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Fellow teachers and students,

This is indeed a very special occasion and rare opportunity for me to be here with you. Today I would like to speak to you about "the Unique Characteristics of Buddhism." Every religion has a doctrine and basic philosophy. Buddhism is a religion: it too has a comprehensive doctrine and profound philosophy. Within the Buddhist doctrine and philosophy, there are aspects of the teachings that differ from other religions. These aspects are the unique characteristics of Buddhism.

What are the unique characteristics of Buddhism? I would like to introduce you to a few of them. 

I. The First Characteristic: Karma

Karma is a fundamental Buddhist teaching. Among the Buddhist doctrines, this is the most important one, and, at the same time, it is also the most difficult and the most easily misunderstood. Karma is a Sanskrit term which means action or deed. Any physical, verbal, or mental action performed with intention can be called karma. In other words, karma can be explained as any moral or immoral volition, or all volitional actions, responses, or results.

Before we talk about karma, we need to understand that body, speech, and mind are the three masters of karmathey carry out the actions or deeds that constitute karma. Examples of karma performed by the body are killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. Lying, frivolous talk, slander, and harsh speech are examples of karma performed by speech. Examples of karma performed by the mind include greed, hatred, and delusion. In fact, karma refers not only to "bad" karma. One's happiness as well as sorrow in life is determined by karma from one's body, speech and mind. Let us talk about the types of karma.

Karma can be categorized based on the characteristics of one's actionswholesome karma, unwholesome karma, and neither wholesome nor unwholesome karma. Wholesome karma is in accordance with morality and is beneficial to others. Unwholesome karma is any action that harms others. Any action that cannot be defined as good or bad (for example, any action that is without any conscious intention) is called neither wholesome nor unwholesome karma.

Since karma is the response of volition, the seeds of wholesome and unwholesome karma performed by volition are stored in the alaya-vijnana, the "storehouse consciousness." These seeds will manifest themselves when the right conditions arise. The manifestation of these seeds is the fruit of karma. Karma that causes suffering is called evil karma which results in rebirth in the three evil realms of suffering. Karma that causes happiness is called blessed karma which results in rebirth in the human or celestial realm. Those who have attained meditative concentration reap rebirth in the realms of form and formlessness and abide in samadhi (meditative concentration). The karma of these beings is called motionless karma.

Karma can also be categorized according to the time in which it ripens. There are three such categories: karma that ripens in this life, karma that ripens in the next life, and karma that ripens in future lives.

Karma that ripens in this life means that the fruit of the action done in this life will ripen in this very life; karma that ripens in the next life means that the fruit of the action done in this life will ripen in the immediate next life; and karma that ripens in future lives means that the fruit of present actions will ripen after two or more lives. This indicates that from the viewpoint of time, may it be the past, present, or future, the effect of any action will not be lost. The fruit will ripen according to the karma performed. Good begets good and evil begets evil. No one is exempt from the Law of Cause and Effect. Those who are familiar with agriculture know that some plants can be harvested in just one year, some in two years, and others in several years.

There are those who do not fully understand the Law of Cause and Effect. They see that some people who have been kind and have done wholesome deeds experience much suffering and misfortune. On the other hand, they observe other people who have committed unwholesome deeds but nonetheless lead a comfortable and free life. So they conclude that the Law of Cause and Effect does not apply at all. Some even say, "This is the twentieth century. Why still believe in superstitions like cause and effect?" However, they do not realize that the existence of everything in this world arises from and is dependent on the Law of Cause and Effect. The relationship between cause and effect is a very complicated one, but it works in a very orderly and precise manner.

There are two reasons why the fruit of karma will ripen at different times. One reason is the strength of the cause; it will determine the time that the effect appears. For example, if a melon and a peach seed are planted at the same time, the melon seed will grow and produce fruit in the same year; however, it will take several years before the peach tree that grew from the seed can produce fruit. The second reason the fruit of karma may ripen at different times is that the strength of the conditions can be strong or weak. If all necessary conditions are present, the fruit will ripen earlier, whereas if the necessary conditions are not present, the ripening will take longer. Either way, there is a saying in Buddhism, "Good begets good; evil begets evil. All causes will give rise to results; it is just a matter of time."

The Law of Cause and Effect is certain. A particular cause will inevitably give rise to a particular effect: no mistakes will ever be made. The reason a good person suffers in this life is because the evil seeds that he has planted in the past are ripening now. Therefore, he must suffer at this time. Although he may have done many good deeds in this life, the power of the seeds of these good deeds may be too weak to ripen during this life. He may have to wait until his next or future lives to enjoy the effects of these good deeds. In contrast, an evil person may have done many evil deeds in this life, yet he is enjoying a good life. This is because the good seeds that he has planted in his previous life or lives are ripening now. So he is enjoying the fruit of his prior good deeds now. The evil seeds that he has planted during this life will ripen in his future lives.

