Posted inHeart Sutra, Mu, Other Teachings

The Unfamiliar Familiar: Part 4 of 6

April 7, 2015

The scriptures do not merely speak about the deconstruction of preconception; they enact it.


Click to read The Unfamiliar Familiar Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

In the early Buddhist texts, defamiliarization is established in the content of what is said; in the later Mahayana teachings of the early first millennium C.E., it tends to occupy a central place not just in the content but in the very form of the texts.

The scriptures do not merely speak about the deconstruction of preconception; they enact it.

The Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) scriptures, which hinge on emptiness, for example, are generally discursive, like the early texts, but they operate by inversions of logic. Categories of thought, including Buddhism’s own categories, are frequently turned on their head: The truths they express are only conventional; ultimately, our ideas are empty constructs. We know there is suffering, a cause of suffering, cessation, and a path; after all, that is why we’re practicing Buddhists: to travel the path out of suffering. But the Heart Sutra, a kind of distillation of Prajnaparamita teachings, expressly declares: “No suffering, no cause of suffering, no cessation, and no path.” And thus, because suffering is rooted in attachment to conceptualizations, there is a path. And yet there isn’t.

The early Pali teachings are in some ways easier to grasp, or at least to follow; we can easily find ourselves at sea in these later texts. This is especially true of the great visionary Mahayana sutras like the Avatamsaka, Vimalakirti, and Lotus sutras. They can seem dauntingly strange and foreign. But they work differently, in a more poetic way, and when we approach them in that spirit they can work on us too.

In the Vimalakirti Sutra, various kinds of defamiliarization are at work. Familiar notions of space and time are repeatedly challenged. Thousands upon thousands of bodhisattvas, Brahmas, devas, nagas, yakshas, and other kinds of mythical and divine beings congregate outside the ailing Vimalakirti’s hut. Five hundred youths from the nearby town come forth with jeweled parasols and set them down before the Buddha, who is also there.

As soon as all these parasols had been laid down, suddenly, by the miraculous power of the Lord Buddha, they were transformed into a single precious canopy so great that it formed a covering for this entire billion-world galaxy. The surface of the entire billion- world galaxy was reflected in the interior of the great precious canopy, where the total content of this galaxy could be seen: limitless mansions of suns, moons, and stellar bodies; the realms of the devas, nagas, yakshas. . . . all the great oceans, rivers, bays, torrents, streams, brooks, and springs; finally, all the villages, suburbs, cities, capitals, provinces, and wildernesses. All this could be clearly seen by everyone.  (Trans. Robert Thurman)

I have left out many items in a list too lengthy to enumerate here. The point seems to be this: everything everywhere was miraculously visible, reflected in the canopy formed by the magical parasols. Later, a conjured deity travels past innumerable “buddha-worlds” to teleport a host of 84,000 bodhisattvas to Vimalakirti’s hut.

It would be easy to gloss this as mere religious hyperbole. But it has a cumulative effect. It takes us not just to a realm of poetry, but to a condition in which our conventional understanding of the ways things work is disassembled. Time is upset; space is upset; quantity, magnitude, scope are all expanded beyond normal categories of understanding.

Yet alongside these spectacular displays of the possibilities of perception, Vimalakirti offers the following teaching:

Insofar as apparent objects are perceived, they are the basis of sickness. What things are perceived as objects? . . . What is the thorough understanding of the basic, apparent object? It is its nonperception, as no objects exist ultimately.

No sooner has our perception been expanded than we are brought back to the emptiness teachings of the Prajnaparamita: seeing is not-seeing, perception is nonperception. Appearances are dualistic, but this dualism is without ultimate basis, and our failure to understand that is the source of our sickness. Yet Vimalakirti is himself sick, which is why all the great beings have gathered at his humble—yet all-encompassing—shack. What is he sick with? The sickness of all beings. And what is their sickness? No sickness.

This kind of repeated destabilizing is surely intended to produce an effect. It’s as if the early teachings of Buddhism in the Pali canon patiently seek to conduct us out of our deluded view of things, while in the Mahayana sutras the intention is more to drop us into the middle of the mind of Buddha, as it were, from which we look out and see as he sees. And what we see is both infinite and no-seeing at all.

Click to read The Unfamiliar Familiar Part 5.


By Henry Shukman, originally published in Tricycle Magazine, Fall 2014

Image: Stairs, by Hans, CC0 Public Domain, from
Featured Image: Lady Luna, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0

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