18. The Sense Organs of Tongue and Body – Shurangama Sutra – By Master Shen Yen

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Master Shen Yen
  1. The Sense Organs of Tongue and Body

November 23, 1986

Ananda continues questioning the Buddha on various sense organs. In today’s passage he inquires about the functions of the tongue and the body. The Buddha continues with the same dialectic he has used with all the senses. This consists of seeking and then refuting the origin and existence of each sense. In the case of taste, he first uses the example of a man licking his lips. According to his state of health or sickness, he will experience either a sweet or a bitter taste. The Buddha shows that these tastes are but illusions. They have no origin; they cannot be traced back to the flavor of things, nor to the tongue or to the void. The entrance of the tongue is therefore unreal. It is neither causal, nor conditional, nor self-existent.

The Buddha shows that while there is no reality to the sense of taste, this sense is nevertheless identical to the True Suchness of the Buddha, which is unmoving, all-abiding, and empty. All phenomena are involved in emptiness. The characteristic of taste is also emptiness in the sense that when we taste something, what we think we taste is an illusion.

How was lunch today? Some of you seemed to like the dish with peanuts; some the dish with the pancakes and potatoes; some of you liked all of the dishes. But can you still taste the food? No. If the taste is no longer with you, how do you know that you liked it? Sheila? She says she liked it at the time.

What taste we sense, we sense in a given moment. Some people prefer sweet, some sour, some salty, some hot and spicy. Is one taste better or more correct than another? Different people experience different tastes. Even the same person can sense different taste in the same food at different time. When you get up in the morning, before you’ve brushed your teeth, does food taste as good? If you’re running a high fever, will food seem particularly tasty to you? With a stomach problem or white spots on your tongue, will you find anything appetizing?

Different conditions change the way food tastes. Taste is subjective. This means that you can exert influence over the way something tastes. Even the same food may taste different to you at different times.

Imagine eating the food fed to chickens, ducks, cattle, pigs, or dogs. You would probably find it repulsive. It is not suitable for us. There is a story, however, of some Taiwanese during World War II who were conscripted into hard labor by the Japanese Army. The Japanese, of course, ate well; the Taiwanese laborers fared very poorly. One laborer in particular worked for a very well-fed general. Even the general’s horse was well-fed. When the Taiwanese felt hungry, he would take the horse’s fodder. The horse ate better than he did. Here is another instance of how desire for food can change with circumstances. Under normal conditions, no one would want to eat horse feed.

I still remember the end of World War II, when China was in short supply of food. One day a large supply of American canned goods came onto the market. People swarmed to acquire the modestly-priced, tasty food. Of course few could read English. Only later did they find out that they were eating U.S. Army dog food.

Let’s take another perspective. Don’t you think for the deities in heaven what we eat is equivalent to animal fodder? Don’t you think that they would find it unacceptable?

Before every meal in the temple, an offering is made to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. This is a heavenly meal, yet it is food we eat ourselves. Couldn’t we do better than offer to the heavenly deities what is probably no better to them than dog food?

Avy says that what we offer is good enough for the deities, even though it may be little better than swill to them. What she said is partially correct. But there is more to it than that. For great practitioners there is nothing that is inedible or distasteful.

Not long ago there was a famous Chinese Buddhist Master named Hung-i who was known for his strict adherence to the precepts and his practice of samadhi. He lived during a time and in a place where material things were scarce. The quality of the food was particularly poor. People usually offered him just rice, dried turnips, or some salty, watery soup. On special occasions he might be offered a few pieces of bean curd. But no matter what the master was presented with, he seemed to be quite happy, and he thoroughly enjoyed his food. His disciples wondered aloud to him: “Master, we know this food is pretty awful. How do you find it so delicious?” The master would hear none of it. “No, this food is quite wonderful,” he would say. “Food for the gods could be no better.”

I had a similar experience when I practiced alone in the mountains. My diet consisted solely of wild potato leaves, except for the few times I would be offered bean curd by monks from a nearby temple. Somehow I was quite content. Even now I think of wild potato leaves as some of the best food I have ever eaten.

The great practitioners, Bodhisattvas or Buddhas, do not consider the food we eat to be comparable to dog food. They do not react the same way we do when we see animals eating their feed. Great practitioners do not make such distinctions. Heavenly beings, on the other hand, can have feelings of disgust. How do you think we would react to the food that heavenly beings eat?

