CHAPTER 16: WHY THE WORLD APPEARS AS AN ILLUSION
When his mind characteristics (or ignorance) arise, the sentient being experiences reality as the phenomenal world with countless separate objects and beings. Whenever these mind characteristics cease, he attains nirvana, experiencing reality as it really is, i.e. he experiences the void of undifferentiated reality.
3.56 Mind Characteristics and Mind Essence
Original Text in Chinese
Question: When heart ceases, why continuity of characteristics? When continuity of characteristics, how perfect cessation?
Answer: Heart cessation means cessation of heart characteristics, not cessation of heart-body. Like wind depends on water for characteristics of movements. If water ceases, then wind characteristics cease, as there is no more dependence. If water does not cease, wind characteristics continue. When wind ceases, movements cease, but water does not cease. So is ignorance, its movement is dependent on heart body. When heart-body ceases, all sentient beings cease, nowhere to depend on. If body does not cease, heart characteristics continue. If ceases, heart characteristics ceases, not heart wisdom ceases.
Question: When the mind ceases to be, why is there still continuity of the mind characteristics? When there is continuity of characteristics, how is it possible to have perfect cessation?
Answer: When we say the mind ceases, we mean the cessation of the characteristics of the mind, not the cessation of the essence of the mind itself. This is like the analogy of the dependence of wind on water for its appearance of movement. If water ceases to be, then there will be no appearance of wind movement, because there will be no water to depend upon to show the movement. If water does not cease, the movement of wind over water will continue. When the wind ceases, the wind movement will cease, but the water does not cease.
So it is the same with ignorance and mind. The expression of ignorance is dependent on the essence of the mind. When the mind essence ceases, all sentient beings will cease, because there is nowhere for them to depend on. If the essence of the mind does not cease, then the characteristics of the mind continue. When we say the mind ceases, we mean its characteristics cease, not its essence. Therefore, perfect Enlightenment is possible.
The above description refers to the relation between the universal mind, or the Supreme Reality, and the phenomenal world, rather than between an individual mind and individual entities. The question is: if the universal mind ceases to be, how can the phenomenal world continue to operate? When the phenomenal world continues, how is it possible to have perfect Enlightenment universally? In other words, if Cosmic Reality is an undifferentiated organism, why are there so many different manifestations of separate things and beings in the world? Alternatively, if the world is full of myriad entities, how is the great void of perfect stillness possible?
Buddhist masters often use the analogy of water, wind and waves, which are recited in the Lankavatara Sutra, to explain this concept. Water represents Cosmic Reality; wind, ignorance; and waves, the phenomenal world. When wind blows, waves move over the water, signifying that when ignorance arises, the phenomenal world is manifested over the Cosmic Reality. When wind ceases, waves cease, and the water remains calm and tranquil. Similarly, when ignorance ceases, the phenomenal world ceases, revealing the undifferentiated void of Cosmic Reality.
Hence, when we say "the mind ceases", it refers to the cessation of mind characteristics, which is original ignorance, and not to the cessation of mind essence, which is Cosmic Reality. Cosmic Reality cannot cease; it is eternal and everywhere. The first question "If universal mind ceases, how can the phenomenal world continue to operate?" is irrelevant because the universal mind, which is Cosmic Reality, cannot cease as it is omniscient and omnipresent. The confusion is due to mistaking mind characteristic (which is ignorance) for mind essence (Cosmic Reality). The phenomenal world continues to operate because mind characteristics, which is an intrinsic aspect of the universal mind, arise.
The second question "When the phenomenal world continues, how is it possible to have perfect Enlightenment universally?" is valid. The answer, in fact, is related to the first question, if we substitute mind essence (Universal Mind) with mind characteristic (ignorance). Hence, whenever mind characteristics ceases, the phenomenal world also ceases, resulting in perfect Enlightenment.
This explanation, though applied universally, can also be used for individual Enlightenment. When his mind characteristics (or ignorance) arise, the sentient being experiences reality as the phenomenal world with countless separate objects and beings. Whenever these mind characteristics cease, he attains nirvana, experiencing reality as it really is, i.e. he experiences the void of undifferentiated reality.
Nirvana, therefore, is never extinction nor termination, as some uninformed persons may erroneously believe. It is in fact the cosmic experience of universal consciousness, of universal life in one organic unity. Some Buddhist teachers may use the terms "extinction" or "termination" when describing nirvana, but what they refer to is not the extinction or termination of the adept, but the extinction or termination of his attachment to self, especially as a meditation technique to attain nirvana.
3.57 Four Types of Permeation
Original Text in Chinese
There are four types of permeation whereby the pure and the defiled arise continuously. What four? One, the pure state, known as the Tathagata. Two, all causes of differentiation, known as ignorance. Three, defiled heart, named karmic consciousness. Four, deluded realm, known as six defilements.
There are four types of permeation among the pure and the defiled states of mind, whereby these states arise continuously. What are the four types?
