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What Does "Characteristics" Mean?

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What Does "Characteristics" Mean?

Postby Pedestrian on Mon Mar 04, 2013 8:26 pm

I'm one of a few folks here reading the Lankavatara Sutra and I keep seeing the word "characteristics", e.g. "The emptiness of characteristics refers to the emptiness of the individual or shared characteristics of whatever exists." What does the word "characteristics" mean? What's the Sanskrit and/or Chinese?
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Re: What Does "Characteristics" Mean?

Postby Gregory Wonderwheel on Mon Mar 04, 2013 9:57 pm

The word "characteristic(s)" is the most common translation of the Sanskrit "lakSaNa" (lakṣana) and which is usually translated in Chinese as 相 (xaing). The other most common English translations are "appearance, sign, mark, attribute, and form."

The Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon has this entry.
lakSaNa mfn. indicating, expressing indirectly Veda7ntas. ; m. Ardea Sibirica L. ; N. of a man Ra1jat. (often confounded with , %{lakSmaNa}) ; (%{A}) f. see s.v. ; n. (ifc. f. %{A}) a mark, sign, symbol, token, characteristic, attribute, quality (ifc. = `"marked or characterized by"', `"possessed of"') Mn. MBh. &c. ; a stroke, line (esp. those drawn on the sacrificial ground) S3Br. Gr2S3rS.; a lucky mark, favourable sign Gr2S3rS. Mn. MBh. &c. ; a symptom or indication of disease, Cat ; a sexual organ MBh. xiii , 2303 ; a spoon (?) DivyA7v ; accurate description , definition , illustration Mn. Sarvad. Sus3r. ; settled rate, fixed tariff Mn. viii, 406; a designation, appellation, name (ifc. = `" named "' , `" called "') Mn. MBh. Ka1v. ; a form , species , kind , sort (ifc.= `" taking the form of "' , `" appearing as "') Mn. S3am2k. BhP. ; the act of aiming at , aim , goal , scope , object (ifc. = `" concerning "' , `" relating to "' , `" coming within the scope of "') APra1t. Ya1jn5. MBh. BhP. ; reference , quotation Pa1n2. 1-4 , 84 ; effect , operation , influence ib. i , 1 , 62 &c. ; cause , occasion , opportunity R. Das3. ; observation , sight , seeing W.


In the Buddha Dharma context it is a very important technical term. Laksana/marks/characteristics/attrributes as a concept is closely related to the fourth skandha of samjna which itself is a difficult term to render into a single English translation. Samjna is often translated as "mental formations" and the mental formations are recognized by their laksana or marks/characteristics/attributes.

When translated as "forms" the marks/characteristics/attributes are akin to Plato's notion of the ideals of Form and ever since the time of Sakyamuni the followers of the Buddha Dharma have discussed and differed on whether the characteristics/forms/laksana of dharmas/things "exist" as forms or not. Several of the early schools developed theories of the existence of the attributes or forms of dharmas which were refuted by other schools.

The emptiness of characteristics is the central argument of the refutation of the perceived existance of laksanas/forms of things/dharmas.

In Chapter 10 of the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor, Huineng mentions the Samadhi of One Characteristic (一相三昧, AKA Samadhi of Uniformity, i.e. literally one-form) in a very important reference connecting it to the Samadhi of One Act (一行三昧, AKA Samadhi of One Practice, or Samadhi of Unified Action).

“If you want to bring to perfection the seed-knowledge (bija-jnana, sarvakara-jnana), you should achieve the Samadhi of One Characteristic and the Samadhi of One Act.
“If at every place you nevertheless do not abide in characteristics, or otherwise in the middle of characteristics do not give birth to dislikes and likes, and likewise have no grasping or relinquishing, do not retreat from blessings or complete poverty in the same affairs, and you are peaceful, leisurely, calm, silent, humble, harmonizing, tranquil, and anchored; this is called the Samadhi of One Characteristic (Uniformity).
“If at every place, whether walking or stopped, sitting or lying down, to be sincere with a singularly straightforward mind, unmoving in the site of the Way, is truly becoming the Pure Land; this is called the Samadhi of One Act.


