Complete Penetration of Ear Consciousness
A talk given by Master Sheng-yen on May 3. 1994, translated by Ming-yee Wang and edited by Linda Peer and Harry Miller
We have been looking at the section of the Surangama Sutra known as the Twenty-Five Kinds of Complete (or Perfect) Penetration. What is meant by complete penetration? A complete penetration is a door or entrance through which we can discover our Buddha nature. Buddha nature is sometimes called our intrinsic nature, our original face, or true suchness. It is what the Buddha awakened to when he realized enlightenment.
In the Surangama Sutra, twenty-five complete penetrations are described by the bodhisattvas that experienced them. These are examples of the ways we can discover our Buddha nature. What are these twenty-five entries? They constitute the environment in which the mind functions, divided according to the traditional Buddhist understanding of the structure of that environment.
The first twelve of the twenty-five doors or entries to Buddha nature consist of the six sense organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind) and the six sense objects (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, things touched, and the objects of the mind: thoughts, emotions, memories and the like). The six sense objects actually include all phenomena.
What is it that allows us to distinguish or discriminate between external objects? It is our sense organs coming into contact with sense objects. This contact gives rise to the sense consciousnesses, the next six of the twenty-five entries. The six sense consciousnesses are the consciousnesses of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting and mental activities.
To give a concrete example, I use my hand, the sense organ of the body, to touch a cup, the object of the sense of touch. When my hand touches a cup, it causes an awareness that is called the consciousness of the body of touch.
In addition there are the seven elements which the ancient Chinese believed made up all phenomena: earth, fire, water, wind, space, perception and consciousness. All together these add up to twenty-five, and each can be completely penetrated to reveal its Buddha nature. To summarize: 6 Sense Organs + 6 Sense Objects + 6 Sense Consciousnesses + 7 Elements = 25 Doors or Entries.
In the Surangama Sutra bodhisattvas are categorized according to how they realized enlightenment. For example, if enlightenment is achieved because the body sense organ touched something, the bodhisattva experienced Complete Penetration of the Sense Organ of the Body. If the experience concerns what the body touched, something hard or warm for example, then enlightenment is achieved through the Complete Penetration of the Sense Object of Touch. If it is the awareness of the contact of the body with some object that leads to the enlightenment, that is Complete Penetration of the Sense Consciousness of Touch.
Here is an account of an enlightenment experience that we can examine: The modern Chinese Master Hsu Yun was practicing in a Ch’an Hall in the cold of winter. Hot tea was often brought to the practitioners.
One day Master Hsu Yun held out his cup to receive tea and the tea was so hot that the cup burned him and he dropped it. At the sound of the cup breaking, Master Hsu Yun realized enlightenment. What kind of Complete Penetration was that? The sense organ of touch or hearing? The object of hearing or of touch? Or was it the consciousness of these senses? In order to know the answer we would have to ask Master Hsu Yun. We would need to know at exactly what point he was enlightened. Only he could tell us.
Once you penetrate one door, you don’t need the other entrances. When you enter, you penetrate all doors. But the point of entry is different for different people.
At the Center we have two doors, one in the front and one in the back, but you don’t even really need to go through a door to enter the Center. You can climb over a wall or in a window. Once you are inside it doesn’t matter how you got in, but we can still talk about the path you took.
At the Center the two doors are the normal entries. However, if you climb over a wall or in a window there is no difference in the fact that you are inside. Of course, most people don’t climb over walls. The twenty-five complete penetrations described in the Surangama Sutra are the normal ways to discover our Buddha Nature, and are comparable to the two doors of the Ch’an Center. However, it is not impossible that there are additional ways to discover our Buddha Nature.
Let us return to the sutra. and talk about Bodhisattva Samantabhadra’s complete penetration through ear consciousness:
Samantabhadra Bodhisattva then rose from his seat, prostrated himself with his head at the feet 0f the Buddha and declared: “I was already a son of the Dharma King when formerly I was with the Tathagatas who were countless as the sands in the Ganges. All the Buddhas in the ten directions who teach their disciples to plant Bodhisattva roots, urge them to practice Samantabhadra deeds which are called after mi name. World Honored One, I always use my mind to listen in order to distinguish the variety of views held by human beings. If in a place, separated from here by a number of worlds as countless as the sands in the Ganges, a living being practices Samantabhadra deeds, I mount at once a six tusked elephant and reproduce myself in a hundred and a thousand apparitions to come to his aid. Even if he is unable to see me because of his great karmic obstruction, I secretly lay my hand on his head to protect and comfort him so that he can succeed. As the Buddha now asks about the best means of perfection, according to my personal experience, the best consists in hearing with the mind, which leads to non-discriminative discernment.” (p.1 27)
The translator has digested the contents of the passage besides translating it. As a result it does not contain the richness of meaning of the Chinese, so we will proceed based on the Chinese.
