(Follow this link to see the February 2021 Priory Newsletter where this was published.)
It is said the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara was first a fully enlightened Buddha (called the Tathagata of the Brightness of the Right Dharma); when she saw that it would be a help to beings, she took the form of a Celestial Bodhisattva. While this has many implications, the one I am thinking of lately is that Avalokiteshvara, in her own right, knows the complete wisdom of the Buddha. That She knows the wisdom of the Buddha, means that She sees to the heart of why suffering arises and can act accordingly to help to alleviate it. The real cause of a suffering can be different than the apparent or surface cause.
For instance, if there is a small child who conceives a desire to have a piece of candy and throws a tantrum when the candy is not forthcoming, the wise parent will make sure the child has plenty of food, but will say no to the candy. (And, I am not saying here, that candy or treats should never be given; just it is helpful to learn that we can forego satisfying our desires and we can learn to be fine with that.)
The parent says no to the candy recognizing that the real cause of the suffering – the craving that causes the tantrum – is the mistaken view, on the child’s part, that they will only be happy when they get what they want. We say no, realizing that if the desire and the mistaken view are indulged, it will set up a pattern of suffering that is difficult for the child to unlearn as it grows into adulthood. An unwise or worldly compassion will just give the child the candy to satisfy the desire.
We all know from experience that getting what we want in the short term feels good. We begin to wake up to the wisdom of the Buddha when we begin to realize that there might be a benefit in letting go of our desire and acting from a deeper place.
Of course, part of the wisdom of the Buddha that we can clarify as adults, is the ability to see the difference between what we need and what we desire. In order to clarify this question, it is helpful to be determined to look honestly and carefully at our motivations to see what is really going on in our own heart and mind. And, because they have such a clouding influence, it is very helpful to be determined to let go of our desires, even if that might mean foregoing a thing that we need for a while, in order to clarify this difference.
We can learn a lot about Avalokiteshvara by looking at the Scripture of Great Wisdom, or Heart Sutra. In the Scripture of Great Wisdom, it says “When one with deepest wisdom of the heart that is beyond discriminative thought, the Holy Lord, great Kanzeon Bosatsu, knew that the skandhas five were, as they are, in their self-nature, void, unstained and pure.” (1) This means that real compassion sees clearly, is one with the true nature of all existence, and is in accord with what is talked about in this scripture.
In a way, this scripture is asking and providing an answer to the question “what is a reliable refuge in this life, in this world?” The Scripture goes through and takes apart the components of our existence “form, sensation, thought, activity and consciousness…” etc. and tells us all of these are both unreliable, in the sense that they cannot be held onto or taken refuge in, and it tells us something more. In our translation we use the term “Pure” to translate the Sanskrit word “shunyata” which is often translated as “emptiness” or “void.” In the context of the Buddhadharma, shunyata means much more than those English terms can convey. In the context of Mahayana Buddhism and especially Zen, shunyata means something more than just “absence” and is why Avalokiteshvara can look fully at the deep suffering of the world and not be upset by it. Here is what Great Master Hongzhi had to say about emptiness (what we call, Pure):
“The field of boundless emptiness is what exists from the very beginning. You must purify, cure, grind down, or brush away all the tendencies you have fabricated into apparent habits. Then you can reside in a clear circle of brightness. Utter emptiness has no image. Upright independence does not rely on anything. Just expand and illuminate the original truth unconcerned by external conditions. Accordingly, we are told to realize that not a single thing exists. In this field birth and death do not appear. The deep source, transparent down to the bottom, can radiantly shine and can respond unencumbered to each speck of dust [each object] without becoming its partner. The subtlety of seeing and hearing transcends mere colors and sounds. The whole affair functions without leaving traces and mirrors without obscurations. Very naturally, mind and Dharmas emerge and harmonize. An Ancient said that non-mind enacts and fulﬁlls the way of non-mind. Enacting and fulﬁlling the way of non-mind, ﬁnally you can rest. Proceeding you are able to guide the assembly. With thoughts clear, sitting silently, wander into the center of the circle of wonder. This is how you must penetrate and study.” (1)
Shunyata, Buddhist Emptiness, is much more than mere absence and we discover this “much more” through the practice of purifying, curing, grinding down or brushing away all of our fabricated tendencies. The Scripture of Great Wisdom is telling us that we can find the True Refuge by letting go of everything.
Of course Avalokiteshvara knows how difficult and vast this is and is always available to help us. Rev. Master Jiyu says of Avalokiteshvara: “Because of his great compassion and wisdom he is regarded as the most dependable Bodhisattva in the Saha World.” If we call on Avalokiteshvara, She will help us.
In another place Rev. Master Jiyu says:
“Although he has great wisdom, his chief characteristic is great compassion thus, in the Scripture of Great Wisdom, it is said that Avalokiteshwara Bodhisattva practices the deep wisdom of the heart, the profound prajnaparamita, viewing the five aggregates, or skandhas, as void, unstained, clean and empty, which means, of course, that since one knows that there is nothing from the first for difficulties and suffering to alight upon when one is within the deepest meditation, he is uncaught up in this world’s erroneous views of suffering.” (2)
The point I want to make here is that while suffering is suffering (it is hard to bear and hurts), it is also Pure and has purity at its heart. If we can have a little faith in this Purity, or at least the possibility of this Purity, it gives us a toe-hold in working with it. We can find that while our own suffering is hard to bear, because we can practice, we can work with it. We can begin to see that suffering is evidence that we are holding on or pushing away or just plain misunderstanding how things are, and we can begin to convert these fabricated tendencies. This is bringing Avalokiteshvara to life right in the midst of our own life.
We may find that the mass of suffering in the world is worrying and hard to bear, but if we can have a little faith in the possibility that all that suffering is also Pure and has Purity at its heart, we can begin to learn how to not be caught up in or brought down by the suffering of the world. This is how we begin to bring the “observing ease” in the midst of the suffering of the world, quality of Avalokiteshwara to life in our small part of the world.
By doing practice with this faith, we will come to know the whole truth of Purity, Emptiness and the Scripture of Great Wisdom: we will come to know the True Refuge.
(1) From the ” Liturgy of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives for the Laity” Shasta Abbey Press, 1990. The full text of this version of the “Heart Sutra” can be seen here.
(2) Taigen Dan Leighton, with Yi Wu. Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi (Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 2000, revised and expanded edition; original edition published by North Point Press, 1991), p. 30 “The Bright Boundless Field.”
(3) Both quotes are from the Iconography lecture series Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett gave in the mid-1980s.