Chan Newsletter

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.

Category: Chan Newsletter