Red Pine has translated into modern English a very important sutra, one that is central to the history of Zen Buddhism, but is also renowned as being difficult to fathom for even the most seasoned Buddhist. Moreover, he has supplied copious notes inspired by the original Chinese and Sanskrit versions of the text, as well as by Chinese commentators. The book begins, thankfully, with an excellent introduction that sets forth the two basic ideas contained in the Lankavatara Sutra, that 1 the universe is produced by mind, and 2 that we should each experience this. The first can be said to be a teaching of the Yogacara school of Buddhism, whilst the second is the foundation of Zen. And, illustrating its importance in the latter sect, Red Pine tells us that it was this sutra that the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma, handed over to his successor, along with his bowl and robe.
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The central message of the Lankavatara Sutra, and of the Yogacara School as a whole, is that reality is essentially an illusion created by the mind. And yet we see experientially in the world that, in the dialectic between mind and matter, matter is the decisive force.
Given the illusory character of reality, the Lankavatara Sutra posits a middle way between essentialism and nihilism. The Buddha likens phenomena to the ocean and its waves. According to the Buddha, there are both no distinctions and not no distinctions between the ocean and its waves; they are both the interpenetrating and yet distinct.
And years before Deleuze. Buddhism has its root if I may generalize for a second individual cultivation of a certain kind of wisdom about the nature or non-nature of things.
So there is essentially no political element. When Mahamati asks about power and wealth and kings, the Buddha cryptically replies, "A statement about kings is about no kings. Here comes a political element in the form of compassion. Yet what would a politics based on compassion look like?
And yet, the Lankavatara Sutra has no answer for if one considers the exploitative nature of class society. Does compassion for all living beings lead to ultimate nonviolence and a rejection of revolutionary politics, or does compassion for the many outweigh compassion for the few, opening up the potential for revolutionary politics?
The text would seem to lean towards the latter, which is a position that fundamentally reproduces class society.
The Lankavatara Sutra: Translation and Commentary