Tathagatagarbha and oppresion/social action

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Jon N
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Tathagatagarbha and oppresion/social action

Post by Jon N » Wed Jul 17, 2019 1:01 pm

Im currently in the middle of reading Paul William's Mahayana Buddhism, The Doctrinal Foundations and he makes some interesting comments regarding the tathagatagarbha.

According to this author there is in Mahayana Buddhism a tension regarding tathagatagarbha. If everything is already enlightened, why there should be practice? For this reason, if I remember well, some traditions of Tibetan Buddhism regard the tathagatagarbha as the mind in its unenlightened state, so that practice is needed to reach a pure mind (I cannot find the quote in the text so i'm not being very technical here).

What struck me the most is the critique of tathagatagarbha made by the contemporary Japanese movement Critical Buddhism. According to the authors of critical buddhism, since according to tathagatagarbha everything is already enlightened, this amounts to a reinforcement of the status quo with its injustices and oppressions.

So, my question is, how is it possible to combine the tatagatagarbha theory with social action? or at least how is it possible to argue that everything is enlightened without reinforcing the inequalities of the status quo? Im thinking movements like Engaged Buddhism should have an answer for this question, but I don't know them. So, what do you think?

Thanks a lot in advance for your time.

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Re: Tathagatagarbha and oppresion/social action

Post by jake » Wed Jul 17, 2019 1:52 pm

Hi Jon,

For those of us with the book at home can you say which edition you're reading (First or Second) and what page number? Would be nice to read the full context.

Thanks!

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Re: Tathagatagarbha and oppresion/social action

Post by tkp67 » Wed Jul 17, 2019 2:04 pm

Some points on this concept (as I understand it)

First the "enlightenment" is purity of mind that exists before rising thoughts both those in the moment and those created over the whole of one's life. So while yes the potential is there it still needs to be realized.

How a person comes to know this information but rather more importantly how a person comes to know this information in a meaningful manner that leads to liberation is an important question.

One thing that I have noticed and what drew me into east asian buddhism which seems to understand this concept is that how these practices transform a person and how that person carries themselves based on that transformation where very appealing to me. More so than proselytizing.

In fact the most influential person of them has been the one who has said least words and had a far more robust personal practice than I could imagine.

I think it is also important to keep in mind and to try to embrace the "enlightened" mind in others as we are taught to believe as how we see things in our mind seems to express itself in our deeds and actions. If we can reveal out own enlightenment and that of others in our mind, their minds might sense as much. It may give rise to some level of interest or understanding.

I do think it is important that our minds function according to the teachings we are trying to set an example of.

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Re: Tathagatagarbha and oppresion/social action

Post by Jon N » Wed Jul 17, 2019 2:17 pm

jake wrote:
Wed Jul 17, 2019 1:52 pm
Hi Jon,

For those of us with the book at home can you say which edition you're reading (First or Second) and what page number? Would be nice to read the full context.

Thanks!
I have the second edition published in 2009. Im mostly refering to the sub-section "critical budhism", in chapter 6, from page 122 to 124.

Thanks! : )

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Re: Tathagatagarbha and oppresion/social action

Post by jake » Wed Jul 17, 2019 3:02 pm

Jon N wrote:
Wed Jul 17, 2019 1:01 pm
According to this author there is in Mahayana Buddhism a tension regarding tathagatagarbha. If everything is already enlightened, why there should be practice? For this reason, if I remember well, some traditions of Tibetan Buddhism regard the tathagatagarbha as the mind in its unenlightened state, so that practice is needed to reach a pure mind (I cannot find the quote in the text so i'm not being very technical here).

What struck me the most is the critique of tathagatagarbha made by the contemporary Japanese movement Critical Buddhism. According to the authors of critical buddhism, since according to tathagatagarbha everything is already enlightened, this amounts to a reinforcement of the status quo with its injustices and oppressions.
Hi Jon,

Thank you for posting the reference pages. This is a great topic for discussion but I don't have much time at the moment. I just wanted to take issue with the framing of this question and make a couple quick comments.

The author may identify a tension in Mahayana Buddhism but the Critical Buddhist perspective comes from an academic philosophical argumentation. Critical Buddhism is not itself, as far as I know, a part of any current school's doctrinal perspective so I don't really understand how it relates. It is more of a philosophical position taken by Matsumoto. I personally take issue with how he characterizes tathagatagarbha and that is a discussion left for elsewhere (and has occured a number of times on DW).

