In his paper Dhamma and Non-duality
Ven. Bodhi begins his critique of the Mahāyāna schools by asserting that:
The Mahayana schools, despite their great differences, concur in upholding a thesis that, from the Theravada point of view, borders on the outrageous. This is the claim that there is no ultimate difference between samsara and Nirvana, defilement and purity, ignorance and enlightenment.
This is simply an inaccurate appraisal of the two Indian Mahāyāna traditions (i.e. Mādhyamaka and Yogācāra). It is one thing to understand that saṃsāra and nirvāna are not ultimately established as independent ontological realities, and are therefore nominal designations (prajñapti); it is quite another to phrase it in terms implying an absolute unity, as Ven. Bodhi does, and then draw out the unwanted consequences of this characterture.
As the 8th century Indian mādhyamika Kamalaśīla states in his Bhāvanākrama-s, awakening depends upon differentiating and engaging in specific, unerring, and complete causes and conditions:
It is impossible for omniscience [i.e. enlightenment] to arise without causes since this would entail the absurd consequence whereby everyone could be omniscient all the time. If it could arise independently, it could exist everywhere without obstructions, and again everybody would be omniscient. Moreover, all functional things depend exclusively on causes because they only occur for certain persons at certain times. And so, because omniscience does not arise for everybody everywhere at all times, it most certainly depends upon causes and conditions. Also, from among those causes and conditions, one should rely on unerring and complete causes.
There is no reification of an “ultimate” in Indian Mādhyamaka and Yogācāra. And the path structure of these two systems necessitate an accurate differentiation of defilement and purity, ignorance and enlightenment. There is no path without such differentiation.
Moreover, Ven. Bodhi’s assumption that the transcendence of dualities “from the Theravāda point of view, borders on the outrageous” and that according to the Theravāda view “wisdom must respect phenomena in their precise particularity” is also questionable. For example, in The Mind Stilled
Ven. Ñāṇananda, a Theravāda bhikkhu, states:
The transcendence of relativity involves freedom from the duality in worldly concepts such as 'good' and 'evil'. The concept of a 'farther shore' stands relative to the concept of a 'hither shore'. The point of these discourses is to indicate that there is a freedom from worldly conceptual proliferations based on duality and relativity.
And in his Concept and Reality
(pp. 55–56), Ven. Ñāṇananda says:
Concepts – be they material or spiritual, worldly or transcendental – are not worthy of being grasped dogmatically. They are not to be treated as ultimate categories and are to be discarded in the course of the spiritual endeavour.... That the emancipated sage (muni) no longer clings even to such concepts as “nibbāna” or “detachment” (virāga) is clearly indicated in the following verse of the Sutta Nipāta:
“For the Brahmin (the Muni) who has transcended all bounds, there is nothing that is grasped by knowing or by seeing. He is neither attached to attachment nor is he attached to detachment. In this world, he has grasped nothing as the highest.” [Sn 795]
Ven. Bodhi repeatedly casts the goal of “the non-dual systems” in terms of a realization of a “final unity,” a “metaphysical unity,” an “all-embracing absolute,” an “all-embracing identification with the All,” and an “absolute or fundamental ground.” For example:
For those of such a bent, the dissolution of dualities in a final unity will always appear more profound and complete.... For the non-dual systems, all dualities are finally transcended in the realization of the non-dual reality, the Absolute or fundamental ground.
For the Indian Mahāyāna schools this is incorrect. There is no “final unity” or “absolute or fundamental ground” to be realized in either of the two Indian Mahāyāna traditions (i.e. Mādhyamaka and Yogācāra). In both traditions a mindstream is designated as an individual momentary continuum, and this pertains to buddhas as well as deluded sentient beings.
Ven. Bodhi goes on to opine that:
Since, for the non-dual systems, distinctions are ultimately unreal, meditation practice is not explicitly oriented toward the removal of mental defilements and the cultivation of virtuous states of mind.
