Emptiness in Mahayana Buddhism

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  • Topic: Buddhism, Mahayana sutras, Nagarjuna
  • Pages : 7 (2093 words )
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  • Published : May 5, 2011
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Emptiness paper

Buddhism is an orthopraxy where identity comes from implementing “correct” behavior, rather than orthodoxy where identity is found through “correct” beliefs. Mahayana Buddhism, termed “the Great Way” is essentially a vision of what Buddhism is really about. Although the permeation of Mahayana was harmless, the status of the sutras was constantly disputed.

From the very onset of Buddhism, the concepts of Self/not-Self and dependent arising were prominent and fundamental. The Not-Self teaching has been considered by Buddhists to be the unique breakthrough of the Buddha, the discovery that solidifies his superiority over other teachers. According to the Buddha, for something to be characterized as “Self,” it would not lead to suffering, it would have to be permanent, and also it would obey the person of whom it is the Self. If something were to be a Self, it certainly must be controllable and conducive to happiness; or at least not conducive to suffering.

Furthermore, in contemplating the existence of a Self, he stresses that the five plausible candidates for “Self” (the five aggregates) in fact cannot be the Self because they do not meet these criteria. These five aggregates (form, sensation, conception, disposition, consciousness) are certainly not permanent. They could be considered analogous to a tornado in that they arise from certain conditions and circumstances and are not extractable from the environment in which they occur. Any part of our psychophysical make-up, anything that can be classified under one of the five groups, cannot fit the description of a Self and therefore they are all not Self.

In response to claims of having found an unchanging Self, the Buddha asserts that if there is at all a Self, it is only a result of the coming together of causal conditions (dependent origination). In this case, it could not be permanent, and therefore could not be a Self.

Through further analysis and insight meditation after the death of the Buddha, the five aggregates were seen to be dissolvable into simpler elements. This sort of investigation came to encompass not only the psychophysical aggregates associated with beings, but everything in the universe as well. These elements (dharmas) are irreducible to any further factors or sources.

The Buddhist school of Sarvastivada held a definitive distinction between the way dharmas exist as ‘primary existents’ and the way complex entities (secondary existents) exist essentially as constructions of dharmas. The name Sarvastivada itself means “the doctrine that all exist,” and this school introduces the notion of the own-existence of the dharma. Regardless if a dharma is past, present, or future, it nevertheless still exists. These dharmas are ultimate truths. Primary existents must be the terminating point of analysis, and must not arise dependently the way people, tables, and chairs do. Thus, secondary existents lack this inherent existence.

The Prajnaparamita is the earliest form of literature known to be specifically Mahayana; paramita meaning perfection and prajna meaning wisdom. In Buddhist terminology, to have prajna is to encompass an understanding that distinguishes how things actually are from how things seem to be. In the abhidharma setting, prajna is used to determine the value of primary existents (dharmas), which are distinguishable from conceptual constructs. Perfection of wisdom (Prajnaparamita) does not imply the wrongness of what had previously been considered to be wisdom, but rather its perfection. The perfection of prajna is the final, proper understanding of the way things truly are. Mahayana philosophers felt the nature of the Abhidharma to be too objective and systematic. Characteristically, these sutras are not methodically philosophical nor do they imply doctrinal adherence. The texts entail clear messages that are illustrated repetitively and can be seen as messages that aim to...
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