Second in a series of four talks on “The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines” translated by Edward Conze.
Prajna Paramita in 8,000 Lines (Part 2 of 4)
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | September 12, 2007
Abridged and edited by Ryusen Barbara Byrum
I want to start with one passage that we read last week. I want to repeat it, because I think it is such a great and important passage. It appears on page 94, the last paragraph. Subhuti is the mouthpiece for the sutra.
Subhuti: The perfection of wisdom, beneficial to all the three vehicles, is also the perfection which [allows them not to] lean on any dharma, because it shows that all dharmas have no support and can therefore give none. [Here dharmas mean everything.]
The virtue of the perfection of wisdom is that it allows all practitioners not to lean on anything, or to depend on anything, because there is nothing to depend on. “Lean on” you could read as “attached to; get entangled in.” You don’t have to get entangled in anything, because when you appreciate the teachings of the sutra, you realize that there was never anything to get entangled in. So to be unsupported in terms of this sutra is the ultimate security.
Subhuti: For if a Bodhisattva, when this deep perfection of wisdom is being taught, remains unafraid, then one should know that she has adjusted herself to the perfection of wisdom, and that she is not lacking in this attention [to the true facts about dharmas.]
So, these are two things that we stressed last week, and that were mentioned so often in the beginning of the sutra. One is to realize the unsupported nature of all dharmas, the empty nature of all dharmas, the insubstantial nature of all dharmas. The other is to not be afraid or freaked-out, or not to fall into despair and lacking motivation. To realize the empty nature of all dharmas, and not to be afraid, is to course in the perfection of wisdom. Then a particular kind of attention – of mindfulness – arises.
Then Sariputra, who is the spokesperson for those who do not understand the perfection of wisdom and have a great resistance to it, appears. He questions Subhuti, saying:
Sariputra: How is it that a Bodhisattva does not lack in attention when he is adjusted to perfect wisdom? [In other words, he is saying, “No, I think a Bodhisattva would lack in attention when he is adjusted to perfect wisdom.”] For if a Bodhisattva is not lacking in attention, then he should automatically lack in adjustment to the perfection of wisdom.
In other words, there are two choices. Either you see that everything is unsupported and empty, or you have attention. Because if you saw that everything was unsupported and lacked any substance, you couldn’t have any attention. You could only have attention if you thought there was something there to be attentive to. You might think, “I have been practicing attentiveness and mindfulness, because I think that there is something to be mindful of. You’re saying there is nothing to be mindful of, so it is either one or the other. Either you are going to be mindful of something, or you are not mindful, in which case you are in accord with the teachings of the perfection of wisdom.”
Sariputra: And if he does not lack in adjustment to the perfection of wisdom, then he would be lacking in attention. [So if he is in accord with the perfection of wisdom, then there is no attention.] But if in a Bodhisattva the two facts that he is not lacking in attention, and that he is not lacking in dwelling in the perfection of wisdom, belong together, then all beings also will not be lacking in dwelling in the perfection of wisdom. Because they also dwell in not lacking in attention.
It’s a little convoluted, but basically Sariputra is saying that either you have attention to something, or you see that there is nothing, and there is no attention. If you have attention to nothing, and also understand that everything is nothing, then what are we talking about? There’s nobody out here for attention. Everybody is all the same. Everybody is mindful or not mindful. So what’s the difference? Practice does not seem to exist. This is not an incorrect statement. What he is trying to say is that this doesn’t make any sense.
I am not going to check to see if you are following me, I’m just going on! [Laughter]
Subhuti: Well said, and yet I must reprove you, although the Venerable Sariputra has taken hold of the matter correctly as far as the words are concerned. Because one should know that attention [mindfulness, awareness] has no real existence in the same way in which beings have no real existence. [So attention is empty; attention itself is empty; mindfulness itself is empty, just the same way that all other things are empty.] That attention is isolated in the same way in which beings are isolated. [Last time we spoke about this word “isolated,” which means, “supreme, sovereign, without peer,” not “desperately lonely.”] That attention is unthinkable in the same way that beings are unthinkable; that acts of mental attention do not undergo the process that leads to enlightenment in the same way that beings do not undergo that process; that acts of attention do not in any real sense undergo the process which leads to enlightenment, any more than beings do. It is through an attention of such a character that I wish that a Bodhisattva, a great being, may dwell in this dwelling.
This is a description of Zen mindfulness, in which we are not so interested in something to be mindful of – we are not investigating or figuring something out – we are applying an attention, which has no particular object that is actually existing. I was thinking the other day that one of my teachers had a great way of putting this. It was a brilliant way of putting it. He said, “Awareness, mindfulness, means to drop the significance of everything.” Meaning, drop the conceptual set-up that we are holding about ourselves, about anything that we are dealing with, and just be present without any objects.
It is a different kind of presence. It’s not that I am being mindful of my thoughts, so that I can see the kind of thoughts I’m having (good thoughts or bad thoughts), or mindful of my posture, so that I can have the right posture. But just being present, dropping the significance of everything, so that everything falls away and there is just the being present. It’s a little different way of being mindful. In a way, it looks the same from the outside, but there is a certain level of depth here, of the recognition that you are not working toward something. You are just being absolutely and totally present.
It was in that spirit that I suggested that, in order to prevent us from becoming too heady, those of us who are willing to – and I myself was willing to do this – we would all practice being attentive in this way while we are washing the dishes. I suggested that we pay attention specifically when washing the dishes:, completely being present, with nothing there on each moment of washing the dishes. But then I thought, “Suppose some of these people have dishwashers?” I didn’t think of that. I don’t have a dishwasher. So let me be clear about this. I am about talking not about putting dishes in the dishwasher – you can still do this sometimes – but washing the dishes and seeing everything, the whole cosmos, on each moment.