Therefore, we can conclude that the Law of Cause and Effect has two essential points. First, causes and effects are indestructible. Once any deeds are performed, regardless whether good or bad, the seeds of these deeds will be stored in the alaya-vijnana and will be manifested when the right conditions are present. Second, good and evil deeds or actions will not cancel out each other. The evil seeds that have already been planted will give rise to evil fruit. They will not be cancelled out by doing good deeds. The only thing we can do is to do more good deeds, to accumulate more positive conditions. Then the gravity of the fruit of our evil deeds will be lightened; or, if many good deeds are accumulated, the good fruit will ripen quickly and the evil conditions will be weakened. Think of it in this way: you have a glass of salt water, which is similar to evil seeds. If a lot of fresh water, which stands for good deeds, is added to the salt water, the fresh water will dilute the salt water, making it less salty. Therefore, it is very important to do good deeds and accumulate positive conditions.

Some people have incorrect expectations of the Law of Cause and Effect. For example, some Buddhists say, "I have practiced vegetarianism all my life. What have I got to show for it? I am now bankrupt!" Others say, "I have been a Buddhist for a long time. I recite the Buddha's name and prostrate myself to the Buddha, and yet my health has not improved." Some even say, "I practice vegetarianism and recite the Buddha's name, but my children are unfilial and unmotivated."

These people do not understand cause and effect. They do not know that morality is governed by one kind of cause and effect, one's financial condition is governed by another type of cause and effect, and one's physical health is governed by the kind of cause and effect related to physical health. If you desire good physical health, you need to pay attention to what you eat, get an adequate amount of exercise, and maintain habits of cleanliness. If you do not pay attention to these things and simply believe that by reciting Amitabha Buddha's name will give you good health, then you have a distorted understanding of the principle of cause and effect. If you want to be financially successful, you must practice sound business management. You cannot expect to become wealthy just because you observe vegetarianism. This again is distorted understanding. If you do not care for your children properly, if you do not teach them or educate them, you cannot expect them to turn out to be filial and to become productive members of society. This again is distorted thinking. Cause and effect will not make any errors. Even if we were to use a modern electronic calculator or computer to add up the good and evil deeds committed by a person, it would not be as accurate as the Law of Cause and Effect.

Karmic effect that manifests itself at the time of death can be divided into weighty karma, habitual karma, and recollective karma. Weighty karma means that if a person has performed both good and evil karma, whichever is heavier will manifest first. Habitual karma will manifest itself according to one's daily habits. The Pure Land School teaches people to recite Amitabha Buddha's name, so that it will become a habit and that at the time of passing away, the Pure Land practitioner will recite Amitabha Buddha's name and thus will be reborn in the Pure Land. Recollective karma means that one's karma is manifested according to one's memory. For example, when a person is on the street and comes to a crossroad, he may be at a loss as to which direction he should go. All of a sudden he remembers that he has a friend on the street that leads west, so he continues in a westerly direction. Thus, when a person passes away, he may be guided by his recollective karma in a similar fashion.

Whether a person is reborn as a human is certainly determined by his or her own karma. That we are born as human beings is the result of our impelling karma. In other words, impelling karma is the strong force that impels us to be reborn as human beings instead of being reborn as dogs or horses. Though we are all human beings, we nonetheless have individual differences such as being intelligent or foolish, virtuous or unruly, rich or poor, born into noble or humble circumstances. These variations are due to differences in the past karma performed by the individual during his or her past life. Those who have given in their previous lives will become rich, while those who have killed others will have a short life span as a result. The karma that "fills in the details" of our rebirths is called completing karma.

Another category of karma is collective karma and individual karma. The karma performed by a single person will give rise to a certain force, the karma performed by hundreds and thousands of people will give rise to a greater force, while the karma performed by millions and billions of people will give rise to an even greater force. This force is called collective karma. That is, the collective behavior of many beings will produce a very strong force which determines the course of life, history, and the universe. Individual karma differs from collective karma in that it only affects the individual. For example, natural disasters such as famine and earthquakes can be experienced by everyone living in the disaster area. The disasters are manifested due to the collective karma performed by the people living in disaster areas. However, during the same disaster each person may be affected differently because of his/her own individual karma.

Although there are many categories of and respective names of karma, nonetheless in the unique teaching of Buddhism, all actions and deeds performed by a person's body, speech, and mind are karma. Thus, a person's behavior can determine his or her life. One is responsible for all the good or bad karmic effects produced by one's own actions. Karmic effects are not bestowed on someone by deities or an Almighty, nor is there the King Yama of hell to inflict punishment. From this doctrine, we can glean several principles that govern karma: 

A. Karma is self-created; it is not created by divine power.

Everything good or evil is created by ourselves and is not arranged or bestowed upon us by deities. 

