Buddhadharma – the Five Skandhas (2)

Previously in Part 1, we learn how it’s either we manage the Five Skandhas or they will manage us. Why? Because it’s all about energy. Every physio- or psychological aspect of us is energy. That’s why the Five Skandhas can be managed, transmuted, and transformed. That’s why things, feelings, perceptions, mental activities, etc., change when we change the way we look at things – Right View. Because then our thinking also changes, followed by more appropriate actions in response.

And I say this from experience as a practitioner of Qi and Pranic Healing receiving direct training from two great masters. With forbearance and patience, we can definitely shape our environment with just our thoughts and good intentions. I also say this as a helping professional who teaches others a very useful skill called Reframe. We learn to be open to an alternative way of seeing what’s happening. In the process we find ourselves no longer the victim but someone who has control over our reactions.

Here in Part 2, we will take a closer look at the Five Skandhas/Aggregates and for that I’ve included below an excerpt from What the Buddha Taught by Dr. Walpola Rahula, a Theravadin scholar monk. You will learn that all the Five Skandhas are connected with our sensory system aka sense faculties – eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. And the objects sensed through them – sight, sound, smell, taste, feeling, and thoughts. This gives rise to the different consciousnesses – seeing, hearing/auditory, smelling/olfactory, tasting/gustatory, touching/tactile, and thinking/ideation.

The important question to ask is this: what is a sensory input if not energy, if not impermanent, fleeting, insubstantial, here now and gone the next moment? What is every moment of our experience and existence if not energy in constant flux? If you ponder on this as you read on, you will soon realise you are in truth an alchemist capable of much magic. The Buddha never said as much but hey, there’s a very good reason why so many of his senior disciples were said to possess great psychic power. So much so that his jealous and ill-intentioned cousin, Devadatta, coveted these powers. But that’s a story for another day.

“The first is the Aggregate of Matter (Mpakkhandha). In this term “Aggregate of Matter’ are included the traditional Four Great Elements (cattari mahdbhutani), namely, solidity, fluidity, heat and motion, and also the Derivatives (upadaja-riipa) of the Four Great Elements. In the term ‘Derivatives of Four Great Elements’ are included our five material sense-organs, i.e., the faculties of eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body, and their corresponding objects in the external world, i.e., visible form, sound, odour, taste, and tangible things, and also some thoughts or ideas or conceptions which are in the sphere of mind-objects (dharmdyatana). Thus the whole realm of matter, both internal and external, is included in the Aggregate of Matter.

The second is the Aggregate of Sensations (Vedanakkhandhd). In this group are included all our sensations, pleasant or unpleasant or neutral, experienced through the contact of physical and mental organs with the external world. They are of six kinds: the sensations experienced through the contact of the eye with visible forms, ear with sounds, nose with odour, tongue with taste, body with tangible objects, and mind (which is the sixth faculty in Buddhist Philosophy) with mind-objects or thoughts or ideas. All our physical and mental sensations are included in this group.

A word about what is meant by the term ‘Mind’ (manas) in Buddhist philosophy may be useful here. It should clearly be understood that mind is not spirit as opposed to matter. It should always be remembered that Buddhism does not recognize a spirit opposed to matter, as is accepted by most other systems of philosophies and religions. Mind is only a faculty or organ (indriya) like the eye or the ear. It can be controlled and developed like any other faculty, and the Buddha speaks quite often of the value of controlling and disciplining these six faculties.

The difference between the eye and the mind as faculties is that the former senses the world of colours and visible forms, while the latter senses the world of ideas and thoughts and mental objects. We experience different fields of the world with different senses. We cannot hear colours, but we can see them. Nor can we see sounds, but we can hear them.

Thus with our five physical sense- organs—eye, ear, nose, tongue, body—we experience only the world of visible forms, sounds, odours, tastes and tangible objects. But these represent only a part of the world, not the whole world. What of ideas and thoughts ? They are also a part of the world. But they cannot be sensed, they cannot be conceived by the faculty of the eye, ear, nose, tongue or body. Yet they can be conceived by another faculty, which is mind.

Now ideas and thoughts are not independent of the world experienced by these five physical sense faculties. In fact they depend on, and are conditioned by, physical experiences. Hence a person born blind cannot have ideas of colour, except through the analogy of sounds or some other things experienced through his other faculties. Ideas and thoughts which form a part of the world are thus produced and conditioned by physical experiences and are conceived by the mind. Hence mind (manas) is considered a sense faculty or organ (indriya), like the eye or the ear.

The third is the Aggregate of Perceptions (Sannakkhandha). Like sensations, perceptions also are of six kinds, in relation to six internal faculties and the corresponding six external objects. Like sensations, they are produced through the contact of our six faculties with the external world. It is the perceptions that recognize objects whether physical or mental.

The fourth is the Aggregate of Mental Form (Samkharak-khanda). In this group are included all volitional activities both good and bad. What is generally known as karma (or kamma) comes under this group. The Buddha’s own definition of karma should be remembered here: ‘O bhikkhus, it is volition (cetana) that I call karma. Having willed, one acts through body, speech and mind.’

Volition is ‘mental construction, mental activity. Its function is to direct the mind in the sphere of good, bad or neutral activities.’ Just like sensations and perceptions, volition is of six kinds, connected with the six internal faculties and the corresponding six objects (both physical and mental) in the external world. Sensations and perceptions are not volitional actions. They do not produce karmic effects.

