"Sariputra, the characteristics of the voidness of all dharmas are non-arising, non-ceasing, non-defiled, non-pure, non-increasing, non-decreasing.
| previous | table of content | next |

The above sentence proclaims Emptiness to be the substance of all Dharmas: That being the case, there can be neither birth nor death, no defilement, no purity, no increase or decrease. What holds true for the dharma of the skandhas—applies equally to the rest of dharmas; and, therefore, all dharmas are absolutely and permanently void.

An ordinary person views all the things of this world as possessing their own shapes or forms. He or she grasps at and clings to them, not understanding that their presence is empty of a permanent, separate self. The Buddha, mindful of some of his adherents who still grasped at worldly dharmas as if they were real, addressed once more the problem generated by the perception of dharmas as increasing, decreasing, defiled or pure. Explaining in more detail, he reiterated that since all dharmas are void, there is no birth and no death, neither an increase nor a decrease, neither defilement nor purity. The central and notable theme of this Sutra is the essential emptiness of all dharmas, and the distinguishing marks of their emptiness are defined as non-arising, non-ceasing, non-defilement, non-purity, non-increasing, non-decreasing, non-birth and non-death.

The Vaipulya Sutra speaks of “neither existing nor extinct, neither permanent nor annihilated, neither identical nor differentiated, neither coming nor going.” The history of Buddhism is replete with illustrious sages who pondered and expounded this doctrine at great length. To deluded worldlings, however, it makes no sense to speak of no birth and no death. They hold birth and death to be essential; all of us were born and must die in the same way that the grass sprouts and grows in the spring and summer and dies in the fall. That is clear to everyone, so how can anybody teach that there is no birth and no death? Thus, worldlings come to perceive objects as permanent (the view called parikalpita in Sanskrit).

In The Madhyamika Sastra, Bodhisattva Nagarjuna (c.150-250 C. E.) says: “For the one who is already born, there is no birth; nor is there birth for the one who has not been born. Also, neither the one who was born nor the one who was not born has birth, nor does the one being born have birth at the time of birth.” For example, grass that is one foot tall is no longer sprouting. That is what is meant by “no more birth for the one already born.” Now, suppose that the grass that is presently one foot tall is allowed to grow one more foot: It still cannot be said to have birth, because there is no manifestation of birth. That is what is meant by “What has not been born yet has no birth.” The grass cannot be said to have birth or be born at any specific time during its sprouting, and so it is said that “The one being born does not have birth at the time of birth.” The mark or the sign of birth does not obtain at any one moment. Bodhisattva Nagarjuna demonstrated by means of this example that the doctrine of no-birth makes perfect sense and that it is relevant to an understanding of the Teaching.

I have already explained birth and non-birth. Let me explain now the opposite of non-birth. For the one already dead there is no death; for the one not yet dead there is no death either. At the time of dying there is not one specific instant in which death manifests itself. The following explanation should clarify the eight dharmas of form: neither existent nor extinct, neither permanent nor annihilated, neither identical nor differentiated, and neither coming nor going. A simple statement of non-birth and non-death would not be convincing enough, so, to counter any argument, the Buddha added “neither permanent nor annihilated” for those holding on to doctrine of permanence. To make it succinct in terms of the luminous Dharma, it is often said, “If you open your mouth you are already wrong; if you give rise to a single thought, you are in error.” All of this is, inconceivable. However, The Surangama Sutra simply asserts, “The language we use has no real meaning.”

I would like those who hold things to be permanent to explain why we cannot see at present all those who have lived before us? If you consider thusly, the impermanence of human existence becomes immediately apparent. Similarly, those who subscribe to the annihilation theory should tell us how it is possible for us to eat last year’s rice. Today’s rice is the seed from last year’s plant, which, in turn, grew from the seed of the previous year. That should be evidence enough that the annihilation theory does not work, as asserted by the aforementioned “neither birth nor death, neither permanence nor annihilation.”

