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SHUNIYAVAAD: In Primordial Buddhism

Compassion is the basic ideal of Bodhisattva
01:00 AM Jan 18, 2024 IST | S. Sarwar Malik
shuniyavaad  in primordial buddhism
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Basic teachings of Lord Buddha, that for convenience we can name as 'Primordial Buddhism’,  gave birth to different schools of thought, and schism surfaced within hundred years after his 'death’; that led to congregations and councils.

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One of the powerful schools was referred to as Thervada  (meaning the doctrine settled by elders). By the time of 1st century AD (during Kanishka's council), the then two prevalent schools, namely Sarvastivada and Maha Sanghika, gave birth to another school that was named Mahayana  (meaning Greater Vehicle).

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Thereafter Thervada, as opposite of Mahayana, was rechristened as Hinayana (meaning Lesser Vehicle). Without dwelling on the differences between these two most popular schools, or for that matter even skipping similarities, I intend to write solely about the philosophy of Shuniyavaad (Sting pa nyid as per Buddhist terminology). Shuniyavaad is usually translated as 'zero', 'void' and 'nothingness.

“If all is reduced to one, to what is the one reduced” , said a master; “only something beyond one can subsume, the one and the many. This ‘something beyond ’ is Shuniya”. It is neither void, nor inanity nor vacuity nor negation-of-existence but The Absolute One. It is not a negation of ‘Inherent Existence’ ; it is a form beyond matter. It is a highly positive term. Shuniya is the objective- correlate-of-the- heightened (or opened) -state-of- awareness; possible by transcendental knowledge, Shes-rab. Thus on a philosophical level the theory of Shuniya, as the highest absolute, is propounded.

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Expounders say Shuniya is ‘absolute-grasped- intuitively ’  and intuitive knowledge of Shuniya constitutes 'enlightenment '. Truth is absolute knowledge and the latter is enlightenment. Absolute truth is Shuniya. Shuniya means empty of all relative terms….just...the vastness beyond limitations. Action carried out in the light of the primordial awareness (that comes out of 'absolute knowledge', gnosis, ye-shes) of this Shuniya - that is the action of transcendental knowledge, (Prajna, Shes-rab) is Compassion (Karuna; Snyingrje).

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Remember! Compassion is the basic ideal of Bodhisattva. In Hinayana 'Arhats' attain Nirvana. In Mahayana Bodhisattva is ‘Born-Again’. Bodhisattva is a future Buddha; a being who is ever-striving for the enlightenment of sentient beings. Jataka Tales are stories which tell that Sakyamuni, Lord Buddha, himself was a Bodhisattva;  who in previous births had practised Compassion and had worked for the welfare of others….this Bodhisattva is the name given to a being whose compassion, Karuna, produces a ‘being-in-continually- ascending-scale-of-goodness’. Six 'transcendental qualities- generosity,  patience, exertion, discipline, meditation & true knowledge/wisdom together, contribute to the development of the Bodhisattva-like-behaviour.

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By S. Sarwar Malik

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