216. The Buddha’s true dharma body

“The Buddha’s true dharma body is just like space.
Manifesting its form according to circumstances,
It is like the moon in water.”

Mahaparinirvana Sutra

This passage from the Nirvana Sutra talks about the relation between the particular and the universal, the concrete and the spiritual. And, by necessary implication, how we should practice.

“The Buddha’s true body is just like space”: space is boundless. It extends everywhere. It is not the air. It is not like water. When objects appear, when people appear, they don’t displace space; because there is nowhere that space doesn’t reach, there is nowhere extra for it to go to.

So the person, from this perspective, is both person and space. John, Michael, Anne, Rachel, Buddha.

We do not require to exclude the personal, the particular, the phenomenal to attain the universal, that is delusion. The particular is the universal. And vice versa.

“It is like the moon in water” : the moon is a common metaphor for enlightenment, Buddha. And water is a common metaphor for the mind.

Moonlight and water completely interpenetrate each other. It is not that there is a moon, standing somewhere apart, casting its secondhand light upon the water. No. The moon is in the water.

That being so, do not hate or love the thoughts, emotions, sensations and reactivity which arise from moment to moment. They are not clouds obscuring the sky, they are the sky.

Because just this is everything.


188. The Middle Way

[continuing previous kusen]

Dream, illusion and shadow all occupy a curious position. You can’t say they exist, but you can’t say they don’t exist either, as they can be experienced. And because everything can be experienced, we don’t slice up that experience into true and false, right and wrong.

At its inception, Buddhism occupied a middle position in Indian thought. It wasn’t eternalist. It wasn’t nihilist. But it’s not called The Middle Position, it’s called The Middle Way, because it isn’t fixed, like a position, it’s dynamic, like a person.

And this dynamic quality led from the prajnaparamita sutras, of which the Diamond and Heart Sutras form part, into the full flowering of Chinese buddhism: The Lotus Sutra, The Flower Garland Sutra, where the world of experience, rather than being taken as a given which requires to be navigated, is completely liberated into its own creative potential, through devotional, expressive, feeling language. As it were, the endlessly reconfiguring world bursts out of the heart.


187. An illusion

At the end of The Diamond Sutra, six metaphors are used to describe this life:

a dream, an illusion, a shadow, a bubble (in a stream), a dewdrop, a flash of lightning.

What are we to make of these? Are they six aspects of something which can’t be named, or are they each different, or all the same?

They don’t seem the same. The last three seem to be real, but instantaneous, and the first three seem to occupy a strange position: experienced, certainly, but not clearly real, neither existing or non existing.

Could we say they are six instances of ungraspability?


184. The Lankavatara sutra

The Lankavatara Sutra says our existence is like a dream. It reprises the end of the Diamond Sutra, where our existence is likened to a dream, a bubble, a flash of lightning, a dawn star, a phantom.

Dream is the most pervasive trope in Buddhism, and for good reason.

It is hard to see the Buddha’s enlightenment story as anything other than a kind of awakening dream.

When we dream, awake or asleep, and when we then leave the dream, it is not that we are awakened to truth. But rather, that we are awakened to delusion.

And in the morning when we wake from a dream, there is a moment when perhaps we don’t know where we are, or who we are, or what we are. And then, almost instantaneously, we enter the dream of the self, the dream of the everyday world.

Between these dream bubbles, the ocean.


163. The Diamond Sutra

At the end of The Diamond Sutra we are told that we should view all things as “a flash of lightning, a bubble, a phantom, a dream”

At first blush, we think the first two are real, but momentary, and the second two are illusory.

We need to understand that having our face pressed tight against the unyielding glass of ‘Reality’ is a root cause of suffering.

All four are real, because all experience is real. Real, but not separate. We can see the lightening and the bubble as the momentary action of the whole universe, but likewise the phantom, likewise the dream.

If we can break this glass, we can discover the glory and beauty of our lives. Not in some future moment, but this moment.


162. Buddhist language

Buddhist language is often quite abstract.

And so it is often difficult for us at first to understand the feelingness underneath.

So for example in the Surangama Sutra there is what appears to be quite an abstract discussion about perception.

We are told that false perception is like the moon in water. So in other words we imagine that each thing is a kind of concrete reality.

