The nature of wisdom
Wisdom (paññā) is, with ethical discipline and meditative concentration, one of the three main aspects of the Buddhist training (section introduction before *Th.97). It encompasses the right view and right resolve factors of the path (*Th.101), especially the form of right view that goes beyond right belief (*Th.100). It guides other aspects of the path, but is only perfected at the end of the path (Aṅguttara-nikāya I.231–232). It needs to be in balance with the faculty of faith (*Th.91).
Th.143 The three kinds of wisdom
This passage explains that paññā, understanding maturing into wisdom, is of three kinds: from heard (or read) teachings, from thinking these through, and from meditative development (see *V.71–3).
There are three kinds of wisdom: wisdom based on hearing, wisdom based on reflection, wisdom based on meditative development.
Saṅgīti Sutta: Dīgha-nikāya III.219, trans. P.H.
Th.144 How to move towards wisdom
A fool who has a sense of his foolishness is to that extent wise;
but a fool who thinks he is wise is called a real fool.
Dhammapada 63 trans. P.H.
Th.145 The three characteristics of phenomena: impermanent, painful, non-Self
This passage succinctly points out that conditioned things are impermanent and hence painful (dukkha), in the sense of bringing (physical or mental) pains, and that everything, even what is unconditioned (nirvana) is not a permanent self or its possession (this latter point will be explored in passages *Th.160–69).
All conditioned things are impermanent. … All conditioned things are painful. … Everything is non-Self.
Uppāda Sutta: Aṅguttara-nikāya I.286, trans. P.H.
Th.146 The role of wisdom
These passages show that wisdom especially understands things as impermanent, painful and non-Self (see below), and cuts through defilements so as to bring the end of everything that is painful. Wisdom is the highest form of right view (see *Th.100).
And what, monks, is the faculty of wisdom? Here, monks, a noble disciple is wise; he possesses wisdom directed to arising and passing away, which is noble and penetrative, leading to the complete destruction of the painful.
Vibhaṅga Sutta: Saṃyutta-nikāya V.197, trans. P.H.
Examination is the distinguishing mark of attention, sire, cutting off is the distinguishing mark of wisdom. … As, sire, a barley-reaper grasps a handful of barley in the left hand and a sickle in the right and cuts it off with a sickle, even so, sire, does the earnest practitioner of yoga, taking hold of the mind with attention, cut off the defilements with wisdom. …
Illumination is also a distinguishing mark of wisdom. … Sire, when wisdom is arising, it dispels the darkness of ignorance, produces the radiance of true knowledge, makes the light of knowing appear, and makes plain the Truths of the Noble Ones.535 Hence the earnest practitioner of yoga sees with right wisdom ‘impermanent’ or ‘painful’ or ‘non-Self’.
Milindapañha 32–33 and 39, trans. P.H.
Th.147 Wisdom ends the tangle and stream of defilements
‘Tangles within and tangles without. Beings are tangled by tangles. I question Gotama about this: Who disentangles this tangle?’
‘A wise person having become established in ethical discipline and cultivating the mind and wisdom, a monk ardent and discreet, disentangles this tangle.
Those for whom attachment and hatred along with ignorance have been expunged, the arahants with intoxicating inclinations destroyed, for them, the tangle is disentangled.’
Jaṭā Sutta: Saṃyutta-nikāya I.13 <28–29>, trans. P.D.P.
Whatever streams (of defilements) there be in the world, mindfulness is the dam for them.
I speak of the restraint of the streams. Wisdom shuts them down.
Ajitamāṇava-pucchā: Sutta-nipāta 1035, trans. P.D.P.
Th.148 Wisdom and ethical discipline purify each other
This passage shows that these qualities aid each other.
‘Good Gotama, wisdom is purified by ethical discipline, and ethical discipline is purified by wisdom. Where there is ethical discipline there is wisdom. Wisdom is for the person who possesses ethical discipline, and ethical discipline is for the person who possesses wisdom. Just as, good Gotama, one washes one hand with the other, and one foot with the other, in the same way wisdom is purified by ethical discipline and ethical discipline is purified by wisdom.’ … ‘It is quite so brahmin, it is quite so. … Ethical discipline and wisdom are declared to be the most excellent in the world.
Soṇadaṇḍa Sutta: Dīgha-nikāya I.124, trans. P.D.P.
Suffering and the four Truths of the Noble Ones
Th.149 The Truths of the Noble Ones and how they should be responded to
This passage is an extract which is the heart of the Buddha’s first discourse (*L.27). It delineates the central focus of the Buddha’s teachings, which he taught only once he was assured that his hearers were mentally prepared to benefit from hearing them. He often did this by first giving a step-by-step discourse (passage *Th.28) to get his audience into a calm and open state of mind. The key concept here is dukkha, often translated simply as ‘suffering’ (or as ‘unsatisfactoriness’ or ‘stress’). More accurately it means: as a noun, life’s various kinds of ‘pain’, whether these are physical or mental; as an adjective it means ‘painful’; as a noun again it then means ‘the painful’ – all those things that entail mental or physical pain. In the passage below, it is used in the second and third of these senses, except once when referring to physical pain.
What are usually translated ‘Noble Truths’ are really realities to see and understand, the most significant dimensions of existence, rather than words which are ‘truths’; and the first two (the painful and its cause) are definitely not ‘noble’.536 Rather, all four are what the ‘noble ones’ have insight into. These ‘noble ones’ are the Buddha and those of his disciples (arahants) who are enlightened, who are partially enlightened, or are on the brink of their first breakthrough to this (*Th.199–201). It is spiritual insight that makes them noble ones, rather than being noble by birth: they are the spiritually ennobled. The first thing to do to become a noble one is to properly identify and understand the four ‘truths’, in the sense of true realities. While most people would agree, for example, that ‘unhappiness and distress’ are painful, they would not see being born and the mental and physical processes making up a person as aspects of ‘the painful’. To do so requires discerning wisdom.
This passage emphasizes that the painful needs to be understood, that which originates it (craving) needs to be abandoned, that which is its cessation (the end of craving) needs to be experienced, and the path to this needs to be developed.
Now this, monks, is the Truth of the Noble Ones that is the painful: birth is painful, ageing is painful, illness is painful, death is painful; sorrow, lamentation, (physical) pain, unhappiness and distress are painful; union with what is disliked is painful; separation from what is liked is painful; not to get what one wants is painful; in brief, the five grasped-at categories of existence 537 are painful.
Now this, monks, is the Truth of the Noble Ones that is the origin of the painful. It is this craving which leads to repeated existence, accompanied by delight and attachment, seeking delight now here, now there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for being (something), craving for (something’s) non-existence.
Now this, monks, is the Truth of the Noble Ones that is the cessation of the painful. It is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it. 538
Now this, monks, is the Truth of the Noble Ones that is the way leading to the cessation of the painful. It is this noble eightfold path, that is to say, right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right meditative concentration.
“This is the Truth of the Noble Ones that is the painful”: in me, monks, in regard to things unheard before, there arose vision, knowledge, wisdom, insight and light. Now on this, “This – the Truth of the Noble Ones that is the painful – is to be fully understood”: in me, monks, in regard to things unheard before, there arose vision, knowledge, wisdom, insight, and light. Now on this, “This – the Truth of the Noble Ones that is the painful – has been fully understood”: in me, monks, in regard to things unheard before, there arose vision, knowledge, wisdom, insight and light.
(Likewise,) in me, monks, in regard to things unheard before, there arose vision, knowledge, wisdom, insight and light, with respect to: “This is the Truth of the Noble Ones that is the origin of the painful”, “This – the Truth of the Noble Ones that is the origin of the painful – is to be abandoned”, and “This – Truth of the Noble Ones that is the origin of the painful – has been abandoned.”
(Likewise,) in me, monks, in regard to things unheard before, there arose vision, knowledge, wisdom, insight and light, with respect to: “This is the Truth of the Noble Ones that is the cessation of the painful”, “This – the Truth of the Noble Ones that is the cessation of the painful – is to be personally experienced” and “This – the Truth of the Noble Ones that is the cessation of the painful – has been personally experienced”.
(Likewise,) in me, monks, in regard to things unheard before, there arose vision, knowledge, wisdom, insight and light, with respect to: “This is the Truth of the Noble Ones that is the way leading to the cessation of the painful”, “This – the Truth of the Noble Ones that is the way leading to the cessation of the painful – is to be developed”, and “This the Truth of the Noble Ones that is the way leading to the cessation of the painful – has been developed.”
Th.150 Explanation of the painful aspects of existence
This explains and expands on each of the aspects of life that are described above as ‘painful’. Note that the illustration of the pain of ‘not getting what one wants’ is the spiritual frustration of not being free of all the other painful aspects of life! In effect, the painful aspects of life are all those unsatisfactory things that bring distress, unease, dissatisfaction, anxiety, frustration, or stress.
And what is birth? Of whatever beings, of whatever category of beings, there is birth, taking birth, descent (conception), coming-to-be, appearance of (the five) categories of existence and acquisition of the sense-bases: that, monks, is called birth.539 …
And what is pain? Whatever is bodily pain, bodily discomfort, painful uncomfortable feeling born of a stimulus to the body: that is called pain.
And what is unhappiness? Whatever is mental pain, mental discomfort, painful uncomfortable feeling born of a stimulus to the mind: that is called unhappiness.
And what is distress? What, for one touched by whatever painful state when some misfortune is met with, is being troubled, distress, the state of being troubled, the state of being distressed: that is called distress.
And what is the pain of union with what is disliked? Whenever one meets with undesirable, unpleasing, unattractive sights, sounds, smells, flavours, or tactile sensations; or has connection, contact, relationship, interaction with those who wish one ill, who wish for one’s harm, who wish for one’s discomfort, who wish one no security from the yoke. This is called pain of union with what is disliked.
And what is the pain of separation from what is liked? Whenever one meets with desirable, pleasing, attractive sights, sounds, smells, flavours, or tactile sensations; or one has connection, contact, relationship, interaction with those who wish one well, who wish for one’s benefit, who wish for one’s comfort, who wish one security from the yoke, or with one’s mother, father, brother, sister, friends, companions, or relatives, and then is deprived of that: that is called the pain of separation from what is liked.
And what is the pain of not getting what one wants? In beings subject to birth, the wish arises, ‘O, may we not be subject to birth, and may birth not come to us’. But this is not to be gained by wishing. This is the pain of not getting what one wants. In beings subject to ageing ... illness ... death ... sorrow, lamentation, pain, unhappiness and distress, the wish arises, ‘O, may we not be subject to each of these, and may none of them come to us’. But this is not to be achieved by wishing: that is the pain of not getting what one wants.
And how, in short, are the five grasped-at categories of existence painful? These are: material form as a grasped-at category, feeling as a grasped-at category, perception as a grasped-at category, volitional activities form as a grasped-at category, and consciousness form as a grasped-at category. These, in short, are the five grasped-at categories of existence that are painful.
This, for the noble ones, is called the truth that is the painful.
Mahā-satipaṭṭhāna Sutta: Dīgha-nikāya II.305–307, trans. P.H.
Th.151 The five categories of existence (khandhas)
These two passages explain the nature of the five components of a person that are each a ‘category of existence’: one of the fundamental types of process making up lived existence. As they are each grasped at to feed the idea of ‘I am’, they are also known as ‘grasped-at categories of existence’ (upādāna-kkhandha). ‘Material form’ is the body. ‘Feeling’ is not meant in the sense of emotion, but is simply the hedonic tone of any experience. ‘Perception’ is what recognizes, labels, classifies or interprets sense-objects or aspects of them, such as colour, generally doing this quite automatically. ‘Volitional/constructing activities’ are a plurality of processes, of which the main one is volition. They have a shaping effect on all the categories of existence – which is probably because volition is the heart of karma (see passage *Th.64), and so brings karmic effects. ‘Consciousness’ is the basic awareness of any object and the discerning of its basic aspects, such as differentiating between tastes. *Th.150 describes all five categories of existence as painful (dukkha), in the sense of potentially involving or entailing mental or physical suffering, though only some forms of feeling are actual forms of pain/suffering. The second passage here sees the four mental ones as each of six types differentiated by which sense-channel they operate in, with the mental faculty and mental objects (thoughts, memories, ideas, etc.) counted as one such.
And why, monks, does one call it (material) form? ‘It is deformed’, monks, therefore it is called form. … Deformed by cold, by heat, hunger, thirst, contact with flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun and snakes. …
And why, monks, does one call it feeling? ‘It feels’, monks, therefore it is called feeling. … It feels pleasure, it feels pain, and it feels neither-pleasure-nor-pain. …
And why, monks, does one call it perception? ‘It perceives’, monks, therefore it is called perception. … It perceives blue, it perceives yellow, it perceives red, it perceives white. …
And why, monks, does one call them volitional (or constructing) activities? They construct the conditioned’, therefore they are called volitional (or constructing) activities. … (Material) form is a constructed phenomenon that they construct into the state of (material) form. Feeling is a constructed phenomenon that they construct into the state of feeling. Perception is a constructed phenomenon that they construct into the state of perception. Volitional activities are constructed phenomena that they construct into the state of volitional activities. Consciousness is a constructed phenomenon that they construct into what is meant by consciousness.
And why, monks, does one call it consciousness? ‘It discerns’, monks, therefore it is called consciousness. … It discerns sour, it discerns bitter, it discerns pungent, it discerns sweet, it discerns sharp, it discerns mild, it discerns salty, it discerns bland.
Khajjani Sutta: Saṃyutta-nikāya III.86–87, trans. P.H.
And what, monks, is (material) form? The four great elements (earth/solidity, water/cohesion, fire/heat, and wind/motion) and the form derived from these. … And what, monks, is feeling? There are these six classes of feeling: feeling born of sensory contact with the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body, or the mental faculty … And what, monks, is perception? There are these six classes of perception: perception of (visual) forms, or of sounds, smells, tastes, tactile objects or mind objects. … And what, monks, are volitional activities? There are these six classes of volition: volitions regarding (visual) forms, or of sounds, smells, tastes, tactile objects or mind objects. … And what, monks, is consciousness? There are these six classes of consciousness: eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness and mind-consciousness.
Upādānaṃ Parivaṭṭam Sutta: Saṃyutta-nikāya III.59–61, trans. P.H.
Th.152 Three kinds of suffering
This passage clarifies the nature of dukkha: suffering, mental or physical pain, and that which is painful (cf. *V.21). The painfulness of life is seen most directly in actual physical or mental pains. There is also painfulness in something’s being a limited, ephemeral, conditioned state, imperfect: an implicit contrast to the unconditioned (nirvana); there is also painfulness in something’s being pleasant while it lasts but bringing the pain of loss when it ends.
Sitting on one side, the wandering ascetic Jambukhādaka said to Venerable Sāriputta: ‘Friend Sāriputta, it is said “suffering, suffering”. What, now, is suffering (dukkha)?’
There are, friend, three kinds of painfulness (dukkhatā): the painfulness of pain (dukkha-dukkhatā); the painfulness of conditioned things, and the painfulness of change.
Dukkha Sutta: Saṃyutta-nikāya IV.259, trans. P.H.
Th.153 Identifying and understanding the four Truths of the Noble Ones
Meditative concentration helps the mind to develop the discerning wisdom that can properly identify and understand each of the four Truths.
A monk who has meditative concentration understands things as they really are. And what does he understand as they really are? He understands as it really is, ‘This is the painful’. He understands as it really is, ‘This is the origin of the painful’. He understands as it really is, ‘This is the cessation of the painful’. He understands as it really is, ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of the painful’.
Samādhi Sutta: Saṃyutta-nikāya V.414, trans. P.H.
Th.154 No pessimistic denial of life’s pleasures, but attachment to them is dangerous
These passages makes it clear that Buddhism does not pessimistically deny the pleasant side of life; but it counsels that all such pleasant, beguiling attractions are impermanent, and not to be clung to. Ignoring painful aspects of life leads to limiting attachment, while calmly acknowledging the painful aspects has a purifying, liberating effect.
The pleasure and gladness that arise in dependence on material form: this is its satisfaction. That it is impermanent, painful, and subject to change; this is its danger. The removal and abandonment of desire and attachment for it: this is the escape from it. … [The same is then said of the other four aspects of a person: feeling, perception, volitional activities, and consciousness.]
Assāda Sutta: Saṃyutta-nikāya III.27–28, trans. P.H.
If there were to be no satisfaction in the world, living beings would not be attached to the world. Monks, it is because there is satisfaction in the world that living beings are attached to the world. If there were to be no danger in the world, living beings would not be disenchanted with the world. It is because there is danger in the world that living beings are disenchanted with the world. If there were to be no escape from the world, living beings would not escape from the world. It is because there is an escape from the world that living beings escape from the world.
As long as living beings of the world do not understand truly with higher knowledge the satisfaction in the world as satisfaction, the danger of the world as danger, the escape from the world as escape, so long the living beings of the world – inclusive of gods, māras, brahmās, renunciants, brahmins, inclusive of deities and humans – do not live unyoked, unfettered and freed, with a mind that is unrestricted. Whenever, monks, living beings of the world understand truly with higher knowledge the satisfaction in the world as satisfaction ... the danger … the escape from the world … they live unyoked, unfettered and freed, with a mind that is unrestricted.
