The Teachings of the Buddha

Absolute Truth

Absolute Truth is independent from causation and conditionality, surpassing all dualities. It does not belong to causation so it is not subject to birth and death or to impermanence. Since it also does not operate within conditionality, it does not rely on conditions to take form. Surpassing the realm of duality, it exceeds treatments, comparisons, discussions, and intellectualizations. Absolute truth is not contingent upon space or time. Essentially, absolute truth is beyond explanations by any means.

Absolute truth itself is the origin of sentient beings but they do not realize this. It is ever present within us, but, regretfully, we often forget it. It is our permanent non-birth and non-death essence. We do not remember its existence and accept the impermanent birth and death as ourselves. Forgetting this truth is ignorance. Realizing this truth is enlightenment. Forgetting absolute truth and following birth and death is to fall into samsara. Realizing and living with absolute truth is non-birth and emancipation. Since absolute truth is very important, we need to know some of its names, how to realize it, and its benefits.


Even though, essentially, absolute truth cannot be labeled, within the study of Buddha-dharma, depending on its use, it has been given different names. In the Diamond Sutra, it is called "Ultimate Wisdom" because it is hard as a diamond, cutting through everything yet cannot be destroyed. In the Complete Enlightenment Sutra, absolute truth is called "The Complete Knowing Nature." In the Dharma, there are many types of truths, when we realize some of these truths, then we are called "partially enlightened." When we realize the complete knowing nature, or absolute truth, we are then called "completely enlightened." In the Lotus Sutra, it is called "Buddha Seeing and Knowing" or the "Buddha Vehicle" because it is a medium which brings us to Buddhahood. It is called "Buddha Wisdom" in the Avatamsaka Sutra. In the Shurangama Sutra, it is called "True Mind" or "Tathagata Storehouse." In the Vimalakirtinirdesha Sutra, it is called "Non-Dualistic Dharma-door." Other commonly used names for absolute nature in Zen writings are: true nature, Suchness, Buddha nature, Dharma-body, The Way, and original face.

Knowing some names for absolute truth is important, but it is essential to realize it in ourselves.

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How can absolute truth be conveyed to those who do not understand it in order to help them realize it? This is an extremely difficult task! Even though all explanations belong in the relative realm, at this point, I will make the effort by constructing some principles, quote some of the Buddha's teachings, and then, relate some Zen masters' skillful means. I hope the readers, through these efforts, can come to some realization of absolute truth.

Here are three temporarily constructed principles to describe absolute truth: anything that has form is conditioned and illusive; anything that produces a resultant is subject to birth and death; anything with a dualistic nature is unreal. In contrast, anything without form, does not produce a resultant and anything which is non-dualistic is true, permanent, and of non-birth.

That which has no form is not limited by location. Since it has no form and cannot be located, asking about its place is incorrect. Because absolute truth does not produce an impact, it is not bound to birth and death and is not changed by time. Applying the concept of time to absolute truth is incorrect. The non-dualistic is not subject to comparison and


discrimination. Applying the concept of comparison to absolute truth is also incorrect. Absolute truth is ever-present within us; searching for it is incorrect. It is the nature of knowing, not the object of knowing. Trying to know it is incorrect. Absolute truth does not have form, does not produce an impact, and is not in the realm of dualism. However, if we try to find it outside of forms, impacts, and dualisms, this is also incorrect.

Essentially, absolute truth can only be realized through ones intuition. The Buddha's teachings and the patriarchs' means are like using a stick to hit the grass to scare away the snakes or hitting the water surface to scatter fish. We can skillfully recognize absolute truth through skillful trainings and teachings; like seeing the moon by following the pointing finger. The moon is not at the finger's tip; we just follow the finger's direction to see the moon in the sky. Similarly, seeing the reflection in the mirror, we can get a sense of our true face, but we should not consider the reflection as our real selves. If we do, when we move the mirror and do not see our reflection anymore, we may become frightened and shout, "Where am I??"

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These are principles which are used as temporary means. By utilizing them, we may realize our true nature. This true nature is manifested through our six sense organs,8 but it does not completely rely upon them. However, it is often easier for us to realize our true nature through our eyes and ears. In order to point out true nature, the birth-less and deathless nature, the Buddha used certain means to point directly at our eyes and ears. Here is an example from The Shurangama Sutra, volume 1:

While in front of the assembly, the Buddha raised his hand, closed it, then opened it. He did this twice. He then asked Ananda, "What did you see?"

Ananda responded, "I saw the Tathagata's hand closing and opening."

The Buddha said, "You say my hand was closing and opening. Was it my hand closing and opening or your seeing nature that was closing and opening?"

"It was the Tathagata's hand closing and opening I saw and not my seeing nature that was closing and opening."

"Which moved and which was still?"


"The hand of Buddha moved; my seeing nature was not still, much less, moved."

"You are correct!" the Buddha praised Ananda.

At this time, from the Buddha's palm, a ray of precious light shined upon Ananda's right shoulder. Ananda immediately turned right to look at it. Again, the Buddha shot a ray of precious light upon Ananda's other shoulder. This time, Ananda turned left.

"Why does your head turn in that way?" the Buddha asked.

"I saw the Tathagata's precious light shining upon my right and then left shoulder, I followed the direction of the light, making my head turn," Ananda replied.

"You look at the rays shining upon your right and left shoulders, making your head turn. Did our head turn or did your seeing nature turn?" the Buddha then asked.

"My Lord, it was my head, itself, that moved; my seeing nature did not stay still, much less, moved," Ananda replied.

"You are correct!" the Buddha once again praised him.

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Then, the Tathagata spoke to the assembly:

Human beings accept the moving, namely outside dust,9 accept the not staying still, namely inside guest. When you looked at Ananda, his head turned while his seeing nature did not move. When you looked at me, my hand opened and closed while your seeing nature did not open and close. Why do you believe in the activities of your body or outside phenomena? From the beginning to the end, you follow one thought after another as they come and go, forgetting about your true nature, therefore, behaving in incorrect, inverted ways. Missing your true nature, you consider things to be the self. Because of this, human beings go adrift in the stream of birth and death.

