Ch'an Newsletter - No. 81, September 1990

The Twelve Entries
(Lecture given on the Surangama Sutra by Master Sheng-yen on December 14, 1986)

In the passage from the sutra that we will discuss today, the Buddha discusses the twelve ayatanas, or entries, and he speaks about the sense organ of the eye and its object.

When the six sense organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind) come into contact with the six sense objects (what is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, felt, thought), they comprise the twelve ayatanas. When this contact occurs, the six functions of the mind (the six sense consciousnesses) are generated. (The twelve ayatanas and the six sense consciousnesses are collectively known as the eighteen realms.)

The Sanskrit term "ayatana" is usually translated as "entry" or "field." What is the meaning of this term? We might also define it as "generation" or "occurrence." This is because when contact occurs between a sense organ and a sense object, conditions arise. This creates an "occurrence."

For ordinary sentient beings these twelve entries are nothing other than the physical world. The six sense organs are material and, accordingly, the six sense objects are material. These are "worldly" dharmas, or phenomena.

According to fundamental Buddhadharma, which transcends this world, these sense organs and objects are spuriously named, because they refer to that which does not really exist. For ordinary sentient beings the twelve entries do have true existence. Actually, this "illusory existence" which I speak of is not separate from true existence. It is just that for enlightened beings it is simply one point of view. For ordinary sentient beings, it is all there is.

To illustrate this, we can use the analogy of water and waves. What sentient beings see are the waves. Sometimes the waves are big; sometimes they are small; sometimes numerous; sometimes few. But the Buddha sees the totality of the water and the waves, as well as what sentient beings see. He sees the waves, but he knows where they really come from. Ordinary sentient beings grasp only the temporary, the transient, and the illusory. Because their minds move, they see only waves as concrete phenomena having their own individual existence. The Buddha sees everything as arising from True Suchness. His mind does not move. He does not have the vexations that ordinary sentient beings have.

Ordinary sentient beings are attached to temporary, illusory phenomena, and thus they generate all manner of mental activity. This mental activity, triggered by illusory phenomena, does not represent the True Mind. How does this mental activity arise? It comes from the twelve entries.

In order to instruct us as to just how the twelve entries are illusory, the Buddha uses the example of the sense organ of the eye and its object, that which is seen. He shows that neither the eye nor its object have any true existence. To illustrate this point he asks Ananda to observe what he sees around him. They were seated in the Jetavana Park at the time. The Buddha asks Ananda, "Do the objects cause your eye to see them, or does your eye cause them to be seen?"

If you answer that it is the sense objects that cause the eye to see them, then why are there so many other things in the world that are not seen? Therefore, their existence alone is not sufficient for them to cause the eyes to see them.

Another important condition that must exist for seeing to occur is that of space and spatial relationships. There must be sufficient distance between the eye and its object and the object must have sufficient size before it can be seen. But space alone is not enough to enable us to see. Space is void, empty; it cannot be the source of seeing. Here the sutra moves out of the realm of common sense. The sutra is pointing to the truth of the nonexistence of phenomena.

Can we say that it is because of the sense organ of the eye that we are able to see? There are various forms, colors, and shapes attributable to sense objects. The eye cannot produce these things. There must be something in front of us to see, otherwise seeing cannot take place.

So how do we see things? Earlier we said that sight occurs when the sense organ and it's object come into contact. We say that cause meets condition. There is really nothing separate that can be called "seeing." Anything that exists throughout the coming together of causes and conditions has no true existence. It arises in coming together, and it perishes in separation. It has no true dharma, no true existence. Thus both the sense organ and the sense object have existence only so far as they arise through causes and conditions. This does not mean that causes and conditions have true existence. To believe this would be to make a mistake equal in gravity to the first misconception, that the organ and object have true existence. Causes and conditions also have no true existence.

To know that all dharmas are false is to know that we should not be attached to them. Perhaps this should be a motto, a principle to live by. Is there any problem with this? Someone who adhered to this line of reasoning would not be attached to any objects in particular. But he or she would still be attached to philosophical speculations, concepts, and ideas. This would still amount to attachment, and there would still be vexation. To say, "I am a Buddhist. I follow the True Path," is to remain however subtly, attached to a sense of self. It is to continue to live in vexation.

During the Buddha's time there was another religious leader who sought out the Buddha in order to debate him. He asked, "What is your highest principle?" The Buddha replied, "I don't have a highest principle. Everything to me is the truth." This may sound like a piece of sophistry, but the point is that as long as there is any kind of attachment to anything at all, this cannot represent an enlightened state.

Thus when the sutra says, "Form and seeing are false. All phenomena arise from causes and conditions," we shouldn't hold to this principle. This does not mean, however, that things just "happen" and arise spontaneously.

Many people believe this to be true. When asked how they came to meet their spouse, they may say, "Oh, we just happened to meet and get married." Such a view holds to the idea of no cause and no consequence -- no causal relationship between things. Buddhism does not accept this. Buddhism speaks of cause and consequences. Things do not "just happen."

Recently, I received a letter from a disciple in Taiwan who told me that he has been reading Buddhist books very diligently, especially those that I have written. He writes to me of incidents where he encounters people of other religions who nonetheless make prostrations to the Buddha and Bodhisattvas. When he talks to them, he usually discovers that what they say does not correspond to true Buddhadharma. He then quarrels with them, and shows them my books, and says, "Look what it says here..."

Everyone has opinions. Husbands and wives with different habits and expectations often get on each others nerves. Different people see things differently. There is really no sense in arguing, though. These things are really nothing more than waves with illusory existence. There is no point arguing about illusory things.

When some people see leaves fall they feel sad; they may feel that the year is fading without meaning. Other people see the leaves fall, and they think of snow and the New Year. These attitudes are completely different. Some people may have read foolish martial arts stories that depict monks unfavorably. Others, who may have heard Buddhadharma, may deeply respect a monk when they see one, and prostrate to him. Unfortunately, there are many more people who have read these stupid martial arts stories.

In Hong Kong at one time, monks and nuns were looked down upon. When people saw them, they would spit on their bald heads. So the monks and nuns began to wear hats or take umbrellas with them. There were superstitious gamblers who thought of their bald heads as bad omens. Once again, it is the nature of our differing view points that cause us to see things as we do. All of this is illusory. It is in fact a double illusion, at the very least. There is the primary illusion of the sense organ and object contact, and there is the illusion of the prejudice that is heaped upon what you perceive.

In training a parrot, the trainer hides behind a mirror and repeats the sounds that he wants the bird to mimic. The parrot thinks he is seeing another parrot, and copies what he sees, but it is only his own reflection that he sees.

So who are our enemies? Are they inside us or are they somewhere outside? Someone just said that the enemy exists in our own imagination.

Very often what exists within your own mind is the source of the enmity you feel towards another. Once a couple who could not stand each others habits approached me. The wife asked me for a method to help her deal with the situation. I gave her a method, but it didn't work for her. However, one day while reading a book, she came upon a passage that said, "You and your husband are not the same, so there is no need for you to agree all of the time." This idea worked for her. She told me about her success, and I said, "That's exactly what I told you." She agreed. But of course she hadn't been ready to hear it when she first came to me. Only when she became so sick of the situation was she then prepared to change. This is called, "the ripening of causes and condition."

It is by living through the twelve entries only and not seeing their illusory nature that we experience all of the vexations that we do.

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