Ch'an Newsletter - No. 94, September 1992

Taste and Touch
Lecture by Master Sheng-yen on Surangama Sutra on May 17, 1987

So far we have covered sight and sound. If you understand these two, you will find that the Sutra deals with taste and touch in a similar way.


When the tongue comes in contact with food, taste consciousness arises. Where does taste come from? From food? Foods have different tastes. Cane sugar is sweet, black plums are sour, rock salt is salty, ginger is spicy, lemons are bitter. If taste originates from food, then foods should be aware of their own tastes. We know that is not true. Does taste come from the tongue? If it did, then the tongue should be able to taste even without food.

Common sense tells us that taste comes from the tongue's contact with food. If you suck on sugarcane, it tastes sweet and you say that sugarcane is sweet. But sugarcane alone cannot know its own sweetness. The tongue and the sugarcane must both be there.

To go further, we must understand a fundamental teaching of Buddhadharma: nothing exists outside the mind. All external phenomena are known only through our mind. The sweetness of cane sugar is a mental perception, a consciousness of sweetness. It is subjective. Would sugarcane taste the same to one person as it tastes to another? We don't know, but it's doubtful that it would.

There are two ways to explain this teaching. First, we can take the perspective of the Consciousness Only school of Buddhism (Vijnanavada) which states that all of our past karma is planted like seeds in the eighth consciousness, a very subtle component of the mind. As causes and conditions ripen, these seeds manifest in various ways as external phenomena. So the external environment originates directly from the mind.

Second, we can look at this as Descartes did, who said, "I think; therefore I am." When our minds are clear, we are very much aware of the external environment and our connection with it. Because of this awareness, the outside world seems real. But when we sleep, or if we faint or die, the mind is no longer aware of the external environment. Thus, as far as we're concerned it is nonexistent. So the external environment exists only to the extent that we cognize it.

Everybody has a unique perception of the world. For example, assume you have a lot of problems and you feel very unhappy. You can't see any way out, and you cry for a long time until finally you fall asleep. But at the moment when you wake up, it seems your problems are gone, or at least they're not as bad as before. You see the world in a fresher, more positive way. Even though the external environment remains unchanged, your perception and feelings about the world can change.

People often try to escape from their own subjective worlds by drinking or taking drugs. They want to be free from the vexations brought on by the environment, even if for a short time. Alcohol and drugs cut us off from the environment.

Where does taste come from? From the mind? Without food and a tongue, your mind won't register taste. In fact, the mind would not even exist without contact between the sense organs and sense objects. The mind is not the origin of taste, either.

Taste requires the combination of food, the tongue, and taste consciousness. It cannot exist independent of the changing, mutual interaction of all three. Thus, taste is really an illusory experience.


Common sense tells us that our skin has the ability to perceive touch. Skin comes into contact with something, and the mind becomes conscious of touching it. Touch involves three components: the sense organ of touch (skin), objects of touch, and the consciousness of touch.

There are two conditions that allow touch to take place: contact with or separation from an object. A hard object is pressed against you. It feels uncomfortable. If it is removed, you will experience a pleasant feeling. Both uncomfortable and pleasant feelings come from the sense of touch.

When I first came to the USA, I was surprised to see people shaking hands on the street. Good friends even hug or kiss each other on the cheek. In Asia people are more restrained and probably wouldn't feel comfortable being any more demonstrative than shaking hands.

After I had been in the USA for a few years, I got used to this custom. It's quite sensible. People express their happiness at meeting each other by sharing the pleasure of physical contact. If two people are very close, any kind of contact can be very pleasant.

Our bodies have strong attachments. Buddhadharma tells us that the body is responsible for most of our vexations. For example, take two young brothers. One likes to sleep with the window open, and the other with the window closed. If the children sleep in the same room, they will quarrel. The first says to the other, "If you shut the window, I'm going to suffocate!" The other responds, "Don't leave the window open! If you do, I'll catch cold!" Even so, the problem isn't so bad between two brothers, because they can always get their own separate apartments when they grow up. But imagine if a married couple had this problem. The quarrel might end in divorce.

For those of you not yet married, you should make a detailed survey of your likes and dislikes and compare it to those of a prospective spouse. But even that might not work. Sometimes there seem to be no problems before marriage and in early marriage. But after time passes, body conditions change and different preferences arise. When it's time for karmic obstructions to arise, they will definitely come.

What can you do? The best thing is to stay unmarried. Become a monk or nun. If you want to get married, you must prepare yourself. At least one of you should be prepared to tolerate the other person.

People may have very different responses from touching the same object. For example, doctors commonly recommend sleeping on a firm mattress. But I am very bony and I don't have much extra fat. For me perhaps it's better to use a soft mattress. For someone with more flesh, a firm mattress might feel better.

In my case the whole question is irrelevant because I always sleep on the floor. Whether I have a hard or soft bed doesn't make any difference. Nonetheless, there may be people so used to sleeping on a soft mattress that they would ache all over if they tried to sleep on a hard bed.

Sensitivity to touch can be changed with training. About 25 years ago in Taiwan, I went to visit an old monk who was practicing in the mountains. When I got there, I found that he didn't have a kitchen and had no implements for boiling water.

