The previous blog post introduced the Scripture of Great Wisdom, and in this post I’ll go through it sentence by sentence. If you’d like to open the complete text in a new window click The Scripture of Great Wisdom.
Emptiness of The Five Skandhas
When one with deepest wisdom of the heart that is beyond discriminative thought, the Holy Lord, great Kanzeon Bosatsu, knew that the skandhas five were, as they are, in their self-nature void, unstained and pure.
The five skandhas are enumerated in the next line of the scripture: form, sensation, thought, activity and consciousness. They are the five aggregates which make up all physical and mental phenomena in the universe, including sentient beings. When the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara – (J) Kanzeon Bosatsu – was totally absorbed in non-discriminative wisdom he/she realised that all five skandhas i.e. the constituents of all things in this world, are empty of any permanent existence, any fixed self-nature. All is in a state of flux, there is nothing to hold on to. Some other translations of this scripture have the additional words and transcended all suffering at the end of this line.
O Shariputra, form is only pure, pure is all form; there is, then, nothing more than this, for what is form is pure and what is pure is form; the same is also true of all sensation, thought, activity and consciousness.
In this translation, by Rev. Master Jiyu, the sanskrit word shunyata, often translated as emptiness, is given as pure. Not only are all five skandhas pure/empty, but what is pure is form etc. i.e. it is not either/or but both together, form and emptiness at the same time. All phenomena exist, but they are not what we usually take them to be.
Emptiness of the Dualistic Viewpoint
O Shariputra, here all things are pure for they are neither born nor do they wholly die; they are not stained nor yet immaculate; increasing not, decreasing not.
Here we are given three pairs of opposites, three dualistic ways of looking at the things of this world. We see living things as being born and dying and we cling to life and fear death. We see objects as being old, stained, tatty, and others as being brand shiny new and we want the shiny things. We want to see our health, wealth and happiness increase, not decrease. Yet Avalokiteshvara says that all these things are empty, there is no birth and death, nothing stained or immaculate, no increase and no decrease.
When we look closely at the concept of birth, our own birth, say, we see that it was not an independent event, it relied on an infinite number of circumstances including the birth of our parents and their parents and so on. So where did this event that we think of as birth begin? Whether we see something as stained or immaculate is dependent on personal opinion. I may think something is clean but you may think it could be cleaner. Our dualistic way of viewing life causes us suffering. Letting go of our clinging to these views liberates us.
Emptiness of the Eighteen Elements and the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination
The scripture continues by enumerating fundamental Buddhist doctrines and finding them to be empty. This is not meant to negate these teachings, the point is that there is more, there is a deeper wisdom in which all things, including what we think we know, are seen to be empty of inherent existence and are therefore not to be clung to.
O Shariputra, in this pure there is no form, sensation, thought, activity or consciousness; no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no form, no tastes, sound, colour, touch or objects; vision none; no consciousness; no knowledge and no sign of ignorance; until we come to where old age and death have ceased and so has all extinction of old age and death.
The six sense faculties (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind) six sense objects (form, tastes, sound, colour, touch, objects) , and six sense conciousnesses (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and knowing; what the scripture abbreviates to vision none; no consciousness) are known as the Eighteen Elements. The Eighteen Elements are another framework for analysing all phenomena.
Ignorance is the first of the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination, with old age and death being the twelfth. The teaching of Dependent Origination shows the causal connections that keep us bound to the wheel of suffering. The phrases no sign of ignorance, and all extinction of old age and death, refer to the second part of the teaching of Dependent Origination, which deals with the breaking of the links in this chain of causation. This doctrine can be found in any book on basic Buddhism and is well worth reading up on if you are not familiar with it.
Emptiness of the Four Noble Truths
For here there is no suffering, nor yet again is there accumulation, nor again annihilation nor an Eightfold Path, no knowledge, no attainment.
The Four Noble Truths are: the truth of suffering; the cause of suffering; the cessation of suffering; the Noble Eightfold Path. Not only are the Four Noble Truths empty, but so is all knowledge and attainment.
Going on Beyond
In the mind of the Bosatsu who is truly one with Wisdom Great the obstacles dissolve and, going on beyond this human mind he IS Nirvana.
All the Buddhas True of present, past and future they ARE all, because upon Great Wisdom they rely, the perfect and most high enlightenment.
The Prajnaparamita one should know to be the Greatest Mantra of them all, the highest and most peerless Mantra too; allayer of all pain Great Wisdom is, it is the very Truth, no falsehood here.
This is the Mantra of Great Wisdom, hear!
O Buddha, going, going, going on beyond and always going on beyond, always BECOMING Buddha. Hail! Hail! Hail!
The mantra sums up the teaching of the Scripture of Great Wisdom. Always we must keep going on beyond, continually letting go of everything we think we know, of any idea that anything has a fixed existence. Each time we think we have understood, we must let go and open further. Having some understanding of this scripture on an intellectual level can be a help if it opens our mind to the possibility of experiencing a Truth far beyond this human mind, and we are being exhorted to put this teaching into practice, by doing zazen, and realising it for ourself.
My intention with this post, and the previous one, is to break this scripture down a little and give some background information to hopefully make it more accessible to you. Obviously it is by no means an exhaustive exploration, and if you’d like more food for contemplation please see the books I list in the previous post.