The Signless Precepts

Southern School Sudden Doctrine, Supreme Mahayana Great Perfection of Wisdom: The Platform Sutra’ preached by the Sixth Patriarch Hui-neng at the la-fan Temple in Shao-do, one roll, recorded by the spreader of the Dharma, the disciple Fa-hai, who at the same time received the Precepts of Formlessness.

The above is the full title for the Sutra as portrayed in the early Dunhuang manuscript, as translated by Philip Yampolsky. Another unique facet of the sutra is that portions of it do reflect an actual “ordination” theme—indeed the very title, “Platform”, brings to mind the historical import that these types of ceremonies were conducted in the midst of vast throngs of monks and laypeople who came forward and stood on a raised platform as the “precepts” were read to them and afterwards they would receive ordination. Ordination, as treated within the Encyclopedia of Religion usually revolves around a ritual “publicly designating and setting apart certain persons for special religious service and leadership, granting them religious authority and power to be exercised for the welfare of the community.” My own ordination to the priesthood back in 1988 (in fact, 25 years ago on this very date) reflected this type of public ceremony. It was, and is quite different, though, within Chinese Buddhist Traditions. The Platform Sutra itself reveals how both monastic and laypeople came forward, right in the midst of that vast assembly, and received ordination after promising to remain faithful to the precepts. A readied-able layperson had long been honored in this fashion throughout the millennium; indeed, witness the great layman, Vimalakirti, whose magnificent sutra bears the same name. Also, what was being conferred upon them during ordination is far more profound than formalized entry into any exoteric religion; they receive the blessings from many countless Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and are thus anointed with the Spirit of Tathata—in essence planting that Buddhaic-seed (gotra) that if properly cultivated will develop one day into full Bodhisattvahood; in a very Real sense then, this type of Buddhaic-ceremony awakens the hidden bodhichild. But, the conferees also have an important part to play—they have to authentically promise to uphold and forever afterward spiritually embody those noble precepts.

We shall discover later on that an actual ordination ceremony is embedded within this sutra, wherein “formless precepts” are bestowed. These include: discerning the three bodies of the Buddha within oneself; reciting the four bodhisattva vows; performing the formless repentance; receiving the formless precepts through the recitation of the three refuges, and an explanation of the teachings (sermon) of the perfection of wisdom (prajñāpāramitā) (Yampolsky, 141-46).

During my digital sabbatical this past summer, I read a fascinating book by Andy Ferguson, “Tracking Bodhidharma.” In a travel-log like format through contemporary China—traversing a similar route that Bodhidharma could have journeyed—one bracketed by pertinent Ch’an-based episodes, Ferguson makes an excellent observation concerning the interpretation of “wuxiang”—which is translated as “formless” in English renditions of the Platform Sutra—thus, the “formless precepts”; the term essentially means, “without marks”, which Ferguson points out is best translated as being “signless”. I concur with Ferguson’s assessment as there is indeed a world of difference as signless/imageless has a completely different connotation vs. formless that is diametrically in opposition to something of “form”. For a Lankavatarian this makes quite a considerable impact, as the precepts that are being upheld within this sutra are truly a reflection of transcending the realm of any mundane phenomena by self-realizing their nonsubstantiality in either form or formless realms of created samsaric existence. A good indication of this is when, embracing one of those precepts, one is called to make repentance of all phenomena itself.

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One Response to The Signless Precepts

  1. Jure Kralj says:

    “In those days there was a Shramana Bodhidharma from the Western Regions, originally a man from Persia [?]. He came from rugged countries and was staying in the Middle Land. When he beheld how the golden dome sparkled in the sun, how its light reflected upon the surfaces of the clouds, how the precious bell housed the wind within itself and how its voice rang beyond the heavens, he sang a hymn of praise, ‘Truly how wonderful it all is!’ He said that he was one hundred and fifty years old and had traveled all countries and visited all regions, but that nothing in Jambudvipa was comparable with the beauty of this temple, that it surprassed all others, and that there was nothing like it anywhere. With hands clasped, he daily invoked devotedly the name of Buddha.”

    [“Zen Buddhism: A history of India and China” by Heinrich Dumoulin].

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