The External World

In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says,

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.”

Almost all Buddhists have accepted this core idea for 2500 years. The world is a construction of the mind. The words we use to describe the world, the names (nama) and signs (laksana), more thought constructions, are meaningless as they cannot be one with the referent they direct our attention to, and all of it is an illusion, because it’s all empty.

This is the view from the ultimate truth. The conventional truth is, well, conventional. Things exist, they have substance, at least temporarily. The palm tree outside my window was there years before I came along. It was made by a seed, not my mind. I’d like to make trees with my mind. I’d make a lot of money.

The ultimate truth is taught in order to break our attachment to these constructions of thought and to clear away the illusion. Now when we say that everything is an illusion, there is a small caveat involved. It doesn’t mean to suggest that nothing is real. It means that the way our mind normally constructs, or rather perceives, the world is illusory, as it often does not include interconnectedness. We tend to see things as being separate.

Our environment is an excellent example. Until recent times, human beings viewed their environment as something separate from them, in terms of individual parts rather than as a whole. Based on this illusion, we have polluted the earth, not realizing that the pollution of one part of the environment would have an effect on the other parts. Now, forced awake by climate change, we understand that this thing we call the world is a single living organism composed of smaller organisms functioning in a complex interrelationship.

The culture of human thinking has created the illusion of dualism, projecting a world of opposites, separate parts. To think holistically, focusing on the whole and the interdependence of its parts, is called non-dualism, although I think the Sanskrit word advaita, which means “not two” expresses it better. Human beings and their environment are “two but not two” (Jp. esho funi).

When we talk about seeing the external world as it truly is, we mean understanding the relationship between the ultimate and the conventional, recognizing that while there is some degree of separation between our-selves and the world around us, there is no real determinate essence of separateness.

We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh

As I wrote recently, this is such an important point it bears consistent repeating. Another term we use to describe the interconnectedness of all things is ‘emptiness’ or sunyata, a Sanskrit word, a noun derived from the adjective sunya, meaning ‘empty.’ All things are empty of a independent self or own-being.

For those of us who practice Buddhism, an understanding of emptiness is crucial. Because wisdom, in this case ‘emptiness-knowledge’ (sunyata-jhana), is the root of awakening Buddha-nature, in a sense, we can say that emptiness and Buddha-nature are synonymous.

In his Treatise on the Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra, Nagarjuna put it this way:

All that we see is a creation of the mind [citta]. How is this? It is through one’s thoughts that all things are perceived. Through mind one sees the Buddha and through the mind becomes a Buddha. Buddha is mind itself, and mind itself is our body. Because of ignorance, the mind does not know itself, cannot see itself. Ignorance causes one to seize the fixed nature of the mind. Under this state, the mind one seizes is false. The bodhisattva sees the true aspect of reality, the emptiness, through comprehending the real nature of mind.”

To wipe illusion from our mind, we must open it. Open our minds to the truth of interconnectedness and to the possibility of becoming a Buddha, which is not a fixed state either, but a continual process of re-opening the mind and acquiring wisdom.


Heart Sutra: The Heart Within The Heart

It hardly needs to be said that the Heart Sutra is one of the most popular and influential Mahayana sutras. And it is certainly the shortest of any text called a “sutra.” Kukai, the founder of Japanese Shingon, wrote “while brief it is essential and though concise it is profound.” Kukai maintained that the sutra encompassed all the Buddha’s teachings, or at least, all those in the Mahayana canon, a view shared by a more contemporary teacher, the Korean Jogye Seon master, Seung Sahn:

“The Heart Sutra has only two hundred seventy Chinese characters, yet it contains all of Mahayana Buddhism’s teaching. Inside this sutra is the essence of the Diamond Sutra, the Avatamsaka-sutra, and the Lotus Sutra. It contains the meaning of all the eighty-four thousand sutras.”

As I’ve observed previously, people have a tendency to focus on the sutra’s treatment of emptiness, often at the expense of the other themes, the Bodhisattva path, the practice of compassion, and Prajna-paramita or Transcendent Wisdom (the sutra is called the “Heart of Transcendent Wisdom”, after all).

The Heart Sutra is also an exposition on the Two Truths. To refresh our memory on this concept, let’s recall what Nagarjuna wrote in “Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way”:

“The teachings of the Buddha are based on two truths, the relative and the ultimate. Those who do not know the distinction between the two do not understand the profound meaning in the teachings of the Buddha.

The ultimate truth cannot be taught except in the context of the relative truth, and unless the ultimate truth is comprehended, liberation is not possible.”