Assāda Sutta: Aṅguttara-nikāya I.260, trans. P.D.P.
Th.155 The path brings joy
Buddhism may talk much about pain and suffering, but it should not be thought as dour and pessimistic. For example, joy is experienced in the first two meditative absorptions (see *Th.140) and is one of the seven factors of awakening (see end of *Th.139), and enlightened disciples express non-attached joy at the beauties of wild nature, as seen in these verses.
Sāriputta: Forests are delightful, where (most) folk find no delight. Those without attachment will delight there; they are not seekers after sensual pleasures.
Mahā-kassapa: With clear water and great boulders, frequented by monkeys and deer, covered with moisture and moss, those rocks delight me.
Theragāthā 992 and 1070, trans. P.H.
Dependent arising and how suffering originates
In passage *L.27, craving (taṇhā) is described as the factor which originates the painful aspects of life. Taṇhā is not just any kind of ‘desire’, but demanding desire. On the other hand, chanda, the ‘desire to do’, can have wholesome forms which are part of the Buddhist path. How does craving lead to life’s pains? The most obvious way is that it leads to frustration due to ‘union with the disliked, separation from the liked, not getting what one wants’: the stronger one craves for things to be, or not be, a certain way, the more painful frustration arises when things are not as one demands; and the more things one craves for, the more frustrations one will have. Even when one gets what one wants, things in time change, or one oneself changes and gets bored with what one has. Craving also often drives one into situations which bring dangers or anxieties, and also leads to quarrels, as in passage *Th.18.
Craving ‘for being (something)’may be in the form of craving to develop a certain kind of identity, to ‘be someone’, such as craving for celebrity or power, but at a deeper level is craving for further personal existence after death, hopefully in an eternal form. Like other forms of craving, this is seen to cause another rebirth (whose nature is determined by one’s karma), and hence all the pains that this will bring. Craving ‘for (something’s) non-existence’ may be either craving for an unpleasant experience or situation to end, or the suicidal urge to end one’s existence but this just fuels another rebirth, in which things may be worse than at present.
A fuller analysis of how what is painful originates is given in a central teaching of the Buddha – that on paṭicca-samuppāda: dependent arising, but also translated as dependent origination and conditioned co-arising. Gaining insight into this is a key role for wisdom. It explains how things can only arise and exist due to supporting conditions that flow together to give rise to them, and so cease when these conditions cease. It can be seen as a principle of causality, or rather conditionality, as applied not only to physical things but also mental ones, to the working of karma and the process of rebirth and its pains, and the process of spiritual development.
The standard version of dependent arising, as a series of twelve nidānas or conditioning links, culminating in what is painful (dukkha), is: (1) ignorance -> (2) volitional activities -> (3) consciousness -> (4) mind and body -> (5) the six sense-bases (the five physical senses plus the mind) -> (6) sensory contact ->(7) feeling -> (8) craving -> (9) grasping -> (10) a way of being -> (11) birth (i.e. conception) -> (12) ageing and death and a whole painful bundle of experiences. This sequence may be explained either from link (1) through to (12) or the explanation may start at (12), then specify (11) as its crucial condition, and so on back to (1). After the formula is given in either versions of this forward/arising (anuloma) mode, it follows in reverse/cessation (paṭiloma) mode. In this form, it describes how the cessation of the painful comes about due to the complete cessation of spiritual ignorance and the consequent cessation of each following link.
Th.156 The abstract principle of dependent arising
This expresses the basic principle of conditionality, of one thing as a necessary condition for another,without which it ceases. For example, craving depends on feeling, though as an arahant has feeling but lacks craving, it is clear that feeling will only lead to craving when ignorance also exists (Visuddhimagga XVII.105, p.542).
That being, this comes to be;
from the arising of that, this arises;
that being absent, this is not;
from the cessation of that, this ceases.
Dasa-balā Sutta: Saṃyutta-nikāya II.28, trans. P.H.
Th.157 The Buddha on causality
This verse, which came to be inscribed on many monuments, praises the Buddha as teacher of this doctrine.
Of those states that proceed from a cause,
The Tathāgata has told the cause.
And that which is their cessation:
The great renunciant has such a teaching.
Mahāvagga I: Vinaya I.40, trans. P.H.
Th.158 Dependent arising and the four Truths of the Noble Ones
The first passage explains that the arising aspect of dependent arising is equivalent to the second Truth of the Noble Ones, that which originates the painful (dukkha), while the cessation aspect is equivalent to the third Truth of the Noble Ones, the cessation of the painful. The second passage applies the pattern of the four Truths (x, its origin, its cessation, the way to this) to each of the conditioning links (other than the first).
And what, monks, is the Truth that is the origin of the painful? From ignorance as condition are the volitional activities; from the volitional activities as condition is consciousness; from consciousness as condition is mind and body (the sentient body); from mind and body as condition are the six sense-bases; from the six sense-bases as condition is sensory contact; from sensory contact as condition is feeling; from feeling as condition is craving; from craving as condition is grasping; from grasping as condition is a way of being; from a way of being as condition is birth; from birth as condition is old age and dying, grief, lamentation, physical pain, unhappiness and distress come into being. Such is the origin of this whole bundle of suffering.
And what, monks, is the Truth that is the cessation of the painful? From the fading away without remainder of ignorance is the cessation of the volitional activities; from the cessation of the volitional activities is the cessation of consciousness; [etc., until we come to:] from the cessation of birth, old age and dying, grief, lamentation, physical pain, unhappiness and distress cease. Such is the cessation of this whole bundle of suffering.
Titthāyatana Sutta: Aṅguttara-nikāya I.177, trans. P.H.
From the arising of ignorance is the arising of the volitional activities; from the cessation of ignorance is the cessation of the volitional activities. This noble eightfold path is itself the way leading to the cessation of the volitional activities. From the arising of the volitional activities is the arising of the consciousness; from the cessation of the volitional activities is the cessation of consciousness. …
Paccaya Sutta: Saṃyutta-nikāya II.43, trans. P.H.
Th.159 Explanation of the links of dependent arising
This passage explains some of the links.
And what, monks, is grasping? There are these four kinds of grasping: grasping at sensual pleasures, grasping at views, grasping at rules and vows, and grasping at a doctrine of Self. This is called grasping.540
… And what, monks, is mind and body (literally, name and form)? Feeling, perception, volition, contact and attention: this is called mind. The four great elements and the form derived from them: this is called body. Thus this mind and this body are together called mind and body.
And what, monks, is consciousness? There are these six kinds of consciousness: eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness, mind-consciousness. This is called consciousness.
And what, monks, are the volitional activities? There are these three kinds of volitional activities: bodily, verbal and mental volitional activities. These are called the volitional activities.541
And what, monks, is ignorance? Not truly knowing the painful, not truly knowing the origination of the painful, not truly knowing the cessation of the painful, not truly knowing the way going to the cessation of the painful. This is called ignorance.542
Vibhaṅga Sutta: Saṃyutta-nikāya II.3–4, trans. P.H.
Th.160 What feeds ignorance
This passage explains that ignorance is itself conditioned by the five hindrances (desire for sensual pleasures, ill-will, dullness and lethargy, restlessness and worry, and vacillation, on which, see *Th.125–127), and these by misconduct of body, speech and mind. As the latter are unwholesome forms of volitional activities, these can be seen to feed back and nurture the ignorance or lack of direct insight, which is the background condition for both bad actions and the good actions of those who have not yet attained awakening.
Notable among the factors feeding bad conduct is unwise attention: attention to surface impressions. This is the opposite of wise attention (see *Th.130): probing attention that looks below the superficial appearance of things and seeks to understand the deeper aspects and causes of things.
Monks, this is said: ‘A first point of ignorance is not seen, such that before then there was no ignorance and afterwards it came into being.’ Nevertheless, ignorance has a specific condition.
I say, monks, that ignorance has a nutriment: … the five hindrances. The five hindrances also have a nutriment: … the three kinds of misconduct (by body, speech and mind). The three kinds of misconduct also have a nutriment: … non-guarding of the sense faculties. Non-guarding of the sense faculties also has a nutriment: … lack of mindfulness and clear comprehension. Lack of mindfulness and clear comprehension also has a nutriment: … unwise attention. Unwise attention also has a nutriment: … lack of faith.543 Lack of faith also has a nutriment: … not hearing the good Dhamma. Not hearing the good Dhamma also has a nutriment: … not associating with good and wise persons.
Avijjā Sutta: Aṅguttara-nikāya V.113, trans. P.H.
Th.161 Consciousness helps spark off and sustains a new life
In passage *Th.159 above, it is clear that ‘mind and body’ stands for the psycho-physical organism (roughly equivalent to the first four of the five categories of existence), the body and mental qualities that bring sentience: the sentient body. The passage below shows that consciousness is a key condition for this by facilitating its origin and development in the womb, by the in-flow of a stream of consciousness from a previous rebirth, and continuing to help enliven it in life.
If consciousness were not to descend into the mother’s womb, would mind and body become constituted there? ‘No, venerable sir.’ ‘Or if consciousness, having descended into the mother’s womb, were to turn aside from there, would mind and body be produced in this present life?’ ‘No, venerable sir.’ And if consciousness of one yet young, boy or girl, were cut off, would mind and body come to growth, development and maturity?’ ‘No, venerable sir.’ ‘Therefore, Ānanda, just this, namely consciousness, is the cause, ground, origin and condition of mind and body. …
Mahā-nidāna Sutta: Dīgha-nikāya II.63, trans. P.H.
Th.162 Sensory contact
This passage shows that ‘contact’ is not a bare meeting of a sense and its object, but also involves consciousness, conscious registration; hence its nature is that of sensory stimulation or the impingement of a sense-object on the mind. A passage at Dīgha-nikāya II.62 explains that contact has two aspects to it: ‘designation-contact’ depends on the naming mind, and is the contact resulting from hearing meaningful words or from meaning associated with other objects; ‘resistance-contact’ depends on material form, and the direct contact of the external material world with the physical senses.
Eye-consciousness, your reverences, arises conditioned by eye and visual forms; the meeting of the three is contact; from contact as condition is feeling … [then parallel statements for the other sense-channels are given].
Loka Sutta: Saṃyutta-nikāya II.73, trans. P.H.
Th.163 Responses to feeling
While one cannot help what feelings initially arise from sensing something, the extent of craving (and type of accompanying feeling) in response to them is modifiable. People take feeling very seriously, thirsting for the pleasant, trying to push away the unpleasant, and having an attitude of indifference or confusion towards the neutral.
When one is touched by pleasant feeling, if one delights in it, welcomes it, and remains holding on to it, then the underlying tendency to attachment lies within one. When one is touched by painful feeling, if one sorrows, grieves and laments, weeps beating one’s breast and becomes distraught, then the underlying tendency to aversion lies within one. When one is touched by neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, if one does not understand it as it really is – the origination, the disappearance, the gratification, the danger, and the transcending in regard to that feeling then the underlying tendency to ignorance lies within one.544
Chachakka Sutta: Majjhima-nikāya III.285, trans. P.H.
Th.164 The nature of a way of being
This passage explains that there are three ‘ways of being’ or forms of identity, which relate respectively to: the realm of sensual desire, in which most kinds of beings live, and the elemental form and formless realms, which are both groups of heavens and the meditative states which lead to rebirth in them. These are three ways of being and acting and their leading towards certain kinds of rebirths.
‘They say “way of being, way of being”; in what way, venerable sir, is there a way of being?’
‘Ānanda, if there were no karma to ripen in the realm of sensual desire, would there be known the sensually desiring way of being?’ ‘Surely not, venerable sir.’ ‘Thus, Ānanda, for beings fettered by craving and hindered by ignorance, with karma the field, consciousness the seed, craving the moisture, consciousness is supported in an inferior realm Thus, Ānanda, there is a way of being. … [This is then repeated for the form and the formless realms and ways of being, which are respectively a middling and a superior realm.]
Bhava Sutta: Aṅguttara-nikāya I.223, trans. P.H.
Th.165 One sees the Dhamma in seeing dependent arising
This passage shows how central the teaching of dependent arising is, as to see it with insight is to see the Dhamma, the Basic Pattern of reality. Within the overall Basic Pattern that is Dhamma, specific basic patterns (dhamma) flow into and nurture each other in complex, but set, regular patterns. They do not exist on their own, but arise in specific ways from the particular cluster of dhammas which sustain them. The passage also shows the connection of the doctrine to that on the four Truths of the Noble Ones.
Now this has been said by the Blessed One, ‘Who sees dependent arising sees the Dhamma; who sees the Dhamma sees dependent arising.’ And these five grasped-at categories of existence545 are dependently arisen. The desire for, settling on, inclination towards and holding on to these five grasped-at categories are the origin of the painful. The removal of desire and attachment, the abandonment of desire and attachment for these grasped-at categories is the cessation of the painful.
Mahā-hatthipadopama Sutta: Majjhima-nikāya I.191, trans. P.H.
Th.166 Dependent arising as profound
This passage emphasizes the profound and hard to see nature of the subject of this teaching (see also *Th.13).
After sitting down Ānanda said to the Blessed One: ‘It’s amazing, sir, it’s wonderful, sir, how profound this dependent arising is, and how profound it appears to be. Yet to me it seems so very clear.’
‘Don’t say so Ānanda. Don’t say so. Profound is this dependent arising, and profound it appears to be. It is because of not understanding and not penetrating this teaching that this generation is like a tangled skein, a knotted ball of string, like matted rushes and reeds, and does not go beyond the woeful state, the bad destiny, the abyss, the wandering cycle.
Mahā-nidāna Sutta: Dīgha-nikāya II.55, trans. P.D.P.
Th.167 Dependent arising as an ongoing regularity discovered by the Buddha
In this passage, the dependent arising sequence is seen as a reality which a Buddha discovers, then teaches others about. It is a principle of causal regularity, a Basic Pattern (Dhamma).
What monks is dependent arising? Monks, conditioned by birth is decay and death. Whether Tathāgatas are born or Tathāgatas are not born, that element has certainly stayed, the fact that things have stayed (as such), the regularity of phenomena, specific conditionality. The Tathāgata becomes fully awakened to it and fully realizes it. Having become fully awakened and having fully realized, he informs, teaches, lays down, establishes, reveals, analyses, makes it plain and says, ‘Look’. [So also with the other connections of the standard formulation of dependent arising.]
Paccaya Sutta: Saṃyutta-nikāya II.25, trans. P.D.P.
Th.168 The world as a stream of conditioned processes that lacks substantial existence but is not a non-existent illusion
This passage emphasizes that as the world is a stream of conditions arising and passing away, and the whole of this can be transcended in the cessation that is nirvana, it is inappropriate to see the world, or the phenomena that comprise it, either as solid, substantial entities or as complete illusions (cf.*M.63 and *V.32). The truth lies in the middle. Dependent arising is a ‘middle’ way of understanding, just as the noble eightfold path is a ‘middle way’ of practice (*L.27).
Seated on one side Venerable Kaccāyanagotta asked the Blessed One: ‘Sir, it is said “right view, right view”. In what terms does a view become right?’
‘Kaccāyana, (people of) the world do indeed largely cling to two standpoints, (namely), (substantial) existence and (complete) non-existence. Kaccāyana, for one who sees with sound wisdom the arising of the world as it really comes to be, that (view of) the non-existence of the world does not arise. Kaccāyana, for one who sees the cessation of the world with sound wisdom as it really comes to be, that (view of) the existence of the world does not arise.
Kaccāyana, the (people of) the world are largely fettered by attachment, clinging and dogmatic grasping. But (if) one does not resort to or firmly entertain that sort of attachment, clinging and the mind’s underlying tendency to firmly get established in dogmatic grasping, thinking “(This is) my Self”,546 then one does not come to doubt or have perplexity about the fact that it is merely the painful that arises when arising and merely the painful that ceases when ceasing. To him it becomes knowledge not dependent on anyone else. In these terms the view becomes right.
Kaccāyana, the view that everything exists is one extreme. The view that nothing exists is the second extreme. The Tathāgata, without falling into these two extremes, expounds his teaching in the middle: from ignorance as condition are the volitional activities … [The other conditions in the sequence follow.] Such is the origin of this whole bundle of suffering. From the fading away without remainder of ignorance is the cessation of the volitional activities … Such is the cessation of this whole bundle of suffering.
Kaccāyanagotta Sutta: Saṃyutta-nikāya II.17, trans. P.D.P.
Critical reflections on the idea of a creator God
The Buddha did not accept that any deity created the world or its beings. He taught that the gods of the heavenly realms are themselves trapped within the round of rebirths like all other unliberated beings, and that the physical world develops by natural laws, like all other conditioned phenomena, being governed by the principle of dependent arising. He said that the round of rebirths has no discernible beginning (*Th.55), and refused to accept either the view that the world was non-eternal, so as to perhaps need a creator, or that it was eternal (*Th.20).
