Buddhist perspectives on society and culture


Buddhist perspectives on
society and culture

A Binocular Vision of Reality

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A Binocular Vision

Themes from A Survey of Buddhism – Part Two

If A Survey of Buddhism (hereafter, ‘the Survey’) has a single overarching theme, it must surely be the ‘unity of Buddhism’, especially its transcendental unity. According to Sangharakshita’s vision, the history of Buddhism can be seen in terms of an explication of potentialities implicit in the Buddha’s transcendental realisation. This explication is an endless process, as the timeless truths of the Dharma manifest in creative interaction with the myriad forms of the cultures into which it is communicated.

As well as having identified that dynamic, Sangharakshita was himself a participant in it, and a contributor to it. Over a long lifetime of teaching he developed a perspective on the Dharma which is both faithful to the tradition and distinctive to him. Indeed, as well as the unity of the Buddhist tradition, one could speak of the unity of Sangharakshita’s teachings, which were themselves explications of key insights that he arrived at early in his life. Of these, among the most important is his understanding of the doctrine of pratītya-samutpāda (dependent arising), our subject for this article.

We began an exploration of this theme in the first article in this series. In it, I identified a number of what I called the ‘dyads of the understanding’, and defined a dyad as ‘a pair of corresponding terms, principles, ideas, or archetypes, which arises from the nature of human understanding, and influences the way the Dharma is understood and finds expression.’ This idea applies to Sangharakshita’s understanding of pratītya-samutpāda, for after identifying it as the root doctrine of Buddhism he makes a distinction between its general formulation and its particular applications, which I counted as members of a dyad. In this article I will continue that exploration, by looking at the connection between pratītya-samutpāda and nirvāṇa. Considering the nature of this connection led Sangharakshita to the idea of the ‘progressive trend’ within reality, which might be considered his foundational insight. Although it did not originate with him, it became the keystone to his understanding of the Dharma, upon which everything else in his teaching depended. It is also, as we will see, one of the keys to unlocking the unity of the Buddhist tradition. But before seeing how it does so, it will help if we understand what is at stake.

The Unity of Buddhism

The notion of Buddhism as a unified tradition was always central to Sangharakshita’s understanding of it – indeed, his first published article, at the tender age of eighteen, was entitled ‘The Unity of Buddhism’. It was also fundamental to his entire approach in the Survey. However, he doesn’t raise the issue explicitly until the beginning of Chapter Two, when, after painting a vivid picture of the external differences between the Buddhism of Sri Lanka and that of Tibet, he asks how it is even possible to regard such a heterogenous tradition as unified, before providing the following answer.

The unity of Buddhism consists in the fact that, through differences and divergences of doctrine innumerable, all schools of Buddhism aim at Enlightenment, at reproducing the spiritual experience of the Buddha. The Dharma is therefore to be defined, not so much in terms of this or that particular teaching, but rather as the sum total of the means whereby that experience may be attained.1

As this reveals, it is not merely an aversion to sectarianism that lies behind Sangharakshita’s insistence on the unity of Buddhism, but something much more profound, connected with the very nature of the Dharma. Rather than being identified with any particular external expression, we see it as transcendent of all thought-forms, and therefore capable of infinite elaboration. The diversity of the Buddhist tradition, confusing though it is for the unwary, should be taken not as a sign of disunity but as a testament to the inexhaustible potentialities inherent in the Dharma. The only alternative to seeing Buddhism as unified is to exclusively identify with one portion of it, and thereby with one particular outward expression of the Dharma, which is a falsification of the transcendental reality which all traditions exist to serve and express.

But while affirming the transcendental unity of Buddhism, Sangharakshita also insists that the tradition has at times lost touch with that perspective. The main target for his criticism in the Survey is the early schools which, following pejorative Mahāyāna nomenclature, he refers to as the ‘Hīnayāna’, and which he definitely regarded as a deterioration in the tradition. This deterioration was visible in a number of ways, but most germane to our subject are two particular doctrinal errors or biases. Firstly, a tendency to present the Dharma in one-sidedly negative terms; and secondly, the exclusive identification of pratītya-samutpāda with just one of its applications – the twelve nidānas. The standard treatment of the twelve nidānas combines these two mistakes, because the path to nirvāṇa is spoken of in terms of the cessation of that particular formulation.