It is only volitional actions— such as attention (manasikdra), will (chanda), determination (adhimokkha), confidence (saddha), concentration (samadhi), wisdom (pahha), energy (viriya), desire (raga), repugnance or hate (patigha), ignorance (avijja), conceit (mana), idea of self (sakkaya-ditthi) etc. These can produce karmic effects. There are 52 such mental activities which constitute the Aggregate of Mental Formations.

The fifth is the Aggregate of Consciousness (Vinnattakkhandha). Consciousness is a reaction or response which has one of the six faculties (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind) as its basis, and one of the six corresponding external phenomena (visible form, aural, odour, taste, tangible things and mind-objects, i.e., an idea or thought) as its object. For instance, visual consciousness (cakkhu-vinnana) has the eye as its basis and a visible form as lis object.

Mental consciousness (mano-vihhana) has the mind (manas) as its basis and a mental object, i.e., an idea or thought (dhamma) as its object. So consciousness is connected with other faculties. Thus, like sensation, perception and volition, consciousness also is of six kinds, in relation to six internal faculties and object.

It should be clearly understood that consciousness does not recognize an object. It is only a sort of awareness—awareness of the presence of an object. When the eye comes in contact with a colour, for instance blue, visual consciousness arises which simply is awareness of the presence of a colour; but it does not recognize that it is blue.

There is no recognition at this stage. It is percepdon (the third Aggregate discussed above) that recognizes that it is blue. The term ‘visual consciousness’ is a philosophical expression denoting the same idea as is conveyed by the ordinary word ‘seeing’. Seeing does not mean recognizing. So are the other forms of consciousness.

It must be repeated here that according to Buddhist philosophy there is no permanent, unchanging spirit which can be considered ‘Self’, or ‘Soul’, or ‘Ego’, as opposed to matter, and that con- sciousness (vinnana) should not be taken as ‘spirit’ in opposition to matter. This point has to be particularly emphasized, because a wrong notion that consciousness is a sort of Self or Soul that continues as a permanent substance through life, has persisted from the earliest time to the present day.

One of the Buddha’s own disciples, Sati by name, held that the Master taught: ‘It is the same consciousness that transmigrates and wanders about.’ The Buddha asked him what he meant by ‘consciousness’. Sati’s reply is classical: ‘It is that which expresses, which feels, which experiences the results of good and bad deeds here and there’.

“To whomever, you stupid one”, remonstrated the Master, ‘have you heard me expounding the doctrine in this manner ? Haven’t I in many ways explained consciousness as arising out of condi- tions: that there is no arising of consciousness without con- ditions.’

Then the Buddha went on to explain consciousness in detail: ‘Conciousness is named according to whatever con- dition through which it arises: on account of the eye and visible forms arises a consciousness, and it is called visual consciousness; on account of the ear and sounds arises a consciousness, and it is called auditory consciousness; on account of the nose and odours arises a consciousness, and it is called olfactory con- sciousness ; on account of the tongue and tastes arises a conscious- ness, and it is called gustatory consciousness; on account of the body and tangible objects arises a consciousness, and it is called tactile consciousness; on account of the mind and mind-objects (ideas and thoughts) arises a consciousness, and it is called mental consciousness.

Then the Buddha explained it further by an illustration: A fire is named according to the material on account of which it
burns. A fire may burn on account of wood, and it is called wood-fire. It may burn on account of straw, and then it is called straw-
fire. So consciousness is named according to the condition through which it arises.”

Buddhadharma – the Five Skandhas (1)

As a helping professional, one of the first things we learn is a model that helps us understand the physical and psychological makeup of a human being. It’s called the biopsychosocial model and as you can see from the diagram, overall wellbeing depends on how we manage the various factors in our life. Either we manage them or they manage us!

Image source: Public domain.

Now, in the teachings of the Buddhadharma, a similar model is used and it’s called the Five Skandhas. Skandha is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘heap’ or ‘aggregate’. There is a good reason why the Five Skandhas are also known as the Five Aggregates of Clinging/Attachment.

According to the Buddha, we are a heap of – form/body/matter, feeling/sensation, perception, mental activities/volition, and consciousness. Because of these five we think they make up what we call ‘a self’ and thus ‘I am so and so and this and that’, often mistaking the roles we play, our character, and personality as our defining identity.

Now that’s where our problems begin. See, each of the Five Skandhas are just what they are. Whenever you see, hear, smell, taste, touch via the senses of the form/body or think up a thought via the mind, the Buddha says, here’s an opportunity to exercise our awareness. That is, let’s pause and decide how best to let the sensory input proceed. ‘Should we buy that bag we just saw?’ ‘You know, I really need this or should I get that?’ ‘Shucks, wished I had the money to….’ ‘I can’t stand that neighbour’s pungent cooking’ and so on and so forth.

Attraction versus aversion will be the norm if we lack the awareness to catch ourselves before a feeling runs rampant, before a perception impels us to act unwisely, stop us before we put feeling and perception into actual action like setting fire to that nasty neighbour’s house, poison that happy dog, and thereby causing ourselves huge grief through the karma that results from actions of the body, mind, and speech.

