskrta here is, sort of fixed, unchanging, it’s simple, so it cannot be
taken apart. But I think one should not take that too literally because [7] it is also, at the same time, and one
has to have a sort of binocular vision of that X, one has to think of that simple as being simple not in a sort
of chemical sense, but being simple in the sense that it is ever intensifying its simplicity, if you like. In
dependence upon, let us say, simplicity A, there arises simplicity B. In dependence upon simplicity B, there
arises simplicity C. There is a sort of movement within the simplicity. This is why it can’t be an atman
because it isn’t static, it isn’t unchanging. So it is a sort of dynamic simplicity. The simplicity to which the
principle of pratitya-samutpada still applies.
Ruchiraketu: Language seems to make it appear like it’s an absolute one - but that is just language.
S: But it’s not one in the sense of, you know, a mathematical one, It retains its value of being one in relation
to the conditioned, the samskrta, but not, as it were, in relation to itself. Yes? I mean its relationship with,
say, the conditioned, if one can use the expression relationship, remains constant even though there is
internal change. Under the law of transcendental conditionality, within that one itself. Do you see what I’m
getting at or is it rather obscure?
Jinapriya: It seems we cannot, as it were, talk about ‘It’ apart from in terms of, well, labels. ‘It’. The only
way we can talk about it is to reduce it to an absolute one, but in and of itself - to continue labelling - It’s not
like that.
S: Well we can even go further than that, we can even say more specifically, in what way it is not like that.
It is not like that because even though it remains equally, say, transcendental, it becomes as it were more and
more transcendental. It’s a process of becoming more and more transcendental, so it’s the same. It’s
unchanging ...

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