B. Karma means equal opportunity; there is no favoritism.

Under the Law of Cause and Effect, every being enjoys equality in harvesting his own karmic fruit. No one receives special treatment. Good begets good and evil begets evil. Someone might say that under the law of our country everyone enjoys equality as well; however, there are still people who enjoy special privileges under the legal system. The Law of Cause and Effect is absolutely fair; no one enjoys any special privileges at all.

A Japanese prime minister, after being sentenced, left five words: "wrong, reason, law, power, heaven." What this means is that "wrong" cannot win against "reason," "reason" cannot win against "law," "law" cannot win against "power," and "power" cannot win against "heaven." If we go to the prisons and check, we will find that not all convicted felons are irrevocably guilty and unreasonable. Some of them may even have plausible reasons to justify the crime that they have committed. However, it does not matter how reasonable one may be, the deed committed may still be against the law. The law may be just and fair, but there are certain privileged people who have the power to manipulate the law. But it does not matter how much power one has, one can never evade the Law of Cause and Effect. It does not matter how clever, powerful, or wealthy one is, one will always be subject to one's own karmic effects under the Law of Cause and Effect. There is no exception. 

C. Karma gives us hope and a bright future.

Karma tells us that even if we have done many good deeds, we should not think too highly of ourselves, because the merits accumulated due to these good deeds are like a bank account. No matter how much we have saved, if we keep withdrawing, our account will be empty one day. A person who has done numerous bad deeds may feel as if heavily indebted and consider life hopeless. But if he works hard enough, there will come a day when all the "debts" are paid off. A person who has broken the law has to serve his sentence in prison. When his term is finished, he will be free to start a new beginning again. Karma is like this: it gives people hope. One's future is in one's own hands, for we are free to decide in which direction we want to go. Our futures are bright. 

D. Karma means that good begets good and evil begets evil.

You might think that this sounds fatalistic. It is true that karma decides our fate and future. However, we are the ones who create our karma. The karmic effect that we shall experience is dependent on the karma that we have created. Someone may ask, "Did the enlightened Sakyamuni Buddha still have evil karma?" The answer is yes. A person may have committed countless good and evil deeds in his past lives. However, if he does not allow them to be manifested, it is as if they do not exist. This is similar to planting seeds in the soil. If the seeds are not provided with the right conditions for growth, they will not grow. However, if the right conditions are provided, they will grow healthily even if there are some weeds mixed among them. That is to say, we need not overly dwell on evil karma that we have committed in the past. If we keep planting good seeds in this life, the seeds of our previous evil karma will not have the opportunity to grow. Thus, with this clearer understanding of karma, we can effectively work toward happiness. 

II. The Second Characteristic: Conditioned Genesis

Sakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was enlightened while sitting on the Diamond Throne underneath the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya. What truth did he realize when he was enlightened? He realized the Principle of Cause and Condition and the truth of Conditioned Genesis. He realized the principle that all phenomena arise from causes and conditions and that Conditioned Genesis is an unchangeable truth of life and the universe. During the forty-nine (some say forty-five) years in which the Buddha taught the Dharma, he directed his efforts to elucidating the truth of Conditioned Genesis to others. Conditioned Genesis is another special characteristic that distinguishes Buddhism from other religions.

Conditioned Genesis is based on the Law of Cause and Effect. All existence arises from causes and conditions. The existence of everything in the universe is interdependent. Broadly speaking, something as large as the world and something as small as a speck of dust, a flower, or a blade of grass?/FONT>all arise due to causes and conditions. The Principle of Conditioned Genesis is not something that can be explained through scholastic erudition. It has to be experienced and realized through actual practice. Before the Buddha renounced secular life, he was already very well versed in the philosophy of the four Vedas, the five sciences, and the philosophies of the ninety-six religions practiced during that time. After six years of ascetic practices and meditation, he finally realized the Principle of Conditioned Genesis and attained Buddhahood.

There was a Brahman called Sariputra who had practiced Brahmanism for a long time and had many followers. But he still had not realized the Truth. One day, Sariputra was walking on a street of Rajagrha and met Asvajit, one of the Buddha's first five disciples. Asvajit was deeply influenced by the Buddha's teaching and he always put what the Buddha taught into practice. Asvajit's demeanor and outward appearance earned him the respect of people who saw him. Sariputra asked him respectfully, "Who are you? Who is your teacher? What does he teach you?"

Asvajit replied, "All dharmas arise due to causes and conditions, all dharmas cease due to causes and conditions. Lord Buddha, the great sramana, always teaches thus."

In this context, the word "dharmas" signifies everything in life, all phenomena of the universe. "All dharmas arise due to causes and conditions" means that every object and phenomenon in the universe arises because of the coming together of many causes and conditions. When the causes and conditions are no longer present, objects and phenomena cease to exist.

