Ch'an Newsletter - No. 70 February 1989

Nature, or Spontaneity, and Causes and Conditions
(Lecture given by Master Sheng-yen on the Surangama Sutra, June 9, 1986)

Reasoning by his worldly sense, Ananda is puzzled about the nature of the self. Where, he wonders, is the self revealed? Can it be found in the nature of the senses themselves? Is the self manifested in the nature of seeing, for example? The Buddha explains to Ananda that this quest for the self is in vain.

Ananda is still confused by the "outer path" views of "natural existence" and "true self." He believes that there is something behind the "true self," which he takes to be "nature" or "spontaneity." Yet even this idea of "nature" and "spontaneity" is involved with a self. Ananda knows that his views are not correct, and he asks the Buddha for instruction.

The Chinese word which is translated here as "nature" really refers to something in its true state, the way it really is. The self in its true state is not the self we normally associate with someone's personality. The true self is a totally natural and spontaneous state; it is just as it is, so to speak. But even the true self is not the "supreme reality."

Earlier in the sutra the Buddha asked Ananda to explain what happens when he looks at the scenery outside the vihara. Who does the seeing? Is it Ananda's true self that sees or does the act of seeing simply transpire spontaneously? This question has yet to be resolved.

Ananda does not see as the Buddha sees because of his attachment and grasping, which lead him towards erroneous views. First, the Buddha explains that there is no self involved in seeing. Ananda then tries the explanation that seeing simply arises, spontaneously and naturally. The Buddha shows that even this idea is wrong. Remember, we said previously that even nature and spontaneity are involved with self. Thus, Ananda has not totally understood the nature of the self.

This self is at base an illusion. To show this, the Buddha begins by asking Ananda to understand what happens when seeing takes place. Is there a self anywhere revealed when we see? The Buddha speaks of the conditions necessary for seeing. Light is one condition that must exist. But if there is light, there must be darkness, otherwise there would be no way to distinguish that something is illuminated -- there would be nothing to illuminate if there were no darkness. Thus, if seeing arises because of a natural, spontaneous self, then light must be part of this self. And if light is a part of it, then darkness must be a part of this self, also. Then why is it that we can only see in the light, if darkness is part of the same self that is luminous, the same self from which seeing arises?

Space is also a condition for seeing. If there is something blocking your eye, or something right in front of your eye, then you won't be able to see. There must be a certain space in order for you to perceive something. If space is part of the natural, spontanenous self from which seeing arises, then obstruction must also be part of this self. Space can only exist in conjunction with obstruction. Obstruction, which blocks space, must exist in space. Thus, both of these seeming opposites must also be part of the true, spontaneous self, if such a self truly exists.

Ananda thought about these principles and he agreed: there can only be seeing when there are opposites, light and darkness, space and obstruction. The totality must be present for seeing to occur. Thus, he began to understand that seeing does not arise from the self, nor does it simply arise spontaneously. He concludes that seeing must derive from causes and conditions; that is, the doctrine whereby any given phenomenon arises directly as a result of the influence of another phenomenon or phenomena.

But the Buddha does not accept causes and conditions as the reason for seeing. He explains that seeing does not exist because of either light, darkness, space or obstruction. If seeing existed because of light, for example, darkness would not be seen. If it existed because of darkness, light would not be seen.

Trying to understand the nature of seeing through worldly knowledge, Ananda will forever be lead astray. The Buddha compares this to trying to catch the void with your hand.

Buddhism does not speak of a true self, nor does it speak of natural, spontaneous arising, but it does speak of causes and conditions. Nevertheless, when Ananda said that it was causes and conditions that give rise to seeing, the Buddha still rejects the statement.

Ananda is somewhat puzzled by this. He asks the Buddha, "World honored one, if the nature of wonderful enlightenment has neither causes nor conditions, why has the Buddha always told us that the nature of seeing exists because of the four conditions of voidness, light, mind, and eye? What does all this mean?"

The Buddha states that he spoke of worldly causes and conditions, which has nothing to do with supreme reality. He continues to question Ananda, and asks him what a worldly man takes seeing to be. Ananda replies, "When a worldly man sees forms by the light of the sun, moon, or a lamp, he calls it seeing, but in the absence of such light, he cannot see anything."

The Buddha continues, and shows Ananda that though it may seem that seeing ceases in the absence of light, the nature of seeing does not cease for an instant, regardless of whether anything is actually perceived. Seeing, he tells Ananda, must be understood as it occurs through four states: light, darkness, the void, and obstruction.

Finally, the Buddha tells Ananda that when he clearly understands the seeing that is beyond seeing, his false ideas about the existence of self and the doctrine of causes and conditions will fall away.

Now I will speak of the essential difference between the worldly view of things and the Buddhadharma view, so that we may perhaps understand the difference between Ananda's "seeing" and the Buddha's "seeing."

The typical western, worldly view is that if something is this, then it's not that. If it's not one, then it's two. There are, of course, concepts of combination: one and two, inner and outer, self and others, few and many. But these are not the concepts of Buddhadharma.

In the view of Buddhadharma, any attachment to phenomena, views, or ideas is wrong, is inaccurate. Any idea of an original substance behind all phenomena or of true emptiness within emptiness is wrong. But sentient beings will always attach to something.

The Buddha sees this attachment of sentient beings and how it prevents them from attaining liberation. Therefore, he teaches that any attachment, even to something which is perceived as the most true or most correct, will block liberation. It is this attachment and the way to break it that the sutra addresses.

Let me return to the discussion of nature or spontaneity and causes and conditions. There was in ancient India a particular sect that believed that all things arise naturally or spontaneously. This is a belief that all things in the universe come into being not by the power of a god or the power of man, but by a natural power which exists in the universe in and of itself. All things come into being or pass away according to laws that accord with this power.