People who practice particularly well and are in good mental and physical condition may find the food they eat much tastier than usual. At a retreat in Bodhi House one of the participants had a few good sittings and afterwards commented that the food at the retreat was the best he had ever eaten. This is nothing other than an offer by heavenly beings.

The question is: is this experience real or not? Since the sense of taste changes according to physical, mental, or psychic conditions, it is not real. Only that which is permanent and unchanging is real in Chan. The taste of something would only be real if it never changed for you. Even when we sit and practice well, the sense of taste we get is illusory. There are some who only think about the taste of good food when they sit. This is an attachment. If you don’t watch out and you continue to dwell on food, you may be born in the realm of hungry ghosts.

Let us return to the text. The sutra distinguishes between different tastes: bitter, sweet, sour, etc. These tastes are determined by the motion and stillness of the body. If you are sick or tired, you might experience a bitter taste in your mouth. When you are active and healthy, you are more apt to experience sweetness. When you are very still, you may experience no taste at all. The sutra shows that both of the states of motion and stillness comprise one of the three elements of the sense of taste. The other two elements are the sense organ of the tongue and the void.

Again, the sutra uses the same dialectic here as for the other senses. If we analyze these three elements separately, we see that no one element gives independent rise to the sense of taste. Most of us would say, however, that taste comes from the combination of these elements. But this is not really true.

Let me ask you a question. Consider the tongue with its sense of taste and the ear with its sense of hearing. Which gives rise to more attachment? Which gives rise to more thoughts of like and dislike, happiness and unhappiness, and thus more vexation? Which causes more disturbances in the mind?

The problems caused by the tongue are nothing compared to the problems caused by the ear. A random sound, a disturbing sound, the sound of scolding or criticism – all give rise to vexation. What about pleasant sounds? Praise, for example? These are no different from unpleasant sounds. All give rise to vexation.

The desires that arise in sentient beings derive directly from the senses. Sentient beings seek after form, sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. They pursue satisfaction and they are never satisfied. Most sentient beings are like someone trying to lick honey from the sharp end of a knife. A skillful person will turn the knife around and lick from the blunt end. A greedy person will cut off his tongue. Thus if you are never satisfied, you reach a point where you do harm to yourself.

The five senses must be approached in this way: see phenomena as unreal, but act as if they are real. You must lick the honey – you must sustain yourself – otherwise you will die of starvation. But always be content and do not form attachments. To view the world as unreal and avoid attachment, and yet act as if everything is real and fulfill all responsibilities – this will achieve a balance that is safe and free from vexation.

It is quite common for couples to quarrel. If your partner accuses you of any number of outlandish things and acts irrationally, you can still be rational and reasonable. If the other person acts unreasonably, that’s his or her business. You should he clear-sighted and fair, despite the other person’s behavior. All couples quarrel sometime otherwise they wouldn’t be couples. Who knows? Maybe even heavenly beings quarrel with one another.

The next passage from the sutra deals with the sense of touch. The sense organ of touch is the body itself. Touch involves sensations of warmth, cold, roughness, smoothness, softness, and hardness. The sutra applies the same dialectic we have seen before to the sense of touch. The elements that comprise touch are separation and contact, feelings of pleasantness and unpleasantness, the body, and the void. You must have separation followed by contact, or vice versa, to have a sense of touching something.

Second, what you have touched will appear either pleasant or unpleasant to you. How does the void figure in? If you analyze each of the elements of contact and separation or pleasantness and unpleasantness, you will see that nowhere will you find the sense of touch in and of itself. You might think touch can be traced back to the void, but this does not hold because how can you touch the void?

Finally, the body itself is an element in the sense of touch, but the body, with no object to touch, cannot produce this sense alone. Following the thread of this argument, you will see that all sensations – hot, cold, smooth, rough, hard, soft, are illusory. They have no permanent reality. Thus the sutra tells us that there is really no such thing as the sense of touch. This sense exists in the world of common sense, but it has no intrinsic, unchanging existence.

