Prajna and Emptiness
When Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva was practicing the profound prajna paramita.
Practice the Way, cultivate yourself,
and do not search outside.
The prajna of your own nature is the deep and secret cause.
White billows soar to the heavens,
the black waves cease;
Nirvana, the other shore,
effortlessly is climbed.
Time and again, time and again,
don’t miss the chance;
Care for it, be diligent,
take hold of the divine innocence.
Unclear mirage: thus the news arrives;
Now it’s there, now it’s not – see what is originally esteemed.
The word practicing in the sutra is simply what we understand as cultivation. As to profound it is the opposite of superficial. Prajna means wisdom, and paramita means to reach the other shore. The text says that Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara cultivates profound, not superficial, prajna.
What is profound and what is superficial? Profound prajna is wonderful wisdom. Superficial prajna is limited to an understanding of the Four Truths and the Twelve Links of Conditioned Causation (pratityasamutpada) as studied in the Hinayana, the Small Vehicle. But only the wonderful wisdom of profound prajna can cause you to actually reach the other shore. Who is it who can arrive at the other shore? Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva.
When Shakyamuni Buddha spoke this sutra, he took special note of the great Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who practices profound prajna and who has already reached the other shore. Thus the sutra says, when Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva was practicing the profound prajna paramita. Those of the two vehicles, Arhats and Condition-Enlightened Ones, are unaware of profound prajna and cultivate only a superficial prajna, which is concerned with the analysis of emptiness. In their contemplations they make a very fine analysis of all form-dharmas and mind-dharmas.
What are form-dharmas and mind-dharmas? Form-dharmas are perceptible, while mind-dharmas are not. To make the distinction even clearer, everything that has perceptible characteristics and is conditioned is said to possess form. Since mind-dharmas are not perceptible objects, they can only be recognized as kinds of awareness.
The fact that an awareness lacks any perceptible characteristics indicates that it is a mind-dharma, while what has perceptible characteristics but lacks awareness is called a form-dharma. Form-dharmas make up the first of the five skandhas, while feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness, the remaining four skandhas, are all mind-dharmas, since they lack perceptible characteristics.
Therefore, when Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva was practicing the profound prajna paramita, he illuminated the five skandhas and saw that they are all empty.
To talk about prajna is to talk about emptiness. Fundamentally there are many kinds of emptiness, but now for simplicity’s sake, I will explain five basic kinds:
1) Insensate emptiness. This kind of emptiness lacks any knowing consciousness; it has no awareness. This emptiness, the ordinary emptiness known to most people, is called insensate emptiness because it consists merely of the emptiness we can see with our eyes, and it lacks its own awareness. It is the false, insensate emptiness people see in places where there is nothing at all. That lack of anything in a place is not the true emptiness.
2) The emptiness of annihilation. This is emptiness as it has been understood by those of certain external paths, none of whom understand the principle of true emptiness. They say that when people die they cease to exist, that is, they are annihilated. And so their version of emptiness is called the emptiness of annihilation.
3) The emptiness of analyzed dharmas. This emptiness is a contemplation cultivated by those of the Small Vehicle. They analyze form as form, mind as mind, and sort them into their constituent dharmas without realizing that they are all empty. They only go so far as to say that because a perceptible characteristic can be analyzed as one of various form-dharmas, that because feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness can be analyzed in terms of various mind-dharmas, they are empty. As a consequence, those of the two vehicles are not certified as ones who have accomplished the wonderful meaning of true emptiness. They stop at the transformation city (The enlightenment of those of the two vehicles (Arhats and Pratyekabuddhas) is compared to a city conjured up by magic that has no real existence.
The source of the well-known image is the Dharma Flower Sutra (Suddharmapundarikasutra). A reference to the same analogy is found further on in the verse commentary: Partial truth with residue is just a conjured city.) They stand there, at that empty and false place, cultivating the contemplation of the emptiness of analyzed dharmas. That is what is called superficial prajna, not profound prajna.
