Mahayana ontology:skillful means for early Buddhist ideas?

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Mahayana ontology:skillful means for early Buddhist ideas?

Postby fivebells » Tue May 21, 2013 6:21 pm

I'm asking this here rather than on Dharma Wheel, at least at first, because I think it's going to piss a few people over there off, and I could do without the aggro.

Over the past few days, I've been thinking that Mahayana ontologies may have evolved as 'skillful means' for introducing practice ideas from early Buddhism. I can't be the first person to have thought along these lines, and would appreciate references to others who have. Any provenance from forum threads to scholarly references is fine. I'm not trying to develop this from a scholarly perspective.

My understanding of early Buddhism is almost entirely from Thanissaro's writings. Could be some holes there.

Viewing the Mahayana ontologies really seems to clarify a lot of Mahayana ideas which I had previously found quite confusing compared to the pragmatism in Thanissaro's teachings. For instance, I was first taught about the Four Immeasurables in Tibetan Buddhism as qualities of awakened mind. On the other hand, what qualities is awakened mind supposed to have? But the way I was taught the immeasurables was basically an insight practice, not a concentration practice: bring the quality to mind in some context, look at the reaction doing so triggers, and take them apart with insight. When you're done doing that with all the reactions, what's left has the quality of the immeasurable. Maybe this ontology about qualities of awakened mind is just a 'skillful means' for taking apart preferences/prejudices (equanimity), anxiety/hostility (metta), fear (compassion), envy/despair (joy), etc.?
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Re: Mahayana ontology:skillful means for early Buddhist idea

Postby Khalil Bodhi » Tue May 21, 2013 8:08 pm

I have noticed in my personal explorations of the brahmaviharas that the idea of inclining one's mind towards saving all beings seems to be a skillful means to their development and (possibly) the result of successful practice of karuna bhavana. Forgive me for if I'm not making much sense but I'm just formulating this idea and have yet to really think it completely through.
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Re: Mahayana ontology:skillful means for early Buddhist idea

Postby fivebells » Tue May 21, 2013 8:39 pm

No worries, to judge from the number of responses I'm not making much sense either. :D
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Re: Mahayana ontology:skillful means for early Buddhist idea

Postby male_robin » Tue May 21, 2013 9:51 pm

fivebells wrote:No worries, to judge from the number of responses I'm not making much sense either. :D


I am not real clear on the distinction between samatha (calm abiding) and vipassana (insight). In the past I identified samatha with jhana and deep, narrowly focused fixed concentration. I identified vipassana with satipatthana and moment-by-moment, fluid, and expansive observation. That sort of works, but I no longer see such a clear distinction.

I understand cultivation of Brahma Viharas in terms of samma vayama -- as the 3rd of the 4 struggles, the development of wholesome and liberating mental states. Once these mental states are aroused, continued practice would be maintenance. They relate to the 1st (blocking) and 2nd (abandoning) in that they counter unwholesome mental states. The first three directly counter hostile (dosa) mental states. Metta bhavana counters vyapada / enmity, karuna bhavana counters cruelty, mudita counters issa / envy. As many have discussed, they also counter near enemies related to lobha, such as kama and raga. Equanimity would seem to directly counter various mental states related to avarice (lobha), such as pride (mana / mada), and attachment (raga) as well as mental states related to confusion (moha), such as restlessness and agitation. It would also counter the near ememy of apathy.

This could be samatha practice, in that the mind is being calmed; hostile, greedy, and agitated states are being replaced by friendly, generous, and poised / objective mental states. I now relate cultivating and maintaining the Brahma Vihara more to preliminary concentration in that the Brahma Vihara help overcome the five hindrances. Also as a gradual practice to acquire merit.
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Re: Mahayana ontology:skillful means for early Buddhist idea

Postby convivium » Wed May 22, 2013 1:42 am

i think you might enjoy this book
https://www.abhayagiri.org/books/the-island
Just keep breathing in and out like this. Don't be interested in anything else. It doesn't matter even if someone is standing on their head with their ass in the air. Don't pay it any attention. Just stay with the in-breath and the out-breath. Concentrate your awareness on the breath. Just keep doing it. http://www.ajahnchah.org/book/Just_Do_It_1_2.php
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Re: Mahayana ontology:skillful means for early Buddhist idea

Postby chownah » Wed May 22, 2013 2:49 am

fivebells,
Isn't any practice which yields progress a 'skillful means'?.....and can't just about anything be used to good effect by a skillful practitioner?.....so can't just about anything (including theraveda practices) when used properly be a 'skillful means'? So I'm wondering if it can be said that of course Mahayana ontology can be a skillful means just like anything else.....or am I missing your point entirely?
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Re: Mahayana ontology:skillful means for early Buddhist idea

Postby ground » Wed May 22, 2013 2:50 am

If monks have too much spare time they are getting weird ideas and start writing commentaries. :sage:
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Re: Mahayana ontology:skillful means for early Buddhist idea

Postby fivebells » Wed May 22, 2013 3:25 am

male_robin: By concentration, I mean the explicit and deliberate fabrication and maintenance of becomings/births, e.g. metta bhavana. By insight, I mean release of becomings/births by cessation at some point in dependent origination.

