The Heart Sutra is the most recited, copied, and studied text in all schools of Mahayana Buddhism. It reviews the foundations of Buddhist philosophy while revealing the profound Perfection of Wisdom: the doctrine of emptiness. In this class series, we will study the Sutra in Sanskrit, discuss the key philosophical points of Buddhism, and reveal the deep teachings on emptiness. In this class, we examine the process of perception, and the 12 links of interdependent origination.
The Heart Sutra is the most recited, copied, and studied text in all schools of Mahayana Buddhism. It reviews the foundations of Buddhist philosophy while revealing the profound Perfection of Wisdom: the doctrine of emptiness. In this class series, we will study the Sutra in Sanskrit, discuss the key philosophical points of Buddhism, and reveal the deep teachings on emptiness. In part 3 we continue to explore Buddhist emptiness, and dive into the basic components of perception and consciousness.
The Heart Sutra is the most recited, copied, and studied text in all schools of Mahayana Buddhism. It reviews the foundations of Buddhist philosophy while revealing the profound Perfection of Wisdom: the doctrine of emptiness. In this class series, we will study the Sutra in Sanskrit, discuss the key philosophical points of Buddhism, and reveal the deep teachings on emptiness. In part 2 we look in detail at “emptiness”—what it means to say “empty of self-nature” and explore the famous line from the Heart Sutra: “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.”
The Heart Sutra is the most recited, copied, and studied text in all schools of Mahayana Buddhism. It reviews the foundations of Buddhist philosophy while revealing the profound Perfection of Wisdom: the doctrine of emptiness. In this class series, we will study the Sutra in Sanskrit, discuss the key philosophical points of Buddhism, and reveal the deep teachings on emptiness. In part 1 we introduce the text, recite it in Sanskrit, discuss the meaning of the title, set the stage, and introduce the main characters.
The Lotus Sūtra is a magical place, filled with wonders beyond conception. There are infinite bodhisattvas of various sorts, countless worlds illuminated by Buddha’s wisdom (Kubo and Yuyama 15), and a primordial Buddha materializing in a giant flying stūpa temple (Kubo and Yuyama 175), among other extraordinary occurrences. While the stated location for the teaching is Vulture Peak (Kubo and Yuyama 3)—a location here on Earth that tourists and pilgrims can visit—the setting may as well be another world from Jeta’s Grove in Anāthapiṇḍika’s Park where many of Buddha’s earlier discourses took place. The style and tone of The Lotus Sūtra differ from the texts preserved in the Pāli canon. While the historical Gautama Buddha continues to be a central figure, in The Lotus Sūtra he is accompanied by thousands if not millions of spiritual beings and magical creatures who do not appear so prominently in the Pāli canon (Kubo and Yuyama 3). The presence of these bodhisattvas, devas, and nāgas, is to occasion Buddha’s great revelation of the Mahāyāna teachings, the next level of his soteriological pedagogy.
The difference in literary style reflects a new stage of Buddhist development: while Buddha’s previous teachings were oriented towards the personal liberation and peace of nirvāṇa, The Lotus Sūtra is oriented to a vast interconnected web of sentience. Now the goal of the spiritual practitioner—called a bodhisattva— is to awaken to this reality and thus liberate infinite beings. Buddha knows that the inconceivably vast scope of the bodhisattva enterprise is a tough sell: the path of the arhat promises liberation from suffering in a blissful nirvāṇa, while the bodhisattva perpetually proliferates throughout the cosmos to intervene on others’ behalf in order to help them (Kubo and Yuyama 34). The former path promises that there is an end to all the hard work, learning, and asceticism, while the latter is an unending messianic project of rescuing infinite numbers of beings. Buddha is reluctant to broach the subject, knowing it will alienate many of his students, and indeed at the beginning of the text, several thousand arhats focused on individual nirvāṇa leave the stadium before the sermon begins (Kubo and Yuyama 30).
It is important to note that this new layer of doctrine is not intended to supplant the previous teachings. The bodhisattva path is not an alternative to or replacement for the practices of the arhat. Rather, the arhat path is a stage of development that, when realized, opens up the possibility for further development. Buddha does not begin his teaching career with the bodhisattva path because he realizes that many potential spiritual cultivators will be alarmed at the inconceivable scope of what is laid out before them and, paralyzed by trepidation, will never take the first steps (Kubo and Yuyama 65). The path to individual nirvāṇa (1) is laid out as an achievable goal with clear benefits—a kind of enlightenment in its own right—which inspires neophytes to engage enthusiastically with the rigors of Buddhist practice (Kubo and Yuyama 34). Having made sufficient progress, Buddha reveals to his students that this is only part of the story, and that unsurpassed complete enlightenment (2) requires the path of the bodhisattva (3) (Kubo and Yuyama 35). However, these paths do not have distinctly different destinations; instead, they are phases of development which are aspects of one path (4) to enlightenment (Kubo and Yuyama 46). Thus while The Lotus Sūtra seems to undermine other of Buddha’s teachings, its aim is instead to include and transcend the Foundational Paths (5) with the comprehensive cosmic scope of the Greater Path (6) (Kubo and Yuyama 99).