As well as identifying the Hīnayāna as having deteriorated, Sangharakshita clearly states that it is through the Mahāyāna that the wellspring of spiritual vitality ran. The mistakes committed by the early schools were corrected for by the Mahāyāna in a variety of ways, especially methodologically by the development of the Bodhisattva Ideal, which gave a loftier and more positive content to the goal than a mere cessation of conditioned existence; and doctrinally through the teaching of śūnyatā, whereby the full subtlety of pratītya-samutpāda was restored.

But this itself creates a problem. For modern scholarship has revealed that neither the Bodhisattva Ideal nor the fully developed doctrine of śūnyatā was explicitly taught by the Buddha – at least according to the evidence of the Pāli Suttas, the most complete recension of the original teaching that we have. A unifying perspective adequate to the current state of our knowledge must therefore satisfy a number of requirements. It must correct the mistakes that the early tradition fell into, and acknowledge the legitimacy and indeed necessity of the Mahāyāna developments. But in order to be truly unifying, it must do so as far as possible on the basis of the earliest records of the Buddha’s teaching available to us. In a nutshell, it must ‘rediscover’ the essence of the Mahāyāna in the sources of the Hīnayāna.2 Much of the Survey is committed to this endeavour. Here, our focus will be specifically in relation to Sangharakshita’s interpretation of pratītya-samutpāda.

Cycle and Spiral

Students of Sangharakshita will be well aware of the two ‘modes’ of conditionality, the cyclic and the spiral, upon which he has placed so much emphasis in his teaching. He arrives at a presentation of his distinctive position on this via two main routes, which may be seen to reflect the distinction between pratītya-samutpāda as principle and as application. The first route, which pertains more to application, is primarily a textual one, consisting of a reference to the unearthing, by Caroline Rhys-Davids, of the Upanisā Sutta, which contains a highly significant passage in which the standard ‘cyclical’ nidānas – the sequence of conditions that govern the process of rebirth within saṃsāra – are succeeded by a progressive series of ‘spiral’ nidānas,3 beginning with faith in response to dissatisfaction and ending with the knowledge that the taints have been overcome – equivalent to nirvāṇa.

The second route is more philosophical, and pertains more to the principle of pratītya-samutpāda than to its application, and to how that principle may be expressed in accordance with two different trends within reality, the respective applications of which may be found in the two sets of nidānas. In this, Sangharakshita draws upon the work of Dr Beni Madhab Barua, whose essay (originally a lecture) ‘Buddhism as a Personal Religion’4 he encountered when just twenty years old, and which he described as having ‘exercised a permanent influence on my understanding of the Buddha’s teaching.’5 While a full account of it, and of the use Sangharakshita puts it to, is found in the Survey, a fuller exploration of its philosophical significance is contained in his early essay ‘Philosophy and Religion in Original and Developed Buddhism’, and it is this that I now wish to examine.

Philosophy and Religion

The essay deals with the relationship between Buddhism considered as a philosophy and considered as a religion. This first requires the two terms to be distinguished, which Sangharakshita does, perhaps a little simplistically, as follows. What distinguishes philosophy is its ‘scope’. Unlike religion, which deals with the question of what the Good consists of, and the sciences, which specialize in particular branches of knowledge, any philosophy that is worthy of the name must be unlimited in scope. This means that it must make statements about existence as a whole, not just certain aspects of it. Therefore if religion is to have a secure philosophical foundation, its notion of the Good must be comprehended through such statements.

Sangharakshita does not give examples, but let us consider Christianity. However attractive one may find the figure of Christ or other aspects of his religion, to become a Christian means not just to embrace a soteriology, but also to accept the philosophical framework for that, namely the existence of a creator Deity, and the claim that He became flesh through His son etc. And if one happens to find such ideas implausible, the entire edifice of Christianity crumbles. Similarly, the credibility or otherwise of Buddhism as a religion depends upon its truth-value as a philosophy. We can only accept the Buddha’s status as a spiritual teacher if we also find him to be a philosopher – if we can show him to have made statements about existence as a whole, within which his path to liberation can be located.