Over-emphasizing the teaching of emptiness in the Heart Sutra is an example of misunderstanding the Two Truths. It’s seizing the ultimate while neglecting the relative, often a source of confusion.

Emptiness by itself is neither ultimate reality nor ultimate truth; rather it refers to the relative truth. This is what the sutra means by “Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form,” telling us that emptiness is simply looking at phenomena from a different perspective – things do exist but in combination with causes and conditions. We know that emptiness itself is relative because it, too, is empty (sunyata-sunyata).

Through the series of negations (“Within emptiness there is no eye, ear, nose . . . no wisdom and no attainment with nothing to attain.”) the Heart Sutra denies all that Buddhism holds sacred. Ultimately, all Buddhist doctrine is relative, conventional truth, empty.

But then the sutra turns around and negates the negations, pointing to Transcendent Wisdom and the Bodhisattva Path: “Therefore, the Bodhisattvas rely on Prajna-Paramita . . . and awake to complete and perfect enlightenment.” Although all that is relative is empty, without the relative, the conventional, there is no path to the ultimate.

It is said that when Transcendent Wisdom is in harmony with emptiness-knowledge and compassion, there is suffering, but no sufferer; there remains no thinker, no thought: this is the state of non-duality, the bodhicitta (thought of awakening), and the luminous truth.

When the Heart Sutra refers to emptiness, it’s actually in a form of shorthand. What the sutra is saying “empty of self-being” (sunyata-svabhava), and this, Nagarjuna says, is the true nature of all phenomena. Without that which is empty, there is no emptiness.

Pretty heady stuff, or as Nagarjuna put it, “extremely profound and difficult to understand.” How does it relate to our daily lives? Frederick Streng says emptiness is ‘freedom.” In Emptiness, A Study in Religious Meaning, he wrote,

This is a freedom which applies to every moment of existence, not to special moments of mystical escape to another level of being, nor to the freedom attained by priestly activity at a sacred time and place . . . To know things as they actually are, frees the mind of presuppositions and the emotions from attachments. Thus this freedom is also a purification process; it removes such evils as hated, fear, greed, or nimiety . . .

In removing such hindrances there is no fear and no illusion, as the Heart Sutra states. The path is cleared and there is nothing to prevent us from engaging wholeheartedly in the practice of wisdom and compassion, the Heart Sutra’s ‘ultimate’ truth.

“The true heart is wisdom; wisdom is the true heart. Because prajna can be translated “true heart,” the two hundred fifty or so words of this sutra are the heart within the heart – the heart within the six hundred chapters of the prajna text of the Great Prajna Sutra”.

-Hsuan Hua, Ch’an Buddhist teacher


Empty, Provisionally Existent, and The Middle Way

Yesterday, a reader commented on Thursday’s post, “What is Faith”:

This one was written for the advanced student, I think. It was difficult for me to understand, anyway. What is “provisionally existent?” What provisions?

Does one have faith in nothingness? What is faith in nothing? Nothing in nothing. I’m confused. A rank beginner, obviously.

This understanding is a challenge for everyone. The first thing we need to do, though, is to forget about the words “nothing” and “nothingness.” That is not what we are talking about at all.

In Thursday’s post, I quoted Kuan-Ting discussing Chih-i’s concept of the Threefold Truth (Emptiness, Conventional Existence, and the Middle Way):

. . . all entities are empty, [and yet] they are nevertheless provisionally existent, and that they are the middle between these extremes.”

Ancient painting of T'ien-t'ai master, Chih-i

As I stated in the post, Chih-i (538–597 CE) is considered the de facto founder of the T’ien-T’ai (“Celestial Terrace”) school. He was the first Chinese Buddhist to produce meditation manuals and the first Chinese Buddhist scholar to attempt to unify the various and contradictory Indian teachings. In the process, he developed a number of new doctrines, his work based mainly on the teachings of Nagarjuna. The Threefold Truth, then, was an expansion on Nagarjuna’s Two Truths.

Truth or satya, according to the Soothill dictionary of Buddhist terms, means “To judge, examine into, investigate . . .” In Buddha-dharma, truth is not arbitrary or arrived at through revelation. As one scholar, Yao-Yu Wu, puts it: “Truth is the investigation of reality, the principles of reality learned through investigation are called Truth.” This investigation is done primarily through the process of meditation.

In Fundamental Verses on The Middle Way, Nagarjuna says,

The teachings of the Buddha are based on two truths, the mundane and the ultimate. Those who do not know the distinction between these two do not understand the profound meaning in the teachings of the Buddha.”