From this passage, we realize that the Buddha wants to show Ananda and the assembly that outside phenomena are ever changing in birth and death just like the Buddha's hand opening and closing. The body is impermanent and in motion, just like Ananda's head turning. Only the seeing nature can see and know outside changes without being effected, relying on the


moving of the head without being moved. The changing and moving are false, unreal, and impermanent. Why then do we consider the changing of the outside environment and the movements of our body as true? On the contrary, the seeing nature that has never been moved is true and of non-birth. We forget this, willingly enduring drifting in samsara. Here is another passage from the Shurangama Sutra, volume 2:

King Prasenajit stood up and asked the Buddha, "Previously, not having been taught by the Buddha, I heard Kakuda Katyayana and Sanjaya Vairatiputra10 saying that this body annihilates after death, calling it Nirvana. Now, although I have met you, still I wonder, `How can I have insight into the mind that is beyond birth and death?' Among the assembly, those who still have afflictions and are in the cycle of birth and death also want to hear."

The Buddha asked, "My Great King, your fleshy body is as permanent and indestructible as a diamond or not?"

"My Lord, my body belongs to change and annihilation," King Prasenajit answered.

"My Great King, you have not died yet. How can you know it will annihilate?"

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"My Lord, my changing, impermanent body has not annihilated yet, but as I observe and see, moment by moment everything is unceasingly changing, like a fire extinguishing, becoming ash, and dying out. This process is endless. From this I know that my body is decaying."

"That is correct," the Buddha replied. "You are now old, becoming feeble. Is your appearance like in your youth?"

"My Lord, when I was a child, my skin was fresh and moist. In my youth, my energy was vigorous. Now, I am old and weak, my appearance is withered, my mind is dulling, my hair is white, my face wrinkled, and I will soon die. How can I be compared to my youth?"

"My Great King, your body cannot become old in one moment, can it?"

"Lord, it has been changing year after year without my noticing it until now. I have become old. How is that? When I was 20 years old, although I was still in my youth, my appearance was older than when I was 10. When I was in my 30's, I was not as strong as when I was in my 20's. Now, that I am 62, looking back, I find


that in my 50's I was quite vigorous. Lord, I have spoken of the changes in my body of the past decades, but, in fact, it has changed every year, every month, and every day. When I carefully and closely observe it, changes occur in every moment of thought. Therefore, I know that my body changes and will finally die."

The Buddha said, "My Great King, seeing the continuous changes in your body, you know that it is bound to death. Do you know something in your body that does not die?"

The King, putting his palms together, addressed the Buddha, "Lord, I really do not know."

"Now, I will help you to realize the non-birth and non-death nature." Then, the Buddha asked, "At what age did you first see the Ganges River?"

"When I was three years old, my mother carried me in her arms to the temple of Jivaka. At this time, I saw the Ganges."

"My Great King," the Buddha continued, "As you have just said, when you were 20, you were older when you were 10. You have been changing every year, every month, every day, and every moment - until now, when you are

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in your 60's. You also said that you saw the Ganges River when you were three years old. How was your seeing when you saw it again at thirteen?"

"It has not changed from three until now, at 62," the King replied.

"You are worrying about your white hair and wrinkled face. Your face is definitely more wrinkled than when you were young. Nevertheless, when you see the Ganges today, is your present seeing nature older than in former times?"

"My Lord," the King answered, "No, it is not."

"My Great King, although your face is wrinkled, your seeing nature has not ever been wrinkled. That which wrinkles, changes and that which does not wrinkle, does not change. That which changes belongs to the cycle of birth and death and that which does not change has never belong to the cycle. How can your seeing nature be bound to birth and death like your body? Why did you quote Maskari Gosaliputra's11 teaching as saying that this body is completely annihilated after death?"


In this passage the Buddha explains to us that which is bound to birth and death and that which is not bound to birth and death in your very own body. Your body is a changing stream in every moment; it is temporary, bound to annihilation. Since your seeing nature has not change from the beginning, it cannot be annihilated. The seeing nature is the ever-knowing, manifesting at the eye organs when the mind does not go to the second level of dualistic thinking, that of good or bad, beautiful or ugly, etc. It is there whether your eyes are opened or closed. It does not totally rely on the eyes. If you have good eyes, it manifests in a bright way, if you have bad eyes, it manifests in a dim way. Even when the eye-organs die, seeing nature does not die. This is the characteristic of non-birth and non-death. This characteristic does not manifest only through the eyes but also through the ears. In the Shurangama Sutra, volume 4:

The Buddha told Rahula to hit a bell, and then asked Ananda, "Now, are you hearing?"

"Yes, we are hearing," Ananda and the Assembly answered.

When the sound of the bell ended, the Buddha again asked, "Now, are you hearing?"

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"No, we do not hear it," they again replied.

Rahula hit the bell again. Once more, the Buddha asked, "Now, are you hearing?"

"We hear it," Ananda and the Assembly answered.

"What do you mean by hearing and not hearing?" The Buddha then asked them.

"When the bell is hit, then we hear the sound," they answered. "And when the sound of the bell ends, we do not hear."

The Buddha told Rahula to hit the bell again. He asked Ananda, "Now, is there a sound?"

"Yes, there is a sound," Ananda and the Assembly replied.

After a moment, the sound ended. The Buddha then asked, "Now is there a sound?"

"There is no sound," they answered.

After a pause, Rahula sounded the bell yet again. Once again, the Buddha asked, "Now, is there a sound?"

"Yes, there is," Ananda and the assembly replied once again.

The Buddha asked Ananda, "What do you mean by sound and no sound?"


"When a bell is hit, we say there is a sound. When the sound ends, we say there is not a sound," Rahula and the assembly replied.

