The Bodhi tree behind
the Mahabodhi temple
in Bodhgaya

P.: Pāli
Skr.: Sanskrit
SN: Sutta Nipāta
MN: Majjhima Nikāya
Rv: Rigveda
MMK: Mula Madhayamaka karika



- Pre-Buddhist concepts
- Early teachings
- Later developments



Ratana shih (1943) received lower Ordination (samaneri) in the Theravāda Tradition in 1983 in the Netherlands, followed by Higher Ordination as bhikshuni in the Mahāyāna Tradtion in December 1993 and subsequently Bodhisattva Vows in January 1994. This ordination and taking of vows took place in Taiwan and was organised by the Buddhist Association R.O.C. (BAROC). While the BAROC in general belongs to the Chinese Jingtu tradition, Ratana shih mainly follows the philosophy of the Avatámsaka or Huayen Tradition, a tradition that underpins most Chinese Mahayana schools whether Jingtu or Chan.


Pre-Buddhist concepts

To this day several Indian scholars who make an effort to render the vastness of the religio-philosophical traditions on that continent state that in this respect historicity is of no importance. Where the mantra is said to be a primordial sound, meaning or word that occupied the universe before all else, whatever religio-philosophical idea came to be after that has to be understood as such, in its own right, without any basis in prior knowledge or teachings.

When ploughing through the vast collection of canonical texts belonging to the old schools of Buddhism we cannot but recognize that the historical Buddha (Sakyamuni, Gáutama, or Gótama) in his teachings did challenge prior religio-philosophical thoughts.

To give but the pre-Hindu Rgveda as an example, there we will not find any teachings on the self (atman), but quite a lot on the natural phenomena that influenced life of mankind on that continent. The Rgveda deifies these natural phenomena and approaches them as if they were gods, deities.
In later centuries Buddha will challenge these thoughts. He clearly discarded nature worship, discarding at the same time the priestly nature worshipper who acts as a go-between, between the ordinary man and woman and that which they wished to venerate.

The author of the Rgveda, the first known Veda(1) of pre-Hinduism, held the element FIRE (agni) in high esteem. Following Ralph T. Griffith's translations (1896) the Rgveda says: "I Laud Agni, the chosen Priest, God, minister of sacrifice, .(2)
Here we see how agni is both presented as the phenomenon that it is: fire, as well as the foremost under the priest who make sacrifices in the name of the population.

An entire chapter in the Rgveda is dedicated to the factor WIND (vayu). Vayu is lauded with words such as "Vayu, thy penetrating stream goes forth unto the worshipper, ..."(3).
In this verse wind (vayu) is represented as a godhead, none other than an avatar of the god Indra.
The same goes for the element of WATER.
Hymn IX1 is dedicated to this element with: "Ye, Waters, are beneficent: so help ye us to energy / That we may look on great delight."

The next chapter discusses Buddha's response to these Vedic concepts.

Early buddhist teachings

Buddha tended to interiorise the natural elements and so takes away their godliness and the need to venerate them.
In the Pāli "The Analysis of the Elements"1, it says:
"This person has six elements. ... There are these six elements: the elements of earth, water, fire, air, space, and consciousness."

Buddha goes on to explain how these six constitute a being and how they are inseparable. Take one away and all other disappear, i.e. the being dies. That is to say that in one stroke of the pen - as it were - he discarded the practice of certain ascetics who strove to "free" the mind from the body in order to a pure mind enter total liberation (moksha).

As for the separate elements. The Rgveda-author may have lived in a climate zone where WIND (vayu) was a very important factor in the climate of his region because centuries later wind is all but absent in the early Buddhist teachings, it seems to have been transformed into "air" as one of the above-stated six elements that constitute a being.

But on FIRE and WATER Buddha had his thing to say.

Surrounded by raw recruits who previously followed a fire worshipper Buddha and his monks stand on top of a hill and look down on an enormous wildfire in de woods below. The former fire worshippers are restless; their world view is caving in right before their feet. Buddha perceives the disarray and says, according to the early Pāli "Fire Sutta(6):

"(Man's mind is) Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I say, with birth, ageing and death, with sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair."

