Songhil wrote:there is a major battle going on in Buddhism right now between those believe Buddhism teaches a profound gnosis and those who believe other wise, that Buddhism is a form of materialism.
I agree with that, but not all of those who criticize 'eternalist' ideas are materialist, either. In my view, analysis requires a very careful balance of views.
I did some postgraduate work on this question earlier this year, from which I take the following. I hope it contributes to the discussion.
I think the negative, or 'apophatic' element in the early texts is specifically aimed at avoiding speculation and entanglement with the dogmatic ideas of the kinds that were already current in the Indian tradition.
Diverging from the Upaniṣadic ‘you are that’ (tat tvam asi), the Buddha developed a very specific, even converse, approach to the pursuit of liberation by declaring ‘na me so atta’ - ‘this is not myself’ - where ‘this’ refers to all of the factors of conditioned origination:
‘Rāhula, any kind of material form whatever, whether past, future or present, far or near, all material form should be seen as it actually is with proper wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self’ “.
‘“Only material form, Blessed One? Only material form, Sublime One?”
‘“Material form, Rāhula, and feeling, perception, formations, and consciousness”’ (MN 62.3)
‘What else is there?’, one might ask. In fact, there is a verse called ‘The All’ in which we read:
The Blessed One said, "What is the All? Simply the eye and forms, ear and sounds, nose and aromas, tongue and flavors, body and tactile sensations, intellect and ideas. This, monks, is called the All. Anyone who would say, 'Repudiating this All, I will describe another,' if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range." (Sabba Sutta SN 35.23.)
This can be read as a direct repudiation of anyone who claims to speak of something ‘beyond the sense-gates’ as being ‘beyond range’. It might be tempting to say that this represents a kind of proto-naturalism, or even positivism - a repudiation of anything beyond empirical observation. However, that would be mistaken, for the Buddha, having established the identity of ‘the All’, then advises the monks to abandon
"The intellect is to be abandoned. Ideas are to be abandoned. Consciousness at the intellect is to be abandoned. Contact at the intellect is to be abandoned. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is to be abandoned. (Pahanaya Sutta, SN 35.24)
Does this say, then, that beyond the ‘six sense gates’ and the activities of thought-formations and discriminative consciousness, there is nothing: the absence of any kind of life, mind, or intelligence?
Then Ven. Maha Kotthita went to Ven. Sariputta and, on arrival, exchanged courteous greetings with him. After an exchange of friendly greetings & courtesies, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there, he said to Ven. Sariputta, "With the remainderless stopping & fading of the six contact-media [vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, & intellection] is it the case that there is anything else?"
[Sariputta:] "Don't say that, my friend."
[Maha Kotthita:] "With the remainderless stopping & fading of the six contact-media, is it the case that there is not anything else?"
[Sariputta:] "Don't say that, my friend."
[Sariputta:] "The statement, 'With the remainderless stopping & fading of the six contact-media [vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, & intellection] is it the case that there is anything else?' objectifies non-objectification.The statement, '... is it the case that there is not anything else ... is it the case that there both is & is not anything else ... is it the case that there neither is nor is not anything else?' objectifies non-objectification. However far the six contact-media go, that is how far objectification goes. However far objectification goes, that is how far the six contact media go. With the remainderless fading & stopping of the six contact-media, there comes to be the stopping, the allaying of objectification. (Kotthita Sutta, AN 4.174; emphasis added.)
The phrase ‘objectifies non-objectification’ (vadaṃ appapañcaṃ papañceti) is key here. As Thanissaro Bikkhu notes in his commentary, ‘the root of the classifications and perceptions of objectification is the thought, "I am the thinker." This thought forms the motivation for the questions that Ven. Maha Kotthita is presenting here.’ The very action of thinking ‘creates the thinker’, rather than vice versa. In effect, the questioner is asking, ‘is this something I can experience?’ And to do so, tends towards eternalism.
But we need to be very mindful of what is, and what is not, being said in all such dialogues. My basic reading is that it is an argument against 'believing what you cannot see' - in other words, forming beliefs about states of being, or levels of being, without actually having insight into what these states are and what they mean. Always the emphasis is on seeing and having insight into the causal factors of experience.
I agree therefore with
Gregkavarnos wrote:It is realised. It is not understood by conditioned mind.
as conditioned mind cannot reach it.
As to ideas of tathagathagarbha
in the early texts, I certainly think such ideas are there. But the key point is not to misinterpret them, or even 'believe' in them. They are to be understood, not clung to, because otherwise they become the basis of religious dogmas, which was what the Buddha, I think, set out to avoid. It is easy to see how 'belief in Buddhanature' is somewhat similar to belief in deity, generally, although, even so, religious devotion is a vehicle for those who might not be able to understand the subtleties of the direct teaching.
Here is also a very relevant essay called Consciousness Mysticism in the Discourses of the Buddha
by Peter Harvey.
He that knows it, knows it not.