The Heart Sutra (prajna paramita, the core of the "perfection of wisdom" literature) glorifies Kwan Yin (Avalokitateshvara, the goddess-bodhisattva who looks down with mercy from on high). The original explanation, it seems, was provided by the enlightened Buddhist nun -- designated by the Buddha as "foremost in wisdom" -- Khema.
While the Heart Sutra makes sense to next to no one, and is instead treated as a devotional instrument for chanting, originally the doctrine was understood as a practice. And because Khema was on a level with Shariputra (the male disciple designated as foremost in wisdom), the seed or rudimentary reasoning is there for making him the foil: The text becomes one contrasting feminine compassion-and-wisdom versus masculine dryness-and-intellectualism.
The topic of emptiness comes up in the context of answering a more pressing question for ancient Indians: What happens when an enlightened person passes away?
Famed Throughout the Land
He asked a servant to find out if there was a wise ascetic or brahmin priest in the vicinity. The servant investigated but could not find anyone for the king to converse with. He reported this to King Pasenadi but added that a Buddhist nun lived in the town.
It was the saintly Khema, who was famed throughout the land for her wisdom. She was known to be clever, possessing deep insight, and someone who had heard much Dharma from the Buddha. She was a speaker of great renown, with a ready wit and profound understanding.
The king was very interested and immediately set off to visit the former queen. He greeted her with deep respect and had the following conversation with her:
Pasenadi: Does an Awakened One [usually framed as the Tathagata but referring to any fully enlightened and liberated individual or arhat] exist after death?
Khema: The Enlightened One has not declared that an Awakened One exists after death.
Pasenadi: Then an Awakened One does not exist after death?
Khema: That too, the Enlightened One has not declared.
Pasenadi: Then the Awakened One exists after death and does not exist?
Khema: Even that, the Enlightened One has not declared.
Pasenadi: Then one must say, the Awakened One neither exists nor not exists after death?
Khema: That too, the Enlightened One has not declared.
The king was perplexed and wanted to know why the Buddha rejected these four seemingly exhaustive options.
For the king as well as our own understanding, it is first necessary to realize what these questions imply.
The first question corresponds with the view of all those beings whose highest goal is to continue on after death, spurred on by craving for existence. The answer that an Awakened One continues to exist after death, is the one given by all other religions, including later interpretations of Buddhism (e.g., Mahayana).
The second answer that the Enlightened One does not exist after death would be in keeping with craving for non-existence.
Because of an urge for definite knowledge and certainly, a definition is sought which could claim that the five aggregates (Sanskrit, skandha/Pali, khandha) of
- form (body)
- feeling (sensation)
- perception (cognition)
- mental formations (volition and many others excluding feeling and perception which are treated separately because of their importance)
- consciousness (awareness).
Moreover, it is the belief that deliverance consists of the mere dissolution of the aggregates brought about by the disintegration of these factors (as if there were no reintegration of new aggregates impelled by karma that is driven by ignorance and craving).
The third answer seeks to reconcile the first two: Everything impermanent in an Awakened One would be annihilated, but the permanent aspect, the essence (the "soul" or atta, Sanskrit atman), the actual personality, would remain.
The fourth answer tries to get out of the predicament by formulating a "neither-nor" situation.
- This "solution" is formulated with the idea that it is something that words or concepts cannot describe but that still uses "exist"/"not exist" and so was not accepted by the Buddha.
In reality, "I" and "world" are part of the impersonal experience arising and being identified with because of consciousness. Every aggregate and every part of every aggregate is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and impersonal.
Only enlightened individuals can actually see this directly and thereby overcome all doubt as to its truth. But unless this understanding is awakened in those of us who are not yet enlightened by liberating insight, the assumption is made that there is an "I" -- an essentially permanent "self" -- wandering through the cycle of rebirth (samsara).
It is further assumed -- particularly in Hinduism and heavily Hindu-influenced Mahayana Buddhism -- that this is happening so that the "self" can gradually ascend higher and higher until it is liberated, which is naturally interpreted as an eternity in heaven.
To reject this assumption and its logical conclusions, some adopt the equally mistaken view that the Buddha teaches the destruction of a "self." ("It has to be this way, logic dictates!" they insist, not realizing that logic is useless when the assumptions upon which our logic is based are flawed).
The Buddha teaches that there is no "I" or "self" to be destroyed. It has never existed and, contrary to appearances and assumptions, has never wandered through samsara.
How can this possibly be?