Fortunately, we can find such statements, and they are summed up in the doctrine of  paṭicca-samuppāda (the Pāli form is used in the essay). Commenting on the Mahāvagga of the Vinaya Pitaka, which he cites in support of this claim, Sangharakshita says,

This important text, embedded in what is undoubtedly one of the oldest strata of the Pāli Tipitaka, makes it quite clear that the doctrine of paṭicca-samuppāda is the conceptualized formulation of the content of the Buddha’s experience of sambodhi and that it may therefore be considered as the philosophical foundation not only of Original Buddhism but of the subsequently-arising schools of Developed Buddhism also.6

But here a question could be raised. Many years after Sangharakshita wrote these words, he seems to have taken a directly opposite position, going so far as to say that ‘the Buddha himself – let us be very clear about this – was not a philosopher.’7 It may be that this difference reflects a caution about abstractions which the intellectually precocious young Sangharakshita was yet to develop, or a greater awareness of the non-metaphysical orientation of the Buddha’s original teaching. But the contradiction is, I suggest, more apparent than real, and arises from the ambiguity attached to the meaning of the term ‘philosophy’, and whether it refers to the attempt to express universal truth through concepts (in which sense the Buddha was a kind of philosopher), or to fathom reality from the standpoint of reason (in which sense he was not). It would probably be more accurate to say that Buddhism treads a middle path between philosophy and theology. It is closer to theology in being based on a revelation from the Buddha that cannot be approached merely by the rational mind. But this revelation was, it is claimed, an insight into the nature of things, and moreover one that can be communicated. One of the media through which this is done is that of doctrines, which, having been formulated, can be subjected to philosophical enquiry as regards their truth. If the Buddha did indeed apprehend the way things really are, one would expect this to be reflected in what he taught, such that the ideas through which he expressed his insight will withstand philosophical examination in a way that those arising merely from the speculative intellect do not. And this, the young Sangharakshita seems to be arguing, is what we do find.

Pratītya-samutpāda and Nirvāṇa

But such a philosophical foundation for Buddhism is only secure if it can be shown to be compatible with Buddhism considered as a religion, which brings us to the central question:

Does paṭicca-samuppāda include Nibbāna? The question is important, for upon the nature of the answer depends the status of Buddhism as a philosophy.8

In other words, since nibbāna is the highest Good of Buddhism, and thus the central concern of Buddhism considered as a religion, it must be shown to be compatible with the central tenets of Buddhism considered as a philosophy. Otherwise, ‘the whole edifice of the religion would be in imminent danger of collapse.’

It is at this point that Sangharakshita calls to his aid Dr Barua, who in the aforementioned paper deals with precisely the question of whether (returning to Sanskrit) nirvāṇa is included in pratītya-samutpāda, and answers it in the affirmative.

We can begin a summary of Dr Barua’s argument with the identification of pratītya-samutpāda and nirvāṇa as ‘the two central points in the Buddha’s personal religion’, whence we proceed to the question, is pratītya-samutpāda an ‘all inclusive reality’? If so, it must include nirvāṇa. If not, ‘it does not deserve the name of reality at all.’ The various answers to this question, we are told, divided the Buddhist tradition into ‘two sharply antagonistic schools of thought’, one of which excluded nirvāṇa from pratītya-samutpāda, implying (though this is not stated) that the other included it. Dr Barua’s own sympathies are very much with the latter school, and he supports his position by citing the bhikkhuni Dhammadinnā, from the Culaveddalla Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya.