Should we be afraid of karma? We should unless you are the kind who actually like returning life after life to this crazy world. Because the accumulated energy of karma is what brings us back. And while we are here, every good karma will help to cancel a bit more of all the negative karma we have brought into this life from all the countless lives stretching way, way back to since time beginning. Is it a lost cause then?

No. The teachings assure us that as long as we make the effort to walk the Noble Eightfold Path, we can get off the samsaric wheel of cyclical existence. In short, if we work hard at being an effective manager of the Five Skandhas, we will stand a chance. We don’t have to know what crazy stuff we did in any of our previous lives but we sure can do something about this one. That’s why we need to apply due and diligent effort. What the Buddha called Right Effort and it’s one of the eight ‘Rights’.

Here’s the Noble Eightfold Path in full: Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Each Right leads to and flows from one another. All of them are interlinked. For example, Right View, that is, looking at things without the filters of like and dislike will naturally lead to Right Thinking and therefore Right Speech and Right Action. The moment we decide to not take offence is when we don’t think retaliation and therefore won’t do or say anything that’s meant to hurt.

Which is why, after so many years in the helping profession, I have to say this about the Buddhadharma, the teachings of the Buddha is full of practical wisdom for daily living no matter if we are a Buddhist or not. It is plain psychology and all of it is practical and applicable. Best part is that there are many levels to what the Buddha taught because as we are told in the sutras, he made sure he had something for everyone. Like, you don’t have to get the deep stuff about shunyata or emptiness. Just follow the eight Rights and your life will become that much sweeter.

Before we end this post, here’s an excerpt from Complete Enlightenment by Master Sheng Yen. My wish and blessing for anyone reading this post is that you have the opportunity to attend at least one 7-day Ch’an/Zen retreat. And after that you decide if the Way is for you. You don’t even have to be a Buddhist to walk the Path because, at the end of the day, a human life is just that – brief and oh so precious. Use the remaining time well.

The volitional activity of sentient beings causes things to manifest, just as wind creates ripples on a lake. All things experienced by sentient beings are the result of this karma, created by their volition, their egocentric desires and erroneous views. These innumerable manifestations of ripples, however, are of the same nature. Clay pots may vary in form, but their substance is the same.

Ordinary sentient beings are unable to see it [that our present world is a Pure Land] as such because they cannot overcome their addictions to negative patterns of self-attachment and discover this intrinsic samadhi. On the other hand, practitioners who enter the door of Ch’an would not view the world as impure, miserable, or chaotic. To them it would be a beautiful place. People who reach this level in their practice recognize beauty in everything.

Actually, it is not necessary to enter samadhi to experience such feelings. If you can put aside, for a moment, all anxieties and concerns in your mind, and just gaze upon something without discrimination, you may experience the world as a lovely place—a world that is fresh and alive. But if you have a mind that is plagued with attachment and aversion, then you will always be filled with turbulent and disturbing thoughts; nothing will appear beautiful and serene. Your mind will project an image or atmosphere of agitation which eclipses, engulfs, and keeps you from perceiving the serenity all around you.

So, the whole point is either you manage the Five Skandhas or you allow them to manage you. Every moment of life is a moment of choice. Things become clear when we bring awareness to the moment. If we allow our hearts to, we will be capable of right seeing, right perception and thinking, then we will be wise as to what to do or not do, say or think. Wisdom and compassion will flourish when we take care to nourish the soil of our consciousness.

This post is just Part 1 of the Five Skandhas, the bases for all our ‘suffering’ in life. Part 2 is here with a more in-depth look into what the Buddha actually taught with regards to the Five Skandhas. Frankly, the entire Buddhadharma revolves around just these five ‘heaps’. For anyone undertaking the Path to discover what life is all about, the journey begins with the Five Skandhas. And the end point? The other shore. Watch out for Part 3.

Xinxinming – 信心銘

“Learning to practice Ch’an is not unlike learning other skills: you must endure countless episodes of refining and polishing before the new skills are perfected. If you are determined to advance boldly and without fearing failure, you will establish a firm and solid mind of faith, one that grows with your practice.” – Ch’an Master Sheng Yen, Attaining the Way.

The literal translation of the title Xinxinming is ‘faith mind inscription’. Inscription is the ancient way of saying it’s a noteworthy, or official, piece of writing penned, or carved, for posterity. When ‘inscribed’ on our hearts and mind, the 36 Gathas are a reminder of what it means to keep the mirror clean, clear, bright. This amazing poem is ascribed to the Third Patriarch of Ch’an, GrandMaster Jianshi Sengcan (529 – 613).

Like the Heart Sutra, the Xinxinming, is chanted daily so that we nourish the soil of our subconscious. It is a daily reminder to us of the right (samyak) way to live and practice by walking the Middle Path of no extremes, no prejudice and no duality. It is the middle path of the Madhyamaka, of prajnaparamita, shunyata, wu-wei, Wu, ziran, zhen-ren, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the Dao.

In the spirit of ming, I am inscribing the poem into an accordion booklet that can be printed and distributed. Folded up, it’s just 10 cm x 7 cm. The Heart Sutra is also in there. Great way to carry both around in the pocket or bag.

Below is an English translation of the poem by D. T. Suzuki from his Essays in Zen Buddhism. If you read Chinese, you would appreciate the almost impossible task to try to translate these deep and most amazing and beautiful 4-character lines with each character carrying it’s own again, deep, and multiple meanings. Even if you didn’t read Chinese, no worries, your heart mind will intuit the truth. And if you ever have the chance to attend a 7-day Ch’an retreat, do go because the poem would then make a lot more sense. Truly, a gem of a gift.

