more on the two obscurations

In my previous post, I made a note on the significance of the way that the two obscurations (āvasaṇas) are understood. Paul Griffiths had written that the Sanskrit terms for the two obscurations have different grammars and that the second, jñeyāvaraṇa, actually means the obstacles to knowing, rather than either mistaken knowledge or knowing as an obstacle. This latter interpretation—knowing itself as the obstacle to awakening—fits all too well with neo-Romantic interpretations of Buddhist thought, according to which the rational mind is itself a fundamental part of the problem of human existence. A common theme of Romanticism is that the rational, calculative mind separates us from direct experience of things as they are in the full aesthetic and emotional richness of immediacy.

Rather than reading the Romantic interpretation onto Buddhist thought, what has made more sense to me is that we suffer from mistaken conceptions about how the world works and that these mistaken conceptions are obstacles to awakening. This is based in part on the broad characterization of religio-philosophic thought on the subcontinent as basically epistemological.

A further suggestion was made in that post to the effect that the interpretation of the two obscurations as two separate, but parallel categories is an artifact of scholastic interpretation and the process of translating this kind of terminology. This morning I came across an old essay by Paul Swanson that would seem to confirm this, both the effects of scholastic systematizing and of translation. (Paul Swanson, “Chih-i’s Interpretation of jñeyāvaraṇa: An Application of the Three-fold Truth Concept,” Annual Memoirs of the Otani University Shin Buddhist Comprehensive Research Institute, vol. 1, 1983: 51–72.)

According to Swanson, and unfortunately for us, the ambiguity regarding the type of compound is in the Sanskrit, and not as clearly distinguished as Griffith’s very brief note would suggest. Swanson discusses the two different interpretations of the second obscuration, and indicates that the “obstacle to knowing” understanding of it is well-known to Japanese scholars. This understanding he summarizes as

Jñeya is the goal of the Buddha’s perfect knowledge or omniscience, and jñeyāvaraṇa is something, as yet undefined, which remains after kleśas are destroyed and which hinders the attainment of the omniscience of the Buddha. (52)

He provides a couple of sources supporting this interpretation, but for the purposes of critical reflection on our own understandings goes on to discuss common Western interpretations, such as that of Conze, and sees these as influenced more by Madhyamaka than by Yogācāra understandings of the concept. And he then goes on to discuss the attempt to integrate these two distinct interpretations made by Zhiyi using his three truths system.

As with so many key terms, therefore, how we understand the two obscurations, and especially the second (jñeyāvaraṇa) depends on the context—who is writing, why are they writing the text, who are they writing the text for, and so on. When expressed in this fashion as a truism, calling attention to the importance of context should seem rather obvious. The general guideline of questioning interpretations because they seem obviously true, however, imposes a more difficult and subtle task. Such interpretations may appear to be obviously true more because they match our own culturally determined understandings, than because they reflect the meaning of some original source accurately.

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