After Sariputra heard this, he was overjoyed. He imparted the good news to his good friend Maudgalyayana. The two of them, together with their followers, all went to follow the Buddha. Under the teaching of the Buddha, Sariputra became the most prominent for his great wisdom among the Buddha's disciples, while Maudgalyayana became the most prominent for his supernatural power. Thus, we can see that the Principle of Cause and Condition is the Truth.

We can understand the concept of Conditioned Genesis through three aspects: 

A. Effects arise from causes.

Hetupratyaya is the Sanskrit word for causes and conditions. Hetu is the primary cause. Pratyaya is the secondary condition or conditions. Hetu is the direct force from which the fruit (effect) arises, while pratyaya is the indirect force. All phenomena of the universe arise from the coming together of many different causes and conditions. No phenomena can exist without suitable causes and conditions. This is what is meant by "dharmas do not arise by themselves." For example, let us take a soybean. This soybean is a seed, the main cause. Water, soil, sunlight, air and fertilizer are the necessary secondary conditions. If these causes and conditions come together in an appropriate manner, then this seed can germinate, bloom, and produce fruit. Thus the fruit arises from causes. If we store this soybean in the granary or place it on gravel, it will always remain a seed. In the absence of the necessary external conditions, the seed cannot grow and bear fruit.

From the viewpoint of time, the societal phenomena of a given period of time may appear to have little or no connection to the societal phenomena of a later period. However, if we carefully analyze the societal phenomena, we soon realize that the society of any period cannot arise without the existence of the society of the previous period. Let us take the example of a torch. When the flame from one torch is passed on to a new torch, the old and the new torches are two separate entities. However, there is a very subtle relationship between these two torches. The flame of the new torch is the continuation of the flame of the old torch. In the flow of time, it is not possible to find an entity isolated from all other entities.

From the viewpoint of space, it looks as if one dharma does not have any relationship with another dharma. However, if we look carefully, we will see that the relationships of cause and condition exist between all dharmas. For example, today we have a chance to meet here; this is an effect. The formation of this effect was brought about by many different causes and conditions. You invited me to come here to give a talk, I was free to come, the school is allowing us to use its facilities, and all of you have the interest to come and listen. Because these conditions all came together at once, our talk today can be held successfully. If any one of the above mentioned conditions were lacking, this talk would not have been possible. Therefore, the arising of any kind of existence is due to many causes and conditions.

The existence of a person also depends on causes and conditions. Even though we have advanced science and technology and we can invent and produce objects, we still cannot invent life itself; it still arises out of causes and conditions. The joining of the father's sperm with the mother's ovum gives rise to a new life. Human life will then continue only if the physical needs are met through the various items provided for by farmers, factory workers, and merchants. As an analogy, a house is built by placing cement, wood, bricks, and other construction materials together in the proper manner. The house will not exist if these components are taken apart. A person is also like this. If a person's skin, flesh, blood, and bones are separated, the person will no longer exist. Therefore, all dharmas arise from causes and conditions.

When we talk about the formation of life, one question that has prompted debate since ancient times is, "Which came firstthe chicken or the egg?" If the chicken came first and the egg came later, then where did the chicken come from? If the egg came first and the chicken came later, then where did the egg come from? The chicken and the egg?/FONT>which came first?

Buddhism does not concern itself with questions such as these regarding which entity came first. Nor does Buddhism concern itself about a beginning or an end. Buddhism talks about a "circle." This "circle" has no beginning or end. This beginninglessness and endlessness is the Concept of Conditioned Genesis. For example, which is the first hetupratyaya and which is a later hetupratyaya? This is something that cannot be determined, because any single phenomenon arises due to the coming together of many hetupratyayas. For example, the clock on the wall runs continuously from one o'clock to twelve o'clock and from twelve o'clock back to one o'clock. Which is the beginning? Which is the end? This is very difficult to say, because it has no beginning or end. From this example we can understand that hetupratyayas are interdependent and interrelated. "This is, therefore that is; this arises, therefore that arises; this is not, therefore that is not; this ceases, therefore that ceases." This verse is the best definition of Conditioned Genesis. 

B. All phenomena exist in accordance with the truth.

The Principle of Conditioned Genesis is subtle and complicated. It is profound and difficult to understand. It cannot be analyzed using scientific techniques, nor can it be elucidated by the metaphysics of philosophy. In the Agama sutras, the Buddha said that Conditioned Genesis is a unique characteristic of Buddhist teaching. It is a truth of the universe which cannot be found in secular teachings.

