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Duality in Mahayana Buddhist Scriptures

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Vassar College

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  1. Introduction
  2. The wrong view of an inherently existing 'self'
  3. Realizing the citta matra nature of reality
  4. The chapter of the Samdhinirmocana Sutra
  5. Concepts like the perfection of wisdom and the emptiness of all dharmas
  6. The Lotus Sutra
  7. Conclusion

The Buddha's teachings, although expressive of ultimate reality, have been conveyed through the relative medium of language. This discrepancy has led to the invocation of dichotomies such as ?reality versus unreality?, ?existence versus nonexistence? and ?truth versus untruth? to express in words what is ultimately beyond the utilized dualities. Because ultimate knowledge, as discussed in the Prajna-Paramita Sutra, is beyond distinctions, duality is not an ultimately existing construct. However, even to express that thought requires resorting to the duality of existence/nonexistence. So, the Buddhist canon spends many verses explaining that which is ?true? and ?false,? that which ?exists? ultimately and only relatively, and the dichotomy of reality and unreality. The Lankavatara Sutra, a proponent of the Cittamatra (mind-only) tradition, expounds the notion that the only truly existing thing is mind. Buddha-nature is the only un-conditioned, and thus uncreated and undying, element of existence. It is only in our clouded perceptions of things, through our relatively functioning vijnana consciousness, that we do not realize the ultimate nature of our Tathagatha-garbha (buddha-nature).

[...] Metaphors, though only indirect wisdom, are so valuable that benefits of the fiftieth person who hears just one verse of the Lotus Sutra and responds with joy is beyond the power of calculation, simile or parable Besides the Lotus Sutra, most Mahayana scriptures convey their meaning with metaphors. The Lankavatara, in its description of the nature of consciousness, resorts to a metaphor of the ocean when discussing the mind. In particular, the distinction between relative and absolute mind is conveyed with a skillfully crafted metaphor. [...]

[...] The Buddha concludes this chapter by warning that ?clinging consciousness is very deep and subtle I do not explain this to the ignorant, for fear they will get the idea of self For this reason, the Mahayana scriptures were transmitted after the Hinayana doctrines of the Four Noble Truths and conditioned genesis, the understanding of which would eliminate selfish departure from the Path. Despite the ultimate unreality of distinctions, the Buddha utilized them as expedient means to enlightenment. One such set of tentatively useful dualities is the Four Perverted Views. [...]

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