I. The harm of ignorance
In both Mahayana abhidharma and Sarvāstivāda’s abhidharmakosa, the term used for our negative emotions is kleśa or defilement, and different kinds of defilement have been clearly classified. Even in psychology and medicine, there are not nearly as many terms to describe the various aspects of negative emotions. However, no matter how it is classified, the origin of all defilement is ignorance.
Ignorance also means being deluded. Defilement arises because we don’t know the truth of this world and of ourselves. If the truth is known, there will not be defilement—the reason why ignorance is the origin of defilement.
Unlike greed and anger which are quite noticeable, ignorance is a latent defilement. When we are angry or being greedy, it is obvious to not only ourselves but also others because our behavior is different, whereas ignorance is hidden deep down and not easily detected. None of the wise and knowledgeable people in the world including scientists, philosophers and psychologists has yet to discover ultimate ignorance. Although various fields of study have helped us clear some delusions and revealed to us many truths about life and the world, ignorance, a defilement entrenched at the deepest level, has never been explored by either science, philosophy or religions. Moreover, as the methods provided by these disciplines are not counteractive to ignorance, they are unable to refute and end ignorance.
India at the time of the Buddha had a plethora of religions and myriads of views. Some religions believed the world is controlled and ruled by Brahma, one of the celestial beings. If Brahma is happy, we’ll all be saved; if not, we’ll go to hell. In order to worship Brahma, people killed all sorts of animals as offering to him. This is ignorance.
Buddhism holds that Brahma does not rule the world; he is but one of the celestial beings in the six realms of samsara. As such, he is still bound by karma, has not gained liberation, may fall and suffer, and is certainly not omnipotent. Even if we make offerings to please him, he cannot help us escape cyclic existence; moreover, the killing of animals keeps us further entrenched in samsara.
In the 1930s and 40s, human sacrifice as offering to the gods was still practiced in some remote areas of the world. Such inhuman act itself is already a huge delusion which can only increase, not overthrow, our ignorance.
Once there is ignorance, there is attachment—attachment to the outer world, to one’s own body, reputation, interest, etc. When failing to satisfy one’s desire, negative emotions arise and one suffers. In order to satisfy all the desires, one may resort to evil ways. Thus, all evil karma comes from attachment and ignorance.
II. The way to refute ignorance
To refute ignorance, something contradictory to it must be applied; views and methods more powerful than ignorance are also needed to accomplish the task. Ignorance cannot be overthrown without realization of emptiness, even if all the rituals are properly conducted, pure vows maintained, worldly merit accumulated and virtuous deeds committed. The practices of cultivating renunciation, such as contemplating the preciousness of human birth or impermanence, and bodhicitta are very important, but they do not conflict with ignorance and are thus unable to reject it either. Of the two kinds of bodhicitta, ultimate and relative, ultimate bodhicitta denotes realization of emptiness which can refute ignorance quite effectively, but not relative bodhicitta. This point is clearly explained in Dharmakirti’s Commentary on Valid Cognition (Pramanavarttika) and the various texts on Buddhist logic.
When Bodhidharma arrived in China, he met Emperor Wu, the founder of Liang Dynasty (502-557). The Emperor reported to Bodhidharma the virtuous deeds he had done, such as not eating meat, reciting scriptures, offering to the monastics, etc., and asked Bodhidharma proudly, “How much merit are these good deeds worth?” With his short reply “no merit at all”, Emperor Wu was instantly made speechless.
Many people cannot understand why Bodhidharma said so. Of course Bodhidharma would not deny, from the viewpoint of karma, that virtuous actions can generate some merit, which no Buddhist would refute either. But in this case, Bodhidharma commented from the point of view of the ultimate truth that, absent realization of emptiness, no amount of merit alone can lead to liberation. This is why Bodhidharma put a damper on Emperor Wu’s eager expectation.
