Shunyata and the Vow-Power
by Zuio H. Inagaki
(1) Universal negation and the presence of
When Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva performs
the deep practice of Prajnaparamita, he contemplates
"form is void; void is form." The
Heart Sutra goes on to say that perception,
conception, volition, and consciousness are
void. Not only are these five skandhas void,
but also the twelve sense-fields, eighteen
spheres, twelve causations, fourfold noble
truth, etc., are all void.
The whole corpus of the Prajnaparamita Sutras, including the Great Prajnaparamita Sutra in 600 fascicles, goes to great length to
emphasize universal void, leaving nothing
in the world to be admitted as existent.
Nagarjuna, the exponent of the Madhyamika
philosophy, in his famous verses on "The
Middle," teaches that all things are
produced by causes and conditions and, hence,
are devoid of any substance, that is, they
are void. He negates all possible propositions
regarding existence and non-existence, and
so establishes that the ultimate truth lies
in the Middle. He asserts that there are
no temporal changes, no movement, and no
spatial dimensions. "There is neither
arising nor perishing," he says, "neither
annihilation nor continuation, neither identity
nor difference, neither passing away nor
Nagarjuna's dialectic of universal negation
was primarily directed to the Hinayana (Sarvastivadin)
view that "all dharmas (things) exist,"
and achieved its end of revealing the Mahayana
truth of Shunyata in which one realizes the
non-substantiality of dharmas as well as
self. We must note that behind his employment
of dialectics he had the insight of realizing
Shunyata - the transcendent wisdom of Prajna.
Nagarjuna was not a mere logician as many
are led to believe, but he was, before anything
else, a Mahayana practitioner. He must have
attained Prajna in his early days, and later
developed his unique dialectic. As is clear
from his other writings, he did not stop
at mere negation, but made a great effort
to explore the transcendent realm that is
spontaneously revealed by removing our fallacies
concerning existence and non-existence -
and taught us the way to reach it.
Nagarjuna speaks a lot about Buddhas and
their activities, including Amida and his
Pure Land. He encourages mindful recitation
of Amida's Name in his Discourse on the Ten Stages (chapter 9). He recognizes the presence
of Buddhas in spite of his sweeping negativism.
We have reason to believe that he did not
see any contradiction in presenting both
Shunyata and the presence of Buddhas. In
the same work (chapter 33) it is stated:
The wise do not speak of discriminative aspects
in their realization of voidness.
Voidness is uniform and has no different
aspects. To see voidness in this way
Is to see the Buddha, because Buddha and
voidness are not different.
(H. Inagaki, Nagarjuna's Discourse on the Ten Stages,
Ryukoku University, 1998, p. 5)
If we read the Prajnaparamita Sutras carefully, we find a similar expression:
Voidness neither comes from somewhere nor
goes anywhere. Voidness is itself Tathagata...
Buddhas and Tathagatas should not be viewed
in their physical forms, for they are all
This amounts to saying that Shunyata is Dharmakaya.
Since there is only one and the same Dharmakaya
that is shared by all Buddhas, Amida as the
Dharmakaya Buddha is itself Shunyata. The
glorious physical form of Amida as a Sambhogakaya
Buddha and the numerous manifestations of
his transformed bodies are reducible to the
primordial, essential Dharmakaya that is
(2) Realization of Shunyata as the ultimate
Right from the beginning of the history of
Buddhism, Shunyata has been the primary objective
of Buddhist pursuits. At first, it was directed
to our own existence; as a conglomeration
of five skandhas (aggregates), our existence
is void, and hence the idea of 'self' (atman) is a fabrication based on delusion. If
we can see this fact, we are delivered from
the bondage of 'self' and dwell in the realization
of the non-substantiality of self (atma-nairatmya). Although awakening to this fact requires
a long practice of concentration, we can
fairly easily attain the state of 'non-self'
and become arhats. The Mahayana endeavor
goes a big step further and seeks to unravel
the deeper reality of our existence. Are
the constituent elements of the five skandhas
The Heart Sutra begins with the declaration that "form
is void; void is form." 'Form' is an
element of the five skandhas. Ordinary people
and those with Hinayana propensities will
not follow this assertion, even if they more
or less readily accept the view that 'self'
does not exist. To negate the substantiality
of 'form' is tantamount to negating all existing
things. Actually, the Heart Sutra goes on
negating other elements of the five skandhas
and all other conceivable elements that constitute
the universe. This advanced stage of negation
is called non-substantiality of elements
or things (dharma-nairatmya). The total, universal negation is termed
'sarva-dharma-shunyata' in the Great Prajnaparamita Sutra.
Of all Buddhist schools, Zen straightforwardly
aims at reaching the ultimate state of Shunyata.
How do you attain it? By the constant practice
of meditation, while keeping Shunyata always
in mind. Also koan - an account of the master's
actions and statements, including questions
and answers - has been widely used to lead
the student to satori. Whether you resort
to meditation or koan, you will learn how
to embrace the whole universe in your heart
and then break it to pieces without a trace.