In the Buddha’s day, many people saw the deity Great Brahmā as having created the world and its beings. The Buddha did not deny the existence of Great Brahmā, who he saw as rich in kindness and compassion, but saw both him and his followers as mistaken about him being the world’s creator. It was simply that at the start of a world cycle (see *Th.63), Great Brahmā was the first to be reborn in his heaven world, and he became lonely, wishing for there to be other beings there. As other beings later appeared there, he thought he had created them, even though they had simply been reborn there from a higher realm, like him, due to their stock of karmic benefit reducing. These other beings also thought he had created them, and when one of them was reborn as a human and developed the meditative power to remember only his immediately previous life, he taught that Great Brahmā was the eternal creator of other beings (Dīgha-nikāya I.18).
While Buddhism does not accept a creator God, some of the more impersonal qualities applied to 'God' in theistic religions, such as timelessness and perfection, also apply to Nirvana.
Th.169 A God in charge of all would be responsible for the ills of the world
This passage argues that if a creator God existed, he would be the one who was responsible for the ills of the world. Also relevant to this point is passage *Th.68.
If success and misfortune, actions good and bad of the entire world, are determined by a God, a person is merely one who acts according to his command. By those (actions) it is God who gets tainted.
Mahā-bodhi-jātaka v.142: Jātaka V.238, trans. P.D.P.
The lack of a permanent, essential self
The pre-Buddhist texts known as the Upaniṣads taught that within all beings is a permanent, essential Self (Skt ātman) that is an independent inner controller of actions, and identical to Brahman, the impersonal underlying substance of the whole world. Another idea of Self is the Jain idea of an individual ‘life principle’ (jīva) or immortal soul in beings. While Pāli and Sanskrit lack capital letters, it is appropriate to use a capital ‘S’ here to indicate such ideas: Self. The Buddha never directly denied ‘Self’ (Saṃyutta-nikāya IV.400–401), but emphasized that nothing could be found which could be validly taken as ‘Self’ or its possession, clearly implying that ‘Self’ does not exist. He also held that to take anything as Self or belonging to it is to make it a focus of limiting attachment, leading to suffering when what one takes as permanent and reliable turns out not to be so.
Those who hold the views on the undetermined issues (see *Th.20) are seen as doing so because they take one or other or all of the components of a person (the five ‘categories of existence’: see passage *Th.151) as a permanent Self or its possession (Saṃyutta-nikāya IV.396). So they think an enlightened person is a Self-essence and ask about the fate of this after death. But as Buddhism teaches no such Self-essence can be found, asking about its fate after death is pointless. As for the Nirvanic nature of an enlightened person, even in life, that is beyond words.
Th.170 The world as empty of Self
The following passage emphasizes that everything is ‘empty’ (suñña) of Self’ or anything belonging/pertaining to such a thing.
It is, Ānanda, because it is empty of Self and what belongs to Self that it is said, ‘Empty is the world’. And what is empty of Self and what belongs to Self? The eye … visible forms … eye-consciousness … eye-contact … whatever feeling arises with eye-contact as condition … [The same is then repeated as regards the other four physical sense-channels and the mental sense-channel.]
Suñña Sutta: Saṃyutta-nikāya IV.54, trans. P.H.
Th.171 No aspect of a person is a permanent Self or belonging to such a thing
In this passage, the Jain disputant Saccaka comes to the Buddha to worst him in debate, as he thinks himself such a clever debater that any opponent will tremble. The Buddha explains why he teaches that everything is an-attā (Skt an-ātman), non-Self, i.e. not something that is a permanent Self or belonging to such a thing. This teaching is applied to the five ‘categories of existence’ that make up a person (see *Th.151).
Saccaka said thus to the Blessed One: … ‘How does good Gotama train the disciples, and in what respect does the renunciant Gotama mostly carry out his instruction concerning his disciples?’ ‘Aggivessana, I mostly train my disciples and carry out instruction concerning the disciples in the following manner: “Monks, material form is impermanent. Feeling is impermanent. Perception
is impermanent. Volitional activities are impermanent and consciousness is impermanent. Monks, material form is non-Self. Feeling is non-Self. Perception is non-Self. Volitional activities are non-Self, and consciousness is non-Self. All conditioned things are impermanent. Everything is non-Self’’.’ ‘Good Gotama, a comparison occurs to me.’ ‘Express it Aggivessana.’ ‘All the varieties of seeds and vegetables that grow and develop do so established and supported on earth, and all powerful
work that has to be done, should be done, established and supported on earth. In the same manner this individual person, with material form as Self, established in material body begets karmically beneficial or karmically harmful actions, this individual person with feeling as Self … with perceptions as Self … with volitional activities as Self … with consciousness as Self begets karmically beneficial or karmically harmful actions.’
‘Aggivessana, do you say “Material form is my Self, feeling is my Self, perception is my Self, volitional activities are my Self, consciousness is my Self”?’ ‘Good Gotama, I do say so, and so also does this large crowd.’ ‘What the large crowd says is not what matters. Come Aggivessana, you clarify your own view.’ ‘Good Gotama, I say, that material form is my Self, feeling is my Self, perception is my Self, volitional activities are my Self, consciousness is my Self.’
‘Then, I will cross-question you yourself on this and you may reply, as it pleases you. Aggivessana, do head anointed warrior kings like King Pasenadi Kosala, King Ajātasattu of Magadha wield power over their kingdoms, to execute those that have to be executed, to confiscate those things that deserve to be confiscated, and to banish those that have to be banished?’ ‘Yes, good Gotama, they wield such power. Even the leaders, gathered here, of the Vajjis and Mallas, wield such power. So there is no question about head anointed warrior kings.’ ‘Aggivessana, you say material form is your Self. Do you wield power over that material form, as “May my material form be like this and not like that?’’’… ‘No, good Gotama.’ ‘Attend carefully and reply Aggivessana. What you said earlier does not agree with what you said later and what you said later does not agree with what you said earlier. Aggivessana, you say that, feeling … perception … volitional activities … consciousness … are your Self, do you wield power over feeling … perception … volitional activities … Consciousness …?’ ‘No, good Gotama.’ ‘Attend carefully and reply Aggivessana. What you said earlier does not agree with what you said later …
What do you think, Aggivessana, is material form permanent or impermanent?’ ‘Impermanent, good Gotama.’ ‘Is that which is impermanent painful or pleasurable?’ ‘Painful, good Gotama.’ ‘Is that which is impermanent, painful, having a transient nature, suitable to be considered as “this is mine, this I am, this is my Self”?’ ‘No good Gotama.’ [The same is then repeated as regards each of feeling, perception, volitional activities and consciousness.]
‘Aggivessana, a certain one, clinging to the painful, gone into the painful, cleaving to the painful regards it as, “This is mine, I am this, this is my Self.” Would he comprehensively understand the painful by himself or live having fully destroyed the painful?’ ‘Good Gotama, how could it be? No, good Gotama, that would not happen.’ ‘Aggivessana, like a man, wandering in search of heartwood, would enter a forest with a sharp axe, and seeing a tall, straight, new plantain tree he would cut it at the root, and at the top. He would then open up the sheaves, and would not come even to sapwood,547 so how could there be heartwood? In the same manner, Aggivessana, in trying to examine me, to find fault with me, to debate with me in connection with your theory, it has turned out to be empty, useless and rejected.’ … Saccaka said, ‘Good Gotama, put aside this view of mine, and also the view of all other renunciants and brahmins, which I think is like idle talk. How do the disciples of good Gotama, practise according to his message, follow the given advice, dispel doubts, become confident, and abide not relying on another, in the dispensation of the Teacher?’
‘Here, Aggivessana, my disciples see whatever material form, in the past, future or present, internal or external, coarse or fine, inferior or superior, far or near in entirety as “This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my Self.” This is seen with proper insight, as it really has come to be. Whatever feeling, whatever perception, whatever volitional activities, whatever consciousness, in the past … are seen as they really have come to be. Aggivessana, with this much, my disciples have practised according to the message ….’
Cūḷa-saccaka Sutta: Majjhima-nikāya I.228–235, trans. P.D.P.
Th.172 The idea of a Self-essence has no basis, and is harmful
This passage shows clearly that the Buddha’s teaching did not accept or affirm the existence of an essential Self of any sort, and saw belief in such a thing as harmful. Taking something as a Self or its possession makes it a focus of attachment. Recognising it as non-Self leads to a liberating letting go from it.
‘Monks, the learned noble disciple, a seer of noble ones, accomplished in the teaching of the noble ones, and well trained in the teaching of the noble ones, a seer of good persons … sees material form as “this is not mine, I am not this, this is not my Self”, sees feeling … perception … volitional activities … sees whatever is seen, heard, felt, cognized, attained, sought after, and reflected in the mind as “this is not mine …”. And whatever is that dogmatic standpoint: “the world is the Self, I will hereafter become permanent, enduring, eternal, of the nature of not changing and will remain like eternity” – this too is seen as “not mine, I am not this, this is not my Self”. When one discerns like this one has no agitation regarding the non-existent.
… Monks, you might grasp that object of grasping which is permanent, everlasting, eternal, of unchanging nature, and will stay the same like unto eternity. Monks do you see such an object of grasping?’ ‘No, venerable sir.’ ‘Good! I too do not see any. Monks, you might hold that dogma of a Self which when one holds on to it does not give rise to grief, lamentation, pain, unhappiness and distress. Do you see one like that?’ ‘No, venerable sir.’ ‘Good! I too do not see any. Monks, you may depend on that dependence on dogmatic belief, which when you depend on it, does not give birth to grief … Do you see such dependence on dogmatic belief …?’ ‘No, venerable sir.’ ‘Good! I too do not see any.
Monks, when there is a Self, would there be the idea “there is something belonging to Self’’?’ ‘Yes, venerable sir.’ ‘(However,) when a Self or what belongs to a Self is in truth and reality not obtainable, isn’t this dogmatic position taken as, “The world is the Self, I will hereafter become permanent, everlasting, eternal, of the nature of not changing and will remain like eternity” fully and entirely a foolish doctrine?’ ‘How could it not be, sir, it is fully and entirely a foolish doctrine.’
‘Monks, the learned noble disciple seeing thus becomes disenchanted with material form 548 … feeling … perception … volitional activities … consciousness. Being disenchanted he becomes non-attached. With non-attachment he becomes released. When released there is knowledge that one is released: “Birth is destroyed, the requirements of the holy life have been fulfilled, what ought to be done has been done, and there is nothing more to be done hereafter.’’’
Alagaddūpama Sutta: Majjhima-nikāya I.136–139, trans. P.D.P.
Th.173 Karma and its results without a permanent Self
This passage challenges the idea that experiences arising due to karma happen to a being who is identical to or completely different from the being that did the karma/action in a past life. Rather, karma, its results, and a person are part of a flow of processes. Dependent arising is seen as a middle way between ‘eternalism’ and ‘annihilationism’. ‘Eternalism’ is belief in a permanent, essential Self or I which will be untouched by death: an immortal soul, ‘me’ forever. ‘Annihilationism’ is the belief that one is a substantial self that is then totally destroyed at death. Dependent arising means that for the unenlightened, there is rebirth, but rebirth is the continuation of a stream of conditioned processes, not the continuation of an unchanging Self or a complete end of ongoing personal continuity. After death, a changing personality-flux flows on. Given long enough, this may become very different from how one is now: and yet what will be then will have developed out of how one is, and acts, now.
‘Good Gotama, is suffering self-produced? The Blessed One said: ‘Kassapa, do not say that’. ‘Good Gotama, is suffering other-produced?’ The Blessed One said: ‘Kassapa, do not say that.’ ‘Good Gotama, is suffering self-produced and other-produced?’ The Blessed One said: ‘Kassapa, do not say that.’ ‘Good Gotama, is suffering neither self-produced nor other-produced, but arisen by chance?’ The Blessed One said: ‘Kassapa, do not say that.’
‘Good Gotama, (then) is there no suffering?’ ‘Kassapa, it is not that there is no suffering, there is suffering.’ ‘Then, good Gotama, is it that good Gotama does not know and does not see suffering?’ ‘Kassapa, I do know and see suffering.’ … ‘Venerable sir, tell me about suffering and teach me about suffering.’
‘Kassapa, when the idea is there from the beginning that he acts and he (himself) experiences (the karmic result), saying that suffering is self-produced, this view leads to eternalism. When for the person affected by feeling the idea occurs that he acts and another experiences (the karmic result), saying that suffering is other-produced, this view leads to annihilationism. Without coming to these two extremes the Tathāgata teaches the Dhamma in the middle: from ignorance as condition are the volitional activities; from the volitional activities as condition is consciousness … [the other conditions in the sequence then follow].
Acela-kassapa Sutta: Saṃyutta-nikāya II.19–20, trans. P.D.P.
Th.174 Neither the same nor different from life to life
This passage makes clear that from life to life, a being is neither identically the same nor completely different. Rather, the later rebirth is dependent on the earlier rebirth, as part of a series of processes that condition each other.
The king said, ‘Venerable Nāgasena, is he who arises (in a new life) the same or is he another?’ The Elder said, ‘He is not the same and he is not another. … As, sire, milk taken from a cow would after a time turn into curds, and from curds into butter, and from butter into ghee, so, sire, would one who spoke thus, “That milk itself is precisely those curds, precisely that butter, precisely that ghee”, would he, sire, saying this, be speaking correctly?’ ‘O, no, venerable sir, they come into being because of it.’ ‘Even so, sire, a continuity of processes runs on; one arises, another ceases; it runs on as though there were no before, no after; so neither the one nor other is reckoned as the last consciousness.’
Milindapañha 40–41, trans. P.H.
Th.175 The ordinary self is something to cultivate wisely
These passages make clear that self in the everyday sense of ‘oneself’, the empirical self in the form of the stream of mental and physical processes that can be experienced, is accepted, and is something that the practice of the path enhances, so that a person becomes calm, strong, and well-centred, a spiritually great man or woman (see in *Th.70). An important aspect of this is the wisdom which enables them to see that the changeable empirical self has nothing to do with a permanent Self-essence.
This is the path by which great selves, great seers have fared; whoever practises this as has been taught by the Buddha will … bring about the end of the painful.
Paṭhamana-kuhana Sutta: Itivuttaka 28–29, trans. P.H.
For the Teacher, the great sage, is the first in this world, his successor is his (arahant) disciple, the one of developed self. Then, in addition, there is also the one in training …’
Bahujanahita Sutta: Itivuttaka 79–80, trans. P.H.
Th.176 It is better to see body as Self
The Buddha did not take the material body or any aspect of mental life as ‘Self’. In ancient Indian thought, ‘Self’, is seen as an entity which is fixed and unchanging, retaining an absolute identity. The Buddha found that transience is actually a more characteristic feature of mental life than of the life of the body so, even though people more often get attached to their mental processes as ‘Self’, there are actually more grounds for taking body as ‘Self’.
Monks, it may happen that the unlearned ordinary person would be disenchanted with, have non-attachment towards and be released from this body composed of the four great elements. What is the reason? Monks, of this body composed of the four great elements, he sees growth and decline, taking up and laying aside. Therefore the ordinary person gets disenchanted with, has non-attachment towards, and is released from this body composed of the four great elements.
Monks, an ordinary person does not think it fit to be disenchanted with, to have non-attachment towards and to be released from what is referred to as the mind, or the mental faculty, or consciousness. What is the reason for this? Monks, for a long time the ordinary person had become immersed in it, made it his own and grasped it as, ‘this is mine, I am this, this is my Self’. Therefore, an ordinary person does not think it fit to be disenchanted with, to have non-attachment towards … consciousness.
Monks, it would be better for the ordinary person to conclude that this body composed of the four elements is Self rather than that the mind (is Self). What is the reason? Monks, he sees this body composed of the four elements remaining for one year, two, three, four, five years, for ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years, remaining for a hundred years and even more. As for this mind, or mental faculty or consciousness, night and day it arises as one thing and ceases as another.
Assutavā Sutta: Saṃyutta-nikāya II.95, trans. P.D.P.
Th.177 Abandon the five categories of existence as children abandon toys
This passage indicates that our attachment for the factors making up body and mind is like the attachment of children for houses of mud, or sand castles. We should let go of them so as to experience that which transcends them, nirvana.
Just as Rādha, boys or girls playing with mud houses are attached to those mud houses, derive amusement (from them), treasure them, and treat them as their belonging as long as their greed, interest, love, thirst, excitement, and craving for the mud houses is not dispelled, but when the greed, interest, love, thirst, excitement, and craving is dispelled, they, with their hands and feet scatter them, break them up and destroy them, putting them out of play; in the same way, Rādha, you too should scatter material form, break it up, destroy it, put it out of play. You should take the path of destruction of craving549 … scatter feeling …, perception…, volitional activities …, consciousness. The destruction of craving, Rādha, is nirvana.
Satta Sutta: Saṃyutta-nikāya III.190, trans. P.D.P.
Th.178 The five categories of existence as like foam
These verses are given by the Buddha after watching foam on the river Ganges that could be seen to be ‘void, hollow, insubstantial’. They indicate that the processes of body and mind are likewise empty of any substance than can be reliably held on to as a permanent identity or possession.
Material form is like a large glob of foam
Feeling is like a water bubble,
Perception is like a mirage,
Volitional activities are like the trunk of a banana tree,550
Consciousness is like a magician’s magical illusion.
Pheṇa Sutta: Saṃyutta-nikāya III.142, trans. P.H.