"Why did you answer so disorderly?" the Buddha then said.

"Why do you say that we answered disorderly?" They asked.

"When I asked you about the hearing, you said you heard. When I asked you if there was a sound, you answered that there was. You did not answer in a unified way about hearing and sound. That was why I said that you answered disorderly.

"Ananda, when the sound ended, you said you did not hear. If you really did not hear, your hearing nature would cease to exist, like a dead plant. If this was the case, how would you know when another bell was hit? It is the sound that exists or does not exist, not your hearing nature exists or does not exist. If your hearing nature is not present, who is there to know that there was no sound? Therefore, Ananda, when you are hearing, sound may arise or disappear, not your hearing nature that exists or not according to the sound. You inversely

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mistake the sound for your hearing, so it is no wonder that you incorrectly consider that which is permanent (i.e. hearing nature) to be capable of annihilation (i.e. sound). Ultimately, you should not say that your hearing nature does not exist whether there is agitation and stillness or obstruction and penetration."

This is our common mistake, accepting the sound for the hearing or the form for the seeing. When there is a sound, you say you are hearing; when there is no sound, no hearing. Similarly with form, when there is a form, you say you are seeing; when there is no form, no seeing. Hearing and seeing are our knowing natures; form and sound are outside objects. We mistake outside objects for ourselves; therefore, losing ourselves and drifting along the stream of birth and death forever. This is clear proof of our inverted ignorance. If we do not try to awaken right at this very point, discovering our true and permanent nature, who knows when we will escape from the cycle of birth and death?

It is the common purpose of all Buddhas to awaken people to their true, permanent nature. From the Lotus Sutra, in the chapter entitled "Skillfulness," the Buddha said:


Shariputra, the buddhas taught according to abilities of the audience and appropriately to the situation even though their teachings are not easy to understand. Why is this so? For example, I use many means, methods, examples, and sayings depending on different situations to express the Dharma. The Dharma cannot be intellectually understood. Only buddhas are able to fully understand the Dharma. Why is this so? Buddhas appear in the world only for this one great aim.

Shariputra, why do buddhas appear in the world for this one great aim? Because buddhas want sentient beings to open up to their Buddha-knowing (or knowing nature) in order that they may be purified. Buddhas want to show sentient beings their Buddha-knowing; therefore, buddhas appear in the world. Buddhas want sentient beings to realize their Buddha-knowing; therefore, they appear in the world. Buddhas want sentient beings to integrate with Buddha-knowing; therefore, buddhas appear in the world.

Shariputra, buddhas appear in the world only for this one great aim.

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All the buddhas' teachings are for one aim only: to lead sentient beings to the innate Buddha-knowing. When there are forms, we say we see; when forms disappear, we say we do not see. Similarly, we say we know due to sense objects; when sense objects disappear, we say we do not know. Nevertheless, who is the person who sees forms disappearing, yet says he does not see? Who is the one who knows when there is no sense object yet says he does not know? Pitifully, we forget ourselves.

Every morning, when we first open our eyes, we immediately start thinking about problems that need solving throughout the day. After dinner, when we go to bed, lying there, we go through the list of problems to determine which have been solved, which still remain to be solved, and the new ones which need to be solved the next day. It is the same routine, day after day until we die! Problems will always remain. These problems are outside things that we insistently try to solve, forgetting the one who makes problems and solve them. Furthermore, there is an Owner who has no problems.

Forgetting oneself to pursue external things is sentient beings' knowledge. Recognizing one's


true nature through external things is Buddha-knowledge. Forgetting oneself is ignorance. Realizing one's true face is enlightenment. Buddhas want to awaken sentient beings in order that they may return to living with their Buddha natures, not running after external things and forgetting the Self. To transform sentient beings' ignorance is the cherished intentions of all buddhas. From the Diamond Sutra:

Therefore, Subhuti! Bodhisattvas should detach from all forms if they aspire to Buddhahood. They should not dwell on forms, sounds, smell, taste, touch, or mind objects. They should raise non-abiding minds. Their minds cannot be calm if their minds abide anywhere.

The Buddha-mind does not attach to the six sense objects because they are tied to birth and death. The mind which attaches to the six sense objects is the delusive mind. Therefore, if Bodhisattvas want to abide in Buddha-mind, they should not attach to the six sense objects. When they run after the six sense objects, they perceive their minds as inside and objects as outside, still abiding in the realm of false duality. Knowing the six sense objects are of temporal and false conditionality, Bodhisattvas stop following them,

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returning to live with their true natures. From the Vimalakirti Nirdesha Sutra, chapter 9, there is also this teaching on non-duality:

Vimalakirti said to the Bodhisattvas, "Assembly! How do bodhisattvas enter the Non-dualistic Dharma Gate? Just tell us your understanding."

A Bodhisattva named Dharmavikurvana (Dharma Freedom) answered, "Assembly! Birth and annihilation are dualistic but all dharmas, in their nature, are not born nor annihilated. By embracing this truth of birthlessness, one is able to endure everything. This is entering the Non-dualistic Dharma Gate."

Bodhisattva Srigandha said, "`I' and `mine' are dualistic concepts. Because there is an `I,' so there is `mine.' And if there is no `I,' of course, there is no `mine.' This is integrating the Non-dualistic Dharma Gate."

Then, Manjushri said, "In my opinion, in regards to all dharmas, there can be no speaking, no discussion, no pointing-out, or no intellectualizing; beyond all dialogues. That is entering the Non-dualistic Dharma Gate."


Manjushri then asked Vimalakirti, "All of us have spoken already. Now it is your turn to say how bodhisattvas enter the Non-dualistic Dharma Gate."

Vimalakirti kept silent.

