Monday, October 20, 2008

Bát Nhã Tâm Kinh (7)

But why negate all the teachings? What does this negation mean?

1. We need to keep in mind that, in Bát Nhã, negation and affirmation are the same—sắc tức thị không, không tức thị sắc; negation is affirmation, affirmation is negation. And as we have seen, Bát Nhã affirms all things as they truly are.

Looking at the sea, if we focus our attention on the water only, we can say that the waves don't exist—waves are just the movement of water. However, if we focus our attention on the waves themselves, we can say that the waves do exist, but only briefly. Thus, when we are talking with our attention focused on không, we say, "In không there is no teaching." If our attention is focused on the teachings themselves, we say, "Yes, there are teachings, but they are impermanent."

The strong focus on không in Bát Nhã is a practical way to focus our attention on impermanence. Affirmation of the impermanence of the teachings means "Yes, there are teachings, so learn them and practice them. But they are impermanent, temporary, so don't be attached to them." That means:

a. Each listed teaching is important and deseves to be mentioned individually and specifically in Bát Nhã Tâm Kinh. So, please practice each teaching seriously.

b. But each teaching is also impermanent and temporary. So, please don't attach yourself to it. That means, be flexible with the teachings. Don't follow them rigidly like a robot. Teachings are guidelines; use your mind/heart and be flexible when applying the teachings to life.

c. Teachings are there temporarily to help, like a raft used to cross the river. When you have crossed to the other shore, don't carry the raft on your shoulder.

2. "In không there is no teaching" also describes the state of enlightenment.

All the teachings are there to help the practitioner achieve enlightenment, achieve nirvana.

But what is nirvana?

Nirvana means "the fire is out"—the completely pure and tranquil mind, the mind that has absolutely no attachment, the mind that sees all things but is attached to nothing, the mind of không.

This mind understands that không is its substance as well as the substance of everything else in the universe. This mind has found its true nature—không, the absolute, the never-born never-destroyed nerver-dirty never-clean never-increasing never-diminishing, the absolute tranquility, the Buddha. This mind, which has found its true nature, is now Buddha. Minh tâm kiến tánh thành Phật. Shine the mind, see true nature, become Buddha.

But has this mind just, in fact, turned itself from a regular human mind to a Buddha?

Yes and no. If we think the way we normally think with a time line of past, present and future, then "yes," this mind has just turned from a regular human mind to a Buddha. Five minutes ago it was an ignorant mind, now it is a Buddha.

However, from the stand point of enlightenment, the mind has not become anything. The mind has always been there, has always been không. It didn't know that it is không, but now it knows that it is không. That's all. It did not become something else better or higher.

When ignorance is still around, ignorance acts like a veil that obstructs the mind's vision; therefore, the mind cannot see itself clearly. When the mind has no attachment, the veil of vô minh (ignorance) is lifted, and the mind can see itself truly as không. The mind is now back to its true nature—không, the absolute tranquility, nirvana, Buddha. Nirvana has always been there, Buddha has always been there. It is just a matter of seeing or not-seeing.

So, indeed, there is no becoming Buddha, no attaining enlightenment, no river to cross, no crossing over. The Buddha has always been there. This is why at the beginning of this exposition, we say, "All the crossing is just a fleeting phenomenon of the mind."

A note on "seeing"

When we say "the mind sees itself as không," we may think of the word "see" as a function of the intellect, an intellectual capacity of our brain to understand. But true seeing involves much more than the intellect. Example: Wife tells drunken husband, "Do you know how miserable I am?" Husband answers, "Of course... I know… I spend all… the money… on booze... I get home late… and drunk every night… I mess … up the floor with… my vomit... You… are stressed all the time… What is… so hard to understand… about that …?" And he continues drinking day after day. That is the understanding or seeing of the intellect.

Until one day, the husband feels in every fiber of his body and in every cell of his brain how irresponsible he has been. He now feels every single miligram of his wife's pain, and her pain burns every cell in his body and mind like a holocaust. He wakes up, as if from a dream. Then he just quits drinking, forever. That is true seeing.

So, when we talk about seeing or understanding in the sense of enlightenment, we talk about a total "awakening" experience that involves every single aspect of our mental existence--the intellect, the will, the emotion, the id, the ego, the super-ego, the consciousness, subconsciousness, the nonconscious and what have you--a total transformation, a total rebirth, that brings the mind to a completely new level of seeing, understanding, feeling, thinking and acting.

