Saturday, November 13, 2004

My e-mail reply to JP on Nov. 12 (2)

>BUT it is 'not' true that all things that are empty are

impermanent. Because there are existing things
>that are permanent.


>REgarding the issue of an eternal soul. If you or I had
>used the word soul
from the start (without mixing it
>with mind), then I would have agreed with
you. I have
>heard a great buddhist scholar explain why buddhists deny

>the existance of an eternal soul. But, soul and mind
>are different, the same scholar that explained why an

>eternal soul does not exist explained why an eternal
>mind exists. Given
this situation, if the text you read
>about buddha reprimanding a disciple for
believing in an
>eternal soul actually used the english word "soul" or meant

>it in any other language, then maybe you have assumed that
>the soul and
mind are the same, and the buddha mean that
>the mind is eternal
but "souls" do not exist, let alone
>an eternal soul....

>As we both agree that the eternal soul does not exist and
>if the source
you read really did use the term "soul" and
>not "mind" then maybe the
buddha did mean "soul" and the
>buddha believes in an eternal "mind", but
somehow you
>assumed that the "soul" and "mind" are the same.
>let me know if the term used was really "mind" or " soul".

The English term used in most materials I came across was
“consciousness,” some “soul,” but I take it that Bhikkhu
Sati’s “consciousness” then meant the “soul,” which is a
more popular term today. Of course, it could also mean the
mind because consciousness is more relevant in meaning to
the mind than to the soul.

Now, be it soul, consciousness, or mind, it’s just the same
to me. I cannot accept an “eternal mind,” whether it’s
attributed to the Buddha (blasphemy!) or not. To me, the
doctrine of dependent origination, which Gotama the Buddha
taught, applies to all in samara. All phenomena are
impermanent. To me, the mind - be it Gotama's or not -
is a phenomenon; therefore, it is impermanent. IF, however,
Gotama the Buddha said that his mind is permanent or eternal,
then I shall re-evaluate my conviction.

On another topic, I’d like you to know that questions
have been raised regarding the authenticity of many
popular sutras, especially those belonging to the Northern
lineage (Chinese, Tibetan, Japanese, Korean, etc.).

Lately, I’ve been exposed to the Southern lineage, and,
based on my decades of exposure with the Northern lineage,
specifically the Chinese traditional Buddhism (and later
Tibetan and Tantric neo-Buddhism), I now find the Southern
schools simpler, plain, and direct to the point, whereas
the Northern schools tend to be romantic and prone to the
ornamental, as in too many extensions, attachments, and
“mysteries.” No wonder the Northern schools have so many
“Buddhist” deities.

Furthermore - this is just an observation – I find many
“Buddhist authorities” of the Northern schools being
prejudice towards practitioners belonging to the Southern
lineage; the most notorious being labelling the latter as
“Hinayana” or “Hinayanists.” In the past months, I used to
watch a Buddhist program in cable channel headed by a
very active Chinese monk. I always got turned off whenever
he referred to “monks of the Southern schools” or “teachings
of the Southern schools” with lesser respect in comparison
to his “Mahayana” lineage. That monk is typical of many
Chinese monks in my impression. But then, that’s his
business. I have my own cultivation to attend to.

Given my experiences with the more “romantic” schools,
and my awareness of the integrity of some sutras and
human “authorities” of the Dharma being put to question,
I no longer want to waste my time and effort with just any
sources other than the Buddha. For this reason, I now favor
ancient Buddhism. Of course, that doesn’t mean I would treat
everything that is labelled as coming from the Buddha’s
mouth as authentic and acceptable right away.

>To me, the buddha's compassion's depedent origination
>is that his great
compassion was caused by his cultivation
>in the past...but now that he is
the buddha and perfected
>his practice...his compassion will continue to be
>by its dependent origination but he will always retain his

>compassion..therefore his compassion is everlasing and

Frankly, I feel very uncomfortable with your use of the
present tense, especially the eternal parts. Ha ha ha!

>This is my buddhist should be tested like gold
cut..blablabla)...and this is what this discussion
>is doing I guess...atleast...
I hope.

It’s part of the cultivation.

Friday, November 12, 2004

My e-mail reply to JP on Nov. 12

>hehe, no I haven't perceived emptiness directly, but I

>have repeatedly
tried to show that "emptiness" and
>"impermanent" are different, so I do
not need to have
>perceived "emptiness" to disagree with the statement

>that such and such are "impermanent".