I really like the WIlliams book but have always been a bit uncomfortable with how he addresses some issues. It is unclear to me why he even mentions Critical Buddhism in this text as it isn't related to the doctrinal foundations of Mahayana, or at least to my knowledge. Not being too familiar with Japanese culture (despite visiting and training there) I don't really understand how/why this concept is used to critique social structures in the country.

Anyway, if I understand your question correctly, I'd argue that we're really discussing two very different scales and perhaps we need to spend a bit more time unpacking what is meant by some of these concepts as well as the motivation for particular actions. Further, I think the motivations for action need to be explored too. Buddhism seeks to extinguish suffering. Social action seeks to alleviate suffering, right? These are two important but different outcomes. Do you agree? So, if I seek to alleviate the suffering of another it shouldn't matter if the nature of our mind is no different than the nature of the Buddha's mind. The realization of that nature still needs to occur. If, through social action, I can help someone suffer less and have an opportunity to encounter the Buddha's teachings, then that's a good thing, right? (Or perhaps their suffering is a skill-in-means approach to teach me Dharma?).

Let me return the question, how do you see the concept of tathagatagarbha encouraging/supporting the statue quo?

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Re: Tathagatagarbha and oppresion/social action

Post by Astus » Wed Jul 17, 2019 3:45 pm

Jon N wrote:
Wed Jul 17, 2019 1:01 pm
If everything is already enlightened, why there should be practice?
Because of adventitious defilements.
For this reason, if I remember well, some traditions of Tibetan Buddhism regard the tathagatagarbha as the mind in its unenlightened state, so that practice is needed to reach a pure mind (I cannot find the quote in the text so i'm not being very technical here).
"But if the mind gives rise to irrelevant thoughts and further predicates the world of objects, it will continue to lack these qualities. All these numberless excellent qualities of the pure principle are none other than those of One Mind, and there is nothing to be sought after anew by thought. Thus, that which is fully endowed with them is called the Dharmakaya when manifested and the Tathagata-garbha when latent."
(The Awakening Of Faith In Mahayana)
how is it possible to combine the tatagatagarbha theory with social action? or at least how is it possible to argue that everything is enlightened without reinforcing the inequalities of the status quo?
It actually fits quite well with social action.

"There are five mistakes: faint-heartedness,
contempt for those of lesser ability,
to believe in the false,
to speak about the true nature badly
and to cherish oneself above all else.
So that those in whom these above were there
might rid themselves of them, therefore was it declared."

(Uttaratantra Shastra, v 157, in The Changeless Nature, p 70)

See also chapter 20 of the Lotus Sutra.
1 Myriad dharmas are only mind.
Mind is unobtainable.
What is there to seek?

2 If the Buddha-Nature is seen,
there will be no seeing of a nature in any thing.

3 Neither cultivation nor seated meditation —
this is the pure Chan of Tathagata.

4 With sudden enlightenment to Tathagata Chan,
the six paramitas and myriad means
are complete within that essence.


1 Huangbo, T2012Ap381c1 2 Nirvana Sutra, T374p521b3; tr. Yamamoto 3 Mazu, X1321p3b23; tr. J. Jia 4 Yongjia, T2014p395c14; tr. from "The Sword of Wisdom"

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Re: Tathagatagarbha and oppresion/social action

Post by Jon N » Wed Jul 17, 2019 4:45 pm

jake wrote:
Wed Jul 17, 2019 3:02 pm
Jon N wrote:
Wed Jul 17, 2019 1:01 pm
According to this author there is in Mahayana Buddhism a tension regarding tathagatagarbha. If everything is already enlightened, why there should be practice? For this reason, if I remember well, some traditions of Tibetan Buddhism regard the tathagatagarbha as the mind in its unenlightened state, so that practice is needed to reach a pure mind (I cannot find the quote in the text so i'm not being very technical here).

What struck me the most is the critique of tathagatagarbha made by the contemporary Japanese movement Critical Buddhism. According to the authors of critical buddhism, since according to tathagatagarbha everything is already enlightened, this amounts to a reinforcement of the status quo with its injustices and oppressions.
Hi Jon,

Thank you for posting the reference pages. This is a great topic for discussion but I don't have much time at the moment. I just wanted to take issue with the framing of this question and make a couple quick comments.

