Ch'an Newsletter - No. 95, December 1992

The 18 Realms
Lecture given by Master Sheng-yen on the Surangama Sutra on May 3, 1987

I began speaking about the 18 realms last week. As you may remember, this refers to the sense organ, sense object, and sense consciousness of each of the six senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, and thinking. Note also that the Chinese word for "realm" has more than one meaning. Besides "definition," "specification," or "domain," it can also have the meaning of "dharma body," "phenomena," or "activity."

Another sutra, "The Sutra Expounding the Subtle and Deep" (Sandhinirrnochana Sutra) has a passage that helps elucidate the idea of "realm." These realms, the sutra states, derive from time without beginning. All dharma is rooted in and springs from them. In the context of these realms, reincarnation occurs and the attainment of nirvana is possible.

The 18 realms encompass what is called the "dharma with outflow" (samskrita) -- relating to samsara, and the "dharma without outflow" (asamskrita) -- relating to that which enables us to be free of samsara and attain liberation.

When we talk about the 18 realms, we recognize that they are involved in outflow, that is, one who is caught within them is in the realm of samsara. Viewed in this way, the 18 realms are malevolent: because of them sentient beings are reborn again and again, fettered to unending life cycles. On the other hand, it is here that practice begins. It may be that we are in samsara, accumulating karma and struggling from rebirth to rebirth, but the 18 realms can also serve as the path to liberation.

The first chapter of the Abhidharmakosha-sastra by Vasubandhu stresses the importance of the 18 realms. We are told here that all samsara, sentient beings, Bodhisattvas and Arhats, and even Buddhahood derive from them. Thus the 18 realms comprise the most fundamental theory of Buddhadharma. Actually they are the most fundamental phenomena in Buddhadharma, and the theory is of course derived from them.

As we have seen, the 18 realms can be divided into six sets of three. The first set is composed of the sense organ of the eye, the sense object (what is seen), and the eye consciousness that arises from the interaction of organ and object. Hearing, tasting, smelling, touching, thinking make up the remaining five sets of three.

What the eye sees is what we call form. The word is used in a very general sense. It can refer to a thing or the way in which something is physically manifested: color, shape, texture, etc. This includes red, white, green, blue, etc., and long, short, square, circular, etc., and rough, smooth, etc., as well as other characteristics that the eyes can distinguish. These are all considered aspects of form.

There is yet another kind of form or phenomenon which can be either visible or invisible. It is not necessarily associated with a particular shape or color. This is called avijnapti-rupa, which can be a kind of power or energy. Thus the following might be considered form: breaking glass, an explosion, a tree uprooted by the wind. What is seen? It is not form as we usually take it to be. Nevertheless, there is something there to be perceived. Thus it can be categorized as form. We cannot say that they are simply color or shape, long or short. Such phenomena are subsumed under the category of object of the sense organ of vision. What is derived from the coming together of organ and object is a consciousness that incorporates distinction, recognition, understanding. This is eye consciousness.

The next paragraph describes the sense organ of hearing, the ear, and its object, sounds. These in turn give rise to the consciousness of the ear.

The paragraph on ear consciousness is much like the one on eye consciousness. Similar questions are asked: Is the consciousness of the ear real or not real? How does it arise? Where does it come from?

We use our ears to listen to sounds and then we know what we have heard. We know the sound of a telephone ringing when we hear it. But how is this possible? How do we know that it is the sound of a
telephone? Where does this knowing reside? We have the ears, the sound, and the knowing. The ears are on our head, the sound outside somewhere, where, then, is the knowing? Do these components have a separate, original existence?

For example, a sound that nobody hears is not a sound. Sound cannot be separate from hearing. The understanding or knowing of the sound cannot just be in the sound itself. Even if someone is present but fast asleep, a sound would not register in his mind. The organ of the ear is present, but there will be no knowing of sound. Thus the recognition of sound is neither in the sound itself nor in the organ of hearing alone. Where does hearing lie?

Neither sound alone nor hearing alone will give rise to ear consciousness. Only the combination of the two components can give rise to hearing consciousness. But is this really true? In our previous example of a person asleep, we saw that although the ear is present and a sound may occur, hearing does not occur. By the same token, a dead person will not hear the loudest sound, even though both his ears and the sound are present. Where, then, does hearing consciousness reside and how does it arise?

Can we say that there's no such thing as hearing consciousness? No, because it is obvious that when we are awake and our mind is clear, hearing consciousness functions. Hearing consciousness exists, but it has its basis in the sixth consciousness, which is the mind (rnanas). Actually all the five consciousnesses rely on the sixth consciousness. So the sixth consciousness has two different functions: first, thinking, considering, discrimination, and distinctions; second, it serves as a substratum which connects the past, present and future. It is karmic force. (Note: In later Buddhism this second function of the sixth consciousness was attributed to the eighth consciousness.)

