Phenomenological Terminology in Early Prajñapārāmita Texts (“phenomenal reality” (dmigs pa), “abiding” (gnas pa) and “practice” (spyod)) by Vladimir Korobov

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1. The concept of intentionality was introduced into modern philosophy by Franz Brentano, who took what he called "intentional inexistence" to be a feature that distinguished the mental from the physical1.

Basically, intentionality is a term for a feature exhibited by many mental states and activities: being directed at objects. Each act of consciousness is in this case also intentional act, and in this very act appear objects (forms, colors, etc.). In Buddhism this appearance of different objects within the intentional act represents conventional experience as far as according to abhidharmic tradition things (objects) are merely mental and perceptual interpretation of discrete data flux (dharma). Namely intentionality is responsible for this interpretation because of activity of body, language and mind, which is from the other hand based on saÐskara-skandha (‘du byed).

Such earlier Buddhist texts as Prajñapārāmita sūtras explain suffering and ignorance (main characteristics of phenomenal existence) as results of intentional karmic activity and intentional structure of consciousness 2.

In this paper I would like to demonstrate some Buddhist terms in their connection to intentionality and what is more I’ll try to show that some terms (namely dmigs pa - “phenomenal reality”, gnas pa - “abiding” and spyod - “practice”) demonstrate intentional nature of early Prajñapārāmita teaching.

2. Let as take ab init term gnas pa (Sanskr. sthita) which is possible to translate as “to stay”, “to abide” and in more wide sense as “to live”, “to exist”. Edward Conze translates this term as “to be established” or “to stand” 3. This term has topological tinge. Let us take several examples just to show the usage of this term.

From Prajñapārāmita-ratna-guna-samcaya-gāthā:

“Who practices non-abiding4 [and] does not abide in any element of existence5, for whom there are no form, no perception, no discriminative thought, no intention; who has no a trace of “stark” consciousness6, this one receives sugata wisdom without “grasping7” (I, 6).

Another example from A÷}asāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā:

“… a Bodhisattva who courses in perfect wisdom and develops it, should not stand in form, etc. Because when he stands in form, etc., he courses in its formative influence, and not in perfect wisdom. For, while he courses in formative influence, he cannot gain perfect wisdom, nor exert himself upon it, nor fulfill it” (I, 8)8.

Another important example also from Prajñapārāmita-ratna-guna-samcaya-gāthā:

“A [Bodhisattva] for whom there is no form, there is no perception, there is no discriminative thought, there is no intention; who practices non-abiding and doesn’t involve consciousness should be recognized as possessing a [state] of non-production [of elements of existence] and approaches the highest and undisturbed samadhi. His practice has no phenomenal support (mi dmigs) and his wisdom is stable” (I, 10).

It is clear, that the term gnas pa points to abiding, to involvement (and correspondingly to not involvement) into field of attention. ‘To abide’ in this context means ‘to be directed at some external things’, ‘to be surrounded by some things’. What is the role of intentionality in this act of cognitive presence? External things may exist only if they are grasped (grāhya) as having some qualities. The qualities are perceived not by themselves (as separate entities), but in comparison with other qualities (forms, colours, etc.). These relations between grasper (grāhaka) and what is grasped (grāhya) indicate, that perceived phenomenal reality and the consciousness itself (vi-jñāna, dis-cernment) are of a sign nature. The sign is, citing Peirce, “something which stands to somebody for something in some respects or capacity”9. To “abide in any element of existence” means to stay as a phenomenon among other phenomenon and correspondingly to be directed at qualities and characteristics, to be involved into the circus of indirect cognition10. Enlightenment, from the other hand, is non-abiding, putting the end to the consistency of intentional acts, which make five sense consciousnesses to grasp their objects.

3. Other term directly connected to the previous is dmigs pa (Sanskr. ārambaïa). This term has many meanings and frequently is used in Prajñapārāmita texts with negative particles - mi dmigs pa, ma dmigs nas, mi dmigs, etc.. Edward Conze in his Materials for Dictionary of Prajñāpāramitā Literature gives the following meanings for this term: an-ārambaïa – “without objective support” (dmigs su med pa), anālambamāna – “not making into objective11 support” (p.27), anupalabdhitā – “non-apprehension” (mi dmigs pa), can not be apprehended (dmigs su med pa, mi dmigs pa) (p.35), anupalambha – “what offers no basis for apprehension, what is without basis lack of basis for apprehension, baselessness (mi dmigs pa), non-observation, imperceptible, absence of apprehension (dmigs su med pa, mi dmigs pa), without basis, absence of basis (p.35)12.