From the start of this communication, I’ve been wondering
at the back of my mind why you find emptiness and
impermanence so different, whereas from my previous e-mails,
you’d see that I find them to be closely related, such
that emptiness is used to describe the effect of
impermanence. Would you tell me what is your understanding
of emptiness and impermanence in the Buddha Dharma?

>I agree that Gotama buddha's body has passed away or
>died or
something like that, but his mind continues,
>and that is why I believe his
enlightened mind continues
>to exist. The reason I believe this is that it is

>a basic buddhist belief that when the body stops the
>mind doesn't stop.
The mind 'supposedly' according to
>buddhist theory has been existing for
countless eons
>in the past and will continue existing forever even when

>the samsaric body perishes. Somewhere in this paragraph
>is where we
have different beliefs.

Yes, that is where we have our contrasting beliefs. I'd
even venture to say that there lies one of the great
differences among practitioners of the Buddha Dharma.
As I told you, I re-evaluated my beliefs of the Buddha
Dharma during my study of the doctrine of dependent
origination. Just some months ago (yes, only recently),
when I kept encountering the story of the Buddha
reprimanding the Bhikkhu Sati, my fundamental
understanding of a continuing soul or consciousness or,
in your case, mind, after physical death collapsed.
Actually, at first, I thought I misread or misunderstood
the idea in the accounts (from different sources). That
was why I encouraged you to check out the story of
Bhikkhu Sati in relation to the topic. Likewise, the
accounts of the Buddha correcting the other bhikkhus
for harbouring the concept of an eternal entity, which
ran against the Buddha Dharma’s principle of impermanence
and practice in the Middle Path. To my understanding,
one of the Buddha’s campaigns then was to dismantle the
concept of permanence, which was so deeply rooted among
people, perhaps due to Brahmanism or generally accepted

It took me a long time to “assimilate” this particular
concept of impermanence because the old one about a
permanent entity was ingrained in my belief. Somehow,
when things fell into place later (after the assimilation;
this should remind Lizanne of the Borgs, ha ha!), I began
to see why “emptiness” is often used and is so important
in the teaching of the Buddha Dharma. With the new
perspective, for instance, I now find it relatively easier
to comprehend (or find the “deeper” meanings “hidden” in)
the Heart Sutra or by extension, the Diamond Sutra; but
then again, it’s only my observation.

>To say that translating it in that way will have no
>benefit at all, is probably
not true....but on the
>other hand if every generation of translators where

>to add his/her own interpretation to the sutra and still
>maintain the
original title of the sutra ...then after
>100 generations after it might look
very very different
>from what the buddha really said or even meant, which

>dilutes and in a way pollutes the pure teachings.
>this is my concern.

You have a good point there. I will change “translation”
into “my interpretation.”

My e-mail reply to JP on Nov. 11 (2)

No, I do not agree “that the enlightened mind of a buddha


I think I can see where the wedge is. Am I correct to
assume that you believe that the “enlightened mind of the
Buddha” should be permanent?

Well, this is how I understand it.

First of all, the last living Buddha I know, according to
Buddhist teachings, was Gotama. He died thousands of years
ago. When he was alive, he was a person like us, but he
discovered the law of nature (law of dependent origination)
and the Four Noble Truth. Hence, he became a Tathagata (a
supreme enlightened being) or what others would call a
Buddha. Gotama the Buddha, in being able to stop the
process of rebirth, would no longer “arise” in samsara
after his death. Since Gotama the Buddha is dead, how
can there be an “enlightened mind of a Buddha?”

All phenomena, by their nature, are impermanent. If you
believe in a permanent “enlightened mind of a Buddha,”
then the attachment to that idea, a mind consciousness
(there also being eye consciousness, ear consciousness,
nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, body
consciousness), is a phenomenon. Therefore, it is

Furthermore, phenomena arise in samsara. What thing in
samsara is permanent or eternal? Even the Buddha died.
If you insist that the Buddha is eternal, then this line
of argument will end up nowhere because to me Gotama the
Buddha is dead. That, in fact, has been the idea of the
practice. No more rebirth in samsara after death because
rebirth means another round of sufferings.

My e-mail reply to JP on Nov. 11

I used “impermanence” to mean “not permanent” or “not
eternal.” I used “phenomena” to mean “all things;”
in our case, including consciousness and dharmas (“fa”
in Chinese).