The Lotus Sūtra introduces this cosmic scope within the first few pages of the text: without a word, Buddha goes into deep meditation, emits a beam of light from his forehead, and makes visible countless beings in multiple realms and states of existence (Kubo and Yuyama 5). Many other Buddhist sūtras start with one of Buddha’s students asking a question to initiate a lecture or discussion, so this new occurrence is an unexpected change in Buddha’s teaching style. When confronted with this spectacle, Buddha’s students are dumbfounded, and the conversation begins among the disciples present. One amongst the multitudes recognizes the phenomenon: Mañjuśrī, the bodhisattva foremost in wisdom. Although we may understand Mañjuśrī as a historical person, he also “has closely attended and paid homage to innumerable Buddhas of the past” (Kubo and Yuyama 5), and he says that he had once seen a different Buddha emit an identical ray of light “in the past, more than innumerable, unthinkable, incalculable kalpas (7) ago” (Kubo and Yuyama 13). We begin to suspect that the events in The Lotus Sūtra are not happening merely in ordinary time and space. Indeed, Mañjuśrī is the embodiment of the Perfection of Wisdom, (8) and his recognition of the event is telling us that the ability to understand the referent of the following pages relies on having meditative realizations of emptiness. (9)
The audience—cleansed of “useless twigs and leaves,” since those who could not understand this new teaching had already left (Kubo and Yuyama 30)—is ready to study this most profound instruction. However, The Lotus Sūtra is exceedingly difficult to receive and understand (Kubo and Yuyama 76). The teachings are only given very rarely, with countless eons lapsing between, and always accompanied by a Buddha emitting a light-ray from his forehead (Kubo and Yuyama 13). It is revealed that all discursive teachings are situational, and do not reflect the highest truths about reality (Kubo and Yuyama 75). Buddha reminds his audience that his aim is not metaphysical or doctrinal, but soteriological: he speaks only for the purpose of inspiring and encouraging others to become free from suffering. Thus all of his spoken teachings are provisional, situational, and not one of them can be said to be definitive. The very idea of nirvāṇa was itself a provisional, and not an ultimate, teaching (Kubo and Yuyama 51). “[A]lthough [Buddha] is able to give the teaching of the Mahāyāna to all sentient beings, not all of them can accept it” because the vast scope is inconceivable to the discursive mind (Kubo and Yuyama 65). Now, with The Lotus Sūtra, Buddha is revealing the ultimate teaching. It is the sūtra which unifies all previous teachings and paths to express the most profound, direct path to enlightenment.
As Buddha has said, The Lotus Sūtra is difficult to access and comprehend. Perfection of Wisdom texts are well known for articulating the experience of emptiness as beyond words and language; emptiness is generally expressed in negations. While The Lotus Sūtra is not a prajñāpāramitā text per se, it is nonetheless coming from the inconceivable mind of the Buddha, in which the distinction between subject and object is removed, consciousness is without discursive contents, and all naming and labeling functions have ceased. It is this perspective that The Lotus Sūtra is teaching, thus the actual content of theLotus Sūtra is itself inconceivable. We are led to suspect that Buddha is using language and discourse to describe the Lotus Sūtra, while the true content of the Sūtra itself can only be perceived from a mind with the Perfection of Wisdom, since it is itself the experience of emptiness, the wonder of consciousness without content.
Indeed, the title of the text of The Lotus Sūtra does not explicitly state that the text is the actualLotus Sūtra. The full Sanskrit title of the text is Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra, which literally translates to Textbook (sūtra [Monier-Williams 1241]) on the White Lotus (puṇḍarīka [Monier-Williams 631]) of the True (sat/ sad [Monier-Williams 1134]) Nature (dharma [Monier-Williams 510]). The title is difficult to convey with precision in English, as some of these terms have a variety of possible interpretations and definitions. The word dharma, for instance, could be translated as doctrine, law, practice, phenomena, or ultimate reality; Buddhist scholars do not have a commonly accepted shared definition, so the word is often left untranslated. The translators Kubo and Yuyama translate the title as Scripture of the White Lotus of the Marvelous Law (Kubo and Yuyama xiii), yet there are a variety of issues with this interpretation: the word Marvelous does not appear in the original Sanskrit (it is their interpretation of sat which could mean true, beautiful, wise, venerable, or honest [Monier-Williams 1134]), and translating dharma as law adds a doctrinal connotation not supported by Buddha’s soteriological—not doctrinal—aims in teaching. Another crucial interpretation in translating the title is the term sūtra- puṇḍarīka; since the words are in a compound form, the nouns are left undeclined, so the relationship between the words is ambiguous; the words may be in a genitive relationship as translated by Kubo and Yuyama (Sutra of the White Lotus), or they may be in a locative relationship (Sutra on the White Lotus).