The following fragments demonstrate how this term is used in Prajñapārāmita texts.

From Prajñapārāmita-ratna-guna-samcaya-gāthā:

“The Teaching, which is taught by Jinas, is perceived by the best pupils directly; direct comprehension13 is a kind of preceptor [for those persons]. But they use power not of their own, but the power of Enlightening and [according to this power] perfect wisdom (prajñapārāmita) devoid of phenomenal reality (mi dmigs), Bodhisattva devoid of phenomenal reality (mi dmigs), awakening mind14 devoid of phenomenal reality (mi dmigs) 15. Those fearless Bodhisattvas, who have removed delusions and understand this, follow the Sugata16 wisdom” (I, 4 – 5).

Another fragment also from Prajñapārāmita-ratna-guna-samcaya-gāthā:

“Srenika the Wonderer17 the absence of phenomenal reality18 in skandhas understood as [compatibility] of origination and disappearance19 [of elements of existence]. In the same way he understood [the nature of] Bodhisattva. He didn’t care about Nirvanā 20 and stayed in wisdom”. (I, 7)

According to my previous interpretation the most appropriate way to translate term ‘dmigs pa’ together with its negative particles is ‘phenomenal reality’ and ‘absence of phenomenal reality’ accordingly. From the one hand, ‘phenomenal reality’ is all the totality of phenomena, which constitutes present field of awareness. From the other hand, each of the phenomena in this field may disclose or not disclose its’ ‘phenomenal reality’. For example it may seem, that structures of our present awareness include a certain phenomenon, which we can call “envy” (we just define a certain “thing” as envy). But analyzing this phenomenon we may come to the conclusion that it has no phenomenal reality and that it can’t be a basis for further unwrapping of cognitive structures of awareness. In other words our attention can’t be directed at (or involved in) envy, because there is no such phenomenon as “envy”.

As it is said in the Samadhiraja Sutra, "An existential element ‘desire’ would be roused by something in someone; an existential element 'aversion' would be aversion in someone to something; an existential element 'illusion' would be illusion in someone concerning something." Such an element of existence one cannot discover in thought nor perceive in fact. One who does not discover such an existential element in thought nor perceive it in fact is said to be free of desire, aversion and illusion, to have a mind free of misbelieve, to be composed in spirit. He is said to have crossed to the other side, to have penetrated deeply, to have attained peace”21.

Things, which constitute present field of awareness, are intentional objects per se. Besides they do not differ from the attention itself, because according to Buddhist epistemology the field of present awareness doesn’t have any privileged “observation point” standing for “me” or “I”. As Dan Lusthaus writes: “According to Buddhism, the deepest, most pernicious erroneous view held by sentient beings is the view that a permanent, eternal, immutable, independent self exists. There is no such self, and deep down we know that. This makes us anxious, since it entails that no self or identity endures forever. In order to assuage that anxiety, we attempt to construct a self, to fill the anxious void, to do something enduring. The projection of cognitive objects for appropriation is consciousness' main tool for this construction. If I own things (ideas, theories, identities, material objects), then "I am." If there are permanent objects that I can possess, then I too must be permanent. If I can be identified with something permanent, then I too must have a permanent identity. To undermine this desperate and erroneous appropriative grasping, Yogācāra texts say: Negate the object, and the self is also negated (e.g., Madhyānta-vibhāga, 1:4, 8)”22.

Phenomenal reality is a field of intentional dispositions in which possible to be involved or not to be involved.

The culmination of all Prajñapārāmita phenomenology is the access to the state beyond intentional constructions and representations. It is not a construction of a new ontology but a “leveling” of the field of present awareness, which is deformed by intentional references. Edward Conze writes on Nirvana in Prajñapārāmita texts: “The Prajñapārāmita teaches that Nirvāïa is the same as this world of birth-and-death (saüsāra), that "the very defilements are Nirvāïa". The unconditioned is identified with the conditioned, the everchangeless with the ever-changing, the pure with the defiled, the complete with the deficient. But, and this must be born in mind, the identity thus postulated is an absolute identity and does not exclude an absolute difference. As a matter of face, an absolute difference is equivalent to an absolute identity, as follows: Nirvāïa and I are absolutely different. I cannot get it, and it cannot get me. I can never find it, because I am no longer there when it is found. It cannot find me, because I am not there to be found. But Nirvāõa, the everlasting, is there all the time. "Suchness is everywhere the same, since all dharmas have already attained Nirvāïa" (A÷}asāhasrikā, XXIX.476). What keeps me apart from it, now, in me? Nothing real at all, since the self is a mere invention. So, even now, in truth, there is no real difference at all between me and Nirvāõa. The two are identical”23.