Je Tsongkhapa also pointed out in The Three Principal Aspects of the Path that as important as the generation of renunciation and bodhicitta is, ignorance cannot be rejected with just renunciation and bodhicitta. Ultimately, we still need to establish the view of emptiness to refute ignorance.
The key for a doctor to be effective in treating a patient lies in whether the doctor knows the cause of the illness so that he or she can prescribe the right treatment. By the same token, the root of our samsaric existence and not being free is not a coincidence or without cause and condition. It is certainly not ruled by the Omnipotent but by attachment.
For example, when we feel strong attachment to a person, his or her every move can make us either happy or sad. During this time, the chances of getting hurt far exceeds that of gaining happiness because once there is attachment, expectation will ensue. If the other party cannot do as wished, it simply adds more unhappy moments to one’s life. This will continue until the relationship is broken and the attachment gone. Conversely, the less we care about certain things, the more likely they can give us a sense of happiness. This is life’s unbreakable natural law.
To chase away darkness, there needs to be light. To eliminate the darkness of ignorance, we need the light of wisdom. Here, wisdom is not common cleverness. Cleverness in real life may actually be a kind of delusion—knowing how to make and spend money may seem very clever, but it is likely to ruin one’s own and others’ chance for liberation and also future life, hence a delusion. The only one who understands the true nature of ignorance and knows how to resolve it is Buddha Sakyamuni. Many people have come to realize the reality of the world through the Buddha’s teachings and attained ultimate freedom and liberation.
The kind of wisdom we need to look for is realization of emptiness. There are three kinds of wisdom: wisdom resulting from hearing, from contemplation and from meditation. To correspond to each kind of wisdom, there are also three steps one can take to find the respective wisdom.
Through listening to the Buddha’s teachings, we may gain more understanding and awareness. This is wisdom resulting from hearing the teaching. However, it has not been thought through and thus is not very stable, nor powerful enough. We should not stop here but reflect further: Although it is said so in the scriptures, is it truly so in reality?
Some people think that the Buddhist scriptures are wrong in its description of the world, as what’s given in Abhidharmakosa runs against the observations made by modern cosmology. Actually, Abhidharmakosa is not a teaching orally transmitted by the Buddha himself but was composed by many arhats. One cannot find the description of the world in Abhidharmakosa in any of the sutras that were personally taught by the Buddha. Why is there such a big difference between the worldview described in the exoteric Buddhist texts and that of Kalachakra which was taught by the Buddha in later days? The reason, explained many times before in the book series Wisdom Light, is in the differences in cultural background, lifestyle and way of thinking that existed 2500 years ago and now. Given the circumstances at the time, the Buddha had to accommodate the common view then in order to bring certain people onto the path.
The Buddha taught in three different ways:
1. To an audience that had the capacity to comprehend the teachings without problem, the Buddha would expound the true nature of reality without any hesitation.
2. To an audience that could not accept or understand the teachings, the Buddha would adopt an indirect approach to explain the Dharma so as to help them accept gradually.
3. When asked to answer a question with only yes or no, the Buddha would choose to remain silent if “yes” was not an acceptable answer and “no” was not true to the fact. This was how the Buddha responded when the non-Buddhists asked him the 14 indeterminate questions.
The Buddha would always take into consideration the capacity of the audience when giving teachings, and only expound on that which they could apprehend, as the Buddha is omniscient.
Many different worldviews have been presented in the Buddhist scriptures, but the ultimate, the truest version is one based on dependent arising. It is also what we need today—to gain realization of emptiness.
There are three ways to gain realization of emptiness:
1. The easiest, the lowest level is to contemplate via logical inference to finally reject one’s every attachment and thus realize the world being unreal, empty and illusory like a dream. Follow this with further practice and realization of emptiness will be attained.
2. This refers to Tsa lung (subtle channel and winds) practice in the Vajrayana tradition. Tsa lung practice and realization of emptiness have a highly effective and direct relationship. After completing the preliminary practice and receiving proper empowerment, one can undertake Tsa lung practice to attain realization of emptiness rather quickly.
