question and answer

the question and the answer ch. 4



       Then, by the power of the Buddha, the Venerable Sariputra said this to the Bodhisattva, the Mahasattva Avalokitesvara, “How should those of good lineage train who wish to practice the Profound Perfection of Wisdom?”

     This is a question, a question of great import.  It concerns the way of training, and then practice, both of which are based on a development and intensification of understanding of emptiness.

Then, by the power of the Buddha . . . .

    What might this strange power be?  This power is an empowerment projected by the Buddha so that the teaching may be received and understood by others correctly.   Buddhas have various psychic and other powers (siddhis) and when they exert them in a certain way those who are nearby are enabled to sense and perceive things that are usually beyond the range of normal senses.   When the psychic power is withdrawn, the extended range of sense or understanding diminishes again, but there is a residue of impressions that remain, and the understanding eventually becomes replete and matures into fullness.

. . .the Venerable Sariputra . . . .

     When someone has accomplished a stage of the path, or exhibits other reasons to be venerated, respected, or esteemed for noble deeds, that person is sometimes given the title Venerable.   Sariputra was qualified in many ways to be so regarded.

. . . said this to the Bodhisattva, the Mahasattva Avalokitesvara . . . .

   Since both Sariputra and Avalokitesvara were recipients of the Buddha’s extended psychic powers, the conversation that is about to begin in depth was, perhaps, spoken for those also nearby who may not have developed such a high level of openness and receptivity as the two named protagonists.  Also there was a need to transmute the ideas of this Perfection of Wisdom into words for the benefit of future travelers of the Mahayana Path.

“How should those of good lineage train . . . .”

     Good lineage is a line of descent of practitioners who have been practicing the Buddhadharma in the right way, the skillful way as opposed to unskillful ways, or of other traditions outside of the Buddhadharma.  Those who adhere to the Way are considered family, and as there are no bad lineages in Buddhism, this good lineage includes all monks, bodhisattvas, buddhas and the lay order who conscientiously regard the Buddhadharma. All Buddhist lineages are good lineages when they have conducted themselves rightly, and in this present time both the Theravada and the Mahayana lineages are good lineages.  All skillful sanghas (Buddhist communities and organization) are good lineage.  Good lineage usually denotes those who have taken refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, and strive to keep true to the precepts.

“. . .train . . . .”

   Here is the first mention of training in the Heart Sutra, and the word train is used in this Sutra once more, just after the mantra. Train is equivalent with the right way to view things, or the correct view, as mentioned in the next sentence of the Sutra where the answer to this present question begins.  In this commentary, training is equated with thoughtful reflection, the subject of Chapter Eight.

“. . .who wish to practice the Profound Perfection of Wisdom?”

    This is the question.   Sariputra wants to know how to train and practice.  The training and practice of Prajnaparamita are activities of thought, speech, and action concerned with learning how to understand the correct view, and in this Heart Sutra the emphasis is that emptiness is the correct view as is next given in the answer to Sariputra’s question.

     The Bodhisattva, the Mahasattva Avalokitesvara said to the Venerable Sariputra, “Sariputra, sons and daughters of good lineage who wish to practice the Profound Perfection of Wisdom should view things in this way:”

      Here begins the answer to Sariputra’s question regarding training and practice, and is significant in the mention of sons and daughters of good lineage. When the original Buddhist sanghas were organized, the Buddha did not exclude females from discipleship or from possibility of attaining enlightenment.   At the time of Buddha this was considered a radical departure from most other traditions of established social structure. The more modern feminist movements were preceded by 2500 years with the Buddha’s inclusion of females as equal in the sangha.

“ . . .should view things in this way: . . . .”

    The training is how to view things.   The training is the necessary preliminary to the practice, and in order that practice (bhavana) be performed correctly, the view of the practitioner must be correct and not defiled and delusional in some way. The view, or the way to view things in accord with the perspective of emptiness, is the basis or support of right meditation in order that thought and consequent behavior will be concordant with the Perfection of Wisdom.