During the last year or so in Taiwan, I have been speaking on the Diamond Sutra. There is a particular woman who comes to the temple every Sunday from a great distance just to hear my lecture. She travels more than an hour and a half each way. Her husband has been unhappy about her regular attendance at the temple. He asked her, “What is so wonderful about that place? Is the travel really worth it? Why do you want to hear some monk speaking?” One day she came home and her husband screamed at her. The wife paid no attention. She told him, “From listening to the Diamond Sutra, I realize that the ear is unreal, and so is your voice. It’s an unreal voice striking an unreal ear.” The husband was taken aback.

But the next Sunday the same thing happened. The wife said, “It may happen that you will scream at me every time I come back from the temple, but it will not bother me. If it did, then all of my trips to hear the sutra would be wasted.” The husband objected, “If everything is unreal, if everything is only an illusion, then the husband and wife relationship is also an illusion.” The wife replied, “Of course it’s not real.” “In that case,” the husband said, “we should separate.” But his wife replied, “We have children and we’ve been together a long time. We should continue. The relationship may be unreal, but we have parts to play as if we were on a stage, and they are important. We should act in this play as if it were real.” The husband was impressed. His wife seemed to have changed indeed. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see the husband at the Sunday lecture when I go back to Taiwan.

So what do you do if your spouse gives you a hard time, if he or she is particularly unpleasant or quarrelsome? This is a good opportunity to meditate on the Shurangama Sutra. In providing you with this occasion to practice and to meditate on the sutra, your spouse is following the Bodhisattva path

by placing obstacles in your way.

It is quite difficult to maintain this kind of nonattachment. It is certainly more difficult than maintaining equanimity towards the taste of what you eat. Overcoming the sense organ of the body is not easy. When you are healthy, you don’t pay attention to your body, but even a slight pain in your hand, for example, will make you feel very uncomfortable. Or if you sit in meditation, and I tell you not to move for an hour or a number of hours, what will happen to you? You will develop quite a bit of resentment towards your body. You will find that you have no control over it. You won’t just feel hard and soft, smooth and rough, hot and cold; you will feel pain, numbness, itch, and soreness. None of these are easy to take.

You may think an itch is easier to withstand than pain. Generally this is true. But if your eyes itch, your nose itches, and your ears itch, it’s not so easy to say, “Itch, you won’t bother me. I’m just going to sit here.”

Of course there are different levels of pain and different levels of itch. Pain, after a while, starts to feel like coolness. A terrible itch, however, will never produce a feeling of happiness.

When we sit in meditation, we should not pay attention to sensations in the body, regardless of whether we sense pain, itch, numbness, or soreness. If you can effectively contemplate sensation as illusion – the body as illusion, or if you can practice the contemplation of emptiness and see that your body does not belong to you, then the sensations in the body will disappear.

How you are affected by the sense of touch depends on the environment and your mental state. Someone whose mental state is calm and stable will sense everything in his or her environment, but will not be buffeted from one chaotic mental state to another. Such a person can sense what is smooth and rough, hot and cold, hard and soft, but will not be vulnerable to sudden mood swings because of these sensations.

Young people especially are very reactive to extremes in temperature. They shudder with cold and wilt in the heat. But people with better mental cultivation can keep their minds cool or warm to compensate for the environment. Their experience will be much different from that of someone who lacks such mental control.

About twenty years ago a number of monks got together with the Venerable Jen Chun, who is now living in New Jersey. They were in Taiwan at that time and they visited a number of temples. On the first day they had quite a distance to travel and the weather was extremely hot. The other monks complained and said that they had picked a bad day to travel. “Nonsense,” said Ven. Jen Chun, “we monks spend most of our time indoors. This is a great opportunity for a sunbath.” In the afternoon they started out on the next leg of their journey, and instead of the sun beating down, buckets of rain poured down and soaked them through and through.

Once again the monks complained that they had chosen a very inauspicious day to travel. “We must have very bad karma,” they said. But Reverend Jen Chun rebuked them, “Haven’t you read the Lotus Sutra? It tells us that the Buddha gives the precious rain to all sentient beings. So our situation is really auspicious: the heat of vexation is cooled by this rain. For you to say that this is bad karma shows that you don’t know what you’re talking about.” The Reverend added that in India in a heavy rain, monks will often take off their robes to cool and wash their bodies. He said, “These days we’re just too embarrassed to take off our clothes and wash ourselves in the rain.”

Thus the sutra shows us that our bodily sensations – what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell – are determined by our mental state. Control this and you can control vexation.