As interpreted by her [Dr Barua tells us], Buddha’s Causal Genesis admits of two different trends of things in the whole of reality. In one of them, the reaction (paṭibhāga) takes place in a cyclical order between two opposites (paccanīkas), such as pleasure and pain (sukha-dukkha), virtue and vice (puñña-pāpa), good and evil (kusala-akusala). This is aptly termed by Buddhaghosa visabhāga-paṭibhāga. In the other, the reaction takes place in a progressive order between two counterparts or complements or between two things of the same genus, the succeeding factor augmenting the effect of the preceding one. This is what Buddhaghosa terms sadisa-paṭibhāga.9

Nirvāṇa belongs to the second trend,

in which the course of reaction lies from strength to strength, good to further good, from that to still greater good, from pleasure to joy, from joy to gladness, from gladness to happiness, from happiness to bliss, from bliss to beatitude, from intuitive knowledge (vijjā) to the feeling of emancipation (vimutti), from that to self-mastery (vasībhāva) or self-consciousness as to the acquisition of the free state, and from that to the fullest enjoyment of the bliss of Nirvāṇa.10

In order to avoid an ‘infinite regress’ (which should surely be an infinite progress) Dhammadinnā refuses to identify any further stage, but, according to Dr Barua, indicates that such may be possible and will partake of the nature of nirvāṇa.

These extracts will suffice here, since the passage, which Sangharakshita quite rightly describes as ‘brilliant’, is quoted at length and unbroken in the Survey itself, as well as piecemeal in his earlier paper which we have been discussing. It is this discovery of Dr Barua’s that had such a profound impact on Sangharakshita, and it formed a permanent foundation for his understanding of the Dharma and for the doctrinal framework particular to the Triratna Buddhist Community. By virtue of it, he says,

The religious doctrines and spiritual practices of Buddhism rest not on the stubble of blind belief or the shifting sands of idle speculation, but on the adamantine foundation of philosophic truth. Buddhism as a religion stands firm-rooted in philosophy, and Buddhism as a philosophy stands bearing religion as its finest fruit.11

It should, however, be mentioned that Sangharakshita, not exactly being a scholar himself (at least not a linguist), sometimes had to take on trust the findings of others who were. Dr Barua was of such repute that there would have been no reason not to accord him such trust. It has since become clear, however, that there were some surprising exegetical errors in his account. For example, he seems to have concocted his own list of positive nidānas, which has no scriptural referent, and which only partially corresponds to Dhammadinna’s. Perhaps more surprising and problematic, Dhammadinnā does not mention the possibility of any further progression beyond Nirvāṇa, leaving us to guess whence Dr Barua acquired this idea, and how he felt justified in attributing it to her.12

In any case, however serious Dr Barua’s faults as a scholar seem to be, they are outweighed by his virtues as a thinker. His articulation of the two trends within conditionality, and of the mechanism whereby one transitions into the other, largely withstands such points of doubtful exegesis, and should be considered a major contribution to Buddhist thought – and one that, particularly through the legacy of Sangharakshita, will not go uncelebrated.

Developed Buddhism

So much for the ‘original’ Buddhism named in the title of Sangharakshita’s early essay. What of ‘developed’ Buddhism? His findings here are potentially no less significant than those we have examined so far, though probably less well known. For he goes on to argue that both the Madhyamaka and the Yogācāra philosophies of the Mahāyāna are compatible with the position put forward by Dr Barua, thereby demonstrating the doctrinal unity of early and developed Buddhism. Though he supports his arguments with references to various historical sources, neither the arguments themselves nor the quotations he provides are transparently clear, at least to me. Given the significance of the point he is attempting to demonstrate, a more thorough justification of it would be a good thing. Here a rough précis and rather interpretive explanation, along with a table laying out his general conclusions (Fig. 1), will have to suffice.

Nāgārjuna, the founder of the Madhyamaka school, explicitly declared that the doctrine of śūnyatā which he expounded was nothing other than a restatement of pratītya-samutpāda.13 This being the case, we would expect distinctions in the application of śūnyatā to correspond to distinctions in the application of pratītya-samutpāda, which is indeed what we find. In Madhyamaka the key distinction is between the emptiness of the composite (saṃskṛta-śūnyatā) and the emptiness of the incomposite (asaṃskṛta-śūnyatā). But since both the composite and the incomposite are empty, the distinction between them is also empty, and they are to be seen as merely relative and mutually entailing terms. To describe the emptiness that includes them both and dissolves the distinction between them, Sangharakshita employs the term ālamba-śūnyatā. Ālamba (which he does not define) means, among other things, ‘that on which one rests or leans’, so for our purposes we may interpretively translate it as ‘foundational’. This ālamba-śūnyatā is equivalent to pratītya-samutpāda considered as an all-inclusive principle, comprehending both the cyclical and the spiral trends, which themselves correspond to the emptiness of the composite and the incomposite respectively. The emptiness of the composite corresponds to cyclical conditionality because whatever comes together according to conditions is empty of self-nature, and must pass away when conditions no longer support it. The emptiness of the incomposite corresponds to spiral conditionality since it is by virtue of their being incomposite that the conditionally arisen states of the transcendental path can no longer fall away.

