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What the Buddha taught on Emptiness – A Commentary on the Golden Light Sutra - The Pure View

Sherab Namgyal / January 28, 2013

What the Buddha taught on Emptiness – A Commentary on the Golden Light Sutra


This article is a commentary on the sixth chapter of the Golden Light Sutra. The sutra itself is believed to be very precious and to purify karma upon hearing it. The verses have profound meaning and to understand these in depth a qualified teacher is required. Hence, reading this article is merely the first step towards understanding emptiness.

New readers might refer to Crash Course in Buddhist Emptiness before reading the rest of this article.

Buddha Sense
(C) by Ana Teresa Maltez

The Buddha begins by separating the physical from the mental:

The body is like an empty village or house;
Senses are like soldiers and thieves.
Although they live in the same village,
They are unaware of the each other.

As described in the Abhidharma teachings on the five Skandhas, the Skandhas are the mental qualities of mind that are used to register sense objects, whereas the body is the result of physical causes coming in to place. The body is believed to exist of the four elements: Water, wind, fire and earth. A more contemporary understanding is that the body consists of atoms and molecules and so forth, while the cognition of sense data is mental. Then the Buddha continues by elaborating:

The eye sense runs after forms;
The ear sense indulges in sounds;
The nose sense captures numerous smells;
The tongue sense always hunts tastes;
The body sense pursues tactile sensations;
And the mental sense grasps the phenomena.

This is a list of the six senses and there functions. The first five senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue & body) are used to register objects of the form aggregate (Skandha) – meaning the physical, while the sixth (mental) registers objects of the consciousness aggregate – meaning mental appearances like thoughts and so on. Then the Buddha expounds on the nature of the sense:

These six individual senses
Are each absorbed in their objects.
The mind is capricious as an illusion –
Its six senses thoroughly engrossed –
Like a man who runs to an empty village
And resides there among soldiers and thieves.

When the six senses are completely overwhelmed by the experiences of gross objects, the mind becomes confused, whimsical and ever changing – like the experience itself. The Buddha then talks about the relation between mind, senses and objects:

The mind dwells in the six objects
And fully knows the objects of the senses;
Therefore the mind resides in the six objects
And fully knows the objects of the sense engagement.

This must be correct as it is stated in the Samputa Tantra that:

All things, external and internal,
Are designated by the mind.
Apart from the mind nothing else exists.

So what does it mean that things only exist in the mind? This is best illuminated by an example:  When you observe a red flower what makes the flower red? Red itself is only a name and in other languages the colour red is called something else, hence the name cannot be what is meant by red. The red colour does not exist in the flower itself as if it was seen by an animal without the capacity for seeing colours it would not appear red. It is known from modern science that the diffraction of white light makes a rainbow. But even watching red colour in a rainbow does not make a colour red; only the perception in the mind makes it red.  So without mind there is no red or no flower for that matter.  Only by designation (or perception) of that “red flower” in mind does the red flower exist. Additionally objects existing “outside” the mind do not exist outside the mind. If it where so we would have no cognition of them as they would exist outside our experience. None such objects have ever been proven to exist. To sum up; a red flower exists only in dependence upon the interaction of three things: Flower, eye and mind. As the flower and the colour red only exist upon all three objects the flower solely exists in mind and hence is non-existent. Further clarifying the connection between mind and senses the Buddha continues:

Forms, sounds and likewise smells,
Tastes, tactiles and phenomena,
The mind in motion, like a bird in flight,
In all six, enters sense faculties.
In whatever sense it abides,
It lends that sense its knowing nature.

It is the main and basic nature of mind to know. In order for the senses to sense forms and so on, it requires the knowing nature of mind to be borrowed, so to speak, to the senses. Having now concluded then explanation on the senses, the Buddha continues by teaching the emptiness of body and form:

The body, like a machine is an empty village,
Is without motion and completely without action.
Lacking core essence, it arises from conditions;
Arising from concepts, it lacks inherent nature.

The body comes from conditions and is made up of many parts, the organs and so forth and then labelled as the “body”. This is merely an imputed concept, and so lacks inherent existence and is an empty machine as the Buddha describes it. This is analogous to the red flower example above. To clarify the Buddha then states:

Earth, fire, water, and air,
Dwell in separate towns, in this direction and that direction.
Like poisonous snakes living together in the same abode, for example,
They are always out of harmony with each other.
Furthermore, two of these elemental snakes move upwards,
And two move down;
Moving by twos into the directions and sub-directions,
All these elemental snakes disappear.

