Ch'an Newsletter - No. 75 December 1989

The Sun in the Buddha's Mind
(Lecture given by Master Sheng-yen on the Surangama Sutra on January 1, 1989)

Purnamaitrayaniputra, one of Buddha's disciples, seeks to understand the difference between the Buddha's mind and that of ordinary sentient beings. He approaches this problem by asking the Buddha about the four elements: earth, water, fire and wind. He recognizes that these elements are mutually destructive. How can fire and water, for example, and the principles underlying them, exist together in the universe? Why do they not raise obstacles and hindrances to each other? Why doesn't one element triumph over another, or why don't all the elements simply cancel each other out?

The Buddha answers that in wonderful enlightenment, in the illumined mind, nothing is in contradiction. Everything is possible. Wonderful enlightenment refers to Buddhahood and the illumined mind refers to unlimited great wisdom. Even though the Buddha himself has no existence in the phenomenal world, everything in the phenomenal world can be contained in his illumined mind. The sutra gives an analogy to explain this: imagine the sun in the sky on a bright day. Two men standing together by a river see its reflection. Then one man walks east; the other west. Each sees the sun-in the water-accompanying him as he walks. A foolish man will believe that the sun he sees is the real sun. A wise man understands that it is a reflection, an appearance. There are two people in the sutra's analogy, each of whom sees a sun. But if there were a thousand people, they would see a thousand suns, all different.

This analogy shows that there is really nothing within the wonderful enlightenment and illumined mind of the Buddha, just as there is really no sun in the river. However, each sentient being within this wonderful enlightenment and illumined mind sees his own world, a world unlike anyone else's.

It was stated earlier in the sutra that because of their karma, sentient beings see the four elements of earth, water, wind and fire, and they see the mountains and rivers and the great earth. All phenomena they see are generated by their previous karma. But for the Buddha, who is free from karma, there is no such thing as the four elements, the mountains, rivers and great earth. Only sentient beings believe that the Buddha sees these things as they do. But nothing exists in wonderful enlightenment and the illumined mind, so these phenomena do not manifest for him. Sentient beings, however, can only see and understand the Buddha in the context of what they can sense and know: the four elements, the mountains, the rivers and the great earth. But for Buddha these things have no reality.

Sometimes I am asked, "When someone attains Buddhahood, does he still exist?" But a more appropriate question is, "What is it like to be enlightened?" This question causes us to reflect on the question of a self. We have heard that before enlightenment, you must pass through a stage of selflessness, or no self. We may admit that the sense of self has given us a myriad of vexations, but the idea of totally separating from self seems terrifying. What is it like to have no self? This is somewhat puzzling. In the sutras the Buddha continually refers to himself in the first person. When he first attained Buddhahood, he stated, "In the heavens and on the earth, I am the highest. I am the most worthy of respect." How can this be? It looks as if Sakyamuni Buddha still had a self if he referred to himself in this manner. If he has a self, then he necessarily had all the vexations associated with a sense of self. Is this true?

For Buddha, indeed, there is no self, but he must provide a "self' or an "I," and therefore a "Buddha" that sentient beings can relate to and have faith in.

The limitations of language demand that certain conventions be maintained. This is why most sutras open with, "Thus have I heard." Ananda is the hearer. Although it cannot be truly said that something was heard, or that anyone heard it, this phrase affirms the actual occurrence of the sutra for sentient beings.

Once, just after a Ch'an retreat, I lost my hat. During the retreat, I had often spoken of having no self. When the hat was found, and it was asked, "Whose hat is this?" I answered, "It's mine." The finder asked me if my response meant that I, too, had a self. I asked him, "If you were me, how would you have answered the question?"

Avy has an objection. She says that Chinese sometime use "someone" rather than resort to "I.,' It's true, on that occasion I might have said, "That hat belongs to someone." Then the one who picked up the hat might have given it to anybody. That wouldn't do. According to Buddhadharma, labels like 'you' or 'me' or 'self or 'others' are really only false names. They exist only in a false sense. We may attribute existence to these false names, but it is only for the sake of convention. Otherwise, daily activity and normal interaction would be quite impossible. You may be at the level of selflessness, but how are you going to address your own father? Will you call him, "Dad?" Does that mean that someone with no attachment to a self is still attached to his father? Would calling him, "this person" be better? No, it would be ridiculous.

The problem of being caught up with concepts and labels is illustrated by the story of a discourse given by a Dharma master. During his talk, he made two statements that sounded rather contradictory. First, he said that a mustard seed could be contained inside Mount Sumeru, the great mountain that stands at the center of the universe. Next, he said that Mount Sumeru could be placed inside the mustard seed. The mustard seed is very small; Mount Sumeru is prodigious.