One, it is the pure state, and is known as Zhen Ru or the Tathagata, which means Thusness. Two, it is known as ignorance, which is the cause of all differentiation. Three, it is the defiled mind, known as karmic consciousness. Four, it is the delude realm, known as the six defilements.
Earlier (Passage 3.34) Asvaghosha explains how the "Three Fine and Six Gross" transform Cosmic Reality into the phenomenal world:
- Realm of phenomena.
- Karma, or the operation of cause and effect.
- Samsara, or the cycle of birth and rebirth.
- Tathagata, the undifferentiated cosmic reality.
- Ignorance, the cause of all differentiation.
- Karma, the result of defiled mind.
- Six Defilements, the distorted experience of reality through the six grossly limited senses.
3.58 Downward and Upward Permeation
Original Text in Chinese
Permeation is like clothing without scent. People places perfume to make it fragrant. Similarly, the Tathagata has no differentiation, but ignorance permeates into it to make it differentiated. Ignorance has no purity, but the Tathagata permeates into it to make it purified.
These permeations are like the case of perfume permeating into clothing. Initially there is no scent in the clothing, but after placing perfume on it, the perfume permeates into the clothing to make it fragrant. Similarly, the Tathagata is initially not differentiated, but after permeation by ignorance, there is differentiation. Initially there is no purity (or undifferentiation) in ignorance, but after permeation by the Tathagata, ignorance can be purified.
There are two main directions of permeation. When ignorance permeates into the Tathagata, the direction is downwards to the phenomenal world. When the Tathagata permeates into ignorance, the direction is upwards to Enlightenment.
3.59 Permeation of Differentiation
Original Text in Chinese
How permeation creates defiled mind continuously? Dependence on the Tathagata, ignorance arises. Because of ignorance, differentiation arises. Thus permeates the Tathagata. Because of permeation, defiled heart arises. Because of defiled heart, thus permeates ignorance. No more understanding of Tathagata. Non-Enlightenment thought arises the realm of defilement. With realm of defilement, permeation of differentiation begins. Thus permeates defiled heart, causing thoughts to arise, generating various types of karma, resulting all suffering of the heart and body.
How do the processes of permeation continuously create the state of defiled mind? Ignorance arises because it is originally present in the Tathagata, or Cosmic Reality. Because of ignorance, there is internal differentiation. This internal differentiation in return permeates the Cosmic Reality.
Because of the permeation of internal differentiation, the universal mind becomes defiled. In return, the defiled mind permeates ignorance. As a result, the higher wisdom concerning the undifferentiated nature of Cosmic Reality is lost.
Because of this non-Enlightenment, thoughts arise and create the realm of defilement. With the creation of the realm of defilement, external permeation of differentiation begins. So far, expressed individually in a sentient being, the processes of permeation have been internal, i.e. a downward but mutual permeation from the Tathagata through ignorance to the realm of defilement.
This external realm of differentiation (which is the result of internal permeation) in return permeates the internal defiled universal mind. This causes more thoughts to arise, with the result that countless types of karmic effects are generated. Once the wheel of karma operates, it perpetuates endless cycles of birth and rebirth, which brings mental and physical suffering to sentient beings.
Why do we experience our world as an illusion, instead of as it really is? First, Cosmic Reality is transformed in three fine stages (due to the alaya consciousness) and six gross stages (due to the intellect consciousness) into the phenomenal world. Secondly, the phenomenal world, at various internal and external levels, permeates into Cosmic Reality, thereby aggravating and perpetuating our experience of the world as an illusion.
Although the main direction of this permeation is downward, i.e. from original ignorance in Cosmic Reality towards phenomenal world, the permeation is also mutual, i.e. differentiation in the phenomenal world in return affects and intensifies ignorance. The downward processes of permeation are as follows:
- Tathagata, or cosmic reality.
- Defiled Mind.
- Realm of Defilement, or the phenomenal world.
- Karma, or the operation of cause and effect.
- Samsara, or the endless cycles of birth and rebirth.
Since suffering is the result of the endless cycle of birth and rebirth, the logical step to eliminate suffering is to break this cycle. As this cycle is caused by karma, samsara can be overcome by transcending karma. This can be best accomplished, according to some schools like the Theravada, by becoming a monk so that the aspirant can not only concentrate all his time and effort towards this noble aim, but also distance himself from the ordinary world of phenomena to minimize its adverse permeation. For others who are not ready, they should prepare themselves for the future by improving their karma through moral cultivation.
As the source of karma is the arising of thoughts, karma can be eliminated by eliminating thoughts. This can be achieved through meditation, which is the essential path to Enlightenment. As the mind is purified, differentiation ceases, with the result that ignorance is overcome. When ignorance is dispelled, the aspirant attains nirvana or Enlightenment, which is the spiritual experience of Cosmic Reality.
When we compare these processes of spiritual cultivation with the permeation processes listed above, it is clear this approach is a step by step working upward from samsara to the Tathagata. This is the gradual approach adopted by many Buddhists.