Th.179 Nirvana as non-Self
The first two of these passages indicate that among the elements of existence (dhammas), nirvana is unconditioned, and that while all conditioned things are impermanent and painful, all dhammas, including nirvana, are non-Self. The third passage, though, says that nirvana is not only permanent (as it is beyond time) and pleasurable, but has some of the qualities that non-Self things lack.
Whether Tathāgatas are born or Tathāgatas are not born, that element has certainly stayed, the fact that things have stayed (as such), the regularity of phenomena: ‘All conditioned things are impermanent’ … ‘All conditioned things are painful’ … ‘Everything is non-Self’.
Uppādā Sutta: Aṅguttara-nikāya I.286, trans. P.H.
As far as there are things conditioned or unconditioned, non-attachment is declared the foremost of them, that is to say, the crushing of pride … cessation, nirvana.
Pasāda Sutta: Aṅguttara-nikāya II.34, trans. P.H.
Seeing the five grasped-at categories as impermanent, he gains patient acceptance accordingly, seeing ‘the cessation of the five grasped-at categories is permanent, nirvana’.
Seeing the five categories as painful, he gains patient acceptance accordingly, seeing ‘the cessation of the five grasped-at categories is blissful, nirvana’. …
… as other, … not conditioned by another, nirvana’.
… as disintegrating, … not of a nature to disintegrate, nirvana’. ...
… as hollow, … not hollow, nirvana’.
… as empty, … the ultimate empty thing, nirvana’.
… as non-Self, … the ultimate goal, nirvana’.
… as lacking an essence, … essence, nirvana’. …
‘As other’ is contemplation of non-Self (as are) … ‘as disintegrating’ … ‘as hollow’ … ‘as empty’ … ‘as non-Self’ … ‘as lacking an essence’.
Vipassanā-kathā: Patisambhidāmagga II.238–242, trans. P.H.
The nature of wisdom
M.129 True wisdom sees the wonderful qualities of the Buddha’s Dharma-body
Even with all their purified understanding, arhants and solitary-buddhas do not apprehend the Dharma-body of the Tathāgata, nor the extent of his omniscience. Any living beings who have faith in the words of the Buddha should believe in permanence, in pleasure, in an essential self, and in purity. These are not distorted views.551 These are in fact right views. Why is this? It is because the Dharma-body of the Tathāgata is the perfection of permanence, the perfection of pleasure, the perfection of essential selfhood, and the perfection of purity. Someone who views the Dharma-body of the Buddha in this way possesses right view. Someone who possesses right view is a true child of the Buddha. He is born from the Buddha’s mouth, from the true Dharma. He is created by the true Dharma. He is the heir to the Dharma.
Śrīmālādevī-siṃhanāda Sūtra, Taishō vol.12, text 353, ch.12, p.222a20-25, trans. T.T.S. and D.S.
M.130 Dependent arising and rebirth without an essential self
This passage sees the twelve factors of dependent arising (see *Th.158 and *V.74) as a constant flux of impersonal processes that flows on within this life and from life to life.
This twelvefold dependent arising, with its range of different causes and conditions, is neither permanent nor impermanent. It is neither conditioned nor unconditioned. It lacks neither causes nor conditions. It has no sensations. It does not cause anything to be known. It is not something which can be exhausted. It is not something which can be destroyed. It is not something which can cease. It has existed since beginningless time. It is not separate. It flows along like the stream of a river.
Four aspects of this twelvefold dependent arising arise as the process of causality, and they lead to the kind of action that brings things together. What are these four aspects of dependent arising? They are: ignorance, craving, action, and consciousness.
Consciousness functions as a cause because its inherent nature is that of a seed. Action functions as a cause because its inherent nature is that of a field. Ignorance and craving function as causes because their inherent nature is that of the defilements. Action and the defilements bring about the seed of consciousness. Action functions as the field for the seed of consciousness. Craving waters552 the seed of consciousness. Ignorance scatters the seed of consciousness. If these conditions are not present, the seed does not develop.
Action does not think, ‘I function as the field for the seed of consciousness’. Craving does not think, ‘I water the seed of consciousness’. Ignorance does not think, ‘I scatter the seed of consciousness’. The seed of consciousness does not think, ‘I come into being because of these conditions’.
The seed of consciousness, which has been scattered by ignorance, grows in the field of action,553 sprouting because of the moisture of craving. Here and there, in the place of arising in the mother’s womb, it causes the sprout of mind and body to germinate.554 This sprout of mind and body does not create itself, it is not created by another, it is not created by both, it is not created by a god, it does not develop over time, it does not arise from an essential nature, it is not dependent on any single factor, and yet does not arise without any cause. From the coming together of the mother and father in sexual union, filled with pleasure, and from the coming together of other conditions, here and there, in the place of arising in the mother’s womb, when the causes and conditions are sufficient, it causes the sprout of mind and body to germinate amongst phenomena which have no master, no idea of possession, no property, which are like space, and which are characterised by illusoriness in their inherent nature.
In the same way, there are five factors which bring about the arising of eye-consciousness. What are these five factors? Eye-consciousness arises conditioned by the eye, by (visual) form, by light, by space, and by the focusing of attention. The eye functions as the basis of eye-consciousness. Form functions as the object of eye-consciousness. Light functions as illumination. Space functions to reveal. The focusing of attention functions as concentration. If these conditions are not present, eye-consciousness does not arise. If the internal sense-base of the eye is not impaired, and form, light, space, and the focusing of attention are not impaired, then when they all come together, eye-consciousness will arise. The eye does not think, ‘I function as the basis of eye-consciousness’. Form does not think, ‘I function as the object of eye-consciousness’. Light does not think, ‘I function as illumination for eye-consciousness’. Space does not think, ‘I function to reveal for eye-consciousness’. The focusing of attention does not think, ‘I function as concentration for eye-consciousness’. Eye-consciousness does not think, ‘I come into being because of these conditions’. Still, when these conditions are present, eye-consciousness arises. The remaining faculties should be analysed in the same way.
There is no phenomenon which passes from this world to another world,555 but when the causes and conditions are sufficient, action and the fruit of action can be recognised. It is like the reflection of a face seen in a mirror which is completely clean. There is no face which has passed into the mirror, but when the causes and conditions are sufficient, the face can be recognised. In the same way, nothing departs from this world and nothing reaches another, but when the causes and conditions are sufficient, action and the fruit of action can be recognised.
It is like the disc of the moon which follows its course 4000 leagues above us. Its reflection can be seen in a small pool of water. The disc of the moon does not depart from its place in the sky and pass into the small pool of water, but when the causes and conditions are sufficient, the disc of the moon can be recognised. In the same way, nothing departs from this world and nothing reaches another, but when the causes and conditions are sufficient, action and the fruit of action can be recognised.
It is like when fire burns when fuel is present as a condition. If there is insufficient fuel, the fire does not burn. In the same way, the seed of consciousness, which arises from action and the defilements, here and there, in the place of arising in the mother’s womb, when the causes and conditions are sufficient, it causes the sprout of mind and body to germinate amongst phenomena which have no master, no idea of possession, no property, which are like space, and which are characterised by illusoriness in their inherent nature. This is how the causal dependence of internal dependent arising is to be viewed.
Śālistamba Sūtra, trans. from Sanskrit by D.S.
M.131 One who sees dependent arising sees the Dharma, and hence the Buddha
This passage starts off by linking two statements found at *Th.165 and *Th.2, on seeing dependent arising, the Dharma and the Buddha. But in describing dependent arising as ‘unborn’, it applies a description applied only to nirvana in Theravāda Buddhism.
The bodhisattva, the great being Maitreya said to the Venerable Śāriputra, ‘Venerable Śāriputra, the Blessed One, the Master of the Dharma, the Omniscient One has said, “A monk who sees dependent arising sees the Dharma. One who sees the Dharma sees the Buddha.” What is meant by “dependent arising” here? By “dependent arising”, the following is meant: This being, that becomes. From the arising of this, that arises.556 … [The twelve conditioning links are then listed. Each link is described as being the condition for the following one, and the cessation of each link is described as leading to the cessation of the following one.] This is what the Blessed One has described as dependent arising.
What is the Dharma? It is the noble eightfold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditative concentration. This is what the Blessed One has described as the Dharma, the noble eightfold path and the attainment of nirvana, which is its fruit.
What is the Buddha, the Blessed One, here? One who has woken up to all phenomena is called a Buddha, one with the eye of noble wisdom, one who possesses the Dharma-body, who sees all the qualities of those who are training and those who have completed the training.
How does he see dependent arising? Here, the Blessed One said, “One who sees dependent arising as being constant, as having no life-force,557 as being without any life force, who sees it properly as not being false, as unborn, unarisen, not created, unconditioned, unrestrained, not based on anything, beneficial,558 secure, indestructible, undecaying, unceasing, with no inherent nature, sees the Dharma. One who sees the Dharma in this way, as being constant, as having no life-force … with no inherent nature, sees the Buddha, who has the body of the unsurpassed Dharma. Because of this perfect knowledge, he attains a clear understanding of the Dharma of the noble ones.
Śālistamba Sūtra, trans. from Sanskrit by D.S.
Critical reflections on the idea of a creator God
M.132 Arguments against a creator God
This passage continues a theme found in *Th.169. It raises some of the same arguments found in secular arguments against a creator God, though does not discuss the idea that such a deity might allow free will. It argues that anything created by an eternal and unitary God would also be eternal and unitary, yet the things we experience are clearly not eternal, and are diverse. A God who created beings in sub-human rebirths could not be compassionate. If evil done by people comes from a devil, not God then he is not all powerful; if it comes from people themselves, he is not all powerful; and if it comes from him, then he is not benevolent.
When the Buddha had explained the profound doctrine of the perfection of wisdom, a non-Buddhist in the audience called Vimati rose from his seat and addressed the Buddha, saying, ‘Blessed One, Buddha, you have said that no phenomena which arise have an inherent nature, and that none are pure by nature. This is not true. The Lord God is eternal. He is the Father and Mother who begets all beings, and gives rise to all phenomena. He is the Creator who creates, forms, and sustains the world. The Ātman, the essential self, gives rise to all phenomena. This essential self rests in the centre of the heart, the size of a thumb. All phenomena arise through the combination of many other phenomena, so why do you say that they are non-arisen?’
The Blessed One said to Vimati, ‘I will answer your question in order to free your mind from doubt. Listen closely. You claim that, “The Lord God is eternal. He has created everything.” As a corollary, all things created by him would also be eternal. Ontologically, everything he creates must be of the same being as him. If you think that this is not the case, because what is created is ever-changing, and thus impermanent, then you contradict your previous statement. This is not acceptable. Why not? Whatever is created cannot be alienated from the essence of its creator. It must, therefore, be eternal. Conversely, the essence of the creator cannot be alienated from what is created, and must, therefore, be impermanent. If the Lord God the Creator is eternal, his creatures must also be eternal. If this is the case, how is it that we can observe that they exist at one point in time, and not at another? If they do not have permanent existence, how can they be eternal? In the same way, if the Lord God the “Creator” is like his creatures, he will also undoubtedly be impermanent.
Moreover, “creation” is diverse in many ways. There is no unitary oneness. If it were one, there could be no diversity. How can individual things in the world be one?559
Furthermore, if the Lord God is the Creator who has created everything, he then has no compassion. If he had compassion, he would have caused all living beings to be born as human beings or gods, and to experience constant pleasure. Would he really abandon living beings to the eight kinds of suffering? Would he let them fall into the three states of misfortune,560 and undergo great suffering? If he had compassion, how could he create living beings out of himself, and then harm them?
If the Lord God the Creator is one and eternal, everything that he has created should be unchanging. Why are living beings impermanent? Why do they come into existence, and then become extinct? Why do beings in the five realms suffer from this kind of impurity?
When one sees an effect, one understands the cause. In just the same way, the Lord God is neither one nor eternal. One might claim that whatever is excellent has been created by the Lord God, whilst whatever is inferior and evil has been created by the Devil. This, however, does not accord with reason. Why not? If whatever is good does in fact come from the Lord God, and whatever is bad from the Devil, then good and bad are opposed to each other. How then can one call the Lord God the Lord God, which implies that he is the Lord who is in control of everything? Moreover, many living beings are evil-doers, and there are only a few who do good. The Devil, it would seem, is more powerful than the Lord God.
Again, you claim that the good done by living beings is judged and rewarded by the Lord God, and the evil done by them is inspired by the Devil. Your disciples always make this claim, saying “Those who do good will be born into heaven, and those who do evil will fall into hell.” If being born in heaven or falling into hell is determined by one’s good or evil deeds, though, how can the Lord God be their cause?
When a king orders one of his subjects to proclaim an edict of reward and promotion, we simply say that it was bestowed by the king, not by the subject who was ordered to make the proclamation. Similarly, when a king orders one of his subjects to take somebody’s life, we say that it was the king who killed him, not the subject who was ordered to do so. In the same way, the Lord God should be held responsible for the good deeds done by living beings, and the Devil for their evil deeds. Why should living beings suffer because of their evil deeds?
For these reasons, one can be certain that the Lord God is not the Creator who has created everything. Furthermore, if he is one (unitary), how could he create so many innumerable good and bad minds? In this way too, we can know that he is not one.
If you say that everything comes from the Lord God, such that everything is exclusively good, how is it that we can see evil? When a man is amongst many other people, he is recognized as an evil man. People in the world all say that those who do evil suffer the outcome of their own evil deeds in hell. If the evil done by living beings is caused by the Lord God, why is it only you who sees it as being caused by the Lord God? Someone who slanders others by claiming that they do evil deeds will be severely punished. In the same way, you would be punished for slandering the Lord God by claiming that he is the cause of the evil deeds of living beings.
‘The Six Noumenal and Phenomenal Perfections Sūtra’/Da-sheng-li-qu-liu-boluomiduo jing, Taishō vol.8, text 261, p.910c17–911a27, trans. T.T.S. and D.S.
The lack of a permanent, essential self
M.133 Actions but no essential self that performs them
This passage emphasizes that there is no essential agent of action; actions arise from an interaction of mental processes.
Although he sees no beings and no suffering, Śākyamuni takes away their suffering.561 Living beings are overjoyed and delighted that their discomfort will not increase.
Properly understanding the inconceivable Dharma of the Buddhas, and having worshipped you, best of men, I enjoy the fruits obtained. …
Cultivate meditative calm and insight, in order to relieve your suffering. The impurities of the household life, which torment the world, are removed.
Calm concentration, insight and even impurities are all empty, Sage. …
Understand inactivity and functioning … A chariot, composed of different parts, does not perceive anything, and yet it functions.
I have described action, but there is no-one who acts anywhere in the ten directions.562
Just as the movement of the wind does not put out a fire in a tree,
although neither the wind nor the tree are conscious, and the fire is not put out, there is no-one who performs an action.
Pitṛ-putra-samāgama, as quoted in the Śikṣā-samuccaya of Śāntideva, ch.14, trans. from Sanskrit by D.S.
M.134 Beings are unsubstantial like froth
This passage likens the nature of beings to froth, a mirage or an echo, to show they lack a permanent, substantial self (cf. *Th.178).
Mañjuśrī, a bodhisattva should view all living beings just like an illusionist views the illusion of a man. A bodhisattva should view all living beings just like a wise man views the reflection of the moon in water. A bodhisattva should see all living beings just like he views a face in a mirror.563 A bodhisattva should view all living beings just like water in a mirage. … A bodhisattva should view all living beings just like the sound of an echo … a mountain made of clouds in the sky … the first and last moments of a fleck of froth … the arising and disappearance of a bubble in water… the core of a banana tree564 … a flash of lightning. This, Mañjuśrī, is how a bodhisattva should view all living beings.
Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa Sūtra, ch.6, section 1, trans. from Sanskrit by D.S.
M.135 Being beyond thoughts of ‘I’ and ‘mine’
A true bodhisattva does not have a judgemental attitude towards people if they lack the bodhisattva perfections, but views all impartially, and without I-centred thoughts.
Bodhisattvas, great beings, … do not think in terms of giving and receiving. They do not think in terms of ethical discipline and its bad conduct. They do not think in terms of patient acceptance and emotional agitation. They do not think in terms of vigour and laziness. They do not think in terms of meditative absorption and disturbance. They do not think in terms of wisdom and stupidity. They do not think, ‘I have been criticised’. They do not think, ‘I have been praised’. They do not think, ‘I have been honoured’. They do not think, ‘I have been dishonoured’. Why is this? It is because, Śāriputra, the unarisen565 does not think ‘I have been criticised’. It does not think, ‘I have been praised’. It does not think, ‘I have been honoured’. It does not think, ‘I have been dishonoured’. Why is this? It is because the perfection of wisdom completely uproots all thought.
Pañcaviṃśati-sāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, pp.89–90, trans. from Sanskrit by D.S.
M.136 Sickness at the delusion of egocentric beings
This passage has the bodhisattva Vimalakīrti feigning physical sickness to signal his suffering in response to the ‘I’-centred delusions of beings, when both they and any sickness or suffering lack any essence or permanent, substantial existence.
Mañjuśrī said, ‘Good man, are you fading? Are you passing away? Are you suffering from an imbalance of the elements caused by an excess of wind? Is your sickness weakening rather than growing stronger? The Blessed One inquires as to whether you are experiencing some slight pain, some slight affliction, some slight illness, if you are able to stand easily, and if you are strong, happy, faultless, and comfortable. What is the cause of your sickness, householder? How long will your sickness last? When will it be alleviated?’