This perspective helps us to make sense of the fact that Sangharakshita has at times throughout his teaching career made extensive use of the term ‘Unconditioned’ as synonymous with nirvāṇa. How, one might ask, can nirvāṇa be unconditioned if it is included in pratītya-samutpāda? In answering this question it is useful to be aware of the alternative ways of translating saṃskṛta, as ‘conditioned’, and as ‘composite’. Saṃskṛta accordingly means both ‘depending upon conditions’, and ‘made up of parts’. Things that are saṃskṛta arise from conditions, and cease when those conditions cease; and they are composed of parts, and cease to be when those parts no longer cohere. A useful distinction may then be made between ‘conditioned’ and ‘conditionally arisen’. Pratītya-samutpāda in its cyclical mode governs the process of arising and passing, the coming together and falling apart, of conditioned, composite things. But with spiral conditionality, increasingly as one rises through its stages, the conditionally arisen states become free from the conditions that created them, until eventually there is no possibility of falling back to a lower stage. To offer a metaphor, only the initial trajectory of a bird’s flight to freedom from captivity is conditioned by the dimensions of the cage from which it is escaping. Nirvāṇa, while requiring conditions for its realisation, once realized is free from all conditions, and is thus ‘unconditioned’.

A similar set of correlations can be made with regard to Yogācāra philosophy. Simplifying Sangharakshita’s account somewhat, we may say that the Yogācāra saw mind or consciousness (manas, citta or vijñāna), or later, storehouse-consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna), as being compatible with the śūnyatā of the Madhyamaka (or even, he implies, the same truth approached from a different point of view), which, according to the correlation previously posited, makes it also compatible with pratītya-samutpāda. And within the ālaya-vijñāna are found both defiled seeds (sāśrava-bīja) and pure seeds (ansāśrava-bīja), the former corresponding to the cyclical trend within pratītya-samutpāda, the latter with the progressive trend.


Original Buddhismpaṭicca samuppādavisabhāga-paṭibhāgasadisa-paṭibhāga.

In this way, Sangharakshita shows that Dr Barua’s discovery is in accordance with the two main philosophical positions of developed Buddhism, which supports his argument (made at length in Chapter Two of the Survey) that the Mahāyāna was true to the Buddha’s original teaching in both spirit and letter.

This subject awaits, and more than justifies, thorough scholarly enquiry – for which I am not qualified. I am aware, for example, that there are questions to do with the term ‘ālamba-śūnyatā’, which (according to Dharmachari Dhivan) seems not to be found in Indian Madhyamaka, but was probably back-translated from Chinese, and which, moreover, may have meant something rather different from the use Sangharakshita puts it to. It seems that he was trying to piece together an argument from the rather limited sources he had available at the time – and indeed I am not aware that he made further use of the term in his later teaching.

But, as is the case with regard to the questionable exegesis of Dr Barua, Sangharakshita’s main point stands independently, since it arises from fundamental principle. Unless one is to claim that nirvāṇa is merely a negation, rather than the fulfillment of a path, we must conclude that its realisation arises in dependence upon conditions, which means that pratītya-samutpāda must be a principle that includes both the cyclical and the spiral trends. The only alternative to this is to restrict the meaning of pratītya-samutpāda to its cyclical application, and to employ another term for the conditioned arisings that constitute spiritual growth, which would be artificial and still leave one with the question of the relationship between the two terms. Much more natural, coherent and elegant, is to identify both trends as applications of a single principle, and name that principle with a single term. Furthermore, if śūnyatā corresponds to pratītya-samutpāda, that correspondence must not only reflect both trends, but also the general principle that encompasses them.

