CHAPTER 14: ILLUSION OF PHENOMENAL WORLD
How can a mountain with all its trees and creatures, and a table which everyone can see and feel, be illusory?
3.44 Function of the Mind
Original Text in Chinese
What does this mean? All phenomena arise from the heart, created by illusion, all differentiated, differentiated from the heart. If the heart does not see the heart, there will be no characteristics.
What does it mean by saying that all the phenomenal worlds of the three realms are a function of the mind? All phenomena arise from the mind; these phenomena are created by illusion. All things are actually an integrated organic unity, but we see them as separate and differentiated because the mind interprets them so. If the mind does not see itself as individual minds, then it actualizes its own universality and all the illusory characteristics of separate things will disappear.
Understandably, it is not easy for many people to accept this doctrine that all phenomena are illusory. When they look at a mountain, for example, they see a mountain which to all their purposes is certainly real. When they touch a table, they find it is solid and immutable. How can a mountain with all its trees and creatures, and a table which everyone can see and feel, be illusory?
Of course to us in our ordinary consciousness, and to Buddhist masters in their daily lives, a mountain, a table and all other objects are real. Buddhist philosophy never suggests that we imagine things that are not there. But it teaches that what we consider as absolute is actually an illusion, caused by our ignorance and the very inadequate ability of our senses which distort reality. A proverbial example is the four blind man, feeling an elephant's ear, leg, body and tail, honestly thought that the elephant was shaped like a fan, tree, wall or rope respectively.
We are familiar with the sight of our sky with our sun, moon and common stars. Had we different types of eyes, we might see not one but three unknown suns, and the moon became almost invisible; or all the familiar stars became not stars but clouds of extremely diluted gas. This was exactly what happened when astronomers scanned the sky with ultra-violet rays or radio waves.
This illusion occurs not only in the human plane but in all planes, and not only in the realm of desires but in all the three realms of existence. The existence of heavens and hells, as mentioned earlier, is also because of the mind, and this will be discussed in the next commentary.
It is significant to note that Buddhism does not merely explains this illusion, but, being a very practical religion, provides ways to overcome the illusion so as to attain Enlightenment. These practical ways will be explained later.
3.45 Phenomena are like Images
Original Text in Chinese
Know that all objects in the phenomenal world are due to the ignorance of sentient beings causing illusion to abide. Hence all phenomena are like images in a mirror, without any real form, due to the heart's delusion. Thus, when the heart arises, all sorts of phenomena arise; when the heart ceases, all sorts of phenomena cease.
We should know that all objects in the phenomenal world are due to the ignorance of sentient beings which causes illusion to abide. Hence all phenomena are like images in a mirror. The phenomena have no real form; they are due to the delusion of the mind. When the deluded mind arises, all sorts of phenomena arise; when the mind ceases to be deluded, all sorts of phenomena ceases to appear.
The earliest recorded expression that the three realms of existence are illusory and occur in the mind only, is found in the Dasabhumi Sutra (Shi Di Jing, or Ten Stages Scripture), one of the earliest Mahayana scriptures of the first and second centuries, which was later incorporated into the famous Avatansaka Sutra (Hua Yen Jing, or Garland Scripture).
All phenomena in all the three realms of existence, most of which are not visible to the naked human eyes, are caused by the deluded mind. For example, heavens and hells, in Buddhist philosophy, are illusory; they exist, like trees and streams exist, because the mind is deluded. This does not mean that heavens and hells are the product of imagination only; they are "real" to unenlightened beings who believe in them. In other words, for those whose religious conviction accepts the existence of heavens and hells, their souls "really" go to heavens or hells depending on their merits or wickedness. In heavens or hells they would experience the joys or pains the same way as their cultural or religious teaching suggests them to be.
Hence, the state of mind of a dying person, besides the karmic effect he has accumulated, is extremely important, as it greatly influences the kind of after-life he is to experience. If his mind is calm or thoughtful of spiritual development, it will be of great help to his experience in the after-life. Thus, all known religions conduct services for the soul that has just passed into another plane. Awakening Osiris and Hearing in the Bardo, made popular through the albeit misnamed Book of the Death of the Egyptian and of the Tibetan, are interesting examples.
But, if all phenomena, physical and astral, are the product of the mind, why is it that people share the same experiences? Why is our illusion the same? Why do you, I and every other human being see a mountain as a mountain? This is because, besides the specific ways our eyes and all parts of our body are made, our individual consciousness is an expression of the same alaya consciousness. Other beings, vibrating at a frequency different from us, or with eyes that see within a different range of electromagnetic waves, would have very different experiences of the same stuff that constitutes our phenomena.
What we experience as a mountain, would be invisible to them; they can literally walk through it without realizing its presence! In fact modern physicists, especially in their investigation into shadow matter and anti-particles, are seriously trying to find out whether such things are actually happening to us without our knowing. Richard Morris says that "one could stand on a shadow matter mountain and never realize it was there."