Conditioned Genesis, which says that all phenomena exist in accordance with the truth, is based on the Law of Cause and Effect. If one plants the seed of a bean, one will reap beans. If one plants a melon seed, one will reap melons. A melon seed will not give rise to beans, and a bean seed will not give rise to melons. A particular cause will give rise to a particular effectthis is the truth expounded in the Law of Cause and Effect. Truths of this world must be in accordance with the conditions of, "it originally was like this, it inevitably is like this, and it universally is like this." Truth cannot be modified via debates and need not be described in words. It simply is. For example, the Buddha said that anything that arises will cease. From the viewpoint of time, this statement can apply in the past, present, and future. From the viewpoint of space, this statement is true in every part of the world. Regardless how developed we are culturally, how advanced we are technologically, we cannot escape from the fact that anything which arises will cease. Any phenomenon that is in contrast with the truth will not come to pass. This is what is meant when we say, "All phenomena exist in accordance with the truth." 

C. The arising of existence depends on sunyata.

How did all the dharmas originate in our universe? According to Conditioned Genesis, the arising of all dharmas depends on sunyata (emptiness). Without emptiness, all phenomena will not exist. Why? Because without emptiness, there can be no existence. Emptiness does not mean that nothing exists, unlike what we may believe based on the typical usage of this word. Sunyata is the "nature of emptiness" of all phenomena. If it were not for the nature of emptiness, phenomena would never manifest their value and function of existence. The function of phenomena is the application of emptiness. Suppose that we wish to construct a house. In addition to materials such as wood, cement, steel rods, and bricks, we also need a design, a blueprint, and measurements. Of course most important of all, we need empty space. Without empty space, no matter how refined the materials may be, no matter how wonderful the design may be, this house simply cannot be built. Therefore, when there is emptiness, events and phenomena can then come to be.

Usually, when "emptiness" is mentioned, people will become afraid because they have the misconception that the Buddhist religion requires people to negate everything. However, according to Buddhism, "emptiness" is the basis of all bhava (existence). For example, we are all gathered here today because there is space. If there were no space, we would not be able to gather here. Another example of "emptiness" according to Buddhism is the human body; there is much space in the human body. One can exist because one's ear is empty, one's nose is empty, one's mouth is empty and one's digestive system is empty. Now suppose one's nose is not empty, one's mouth is not empty, and one's digestive system is not empty, can this person survive? Can life still exist?

If there is no space, a house cannot be built. If a bag is not empty, it cannot hold anything. If the universe is not empty, human life cannot exist. Thus, there is "existence" only if there is "emptiness." Without sunyata, all dharmas would not arise from conditions and thus there would be no arising or ceasing of anything.

Based on this phenomenon of existence, in the chapter on the Four Noble Truths of the Madhyamika Sastra, Nagajuna said, "Because there is sunyata, all dharmas can arise; if there is no sunyata, all dharmas cannot arise." 

III. The Third Characteristic: Sunyata

Ordinarily, people do not understand the concept of sunyata (emptiness). They generally think that sunyata means nothingness. This is a misconception. We have already mentioned the phenomenon of Conditioned Genesis, in which all dharmas arise from causes and conditions and they cease because of causes and conditions. All dharmas come into being because of the coming together of the right causes and conditions; they cease due to the disintegration of the causes and conditions that were responsible for their formation. Therefore the nature of all dharmas is emptiness. That is, dharmas do not have any true self-nature, so they are described as "empty."

Commonly people limit their understanding of sunyata to mean "absolute nothingness," yet consider existence real. According to the Buddhist teachings, existencearising due to Conditioned Genesisis illusory yet does not preclude emptiness. Similarly, Sunyatathe nature of all existence is fundamentally emptymeans nonsubstantiality but does not preclude existence. This is the concept of Conditioned Genesis with nature of emptiness.

I would like to explain sunyata as follows: 

A. The four great elements are fundamentally empty; the five aggregates do not have true existence.

Sunyata is the infinite meaning of Mahayana Buddhism. It is not "absolute nothingness." It is a constructive and revolutionary concept. It is used by the Mahayanists to explain the existence of this world and universe. "The four great elements are fundamentally empty; the five aggregates do not have true existence" is how the Buddha explained of the nature of all events and phenomena of this world and universe after he attained enlightenment. All dharmas exist due to the coming together of the four great elements. What are the four great elements? They are earth, water, fire, and wind. Earth has the property of solidity, water has the property of humidity, fire has the property of heat, and wind has the property of mobility. Why do we say that the four elements of earth, water, fire, and wind are great? Because everything in this world and universe is formed by these four elements. For example, a cup is made by firing clay that is constructed in the shape of a cup. Clay belongs to the earth element. Water is added to the clay in order to shape the clay into a cup. The cup is then fired. After being fired, the cup is cooled and dried by the wind. So, all four great elements are involved in the formation of this cup.