Vimalakīrti said, ‘Mañjuśrī, this sickness of mine will last as long as ignorance and the craving for existence last. My sickness will be pacified when all living beings are without sickness. Why is this the case? Mañjuśrī, for a bodhisattva, saṃsāra is the presence of living beings. Sickness is dependent on saṃsāra. A bodhisattva will be free of disease when all living beings are free of sickness. For example, Mañjuśrī, if a merchant’s only son falls ill, his mother and father will be ill too. As long as their only son has not recovered from his sickness, they too will suffer. In the same way, Mañjuśrī, a bodhisattva loves all living beings like they were each his only son. He becomes ill because living beings are ill. When living beings are free from disease, he becomes free from disease. You ask me, Mañjuśrī, “What is the cause of your sickness?” A bodhisattva’s sickness is caused by great compassion.’ …
Mañjuśrī said, ‘How should a bodhisattva address another bodhisattva who is ill?’ Vimalakīrti said, ‘He should say that the body is impermanent, but not mention turning away or dispassion. He should say that the body is painful, but not praise nirvana. He should say that the body has no essential self, and that living beings should be brought to maturity. He should say that the body is peaceful, but not mention the ultimate peace. He should encourage him to confess all of his negative actions, but not say that they no longer have an effect. He should encourage him to use his own illness to develop compassion for other living beings who are suffering from illness. He should encourage him to recall the incalculable amount of pain he has experienced in previous existences. He should encourage him to recall everything he has done for living beings. He should speak to him of everything that has led him to accumulate wholesome roots. He should speak of primordial purity. He should speak of freedom from craving. He should speak of always making vigorous effort, and encourage him to become the king of doctors, and to cure all sickness. This is how a bodhisattva should address another bodhisattva who is ill.’
Mañjuśrī said, ‘Son of good family, how should a bodhisattva who is ill understand his own mind?’ Vimalakīrti said, ‘Mañjuśrī, a bodhisattva who is ill should understand his own mind in this way. This sickness has arisen from previous mistaken actions, and from the defilement of making assumptions which have no basis in reality. There is in fact no ultimately existing phenomenon which constitutes this sickness. Why is this? It is because it has emerged from the four great elements,566 and these elements have no owner. Indeed, this sickness arises through the non-existence of an essential self. The phenomenon which is referred to as a sickness has no ultimate existence, but comes from the belief in an essential self. He should therefore not adhere to an idea of an essential self, but dwell perceiving the root of the sickness. He should give up any perception of an essential self, and instead endeavour to perceive phenomena. This body consists of phenomena. It is only phenomena which arise. It is only phenomena which cease. These phenomena do not perceive each other. They are not aware of each other. When they arise, they do not think, ‘I am arising’, and when they cease, they do not think ‘I am ceasing’. …
This, Mañjuśrī, is how a bodhisattva who is ill should understand his own mind, in order to get rid of old age, sickness and death. So, Mañjuśrī, if a bodhisattva does not attain awakening, all of his efforts will have been in vain. Just as one who destroys his enemies is called a ‘hero’, bodhisattvas are called ‘bodhisattvas’ because they have relieved the pain of old age, sickness, and death.
The bodhisattva who is sick should examine things in the following way. “Just as my sickness is not real, so too the sickness of all living beings is not real.” If he examines things in this way, he will not fall into the view that it is possible to benefit living beings, 567 but will cultivate great compassion for them.’
Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa Sūtra, ch.4, sections 5–7, 10–11, 14–15, trans. from Sanskrit by D.S.
Emptiness of inherent nature/inherent existence
M.137 The Heart Sūtra on emptiness and perfect wisdom
This famous short text talks of each the five categories of existence that make up a being (see *Th.151) as empty of any inherent nature/separate existence (see *M.138), this being due to their deep interrelation with other factors of existence. Their very ‘nature’ is an emptiness of essence. In the field of emptiness indeed, no individual items such as the five categories of existence can be picked out.
Homage to the All-Knowing One.
The bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara,568 practising the profound perfection of wisdom, closely examined the five categories of existence, and saw that they were empty of any inherent existence.
‘Here Śāriputra, form is emptiness, and emptiness itself is form. Form is not distinct from emptiness, and emptiness is not distinct from form. The same is true of feeling, perception, volitional activities, and consciousness.569
Here Śāriputra, all phenomena are characterised by emptiness. They do not arise, and they do not cease. They are not pure, and they are not impure. They are not complete, and they are not deficient.
Therefore Śāriputra, in emptiness there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no volitional activity, and no consciousness. There is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, and no mind. There is no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no physical object, and no mental object. There is no eye-element and so forth, up to no mind-consciousness-element. There is no ignorance, and no destruction of ignorance, and so forth, up to no old age and death, and no destruction of old age and death. 570 There is nothing which is painful, no cause, no cessation, and no path. 571 There is no knowledge, and no attainment.
Therefore Śāriputra, because a bodhisattva does not attain anything, but relies on the perfection of wisdom, he dwells with his mind unrestricted. Because his mind is unrestricted, he is not afraid, and he overcomes deluded perceptions. This culminates in nirvana. All the Buddhas of the three times have relied on the perfection of wisdom, and awoken to unsurpassed, perfect awakening. Therefore, the perfection of wisdom should be known as a great incantation, an unsurpassed incantation, an unequalled incantation which removes everything which is painful because it is true, and not false.
The dhāraṇī572 of the perfection of wisdom is: gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā.’573
This concludes the Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom
Prajñāpārimitā-hṛdaya, trans. from Sanskrit by D.S.
M.138 The conditioned, empty nature of things
The influential Mahāyāna philosopher Nāgārjuna (c. 150–250 CE), founder of the Madhyamaka school, emphasized the idea of ‘emptiness’ (śūnyatā) in the sense that, as each and every thing depends on conditions for its existence and nature,574 it is empty of inherent nature/separate existence, or essence (on which, see also *V.75–6 and 79). In this passage, Nāgārjuna responds to the criticism that this idea seems to negate the reality of even the four Truths of the Noble Ones, (see section introduction before *Th.149). He argues that only if the painful and what originates it are empty/conditioned can they come to an end; something whose existence is inherent to it, non-dependently, can never change. Similarly, the cessation of the painful cannot be attained if it is a fixed, inherent existent, and nor can the path be gradually brought into being if it were to exist inherently. That is, only in an empty/conditioned world is it possible to bring what is painful to an end, and attain awakening.
8. [Nāgārjuna] The Dharma taught by the Buddhas is based on two truths, worldly, conventional reality, and ultimate reality.
9. Those who do not understand the distinction between these two truths do not understand the profound reality of the Buddha’s teaching. …
11. Viewing emptiness in the wrong way will destroy someone of slow wits. It is like picking up a snake the wrong way, or learning something in the wrong way. …
15. You attribute your own errors to us, like someone who has forgotten that he is mounted on a horse.
16. If you see existents as truly possessing inherent existence, then you will see them as being without any cause or condition.
17. You will also reject the ideas of effect, cause, agent, acting, activity, arising, ceasing, and the fruit of action.
18. We state that whatever is dependent arising is emptiness. That conventional designation is the middle way.
19. There is no phenomenon which is not dependently arisen. Therefore there is no phenomenon which is not empty.
20. If none of this is empty, then there is no arising or cessation. This implies the non-existence of the four Truths of the Noble Ones.
21. How can there be something painful which is not dependently arisen? What is painful has been described as impermanent, and so it has no inherent existence.
22. How can something which has inherent existence arise again? Therefore, if one rejects emptiness, nothing can arise.
23. Pain which has inherent existence cannot cease. By adhering to the idea of inherent existence, you reject the idea of cessation.
24. If the path has inherent existence, then it cannot be cultivated. If the path can be cultivated, then it has no inherent existence. …
32. Someone who strove for awakening, but who had an unawakened inherent nature, would not be able to approach awakening even by practising the path of the bodhisattva.
Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā of Nāgārjuna, ch.24, trans. from Sanskrit by D.S.
M.139 The perfection of giving as empty
This passage says that the highest form of giving is that with no thought of giver, gift or receiver, for all these are empty of an essence or separate reality.
Śāriputra said, ‘Venerable Subhūti, what is the worldly perfection of generosity, and what is the transcendental perfection of generosity?’
Subhūti said, ‘The worldly perfection of generosity, Venerable Śāriputra, consists in the bodhisattva, the great being, giving generously. He gives to any renunciants, brahmins, poor beggars, or travellers who ask him for anything. … He thinks, “I give. They receive. This is a gift. I unselfishly give away everything I have. I am developing Buddha-knowledge. I am practising the perfection of generosity. I dedicate this gift, given equally to all living beings, to unsurpassed, perfect awakening, but I should do so without anything being perceived by the mind.575 By means of this gift and its fruit, may all living beings which can be perceived be happy in the Dharma, be free from clinging, and attain final nirvana.” He gives a gift impeded by three kinds of attachment. What are these three kinds of attachment? They are the perception of an essential self, the perception of another, and the perception of a gift. These are the three kinds of attachment which impede him when he gives a gift. This is what is known as the worldly perfection of generosity. Practising in this way, Venerable Śāriputra, someone who is worldly does not progress. 576 He does not free himself. He does not approach awakening. This is why it is known as the worldly perfection of generosity.
What, then, is the transcendental perfection of generosity? It is completely pure in three ways. What are these three ways in which it is completely pure? Here, when the bodhisattva, the great being, gives a gift, he does not perceive an essential self (as giver), he does not perceive a recipient, and he does not perceive a gift. Nor does he perceive any fruit. These, Venerable Śāriputra, are three ways in which the bodhisattva, the great being, is completely pure. Again, Venerable Śāriputra, when the bodhisattva, the great being, gives a gift, he does not present that gift to all living beings. He does not perceive any living beings. He does not perceive an essential self. He dedicates the gift to unsurpassed, perfect awakening, but he does not perceive any awakening. This is what is known as the transcendental perfection of generosity. Why is this known as the transcendental perfection of generosity? Practising in this way, Venerable Śāriputra, one makes progress away from the world. One frees oneself. One approaches awakening. This is why it is known as the transcendental perfection of generosity.
Pañcaviṃśati-sāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, 263–264, trans. from Sanskrit by D.S.
M.140 How insight into emptiness aids the practice of the perfections
This passage explains that the perfections that the bodhisattva cultivates in order to aid other beings and attain Buddhahood, are not permanent entities – if they were, they could not be gradually cultivated (see *M.138) – nor are they even separate phenomena that can ‘be developed’ or grow. They are part of an inconceivable network of processes, and it is from understanding this, and working with it, that the ‘perfections’ ‘grow’.
Subhūti said, ‘It is wonderful, Blessed One, how the Tathāgata, the arhant, the perfectly awakened Buddha has taught the true nature of all phenomena, which is inexpressible. Blessed One, as I understand the meaning of what the Blessed One has said, all phenomena, Blessed One, are inexpressible.’ The Blessed One said, ‘Exactly, Subhūti, exactly. All phenomena, Subhūti, are inexpressible. Why is this? It is not possible, Subhūti, to express the emptiness of all phenomena.’
Subhūti said, ‘Blessed One, can something which is inexpressible grow or decline?’ The Blessed One said, ‘No, Subhūti, indeed not.’
Subhūti said, ‘Blessed One, if something which is inexpressible cannot grow or decline, then the perfection of generosity will not grow or decline, the perfection of ethical discipline, the perfection of patient acceptance, the perfection of vigour, the perfection of meditation and the perfection of wisdom will not grow or decline. If, Blessed One, the six perfections do not grow and do not decline, how can a bodhisattva, a great being, attain unsurpassed, perfect awakening by the power of the growth of the six perfections? How can he approach unsurpassed, perfect awakening? A bodhisattva, Blessed One, a great being cannot approach unsurpassed, perfect awakening if the perfections are not fully developed.’
The Blessed One said, ‘Exactly, Subhūti, exactly. Something which is a perfection cannot grow or decline at all. A bodhisattva, a great being, who practises the perfection of wisdom, who develops the perfection of wisdom, and who is skilled in means does not think, “This perfection of generosity is growing.” or “This perfection of generosity is diminishing.” Rather, he thinks, “This ‘perfection of generosity’ is only a label.” When he gives a gift, he dedicates the absorption of mind, the arising of the awakening-mind, and the wholesome roots involved to unsurpassed, perfect awakening. His dedication of these things is the same as unsurpassed, perfect awakening.
[He thinks in the same way with regard to the other perfections, and] when he undertakes to act morally, … when he is patiently acceptant, … when he maintains vigour, … when he reaches attainments in meditation, … (and) when he practises the perfection of wisdom, and develops the perfection of wisdom, he dedicates the absorption of mind, the arising of the awakening-mind, and the wholesome roots involved to unsurpassed, perfect awakening. His dedication of these things is the same as unsurpassed, perfect awakening.’
The Venerable Subhūti then said, ‘What then, Blessed One, is unsurpassed, perfect awakening?’ The Blessed One said, ‘Unsurpassed, perfect awakening, Subhūti, is reality, and reality, Subhūti, does not grow or diminish. If a bodhisattva, a great being, repeatedly and frequently dwells with his mind absorbed by this, then he will approach unsurpassed, perfect awakening, and that mental absorption will not be lost. In this way, Subhūti, something which is inexpressible does not grow or decline, and in the same way, the perfections do not grow or decline. In the same way, Subhūti, no phenomena grow or decline. By dwelling with his mind absorbed in this way, Subhūti, a bodhisattva, a great being, approaches unsurpassed, perfect awakening.’
Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, ch.18, trans. from Sanskrit by D.S.
M.141 Entering the Dharma-door of non-duality
This passage gives various implications of ‘non-duality’: the idea that due to the pervasive interrelationship of everything, it is inappropriate to set up dualistic contrasts between seemingly opposing things. Yet ultimately, the only way of expressing non-duality is through silence, as any speech depends on making contrasts: such as between non-dualism and dualism!
Then the Licchavi Vimalakīrti asked those bodhisattvas, ‘Good men, how do bodhisattvas enter the Dharma-door of non-duality?’ …
The bodhisattva Siṃhamati said, ‘Thinking, “This is characterised by intoxicating inclinations” and “This is not characterised by intoxicating inclinations” is dualistic. One who has attained impartiality does not perceive things as being characterised by intoxicating inclinations, or as not being characterised by intoxicating inclinations. He attains non-perception, and in his impartiality of perception, he attains impartiality but is not restricted by impartiality. In this way, he enters non-duality.’
The bodhisattva Sukhādhimukta said, ‘Thinking, “This is happiness” and “This is unhappiness” is dualistic. One who has abandoned all pleasures, and has a mind which is like space because of the complete purity of his understanding, does not generate anything, and he enters into non-duality.’
The bodhisattva Nārāyaṇa said, ‘Thinking, “This is mundane” and “This is transcendental” is dualistic. The mundane is empty of any essential nature, so nothing transcends and nothing descends, nothing moves and nothing stays still. Where there is no transcendence or descent, no movement or stillness, one enters non-duality.’
The bodhisattva Dāntamati said, ‘Thinking, “saṃsāra” and “nirvana” is dualistic. When one sees the true nature of saṃsāra, one neither wanders in saṃsāra nor attains final nirvana. When one realizes this, one enters non-duality.’
The bodhisattva Pratyakṣadarśin said, ‘Thinking, “This is perishable” and “This is imperishable” is dualistic. What is destroyed is finally destroyed, and what is finally destroyed cannot perish. That is why it is said to be imperishable. Something which is imperishable is transient, and something which is transient is not perishable. This is what entering the Dharma-door of non-duality means.’
The bodhisattva Samantagupta said, ‘Thinking, “essential self” and “no essential self” is dualistic. How is one who does not perceive the existence of an essential self to rid himself of such a self? One who does not see any essential nature of the self in a dualistic way enters non-duality.’
The bodhisattva Vidyuddeva said, ‘Thinking, “knowledge” and “ignorance” is dualistic. The essential nature of ignorance is knowledge. Ignorance is indeterminable, it lies beyond methods of determination. One who realizes this realizes non-duality, and enters non-duality.’ …
The bodhisattva Akṣayamati said, ‘Thinking that one will practise generosity in order to develop omniscience is dualistic. The essential nature of generosity itself is omniscience, and the essential nature of omniscience itself is development. In the same way, thinking that one will practise ethical discipline, patient acceptance, vigour, meditation or wisdom in order to develop omniscience is dualistic. The essential nature of wisdom itself is omniscience, and the essential nature of omniscience itself is development. One who enters into this single way of conduct enters non-duality.’
The bodhisattva Gambhīrabuddhi said, ‘Thinking, “Emptiness, freedom from characteristics, and freedom from aspirations are different things”577 is dualistic. In fact, that which is empty has no characteristics, and that which has no characteristics is free from aspiration. When there is no desire, there is no activity of thought, mind, or mental consciousness. One who sees a single door of emancipation sees all of the doors of emancipation, and enters non-duality.’