3. The fastest but the most demanding method is through mind to mind transmission. Only those with capacity that is both sharp and ripened are suited to use this method, such as the sixth Chan Patriarch Hui-neng, some Vajrayana practitioners and certain accomplished masters of India. Because people like them have practiced extensively in their past lives with their capacity already well prepared, they need only a word or two as pointers to attain realization of emptiness. The Great Perfection is such a method that requires no reasoning, nor too many theories and complicated practices. It just uses a very simple method to realize emptiness.
These three methods are like three different roads or three kinds of transportation. All of them can eventually reach the final destination of attaining enlightenment or Buddhahood, with only timing difference. Thus, not everyone has to learn Vajrayana. Even the first method which is the simplest and the most basic can help us eliminate attachment and gain realization of emptiness.
III. How to prove the void nature of all phenomena
How do we prove that our attachment or our perception of the world is wrong?
When we evaluate something, we first use our sense organs to feel and then transmit the information received to the sixth consciousness. After the information is analyzed by the sixth consciousness, a conclusion will be drawn. This is the process that we go through to make judgment on all things. It applies to scientists as well, except they have more instruments at their disposal.
In order for the conclusion to be right, first, the sense organs must make no mistake. Otherwise, the wrong information will get passed to the consciousness. At the same time, our consciousness should also have sufficient capacity to evaluate, or wrong conclusion will be made as a result.
Before learning the theory of Madhyamaka or the views of prajñāpāramitā, we used to think what our eyes can see are all real. Now we can prove with what we have learned that all phenomena are without self nature.
There are five great Madhyamaka reasonings to prove emptiness, the first being “refuting the arising of something existent or non-existent.” When we understand one type of reasoning, the others can all be understood with the same rationale. Perhaps some may ask, “If one type of reasoning can prove the point, why do we need so many others?” This is skillful means for the sake of sentient beings with different capacity. Some may find the first reasoning to be logical; others may think the second or the third is easier to understand. As a result, there are five types of reasoning. Now we will discuss mainly the first reasoning.
ii. Refuting the arising of something existent or non-existent
All phenomena are constantly arising and ceasing. If not, everything will remain static and forever immutable. Just like a person is born first, then lives and dies, physical matter also goes through three stages of existence: birth at the beginning, abiding in the middle and destruction at the end. Birth must take place first before the latter stages can follow.
Now let’s examine how exactly matter is born. However, we don’t need to make such examination in the macro universe because the macro universe is only an illusion of ours. In order to maintain our daily life, we will just let it continue to “exist.” Essentially, real birth can only happen in the micro universe.
When something new is born, we tend to think it is the effect produced from another cause. Cause engenders effect which owes its existence to the power of cause. Few would dispute this. But on further examination, did the new thing exist or not exist before it was born? There can only be two answers: yes (exist) and no (not exist). We cannot say it is neither existent nor non-existent.
Some ancient religions hold that things exist before they are born; it is only because they are hidden in some place that we cannot see. How things are born is just a matter of emerging from the hidden, unseen place. Nothing is newly born in this world. The so-called birth is basically to change from being invisible to visible.
Normally, our notion of being is when nothing becomes something. For example, we grow flowers because there are no flowers attached to the flower seeds. If there are flowers already, we do not need to plant seeds anymore.
Such is how reality is and has been perceived since time immemorial. Without examination, we would hold on to this as the norm even if humans evolved another 10,000 or 100,000 years. However, if further observation is made, we will likely find another world, a different world.
First, how can we turn nothing into something? In a so-called cause and effect relationship, the cause transmits a kind of energy to the soon-to-be born effect (fruit) to make it materialize. However, can cause and effect exist simultaneously? It’s not possible. If they do, it means that effect already exists. In that case, what need is there for cause? Cause at this point has lost its raison d'être, just like seeds are no longer needed when crops are already available. Two things that exist simultaneously do not have a causal relationship because both have already been formed. For instance, if two Buddha statues, one big and the other small, are shown together, the big one needs no help from the small one for it to be made.