It does, however, remain a question, what relation Sangharakshita’s conclusions have to the Buddha’s original intentions. While positing pratītya-samutpāda as a doctrinal foundation is certainly defensible – and most of the Buddhist tradition has done so, at least implicitly – one will look in vain to the Pāli Canon for an explicit declaration that it is an over-arching principle that includes the path to nirvāṇa.14 Is this idea a reconstruction of the Buddha’s original teaching or a fresh development in doctrine?

I suggest that the answer includes a bit of both. Light on what Sangharakshita was trying to achieve can perhaps be shed by considering earlier doctrinal developments in the tradition, especially in the Mahāyāna. As he says in Chapter Two of the Survey,

The quite extensive doctrinal developments which occurred not only in India but also in Japan, and to some extent in China too, took place partly by way of an attempt to push to their ultimate logical conclusion the teachings attributed to the Buddha, many of which were suggestive rather than exhaustive in nature, partly because of the need for building up for the Doctrine a systematic rational basis from which the tenets of Buddhism could be defended and the theories of non-Buddhist schools attacked.15

The idea of pratītya-samutpāda as an over-arching principle which includes the path to nirvāṇa also pushes to its ultimate logical conclusion teachings attributed to the Buddha which were suggestive rather than exhaustive in nature; and it builds up for the doctrine a systematic rational basis from which the tenets of Buddhism can be defended etc. In this sense, Sangharakshita’s achievement is similar in kind to, say, Nāgārjuna’s. The key difference is that pratītya-samutpāda is clearly the doctrinal foundation of the original teaching, and indeed of the whole tradition. Although the term śūnya was occasionally used by the Buddha, pratītya-samutpāda is both more ubiquitious in the Pāli Canon and more highly articulated, so that the route is more direct to the fully developed philosophical principle that Sangharakshita provides us with. Moreover, it has a hermeneutic primacy, insofar as śūnyatā cannot be understood without it, and was indeed seen in the Mahāyāna as an explication of it. From the perspective of the unity of Buddhism, these facts are of the greatest importance. 

Reality and its Formulation

The account of Dr Barua’s findings in ‘Philosophy and Religion in Original and Developed Buddhism’, and of the philosophical issue it resolves, largely coincides with that of the Survey, albeit with some differences of emphasis and terminology. But there is one point contained in the Survey which is not so explicitly present in its forbear, but which is of high significance. Commenting on the question of whether pratītya-samutpāda is an ‘all-inclusive reality’ Sangharakshita says,

The only caveat we would wish to add here is that the question at issue is not so much whether the pratītya-samutpāda is an all-inclusive reality as whether it is an all-inclusive formulation of reality, a distinction which, in the light of our previous remarks on the need for distinguishing between thoughts and things, will be seen to be not without importance.16

It is a distinction he makes in a variety of ways in a number of places. For example,

Effectively to distinguish between thoughts and things, between the concepts which merely indicate realities and those realities themselves, is an art belonging to a highly advanced stage of philosophical discipline and spiritual culture.17

And more particularly in relation to pratītya-samutpāda,

…the sambodhi attained by the Buddha consisted of a purely transcendental, non-conceptual insight, and the general formula of the doctrine of conditioned co-production was an attempt to formulate that insight in intellectual terms.18

This relationship between ‘Reality’ and its formulation in concepts is perhaps the most subtle area of Buddhist thought. One of the difficulties it gives rise to is that, even having made the distinction between the reality and the formulation, in order to talk about the reality there is no recourse other than to use the terms of the formulation. Thus, even in the next section from the one under discussion, Sangharakshita reverts to saying, ‘Having shown in the last section that the pratītya-samutpāda is an all-inclusive reality within which even Nirvāṇa has a place…’ Perhaps one is forced to conclude that in a sense pratītya-samutpāda is both an all-inclusive reality and an all-inclusive formulation of reality, since we formulate the reality in terms of pratītya-samutpāda because of a correspondence between the two, and must then use the formulation to stand both for itself and for the reality it is supposed to indicate.