"Don't you ever boil water for drinking," I asked. He said, "No, I just drink water the way I find it. I never boil water." "How about when you take a bath," I asked him. "I use cold water," he replied. "And what about when you cook?" He said, "I just eat raw food."

Arcording to Chinese mythology, he said, people were originally very healthy. They ate everything raw. Consequently, their bodies became hardy and they were never sick. Then someone came along who discovered fire. People started cooking their food and began contracting diseases. It was only at that point that diseases needed to be classified and cures found. "Hah!" I said. "That makes a lot of sense." So I tried taking cold-water baths and right away I caught cold. I tried eating only raw food and I got diarrhea.

After that, I went to the mountains to go on a retreat. There were people there who cooked, so I didn't have to eat raw food. But there was no hot water, and from my prior experience I didn't want to bathe in cold water. So initially I just rubbed my body with cold water until it became warm. That made me feel in excellent condition, much better than if I had taken a hot water bath. Eventually, I started taking cold water baths, and I did not catch cold. So I was able to train my body. Then some years later, when I was in Japan, I noticed that there were cold-water public baths. After waiting some time, I finally decided to try them. I got a cold immediately.

The point is that the body can be trained to react differently to the same sense object or environment, but it's a slow process. Warm is not necessarily better than cold, or soft better than hard. Even though it can be trained, the body brings many problems. It wants pleasant sensations. It likes to rest. It doesn't like overmuch pressure. These preferences lead to many vexations.

Where does touch come from? Not from the body alone. A dead person can't tell if something is soft or hard, cold or warm, smooth or coarse. Touch doesn't come from the sense objects alone, without the body. But everyone has a consciousness of touch. Does touch come from the mind? It is because of the mind that we decide to act, thereby creating good and bad karma. Without the mind, there could be no karma. But we discussed before that the mind could not exist without contact between sense objects and sense organs. So the mind cannot be the origin of touch sensation, if its own existence requires the objects and the body as a precondition.

So we return to the original question. The body, the object of touch, and the consciousness of touch are interdependent. None can arise without the other. So touch, like taste, has no independent, real existence.

The Sutra next addresses the question: where does the mind come from? Before going into that, I would like to tell a story.

There was once a disciple of the Buddha. One day, after begging for alms and eating, he started to practice walking meditation under the trees. As he was walking, he noticed another monk whom he recognized to be an outer path practitioner, not a member of the Sangha. This other monk had also recently eaten, but was not doing walking meditation. He appeared to be uttering various incantations.

Suddenly, out of his mouth came a magical flower, to which he said, "I've just eaten my Lunch. But I'm still not satisfied. I think I'd like to have some fruit." Whereupon, various types of delectable fruit appeared magically out of the flower. The monk finished the fruit and then said, "Now I need some water to wash my hands and feet." There and then, a towel and a water basin filled with water came out of the flower. He washed himself and threw the basin and towel back into the flower, which magically absorbed them. Finally, the monk said to the flower, "I've finished my Lunch, but I'm alone and I feel bored. I need some company." A very beautiful girl then appeared out of the flower, and the two began to enjoy themselves under the trees.

Witnessing this, the Buddha's disciple felt sad. He went back to Sakyamuni Buddha and told him what happened. The Buddha replied, "This practitioner may indeed have done what you say. But it is not very strange. Many of my disciples do just the same thing." Then the Buddha's disciple said, "No! No! Oh Buddha, your precepts are very strict and we try to follow them exactly. We would never do these things!" The Buddha responded, "Everything comes from the mind. So long as your mind moves, so long as it is affected by the environment, you are no better than the outer path practitioner. In fact, he is more advanced than you because he can produce a flower from his mouth which provides for him anything he desires. You can't do this."

Then the Buddha added, "That monk, though he appears to you as an outer path practitioner, is actually a great Bodhisattva. In performing those magical feats, he showed you the true nature of your mind."

From that point onwards, the Buddha's disciple paid no more attention to the environment. He tried to reflect on his own mind.

The point of this story is that there is no external environment apart from your mind. The environment itself is a reflection of your mind. If things around you are going badly, it's because your mind is in a troubled state. If things are going well, it's because your mind is in a positive state.

Some of you may object to this. For example, say some gangsters came to the Ch'an Center to kill me. Is it really my own mind which produces the gangsters? Or say a woman gets raped. Did her mind really create the experience? Did her mind want it to happen? Of course, we cannot take this position. But since this story comes from the Sutras, we should try to reconcile ourselves to it.

It is best to view unavoidable suffering or vexatious as the fruition of our own karma. If we take this standpoint, at least our vexations will be reduced, and the suffering itself will be more bearable. This explanation is consistent with the story also. Suffering comes from karmic seeds which reside in our own minds. Of course, we should try to improve our situation if we can. If someone approaches with the intent to kill you, you shouldn't think to yourself, "This is the karma in my eighth consciousness manifesting, so it's OK that I'm going to be killed." You should try to save your life. On the other hand, if you face a situation you cannot avoid, you should recognize and accept it as your karma. Don't give way to vexations.

In the past series of lectures, we've discussed the nature of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. What the Sutra has to say on the origin of the mind is really the most important of all. We will continue talking about that next time.

Chan Newsletter Table of Content

Copyright © 2001
Dharma Drum Mountain