If cause and effect cannot exist simultaneously, does one come before the other? People think that as a matter of course cause comes before effect, which also means that when cause is still extant, effect cannot happen—it cannot be found anywhere in the universe. If effect is not existent, to whom can cause transmit the energy? There is no recipient.
In the case of cause and effect existing simultaneously, it suggests that effect is already existent before its arising from cause. In the case where cause and effect are mutually exclusive, it suggests that effect is not existent before its arising from cause. No matter what the case may be, there is no way to make something either existent or non-existent arise. But effect can only exist or not exist; there is no other option. This is what “refuting the arising of something existent or non-existent” means.
Then why do we see cause and effect at work all the time in real life? It is called dependent arising. Nothing really exists; all are mere illusions.
We should not just take for granted but contemplate the notion more deeply: Of course causality exists. Isn’t the father/son relationship the living proof of cause and effect? But to think this way would be too naïve. From the point of view of illusion, of course cause and effect exist. If we are willing to believe and accept this illusion, rejecting other kinds of worldview, there is no need to learn Buddhadharma any further. Just be sure to do good deeds, not hurt anyone and believe in karma and the principle of causality. Thus it could be possible we may end up relatively better in our future life, albeit a fleeting one at that. If however one is not satisfied with the current condition and seeks to escape from this make-believe world, then one must look for answers. What we do is totally up to us.
iii. Dependent arising
Dependent arising means phenomena depend on conditions to arise, to be born; or put in another way, phenomena are born or arise from conditions. Buddhism holds that the arising and ceasing of all phenomena depend on multiple causes and conditions rather than the will of the Creator. If this is not the case, effect will be engendered at will and the laws acknowledged by the world be thrown out of whack—reap what is sown won’t be valid any more.
Please note that here dependent arising is not contradictory to the aforementioned non-arising, non-ceasing of phenomena. Dependent arising deals from the point of view of the five sense organs of ordinary people, which is called relative truth in Madhyamaka. It is a truth because everything looks very real if it is not subject to deeper investigation.
The word arising has two meanings: first, to be born or engendered from cause and condition, such as seeds produce fruits; second, an interdependent relationship which encompasses all dualistic phenomena like left and right, up and down, long and short, fast and slow, etc., while the condition for right to arise is left and that for left is right. There is right because there is left; some are deemed short because others are deemed long. These dualistic and abstract concepts, which are not matter, are referred to as dependent phenomena in Buddhism.
Although dependent phenomena are not physical matter but conceptual elaborations, very often our mental state is intertwined with objects of the outer world. If not, people cannot communicate with one another.
For example, when I say “Buddha statue,” I think I’m saying “Buddha statue” and the listeners also think I’m saying “Buddha statue,” but in fact it is a physical object which cannot be made to appear just by saying the two words. Nevertheless, all those who can understand the language I speak will mix the two words with the real Buddha statue, that is, upon hearing the words “Buddha statue,” the image of the statue will appear in their minds. It is only by giving tacit consent to such illusion that we can communicate with one another. Buddhist Logic deals in depth with this and related subjects.
There is an even deeper meaning of dependent arising, i.e., emptiness. That is to say, all which arise from cause and condition are without self nature, empty and illusory. Like everything in dreams, no matter how real they appear to be, all will just be emptiness after waking up.
All things that we deem real must have three characteristics: from where it comes, where it stays and where it will go. For example, a Buddha statue comes from a statue manufactory; it exists and remains at the present time as it can be seen and touched; it will end up in another place in the future. A person comes here from another place, stays for two or three days and then goes somewhere else. We think this person really exists because he or she fulfills the three conditions of coming, staying and going.