The author may identify a tension in Mahayana Buddhism but the Critical Buddhist perspective comes from an academic philosophical argumentation. Critical Buddhism is not itself, as far as I know, a part of any current school's doctrinal perspective so I don't really understand how it relates. It is more of a philosophical position taken by Matsumoto. I personally take issue with how he characterizes tathagatagarbha and that is a discussion left for elsewhere (and has occured a number of times on DW).

I really like the WIlliams book but have always been a bit uncomfortable with how he addresses some issues. It is unclear to me why he even mentions Critical Buddhism in this text as it isn't related to the doctrinal foundations of Mahayana, or at least to my knowledge. Not being too familiar with Japanese culture (despite visiting and training there) I don't really understand how/why this concept is used to critique social structures in the country.

Anyway, if I understand your question correctly, I'd argue that we're really discussing two very different scales and perhaps we need to spend a bit more time unpacking what is meant by some of these concepts as well as the motivation for particular actions. Further, I think the motivations for action need to be explored too. Buddhism seeks to extinguish suffering. Social action seeks to alleviate suffering, right? These are two important but different outcomes. Do you agree? So, if I seek to alleviate the suffering of another it shouldn't matter if the nature of our mind is no different than the nature of the Buddha's mind. The realization of that nature still needs to occur. If, through social action, I can help someone suffer less and have an opportunity to encounter the Buddha's teachings, then that's a good thing, right? (Or perhaps their suffering is a skill-in-means approach to teach me Dharma?).

Let me return the question, how do you see the concept of tathagatagarbha encouraging/supporting the statue quo?
Thanks for your answer.
Anyway, I found in page 122 this quote regarding Critical Buddhism understanding of Buddha nature: "socially and politically if one holds that all things are truly equal and really the same then this itself leads to a form of discrimination against the disadvantaged through accepting the status quo and the injustice that this involves."

I see a similar tension in the concept of the Bodhisattva. If reaching enlightenment the Bodhisattva discovers that all beings are enlightened, isn't suffering then enlightened too? There must be something I'm missing here since it doesn't seem to me that mahayana Buddhism wants to make this point.

Thanks!

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Re: Tathagatagarbha and oppresion/social action

Post by Astus » Thu Jul 18, 2019 9:12 am

Jon N wrote:
Wed Jul 17, 2019 4:45 pm
If reaching enlightenment the Bodhisattva discovers that all beings are enlightened, isn't suffering then enlightened too?
Although originally there has never been a self, beings have to realise that in order to be free from attachment. Similarly, although the mind is originally pure, one has to realise it in order to be free from defilements. Afflictions themselves are empty, but unless emptiness is realised, there is suffering.

"And when these immeasurable, countless, infinite number of sentient beings have been liberated, in actuality, no sentient being has attained liberation. Why is this so? Subhūti, If a bodhisattva abides in the signs of self, person, sentient being, or life-span, she or he is not a bodhisattva."
(Diamond Sutra, ch 3)
1 Myriad dharmas are only mind.
Mind is unobtainable.
What is there to seek?

2 If the Buddha-Nature is seen,
there will be no seeing of a nature in any thing.

3 Neither cultivation nor seated meditation —
this is the pure Chan of Tathagata.

4 With sudden enlightenment to Tathagata Chan,
the six paramitas and myriad means
are complete within that essence.


1 Huangbo, T2012Ap381c1 2 Nirvana Sutra, T374p521b3; tr. Yamamoto 3 Mazu, X1321p3b23; tr. J. Jia 4 Yongjia, T2014p395c14; tr. from "The Sword of Wisdom"

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Re: Tathagatagarbha and oppresion/social action

Post by Grigoris » Thu Jul 18, 2019 10:40 am

Jon N wrote:
Wed Jul 17, 2019 1:01 pm
Im currently in the middle of reading Paul William's Mahayana Buddhism, The Doctrinal Foundations and he makes some interesting comments regarding the tathagatagarbha.