This total awakening, therefore, cannot be achieved merely by the intellect—i.e. not merely by reading Buddhist philosophy. The Buddhist road to achieve this total awakening contains three major elements: Giới (rules of conduct), định (meditation, concentrating the mind), huệ (wisdom). A typical example is Bát Chánh Đạo (The Noble Eightfold Path). The eight lanes of Bát Chánh Đạo are grouped into three groups as follows:

Huệ (wisdom): 1. Chánh kiến (right view), 2. Chánh tư duy (right thought).

Giới (rules of conduct): 3. Chánh Ngữ (right speech), 4. Chánh Nghiệp (right action), 5. Chánh mạng (right livelihood).

Định (meditation): 6. Chánh tinh tấn (right effort), 7. Chánh niệm (right mindfulness), 8. Chánh định (right concentration)

Giới định huệ are called tam học (three studies) and work together. Good conduct, calm attitude and wise knowledge go together; we cannot leave one out and hope to gain an accurate understanding of Buddhism, not mentioning enlightenment. Reading Buddhist books while embezzling government money or getting drunk every day will not give us an accurate understanding of Buddhism. Buddhism is more than an intllectual philosophy. It is a comprehensive way of living. And all living needs practice.

IV. The Power of Bát Nhã to Bring Enlightenment

In the opening verse, we have Bồ tát Quán Tự Tại crossing beyond all suffering from practicing Bát Nhã. Now in the ending section, we come back to the power of Bát Nhã to bring enlightenment.

Dĩ vô sở đắc cố, Bồ-đề tát-đỏa y Bát-nhã-ba-la mật-đa cố tâm vô quái-ngại; vô quái-ngại cố vô hữu khủng-bố; viễn ly điên-đảo mộng tưởng; cứu cánh Niết-bàn.

(Bởi chẳng có gì để đạt, Bồ tát nương tựa Bát nhã ba la mật đa, nên tâm không vướng mắc; vì không vướng mắc nên không sợ hãi, xa lìa mộng tưởng điên đảo, rốt ráo niết bàn.)

(Because nothing is attained, the Bodhisattva, through reliance on prajna paramita, is unimpeded in his mind. Because there is no impediment, he is not afraid, and he leaves distorted dream-thinking far behind. Ultimately Nirvana!)

Bồ tát, with Bát Nhã wisdom, sees that Không is the true substance of all things, everything is just a fleeting manifestation of Không, and in Không there is nothing--no nirvana, no attaining nirvana. Therefore, Bồ tát does not think about attaining nirvana and, thus, has no attachment in his heart. (If Bồ tát keeps aiming at the goal of attaining nirvana, then Bồ tát would never reach nirvana, because the attachment to the goal is there in his heart).

Since the heart is not attached to anything, Bồ tát is not afraid of anything. Here, we need to make a note that fearlessness is a very significant feature of the Bồ tát way. In lục độ ba-la-mật (Bồ tát's six virtues of enlightenment), bố thí (giving) comes first. (The other five are trì giới—keeping rules and precepts, nhẫn nhục--patient and humble, tinh tấn--effort, thiền định—mediation, and trí huệ—wisdom).

There are 3 kinds of giving: Tài thí (giving money), pháp thí (giving Dharma, giving Buddhist teachings), vô úy thí (giving fearlessness; vô úy means không sợ). "Giving" here doesn't mean just giving the extra things one doesn't need; it may be giving one's own life for others. Among the three givings, giving money is lowest and giving fearlessness (vô úy thí) is highest.

Thus, we can see the important role of fearlessness in the Bồ tát way. But no fear of what? No fear of pain and suffering; no fear of losing anything, including one's own life; no fear of not-gaining anything, including not gaining enlightenment; no fear of following and teaching a human-based way to liberation, in which man—and no one else, neither saints nor gods--is responsible for his actions.

Without attachment, without fear, Bồ tát drops all "crazy upside-down dream-thoughts" (điên đảo mộng tưởng), all distorted notions about life, and all attachments resuling from these distorted notions. Thus, Bồ tát attains nirvana.

(For more about the Bồ tát way, please see Lục độ ba-la-mật by Thích Thông Huệ,; Khuyến Phát Bồ Đề Tâm by Đại Sư Thật Hiền,

Tam-thế chư Phật, y Bát-nhã-ba-la mật-đa cố đắc A-nậu-đa-la tam-miệu tam-bồ-đề.

(Chư Phật ba đời nương tựa Bát-nhã ba-la-mật-đa nên đạt được vô thượng chánh đẳng chánh giác.)

(All Buddhas of the three periods of time attain Anuttarasamyaksambodhi through reliance on prajna paramita.)