Be that as it may, the distinction is fundamental to understanding the use Sangharakshita makes of Dr Barua’s discovery. Returning to ‘Philosophy and Religion in Original and Developed Buddhism’, we see that he explains how the cyclical and progressive trends are both part of one reality, and how spiritual progress is in alignment with reality itself, not merely with its conceptual formulations, and therefore occurs in relation to both trends simultaneously.

Adolescence, for example, is not only a process of becoming more adult, but also a process of becoming less a child. Similarly, the spiritual life comprizes not only the waxing in of the nibbanic trend of becoming but, over and above this, the waning out of the samsaric trend of becoming. The two are in truth inextricably intertwined.19

But, inextricably intertwined though they are, a difference arises in the way the relationship between the path and the goal is formulated, depending on which of the two trends of conditionality one is viewing that relationship from the perspective of. This may be seen in more detail in the passage from the Survey in which Sangharakshita synthesises his and Dr Barua’s findings, which must count as one of the most important in all of his voluminous writings. Though the whole passage should be read closely, the part I wish to draw attention to is as follows:

In relation to the first trend Nirvāṇa may be described only negatively, in terms of cessation; from the viewpoint of the world it will inevitably appear as a purely transcendental and, as it were, ‘static’ state. In relation to the second trend Nirvāṇa may be described as the farthest discernible point of the increasingly positive and progressive series of reactions away from the saṃsāra; here it appears as ‘dynamic’ rather than static, the archetype of time rather than of space.20

Note that ‘In relation to the first trend Nirvāṇa may be described only negatively, in terms of cessation…’, whereas ‘In relation to the second trend Nirvāṇa may be described as the farthest discernible point…’ etc. The two trends are found within one reality, and both may be comprehended under the general formulation of pratītya-samutpāda. But when we come to apply that formulation to the relationship between the path and the goal, one or other trend must be our point of departure. If we formulate the relationship according to the first trend, nirvāṇa may be described negatively, and in terms of cessation; and moreover it appears as static, as discontinuous with the mundane, and according to the archetype of space. If we formulate the relationship according to the second trend nirvāṇa may be described positively, in terms of progression; and it appears as dynamic, as continuous with the mundane, and according to the archetype of time.

This brings us full circle back to the previous discussion about the dyads, many of which are present here, with their full significance revealed. It is in the dyadic nature of unenlightened consciousness to make binary divisions in thought of things that are inseparable in reality, a point that we can only understand if we first recognize the distinction between reality and its conceptual formulations. Having done so, we are provided with what Sangharakshita calls a ‘binocular view of reality’, in which it is equally legitimate to formulate the relationship between the path and the goal in terms of the progressive trend as it is in terms of the cyclical trend, and in fact to do so gives one a more balanced and inspiring perspective on the spiritual life. ‘The advantages of this binocular view of reality’, he tells us, ‘are enormous. Instead of being a mere defecation of things evil the spiritual life becomes an enriching assimilation of ever greater and greater goods. The via affirmativa is no less valid an approach to the goal than the via negativa.21

The advantages of which he speaks are testified to by a teaching career that lasted another sixty years after the publication of the Survey. As I said in my previous article, ‘While he himself stressed that his earlier thought must be understood in the light of the later, it is equally true that the later was a development of the earlier, and cannot be fully understood without reference to it as a foundation’. There is perhaps no clearer example of this than the idea of the progressive trend within pratītya-samutpāda, since it informed his entire perspective on the Dharma, and underlies many of his most distinctive articulations of it. Indeed, he extended his understanding of it to include not only the progress from unenlightened to Enlightened humanity, but the growth of consciousness as such, and indeed the possibility of Enlightenment within the universe as a whole. His idea of the Higher Evolution posits a continuous line of development from primitive to Enlightened consciousness, in which human consciousness is the stage at which the progressive trend becomes self-aware and self-directing. Progressive conditionality is also presupposed in his extension of the meaning of the act of Going For Refuge, from his identification of it as the central and definitive act of a Buddhist’s life, to a principle expressing an immanent urge within all things for manifestation at a higher level. And finally, his interpretation of the doctrine of the ‘Five Niyamas’ – which is not traditional – cannot be understood independently of progressive conditionality. In this schematization of the five different kinds of conditioned relationship, the dhamma-niyama may be seen from one point of view as the sequence of conditionally arisen states that unfold consequent on the decisive break with ego-clinging, and from another as the progressive trend within reality itself, which allows an evolution from a lower to a higher state at all levels of being.   

