Ch'an Newsletter - No. 91, March 1992

The Story of Vision
Lecture by Master Sheng-yen on Surangama Sutra on April 26, 1987

Some of the basic terminology used in Buddhism In general and the Surangama Sutra specifically, includes the six sense organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind), the six sense objects (what is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, felt, and thought), and the six associated sense consciousnesses. All together these comprise what is called the 18 realms. The Surangama Sutra uses these concepts to illustrate the fact that the world we see around us, as well as the self we hold on to so dearly, is illusory and without true existence.

For explanatory purposes, Buddhism divides the world in three different ways: the five skandhas, or aggregates (form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness); the 12 entries (the six sense organs and six sense objects); and the 18 realms (explained above). These divisions encompass all phenomena in the world including the cultural, the psychological, and the physical.

To have a true understanding of even one of these three ways of analyzing the world is to be on the right path. This is to say that if you have a true, deep, thorough understanding of even one of these ways of looking at the world, then you are already liberated from samsara and you are not far away from Buddhahood.

In past talks we have discussed the five skandhas and the 12 entries. Today we will concentrate on the 18 realms. The 18 realms are divided into three groups. The first concerns the physical body; the second, the environment in which the physical body resides; and the third, the mental and psychological activities within us. Thus the first and second group are basically physical and the third group is mental or psychological.

Analyze any situation and you will find that every event of which we are conscious requires the participation of all three groups. For example, today we celebrated the birthdays of four friends of the Center with a large birthday cake. Consider the act of cutting the cake. The cake is part of the environment. There is the hand that holds the knife in order to cut the cake. And there is a person who is aware that, yes, it's someone's birthday and cutting and eating the cake is part of the celebration. In this one act we have the physical environment, the sense organs, and sense consciousness involved.

Another example: right now you are listening to my talk on the Surangama Sutra. What do we use to listen to this lecture? Do we use our bodies? Do we use our ears, or do we use our minds? The lecture itself is a series of sounds, or vibrations, in the atmosphere, which is itself part of the environment. These vibrations are the objects of our ears, which are the sense organs of hearing. Finally, to make sense of these vibrations, we employ the consciousness of hearing. Thus it is these three things coming together, the sense organs, the sense objects, and the interpretive consciousness, that constitutes a cognizable event, such as "listening" to a lecture.

As we said, any event is involved with the 18 realms. What do we mean by "realm"? It means an analytic boundary. It describes the way in which one function is distinguished from other functions. For example, that which sees is distinguished from that which is seen.

Another example of the role of the 18 realms involves what a number of people said to me at lunch time--they said that the food was delicious. So good, they said, that the people who cook should open a restaurant. But there are a number of questions that involve their judgment. Who was tasting the food? What was being tasted? What was experienced?

When people taste food, it means, of course, that they must use their tongues, the organ of taste, to have a sense of the food. What they sense is the object of their taste. Finally, there is the consciousness of taste. Whenever we are aware of anything in this world, any phenomenon, it is always as a result of three factors coming together, a sense organ, a sense object, and a sense consciousness. Thus we say that these three factors constitute the necessary ingredients for the awareness of any event.

The section of the sutra that we will discuss today focuses upon these three factors as they relate to seeing, vision. In this case the three factors are the realms of the eye, the object of seeing (which is called "form" in the sutra), and finally the consciousness of seeing. Now the question is, what are these three realms? Are they really as distinguishable from one another as they first appear? Could there be something of form in the eye organ? Is consciousness contained in the eye or in form, or do they both contain consciousness? Are the boundaries clearly drawn? If one factor pours, so to speak, into another, perhaps they should not be called separate "realms." There would then be no set boundaries to allow us to distinguish where one ended and the other began.

There are other questions to ask about how "distinguishable" these realms are. In one sense they must be regarded as separate, independently existent, no possibility of interaction. After all, the eye and what the eye sees are opposites. They cannot reach each other; they are separate. However, if you believe that they are separate, when you open your eyes, you find that they are in contact with one another and seeing occurs. Thus we clearly have interactions. Therefore what we think of as an eye and its object and eye consciousness are not truly separate. They have no real, unchanging, independent existence, and thus, according to Buddhadharma, they are only illusory. 

