Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Other Origination

In Mahayana Buddhism, there is much talk about dependent origination--the fact that everything depends upon other conditions, and thus they are all interconnected--but very little mention of its less-common counterpart, nature origination.

According to this teaching, while everything is interconnected and relies upon everything else to exist, the more fundamental fact is that nothing exists independent of the Nature (li in Chinese). Some might call it Mind, Dharmakaya, Buddha Nature, Dharmadhatu, or the Absolute. Nature origination was most fully developed by Chan Master Zongmi, also the last Huayen Patriarch. Although living only two generations after Huayen's seminal Patriarch, Fazang, Zongmi completely reinterpreted the Huayen system.

Rather than Fazang's emphasis on the interdependence of phenomena on one another, Zongmi took Huayen in a new direction. For him, all phenomena, while empty of self-existence as orthodox Buddhism taught, were in fact empty in a deeper way--empty of separation from the Nature. Stated more directly, all phenomena have the Absolute as their true nature; nothing is separate from it.

Nature origination never caught on the way that its counterpart, dependent origination, did; although it did gain popularity through the championing of Chinul, the famous Korean monk and founder of the Chogye order, still extant today. Huang Po's One Mind reflects a similar line of thought. One reason that it probably never gained a foothold is that nature origination sounds too similar to a transcendental Self for most Buddhists' tastes.

I'm writing about nature origination to illustrate the tremendous variety of teachings within Buddhism. It is not an exaggeration to say that there is no central tenet of Buddhism; each school and sect values certain teachings over others. Throughout its 2,500 years, Buddhism has developed a rich array of doctrines and practices, some of which blatantly contradict one another. I think that it is self-deceptive to pretend that Buddhist doctrine is always internally consistent or that it follows a singular line of development.

That is simply not the case.

Nature origination, like any development in Buddhism (including the earliest Buddhist teachings like the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path), reflects its native cultural, social, and historical context. Nothing is a-historical; to assume that something is can be a grave mistake.

This means that dependent origination and its popularity in modern Western culture are just as context-bound. Environmental consciousness is popular nowadays, and so is interdependent thinking. Give it twenty years and the political conversation may have moved onto other topics. Who knows?

The lesson is this: we are always inside of a culture, occupying a particular space in history. We should not take environmental science's validation of interdependence as an absolute rubber stamp because even that certification will change.

The current Western trend to value discourse and egalitarianism has invisibly validated interdependence. 

All teachings are empty, meaning they cannot fully encapsulate the complexity that is reality. For that reason, we must be cautious and never forget that because we are inside this culture, we just accept its values and pronouncements as truth, without acknowledging that the reason these teachings speak so persuasively to us is because of where we stand in history.

Nature origination may seem like a foreign, ill-concocted deviation of the "true" Buddhadharma (i.e., dependent origination). But that view suffers from a common myopia, the belief that there is one "true" ...anything. Ironically, we needn't look any further than dependent origination itself, with its constant reminder that all teachings are empty and provisional, before we empty dependent origination itself.

In emptiness, everything is subject to erasure. So don't get too comfortable.

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