Regarding “neither identical nor differentiated”, it means not being the same or alike and not being varied either; it also means being neither one nor many. Consider the human body, for example: It is a collection of many dissimilar parts—i.e., skin, muscle, tendons, bones, blood, viscera and more. Though we refer to it as one body or one sentient being, there are, actually, more than one. However, the body cannot be called a group or a composite because it is perceived as an entity. Thus, the idea under discussion can reasonably be reformulated as “One is all, and all is one.” The Ultimate Dharma is the silence that follows after the sound of discussion has ceased and when the role of thought is done.

“Neither coming nor going” addresses the view of things as having independent, lasting existence. By coming and going we imply questions such as “Where do people come from, and where do they go?” Similarly, some may wonder, “Where do mountains come from and where do they go?” Again, the view that holds everything in the world to be in some way continuing is called in Sanskrit parikalpita. This view is based on a fundamental cognitive distortion, bringing further distortions in its wake: From there on, there is birth and death, permanence and annihilation, sameness and differentiation, coming and going.

The foregoing discussion of the Superb Doctrine has dealt with “neither birth nor death, neither permanence nor annihilation, neither sameness nor differentiation, and neither coming nor going.” Now we are going to turn our attention to the doctrine of the Ultimate Reality as “not defiled, not pure, not increasing and not decreasing,” and dependent only on the substance of Prajna (or the Voidness of all things).

Both defiled and pure are without definite form, thus leaving everyone to his or her own resources, or subjective point of view. Rejecting defiled and clinging to pure give rise to yet another defilement because of our natural tendency toward opinions and prejudice. It is only when discriminating thought no longer arises that Liberation can be attained. Let us imagine that someone slips while walking on a country road; while getting up he or she puts a hand in some dung. This person washes the dirty hand, and having done that, considers it clean. Had a handkerchief been used instead to wipe that hand clean, it would have been considered somewhat soiled even after many launderings; it might even be discarded. However, the hand cannot be discarded since it forms an essential part of owner’s body; one has no other alternative but to wash it carefully and then accept it as clean. The handkerchief is easily abandoned, however, and for that reason there is no need for the mind to hold on to the idea of soiled.

A female scholar named Lu Mei Sun once told me a story about a friend of hers, a lady who lived in a village. Once her friend went shopping in a nearby town, where she saw a pretty enamelware receptacle that she liked well enough to buy; she derived much pleasure from serving food in it. About six months later she invited several of her friends for a special meal and used her favorite vessel to serve it in. Her guests, however, were repelled by it, because they identified the vessel as a chamber pot. In spite of the fact that the pot was never used for anything else but food since the lady had brought it home brand new from the store, her friends were taken aback. Through this example, we can appreciate how the view of soiled and clean is totally grounded in the assumption that things have permanent and, therefore, independent existence.

Also, there is a certain soy condiment that is very popular, but most of those who consume it are not aware of the process used to make it. During its fermentation, the condiment harbors colonies of maggots; they are carefully removed prior to the product’s being offered for sale. People enjoy the flavor but were they reminded, while eating it, that it was once populated by maggots, they might suddenly consider the condiment dirty and stop eating it. Clearly, the maggots feel perfectly at home in the midst of the decomposing material, and the question of dirty or clean does not arise; yet rotten or decomposing material suggests dirt and disgust to the minds of people.

Similarly, those who inhabit heavenly realms consider us, the earthlings, dirty; yet they, in turn, are deemed dirty by the Arhat, or Saint of the Theravadin tradition while he, the Arhat, is perceived as dirty by a Bodhisattva. Thus, the demarcation between pure and impure is far from clear. If your mind is impure, the world appears correspondingly impure, and vice versa. All these distinctions are arbitrary, yet people grasp them, clinging to their views as if they were carved in stone.

