Wisdom and Means, Emptiness and Compassion: Philosophical Problems
In this column’s first segment, we explored how Shantideva’s idea of compassion, noble as it was, led to some very interesting questions and tensions. We will examine some of these philosophical difficulties in this second and final part.
While Barbara Clayton believed Shantideva’s thought could be considered as a virtue ethic (like Aristotle's purport to perfect the human being), she preferred to characterize it as consequentialism. This consequentialism needs to be distinguished from Aristotelian consequentialism, since the latter only validates intense selflessness for one’s close family and associates, whilst the former is universal in its altruism.
Modern scholars in Buddhist Studies have also devoted considerable effort to grappling with the philosophical tensions in Shantideva’s thought. One of the sage’s most frequent critics has been Paul Williams, former Buddhist professor-turned-Catholic. He argues that a significant problem arises not only when one considers the metaphysical perspective of all beings as empty, but when one understands compassion as the driving ethic of all other Buddhist virtues. He contends that Shantideva’s reductive conception of the individual as nothing but the sum of its parts or various elements destroys all motivation for the compassion that Shantideva extolled.
Shantideva’s attempt to be compassionate would seem to be pointless logically and linguistically, since compassion for non-existent sentients is a contradiction and therefore without meaning. In other words, Shantideva’s prajna or wisdom compromises his compassion, reducing it to little more than an illogical sentiment of religious poetry. He also identifies problems with Shantideva’s schema of the bodhisattva path, arguing that in his scheme realized Buddhas, in the final analysis of their attainment, cannot be said to be virtuous. According to BCA 9.34 and 36 – 37, their minds lack cognitive content (since they are free from conceptualization and see things as they are) and hence possess no active cognition towards virtue. The power of compassion as a moral injunction therefore seem weakened, indeed trivialized or negated, by the very masters who preach it.
Williams’s first contention about Shantideva’s compromised compassion can be addressed in several ways. To be fair, there has not been yet a consensus on his second argument (that a Buddha’s lack of cognizing virtue renders him unable to be “virtuous”). But Wetleson, in an article that specifically targets the first, criticizes what he sees as Williams’ selective interpretation of the BCA’s verses 8.101 – 103 and 8.97 – 98. Williams seems to have misconstrued the progression of the bodhisattva path through reductive interpretations of the verses by reversing its order of moral progress. Indeed, compassion is not the result but the beginning of the Buddhist path.
For Shantideva, compassion finds its highest sphere in conventional reality from an enlightened perspective: “For there is no attainment of the ultimate truth, except through conventional truth. The delusion of a goal is for the sake of soothing suffering.” Jenkins points out that in the interplay of compassion and wisdom as equals, compassion possesses a temporal priority, a precedent that is necessary for wisdom to be cultivated. Compassion is necessary to realize emptiness, but Jenkins observes that nowhere in the vast corpus of Sanskrit literature do we find the assertion that Buddhists feel compassion for beings because they are empty, thus protecting Shantideva from Williams’ charge.
JoséCabezon also notes that far from being the experience of Enlightenment, it was actually great compassion that motivated the Buddha to teach sentient beings. In contrast to many of the other extant major religions, the primary motivation of transmission is not explicitly compelled by revelation, but by the compassion engendered by such an experience. The pedagogical or pastoral urge after such an experience is stimulated primarily by insight into the interconnectedness of the universe’s world-systems and an overriding compassion for sentient beings. Karuna compels gnosis.
Another indirect response to Williams might be to answer the problem of “beings” by defending the concept of sattva as absolutely essential to any tradition of Buddhism. This, of course, applies to Mahayana. Without sattva the Buddhist teachings would literally be incoherent in every sense of the word: “In Mahayana, the very concepts of bodhicitta and bodhisattva would collapse or make no sense without sattvas, for a bodhisattva is, in the first place, a sattva whose citta is directed towards attaining the highest state of bodhi for the sake of other sattvas.”