Dreams may seem real but are not because all phenomena in dreams come from nowhere; they are mere illusions appearing after one falls asleep, instead of coming to one’s dream from somewhere; phenomena in dreams do not exist during the course of dreaming; and everything in dreams vanishes when waking up, but they have not gone to other places. For example, when dreaming of an elephant, this elephant didn’t come into the bedroom from anywhere; as all the doors and windows are closed, it’s not possible to get in. Neither can the elephant stay in the bedroom during the dream, nor run out of the room after one wakes up from the dream. But the elephant does exist in the dream, only it’s an illusion.
Actually, our real life and dreams are the same in that they come from nowhere and go nowhere, hence the present doesn’t exist either. We may think that phenomena are real, not illusive like a dream, because phenomena that defy logic do not appear in the present whereas the most unlikely things take place in dreams, such as the dead coming to life again or one flying on one’s own, etc. These phenomena are impossible only when considered from the point of view of real life. From the standpoint of dreams, all these are possible. In real life, this person is dead. But in my dream, this person is not dead as I can really see him or her clearly. Is being dead real or not being dead real? As everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, it’s hard to say for sure.
To give another example, a magician can produce for us many visual illusions, such as making an airplane or a building appear out of nowhere in a matter of a few minutes and disappear right away. Now, we will surely deny the existence of this plane or building because they come from nowhere and go nowhere; only our eyes see that they arise from nothing, so they must be unreal. We have been fooled by the illusions.
We can also deduce from formal logic the same conclusion. For example, we all agree that a wheel-like image made by the fast rotation of a fire is an illusion because it is a false impression produced by high speed movement. Major premise – All the false impressions produced by high speed movement are illusions that do not exist. Minor premise – Buddha statue is a false impression created by countless particles moving at very high speed. Hence, the conclusion must be that Buddha statue is also an illusion that doesn’t exist.
To use major and minor premises here for a simple explanation is not ideal but acceptable under the circumstances, although there are still many holes in its reasoning. If possible, you really should try to learn Buddhist logic, especially young people, as it is highly precise in its approach and analysis. In my opinion, Buddhist logic has gone beyond the realms of Western philosophy and logic. Because Western logic only deals with the perspective of the senses, it is unable to refute the conclusions derived from the senses. If the conclusions of the senses cannot be overturned, our path of seeking the Dharma will just stay at the level of praying to the Buddha for health and long life.
The illusionist David Copperfield performed the walk through the Great Wall of China, but he didn’t actually walk through. In ancient India, there were many magicians even more powerful who could turn a pebble into an elephant simply by reciting a mantra, and an elephant into a pebble instantly with another mantra recitation. The elephant produced by magic could also walk and eat like a real elephant. So, even if it is something we can see, it is still an illusion. Apparently, that which our eyes can see is not necessarily true.
Our consciousness is often fooled by the sense organs. Consciousness is categorized as rationality while sense organs are about sensibility. In philosophy, rationality is considered superior to sensibility, but Buddhist logic deems just the opposite. For example, when seeing an object, our visual faculty can directly sense its shape and color without any barrier in between; whereas rationality, lacking the ability to distinguish, must be informed by the senses. Rationality can never see an object, only the visual faculty can. Therefore, it is said in Buddhist logic that sensibility is more direct than rationality, but it cannot think; rationality on the other hand is capable of thinking. From this point of view, rationality is superior to sensibility.
The Buddhist ideas of dependent arising and emptiness being the nature of all phenomena are inseparable—dependent arising is emptiness and emptiness is dependent arising. The Heart Sutra says, “Form is not separate from emptiness; emptiness is not separate from form.” Dependent arising is emptiness, so that “form is not separate from emptiness.” Emptiness is dependent arising, so that “emptiness is not separate from form.” By contemplating this way, we will realize everything in real life is just illusion. If our observation of everything around us were to be made with the divine eye, many people would have a nervous breakdown and not be able to live a normal life. Consequently, for the time being, foolish people like us cannot but continue to stay in this illusory world. By rejecting the truth of the wheel of rotating dots of fire and accepting the existence of pebbles, buildings, etc. as being real, we keep the accuracy of the sense organs at an appropriate level, not too high and not too low, so as not to disrupt our sense of normalcy.
