Transcendence4 min read

All these things, Shariputra, have the character of Emptiness, neither born nor dying, neither defiled nor pure, neither increased nor lesssened. ’

These phrases addressed to Shariputra teach the character of Emptiness. As Emptiness, it have no characteristic form. We may that even in Emptiness some form must remain, but there is no need for it to be so. The form is no-form The form of the true Suchness is the form which is negation. True form is spoken of as the form of no-form, and only so it be expressed. That form is nothing visible to the eye. It is the life of truth. The whole spirit of the Heart Sutra is that the real form, the form of Suchness, is no-form, and so it is said here.

‘All these things’ means the five skandha-aggregates. We are to discover the satori of Emptiness in these illusory forms, to awaken to the fact that the forms are at the same time Emptiness, and then there is no more the form of birth-and-death. The standpoint here is that the world of birth-and-death is just illusory sticking to self.

By the time we have the thought that something has come, it has already vanished—such is this world. The worlds of relative good and evil—of hell, ghosts, animals, Asuras, men and also the heavens—are all upraised upon illusory sticking to self. When we think we have done some good, that good is at once destroyed. It is all appearing and vanishing.

Because these worlds stand on illusion, even good is no more than an occasional event caused by associations, and when the associations are bad the manifestation created by that good entirely disappears. Relative good and evil are always appearing and disappearing. A Sutra says: ‘Though merit be piled up high as the Himalaya, one flash of anger and it is all consumed. ’

Merits from good deeds, when associations become a little unfavourable, are destroyed with the flaring up of passion. Our life is destruction of what has been built, and building up of what has been destroyed; underneath building a destruction, and underneath destruction, building—repeating again and again the same sort of things. All worlds of illusory attachment to self are the same.

This pitiable human state is symbolized in the Buddhist story of Sai-no-kawara. In the ruined temple of Daisenji there is a representation of Sai-no-kawara of which a good deal remains. There is the dry river-bed of the story, and in the middle stands a great stone figure of the Bodhisattva Jizo. Around it have been piled up countless little pagodas. The story is familiar to all Japanese: how those who die in early childhood go to this place and employ themselves in building the pagodas. They remember their parents in the world, and build one for their father and one for their mother, piling up the stones one by one. A demon suddenly rushes in from the side, and whirling an iron pole smashes down everything they have built. The children, terrified, run to the stone Jizo and hide themselves for a while in the long sleeves of his compassion.

We get the feeling of pointlessness, that it is futile to keep building up the stone towers only to have them smashed down by the demon. If they are always to be destroyed, why build them? But that not do, for this is Sai-no-kawara, a place where the karma associations find fulfilment.

When the demon goes off, the crowds of children come out again and build their pagoda towers. Just as they think they have finished, out comes the demon and all is destroyed. What was built up is broken down, and then what was broken down is rebuilt. Repeating again and again the same task is the state of Sai-no-kawara. Is not our human condition like that also?

In the worlds of relative good and evil raised up on illusory attachment to self, we may do some good, but then when the karma associations are unfavourable, evil passions arise and destroy it all. We rebuild what was destroyed, and what we build is again destroyed. When we think we have completed something it disappears, and what has disappeared again comes about—so the endless wheel of life revolves. This is the character of the human condition, and in spiritual training it is called the law of circularity. ‘What a thing to happen to such a splendid man!’ This is all the shiftings of human nature. From the point of view of spirituality, it is only going round and round in the world of relative good and evil. It is not the profound spirituality. All the worlds of illusory sticking to self are worlds of birth-and-death.

by Abbot Obora of the Soto Zen sect