The Innumerable Meanings Sutra
Chapter 2: "Preaching"
Chapter Two of the Innumerable Meanings Sutra opens with Great Adornment Bodhisattva and a myriad other Bodhisattva Mahasattvas requesting the Buddha to discourse, to preach. The Buddha replied to this by saying “Excellent! Good sons you have well known that this us the time. Ask me what you like. Before long, the Tathagata will enter parinirvana.” – In other words the Buddha is saying that he is more than happy to answer whatever they may have doubts or questions about. He also says I will pass away soon so it is best you ask now! The Buddha then goes on to say “After nirvana, there shall be not a doubt left to anybody”. We need to break up the implications of this. Firstly, we can say that the Buddha, during his life, has/will have taught all there is to teach. That everything we need, in order to banish doubt, is right here. In Buddha Dharma. And secondly, we can interpret this as a reminder that once we ourselves have understood, doubt is forever banished, happiness attained.
The Bodhisattva Great Adornment then asks, what’s the best way to accomplish complete enlightenment? Is there a way that’s quicker than the rest? And the Buddha replies, that there is indeed such a way, that if mastered, leads quickly and certainly to full enlightenment.
Naturally Bodhisattva Great Adornment thinks that this is wonderful news! And asks what it is? The Buddha answers that this doctrine, this teaching is called the doctrine of ‘Innumerable Meanings’. To master it we “should observe that all laws were originally, will be, are in themselves void in nature and form”. That is that all things are ‘empty’ of a permanent and independent inner nature or self. That their form is likewise ‘empty’ of permanence and substantiality. And that they always have been, and always will be this way, without exception. “They are neither great nor small, neither appearing nor disappearing, neither fixed nor moveable, and neither advancing nor retreating; they are nondualistic, just emptiness.” This means that the nature of things cannot really be defined in a ‘discriminating way’. Anything I say about a ‘thing’ for example is to assert that it is a certain way or possesses a certain characteristic at the exclusion of all other possibilities. In other words, by defining something, I have limited its ‘character’. But in saying that really everything is “just emptiness”, the Buddha is saying precisely that there is no ‘limiting character’ to things. The differentiations and discriminations we make ultimately have no bearing on the true nature of reality.
The Buddha then goes so far as to say that this type of discriminating, saying that a thing is ‘this or that’ is a manifestation of the ignorance that “entertain[s]evil thoughts, make[s] various evil karmas and thus transmigrat[ion] within the Six Realms”. Why? Well when you hold a bad thought about someone, something or some situation, what are you doing? Essentially, you are attributing a characteristic, a feeling or an emotion to the thing itself. For example, you connect the negative emotion to the person, thing or circumstance you hate or dislike. We start to think that those feelings, emotions, our relationship to the thing/ person etc. are one and the same with the thing itself. The Buddha is saying here STOP! It is by doing that, by being confused about that underlying nature of things, that we suffer, that we ‘butt heads’ with the world. And that this creates negative karma by virtue of it being a form of ignorance, which keeps us trapped in samsara.
But once we have realised this non-dual emptiness, we need to use it proactively. Simply understanding is not enough. We “should raise the mind of compassion, display the great mercy desiring to relieve others of suffering”. When we become clearer about reality, when we start to see things as they are, we make progress on the path. We begin to alleviate our own suffering piece by piece. In doing so, we should be able to ‘look backwards’ at the suffering we created and experienced because of our many delusions. When we see how painful and undesirable these things were, we start to notice that pain in others. If this is the case, there is nothing else to do but to help others. Knowing how things hurt, we shouldn’t wish it on anybody. And so, the only way we can repay the gift of the Dharma is by using it, to brighten the corner of others’ lives.
We can’t stop here though. The Buddha finished the line I just explained with the following: “and once again penetrate deeply into all laws”. How are we to understand this? I would suggest that we understand it to mean that Enlightenment is not a final state to be obtained, or a goal to be achieved. Enlightenment is the process of constant awakening. We must be constantly awakening. Buddha’s are those free of attachment. And so Buddhahood is a state that can freely abandon itself as part of its experience of Buddhahood.