Manjushri praised him, "Very good! Very good! In fact, entering the Non-dualistic Dharma Gate does not depend on a word or a saying"

People who read Buddhist sutras may find them difficult to understand because of the way they were written. We usually say "two" or "one": if it is not "one," it is "two;" if it is not "two," it is "one." Why then, does this sutra use the term "non-dualistic" and not "one?" Because "one" is opposite of "two" and "two" is opposite of "one." However, this Dharma Gate is beyond the binary or singular. Only use language to dismiss language. This is similar to what Manjushri said. The ultimate point is that there is no word to express it. As soon as we use language to express the Path, we fall into duality. Directly realizing is enlightenment. This is Vimalakirti's silence. Speaking, but not speaking, is using language to eliminate language. Not speaking, but speaking, is subtlety showing the absolute truth that is beyond words.

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There are many more examples of absolute truth in the sutras. However, let's now look at the methods of some Zen masters. After Hui-Neng became enlightened, his teacher, the Fifth Patriarch Hung-Jen, gave him the robe and bowl with instructions to go south. Hui-Neng went to Mount Yu-Ling, where he was followed by a Dharma brother named Hui-Ming. When he saw Hui-Ming coming, Hui-Neng put the robe and bowl on a rock and hid in a cluster of trees. When Hui-Ming saw the robe and bowl, he tried to lift them, but could not. He called out, "Pilgrim! I've come for the Dharma, not for the robe and bowl!" When the Patriarch heard the call, he came out, saying, "If you have come for the Dharma, calm your mind and then hear what I have to say." Hui-Ming waited quietly. After awhile, Hui-Neng asked, "Not thinking of good or evil, what is Venerable Ming's original face?" Hearing this, Hui-Ming became enlightened.

This is exactly the essential teaching Hui-Neng received from the Fifth Patriarch. It is also the cherished intentions of all Buddhas. "Original face" is another name for the Path, the Dharma-body, Buddha Nature, True Mind, etc. You have an everlasting and unchanging face but you forget this and consider


the temporal body to be your self. The body that you are holding on to is changing every moment, coming into being and disappearing without any certainty. How can you say that it is real? It is really an ever-changing, temporal combination. It exists but it does not really exist because it is ever-changing. It remains but it does not really remain because it is not fixed and certain. If you really have to consider it as your self, then think of it as just a temporal self!

Sometimes you realize that your body is false but you still consider your mind as your self because it can distinguish between what is good or evil, right or wrong, good or bad, etc. Nevertheless, dualistic thinking is also temporary. As soon as the mind gives rise to thoughts about good or evil, it is immediately involved in the cycle of birth and death. If you rid yourself of all dualistic ideas, you will not find any trace of "mind." Therefore, where is your self? Did you lose your self? It can be quite confusing when you consider the thinking as your self.

For eons, we have been adrift in the stream of birth and death, or reincarnation; all because we hold on to and consider these temporal bodies and false minds to be our selves. However, it is also at this

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point, that we can realize and live with our original faces. The stream of birth and death then ceases and we can escape from reincarnation. Our original faces have never been in the cycle of birth and death. How can the unconditioned essence be changed or affected by formation and dispersion? Our original faces have always existed. When we forget this, it is ignorance. Remembering this is enlightenment.

To point out the original face, there is no other way more effective than using Hui-Neng's question, "Not thinking of good nor evil, what is Venerable Ming's original face?" Everyone keep wondering "what is Venerable Ming's original face," not remembering the more crucial part of the question which says "not thinking of good nor evil." We realize our original faces exactly at the moment when we are "not thinking of good or evil." When our minds are natural, alert, and not thinking of good or evil or right or wrong, our original faces appear. When we think of good or evil, our minds become agitated, falling into the cycle of birth and death and our original faces are covered. Therefore, after hearing Hui-Neng's question, Venerable Ming realized his original face, becoming enlightened. Here is another Zen masters' simple, but great, lecture:


Ts'ung Shen approached Nan Ch'uan and asked, "What is the Way?"

"Ordinary mind is the Way," Nan Ch'uan answered.

"Can we approach it?" Ts'ung then asked.

"Thinking of approaching it is wrong."

"When we don't think of it, how can we know it is the Way?

"The Way does not depend on knowing or not knowing. Thinking that we know is delusive; not knowing is dullness. If people are really enlightened, they will not doubt the Way, which is like the vast void and does not belong to dualistic ideas about right or wrong."

Upon hearing this, Ts'ung Shen became enlightened.

"The Way" is another name for the original face or the Buddha-body. It is the absolute essence that is innate in us. To think we can find it or approach it is incorrect. To think we know it is falling into delusive thinking. To ignore it, having a hazy mind, is dullness. To judge it as right or wrong is further straying from

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the Way. Truly, the expression "ordinary mind is the Way," can lift the veils of ignorance, revealing the original face. Thinking of finding the Way and judging dualistically is losing this ordinary mind. Being alert, aware, and tranquil is the essence of the ordinary mind. Ordinary mind has no form, its nature is vast and empty, like space. Recognizing this is enlightenment.

Zen Master Tao Wu said to Ch'ung Hsin, his disciple, "Be my attendant and I will teach you the essentials." Ch'ung Hsin accepted. After living with him for some years, Ch'ung Hsin felt that he had not been taught anything, so he went to talk with Tao Wu:

"Since I have come here, I have not been taught the essential mind," Ch'ung Hsin said.

"From the day you came here, I have never not taught you the essential mind," Tao Wu responded.

"Where have you pointed it out to me?"

"When you served me tea, I received the tea for you. When you brought rice, I took it for you. When you bow to leave, I nodded my head for you. Where did I not teach you the


essential mind?" Tao Wu answered. Ch'ung Hsin bowed his head, thinking for awhile.

"It is right here to realize. Thinking of it is wrong," Tao Wu said.

Hearing this, Ch'ung Hsin awakened.

Tao Wu's essential mind is Nan Ch'uan's "ordinary mind." In every action, such as eating, wearing clothes, or going forwards or backwards, we express the essential mind completely. Yet, when eating, we often do not really eat, thinking of other things. When putting on clothes, we often do not really just put on clothes, but make plans instead. We cannot live with just our ordinary minds in all daily activities, always drawn away by the thinking minds. Therefore, all day long, we follow thoughts from one category to another, never stopping.