There's something to be said for this view. We know that no man or group of men have the power to cause all things in the universe to arise. And the average person, who normally does not interact directly with a god, necessarily finds it difficult to understand how another being could be able to bring things into existence. Thus, it makes a certain amount of sense that things should arise naturally by a natural power, because people see the workings of nature all around them. This sect does not only teach materialism; its adherents recognize a spiritual side to life, too.

But there are problems with these views. If everything transpires according to natural law, then no god or any man has the power to influence the comings and goings of things. Those who adhere to this view would not pray. It would be totally useless. Self-cultivation, also, would be pointless. However, this sect does promote self-cultivation, but only to the end of coming to an understanding of and a merging with this natural power. Thus, in following these precepts, adherents seek to obtain freedom from the constraints of the material world. In point of fact, they see the material world as arising naturally and spontaneously, and it is by understanding the principles behind the material world, that they seek to transcend it.

The corresponding Chinese school of thought is Taoism, as it is set forth by Lao Tzu. Concisely put, Taoism holds that man lives on the earth, under the rules of the earth. The earth abides by the rules of heaven, and heaven follows the path or Tao of nature, or spontaneity. Ultimately, then, man must accord himself with the Tao.

In the I Ching it says that the Tao is beyond the material world. The Tao itself is immaterial. But Lao Tzu took this idea one step further, and said that the spirit and the material can be united in accord with the Tao. Lao Tzu teaches naturalness and spontaneity, but he does not teach of a god or gods. There is no personal god in Taoism, only a power or force that underlies and controls the universe.

There is an understanding in Taoism that when one extreme is reached, there is a movement back towards the other extreme. When the apogee of goodness is reached, then, there is a backsliding toward the negative, toward disintegration. When the utmost negative is reached, there is movement towards the positive.

This concept is related to the idea of yin and yang, and is somewhat different from the Indian school of thought. According to Taoism, good and bad are not separate. If you wish to reach the good, then place yourself in the bad. To get something, you need only discard it. There is a famous Taoist saying: "The more you get rid of, the more you have." Thus, the more you help others, the more you help yourself. This is an interesting principle. Think about it. If you're poor, and you give away what little you have, are you acquiring wealth? If you have one wife, does that you mean you could give her away, and still have a wife. This would be a misunderstanding of the concept. What is really meant here is that you have the perfect wife when you are unmarried, because the potential exists for any woman in the world to be your wife. If you are already married, then you already have a wife; all other women are excluded.

When you distill what Lao Tzu is saying, it comes down to a doctrine where there are no real opposites: no self and no other, no good and no bad. This comes pretty close to Buddhism. What about self-cultivation? For Lao Tzu, according with the natural and spontaneous is cultivation. To do so is to be in accord with the Tao.

Lao Tzu describes the following as an ideal example of harmony with the Tao: There are two distinct villages, so close that when the dogs and chickens cry out in one village, they can be heard distinctly in the next. But no one in either village ever visits the other. They are true and integrated unto themselves. This is the best way for the world to be, in his view. With no interaction, there is no competition, no strife. Everyone lives out his or her life peacefully. What does it mean to be in accord with nature? To be aware of and in harmony with the earth, water, wind -- all natural elements, and with all the animals and beings that live among these elements. To alter this state by human interference is to stray from the Tao. If I live on one bank of a river, and you live on the other, and I build a bridge so that we can meet, then I depart from natural purity. I have my water, you have yours. Why interact with each other? In this Taoist ideal, there is no vexation. You act only in accord with nature. There is no need to remove yourself to high in the mountains to undergo rigorous self-cultivation. All that is a waste of time. It only causes trouble.

In the Sutra, Ananda is referring to the Indian school of naturalness and spontaneity, not Taoism.

Most people are willing to accept some of the principles of these schools of naturalness or spontaneity. Some aspects of these teachings are correct, and are easily followed. However, these philosophies taken as a whole fall somewhat short, and the consequences of following them to the extreme would not be desirable. In India the natural philosophy was never dominant. In China, although there is much Taoist literature, few actually strived to achieve the ideal Taoist state. Few would go that far. The man on the street is not likely to follow these philosophies all the way to their logical end. Only a very philosophically minded person would try to totally integrate such views into his life.

Now, lets return to the teaching of causes and conditions. We said earlier that there is a difference between the worldly view and the Buddhadharma view of causes and conditions. Let's look at the example given in the sutra. The Buddha speaks of four conditions necessary for sight: light, space, an eye to see, and a form to be seen. And for the ear to hear? Well, there's no need for light, but there are still three conditions necessary: ear, space, and mind. And the sense of touch, or sensations in the body? There must be body, mind, and a sense of feeling. For any phenomenon to be experienced, there must be at least two conditions present.

However, if you think that reality can be experienced by virtue of the senses working through these conditions -- the four for seeing, three for hearing, and so on -- then there is a problem with your view of the self.

We can understand what light is, what the eye is, what space is, but not what the mind is. Take seeing, for example. If you believe mind still exists when the other three conditions -- eye, light, and space -- are removed, then you are wrong. If you believe that there is no mind when these three conditions are removed, then you are also wrong. The seemingly logical, worldly view of causes and conditions is not true Buddhadharma.

In Buddhadharma there is a saying: "causes and conditions give rise to phenomena, but the base nature of all phenomena is empty." It is the second part of this phrase that is important, that gives the essential difference between the worldly and the Buddhadharma view of causes and conditions. What is this emptiness? What does it mean? If you believe that it is the self, then that is wrong, of course. If you believe that emptiness is just emptiness -- absolute nothingness, a state where there's nothing there -- then that is also wrong.

We will touch on emptiness many times as we continue reading in the sutra.

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