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The Heart Sutra


The above paragraph proclaims Emptiness as the substance of all dharmas: That being the case, there can be neither birth nor death; no defilement; no purity; no increase or decrease. What holds true for the Dharma of Skandha applies equally to the rest of dharmas, and therefore all dharmas are presently void.

An ordinary person views all things of this world as possessing their own shape or form, he/she grasps and clings to them, not understanding that their presence is empty of a permanent, separate self. The Buddha, mindful of some of his adherents who still grasped worldly dharmas as if they were real, addressed once more the problem generated by the perception of dharmas as increasing, decreasing, defiled or pure. Explaining in. more detail, he reiterated that since all dharmas are void, there is no birth and no death, neither an increase, nor a decrease, no defilement and no purity. The pre-eminent theme of this sutra is the essential Emptiness of all dharmas and the distinguishing marks of their emptiness are defined as non-arising, non-ceasing, non-defilement, non-purity, non-increasing, non-decreasing, non-birth and non-death.

The Vaipulya Sutra speaks of "neither existing nor extinct, neither permanent nor annihilated, neither identical nor differentiated, neither coming nor going." The history of Buddhism is replete with illustrious sages who pondered and expounded this doctrine at great length. To the deluded worldlings, it makes no sense to speak of no birth and no death: They hold birth and death as essential; all of us were born and must die, in the same way the grass sprouts and grows in the spring and summer and dies in the fall. That is clear to everyone, so how can anybody teach that there is no birth and no death? Thus worldlings come to perceive objects as permanent (the view called parikalpita in Sanskrit).

In the Madhyamika Sastra, Bodhisattva Nagarjuna says: "For the one who is already born, there is no birth; nor is there birth for the one who has not been born. The one who was born and the one who was not born, neither has birth-nor the one being born has birth at the time of his/her birth." To give an example, grass that is one foot tall is no longer sprouting. That is what is meant by "no more birth for the one already born." Supposing the grass that is presently one foot tall is allowed to grow one more foot: It still cannot be said to have birth, because there is no manifestation of birth. That is meant by "what has not been born yet has no birth." The grass cannot be said to "have birth" or "being born" at any specific time during its sprouting and so it is said that "the one being born does not have birth at the time of birth." The mark or the sign of birth does not obtain at any one moment. Bodhisattva Nagarjuna demonstrated by means of this example that the doctrine of no-birth makes perfect sense and that it is relevant to an understanding of the teaching.

I have already explained birth and non-birth. Let me explain now the opposite to non-birth. For the one already dead there is no death; for the one not dead yet there is no death, either. At the time of dying there is not one specific point in time for death to manifest itself. The explanation should clarify the eight dharmas of form, i.e., "neither existent nor extinct, neither permanent nor annihilated, neither identical nor differentiated, and neither coming nor going." A simple statement of non-birth and non-death would not be convincing enough. To counter the argument, the Buddha said: "Neither permanent nor annihilated" for those holding on to the doctrine of permanence. To make it succinct in terms of the luminous Dharma, "if you open your mouth you are already wrong, if you give rise to a single thought you are in error." All of this is, in fact, inconceivable. To quote once again the Surangama Sutra: "the language we use has no real meaning."

I would like those who hold things as permanent to explain why we cannot see at present all those who lived before us? The impermanence of human existence becomes immediately apparent. Similarly, those who subscribe to the annihilation theory should tell us how is it possible for us to eat last year's rice? Today's rice is the seed from last year's plant, which, in turn, grew from the seed of the previous year. That should be evidence enough that the annihilation theory does not work, as asserted by the above "neither birth nor death, neither permanence nor annihilation."

As to "neither identical nor differentiated", it means not being the same (or alike), and not being varied, either; being neither one nor many. Consider the human body, for example; it is a collection of many dissimilar parts, i.e., skin, muscle, tendons, bones, blood, viscera and more. Though we refer to it as one body, one sentient being, there are, actually, more than one there. Yet our body cannot be called a group or a composite, because of being perceived as entity. The quote under discussion can be reformulated as "one is all, all is one." The Ultimate Dharma is the silence that follows after the sound of discussion: has ceased and when the role of thought is over.

"Neither coming nor going" addresses the view of things as having independent, lasting existence. By "coming" and "going"' we mean questions such as "where do people come from and where do they go?" Or, similarly, some may wonder where do mountains come from and where do they go? The view that holds everything in the world to be in some way continuing is called in Sanskrit parikalpita. The view is based on a fundamental cognitive distortion, bringing further distortions in its wake: From there on, there is birth, death, permanence, annihilation, sameness, differentiation, coming and going.