The brahmavihara practices you describe would be concentration practices. As an example of the insight practices I'm referring to, the first metta practice I did was to remember someone being kind to you and release the reactions which this triggers (e.g., suspicion/understanding that the kindness was not freely given.) The point of the example was that in the model I learned, the metta immeasurable is a quality of awakened mind, therefore it effectively cannot be fashioned, and the right approach is to uncover it by taking apart the reactions which obscure it. I'm looking for people talking about this kind of ontology ("metta is an aspect of awakened mind") evolving as a skillful means for inducing right effort (the insight practice), rather than as an outright corruption of the Buddha's original teachings.

convivium: Thanks for the recommendation. Are there any parts of it which you think would be particularly relevant to my question. I have read parts of it because I am reading Amaro's Small Boat, Great Mountain, and I wanted to get Amaro's views from a less compromised role than as an "interpreter" for a Dzogchen teacher. It seems to me that he does believe in some of these ontologies, or at least speaks as if he does. That was part of why I spoke of "early Buddhism" in the OP rather than Theravada. But perhaps my view of what we know about early Buddhism is slanted by the pragmatic take on the teachings which appeals to me.
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Re: Mahayana ontology:skillful means for early Buddhist idea

Postby convivium » Wed May 22, 2013 4:37 am

what i like best about mahayana is its rejection of ontology i.e. metaphysics. the section on attamayata is great. i'd check the index to see what's interesting to you. metta
Just keep breathing in and out like this. Don't be interested in anything else. It doesn't matter even if someone is standing on their head with their ass in the air. Don't pay it any attention. Just stay with the in-breath and the out-breath. Concentrate your awareness on the breath. Just keep doing it. http://www.ajahnchah.org/book/Just_Do_It_1_2.php
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Re: Mahayana ontology:skillful means for early Buddhist idea

Postby retrofuturist » Wed May 22, 2013 5:10 am

Greetings,

convivium wrote:what i like best about mahayana is its rejection of ontology i.e. metaphysics.

Really? I find it adds in a whole unnecessary layer of metaphysics... in particular the notion of Tathagatagarba (i.e. Buddha-nature).

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


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One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: Mahayana ontology:skillful means for early Buddhist idea

Postby convivium » Wed May 22, 2013 9:39 am

i wasn't generalizing on mahayana as a whole.
Just keep breathing in and out like this. Don't be interested in anything else. It doesn't matter even if someone is standing on their head with their ass in the air. Don't pay it any attention. Just stay with the in-breath and the out-breath. Concentrate your awareness on the breath. Just keep doing it. http://www.ajahnchah.org/book/Just_Do_It_1_2.php
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Re: Mahayana ontology:skillful means for early Buddhist idea

Postby fivebells » Wed May 22, 2013 6:42 pm

Thanks, I will take a look at the atammayata chapter.
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Re: Mahayana ontology:skillful means for early Buddhist idea

Postby 5heaps » Thu May 30, 2013 12:35 pm

fivebells wrote:When you're done doing that with all the reactions, what's left has the quality of the immeasurable. Maybe this ontology about qualities of awakened mind is just a 'skillful means' for taking apart preferences/prejudices (equanimity), anxiety/hostility (metta), fear (compassion), envy/despair (joy), etc.?

i dont think you understood or perhaps it was not well explained what the four immeasurable are. for example, there are many different types of arahants, and they are not all equal. some of them have greater love, greater compassion, and can help more people than others. a bodhisatta is supposed to be able to help more people to the goal than non-bodhisatta arahants, since by definition they build up more capacity in skillful means.

likewise, a buddha's good qualities are said to extend out to all suffering beings, which can never happen with arahants. so, its not just metaphysics or metaphoric ontology..it is the difference between ridding oneself of the obstructions to nirvana and ridding oneself of the obstructions to omniscience. its not just merely emotionally equalizing oneself to others as is commonly understood
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