There are several other poems on enlightenment and the Ch’an practices that guide us towards it, notably Zhengdao Ge, by Master Yungchia Xuanjue (618-907), Xinming by Niutou Farong (594 – 657) and Xinwang by Mahasattva Fu (497 – 569). A good number of commentaries and translations can be found on the Web. Or, you could start with Ch’an Master Sheng Yen (1930 – 2009). He has written three books: Faith in Mind (Xinxinming), Song of Mind (Xinming) and the Song of Enlightenment (Zhengdao Ge).

至道無難 The Perfect Way knows no difficulties

唯嫌揀擇 Except that it refuses to make preference:

但莫憎愛 Only when freed from hate and love, 

洞然明白 It reveals itself fully and without disguise. 

毫釐有差 A tenth of an inch’s difference, 

天地懸隔 And heaven and earth are set apart: 

欲得現前 If you want to see it manifest, 

莫存順逆 Take no thought either for or against it. 

違順相爭 To set up what you like against what you dislike – 

是 爲心病 This is the disease of the mind: 

不識玄旨 When the deep meaning [of the Way] is not understood 

徒勞念靜 Peace of mind is disturbed and nothing is gained. 

圓同太虚 [The Way is] perfect like unto vast space, 

無欠無餘 With nothing wanting, nothing superfluous: 

良由取捨 It is indeed due to making choice 

所以不如 That its suchness is lost sight of. 

莫逐有縁 Pursue not the outer entanglements, 

勿住空忍 Dwell not in the inner void; 

一種平懷 When the mind rests serene in the oneness of things, 

泯然自盡 The dualism vanishes by itself. 

止動歸止 When you strive to gain quiescence by stopping motion, 

止更彌動 The quiescence thus gained is ever in motion; 

唯滯兩邊 As long as you tarry in the dualism, 

寧知一種 How can you realize oneness? 

一種不通 And when oneness is not thoroughly understood, 

兩處失功 In two ways loss is sustained – 

遣有沒有 The denial of reality may lead to its absolute negation, 

從空背空 While the upholding of the void may result in contradicting itself. 

多言多慮 Wordiness and intellection – 

轉不相應 The more with them the further astray we go; 

絶言絶慮 Away therefore with wordiness and intellection, 

無處不通 And there is no place where we cannot pass freely.

歸根得旨 When we return to the root, we gain the meaning; 

隨照失宗 When we pursue external objects, we lose the reason. 

須臾返照 The moment we are enlightened within,

勝卻前空 We go beyond the voidness of a world confronting us.

前空轉變 Transformations going on in an empty world which confronts us, 

皆由妄見 Appear real all because of Ignorance: 

不用求眞 Try not to seek after the true, 

唯須息見 Only cease to cherish opinions. 

二見不住 Tarry not with dualism, 

慎莫追尋 Carefully avoid pursuing it; 

纔有是非 As soon as you have right and wrong, 

紛然失心 Confusion ensues, and mind is lost. 

二由一有 The two exist because of the one, 

一亦莫守 But hold not even to this one; 

一心不生 When the one mind is not disturbed, 

萬法無咎 The ten thousand things offer no offence. 

無咎無法 When no offence is offered by them, they are as if not existing; 

不生不心 When the mind is not disturbed, it is as if there is no mind. 

能隨境滅 The subject is quieted as the object ceases, 

境逐能沈 The object ceases as the subject is quieted. 

境由能境 The object is an object for the subject, 

能由境能 The subject is a subject for an object: 

欲知兩段 Know that the relativity of the two 

元是一空 Rests ultimately on the oneness of the void. 

一空同兩 In the oneness of the void the two are one, 

齊含萬象 And each of the two contains in itself all the ten thousand things: 

不見精 麁 When no discrimination is made between this and that, 

寧有偏黨 How can a one-sided and prejudiced view arise? 

大道體寛 The Great Way is calm and large-minded, 

無易無難 Nothing is easy, nothing is hard: 

小見狐疑 Small views are irresolute, 

轉急轉遲 The more in haste the tardier they go. 

執之失度 Clinging never keeps itself within bounds, 

必 入邪路 It is sure to go the wrong way: 

放之自然 Let go loose, and things are as they may be, 

體無去住 While the essence neither departs nor abides. 

任性合道 Obey the nature of things, and you are in concord with the Way, 

逍遙絶惱 Calm and easy and free from annoyance; 

繋念乖眞 But when your thoughts are tied, you turn away from the truth, 

昏沈不好 They grow heavier and duller and are not at all sound. 

不好勞神 When they are not sound, the soul is troubled; 

何用疏親 What is the use of being partial and one-sided then? 

欲取一乘 If you want to walk the course of the One Vehicle, 

勿惡六塵 Be not prejudiced against the six sense-objects. 

六塵不惡 When you are not prejudiced against the six sense-objects, 

還同正覺 You in turn identify yourself with Enlightenment; 

智者無爲 The wise are non-active, 

愚人自縛 While the ignorant bind themselves up; 

法無異法 While in the Dharma itself there is no individuation, 

妄 自愛著 They ignorantly attach themselves to particular objects. 