The function of the text of The Lotus Sūtra takes on a different meaning if we consider the possibility that the book is about the Lotus Sūtra, and not the content of the Lotus Sūtra. This is supported by The Lotus Sūtra itself: “Even the title of this Lotus Sūtra cannot be heard in incalculable lands. How much more is it unable to be seen, accepted, preserved, and recited!” (Kubo and Yuyama 211). Buddha states that the teaching is “… the Dharma that is beyond conception” (Kubo and Yuyama 45). This inconceivable understanding “…could not be expressed in words so I taught … through the power of skillful means” (Kubo and Yuyama 44). Skillful means (10) are provisional teachings useful only in the moment; now, Buddha says “[h]aving openly set aside skillful means, I will teach only the highest path to all the bodhisattvas ” (Kubo and Yuyama 45). “This Lotus Sūtra is the ultimate teaching of all the Tathāgatas, (11) the most profound among all the teachings, and conferred at the very end” (Kubo and Yuyama 212). This conveys that Buddha’s instructions are provisional and situational, and that the true Lotus Sūtra is an inconceivable experience; we can talk about the subject but never fully express it within the limitations imposed by language.
An example of this inconceivability is the way space and time functions in The Lotus Sūtra. The Dharma is simultaneously infrequent and omnipresent. On the one hand, we are told that the teaching of this Dharma is exceedingly rare, with vast stretches of time between the instances that a Buddha emerges into the world. “The Buddha has preserved it for a long time and he has not taught it indiscriminately. Now, for the first time, he teaches it” (Kubo and Yuyama 212). “The Bhagavat (12) is truly extraordinary and can only be seen once in an extremely long time. One hundred and eighty kalpas have passed away fruitlessly, and no Buddhas have appeared during this time” (Kubo and Yuyama 127). And yet Buddha is continually present: “immeasurable, limitless, hundreds of thousands of myriads of koṭis of nayutas of kalpas have passed since I actually attained Buddhahood” (Kubo and Yuyama 231). Buddha’s “lifespan is immeasurable and incalculable” (Kubo and Yuyama 233); Buddha “abide[s] forever without entering parinirvāṇa” (13) (Kubo and Yuyama 233). This apparent contradiction is again a skillful means; in this ultimate teaching Buddha clarifies “I am always here without extinction, through the power of skillful means, I manifest extinction and nonextinction” (Kubo and Yuyama 237) so that his students will not make the mistake of taking his presence for granted and lose the motivation to put the teachings into practice.
There are many images throughout the text to demonstrate that the true Lotus Sūtra is beyond the words on the page in the text of The Lotus Sutra. A story is told of one bodhisattva who maintained his practice of always being respectful to everyone he met, treating them with respect on account that each one would eventually become a Buddha; although he was reviled and mistreated throughout his life, he never gave up on his practice, and on his death bed the Lotus Sūtra was revealed to him: “twenty thousands of myriads of koṭis of verses of the Lotus Sūtra [were] expounded” (Kubo and Yuyama 277). This could not have been the words of the short text, but indicates the expansive and supernormal state of the true Lotus Sūtra. Another anecdote from The Lotus Sūtra describes Buddha extending “his wide and long tongue which reached upward” to the realm of the gods, while his body “emitted innumerable and immeasurable colored rays of light from all his pores and universally illuminated the worlds of the ten directions” (Kubo and Yuyama 283). This Buddha is a cosmic being with incredible attributes that he reveals only to disciples of faith; not merely the simple ascetic monk we meet in earlier sūtras.
The scene that opens the text is unprecedented: Buddha emits a ray of light from his forehead, that “illuminated all the eighteen thousand worlds in the east, down as far as the lowest hell, Avīci, and up as high as the Akaniṣṭa Heaven. All the sentient beings in those worlds … became visible from this world. The Buddhas in those worlds were also seen, and the Dharma they were teaching could be heard” (Kubo and Yuyama 5). This description of Buddha having “manifested the sign of great transcendent power” (Kubo and Yuyama 5) indicates an inconceivable experience: the beings present witness the interpenetration of countless parallel universes. They can see how all the worlds, and all the beings in all the worlds, are entirely interdependent, existing in a web of relationships in which every phenomena is interlinked with every other aspect. “Buddha has now emitted this light and has shown this marvel in order to cause all sentient beings to hear and understand the Dharma which in all the worlds is difficult to understand” (Kubo and Yuyama 13). Thus the true Lotus Sūtra is not spoken, rather it is “revealed” (Kubo and Yuyama 15) through Buddha’s non-linguistic phenomenal display.
Buddhas “appear in the world to manifest the wisdom and insight … to sentient beings” (Kubo and Yuyama 31). Giving lectures and personal advice is an important part of Buddha’s teaching, but so too is the manifestation of ultimate reality, which is beyond conception. The text cannot itself display the inconceivable—which must be directly experienced—but it can describe it as best as possible. Like a brochure enticing us to visit a tropical destination, we can try to imagine the locale, but we must actually travel there in order to experience the ideal climate and sandy beaches. So too The Lotus Sūtra describes how Buddhas and bodhisattvas experience awakened consciousness, yet for the reader to actually witness the lotus and savor its exquisite fragrance, we must ourself become a Buddha or bodhisattva.