“All phenomena are impermanent.” All things, including
persons, incidents, aggregates, consciousness, and
dharmas are not-permanent or not-eternal. They are
temporary because they arise (exist, become, born, etc.)
depending on causal conditions. Once the conditions
change or disappear, the things change or cease to exist.
In this sense, they are “empty” or devoid of an independent
existence; “independent” as in existing or operating
independent of causal conditions. In Chinese Buddhism,
especially in Vajrayana, there is a popular phrase
called “yuen chi shing kong” (“yuen chi” = dependent
origination; and “shing kong” = an entity’s nature is

Your question #1: “empty space”

I don’t exactly understand what you mean. Do you see
empty space as a phenomenon? Is empty space itself an
arising or existence? Well, I don’t really see the
relevance here. I assume we’re talking about the
impermanence and emptiness of something mainly because
a practitioner could be attached to it and hence start
a round of suffering, if he fails to perceive that
the something’s existence is impermanent or empty.
I fail to see a person attaching to empty space; however,
if a person is attached to the *idea* of “empty space,”
then it (the idea or mind consciousness) is a phenomenon.

Please refer to the Heart Sutra. It says that with
Perfection Wisdom, the practitioner sees “mind
consciousness” as impermanent, or as you’d put it
“empty.” (yad rupam sa-sunyata … Evam eva vedana,
samjna, sam-skara vijnanam) vijananam = sunyata.

Your question #2: “the buddha's mind is omniscient”

Are you asking if the Buddha’s mind is a phenomenon?
Uh, first of all, I don’t think I have enough competence
to comprehend the Buddha’s mind, so I cannot even begin
to talk about it, because if I could, I’d probably
be a Buddha. Second, in relation to my answer to
question #1, the issue is phenomena that cause attachment
when a practitioner fails to perceive the phenomena’s
existence as impermanent or empty. In this sense,
therefore, if the practitioner is attached to the *idea*
of “the Buddha’s mind is omniscient,” then it (the idea
or mind consciousness) is a phenomenon.

Your question #3: “perceiving emptiness directly is
a direct antidote to eliminating the first link of
dependent origination”

I’d prefer to put it this way: In knowing the law
(process) of dependent origination, a practitioner can be
able to stop the process at the first link, Ignorance,
when he has mindfulness (being aware of the “arising” at
the instant and the way to the cessation of suffering)
and - very important - chooses to stop it.

If the practitioner is attached to the *idea* that
“perceiving emptiness directly is a direct antidote to
eliminating the first link of dependent origination,”
then it (the idea or mind consciousness) is a phenomenon.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Staying on the Middle Path and the Belief of an Eternal Existence

When I posted my new page on the Heart Sutra, the son of my good friend (JP) wrote me with concerns about the way I translated the Sutra, specifically on why I replaced "emptiness" (sunyata) with "impermanence." I replied to him in a not-so-short e-mail. Later, I found it necessary to add the following in a second e-mail to him:

This is how I understand it.

Popular beliefs and practices do not proceed on the Middle Path. They tend to stray to the two extremities, which are contrary to principles of the Buddha Dharma. What are these two extremities? (1) The concept of an eternal or permanent existence (sassataditthi or “chang jien”) and (2) the concept of nihilism (ucchedaditthi or “duan jien”).

I assume you, like most Buddhists, do not agree or hold on to the concept of nihilism, so I will just go to the issue on the concept of an eternal or permanent existence. Note that often times it is this latter concept that is eroding proper Buddhist cultivation, which is practicing in the Middle Path.

What are the familiar symptoms of the concept of an eternal or permanent existence that are relevant to my discussion (in the previous e-mail)? The belief that the doer of a deed will be the receiver of its consequences. By extension, the belief that a soul, consciousness, or person goes from one life to the next carrying with him the merits accumulated or debts incurred from the previous life.

Let's talk about "the doer of a deed is the receiver of its consequences" first.

Based on the doctrine or law of dependent origination, the "doer" exists (arises) due to causal conditions; therefore, it is impermanent and "empty" (devoid of an existence that is independent of causal conditions). For instance, a person lives because favorable conditions support his continued living. If the conditions necessary for his continued existence go away, he dies. In this sense, a person is impermanent and "empty" (devoid of an existence that is independent of causal conditions).

An analogy for better understanding: A branch of a mango tree bears a mango. Before the mango came out, did the fruit exist inside the tree? No. So where did the mango come from? It arises because various favorable conditions support its becoming; for instance, a healthy fertile tree and favorable weather conditions. In this sense, the mango's existence is dependent on conditions. In the Buddhist sense, therefore, it is "empty" (devoid of an existence that is independent of causal conditions).