The answer is not arrived at by faith, philosophizing, or logically deducing... It is directly observable to a purified and strengthened mind. Our minds are generally obstructed by the Five Hindrances that weaken insight and block liberating wisdom from arising and cutting off the hindrances and defilements of mind/heart that prevent enlightenment:
- desire (craving)
- ill will (hate)
- restlessness (agitation and worry)
- sleepiness (sloth and torpor)
- doubt (skepticism)
They are elements in a list of ten "mental chains" (samyojana) that are subtle, deep, and hard to break free of even for an advanced meditator: (1) personality-view (sakkaya-ditthi), (2) sceptical doubt, (3) clinging to rules and rituals (as if such things could lead to enlightenment), (4) sensual-craving, (5) ill will, (6) craving for fine-material existence (rebirth in loftier spheres beyond sensuality which most of us crave but here they are crave instead of liberation and therefore act as a chain), (7) craving for immaterial existence (rebirth in the loftiest spheres, extremely subtle and long lasting worlds which transcend materiality altogether), (8) conceit (the tenacious habit or remnant-tendency of mind to behave as if there is a self even after "self-view" has been overcome), (9) restlessness, and (10) ignorance (A. IX, 67, 68; X. 13; D. 33).
- The first five bind one to the sensual-realm, and the remainder tie one to the fine- and immaterial-realms.
They throw up the illusion (maya) of "I" and "world" born into the present and clung to. Therefore, the Five Aggregates are actually the Five Aggregates of Clinging. They themselves, as impersonal components, cling to the illusion of a separate and independent "self" (separate, distinct, and independent of components).
We are not really separate from one another, and the "self" is in no way independent of the Five Aggregates on which its ephemeral existence depends. Another way to say this might be, the "self" (soul, personality, core, heart, pith, "I") is not separate from the elements that form the "self" -- a material body and immaterial sensations, conceptions, discriminations, and consciousness -- and we all have that in common. All "things" do.
"Self" is an illusion arising from the functional integration of these Five Aggregates.
Moreover, Dependent Origination reveals that it is no accident that they arise and that there is suffering (even if, ultimately, as people are so fond of pointing out, there is no one, no self who suffers).
The aggregates, according to Abhidharma scholar-practitioners, cling to their respective objects, as explained below.
Thinking and reasoning with hindered and tainted minds (that are not freed from the aforementioned hindrances and fetters), it is not possible to see the liberating Truth the Buddha created Buddhism to reveal.
- The good news is that there is freedom! It is, indeed, the case that: "The Truth shall set one free" -- free from illusion, free from rebirth, free from all suffering.
How do the "Five Aggregates of Clinging" cling to illusion? By not seeing the suffering, the danger, the first Noble Truth -- they cling by clinging to their respective objects: The aggregate of form (composed of the Four Great Elements or characteristics of matter and their derivatives) clings to form. The aggregate of feeling clings to [pleasant] feelings....
- There is no entity. The process of "self" is a process of clinging and suffering. "Suffering" is misleading as a single-word translation of dukkha. It means disappointment, dissatisfaction, distress, being off center, insecure, endangered... There is just as much or more pleasure from time to time. This is what hooks us.
- That "all things are unsatisfactory" does not deny the Non-Ennobling Truth that there is pleasure. Of course there is pleasure or, as the Buddha pointed out, no one would stay.
The problem is not that there is pleasure. The problem is that there is clinging to pleasure.
What is "clinging" (upadana)? First there is craving, and on account of craving there is grasping, and constant grasping is clinging (attachment). A hand feels something pleasurable, grasps it, then won't let go. The mind finds something pleasant, binds, then grows attached.
While clinging one is blind to the danger, the suffering to come, and the unsatisfactoriness of what is clung to. Even in the height of pleasure, what we cling to does not complete us, does not cure us, does not satisfy us.
- This is the problem -- there is suffering that stems from clinging. This is the first and the second Noble Truth. So long as it goes unrecognized, the Dharma does not make sense.
- This is the solution -- there is freedom that stems from practicing. This is the third and fourth Noble Truth. As soon as it is recognized, the Dharma as the Buddha set it forth (in the first sutra ever) suddenly makes sense.
What is the first Noble Truth? "All conditioned things are suffering/unsatisfactory." It's true. And from time to time we see this. Yet, the Five Aggregates go on clinging because temporary relief (from pleasure) is all the aggregates know as "freedom from suffering."
A supremely-enlightened buddha has "awakened," has transcended the illusion, has established a cure (called the Dharma) for beings who suffer, and has successfully shown the way to those with eyes to see, namely, a ennobled community (lay and monastic) of enlightened individuals who by following the Path verified it.
The Power of HOW
The way to liberation is to stop clinging to an "I," to become free from habitual views and speculations and to still the mind so that it arrives at the end of its illusory conjuring -- of making enduring entities out of impersonal processes.
How? Not by thinking but by practicing. What practice? Following the Noble Eightfold Path. Then having a competent teacher becomes crucial. If we could do it ourselves, we would be buddhas, not followers of the Buddha. If we fail, we will be heretics misleading many.
The Noble Eightfold Path does NOT have steps. It is a way of going, of wayfaring, of reaching the end of suffering (bodhi and nirvana). The Path is a set of interdependent limbs. It is a single path that is incomplete and ineffective when we abridge it.
Freedom from suffering does not come about by increasing thought processes (pondering and rationalizing) about phenomena. It comes about by mindfulness (detached, dispassionate, unbroken observing) of the arising of phenomena. This detached but constant watching reduces the spiraling chatter and running commentary of the mind.