The Lankavatara Sutra outlines seven kinds of emptiness of which one is "freedom from characteristics."
At that time, the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva Mahamati again beseeched the Buddha declaring, “Please resolve, World Honored One, for those equal to me, to articulate how all things are empty, unborn, nondual, and free from the characteristics of own nature. So those equal to me, as well as the other various bodhisattvas in the assembly, may awaken to what is emptiness, the unborn, nonduality, complete freedom from the characteristics of own-nature, and freedom from the deluded conceptualization of existence and nonexistence and may swiftly attain unexcelled unified thorough enlightenment.”

At that time the World Honored One told Mahamati Bodhisattva-Mahasattva, declaring, “Listen carefully, listen carefully, to well know it by heart! Now for you I shall extensively articulate by discrimination.”

Mahamati addressed the Buddha, declaring, “Excellent! World Honored One, yes, do so, and I will receive the teaching.”

The Buddha told Mahamati, “That which is the emptiness of emptiness is exactly the own-nature of deluded conceptualization.
"Mahamati, for those who are attached to reckoning about the own-nature of deluded conceptualization, I articulate emptiness, the unborn, non-duality, and freedom from the characteristics of own-nature.
"Mahamati, by an outline I articulate seven kinds of emptiness, designated as: (1) The emptiness of characteristics (lakshana), (2) the emptiness of the own-nature of nature (bhavasvabhava), (3) the emptiness of acting (pracarita), (4) the emptiness of non-acting (apracarita), (5) the emptiness of all things being free from verbal articulation (nirabhilapya), (6) the great emptiness (mahasunyata) of the noble innate-knowledge (aryajnana) of the primary meaning (paramartha), and (7) the emptiness of one and another (itaretara) which is the seventh.


The seventh is the most commonly mundane form of emptiness when we say a tea cup is empty of tea or the room is empty of elephants. The sixth is the most profound and subtle kind of emptiness known by the Tathagatas. The first and second kinds of emptiness is are realization of the Samadhi of One Characterisltic and the third and fourth kinds of emptiness are the realization of the Samadhi of One Act.

_/|\_
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Re: What Does "Characteristics" Mean?

Postby Gregory Wonderwheel on Mon Mar 04, 2013 10:33 pm

Pedestrian wrote: "The emptiness of characteristics refers to the emptiness of the individual or shared characteristics of whatever exists."


The formulaic phrase "the individual or shared characteristics of whatever exists" refers to an important function of consciousness in the determination that things (dharmas) exist at all.

By identifying individual and shared characteristics through pattern recognition we create the mental formation (samjna) of all things that overrides the raw perceptions of "just this." .

For example, when we see a VW Beetle on the road, we identify the field of perceived characteristics of color, condition, etc. and related them as individual characteristice of the categories of shared characteristics such as the concepts of "vehicle", "passenger transportation", "car" etc. Thus the characteristic of "car" is an individual characteristic when contrasted with a "truck" but is a shared characteristic when used as the category of "passenger vehicles." Likewise, "green" is an individual category when used to contrast with other colors of Beetles, but is a shared characteristic with used to compare with other things that are green.

One way the analysis works is to see that whatever characteristic can be identified is always a characteristic of both individual and shared categories and therefore can bever be separated as being one without being the other; therefore as a characteristic, since it is neither exclusively individual nor shared as well as the individual and sharaed aspects of the characteristic "neutralize" each other as opposites, the two can never exist independently and are therefore all characterisitcs empty of both separateness or individual existence and shared or general existence.

_/|\_
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Re: What Does "Characteristics" Mean?

Postby jiblet on Tue Mar 05, 2013 12:27 am

Gregory Wonderwheel wrote:
[...]
In the Buddha Dharma context it is a very important technical term. Laksana/marks/characteristics/attrributes as a concept is closely related to the fourth skandha of samjna which itself is a difficult term to render into a single English translation. Samjna is often translated as "mental formations..."
[...]

Many Sanskrit terms are difficult to translate into English it's true. It's difficult, if not impossible, for a modern audience to grasp the particular fine distinctions of meaning many ancient 'technical' terms were intended to signify. I think. But, as far as I'm aware - -

The fourth skandha is not samjñā (Pāli saññā), but samskāra (Pāli saṅkhāra). It's samskāra that's often translated as 'mental formations'. samjñā is more usually translated (in the context of the skandhas) as as 'perception or 'cognition'.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skandhas#The_five_skandhas


Anyway - back to lakṣaṇa, with apologies for the nit-pick!
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Re: What Does "Characteristics" Mean?