A scholar in the audience, who was also a high level government official, asked the Dharma master how this could be. He understood the mustard seed in Mount Sumeru, but he could not fathom the second statement. He said to the Dharma master, "I'm of ordinary size. Certainly smaller than Mount Sumeru. Can you put me in a mustard seed?" What do you think? Was the Dharma master claiming supernormal powers? How could he justify his statement?

The Dharma master said that not only can Mount Sumeru be placed in the mustard seed, in fact, all the Buddhas of the ten directions from the past, present and future can sit on the tip of a fine hair. Taken aback at this, the official reminded the Dharma master, "You still haven't answered my question: 'Can you put me inside a mustard seed?' And here you go changing the subject and making a statement that is even more unbelievable than what you first said!"

The Dharma master replied, "Honorable Sir, I've heard that you are very learned; that you have read in excess of ten thousand volumes." "Well," said the scholar, "Ten thousand is really not that much for me. I probably have read two or three times that number." "Then let me ask you a question," the Dharma master said. "How large is your head? How can you hold so many books -- numbering in the tens of thousands -- in that head you have on your shoulders?"

We can say that memory is unlimited. It doesn't occupy space and it is not constricted by time. It's not like a magnetic computer tape that has a finite capacity. Until you reach a very advanced age, there seems to be no limit to what you can learn. Do you really think the scholar official found this argument convincing? I doubt he was really satisfied. Most likely, he wanted to say, "Let me see you do it. Put Mount Sumeru in a mustard seed right now."

Nevertheless, the scholar decided to let the matter go and said to the Dharma master, "Well, if my head can contain more than ten thousand books, in a certain sense I guess it may be reasonable to accept, at least by analogy, that a mustard seed can contain the whole of Mount Sumeru." But I think this scholar's reply was really quite foolish.

How can we understand this seemingly impossible statement? First, we have to understand how the mustard seed and Mount Sumeru look to the Buddha. Are they equal in size or is one bigger than the other? To the Buddha, they are the same. Why is that?

Pursuing such puzzles might seem to lead us into a blind alley. How can we fit Mount Sumeru into a mustard seed? This is not a question for the Buddha. From his perspective the mustard seed and Mount Sumeru have no individual existence. They are undifferentiated in his view. You cannot even call the mustard seed a mustard seed or Mount Sumeru Mount Sumeru.

Let's return to the sutra. We said that in Buddha's enlightened, illumined mind there is no such thing as earth, water, fire, wind; no such thing as mountain, river and great earth. This does not stop sentient beings from believing that they see these phenomena. As in the analogy in the sutra, the sun is not in the river, yet sentient beings will see it there and forget that it is a reflection. Buddha can help any number of sentient beings at any level at the same time, and each may believe that Buddha appears in this world only for his or her sake. This is because every sentient being hears or learns a particular aspect of the Dharma from the Buddha. This understanding is completely unrelated to what other sentient beings learn from the Buddha.

The Vimalakirti Sutra states that the Buddha expounds the Dharma from one sound. Sentient beings, according to their level -- animal, human, etc. -- achieve a particular understanding. But when Buddha speaks the Dharma, he speaks an undifferentiated Dharma. He does not think of a particular sentient being or group of sentient beings. It is the karmic affinity of sentient beings themselves and their attainment which determines their understanding of the Buddha's teachings. It is only because of sentient beings, not because of the Buddha, that the distinction arose in later ages between the so-called Hinayana, the Lesser Vehicle, and Mahayana, the Greater Vehicle, and within that, the distinction between the sudden teaching and the gradual teaching. These distinctions came into being only because of the varied karmic affinity, karmic roots, and karmic attainment of sentient beings who have developed different and sometime conflicting understandings of the Dharma.

We may wonder if these distinctions exist in the Buddha's mind. Does he recognize the Hinayana or Mahayana, gradual teaching, and sudden teaching? Most of you say no, they do not exist for the Buddha. Then what is it we hear or what do we think we hear in Dharma talks? Isn't the Surangama Sutra, the sutra I am speaking about now, isn't it something said by Buddha? Isn't it something that came forth from Buddha's mind?

We can equate the Surangama Sutra, or any other sutra for that matter, with the sun in the river seen by ordinary sentient beings. Indeed, all the sutras of Buddha are comparable to the suns that people see in the water. That is why at the point of death, the Buddha cautioned that during the previous forty years he had not said a single word. Thus, when I am asked about specific Dharma questions during retreats, I say, "Avoid such erroneous thinking. Buddha never spoke Dharma. Just go and practice."