This turning concepts around, this reverting the gaze back from the external world to the inner world, will become one of the main traits of Buddha's teachings for in the equally Pāli Sutta the "Uda-kárahada sutta7" it says:

"There are four kinds of sheets of WATER: (1) flat (or shallow - uttāna) but deep in appearance (obhāsa); (2) deep but flat in appearance; (3) flat and flat in appearance; (4) deep and deep in appearance. So also, there are four classes of people: handsome in appearance but shallow in mind; not handsome in appearance but deep in knowledge; neither handsome nor wise; both handsome and wise."

Elsewhere we find a passage where Buddha makes fun of ascetics who in the near freezing cold spend an entire night in jumping in and climbing out a river: you only get ill, this way.

What has this to do with the concept of the Middle Way? In refuting the Vedic teachings on the elements as sacro-saint, Buddha presents another set of thoughts that will form the core of his teachings. Not the worshipping of elements/gods is central here, but a developing of the moral, and hence intellectual being.

The well known first teaching, the Setting in motion the Wheel of the Dhamma/Dharma1 Buddha says:

". And what, monks, is that MIDDLE WAY awakened to by the Tathagata (Buddha), which gives rise to vision ... which leads to Nibbana (enlightenment)? It is this noble eightfold path; that is: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This, bhikkhus, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathāgata, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna. ..."

Later Developments

Centuries after the historical Buddha, who was born centuries after the writing of the Rgveda, the scholar-monk Nāgārjuna(9) appeared. He was one of the scholars who studied and taught at Nalanda in northern India, the then largest Buddhist centre of learning. He appeared at a time when the old school, Hīnayāna, later transformed into Theravāda, had major problems with new Dharma-interpretations that would eventually lead to what is now known as the separation between Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna. And we may conclude that Nāgārjuna was one of the driving forces behind this philosophical renovation or alteration or elucidation of old teachings.

He too wished to state a MIDDLE WAY but may have felt that he could not possibly just repeat Buddha's words that had become so eagerly claimed by the old school, for he was the new guy on the block and new guys have new things to say.

Nāgārjuna therefore had to come up with innovative ideas that would bring as many old-school monk-students as possible to his side. As Nāgārjuna developed a radical line of thought on the subject of emptiness (sunyā or sunyatā) he reached back to find ancient sayings on the subject that would give his new words some acquired age.

One has the impression that he could not find adequate roots for it in the Vedas. The Nasadiya Sukta(10) says:

"Na mrutyura āsīd amrtam na tarhi na rātryā ahna āsīt praketah |
ānīd avātam svadhayā tad ekam tasmād dhānyan na parah kim canāsa.

(After Ralph T.H. Griffith's translation which deviates severely from the original text and content):

"There was neither death nor immortality. Nor was there the torch of night and day. It (sva)(11 breathed windlessly; it (sva) was it. There was that (sva), only that." (The Chinese philosophical religions such as Taoism will speak not of "that" (Skr. sva) but of "not-being": the Tao, which gives rise to "being": the universe.)

As we may be aware, this Vedic nothingness has nothing to do with the absence of substance or ens in beings and things. It speaks about the primordial, completely empty universe in which even the word/sound (Skr.: (vak) was as yet absent.

This view on the cosmos' emptiness, the primordial nothingness, could not have been Nāgārjuna's reference to past wisdom.

He may have delved in Buddha's teachings and come across the "Sutta on emptiness"12 and its later 2.0-version the "extended Sutta on emptiness"13.

Just as the equally Small Vehicle Phena Sutta(14): the Teaching on froth (or foam), the two above texts are about the absence of ens in living beings, and in the Phena Sutta it's about even the absence of essence in material things such as froth on water.
This Phena Sutta then could have been Buddha's first mention of emptiness (sunyā) beyond the mere mortal.

The Phena Sutta: " . Monks, suppose that a large glob of froth were floating down this Ganges River, and a man with good eyesight were to see it, observe it, and thoroughly examine it. To him . it would appear empty, without substance: for what substance would there be in a glob of froth?"

Nevertheless Nāgārjuna may not have been entirely satisfied with this too. For him, it didn't do. He wished to go a step further in order to deal with the entire Chain of Dependent Arising, including the functioning, the process of Dependent Arising itself. In doing so he amplified the teaching on emptiness beyond the initial goal of bringing the individual to examine himself to see and witness that all within his own frame is fleeting, that nothing in it can be grasped and that therefore there is no need to be overly concerned with your individual life since it is empty of substance and ultimately cannot be governed."

"I cannot say: let me look like this, let me be like that", a paraphrase of one of the early teachings.