Postby jiblet on Tue Mar 05, 2013 12:57 am

I've taken the liberty of editing the lakṣana entry from the Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary (copied in GW's first post), removing the references and irrevelant usages, and clarifying some of the abbreviations -

lakSaNa (pronounced 'lakshana')

- [as an adjective] indicating, expressing indirectly;

- [as a noun] a mark, sign, symbol, token, characteristic, attribute, quality - (as the final term of a compound: "marked or characterized by...", "possessed of...");

- an accurate description , definition , illustration;

- a designation, appellation, name (as the final term of a compound: "named...", "called...")


...While I'm here, and for what it's worth, I understand characteristics and the emptiness of characteristics pretty much as Gregory has described them in his second post.
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Re: What Does "Characteristics" Mean?

Postby Huifeng on Tue Mar 05, 2013 4:40 am

Pedestrian wrote:I'm one of a few folks here reading the Lankavatara Sutra and I keep seeing the word "characteristics", e.g. "The emptiness of characteristics refers to the emptiness of the individual or shared characteristics of whatever exists." What does the word "characteristics" mean? What's the Sanskrit and/or Chinese?


Usually - but not always - this is a translation for "laksana" (as above). It is the objective aspect of recognition, identification, paired with the subjective aspect of "samjna", which is recognition, perception, etc. The object has a given laksana (characteristic), and it is through this that the subject identifies or recognizes what it is (samjna). eg. one perceives a white cup, the "white" and shape later interpreted as "cup" are laksana. It became a very important Abhidharma method, whereby ultimate phenomena, ie. things that can no longer be further reduced or analyzed, each have their own individual and specific laksana.

However - because I don't know what passage of the Lankavatara you are referring to - it can also translate "svabhava", own nature, a more ontological type of description; or the abstract suffix "-ta", something like "-ness" or "-ity".

Particularly when talking about the "emptiness of characteristics", it could very well be "svabhava", as "svabhava-sunya" or "svabhavena sunya" are fairly common expressions in Mahayana sutras, ie. empty of own nature, or empty in terms of own nature.

Both laksana and svabhava come in "individual" and "shared" types; though this distinction is more common for laksana, ie. svalaksana and samanyalaksana, respectively. The individual are the Abhidharma sense given above, whereas shared are broader categories to which many phenomena conform, eg. being empty is a common or shared characteristic of all phenomena; (different from all phenomena are empty of characteristics...)

Probably any of these come from Chinese 相 xiang, (either first or fourth tone). Samjna is 想 xiang (third tone). The difference being the latter has the heart radical at the bottom. Neat, huh?

Hard to say without a given context or actual passage.

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Re: What Does "Characteristics" Mean?

Postby ed blanco on Tue Mar 05, 2013 8:05 pm

I am another Lanka reader. Thank you for the commentaries.
I glanced over the references to 'characteristics,' took it as another way of saying peculiarity, in this case of human beings.
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Re: What Does "Characteristics" Mean?

Postby Gregory Wonderwheel on Wed Mar 06, 2013 3:11 pm

jiblet wrote:
Gregory Wonderwheel wrote:
[...]
In the Buddha Dharma context it is a very important technical term. Laksana/marks/characteristics/attrributes as a concept is closely related to the fourth skandha of samjna which itself is a difficult term to render into a single English translation. Samjna is often translated as "mental formations..."
[...]

Many Sanskrit terms are difficult to translate into English it's true. It's difficult, if not impossible, for a modern audience to grasp the particular fine distinctions of meaning many ancient 'technical' terms were intended to signify. I think. But, as far as I'm aware - -

The fourth skandha is not samjñā (Pāli saññā), but samskāra (Pāli saṅkhāra). It's samskāra that's often translated as 'mental formations'. samjñā is more usually translated (in the context of the skandhas) as as 'perception or 'cognition'.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skandhas#The_five_skandhas


Anyway - back to lakṣaṇa, with apologies for the nit-pick!


Opps, Yes, I got caught with my skandha-pants down! I was sitting at a coffee shop and typing the froth in my mind too fast without sorting out the skandhas correctly.
thanks for the correction.

