You are on page 1of 11

Fana and Sunyata

- A Possible Encounter between Islam and Buddhism in Korea upon Wonhyo's Commentary on the Awakening of Faith in Mahayana Ryu, Jei-dong Lecturer of Comparative Religion at Sogang University

Though we need to explore the depth of the other partys religion in its every aspect, we could start from the apparent similarity between each other. Though sunyata has been mainly interpreted as absolute negation of any reality, there have been also other interpretations of it. The importance of such interpretations should not be neglected. In fact, modern secularization of Western Europe has influenced Buddhists negatively in their consideration of them. Nietzsches declaration about the death of God has influenced not only Western intellectuals but also East Asian intellectuals. Many Buddhists came to emphasize excessively the similarity between modernity and Buddhism in their negation of God. They did not recognize the danger of Western modernization.1 In fact, sunyata is not purely negative. Nagarjuna (AD 150-250), the representative proponent of sunyata in India, was not only a theoretician but also a mystic practitione r.2 He was a faithful person. His treatises about Sunyata are not only a theoretical

works but also guides for the liberation of our soul from the attachment to the material world. His adoption of Buddhism really occurs after his repentance about his own guilty deeds. Before he became a Buddhist, he was an arrogant hedonist, enjoying mischievous pleasures. After sudden killing of his mischievous comrades on their committing crimes
1 Ryu Jei-dong, God and Dharma; A Study on Wilfred Cantwell Smith's View of Buddhism and its Application to a reinterpretation of the Awakening of Faith in Mahayana (Doctoral dissertation at Sogang University in Seoul, 2004). 2 Ian Mabbett, The Problem of the Historical Nagarjuna Revisited. (The Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 118. issue:3. American Oriental Society, 1998.), p. 332.

by a kings army, he came to realize that he had pursued worldly pleasures vainly. Though he escaped from the kings army, he came to repent his previous criminal acts.3 In such a situation, he came to consider the possibility of his own identity. If he has a fixed self-identity, he thought, he could not avoid or stop his hedonistic life style. In fact, we are ourselves sometimes sorrowful about our own identity not only in our own physical appearance and intellectual ability but also in our bad habits such as smoking and drinking. Can a sinner become a good person? Can a culprit become a good citizen? Can a serial killer transform into a respectable citizen? If we cannot avoid or stop our destiny fixed by our own set identity, we have only to despair about our life. In his days, not only Hindu Brahmins but also some Buddhist monks (Sarvastivadins, who proclaimed that our past, present, and future are already fixed) argued that there is an unchangeable element in the world that prevents us from having the possibility of changing our destiny. In fact, Buddhism began as a religion rebelling against the Hindu theory of fixed self-identity. Hindu caste system was based upon such a theory, coercing ordinary people to accept their own destiny without any hope to live a better life in this world. Buddha taught that there is no fixed self. He proclaimed that we can become good or bad according to our own efforts. Our self has an enormous possibility which cannot be limited to a fixed destiny. In his day, however, Nagarjuna was surrounded by pervert Buddhists who asserted that there is fixed elements in us in spite of their apparent attempt to abide by Buddhas teaching about no self. They did not recognize that no self theory is necessary for our liberation from fixed destiny. Of course, their assertions should be understood in our basic instinct to seek stability. However, they did not recognize that stability is good only in the state of happiness. A sinner cannot have satisfactory feelings about their destiny. In such a context, Nagarjuna needed to attack those Buddhists theory of fixed
3 Jay L. Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way Nagarjunas Mulamadhyamakakarika translation and commentary by Jay L. Garfield, (Oxford University Press, 1995).

elements. He taught that there is absolutely no fixed element in the world. Therefore, a sinner can become a Buddha. If there is fixed element in us which prompts us to commit crimes again and again, we cannot hope to become a Buddha. Since there is no fixed self, we can become enlightened Buddhas. That is, he taught that there is not only no self in our identity but also no self in the elements constituting our self. For him, this argument was not just a proposition but a liberating truth, enabling sinful persons to hope a better life. However, we should also recognize that Buddhists have traditionally hesitated in saying positively about the state of Buddha. The Sarvastivadins error in their assertions should be considered in such a context. Such attempts to assert something positive have continuously formed a part of the history of Buddhist thought in spite of their failing to become a major part of Buddhism in India. In fact, Nagarjuna himself does express sunyata somewhat positively as dependent arising, that is, interdependence. The concept of dependent arising was originally applied negatively to our experience of suffering and sinfulness. If our suffering has any fixed reality, we cannot stop it. Since it arises dependent upon conditional situations, we can change our destiny and escape from suffering by changing those situations. However, there was yet no starkly positive role conceived about the concept of dependent arising until the appearance of Nagarjuna. He clearly asserted that dependent arising enables us to become Buddhas. In other words, dependent arising enables us to be transformed from sinners into Buddhas. Here we clearly see the radical thought of Nagarjuna. In the early period of Buddhism, Buddhists emphasized the impermanence of our suffering, which enables us to stop it. Then, Nagarjuna emphasizes no self in every thing, which enables us to become Buddhas. Here we see the budding of positive thinking in Nagarjunas assertions. However, properly speaking, we should find somewhere else to find really positive conception about our states. In Buddhist tradition, there has been a continuous trend to emphasize the pureness of our mind, which is to form a major role not in India but in North East Asia including China, Korea, and Japan, with the thought of tathagata-garbha

