Song of Mind of Niu-t'ou Fa-Jung
Commentary by Master Sheng-yen
This is the 24th in a series of lectures given during retreats at the
Ch'an Center in Elmhurst, Queens, New York.
No need to confirm emptiness; Naturally, there is clear comprehension.
The "emptiness" that the Song of Mind and, indeed, all Buddhist texts
speak of does not mean "nothingness." Buddhism is often considered to be
nihilistic and pessimistic because of this misunderstanding. By emptiness,
Buddhism means impermanence: nothing lasts forever, and everything continually
changes, formed and transformed by causes and conditions. People who practice
without teachers sometimes misunderstand this meaning and think they are
enlightened. On one retreat I asked someone, "What is your name?"
He replied, "I have no name."
"Who are you?"
"I don't exist, so how could I be somebody?"
"Where are you?"
"If nothing exists, how can I be anywhere?"
The retreatant was not wrong in what he said. He may well have been
experiencing those feelings and ideas. His name was given to him after
he was born. Originally, it did not exist. His body was given birth to
by his mother. Before birth, it did not exist, and it surely is not the
same body now that he is an adult. If this is so, then does the body truly
exist, and if the body does not exist, how can one speak of a space that
it resides in? These are ideas one can philosophically debate and logically
deduce, but they are not enlightenment.
People sometimes go through phases in which worldly activities seem
boring, insubstantial, unreal. After a retreat, a woman told me that she
did not want to be bothered with her husband and child anymore. I asked,
"What is it that you want?"
She said, "Nothing, really, but if I thought about it, perhaps I would
consider becoming a nun."
I said, "But if you become a nun, you will still need a master, and
then later you will probably have disciples."
She replied, "No, I don't want that. I just want to become a nun."
I said, "If that's your attitude, then you're not qualified to become
a nun." After a while, the sentiments that she felt faded. She, also, was
not experiencing Buddhist emptiness. The examples of the man and the woman
illustrate two kinds of false emptiness. With true emptiness, or ultimate
emptiness, everything exists, but one is not attached to anything. The
Heart Sutra says that the five skandhas (form, sensation, perception, volition,
and consciousness) are empty. It does not mean that they are apparitions
or mirages. What does not exist is what we call the self. The five skandhas
exist, but they are without enduring, individual, independent self-natures.
Realizing this directly - that is, through the understanding that comes
with enlightenment - is experiencing true emptiness.
The Diamond Sutra says that all dharmas are like dreams, illusions,
bubbles in water, shadows, and reflections. They seem to exist, but they
do not. We can intellectually debate this and arrive at some sort of mental
construct we all agree upon, but it would be nothing more than conjecture.
For instance, a wall is real in the sense that it is solid: we can see
it, feel it, and hurt ourselves if we run into it. From the Buddhist perspective,
however, it is not real because it is impermanent and does not exist in
and of its own accord. Scientists, too, say that all matter is, in essence,
a combination of electromagnetic radiation and local densities of atomic
particles; but this too is theory and speculation, nothing more than interesting
conversation unless you realize it through direct experience. You will
naturally understand the nature of emptiness when your mind is completely
unattached to any and all ideas of self and other.
The Song of Mind says that there is no need to confirm emptiness. Emptiness
is not a treasure hidden somewhere outside yourself that needs to be discovered
or experienced. It is evident, right here and now, all around you and within
you. Earlier today, someone farted and the stench filled the room. It may
mean that someone's digestion was off, which is an indication to me that
the person may not have been meditating well, but that was then, and everything
is different now. Everything has changed. This can happen only if things
are empty. Emptiness is the true nature of what we take to be reality.
The Song of Mind says, "Naturally, there is clear comprehension." When
there are no attachments and obstructions, the mind is clear and instantly
understands its own nature. This clarity is often compared to light, but
it is a faulty analogy because light does not penetrate everywhere. Where
there are obstructions, there is still darkness. The clarity of enlightenment
has no obstructions. It is clarity of the mind, not of the eye. This clear,
bright mind is the no-mind experience, the mind of no attachment.
The reason you are not enlightened is because you take the five skandhas
to be fixed and real. Let me ask you, are you attached to your body, to
your ideas and ways of thinking, to your feelings? Do you know anyone who
is not? It is part of the human experience, and it is why we practice,
because practice helps us to see into the true nature of emptiness. All
one needs to do is stay with the method, and attachments will drop, one
by one. Gradually, ultimately, you will perceive all five skandhas to be
empty, and when you do, you will have attained true freedom.