- Awakening Through the Sense Organ of Consciousness
December 12, 1993
In this section of the Shurangama Sutra, six of Buddha’s Arhat disciples describe their attainment of perfection through the sense organs. We have already looked at the sections about eye, ear, nose, tongue and body. Now we come to the section on the final sense organ, mind, or consciousness:
Subhuti then rose from his seat, prostrated himself with his head at the feet of the Buddha and declared: ‘As my consciousness (the sense organ of consciousness) was already free from all hindrances in former eons, I can now remember my previous reincarnations as countless as sands in the Ganges. Even when I was a fetus in my mother’s womb, I had already awakened to the condition of still voidness which subsequently expanded to fill all the ten directions and which enabled me to teach living beings how to waken to their absolute nature.
Thanks to the Tathagata, I realized the absolute voidness of self-natured awareness, and with the perfection of my immaterial nature, I attained Arhatship, thereby entering suddenly into the Tathagata‘s Precious Brightness which was as immense as space and the ocean, wherein I (partially) achieved Buddha wisdom. The Buddha sealed my attainment of the stage beyond learning; I am, therefore, regarded as the foremost disciple because of my understanding of immaterial self-nature. As the Buddha now asks about the best means of perfection, according to my personal experience, the best consists of perceiving the unreality of all phenomena, with the elimination of even this unreality, in order to reduce all things to emptiness.
Each of the great Arhat disciples of the Buddha had his own special understanding, and it was Subhuti who had the deepest understanding of emptiness.
Subhuti said, “As my consciousness was already free from all hindrances in former eons…” If your sense organ of consciousness is able to penetrate into emptiness, then when you perceive the external environment, you will see that it is also empty. This was Subhuti’s state, and so he was free of hindrances, or vexations. Conversely, if you see that the external environment is empty, but do not see into the nature of your own consciousness, you will still have vexations. Of all the sense organs, only the organ of consciousness does not have direct contact with the external environment. All the other organs – eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body; respond to the environment. However consciousness, which responds to thoughts, is only in contact with internal phenomena, such as memory, ideas, and fantasies.
What kind of emptiness is it that Subhuti awakened to? It is not nothingness, or the emptiness that denies the existence of things. Buddhism does not describe a nihilistic state, where nothing is experienced as existing. The emptiness Buddhism speaks of is the simultaneity of emptiness and existence. If you have an image of a handsome man in your mind, and you think, “That man is really handsome,” is your mind empty? If a handsome man is standing in front of you and you perceive him, but your mind stops at that, without thinking, “That man is really handsome,” or anything else, is your mind empty? If your mind is not moved by the image of the person, is your mind empty? If you generate liking or disliking, your mind has moved.
If your mind (the sense organ of consciousness) cannot be moved by the image (the thought it perceives) moment by moment, then every moment is a new beginning and the mind is not moving. If the mind generates the thought, “I like him,” that is also new; but now there is the liking, and that itself shows that your mind has moved.
When your mind perceives something, but is not moved by it, that is emptiness. For instance, your mind perceives very clearly the image of a person standing in front of you, but because the mind is not attached to it, it is perceived as empty. This is the nature of Subhuti’s emptiness, which is simultaneously empty and existent. However, to try to do this on purpose, that is not giving rise to like or dislike when perceiving someone, is contrived effort, not true emptiness.
What if you solve the problem of your mind perceiving a handsome man and thinking “He looks good,” by closing your eyes? Is the problem gone? What do you perceive? Is it existence or emptiness? Because you still hold the image of the man in your mind and can’t escape from it, you do not perceive emptiness; you are perceiving existence. True emptiness does not deny existence.
Subhuti was born into a particular family in order to deliver that family. The moment before Subhuti was born all the household goods disappeared. Everything was empty. Do you think that they still existed? The family was shocked and worried, but as soon as Subhuti came out of his mother’s womb everything reappeared. This incident was a symbolic representation of simultaneous emptiness and existence.