But every thing is just dependent on the causes and conditions of everything, from moment to moment. Were the water to be disturbed, the image of the moon would be shattered into a thousand shards of light. All things are like this.

The Sutra then talks about a second moon. It’s as if a person with cataracts looking at the moon sees another moon next to it. And by this – I think – is meant awareness of perceiving. So I see something but I am aware of the act of perception, and hence aware that my ‘seeing’ isn’t just noticing what’s there already. It’s a creative act. But I’m still going astray, somehow.

The real moon is unmediated experience itself, which is a description of our sitting.

When we sit, we are not concerned with inside or outside, identifying or classifying our experience. And when identifying and classifying arise, they are not meta phenomena, they are just aspects of experience.

We are simply experience.

It takes a little while to realise that this ocean of experience, this something rather than nothing is a miracle.

Is a miracle.


111. The Particular and the Universal

More On the Heart Sutra:

The Bodhisattva of Compassion….

Buddhists have a persistent difficulty with the Particular and the Universal. When we consider Avalokiteśvara/ dynamic full functioning/ dependent origination, we tend to make a picture of something vast, and lurch between that and our particularity now.

It was for this reason, I suspect, that Okumura said that practice was the five skandas seeing the emptiness of the five skandas.

We start with this experience, this particularity, this now, and it floods out everywhere, because it is unconstrained by the bell jar of the self.


107. The Prajñāpāramitā Sutras

The vast Prajñāpāramitā sutras are condensed into the Heart Sutra, and the essence of the Heart Sutra is in the first line, which is a description of our zazen:

“The bodhisattva of compassion, practicing Prajñāpāramitā, sees that the five skandhas are empty and thereby relieves all suffering”

The most important thing is to see that it isn’t a person practicing Prajñāpāramitā (zazen). Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, is identified with the whole world. The person is the five skandhas, and for our purposes, the skandhas of mental formation and consciousness are the ones which matter; mental formation our ceaseless tendency to do something with our raw experience, and consciousness the awareness of that. Prajñā, pre-knowing, is the state prior to mental formation.

It isn’t a sequence; when one arises, all arise.

We are storytelling creatures who want to be truth telling creatures. That is another sort of story. But we can be truth experiencers.


97. Avalokiteśvara

The Heart Sutra is the distillation of the vast Prajñāpāramitā sutras.

The version we chant divides into 2: an initial statement, then a long monologue by Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

The initial statement is:

The bodhisattva of compassion, practising Zazen actualises the emptiness of the five skandas and thus relieves all suffering.

This is a mythical rendering of our experience as we sit. The critical thing is that it isn’t a person sitting, and that emptiness is something felt, not a statement about the nature of reality Thus, we can say that emptiness, compassion, no-self and suffering relieved are all facets of Zazen.

This is a very different practice from one concerned with gain, or change.


68. The Far Shore

(With thanks to David Taylor)

At the end of the Heart Sutra, there’s a mantra:

Gya tei gya tei

Hara gya tei

Hara so gya tei

Bo ji so wa ka

This is simply a Chinese/Japanese inflection of the original Sanskrit which is

Gate gate



Bodhi svāhā

The ‘ga’ in gate, pāragate and pārasaṃgate is the same ‘ga’ as in ‘Tathāgata‘, ‘Thus-come’ or ‘Thus-gone’, by which we mean the Buddha. So, ga means both come and gone.

‘Para’ has various meanings, including ‘beyond’ and ‘the opposite shore'(of a river)

‘Sam’ means ‘with’, ‘together with’

So, the mantra is often translated as

Gone, gone

Altogether gone

To the far shore

So the suggestion is that we leave this shore, cross the river, and reach the far shore of nirvana. But, in this interpretation, the metaphor is confused, because both this shore and the river are identified with samsara.

But if we re-render ‘gone’ as ‘come’, then a different possibility emerges, of the far shore arriving. Thus, it isn’t that we cross over the water of samsara to reach the far shore of nirvana, leaving this shore behind, but rather that both shores are manifested.

And this suggests Zazen, coming at the end of the sutra, which started with an explicit exchange between Śāriputra and Avalokiteśvara about Zazen ( which significantly, is the practice of the latter, not the former). When we sit, we don’t abandon our particularity, our form, our karmic existence ( this shore), but equally, we manifest the self that is not separate from all things ( the far shore)

And both these shores make manifest the river of our true life, held by both.