Are the things that we see with our own eyes real or not real? Do they have true existence or not? Let us consider various situations in which seeing occurs. For example, a short while ago I saw a child riding on his bike outside the Center. If the child was in fact there, you cannot say that what I saw was an illusion.

Another example: Patrick's wife is not here today. Of course, when he returns home, he will see her. But he cannot go up to her and say, "You're just an illusion, a figment of my imagination!" She would think that something serious had gone wrong with his mind. She might want to have him institutionalized! 

Look at how important the mind is when we see. The other day someone left a bag in the reception area here at the Center. My first reaction was, "Hey, this must be a bag full of money." It turned that there was indeed some money inside, but it was not stuffed with five dollar bills as I had imagined. Why was this the first thing that came into my mind? Another person may have thought something entirely different about the contents of the bag. Someone else might have thought that it was packed with books or someone's lunch. It all depends on an instantaneous reaction in the mind at the moment. Thus each time Patrick goes home to see his wife, he might have a different reaction.

Let's use a rabbit as another example of how differently the same thing can be seen by different people. If a child sees a rabbit, he may think of rabbits that he has seen in one of his books, and conclude that it is really very much like a person; that it can talk and play with him. A doctor or medical student may look at the same rabbit and see an ideal specimen for dissection. A gourmand might think of a particular kind of rabbit stew: greasy, crispy, and delicious.

One particular sight may engender a multiplicity of images or psychological reactions in different observers. When we "see" something, we don't really see the true object itself. What we end up seeing is a psychological reaction added or superimposed over the true thing.

How, then, do we understand something as true or untrue? If we use the rabbit as an example, one way of looking at it is to say that it has a true existence, but it is only our perception and our thinking about it that is erroneous or illusory. Or we may say that the rabbit itself is illusory and apart from the truth because it does not have a permanent, unchanging existence.

What is the proper understanding? We should not attach too much significance to finding an answer. It is not important to talk about actual physical phenomena, like the rabbit or our environment. Making these distinctions leads nowhere. Falling into either one of these intellectual traps does no good, and only leads to vexation.

The purpose of Buddhadharma is to free us from vexation. If we can learn to look at the world from the clear perspective of the 18 realms, then we will see that it is really unnecessary to suffer from vexations, because they derive from illusory perceptions in our minds.

The sutra adds that even the 18 realms are illusory and without true existence. After all, they are only conventions used to break down reality into various categories. Nonetheless, the sutra continues, the 18 realms are in fact identical with the pure undefiled, unchanging True Suchness of Buddha-nature.

This seeming paradox can be explained by distinguishing between different point of view. For ordinary sentient beings the functions described by the 18 realms can be a source of vexation. They can lead us astray. But those who are enlightened, those who have reached Buddhahood, do not have to free themselves from the 18 realms. They act within the 18 realms unfettered by vexations. Such perfected beings perceive that the 18 realms are neither separate nor different from Buddha-nature, or True Suchness. They perceive that the Dharma body of all Buddhas has always been within these 18 realms.

Take the example of a mother and a daughter. If the daughter attains Buddhahood, how will she look at this world? Will she turn to her mother and say, "This is just illusory sense data; this is not a mother." Would this seem proper? Would she act in this way?

Another example: one of our members owns a restaurant. If she attains Buddhahood, will she turn to her customers and say, "You are all nothing but illusory sense data. You are of no importance to me"? Would we be able to go to her restaurant and help ourselves to whatever we wanted without paying? Imagine what her son and daughter would say! They would come over here in a rage and cry, "Shih-fu, what have you done? Our mother is driving the business right into bankruptcy!"

But let's return to the 18 realms. When you first encounter something or someone, what is the first thought in your mind? Is it one of greed? Hatred? Or indifference or neutrality? If we react with greed or hatred, then, yes, we will give rise to vexation. But if we react with neutrality or equanimity, then vexation will not arise. We simply note that something has occurred. We are aware of it. It is part of our experience, no more, no less.

If you misunderstand what the Surangama Sutra is teaching, then you might conclude that you can simply go home and forget about your parents, your children, or your spouse. That would be most unfortunate. Shakyamuni Buddha would really weep to see the Dharma fallen to such a dismal state.