Cultivators of superficial prajna can end the birth and death of their delimited segment (Sanskrit pariccheda; Chinese fen duan literally “share-section”), but they are unable to transcend the birth and death of the fluctuations (Sanskrit parinama; Chinese bian yi).
What is meant by these two kinds of birth and death? The first refers to the body, and the second to thoughts. Everyone has a body; you have yours, I have mine, everyone has his own “share”. The body is a share and one lifetime from birth to death is called a section. It could also be said that everyone has his own form-section: you are five feet tall, he is five foot six inches, and that person is six feet tall. Each person has his own section, so this is the birth and death of one’s “share-section” or delimited segment.
The Holy Ones of the fourth stage of Arhatship have ended the birth and death of their delimited segments, but they have not yet ended the birth and death of fluctuations. “Fluctuations” refers to the transformations which are the source of the birth and death of the delimited segment, because the birth and death of fluctuations refers to nothing more than all the various false thoughts. The false thoughts flow along: one thought ceases to exist and the next thought is born; then that thought ceases to exist and a third is born, and so forth. That kind of successive production and extinction is also a kind of birth and death.
At the fourth stage of Arhatship, false thinking has not been extinguished entirely. The stage of the Bodhisattva of the Mahayana, the Great Vehicle, must be reached in order to put an end to the birth and death of fluctuations. Then there are no more false thoughts.
The birth and death of fluctuations is at the root of our birth and death. Why is it that we are born and then die? Only because we have false thoughts. And where do the false thoughts come from? From ignorance. It is because there is ignorance that all false thoughts are produced.
4) Bodily dharma emptiness. The fourth kind of emptiness is cultivated by the Condition-Enlightened Ones, the Pratyekabuddhas, who have the bodily experience of the emptiness of dharmas.
5) True emptiness. Bodhisattvas cultivate the contemplation of the emptiness of wonderful existence. When Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva was practicing the profound prajna paramita, he was cultivating the contemplation of the emptiness of wonderful existence. When he illuminated the five skandhas and saw that they are all empty, he was cultivating at the level reached by profound prajna with the ability obtained from profound prajna.
Practice the Way, cultivate yourself, and do not search outside. If you wish to cultivate the Way, don’t look outside yourself, for outside there is nothing to be sought. You should search within your own nature.
The prajna of your own nature is the deep and secret cause means that deep within your own nature lies the secret seed.
White billows soar to the heavens, the black waves cease. When one cultivates the Way, the white billows, which are like waves of rolling water, are wisdom, and the black waves are affliction. When affliction has ceased, your wisdom soars on high. Thus the profound prajna paramita which the Bodhisattva practices is both high and deep. It is deep because when you are in that high place you look down and don’t see anything at all.
Nirvana, the other shore, effortlessly is climbed. With wisdom you can very naturally reach the other shore of Nirvana; very, very easily, very, very naturally you get to the other shore, without any need to expend any effort at all.
Time and again, time and again, don’t miss the chance. The time when we cultivate the Way is the most precious, so don’t let it go by emptily. “Time and again, time and again.” Don’t let the time in which we should cultivate prajna paramita go by emptily; don’t let it go by!
Care for it, be diligent, take hold of the divine innocence. When you are filled with energy and alive with spirit, you should not forget to pay attention. You should not let that time go by, because that is the time to cultivate and to attain true prajna – the doctrine of the divine innocence (tian zhen, the natural spontaneity that sage and child alike possess).
Unclear mirage; thus the news arrives. The events are likened to an unclear mirage. You wish to see them, yet you look at them and don’t see them. You listen, yet you don’t hear anything. At the time when your seeing is like an unclear mirage, you get a little news.
Now it’s there, now it’s not – see what is originally esteemed. You look and say what you see is real, but it doesn’t seem to have any perceptible characteristic. Then you say it doesn’t have any perceptible characteristic, yet it seems like you are seeing something. What you see is what is originally esteemed – your own nature.
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