The bodhisattva Śāntendriya said, ‘Thinking, “Buddha”, “Dharma”, or “Sangha” is dualistic. The essential nature of the Buddha is the Dharma, and the essential nature of the Dharma is the Sangha. All of the Three Jewels are unconditioned, the unconditioned is space, and the behaviour of all phenomena is like space. One who sees things in this way enters non-duality.’ …
When the bodhisattvas has each explained non-duality in their own way, they addressed Mañjuśrī, the youthful prince of the Dharma, and said, ‘Mañjuśrī, how does a bodhisattva enter non-duality?’
Mañjuśrī said, ‘Good men, you have all spoken well, but still, all of your explanations are dualistic. There is a single teaching which is the entrance into non-duality, and it is that all phenomena do not express anything, do not say anything, do not communicate anything, do not explain anything, do not declare anything, and do not discern anything.’
Then Mañjuśrī, the youthful prince of the Dharma, addressed the Licchavi Vimalakīrti, ‘Son of good family, we have each explained non-duality in our own way. Please give us your explanation of the entrance into the Dharma which is non-duality.’
The Licchavi Vimalakīrti remained silent.
Mañjuśrī, the youthful prince of the Dharma, praised the Licchavi Vimalakīrti, saying, “Excellent! Excellent, son of good family! This is how bodhisattvas enter the Dharma-door of non-duality, with no syllables, sounds, or noises, no limited knowledge or actions.’
When this explanation was given, five thousand bodhisattvas entered the Dharma-door of non-duality, and attained patient acceptance of the fact that all phenomena are unarisen.578
Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa Sūtra, ch.8, sections 1, 10–16, 20–22, 32–33, trans. from Sanskrit by D.S.
Mind-only and emptiness of subject-object duality
M.142 The world as mind-only
This passage argues that the world that we perceive is just the flow of experiences in one’s own mind. There are different interpretations of this perspective. Some see it as denying any external world, others see it as pointing out that our lived world of immediate experience is simply a flow of experience, influenced by language and a person’s conditioned nature, whether or not there is anything beyond our experience. Either way, we should learn not to substantialise what we experience into things that we respond to with attachment or aversion. We should not split the flow of experience into substantial ‘objects’ and a substantial ‘subject’ or essential self. Immediate experience is empty of any real subject or objects. These ideas are central to the Yogācāra school of Mahāyāna philosophy.
‘Only perceiving the projections of their own minds, Mahāmati, ordinary immature beings engage in conceptualisation because they are attached to different kinds of external objects, and because they are attached to their habitual tendency to conceptualise existence and non-existence, oneness, otherness, things being both or neither, permanence and impermanence as having an essential nature.
Mahāmati, it is like when animals who are scorched by the summer heat conceptualise the existence of water in a mirage, and run towards it. They do not perceive the confusion of their own minds, and they do not discern that there is no water there. In the same way, Mahāmati, ordinary, immature beings, whose minds have been steeped in the formulation of different kinds of concepts since beginningless time, whose minds have been burned by the fires of greed, hatred and delusion, who crave the sphere of different kinds of forms, who are firmly based on the ideas of arising and breaking down, and who do not properly understand internal, external, existence, and non-existence, fall into grasping at oneness and otherness, non-being and being. …
Mahāmati, it is like a man who is asleep and dreams of a country adorned with women, men, elephants, horses, chariots, foot-soldiers, villages, towns, cities, cattle, buffalo, forests, gardens, and different kinds of mountains, rivers, and pools, and who enters the harem of the king of that country before waking up. When he wakes up, he idles his time away recollecting that country and its harem. Do you think, Mahāmati, that a man like that, who spent time recollecting various unreal dreams, would be wise?’ Mahāmati said, ‘Certainly not, Blessed One.’ The Blessed One said, ‘In just the same way, Mahāmati, ordinary, immature beings who have been stung by wrong views and who are attracted to non-Buddhist teachers do not recognise that the reality projected by their own minds is like a dream, and depend on ideas of oneness and otherness, non-being and being. …
Mahāmati, it is like hearing an echo of a man, a river, or the wind. The echo neither exists nor does not exist, because a sound is heard, and yet no sound is heard. In just the same way, Mahāmati, the views of existence and non-existence, oneness, otherness, and of things being both or neither should be understood as conceptualisations created by the habitual tendencies of one’s own mind.
152. One who always sees the world as being like an illusion, a phantom, a magical device, a cloud, a dream, or a flash of lightning, is cut free from the triple continuity,579 and is liberated.
153. There is no limited knowledge here, it is like a mirage in the air. When one sees phenomena in this way, one does not make any claims. …
158. The various different things which appear to exist are like mirages in the air. They are seen in various different forms, but are like a son in an infertile woman’s dream.
Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, ch.2, trans. from Sanskrit by D.S.
M.143 The three levels of reality
This passage discusses three levels of reality: i) the world of everyday experience, which has the nature of being ‘imagined’ or ‘constructed’ (parikalpita) by the mind elaborating on the immediate flow of experience to project a world of constructed appearances; ii) the ‘other-dependent’ (paratantra) level, which is the immediate flow of experiences, arising in dependence on each other according to dependent arising, which generates the first level; iii) the level of ‘full perfection’ (pariniṣpanna), which is the level of true insight, in which one knows the nature and activities of the other-dependent level, knows it lacks any real subject or object, and so attains perfection: or knows that perfection was always a reality.
In summary, all phenomena can be characterised in three ways. The first is the characteristic of imaginative construction. The second is the characteristic of other-dependency. The third is the characteristic of full perfection.
The characteristic of imaginative construction refers to the establishing of names and symbols for all phenomena and differentiating their natures, such that they come to be expressed in language. The characteristic of other-dependency refers to the dependent arising of all phenomena: if this exists, then that exists, and if this arises, then that arises. This refers to the twelvefold conditions, starting with “volitional activities are conditioned by ignorance”, and ending with “this is the origination of this whole bundle of suffering,” the last of the twelve conditions.580 The characteristic of full perfection refers to the fact that all phenomena are the same, and are the way they are. Bodhisattvas understand the way things are because of their great vigour, intelligent focus, and genuine reflection. By gradually cultivating this understanding, they attain unsurpassed perfect awakening and truly realize perfection.
Son of good family, the characteristic of imaginative construction should be understood to be like the darkness in the eye of someone whose eyesight is impaired. The characteristic of other-dependency should be understood to be like the forming of images formed by the faulty vision of the eye of someone whose eyesight is impaired, such as when a hair, a circle, a fly, or a small particle appear as different images. The characteristic of ultimate perfection should be understood to be like the undistorted objects seen by the eye of someone who has eliminated the darkness in their eyes.
Son of good family, it is like when a clear crystal comes into contact with anything blue. It looks like a precious jewel, such as a sapphire or a dark blue jewel. People who mistake it for a precious jewel are deceived. When it comes into contact with something red, it looks like a ruby. When it comes into contact with something green, it looks like an emerald. When it comes into contact with something golden, it looks like gold. People who mistake it for a precious substance because of its colour are deceived. Guṇākara, you should see the habitual tendency towards conventional expressions as an appearance which has been imaginatively constructed on the basis of the characteristic of an other-dependent nature, just as a clear crystal takes on the colour of whatever it comes into contact with. You should understand what is imaginatively constructed on the basis of the characteristic of an other-dependent nature as being just like the mistaken perception of a sapphire, a ruby, an emerald, or gold. You should understand that the characteristic of the other-dependent nature is just like the clear crystal. The clear crystal appears as sapphire, ruby, emerald, or gold, in a stable and sustained way, although these precious substances never really exist. They do not have a self-existent nature. In the same way, you should understand that the characteristic of imaginative construction does not have a self-existent nature, and does not really exist in a stable and sustained way. Its appearance is imaginatively constructed on the basis of the characteristic of other-dependency.
Again, Guṇākara, the characteristic of imaginative construction can be understood to be conditioned by the interplay between images and words. The characteristic of other-dependency can be understood to be conditioned by adherence to imaginatively constructed appearances on the basis of other-dependency. The characteristic of ultimate perfection can be understood to be conditioned by the non-adherence to the imaginatively constructed appearances on the basis of other-dependency.
Son of a good family, if a bodhisattva really understands the characteristic of imaginative construction as it is, then he really understands all phenomena which are without characteristics, as they are. If a bodhisattva really understands the characteristic of other-dependency as it is, then he really understands all phenomena which are characterised by the defilements, as they are. If a bodhisattva really understands the characteristic of ultimate perfection, then he really understands all phenomena which are characterised by purity, as they are.
Son of good family, if a bodhisattva really understands the phenomena which are without characteristics, based on the characteristic of other-dependency, he will be able to eliminate phenomena which are characterised by the defilements. If he eliminates phenomena which are characterised by the defilements, he will be able to realize phenomena which are characterised by purity.
Therefore, Guṇākara, because bodhisattvas really understand the characteristic of imaginative construction, the characteristic of other-dependency, and the characteristic of full perfection, they really understand the phenomena which are without characteristics, the phenomena which are characterised by the defilements, and the phenomena which are characterised by purity. Because they really understand the phenomena which are without characteristics, they eliminate all phenomena which are characterised by the defilements. Because they eliminate all phenomena which are characterised by the defilements, they realize all phenomena which are characterised by purity. They are thereby fit to be described as bodhisattvas who are skilled in the characteristics of all phenomena, and the Tathāgata can establish them as such.
If one does not understand things as being without characteristics, one will be unable to abandon defiled phenomena. If one is not able to abandon defiled phenomena, one will be hindered in one’s realization of wondrously pure phenomena. If one does not gain insight into the evil one has done, one will be wild, wicked, and harm living beings. Tragically entangled in transient things, are such people not lost and pitiable?
Saṃdhi-nirmocana Sūtra, Taishō vol.16, text 676, ch.4, pp.693a15–c14, trans. T.T.S. and D.S.
The Buddha-nature as a positive reality
M.144 The Buddha-nature as empty of defilements but not of wonderful qualities
This passage sees the Tathāgata-garbha (Buddha-nature) as empty of negative qualities but full of innumerable Buddha-qualities. It is the form of the Dharma-body when it is obscured by defilements.
Blessed One, the Dharma-body is not said to be the cessation of suffering because any phenomenon is destroyed. It is known as the cessation of suffering (i.e. nirvana) because it is, from beginningless time, uncreated, unarisen, inexhaustible, impossible to exhaust, eternal, pure by nature, completely free from all defilements.
Blessed One, the body that is endowed with Buddha-qualities, which are inconceivable, unchanging, indissoluble, inseparable, more numerous than the grains of sand in the River Ganges, is the body of the Tathāgata. Blessed One, the body of the Tathāgata, when it is not free from all the defilements, is the Tathāgata-garbha.
Blessed One, an understanding of the Tathāgata-garbha is the same as the Tathāgata’s understanding of emptiness.
Blessed One, the Tathāgata-garbha has never been seen or apprehended by any arhants, solitary-buddhas, or greatly powerful bodhisattvas.
Blessed One, there are two kinds of understanding of emptiness with regard to the Tathāgata-garbha. The first, Blessed One, is the understanding that the Tathāgata-garbha is empty. It is separate from, empty of, free from, and distinct from all of the defilements. The second, Blessed One, is the understanding that the Tathāgata-garbha is not empty. It is not separate from, empty of, free from, or distinct from the inconceivable qualities of a Buddha, which are more numerous than the grains of sand in the River Ganges.
Śrīmālādevī-siṃhanāda Sūtra, Taishō vol.12, text 353, chs.8–9, p.221c07–c21; cf. vol.11, text 310, p.677a15–26, trans. T.T.S. and D.S.
M.145 The real Self
This passage, which would be criticized, or interpreted non-literally, by many Buddhists, says that while it is right to see conditioned things as impermanent, painful and non-Self, the Tathāgata or Dharma-body is permanent, true happiness, and also a real Self, rather than everything being non-Self and only nirvana being beyond change, and as true happiness.581
At that time, the Buddha addressed the assembled monks, ‘Listen carefully. Listen carefully. Earlier, you used the analogy of someone being intoxicated, but although you understood the words of this analogy, you did not understand the meaning. What is the meaning? Someone who is intoxicated sees the sun and the moon, and thinks that they move, when, in fact, they do not. It is the same with living beings. Because they are overwhelmed by the defilement of ignorance, they develop distorted views. They see what has an essential self as lacking an essential self. They see what is permanent as impermanent. They see what is pure as impure. They see what is pleasurable as painful. It is because they are overwhelmed by the defilement of ignorance and because they think that things are like this that they do not understand the meaning of the analogy. This is like the intoxicated person who thinks that the sun and the moon move. “What has an essential self” refers to the Buddha. “What is permanent” refers to the Dharma-body. “What is pleasurable” refers to nirvana. “What is pure” refers to the Dharma.
Monks, why is it said that someone who thinks that an essential self exists is arrogant, proud, and conceited, and will continue to wander in saṃsāra? Monks, although you might say, “We practise the contemplations of impermanence, of painfulness, and of the lack of an essential self”, these three kinds of contemplation have no real meaning. I shall now explain the three ways in which one can practise the Dharma. Thinking of what is painful as pleasurable, and of what is pleasurable as painful, is to have a distorted view of the Dharma. Thinking of what is impermanent as permanent, and of what is permanent as impermanent, is to have a distorted view of the Dharma. Thinking of what lacks an essential self as possessing one, and of what possesses an essential self as lacking one, is to have a distorted view of the Dharma. Thinking of what is impure as pure, and of what is pure as impure, is to have a distorted view of the Dharma. Someone whose view of the Dharma is distorted in any of these four ways will not be able to practise the Dharma.
Monks, the idea of pleasure arises in the midst of painful phenomena. The idea of permanence arises in the midst of impermanent phenomena. The idea of an essential self arises in the midst of phenomena which lack an essential self. The idea of purity arises in the midst of impure phenomena. The ideas of permanence, pleasure, an essential self, and purity exist in both worldly and transcendental teachings. Worldly teachings contain the words for these ideas, but not their meaning. Transcendental teachings contain the words and their meaning. Why is this the case? Worldly people do not understand the meaning, because their view of the Dharma is distorted in four ways. Why is this? It is because they see things in a distorted way, because their minds are distorted, and because their vision is distorted. Because of these three kinds of distortion, worldly people see pain in the midst of pleasure, impermanence in permanence, no essential self in that which possesses an essential self, and impurity in purity. These are what are known as distorted views. Because of these distorted views, worldly people understand the words, but not the meaning.
What, then, is the meaning? Saṃsāra lacks an essential self. The Tathāgata possesses an essential self. The disciples and solitary-buddhas are impermanent. The Dharma-body of the Tathāgata is permanent. All non-Buddhist teachings are painful. Nirvana is pleasurable. Conditioned phenomena are impure. The true Dharma of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas is pure. These are what are known as undistorted views. If one’s views are undistorted, one will understand both the words and the meaning. If one wishes to be free from the four kinds of distorted views, one should understand permanence, pleasure, an essential self, and purity in this way.’
Mahā-parinirvāṇa Sūtra, Taishō vol.12, text 374, ch.3, p.377b15–c14, trans. D.S.
M.146 The pervasive nature of the Buddha-nature and the Buddha, which is without essential self
These passages present a different perspective to the one above. The Tathāgata-garbha may seem like a Self, but is not truly a Self.
Then the bodhisattva, the great being Mahāmati said this to the Blessed One, ‘The Blessed One describes the Tathāgata-garbha in the sūtras. You describe it as being pure and clear in its essential nature, indeed, as being primordially pure, as bearing the thirty-two bodily characteristics (of a Buddha), and as being within the body of each living being. The Blessed One has described it as being like a greatly precious jewel wrapped in a dirty cloth, wrapped in the cloth of the categories of existence, of the elements, and of the sense-bases, a cloth made dirty by the impurities of greed, hatred, delusion, and erroneous assumptions. He has described it as being permanent, unchanging, beneficial, and constant. Blessed One, is this teaching of the Tathāgata-garbha not similar to the non-Buddhist teachings of an essential self? These non-Buddhists teach that the essential self is permanent, that it acts, that it has no qualities, that it is omnipresent and undying.’
The Blessed One said, ‘No Mahāmati, my teaching of the Tathāgata-garbha is not similar to the non-Buddhist teachings of an essential self. The Tathāgatas, Mahāmati, teach the Tathāgata-garbha using words which indicate emptiness, the ultimate goal, nirvana, non-arising, freedom from characteristics, freedom from aspirations, and so forth. The Tathāgatas, the arhants, the perfectly awakened Buddhas explain the teaching which indicates the Tathāgata-garbha so that immature beings might leave behind their fear of the non-existence of an essential self, and so that they might enter the sphere that is without conceptualisation and appearances. Moreover, bodhisattvas, great beings, now and in the future, should not become attached to the idea of an essential self.
The Tathāgata-garbha, Mahāmati, is the cause for both what is wholesome and what is unwholesome, and it brings about all states of existence. Like an actor, it can take on many forms, but it has no essential self, or the characteristics of an essential self.
752. The Buddha is not a person, nor is he the categories of existence, but one whose knowledge is free from intoxicating inclinations.
Seeing him as eternally tranquil, I go to him for refuge.
Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, ch.2, ch.6, and Sagāthakatham v.752, trans. from Sanskrit by D.S.