The Digital Dictionary of Buddhism, citing C. Muller, makes the connection between laksana and samjna.
~ Form, appearance, state, condition, aspect, situation, expression, external appearance, outwardly expressed appearance (Skt. saṃjñā; Tib. mtshan ma). [cmuller]


I see samjna as the appearance of characteristics and samskara as the organization of characteristics.

_/|\_
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Re: What Does "Characteristics" Mean?

Postby Gregory Wonderwheel on Wed Mar 06, 2013 4:38 pm

Huifeng wrote:However - because I don't know what passage of the Lankavatara you are referring to -


The passage comes from Section XXVII as labeled in the D.T. Suzuki and Red Pine translations. This is the section on the seven kinds of emptiness.

Gunabhadra has the line as “云何相空? 謂:一切性自共相空” (T16n0670_p0488c09)

~”一切性” is sarvabhāva and has a broad range of meaning such as “all natures,” “every nature,” “whole being” “all manner of being,” “all existing,” "everything existing" “all states,” “everything occurring” etc..

~“自共相” (sva-sāmānya-lakṣaṇa) is an abbreviation of 自相 (svalakṣaṇa) “it’s own or individual characteristics” and 共相 (sāmānya-lakṣaṇa).”it’s shared or common characteristics”.

~”空” is sunyata, emptiness.

D.T. Suzuki translates as: “Mahamati, what then is the emptiness of individual marks? It is that all things have no [such distinguishing] marks of individuality and generality.”

Dwight Goddard (working from Suzuki’s translation) translates it as: “By emptiness of individual marks is meant that all things have no distinguishing marks of individuality and generality. “

Red Pine translates it as: "What is meant by the emptiness of characteristics? The emptiness of characteristics refers to the emptiness of the individual or shared characteristics of whatever exists."

My translation: “What is said to be the ‘emptiness of characteristics’? It designates the emptiness of the individual and shared characteristics of all natures.”

_/|\_
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Re: What Does "Characteristics" Mean?

Postby Pedestrian on Thu Mar 07, 2013 4:45 am

Gregory Wonderwheel wrote:In Chapter 10 of the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor, Huineng mentions the Samadhi of One Characteristic (一相三昧, AKA Samadhi of Uniformity, i.e. literally one-form) in a very important reference connecting it to the Samadhi of One Act (一行三昧, AKA Samadhi of One Practice, or Samadhi of Unified Action).

“If you want to bring to perfection the seed-knowledge (bija-jnana, sarvakara-jnana), you should achieve the Samadhi of One Characteristic and the Samadhi of One Act.
“If at every place you nevertheless do not abide in characteristics, or otherwise in the middle of characteristics do not give birth to dislikes and likes, and likewise have no grasping or relinquishing, do not retreat from blessings or complete poverty in the same affairs, and you are peaceful, leisurely, calm, silent, humble, harmonizing, tranquil, and anchored; this is called the Samadhi of One Characteristic (Uniformity).
“If at every place, whether walking or stopped, sitting or lying down, to be sincere with a singularly straightforward mind, unmoving in the site of the Way, is truly becoming the Pure Land; this is called the Samadhi of One Act.


Gregory (or anyone), do you know where that is in the Red Pine edition?
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Re: What Does "Characteristics" Mean?

Postby Huifeng on Thu Mar 07, 2013 7:17 am

Gregory Wonderwheel wrote:
Huifeng wrote:However - because I don't know what passage of the Lankavatara you are referring to -


The passage comes from Section XXVII as labeled in the D.T. Suzuki and Red Pine translations. This is the section on the seven kinds of emptiness.

Gunabhadra has the line as “云何相空? 謂:一切性自共相空” (T16n0670_p0488c09)

~”一切性” is sarvabhāva and has a broad range of meaning such as “all natures,” “every nature,” “whole being” “all manner of being,” “all existing,” "everything existing" “all states,” “everything occurring” etc..

~“自共相” (sva-sāmānya-lakṣaṇa) is an abbreviation of 自相 (svalakṣaṇa) “it’s own or individual characteristics” and 共相 (sāmānya-lakṣaṇa).”it’s shared or common characteristics”.

~”空” is sunyata, emptiness.

D.T. Suzuki translates as: “Mahamati, what then is the emptiness of individual marks? It is that all things have no [such distinguishing] marks of individuality and generality.”