The earth snake and the water snake:
Those two exhaust below.
The fire snake and wind snake:
Those two drift off into space above.

The Buddha uses an ancient metaphor and a more modern understanding is the endless change in molecules, atoms and quarks that makes up the physical world, according to the scientific model. Due to this transience new conditions caused by karma leads to rebirths:

In just this way, due to actions performed in the past,
The ever-present mind and consciousness
Are born into existence among gods, humans, and in the three negative transmigrations
Due to similarly created karma.

This is similar to what is said in the Mahakarunapundarikasutra:

Samsara is created by karma.
It is a projection of karma.
Beings are created by karma.
Karma is their cause and what differentiates them.

The most fundamental part of consciousness, the alaya, which is the eight consciousness that acts as a basis of the other seven, works much like a ground wherein seeds are planted by our actions. Once planted, the seed remains in the alaya until it ripens and gives rise to experiences in samsara.

“The various worlds are created by karma.” – Treasury of the Abhidharma

The imprints, or seeds, on the alaya conditions all experiences and so becomes the cause of samsara. Hence the process from cause to consequence is karma. Samsara (cyclic existence) causes beings to migrate from birth to rebirth in an unending cycle. With respects to the inevitable deconstruction of the body the Buddha says:

When phlegm, wind and bile have been exhausted,
The body is filled with urine and foul vomit.
Utterly unpleasant, it becomes a heap of worms,
Discarded like wood at the burial grounds.

Or in plain English: All that goes up must come down – all that is born will die. Having explained the emptiness of the body, the Buddha continues with emptiness of phenomena:

Behold these things, O goddess:
Here, beings, persons
And likewise phenomena are empty.
Due to ignorance, they arise.

The audience of the Golden Light Sutra is actually a variety of beings and so the Buddha here addresses the deva’s (existences of the god realm) directly, teaching that phenomena is empty as form and that the otherwise mistaken believe is caused by ignorance. The Buddha goes deeper into the understanding of emptiness with the emptiness of ignorance itself:

Ignorance itself does not exist.
Thus, I have called it ignorance.
Action, consciousness, name and form,
The six sources, contact, feeling,
Craving, grasping and existence too,
Birth, Aging and death, sorrows and afflictions –
These comprise the twelve links of dependent origination.

Things exist only in relation to each other. This is commonly known in the Dharma as the twelve links of dependent origination, this cycle – samsara – is how beings have endless rebirths. Dependent arising (Tibetan: “Tendrel”) is the interaction between karma and tendrel. Tendrel is translated as interaction or interdependent. Everything experienced is tendrel which means it “exist because of the relationship between interrelated factors” – Kalu Rinpoche. An example: When a tree falls in the forest what makes the sound? Is it the tree falling on the ground? Is it the air? Is it the ear hearing or the brain receiving chemical signals? To produce the sound all of these factors must to be present. Hence, the sound depends on the interaction of these factors – this is what tendrel means. Furthermore samsara and consequently all conditioned life’s is the result of tendrel. All twelve factors need to be present simultaneously to cause conditioned existence. In fact “everything in samsara is karmically conditioned interrelationship” – Kalu Rinpoche; meaning all is tendrel. Hence nothing has inherent nature and so all is illusion or emptiness. This does not mean the world does not exist, but it does not in exist in the way it appears and as Mahasiddha Saraha puts it:

To consider the world as real is a brutish attitude.
To consider it as empty is even more savage.

Luckily, the Buddha then teaches the cause of liberation from cyclic existence in the next verse:

293/365: SILENCE = DEATH
(cc) by Malik ml. W.

Cut the view of self-existence;
Sever the net of afflictions;
Brandish the sword of knowledge;
Behold the abode of aggregates as empty;
In this way, enlightenment shall be reached.

So with the abandoning of the self, the 12 twelve links cannot be. This is done by with the knowledge (the dharma) and with wisdom of insight into the Skandhas.

In summation: Sense objects, mental and physical factors are entirely empty of intrinsic existence; as are phenomena. All are purely produced by the twelve links and can be abandoned by giving up the false view of the inherent existing ego.

This concludes “What the Buddha taught on Emptiness – A Commentary on the Golden Light Sutra”. If you would like to read more Pure Teachings by Sherab Namgyal follow this link: http://pureview.dk/?cat=185 or for Dream Yoga http://pureview.dk/?cat=166

For further reading: Golden Light Sutra.

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