According to this author there is in Mahayana Buddhism a tension regarding tathagatagarbha. If everything is already enlightened, why there should be practice? For this reason, if I remember well, some traditions of Tibetan Buddhism regard the tathagatagarbha as the mind in its unenlightened state, so that practice is needed to reach a pure mind (I cannot find the quote in the text so i'm not being very technical here).

What struck me the most is the critique of tathagatagarbha made by the contemporary Japanese movement Critical Buddhism. According to the authors of critical buddhism, since according to tathagatagarbha everything is already enlightened, this amounts to a reinforcement of the status quo with its injustices and oppressions.

So, my question is, how is it possible to combine the tatagatagarbha theory with social action? or at least how is it possible to argue that everything is enlightened without reinforcing the inequalities of the status quo? Im thinking movements like Engaged Buddhism should have an answer for this question, but I don't know them. So, what do you think?

Thanks a lot in advance for your time.
The tathagatagarbha can be seen as an inherent potential for enlightenment that comes with sentience.

In Tibetan traditions we also talk about how reality is perfect as it is; but there we talk about the perfect functioning of karma: that things are as they are (as they should be) because of cause and effect.
"My religion is not deceiving myself."
Jetsun Milarepa 1052-1135 CE

"Butchers, prostitutes, those guilty of the five most heinous crimes, outcasts, the underprivileged: all are utterly the substance of existence and nothing other than total bliss."
The Supreme Source - The Kunjed Gyalpo
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Re: Tathagatagarbha and oppresion/social action

Post by smcj » Thu Jul 18, 2019 12:20 pm

In Tibetan traditions we also talk about how reality is perfect as it is; but there we talk about the perfect functioning of karma: that things are as they are (as they should be) because of cause and effect.
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Re: Tathagatagarbha and oppresion/social action

Post by narhwal90 » Fri Jul 19, 2019 3:02 am

I'll have to dig for the citations, but Stone goes into some detail wrt variations of perpsectives whether practice was needed or not. As I understand it to get anywhere in Tendai you had to be nobility and/or powerful, so even given that both sides of the question were present at various places and times within Tendai, the illiterate/disadvantaged were often not well served and the school was often involved in wider civil unrest and politics. The Kamakura era single practice schools (Nichiren, Honen/Shinran, Dogen) that came out of contemporary Tendai were intentionally and sucessfully focused on Buddhism for the poor & disadvantaged. I think those schools could be fairly characterized as emphasizing practice to liberate innate Buddha nature & transform individuals.

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Re: Tathagatagarbha and oppresion/social action

Post by seeker242 » Fri Jul 19, 2019 12:05 pm

Jon N wrote:
Wed Jul 17, 2019 1:01 pm
According to this author there is in Mahayana Buddhism a tension regarding tathagatagarbha. If everything is already enlightened, why there should be practice?
Sounds more like a misunderstanding of tathagatagarbha, rather than an actual doctrine as no doctrine teaches that nothing needs to be done.
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Re: Tathagatagarbha and oppresion/social action

Post by Queequeg » Fri Jul 19, 2019 4:26 pm

jake wrote:
Wed Jul 17, 2019 3:02 pm
The author may identify a tension in Mahayana Buddhism but the Critical Buddhist perspective comes from an academic philosophical argumentation. Critical Buddhism is not itself, as far as I know, a part of any current school's doctrinal perspective so I don't really understand how it relates. It is more of a philosophical position taken by Matsumoto. I personally take issue with how he characterizes tathagatagarbha and that is a discussion left for elsewhere (and has occured a number of times on DW).
IIRC, the CB guys come from Soto school. My sense is the background of their critiques had to do with their concern about the complicity and in many cases the active support and participation of Buddhist institutions in the aggressive nationalism and militarism that led to Japan waging war across Asia and the Pacific. Its also related to the critical theory that was in vogue in the Academy in the 70s to 90s. IIRC, their view is that Buddhism is basically critique, best exemplified by Nagarjuna's Madhyamikakarika, and they think the Tathagatagarbha is to blame for blunting critique.

IMHO, to compare Madhyamika with critical theory is a loser from the outset, though, there probably is something to the notion that a more vigorous application of Nagarjuna's wisdom would likely lead to more justice in the world...
Those who, even with distracted minds,
Entered a stupa compound
And chanted but once, “Namo Buddhaya!”
Have certainly attained the path of the buddhas.