It is for this reason that we speak of the sixth consciousness, the mental consciousness that arises with the functioning of any one of the five sense organs.

There is an analogy to illustrate this: a monkey, the sixth consciousness, is in a room that has only five windows. Each window is comparable to a sense -- eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body. Whichever window the monkey looks out of determines the kind of mental activity that arises as well as the consciousness associated with that particular sense organ.

With this understanding, we can see why it is not accurate to speak of an independent existence for the first five sense consciousnesses. It is only when the sixth consciousness functions together with the five sense organs that we designate an eye consciousness, an ear consciousness, etc.

At this point we can argue that since the five sense consciousnesses have no separate existence, there is really only the sixth consciousness. Later when we come to the mind itself we will even refute the existence of the sixth consciousness. But that comes later.

As far as we've come, we should note that the Surangama Sutra proposes that the 18 realms have no genuine existence. But to say that they have no existence at all is also incorrect.

This is because ordinary sentient beings take the existence of these 18 realms to be self-evident, clearly existing, and possessing genuine substance. Ordinary sentient beings are unaware of the possibility that these 18 realms are insubstantial and nonexistent. When they hold on to the idea of genuine existence for the world of matter, the senses and the mind, they generate a myriad of karmic causes and give rise to any number of reactions to the world, such as love, hatred, sadness, happiness, suffering, clinging to gain, avoiding loss, pursuing another, or running away from someone or something else.

However, too strident a view of the non-existence of the 18 realms is not advised. This might lead to a belief that life is not worth living. We would feel that any involvement with the world would lead to nothing more than vexation. We would lose our interest in everything and everybody.

Next Sunday, for example, we will celebrate Buddha's birthday. We will have many flowers, beautiful decorations, and special food. There will be a rich array of visible phenomena. If we believed that everything we will see is simply one more vexation among the 18 realms, why would we bother with such a celebration?

Last Saturday a member of the Center approached me with a question having to do with sound and the teaching of meditation. He has been visiting a prison regularly and teaching meditation to the inmates. But he is not the only one teaching the inmates. There are many others, Christians, Moslems, and there are groups organized around music, dance, and exercise. Our member said that the inmates he teaches find the noise and bustle of the other activities around them very distracting. There is loud music and feverish chanting and the stomping of feet. What, he asked, can he do about it? I said that in the midst of all that sound, he could help his students attain concentration of the mind or even samadhi through chanting. Chanting Amitabha Buddha's name, for example, is a useful method to reach samadhi.

Even though we may think of sound as something having no true existence, nonetheless we can still make sound an instrument of practice. Sound is not really such a terrible thing after all.

In much the same way, when we offer flowers to the Buddha, the flowers' fragrance is a medium through which we make our offerings to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Lesser beings, such as deities and ghosts, feed on the aroma of the food. Once again, the fragrance or aroma may not have true existence, but it is instrumental in making the offerings.

Someone just asked how I know that deities and ghosts have a nose consciousness that can appreciate fragrances and aromas. I am certainly not a ghost. I have no personal knowledge of what consciousness ghosts have or don't have. On the other hand, the woman who asked this question is not a ghost, either. And I doubt that she knows what ghosts are aware of

What is important here is that my comments are based on the sutra, not my own speculation. The Buddha speaks of ghosts as having consciousness. This is evident in the descriptions of samsara as divided into the three realms of desire, form, and formlessness. The word "realm" appears here, also, but it has a different meaning from that of the 18 realms we have been discussing. In this case "realm" refers to the categories into which all sentient beings can be classified.

The lowest of these realms is that of desire. Human beings fall into this realm. Here all six sense consciousnesses are present.

Above desire is the realm of form. This realm is associated with four states of dhyana (meditative absorption of mind). As one progresses up from dhyana state to dhyana state, sense consciousnesses begin to fall away. By the second dhyana level, only the consciousnesses of the eye, the ear, and the body remain. At the third level and above only the mind consciousness remains. The previous five consciousnesses are non-functional.

Thus we can be certain that all beings in the realm of desire have six sense consciousnesses. Some beings may be different from us -- their bodies and sense organs might be more subtle than ours. Nonetheless, they still have bodies and sense organs. The realm of desire, then, contains human beings, deities, and ghosts. Thus we know that the ghosts or deities around us have six sense consciousnesses.

Those who are in the habit of making offerings to ghosts, special deities, or to their ancestors may find that the food does not taste very good once the offering has been made. It seems to lose some of its flavor. This is because the deities and the ghosts consumed some of the food's flavor and aroma when they accepted the offering. On the other hand if you make food offerings to the Buddhas, the food will not be affected because the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are not concerned about the flavor and fragrance of food. When we make food offerings to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, we do it only as a gesture of respect.