Subhuti’s father was very concerned about this incident, and asked a deity for an explanation. At that time deities were quite accessible, if you called them they came, just like that! Subhuti’s father asked the deity, “Why did everything in my house disappear the moment before Subhuti was born, and reappear as soon as he was born?” The deity replied, “Emptiness is not other than existence, and existence is not other than emptiness.” The deity also said that Subhuti had attained understanding of emptiness eons ago.
As he was born, Subhuti manifested a little bit of the power of emptiness, which he had cultivated for eons. Only the household goods disappeared. Actually the power of emptiness extends to the ten directions, meaning everywhere. We could say that when Subhuti was born, everything was empty in the ten directions. Why did Subhuti manifest emptiness? He did it to benefit sentient beings. He allowed his family to experience a taste of the emptiness of Buddhism.
Next Subhuti said, “Thanks to the Tathagata I realized the absolute voidness of self-natured awareness, and with the perfection of my immaterial nature, I attained Arhatship, thereby entering suddenly into the Tathagata’s Precious Brightness which was as immense as space and the ocean, wherein I (partially) achieved Buddha knowledge. The Buddha sealed my attainment of the stage beyond study; I am therefore regarded as the foremost disciple because of my understanding of immaterial self-nature.”
The Chinese which is translated as “I realized the absolute voidness of self-nature awareness” is just four characters: nature, awareness (or awakening), truth, and emptiness. Here “nature” refers to the nature of emptiness, so the whole phrase means “awakening to the nature of true emptiness.” Subhuti was describing his experience. He awakened to, or recognized, the nature of true emptiness.
Robert, you are wearing a sweater. What’s inside the pocket?
Master Sheng Yen: Empty?
Master Sheng Yen: When we talk about true emptiness, is it the same as the emptiness of Robert’s pocket? There is nothing inside?
Master Sheng Yen: They are not the same, but why not? To perceive true emptiness means in the face of all the various phenomena you experience, you recognize that the intrinsic nature of phenomena is empty. Phenomena have existence but you see that the intrinsic nature of phenomena is empty. This includes mental phenomena such as thoughts and feelings, as well as physical phenomena such as cars, people, time and light. You do not deny the existence of phenomena. This is what is meant by true emptiness. Do you understand?
If you understand, then you have an intellectual understanding of “nature awakening true emptiness.” But an intellectual understanding is not the same as an experiential grasp of “nature awakening true emptiness.” You do not yet have personal experienced of that state. Now I may have created a misunderstanding. When I say, “nature awakening true emptiness,” do you think that there is such a thing as the nature of emptiness? Why is it that we do not see this nature of emptiness? Is it because we are ordinary sentient beings? Once we realize a certain level, so that our Dharma eyes are opened, will we all be able to see the nature of emptiness?
This is a misunderstanding. It is like a blind person who has never seen empty space, and thinks, “Someday I will find a good doctor who can cure my eyes, and I will be able to see this thing they call empty space.” We who are not blind know that you cannot see empty space, but the blind person does not understand. Likewise, so long as a person is attached to something called “the nature of emptiness” his awakening is not complete. It is only when he is free from any attachment, even to the nature of emptiness, that his awakening will be The next phrase is translated, “the perfection of my immaterial nature.” The Chinese literally means “the nature of emptiness, complete and illuminating.” It describes thorough awakening. That is possible only when the person is free from any attachment, even to the nature of emptiness.
When Subhuti attained Arhatship he entered into what is translated as, “the Tathagata’s Precious Brightness which was as immense as space and the ocean.” The Chinese literally reads:
“precious-brightness-emptiness-ocean.” Let us retranslate this. Precious Brightness refers to the Buddha’s wisdom. Here Precious Brightness refers to the functioning or activity that arises from such wisdom.