Understanding and transmitting the sūtra depends on perceiving the emptiness of all phenomena, which allows penetrating the truth of how reality is functioning. “All things … are beyond all language. They are not produced, nor do they emerge, nor do they arise. They do not have any name or mark, and in reality they have no substance” (Kubo and Yuyama 202). Here we have more descriptions of how the true Lotus Sūtra is expressing a reality that is beyond ordinary conception and language. It states that ordinary objects “are immeasurable, limitless, without obstacles or obstructions. They exist only through dependent origination, arising through error” of perception (Kubo and Yuyama 202); our very ordinary-seeming world is—from the perspective of awakened consciousness—a kaleidoscopic multiplicity of interdependent phenomenon entirely unlimited by opinions, conceptions, and labels. As ordinary unenlightened beings, the world as we perceive it is flawed; only the non-conceptual illuminated awareness can perceive true reality, which is the origin of the true Lotus Sūtra.
Buddha’s skillful means is to ensure that his audience can understand and use the teachings he is providing which are emerging from his own extraordinary understanding. When he introduces this ultimate Dharma in the Lotus Sūtra, he is cautious to not teach it to those who are unprepared. “None of the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas may be capable of understanding it” (Kubo and Yuyama 23). “It is impossible to explain this Dharma; the powers of speech fail. No other sentient being is able to understand it, except for those bodhisattvas who, in their belief, are willing to understand” (Kubo and Yuyama 24). Even highly developed practitioners, “[t]hough they fully understood the meaning and could expound this Dharma … they still would not be able to know the wisdom of the Buddhas” (Kubo and Yuyama 25). Buddha is warning not to teach those not ready: it is not that they cannot understand or accept it, rather they have no experience so they do not understand what he is talking about, and the risk is that they would be alarmed and turn away from further Buddhist practice.
Buddha is always teaching all beings with skillful means, so everything we hear and experience is the dharma. Buddha “perceive[s] the faculties of sentient beings—whether they are sharp or dull, diligent or idle—[and] explains the teachings according to their capacities” (Kubo and Yuyama 102). Having received the inconceivable teaching through Buddha’s skillful means, we “nevertheless [do] not perceive the merit that [we] have obtained” (Kubo and Yuyama 102). For Buddha “there is no this or that. Nor do I have either love or hate;” Buddha has “no attachments and make[s] no distinctions,” hence he “always teach[es] the Dharma equally to all” (Kubo and Yuyama 106). Receiving Buddha’s teaching, and progressing along the single path of true Dharma, is inevitable:
Having heard his teaching, all of these beings are at peace in this world and are born into a good existence in the future. Through this they will receive peace of mind and be able to hear the teaching. Having already heard the teaching, they will become free from obstructions and be able to gradually enter the path to the Dharma according to their capacities.(Kubo and Yuyama 102)
Thus, all we do—everything we have done or ever will do—is the practice of Dharma. Whatever we experience leads to a higher rebirth. Buddha “arouse[s] in us the aspiration for omniscience,” however “we forgot, we did not know or understand” (Kubo and Yuyama 155). Having heard his teaching, all of these beings are at peace in this world and are born into a good existence in the future. We can look to the story of Ānanda, one of Buddha’s students, who, merely through rejoicing, suddenly recalled immeasurable Buddhas and the Dharma they taught “as if he had just heard of it today” (Kubo and Yuyama 161); in time, under the right conditions, any of us could—and will—unexpectedly have a flash of recollection, and suddenly leap forward in spiritual development. We have already received a prediction of enlightenment from Buddha, we merely forgot.
The purpose of The Lotus Sūtra then is to kindle our memory, inspire us with faith, and encourage us to keep going. According to the text, just hearing the title, or hearing about the existence of the ultimate realization of the true Lotus Sūtra is evidence of the certainty of our own final awakening to Buddhahood. Anyone who merely preserves the name of The Lotus Sūtra is under the protection of magical beings (Kubo and Yuyama 322). While there are many practices to cultivate along the way, ultimately we are already at the destination. The only thing missing is to pay attention to the universal truth of the Dharma, the emptiness that opens to the interdependence of all phenomena, the natural state of all things.
(1) There are actually two paths to the nirvāṇa of the arhat mentioned in the Lotus Sūtra: the path of the listeners—śrāvakayāna— and the path of the solitary awakened—pratyekabuddhayāna. (Kubo and Yuyama 32)
(2) Sanskrit: anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi
(3) Sanskrit: bodhisattvayāna, Bodhisattva Vehicle or Path
(4) Sanskrit: ekayāna — One Vehicle or Path
(5) Sanksrit: hineyāna, the Foundational Vehicle or Path, sometimes translated as Lesser or, by Kubo and Yuyama as Inferior.
(6) Sanskrit: mahāyāna, the Great Vehicle or Path, contrasted with hineyāna, the Foundational (or Inferior) Vehicle or Path.
(7) Sanskrit: kalpa, A long period of time, usually translated into English as “eon” or “age” (Buswell and Lopez 31105).
(8) Sanskrit: prajñāpāramitā, Perfection of Wisdom: the deepest understanding how the mind and the world it perceives are really working.