將心用心 It is their own mind that creates illusions – 

豈非大錯 Is this not the greatest of self-contradictions? 

迷生寂亂 Ignorance begets the dualism of rest and unrest, 

悟無好惡 The enlightened have no likes and dislikes: 

一切二邊 All forms of dualism 

妄 自斟酌 Are ignorantly contrived by the mind itself. 

夢幻虚華 They are like unto visions and flowers in the air: 

何勞把捉 Why should we trouble ourselves to take hold of them? 

得失是非 Gain and loss, right and wrong – 

一時放卻 Away with them once for all! 

眼若不睡 If an eye never falls asleep, 

諸夢 自除 All dreams will by themselves cease: 

心若不異 If the mind retains its oneness, 

萬法一如 The ten thousand things are of one suchness. 

一如體玄 When the deep mystery of one suchness is fathomed, 

兀爾忘虚 All of a sudden we forget the external entanglements: 

萬法齊觀 When the ten thousand things are viewed in their oneness, 

歸復自然 We return to the origin and remain what we are. 

泯其所以 Forget the wherefore of things, 

不可方比 And we attain to a state beyond analogy: 

止動無動 Movement stopped is no movement, 

動止無止 And rest set in motion is no rest. 

兩既不成 When dualism does no more obtain, 

一何有爾 Even oneness itself remains not as such. 

究竟窮極 The ultimate end of things where they cannot go any further, 

不存軌則 Is not bound by rules and measures: 

契心平等 The mind in harmony [with the Way] is the principle of identity 

所作倶息 In which we find all doings in a quiescent state; 

狐疑盡淨 Irresolutions are completely done away with, 

正信調直 And the right faith is restored to its native straightness; 

一切不留 Nothing is retained now, 

無可記憶 Nothing is to be memorized, 

虚明自照 All is void, lucid, and self-illuminating, 

不勞心力 There is no stain, no exertion, no wasting of energy – 

非思量處 This is where thinking never attains, 

識情難測 This is where the imagination fails to measure. 

眞如法界 In the higher realm of True Suchness 

無他無自 There is neither ‘other’ nor self’: 

要急相應 When a direct identification is asked for, 

唯言不二 We can only say, ‘Not two.’ 

不二皆同 In being not two all is the same, 

無不包容 All that is is comprehended in it: 

十方智者 The wise in the ten quarters, 

皆入此宗 They all enter into this absolute faith. 

宗非促延 This absolute faith is beyond quickening [time] and extension [space]. 

一念萬年 One instant is ten thousand years; 

無在不在 No matter how things are conditioned, whether with ‘to be’ or ‘not to be’, 

十方目前 It is manifest everywhere before you 

極小同大 The infinitely small is as large as large can be, 

忘絶境界 When external conditions are forgotten; 

極大同小 The infinitely large is as small as small can be, 

不見邊表 When objective limits are put out of sight. 

有即是無 What is is the same with what is not, 

無即是有 What is not is the same with what is: 

若不如此 Where this state of things fails to obtain, 

必不相守 Be sure not to tarry. 

一即一切 One in all, 

一切即一 All in one – 

但能如是 If only this is realized; 

何慮不畢 No more worry about your not being perfect! 

信心不二 The believing mind is not divided, 

不二信心 And undivided is the believing mind – 

言語道斷 This is where words fail, 

非去來今 For it is not of the past, future, or present.

The Heart Sutra – H H the Dalai Lama

Swimming upstream to approach the source of where the Heart Sutra came from, I learn from a master of the prajnaparamita teachings of Nagarjuna, His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

I must say I am quite, quite glad I got this book because it has helped plug up a good number of holes in my reading of the Heart Sutra thus far.

All of it somehow reminds me of that slow boat down the Mekong starting from Tha Thon in northern Thailand through Cambodia and then down to the Mekong Delta. Slow and steady with parts so shallow at times that we all had to get out and slowly guide the boat, all of us with hands on the gunwale, till we got to deeper waters.

Then for no other reason except that I just had to do it, I made my slow way back up north to Luang Namtha in Laos where I started. No, I actually started at Chiang Rai, flying in there and then crossing the border into Laos at the river to hop on a 15-hour bus ride through the mountains, ravines and across streams and finally, at 9 p.m., reaching a guest house with the most hospitable Chinese owner I have ever met.

Yup, the journey within is like the journey without. It meanders but it knows where it’s going. It’s good to find out what’s what but need to always remember it’s the moon and not the finger I’m after. Which has a tendency to blot out the moon by shifting just a tad.

Got woken up by the full moon in the wee hours of the morning. Ah, so. Now I get it.

The heart of the Diamond Sutra

In previous posts, I shared about the Heart Sutra and how it is a map to a great transformation of the mind and heart where everything begins and ends. The Heart Sutra is a neat little map but there is an even better topo map for the long and arduous journey to the other shore, the Diamond Sutra. While the Heart Sutra gives us the heart of the vast Prajnaparamita teachings, the Diamond Sutra, also a small book in the canon, it gives us an expanded view of ‘all is empty’.

I have therefore included below an excerpt from a great commentary by Dzogchen Master Khenpo Sordagye. In doing so, I chose not to paraphrase realising my words will never be able to do justice to the sutra, not in the next few hundred years. I hope the Preface as found in the book and which you read below will inspire you to embark on the most wondrous adventure of all – to find the other shore.