Similarly, a human being is also formed by the unity of the four great elements. For example, our skin, hair, nails, teeth, bones, and flesh all belong to the earth element. Our blood, saliva, and urine belong to the liquid element. Our body heat belongs to the fire element, and our breathing and movement belong to the wind element. Thus, if any one of these four great elements is out of balance, we will become ill. If these four great elements disintegrate, we will no longer exist.

From these examples, we therefore can see that the physical body is formed by the combination of the four great elements. Furthermore, the mind, or the consciousness according to our usual understanding, is only a combination of the five aggregatesrupa (form), vedana (feeling), samjna (perception), samskara (mental formation), and vijnana (consciousness). Life is the result of the combination of causes and conditions, without a true independent self-nature; a physical body with consciousness is only an existence due to a combination of factors. When the uniting force of these causes and conditions is exhausted, the previously formed combination of these factors dissolves, and the living being will no longer exist. Where then is the separate true self? Therefore, the Buddha teaches thus, "The four great elements are fundamentally empty; the five aggregates do not have true existence."

Once, Tung-p'o Su of the Sung Dynasty went to visit Ch'an Master Fo Yin. When Tung-p'o Su arrived, Ch'an Master Fo Yin was teaching the Dharma. When the Ch'an Master saw Tung-p'o Su, he said to him, "Mr. Su, where did you just come from? We do not have a place for you to sit."

Tung-p'o Su replied immediately, "Master, if there is no seat, why don't you lend me your four great elements and five aggregates (your body) to use as my meditation seat?"

Ch'an Master Fo Yin said, "I have a question for you. If you can give me a satisfactory answer, I will let you use me as your seat. If you cannot give me an answer, then please leave your jade belt behind as a souvenir. Here is my question: my four great elements are all empty and my five aggregates do not have true existence. May I ask where you are going to sit?"

Tung-p'o Su could not give him an answer. So he took off his jade belt, which had been presented to him by the emperor, and left.

From this story we can see that the human body, an illusive combination of the four great elements and five aggregates, does not have any true substantial essence for us to attain. 

B. What is sunyata?

In the Mahayana teaching, the word "sunyata" integrates the Three Dharma Seals. Sunyata is the Ultimate Truth. It is an important concept in Buddhism and a special characteristic of Buddhism that distinguishes it from other worldly teachings.

Most people do not understand what sunyata means. They think it means complete nullity and nothingness. This is just not so. Sunyata is, in fact, a most profound and wonderful philosophy. If one can truly understand sunyata, one can understand the whole of Buddhism. What, then, is sunyata? It is simply not possible to explain the meaning of sunyata in just one sentence. The Treatise That Explains Mahayana gives ten definitions of sunyata. Although these definitions cannot thoroughly explain the true meaning of sunyata, they are very close.

The ten definitions of sunyata, as explained in this treatise, are as follows:

  1. Sunyata has the meaning of non-obstruction. Like space, it can be found everywhere and will not obstruct any material existence.
  2. Sunyata has the meaning of all-pervasiveness. Like space, it is pervasive and reaches everywhere.
  3. Sunyata has the meaning of equality. Like space, it does not make any distinctions but treats all equally.
  4. Sunyata has the meaning of vastness. Like space, it is vast, limitless, and boundless.
  5. Sunyata has the meaning of formlessness. Like space, it has no shape or form.
  6. Sunyata has the meaning of purity. Like space, it is always pure.
  7. Sunyata has the meaning of motionlessness. Like space, it is always still, completely beyond any form of arising and decaying.
  8. Sunyata has the meaning of absolute negation. It negates all facts and theories.
  9. Sunyata has the meaning of emptying sunyata itself. It negates all concepts of independent self-nature and also destroys all attachment to the concept of sunyata.
  10. Sunyata has the meaning of unattainability. Like space, it cannot be attained or held.

Although these ten definitions cannot entirely describe the truth of sunyata, nevertheless, together they provide us with a vivid depiction for better understanding of this important Buddhist teaching. 