Here, Zen Master Tao Wu showed the essential mind through receiving tea and rice or the nodding of the head. It is very simple and everyday. The essential mind always exists in every action, but we ignore and do not accept it. Because our minds are full of strange images and curiosities, how can we accept this simple, ordinary nature? When we hear teachings about the

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essential mind, the Way, or the Buddha-body, we imagine that it must be something extraordinary and beyond the ordinary. However, surprisingly, it is in very simple and common things. Throwing away all chaotic thoughts and living with the tranquil nature of the ordinary mind in all common activities is achieving the Way, realizing the essential mind.

Waves rising and falling on the ocean's surface are symptoms of birth and death. When waves become calm and the surface is flat, what then, is birth and death? When waves arise, they take different forms. When waves disappear, then what form can be found? At this time, we cannot say that there is no ocean! Similarly, when all thoughts calm down, our true nature manifests. When we think, our true nature is hidden:

When Huai-Hai was following Ma-Tsu in the garden one day, a flock of birds flew by. Ma-Tsu asked, "What is it?"

"A flock of wild ducks."

"Where have they gone?"

"They have flown away." At this, Ma-Tsu pinched Huai-Hai's nose so forcefully that the latter screamed.


"Didn't you say flown away?"

Immediately, Huai-Hai was enlightened.

Although the essential mind always manifest at the six sense organs, we do not realize this. We keep following the six sense objects. When the eyes see form, we consider that we are seeing. When the form disappears, we say that we are not seeing. We totally depend on outside surroundings. Form is subject to birth and death: suddenly existing; suddenly, disappearing. Our seeing nature has never been born nor will it die, but we often accept forms instead of realizing our seeing nature. Seeing nature embodies the essentials and is our life pulse for numerous lifetimes. Unfortunately, we forget our life pulse, following the outside stream of birth and death. Huai-Hai's case is an example of this. He only identifies that the ducks have flown away, not remembering to stay with his seeing nature. When Ma-Tsu held and twisted his nose forcefully, saying, "Didn't you say flown away?" Huai-Hai suddenly realized his nature that has never `flown away,' waking up from his dream of forgetting his true nature to pursue objects.

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We live breathing in and out through our nose. Our nose is always on our face but we hardly remember or see it. Everyday, we just remember eating, wearing clothes, or being beautiful or ugly, forgetting that which is more vital. Forgetting our breath is forgetting our lives. When we forget about our lives, then there is no meaning to living. We live like we are dead. We live in crazy chaos. Buddhas and patriarchs try to awaken us so that we can remember our true lives. As long as we are breathing in and out, we are not yet dead. Similarly, when we can constantly stay with our true lives, are we not in the realm of non-birth and non-death? Our seeing nature is always within us, but we do not realize it. Likewise, our nose is always on our face, but we forget it. Ma-Tsu held Huai-Hai's nose and twisted it forcefully to make the latter scream. Right at that moment, Huai-Hai became enlightened. This is a skillful technique in the Zen tradition. This is also a wonderful, speechless teaching:

One day, during his visit to K'ai-Yaun pagoda, Prime Minister Pei-Hsiu saw a picture of a venerable monk on the wall. He asked Zen Master Hsi-Yun, "His picture is seen here, but where is the venerable monk?"


"Pei-Hsiu!" Hsi-Yun called out.

"Here I am!" Pei-Hsiu answered.

"Where?" Hsi-Yun asked.

At this point, Pei-Hsiu recognized immediately the priceless gem hidden in the topknot, becoming enlightened.

When we go to visit a friend, we ring the doorbell. If someone immediately opens the door, we know for sure then that someone is home. Similarly, if our knowing nature was not present at our ears, how could we react to a sound so quickly? When there is a call, right away, there is a response. There is no time to hesitate or think. Even when we are sleeping soundly, if there is a sudden call, right away, we are startled, waking up. This illustrates that the knowing nature is always at our ears, never absent. When we are awake, the organs work and our knowing nature is bright. When we are asleep, the organs are closed and our knowing nature is vague. The knowing nature is the real Owner, our original face. We completely forget the Owner, always chasing outside six sense objects. When we forget our true nature, following objects, we are bobbing in the stream of birth and death. When we are working chaotically and someone asks, "Who is the Owner?" we are astonished, not

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knowing how to answer. Everyday, we say that we live for ourselves, taking care of ourselves, but we are actually losing ourselves. If we know clearly the Owner, we dare to say that we really live. If not, how can we say that we are living? Because living and acting without realizing the Owner is living a borrowed life.

Prime Minister Pei-Hsiu saw the venerable monk's picture but did not know where he was. This reflects the state of a person who forgets the Owner yet is continuously searching for it at the same time. The call from Zen Master Hsi-Yun is like thunder sounding at the ears, starling Pei-Hsiu into responding, "Here I am!" Then, the question, "Where?" opened Pei-Hsiu eyes. Pei-Hsiu had wondered for a long time, anxiously trying to find the Owner. Suddenly, the Owner appeared clearly before his eyes. In the Lotus Sutra, the precious gem in the king's topknot is offered only to the prime minister who has the greatest accomplishments. That day, when he recognized the Owner, Pei-Hsiu received the gem. The most noble and precious essence in our life is the Owner. A house without an owner is a deserted house. A person who does not realize the Owner is a puppet. Therefore, the only purpose of buddhas and patriarchs is to help us realize the


Owner. That Owner is always present at our six senses; we only need to skillfully realize it:

One day, Zen Master Shih-Pei was sitting in his house, attended by a monk. Looking at the floor, he saw a white spot. He asked the monk, "Do you see?"

"Yes, I do," the monk replied.

"I see and you also see. Why then is one of us enlightened, but the other is not?"