Finally, we are going to talk about increase and decrease. As it is to be expected, these two terms are, likewise, completely relative: There may be an increase in the decrease or a decrease in the increase. Let me give you an example. There are ninety days of summer. At present, thirty days of summer have already passed. We might say that hot weather has been increasing over the past thirty days, or we can put it differently by saying that the hot season has decreased by thirty days. An idiomatic saying puts it as follows: “Months and years have no feelings; they just decrease while they increase.” “While the years increase, our life span decreases” says the same thing, using different words. I am eighty-four years old. If I am to live till ninety, I have six more years; and if I live one more year after that, it means an increase, and yet it is also a moment to moment decrease in my life span. That is the meaning of an increase in the decrease and a decrease in the increase.

In a few words, there is neither birth nor death, neither impure nor pure, neither increase nor decrease: This is the wonderful doctrine of the Middle Way. However, most people twist their perception to fit their picture of how reality should be. Then there, indeed, is birth and death, impure and pure, increase and decrease, all being produced by the notion of ego and its concomitant craving. For that reason the Buddha taught about the True Nature of Reality: He pointed out that the notion of separate ego is an illusion, and he emphasized the necessity to eliminate craving if we want to bring the round of suffering to a halt.

The essential point in all this is that the skandhas are all empty at this very moment; since the Dharma of the Skandhas is central to the Buddhadharma, the rest of the Dharmas are equally empty. To reiterate once more, there is no birth and no death, neither pure nor impure, neither increase nor decrease. According to The Mahaprajna Paramita Sutra, Emptiness is the substance of all Dharmas.

"Therefore, in the void there is no form, feeling, conception, volition or consciousness;
| previous | table of content | next |

The Buddha knew that repetition is essential to learning; he explained further that there is form because the mind craves it; and when mind releases its hold, form ceases to exist. It does not have any independent nature of its own. Additionally, there is no feeling, conception, volition or consciousness in the supramundane Emptiness of True Existence. He returned to the fundamental Dharma of the Skandhas again and again to explain the essential Emptiness of all existence. He hoped to make the Path of Liberation be known by teaching it continually.

Now, I shall shed some light on the meaning of the assertion “All dharmas are void.” The fundamental Dharma of the Five Skandhas teaches that all five skandhas are empty, which means that there are really no skandhas. They are not the substance, but only the function, of worldly dharmas; and just as is the case with all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, the skandhas, too, are rooted entirely in the Dharma of Emptiness.

"No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind; no form, sound, smell, taste, touch, mind-object, or eye realm, until we come to no realm of consciousness;
| previous | table of content | next |

This portion of The Heart Sutra is the Teaching on Emptiness in connection with the eighteen worldly dharmas, or eighteen realms. The uninstructed lack understanding of the Dharma of Emptiness and repeatedly yield to the play of delusion as permanence and as independent existence. Ultimate Emptiness is not the obstinate void of worldlings nor the annihilation view of those on the heterodox path; furthermore, it is neither the analysis of the voidness as practiced by the Theravadins nor the voidness of the present moment as perceived by Bodhisattvas.

However, the supramundane Emptiness of True Existence is not possessed by Buddhas alone: All of us are endowed with the same truth and would come to know it if only we relinquished the discriminating mind, thus realizing the supramundane Void of True Existence. In order to have correct practice it is not necessary to apply the method of Theravada, the Middle Vehicle, or Mahayana. Anyone can become Buddha spontaneously by deeply comprehending that “All existence is void.”

The Saint of Theravada is equal to a worldly person of great potential. Thus, worldlings of superior potential can sharpen their wisdom and receive the radiant Dharma at any time. People of mundane concerns wear themselves out in the realm of the eighteen mundane dharmas, that lead to confusion and craving; for them there can be no salvation. The six organs—eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind—and the corresponding six sense-data, or dust—form, sound, smell, taste, touch and mental formations—generate the six kinds of consciousness: eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, body consciousness and mind consciousness. This group, as a whole, is referred to as the eighteen realms or the eighteen mundane dharmas.