C. How can sunyata be perceived?

  1. Sunyata can be perceived through the illusive nature of continuation. All existence is empty because all phenomena are impermanent. Just like on the Yangtze River, the waves from behind push the waves in front; a new generation replaces an older generation. Time continues without interruption, and worldly events are always of suffering, emptiness, and impermanence. Through the continuation of impermanence, we can see emptiness.
  2. Sunyata can be perceived through the illusive nature of cycles. All dharmas of the universe are governed by the Law of Cause and Effect. A cause will become an effect, which in turn will become a cause. For example, when the appropriate amount of sunlight, air, water, and soil are present, a seed will germinate, bloom, and produce fruit. The seed is the cause, the fruit is the effect. When the necessary external conditions are present, the seeds from the fruit will germinate, bloom, and produce more fruit. In this case, the fruit, which was the effect, has become the cause. Through this continuous cycle wherein cause becomes effect and effect becomes cause, we can see sunyata.
  3. Sunyata can be perceived through the illusive nature of combinations. All dharmas arise due to the harmonious unity of various causes and conditions. For example, the human body is made up of the harmonious unity of skin, flesh, bones, blood, and various bodily fluids. If the human body is separated into these components, there will no longer be such existence as an independent human body. Thus, we can understand sunyata through Conditioned Genesis.
  4. Sunyata can be perceived through the illusive nature of relativity. All dharmas of this universe are relative, such as father versus son and teacher versus student. For example, when a son gets married and has a son, he himself becomes a father. Likewise, a student who learns enough can then become a teacher. Thus, all things are relative and therefore are unreal and empty.
  5. Sunyata can be perceived through the illusive nature of appearance. There is no set standard or measure for how we view appearance. For example, light from a candle may appear bright to our eyes, but when an electric lamp is switched on, the candlelight now seems dim. Further, the speed of an automobile may seem fast to us until it is compared to the speed of an airplane. These examples allow us to realize that the appearance of all events and all phenomena are viewed by us without a set standard; we can therefore realize sunyata.
  6. Sunyata can be perceived through the illusive nature of terms. Each dharma in this universe is called by a different name. These names are nonsubstantial in nature and thus empty. For example, a female baby is called a baby girl. When she is grown up, she is referred to as Miss. When she gets married, she will be addressed as Mrs. When she has her own children, they will call her "mother." When she is old and has grandchildren, she is then known as a grandmother. From a baby girl to grandmother, she is still the same person, yet her titles are different. Thus, we can understand sunyata through the illusiveness of terms.
  7. Sunyata can be perceived through the illusive nature of different viewpoints. Different people with different states of mind will have differing views on the same thing or event. For example, on a snowy night, a poet sitting in front of the window inside a warm and cozy house hopes that the snow will continue through the night, so that he can enjoy more beautiful scenery. But, a beggar shivering in the cold hopes that the snow will stop soon; otherwise, he will not be able to make it through the night. Thus, we can understand sunyata through different viewpoints.

IV. The Fourth Characteristic: The Three Dharma Seals

The Three Dharma Seals (Three Characteristics of Existence) is an important doctrine of Buddhism. The Three Dharma Seals can determine whether a certain Buddhist teaching is the Ultimate Truth. The "Three Dharma Seals" is like the offical stamp by which we recognize the authenticity of everyday merchandise. Any doctrine which is not in accordance with the Three Dharma Seals is not the complete teaching, even if it was taught by the Buddha. On the other hand, any doctrine that is in accordance with the Three Dharma Seals is genuine Dharma, even if it was not personally taught by the Buddha.

The Three Dharma Seals are as follows: "All samskaras (composite things) are impermanent," "All dharmas do not have a substantial self," and "Nirvana is perfect peace." The three are used together to prove the genuineness of the Dharma; therefore, they are called the "Three Dharma Seals." 

A. All samskaras are impermanent.

"All samskaras" refer to all forms and actions of this world. According to the doctrine of Buddhism, none of these forms and actions is permanent. This impermanence can be illustrated by the following two points:

  1. The "three periods of time" flow continuously without stopping. This shows that all samskaras are impermanent.
  2. All dharmas arise because of cause and conditions; thus, they are impermanent.

What does it mean when we say "the three periods of time" flow continuously? The "three periods of time" is defined as time in the past, present, and future. From the viewpoint of time, all dharmas are impermanent because they do not remain unchanged even for an instant; they arise and cease within each moment. The dharmas of the past are already extinct. The dharmas of the future have not come into being yet. The dharmas of the present become extinct as soon as they arise. Thus, all dharmas are impermanent. Why do we say that all dharmas, arising due to cause and condition, are impermanent? Since all dharmas are formed by the combination and unity of different causes and conditions, when the necessary causes and conditions disintegrate, the dharmas will cease to exist. As causes and conditions are impermanent, any dharma that arises from causes and conditions is impermanent as well. For example, a person is reborn due to his past karma. From birth to death and death to birth, lives perpetually move through past, present, and future. Life is truly impermanent.

The functioning of our mind is also impermanent. Our thoughts constantly rise and cease, changing every moment. Likewise, all dharmas of this universe also arise and cease from moment to moment. Their existence is a continuous process. The worldly phenomena of arising, maintaining, decaying, and destruction, the seasonal change of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, and life cycle of birth, aging, sickness, and death, all continue like a flowing river. Nothing ever remains unchanged in this continuous flux.

We usually divide human feelings into three types: pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings and feelings that are neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Of course, unpleasant feelings are duhkha (suffering). However, pleasant feelings are also duhkha, because this is the suffering of decay. For example, health and beauty will give rise to pleasant feelings, but the loss of health and beauty can cause suffering to arise. Feelings that are neither happy nor unhappy bring us suffering because of change. Examples of this kind of feeling are those caused by the passing of time, the brevity of life, and the impermanence of all dharmas. All these perpetual changes bring people unbearable anguishthis is the suffering of impermanence. This is why the Buddhist teachings state that because all samskaras are impermanent, all feelings are duhkha. 