-Lotus Sutra, Expedient Means Chapter

There are beings with little dust in their eyes who are falling away because they do not hear the Dhamma. There will be those who will understand the Dhamma.
-Ayacana Sutta

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Re: Tathagatagarbha and oppresion/social action

Post by Queequeg » Fri Jul 19, 2019 5:05 pm

On the substance of the question -

Tathagatagarbha is related to Buddha Nature teachings. Its also related to Original Enlightenment. Original Enlightenment is closely associated with Tendai, the Japanese iteration of Tiantai, which is influential in E. Asia, and which I think presents a view competing with Awakening Faith in the Mahayana. Buddha Nature is described as a threefold cause of Buddhahood -
1. Direct Cause - the way things really are; thusness, emptiness. The passages that Astus refers to describe this. Also expressed in the Heart Sutra - "No suffering or cause of suffering."

2. Complete Cause - the prompting that causes one to "turn on" to the way things really are. There is a sense in the Tathagatagarbha teachings, at least in East Asia, that Buddha is an integral aspect of the way things really are. Even though the Buddha says he has no teacher, this is viewed as an upaya, and that actually, the Buddha's career started with another buddha pointing out the way things really are, and that buddha also started out that way, ad infinitum. There is no specifically identifiable original buddha or identifiable beginning cause. I think of it as the end of the rainbow that is always beyond no matter how you try to chase it. This affirms that Buddhahood is the effect of a cause, though that original cause can never be specifically identified. In the aggregate, that awakening function that expresses as buddhas stretching to the infinite past is referred to as the Original Buddha who makes the Original Cause of awakening. The one who looks you in the eye and says, "This is it."

3. The Conditional Cause - the actions and conditions that bring about awakening. These are the things we do and circumstances we immerse ourselves in that conduct us to clearly see the Direct Cause, hear the Complete Cause, and awaken perfectly.

These three categories basically suggest that awakening, the cause of awakening, and the path to awakening are intrinsic to the way things really are, but they do not suggest that there is nothing to do. The people who fall into thinking that Tathagatagarbha is some teaching that one doesn't have to do anything to attain Buddhahood just think of the Direct Cause.

This is a way to look at Tathagatagarbha, not the only way. I think its relevant here as its part of the framework that is in the background of CB theory.
Those who, even with distracted minds,
Entered a stupa compound
And chanted but once, “Namo Buddhaya!”
Have certainly attained the path of the buddhas.

-Lotus Sutra, Expedient Means Chapter

There are beings with little dust in their eyes who are falling away because they do not hear the Dhamma. There will be those who will understand the Dhamma.
-Ayacana Sutta

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Re: Tathagatagarbha and oppresion/social action

Post by PadmaVonSamba » Sat Jul 20, 2019 12:50 am

There is at one point in the video series on myth by Joseph Campbell, a moment where he is talking about the imagery in Christian art that shows a lion lying down with a lamb, and that most people interpret this to mean that they are just going to sit there side by side. Then he comments, "The lion still eats the lamb...but it's okay".
There is some Tao implied here, going with the flow, as it were. We always want things to be perfect, our version of perfect, which is the disease of ego clinging.

When Buddhism talks about everything already being enlightened, this is referring to buddhanature transcending all dualities. There are many stories where people asked the Buddha to resolve conflicts. He didn't say, "what conflicts? I don't see anything". If you see conflicts that need resoving, some kind of inustice, it doesn't mean that in the context of samsara that there isn't really a problem occurring. It is exactly the same with the inner conflicts that we deal with. Anger, stress, these things occur. But they don't change the Tathagatagarbha. There is no inherent difference between our inner conflicts and the conflicts occurring in society.

There is a very good YouTube video featuring a talk by the previous Kalu Rinpoche, filmed sometime in the 1970s. He briefly mentions that what we experience as the physical elements that make up the body, and cling to with confusion, that we experience phenomena as suffering, because we do not experience them as their true nature, the five buddha families. So, this is another aspect to this concept. Everything is Buddha nature. From the viewpoint of enlightened mind, all phenomena is seen in its true nature this way. But social inustice and other societal problems don't occur as expressions of enlightened mind, do they?
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Re: Tathagatagarbha and oppresion/social action

Post by Jon N » Sat Jul 20, 2019 4:36 pm

Thanks everyone for your detailed answers.
PadmaVonSamba wrote:
Sat Jul 20, 2019 12:50 am
There is at one point in the video series on myth by Joseph Campbell, a moment where he is talking about the imagery in Christian art that shows a lion lying down with a lamb, and that most people interpret this to mean that they are just going to sit there side by side. Then he comments, "The lion still eats the lamb...but it's okay".
There is some Tao implied here, going with the flow, as it were. We always want things to be perfect, our version of perfect, which is the disease of ego clinging.

