CHAPTER 7: TRANSCENDENTAL AND PHENOMENAL REALITY

But why do we see you and I, mountains, elephants and everything else as separate entities, and differentiate time as past, present and future? This is because of illusion, which is the phenomenal aspect of the Universal Mind.


3.1 Three Dimensions in Teaching

Original Text in Chinese

    已說立義分,次說解釋分。解釋有三種。云何爲三?一者顯示正義,二者對治邪執,三者分別發趣道相。


Literal Translation

    After establishing the meaning, next explain the teaching. There are three. What three? One, reveal the true teaching; two, overcome deviated teaching; three, illustrate characteristics of enlightenment.


Interpretation

After establishing the meaning of the teaching to be presented in this treatise, the teaching is now explained in detail. There are three dimensions in the teaching: revealing the principles and practice of the true teaching; overcoming mistakes and weaknesses devotees may get from deviated teaching; and illustrating the characteristics devotees will notice if they are on the correct path to enlightenment.


Commentary

This treatise was written many centuries after the passing on of Siddhartha Guatama Sakyamuni. During this time, some of the Buddha's teaching had been distorted, and deviated teachings had infiltrated into Buddhism. This problem was aggravated by the fact that the Buddha taught by oral transmission, and his teaching was only put down in words a few centuries later. His teaching was recorded in sutras or scriptures, which were recited and devotees learned by listening, not reading. The spiritually advanced could be enlightened easily, some instantly, but those who are not as advanced might face difficulty. Hence sasteras, or treatises, were written to help them.


3.2 Absolute and Phenomenal

Original Text in Chinese

    顯示正義者,依一心法有二種門。云何爲二?一者心眞如門,二者心生滅門。是二種門皆各總攝一切法。此義云何?以是二門不相離故。


Literal Translation

    In the true teaching, one Heart has two gates. What two? One, the Heart's Zhen Ru Gate; two, the Heart's Life-death Gate. Both gates embrace all existence. What is the significance? The two gates are not separated.


Interpretation

According to the true teaching of Buddhism, there are two aspects of one Mind, i.e. the Universal Mind. One aspect is the Zhen Ru or absolute aspect of the Universal Mind; the other aspect is its phenomenal aspect. Both the absolute and the phenomenal aspects embrace all states of existence, everything there is in the infinite cosmos. Why is this so? This is because the absolute aspect and the phenomenal aspect are not exclusively different; they are two aspects of the same reality.


Commentary

"One" in "One Mind" is not a numeral term, such as one, two and three; it connotes "the only one", the absolute. The infinite universe is one mind, the Universal Mind, i.e. an organic unity of consciousness. Isn't it awe-inspiring to reflect that this concept was known to Buddhist and ancient masters of other religions more than 20 centuries before great modern scientists like Sir James Jeans said that the universe is more of a gigantic thought than a gigantic machine, and Sir Arthur Eddington that the stuff of the world is mind-stuff?

The ancient masters were even more profound. This treatise, for example, not only explains why the Universal Mind is seen by us as the phenomenal world, but also provides practical ways how we can directly experience this cosmic reality ourselves.


3.3 Transcendental Aspect

Original Text in Chinese

    心眞如者,即是一法界大總相法門體。所謂心性不生不滅。


Literal Translation

    The Heart's Zhen Ru Gate is the body of the universal undifferentiated characteristic of all dharmas of dharmadhatu, so its nature is birthless and deathless.


Interpretation

The absolute aspect of the Supreme Reality is the body of the universal characteristic of all sub-atomic particles and forces which are undifferentiated. Hence, the nature of the absolute aspect is transcendental, without beginning and end, and without past and future. It simply IS.


Commentary

The Chinese term "fa" is a translation of the Sanskrit "dharma"; and "fa jie" of "dharmadhatu". In the past, when Western science had not penetrated into the sub-atomic level, "dharma" was usually translated into English as "elements", which is still conventionally used. But when dharma is used in the phenomenal aspect, it is often translated as "phenomena".