B. All dharmas do not have a substantial self.

Earlier when we touched on the statement, "All samskaras are impermanent," we discussed that nothing is permanent from the viewpoint of time. Now, if we take a look from the viewpoint of space, nothing can exist independently. We as human beings like to cling to the "self" and believe that "I," or my "self," existmy head, my body, my thoughts, my parents, my spouse and children. To what we believe as ourselves, we develop the "clinging to the self." To objects that we consider as belonging to ourselves, we develop the "clinging to one's surrounding objects." We tend to look at this world with "I" as the center of everything as if nothing would exist without "I." However, according to the rational, penetrating perspective of the Buddhist teachings, there is actually no such thing as a permanent and independent "self." Why? For any entity to be called as "self," it must fulfill four requirements: this entity must be permanent, in control, unchanging, and independent.

Let us now consider the human body, the entity that we tend to think of as "I." From the moment of birth and continuing for the several decades in a person's lifetime, the human body is perpetually undergoing physiological changes of birth and death as it grows, matures, and ages. How then can it be permanent and unchanging? Formed through the combination and unity of the four great elements and five aggregates, the human body comes to be when the necessary conditions for such unity are present and ceases to exist when such conditions are no longer present. How then can it be in control? The human body is where all varieties of suffering assemblephysiologically there are sufferings of hunger, coldness, illness, fatigue, et cetera; mentally there are sufferings of anger, hatred, sorrow, fear, disappointment, et cetera. When the body is undergoing all these sufferings, it simply cannot break free. How can it be independent, with sovereignty? Therefore, we can see that the "self" as we have defined it earlier does not exist. Hence the Buddhist teachings state that all dharmas do not have a substantial self.

The absence of a substantial self, anatman, is the foundation of the Middle Path; it is the fundamental teaching of Buddhism. The absence of a substantial self is the unique teaching that differentiates Buddhism from other religious or philosophical doctrines. 

C. Nirvana is perfect peace.

This statement means that no matter how chaotic things are in this world, they will eventually become peaceful. No matter how different things are, they will eventually become equal in the end. Indeed the state of Nirvana is peace and equality. According to Buddhism, when the state of Nirvana is attained, all afflictions and the cycle of birth and death will be extinguished, there will be no more suffering, eternal happiness is attained, perfect wisdom is realized, and all illusions are eradicated. Ordinary people think that Nirvana is attained only after death. Actually, the definition of Nirvana is "without birth or death." Nirvana means the extinction of "clinging"; the elimination of atma-graha (holding on to the concept of the self) and Dharma-graha (holding on to the concept that things are real); and the eradication of the obstacles of defilement and the riddance of the hindrance of knowledge. It means putting an end to the cycle of birth and death. Nirvana is liberation. Defilement is bondage. A criminal, chained by shackles, has lost his freedom. Likewise, living beings are bound by the chains of greed, hatred, and delusion. If living beings practice the Dharma and put an end to these defilements, they will all be liberated and thus attain Nirvana. Other than going through this process, Nirvana is not to be found in any other way.

During the Buddha's time, the Buddha's disciples traveled to different places to teach the Dharma after they had attained Nirvana. From their example, we can understand that Nirvana is not something that can be attained outside of dharmas. All dharmas are originally Nirvana. However, since the minds of living beings are obscured by ignorance, by delusion and clinging, and by thinking that the "self" and the dharmas have a substantial existence which can be attained, they encounter obstacles, hindrances, and bondage everywhere they go. If we can be like the Buddhist sages who understand that all things arise due to Conditioned Genesis, then even though we still exist in this world, we can realize that all existence is ever changing and lacks a true self-nature. We will no longer be attached; wherever we are we will then be liberated. Liberation is Nirvana.

Some people say that life is like an ocean in which there is perpetual motion, with waves coming one after the other. The continuous movement of the ocean exemplifies the impermanence of the samskaras. If we can look at the waves through the eyes of the Buddhist sages, we then soon realize that although the waves are turbulent, the nature of water is always calm. Likewise, life is an endless cycle of birth and death, but the real self-nature is always in perfect peace. Thus, if we want to attain the liberation of Nirvana, we have to realize it through the impermanence of all samskaras and the nonsubstantiality of all dharmas. It is not possible to find the state of perfect peace of Nirvana apart from impermanence and nonsubstantiality.

Today I have introduced you to the four unique characteristics of Buddhism. I hope this lecture has deepened your insight into Buddhism and that it will serve as a stepping stone for your further investigation of Buddhism. May everyone enjoy good health of body and mind, happiness, and success!