Likewise, based on the doctrine or law of dependent origination, the receiver's existence is dependent on conditions. Therefore, the doer of the deed is NOT the same entity to bear its consequences. The doer and the receiver have causal links, but they are NOT the same entity. The receiver is NOT the future of an eternal or permanent doer self. Remember, all phenomena are impermanent according to the law of dependent origination. Thus, the receiver arises due to causal conditions, albeit its existence has causal links with the doer and is conditioned according to the deed of the doer (karmic conditioning). Meaning, the receiver will bear the consequences of the deed, but he is NOT the same entity as the doer.

Now, let’s talk about the belief that a soul, consciousness, or person goes from one life to the next, carrying with him the merits accumulated or debts incurred from the previous life.

When a person dies, no soul or consciousness goes to the next life. If you believe a soul or consciousness passes to the next life bringing along the merits accumulated or debts incurred by the person in the previous life, then you are holding on to the concept of an eternal or permanent existence, which is contrary to the principle of the Buddha Dharma.

Rebirth occurs also according to the law of dependent origination. A new entity (person) arises due to conditions, but his becoming has causal links with the previous entity (person), and is conditioned according to the deeds (merits and debts) of the now-dead previous entity. Rebirth, however, may take place be in the human realm, animal realm, in heaven, or hell, as fashioned by karmic forces working in accordance with the law of causality.

An analogy for better understanding: A seed when planted grows into a mango tree, which bears fruit. The seed has causal link with the fruit, but it is not the fruit. In this case, it undergoes sort of a transformation process. In the same sense, a person’s becoming, death, or rebirth undergoes certain processes according to the law of nature. The seed may be likened to the person in the previous life, whereas the fruit a person in this life, who certainly is not the person in the previous life but has causal link with the previous existence.

The becoming of a person may be influenced by karmic conditions. Although the person's becoming might be partly influenced by karmic conditions, his existence is not totally predetermined (as in the belief of destiny) because karma is just one of the natural forces affecting becoming and the process of existence. The person has free will over his life. His intentions and deeds, in turn, will form the karmic conditions that will influence the next becoming, whether in another life or a future portion of this life. Karma is essentially a “pattern” that the person designs for the next becoming through his deeds, and it becomes effective because of the law of causality

I do not know how you could swallow the above concepts readily, even if you now believe the doctrine to be correct. When I discovered that the doctrine was the core of the Buddha Dharma, I had to spend a long, long time reading, meditating, digesting, understanding, and assimilating the concepts that come with the doctrine. No wonder, when Ananda commented that the doctrine of dependent origination was simple and easy to understand like causality in the mechanical sense, the Buddha rebuked “Do not say so, do not say so, Ananda, because the doctrine of dependent origination is profound.”

By the way, the Buddha never explained causality as most people (even Buddhists) do today: If you do this, you will get this. This was how He explained causality: “When this is, that is. From the arising of this, that arises. When this is not, that is not. From the ceasing of this, that ceases.” (Imasmim sati, idam hoti. Imass uppadadam uppajjati. Imasmim sati, idam na hoti. Imassa nirodha, idam nirujjhati.) What has that got to do with the causality that people generally know? Well, I also worked very hard, and have assimilated it. Now, I don’t have any dilemma in seeing the connection of the Buddha’s explanation and the causal process, especially when I also incorporate the doctrine of dependent origination.

As I mentioned before, the practice of the Buddha Dharma is essentially about accepting the truth of the existence of sufferings and cultivating for the cessation of sufferings. The cessation of sufferings comes when the practitioner is able to stop rebirth or sufferings from arising at the root stage: Ignorance (capitalized because the term is specific in the 12 links of dependent origination, another story). The practitioner is able to do this when he sees “emptiness” in all phenomena, including the dharmas, because he totally comprehends the doctrine of dependent origination and can apply it in his life thru continuing mindfulness.

My e-mail reply to JP on Nov. 10

Thank you for your reply and for sharing your ideas.

I was not surprised about your ideas of emptiness and
impermanence. In a way, I expected them to be that way.
I myself was "hit in the head" when I came upon the
doctrine of dependent origination, and had to re-evaluate
my ideas of the Buddha Dharma, which I've kept studying
for more than three decades. Before that, I even went as
far as Tantra, just to research on the origin of Tibetan,
Chinese, and Japanese vajrayana Buddhism.

I maintain that all phenomena are impermanent. To me,
the aggregates, consciousness, and even the Dharma are
impermanent. In this sense, I maintain that, for instance,
there is no eternal soul or entity that is going from one
life to the next. I, however, maintain that there is
rebirth due to karmic conditioning (if you feel a
logical/mental knot here, I shall elaborate for you in the
future when needed).

