When we practice and study Buddhism, we have to leave all things of the phenomenal world behind to see our awakened nature.
This physical body of ours exists, and is at the same time empty (of self-existing substance). As the Heart Sutra says: “Form is precisely emptiness, emptiness precisely form. Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form.” This refers also to our physical body: it is form and it is emptiness, it is emptiness, and it is form. It seems that our body exists, but in fact it does not.
Regarding our awakened nature, it may not seem evident, but in reality it does exist. So we need to engage in Chan practice, and as our practice deepens, we are gradually able to ripen in familiarity with this awakened nature of ours. With mature practice, we are no longer attached to our physical body.
From the moment we are born we tend to become attached to our physical body, and then we cling to ourselves and to other people as well. In this way we develop a heart/mind full of attachments. Our self-clinging is caused by our body and delusive thoughts about it. If there were no delusive thoughts regarding our physical body, where would self-attachment be? As we engage in spiritual practice, in seated meditation, we are able to get rid of self-attachment, and vanquish our deluded thoughts about our self.
Our notion of self is a phenomenon caused by Karma. We have accumulated all kinds of good and bad Karma from the past, and it is this Karma that has created our current physical body. This body is a container– a container for good things and bad. When there is Karma, the body comes into existence, and when the Karma disperses, the body returns to emptiness. This body is a composite of the four elements–earth, water, fire, and space. It is just like a bubble, which bubbles up for just a little while, and then in an instant dissolves again.
So we have to see through our body and let go of it. This is the only way to really leave behind the notion of a body, the notion of an independent self, the notion of other human beings, the notion of sentient beings, the notion of biological existence. “The notion of self” is this individual I-consciousness that I am attached to. “The notion of other human beings” refers to other people around us. “The notion of sentient beings” means all living beings and all kinds of things. And “the notion of biological existence” means the time span of our existence (between birth and death), namely the time span within which beings and things exist. We should not get taken up by any of these four notions, because all these notions are misleading and delusive.
When we practice and study Buddhism, we have to leave all things of the phenomenal world behind to see our awakened nature. This physical body of ours is a delusion, and therefore we should observe it in daily life and see how empty and unreal it is. This is also true for all of the other things in the world of phenomena – they are also unreal. This is what we have to see clearly. Everything is impermanent. Once we realize impermanence, we no longer hang on to anything, and we don’t grasp out for anything. Out of this realization of impermanence we quietly continue our contemplation, continue to contemplate our nature of awakening, until we understand the nature of birth and death, and thus free ourselves from suffering.
How can we free ourselves from suffering? Simply by leaving behind all delusive notions! But how can we do this? Simply by engaging in contemplation. Contemplate the world of phenomenal objects – they are constructs of karmic causes and conditions, and these constructs are impermanent. They arise out of causes and conditions, and they disperse based on causes and conditions.
All feelings and emotions, all things and activities, all lives are just like a rainbow in the sky, which dissolves again after the rain. What is there for us to gain or lose? So let us abide in emptiness, in our empty nature of awakening, which is free from gain or loss. To be able to often contemplate these things, to see everything as impermanent and therefore unreal, is to be able to abide in reality. This is called Prajña (true wisdom). Everything is unreal, and there is no gain or loss. Therefore let our thoughts and feelings leave all unreal things and notions far behind.
By Dharma Master Hsin Tao. Translated by Maria Reis Habito, used with her permission.