But all that came later. Remaining now with the immediate achievements of the Survey itself, I have identified the ‘unity of Buddhism’ as the central theme of the book, and the ideas we have been discussing are key to that unity, at least as regards doctrine. In the Survey Sangharakshita argues repeatedly and forcefully that the transcendental basis for unity in the tradition was lost in the more conservative early schools, resulting, amongst other things, in a bias towards negative formulations of both doctrine and method, and a loss of the full significance of pratītya-samutpāda. The Mahāyāna compensated for these in its own way, doctrinally through the doctrine of śūnyatā, and methodologically through the Bodhisattva Ideal and path. The critical, historical perspective that we now possess – which was unavailable when the Mahāyāna developed – has made it clear that these correctives cannot be founded on the earliest textual sources without considerable elaboration. But Sangharakshita’s demonstration, with the help of Mrs Rhys-Davids and Dr Barua, that the Buddha himself used both positive and negative formulations, and that pratītya-samutpāda is a principle that includes them both, simultaneously validates the innovations of the Mahāyāna and returns us to principles found at the root of the entire tradition. This allows for a more complete reunification of original and developed Buddhism than has ever before been achieved, and it is for this reason alone of the utmost significance for the history of Buddhist thought.


  1. Sangharakshita, A Survey of Buddhism, Windhorse Publications, Complete Works Vol. 1, p202.
  2. I use the term ‘Hīnayāna’ advisedly, aware that its polemical origin compromises its academic neutrality.
  3. Dharmachari Dhivan has suggested that these would be better thought of as upanisās. See his ‘‘Preconditions’: The Upanisā Sutta in Context’.
  4. The whole essay can be read here: https://archive.org/details/in.gov.ignca.4523. I am grateful to Dharmachari Aranyaka for finding this source.
  5. Sangharakshita, The Rainbow Road From Tooting Broadway to Kalimpong, Windhorse Publications, Complete Works Vol. 20, p124.
  6. Sangharakshita, ‘Philosophy and Religion in Original and Developed Buddhism’, Windhorse Publications, Complete Works Vol. 7, p192.
  7. Sangharakshita, What is the Dharma?,Windhorse Publications, Complete Works Vol. 3, p164.
  8. Sangharakshita, ‘Philosophy and Religion in Original and Developed Buddhism’, Windhorse Publications, Complete Works Vol. 7, p197.
  9. Quoted in Sangharakshita, ‘Philosophy and Religion in Original and Developed Buddhism’, Windhorse Publications, Complete Works Vol. 7, p198-199.
  10. Ibid, p199.
  11. Ibid, 202-203.
  12. For more on this see ‘The Strange Case of Beni Barua and the Theri Dhammadinna’ by Sagaramati.
  13. E.g. ‘Whatever is dependently co-arisen/That is explained to be emptiness./That, being a dependent designation/Is itself the middle way.’ Nāgārjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Chapter 24, verse 18.
  14. Perhaps the closest we get is Sariputta attributing to the Buddha the phrase ‘One who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma; one who sees the Dhamma sees dependent origination.’ (MN.28). I am grateful to Prajnaketu for pointing this out to me.
  15. Sangharakshita, A Survey of Buddhism, Windhorse Publications, Complete Works Vol. 1, p208.
  16. Ibid, p117
  17. Ibid, p72.
  18. Ibid, p93.
  19. Sangharakshita, ‘Philosophy and Religion in Original and Developed Buddhism’, Windhorse Publications, Complete Works Vol. 7, p204.
  20. Sangharakshita, A Survey of Buddhism, Windhorse Publications, Complete Works Vol. 1, p119
  21. Ibid.

Vidyaruchi has been a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order since 2009, from which time until 2013 he was personal assistant to its founder, Urgyen Sangharakshita. Since then he has been a freelance Buddhist. When not engaged in teaching or travelling he mainly lives in a shed in his parents' garden.

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