Astro-scientists may be interested to know that similarly what we see as nothing may be a whole range of phenomena to inhabitants on Mars or any heavenly bodies. Edward Russell interestingly suggests that whole crowds of moon inhabitants might have witnessed the landing of our astronauts on their territory without the astronauts having the slightest idea of their presence. Even on earth, what we humans consider as the earth's mantle may be as thin as our atmosphere to some forms of beings, whereas to other forms of beings our atmosphere may act as solid rock upon which their abodes are built.
The alaya consciousness also explains why people from different religious or cultural backgrounds who returned from clinical death, or spirits of deceased persons through mediums, reported different pictures of the after-life, but all the different pictures corresponded to the concepts according to their respective religions or cultures, and those of the same religion or culture gave similar descriptions. A ghost described by an Englishman, for example, is almost always in white gown; whereas a typical Chinese would describe one in classical dress.
But how does the mind create heavens and hells? How does the mind create even physical things like houses and oceans? These questions will be discussed in the next commentary. Psychologists interested in the question of the mind, irrespective of whether they are behaviourists who denied the role of the mind, interactionists who believe mental and material events interact between each other, epiphenomenalists who assert that all mental activities are generated by events in the body, or parallelists who insists on a correlation between mental and material events in the body, would probably be surprised at the depth of the Buddhist explanation on the mind-phenomena relation.
3.46 Intellect Consciousness (Mano-Vijnana)
Original Text in Chinese
Next, saying about intellect consciousness, it is the continuity of arising thoughts. According to ordinary people, their transformations become deeper and deeper, attached to self and all forms of delusion. As phenomena arise, they are differentiated as six defilements, known as intellect consciousness, also named differentiating consciousness, and also called discriminating consciousness. This consciousness is strengthened by perception and desire, thus lengthening attachment.
Next, let us discuss what intellect consciousness is. Intellect consciousness is the continuity of arising thoughts. For ordinary people, the transformations from the transcendental to the phenomenal continue, and their attachment to self and to all forms of delusion becomes intensified. As phenomena arise, they are differentiated according to the six senses into six defilements.
This ability is known as intellect consciousness (yizhi in Chinese, mano-vijnana in Sanskrit). It is also called differentiating consciousness and discriminating consciousness. As a person continues to perceive and to desire, his intellect consciousness is strengthened, thus intensifying his attachment to himself as an individual person and to phenomena as real occurrences.
Earlier, "the three fine transformations and six gross transformations" responsible for transforming the Supreme Reality to the phenomenal world have been explained (Passages 3.33 and 3.34). Here the intellect consciousness, which is important for the six gross transformation, is elaborated. The six senses mentioned in the passage above refer to those of eyes, ear, nose, mouth, body (touch) and intellect.
Because these senses are gross, our perception of reality through them are distorted, and the distorted reality is consequently referred to as six defilements. Our perception of reality (which is distorted) is possible because of our intellect consciousness, which enables us to differentiate and discriminate. Hence, the intellect consciousness enables us to create tables and oceans and all other phenomena in our human plane, as well as heavens and hells in other planes of existence where unenlightened souls go to.
How does the mind create tables and oceans? Before a carpenter makes a table, he must have in his mind the concept of the table. Every part and process in the creation of the table, from visualizing its design to hammering the last nail, comes from the mind. The power of the mind marshals the relevant dharma or sub-atomic particles and forces to be arranged in a way it has decided to produce the table. At our materialistic plane, where matter is too gross for mind to move physically, the mind accomplishes the task indirectly, by instructing the necessary muscles or machines to do the job.
Great masters with tremendous mental power, like Xuan Zang (Hsuan Tsang) in the 7th century and Sai Baba in our modern time, can directly materialize objects from thin air. At the astral plane, however, where astral matter is finer and movable by mind, you can create objects directly with mental power. If you have ever wondered why heavenly beings need not work for a living, here is an answer. Should they like to eat a steak, though it is unlikely they have this desire, they merely visualize it to have it materialized!
What about oceans? Surely we cannot create an ocean in the physical plane by using the mind? We can! In fact, we did -- long, long ago collectively. According to Buddhist philosophy, oceans and stars and every phenomenon we experience, are created by mind. We see oceans as oceans, and stars as stars because our mind decides so. Mind here is not an individual mind, but the universal mind or the alaya consciousness.
Through millennia our alaya consciousness has conditioned us to perceive the relevant collections of dharma, or sub-atomic particles and forces, as oceans or stars. A fish would perceive the same collections of dharma differently. What is an ocean to us is probably limitless space to the fish, and if it ever has the chance to perceive the stars, it might interpret them as divine signals from outer space.
In the same way, heavens and hells are created by the mind, just as the phenomenal world is. Different cultural practices, religious beliefs and other factors influence the way a sentient being would experience his heavenly or hellish existence. That is why, for example, when a good Christian passes on, he will find himself in heaven with other good Christians; it is unlikely he will find any Hindu or Buddhist scenery or pious Hindu or Buddhist friends, for they too would go to their own heavens created by their own minds.
