Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bát Nhã Tâm Kinh (5)

Vô vô minh, diệc vô vô minh tận; nãi chí vô lão tử, diệc vô lão tử tận.

(Chẳng có vô minh, cũng chẳng có chấm dứt vô minh; cho đến chẳng có già chết, cũng chẳng có chấm dứt già chết.)

(No ignorance or ending of ignorance, up to and including no old age and death or ending of old age and death.)

Here is another major Buddhist teaching that is negated—Thập Nhị Nhân Duyên (mười hai nhân duyên, the twelve links of cause and effect, or Law of Causation). As we have mentioned earlier, everything comes and goes by causation. Thập nhị nhân duyên enumerates twelve causation links to show how ignorance ends up causing old age, sickness and death, which are at the core of suffering. Thập Nhị Nhân Duyên is also known as duyên khởi or duyên sinh (arising/birth from law of causation, or "dependent origination").

The twelve links starts with ignorance and ends with old age and death, with 10 other links in between. Bát Nhã Tâm Kinh does not enumerate all twelve, but only mentions the first link (ignorance) and the last link (old age and death) to indicate the entire chain of twelve.

The twelve links are:

1) Vô minh: Ignorance.

2) Hành: Mental moving, mental formation

3) Thức: Consciousness.

4) Danh sắc: Name and Form.

5) Lục Nhập: Six entrances through six organs (mắt,tai mũi, lưỡi, thân, ý--eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind).

6) Xúc: Contact

7) Thọ: Feeling, sensation.

8) Ái: Desire, craving

9) Thủ: Grasping, attachment

10) Hữu: Owning, possessing, existing.

11) Sanh: Birth.

12) Lão Tử: Old Age, (Illness) and Death.

Ignorance (vô minh), the 1st link, makes the mind lose its true nature of tranquility; ignorance causes the mind the move; this moving of the mind (hành) is the 2nd link. The moving mind forms Consciousness (thức), the 3rd link. Consciousness looks at the world of forms and gives names to the forms, that is the 4th link (danh sắc; names and forms). This world of names and forms enters our body and mind through six entrances (lục nhập), that is the 5th link. Six entrances generate contact with our body and mind; contact (xúc) is the 6th link. Contact gives us sensations (thọ), the 7th link. Sensations make us desire (ái), the 8th link. Desire makes us grasp onto things (thủ), the 9th link. Grasping gives us Posession (hữu), the 10th link. Desire, grasping and possession are said to carry the karmic force of samsara (nghiệp lực của luân hồi), which will bring people back to a rebirth (reincarnation) at death, thus after Possession comes birth, the 11th link. And of course, birth brings old age, illness and death, and all kinds of suffering, the 12th link.

The conventional explanation of Thập Nhị Nhân Duyên is usually connected to the concept of luân hồi (samsara) and tái sinh (rebirth). However, there is also a bio-psychological explanation that desire, grasping and possession make us constantly, in every second of the day, die and be reborn into the suffering of the mind.

Thus, ignorance is the ultimate cause of suffering. Ignorance starts the causal chain that ultimately results in suffering. If we eliminate ignorance, we subsequently eliminate rebirth, old age, death and suffering. (For in-depth study of Thập Nhị Nhân Duyên, please see Thập Nhị Nhân Duyên by Thích Thông Huệ at, and Thập Nhị Nhân Duyên, translated by Phạm Kim Khánh at ).

Thập Nhị Nhân Duyên is said to be studied and practiced in Theravada Buddhism (phật giáo nguyên thủy). Such a practice is called tu duyên giác (training based on Law of Causation), and the person who achieves enlightenment through tu duyên giác is called Bích Chi Phật (pratyekabuddha) or Duyên Giác Phật (Enlightened through learning Law of Causation).

However, now Bát Nhã negates this major teaching of Thập Nhị Nhân Duyên: Vô vô minh, diệc vô vô minh tận. Nãi chí vô lão tử, diệc vô lão tử tận. No ignorance, also no elimination of ignorance. Through the 12 links, all the way to no old age and death, and no elimination of old age and death. Thus Thập Nhị Nhân Duyên is completely negated.

At this point, we should take a brief break, to address the most misunderstood point in Buddhism:

If there is vô ngã (non-self, no permanent self), then what is it that is reborn many times, living many lives after many deaths?