In his Teachings on the Roots of the Middle Way15 Nāgārjuna writes the word sūnya in the genetive: sūnyatam: the Dependent Arising's emptiness. This is important for a correct understanding of the stanza:

"Yah pratītyasamutpāda sūnyatām tām pracaksmahe /
sā prajñaptir upādāya pratipat saiva (sa-iva) madhyamā."


I.e. first with our ordinary mind we perceive how phenomena come to be dependent upon one another, e.g. a flower as result of the presence of soil, water, air, and light. After a while with our well trained mind we realize that both the phenomena and the arising as a process are empty of content or own-being. This own-being in Buddhist parlance is svabh&$257;va(16).

This is the thorough emptiness that Nāgārjuna postulated, going beyond the earlier realisation of emptiness as (merely) a living being devoid of ever-abiding, never-changing self(17). Nāgārjuna says that both the object and the process of perceiving the object are empty (sunyā). In doing so he, and not Vasubandhu whose words will be discussed below is the true father or inventor of the thoroughly Mahāyānistic "Consciousness-only school" otherwise known as the Yogacāra(18).

Again several centuries later the monk-scholar Vasubandhu(19) comes to the fore. Vasubandhu pretended to have written down verses that he heard by mouth of the coming Buddha Maitreya. And pushing his pretence a little further he "comments" on Maitreya's verses - that is, he elucidates his own verses. We find Vasubandhu's fib in the Madhyānta-vibanga discussed below, somewhere in April 2019.

Chapter II, par.7, stanza 1.2 of this manuscipt says:

"Na sūnyam nāpi casū nyam /
tasmāt sarvam vidhīyate /
sattvād assatvāt /
sattvāc ca /
madyamā pratipat ca sā."

(Neither is it asserted /
that all is unreality, /
or reality. /
Existence /
is non-existence. / (These two ways of perceiving) existence /
is the MIDDLE PATH.)

The last four lines are heavily inspired by Nāgārjuna's way of formulating. I.e. Vasubandhu rehashed parts of Nāgārjuna's MMK.

Less elegantly than his revered philosophical forebear Nāgārjuna Vasubandhu here basically states the same thing: the thorough emptiness of everything including the processes that we might be able to observe.

We may interpret Vasubandhu's stanza in the sense that we're invited not to fall into either one of the extremes of "is" or "is not". Nor should we give credence to the philosophy that denies the non-core of the matter since mind in statu nascendi is the core, or coreness (svabhāva). In other words, in this school of thought one should not give credence to philosophical materialism.

1: www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/ Vedas#:~:text=The%20Vedas%20 (Devanagari%20%E0%A4%B5%E0%A5%87%E0%A4%A6)%20are,any%20religion%20still%20in%20use.
2: www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/rv01001.htm
3: www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/rv01002.htm
4: www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/rv10009.htm
5: MN 140: Dhatuvibha?gasutta-Bhikkhu Bodhi (suttacentral.net)
6: www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn35/sn35.028.than.html
7: tr. Gunapála Piyaséna Malála-sékera
8: www.buddha-vacana.org/sutta/samyutta/maha/sn56-011.html
9: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nagarjuna
10: Rv.10.129, mantra 2
11: Sva as a form of (https://encyclopediaofbuddhism.org/wiki/Svabhava) svabhava own-being, which Griffith,educated with a Bible at hand which first lines indeed have some similarity with the mantra, here presented, understood as deity, God's face on earth as Christians would like to see it. There may be no other example in his translations where Griffith so brazenly inserts a Vedic mantra into the Christian theology: "Then there was neither death nor immortality Nor was there then the torch of night and day. The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining. There was that One then, and there was no other. In the beginning there was nothing. There was neither light nor darkness, neither the sun nor the moon, nor the earth, but one undivided nothingness." Griffith just simply adds a version of the Biblical verse to the mantra and connects it - one had already heard a few things about this weird and wonderful thing - with nothingness, a word of which we find no trace in this particular mantra.
12: www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.121.than.html
13: www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.122.than.html
14: SN 22.95
15: Mūla-madhyámaka-kārika - Ch.24,18
16: encyclopediaofbuddhism.org/wiki/Svabhava
17: www.britannica.com/topic/anatta
18: encyclopediaofbuddhism.org/wiki/Yogacara
19: www.britannica.com/biography/Vasubandhu

Part of a Dutch language site on Sūtras and Shastras.

Use with care and respect