Here it is. An excerpt from the preface written by Dzogchen Master Khenpo Sodargye in his commentary on the Diamond Sutra, The Diamond Cutter Sutra.

Do give this book a go at least once in your lifetime. The journey to the other shore may be Long and arduous but it would be totally worth it. We should make at least an attempt.

Many people fail to understand that all their sufferings come from various attachments. How to dispel this attachment? The Buddhadharma offers the most supreme pith instructions and skillful means for this.

With the Buddhadharma, even though attachment remains, it is possible to get over difficulties more easily without going to extremes. Then the sky becomes more open and vast.”


THE LIFE OF every individual is full of changes and fluctuations of happiness, anger, sorrow, and joy. All these seem truly existent, but if you study the Diamond Cutter Sutra, you will realize that this is not the true essence of life. Life’s essence lies only in cutting the attachment toward all phenomena and realizing that there has never been anything such as an “I.”

Attachment is the only root cause of all our suffering. Even if our attachment is as small as the tip of a needle, it can still cause us unending distress. No matter what you are attached to, once you get it, you are afraid of losing it; once you do lose it, your heart is broken. If there were no attachment, then what suffering would you have?

Whether Buddhist or not, many people like to say they are “giving up attachment” and that they have come to think that “all phenomena are emptiness, so there is no need to attach to vice or virtue.” Since they are unable to discern what to adopt and what to abandon, they behave unscrupulously.

Ironically, when they fall into this trap, they end up with the worst attachment, the horrendous attachment to emptiness. The Buddha taught this seemingly paradoxical truth: “It is better to have attachment as gigantic as Mount Meru to ‘existence’ than attachment as tiny as a mustard seed to ‘nonexistence.’”

So how do we destroy attachment appropriately, without being led astray?

The Diamond Cutter Sutra explains that although at the ultimate level nothing exists, and even the concepts of “vice” and “virtue” are indeed just another attachment, nevertheless, at the conventional level all phenomena still appear, and in that dream-like, illusory reality, the law of cause and effect is inerrant. So if we do not want to suffer at the relative level, we have to give up vice and adopt virtue.

Before recognizing the nature of mind, we must hold on to things that are virtuous and right. Like a boat, they can help us cross a river, so until we reach the other shore it makes no sense to give them up. Otherwise, if we throw away the boat in the middle of the river, what is going to happen? The answer is obvious.

Even if you do not understand the meaning of this sutra, its blessings and benefits are there. When hardship, illness, or misfortune befall you, just transcribing or chanting this sutra once can help immensely. Merely keeping a copy of this sutra in your house or carrying one around with you can pacify all sorts of calamities and bring immense auspiciousness, just like a Buddha stupa.

By all accounts, the merit of the Diamond Cutter Sutra is inconceivable. People who are fortunate enough to see it, hear it, or touch it will swiftly cut off the root of suffering and reach the other shore of everlasting peace and happiness. It works for everyone, no matter whether you believe in Buddhism or not!”

The Wise Heart

After more than a century of looking for it, brain researchers have long since concluded that there is no conceivable place for a self to be located in the physical brain, and that it simply does not exist. —Time magazine, 2002

This quote is from The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield and it’s a book that will help in understanding the Heart Sutra. Why? Because to wrap your mind around the concept of kong or emptiness actually requires some background knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings that is condensed into the Heart Sutra. This is where Kornfield’s book is such a blessing.

He presents all the fundamentals you’d need with many relatable examples to expand on your understanding. He is also a great storyteller which makes the book very engaging. You might find it hard to put down once you start. Finally, Kornfield is someone you can trust as a guide for the inner landscape. You know he’s been there because his words corroborates with your own experience. His books are a great substitute in the absence and unavailability of a good teacher.

The wise heart. Bodhicitta, the bodhi heart-mind. Pu Ti Xin.

There’re two other books by Kornfield that I would like to recommend to anyone wanting to learn to sit and wondering what meditation is all about. Buddha’s Little Instruction Book and Meditation for Beginners. He has done it again in both books taking precious teachings from the ancient sutras and making them contemporary and applicable such as the Satipatthana Sutta and Anapanasati Sutta here, where the Buddha teaches the samatha and vipashyana techniques. Or, what is more popularly known as Insight Meditation.

As in all his other books, there is a therapeutic focus where the Buddha’s teachings is a salve for all our heart’s aches and pains. We learn how to use the teachings to help ourselves just as the Buddha taught and once we are on the other shore yes, just as the Buddha taught, we must let go of the raft so that we can walk light and free. Plus the raft is now available for the next person to come across. We aren’t going to leave anyone behind now, are we?

To learn to sit and to be willing to craft a diligent and consistent daily practice out of it is one of the best gifts to ourselves.
We need the mud in our life just as the lotus. The mud offers us all the opportunities for growth, transformation, and change. Otherwise how are we ever going to evolve spiritually?

Below is an excerpt from Buddha’s Little Instruction Book….

“Insight Meditation is a simple technique which has been adapted from the Vipassana tradition that has been practiced in Asia for more than 2,600 years. Beginning with the focusing of attention on the breath, the practice concentrates and calms the mind. It allows us to see through the mind’s conditioning and thereby to be more fully present in the moment.