Samantabhadra can be translated as “universal virtue.” “Universal” indicates several things. First, it means universal in terms of space. That is, Samantabhadra’s virtue can exist or manifest anywhere. Wherever Samantabhadra’s methods are practiced, the Bodhisattva is there, together with the practitioner. Samantabhadra’s virtue is also universal in that his method is suitable for anybody in any place.
Again, Samantabhadra is “universal virtue” because Samantabhadra’s method is beneficial for any sentient being regardless of level of practice, virtue or karmic roots. Very experienced practitioners with deep wisdom and great merit or beginners on the Bodhisattva Path can benefit from his method.
What is this method of practice? It is the ten great Vow’s of Samantabhadra which are described in the Avatamsaka Sutra:
To worship and respect all Buddhas.
To praise the Tathagatas.
To cultivate the giving of offerings.
To repent all karmic obstructions.
To rejoice in the merits of others.
To request the turning of the Dharma wheel.
To request that the Buddhas dwell in the world.
To always follow the Buddhas in study.
To always harmonize with living beings.
To transfer all merits to all others.
“Virtue” means that anybody. at any time and place, who comes into contact with Samantabhadra’s method, will benefit. It is like coming into contact with virtuous people or nutritious food. It is always beneficial. In this sense, too, Samantabhadra represents universal virtue.
Samantabhadra says, “I was already a son of the Dharma King…” In the Avatamsaka Sutra two great bodhisattvas are called sons of the Dharma King, Manjusri and Samantabhadra. However. Manjusri is also known as the mother of the Buddhas in the three times (past, present and future), while Samantabhadra is called the eldest son of the Buddha. In what sense is Manjusri the mother of the Buddhas? He preceeded the Buddhas because he represents wisdom, and wisdom is the foundation of Buddhism. Without wisdom one cannot become a Buddha.
Samantahhadra is called the elder son of the Buddha (the Dharma King) because he represents the virtuous action of a bodhisattva, as expressed in the ten great vows. The number ten is used to represent perfection. The ten great Vows incorporate all the virtuous activities of all bodhisattvas within their general categories. Anyone who practices Samantabhadra’s vows is the elder son of the Dharma King and should be able to become a Buddha soon. But Samantabhadra remains the elder son. What kind of a prince is this? Who wants to be a prince eternally and never attain the throne?
In the sutra, Samantabhadra says, “I was already a son of the Dharma King when formerly I was with the Tathagatas who were countless as the sands in the Ganges.” If you think about it, this means that Samantabhadra is the oldest son of Buddhas as countless as the grains of sand in the Ganges River. Countless sentient beings have attained Buddhahood, and yet Samantabhadra remains the Prince of the Dharma King and has not become a Buddha. Why do you think that is?
Samantabhadra Bodhisattva represents two things. First, he represents the activities of a bodhisattva. Second, he represents what anyone who practices like him will become. Anyone who practices his vows becomes Samantabhadra Bodhisattva. There can be thousands, tens of thousands, even millions of Samantabhadra Bodhisattvas. All of them are the same Samantabhadra Bodhisattva. They are identical. The Chinese say that whoever provides the milk is the mother. In the same sense, whoever has the virtue and the abilities of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva is Samantabhadra Bodhisattva.
When I was in Vancouver I met identical twin brothers. Even their voices and facial expressions were the same. Both were very good photographers. I often confused them. I would say to one, “Yesterday you did this for me.” and he would say, “I wasn’t here yesterday. That was my brother.”
This went on and on. Finally I said to them, “My inability to tell the difference between you may
be excused, but what about your children? Can they tell the difference?”
They said that their children often mistook one brother for the other until they reached their teens. “And your wives?” They said that their wives could tell.
These brothers are almost identical, but not as identical as Samantabhadra and a person whose practice is at his level. When a person’s practice is at the level of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, he is Samantabhadra.
The text goes on: “All the Buddhas in the ten directions who teach their disciples to plant Bodhisattva roots, urge them to practice Samantabhadra deeds which are called after my name. All of us on the bodhisattva path should practice Samantabhadra’s vows. The practice of Samantabhadra’s vows is the complete Bodhisattva Path. We can start by practicing on an elementary level. We start by practicing them partially until we reach the point where we can practice them completely. Bodhisattva practice incorporates the virtuous activities of all bodhisattvas. Other ways of practice may only be appropriate for a particular stage or part of the bodhisattva path.