Who designed and made all these? Some believe they are God’s creation. According to Darwin’s argument for the theory of evolution, it is to adapt to the environment they are in that everything evolves slowly to its current state. The Buddhist view maintains that all things are created by the power of desire or karmic force.
iv. Other evidence
With regard to establishing the validity of all phenomena being illusions, superstring theory has already given a pretty good answer. The wheel of rotating dots of fire is also a good example given in Buddhism. In a somewhat dark place, a wheel of fire can be seen when a burning incense stick is rotated at high speed. This is called the wheel of rotating fire. Actually, there is no wheel of fire of any sort except a speck of fire from the burning incense. It is an illusion created by visual error. If one hundred people all hold a burning incense stick in their hands and make a very fast circular movement with it, a person at fifty meters away can see a huge fire ball. When one hundred people stop moving their arms, the fire ball disappears instantly as well.
Similarly, our body is also an illusion. If inference can be made based on scientific results, you will discover a shocking truth: If the electrons contained in the molecules of every cell of the human body stop moving, drop to the nucleus and stay still, such that there is no more space between the electrons and the nucleus, the body at this point may only be as big as a sesame seed or even smaller. Given the same scenario, a twenty-story building may become as small as a matchbox or smaller.
There are many philosophical theories in the world such as materialism, idealism and so forth, but Buddhism has never participated in their debates, because all phenomena are neither physical matter nor mental consciousness but only illusions. I have also said before that if we must pick a Western philosophical term to describe Buddhism, the most suitable should be “illusion-only.” Buddhism is not idealism or materialism; it is illusionism.
Regarding the worldview at the macro level, all the schools of Buddhism hold the same view. Whereas at the micro-level, certain schools of both Mahayana and Theravada traditions do not recognize the idea of “illusion-only,” a view acknowledged only by the Madhyamaka and other higher schools in exoteric Buddhism and the Vajrayana tradition.
It is said by the Buddha in Commentary on Valid Cognition (Pramāṇavārttika) that all physical phenomena are constantly ceasing and arising moment by moment. It is only because the ceasing and arising take place incredibly fast that we are not able to detect it.
The theory of Madhyamaka breaks all matter down to nothing so that all is emptiness. All phenomena, born from nothing, come from our mind. Through mind’s operation, a huge world is formed. Once you indulge yourself in this world and become addicted to the worldly pursuits, it will be very difficult to break away, just like being unable to escape from fear and sorrow felt in dreams while still dreaming.
Once you experience and comprehend deeply the illusory, empty nature of all phenomena, you must increase the strength of your realization of emptiness through practice. The more powerful this realization is, the sooner defilement and ignorance will begin to diminish until they are completely destroyed in the end.
We cannot just simply reason with ourselves that all is illusory; there are no karma, no Buddha and no sentient beings, so we don’t need to learn the Dharma either. Although the truth may be thus, our realization has not reached a level to warrant such reaction; just like everyone knows that dreams are unreal and no one likes having nightmares, but there is nothing one can do when the nightmare does come. Therefore, before attaining ultimate realization, we still must respect infallible karma and avoid suffering, notwithstanding their being illusory in reality. One cannot hope to resolve everything by simply telling oneself to let go, to not have attachment. The boat can only be abandoned after crossing the river. In order to cross to the other side of the river of samsara, one cannot give up the ship of practice just yet.
