10. Epistemology (viii) Liberation from Existential Suffering

In this post, we explore how Mahabodhisattva Avalokiteśvara liberates himself from existential suffering by realizing the equality of the mind and body through his understanding of the Emptiness of the Five Aggregates.

Before discussing the content of Mahasattva Avalokiteśvara’s experience, let’s first clarify the meaning of some relevant terms that will be used in this discussion.

1) Heart_Sutra (Chinese=/心經) “is a popular sutra in Mahayana Buddhism.” “It has been called “the most frequently used and recited text in the entire Mahayana Buddhist tradition.” “In Sanskrit, the title Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya translates as “The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom (Chinese=般若波羅蜜多心經).” It is a profoundly significant sutra in Mahayana Buddhism because it leads to understanding how one can satisfy Buddha’s soteriological mission and liberate oneself from existential suffering through understanding the Five Aggregates.

2) Perfection of Wisdom is known in Romanized Sanskrit=Prajnaparamita, a combination of prajna and paramita.

Prajna (Chinese=般若), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “in Sanskrit, typically translated “wisdom,”the term has the general sense of accurate and precise understanding but is used most often to refer to an understanding of reality that transcends ordinary comprehension.”

As discussed in previous posts on epistemology, “ordinary comprehension” refers to knowledge obtained from inferentially connected vocabulary. By contrast, prajna refers to the wisdom gained from “an accurate and precise understanding” of reality through direct perception.  

Paramita (Chinese=波羅蜜多), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “in Sanskrit, “perfection,” a virtue or quality developed and practiced by a Bodhisattva on the path to becoming a Buddha. The term is paranomastically glossed by some traditional commentators as “gone beyond” or “gone to the other side” although it seems, in fact, to derive from Skt. “parama,” meaning “highest” or supreme.

When combined, Prajnaparamita (Chinese=般若波羅蜜多/智度), meaning the Perfection of Wisdom, is the supreme wisdom gained from a perfect understanding of reality through the most profound practice of samathavipasyana.    

3) The Heart Sutra is considered the Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras because this extremely short but influential Sutra summarizes the core teachings of the whole collection of Prajnaparamita sutras by using the experience of Mahabodhisattva Avalokiteśvara’s liberation from his existential suffering.

In this extremely short sutra, Mahabodhisattva Avalokiteśvara talks about his realization that the mind (Emptiness) and the body (rupa) are equal through his understanding that all the Five Aggregates are Empty. By understanding that there is no Mind-Body Problem, the Mahabodhisattva Avalokiteśvara liberates himself from his delusional misunderstanding of reality and, therefore, his existential suffering. It is critically important because Buddhism exists for the simple reason that Buddha wants to teach all sentient beings how to liberate themselves from their existential suffering.   

4) Mahabodhisattva (Chinese=摩訶菩薩), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “in Sanskrit, “great bodhisattva.” It can be generally understood as a bodhisattva close to achieving the highest level of enlightenment, such as Avalokiteśvara.

5) Avalokiteśvarais a tenth-level bodhisattva associated with great compassion (mahakaruṇā). He is often associated with Amitabha Buddha.” A tenth-level bodhisattva is the highest level of bodhisattva. After finishing the tenth level, a bodhisattva is ready to “attain full Buddhahood,” known as a Tathagata. Avalokiteśvara is also known as Guanyin in East Asia.

Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, the protagonist in the discussion, is called Vasita in the Heart Sutra.

Vasita (Chinese=自在), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “in Sanskrit, “mastery,” or “autonomy;” a list of ten types of master or autonomy developed by a Bodhisattva, viz., of one’s life span (命自在), action (Karman) (業自在), necessities of life (財自在), determination (如意自在), aspiration (願自在), magical powers (信解自在), birth (生自在), dharma (法自在), mind (心自在) and wisdom (智自在).”

In Mahayana Buddhism, complete attainment of the ten masteries is reserved for a tenth-level Bodhisattva. Therefore, Vasita should apply to all ten-level Bodhisattvas, who, similar to Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, are close to liberating themselves from their existential sufferings by understanding the Five Aggregates through practicing the perfection of wisdom.  

The Heart Sutra starts as follows:

“The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, as he practices the perfection of wisdom profoundly, gained an illuminating insight into the Emptiness of all the Five Aggregates, thus realizing that this is the way to relieve all beings from sufferings.” (Chinese=觀自在菩薩, 行深般若波羅蜜多時. 照見五蘊皆空, 度一切苦厄.”

Emptiness (Romanized Sanskrit=shunyata; Chinese=空), as discussed earlier, is, according to The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, also known as “void,” is a “central notion of Buddhism….Shunyata is often equated with the absolute in the Mahayana since it is without duality and empirical forms.”

In Buddhism, the absolute, or the Ultimate Reality, is Citta. While Citta is a mentality, it is unique because it is quiescent. Since Citta does not fluctuate, the “realness” of its reality never changes, making it the Ultimate Reality. Since Citta does not fluctuate, it produces no phenomenon that can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched, or conceived. Therefore, Citta is “without empirical form.” Since Citta does not fluctuate, it is unconditioned, uncompounded, and, therefore, “without duality.”

The key phrase in Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara’s opening line is “the Emptiness of all the Five Aggregates.”

As discussed in the previous post, the Five Aggregates are the five human epistemological steps leading to the realization that rupas are “mere projections of consciousness.” While four of the five steps are obviously mental, rupa, the “body, form, or materiality” of the phenomena world, is often delusionally misunderstood as different. By acknowledging that all five aggregates are Empty, Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara shows that he has experienced, i.e., directly perceived, the mental nature of rupa.  