I *encourage* you to research on this topic, especially on
the part where the Buddha corrected (actually reprimanded)
Bhikkhu Sati (a monk in His sangha group) for his insistence
on the belief of an eternal consciousness or soul that goes
from one life to the next. Bhikkhu Sati, like so many
practitioners then and today, believed in an eternal self or
soul. Other bhikkhus in error, like so many practitioners
then and today, also believed that the doer of a deed is the
*same* receiver of karmic repercussions. The key error being
the belief on the same entity or a permanent self. In this way,
the bhikkhus in error harbored a concept of eternal existence
("chang jien" in Chinese) - an extremity, thus, not of the
Middle Path - whereas the Buddha specifically taught the
doctrine of dependent origination or the idea of impermanence.
(mind blowing? go research)

To my understanding, the term "sunyata" (emptiness or void)
is a term used to describe the effect of dependent origination
or impermanence. For instance, a fruit exists only as long as
its supporting conditions hold. The present state of fruit
(taste, texture, etc.) is due to causal conditions (karmic
conditioning in the case of a person). When the supporting
conditions change, so does the fruit; like it rottens in
time. In this sense, the fruit is impermanent and, therefore,
"empty" because it is devoid of an *independent* self.
Otherwise, it would be an entity that exists independent of
causal conditions or karmic conditioning, like how the
Christians believe their God to be. This same principle of
impermanence applies to all persons, things, phenomena,
consciousness, and even the Dharma (remember the line "all
dharmas are empty?" All as in all forms of dharma, from
"chu fa kong hsiang").

To my understanding, the term "emptiness" (or "void") used
in Buddhism, whether in Chinese or English, is most misleading.
People are prone to interpret the Dharma as preaching nihilism
("duan jien" in Chinese) - the other extremity, thus not of the
Middle Path - whereas the Buddha specifically taught the doctrine
of dependent origination or the idea of impermanence.

A long time ago, I also held the same concept as you do
about "emptiness" in my practice. It got me nowhere because I
could only repeat what the teachers or books said. Isn't it the
same with you now? Repeating the lessons; repeating what you are
taught about emptiness when you talk about it? As I see it, the
problem in this case is you can't even begin to comprehend
emptiness by attending to "emptiness" - because it is simply
a term used to describe the effect of dependent origination
or impermanence.

Since I was small, I always wondered what the Buddha
contemplated on under the tree. I wanted to have it so I could
become a Buddha. Today, I know it was the doctrine of dependent
origination that the Buddha Gotama discovered when he practiced
under the tree. I used "discovered" because, according to Him,
the doctrine was about the law of nature, which he discovered.
He did not invent the doctrine. Therefore, according to Him, any
person who is not a Buddhist but knows the doctrine can still
become a Buddha like Him. I am fortunate on being able to come in
touch with the doctrine. Now, I feel I have found the magga (Way).
Of course, the other part of the practice is actual.

Regarding your concerns... Rest assured that I have no intention
of misleading practitioners. To the best of my understanding,
my translation of the Heart Sutra is the right way to interpret
and report on the Buddha Dharma. As you will notice, my translation
of the Sutra is not literal, because my purpose is to relay the
message and not simply to repeat the words in another language.

If you take this discussion seriously enough, and would like
to explore, I can imagine it will bring about certain contradictions
or conflicts in your understanding of the Dharma. Especially, if you
hold the teachings of your school or teacher close to heart. Well,
I am not encouraging dissidence (he he he!), but, like how the
Buddha always wanted His tudents to do before, you might want to
investigate and find out the truth by yourself (refer to the
Kalama Sutra: I believe every
person has his "yuen" in the Practice. There are many roads to the
destination. All I can suggest to you, on this issue, is pray for
guidance to be able to have the Right View and practice in the
Right Path.

As for me... I am not afraid to maintain my view - although it
goes against the mainstream and popular belief, which is apparent -
because of my vow. I do not seek freedom from rebirth - even if I
can attain the level of an arhat (!) someday, if ever anyway -
or stay in the Pureland (as many Chinese Buddhists hope for)
because of my vow. My only wish is, in my next lives in samsara,
I won't have to spend this much time (more than four decades!) in
coming to the magga and carry out my mission.

I am glad my e-mail started this discussion. I look forward to
reporting my personal discoveries to you by e-mail or in person
(now, we have something to discuss about when we meet in the future).

Should you find it worthwhile to read about the doctrine, my
Web pages have links to some helpful materials. Also, I hope
you won't mind my sharing this discussion with others.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

My Interpretation of The Heart Sutra

I have a new page on The Heart Sutra.