In the actual experience, through concentrated
meditation you will 'feel' the weight of
the universe in your body. It becomes heavier
and heavier until you come to the point where
the weight of the universe is unbearable.
If you overcome this with unflinching courage
and resolution, you will see the whole universe
perish as if sucked into a black hole along
with your mind and body. You will go through
a similar experience if koan is applied.
The most popular koan is the case 'Mu' (nothing, non-existence) which is contained
in the Gateless Barrier (Mumonkan).
One day a monk asked Master Chao-chou, "Does
a dog have Buddha-nature?"
Chao-chou replied, "Mu."
If you ponder on the meaning of this story,
day in and day out, you will find 'mu' growing bigger and bigger until it absorbs
the whole universe. Wu-men Hui-k'ai (1183-1260),
the compiler of the Gateless Barrier, comments
on this case as follows:
With your entire body, mustering the strength
of 360 bones and joints and 84,000 hair-follicles,
raise a great mass of doubt and tackle the
single character Mu, pondering on it day
and night. Don't consider it to be void or
understand it in terms of existence or non-existence.
Just as if you have swallowed a red-hot iron
ball, you cannot disgorge it however hard
you may try to. Sweep away all the wrong
ideas and wrong perceptions, which you have
embraced up to now and make renewed efforts
to reach maturity in practice, until your
whole being, inside and out, is spontaneously
made into one piece. You can only know by
yourself, as when a dumb person has a dream.
If you dash forward unflinchingly and successfully
make a breakthrough in the barrier, you will
startle heaven and tremble the earth. As
if you had snatched away the big sword of
General Kuan Yu and were able to use it,
you will kill a Buddha when you meet him
and kill a patriarch when you meet him. Thus
you will attain complete freedom in the midst
of birth-and-death and freely enjoy sauntering
about in the six realms of Samsara amid the
four modes of birth.
Again, Hui-k'ai states in the introductory
The Great Way has no gate,
Even though a thousand paths lead to it.
Having passed through the gate,
You can walk the universe alone.
A well-known Chinese Master Huang-po Hsi-yun
( -850?) also highly recommends the 'Mu' koan:
Ponder on the character Mu throughout the
day. Study it, day in and day out. Stick
to it whether you are walking, stopping,
sitting or lying down, whether you are wearing
clothes or eating meals, whether you are
releasing nature or urinating - contemplating
it thought after thought with courage and
assiduity. After a long time, perhaps after
many years, your whole being will become
one piece, when all of a sudden your mind-flower
will open and you will realize the heart
of the patriarchs. You will no longer be
deceived by words of old masters, and now
be able to open your big mouth to speak the
By passing through the Gateless Barrier after
a long practice of concentration, you will
see your true nature and the real essence
of all existence. In the beginning, Bodhidharma
who brought the Zen tradition from India
did not transmit a single word, but taught
us to "see our own nature and become
Buddhas." Since our true nature and
the real essence of all existence is Shunyata,
it cannot be grasped as something substantial.
As soon as you see it, you lose your existential
basis, with your body and mind completely
sucked into Shunyata without a trace.
Nagarjuna states in his Commentary on the Prajnaparamita Sutra: "This wisdom of reality is like a
huge fire ball, unable to be grasped on four
sides." Actually, when you encounter
Prajna, you are "burnt to ashes."
(3) Shunyata as the fountainhead of all Buddhist
Before making Vows, Dharmakara, already in
a higher stage of a bodhisattva (cf. H. Inagaki, T'an-luan's Commentary on Vasubandhu's Discourse
on the Pure Land, p. 143), attained Prajna with which he
realized Shunyata. This means that he realized
Dharmakaya. In this connection, it may be
remembered that T'an-luan states: "All
Buddhas and bodhisattvas have two kinds of
Dharmakaya: Dharmakaya of Dharma-nature and
Dharmakaya of Expediency" (Ibid., pp. 264-5). From the realization of Dharmakaya
emerges Great Compassion, which gives rise
to Great Vows. Just as a typhoon with a low
atmospheric pressure creates strong, destructive
power around its 'eye,' Shunyata not only
sucks in everything but also creates enormous
power, which is manifested as the Vow-Power.
The Vow-Power works in four directions:
(1) For the attainment of Buddhahood of Sambhogakaya;
(2) For the creation of the Pure Land;
(3) For the guidance of bodhisattvas;
(4) For the salvation of living beings.
Although Dharmakara had already attained
the Dharmakaya, he needed a long period of
practice to amass the merit for acquiring
a body of glory. As promised in the Twelfth
and Thirteenth Vows, he became a Buddha of
Infinite Light and Infinite Life - Amida.