Often at the end or towards the end of a retreat, people tell me how helpful my talks were. They say that a particular comment here or there was precisely what they needed at the moment when they were in greatest difficulty. It sounds as if I was specifically addressing the problems of the people on the retreat. It may sound like this, but it is really not the case. It is not that I am a Buddha or that I speak an undifferentiated Dharma. I don't plan what I am going to say. I simply speak according to what I see as appropriate in the moment. I feel that I have to say something, otherwise I won't look like a master. I just speak some random words, that's all. In fact, I have told participants in the retreat that they need someone to say something. It matters little what I say. They will find almost anything useful according to their need and their attainment.

On retreat I emphasize how important it is to have faith in the master. If you feel that what I say is really something that you could devise with a little bit of effort, then what I say will be of no use to you. Maintaining the attitude that what I say is correct will help you progress on the retreat. Even Sakyamuni Buddha could not help you if you had no faith in him. That is why I say that Buddha does not want to speak the Dharma, but sentient beings want to hear it.

There are many, many sutras gathering dust on bookshelves, waiting to be read. One who has no faith may look over a sutra, but he or she will have no real interest in it. However, when those with proper karmic roots come in contact with Buddhadharma, they marvel at the subtlety and depth of the teaching.

Let's go back to the Buddha. Buddha never really plans or thinks about speaking any particular aspect of the Dharma, but sentient beings need to hear him. The Buddha responds to the needs of sentient beings. He does not speak out of his own needs. But as we said before, different sentient beings hear the Dharma according to their karmic roots and attainment. I see this on retreats. I will say something in particular and see that two people benefit from what I said, but each hears my words on a different level and benefits accordingly. That they each benefit does not mean that they will attain enlightenment or reach Buddhahood at the same moment. I simply say what I say and those with the need and the faith obtain the benefits according to their efforts and attainment.

Once a woman remarked to me how difficult it would be to match the compassion of Kuan Yin (Avalokitesvara), who hears and helps sentient beings. She thought she would be overwhelmed if she tried to develop anything like Kuan Yin's compassion. I asked her why she had that attitude. She said, "I recently helped out a friend. But now he calls me up every day and every night, pleading how much he needs me. Helping him now means nothing less than marrying him. If I have so much trouble with one person, how could I even dream of being like Kuan Yin, who helps all sentient beings?"

I replied, "There's no problem. Kuan Yin is supposed to have a thousand arms and a thousand heads. If someone needs her arm, she can just give it away. She loses nothing." The woman was not so sure: "What if a thousand people each want one of her arms? The Bodhisattva would run out of arms!" "It doesn't matter," I said, "A Bodhisattva can transform each arm into a thousand or a thousand thousand arms. There really is no end." Nevertheless, the woman concluded, "It still seems to me that it must be very tough on Kuan Yin to respond to the pleadings of all sentient beings."

Do you think my answer to her was sufficient -- that Kuan Yin can transform each arm into a myriad of other arms. This woman was afraid to pursue the matter further. What do you think?

Someone just said that the correct interpretation is that the Bodhisattva really does not help sentient beings. They find the answer to their needs within themselves, from their own minds. If this is the case, why do we bother to pray to or ask for help from the Bodhisattva? Another person answered, "Maybe sentient beings do not have enough faith in themselves -- in their own minds -- nor sufficient understanding of Buddhadharma, so they place their faith in a Bodhisattva whom they take to be outside of themselves."

Sentient beings must be helped by what they can understand, that which can reach them on whatever level they happen to be. There may indeed be nothing in Buddha's or Kuan Yin's mind, but sentient beings can pray to them for almost anything. There is no limit to what they can ask for and what they can achieve through their own efforts. It is their own merit and virtue that allows sentient beings to attain what they strive for. But if that is really so, why can't we realize our goals by simply calling out our own names? Why is there this need to pray to Kuan Yin. Why not just say, "Hey, me! I believe in me! I have faith in me! Let me have what I want." Would that work? Certainly not. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have illumined, enlightened minds. We do not yet. Until such time as we are enlightened, we must have faith in the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. An analogy would be trying to look at ourselves without a mirror. We need a mirror to look at our own reflection. No one can lift his eyes out of their sockets, turn them around, and stare at his own face.

Are there any questions? Avy just commented about my statement that the sutras will be useless to someone with no faith. She said that just coming in contact with the Dharma may plant a seed that will ripen at a later time. This is a good point.

Someone else just said that I seem to be saying that faith is the most important thing, perhaps the only thing, necessary to resolve our problems. I would not say that. Faith is important, but it must lead to the accumulation of merit and wisdom.

At University of Michigan. From left to right: Prof. Dan Stevenson, Guo Yuen Shih, Prof. Griffith Foulk, Shifu, Prof. Luis O. Gomez, Prof. Donald Lopez.

At Rutgers University: Prof. Chun-fang Yu translated for Shifu.

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