According to the ultimate truth, all things (dharmas), all phenomena, are devoid of an essential self-being (Skt. svabhava) or selfhood. They are empty (Skt. sunya). Self-being is an intrinsic nature that is permanent, unconditioned, independent, and un-caused. In Buddhism, the existence of self-being is impossible. For this reason, we say that things do not exist on their own, independently, eternally, without causes and conditions.

This, however, does not deny the reality of the phenomenal world. From the perspective of the mundane (relative or conventional) truth, all things do exist. But, due to the fact that they lack this intrinsic nature or inherent existence, they are only “provisionally existent.” In other words, it is a temporary existence.

Nagarjuna further says, “All things neither exist (as substantial Being) nor inexist (as nothingness).” Paul Swanson, in Foundations of T’ien-t’ai Philosophy, explains:

Therefore, “non-existence” is affirmed in the sense that though phenomena have conventional existence, they have no substantial Being. “Not inexistent” is affirmed in the sense that though phenomena have no substantial Being, they are not complete nothingness.”

When we look into the mirror, we see a person, a being, who is unique. There is no one else in the world who looks exactly like us, has the same personality, thinks exactly as we do, with the same personal history, etc. Yet, all the characteristics that seem to make us unique are temporary, they will cease to exist when we die, and all of that uniqueness comprises perhaps less than 2% of our entire being. The other 98% is exactly alike everyone else. From this perspective, it is just as Kuan-Ting wrote, “all entities are alike, ultimate, pure and unimpeded.”

Buddhism teaches that all things come into being as the result of causes and conditions, that they are interconnected. This we call pratitya-samutpada – dependent origination, conditioned co-arising, or interdependency.

Chinese character for "The Middle Way"

Chih-i pointed out that within the doctrine of the Two Truths there was actually a third truth implied. He based this on Nagarjuna’s famous maxim:

Whatever arises through interdependency is emptiness. However, this is a conventional designation. It is the meaning of the Middle Way.”

Chih-i maintained that emptiness and provisional existence are merely different extremes or aspects of one reality. Things are empty, in that they do not exist in themselves, but at the same time, they are not nothing. They are midway between these two extremes, and that middle ground (or Middle Way) constitutes a third truth.  On this point, Paul Swanson says,

Chih-i interpreted reality as a threefold truth, a single unity with three integrated aspects . . . The threefold truth is an integrated unity with three aspects. First, emptiness (Skt. sunyata), or absence of substantial Being, often identified with the ultimate truth (Skt. paramartha-satya). Second, conventional existence, the temporary existence of the phenomenal world as co-arising, often identified with the worldly truth (Skt. samvrti-satya). Third, the Middle [Way], a simultaneous affirmation of both emptiness and conventional existence as aspects of a single integrated reality.

For Chih-i these three components are not separate from each other but integral parts of a unified reality.

That’s why Kuan-Ting says that these three views are also provisional, because they are not independent. None of the three truths can stand alone. And when he says faith is conviction, he does not mean any sort of blind faith. Along with meaning a strong belief, the word “conviction” also conveys “the state of being convinced” (Merriam-Webster). And how are we to be convinced? Through our investigation of reality. In this way, the principles of reality learned through investigation that we call truth or satya, become the objects of our conviction, our faith.

To have faith in the Threefold Truth of Emptiness, the Provisional, and the Middle Way is to see reality as it truly is. Chih-i called it chen-k’ung miao-yu or “true emptiness, wondrous existence.”

Chen-k’ung or “true emptiness” refers to the realm of thought, the mind that realizes the emptiness of all things. It’s a state of mind that, free from attachments, is likened to space – it’s non-obstructive, open, and vast. Miao-yu, “wondrous existence”, says Buddhist scholar Ng Yu-kwan, “would imply an affirmative but non-attaching attitude toward the dharmas [things] in the world.” So, once again, emptiness does not deny or reject existence – emptiness is never nothingness – rather it is insight into the mystery of existence, it’s inexplicable reality, and our faith is in the glorious interdependency of all things.

This is a rather simplistic explanation, and I left a number of things out (like the Five Skandhas) in order to keep it as simple as possible. Nonetheless, I hope it helps answer the questions and does not add to any confusion.


The Two Truths

Although he credited the Buddha with the doctrine of the Two Truths (it is mentioned in the early suttas and in a few commentaries to the Abhidharma), it was really Nagarjuna who developed this concept of two levels of truth.