IV. The practice to gain realization of emptiness
We should adopt the posture according to the Seven Points of Vairocana and breathe out the impurity within the body. Then pray to Buddha Sakyamuni and generate bodhicitta. Afterwards, sit quietly and begin to contemplate along the lines of what have been discussed above. When the sense of the world being illusory and void is strong and clear, abide in this feeling. Not to have any other thoughts, not to think of any other things, just remain calm and stay in this feeling. This is what meditation means. And to the beginners, this is the way to practice emptiness. With this, the sense of emptiness is gained through contemplation rather than practices of Tsa lung or Great Perfection.
At the beginning, the sense of emptiness can only last a minute or two. Soon after, discursive thoughts will arise again. When they do, it is best to detect them right away and then go back to contemplation again. Initially, one should alternate between contemplation and calm-abiding. The more times contemplation is exercised the better while the time spent on calm-abiding should not be long. If it is too long, the sense of emptiness will disappear and be replaced by various rambling thoughts. After practice has reached a more solid stage, time for calm-abiding can be prolonged gradually and that of contemplation shortened. Thus the power of practice will grow over time with less and less negative emotions rearing their heads.
Although the observation made so far is on physical phenomena, the same can be applied to mental phenomena as well. If consciousness really exists, it should also have the distinctive features of existence—that it arises, abides and ceases. But after examination, it is found that consciousness comes from nowhere, abides nowhere and goes nowhere. Having contemplated this, sit quietly and meditate. The best way to observe consciousness is not by logical reasoning but to practice Guru Yoga. At the end of this practice, visualize the guru dissolving into light and merging with oneself. At this point, mind stays still, thoughtless, just observing itself. Prior to undertaking this practice, however, we must reject our attachment to consciousness by way of contemplation. We will be able to understand, but not realize, emptiness this way. To really attain realization of emptiness, it is necessary to meditate and undertake the specific practice of emptiness.
I hope that all of you can do your best to practice. No matter what kind of difficulty you may encounter in the future, it is important not to wallow in self-pity but use these methods here to overcome negative situations.
V. Meditation on emptiness, the most meritorious of all
It is said in the scriptures that receiving teachings on emptiness commands great merit. To expound the view of emptiness or, better, to meditate on emptiness even for a minute, a moment, or an instant, myriad evil karma can be purified and the merit thus accumulated far exceeds that of offering all the treasures of a billion-fold universe (trichilocosm) to the buddhas of the three times in the ten directions.
Buddha Sakyamuni turned the wheel of Dharma three times in his whole life. The first turning was to propagate the scriptures of Theravada tradition, mainly the Four Noble Truths – the nature of suffering, the origin of suffering, the path leading to the cessation of suffering and cessation of suffering. The second turning primarily expounded the doctrine of emptiness or prajñāpāramitā. The third turning focused on the teaching of Tathāgatagarbha or Buddha-nature.
The major texts of the second turning are Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra, Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra: 25,000 lines, Aṣṭadaśasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra: 18,000 lines, among others. The Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra, on the other hand, are the abridged versions of the essence of all the Prajñāpāramitā texts. While the four lines in the Heart Sutra “form is emptiness, emptiness is form; form is not separate from emptiness, emptiness is not separate from form” encompass all that prajñāpāramitā is about. Many people read or can even recite from memory the Heart Sutra, but very few understand its meaning, if only theoretically. Even fewer people have insight into what the sutra says, let alone any realization.
To those seeking liberation, realization of emptiness is crucial. Even sravakas and pratyekabuddhas who seek only personal liberation must also attain realization of emptiness. Absent this realization, attaining Buddhahood would be completely out of the question.
The ultimate goal of Mahayana is to deliver all sentient beings from samsara. In the process of doing this, there will surely be many internal and external obstacles and negative conditions along the way. But all the difficulties and obstacles can be easily resolved when realization of emptiness is attained.
While arhats suffer no mental pain, they are still prone to physical suffering. That’s why arhats can get sick and can also die from illness. There are many stories about Buddha’s disciples who had attained arhathood but still died of starvation or from bites of venomous snakes. Because the extent of arhats’ realization of emptiness is rather limited, they don’t have sufficient courage and ability to help other beings to liberation.