Dwight Goddard (working from Suzuki’s translation) translates it as: “By emptiness of individual marks is meant that all things have no distinguishing marks of individuality and generality. “

Red Pine translates it as: "What is meant by the emptiness of characteristics? The emptiness of characteristics refers to the emptiness of the individual or shared characteristics of whatever exists."

My translation: “What is said to be the ‘emptiness of characteristics’? It designates the emptiness of the individual and shared characteristics of all natures.”

_/|\_
Gregory


(Vaidya 32) tatra mahāmate lakṣaṇaśūnyatā katamā? yaduta svasāmānyalakṣaṇaśūnyāḥ sarvabhāvāḥ| parasparasamūhāpekṣitatvāt pravicayavibhāgābhāvān mahāmate svasāmānyalakṣaṇasyāpravṛttiḥ| svaparobhayābhāvāc ca mahāmate lakṣaṇaṃ nāvatiṣṭhate| atas taducyate svalakṣaṇaśūnyāḥ sarvabhāvā iti||

《楞伽阿跋多羅寶經》卷1〈一切佛語心品〉:「云何相空?謂:一切性自共相空,觀展轉積聚故;分別無性,自共相不生。自他俱性無性,故相不住,是故說一切性相空。是名相空。」(CBETA, T16, no. 670, p. 488, c9-11)

"... It is that all existents are empty of own and shared characteristics. ..."

Note: the 空 (in 一切性自共相空) is just śūnyāḥ (nom, pl, masc), not actually śūnyatā (nom, sg, fem), as it's qualifying sarvabhāvāḥ (nom, pl, masc).

~~ Huifeng
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Re: What Does "Characteristics" Mean?

Postby Gregory Wonderwheel on Fri Mar 08, 2013 4:23 am

Huifeng wrote:(Vaidya 32) tatra mahāmate lakṣaṇaśūnyatā katamā? yaduta svasāmānyalakṣaṇaśūnyāḥ sarvabhāvāḥ| parasparasamūhāpekṣitatvāt pravicayavibhāgābhāvān mahāmate svasāmānyalakṣaṇasyāpravṛttiḥ| svaparobhayābhāvāc ca mahāmate lakṣaṇaṃ nāvatiṣṭhate| atas taducyate svalakṣaṇaśūnyāḥ sarvabhāvā iti||

《楞伽阿跋多羅寶經》卷1〈一切佛語心品〉:「云何相空?謂:一切性自共相空,觀展轉積聚故;分別無性,自共相不生。自他俱性無性,故相不住,是故說一切性相空。是名相空。」(CBETA, T16, no. 670, p. 488, c9-11)

"... It is that all existents are empty of own and shared characteristics. ..."

Note: the 空 (in 一切性自共相空) is just śūnyāḥ (nom, pl, masc), not actually śūnyatā (nom, sg, fem), as it's qualifying sarvabhāvāḥ (nom, pl, masc).

~~ Huifeng


Huifeng,

What's your view of the source of the modern Sanskrit text? My understanding is that there is no extant original Sanskrit and that most of the modern researchers hold that the modern Sanskrit versions are reconstructions.

_/|\_
Gregory
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Re: What Does "Characteristics" Mean?

Postby Huifeng on Sat Mar 09, 2013 8:54 am

Gregory Wonderwheel wrote:Huifeng,

What's your view of the source of the modern Sanskrit text? My understanding is that there is no extant original Sanskrit and that most of the modern researchers hold that the modern Sanskrit versions are reconstructions.

_/|\_
Gregory


Hi,

Let's leave aside terms like "modern" text or "original" text for now. What would an "original Sanskrit" text be, anyway? An autograph? Do any Buddhist texts have autographs?

The presently used extant manuscripts derive from Nepalese palm manuscripts from a few centuries ago. A number of people - eg. Vaidya, Nanjio Bunjo - produced diplomatic texts from these; and then by comparing with the Chinese and Tibetan texts, produced critical texts. As such, they are not "reconstructions", a term usually used to refer to a complete back translation from a secondary language. (eg. what what's-his-name did with the Satyasiddhi some years ago, and what Lamotte seems to do be default - until things like that actual Sanskrit Vimalakirti-nirdesa showed up...)

Maybe it comes down to what you mean by "original" or "reconstruction".

~~ Huifeng
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