Let us go back and examine a few of the different reactions towards the rabbit. We discussed the child, the doctor, the gourmand. How can we describe their mental states? Were they filled with greed or hatred? Or both? Or neither?

The gourmand might react to the rabbit by thinking about it cooked and lying on a platter. He might even begin to drool. Greed might also be involved in the doctor's reaction. He might think of dissecting the rabbit and discovering something new. He might see the rabbit as something that would further his career.

Another person might have a neighbor who kept rabbits whose feces were particularly foul-smelling. The stench might have driven him to the point where he was obsessed with resentment towards his neighbor. The sight of any rabbit might remind him of this, and set him off thinking about the decline of his neighborhood.

I once took a walk with someone who just had a terrible quarrel with his wife. They were at the point of divorce. As we walked, any woman that this man saw put him in a foul mood because all women reminded him of his wife.

The opposite scenario is possible, too. A man in love may look at any young girl and think that she is attractive because he is in a good mood and has only pleasant feelings for his beloved.

What the Surangama Sutra shows is that the mind does not simply perceive, but rather it adds its own emotions and perceptions. If a sense organ, say the eye, only perceived what is in front of it and gave rise to nothing but seeing, there would be no vexation. It is only when we add to this initial direct perception feelings of love, hate, desire, or greed, among others -- that vexations arise. The sutra advises us to only give rise to that natural, direct response. When you see something, your first reaction should be to see exactly what is before you, not what your mind introduces. If you can accomplish have this -- have your mind respond only to perception then you will be in accordance with Buddha-nature because this is an undefiled state of purity. This is indeed within the 18 realms, so you can see that if properly understood, there is nothing within the 18 realms that should engender hate or greed.

From the standpoint of the 18 realms, what is a rabbit? A rabbit is just a rabbit unencumbered by any idea that is either edible, delicious, or distasteful, or that is a friend or a dirty animal. There is simply the unadorned, naked perception of a rabbit. There is no sense of liking or disliking.

In such a state as this, does mental activity occur? Yes, there is mental activity. The mind remains active, but sense data do not create disturbances in the mind or give rise to vexations.

For example, you may go to a department store and browse for hours. When you come home, what would you remember having seen? One person might remember seeing a lovely little puppy. Another might remember a fur coat. Someone else might have remembered a handsome suit or unusual tie. But for all the time that you may have spent in the store, you may not remember too many other things than these few I mentioned. Of course, before you went there, you had an idea of what you wanted to see and what you wanted to buy. When you saw those things, they made an impression on you. Other things in the store for which you had little interest may have passed before your eyes, but they did not register. They had real existence for you. It is as if you never even saw them.

Thus what you remember is a small percentage of you have actually seen.

We often look without seeing. Why is that? It is because the eye consciousness was not functioning at that time and in that place. You may look at something, but if the eye consciousness does not register the event, it will have no reality and you will have no memory of it.

There's a Chinese saying much like the English, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." But in Chinese it runs something like, "the one you love will appear a beauty to you." Where does this love come from? Is it inborn or acquired? A common viewpoint in psychology is that the affinity or tendency for certain feelings to arise toward another is developed in infanncy. But according to Buddhadharma, this is only partially correct because the accumulation of causes which results in this affinity is primarily developed in previous lifetimes. In these previous lives you might have fallen in love with a certain individual whom you might meet once again in this life. Once you meet, you may be immediately drawn to this person and find it difficult to leave him or her. This it called the fruition of previous karma. If you have never had such an experience, it may be that you were a monk or a nun in a previous life.

Why is it that you may look at something and instantly be filled with strong desire or loathing, and someone else may look at the same thing with no reaction at all? There is, of course, some influence from one's surroundings and upbringing, but the most important factors come from karmic seeds that were planted in previous lifetimes and whose consequences come to fruition in this life.

I mentioned earlier that it is the lover's eye that makes the beloved beautiful. This principle really applies to every one of us. We all carry a pair of gasses -- karmic glasses -- that we have brought from our previous lifetimes. What kind of glasses we have depends on the karmic seeds we planted previously. Whatever psychological reactions we may now have to things, events, and people, and all of our feelings and judgments -- are all colored by the karmic seeds we carry with us from previous lifetimes.