     The Heart Sutra has thus delineated the three root prajnas within its own text with the keywords contemplating (study), training (thoughtful reflection), and practice (meditation).

“They should correctly view the five skandhas also as empty of inherent existence . . . .”

   This sentence tells us what actually is the correct view.    It is emptiness of the five skandhas.

“. . .the five skandhas . . . .”

     These five skandhas are the aggregates of which a living being and personality is composed.  Skandha is a Sanskrit term with the meaning of a group, a cluster, aggregates, a combination, an organized assemblage, a composite collection.

    Form is the material aggregate and includes all objects involved in sense perception and includes the human body generally.   Form can include that which seems outside the body as objective phenomena, and also mental formations produced subjectively internally within mind, mind being also considered the sixth sense.

     Feelings pertain to sensation, associated with tactile pressures that are then mentally construed as being pleasurable, painful, or neutral.   There is also a mental aspect to feelings, finding expression in emotional responses designated as pleasurable, painful, or neutral.   Feeling is a condition necessary for the arising of clinging.

     Perceptions refer to all functions of perceptive interpretation in the objective field. The word conception is often used in place of or in addition to the idea of perception in the sense of not only perceiving the aspects of things felt in some way, but also entering into a mental discussion regarding those aspects.

    Mental formations include all types of thought structure, patterns, and qualities of mind that give impetus to action.   The Buddha taught that mental formations were karma and that with the arising of these, action occurs, be it by body, speech, or mind.

      Consciousness is that awareness that arises from the impressions of sense data via conditions sensed as objects.   This skandha might be described as the basic cognitive potential, while the other skandhas provide more specific functions with their definite qualities. Apart from conditions, there is no consciousness, and so it is possible to notate innumerable kinds of consciousness according to innumerable conditions affecting the aggregates of a body-mind complex we usually think of as a person.

     It states in the Prologue section that Avalokitesvara saw that the five skandhas were all empty of inherent existence.  Likewise it is again stressed in his answer to Sariputra that those who seek should also view the skandhas as empty, .. empty of inherent existence, just as he had discovered beforehand.

    What is meant by empty of inherent existence? The skandhas, being the constituents of the individual psychosomatic equipment that makes up what is usually called the person and the personality, “self”, are of two types.  The human body is form.  The mind is feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness generally.  A group, or a composite collection of factors such as make up the definition of skandhas, cannot be classified as intrinsically a “self” of some sort.  They do not constitute a self-entity.  A sum of different parts cannot be a self-entity simply because we assume it to be somehow different from its parts.  There is no inherent self in the form we label as our body.

    A perception is not, nor does it make a personal self, nor do feelings or mental formations or their subsequent willed actions.  The perceptions do not constitute selfhood because they are made up of and brought into momentary being by various sense windows and objects, none of which have permanent self-essence within themselves. All phenomenal things, these so-called entities, are susceptible to the same analysis.   A cart cannot be considered as having inherent self-cartness because in the absence of its parts it does not exist except as an idea in our consciousness.   It is a created agglomeration serving a momentary purpose, but nothing more.   Nor do its parts have permanency or self existence; they are merely temporal objects that we create names for according to their specific functions.   A wheel is not a cart, and parts which make up the wheel do not make a wheel in their sum except in our mind.   The axle is not a cart, nor is any other part a cart.  “Cart” is a name given by mind to the collection of parts collectively forming the functional object.   Nor does the wood or metal formed and shaped into the making of the axle make an axle.   The object, along with each of its parts, is empty of self-nature.   Even the parts are made of yet other composite parts, all being empty of self-nature.  This pertains to the smallness of microcosms ad infinitum; it also pertains to the largeness of macrocosms ad infinitum.   Each and every thing involved in beingness, and in the parts of the being’s part-ness, is all process, the process we call change and function.

