Is Nirvāṇa the Same as Insentience? Chinese Struggles with an Indian Buddhist Ideal
In this chapter I examine some medieval Buddhist doctrines that, at least on the surface, seem similarly strange and implausible. Indeed, some of the Buddhist notions to be examined below were perplexing to audiences in their own day, much as discussions of brain transplants are perplexing to us today. On the Indian side, I will begin with the notion of nirodha-samāpatti, a meditative state akin to a vegetative coma in which all consciousness has ceased. I will then turn to a class of beings known as “beings without conception” (asaṃjñika-sattvāḥ), denizens of a celestial realm who are devoid of sentience, thought, and consciousness. In both cases, an insentient state seems to be followed by (or gives rise to) a sentient state, which poses serious challenges to the classical Buddhist understanding of karma. On the Chinese side, we will consider the debate over the buddha-nature of insentient objects—can an insentient thing such as a wall or roof tile attain buddhahood and preach the dharma? This doctrine too could be (and was) seen as a threat to the coherence of Buddhist teachings.
Modern scholars tend to approach such doctrines as the products of intelligent but misguided scholastics struggling to make sense of the universe, all the while hobbled by the dictates of tradition, scripture, and a prescientific understanding of the cosmos. They are the proverbial schoolmen calculating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But I would suggest another perspective. Such theories, I argue, serve as frames of reference for pondering issues of personal identity, ethical responsibility, sentience, and death. Given that we ourselves are still far from clarity on these issues, and given that we too devise fanciful thought experiments to help gain a conceptual toehold, perhaps it is time to look afresh at what the Buddhists might have been up to. (Sharf, preamble, 144–45)