Samsara (luân hồi) and reincarnation (tái sinh) were taught in Hinduism before Buddhism appeared. In Hinduism, each person has an eternal soul (Atman). This Atman survives death and reincarnates in next life, according to his karma (nghiệp). Karma is the result of each person's actions and is the force that determines reincarnation. The cycle of birth-death-reincarnation is samsara (luân hồi). When the person attains spiritual purity, he achieves salvation and is not reincarnated anymore. Then his Atman resides with Brahman (the One, God) in eternity.

Buddhism talks about karma, samsara and rebirth; however, Buddhist rebirth is different from Hindu reincarnation in a very fundamental point: In Buddhism, vô ngã means there is no permanent self. There is no permanent soul that survives death. A person's self dissolves after death. All the elements that made up him also dissolve; however, there is one element that survives—the alaya vijnana (a lại da thức).

Vijnana (thức) is consciousness, the knowing ability of the mind. There are eight vijnanas, the first five are associated with the five sense organs, the last three are associated with the mind.

1. Nhãn thức (eye consciousness, cakshu vijnana)

2. Nhĩ thức (ear consciousness, shrotra vijnana)

3. Tỉ thức (nose consciousness, ghrana vijnana)

4. Thiệt thức (tongue consciousness, jihva vijnana)

5. Thân thức (body consciousness, kaya vijnana)

6. Ý thức (mental consciousness, mano vijnana—evaluate and process information from the first five vijnanas)

7. Mạt-na thức (afflicted consciousness, klesha vijnana—thinking about itself, thinking that there is a self)

8. A-lại-da thức (store consciousness, alaya vijnana—the leader of all consciousnesses, storing memories of all thoughts and actions)

The 8th vijnana, alaya vijnana (a-lại-da thức), is the only element of a being's self that survives death. It is called "store consciousness" because it stores karma of the self as well as karma of all previous selves (in previous lives). It determines how the next rebirth will be and carries the karmic seeds from one self (one life) to the next self (next life), and it accumulates karma as it goes through lives. But this "storage" is neutral; it doesn't do "thinking;" all the thinking is done by the first seven vijnanas. In other words, this alaya vijnana is not "me" or "my soul" or my "self." It is only an element of me (during in my life) and carries the karmic seeds of countless lives from the endless beginning, through my life, and countless more lives to come.

In simple language of the computer age, we can say alaya vijnna is just a "memory chip." After my death, the alaya vijnana carries "the memory of me" (and memory of countless lives before me) to the next life in a new self. This new self is not my self, although it does has "the memory of me" in it.

Upon enlightenment, alaya vijnana becomes pure and one with the Truth (Chân Như, Tathagatagarba, Phật, Buddha), which is Không. Alaya vijnana itself as a separate entity ceases to exist. No more rebirth.

This subject of rebirth and samsara is very confusing, because:

1. Most Buddhists of Asia believe in the reincarnation of a permanent soul. This is really a Hindu teaching and is against the Buddhist teaching of non-self (no permanent self, no permanent soul). However, the idea of a permanent soul is very simple and straight forward and fits human intuition well. It is also supported by some Buddhist sutras themselves, such as Kinh Vu Lan (Ullambana Sutra), in which Mục Kiền Liên (Mu-lien) found his mother's soul being punished in hell. (See Kinh Vu Lan at The strong influence of this sutra is shown in the fact that Vu Lan festival (Ullambana day) is an annual observed day in the Buddhist Asia. Of course, Mu-lien's mother may symbolically stands for our own ego, our own self, which is the mother of our confusing mind, with its attachment to greed, anger and ignorance (tham, sân, si). But the point is, the vast majority of Asian Buddhists believe in the reincarnation of a soul.

2. Alaya Vijnana, and a rebirth without a permanent self, is a very complex teaching of a major school of Buddhism: Yogacara (Duy Thức Tông). Very few Buddhists master this subject.

3. Most western Buddhists don't believe in Samsara and karmic rebirth. They think the Karmic rebirth theory is unnecessary in the large structure of Buddhist teaching. (Please see "A Buddhist Ethic Without Karmic Rebirth?" by Winston L. King at

(For some easy reading on non-self and Buddhist rebirth, please see "Anatta or Soul-lessness" by Narada Mahthera at, and "Is there an Eternal Soul?" at For a quick reading on A lại da thức, please see definition of A lại da thức at For Duy Thức Luận (Yogaraca), please see

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