    Tree, which provides wood, is a composite of many intricate parts, most of which we are blissfully unaware, and in its more apparent being we see it as roots, leaves, twigs, branches, trunk, bark, cones, seed pods, and so on, all together in some varied formations.  Collectively all parts are similar, yet individually they are dissimilar. But there is no eternal and unchanging essence called tree, or tree in any of its manifest varied forms and names.   All are empty of permanent entity.  It, like all things, is simply a process in action, the sum of its functioning parts, destined because of its arising to also be in a state of change which culminates in its ceasing to be, wherein its various component parts also move through their own states of change, all following the same dharma as outlined in the laws governing interdependent origination as it pertains to all objects in all conditions. These so-called entities are all identical in fact, whether functioning on a macro level or on a micro level, from cosmic expanse to the tiniest atomic impulse.   REALITY is emptiness, and the ultimate boundaries into which our consciousness can function leaves us with something indefinable that we feel we have to define, giving that very state a form and name that is in itself ultimately emptiness of enduring beingness.

     This does not mean that things do not exist; it only means they don’t exist absolutely. Usually we perceive things wrongly, conceptually designating or naming things.   Doing so does not make them real self-entities. But because of communication necessities, we do so and begin to take our societal mind-creations seriously as being real and enduring parts of “our” existence.  Because our bodily skandhas function in the way they do, and because the basic storehouse consciousness carries the karmic seeds responsible for our habits and impulses toward action, we maintain our chronic internal dialogues and delusional attitudes, especially regarding a supposed internal self somewhere in the body.    It is this supposed self that we usually think is directing experiences, directing the body, and generally calling the shots throughout each day.   But, just like all else, all sentient beings in whatever form and with whatever degree of consciousness, according to appropriate conditions available, will follow the laws governing its beingness, and those aspects which make up its aggregational “birth” will react accordingly, following the process of interdependent origination without cease, moving through the process of change flawlessly.   If we can understand how the process works, we can cut the knot of our own helpless entanglement in it.

    In Mahayana Buddhism there are posited a total of nine aspects of consciousness. Familiarity with these will help in understanding the process of perception and knowing. These nine are:

The five sense consciousnesses;
The sixth is manovijnana;
The seventh is klistomanas;
The eighth is alayavijnana;
The ninth is the amalavijnana.

     The five sense consciousnesses are awareness of external sense data through the five organs of sense: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body.  Manovijnana is considered as a sixth sense co-ordinating the observations of the five senses.  Manovijnana is the intellect, the thought process that judges by comparing and distinguishing the various sense data. The seventh, klistomanas, is enthralled with clinging to the idea of separate self, the notion of ego, the mental identification with the skandhas. The klistomanas is “defiled” because it habitually discriminates between “self” and “other” and deposits these karmic seeds (bija) in the storehouse consciousness, the eighth. The ninth is the amalavijnana that has been cleansed of all the polluted or unwholesome seed impressions.

   The klistomanas creates an illusion of an ego-identity, a self, where there is only the skandhas and psychological phenomena. Klistomanas has been called “the defiled mind” and for good reason.   It is the source of errant dualistic perceptions and dichotomies, the splitting of a oneness of changing flux into two or more supposed parts without realizing the real non-separateness, emptiness, according to the laws of interdependent origination. Klistomanas is the intermediary between the six senses and the storehouse consciousness.   In order to repair the dysfunctional thought process it is necessary to eliminate the false assumptions and dichotomizing discriminations to which it is habituated. Insights gained through study, thoughtful reflection and meditation heal the illness of the klistomanas and it then ceases to deliver polluted seed impressions to the storehouse consciousness. The storehouse consciousness then collects no additional unwholesome seed impressions and those seeds already formed within begin to wither away due to lack of sustenant energy given to them by errant thought. When the storehouse is without the seeds of delusion it is called amalavijnana.   This is the gist of the process, of which more is given in the chapters on meditation and the mantra.

    Remember, all “things” arise dependent on previously arisen conditional states.  Reality is the eternal absence of presumption of self-existing things.   We experience reality as-it-is not because of a dysfunctional imaginative process, but only through a process of discriminative acuity, of shedding delusion and letting go of clinging, ego-based attitudes and habitual misperception as explained and presented by Avalokitesvara in this sutra gem.    All things, including our presumed “self”, are empty.

     This completes the comments on The Question and the Answer.


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