The first 2 verses are the essence of Bát Nhã. All other following verses are further expansion of this essence. These are the first 2 verses:
Quán-tự-tại Bồ-tát, hành thâm Bát-nhã Ba-la-mật-đa thời chiếu kiến ngũ-uẩn giai không, độ nhất thiết khổ ách.
Xá-Lợi-Tử! Sắc bất dị không, không bất dị sắc; sắc tức thị không, không tức thị sắc; thọ, tưởng, hành, thức, diệc phục như thị.
Khi Bồ tát Quán tự tại thực hành Bát-nhã Ba-la-mật-đa sâu xa, soi thấy năm uẩn đều không, liền vượt qua mọi khổ ách.
Xá Lợi Tử! Sắc chẳng khác không, không chẳng khác sắc; sắc tức là không, không tức là sắc; thọ, tưởng, hành, thức cũng lại như vậy.
When Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva was practicing the profound prajna paramita, he illuminated the five skandhas and saw that they are all empty, and he crossed beyond all suffering and difficulty.
Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness; emptiness itself is form. So, too, are feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness.
Bồ tát is the short form of bồ đề tát đỏa, which is the transliteration of the Sankrist term "Bodhisattva." It is a word in Mahayana Buddhism (phật giáo đại thừa). Bodhi (bồ đề) means giác ngộ, enlightened. Bodhisattva means "enlightened being." In the Mahayana tradition, bồ tát is a person who has reached enlightenment (giác ngộ) but postpones final attainment of full Buddhahood in order to help other people reach enlightenment. Bồ tát is one step lower than a full Buddha, so to speak.
Tu bồ-tát thừa (training in the bodhisattva way) is the Mahayana way to reach enlightenment. This way is called lục độ ba-la-mật (six paths to cross to the other shore). They are: Bố thí (giving), trì giới (keeping rules and precepts), nhẫn nhục (patient and humble), tinh tấn (advancing in the practice), thiền định (mediation) and trí huệ (wisdom). At the start of the training, the first thing a trainee of must do is phát tâm bồ-đề (start bodhicitta, start bodhisattva's heart)—a commitment to achieve enlightenment in order to help other beings achieve enlightenment too. This is a very selfless vow. (Please see the Bodhisattva way at http://www.buddhismtoday.com/viet/phatphap/lucdobalamat.htm).
Đại thừa (Mahayana) has Bồ tát (Boddhisattva) as an enlightened person.
Phật giáo nguyên thủy (Theravada) has two types of enlightened persons: (1) Bích Chi Phật (pratyekabuddha) is a person who reaches enlightenment through practicing Thập Nhị Nhân Duyên (the twelve links of cause and effect). This training way is called Duyên Giác (enlightenment through the law of causation). (2) A-la-hán (arhat) is a person who reaches enlightenment from practicing Tứ Diệu Đế and Bát Chánh Đạo (The Four Noble Truths and The Noble Eightfold Path). This training way is called Thanh Văn (sound and speech, of the Buddha). We will explore these different training ways later.
The fullest level of enlightenment is Buddha (Phật). There are many (full) Buddhas in the sutras, but there is only one historical (full) Buddha in the history of the world--that is Buddha Sakyamuni (Thích Ca Mâu Ni, the sage of the Sakyas family), the founder of Buddhism.
Thus, we have 4 types of enlightened persons, ranked from top down: Phật, bồ tát, bích chi phật, a-la-hán (buddha, bodhisattva, pratyekabuddha, arhat).
Quán Tự Tại is the name of the Bồ tát. In most Buddhist sutras, a Bồ tát's name is both a proper noun (his own name) and a common noun (a generic term standing for something). The Sankrist name is Avalokiteshvara, which is translated in this sutra as Quán Tự Tại—observing existence itself, observing existence as it is. In other sutras, Avalokiteshvara is translated as Quán Thế Âm—observing/ listening to the sounds of the world. One Sankrist name with two slightly different translations: When we focus on philosophy, it is Quán Tự Tại; when we focus on compassion, it is Quán Thế Âm, listening to the voices of suffering people of the world.