Why are the Two Truths important? A primary cause for suffering is that we do not see reality as it truly is, and by reality, we mean first and foremost the reality of our everyday world, the realm of appearance and experience we inhabit. Although doctrinal discussions of the Two Truths may be wrapped around such subjects as being and non-being, the actual focus, as far as we are concerned, is on daily life.

Our basic tendency is to hold onto “things” (dharmas) as though they were real and endowed with some sort of self-nature. It might be the sense of self, or some other person, possessions, our preferences or prejudices. Buddhism teaches that when we seize upon these things and cling to them, we invite suffering into our lives. This point alone could be dealt with in depth, but for now it is suffice to say that the Two Truths are a tool to help us understand the actual nature of “things” and end the confusion that causes seizing and clinging, and gives rise to suffering.

In Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, Nagarjuna says,

The Buddha’s dharma is based on two truths: the relative or conventional truth and the ultimate truth. Those who do not understand the relationship between the two do not understand the profound point of the Buddha’s teachings.”

It is very important to understand that the Two Truths do not posit two separate realities (the world and some other “ultimate” reality), rather, this concept deals with how we perceive reality and the “things” in it. The first kind of truth that we call relative, conventional, mundane, worldly, veiled, and so on is valid for the practical affairs of daily life. However, our perception of the everyday world is often based on the mis-perception that “things” have an existence or self-nature independent from other things. From the view of the ultimate truth, all things are produced by causes and conditions, and are thereby interdependent, and without self-nature. So, in this way, they are said to be impermanent and “unreal.”

In Nagarjuna’s logic, if there is no self-nature, then it follows that there is no “other-nature” as well. And, as he says in the Middle Verses,

Further, how can a thing exist without either self-nature or other-nature. Existing things can only be maintained when there is self-nature and other-nature.”

David Kalupahana, in Nagarjuna, The Philosophy of the Middle Way, notes, “It is not merely self-nature and other-nature that are rejected, but also existence and non-existence.” About this, Nagarjuna says,

Those who perceive self-nature and other-nature, as well as existence and non-existence, do not understand the truth of the Buddha’s teaching.”

First, Nagarjuna show us that there are two ways of perceiving the world. In terms of the conventional truth, things exist – they are real. In terms of the ultimate truth, they are unreal. Not only are they unreal, but Nagarjuna systematically removes the foundations on which we perceive them, and as well, any basis upon which we can seize and cling.

Nagarjuna rejects the perception of existing and non-existing things,and he also rejects all views, concepts, designations, modes of thought – all things (dharmas) are null and void. Things do not exist by themselves, from their own side. Yet, as Karl Jaspers writes in his essay on Nagarjuna,

[At] the same time, they are not nothing. They are midway between being and nonbeing, but they are empty. There is no dharma that has come into being independently, hence all dharmas are empty.”

They are empty of self-nature. But, while emptiness may be the ultimate nature of things, it is not the ultimate truth. Nagarjuna understands emptiness to be another “view,” another thought construction. The ultimate truth is not any view. In the ultimate truth, all views dissolve into silence. So, in the end, Nagarjuna rejects emptiness itself: sunyata-sunyata – the emptiness of emptiness.

Because we seem to be hard-wired to look at things dualistically, there are those who mistake the Two Truths to be separate.

Nagarjuna says,

The ultimate truth cannot be taught except in the context of the conventional truth, and unless the ultimate truth is comprehended, liberation is not possible.”

In other words, we use the relative to convey the ultimate, and we use the ultimate to understand the relative. Here we should see that the point is not so much that in this sense the relative is false, it’s more about being be able to skillfully use knowledge of the ultimate in order to understand the relative world, and to able to live more fully in it, without clinging to either truth. The trick is to know when the ultimate applies and when it does not.

While there are certainly distinctions between the relative and the ultimate, in the end, there is just one truth, one reality. The relative and the ultimate are but two sides of the same coin.

It is within nirvana that liberation from suffering is obtained, so nirvana is one of many terms used to express the ultimate. Nagarjuna makes clear, though, that there is no separation between the ultimate truth of nirvana and the conventional world:

Whatever is the extreme of nirvana is also the extreme of conventional existence. There is not the slightest bit of difference between the two.

Conventional existence is represented as the world of samsara – the world of suffering, misperception, of seizing and clinging. But we say, “Samsara is nirvana.” When there is a difference between the two, it is a matter of perception, or perhaps we should say an error of perception, because it makes no sense take a principle that points to the non-dual nature of reality and then look at it dualistically.

So that is a kind of brief overview of the subject, and I certainly don’t offer it as any kind of final word. It’s just my take, as far as my understanding goes.