FROM "NO SELF" TO LIBERATION

THE PARADOXICAL WISDOM OF EMPTINESS

Edited from a lecture given by Venerable JianHu

in the "Buddhism In The Modern World" Lecture Series

at Stanford University, November 22, 2004


Page 5

5. Questions and Answers

I've already overused my time, any questions?

Question: So what is the intrinsic, unchangeable thing that you can bring through death?

It is this "knowing." But many people are confused about it. We take our thoughts, our conscious judgments, our reactions, our emotions, our feelings, to be ourselves. I like this, I hate that. People take these thoughts, feelings to be the self, but they are always changing. That's why you feel this void. But amidst everything, happy times and sad times, this "knowing" is always there. So in meditation, you let go of all these thoughts and all these concepts about yourself. When you let go of all these ideas about yourself, your mind becomes clear like still water. The mind is like a pool of water. We constantly stir it with our greed, desires, and concepts. Stop! When the water is still and clear, you see everything as it is. It just is. In spiritual cultivation you don't build anything, you don't achieve anything, you just recover what is already there. And when you get there, that is also ultimate bliss; it is ultimate peace, ultimate joy.

It's kind of hard to imagine why that inner peace is joyful unless you practice meditation. If you practice meditation, you'll find that the calmer and more mindful you are, the more serene you are, the more joyful you are. It's not joy that comes from sensory stimulation; it's a quiet, serene, satisfying kind of joy. And it can go deeper and deeper. And you can actually achieve that by living your daily life and doing everything you do. That's what the Chan (Zen) practice is about—to be able to achieve that serenity and inner peace in everything you do. Whether you're talking, walking, eating, taking a shower, or getting a speeding ticket—you can be joyful. "Thank you, Officer. I'm glad to be able to contribute to the police force." Why not? Right?

Question: I have a question about your discussion on individuality. I think one thing that clearly defines the limits of each and everyone's border is pain. Any comments on that?

The border of pain—is it so real? You feel pain in this body because of your attachment to this body. When you achieve a certain deep enough samadhi, or concentration of mind, single-mindedness, when you are not as attached to your body, then the pain does not affect you. It's actually possible to be able to achieve that state. So pain is an illusion. I'll give you a more mundane example. Suppose you kick the table and hurt your foot. "Ouch! That hurts!" And then your best friend calls and you get into a conversation on the phone, talking very happily, and you forget all about the pain. Why? Because your mind is not on the pain. Even ordinary people can do that. Pain, actually, is an illusion. Also, if you're meditating, you cross your legs, and at first it's very painful. But, if you go beyond a certain pain barrier, the pain will go away. Even if it doesn't go away, it's there, but it doesn't affect you. It's hard to explain; those of you who have experienced it know that. The pain can be there, yet it doesn't affect you. And your fingernails and hair and bones. You don't feel pain in them, but they are considered part of "you." On the other hand, you can feel pain when your new car is scratched, even though the car is not part of your body, because you are attached to the car.

Q: If you understand the concept of emptiness, couldn't you still define the self as "free agency?"

What do you mean by "free agency"?

Your own choices, and…

Yes, in fact, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Guan Yin, also known as Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, is said to have 32 manifestations. (A bodhisattva is a Buddha to be, someone who is practicing the Buddhist way, who wants to be a Buddha, who is very compassionate, very enlightened.) Beyond a certain stage in your practice, you can actually be in control of your form and appearance. That means that you can take on any physical form that you like. That means a bodhisattva can be anybody. The person sitting next to you could be a bodhisattva—you never know. Hard to believe? Let's look at it this way. Why are we not in control of our lives? Why are we not in control of death? It's actually possible. There've been many cases of Buddhist masters, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian, who were able to leave this body, and take on rebirth or another incarnation at will. It's not suicide. They are free from death. Why? Because they have this kind of control. Look at what happens when you see chocolate, or a beautiful dress. You lose control. We are not mindful. We give our minds up to our desires. We let our desires grab us. That's why you are not in control of your own fate. You can be if you understand causality; the cause of all karma is your mind. Every moment, if you are mindful, you know what you are doing, you do what's the right cause, then your fate is in your own hands. That's part of the practice of transcending death. You can actually transcend birth and death.

Question: Can Buddhahood be obtained in one lifetime?

Well, there will be one lifetime when we achieve Buddhahood. It can take many, many lifetimes. Enlightenment can be achieved in one lifetime. Enlightenment is not Buddhahood. Enlightenment means that you have suddenly understood and experienced emptiness, or "no self". Another way to say that is to say you have understood the true nature of the self. But that doesn't mean that the habits that you accumulated, your thought patterns or habitual reactions, and your desires, are completely gone. You have just understood that the desire and the anger are totally based on delusion, the delusion of the ego-personality. So it will continue to take time to practice to become a Buddha. But if you don't start in this life, you'll never get to that life.


Question: Buddha never actually said "no self," but "not self" instead.

You can say "no self", you can say "not self", you can say "selflessness", maybe selflessness is easier to grasp.

Question: It seems like an important distinction when you talk about the Buddhist practice. In Buddha's time, people were really discussing philosophy. 'Am I self, am I not self?' [Buddha says] I don't care, I just want people to get out of suffering. so, you look at characteristics and it looks like there's no self there. It seems like there is a difference.

The important thing is that everything, every characteristic you can say about yourself can be changed, and that's why there's "no self." And that leads to liberation, being free of the concept of "self." (Our time is up.) Well, you know an hour is not enough for emptiness; Buddha spoke 100,000 lines on emptiness—The prajnaparamita sutra. Thank you.


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