Only a virtuous heart/mind can gain concentration (serenity, intensification, samadhi). Only a concentration (calmed, collected) heart/mind can gain liberating insight. The Path (Noble Eightfold Path) is therefore divided into these three categories: virtue, concentration, wisdom.
Everything we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think, all that can be contained in consciousness, no matter how wide-ranging and pure it is, has arisen due to causes and is maintained by conditions. Therefore, they are utterly and radically impermanent (falling away and being usurped by similar but not identical phenomena, kalapas and cittas to be technical), which are at all times unsatisfactory, impersonal, subject to constant decay and eventual dissolution.
Every (composite, dependently-arisen) "thing" is subject to decay and change. The only (for lack of a better word) thing that is not a "thing," and therefore not subject to decay and dissolution, is nirvana -- the unmade, unformed freedom from all suffering.
Nirvana must not be confused with things: Nothingness (the sphere of the void) is a thing; it is dependent on conditions. Heavens are things; they are dependent on things. Selves are things; they are dependent on the Five Aggregates and the factors of Dependent Origination...
The Four Noble Truths
Therefore, everything is not-self. In other words, everything is impersonal. But the Buddha is not interested in physics. He is not interested in philosophy or speculation. He is interested in the end of suffering. Buddhism teaches two things and only two things -- SUFFERING and the END of suffering.
Suffering does not exist by itself. It arises dependent on the Five Aggregates. With the arising of the aggregates arises suffering. The Buddha traced back the CAUSE of suffering. This exercise, a meditative practice, leads to liberating insight. Such tracing is called Dependent Origination. It is part of the PATH (right mindfulness, a meditative practice that follows and is enabled by intense concentration.
Of course, these four capitalized words are the Four Noble Truths, the shortest explanation of Buddhism; the first two are the teaching of suffering, the other two, the end of suffering.
Because the Five (clung-to) Aggregates are subject to destruction; therefore, they are not "mine," not "myself." "I" cannot prevent their decay, their origination, changeableness, sickness, damage, or passing away.
The conclusion that the self must then be outside of the Five Aggregates does not follow either. Things outside are also composites, dependently-originated. They, too, have their own aggregates. For example, inanimate stones are composed of the Four Great Elements. Animate ecosystems depend on their elements, whatever they may be. They are not independent of them but interdependent on one another (and probably everything else to the extent that all "things" are connected).
The Four Questions
Any designation of the Enlightened One after death is therefore an illusion. It is born out of compulsion to label and name. It is not appropriate and does not apply.
Whoever successfully follows the Teaching of the Awakened One -- the Buddha-Dharma, which is a coherent set of practices not a set of "beliefs" -- is relieved to directly see that the Buddha did not teach the destruction of an existing entity. Like Khema of Great Wisdom, they see that there is no annihilation of self.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, "ordinary uninstructed worldlings" not taught by the Enlightened One, the Enlightening Doctrine, or successfully Enlightened Disciples (Ariya Sangha) live without exception in a world of perpetual destruction.
Even rebirth in long-lived heavens creates no solution. For there too the Five Aggregates are on fire, changing, processing, yielding unsatisfactoriness and further becoming until in time the process continues in less favorable worlds, and eventually in unutterably miserable worlds.
(If any heaven were stable and eternal, the Buddha would have recommended rebirth there. He taught the means, the pathways to rebirth in all destinations. But he emphasized that only nirvana is worthy of experience. Only nirvana is ultimately a refuge [not to be confounded with the Three Refuges, which are not "refuges" but guides to this refuge], secure, peaceful, and free of danger).
Every other state is transient, unable to be controlled, a realm of death. Whatever the aggregates of clinging look upon as "I," "me," or "mine" is constantly vanishing.
It is distressing, and so the mind turns away. Unfortunately, it does not turn away from them. (That happens through successful insight meditation practices). It turns away from seeing the Truth about them.
Without seeing the Truth about them the mind, far from turning away, the mind clings to them.
Only by renouncing (not necessarily giving them up but dropping the clinging to them by achieving insight) these things can anyone reach a refuge of peace and security.
Khema tried to explain this to King Pasenadi with a simile. She asked him whether he had a clever mathematician or statistician, who could calculate for him how many hundred, thousand, or hundred-thousand grains of sand are contained in the river Ganges. The king replied that it is not possible.
Just so, said Khema, is the Enlightened One. Whoever wishes to define the Awakened One, could only do so through the Five clung-to Aggregates and the Buddha no longer clung-to them. Is he the body, its sensations, perceptions, the mental formations, the consciousness? When they are no more bound to rearise in the future, suffering cannot arise.
Therefore it is inappropriate to say he exists or does not exist, or exists and does not exist, nor neither exists nor not exists. ALL of these designations could not define what is undefinable.
The king rejoiced in the penetrating wisdom of the nun Khema.
Sources: S 17,23; S 44,1; A I,24; II,62; IV,176; VIII,91. Thag. 139-144; J 354;397;501;502;534;539; Ap II No.18 (verse 96); Bu 26,19.