(9) Sanskrit: śūnyatā — Emptiness: the absence of independent self-nature to objects, phenomena, and beings.
(10) Sanskrit: upāya, Buddha is likened to a physician prescribing medicine: he provides the correct medicine in the appropriate dosage only to treat the specific ailment of the patient he’s presently working with.
(11) Sanskrit: tathāgata, literally “thus come one” or “thus gone one,” is an epithet for Buddha, and the term he used to self-identify after his enlightenment.
(12) Epithet for Buddha.
(13) The “final extinction” of the Buddha, when he supposedly goes into a permanent state of non-being.
Buswell Jr., Robert E. and Lopez Jr., Donald S. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014. Kindle Edition.
Kubo, Tsugunari and Yuyama, Akira: translators. The Lotus Sūtra: Translated from the Chinese of Kumārajiva. Moraga, California: BDK America, Inc., 2007. Print.
Monier-Williams, Monier. A Sanskrit-English Dictionary. London, England: Oxford University Press, 1899. Print.
I studied and practiced Daoism seriously for several years before I started studying Buddhism seriously. I did a one-year immersive (meaning I lived at a rural community with cultivators, teachers, and students, where we practiced and studied every day) training in classical Chinese medicine, Qigong and Taiji, Internal Alchemy, and Daoist meditation practices. Although I have since studied Indian yoga and Tibetan Buddhism as well, I have maintained my Daoist training and practices for over 15 years. While there are philosophical differences between these systems, personally I find no conflict between these systems: I think of them as symbolic frameworks for living well—each framework has internal consistency, and it’s best to not try to apply one framework to analyze another—but when contemplated deeply, and practiced in one’s own experience, they all provide fruitful insights.
I don’t think of it as something to “believe in” or not—I think of it as something to experience and discover. I found the concept of qi easy to grasp: the interconnected flow that interacts with and influences everything. A principle of Daoist medicine and Internal Alchemy is that the outer world and the inner world reflect one another, so we can learn about our inner world—our body, organs, mind, etc.—by studying the outer world. Specifically, the constant process of transformation, how the elements interact and influence one another, is part of the cosmos, the ecosystem, the community, and our own inner environment. While this is obviously complex to understand, the more one contemplates it, the better one is able to live in harmony with the world. Everything we eat—both foods and herbs—influence our organs according to predictable patterns. So I “believe” in it because it is observable, testable, predictable.
Chinese medicine is an officially recognized form of general care in many states, including California. While western science and medicine do not accept the psychosomatic relationships between organs and emotions, or the flow of qi through the meridians, Chinese medicine can respond by saying “those are metaphors that guide treatment.” Simply think of “qi” as circulation, and consider that healthy organs lead to wellbeing. Western doctors can accept that acupuncture, cupping, and moxibustion improve circulation and reduce pain—and maybe that’s enough for them. Western medicine does not understand nutrition as well as Chinese medicine does. And herbs can be very powerful for promoting wellness and prevention.
The core of the buddhist disciplines is putting it into practice. There are many approaches to buddhist philosophy and science: the eightfold path, the seven-step method for developing radical compassion, the six perfectionizers, the five yogic stages, the four noble truths, the three principal paths, the two collections, and developing single-pointed concentration, to name but a few. As many as there are approaches to practice, there are presented even more ways of discussing them: teaching, admonishing, and encouraging alike.
I’ve spent weeks parsing through the Platform Sutra, a text which cannot be apprehended with the intellect alone. Master Huineng has an unconventional approach of inventing creative new definitions for established buddhist terminology, and providing wildly heterodox explanations for his unique interpretations of classical buddhist teachings. He leaves his students in a state of shock and instability. Dumbfounded, the disciples are susceptible to the “direct teaching”: a method which overwhelms the intellect altogether and puts one in a state of nonconceptual awareness, thus experiencing a nondual state of consciousness.
Buddhist practices, whether they be gradual or direct (or neither), are intended to trigger this awestruck state of nondual, nonconceptual awareness. Major realizations however are not caused, rather they are cessations; not an acquisition of something, but a stopping of mistaken perspectives. With the Guanyin session, we’ve started to sample this process, and get a taste for subsuming the intellect in practice to realize a deeper fundamental state of mind.
One purpose of ritual is to overwhelm the senses and wear down the conceptual mind’s need to grasp and order the outside world. In the Buddha Hall, we are overwhelmed with bright lights and thousands of golden Buddha images. In the ceremony, repeated twice each day, we rhythmically chant fantastical stories of the enlightened beings’ capacity to save suffering creatures from torment. We beg them to rescue us, and chant their powerful names until we lose track of ordinary time and space.
Of course, the Buddhas cannot really save us; they can only teach us how to save ourselves. Thus we practice the techniques taught to us: keeping a commitment to morality, a willingness to help others, an urgency to drop confusion and affliction, the desire for higher knowledge and wisdom, and–crucially–to trigger nonconceptual, nondual awareness. This final step is the main event, for which all the other practices and teachings can merely provide support. The ceremonies and meditations only function when the heart is consumed with love and compassion for others, and the mind is open to extraordinary possibilities for consciousness.