Yet, in Buddhist thought, going to heaven is not the highest achievement. Heavenly beings are still not perfectly Enlightened; when they are, they will be free from the three realms of existence, which are illusions of the deluded mind. When the mind is perfectly purified, when he has liberated himself from attachment to self and to phenomena in perfect Enlightenment, all these phenomena of hells, worlds and heavens cease to be. Where does the perfectly Enlightened being go to? He does not go anywhere: he actualizes Buddhahood, i.e. he IS the Supreme Reality!
3.47 Known only by Buddhas
Original Text in Chinese
Consciousness arises because of ignorance transformation, not easily understood by ordinary people, and not easily realized even by the wise followers of Hinayana. Bodhisattvas from the first stage of correct faith observe the heart; some attain realization of the Dharma Body. They understand a bit, but even Bodhisattvas at the final stage do not know thoroughly.
Why? Because since the origin, there is ignorance in the serenity of primordial nature. Affected by ignorance, defiled heart arises; although it is defiled heart, yet it is eternal and immutable. Hence its meaning is known only by Buddhas.
The concept that consciousness arises because of transformations as a result of ignorance is not easily understood by ordinary people. Even the wise followers of Hinayana Buddhism do not easily realize this.
Bodhisattvas who have progressed from the first stage of spiritual development and have observed the mind, have some realization of the Dharma Body (Fashen or Dharmakaya) or Supreme Reality. But even Bodhisattvas at the final stage of their development may not know this great truth thoroughly.
Why is this so? This is because originally ignorance is present in the serenity of primordial nature. Affected by ignorance, thoughts arise, making the mind defiled. Although the mind has been defiled, it remains eternal and immutable. Hence, the meaning of all this is known only to enlightened beings, i.e. Buddhas.
It is understandable that ordinary people find this concept difficult as it is so different from conventional wisdom. Even wise followers of Hinayana Buddhism do not comprehend this easily. Although Hinayanists have profound knowledge concerning the illusion of self, and have achieved liberation from it, they are still not liberated from phenomena, for they believe dharma are real albeit momentary entities.
Enlightened Hinayanists are known as Sravadas (Sheng Wen), or Pratyekabuddhas (Yuan Jue). Sravadas attain nirvana through hearing and practising the Buddha's teaching, while Pratyekabuddhas become Enlightened through self cultivation.
Bodhisattvas, in their compassion to help others, necessarily differentiate between self and others. As the thought of "helping others" is still present, they have not overcome the illusory barrier between the knower and the known. Hence their liberation from self is still not complete.
While Sravadas and Pratyekabuddhas have attained liberation from self but are still attached to phenomena, Bodhisattvas have attained liberation from phenomena but are still attached to self. Though they are highly Enlightened beings, their Enlightenment, nevertheless, is not yet perfect: they have not yet actualized their innate Buddhahood, i.e. they have not become the Supreme Reality. Only Buddhas, the perfectly Enlightened ones, fully understand and realize this concept, because being perfectly free from attachment to phenomena and to self, they are the Supreme Reality.
3.48 Suddenly Thought Arises
Original Text in Chinese
The heart nature always has no thought, hence immutable. Not realizing the one undifferentiated Dharmarealm, the heart does not harmonize; suddenly thought arises, called ignorance.
The nature of the mind is always beyond thought; hence it is immutable. But when the mind does not realize that the one and only Dharmarealm or Supreme Reality is undifferentiated, the mind becomes disturbed and defiled. Suddenly thought arises, and is called ignorance (avidya or wu ming).
The word "suddenly", or "hu ran" in Chinese, in the above passage was much commented upon by classical masters. Most commentators, including the most celebrated of them, the Hua Yen master Fa Zang, agree that "suddenly" here has no reference to time, and it means beginninglessly without any awareness.
In Buddhism the fundamental problem faced by people is ignorance (avidya or wu ming). The concept of original sin never arises. In other words, people are unenlightened not because they have committed any sin, but because they are ignorant. Because of this basic philosophy, ideas like punishment and condemnation are absent in Buddhism. Hence what Buddhists show to non-believers is never intolerance nor enmity, but compassion for their ignorance and charity if they require help.
Ignorance, here, refers to spiritual ignorance, i.e. the failure to understand the transcendental, undifferentiated aspect of Cosmic Reality. Because of ignorance, illusion arises, resulting in the creation of the various realms of existence, including heavens and hells. If a sentient being is contented with, or desirable of, going to heaven, he can achieve this spiritual goal even if he remains blissfully ignorant, so long as he accredits good karma by having and performing meritorious thoughts, words and deeds.
With more than thirty types of heaven, Buddhism certainly offers a wide choice for the aspirants. But if he wishes to attain the highest, most noble spiritual goal, that of actualizing Cosmic Reality in perfect Enlightenment, he must overcome ignorance. If we wish to overcome ignorance, we should first find out more about ignorance and how our mind becomes defiled. This will be explained in the next chapter.