In the context of this passage, where the absolute aspect and not the phenomenal aspect is in question, "phenomena" would not be appropriate. "Elements" would be mis-leading, as Buddhist users clearly mean it to be sub-atomic. Moreover, dharma here is both particles and energy; it is possibly what Sir Arthur Eddington meant by the mind-stuff of the universe. In the Interpretation above, and elsewhere wherever appropriate, "dharma" means "sub-atomic particles and forces".

One should also remember that "Dharma", especially with a capital D, can mean the teaching of the Buddha. For example, a Buddhist takes refuge (meaning giving up his worldly life to embark on spiritual development) in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha (the monastic order). In some countries, such as Sri Lanka, Buddha's teaching is not called "Buddhism", nor regarded as a religion in the narrow sense; it is referred to as the Dharma. "Dharmadhatu", or "fa jie" in Chinese, means the realm of dharma. In modern scientific terms, "dharmadhatu" is the undifferentiated energy field, though it is usually translated as "world of reality".


3.4 The Phenomenal Dharma

Original Text in Chinese

    一切諸法惟依妄念而有差別。若離心念,則無一切境界之相。


Literal Translation

    All dharmas depend on illusion for differentiation. Apart from illusion there are no differentiated characteristics.


Interpretation

Because of illusion, we see all phenomena in the universe as myriad separate entities with countless differentiated characteristics. If we can overcome our illusion, we will experience cosmic reality as undifferentiated.


Commentary

The Supreme Reality is actually undifferentiated; in other words, from the transcendental aspect of the Universal Mind, there are no separate units like you and I, mountains, elephants or anything, nor past, present, future or any period. Space and time do not exist. But why do we see you and I, mountains, elephants and everything else as separate entities, and differentiate time as past, present and future? This is because of illusion ("maya" in Sanskrit, and "wang nian" in Chinese), which is the phenomenal aspect of the Universal Mind. If we can overcome our illusion, we will experience reality as it is, undifferentiated, timeless and transcendental. Such an experience is spiritual realization.

This concept of our phenomenal world as an illusion is not confined to Buddhist thought alone. Vedanta wisdom, for example, has unquestionably taught since ancient time that our phenomenal world is an illusory projection or a play of Brahman. Now in the twentieth century, modern science is beginning to say the same thing. Physicist Alastair Rae reports:

Quantum theory tells us that nothing can be measured or observed without disturbing it, so that the role of the observer is crucial in understanding any physical process. So crucial in fact that some people have been led to believe that it is the observer's mind that is the only reality ‑- that everything else including the whole physical universe is illusion.

Michael Talbot echoes the same view and suggests that the illusory world is a sort of information perceived by observers:

In other words, the thing that makes Elmer and Elsie behave as different and unique personalities does not exist as a `substance' or an `energy.' It exists only in the realm of pure information.

The first time I came across this concept was many years ago in Form Six when I read about ancient Greek philosophers like Xenophanes and Parmenides proposing that what we see with our own eyes is not real but an illusion. I remember clearly that I thought what a foolish and laughable proposal it was! Of course it was due to my ignorance and arrogance that I missed the truth. Now the latest discoveries (rediscoveries?) of modern science have confirmed that what we used to regard as the material, objective world is never material nor objective; and the deception is due not only to our gross sensory perception but also to our thought and emotion.

Modern science has shown that at the sub-atomic level, what we regard as our skin is not a boundary that separates us from everything outside our body. There is no demarcation line at all; what we naively believe to be our outermost limit is nothing but a vague linear concentration of sub-atomic particles which are constantly exchanging energy with the boundless surrounding. There is simply no such thing as a boundary separating us from anything else. That is why great religious teachers and philosophers exclaim in their ecstatic moments that the world is in them and they are in the world.

Moreover, what we normally regard as time has no meaning at the sub-atomic level. The great scientist, Louis de Broglie, says:

In space-time, which for each of us constitutes the past, the present, and the future is given en bloc. ... Each observer, as his time passes, discovers, so to speak, new slices of space-time which appear to him as successive aspects of the material world, though in reality the ensemble of events constituting space-time exist prior to his knowledge of them.