Bồ tát Quán Tự Tại , in addition to being a proper name, also indicates any of us who is enlightened enough to be able to observe existence (our self and the world around us) as it is, without distortion, confusion, or ignorance.
Ngũ uẩn is five skandhas in Sankrist, or five aggregates in English. The five skandhas are form (sắc), feeling (thọ), perception (tưởng), mental formation (hành) and consciousness (thức). Together these five skandhas make up our being. Sắc (color or form) indicates the physical part of our being. Thọ tưởng hành thức(feeling, perception, mental formation, consciousness) make up the mental part. Thus, the term ngũ uẩn indicates human being, human existence.
The first verse of Bát Nhã Tâm Kinh, therefore, means "When the enlightened person who observes existence as it is practices the profound prajna wisdom, he sees that his being is không (emptiness, sũnya), then he crosses beyond all sufferings."
Here is the first important step into Buddhism. Non-Buddhists generally think that we exist, and our existence is solid, real, and permanent. This attitude is called "chấp có" (attaching to/grasping onto existence).
Buddhism says our existence is not real--it is fleeting, impermanent; our being is illusory, it is không, it is emptiness.
This was the earliest meaning of không in the long development of the Buddhist thought. At that time, không was still limited to human life. Many Buddhists schools of the pre-Bát-Nhã time maintained that our being is không but the world around us does exist.
A characteristic of không at that time was that không was understood as the opposite of có (existence, form), so không could be easily understood with the extreme meaning of nihilism. This nihilist extremist attitude is called "chấp không" (attaching to/grasping onto emptiness).
As we will see in the next verses, Bát Nhã (1) expands the concept of không from human to the entire universe, and (2) at the same time, pulls không back from the nihilist extreme to the middle way (trung đạo)--không mà có, có mà không-- and makes không more realistic and more positive to living.
Xá Lợi Tử means Son of the Sari family. This is the name of Buddha Sakyamuni's most intelligent disciple. Please note, in Bát Nhã Tâm Kinh, Xá Lợi Tử was addressed by name twice. Each time signifies a major development in the meaning of không in the history of Buddhism. This first time is to take không from the nihilist opposite of có to the middle way, as the following phrase shows.
Sắc bất dị không, không bất dị sắc. Sắc is not different from không, không is not different from sắc.
Sắc (color, form) is one of ngũ uẩn (five skandhas, five aggregates) that make up our being. Sắc indicates the physical part of human.
Sắc is also one of six dusts (lục trần: sắc thanh hương vị xúc pháp –color, sound, fragrance, taste, objects of touch, dharma) that make up the universe.
Thus the term sắc in the above phrase serves two major functions. First, it is used as an antonym of không. Second, it is a subtle link to make a subtle announcement of the upcoming expansion of không from human to the entire universe.
While không is now quietly planning to expand its "territory" from human to the entire universe, không is also pulling its meaning back from the nihilist extreme to the middle way (trung đạo). Recall that, in the first verse, our being is không (ngũ uẩn giai không). However, this second verse shows that không surely doesn't mean "nothing" or "non-existence." In this second verse, không is not different from sắc, not different from colors and forms that we can see with our eyes. And sắc is not different from không.
In other words, không and sắc, the two seemingly opposite concepts, are really one and the same. The repetition, sắc bất dị không, không bất dị sắc, is a logical formula to confirm, in a negation mode of speaking, that sắc and không are the same.
Then the next verse, sắc tức thị không, không tức thị sắc (sắc tức là không, không tức là sắc), is another logical formula to confirm again, now in the affirmation mode of speaking, that sắc and không are the same.
Both the affirmation and negation modes of speaking aim to emphasize one central truth: Sắc and không are the same, existence and emptiness are the same, có and không are the same.
Not only sắc, which stands for our physical body, but the mental elements of our being also operate the same way—they and không are the same; they are không and không are them. That is the meaning of the next phrase of Bát Nhã Tâm Kinh: thọ, tưởng, hành, thức, diệc phục như thị (feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness are also like that).