(the womb or fetus of tathagata, that is, the womb or fetus of Buddha). In short, we can become Buddhas because we have the seed of Buddha in us. This thought recognizes a positive element in us, though it has posed somewhat unsolvable questions to many Buddhist scholars. Some Buddhist scholars even assert strongly that the thought of tathagata-garbha should not be regarded as belonging to Buddhist thought. I think that their assertions are due to the influence of Western modernization trend.4

The Awakening of Faith in Mahayana is a representative work showing a harmonious synthesis between the thought of Sunyata and the thought of Tathagata-garbha. It is a work of sixth century A.D., though it was traditionally attributed to Avaghosha, who is supposed to have lived as a philosopher and poet in India in the second century A.D. It is not yet uncertain where it was written. Some scholars assert that it was written in China. Here we are ready to explore the Korean representative Buddhist scholar Wonyos interpretation of The Awakening of Faith in Mahayana attributed to Avaghosha, which is appreciated among many modern Buddhist scholars as one of the most important scriptural works in North East Asian Buddhism. According to Wonhyos Commentary on The Awakening of Faith in Mahayana, it is a scripture where the One Mind as Mahayana awakens faith in human beings. In this scripture, Dharma as Mahayana appears as One Mind in the form of Tathgata Garbha within the sentient beings. One Mind is the ultimate reality which induces the sentient beings to the insight of transcendence beyond the secular world and to the practical response toward the transcendent reality. Due to the Tathgata Garbha, sentient beings do not see the secular world as not only secular but also representing transcendent truths. They feel comfort and seek salvation under the transcendent governance of One Mind as tatht. That is, through the guidance of One Mind, the sentient beings transcend eternally the secular world, transforming their own and their neighbors' lives into better lives through the construction of a better universe. In such a sense, One

Shunkyo Katsumata, A Study of The Citta-vijnana Thought in Buddhism, (Sankibo-Busshorin, 1961).

Mind is rightfully comparable to the Muslim concept of God as the ultimate and transcendent reality. In his Commentary, Wonhyo also shows a somewhat uniquely positive interpretation on the concept of Sunyata. He says as following.

If we rightly understand the meaning of sunyata (emptiness), we are assured of the proper justification of our existence. Why is it possible? If sunyata is just sunyata, we just cannot be assured of the proper justification of our existence. However, since this sunyata is empty of its own fixed identity, we can be assured of the proper justification of our existence.5

Here Wonhyo focuses on the emptiness of sunyata itself. Sunyata cannot be fixed down into a limited definition. Any conception about sunyata is wrong if it is argued to be the only meaning of sunyata excluding the other meanings of it. The conception of sunyata is similar to the conception of God in that both conceptions defy and transcend our petty definitions. As God is above our conceptions of him, sunyata is above our conceptions of it. Thus we are not denied of our existence even if we accept the truthfulness of sunyata. Rather, we are free to pursue our happiness in spite of our limited and distorted present states. We are not bound to the past or present affairs that occurred to us, even though we cannot deny the enormous power of those conditions. Here some one may say that this freedom can threaten the transcendence of ultimate reality, that is, God. If we are absolutely free, there cannot be any difference between God as ultimate reality and ourselves. In fact, we sometimes feel a subtle arrogance from some Buddhist monks or nuns. Some of them have such a conviction about their experienced truth that they disregard other opinions proposed about ultimate truth. However, I think that any religious people, if they are mature enough, are just humble before the ultimate truth. We human beings are only allowed of just glimpses of a certain aspects of ultimate reality. As any Christian or Muslim cannot be sure that they know every thing about God, any monk with mature intellect cannot be sure that they

Hangukbulgyojeonseo, vol.1, p. 742b.

know every meaning of sunyata. Wonhyo says clearly of this truth that even a Bodhisattva at a higher stage can attain just a small portion of the proper meaning of sunyatas emptiness.6 His humble attitude can be seen in his pen name Soseong

Geosa, which means an outcaste. The more he was enlightened to the depth of sunyatas truthfulness, the more he came to become humble as well as happy. He shows vividly what a genuine saint is. The more he came to know the meaning of sunyata, the more he came to mingle with ordinary people without any arrogance, working for their happiness and liberation from various sufferings. Such interpretation of Wonhyo can be ascertained and corroborated by Yoshito S. Hakeda, a recent translator of the Awakening Faith in Mahayana, whose English translation is regarded as the standard translation of this scripture. Yoshito S. Hakeda says as following.