In the Orient a number of religions make it a practice to make food offerings to deities, and many adherents observe that the food seems to be less tasty after the offering. In this country there is no such tradition, so few people here have experienced this loss of flavor.

About two years ago there was someone in Taiwan who claimed to have the ability to communicate with the dead and the world of spirits. He came to my temple and complained that we were not feeding the ghosts enough food with our offerings. I told him that we only make fruit and flower offerings to the Buddha. If the ghosts want to eat, they must wait for the evening service when there is a ritual to give offerings to various kinds of ghosts. They can only eat during that time. We don't provide food all the time for them

Now if there's no tradition of feeding ghosts in the West, does that mean that these spirits are starving? It comes down to this: ghosts and spirits in the West recognize that during their lifetimes they made no offerings to the dead. Thus they expect none themselves. They are really on their own.

Someone just asked if these spirits can just wander into MacDonald's and feed on the aroma of a Big Mac. It doesn't work this way. If the food is not offered to them, they cannot just take it. It would be like stealing. They must go into the forest and feed on leaves or grass or the air. This is karma. The food that has not been offered to the spirits and the ghosts is not visible to them. They have no idea that anything is there. Thus it will probably not occur to Westerners to seek food after they die. They have no experience with the practice of offering food.

Now we'll read from the paragraph on the subject of smell. The idea expressed here is identical to that of the previous paragraph. We just substitute smell for hearing. This paragraph discusses the arising of smelling consciousness. Does this consciousness reside in the organ of smelling, the nose or in its object, fragrance or smell?

One point that the sutra makes is that it would be a mistake to say that smell consciousness arises from contact between the object, a fragrance, and the nose itself as simply a fleshy, feeling extension of the body. This would really be in the realm of touch, the fifth sense, not in the realm of the nose organ at all. This alone would be enough to refute the independent, real existence of the nose organ. Because we would be talking about touch, and this is smell. The real existence of the body as the organ of touch will be discussed and refuted later.

Then the sutra explores the possibility that the smelling sense is transmitted through space. And if that
were true, we would have to conclude that the organ of smell exists everywhere throughout space.

The Surangama Sutra shows us that the perception of smells as being good and bad gives rise to any number of mental activities. These give rise to moods and all manner of vexations, which in turn lead to an untold number of karmic consequences.

As in the discussion of the other senses, the Surangama Sutra shows in its breakdown of the components of the sense of smell that the organ itself, all smells, and the associated consciousness are all interrelated. Thus they have no independent existence and are at base illusory.

Another point the sutra makes is that whatever we smell through our nose is not simply external to us, because our consciousness adds its own subjectivity. What we end up smelling comes from within us. For example one person may find body odor repugnant but there are others who find it very attractive.

I knew of someone when I was in the army who only sought women with very strong smells about them. I asked him why that was, and he told me that he didn't really know, but he surmised that it started when he was in love with a woman whose body had a very pronounced odor. Any woman with a similar smell reminds him of this woman.

Also, in Malaysia and Thailand there's a kind of fruit which is called durian. It has an exceedingly strong smell. People who are unaccustomed to it find it almost unbearable. But many people in Southeast Asia come to love the taste and, yes, even the smell.

These two examples illustrate that the sense of smell differs from person to person and from culture to culture.

What and how we smell depend very much upon our mental state and previous karma. We may, for example, change our attitudes towards certain smells as we grow older, liking some we once disliked, finding other once-liked smells repugnant. Or a particular experience in this life or a previous one might determine how we respond to a certain smell.

Once there was a man who said he smelled an unpleasant odor, so he asked his friends around him
if they smelled it, too. One of them said, "Oh! Your wife just came in." He asked her if she smelled it. She said, "Not at all. By the way, how do you like my new perfume?" Not surprisingly, the man no longer complained of an offensive smell, and, yes, he found his wife's perfume very fragrant.

Even ordinary sentient beings can sometimes understand that what is perceived by the senses is illusory.

Shifu participated in a discussion on "Daily Practice, Methods of Cultivation, and Theories of Ch'an Buddhism and Catholicism" at the invitation of the Assistant Abbot, Odilio Stampach, of the Dominican Monastery in the former Czechoslovakia. In the background is Dharma Master Xing Kong (Thomas Goodman) who invited Shifu to Czechoslovakia. 

Shifu at the ruin of Abbey of Villers.

Shifu lectured on "Zen Wisdom -- Knowing and Doing" at the Taipei Theater. The event was sponsored by Prof. Craig Richards of the Meditation Club in the Teachers College of Columbia University.

Shakuhachi performance at the Chan Center by Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldon.

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