After achieving the first bhūmi of the bodhisattvas, even physical suffering no longer exists. As a result, no obstacles or pressure can become hindrances to the bodhisattvas’ determination to deliver sentient beings from all suffering. In addition, during the process of delivering sentient beings, one must be completely selfless. In order to do that, attaining realization of emptiness is absolutely necessary. Otherwise, there will always be some remaining selfishness which would somehow limit the aspiration to offer one’s service unconditionally. A bodhisattva who has abandoned all selfishness can thoroughly benefit sentient beings without any concern for personal needs; it is unselfish, unconditional giving in its purest form.
Buddhism has abundant wisdom; it is a faith rooted in wisdom, not a superstition. Only some followers may be a little superstitious. If Dharma practice does not entail hearing, contemplation and meditation of the teachings but only blindly worshiping ghosts, spirits, or some fairies, it is superstition all right.
Many Buddhists like to do nothing but attend all sorts of ritual activities like empowerment, fire offering and what not. Buddhism would in time be no more than a formality if this persisted. Buddhists should focus on learning and practicing Buddhadharma. Doing otherwise would not be learning Buddhism in its true sense. In the end, Buddhism will become totally commercialized, worldly-oriented and ritualistic while its essence of wisdom and compassion will gradually be diluted until it disappears altogether. The Buddha also said that these types of development which cause the deterioration of Buddhism will appear in the Age of Dharma Decline.
We must do all we can to prevent this deterioration from happening. It is imperative that we exert effort on hearing, contemplating and meditating on the teachings. When we have gained certain appreciation or awareness, we should give others some ideas of what we have learned through either casual conversation or more formal discussion, letting others know what learning the Buddha’s way truly is.
Compassion and wisdom are the two most important pillars of Mahayana Buddhism. They are all that we need to learn. Any other forms of learning may not necessarily represent the core value of Buddhadharma.
All superstitions are ignorance, which can be overthrown by undertaking to hear, contemplate and meditate on the Dharma. Afterwards, proceed to learn the theories of Yogācāra and Madhyamaka to eradicate attachment to this world. Finally, practice sitting meditation to attain realization of emptiness and ultimate liberation.
To describe how milk tastes in words is never as good or accurate as actually drinking the milk. Likewise, wisdom obtained from hearing and contemplating the Dharma is just a kind of understanding or knowledge, not indicative of having reached any state. Only through meditation practice to attain realization can one actually experience emptiness. From that point on, one will never again take this world for real.
This insight into the nature of reality was not created by the Buddha; rather it was discovered, applied and propagated by the Buddha. Once the Buddha discovered the reality of the micro universe, he applied that to the practice, which has since been the way to discard attachment and obtain liberation. However, when scientists discovered the reality of electrons, nucleus, etc. in the micro universe, they used that knowledge to make nuclear weapons. It is like the same piece of gold seen by different people would be valued differently—a merchant would calculate the price and profit, a doctor may consider its potential value in medicine, etc.
If we are satisfied with our present condition and do not want to change our ways, there is no need to learn all these ideas. If we are not satisfied, don’t want to be fooled by our sense organs anymore and stay deluded, then set out to learn, to think, to be trained, to attain and strengthen realization of emptiness until it is powerful enough to completely destroy attachment, eliminate all negative emotions and lead us to ultimate freedom.
Liberation is not a fairy tale nor is it mysterious. Through proper training, the mind of ordinary people like us, bounded by attachment and ignorance, can absolutely be transformed into the pure state of Buddha nature. This is liberation.
By way of logical reasoning, whatever known based on the sense organs shall be rejected and a new perspective on the world established. This is called the worldview of Madhyamaka. Sensibility and rationality used to be a perfect match, but from this point on, they will go their separate ways. Whatever the sense organs recognize will remain as before. The rational mind having a new perspective shall take the path of liberation.