A-nậu-đa-la tam-miệu tam-bồ-đề is the transliteration of the Sankrist term Anuttarasamyaksambodhi, which is the fullest level of enlightenment. Anuttara means highest, nothing higher (vô thượng). Sammyak means main/essential comprehensive level (chánh đẳng). Sambodhi means main/essential enlightenment (chánh giác). It is translated into hán việt as vô thượng chánh dẳng chánh giác.

As we have mentioned previously, there are 4 levels of enlightenment—A la hán (Arhat), Bích Chi Phật (pratyekabuddha), Bồ tát (Bodhisattva), and Phật (Buddha). All the Buddhas of the past, the present, and the future attain the highest rank of enlightenment—vô thượng chánh đẳng chánh giác--from relying on Bát Nhã.

Cố tri Bát-nhã Ba-la-mật-đa, thị đại-thần chú, thị đại minh chú, thị vô-thượng chú, thị vô đẳng đẳng chú, năng trừ nhứt thiết khổ, chơn thiệt bất hư.

Cố thuyết Bát-nhã-ba-la-mật-đa chú, tức thuyết chú viết: Yết-đế Yết-đế, Ba-la yết-đế, Ba-la-tăng yết-đế, Bồ-đề. Tát bà ha

(Nên biết Bát-nhã ba-la-mật-đa là thần chú lớn, là minh chú lớn, là chú tối cao, là chú không gì sánh bằng, trừ hết mọi khổ ách, chắc thật, không dối.

Nên nói chú Bát-nhã ba-la-mật-đa, tức là nói chú rằng: Yết đế, Yết đế, Ba la Yết đế, Ba la tăng Yết đế, Bồ đề, Tát bà ha. (Qua rồi, qua rồi, qua bờ rồi, qua bờ hết rồi, giác ngộ rồi, vậy đó!))

(Therefore, know that prajna paramita is a great spiritual mantra, a great bright mantra, a supreme mantra, an unequalled mantra. It can remove all suffering; it is genuine and not false. That is why the mantra of prajna paramita was spoken. Recite it like this:

Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha! )

This final verse is about the power of Bát Nhã as a mantra. In addition to being very sophisticated knowledge that can be learn consciously, Bát Nhã also operates at the level of human subsconscious as a mantra. Mantra (chú) is a saying that is supposed to have supernatural power. Psychologically, a phrase, with a particular pattern of sound vibration of the words when spoken, the meaning of the words, and the regular repetition by the speaker, operates as a smoothing self-hypnotism. For example, if someone keeps repeating every day "Be rich, be rich, I be rich" a hundred times a day, chances are he will find enough motivation to work hard to be very rich some day. In addition, many people also believe that mantra has supernatural power by invoking secret energies from the cosmos.

The Bát Nhã mantra is Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha!, which means "Gone, gone, gone to the other shore; all gone to the other shore, already enlightened, so be it!"

Mantra is recited in the original language to invoke its power. In Vietnam, the Bát Nhã mantra is written and recited as a transliteration of the Sankrist original.

V. Conclusion

Bát Nhã Tâm Kinh is highly abstract, contains very high level of logic, and uses very sophisticated logic language unfamiliar to many people. Therefore, it generates great confusion for many. But the sutra is not a game of words by philosophers with too much time on their hand. It is a solid philosophy about the cosmos and the human life. Upon that philosophical foundation grows a very good system of ethics that governs our conduct. Buddhist ethics and philosophy bind together in a very coherent structure.

A word of caution for new students of Bát Nhã: Since Bát Nhã language is extremely versatile, one can quote any little phrase of Bát Nhã Tâm Kinh to say anything crazy, such as "You are talking to me but you are not existing" or "It is OK to do that, wrong is right and right is wrong." Bát Nhã is a comprehensive way of living—a logical philosophy, a system of practices and ethics, and a serious-but-non-attaching attitude on living. Playing word games with bits and pieces of Bát Nhã Tâm Kinh is like children building a house of cards, thinking that the house is the real shelter for them and their family. It is"Lost." Don't fall into that game.

As a living philosophy, Bát Nhã is positive, active, engaging, selfless, peaceful and liberating. It is a very good philosophy, upon which to build education and social development for any society. We Vietnamese are very fortunate to be the torch carrier of this philosophy. It is our honor and duty to preserve, nourish, enrich and share this philosophy widely with all our brothers and sisters, Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese alike, throughout the world.

Trần Đình Hoành

Washington DC

Friday, October 17, 2008