This is why we enter the Buddha Hall each day and chant the sadhanas and mantras. We deepen our resolve, demonstrate our commitment (primarily to our own selves), strengthen our capacity for altruism, and release our attachment to our personal comfort and self-importance. It is only under these conditions, in this crucible, that we can be open to powerful states of personal growth and transformation along the path of the Bodhisattva Buddhas’ ideal.
The Direct Teaching described by Master Huìnéng (638–713 c.e.), the founder of Zen, is at once immediate and elusive. In his teachings, compiled in the Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra (citations below refer to page numbers in this text), he describes his realization of the Original Mind in ways that are simple and profound: he begins his teaching by telling his students to simply attend to the purity of their own nature (7). Yet this recognition of the fundamental purity of mind cannot be attained, achieved, or worked towards. There is no direct nor gradual teaching (47), and relying on will or intellect is a mistake (25). These apparent paradoxes are pointing at a greater, all-encompassing truth, and this approach to awakening is perhaps no better articulated than in his statement “ordinary people are themselves Buddha, and affliction is itself Bodhi”. What a conundrum! Certainly ordinary people don’t experience themselves as Buddha, nor do they experience tumultuous emotions as the awakened mind (bodhi बोधि). This warrants further investigation.
Mental affliction (kleśa, क्लेश in the Sanskrit language) is described as anything that disturbs a person’s perfect peace of mind: not a perfect unmoving stillness, but rather the ability for the mind to be “everywhere engaged but nowhere attached” (32). Being free of kleśa does not necessarily preclude the existence of thoughts and feelings. Instead, one’s personal sense of peace is undisturbed by whatever passes through the contents of consciousness. Indeed, Master Huìnéng describes quite pointedly that the blissful realm of the Buddhas is no further away than our own immediate experience: “A person’s own physical body is the city of the Pure Land,” he tells us, “the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and tactile sense are its gates.” In addition he describes the “inner gate, the gate of consciousness.” (41) So indeed the experience of awakening to Buddhahood is imminent, to be found in one’s own sensuous and intellectual experiences.
The mind is interpreting the senses, compiling and labeling the incoming raw data to create the narrative of experience. This process takes a split second, so the mind—one’s own self-consciousness—is continually a moment behind actual reality. In that moment the present becomes the past. The mind is continually trying to keep up with the present moment as sense data becomes memory, and thus the story of one’s life unfolds.
In the buddhist understanding of perception, this process is occurring mostly in the eighteen dhātu (धातु): the sense organs (eyes, ears, olfactory nerves in the sinus cavities, tongue, and peripheral nervous system), the sense objects (light and color, vibrations through a fluid, vapors or particulate chemicals, chemicals in solids or liquids, and physical vibrations on or near the body), and the sense consciousnesses that mediate between the two. Buddhist physiology includes an additional sixth sense: consciousness or the mental sense, which perceives mental objects, such as thoughts and feelings, distinct from the other five senses. The mind (itself an elusive concept) then collects all this sense data from the sense consciousnesses, classifies it as pleasant or unpleasant, and applies labels and names to create a narrative for the ego to ride along. The sense data is essentially neutral; it’s the interpretation that creates thoughts and feelings which are upsetting, whether pleasantly or unpleasantly so. Perturbing experiences are actually purely mental.
According to evolutionary biology, emotions developed over time as mammal nervous systems became more sophisticated, communities began to form, and interactions with the environment became more complex. When creatures from the sea made their way onto land their range of vision increased by virtue of the fact that light can travel much further through air than through water. For the first time creatures could see predators and other dangers long before they encountered them, and this created an opportunity to evaluate options and consider how to react.
Disgust and fear were the first emotions to develop. Disgust is a primitive emotion to help an organism avoid substances which would be toxic if consumed. Fear is clearly a reaction to potentially dangerous situations which triggers enhanced senses and faster reflexes, but today is activated by perceived threats such as information coming from the news media. Pride, in which puffing up the chest increases lung capacity and makes one look larger to a potential opponent, has evolved to relate to conveying social status and is generally considered to be a positive emotion, while contempt is a later evolutionary development specifically for primate alphas conveying social status to boisterous and competitive youngsters. The point here is that emotions are physiological reactions to stimulus which have changed in function as animals have formed complex social structures. Disgust is rarely biologically required to prevent one from drinking contaminated water or eating putrified food but is still useful for conveying to another person when they exhibit behavior which is socially unacceptable. Indeed, perhaps many emotions could be interpreted very differently today than when they were strictly necessary for survival. (See Paul Ekman’s research on emotion for more information on this topic.)
Relating the above to Master Huìnéng’s assertion, it seems plausible that the reaction to stimulus could be altered, or the imposed narrative dropped altogether. Master Huìnéng alludes to this process of reinterpreting the afflicted mental states into the pure mind of a Buddha when he describes a method of practice: “transform the three poisons [greed, hatred, and delusion] into morality, contemplative calm, and insight” (27). He states that a person could live a life of happiness, and that bliss is imminently accessible: “Ordinary deluded people do not realize that the Pure Land is within themselves” (39).