I was practicing that this week, and I found it really satisfying and interesting and profound. I noticed a few things. I noticed that in a very subtle way, while I was standing there washing the dishes, my body was ever so slightly leaning in another direction. I was there washing the dishes, but really I was, “Let’s get this over with, because I have something more important to do.” Even though it was very subtle – and if you looked at me, you would not have said that – but from the inside, I could feel that very slightly I was turning away in another direction. This clearly meant to me that I had forgotten the empty nature of the dishes, and of myself, and of the next task that I supposedly was going to do. I was thinking that there was actually something important to be done, and the dishes were something that had to be done and gotten through with, so that I could go on to the next thing. So the rest of the week, whenever I noticed myself doing that, I would be there, firmly facing the dishes. It made a big difference, and there was a lot more release in my washing of the dishes. When I did that, I began to notice that washing the dishes has a lot to do with hearing the sound of the water and the movement of the dishes; and once I started hearing that, it made a whole different experience. There was a lot of peace in that practice. I could feel more emptiness. I could feel more a sense that the dishes were far from being something to get through quickly. They were saving me. The empty nature of the dishes was compassionately taking me in hand and giving me something really precious. Releasing me from my quite unconscious fantasies.
So that is my little report on Zen dishwashing, and I recommend that we all try this. I bring it up again, because it is what the sutra is talking about. With all these words and concepts that may seem hard to grasp, it really isn’t about the words and concepts. It is about the reality of our experience in being with our lives in a particular way.
So on to page 100 in chapter two. This is section six, “The Infinitude of Perfect Wisdom.” Sakra is the chief of the gods. The gods all come together to the Buddha and appreciate the teaching.
Sakra: This perfection of wisdom, Subhuti, is a great perfection, unlimited, measureless, infinite.
Subhuti: So it is. And why? Perfect wisdom is great, unlimited, measureless, and infinite because form, feelings, perceptions, consciousness are also unlimited. [So the dishes are infinite; this is the point. The dishes are measureless, infinite. I was not noticing that. If you are washing infinite dishes, it’s a fantastic thing! It’s not a chore.] Hence one does not settle down in the conviction that this is a ‘great perfection,’ an ‘unlimited perfection,’ a ‘measureless perfection’, and ‘infinite perfection.’ [Why? Because those are limited concepts.] That is why perfect wisdom is a great perfection, unlimited, measureless, and infinite. [Not even limited by the concepts.] Perfect wisdom is an infinite perfection because objects as well as individual beings are infinite. [So here you see that “limitless,” “measureless,” and “infinite” are synonyms for emptiness.] Perfect wisdom is an infinite perfection because one cannot get at the beginning, middle, or end of any objective fact. Moreover, perfect wisdom is an infinite perfection because all objective facts are endless and boundless, and their beginning, middle, or end are not apprehended. For one cannot apprehend the beginning, middle and end of form. In that way, perfect wisdom is an infinite perfection by reason of the infinitude of objects. And further again, a being is endless and boundless because one cannot get at its beginning, middle, or end. Therefore perfect wisdom is an infinite perfection by reason of the infinitude of beings. [So we are strangled by the limitations of our everyday experience, including our thoughts and feelings – so ineffable, indefinable, and ungraspable. Frightening to think of that. And yet we hear about emptinesss, and we get frightened. But emptiness is the antidote to that.]
Sakra: How is it, Holy Subhuti, that perfect wisdom is an infinite perfection by reason of the infinitude of beings?
Subhuti: It is not so because of their exceedingly great number and abundance.
Sakra: How then, Holy Subhuti, is perfect wisdom an infinite perfection by reason of the infinitude of beings?
Subhuti: What factual entity does the word “being” denote?
Sakra: The word “being” denotes no dharma or non-dharma. It is a term that has been added on [to what is really there] as something adventitious, groundless, as nothing in itself, unfounded in objective fact. [So all of our language, and most of our thinking, is an add-on, without anything to which it exactly refers.]
Subhuti: Thereby, has any being shown up? [Does any being appear with your words?
Sakra: No, indeed, Holy Subhuti!
Subhuti: When no being at all has shown up, how can there be an infinitude of them? [There aren’t any.] If a Tathagatha, with his voice of infinite range, with the deep thunder of his voice, should pronounce, for eons countless as the sands of the Ganges, the word ‘being,’ ‘being’ [countless beings], would he thereby produce, or stop, any being whatsoever, either in the past, present, or future?
Sakra: No, indeed, Holy Subhuti! Because a being is pure from the very beginning, perfectly pure. [Limitless, measureless, perfectly pure, impervious – all beings, all dharmas, all thoughts, all objects.]
Subhuti: In this way also, perfect wisdom is an infinite perfection by reason of the infinitude of beings. In this manner also, the infinitude of perfect wisdom should be known from the infinitude of beings.[Page 119]
Sakra: Does a Bodhisattva course only in the perfection of wisdom, and not in the other perfections?
The Buddha: […] Even so, one cannot get at a distinction or difference between the six perfections. All of them are upheld by skill in means, dedicated to the perfection of wisdom, dedicated to all knowledge.
“Skill in means” is a really important Mahayana term. Basically what it means is profound improvisation. The Perfection of Wisdom is the ultimate flexibility, right? Because there are no guidelines. So one needs to drop the significance of everything, to be fully present in any given situation, and to come forth with what is needed in that situation. Sometimes it might look this way and sometimes that way. How to come forth with all knowledge on any occasion, unique to that occasion.
This is very much the spirit of Zen. No guidelines, no rules, no set forms. Just coming forth from the groundless standing. The virtue of all the training forms is to train us in that. Here we have skill in means. The Perfection of Wisdom is all six Paramitas rolled into one.