From Bodh Gaya to Kyoto and Beyond

Hasegawa Tohaku (1539-1610) – Pine Trees

The Buddha’s breakthrough took place when, having broken a fast that had left him too weak to even stand, he saw his “seeking mind” drop, making room for the recovery of the deep calm and clarity he had experienced as a child when he was left under the rose-apple tree. From the ripening of this experience into a full awakening under the Bodhi Tree, to the claim by Dogen that practice itself is enlightenment, Buddhism has really only deepened the Buddha’s original insight, but the language used, especially in Zen, has changed to such an extent that the teachings may at first sight appear radically different. 

The evolution in the terminology, which accompanied successive reformulations of the philosophical underpinnings of the practice, unfolded in stages: Nagarjuna equated emptiness (sunyata) with co-dependent origination, the Yogacara school carried out a complex analysis of the “mechanics” of the mind/consciousness, the Tathagatagarbha school brought to the fore the concept of buddha nature, the Huayan school encapsulated its concept of mutual interpenetration of all phenomena in the powerful metaphor of Indra’s Net, and Hui-neng’s motto “Know your mind and see your nature” became that of the Zen schools’ direct path to awakening.

Using scholarly sources, I have tried to provide a glimpse into the philosophical views of these schools, highlighting both the careful work of re-assessment of the original insight, and the creativity displayed in the reformulations. The two main lines of development have been a move away from a focus on the body to a focus on the mind/consciousness, and a rather spectacular turn from a negative view on the world as impermanent and a source of suffering, to a positive view of that same world as phenomenal, and as such, an object of wonder, as summed up in the well-known saying: “True emptiness, wondrous being.”

There are at least two reasons for wishing to know more about the philosophy underlying Buddhist teachings and practices. The obvious one is to better understand one’s Buddhist practice. The other is that Buddhism offers us an alternative understanding of reality – one based on emptiness instead of being, as found in Western philosophy and science. A better name for the Buddhist concept of emptiness is interconnectedness, whereby each part not only interacts with all other parts, but, more specifically includes the whole, which entails that the health of each part is a condition for the health of the whole and vice versa. This concept is the root concept of ecology, but it also has the potential to revolutionise the hierarchical socio-political foundations which are now seen as an obstacle to our ability to live sustainably on this earth for much longer.