To begin, select a quiet time and place. Be seated on a cushion or chair, taking an erect yet relaxed posture. Let yourself sit upright with the quiet dignity of a king or a queen. Close your eyes gently and begin by bringing a full, present attention to whatever you feel within you and around you. Let your mind be spacious and your heart be kind and soft.

As you sit, feel the sensations of your body. Then notice what sounds and feelings, thoughts and expectations are present. Allow them all to come and go, to rise and fall like the waves of the ocean. Be aware of the waves and rest seated in the midst of them. Allow yourself to become more and more still.

In the center of all these waves, feel your breathing, your life-breath. Let your attention feel the in-and-out breathing wherever you notice it, as coolness or tingling in the nose or throat, as a rising and falling of your chest or abdomen. Relax and softly rest your attention on each breath, feeling the movement in a steady, easy way. Let the breath breathe itself in any rhythm, long or short, soft or deep. As you feel each breath, concentrate and settle into its movement. Let all other sounds and sensations, thoughts and feelings continue to come and go like waves in the background.

After a few breaths, your attention may be carried away by one of the waves of thoughts or memories, by body sensations or sounds. Whenever you notice you have been carried away for a time, acknowledge the wave that has done so by softly giving it a name such as “planning,” “remembering,” “itching,” “restlessness.” Then let it pass and gently return to the breath. Some waves will take a long time to pass, others will be short. Certain thoughts or feelings will be painful, others will be pleasurable. Whatever they are, let them be.

At some sittings, you will be able to return to your breath easily. At times in your meditation, you will mostly be aware of body sensations or of plans or thoughts. Either way is fine. No matter what you experience, be aware of it, let it come and go, and rest at ease in the midst of it all. After you have sat for 20 or 30 minutes in this way, open your eyes and look around you before you get up. Then as you move try to allow the same spirit of awareness to go with you into the activities of your day.

The art of meditation is simple but not always easy. It thrives on practice and a kind and spacious heart. If you do this simple practice of sitting and awareness every day, you will gradually grow in centeredness and understanding.”

The Heart Sutra – getting to the other shore

The Heart Sutra is a longish chant (a dharani) beloved by all Mahayana Buddhists and some. But what does it mean, all those negations? I have been on the hunt for the answer for the last 25 years ever since I first encountered the sutra when I accompanied a friend to a 7-day silent Ch’an retreat with the first three days fasting. That was the beginning of an awesome journey which is still continuing till today.

Kong. All is empty. All is marked with emptiness yet not quite.’ Okay, ultimate versus relative reality. But what does that mean for regular folks trying to make a living in the world? How will that help us make life a tad more bearable? The way I see it is this, that the potential for anything and everything to be or not be is always there for our choosing. And it all depends on how you look at things which then drives what you do. It’s about the 20/20 vision which cuts through all delusion and ignorance. Ah so… but I don’t have 20/20 vision!

Not all is lost because the Buddha also taught us something else that’s vitally important but easier to grasp. It’s like cooking. The Buddha realised in his moment of enlightenment: this is because that is. This is not because that is not. He says the whole of existence is like that, dependent in origination on something else, some cause and/or condition. Plus, everything is in constant flux and unlike that watch advertisement, something Soleil, there is no such thing as tian chang di jiu, eternal. Certainly not when it comes to food or love. Both are perishable.

Yup, you can definitely relate with this, I know. Falling in and out of love in a finger snap. If we can understand this simple fact about everything else known as phenomena in Buddha-speak, then our life will be changed forever. We always have the power of choice as to what we bring into being. Nirvana becomes a moment-to-moment choice. Wellbeing versus suffering. What is one or the other? As Master Hui-neng says in his Platform Sutra, even enlightenment can happen ‘in a snap of a finger’.

They say if we chose to dwell in that sweet spot in the middle of neither this or that, that’s nirvana. The whole point of the Middle Way is to show us how to navigate this world of duality and polarity by sticking to the middle way. It’s not so much of neither this nor that but consciously choosing this over that or vice versa. And this makes us the master of our destiny because we always have choice over what we bring about into being. Whoah, talk about The Magician in us!

And if you’d like to know how to put the Buddhadharma into practice and apply it to your daily life, below are two great resources. No, I am not an affiliate of anything. Just two books that can help make sense of this journey called life even if you aren’t interested in enlightenment. Like the Dalai Lama always say, anyone can benefit from the wisdom of the Buddhadharma without having to change one’s religion or creed.

Traditional yet practical, never far from the Buddhadharma, Master Sheng Yen uses the sutra to realign us back to the practices and cultivation that the Buddha taught for the journey.
Contemporary yet never deviating from the Buddhadharma, Thich Nhat Hanh has another, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings, that makes for a great resource book.

Avalokiteśvara, while practicing deeply with the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore, suddenly discovered that all of the five Skandhas are equally empty, and with this realization he overcame all Ill-being.

Listen Śāriputra, this Body itself is Emptiness and Emptiness itself is this Body. This Body is not other than Emptiness and Emptiness is not other than this Body. The same is true of Feelings, Perceptions, Mental Formations, and Consciousness.

Listen Śāriputra, all phenomena bear the mark of Emptiness: their true nature is the nature of no Birth no Death, no Being no Nonbeing, no Defilement no Purity, no Increasing no Decreasing.

That is why in Emptiness, Body, Feelings, Perceptions, Mental Formations, and Consciousness are not separate self-entities.

