Shunyata and the Vow-Power

by Zuio H. Inagaki
November, 2000

(1) Universal negation and the presence of Buddhas

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 coming."
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 Dharmakaya


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 Shunyata.

(2) Realization of Shunyata as the ultimate satori

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 really existent?
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 verse:

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 truth.

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 activities

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 of delusion-karma-suffering.
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 Land;
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 people.

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 him.

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.

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