Immediately after his proclamation that all the Five Aggregates are Empty are the four lines that make the Heart Sutra “the single most commonly recited, copied, and studied scripture in East Asian Buddhism.” These four lines are famous because many consider them compatible with Einstein’s famous formula, E=mc2. In reality, they can only be regarded as compatible when the energy in the formula is replaced with mentality.

Sariputra (Chinese=舍利子)

Rupa is no different than Emptiness (Chinese=色不異空).

Emptiness is no different than rupa. (Chinese=空不異色).

Rupa is just Emptiness; (Chinese=色即是空).

Emptiness is just rupa. (Chinese=空即是色).”

Sariputra (Chinese=舍利子) “was one of the top disciples of the Buddha. He is considered the first of the Buddha’s two chief male disciples, together with Maudgalyāyana (Chinese=目犍連).”

By unequivocally and repeatedly equating rupa and Emptiness and linking it to the Five Aggregates, Avalokiteśvara shows his understanding that while rupa, representing universal all phenomena, may look like “body, form, and material,” exists only in the mind because they are “mere projections of consciousness.”

With that understanding, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara has overcome his cognitive or noetic obstructions, the second of the two obstructions, representing the “subtler hindrances that serve as the origin of the afflictive obstructions and result from fundamental misapprehensions about the nature of reality.” The significance of the “fundamental misapprehensions about the nature of reality” is that Buddha teaches it is the root cause of existential suffering in all beings.

In other words, with his “fundamental misapprehensions about the nature of reality” gone, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara has liberated himself from his existential suffering. Being “a tenth-level bodhisattva associated with great compassion,” the first thing that comes to Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara’s mind is that it “is the way to relieve all from sufferings.”

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara then declares that “All phenomena are Empty (Chinese=是諸法空相).” By saying, “All phenomena are Empty,” Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara summarizes his understanding that all material phenomena are mental because they do not exist without the projects of consciousness.

After summarizing his findings, the Bodhisattva continues: “There is no birth or death, no turbidity or purity, no addition or subtraction (Chinese=不生不滅, 不垢不淨, 不增不減.”). In other words, while Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara understands that “body, form, and material” are Empty,” he also understands that their dualistic nature exists only in the mind because, ultimately, Emptiness is “without duality.”   

From there, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara goes on to mention a litany of phenomena such as the Five Aggregates, the Six Sensory Bases, the Four Truths for the Nobles, “Non-luminosity” (Link), Aging and Death, etc., and deem them all “nil (Chinese=無).” They are nil because they are all “mere projections of the mind.” With everything being nil, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara concludes that “there is nothing to possess (Chinese=無所得).”

However, having nothing to possess is not a bad thing, as Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara continued, “Because there is nothing to possess, the Bodhisattvas, relying on the practice of the perfection of wisdom, become carefree. Being carefree and without fear (the Bodhisattvas) are far from topsy-turvy reveries and ultimately enter Nirvana. Buddhas of past, present, and future(Romanized Sanskrit=tirkala; Chinese=三世), relying on practicing the perfection of wisdom, realize anuttara-samyak-sambodhi. (Chinese=以無所得故,菩提薩埵, 依般若波羅蜜多故, 心無罣礙, 無罣礙故, 無有恐怖, 遠離顛倒夢想, 究竟涅槃. 三世諸佛, 依般若波羅蜜多故, 得阿搙多羅三藐三菩提).”

Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi (Chinese=阿搙多羅三藐三菩提),” as discussed previously, is “in Sanskrit, “unsurpassed (anuttara), complete (samyak) and perfect enlightenment (sambodhi).” This highest level of enlightenment is achieved only by a Tathagata.

Nirvana (Chinese=涅槃), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “in Sanskrit, “extinction,” the earliest and most common term describing the soteriological goal of Buddhism.”

While what exactly Nirvana extinct is a topic of some debate in Buddhism, what is not subject to debate is that Nirvana is “the soteriological goal of Buddhism.”

So, what is Buddha’s soteriological goal?

In the Lotus Sutra, Buddha stated his soteriological goal clearly as below:

“I initially vowed.

To make all sentient beings my equal without a difference.

Now that I have fulfilled this vow

That I made in the past.

I can transform them.

So they all enter the path of Buddhahood.”

In other words, Buddha’s aspiration was for everyone to become a Tathagata like him. Buddha could state in the Lotus Sutra that he had fulfilled his original vow because the Lotus Sutra represents one of the last few sermons he gave. Buddha was about to enter Nirvana himself.

Indeed, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is about to advance from the tenth level of Bodhisattvahood to the highest level of Buddhahood and enter the final Nirvana. However, the path from being liberated from suffering to becoming a Tathagata still takes some time.   

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara still had to eliminate latent tendencies (Romanized Sanskrit =vasana; Chinese=習氣); habituations accumulated over innumerable previous cycles of samsara. However, getting rid of habituation does not require work (Chinese=無功用道). As long as no additional habituations are incurred, getting rid of habituations is like getting rid of the smell from an open wine barrel; it happens naturally with time.

Given that Nirvana describes “the soteriological goal of Buddhism,” it is critical to understand Nirvana accurately. As Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara’s example shows, entering the final Nirvana represents an elevation in enlightenment. It is certainly not to be confused with “achieved at death,” as some like to believe.

The journey in Buddhism is mental, not physical. What Nirvana extinct is not the physical body. As Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara clearly states, “There is no birth or death.” Birth and death do not exist because all physical bodies are Empty, existing only because of projections of consciousness. What Nirvana extinct is the Mind-Body Problem, a delusional misunderstanding that physical bodies and their mental nature are different. Buddha’s aspiration for all to enter Buddhahood is, without a doubt, not an aspiration for anyone to achieve the highest level of Buddhahood with extreme effort and time only to be met by the death of a physical body that is but “mere projects of consciousness.”  

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