To be conscious means to be conscious of something, to distinguish or to discriminate. The average person works to make a living, eats and drinks every day and is, thus, always bound by the eighteen realms. He or she always sees with the eyes, hears with the ears, smells with the nose, tastes with the tongue, touches with the body and knows mental objects with the mind. Thence, the cognitive objects are discerned and produce sense-data; and from the six kinds of consciousness arise all the other functions.

People assume the reality of the subject and object behind the process, unaware as they are of its being a mere assumption unverifiable by experience. To understand this doctrine means liberation, but becoming confused about it means falling into the ocean of suffering. The six kinds of consciousness arise from the six organs and the six sense-data, but the six organs are useless to a dead body. How do the six kinds of consciousness receive the six sense-data and act upon receiving them? Also, since Emptiness is the substance of the six organs and, consequently, of the six kinds of sense-data, what do the six kind of consciousness depend on for their existence? The Sutra says, “No realm of the eye, until we come to no realm of consciousness,” which means there are no realm of eye consciousness, no realm of ear consciousness, no realm of nose consciousness, no realm of tongue consciousness, no realm of body consciousness, and no realm of mind consciousness.

The mundane dharmas of the eighteen realms with their ranges are clear: Each of them has a character of its own. As a matter of fact, just as one hundred rivers merge into one ocean, all dharmas are contained in one teaching—the teaching of Emptiness. To attain Enlightenment instantly, all one needs is to understand comprehensively the dharma of Emptiness as the essence of reality. The uninformed majority submerge their True Nature in confusion resulting from a misconception regarding the eighteen realms, a concept that has no counterpart in reality. Whenever mind touches a point, there is feeling; it may itch, hurt, feel numb, burn, or produce any of the countless sensations; and the knowing consciousness is alerted. When the taste buds are stimulated, there is the knowing tasting. There is sweet, bitter, sour, etc., and the tasting nature becomes confused by the variety and the complexity. Similarly, the moment the eye makes contact, the eye consciousness engages in making distinctions in terms of light or dark, and the pristine seeing nature gets covered over by them. When the ear catches a sound, the hearing nature is lost in judgments regarding it. These cognitive patterns are so deep that it is difficult to trace and abandon them, and yet they manifest a complete misunderstanding of the original nature of consciousness. Looking at the city at night, we see the brilliant lights of ten-thousand households: Such is the form of light. During a blackout we are able to observe the form of darkness. Light and darkness both have birth and death, yet the seeing nature is free of cyclic existence. It is in the nature of seeing to perceive darkness in the absence of light and light in the absence of darkness. This should help us to understand the timeless seeing nature. Our tendency to crave, grasp and cling to the object of seeing is a major obstacle to an understanding of the True Nature of Reality.

Attachment resulting from pleasurable eye contact, once established, is exceedingly difficult to relinquish. Most people do not have any understanding of the subject of seeing. The organ of the eye does not have the ability to see; only the nature of seeing does. The one who can enlighten oneself about the subject of the seeing nature can understand one’s own mind and see his or her own nature immediately. Whether a person is holy or worldly depends entirely on one’s ability (or the lack of it) to see his or her own Original Nature. This also holds true for the natures of hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and for the nature of knowing. The Surangama Sutra says, “When one organ has returned to its source, all six of them are liberated.” Our study and practice should begin by looking inward in order to free ourselves from the effect of light and dark. It is truly important to focus our attention completely on our seeing nature. When this is accomplished, it means a true awakening to the supreme Tao. First, however, we should learn the Buddhadharma and try to understand the doctrine. Then, when we start to practice, we should apply what we have learned; for without practice there is no learning.