4. Any activity itself and particularly activity aimed to Enlightenment is intentional event by definition. Prajñapārāmita texts continually tell about ‘action’, ‘activity’, ‘conduct’ ‘practice’- spyod, spyod pa (Sanskr. caryā). Edward Conze translates this term with a quite polysemantic word “course”, “coursing”24. Alexander Berzin translates this term as ‘behavior’ and even as ‘daily behavior’ emphasizing routine ritual activity, which is necessary for Buddhist practitioner25.

Let us take another fragment from Prajñapārāmita-ratna-guna-samcaya-gāthā:

“Acting (spyod) in a proper way, Bodhisattva follows Sugata wisdom. Namely Sugatas are very skillful in practicing without practice26. Whatever dharma they follow, their practice (spyod pa) devoid of phenomenal reality. This is the core [essence] of practice (spyod pa) of the highest perfect wisdom (prajñapārāmita) (I,12).

What is this practicing without practice? Each action is intentionally approved and implies some object to be directed at. Action in Prajñapārāmita is always directed at objects, which are devoid of phenomenal reality. Objects disappear in this action and action itself becomes void. Directed consciousness also disappears because of lacking of its’ aims and objects (directions). Voidness (÷unyata) “talks” to Voidness (÷unyata). Here we have total absorption (mnyam bzhag) on voidness that is like space, and this absorption is, from one hand, a union of method and wisdom and, from the other hand, the result of the attitude, that there is no such thing as true phenomenal existence and there is no such thing as apprehension or directed consciousness. Intentionality loses here its’ aboutness, mere vector transforms here into pure space without directions and preferences.

It would be appropriate here to formulate a peculiar Prajñapārāmita imperative: act in such a way as if neither you, nor the objects of your action exist.

Selected Bibliography

  • Prajña-pārāmita-ratna-guna-samcaya-gāthā (‘Phags pa shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa yon tan rin po che sdud pa), Sanskrit and Tibetan Text, ed. by E. Obermiller. – Bibl. Buddh. XXIX. Leningrad, 1937 (reprinted by Е. Conze in 1960 г.)
  • A÷}asāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. Ed. By P.L. Vaidya. Darbhanga, 1960
  • Abhisamayālaõkāra-Prajñāpāramitā-Upadeþa-Śastra. The work of Bodhisattva Maitreya (‘Phags pa shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa’i man ngag gi bstan bcos mngon par rtogs pa’i rgyan). Sanskrit text and Tibetan translation, Edited by Th. Sherbatsky and E. Obermiller, Bibliotheca Indo-Buddhica Series No. 99, St. Petersburg, 1929.
  • Materials for Dictionary of Prajñāpāramitā Literature. By Edward Conze, Tokyo, 1967.
  • Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines (A÷}asāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā) and Its Verse Summary. Tr. By Edward Conze. Delhi, 1994.
  • Brentano, F. The distinction between mental and physical phenomena, in Realism and the Background of Phenomenology, ed. Roderick M. Chisholm, Atascadero, CA.: Ridgeview Publishing, 1960.
  • Peirce, Charles S. Collected Papers, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965
  • Laycock, Steven Mind as Mirror and the Mirroring of Mind: Buddhist Reflections on Western Phenomenology, State University of New York Press, 1984.
  • Schroeder, John Review on Steven Laycock “Mind as Mirror and the Mirroring of Mind: Buddhist Reflections on Western Phenomenology”, Philosophy East And West, Vol.47, No.1, University Hawaii, 1977.
  • Lusthaus Dan What is Denied in the Statement “External Objects Do Not Exist”?, the paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, San Francisco, November 21-25, 1997.
  • Sprung, M. Lucid Exposition of the Middle Way: The Essential Chapters from the Prasannapadā of Candrakīrti. Boulder: Prajñā Press, 1979.
  • Conze, Edward. The Ontology of Prajñapārāmita, Philosophy East and West, Vol.3, Hawaii University, 1953.