Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva’s Complete Penetration through the Sense Organ of Hearing (part 2)

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Master Sheng Yen

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva’s Complete Penetration through the Sense Organ of Hearing (part 2) 

A talk on the Surangama Sutra given by Master Sheng-yen on Dec. 3, 1995, and edited by Linda Peer and Harry Miller
At first, by directing the organ of hearing into the stream of meditation, both the stream and the subject which enters it became quiescent. Both movement and stillness were clearly non-existent. Thus, advancing step by step, both hearing and its object ceased completely. But I did not stop when they ended. Not abiding in awareness (enlightenment, chueh, ) of this state, both the awareness (enlightenment) and the object of awareness were realized as empty. Enlightenment became perfect. Both creation and extinction were extinguished and the state of Nirvana (quiescent extinction) manifested.

In this section of the Surangama Sutra, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva talks about complete penetration through the sense organ of hearing, and the levels that lead to it. Avalokitesvara says, “At first, by directing the organ of hearing into the stream of meditation, both the stream and the subject which enters it became quiescent. Both movement and stillness became clearly non-existent.” As I said before (Ch’an Newsletter #114), this is the first level of penetration.

The next level of penetration is described in the next sentence: “Thus, advancing step by step, both hearing and its object ceased completely.” “Not abiding in awareness of this state, both the awareness and the object of awareness were realized as empty,” describes the third stage. “Enlightenment (awareness) became perfect.” is a description of the fourth level. Finally there is a summary, “Both creation and extinction are extinguished and the state of Nirvana manifested,” describes complete penetration.

These levels of realization or penetration are subtle. It is impossible to truly understand them conceptually. You must experience them yourself. To talk about them intellectually is a little like talking about the theory of military strategy without any actual experience in battle. However, I will try to explain them.

Let us return to the first level: “At first by directing the organ of hearing into the stream of meditation, both the stream and the subject which enters it became quiescent. Both movement and stillness were clearly non-existent.” Movement and stillness refer to what one receives from the external environment. Movement is sound, what you hear, and stillness is when you do not hear anything. Both movement and stillness are received through the sense organ of hearing. If both movement and stillness are clearly non-existent, is there anything left in the external environment which can be said to exist? Stillness and movement are two ideas or feelings which are relative to each other. Only with the cessation of movement can you know stillness, only relative to stillness can you know movement. When neither movement nor stillness exists, we can say that the external environment has no existence.

Avalokitesvara describes the second level of penetration: “Thus, advancing step by step, both hearing and its object ceased completely…” Movement and stillness come from the external environment. They are the object of hearing. In the first stage of penetration, only the environment has no existence. The self (the subject) and the functioning of the sense organs are still present. In the second stage the subject who senses is also seen to have no existence. These two levels are not so different. As with all of these levels, it is a matter of gradation. One step naturally leads to another.

Avalokitesvara talked about penetration using the sense organ of hearing, in this case, but these levels of penetration apply to all sense organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind).

The experience of cessation of object and subject need not happen when you sit in meditation. It may happen during any daily activity. A teacher who is not very clear about the situation may misinterpret such an experience and cite it as an experience of enlightenment. But a good teacher, or a great teacher like the ancient masters, will not affirm a practitioner’s realization so easily. He or she will ask the practitioner a variety of questions which will elicit to what degree, if any, an enlightenment experience has occurred. There is no hiding. Nevertheless, to have the experience of the cessation of hearing and its object, even temporarily, is very good.

At the second level, “completely” is very important. Subject and object cease completely, which means that henceforth the practitioner is no longer subject to the influence or disturbance of the senses. It is a difficult state to reach. It is a kind of Mahayana Samadhi, called “purity of the six sense organs.” At this second level your sense organs function, you can hear, see, etc., but you are completely undisturbed by what your senses encounter. As you can imagine, such a state is not easily attainable.

If you have eaten and you are full, and you are not tempted to eat even by your favorite food, you may feel that you have attained purity of the six sense organs. Later, when you feel hungry again, and you smell your favorite food, you might even say to yourself, “I have attained purity of the six sense organs. I will not eat.” Is this purity of the six sense organs? Do you refrain from eating because you don’t have the thought to eat, or because you dare not eat?

When you have attained purity of the six sense organs, you eat out of need, not out of attachment to the taste of food. You will not be greedy for food, like a hungry ghost. If there is nothing to eat, or eating is inappropriate, you will not salivate. There will be no thought of food.

If a bodhisattva who has attained purity of the six sense organs encounters someone who is sexually attractive, no thought of desire will arise. The bodhisattva will not react physiologically or psychologically. There will be no temptation. This is purity of the six sense organs, and it is also freedom of the six sense organs.

Most of us are easily tempted. We may be able to resist temptation, but we recognize that we feel tempted. A bodhisattva who has attained purity of the six sense organs feels no such temptation. Precepts are followed and kept pure.

Avalokitesvara describes the next level as, “Not abiding in the awareness of this state, both the awareness and object of awareness are realized as empty.” “This state” refers to the second level, in which both hearing and the object of hearing cease. At the third level, the practitioner is not abiding in the awareness of the second level. Both the awareness and the object of awareness are empty. In Chinese, the character for “awareness” and “enlightenment” is the same: chueh . Here, “awareness” means the six consciousnesses, which were purified of all vexation in the second stage. This “awareness” is the wisdom of the practitioner, which realizes emptiness.