Another way is the instant approach. Referring to the list of permeation processes again, we can see that ignorance is the source of the various differentiation steps towards samsara. If we can eliminate ignorance at this stage, then all the subsequent stages will not occur. Hence, in the instant approach, the main objective is to dispel ignorance. Chan, or Zen, Buddhism, which aims to experience reality in an instant of spiritual realization, is an outstanding example.
This division into gradual and instant is for convenience. Most schools employ a mixture of both. Generally, Theravada Buddhism uses more of the gradual approach, whereas Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism use more of the instant approach. The gradual approach operates from the perspective of the phenomenal world, whereas the instant from that of transcendental reality. A rough analogy is that in the gradual approach, an aspirant lost in the world of phenomena gradually peals off the many layers of defilement that creates illusion, until finally the last layer is removed to reveal the undifferentiated Cosmic Reality. In the instant approach, the aspirant who intellectually understands the nature of Cosmic Reality, or is guided by a master who has this higher wisdom, makes a concerted, sometimes frantic, effort to tear away ignorance to attain Cosmic Reality.
It must be noted that the instant approach is not necessarily easier or even faster than the gradual. Those who are not ready may spend whole lifetimes trying, yet cannot arrive at that glorious instant of cosmic realization, but if they persist, perhaps in subsequent lives, irrespective of whether their approach is instant or gradual, they will certainly, inevitably achieve cosmic realization, for they rightly actualize their own nature.
3.60 Permeation towards Samsara
Original Text in Chinese
Permeation of realm of defilement is of two kinds. What two? One, intensify thought permeation. Two, intensify attachment permeation.
Permeation of the defiled heart is of two kinds. What two? One, permeation of basic karma, capable of causing arahats, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas suffer samsara. Two, intensify permeation of intellect consciousness, capable of causing ordinary people suffer samsara.
Permeation of ignorance is of two kinds. What two? One, basic permeation, capable of causing karma. Two, permeation of arising desires, capable of causing discriminating consciousness to arise.
The permeation of the realm of defilement, or phenomenal world, is of two kinds. One is to intensify the permeation of thoughts, i.e. the phenomenal world causes more and more thoughts to arise in us. The other is to intensify the permeation of attachment, i.e. the phenomenal world increases our attachment to ourselves and to objects.
The permeation of the defiled mind is of two kinds. One is the permeation of basic karma, which causes arahats, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas to continue their existence in the phenomenal realms. The second kind is to intensify the permeation of the intellect consciousness, causing ordinary people to continue their existence in the endless cycle of birth and rebirth.
The permeation of ignorance is of two kinds. One is the basic permeation, capable of causing karmic force that perpetuate the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. The second kind is the permeation of arising desires, which causes the discriminating consciousness, or the conscious mind, to arise.
This is an elaboration of the permeation of differentiation. As mentioned earlier, there are four levels of permeation: Cosmic Reality, ignorance, karma, and phenomenal world.
These four levels can be divided into two groups, namely permeation of purity, and permeation of differentiation. Permeation of purity involves the first type, and represents the interaction of the Tathagata, or Cosmic Reality, to purify the other three phenomenal levels. Permeation of differentiation involves the three phenomenal levels, and represents their interaction to defile Cosmic Reality into differentiated realms of illusion.
Each of the three levels of differentiation permeation is further divided into two types, which may be described as fine and gross, though Asvaghosha did not use these two terms here. Fine permeations refer to those that are internal or too subtle to be discernable by people, whereas gross permeations are external or easily discernable.
The permeation of the phenomenal world in making Cosmic Reality defiled, can be fine, by causing more and more thoughts to arise in our mind. It can be gross, by intensifying our attachment to ourselves and to phenomena. In other words, due to the phenomenal world we become less likely to realize Cosmic Reality, because our mind is full of thoughts which will generate karmic effects, and because we cling to worldly belongings and emotions which hinder spiritual realization.
The permeation of karmic effect, which is caused by defiled mind, can be fine and gross. Arahats (or sravadas), pratyekabuddhas and bodhisattvas are highly enlightened beings, but they still exist in the phenomenal realms, in our world or in other planes as what many people would refer to as gods or higher intelligence, because their minds still harbour traces of thoughts such as wanting to help other beings. Their existence is the result of fine permeation of karma. On the other hand, the gross permeation of karma causes ordinary people to continue their existence in the cycle of birth and rebirth.
The fine permeation of ignorance refers to the interaction of original ignorance in Cosmic Reality, which through a series of transformations results in the operation of karma in the phenomenal world. This permeation is fine because not many people are aware that gross karmic operation of ordinary people in samsara is traceable to the original ignorance. On the other hand, the permeation of ignorance of ordinary people is gross. Because of the ignorance of the individual in the phenomenal world, various forms of desires arise in him, with the result that his discriminating consciousness is intensified. This, understandably, makes it harder for him to realize Cosmic Reality.
Nevertheless, while this downward permeation of differentiation causes us to experience reality as an illusory phenomenal world, the upward permeation of purity helps us towards spiritual realization. The next chapter explains this purity permeation and the various interactions that aid us in our quest for Cosmic Reality.