Both of them saw a white spot on the floor but why is the Master enlightened and the disciple ignorant? Because the disciple only saw what was there, forgetting the Owner. This is ignorance. The Master saw, but did not pursue the object of sight. Moreover, due to what he saw, he recognized the Owner, his true nature. This is enlightenment. Both were in the same situation, but they exemplified the difference between ignorance and enlightenment. One forgot the self to follow the object while the other, due to seeing the object, recognizing his true self. Before the assembly at Vulture Peak, the Buddha held up a lotus flower and Mahakashyapa smiled. This story has the same significance. Zen patriarchs take full advantage of all means, like the raising of a hand or

The Teachings of the Buddha

stick, in order to help others to realize their Owner through their sight.

When seeing objects, if no thought arises, this is the moment our original face appears. When there is seeing, there is knowing. The knowing which is not dependent on thoughts and comparisons is true knowing, beyond the dualism of birth and death. Since the knowing from thoughts and comparisons is restless and temporary, how can it be true? When discriminating thoughts calm down, knowing nature shows itself brightly. This is our real, true Owner. When the knowing nature is tranquil, there is no birth and death. At this moment, why do we doubt and not accept our true, eternal nature? If we see objects and realize our seeing nature, this is enlightenment. The opposite is ignorance. In another story:

Zen Master Ching-Ch'eng was sitting in his house. He asked a monk standing by his side, "What noise is there outside?"

"It is the cry of a frog caught by a snake," the monk answered.

"There is not only a suffering being but also a being suffering!" proclaimed the Master.

On another day, the Master once again asked, "What noise is there outside?"


"It is the sound of falling rain," the monk answered.

"Sentient beings are inverted, forgetting the Self to pursue objects."

"How about you, Master?"

"I still do not forget the Self."

"What do you mean?" the monk questioned further.

"Getting out of delusions may be easy, but pointing out true nature can be quite difficult," the Master replied.

When a snake catches a frog, there is a "suffering being" because the more powerful being overcame the weaker. However, there is also a "being suffering" because a being forgot his true nature to pursue outside objects. Every day our ears listen to the coming and going of outside sounds, seldom aware of the permanent hearing nature. Hearing a sound, immediately we dualistically classify it as "useful" or "harmful," "right" or "wrong," "interesting" or "boring," etc. We then decide "like" or "dislike." We keep doing this, never stopping. Therefore, we say that "sentient beings are inverted, forgetting the true Self to pursue outside objects."

The Teachings of the Buddha

Mindful people know how to return to themselves. Anything outside, whether agitated or still, is bound to birth and death. The Owner who knows agitation and stillness is beyond birth and death. Whether there is agitation or stillness, the Owner always knows it just as it is. Agitation and stillness chase each other repeatedly while the Owner is still, watching the changes. "Still do not forget the Self" is staying with the Owner, despite the changes in sense objects. Since this cannot really be described, the Master said, "Getting out of the delusion may be easy, but pointing out true nature is quite difficult."

Hearing sound yet not following and discriminating it and remembering the ever-existing hearing nature is Avalokiteshvara's practice. Whether sound is loud or soft, far away or nearby, hearing nature always realizes it. If it was possible for hearing nature to stop for awhile, it would mean that we sometimes hear and sometimes do not hear. However, we are always hearing; even when there is no sound, our hearing nature always exists within us. According to the Shurangama Sutra, volume 6, among the various methods of returning to true nature, reflecting back on one's hearing nature is one of the best ways. When the Buddha asked Manjushri to


choose the perfect means of practice, he chose the hearing nature method of Avalokiteshvara. Zen masters have thousands of means to help others realize their true nature. Comprehending one means that one can penetrate all others.

What are the benefits once we have realized absolute truth? Though we can clearly see the impermanence of life, we may still long for the permanent. Whenever this happens, we often sigh and think that we are deficient. It is true that most of us do not realize this eternal, true nature. We long and wish for it but we cannot find or touch it. How painful this is! Therefore, when we suddenly realize it, how happy we are! Even boddhisattvas can have similar experiences. Here is a story from the Lotus Sutra, in the chapter entitled "Understanding and Believing." From the day Shariputra started to practice, he only hoped to become an arhat, never daring to think that he could achieve buddhahood. When the Buddha predicted his future buddhahood, it was beyond his dream. To express his happiness, Shariputra used the example of a poor son who was given the precious treasure by his wealthy father.

The Buddha used these examples of a precious jewel or a wish-fulfilling gem to show absolute

The Teachings of the Buddha

nature. "Since receiving Ma-Tsu's kick, I laugh forever, never stopping," Zen Master Shui-Liao said to his disciples because he found the lost, precious jewel in his hand. From then on, his poor, wandering life ends. "Since I received my treasure-store, I have been using it, never lacking," exclaimed Zen Master Hui-Hai. "(U)sing it, never lacking," because it is an endless treasure-store that may be spent freely. This is called the "wish-fulfilling gem." Holding this precious jewel in his hand, all his needs are satisfied. He can also help others as he wishes. It is truly beneficial to oneself and others.

Human beings greatly treasure their lives, desiring to live long. So, if they have been saved from death, their gratitude is as deep as the ocean or as high as the sky. However, the eternal life is found in realizing and staying with true nature. The Buddha used this example from the Lotus Sutra, in the chapter entitled "Duration of the Tathagata's Life:"

A billion-world universe is crushed into tiny dust particles. A man takes all the particles, goes a hundred thousand myriads of worlds in an eastern direction. He then drops one tiny particle. He repeats this action until he finishes scattering all these dust particles. He then


gathers all the worlds he has passed, crushing them into tiny dusts. Each dust particle represents a life. The longevity of the Buddha's life is a hundred thousand myriads times more than the inconceivable number of these dust particles.

Even a talented mathematician would not be able to calculate it! Here, the Buddha is the Dharmakaya, the absolute truth existing in each being.