When Buddhism talks about everything already being enlightened, this is referring to buddhanature transcending all dualities. There are many stories where people asked the Buddha to resolve conflicts. He didn't say, "what conflicts? I don't see anything". If you see conflicts that need resoving, some kind of inustice, it doesn't mean that in the context of samsara that there isn't really a problem occurring. It is exactly the same with the inner conflicts that we deal with. Anger, stress, these things occur. But they don't change the Tathagatagarbha. There is no inherent difference between our inner conflicts and the conflicts occurring in society.

There is a very good YouTube video featuring a talk by the previous Kalu Rinpoche, filmed sometime in the 1970s. He briefly mentions that what we experience as the physical elements that make up the body, and cling to with confusion, that we experience phenomena as suffering, because we do not experience them as their true nature, the five buddha families. So, this is another aspect to this concept. Everything is Buddha nature. From the viewpoint of enlightened mind, all phenomena is seen in its true nature this way. But social inustice and other societal problems don't occur as expressions of enlightened mind, do they?
.
.
.
So, how does one see societal problems from the point of view of enlightened mind?

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Re: Tathagatagarbha and oppresion/social action

Post by Grigoris » Sat Jul 20, 2019 6:54 pm

Jon N wrote:
Sat Jul 20, 2019 4:36 pm
So, how does one see societal problems from the point of view of enlightened mind?
Samsara.
"My religion is not deceiving myself."
Jetsun Milarepa 1052-1135 CE

"Butchers, prostitutes, those guilty of the five most heinous crimes, outcasts, the underprivileged: all are utterly the substance of existence and nothing other than total bliss."
The Supreme Source - The Kunjed Gyalpo
The Fundamental Tantra of Dzogchen Semde

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Re: Tathagatagarbha and oppresion/social action

Post by Jon N » Sat Jul 20, 2019 7:25 pm

Grigoris wrote:
Sat Jul 20, 2019 6:54 pm
Jon N wrote:
Sat Jul 20, 2019 4:36 pm
So, how does one see societal problems from the point of view of enlightened mind?
Samsara.
OK! I think I get it.

Thanks!

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Re: Tathagatagarbha and oppresion/social action

Post by PadmaVonSamba » Sun Jul 21, 2019 8:42 pm

Grigoris wrote:
Sat Jul 20, 2019 6:54 pm
Jon N wrote:
Sat Jul 20, 2019 4:36 pm
So, how does one see societal problems from the point of view of enlightened mind?
Samsara.
...another way you can look at this is in terms of relative perspective.
Within the size and age of the known universe,
the entirety of human experience is barely a tiny instant, a tenth of a grain of salt. Yet to us, it is everything.
In the grand scheme of things, a mere eighty spins around the sun is nothing, but to a human, it is a lifetime.

So, we can't just ignore the problems of the world,
but a buddha would see the things within the greater context as well.

It's easy to feed a hungry person, and that will only have an effect for a few hours.
It's much harder to stop the causes of famine, but eliminating the causes will have a much longer lasting effect.
So, solving the problems of the world depends a lot both on how much you can do, or want to do.

But, getting back to the main topic, Tathagatagarbha and oppresion/social action,
no matter what we do, no matter if we are active or not, that's always going to be the total reality of it, right?
There's no way of getting past whatever happens, regardless of whether one influences it or not.
Either it will rain, or it won't. Two sides of a coin. But you can't go beyond the coin itself. When you flip it, it has to land on one side or the other.
That level of inescapability is also Tathagatagarbha in a sense; it includes everything.
It's how everything is.
"Everything" includes everything."Everything"even includes "nothing."

This is one way of understanding the concept that everything is already enlightened, pure, because that itself transcends all dualities.

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