The conceptual integrity and validity of bodhicitta is safeguarded by the fact that both are dependent on being cultivated for other sattvas, for other sentient beings. The Six Perfections, along with other practices that Shantideva preaches, are all connected to these beings in one manner or another. As Dorje Wangchuk also notes, Shantideva already himself answered Williams’ challenge in BCA 6.83: that it is impossible for a bodhisattva to possess bodhicitta yet feel unhappiness at the fortunes of other beings. The fact that sentient beings are equal to the Buddhas and therefore deserve equal respect indicate that the fulfillment of Buddhahood is dependent on understanding the world as possessing beings from the beginning (temporal priority) to the ending (the bodhisattva vows to continue her work to help beings forever).
Williams’ insistence on the danger of non-existence (the concept that the Madhyamika enterprise engages with at a dangerously intimate level) is quite valid. However, Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton have long argued that Madhyamaka ideas of all things as illusions should not be taken literally. That would be incoherent, although it is sometimes said for dramatic impact. Rather, things are not true but are like illusions in that they appear one way and actually exist in another. Thus the Madhyamaka is ‘Middling’ in that it avoids the two cardinal errors of under-negation (something exists inherently) and over-negation (nothing exists at all, in any sense). Of these two errors the second, an understandable misunderstanding, is by far the worst, for it was thought to have serious repercussions in a moral nihilism, which would hardly be Buddhist.
Williams believes that the Mahayana Buddhist answer to his critique is philosophically unsatisfying yet existentially sound. The contradictions of virtue, emptiness, and compassion do not ultimately matter if in practice the important is that others are helped: “If it is possible to become a Buddha and if being a Buddha is the best way of helping others, then arguably a benevolent person should want to do so. This means a benevolent person should become (or want to become) a bodhisattva.” Despite the fact that the bodhisattva knows that all beings are self-less processes, therefore, does not negate the importance of the process of benefiting these very processes.
In this column, we’ve explored how Shantideva remains an orthodox thinker rooted in the Prasanghika-Madhyamika tradition. His thinking betrays nothing new or particularly innovative except his eloquence and persuasiveness. Shantideva utilizes a prioritized schema of the Six Perfections. Prajna or wisdom occupies the zenith of spirituality, with the others descending in importance according to their order. Shantideva’s ideals are also characteristic of the tension latent within the greater whole of Mahayana. They betray philosophical difficulties with serving sentient beings with utter compassion when in reality, there are no sentient beings to begin with. This is perhaps what characterizes Madhyamika thought as a whole. In Garfield’s words, “It is not an incoherent mysticism, but it is a logical tightrope act at the very limits of language and metaphysics.” It is a precarious balance, but is also one of the most philosophically rigorous and ethically inspiring religious paths: it points toward transcendence, beyond our words, formulations and concepts, while attempting to remain humanly familiar.
This moral loftiness is also qualified by a practical question: how much and how hard should a bodhisattva work for the weal of other beings? The Bodhisattvabhumi gives the answer of “to the best of one’s capacity” (yathashaktya yathabalam), which exonerates the bodhisattva from not having done things that she is not capable of. This ad impossibile nemo obligatur brings to the forefront the conscience of the practitioner, which will stand as the greatest witness to whether or not they have offered themselves completely to the path.
It was left to a later Prasanghika-Madhyamika proponent, the renowned Kamalashila, to summarize in one passage the bodhisattva path that Shantideva expounded in two compositions:
And he who hopes for the welfare of the world thinks to himself: “Let me undertake religious practice, that I may bring welfare and happiness to all beings.” And he sees the aggregates (skandha) as like a magic show, but he does not wish to disown the aggregates; he sees the senses (dhatu) as like a poisonous serpent, but he does not wish to disown the sense; he sees sensory awareness (ayatana) as like an empty village, but he does not wish to disown sensory awareness.
Because of their moral force and compelling religious power, Shantideva’s teachings remain influential in contemporary Tibetan and Western Buddhism. At least this much cannot be denied.
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