This Plan explores the meaning of wisdom in the Saṁdhinirmocana Sūtra and its continuities in Buddhist thought, as well as critical-constructive reflections on its significance to contemporary Buddhist theology and embodied practice. The thesis of the philosophical component is that, in contrast to how the SNS is often presented as an example of problematic hermeneutical models in both traditional doxographical literature—which read the SNS as polemical—and in modern academic scholarship—which takes issue with what is seen as ahistorical and authoritarian tendencies—the SNS actually provides a very useful model of a panemic account of the Buddhadharma engaging with Buddhist teachings and wisdom traditions in general. I argue this model is useful in maintaining a harmonious balance between cataphatic and apophatic elements of Buddhist teachings by showing how their meaning and transformative value both advise the same soteriological end. The second component of my project addresses the desire to manifest the teachings of the SNS in more constructive ways that go beyond philosophical appreciation, extend into thinking through its categories, and developing responses to contemporary needs through them. To do this I evaluate the Saṁdhinirmocana Sūtra as a potential source of reflection for the emerging discourse of critical-constructive Buddhist thought, or “Buddhist theology.”
The Saṁdhinirmocana Sūtra (SNS) was a highly influential Mahāyāna sūtra that appeared in its present form around the 2nd century. Expositions of its doctrines and key themes by Buddhist thinkers such as Asaṅga and Vasubandhu formed the basis for what became known as the Yogācāra, or “school of meditative practice.”14 As the title of the SNS suggests, its primary concern is to explain the fundamental intention that motivates all of the Buddha’s teachings. It does so by providing an interpretive model aimed at reconciling the contradictions between the Buddha’s initial cataphatic teachings and their apophatic correctives into a single coherent and open-ended dynamic of the path for transforming primal confusion. As Donald Lopez points out, the SNS reconciles these traditions through an auto-commentary of the Buddha presenting a self-referential hierarchy of meaning that explains the apparent tension between these two forms of teachings to be incomplete but essential perspectives on the same underlying phenomena as the culmination of the path, the transformation of dukkha into the experience of buddhahood that appreciates the reality of “how things are in themselves” (dharmāta).
A pragmatic approach to the doctrine of the three natures is to understand it as “true” if it is—to varying degrees—directly experienced as helpful. From this approach, the truth of a Buddhist teaching is the degree to which it is beneficial to the transformation of dukkha into the realization of buddhahood, not because of its correspondence to an objective reality or coherence with what is accepted as authoritatively Buddhist. Interestingly, in the Buddhist form of pragmatism I am arguing for, the means (various Buddhist teachings including the SNS) are neither separate from nor the same as the goal (the transformation of dukkha). Therefore, when faced with the choice to suspend following the Buddha’s ethical guidelines in the service of more expediently accomplishing the goal—for example, by promoting the sangha’s social influence by killing its Muslim competitors, as is currently the case in parts of Myanmar—the pragmatic orientation of the SNS would not allow us to abandon the means of the Buddha’s ethical guidelines.
By appreciating the pragmatic guidance of the Saṁdhinirmocana Sūtra alongside other sources of their traditions Buddhist communities can more easily reframe their interaction with modernity as an opportunity to learn, not as a problem to surmount. The pragmatism of the SNS can inform their attempts to respond skillfully to the opportunities of historical consciousness, cosmopolitan values, and critical methodologies in ways that would be difficult otherwise. Responding skillfully, is to “chose peace” (the means) over the goal of—or at least our conceptual linguistic constructions of it—Buddhism.