The Eighteen Realms of Phenomena, which are the six Sense Organs, the six Sense Objects, and the six Consciousnesses, are also not separate self-entities. The Twelve Links of Interdependent Arising and their Extinction are also not separate self-entities.

Ill-being, the Causes of Ill-being, the End of Ill-being, the Path, insight, and attainment are also not separate self-entities.

Whoever can see this no longer needs anything to attain.

Bodhisattvas who practice the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore see no more obstacles in their mind, and because there are no more obstacles in their mind, they can overcome all fear, destroy all wrong perceptions, and realize Perfect Nirvāṇa.

All Buddhas in the past, present, and future, by practicing the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore, are all capable of attaining Authentic and Perfect Enlightenment.

Therefore Śāriputra, it should be known that the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore is a Great Mantra, the most illuminating mantra, the highest mantra, a mantra beyond compare, the True Wisdom that has the power to put an end to all kinds of suffering.

Therefore let us proclaim a mantra to praise the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore.

Gate, gate, pāragate, pārasaṃgate, bodhi svāhā!”

Gone, gone, gone to the other shore, gone altogether to the other shore. Enlightenment. Hail!

The Chinese version of the Heart Sutra, Xinjing, can be found here.

Season of Qing Ming

Life is a cyclical repetition of patterns and changes, so says the I Ching. Peace, prosperity and happiness lie in knowing how to manage change. And make change work in our favour. Right now, I’m the great big mandala of Change, we have entered the season of Qing Ming where the weather on most days is Super hot and humid with thankfully some breeze and then a brief shower or two in the evenings to cool things down.

I created this mandala of change from my readings of the I Ching. And it’s reassuring to see how some things are actually quite predictable.
Qing Ming weather may be scorching hot but it feels great to be out and about.
And have awe moments like this one. A Brahminy Kite rising the thermals.

Zen Oxherd picture 6

Qi niu gui jia – ride ox return home.

Astride his ox, leisurely he heads for home. Trilling a nomad’s flute, he leaves in misted sunset. In each beat and verse, his boundless feeling – what need for an intimate companion to say a word? – Master K’uo-an Shih-yuan (12th c)

“Riding the ox home,” the sixth picture, shows an ox well trained and obedient, familiar with the way. The ox herder rides effortlessly on its back, playing a flute. This is the first Bhumi position, or forty-first stage of bodhisattvahood. The practitioner no longer needs conscious effort to continue to practice and make vows. The ox simply continues forward on the path. The practitioner’s actions are appropriate to each situation.” – Master Sheng Yen (1930 – 2009)

“When people go on following the crowd, they go on missing his own individuality. There are two ways people avoid decision. One is: let others decide. Another is: never decide, just simply drift along. When you drift, you become driftwood.

Then the search becomes impossible. The search means decisiveness. The search means taking risks. So remember this word ‘decidophobia’. Don’t be afraid, drop this fear. Who else can decide for you? Nobody can. Yes, others can help, others can show you the path, but the decision has to be yours – because through your decision your soul is going to be born.” – Osho (1931-90)

Zen Oxherd picture 5; Zen Oxherd picture 7

The Heart Sutra – prajnaparamita hridyam

“For him to whom emptiness is clear; everything becomes clear. For him to whom emptiness is not clear; nothing becomes clear.” – Nagarjuna, The Fundamental Wisdom Of the Middle Path.

At the heart of The Search is the Heart Sutra. What we are searching for is none other than the true meaning of existence. How to make sense of life, how to have more of what we want and less of what we don’t like or want! How to be free of all vexations or annoyances, fan-nao or nao-huo (literally’brain on fire’). From spouse to children, to work and colleagues, neighbours and their dogs, home and mortgage, and so on and so forth.

But the Heart Sutra’s main message to us is that there is really nothing to be vexed about. And you will see this once you attain the prajna or wisdom to see that, in the very first place, all is empty, kong. In Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, Nagarjuna states, “whatever is dependently arisen, that is explained to be emptiness. That, being a dependent imputation, is itself the middle way.”

The Heart Sutra is a map of the middle way and the way markers are the Ten Oxherd Pictures . Together, they point the way to the ultimate truth of reality. It’s the way of the bodhisattva. A training map leading to a truth that sets us free. Are we willing to take up the training?

Chanting the sutra alone won’t cut it. The real work is done only when we are willing to become the sort of person capable of reaching the other side and this means letting go of our precious attachments of pet peeves and so on and so forth. Nope, not an easy journey at all.

First page of the Heart Sutra Dharani in Simplified Script. Minor corrections in the hanyu pinyin. This is from a booklet (see below) that is freely distributed.
Second and third pages cont’d. Minor corrections in the hanyu pinyin.
Fourth and fifth (last) pages. Minor corrections in the hanyu pinyin.
This is one of many such free publications available to the public. The cover carries a picture of Avalokitesvara in one of his innumerable manifestations – the bodhisattva with a thousand hands.
First page of the literal translation found in the little booklet above.
Page 2 of the literal English translation found in the same booklet as above.
Copying the Heart Sutra by hand is a dedicated practice amongst devotees of Guan Yin PuSa because they dedicate the merits of doing so to the wellbeing of all sentient beings. Copying and chanting also help to strengthen our commitment, sitting, and cultivation for the journey to the other shore.