This Is The What, How, Why and Wherefore of Our Practice
We recite the Heart Sutra in our Temples and Centers and Monasteries everyday.
At its core, this is what those 35 or so lines are saying.
Dependent Arising shows us that everything is empty.
Emptiness shows us that all phenomena are impermanent and interrelated (conditioned by each other): Indra’s net.
Conditional nature shows us that compassion is our Buddhanature; that harming others harms us and so we must not only be of benefic, but we must do it with all beings in mind (the three pure vows)
The three pure vows generate, directly and indirectly, our moral and ethics norms: the precepts, eightfold noble path, the paramitas, Asanga’s wholesome mindstates, the 11 virtuous mental factors, etc.
So the meaning of life, which is found in being beneficial for the sake of all beings, comes from the Buddha’s discovery of dependent arising, 12 links, when he sat under the Bodhi tree 2600 years ago.
Very briefly, here are those key concepts:
These Twelve Links describe our conscious experience. Our ignorance of how things really are conditions us to the basic act of the mind which is to cognize things with which we have sense contact by concocting stories (volitional formations orsankharas) about them. These stories allow us to develop consciousness, which is nothing more than a self-awareness of our stories.
Consciousness first and foremost conditions us to being aware of our mind-body. Once mind-body arises as an ignorant active structure, sense organs arise and become active. Active sense organs make it possible for there to be contact with external objects (sights, smells, sounds, etc), leaving a meaningful impression on the mind, an experience that is both physical and emotional and of which we are conscious. Without contact, nothing would exist for sentient beings, not even the world.
Because there has been contact, a feeling arises about the experience of the contact. Because feelings are dependent upon contact, which arises from senses that exist because there is mind-body–all of which is just a fabrication, a concoction, a story that arose from ignorance, the feeling is false and foolish.
Ignorant feelings lead to foolish desires the affinities and aversion we have at the point of contact. This craving–this desire for, this wanting–leads to clinging, which means attaching. The stronger the feeling and craving, the greater the clinging and attachment.
It is critical to understand is that Clinging is the attachment to self, not to an external. It is here that we see the embryonic beginnings of the dangerously ignorant “I am and this is mine.”
If there were no clinging, there would be no suffering. But with clinging, everything and anything is grasped as me and mine, self and of-self. This thing we are grasping has arisen because ignorant mind clings to a sense contact and its attendant feeling, which arose through conditions a moment ago and is now gone.
Once attachment occurs, existence arises. Meaning once there is clinging there is a basis for something, whatever is clung to, to now exist as the object of my desire. So clinging causes something to arise in the realm of our existence. Thus there is both a being and an environment for that being created, solidifying both a false inner world and outer world. The embryo of this moment is now fully developed and ready to assert itself.
With existence there is (re)birth. Even though it was previously just clinging to a concept, the self has grown and developed and a new emphatically self-centered I has been (re)born. Rebirth happens every time there is craving or desire, every time there is a thought. For every time there is a thought, desire develops and the sense of I-mine develops.
With birth as a condition, aging and death arise. (Perhaps better to call these three: arising, abiding, and ceasing as we do not mean physical birth here.) Because we don’t realize this, we stay ignorant and keep being born. Further, in the natural process of arising, running its course, and ceasing, the self appropriates and identifies with these: my birth, my aging, my death.
This is how we have transformed a natural process into a static personal problem.
(This explanation is based on a dharma talk by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.)
The truth is that beneath our ever-changing minds and aging bodies there is no permanent, eternal or essential self. But rather than seeing things this way, as they really are, we concoct stories and superimpose them on ourselves and on things around us, creating a false and foolish self-existence and reality that actually does not exist at all. Emptiness is the absence of this false seemingly solid and substantive nature which we have invested with definition, value, meaning and weight and which we believe is real.
(This explanation is based Guy Newland’s definition in Introduction to Emptiness.)
In the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a beautiful net that it stretches out indefinitely in all directions. There is a single glittering jewel at every node of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number.
If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels and look at it closely, we see that on its polished surface are reflected all the other jewels in the net. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that the process of reflection is infinite, without beginning or end.
Understanding Indra’s Net
1. The Holographic Nature of the Universe
The net is like a hologram. In a hologram, every point of the hologram contains information regarding all other points.
2. The Interconnectedness of All Things
When any jewel in the net is touched, all other jewels in the node are affected. This speaks to the hidden interconnectedness and interdependency of everything and everyone in the universe.
3. Lack of a substantive self
Each node, if considered as representing an individual, simply reflects the qualities of all other nodes, suggesting the notion of non-self and emptiness, meaning a lack of a solid and permanent self.
Indra's Net shoots holes in the assumption or imputation of a solid and fixed universe out there. The capacity of one jewel to reflect the light of another jewel from the other edge of infinity is something that is difficult for the linear mind, rational mind to comprehend. The fact that all nodes are simply reflections indicates that there is no particular single source point from where it all arises. This addresses some of the key issues of the meaning of life.
5. Illusion or Maya
The fact that all nodes are simply a reflection of all others implies the illusory nature of all appearances. Appearances, such as “the sky” are thus not reality but a reflection of reality. “The real sky is knowing that samsara and nirvana are merely an illusory display.”
6. The Mirror-like Nature of Mind
The capacity to reflect all things attests to the mind being a mirror of reality, not its basis. This is one of the axioms that explains the Middle Way.
Three Pure Vows
These vows list the ideal, the intention and the commitment of a bodhisattva, a person committed to following the path. They are, simply put, the cure for The Three Poisons: greed, anger the delusion. Buddhists practicing in Mahayana institutions around the world recite these vows every day. They are the guiding principles of a practitioner’s life. These short vows tell us what we need to do in any situation: do the least harm and be of the most benefit. They are the criteria we look to when we need to make any decision–big or small.
I vow to do no harm.
I vow to do only good.
I vow to save all sentient beings.
Asanga’s Wholesome Mindstates and The 11 Virtuous Mental Factors