3.5 Beyond Conceptualization

Original Text in Chinese

    是故一切法從本已來,離言說相,離名字相,離心緣相,畢竟平等,無有變異,不可破壞,惟是一心,故名眞如。


Literal Translation

    All dharmas are originally beyond verbalization, beyond description and beyond conceptualization; undifferentiated, unchanging, indestructible. They are of One Mind; hence, called Zhen Ru.


Interpretation

The ultimate reality of phenomena cannot be named, cannot be correctly described, and cannot be properly conceptualized; it is undifferentiated, unchanging and indestructible. All the phenomena are of One Mind; hence it is called the Supreme Reality.


Commentary

This concept is similar to the fundamental doctrine of Taoism, taught by Lao Tzu as:

The Tao that can be named, is not the real Tao. The name that can be so named, is not the real name.

The ultimate reality cannot be named, because no matter what names we give to it, these names cannot tell us what the ultimate reality is. It cannot be described, because no matter how we describe it, the readers or listeners still do not know what it is. It cannot be conceptualized, because no matter what concepts we form, these concepts do not give the true picture of the ultimate reality. Why is this so?

It is because unless we have direct experience of the ultimate reality, we cannot know what it is, even though we are given names, descriptions or ideas about it. Suppose a person has not been to heaven. An angel coming from heaven tells him that heaven is also called paradise, celestial abode, Elysian fields, Eden, Holy City or the Kingdom of God. While these names are meaningful to those who have been to heaven, they are not meaningful to him.

Or the angel may describe to him what heaven is like, such as lovely evergreen trees with delicious fruit, flowing stream of sweet, fragrant wine with gentle music in the air. What that person visualizes would be an idyllic countryside, which may be far off a typical scene in paradise. He may, from various sources, conceptualize about heaven, about what he would be doing there and so on, but because he has no real experience to depend upon, his ideas may be very different from the actual conditions found in heaven.


3.6 Words are False Names Original Text in Chinese

    以一切言說,假名無實,但隨妄念,不可得故,言眞如者亦無有相。 謂言說至極,因言遣言。


Literal Translation

    All words are false names without reality, following illusion, not to be accepted; the word for Zhen Ru has no characteristics. It is the extreme of language; because of word to stop words.


Interpretation

All words used by man are just convenient names. They are an imitation of reality, not reality itself. The choice of words is based on man's illusion, not on his experience of reality. Words are therefore not the ultimate truth. In the same way, the term "Zhen Ru" is just a convenient term, and may not adequately denote what it is supposed to denote, i.e. Suchness.

Nevertheless, this term "Zhen Ru" represents the extreme use of language. There may be other words to denote Suchness; but the use of "Zhen Ru" puts a stop to a continual (and unnecessary) choice of other words.


Commentary

Here is another passage that would present much difficult if there is no commentary; the original text in Chinese is so concise and technical that many readers would be lost if they read only the literal translation.

The words in any language are just convenient symbols expressing an imitation of reality, not reality itself. This is because the choice of words to express an object or an idea is based on man's illusion of the object or idea, and not on the ultimate reality. For example, we choose the word "table" to express the object table, which is based on our illusion of it having a solid flat surface supported by four legs. This picture or concept of the table is man's illusion; another sentient being, like a bacterium or an astral being, both of whom would perceive a different spectrum of electromagnetic waves as visible light, would see the "same" table differently.

Words, therefore, do not tell the ultimate truth. What we think the ultimate truth is, will also depend on some variables, one of which is our range of visual perception. Similarly, "Zhen Ju" is a convenient term used to denote the Supreme Reality or Suchness. But how adequately it denotes Suchness, or what pictures or concepts this term conjures in our mind, depends on various factors which include, besides visual perception, the developmental stages of our intellectual understanding and intuitive wisdom.