Also incorrect. Both Mahāyāna Mādhyamaka and Yogācāra path structures involve employing all the necessary causes and conditions for the attainment of awakening. This means engaging all thirty-seven factors of awakening, which includes penetrating the four noble truths upon attaining the path of seeing. In addition, for the boddhisattva this necessarily involves mastering not only the four dhyāna-s, but also the five mundane higher gnoses, the four formless attainments, and the cessation attainment. This is because the bodhisattva has to develop experiential knowledge of all paths in order to eventually instruct others, and also because the bodhisattva’s aspiration is to attain the perfect awakening of a buddha, which includes mastery of all meditative attainments. To suggest that one can penetrate the four noble truths and master all of these meditative attainments and eventually realize full awakening without the “removal of mental defilements and the cultivation of virtuous states of mind” is unsustainable.
That mastery of the dhyāna-s, etc., was of significant importance from the beginnings of the Mahāyāna is evident from reading the early Mahāyāna sūtra-s, which go to some length to praise forest seclusion and solitude. And that these passages remained in high esteem throughout the Indian Mahāyāna traditions can be seen from the fact that they were still being quoted in practice texts by the likes of Śāntideva and Vimalamitra many centuries later.
Ven. Bodhi also states that:
Nibbana, even in the early texts, is definitely cast as an ultimate reality and not merely as an ethical or psychological state....
Here we get a whiff of why the Mahāyāna Mādhyamaka and Yogācāra systems are so objectionable to Ven. Bodhi’s realist abhidhammika sensibilities. For Ven. Bodhi nibbāna is necessarily an “ultimate reality” independent of cognition. Elsewhere
Ven. Bodhi expands on his view of this matter, which further demonstrates a conflation of epistemology and ontology:
Nibbana is not only the destruction of defilements and the end of samsara but a reality transcendent to the entire world of mundane experience, a reality transcendent to all the realms of phenomenal existence....
[T]he Nibbana element remains the same, no matter whether many or few people attain Nibbana....
Nibbana is an actual reality and not the mere destruction of defilements or the cessation of existence. Nibbana is unconditioned, without any origination and is timeless.
Remedying this confusion and conflation of the epistemological and ontological was one of Nāgārjuna’s primary concerns. And not only Nāgārjuna. Throughout The Mind Stilled
as well as his other writings, Ven. Ñāṇananda has addressed this issue. For example:
To project Nibbāna into a distance and to hope that craving will be destroyed only on seeing it, is something like trying to build a staircase to a palace one cannot yet see. In fact this is a simile which the Buddha had used in his criticism of the Brahmin's point of view....
Lust, hate, delusion - all these are fires. Therefore Nibbāna may be best rendered by the word extinction. When once the fires are extinguished, what more is needed? But unfortunately Venerable Buddhaghosa was not prepared to appreciate this point of view. In his Visuddhimagga as well as in the commentaries Sāratthappakāsinī and Sammohavinodanī, he gives a long discussion on Nibbāna in the form of an argument with an imaginary heretic. Some of his arguments are not in keeping with either the letter or the spirit of the Dhamma.
First of all he gets the heretic to put forward the idea that the destruction of lust, hate and delusion is Nibbāna. Actually the heretic is simply quoting the Buddha word, for in the Nibbānasutta of the Asaṅkhatasaṃyutta the destruction of lust, hate and delusion is called Nibbāna: Rāgakkhayo, dosakkhayo, mohakkhayo - idaṃ vuccati nibbānaṃ.
The words rāgakkhaya, dosakkhaya and mohakkhaya together form a synonym of Nibbāna, but the commentator interprets it as three synonyms. Then he argues out with the imaginary heretic that if Nibbāna is the extinguishing of lust it is something common even to the animals, for they also extinguish their fires of lust through enjoyment of the corresponding objects of sense. This argument ignores the deeper sense of the word extinction, as it is found in the Dhamma....
It seems that the deeper implications of the word Nibbāna have been obscured by a set of arguments which are rather misleading....
More often than otherwise, commentarial interpretations of Nibbāna leave room for some subtle craving for existence, bhavataṇhā.... It conjures up a place where there is no sun and no moon, a place that is not a place. Such confounding trends have crept in probably due to the very depth of this Dhamma.
All the best,