What is the Complete Penetration of the Consciousness of Hearing? It is not hearing with the sense organ of the ear, but rather it is hearing with the mind and it is not done with the discriminating mind, but with a pure mind. With a pure mind, the bodhisattva listens to the thoughts of all sentient beings so that he can understand their thoughts, their understanding, their orientation, and so on. Samantahhadra says, “World honored One. I always use my mind to listen in order to distinguish the variety of views of human beings.”
Samantabhadra listens so well that he can hear the thoughts of a sentient being extremely far away, separated from him by worlds as countless as sands in the Ganges River. (“If in a place, separated from here by a number of worlds as countless as the sands in the Ganges, a living being practices Samantabhadra deeds. I mount at once a six tusked elephant and reproduce myself in a hundred and a thousand apparitions to come to his aid.”) If a sentient being generates Samantabhadra’s vow and wants to practice the Bodhisattva Path, Samantabhadra will go there and help him. In fact, the Bodhisattva will manifest in hundreds and thousands of emanations, and each will go, riding a six-tusked elephant, to help a being that has made these vows.
What does the six-tusked elephant represent? It is also mentioned in the Lotus Sutra, in the chapter on the Contemplation of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, where it states that wherever sentient beings take Samantabhadra’s vows, Samantabhadra will go to help them riding on a six-tusked white elephant. The Surangama Sutra does not say that the elephant is white, but “white” represents the purity of the Bodhisattva’s activities.
Why does the elephant Samantabhadra rides have six tusks? The six tusks represent the six paramitas of Buddhism: giving, following the precepts. patience, diligence, concentration and wisdom. I said earlier that the vow’s of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva encompass and represent all bodhisattva activities. The six tusks of the elephant represent the six paramitas and so also represent all the myriad activities of bodhisattvas. These tusks are both useful and ornamental. The six paramitas are used to help sentient beines, and they are an adornment of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva.
Samantabhadra says, of a person who takes his vows, “Even if he is unable to see me because of his great karmic obstruction, I secretly lay my hand on his head to protect and comfort him so that he can succeed.” If the practitioner does not have too many karmic obstructions he may he able to see Samantahhadra Bodhisattva in front of him. riding on a six-tusked elephant.
Samantahhadra Bodhisattva’s description of his complete penetration is different from the descriptions of the other twenty-four Bodhisattvas who speak in this section of the Surangama Sutra. The other Bodhisattva disciples of the Buddha explain their enlightenment, while Samantabhadra Bodhisattva explains how he helps others. He says that he helps whoever aspires to practice his vows. Finally, Samantabhadra talks a little bit about his own practice, but he does not explain exactly how he realized enlightenment. He says, “As the Buddha now asks about the best means of perfection, according to my personal experience, the best consists in hearing with the mind, which leads to non-discriminative discernment. He does tell us, then, that he realized enlightenment through hearing with the mind.
Why did listening with the mind and the complete penetration of the consciousness of hearing lead Samantabhadra to make the ten great vows? That is not explained. But once Samantabhadra experienced complete penetration of the consciousness of hearing, he had no obstruction to his wisdom and reached the highest attainment.
How is Samantahhadra’s Complete Penetration of the Consciousness of Hearing relevant? What good does it do us, who do not have complete penetration of the consciousness of hearing? How can we make use of this?
Question from the audience: You said that Samantabhadra’s vows are appropriate for practitioners at all levels. How can we use them if we are at a beginning level?
Master Sheng-yen: This is a very important point. We can use Samantabhadra’s vows to follow the Bodhisattva Path because Samantabhadra’s activities encompass all bodhisattva activities from the most elementary to the most advanced. But what does an elementary level of bodhisattva activity mean? The important thing to understand is how we must listen. Not just with our ears, but our minds must listen to the minds of others. Do not be limited by what you hear, by the words that are chosen, but try to understand the mind of the person who is talking. Rely on the consciousness of hearing. This is not easy, but it is important. It takes practice.
I knew a mother who had to be away from home for a few months. When she returned her daughter began to cry. The child beat, kicked and yelled at her mother, saying. “I don’t want you to come back. I don’t want you to come back!” But what were the child’s true feelings? I’m sure she meant the opposite of what she said.
Do not listen only to words. Try to listen to the hearts and minds of the people around you.
(This article was posted on Chan Newsletter – No. 124, August 1997)