Nevertheless, as the Supreme Reality is the ultimate truth, the term that denotes it represents the extreme use of language ‑- extreme in the sense that it stretches our knowledge and wisdom to the furthest possible reach, as well as the sense that its interpretation has the greatest possible range. For example, to a person of a certain spiritual developmental stage, "Zhen Ru" or Supreme Reality may mean an astral kingdom beyond the sky; to another, a fatherly, Godlike figure watching over us. But to a spiritually advanced person who has direct experience of cosmic reality, "Zhen Ru" means what it is meant to mean ‑- Suchness.

Other names can be, and actually have been, used in place of "Zhen Ru". We may call it Tao, Brahman, divine kingdom, Universal Consciousness, unified energy field or God; but using "Zhen Ru" places a stop to this continual, and often unnecessary, search for names, not because "Zhen Ru" is necessarily a better term, but because it demonstrates that whatever name we may use, it is meaningless, or at best an imitation, unless we have direct experience of its reality.


3.7 Supreme Reality Original Text in Chinese

    此眞如體無有可遣,以一切法悉皆眞故。亦無可立,以一法切皆同如故。 當知一切法不可說不可念,故名爲眞如。


Literal Translation

    The body of Zhen Ru cannot be denied, dharmadhatu is real, there is no other standing-room, every dharma is found in dharmadhatu. When we know that all dharma cannot be said, cannot be thought, we call it Zhen Ru.


Interpretation

The ultimate truth of the Supreme Reality cannot be denied. Cosmic reality is real; it is not an illusion or something imagined. Transcendental reality and phenomenal world are the same; nothing exists outside transcendental reality, and nothing exists outside phenomenal world. Every phenomenon we see or experience is found inside cosmic reality.

When we realize that the ultimate nature of all phenomena cannot be described and cannot be conceptualized, we call this ultimate nature the Supreme Reality.


Commentary

To say that the phenomenal world is an illusion does not mean that it has no existence. The phenomenal world and the transcendental reality are actually the same: there is no line of demarcation to show where the phenomenal world ends and the transcendental reality begins, or vice versa. The phenomenal world does not stand apart from the transcendental reality; neither does the transcendental reality stand apart from the phenomenal world. The phenomenal and the transcendental are not two worlds; they are the same world. Whether we exist in the phenomenal or the transcendental is a matter of perception and spiritual development.

In his ordinary moments, a person sees the transcendental reality as the phenomenal world; when he is enlightened, he sees the phenomenal world as the transcendental reality. The phenomenal world is real to ordinary people at their ordinary level of consciousness. To them, a table is solid and immovable. Suppose they have sub-atomic vision. Then what appeared as a solid, immovable table earlier on, is now a collection of electrons constantly whirling round protons and neutrons with a lot of "empty space" in between. When they have the vision of spiritual realization, they not only see reality in terms of sub-atomic particles and energy fields, but directly experience the whole cosmos.


3.8 Spiritual Realization

Original Text in Chinese

    問曰:若如是義者,諸眾生等,云何隨順而能得入?
    答曰:若知一切法雖說無有能說可說,雖念亦無能念可念,是名隨順。若離於念,名爲得入。


Literal Translation

    Question: If this is the meaning, what is the expedient mean for sentient beings to enter?
    Answer: If we know that the ultimate truth of all phenomena cannot be described, cannot be conceptualized, we have the expedient mean. If we distance ourselves from conceptualization, we have entered.


Interpretation

Question: If this transcendental and phenomenal aspects of Supreme Reality constitute the fundamental meaning of the Mahayana teaching, what is the expedient mean to help sentient beings to understand the teaching so as to attain enlightenment?

Answer: If we realize that whatever description and conceptualization of the phenomenal world cannot adequately explain cosmic reality, we have the expedient mean. If we discard description and conceptualization, and focus on a direct experience of cosmic reality, we have entered the way towards spiritual realization.


Commentary

Expedient means are specific ways to help aspirants solve their particular problems. The particular problem here is to understand the basic doctrine of the Mahayana teaching concerning cosmic reality. The specific way to overcome this problem is first to realize that description and conceptualization alone are inadequate. Once we have realized that spiritual development is not just a matter of intellectual pursue, but requires much time and effort in training to attain a direct experience of cosmic reality, we are on the right path to spiritual realization. How to travel along the path will be described later.

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