The Dust Contemplation

In keeping with our annual Ash Wednesday tradition, it is time to commence again with an auspicious Dharma-series. This year the offering is quite apropos as it is indicative of those very “ashes” themselves: The Dust Contemplation. During the time period 2009-2013, the renowned Haneda manuscripts were published and are now housed in the Kyo-U Library in Osaka. Indeed, a most momentous occasion for Dunhuang studies:

This collection of over seven hundred documents, assembled by Haneda Toru (1882-1955) on the basis of the famed collection of Li Shengduo  (1859-1937) with further materials later added, is the world’s fifth most significant repository of Dunhuang manuscripts after those in London, Paris, Beijing, and St. Petersburg. Now that these sources are at long last available to scholars, many exciting discoveries await historians of medieval China and medieval Chinese Buddhism in particular. (The Dust Contemplation: A Study and Translation of a Newly discovered Chinese Yogacara Meditation Treatise from the Haneda Dunhuang Manuscripts of the Kyo-U Library, Eric M. Greene. (manuscript)

Eric M. Greene of Yale University Religious Studies Dept. elucidates further concerning our given subject matter:

In this article I introduce a previously unknown, late seventh-century (as I shall argue) Buddhist text from this collection: Hane-[da] manuscript no. 598, a single scroll bearing at its conclusion the title “Method for the Contemplation of Dust as Empty” (Chen kong guan men). The Dust Contemplation, as I will call it, is a unique and surprisingly concrete set of instructions for the practice of Buddhist meditation based on the doctrines and technical vocabulary of the early Chinese Yogacara tradition, particularly (but not exclusively) those often linked by modern scholars to the so-called Shelun commentarial tradition (Shelunzong), which drew primary inspiration from the Yogacara scriptures translated by Paramartha (Zhendi ; 499-569) and which flourished during the late sixth and early seventh centuries. Ibid

He continues by saying that the Dust Contemplation does not issue forth from the “Early Ch’an” period but rather out of a much later seventh-century Buddhist context “out of which Chan emerged and with which it had much in common even when seeking to distinguish itself against it.” The text itself is developed out of the traditional Buddhist path of the “three trainings”: precepts (śīla), meditation (dhyāna or samādhi), and wisdom (prajñā). It is divided into five sections:

  1. Introduction and the Precepts (1.1-11)
  2. Contemplating Dust (1.11-3.23)
  3. Emptiness of Extemal Objects (3.24-4.25)
  4. Emptiness of Consciousness and “Quiescence Within Activity” (4.26-6.21)
  5. Conclusion and Recapitulation (6.22-8.12)

Essentially, dust signifies and encapsulates that all sensorial-objects lack Real Substance and hence are self-empty; the text also goes so far as stating that the “perceiving” mind itself is also empty. Paramartha magnificently sums it all up:

Within all the triple world there is merely consciousness. On the basis of this principle, [one sees] that external dust [cognitive objects] has no substantial existence at all. When this knowledge is obtained, [one then realizes that] inasmuch as cognitive objects have no substantial existence the mere-consciousness that takes objects also cannot arise. By this means, one is able to realize the nonexistence of both subject and object. ibid

As far as the contemplation element is concerned within this calculation:

All [external] phenomena merely arise illusorily, caused by beginningless karmic impressions. They have no real essence. . . .When you have understood this principle, you must then carefully observe each and every cognitive object as described above and know that [in reality] they are only the mind, that there are no external objects. ..

When I say “turn back and contemplate,” this means merely to be constantly aware of your own contemplating. When the mind turns back and contemplates itself, there is at this moment neither subject nor object. . . . When [initially] the mind is contemplating the nonexistence [of external objects], there is that which contemplates and that which is contemplated. But at the moment of truly tuming back and contemplating [the mind itself], there is no subject or object of contemplation. At this moment, one goes beyond words or tangible characteristics. Beyond all linguistic representation, the locus of [deluded] mental activity is extinguished. Ibid, as stated by Yamabe Nobuyoshi.

Frui seriem!

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