M.147 The realization of Buddhahood in this very body
This passage is from a Vajrayāna text of influence in East Asian Mahāyāna Buddhism.
Moreover, Vajrasattva, someone who is practising the Mahāyāna should cultivate a mind set on the path which is not dependent upon conditions, and on the fact that the nature of phenomena is that they lack an essential self. Why should they do this? If a practitioner has already observed the substratum of the categories of existence, and knows that in their essential nature they are like an illusion, a mirage, a reflection, an echo, a wheel of fire, or an ethereal city, then Vajrasattva, by practising in this way he will abandon the idea of an essential self. He masters his mind and, free of delusion, he realises that his own mind is originally unarisen. Why is this the case? Vajrasattva, it is because it is impossible to find a beginning or an end to the mind. …
Vajrasattva, the Buddha has explained that this original mind is what causes one to attain Buddhahood. It is free from actions and the defilements, yet actions and the defilements are dependent upon it. This is why it is worshiped and served by the world.
Mahā-vairocana Sūtra, Taishō vol.18, 848, pp.3b0914, b22–24, trans. D.S.
The radical interrelationship of all
M.148 The inter-penetration of all
These passages tell of the climax of the spiritual journey of Sudhana, where he comes to the bodhisattva Maitreya, who shows him the huge tower of the Buddha Vairocana (‘The Resplendent One’). This is described as the abode of all bodhisattvas, meaning that it represents the universe as seen by their wisdom and compassion. Sudhana enters the tower, where he finds a wondrous world, as vast as space, containing countless worlds and Buddhas. This illustrates the idea of the deep ‘inter-penetration’ of all aspects of reality, due to their deep inter-dependence, and their all being mutable forms of an underlying reality that is empty of any fixed nature.
The bodhisattva Maitreya then approached the door of the tower named ‘Garbha’, which was decorated with images of the majestic sun. He snapped his fingers, and the door immediately opened, allowing Sudhana to enter. Sudhana entered the tower with great joy, and the door immediately closed behind him, just as it had opened. All of a sudden, he saw the tower as being immeasurably vast, like infinite space. The floor consisted of innumerable precious stones, emitting the great light of countless jewels, adorned with countless ornaments. Countless hundreds of thousands of wonderful towers were also seen inside it, and he could see that each of them was the same as the one first one, as vast and majestic as space. They neither blended into one another, nor obstructed each other. When he stood in a particular place, Sudhana could see all other places, and he could see that all of the other places were the same as the place where he stood.
At the same time, Sudhana himself was visible in all of the towers which had manifested inside the Garbha Tower decorated with images of the sun. Each tower could be seen to be extremely vast, and decorated with unrivalled beauty, and in each of them, three thousand great thousand world-systems582 could be seen, each comprising a million individual worlds with four continents, and a million Tuṣita583 heavens. The bodhisattva Maitreya could be seen being born in every single one of these worlds … [as could the events of his life as a Buddha].
Sudhana then saw himself appearing before all these Tathāgatas, part of all those assemblies himself, serving the Buddhas in every possible way. His memories were not lost, and there was no obstacle to his understanding. Moreover, he heard musical instruments playing inside all of the towers, and he heard all of the small bells in the net of jewels, all emitting the indescribable, subtle wonderful sound of the Dharma. …
Then the bodhisattva Maitreya entered the tower by means of his supernormal powers, and snapped his fingers to rouse Sudhana. He said to him, ‘Son of good family, wake up! This is the nature of all phenomena. These are the characteristics of all phenomena, which bodhisattvas understand as arising from causes and conditions. They are like a hallucination, a dream, a shadow, or a reflection.’
Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra, Taishō vol. 10, text 279, pp.434c29–436a21, 437c17–20; vol.9, text 278, p.780b10– 782b29; vol. 10, text 293, pp. 831b26–835a21, trans. T.T.S. and D.S.
This is the dwelling of those who dwell where one eon enters into all eons, and where all eons enter into one eon, … of those who dwell where one phenomenon enters into all phenomena, and where all phenomena enter into one phenomenon without resistance; … of those who manifest themselves in all world-systems without moving a hair’s breadth; … of those who act without attachment, who move through the realm of the Dharma free from birth, like the wind moving through the air. … In a single atom, they see without obstruction the heaving ocean of as many worlds, living beings, and eons as there are atoms in the universe. … Dwelling here, they see the sameness of living beings and the sameness of Buddhas amidst phenomena.
Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra, ch 54 - ‘Maitreya’, trans. from Sanskrit by D.S.
M.149 Indra’s net
The first passage contains a brief reference to the jewelled net of the god Indra. In the second passage, this image is taken up and expanded on by the first patriarch of the Huayan school, Dushun (557-640 CE), to illustrate the deep interrelation of everything. In this, any item of existence is a reflection of every other one, as they are of it. It contains them all and makes them possible, and the totality of existence would be a different totality without it; not just in lacking it, but in lacking its effects. One and all are deeply interfused, yet not interfering with each other’s particular nature.
Some lands, in which the entire realm of the Dharma is manifest are clear, pure, immaculate,
like magical illusions, vast, immeasurable, distinct from one another like the jewels in Indra’s net.
Others manifest as treasuries full of precious things established in space.
Mahā-vaipulya Buddha-avataṃsaka Sūtra, Taishō vol. 10 text 279, ch.4, p.36a5–7, trans. T.T.S. and D.S.
Now then, the jewelled net of Śakra, the King of the Gods, is also known as Indra’s net.584 This royal net is entirely made of jewels, and because the jewels are bright and clear, they reflect the image of the other jewels, infinitely interpenetrating each other. All of the jewels appear in each individual jewel and, in the same way, each individual jewel appears in all of the other jewels at the same time. None of them come into view or disappear from view.
If we examine a jewel from the south-western part of the net, we will see that this single jewel reflects the image of all other the jewels in the net as a whole, and, in the same way, every other individual jewel in the net reflects this jewel at the same time. Every individual jewel in the net reflects all of the other jewels in the net at the same time, and so too do all of the other individual jewels, in an infinite regress. It is the infinite within the finite. That is to say, the infinite number of images of all of the other jewels are simultaneously reflected in each individual jewel, manifesting a splendid, grand, and immense true reflection without causing damage to the jewel in which they are reflected. If someone were to sit in one jewel, then he would also be sitting in all of the jewels in the ten directions at the same time. Why is this? It is because all of the jewels exist in each individual jewel. In one individual jewel that reflects all of the others, another jewel exists, and this other jewel also reflects all of the others. In this way, all of the jewels exist in each individual jewel. Think of it in this way.
Although someone who is sitting in one individual jewel enters all of the other jewels, he never leaves the jewel he is in. In the same way, all of the other jewels enter the jewel he is sitting in, so he does not have to leave the jewel he is sitting in in order to enter all of the others.
Question: You state that although someone who is sitting in one individual jewel enters all of the other jewels, he never leaves the jewel he is in. If he never leaves his jewel to enter any of the others, though, how can he enter all of the other jewels?
Answer: It is precisely because he does not leave the jewel he is in, that he can enter all of the others. If he had to leave the jewel he is in in order to enter all of the others, then he would not be able to enter all of the other jewels. Why is this? It is because there are no other jewels outside the one he is in.
Question: If there are no other jewels outside the one he is in, then the net is made of just one jewel. How then can it be said to consist of many jewels woven together?
Answer: It is because the net is made by starting with only one jewel, and then gradually adding more and more. Why is this? It is because the net can only be woven by starting with one jewel. If this jewel is discarded, the net cannot be woven.
Question: If there is only one jewel, how can the net be said to be woven?
Answer: Many jewels are woven together to make a net. This means that only one jewel exists. Why is this? The one is the mark of the whole, which is composed of many. If the one does not exist, then the whole cannot exist either. This is why the net is made of only one jewel. All enter this one. Think of it in this way.
Question: Although all the jewels in the ten directions excluding none enter an individual jewel in the south-western part of the net, there are jewels in the other parts of the net too. How then can the net be said to consist of only one jewel?
Answer: All of the jewels in the ten directions are one individual jewel in the south-west. Why is this? It is because one individual jewel in the south-western part of the net is all of the jewels in the ten directions. If you don’t believe that one individual jewel in the south-western part of the net is nothing other than all of the jewels in the ten directions, simply take some ink and make a mark on a jewel in the south-western part of the net. You will then see that all of the jewels in the ten directions have simultaneously become marked by ink. As all jewels in the ten directions can be seen to be marked by ink, we can see that all of the jewels in the ten directions are just one jewel. …
Think of this as a wondrous analogy for the different kinds of phenomena. … Jewels only interpenetrate one another through their reflections, their substances are different from one another. Phenomena are not actually like this, because they interpenetrate one another in their very substances.
‘Tranquillity and Insight Meditation in the Five Teachings of the Huayan’/Huayan wu jiao zhi-guan by Dushun, Taishō vol. 45 text 1867, ch.5, p.513a27–c10, trans. T.T.S. and D.S.
M.150 Treatise on the Golden Lion
In this treatise of the third Huayan patriarch, Fazang (643-712), all the phenomena of the world are compared to parts of a golden lion, all of which are made of the same malleable gold, being forms of it. The gold of the simile represents the radiant Buddha-nature. Here it is seen as an ever-mutable substance that is empty of fixed form but is the basis of all phenomena, it is in this sense an ‘emptiness’ that is full of countless possibilities. Phenomena interpenetrate each other, through deep inter-dependence, and are also in a sense identical with each other, as they are all forms of the Buddha-nature, the underlying noumenon or foundational principle of reality.
1. Understanding dependent arising
What we refer to as ‘gold’ has no inherent existence. When the condition of the skilled craftsman is present, the image of a lion arises. It only arises when this condition is present. Because of this, it is said to be dependently arisen.
2. Differentiating form and emptiness
What we refer to as a ‘lion’ has no characteristics. In fact, it consists only of gold. The lion does not exist without the substance of the gold. Because of this, the gold and the lion are said to be form and emptiness. Emptiness, though, has no characteristics. It is manifested by form. It does not restrict the existence of illusions. This is what is said to be form and emptiness.
3. A summary of the three natures585
The lion which attracts one’s interest is said to be imaginatively constructed. The lion which appears to exist is said to be other-dependent. The unchanging nature of the gold is said to be fully perfected.
4. Demonstrating that the lion has no characteristics
The lion is completely encompassed by the gold. No characteristic of the lion can be found apart from the gold. Because of this, the lion is said to have no characteristics.
5. Explaining the unarisen
If one sees things the way they are, then when the lion arises, one will see that it is only the gold which arises. There is nothing apart from the gold. Although the lion arises and ceases, there is no increase or decrease in the basic substance of the gold. Because of this, the lion is said to be unarisen.…
7. Mastering the ten profound questions
… 3. The gold and the lion are empty of characteristics. One or many can be freely created. Within them, causes and purposes are each different. Whether one or many, each remains in its own state. This is called the Door of the One and the Many Being Empty of Characteristics, Yet Being Different.
4. The lion’s limbs and the tips of its hairs are encompassed by the gold. They are pervaded by the lion’s eyes. Its eyes are its ears. Its ears are its nose. Its nose is its tongue. Its tongue is its body. They are all freely created without obstruction or hindrance. This is called the Door of the Unobstructed Nature of All Phenomena. …
7. The lion’s eyes, ears, and other organs, as well as each of its hairs, all have golden lions. The lions of each of its hairs simultaneously and instantly enter into a single hair. In each hair, there are countless lions, and yet they all enter into a single hair. In this way, there is layer upon layer, just like in the net of the King of the Gods. This is called the Door of the Realm of Indra’s Net. …
9. Attaining awakening
Awakening is both the path and awakening itself. When one sees the lion, one sees all conditioned phenomena, and even before they are destroyed, one sees that they are fundamentally calm. …
10. Entering nirvana
When one sees the lion and the gold, one sees that the characteristics of both are exhausted, and that the defilements do not arise. Beauty and ugliness appear, but one’s mind remains calm like the ocean. Conceptualisation is exhausted, and free from oppression. One is released from bondage and free from obstructions. One abandons forever the source of what is painful. This is what is called nirvana.
‘Treatise on the Golden Lion’/Jinshizizhang of Fazang, Taishō vol. 45, text 1880, pp.663c10–666c24, trans. D.S.
The three types of wisdom
The perfection of wisdom is developed through three stages: wisdom through learning, wisdom through reflective contemplation, and wisdom through meditative development (cf. *Th.143).
V.71 Wisdom through learning
Wisdom through learning comes from listening to the words of the Dharma spoken by your teacher and understanding their meaning.
‘The Words of My Perfect Teacher’, pp.409–10, trans. T.A.
V.72 Wisdom through contemplation
Wisdom through contemplation comes from not resting satisfied with just understanding the words of the teaching but processing it mentally and establishing its meaning through reflection and inquiry, (if necessary) asking questions about points not understood. You must not rest content with a mere intellectual understanding but should scrutinize the meaning thoroughly in order to make sure that when the times come for you to go on a solitary retreat, you will be able to practise it independently, without having to ask someone else about the main points.
‘The Words of My Perfect Teacher’, p.410, trans. T.A.
V.73 Wisdom through meditation
Wisdom through meditation comes from experiential cultivation of what has been understood and gaining incontrovertible personal realization of the actual nature of reality. It means coming to an internal resolution, release from the bonds of existence and non-existence and witnessing ultimate reality directly, face to face. Having eliminated the (attachment to the ideas of the) two extremes through learning and contemplation, when you experience (the nature of reality) through meditation, you see all external objects perceived by the five senses as immaterial, empty forms, according to the eight similes of illusion: 586
While not existing, they are experienced in deluded perception, like a dream. Through the dependent arising of different causes and conditions, they appear incidentally, like an enchantment. They appear to be existent whereas they are not, like an optical illusion. They do not truly exist as they look, like a mirage. They appear while not being either outside or inside, like an echo. Without any (material) support or anything supported, they are like a city in the sky. Appearing but without any inherent existence, they are like images in a mirror. Appearing as all kinds of visions and hallucinations, they are like an apparitional city.
Once you have understood external appearances to be deceptive, you turn your attention towards the perceiver and examine the nature of the mind. In this way, although appearances continue to arise in the mind, there is no more conceptual fixation on objects. You have arrived at realization of the actual nature of things – empty and luminous as the sky.
This is the perfection of wisdom.
‘The Words of My Perfect Teacher’, pp.410–11, trans. T.A.
V.74 Meditation on the aspects of dependent arising
The passage below from Gampopa’s ‘The Jewel Ornament of Liberation’ presents a set of meditations on dependent arising as the antidote for delusion. They involve going through the twelve links of dependent arising (see heading above *Th.156) first in the forward order, and then reviewing them in the backward order. This is the very method by which the Buddha himself attained awakening and liberation from saṃsāra (Udāna 1).
If you are dominated by delusion, then meditate on dependent arising587 as its antidote. The ‘Rice Seedling Sūtra’588 says: ‘The monk who knows (the nature of) this rice seedling knows dependent arising. The one who knows dependent arising knows the Dharma. The one who knows the Dharma knows the Buddha.’589
There are two meditations: (1) on the forward order (of conditions), the dependent arising of saṃsāra and (2) on the backward order, the dependent arising of nirvana.
(1) The first one consists of two parts: (1.1) external dependent arising and (1.2) internal dependent arising. The latter consists of two: (1.2.1) the causal factors of internal dependent arising and (1.2.2) the supporting conditions of internal dependent arising.
(1.2.1) The causal factors of internal dependent arising. As it is said, ‘Monks, since this exists, that becomes. Because this arises, that also arises. It goes like this: Conditioned by (1) ignorance (misperception, unawareness), (2) volitional activities arise ... Conditioned by (11) birth, ageing and death arise – as well as sorrow, lamentation, pain, unhappiness and distress. That is how all this great bundle of suffering comes into being.’
The twelve links of dependent arising are presented in terms of the realm of sensual desire590 and in terms of birth from a womb.
1. At the very first, there is ‘ignorance’, which is delusion about what is to be known.
2. Ignorance motivates volitional activities with intoxicating inclinations, which can be wholesome, unwholesome or invariant.591 Thus, ‘conditioned by ignorance, volitional activities arise.’
3. The mind carrying that seed of action is the ‘consciousness’ conditioned by volitional activities.
4. By the force of action, the mind falls into error. Then it gets conceived in a mother’s womb, and turns into a creamy mass and so forth.592 That is ‘mind and body’ conditioned by consciousness.
5. As that mind and body develops, the eyes and ears and the rest of the senses become complete. Those are the ‘six sense-bases’ conditioned by mind and body.
6. The meeting and interaction of the eye and other senses with their respective objects and the consciousness is sensory contact conditioned by the six sense-bases.
7. As sensory contact arises, feeling occurs, which is experienced as pleasure, pain or indifference.
8. That is ‘feeling’ conditioned by sensory contact.
9. Enjoyment of the feeling experienced, as well as attachment and clinging to it is ‘craving’ conditioned by feeling.
10. Not letting go of the object of attachment, not wishing to be separated from it but striving for it repeatedly is ‘grasping’ conditioned by craving.
11. Striving in this way through body, speech and mind, action leading to another rebirth is activated. That is ‘way of being’ conditioned by grasping.