The glorious Pure Land spontaneously came
into being at the moment when he attained
Buddhahood. In order to effectively guide
bodhisattvas towards Buddhahood, he should
be in a state of easy access. A Sambhogakaya
Buddha is a Samadhi Buddha; this means that
Amida always dwells in Samadhi, and whoever
enters the Amida Samadhi can be born in the
Pure Land, where he reaches a higher stage
of a bodhisattva and quickly attains the
highest Enlightenment (Ibid., p. 214). Even
if you cannot directly avail yourself of
Amida's Samadhi-Power, you can still take
advantage of the Vow-Power working upon you
in the form of the Name. Furthermore, through
his Vow-Power, Amida as the Sambhogakaya
Buddha can manifest his provisional, transformed
bodies to the devotees whenever appropriate
- at the time of their death or in a dream.
As Tao-ch'o, the fourth patriarch, first
confirmed, Amida's Pure Land is a Recompensed
Land, i.e., a Sambhogakaya Buddha's land.
Anyone can be born there by riding his Vow-Power.
When and how can you attain the final Enlightenment?
T'an-luan states that due to the Eleventh
Vow, you can quickly realize it (Ibid., p.
288), and Shinran followed him in establishing
the chapter on True Enlightenment based on
this Vow. Shinran further states in the chapter
on the True Buddha and Land that sentient
beings with delusion and defilement cannot
see their true nature because it is covered
with evil passions but that when they reach
the Land of Peace and Bliss, they will unfailingly
reveal their Buddha-nature through Amida's
merit-transference. It is now clear that
we can see our Buddha-nature and realize
the Dharmakaya after being born in the Pure
Land. What Zen practitioners seek to attain
in this life Pure Land Buddhists attain in
Amida's Land. Considering the fact that Zen
requires a long, assiduous practice, Shin
just needs to accept Amida's Vow-Power.
There is another advantage in following the
Vow-Power. Even if one successfully attains
satori through meditation and koan, one is likely to stop practicing the Way.
One really needs to make vows and perform
the Six Paramitas to become a Sambhogakaya
Buddha and establish a Sambhogakaya Buddha
Land as Dharmakara did. If we avail ourselves
of the Vow-Power, we spontaneously take the
course set by Amida and enjoy participating
in his everlasting activities.
(4) Our karma-bound existence and its liberation
From the viewpoint of Shunyata, one's existence
is like a mirage or a dream or a bubble on
the water. But, however insignificant it
may look, it has its own identity, though
a false one, and constantly creates karma
with which one is inextricably bound. Out
of ignorance and delusion, one feeds one's
mass of karma with repeated acts of wrongdoing
and reaps the bitter fruits of suffering.
Since the law of karma reigns everywhere,
one cannot escape from the vicious circle
The Buddhist way of liberating one from the
karma-bondage is multifarious. The following
are employed as effective methods:
(1) To perform the good acts prescribed by
the Buddha so as to reverse the vicious cycle;
(2) To concentrate on the delusory nature
of one's self and seek to detach oneself
from clinging to one's existence;
(3) To contemplate objects of pure merits,
e.g., Buddhas, their lands and their names;
(4) To contemplate the Shunyata of one's
existence and all existing things;
(5) To join Amida's Karma through which one
attains birth in the Pure Land.
As compared with one's karma, which originates
from delusion and fallacy, Amida's Karma
arises from Shunyata and is in accord with
True Suchness. When these two streams of
karma meet, Amida's Karma naturally overcomes
and absorbs the other, just as a bigger whirlpool
absorbs smaller ones. In order for us to
meet Amida's Karma, we are taught to follow
Vasubandhu's Five Mindful Practices or Shan-tao's
Five Right Practices. The former is:
1. Worshiping Amida;
2. Praising him;
3. Making aspiration for birth in the Pure
4. Contemplating Amida, the Pure Land and
bodhisattvas dwelling there;
5. Transferring the merits acquired to others
to save them.
These are originally meant for bodhisattvas
but can also be practiced by ordinary people
as T'an-luan explains. Shan-tao's Five Right
Practices are modeled after the Five Mindful
Practices but they are clearly for ordinary
1. Chanting the sutras;
2. Contemplating Amida and the Pure Land;
3. Worshiping Amida;
4. Reciting the nembutsu;
5. Praising Amida and making offerings to
Shan-tao especially emphasized the fourth
because the nembutsu is mentioned in the
Eighteenth Vow as the practice for birth
in the Pure Land.
By reciting the nembutsu you gradually feel
the presence of Amida Buddha and come closer
to his Karma. Finally, when time matures,
your karma is completely absorbed in His
Karma. This state is called 'joyful entrusting
heart' or 'True Faith.' What you actually
feel at this moment is described as 'giving
yourself up to Amida' or 'leaving everything
to Amida.' What happens to your identity?
The false identity, which you have had in
the delusory karma-bound self, perishes and
you acquire a new identity - the unshakable,
absolute Identity firmly grounded in the
Vow-Power and Shunyata.
Indeed, this Identity is Dharmakaya. It has
been at the center of the universe since
eternal past and will be there through all
future ages. It is shared by all Buddhas
and bodhisattvas, and you will rejoice in
acquiring this absolute Identity.
In the words of Zuiken:
What is Faith?
It is like a strong wind
blowing away all the windows.
Return to Nembutsu-Index; Index.