In sum, at this point in the development of the Buddhist thought we have: Our being is không, but không doesn't mean nihilism, không is the same as sắc or whatever makes up our being.
But why sắc and không are the same? Why apparently opposite things are the same?
Here we need to go into the "Three Dharma Seals" (Tam Pháp Ấn) to find the answer.
Dharma (pháp) is a rather confusing term in Buddhism, because, depending on the context of speaking, it has several different meanings. Here we will limit ourselves to 2 different meanings only. First, pháp means anything in the physical and mental universe, like a tree, a table, a feeling, a thought. Second, pháp also means a Buddhist teaching, a method of practicing Buddhism.
Tam Pháp Ấn (Three Dharma Seals) are three seals to prove that a teaching is true Buddhist teaching: 1. vô thường (non-permanence), 2. vô ngã (non-self), 3. niết bàn (nirvana). If a teaching misses one of these three seals, it is not Buddhist teaching.
a. Vô thường (anitya in Sankrist) means non-permanent, ever-changing. Everything comes and goes, depending on causes and conditions. A tree comes to existence when the cause (the seed) and conditions (weather, water, soil, etc.) are ripe for the seed to grow. Like anything else in the universe, the tree goes through 4 stages: thành trụ hoại không (appearing, steadying, decaying, disappearing). When causes and conditions become ripe for disappearing, the tree will disappear. This is luật nhân quả or nhân quyên (law of causation)—nhân means cause, duyên means condition. Everything is vô thường (non-permanent), because everything comes, changes and goes depending on ever-changing causes and conditions.
b. Vô ngã (non-self). Because everything is vô thường, none has a permanent existence, none has a permanent self. "The me" today is just the me today. Before I was born, there was no me. Right now, I am ever changing, ever getting older. Eventually I will die off, and after that there is no me. My self is not permanent. I have no permanent self. I have non-self. Non-self does not mean no self; non-self means no permanent self.
A natural question arises here: After I die off and my self dissolves, is that the total end of me? Yes and no. Yes, the me is ended, but how about the elements that made up me? I was formed by many elements in the universe—water, minerals, chemicals, electrons, electromagnetic, etc. When "the me" dissolves, I disappear, but the elements that made up me are still there in the universe; they just move around and, depending on causes and conditions, make up something else. In short, after death, my "self" is no longer here, but the elements that made me are still there in the universe. So, we say philosophically, "From universe I come, and back to the universe I go."
But what is the universe? The universe is a big expanse, a borderless, unlimited, never-ending space—a big không. So, if we replace the word "universe" with the word "không," then our philosophical statement now reads: "From không I come, and back to không I go."
And that is why we can say in Bát Nhã language "I am không, không is me." I am a fleeting manifestation of the big không universe. This is the meaning of non-self in Bát Nhã language. And this is also the basis of "sắc tức thị không, không tức thị sắc." (Form is emptiness, emptiness is form).
At this point we have answered our question "why sắc and không are the same?" However, let's go an extra step to finish the third dharma seal, nirvana.
c. Niết Bàn (Nirvana)
If we do not understand vô thường and vô ngã and we grasp onto the idea of a permanent life and a permanent self, we suffer when changes come, just like a person suffers when his beloved changes her heart or passes away.
The mental act of "grasping" onto something or some idea is called "attachment" or "chấp." Attachment to anything or any idea will bring suffering. For example, grasping on to the idea that life is miserable makes us suffered from negativism. Grasping on the idea that life is all good makes us suffered from naïveté. Grasping on the idea that "she is my life" makes us suffer when she leaves.
To relieve ourselves from suffering, we practice non-attachment (vô chấp). When we are no longer attached to anything, there is nothing to make our mind jumpy or stressed. No more suffering. The mind is calm and cool like a stove with the fire already extinguished. We have reached nirvana. Nirvana means "the fire is out."
In short, vô chấp is the way to reach enlightenment, to reach nirvana.
But does this sắc-không philosophy have anything to do with my life?
Tran Dinh Hoanh, Esq., LLB, JD