Earlier in this section of the Shurangama Sutra, “emptiness” was qualified by the term “nature,” and it referred to the essence of emptiness. Subhuti talks about the nature of emptiness. Here he is talking about a different aspect of emptiness. He expresses the wondrous function of emptiness. Emptiness is what wisdom arises from. “Ocean” means something unlimited and completely unbounded, not merely an Atlantic Ocean or Pacific Ocean. Subhuti meant that Buddha’s wisdom is completely unlimited. This wisdom arises from emptiness, so all together the phrase means “the Precious Brightness arising from emptiness, which is without limit.” It refers to the unlimited functioning of Buddha’s wisdom.
Subhuti next says, “…wherein I (partially) achieved Buddha knowledge.” In the Lotus Sutra there are similar phrases, which are translated as, “to open up to,” or “to enter,” or “to realize the Buddha’s wisdom.” An Arhat at this level has attained the same kind of wisdom as the wisdom of the Buddha. It is the same kind of wisdom because it results from the Arhat’s realization of emptiness.
Does that mean that the Arhat has the same wisdom as the Buddha? The wisdom of the Buddha is wisdom of liberation and compassion. The wisdom of liberation is for the Buddha’s own sake, whereas the wisdom of compassion is for the purpose of helping other sentient beings. Even though the Arhat’s wisdom is unlimited, it only shares part of the wisdom of liberation and compassion. Nonetheless, even though the Arhat’s wisdom is not as broad or deep as that of the Buddha, it has the same characteristics.
Subhuti goes on, “The Buddha sealed my attainment of the stage beyond learning…” This refers to the three higher learnings; morality, concentration, and wisdom. In the Theravada tradition, the stage beyond study is Arhatship.
There are four levels of sainthood. In the first three practitioners still need to study, but by the stage of Arhat the practitioner has done everything that needs to be done. Three phrases are usually used to describe that state: all that needs to be done has been accomplished, the process of birth and death has been transcended, and it is not necessary to be reborn.
What Subhuti says next is translated as, “I am regarded as the foremost disciple because of my understanding of immaterial self-nature.” The Chinese has a meaning which is not clearly conveyed in the English. We have been talking about Subhuti attaining Arhatship, or liberation, and some of you may think that liberation must be a position you can reach. But here Subhuti points out that the nature of liberation itself is empty. On one hand, liberation comes from awakening to emptiness. On the other hand, the nature of liberation is emptiness. Because of this understanding, the Buddha recognized Subhuti as foremost in the profound understanding of emptiness.
Do you understand? What use is it to listen to such ideas? Subhuti talked about his experience of nature, emptiness, and so on, but what has that got to do with us? To what extent is it useful to us? There must be some intelligent people here who can answer that. If you are not so intelligent you can give a foolish answer. That is also all right. Is there a fool who wants to volunteer?
Student: In the last retreat my method was the huatou, “What is wu?” Toward the end of the retreat I told Shifu that I had fallen in love with Miss Wu. Shifu asked me what it meant to fall in love with Miss Emptiness. So a talk about emptiness is useful for my practice.
Master Sheng Yen: This section of the Shurangama Sutra emphasizes emptiness, and the different aspects of emptiness. When we practice Chan, we want to realize enlightenment, but what does enlightenment mean? Enlightenment means awakening to the true nature of emptiness. Is emptiness empty or existent? You should know now that it is simultaneously empty and existent. The nature of Nirvana and the nature of liberation are also the same as the nature of emptiness.
The last sentence in the paragraph we read from the sutra is difficult. The translation reads,
“As the Buddha now asks about the best means of perfection, according to my personal experience, the best consists of perceiving the unreality of all phenomena, with the elimination of even this unreality, in order to reduce all things to emptiness.”
There are three ideas here. In Chinese, “the best consists of perceiving the unreality of all phenomena…” says approximately: “recognizing that all the phenomena are non-phenomena.” This describes a process of negating. It is similar to the idea contained in the Diamond Sutra, which says that all phenomena are beyond phenomena, or all phenomena are non-phenomena. In the second phrase, “…with the elimination of even this unreality,” the negation process is continued until everything is negated, even emptiness. The third phrase says, “…in order to reduce all thing to emptiness.” Here, emptiness reaches completion. This is emptiness in the sense of wu as in the huatou, “What is wu?”