Absolute truth not only goes beyond time but also covers all space. In the Avatamsaka Sutra, Chapter 37, the Buddha again used the example of dust. However, this time, to show the immense nature of absolute truth. In the story, there is a sutra as big as a billion-world universe. It is rolled into a ball and put into a tiny dust particle. A sage saw the particle and knew what it contained. He broke open the dust particle to retrieve the sutra.

This sutra contains all the truths of the billion-world universe. The sutra stands for absolute nature, or Buddha nature, and the dust particles exemplify the bodies of human beings. If we want to know everything in the universe, nothing is better than

The Teachings of the Buddha

realizing the true nature which is within our own bodies. Every truth is shown there. Just as it is hard to imagine that a tiny dust particle contains such a big sutra, our bodies, likewise, contains big truths. Sages and wise people realize it.

We never admit that we have a nature so immense it can cover all of space! However, we often consider ourselves as something small like a single reed in the mud or a grain of sand in the desert. Therefore, when we read in chapter 7 of the Vimalakirtinirdesha Sutra, about Vimalakirti holding a world in his right hand and moving it to another place, how can we dare to believe this? Similarly, in the Shurangama Sutra, volume 3, when Ananda realized true nature, he observed his body and found that it was like dust blown about in a void; sometimes there and sometimes not, like a bubble floating on the vast ocean.

A monk asked Vietnamese Zen Master Tue Trung Thuong Si, "Since birth and death are crucial matters, how should I resolve it?" The Master answered, "In immense space, do two wheels12 matter? On the vast sea, does a floating bubble


matter?" When we compare the size of the two wheels in space or a bubble in the ocean, the conclusion is obvious. Similarly, true nature is illustrated as a priceless gem.

The person who can stay with true nature will have boundless skilful actions that fully benefit him and others. Everyday we live only with false thoughts, thereby, creating hundreds of thousands of useful actions. Imagine if we were to live with the bright nature filled with boundless actions that are immeasurable!

Examining worldly phenomena will shows us this more clearly. For example, that which is coarse has weak action while that which is subtle has powerful action. Soil is coarser than water but can be swept away by water. Water is coarser than wind which can toss it about. Wind's powerful strength can erode soil and sweep away water but we cannot see its form. Similarly, an atom, though smaller than the eye can see, is incredible powerful.

Thoughts arise when the mind follows mind-objects, becoming mental formations. When we think "mountain," immediately a mental formation of a

matter?" When we compare the size of the two wheels in space or a bubble in the ocean, the conclusion is obvious. Similarly, true nature is illustrated as a priceless gem.

The person who can stay with true nature will have boundless skilful actions that fully benefit him and others. Everyday we live only with false thoughts, thereby, creating hundreds of thousands of useful actions. Imagine if we were to live with the bright nature filled with boundless actions that are immeasurable!

Examining worldly phenomena will shows us this more clearly. For example, that which is coarse has weak action while that which is subtle has powerful action. Soil is coarser than water but can be swept away by water. Water is coarser than wind which can toss it about. Wind's powerful strength can erode soil and sweep away water but we cannot see its form. Similarly, an atom, though smaller than the eye can see, is incredible powerful.

Thoughts arise when the mind follows mind-objects, becoming mental formations. When we think "mountain," immediately a mental formation of a

The Teachings of the Buddha

mountain appears in our minds. Similarly, when we remember a person, a mental formation of that person appears. Mind arises, creating objects. Mind and object go together. The mind which does not detach from an object is called a delusive mind or false thinking. There are thousands of objects so there are thousands of object following minds! Mind creating mental formation is coarse mind. Mind following many different objects is distracted. Coarse and distracted minds have second-rate applications. When all thoughts calm down, a formless, bright nature with unlimited applications shows. Because its skilful actions go beyond intellectualization, it is called the "wish-fulfilling gem." Holding this gem in hand, everything will be fulfilled. On one side, the application is weak and limited. On the other side, it is wondrous, free, and independent, beyond intellectualization.

Absolute truth is not outside but is right within us. If we want to find it, we have to return to ourselves. It is a waste of time to look for it elsewhere. Absolute truth is innate and so is the Owner. After realizing the Owner, we can see all other truths in the universe more clearly. After realizing and living


Learning Buddhism

Learning Buddhism

In worldly life, every subject has its own way to be studied. For example, when a pupil wants to learn about mathematics, he first needs to learn numbers, then how to add and subtract, next, the multiplication tables and division, and then, more complex formulas. When he wants to study writing, he has to learn how to spell, understand proper grammar, how to write essays, etc. Similarly, as Buddhism is a subject that can be studied, it has its own methods.

Three methods to achieve wisdom are learning, reflecting, and practicing. Without wisdom, we cannot enter the gate of enlightenment. The Buddha-dharma is the truth. If we do not have the


light of wisdom, how can we clearly see truth in every phenomenon? If we only learn about Buddhism through beliefs, it is a great mistake. This is a serious disease among many contemporary Buddhist practitioners. To treat this disease, we have to thoroughly apply the following three methods.

Wisdom through Learning13

After studying and listening to the Dharma, our wisdom can develop. This is called wisdom through learning. We learn about the Dharma from the teachings of monks and nuns and from our senior dharma friends. These teachings have their origins in the sutras which contains the correct teachings, revealing the truth. The more we listen, the clearer our wisdom becomes. The Brahma Net Sutra, chapter 6, precept 7 states, "When one who has just received the Bodhisattva precepts hear that a sutra or the Vinaya is being taught, they should go there to learn even though they may be thousands of miles away." Directly reading sutras and Buddhist books is another way to develop our wisdom through learning. Diligently studying and listening to the teachings is

Learning Buddhism

to enter the house of the Buddha-dharma through the gate of learning.

Wisdom through Reflecting

Reflecting is investigating and contemplating. When deliberation and discrimination are applied when we are presented with the Buddha's teachings, our wisdom can develop. If we believe immediately what we are told or read, this is not a correct attitude for studying the Dharma. It is better to use our wisdom to judge whether it is correct or not. Only when we find that it is correct should we then believe. One of the last sayings of the Buddha is, "You, yourself, have to light your own torch as you go. Light it with right Dharma."14 We want to develop our wisdom but how can we do it by ourselves? We can light our torch from the Buddha's torch of right Dharma.