The foregoing discussion of the superb doctrine dealt with "neither birth nor death, neither permanence nor annihilation, neither sameness nor differentiation, and neither coming nor going." Presently, we are going to turn our attention to the doctrine of Ultimate Reality as "not defiled, not pure, not increasing and not decreasing," dependent on the substance of Prajna (or the Voidness of all things).

Defiled and pure both are without definite form, thus leaving everyone to his/her own resources or subjective point of view. Rejecting "defiled", clinging to "pure" gives rise to yet another defilement because of our natural tendency toward opinions and prejudice. It is only when discriminating thought no longer arises that liberation can be attained. Let us imagine that someone slipped while walking on a country road; while getting up he/she put his/her hand in some dung. He/she washed the dirty hand, and having done that, considered that hand clean again. Had a piece of cloth been used instead, it would have been considered somewhat soiled even after many launderings; it might even be discarded because of it. However, the hand could not be discarded since it forms an essential part of the owner's body; he/she had no other alternative but to wash it carefully and then accept it as clean. The handkerchief would be easy to abandon and for that reason there would be no need for mind to hold on to "soiled."

A lady scholar named Lu Mei Sun once told me a story about a friend of hers, a lady who lived in a village. Once her friend went shopping in the nearest town, where she saw a pretty enamelware receptacle she liked well enough to buy; she derived much pleasure from serving food in it. About six months later she invited several of her friends for a special meal and used her favorite vessel to serve it in. Her guests, however, were repelled by it, because they identified the vessel as a chamber pot. In spite of the fact that the pot was never used for anything else but food since the lady brought it home brand new from the store, her friends were taken aback. We can appreciate how the view of "soiled" and "clean" is totally grounded in the assumption that things have permanent and, therefore, independent existence.

There is a certain soy condiment that is very popular, but most of those who consume it are not aware of the process used to make it. During its fermentation, the condiment harbors colonies of maggots; they are carefully removed, prior to the product being offered for sale. People enjoy its flavor, but were they reminded, while eating it, that it was once populated by maggots, they might suddenly consider the condiment dirty and stop eating it.

Clearly, the maggots feel perfectly at home in the midst of the decomposing material, and the question of dirty or clean does not arise. Yet rotten or decomposing material has a connotation of dirt in the minds of people.

Those who inhabit heavenly realms consider us, 'the earthlings, dirty, yet they, in turn, are deemed dirty by the Arhat or the saint of the Theravadin tradition while he, the Arhat, is perceived as dirty by a bodhisattva. Thus the demarcation between pure and impure is far from clear. If your mind is impure, the world appears correspondingly impure, and vice versa. All these distinctions are arbitrary, yet people grasp them, and cling to their views as if they were carved in stone.

And, finally, we are going to talk about increase and decrease. As it is to be expected, these two terms are, likewise, completely relative: There may be an increase in a decrease, or a decrease in the increase. Let me give you an example: There are ninety days of summer. Presently, thirty days of summer have already passed. We might say that hot weather has been increasing over the past thirty days, or we can put it differently by saying that the hot season has already decreased by thirty days. An idiomatic saying puts it as "months and years have no feelings, they just decrease while they increase." While the years increase, our life span decreases says the same thing using different words. I am eighty-four years old. If I am to live till ninety, I have six more years, and if I live one more year after that, it means an increase, yet it is also a moment to moment decrease in my life span. That is the meaning of an increase in the decrease, and a decrease in the increase.

In a few words, there is neither birth nor death, neither impure nor pure, neither increase nor decrease: That is the wonderful doctrine of the Middle Way; but most people twist their perception to make it fit their picture of how reality should be. Then there is birth and death, impure and pure, increase and decrease, all being produced by ego-notion and its concomitant craving. For that reason the Buddha taught the true nature of reality: To point out that the notion of separate ego is an illusion, and to emphasize the necessity to eliminate craving if we want to bring the round of suffering to a halt.

The point is that the skandhas are all empty at this very moment; since the Skandha-Dharma is central to Buddhadharma, the rest of Dharmas are equally empty. To reiterate once more, there is no birth and no death, neither pure nor impure, neither increase nor decrease. According to the Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra, Emptiness is the substance of all dharmas.

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