The Pure Land he is referencing is the abode of a specific perfected being, a Buddha named Amitabha. This enlightened being is part of a matrix of Buddhas of transformation, collectively known as the Buddha Families. They’re called families because they include the collection of beings who share a particular mental affliction in common (though of course all unenlightened beings experience all the afflicted states at some time or another).
There are many correspondences to each of the Buddha families such as, in Amitabha’s case, an affinity for the Western direction, the sense of taste, the color red (representing passion and bliss), and so on. Each describes a mentally afflicted state as well as an associated quality of the enlightened mind: these Buddhas are telling us that once the deluded narrative is dropped, the energy of the afflicted state is a quality of the enlightened mind.
Amitabha is specifically oriented with ignorant desire, also called lust or greed; the deep-seated sense that we can somehow resolve suffering by acquiring enough stuff or just the right thing, that the source of one’s happiness is an intrinsic component of the object of desire. If the story is dropped, the resulting awareness is discrimination: the capacity to assess and evaluate this or that, to recognize clearly the qualities of different objects, not as objects with intrinsically desirable qualities but for what they truly are: the subject-object-perceptual relationship of the eighteen dhātu.
Amitabha has four other colleagues: Akshobya, Ratnakara, Amoghasiddhi, and Vairochana. Each is connected with an afflicted, ignorant emotional state: respectively anger, pride, jealousy, and delusion itself. Each is the epitome of the alternative enlightened state of mind: clear reflective wisdom, equanimity, accomplishment, and understanding of metaphysical reality itself. The promise of each of these Buddhas is that the very thing we call the mental affliction can be ridden, surfed like a wave, into its resultant enlightened state of mind.
Let’s look briefly at the other four Buddha Families.
Anger, which was evolutionarily developed to give an animal the power and focus to overcome an obstacle, has at its root the awesome power of clarity. This clarity in the enlightened state is a deep understanding of interdependence. No singular phenomena exists without all of the causes and conditions of the entire universe. Ignorance is thinking “I’m right and you’re an idiot,” while the Buddha Akshobya guides people to recognize how all phenomena are connected.
Pride is the afflicted state of thinking one is special, that one’s unique gifts make one superior to others. The awakened quality of the Buddha Ratnakara is equanimity. All beings are fundamentally equal: all share in the riches of the Buddha Nature, and have the same capacity to be awake in this very moment.
Jealousy or envy is the sister affliction of pride, when one has ill will towards others, wishing their personality, possessions, or relationships to be one’s own. One actually has to see the positive qualities in another person to be jealous of them, but with a little humility one can instead have admiration and respect. An interesting characteristic of envy is that this could allow someone to see the previously envied one as a teacher, which in the appropriate context could lead to a relationship with them as a Spiritual Advisor. Buddha Amoghasiddhi embodies the enlightened quality of accomplishment: seeing that the work is already done, that Buddhahood is imminent and ever-present, that the good qualities we see in others are in fact good qualities we all share together.
In a way, the final mental affliction of ignorance itself encompasses the other four. Delusion, after all, is the basis for all other mental afflictions. As Master Huìnéng points out, “In one past moment of confused thought you are just an ordinary person. If the very next thought is awakened, you are a Buddha.” (27) Vairochana’s name translates into English as “appearances,” and indeed reality contains the phenomena-show of all appearances and experiences. However, ignorance leads beings to perceive the apparent world as full of dangers and delights, overlooking the fundamental equanimity of all beings, the infallibility of interdependence. Ignorance is, quite simply, misperceiving how the world is working, and the enlightened quality is clarity into how things really are. So we have another dhātu, a different way that the eighteen dhātu of sense perceptions can function: dharmadhātu, the enlightened quality of Buddha Vairochana, the realm of reality, the sphere of Truth, the infinite play of interdependence, perception of the container of the universe and everything within it.
Thus, mental afflictions do not need to be eradicated, as they are a part of Buddhahood. The energy of mental afflictions is the same energy of Awakening, simply with a change of perspective and perception. Buddha Nature is already present, it is just obscured by misunderstanding. There is no real difference between an ignorant person and an awakened person; an awakened person is simply aware of what’s actually happening, instead of being caught up in her narrative and story around it. We would already be awake; it is merely because of the mental afflictions that we are asleep.
When Master Huìnéng gives the apparently paradoxical instruction that “ordinary people are themselves Buddha, and affliction is itself Bodhi,” he is speaking to a simple truth: if we drop the story we tell ourselves about our thoughts and feelings, we can ride those very same energies to Awakening. There is no difference between ignorance and awakening; just pay attention to what is.
I feel yet again that I’m finally starting to understand how to do spit ritual practice. The various varied teachings I’ve received over the many years, the various teachers who have attempted to guide me, none of that can be said to be superfluous, although clarity has not been a result of all my studies.