How do we light it? When we hear a teacher saying, "All things in the world are temporary," we should use our wisdom to decide if it is correct by posing a counter question to ourselves. We may ask, "If all things in the world are temporary, are there any exceptions?" If there are any exceptions, this saying is not true. If we find that there are no exceptions, we can believe in the saying.


Right now, let us investigate together whether human life is temporary or not. Our grandparents and our parents are born, grow up, become sick or old, and, then, die. Similarly, we will go through the same process. All human beings in the world, from long ago and into the future, will experience the same process. Therefore, we may conclude that human life is, in fact, temporary.

Are things like houses, desks, chairs, cars, or buses temporary also? Let us investigate together. Our house is quite fine when it is newly built. However, it will deteriorate with the years; perhaps collapsing after fifty years. Similarly, a desk, shiny when new, becomes old with time (the paint peeling, the surfaces covered with scratches, etc.) and then, falls apart. The devices we use every day are also affected by impermanence. We can examine thousands of things to see that they follow the same process. Therefore, we can conclude that it is true that all things in the world are temporary. Although there may be others who say differently, after we have filtered what we have heard through the wisdom from investigative reflection, we can firmly believe in the truth of impermanence.

Learning Buddhism

Another example is if we hear a teacher say, "Everything in the world is involved in reincarnation." We may ask ourselves, "How is it that all things are in the realm of reincarnation? Is there anything outside of this cycle?" Let us begin by examining the plant kingdom. From seeds, a plant will germinate, grow, bloom, and then produce fruits that bear more seeds, continuing the cycle endlessly. This is the cycle from one generation to another.

Even in one generation, we can see this process. A plant, taking in nutrients from the soil and water through its roots, grows into a large tree with leaves and branches. The leaves and branches fall to the ground, becoming compost. Another example is water evaporating into vapors in sunlight. Vapors rise and meet cold air, condensing into droplets that falls to the earth, where it, once again, becomes vapors, continuing this endless cycle. Also, when the earth rotates, there are light and dark phases. People then create hours, days, months, years, and the four seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter... in an endless cycle. With these examples, we can see that all things in the world follow a cycle of becoming and ceasing, or reincarnation. This is an undeniable truth.


We can use this method of reflecting to investigate other teachings of the Buddha or other sources. Doing so, we will not be misled by incorrect teachings. This is the right attitude for Buddhist practitioners.

Wisdom through Practice

Once we have determined that the Buddha's teachings are true through investigation, if we apply them to our daily lives, the teachings will become even more meaningful. This is wisdom through practice. For example, we may apply the teaching that "all things are temporary" to the following three cases.

When there is something wrong in our own life or with our family, if we remember the teachings on impermanence, it may help us to keep calm and not be scared or fearful. We know that no one can escape impermanence and our fear usually only makes the problem more confusing. When we are not frightened, our minds can be calm and wisdom arises to help us to better solve our problems or to console others who suffer like us.

Likewise, when we are in the heat of craving, if we remember that all things in the world are

Learning Buddhism

impermanent, our hearts will cool. We will not struggle for fame, money, or lust anymore because we know that these things are temporary. So, why would we struggle for them, causing ourselves and others suffering? We know this would be like trying to catch the moon by chasing its shadow on the water. When we understand impermanence, the craving for worldly pleasures will be alleviated.

Remembering impermanence, we cannot passively wait for death. We have to try to do good deeds now. When death does come, there is not much we can do at that moment even though we may want to. We should value our time now because we cannot relive the days that have passed. We have to strive to be of benefit to ourselves and others without delay. By wisely applying the teaching that "all things in the world are impermanent" to our daily lives, great benefit will develop. Relating to the teachings in these ways, accompanied by an alert and awakened mind, is called wisdom through practice.

We may also employ the teachings that all things are involved in samsara. When we understanding how it applies in our daily lives, we may make better choices. For example, knowing that plants are in the realm of birth and death, we may choose the higher


quality seed to cultivate the best fruits for everyone's enjoyment. Similarly, if we are aware that we cannot escape from the cycle of samsara, we would create good causes so that we will be reborn into a good realm. Knowing the rules of samsara, we have to find out which cause is pulling us into the cycle. After that, we have to find the way to escape from the cycle of birth and death, not accepting being involved forever in the cycle of samsara. It is similar to scientists studying the gravitational pull of the earth to understand how much force is needed to propel a spaceship into space. Understanding samsara and finding the way to escape from it is the spirit of wisdom through practicing.

Learning and reflecting about the Dharma is necessary, but practicing it is more important. If we learn and reflect but do not practice, the wisdom we acquire will be empty wisdom, useless since it has no practical applications to our daily lives. It is through practice that the value of learning and reflecting will be measured. Then, wisdom acquired from practice will, in turn, reinforce learning and reflecting.

These three wisdom practices are totally

Learning Buddhism

congruent with modern methods of investigation. To study any worldly subject, first people study the theory, then, analyze and investigate, and, at last, put the theory into practice.

According to The Mahanama Sutra in The Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha taught the laity that when they visit temples, they should meet with monks and nuns to inquire about the Dharma. Then, they reflect on and apply these teachings in their daily lives. This is the proper spirit of a practitioner. In the Shurangama Sutra, volume 6, Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva reported that in a long and remote time before, he met a buddha who taught him these three methods of learning, reflecting, and practicing. Applying these methods, he was able to enter into deep concentration. Therefore, in order to study in the manner the Buddha taught, it is useful to develop wisdom through learning, reflecting, and practicing. Mastering these wisdom practices are based on the principle of self-investigation. When grounded in self-investigation, practitioners are more able to properly read and interpret Buddhist sutras and texts.