Of course these seeds are affected by what we do now. If, for example, we bring a pair of lover's glasses to this life and we continue to plant the same kind of karmic seeds, we will only enhance, or at the very least, continue this tendency. On the other hand, if we try to free ourselves from these karmic burdens and at the same time we practice Buddhadharma, we will be able to gradually lessen the distortion in our karmic glasses and gradually see reality as it is. Otherwise, if we continue to generate the same karma as we have, the glasses will never lose their distortion and it may, in fact, grow worse.

I'm going to return to some of the lines in the text now. It is when the eye and its object, form, come together that eye consciousness arises. But on the other hand, it is only because of eye consciousness that one can be aware of the eye itself and, subsequently, what the eye sees.

Previously, I explained the meaning of "realm" as a boundary, or a point of definition. Each of the three realms -- eye, object, or consciousness -- can be taken as the boundary, as the point of definition. We can say that without the form, something to see, the eye and eye consciousness would be irrelevant. Thus we can argue that form is the pivotal point of the relationship. But if there were no eye, we would not be able to see anything, nor would any consciousness arise. Thus we can argue that the eye is the point of definition, the boundary. Likewise the eye consciousness can be presented as the pivotal point in the interaction of these three factors.

From another perspective we can say that none of these realms has true existence. For example, if the eye is cut off from the object, it is clear that the eye itself cannot manufacture what is seen. If form or color is not present, it cannot see form or color. The eye alone does not possess form or color -- there is no green or yellow or red or white to see within it. If the eye is separated from its object, then it cannot function as a "seeing" eye. Even if you add eye consciousness to the eye itself, without something to be seen, it will not see. Thus only two of the three factors is insufficient for the function of seeing to occur. In other words, the eye cannot function as an organ of sight, without form and consciousness. Likewise neither form nor consciousness alone can cause seeing to occur without the presence of the other realms.

Let's concentrate on the object of seeing, form. If we use this object as the starting point for our argument, then we can show that it and the two other realms, the eye and eye consciousness, have no true existence. Color cannot be known without an eye to see it and an eye consciousness to interpret it. Since the colors are not within the eye or the eye consciousness, we know that the eye, eye consciousness, and colors must exist simultaneously before seeing can occur. Thus we say that the colors themselves cannot have true existence, because they cannot exist independently.

If consciousness remains unchanged no matter what mental state we are in, yet we see the same thing differently in different situations, what we see cannot have true existence. If we always saw things as they were, unaltered by our mood, then what we saw would always be real. But this is not the case until we reach enlightenment.

Now the question is raised: how exactly does our mental state affect what we see? Does eye consciousness change with our mental state? Or is it the mind itself, our sixth consciousness (our thoughts, memory, imagination) that changes? In fact, for there to be a cognitive function (that is, for us to note or think about something we see), eye consciousness must arise together with the sixth consciousness. Otherwise, there is just isolated consciousness, and that is not what we refer to here. So indeed it is our mental consciousness, the sixth consciousness, that changes and affects what we see.

What about space and time? These, too, are concepts which exist only in our mind. They exist by virtue of the 18 realms. Apart from them, space and time have no true, independent existence.

Here is another question. How do the three realms function for a blind person? How can there be sense objects if the sense does not function? Is there no space and time for someone who is blind?

The other senses may function perfectly well in a blind person. Even someone born blind still has a kind of subconscious vision that results from sense data drawn from the other sense organs. When a blind person holds or touches an object or hears a sound, a certain sense of form develops in his mind. Thus someone who is blind may come to have a sense of what is round, rectangular, etc.

We have said that the eye does not have true existence by itself. We have said that the object seen does not have true existence by itself. Finally, we must conclude that even the eye consciousness does not have true existence by itself. If they do have true existence where do they exist and what is their relationship? Do the eye and its object reside in the eye consciousness? We cannot say. We can only conclude that when these three realms come together, seeing occurs. But individually none of these three has true existence. They are only illusions. Aware of this, we should not let these illusions give rise to such feelings as greed, hatred, desire, resentment, or anger; all of which amount to nothing more than vexations.

Thus we say that these three factors are illusory and apart from the truth. Only when we truly see, truly experience the illusory nature of these three factors will we be in touch with the True Suchness of Buddha-nature.

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