12. The manifestation of those five categories of existence which are born from that action is ‘birth’ conditioned by way of being. The development and maturation of the categories of existence which are manifested from birth is ‘aging’, and their destruction is ‘death’, both being conditioned by birth. ‘Sorrow’ is the internal torment associated with clinging and attachment due to delusion at the time of death. ‘Lamentation’ is a verbal expression arising from sorrow. ‘Pain’ is any unpleasant feeling related to the five types of consciousness (related to the bodily senses). ‘Unhappiness’ is mental pain related to mental activity. Finally, ‘distress’ refers to all the rest of the subsidiary afflictions of that kind.
The twelve links can be divided into three groups. The threefold ignorance, craving and grasping comprise defilement. Volitional activities and way of being – these two are action. Consciousness and the remaining six links are the painful. This is what is also said in the ‘Middle Way Dependent Arising’ (by Nāgārjuna593): ‘What has been described by the sage (Buddha) as the twelve links of dependent arising can be divided into three groups: defilement, action and the painful (results of defilement and action). They are all included in these three. The first, eighth, and ninth are defilement, the second and tenth are action, and the remaining seven are the painful.’
Furthermore, to provide examples:594 ignorance is like one who plants the seed, action is like the field, consciousness is like the seed, craving is like moisture, mind and body are like shoots. The rest are like branches, leaves and so forth.
If ignorance did not arise, there would be no volitional activities either. Likewise, if there was no birth, neither would there be ageing and death. However, since there is ignorance, volitional activities manifest; and inasmuch as there is birth, so ageing and death also come about. Thus, all the twelve links depend on each other.
Moreover, ignorance does not think: ‘I will create volitional activities’, neither do volitional activities think: ‘We are created by ignorance.’ Likewise, birth does not think: ‘I am going to bring about ageing and death’, and ageing and death do not think, ‘We were created by birth.’ However, when there is ignorance, volitional activities do manifest and occur; and likewise when there is birth, then ageing and death also do manifest and take place. Internal dependent arising should thus be regarded as a sequence of conditions.
(1.2.2) Supporting conditions of internal dependent arising. Moreover, internal dependent arising is also supported by conditions, because the body-mind is comprised of six elements: earth, water, fire, wind, space, and consciousness. That which forms the solidity of the body is called the earth element. That which causes the body to cohere is the water element. That which digests all food and drink is the fire element. That which causes the inhalation and exhalation of breath is the wind element. The interior cavity of the body is called the space element. Lastly, the five kinds of sensory consciousness and mind-consciousness having intoxicating inclinations comprise what is called the consciousness element. The six elements do not think: ‘I form the solidity – and so forth – of the body.’ The body also does not think, ‘I was created by these conditions.’ Yet, when these conditions are present, they give rise to the body.
Furthermore, how many lifetimes does it take to complete the twelve links of dependent arising? The ‘Noble Ten Stages Sūtra’ says: ‘Volitional activities conditioned by ignorance’ – this refers to the past. Consciousness through to feeling take place in the present life. Craving and so forth through to way of being are related to the future. Then it just goes on and on.’
(2) The dependent arising of (the experience of) nirvana in reverse order. When one realizes the actual nature (dharmatā) of all phenomena as emptiness, then ignorance ceases. When that ceases, everything respectively ceases until ageing and death. As the Buddha said, ‘When ignorance ceases, then volitional activities cease, and so forth. When birth ceases, then ageing, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, unhappiness, and distress all cease. Thus all this great bundle of suffering ceases.’
‘The Jewel Ornament of Liberation’, pp.257–62, trans. T.A.
Insight into the lack of identity: non-selfness
In the Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna it is said that one needs to realize the twofold lack of identity (or lack of self-essence): of both persons and other phenomena. They cannot be found as unitary, independent entities. It is said that our ordinary sense of having a self is merely an imputation upon, and a misinterpretation of, the impermanent flux of the five categories of existence – physical form, feeling, and so forth. Thus one needs to realize that persons lack a findable identity. In addition, it is said that one also needs to realize that the impermanent flux of the phenomena of the five categories of existence also lack such identity. If one analyses these phenomena, they also cannot be found as unitary, findable entities with their own identity. Thus, it is said that both persons and the phenomena of the five categories lack identity.
V.75 Meditation on the lack of personal identity, or self-essence
The next two passages introducing meditation on the lack of identity are extracted from the seventeenth chapter of Gampopa’s ‘The Jewel Ornamentation of Liberation’, which deals with the perfection of wisdom. The first passage refutes the idea of a permanent personal identity, which is the cause of every mental defilement. The arguments deployed in the passage derive from the works of Nāgārjuna, the founder of the Madhyamaka philosophical school.595
Every ‘thing’ or apprehension of a thing is included in two ‘identities’, and both of those ‘identities’ are empty of inherent existence. So what are these two identities? They are ‘personal identity’ and ‘phenomenal identity’.
And what is a ‘personal identity’? It can be defined in several ways, but actually a ‘person’ is a continuum of the grasped-at categories of existence 596 having awareness. The ‘Fragment Sūtra’ says: ‘This continuum is called a “person”.’ To apprehend this ‘person’ as something permanent and unitary (which it is not), and then to identify with it and cling to it – this is what is called (having the idea of) a ‘personal identity’. (The idea of) this (false) identity then gives rise to defilement. Defilement in turn engenders action and action brings about suffering. Thus all suffering and every trouble is rooted in that (false sense of) identity. That is also what the Commentary says: ‘Once there is oneself, there are also others and then, based on liking oneself and disliking others, one gets involved in relationships, which ends up causing a lot of trouble.’597
Now, what is ‘phenomenal identity’? A ‘phenomenon’ is either an external, apprehended object or an internal, apprehending mind. Why are they called ‘phenomena (dharmas)’? Because ‘they hold their own characteristics’. The ‘Fragment Sūtra’ also says: ‘That which holds its own characteristics is called a ‘phenomenon’.598 Thus, to apprehend both object and subject as something, and to cling to them – this is what is called (having the idea of) ‘phenomenal identity’.599
Now, in order to explain why both identities are empty of inherent existence, first I shall refute (the inherent existence of) a personal identity. As Master Nāgārjuna says in his Precious Garland, ‘To say that “I” and “mine” exist is ultimately wrong’ (RV 28a). 600 This means that such a personal identity is ultimately not attested. If such an identity – the ‘I’ – were ultimately attested to exist truly, then it should also exist at the time of seeing the truth. Since, however, there is no such identity at the time of seeing the truth, it is not attested. The ‘Precious Garland’ also says: ‘Because as one fully understands things the way they are, neither of them arises’ (RV 28b). To ‘understand things the way they are’ means to see the truth. ‘Neither of them arises’ means that no apprehension of ‘I’ or ‘mine’ arises.
Furthermore, if such an identity existed, then it should be produced either from itself, or something else, or both, or from (anything in) the three times. Let us investigate this!
It cannot be produced from itself, because either it already exists or it does not. If it does not already exist, then it cannot be a cause. If it does already exist, then it cannot be its own result. Thus there is a contradiction in an identity producing itself.
It also cannot be produced from something else because that cannot be a cause. How is that? A ‘cause’ depends on a ‘result’. As long as there is no result, there cannot be a cause. When there is no cause, then no result can be produced, just as seen before. It also cannot be produced from both itself and something else, because both positions are problematic, as we have just shown.601
It also cannot arise from (anything in) the three times. It cannot arise from the past because the past is like a rotten seed, its potency exhausted. It cannot arise from the future because then it would be just as non-existent as the child of a barren woman. It also cannot arise from the present because the assistant (cause) and the assisted (result) cannot exist together. Therefore, the ‘Precious Garland’ says: ‘Since it cannot arise from itself, or from other, or from both, or from (anything in) the three times, grasping at a self is ended’ (RV 37).
Or, it can also be understood in the following way: Investigate whether your (personal) ‘identity’ exists in your body, in your mind, or in your name. This body is composed of the four elements. The solidity of the body is earth, its moisture is water, its heat is fire, and its breath and motility are wind. Therefore, there is no (personal) identity among these four elements, just as there is no such identity amongst the four external elements: earth, water, and so forth.
Do you think that such an identity exists in your mind? Well, the mind is nowhere to be found, since it cannot be seen by either yourself or others.602 If even your mind cannot be found, how could a personal identity exist in it?
Do you think that your identity exists in your name? Well, your name is just a spurious designation, it is nothing substantial, and has nothing to do with your identity. Thus we have presented three logical arguments to show that a personal identity does not exist.
‘The Jewel Ornament of Liberation’, pp.275–78, trans. T.A.
V.76 Meditation on emptiness or the lack of phenomenal identity
The meditation on the absence of a ‘phenomenal identity’ begins with a critique of the idea that there is a material reality composed of indivisible atomic particles. This leads to the conclusion that the outside world is a mental projection – the philosophical position of the Citta-mātra (‘Mind-only’) school (cf. *M.142–43). It then moves on to a Madhyamaka critique of the idea that ‘mind’ as a concrete, observable entity exists. The point of these arguments is to establish a ‘middle way’ understanding of emptiness as the absence of fixed and solid identities.
The refutation of a phenomenal identity consists of two parts: (1) Showing that external, apprehended objects lack (substantial, or inherent) existence (2) Showing that the internal, apprehending mind lacks (such an) existence.
1. The lack of (substantial) existence of external apprehended objects. Some (Buddhist schools) assert external, apprehended objects to be substantially existent. According to the Vaibhāṣikas,603 there is a fundamental particle, globular and partless, which is a substance. Visible objects – and so forth – are agglomerations of such particles. The individual particles surround each other with intervals, and presently seem to be in one piece, like a yak-tail or a green meadow. They do not fall apart but are held together by the actions (karma) of sentient beings. According to the Sautrāntikas,604 the particles surround each other without intervals and stick together without actually touching. 605
Despite such assertions, there can be no such (material) substance. For is a particle unitary or is it multiple? If it is unitary, can it be divided into parts or not? If it can be divided into parts, then it segregates into six – eastern, western, southern, northern, upper, and lower – portions, which undermines the assertion that it is unitary. If a particle cannot be divided into parts, then everything would necessarily have to be included in one single particle – which also is obviously not the case. In this regard, the ‘Twenty Stanzas’ (by Vasubandhu) says, ‘If a single particle could have six aspects, then the smallest would consist of six parts. If all six were occupying the same place, then the whole mass would collapse into just one particle’.606
If you think that particles are multiple, consider the following: If one single particle were found to exist, then it might be possible to prove the existence of manifold agglomerations of single particles. But since such an entity has not been found, manifold agglomerations of them are also impossible. The smallest fundamental particle, therefore, is not substantially existent, so external objects composed of them cannot exist either.
So, if you think, ‘What is this world which appears and is present to my senses?’, it is nothing but your own mind, which mistakenly appears as an outside world. Since it appears like that to your own mind, it is an appearance.
How do we know that this is the case? It can be known through scripture, reasoning, and simile.
1. Scripture. The ‘Garland of Buddhas Sūtra’ says: ‘Oh, Sons of the Victorious One! The three realms are only mind.’ Also, the ‘Descent into Laṅkā’ says: ‘The mind stirred up by latencies appears as a world of external objects. It isn’t real though, but is the mind itself; the external world is a mistaken vision.’
2. Reasoning. The thesis is that the external world is the appearance of a confused mind. The reason is that whatever appears and is present (to the senses) lacks (substantial) existence – like a man’s horn or a tree visualized in meditation. Likewise, because things do not appear as they really are; because these appearances change through the force of conditions; because they come and go by the power of imagination; and because there are different appearances for the six types of beings, the external world is just an appearance of a confused mind.
3. Simile. It is like a dream, an illusion, and so forth. Thus we have shown that external, apprehended objects are non-existent.
2. The lack of existence of an internal, apprehending mind. Certain Buddhists – solitary-buddhas and proponents of the Mind-only School (Cittamātrins) – assert that the mind exists as something that is aware of itself, something that illuminates itself. Despite such claims, there are three reasons which prove that such mind does not really exist:607 (1) when the mind is analysed into moments, it is found not to exist. (2) Since the mind is imperceptible, it does not actually exist, (3) Since there are no objects (for it to know), no mind can exist.
1. Momentary analysis. Does this mind that is allegedly aware of itself and which is supposed to illuminate itself exist for one moment or for several moments?608 If it exists for one moment, then does it have any past, present and future aspects or not? If it does, then it cannot be for just one moment, but rather, it has to be several. That is also what the ‘Precious Garland’ says: ‘Just as a moment has an end, likewise, it has a beginning and middle as well. Since a single moment is thus analysed into three, the world does not exist for (even) one single moment’ (RV 69). If the moment does not have any past, present and future aspects, then it cannot exist at all. Therefore, since no single moment exists, the mind cannot exist either.
If you think that the mind can exist for several moments, then consider this: If a single moment existed, then from the accumulation of single moments several moments might also come to existence. But, since a single moment does not exist, neither can exist several moments from their accumulation. Since there are no several moments of mind, the mind cannot exist (as a linear temporal sequence).609
2. The mind is imperceptible. Search for this so-called ‘mind’! Does it abide outside the body, within the body, or somewhere in between? Is it somewhere up or down? Investigate whether it has any shape or colour. Search until you reach conviction, and search according to the oral instructions of your teacher, shifting the order of observations and so forth. If no matter how you search for it you cannot find it, it is because there is nothing to see; it has no colour or any concrete characteristics at all. It is not that you cannot find something that (nevertheless) exists. The seeker that is searching for itself – that is the one that does the searching – is beyond the domain of the intellect; beyond anything that can be expressed or thought of. 610 That is why it cannot be found, however you search for it. As the ‘Kāśyapa Request Sūtra’ says: ‘Kāśyapa, the mind cannot be found either inside or outside, or in between. Kāśyapa, the mind cannot be analysed, indicated or discovered. It is invisible, imperceptible, and nowhere to be found. Kāśyapa, the mind has not been seen, is not seen, and will not be seen even by any of the Buddhas.’
Also, the ‘Apprehending the True Dharma Sūtra’ says: ‘So, when you have fully recognized that the mind is a hollow dummy, do not think of it as essential, because it is empty of an essential core. Something that is empty of essence cannot (substantially) exist at all; everything is just a designation, its nature thus clearly revealed. Overcome the two extremes (belief that things have substantial existence, and belief that they are totally non-existent), if you can, and always remain in the middle. (Insight into) the emptiness of inherent existence of phenomena is the path to awakening, and thus have I taught it as well.’ The ‘Unwavering Dharmatā Sūtra’ also says: ‘All phenomena are inherently unborn, essentially non-abiding, free from all limitation of actions and deeds, beyond the domains of conceptuality and non-conceptuality.’
Therefore, since the mind has not been seen by anyone, it is meaningless to describe it as something that is aware of itself, illuminating itself. As it says in ‘Engaging in the Conduct for Awakening’, ‘If no-one has ever seen the mind, then it is meaningless to discuss whether it is luminous (prabhāsvara611) or not. It is like discussing the beauty of a barren women’s daughter’ (BCA IX.22). Moreover, as Tilopa says: ‘Behold self-knowing wisdom! It is beyond the ways of speech, not an object of mind’612.
3. Since there are no objects (for it to know), no mind can exist. As has been explained above, external objects, such as visible forms and so forth, do not exist. Therefore, an internal mind which apprehends them also cannot exist. The ‘Showing the Indivisible Nature of the Expanse of Phenomena Sūtra’ says: ‘Consider one by one whether the mind is blue, yellow, red, white, crimson, or the colour of crystal. Is it pure or impure? Can it be called permanent or impermanent? Does it have form or is it without form? The mind does not have any form, cannot be indicated, is invisible, is unobstructed, is imperceptible and does not abide within, without or in between the two, so it is completely pure and utterly without (inherent) existence. It does not need to be liberated because it is the nature of the expanse of phenomena.’ Also, ‘Engaging in the Conduct for Awakening’ says: ‘If there is nothing to know, then who knows? How can we even speak about knowing?’ (BCA IX.61). And ‘Since there is no object of knowledge present, there can be no knower either’ (BCA IX.62). Thus we have shown the internal, apprehending mind to be lacking (inherent) existence.
In this way, the apprehension of (phenomena) as things (bhāva) has been prevented. Now secondly, we are going to prevent their apprehension as ‘non-things’ (abhāva). If those two identities cannot be attested anywhere as anything whatsoever, then the question arises whether they are nothing at all. However, they cannot even be attested as ‘non-things’. Why not? If those two identities had been things (in the first place) and then became non-existent, then they could be called ‘non-things’. But since there never has inherently existed the phenomena called ‘two identities’, they are beyond the extremes of something and nothing. As Saraha613 has said, ‘Apprehending things, people act just like cattle; apprehending nothing, they are even more stupid.’ Also, the ‘Descent into Laṅkā Sūtra’ says: ‘The external world is neither something, nor nothing. The mind is also unapprehendible.
Complete abandonment of all conceptual views – that is the characteristic of the ‘unborn (nirvana).’ And, as the ‘Precious Garland’ says: ‘When no “something” has been found, then how could we find “nothing”?’ (RV 98).
‘The Jewel Ornament of Liberation’, pp.278–84, trans. T.A.