The Cirle of Life

When the Bodhisattva Kannon was practising the profound Prajna Paramita wisdom, he saw all the five aggregates to be Emptiness, and passed beyond suffering.

Now we begin the text. The Bodhisattva mentioned is generally known as Kannon, though sometimes as Kanjizai. In either case the first character of the name, Kan, is seeing, and it means to see things as they really are. To see things as they are gives freedom, and so the Bodhisattva is called Kanjizai, the one whose sight is freedom.

If asked what Buddhism is, I say: ‘Buddhism is seeing everything as it really is.’ Seeing the real form of everything is Buddhism. We don’t see the real forms; we think we do, but in fact we don’t. When we consider the I, whether it is something lasting or not, outside Buddhism they always presume that the self must have a form. They make it something quite definite. But in fact it is an error to think there is a permanent self which we can call I.

But they make the basic assumption of a lasting self, and then through education they come to think of it as something absolute, and most people think that self-development is the aim of education. If we go deeply into the question whether the I is after all really existent, we shall find that it is not. The conviction of an existent I, a superimposition of what is really non-existent, is called in Buddhism clinging illusion. Once having taken the non-existent as existent, on top of it we construct the worlds. On the foundation of a non-existent I there are laughter and tears, joy and sorrow. This is the basis of all errors.

But the Bodhisattva Kannon sees the true form of everything. That true character is the character of Emptiness. We call our I what is ultimately an empty form. The Bodhisattva has freedom because his wisdom pierces to the true form, and so he is called the Bodhisattva of freedom.

The true form is Emptiness, is no form. True form is no form. The Bodhisattva of freedom realizes the form of no form in everything, and this Bodhisattva realizes the no form, the principle of ultimate Emptiness, particularly in sounds. So he is often called Kannon or Kanzeon, namely one who perceives the sounds of the world.

Now there is Kannon in the hand, for instance, and then again in the eye, and so it is that the Bodhisattva is called thousand-armed and thousand-eyed. They represent him with a thousand hands and a thousand eyes. Elsewhere it is said that he is all hand, that he is all eye. But although his power of penetration and freedom works in everything, it is especially in regard to sounds that his virtue is manifested, and so he is named Kanzeon, he who perceives the sounds.

Human life can in fact be considered as sound. Mostly human nature expresses itself in sound. A man’s whole character is revealed in his voice. There’s a saying that if you get a man to open his mouth you can see his insides, and it is true that you come to know a man’s spirit, his inner nature, if you make him say something. So it is that nothing is so important as what we say. When there is harmony in the intercourse of words, the household be at peace. And mutual harmony in speech is the first manifestation of peace. Such is the importance of sound.

Kannon Bodhisattva is a being who has emptiness within the heart whether crying or laughing. On a happy occasion it is felicitation from the bottom of the heart—but within is emptiness. We wretched people don’t do that. On the lips are congratulations, but in our heart—‘Curse you!’ We have no freedom of sound, no spontaneity in our words. Holy Kannon has always emptiness in the heart whether in joy or sorrow, and so he has freedom of mind. It is the power of ultimate Emptiness. In the negative sense it is Emptiness, but in the positive sense it means that in our crying or laughing, body and mind are one. This is the true spontaneity of speech. When our words are directed to freeing others and freeing ourselves, the grace of Kannon will be in that place.

The Bodhisattva attained the state of power and freedom by practice of the profound Prajna Paramita, the practice of ultimate Emptiness. When it is said ‘profound’, it has the meaning of complete. To penetrate deeply, deeply through our everyday life, and by the power of negation to obtain freedom. Negation means the complete negation of our living.

In the Nirvana Sutra is the illustration of three animals crossing a river, and they represent three ways of living. The animals are elephant, horse and hare, and they illustrate shallow and profound views of life. The hare slips along on the flotsam on the surface, and such is one who sees only the surface of life, and this only of the physical form. The horse crosses by swimming, half immersed in the water. Such goes a little deeper into life. The elephant forges steadily across with great strides along the bottom. This sort of living is! going right into life and penetrating to its real basis, and it is complete living. In the Nirvana Sutra the elephant crossing the river stride by stride is the illustration of completeness in living.

Now the hare is the symbol of taking life as the body. Such thinking is always escapist, it is the psychology of the shirker. The shallowest view of life is to consider it something which can be evaded, to think that one can escape by moving from here to there. This is the superficial attitude of hoping to get out of our responsibilities. I have my role in life, which may be a coolie or a cleaner; my allotted part was that of a priest. Each has his own; to be a religious is also a role. And I sometimes wonder whether the role of a religious man is not rather an unworthy one. Among religious people I am of no account, but, even so, I always seem to be getting pushed into things by flattery.

All the time one is being flattered. ‘No one but Your Reverence please may we have a few words from you . . .’ One gets caught and there’s nothing for it but to comply. One cannot help a feeling of being pushed into things. Oh to find some way to give it up and retire, buried snugly in a temple in the country—such thoughts may come. And yet, those who refuse to follow the flatterings, they are awkward fellows too. The fact is that everyone does act at the instigation of others; even such a great man as Saigo was flattered by others into doing things. And to follow the flattery and try to do what they want is all right, but in any case, however flattered, we don’t escape our role in life.

To switch from role A to role B, from B to C, from C to D, in the hope of peace and happiness, is an attitude of evading responsibility. Not liking the life of a priest, let me have a go at business, and if I don’t like that I can try a Government job …so I try to get out of my obligations. The one thing I don’t want to do is my allotted role. Evasion of responsibility is the most shallow attitude to life.

The second attitude is typified by the horse. Here the idea is to reduce life to a void, to emptiness, whereas the first attitude was to run away from life, from the responsibilities and inconveniences of family and so on. This second attitude goes somewhat deeper. They think that if this unsatisfactory human life can be reduced to emptiness, it can be done away with and got rid of altogether. In Buddhism this is called the way of the Second Vehicle. Those who practise the Hinayana (the Small Vehicle called the Second) are termed Shravakas and Pratyeka Buddhas. To their way of thinking, this life of birth-and-death is altogether emptiness, and Nirvana is the state of literal annihilation. Not to be born again, not to come back to this world, to annihilate the individual completely, a literal annihilation of body and mind, is their state of Nirvana. This second attitude to life is that the sorrows and joys of life are all to become nothing.

The third is the Bodhisattva’s view. Evasion and escapism were the attitudes of the ordinary man, who always wants to get out of his allotted role in the world. He thinks if he can get out of the present condition there be satisfaction just over there. But the third view of life is to find the meaning in this life, which however much we try to escape we can never escape, and it means to realize the true Nirvana state. Escapism is the first attitude. The second is to think that Emptiness means neither to weep nor smile nor do anything at all. But life is not like that. We set ourselves not to weep but life brings us towards tears; we set ourselves not to be angry yet anger rises—it cannot be escaped. The third attitude, the profound attitude, is spiritual practice to discover a power in the very midst of the sufferings of life. Profundity means technically to penetrate right into life.

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