The World Honored One is said to have attained Buddhahood already, asamkheya kalpas ago; nevertheless, he appeared in the world in order to save all sentient beings, manifesting himself as a worldling and a prince. The son of King Suddhodana of the Sakya clan, he renounced his regal status at the age of twenty-nine so he could dedicate himself wholeheartedly to the quest for liberation from suffering. He practiced ascetic meditation in the Himalayas, and at the age of thirty-five the former prince attained perfect and complete Enlightenment while meditating beneath a Bodhi tree. Noticing a bright star in the eastern sky, he observed that the seeing nature is boundless. He commented that all sentient beings have the same wisdom and virtue as the Tathagata, but since they are covered over with delusion, attachment and aversion, sentient beings do not attain Enlightenment. All evidence confirms that Sakyamuni attained the Original Nature, but most people are confused regarding their own ability to do so, mistaking the four elements for their bodies and the reflections of their six conditioned sense-data for their minds. The former create delusion and grasping, and the latter are major hindrances to attaining the Tao.

The preceding explanation dealt with the eighteen realms, consisting of six sense-organs, six sense-data and six kinds of consciousness. Now I would like to sum up, using the eye organ for illustration. There are two aspects to the eye: There are the organ of sensation and the faculty of sensation. The eye is the organ, while the faculty of sensation has two parts—seeing and form. The capacity of the eye to see, or the subject of seeing, is called the seeing nature. The form of seeing is related to the object of seeing: It is always connected to an object, and, therefore, the eye is always seeing something, whether a thing or a shape, a color or a size. The object of seeing is most confusing, and the uninstructed can easily fall into self-deception by believing in the independent existence of whatever they are looking at. Hence, the process of experience gets so twisted that it suits volition to grasp and to possess the objects, thus changing the process of experience into a source of suffering. However, the Buddha’s teaching is the path to liberation from suffering; and whoever understands this, understands all the Mahayana sutras as well.

Let us return once more to the example of the mirror and the reflection. The mirror was made to reflect whatever it faces, including mountains, rivers, and even the great earth. However, the problem arises when the reflection is mistaken for the object and when there is no realization that it may vanish at any time, being, as it is, a part of the birth-and-death cycle. The inherent ability to reflect is the Real Self, the timeless characteristic of the mirror we are talking about, yet it is very seldom realized. There was a Ch’an master who said, “Always facing it, yet not knowing what it is!” This means that worldlings do not recognize the nature of seeing for what it is: Ignoring the clarity of the mirror, they hold on to the reflection.

Time passes very quickly; so even if we live for one hundred years, it still is a very brief period of time. Those who inhabit heavens still worry about death although their lives last much longer. Things seen during one’s life are completely useless after one has died. The seeing nature, however, is not amenable to birth or death, nor is it dependent on the organ of the eye. To have eyes does not necessarily mean having seeing awareness. The nature of seeing is like the capacity of the mirror to reflect images, shapes or actions; after the images, shapes or actions vanish, the seeing nature remains, unmovable and unchangeable. The same applies to the hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and knowing natures.

Simply stated, people should not hold reflections to be permanent, grasping and clinging to them. To perceive the reflectivity of the mirror as the True Self means quick release from defilement and an expeditious liberation. The remaining five sense-doors can be inferred from the example of the eye organ; the six organs with their corresponding six data and six kinds of consciousness collectively generate the eighteen realms, or the eighteen worldly dharmas, all of which are reflections, impermanent and subject to birth and death. Only the seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and knowing natures, like the nature of the mirror, remain unchanged. Furthermore, that which reflects is also the reflection, and the reflection becomes that which reflects it: They complement one another.

Thus, there is “no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind; no form, sound, smell, taste, touch, mind-object, or eye realm, until we come to no realm of consciousness.” According to the assertion “All five skandhas are empty”, the five skandhas are the True Void of Supramundane Existence, and the Dharma of the Five Skandhas is the fundamental Dharma. In the True Void of Supramundane Existence, where there are no more skandhas, there is nothing to be attained. Thus, the eighteen realms are void at this very moment. Without the mirror, how can there be any reflection?

| table of content | next |