The “object of awareness” refers to the six sense organs, the six sense objects (things we can see, hear, smell, taste, touch or perceive with our minds), and the six sense consciousnesses. These are the eighteen realms. At the third level, all eighteen realms are realized as empty. The first twelve are the objects of awareness and the last six, the consciousnesses, are referred to together as “awareness” here, because they have been purified of all vexations.

The second stage, when hearing and the object of hearing cease “completely”, is called “emptiness of personal self.” The third stage, when both awareness and the object of awareness are empty, is called “emptiness of dharma self”
Put concisely: in the second stage both hearing and the object of hearing cease completely. In the third stage, all eighteen realms — the six sense organs, the six sense objects, and even the six sense consciousnesses — the “objects” of a higher level of awareness, are emptied. Awareness, in this sense, is wisdom.

The nature of the state where awareness and the object of awareness are both empty may seem confusing. Actually it’s quite simple. In Chinese there is a phrase literally translated as “put down” (fang hs’ia ). But “put down” has a different connotation in English, so we use an equivalent phrase, “leave behind.” If you can “put down” everything or “leave behind” everything, including the idea of leaving behind everything, then you have reached the point when awareness and the object of awareness are both empty. If you think, “I have put down everything. I have left behind everything,” then you are holding on to the idea of putting down, of letting go, of leaving behind.

A practitioner told his master, “Master, I have put down everything. Now I feel so free! There is nothing for me to hold on to.” The Master responded, “This is heavier than Mount Sumeru!” In ancient Indian mythology, Mount Sumeru was the center of the universe, and reached from heaven to hell. If the disciple had already left behind everything, and felt so free and at ease, why did his Master say that this was heavier than Mount Sumeru? Can anybody answer this question?

R.: The master says he is heavier because he still hasn’t let go of the fact that he has let go. There still is the duality of having let go or leaving. He has not left that. He is still holding on to it.
Shih-fu: Ah yes — so smart!

Now we go to the next level, “Enlightenment (awareness) became perfect.” At the fourth level the emptiness of awareness (enlightenment) reaches completion. Completion means that both emptiness as well as the object which has been emptied are extinguished. The practitioner reaches the perfection of Buddhahood.

This can be simply explained. Let’s imagine I have a cup of water. Next, I drink the water, so the cup is empty. Next I empty or let go of the idea of the emptiness of the cup. I can proceed further, but to do so I don’t need to say anything more. Earlier I could still say I’m letting go of the idea of emptiness. When I proceed to let go of the idea I can no longer say anything.

At this level you completely let go of emptiness, the object of emptiness and any idea of the completion of emptiness. At the highest level of emptiness you completely drop all of these considerations and concepts.
Finally, Avalokitesvara summarizes, “Both creation and extinction were extinguished and the state of Nirvana manifested.” “Creation and extinction…” refer to all concepts of existence, nonexistence, emptiness, non-emptiness, gain, extinction, etc.

The first two stages involve both creation and extinguishing. In the first stage, the practitioner “gains” a realization, and movement and stillness are “extinguished.” In the second stage, the practitioner advances step by step, “gaining” deeper realization, and both hearing and its object are “extinguished”. The third and fourth steps involve only extinguishing. And finally, there is a summary.

In the process of proceeding through these levels, the wisdom you have in the beginning grows to become the complete wisdom of the Buddha. When you can let go of even the complete wisdom of the Buddha, then that is genuine completion. That is genuine quiescence.

Does completion of penetration mean that there is no need to deliver sentient beings? There is no need to do anything?

Student: No!

Shih-fu: Ah! Completion of penetration means that everything is as it is. No matter what you consider good, no matter what you consider bad, everything is as it is. There is no need to seek or to abandon, or to increase or decrease anything. But whatever needs to be done, a bodhisattva still proceeds to do. But it is done without attachment.

The expression, “Everything is as it is” has to be understood very clearly. When you have no attachment whatsoever, then “everything is as it is” for you. You will not create any problems and you will not let anything distress you. However, if you still have vexations, you cannot just say, “Everything is as it is,” and think that it is true. As long as you experience anything as a problem, you had better work on it.

This paragraph from the sutra that we have discussed is deep and difficult to understand. There is really nothing more that I can say about it.

Years ago I said to an old Dharma Master, “It seems that in your Dharma talks, you just touch on the most important and difficult points in the sutra, and cover them in a couple of sentences. Yet you spend a lot of time talking about the beginning of the sutra, where the content seems simple and basic. Why do you do that?” His response was quite interesting.

He said, “There’s no need to add anything to the part of the text which is already so rich and complex. It is only the beginning, which is so ordinary, or mundane, which I try to embellish and enrich.” When you come to a point in a sutra which is really splendid and subtle, it is simply not possible to give an explanation.
I’m happy that I have managed to say a little about this difficult paragraph. If you are confused, then you can wait till you attain Buddhahood and you will understand. If you do not have faith that what we discussed today is important, it doesn’t matter. By the time you reach Buddhahood you will have faith.

The End