In Geluk Buddhism, the latest of four schools of Buddhism to develop in Tibet, an ancient yogi by the name of Naropa is highly revered. The crux of Naropa’s story is that he was a well educated and extraordinarily gifted scholar of spirituality, and at the hight of his career as a high-ranking administrator of the world’s greatest university, he realized that he didn’t understand any of his decades of academic research and debate. In spite of his talent, discipline, and ability to out-smart everyone, he hadn’t developed any of the profound transformative insights into the nature of consciousness and reality that he (and all spiritual practitioners) expect to develop when they dedicate their entire lives to practice.
So he leaves the university without warning to his colleagues, and seeks out a mysterious Guru who has the ability to illuminate his understanding. Most of his story is a series of misadventures in which he misses seeing his superhuman Guru right in front of him because of his selfishness in his haste to find his Guru. Naropa’s despair grows and grows, and increasingly he believes he’s on a fool’s errand, and that not only will he not find his guru, his faith in all the teachings he had mastered is shaken. Eventually Naropa gives up altogether and takes a razor to his wrist to end his life. It’s at this point that the Guru Naropa had been desperately seeking wanders up and says blandly, “Now why would you go and try to kill a Buddha?”
Naropa had reached a point where life just wasn’t worth living without a deep and meaningful connection between himself and the cosmos. His education, skill, resources, and even a few superpowers he had developed along the way were all useless to him; just more possessions that will vanish at his death. In Buddhist terminology, this is called renunciation; the recognition that all the material world could possibly offer is of no value without the spiritual insights to give life true meaning.
It was only with renunciation that Naropa’s Guru could really help him. Up until that point, Naropa was struggling to reach material goals, not spiritual ones, regardless of what he thought of himself as a high practitioner.
Naropa was a historical person, and much of his heiography is based in fact, to whatever degree that’s possible when viewing history. Nowadays it’s not so simple to be a spiritual seeker like Naropa was. The modern cultural lust for scientific materialism disables most everyone from having the kind of faith that Naropa had; every last thing must be quantifiable and observed before given any credence of truth. Personal experience is secondary (at best) to that which is observed, measured, and documented.
In Naropa’s time, the purpose of university was to pursue deep truths, and people of all cultures and religious faiths would debate existential philosophy until everyone had found a satisfactory resolution. Today, fundamentalism is the norm, and philosophical worldviews compete in a marketplace to recruit members (hopefully paying ones). This is just as true for science and BestBuy as it is for Scientology and Buddhism.
Seekers can dabble endlessly with spiritualized entertainment, channel surfing gurus and practices, flipping to a new one when the current one gets uncomfortable or worse: boring. It’s quite a simple thing to adopt the dress and mannerisms of a spiritual person – there’s no shortage of shops to sell you special clothes and ritual implements. One can get quite a mighty self identity as a spiritual person – and of course that mighty self identity is precisely the problem your Guru will help you to resolve.
When Naropa finally does meet his Guru, the man blows him off repeatedly, and Naropa makes increasingly harrowing attempts to gain his teacher’s fortune, such as crashing a wedding to steal booze. With each screw up (often including brutal injuries to himself), the nature of existential reality – and his Guru – is revealed to Naropa in some subtle way. Naropa heals, now with greater faith, and he carries on.
Nowadays and back then, spiritual teachers had to face a mine field of potential psychological problems in their students. There are more screwed up ways of thinking than there are thinkers to think them. We have the luxury reinventing ourselves repeatedly, with new and exciting neurosis to nurture. And the Guru’s job is to reveal to you how your mind is creating all of your problems, out of thin air, using the power of thought and language. This will necessarily be a painful process, as the stupid dim-witted selfish self we believe in fully is ripped away by some guy in weird clothes when you went to his workshop as he passed through town, and you thought “maybe this is the path that will really help me”.
But there’s no getting process for spiritual teachers, no way at all to determine if they are qualified to guide you, or dedicated to their students, or have time for your bullshit. No way to know if they are illuminated and trying to save the world, or if they are just trying to secure the next book deal and build a fan base. No way to know if they have the insights into your spirit to guide you along the path skillfully.
Naropa got to the point that he was ready to slit his wrists rather than live in a world without his guru. Today, renunciation looks a lot like chronic depression, and your spiritual teacher might just refer you to a psychiatrist if they don’t have the time or skill or insight to actually guide you. And you have no way to know.
Lineage is valuable only so far as a person who has produced true results in their spiritual practice can pass on their direct experience to close students. Within the first generation of disciples, these teachings become codified and are then passed down as dogma. Meanwhile, the unconscious social requirements among the group of students becomes primary, and a religious institution forms.
The process of deep spiritual practice requires one to deconstruct habitual patterns of thought, paramount of which is unconscious social conformity. Yet religious institutions place social conformity at a higher value than the teachings themselves, as evidenced by practitioners – past and present – who have been ostracized from their spiritual communities for acting in alignment with high spiritual principles that threaten the cohesion of the social group.
The original teachings – lacking the power of subtle transmission – are preserved in writings, recordings, and the minds of conformist students, which can be useful to a true deep practitioner only inasmuch as it provides access to the academic presentation of the original teacher’s experiences.