Monday, October 13, 2008

Bát Nhã Tâm Kinh (3)

However, why when Bồ tát Quán Tự Tại sees that ngũ uẩn are không, he crosses beyond all suffering?

Because when he sees that his being is không he no longer has any attachment. In life, we can grasp onto to millions of things around us—wealth, beauty, love, power, ideology. But in the final analysis, the reason we grasp onto anything is because of our self. Because we grasp onto our self, we want everything for our self. If we do not grasp onto our self--because we realize that the self is fleeting, is không--we will automatically drop all attachments to everything, then we cross beyond all suffering, we reach nirvana.

Thus, understanding không leads to vô chấp, which leads to nirvana.

Does this sắc-không philosophy have anything to do with my life?

Yes, this sắc-không philosophy has many fundamental implications on how we should conduct our life.

1. Affirmation of life: The constant negation language of Bát Nhã--with void, emptiness, not, and no--gives many people the misconception that Bát Nhã denies everything. But a careful reading reveals that Bát Nhã doesn't deny anything. Indeed, Bát Nhã confirms everything in life. "Sắc is not different from không, không is not different from sắc. Sắc is không, không is sắc." How could this statement mean a denial of anything? It is a clear and emphatic affirmation of both sắc and không, the two apprarent extremities of life. Thus, Bát Nhã emphatically affirms life with all life aspects.

2. A relaxed and free attitude about life: Bát Nhã keeps us away from attachment. We do not grasp onto sắc to deny không, because không is sắc. We do not grasp onto the không to deny sắc, because sắc is không. Since Bát Nhã means non-attaching to either sắc or không, we call the Bát Nhã way "trung đạo" (middle way).

But the Bát Nhã middle way doesn't mean we grasp onto to the middle position on the road. All attachments, including attachment to the middle, are suffering. Non-attachment (vô chấp) means not attaching to anything, any idea, any position. So, in Bát Nhã, we affirm everything while not grasping onto anything. That is the meaning of "middle way."

Therefore, we can be selling without attaching to money, reading without attaching to the book, eating without attaching to food, driving without attaching to the car, doing politics without attaching to power.

In Kinh Kim Cang (The Diamond Sutra), in order to achieve a pure and tranquil heart, Bồ tát should "ưng vô sở trụ" (không có chổ trụ; fixed on no place) (Kinh Kim Cang, Section 10). Bồ tát can stand on any place as he wishes, as long as he is not fixed to that place. The bird has to stand on something once in a while; however, because the bird is not fixed on any place permanently, she is free--the entire sky is her domain. A bird that stands fixed on a place is a dead bird.

The reality of life is that we make living choices every day. We constantly make life decisions, constantly take a stand on some ground. However, we should not be attached to any choice we have made, lets we become the prisoner of our own choices. We should be ready to leave any selected choice when necessary. Ưng vô sở trụ. Not fixed on any place. Then our heart is tranquil and free; we are liberated; we are free.

3. Bát Nhã's middle way differs from indifference or non-commitment. Indifferent and non-committal people who don't care about anything, are wishy-washy on all things, and never stand up for anything.

Bát Nhã's people care about life. They often take a stand for goodness; however, they are not so attached to their idea of goodness to the degree that they try to eliminate all people with a different stand.

4. Bát Nhã helps us lead an active and selfless life: In Kinh Kim Cang (the Diamond Sutra), Bát Nhã is the key to living an active and selfless life. There the Buddha said in essence, "I have helped liberate immeasurable, countless, infinite number of sentient beings, for them to enter nirvana, but indeed no beings have been liberated. Why? Because, if Bodhisattva still sees 'me' and 'others,' 'sentient beings' and 'permanent beings,' then that is not Bodhisattva." (Kinh Kim Cang, section 3, paraphrased by TDH).

Putting aside all abstract philosophical meanings, the above quote means one simple thing—Bồ tát doesn't see the difference between himslef and others. Why? Because Bồ tát doesn't grasp onto "me" and "others" as separate and different entities. I am not different from others, others are not different from me. Sắc bất dị không, không bất dị sắc; sắc tức thị không, không tức thị sắc. I am others, others are me. So when Bồ tát helps others, he doesn't see that he helps others, he feels like he helps himself. Helping others is just as natural as helping himself.

Bát Nhã Tâm Kinh and Kinh Kim Cang are two very significant Mahayana sutras. They go together well as a pair—Bát Nhã Tâm Kinh is abstract philosophy, Kinh Kim Cang is living practice. Reading the two sutras together helps the understanding of each greatly.

(For an exposition on Kinh Kim Cang by HT Thích Thanh Từ, please see ).

Is the Buddhist trung đạo different from the Confucian trung dung?

Both trung đạo and trung dung may be translated as middle way, but they are really different. In Confucianism, trung dung is a way of living with moderation and harmony—moderate in all things, including the application of rules of conduct (nhân lễ nghĩa trí tín; humanity, respect, loyalty, wisdom, honesty)--to generate harmony with other people and with trời đất (heaven and earth). Generally speaking, standing in the middle is the favorite position of Trung Dung.

The Buddhist trung đạo means not-attached (vô chấp) to anything, including the middle of the road. The Bát Nhã practitioner can stand on any ground, any place, the middle, the left, the right, the high, the low. It doesn't matter where. As long as his mind/heart (tâm) is not attached to his standing position or to anything else, then his position is good. In Bát Nhã, a pure and tranquil heart (tâm thanh tịnh, i.e., non-attaching heart, tâm vô chấp) is what that counts, not the position on the road.

In Zen literature (văn học Thiền), many Zen masters did things that looked very extreme. A master chopped a wooden Buddha statue to make a fire to warm himself and his student in a very cold night when there was no wood. Another master answered his student's question by giving the student a hard slap on the face. Apparently these were very extreme actions, but the Buddhist masters did them, because they knew, in the circumstances at the time, doing so would help their student attain enlightenment, and because their mind was not attached (vô chấp) to the idea that the Buddha statue was untouchable or that it was unacceptable to answer a question with a slap. These actions probably would not be allowed in Confucianism.

Confucian Trung dung is a good managerial rule; Buddhist trung đạo is the free mind of a master artist.

(For the Confucian book Trung Dung, please see

Tran Dinh Hoanh, Esq., LLB, JD
Washington DC