The Mind of Emptiness

[Section 3: The Emptiness of External Objects]

There are yet other people who, when practicing the contemplation of dust, do not even [3.24] see any dust; from the very beginning they straightaway see the emptiness of all things. This is most excellent. Such people need not [3.25] contemplate things as dust any further.

When you have succeeded, at all times and places and even while eating, in seeing everything as dust, [3.26] then turn your gaze back upon your own person, where [you will see there to be] neither eyes, ears, nose, tongue, or body. Diligently gazing at this place of nothingness, suddenly [3.27] all the dust will disappear. For some people, it will gradually disappear. [In either case], having in this way seen the emptiness of all things, at all times, whether walking, [3.28] standing, sitting, or lying down, ensure that this emptiness is clear to you.

The text begins by describing those who have advanced along the higher Bodhisattva stages, who have intuited the mind of emptiness. Thus, developing along the lines of the Dust Contemplation will assure the self-culturing of this mind, wherein one rises to the stature of: “Nothing is ended, Nothing is destroyed.”

If you obtain this state of mind, this is the “contemplation [that discerns that there is] merely consciousness without [4.1] dust [external objects].” The sixth fascicle of the Treatise on the Mahayana Compendium speaks of this.

As does the Sutra on the Ten Stages, which says: “O children of the Buddha, [4.2] the three worlds are merely consciousness.” It is by this perception that one sees emptiness. As the Lankavatara Sutra further says: “Contemplate all external things [4.3] as not having the nature [of external things].”

This emptiness, moreover, is of two kinds. First, there is [seeing that] all material forms internal and external are empty. Second, there is seeing that all [4.4] entities are like mirages or reflections [in that they appear as real while not in fact being so]. Both of these are [what we mean by attaining] the mind of emptiness.

Seeing with the mind of emptiness is a refined mode of perception, a new way of perceiving experience, or non-perceiving. In essence, it neither adds to, nor takes anything away from the raw data-field. There is no-thing arising, nor any-thing descending. It’s like as one theologian once stated, “God is more like nothing than something.” There’s no man behind the curtain controlling events. In the Mahayana this is referred to as the empty-nature of all dharmas. Even the word ‘emptiness’ itself, is empty of inherent existence (svabhāva).

[Section 3: Questions]

[4.5] Question: If one sees that all entities are either empty [or like] reflections, do [karmic] actions of body and speech create results or not?

[4.6] Answer: Whether they do or not, you’ll find out!

Translator’s note: Here, the problem of reconciling the conventional (karma is real) and ultimate (karma is empty) truths is evaded by haughtily turning the question back on the asker. Rhetorically, this is quite similar to the literary style that would eventually become closely associated with Chan writings.

[Question]: When practicing [the contemplation of] dust and seeing emptiness, one might have a vision [4.7] of past or future events. Should one tell others about these things or not?

[4.8] Answer: The Buddha did not permit one to speak to others about these things. For this reason, within the sacred teachings it says: “Hide your attainments but reveal [4.9] your wrong deeds.”

Gautama Buddha was never in favor of entertaining any questions pertaining to occult occurrences. What really matters is to refine one’s own self-development without the outside use of such esoteric tools. Hence, the confession of one’s own transgressions is one such “concrete” practice—nothing airy-fairy but the real stuff and hard work of self-transcendence.

Question: The scriptures say that one who sees all things as empty is called [4.10] someone who wrongly grasps emptiness. But you now teach people to contemplate emptiness! How is this not the same thing as “wrongly grasping emptiness”?

[4.11] Answer: The entire Buddhist canon instructs us to study emptiness. The Vimalakirti Sutra thus says: “The five clung-to [4.12] skandhas are utterly and entirely empty.”The Diamond Sutra says: “The [true] characteristic of all sentient beings is the absence of characteristics.”[4.13]

The new translation of the Heart Sutra says: “There are no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or mind, no visible forms, [4.14] sounds, smells, tastes, objects of touch, or mental objects.”And the Larger Prajnaparamita Sutra says: “Internally, empty. This means that the six sensory organs are empty. Externally, empty. This means that the six dusts [sense objects] are empty.” [4.15] In passage after passage the Buddhist scriptures all speak of emptiness! How could what the Buddha instructs people to do be an instance of “wrongly grasping”?

Translator’s note: Buddhist doctrinal sources often warn about the dangers of a wrong understanding of emptiness. The locus classicus for such discussions is the early discourse on the “simile of the snake” (Alagadupama-sutta), which compares those who think that non-self or emptiness negates karma to someone who grabs a snake by the tail rather than the head and thereby gets bitten (Nanamoli and Bodhi 1995, pp. 224-26). The precise Chinese phrase “wrongly grasp emptiness” (e qu kong ) is first attested in the fifth-century translation of the Bodhisattvabhumi (Pusa di chi jing, T no. 1581, 30:894c9-14).

[4.16] Question: In that case, why is it said that [to think that things are] empty is a form of wrong grasping?

Answer: The Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom calls [4.17] “people who wrongly grasp emptiness” those whose practice differs from that of those within the Buddhist fold. These people who wrongly grasp emptiness are those who, upon hearing that the Buddhist [4.18] scriptures teach that all things are empty, give in completely to craving, hatred, and great arrogance; they exclusively [4.19] engage in defiled activities and do not cultivate giving, the precepts, or any meritorious practices. When they see people who cultivate meritorious practices, they [4.20] disparage them, saying that all this is done merely out of pride. Because these people deny the principle of karmic causality, they are said to [4.21] “wrongly grasp emptiness.” The contemplation of emptiness that I am now talking about is, rather, for the removing of this error, so it is not a form of wrong grasping.

[4.22] There are also some people who say: “The lower realms of rebirth are bad, the highest realm is nirvana. I will cultivate in accord [4.23] with this view.” This too is a kind of wrong view. The practice of emptiness that I am now talking about aims to get rid of this wrong view. [4.24] This is another reason why it is not a form of wrong grasping.

As concerns these matters, those who practice emptiness without understanding it have many objections. I cannot [4.25] make note of them all.

Translator’s note: The author of the Dust Contemplation is here probably thinking, rather, of the Bodhisattva-bhumi, which as mentioned above is the earliest source for that expression. Indeed, that text explains what it means to “wrongly grasp emptiness” as the view of “those sramanas (shamen) and brahmanas (boluomen) who say that everything is entirely empty”

The author of the Dust Contemplation has here perhaps tendentiously, but not completely unreasonably, interpreted this reference to “sramanas and brahmanas” as meaning non-Buddhists.

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