...there is room to present Suchness, if it is done symbolically, as eternal, permanent, immutable, etc. "Emptiness" does not mean "nonexistence" literally; it is usually used in the sense of "empty of or devoid of a distinct, absolute, independent, permanent, individual entity or being as an irreducible component in a pluralistic world," or of "empty of all predications." According to this way of thinking, even "nonbeing" is a "being," as it is contingent upon "being." The term "empty" results from a dialectic consciousness of transcending this dichotomy of "being" and "nonbeing." In order to prevent the danger of interpreting "emptiness" as nonbeing or as an advocation of nihilism, Ngrjuna says: "Emptiness (nyat), ill conceived, destroys a stupid man, as would a snake when handled improperly, or a spell badly executed."7

Though Hakedas explanation is rather easy for us to understand than Wonhyos, since he is a modern scholar, they are saying the same thing. In other words, they are saying that sunyata is not altogether a purely negative concept. That is, we can say that sunyata is a symbolic expression of transcendent reality, whose experience can be said to be a blissful one.
6 7

Hangukbulgyojeonseo, vol.1, p. 742b. Yoshito S. Hakeda, The Awakening of Faith, Attributed to Asvaghosha, (Columbia University Press, 1967).

As we have seen, fana and sunyata are mutually understandable in that they both teaches us the need of transcending our smaller self and moving upward towards ultimately transcendent reality. In this context, dependent arising begins to have a newer meaning. Previously we saw that we can overcome our sufferings because of their impermanence. Here we can say that we can overcome our sufferings because we can depend on One Mind as ultimate reality. Sunyata as dependent arising now means our dependence upon One Mind as ultimate reality. This perspective is compared to Muslims perspective of fana and baqa. The annihilation of our petty self is meaningful because of the afterward guidance of God. Without any reliable reality, there is only despair and nihilism. As fana is meaningful only with baqa, sunyata is meaningful when it is properly understood in the context of its positive role in the lives of Buddhists including, for example, Dalai Lama. Wonhyo showed its positive meaning with his conception of One Mind, which leads us to compare rather easily various conceptions of Buddhism and Islam. This understanding is expected to enable Buddhists and Muslims alike to enter into serious and deep dialogues as mutually enriching partners in really meaningful dimensions of ultimate significance beyond superficial dimensions of exterior matters.


( )

. , 4 1 , , , . , . . , . . . , . . , , . , , . ,

. (fana) () . . , . . . . , () . (fana) (baqa) . () . .

[] fana, , ,


Fana and Sunyata

- A Possible Encounter between Islam and Buddhism in Korea upon Wonhyo's Commentary on the Awakening of Faith in Mahayana Ryu, Jei-dong Lecturer of Comparative Religion at Sogang University What relationship can be formed between Buddhism and Islam in Korea? Can Muslims form a constructive relationship with Buddhists in Korea? If Buddhists are really atheists or idolaters, then there will never be any constructive communication between Buddhists and Muslims. Apparently, many Buddhists bow down before statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Some of them also often assert expressly that they do not recognize any absolute God. Such attitudes have often been interpreted as idolatrous or nihilistic attitudes. Our superficial observation, however, should not deceive us. Buddhism is a very sophisticated religion. Even Buddha himself hesitated to teach anything because of the difficulty in communicating his own enlightenment. He and his followers have been very cautious so that their doctrines may not be misunderstood. They have thought that any conceivable object can only obscure the nature of the ultimate reality. Their negative descriptions of the ultimate reality should be understood in such a context. However, they also considered that many people without keen intelligence should not be neglected in their pursuit of truth. Ordinary people could not think directly of transcendent reality. They needed help in being awakened to the ultimate reality. Buddha and his elite disciples thought that drawings and statues can be of help to them in spite of there necessarily being dangerous elements in such mediums.

Fana (annihilation of self) and sunyata (emptiness of self) are similar in their negation of our ordinary self. Many scholars focus on their similarity in such a point. But some

scholars object to this in that Fana cannot be understood without baqa (survival in God), while sunyata is regarded by some Buddhists as absolute negation of any existent reality. Then, is Buddhism absolute nihilism which negates any positive reality? Any one who has met Buddhist monks or nuns would never agree to such an argument. Buddhist monks and nuns live their celibate life happily. Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, once said that his lifelong pursuit was absolute happiness without any shadow of sorrow. He professed that he attained such happiness through the experience of nirvana. How can we harmonize those Buddhists negation of any existent reality and their happy life? If you have ever seen the smiling face of Dalai Lama, you cannot negate that Buddhism is a religion of happiness. How can they smile after negating

everything? They even seem to negate the existence of their own self, which is the essential point of sunyata. In Islam, of course, we can still find a corresponding thought in the concept of fana, though we should postpone the conclusion that fana and sunyata are really similar. Fana also negates our ordinary self. However, is that all? Is there only a small portion of similarity between Islam and Buddhism with ultimate difference between them? As we observed above, Buddhists also pursue happiness in their life. Is it possible to pursue happiness without positing any positive reality? This question has been posed not only by outside scholars but also inside members of Buddhism, which constitutes a major discussion in the history of Buddhist thought. Nowadays, however, there is a general consensus within Korean Buddhist scholars that Buddhism still negates any positive reality. What does their negation mean? Should we accept their negation literally as an objection to theistic argument of Islam or Christianity or Judaism?

[Key Words] fana, sunyata, Wonhyo, The Awakening of Faith in Mahayana