The Buddha goes on to describe that all things “emerge”/ arise, all things “settle”/ abide, all things “change”, and that all things “vanish”. In other words all things ‘emerge’ or come into being, all things ‘settle’ or exist for a moment, all things ‘change’ over time, and that all things ‘vanish’ or pass away. All that we experience, be it good or bad, is subject to these stages. Now, nothing about this is all that ‘shocking’ or unusual. It’s not so difficult for us to look back on our life experiences and see how true this is. But it is the clarification that the Buddha offers next that seems to be missing from our daily wisdom. “Having thus completely observed and known these four aspects from beginning to end, should next observe that none of the laws settles down oven for a moment, but all emerge and vanish anew every moment; and observe that they emerge , settle, change and vanish instantly.” What does that mean? It means that nothing stays the same moment to moment. That while we may see those four aspects on the macro-level [big picture], it should also be observed on the micro-level. This means that you for example arise, abide, change, and pass away IN EVERY MOMENT. “After said observation, we see all manner of natural desires of living beings.” – That is ALL THINGS should be looked at in this way.
“As natural desires are innumerable, preaching is immeasurable, and as preaching is immeasurable, meanings are innumerable.” Due to the fact that the myriad beings in existence have different desires and faculties and so forth, the Buddha preaches in numerous ways. The Buddha states however, that while he may teach, or preach in ‘immeasurable’ ways, the “Innumerable Meanings originate from one law. This one law is namely, nonform.” That is to say they all share the flavour of liberation; the flavour of emptiness.
Establishing themselves upon this emptiness, Bodhisattvas [and by extension us] can “excellently relieve living beings from suffering”. Why should an understanding of emptiness help us relieve the sufferings of others? Because emptiness is one of the “real aspect[s] of things”. It is wisdom. If we imagine the analogy of two people stuck in a mire or swamp, an understanding of emptiness may be likened to having one foot on solid ground. In other words, with one foot firmly planted on stable ground, it becomes clear that our compassionate aspirations are much more effective. In fact it suggests that our compassionate aspirations before, were little more than foolish and deluded endeavours. While Mahayana Buddhism praises the Bodhisattva and encourages us to strive to be the same, we have an indication here of what it means in Buddhism to be truly compassionate. To truly liberate beings we must ‘ground’ ourselves in wisdom. And finally the Buddha caps off the doctrine of Innumerable Meanings by describing that Bodhisattvas [and us] “having given relief from sufferings… preach the Law again, and let all living beings obtain pleasure”. In other words cultivation starts by alleviating our suffering, BUT, that what we aim for is the bliss of enlightenment. That we shouldn’t become complacent because we suffer less. Our goal is, always has been, and always should be Complete Enlightenment.
The Buddha then repeats what he said at the beginning with some elaboration. The above doctrine[s] are those which, truly understood bring speedy enlightenment. It is “reasonable in its logic, unsurpassed in its worth, and protected by all the Buddha’s of the Three Worlds”.
“No kind of demon or heretic can break into it, nor can any wrong view or life and death destroy it.” This means that the Buddha-Dharma, truth, is beyond diminishment. That is, no one who disagrees with it can by doing so make it any less valid, no one with a wrong understanding of the Buddha’s teachings can bring it low and lastly that as Ideals, concepts, they cannot be ‘destroyed’ as such.
When the Buddha stops talking, Bodhisattva Great Adornment is a little confused. He says something to the effect of ‘but you’ve preached numerous doctrines, taught many lessons and now you say that if we simply practice this Innumerable Meanings Doctrine we will attain enlightenment?’ Understandably this raises questions for the Buddha’s audience.
The Buddha’s reply to this starts with his recounting his own enlightenment. “With the Buddha’s eye [wisdom] I saw all the laws and saw that they were inexpressible. Wherefore? I knew the natures and desires of all beings were not equal.” Why was it inexpressible? Because the Buddha understood that beings had different capacities to understand the truth. Therefore if he simply expressed it ‘as it was’, no one would have taken anything from it. There is also the suggestion here that to a certain extent truth has to be experienced; it cannot be adequately ‘explained’ as such.
“It was with tactful power that I preached the Law variously. In forty years and more, the truth has not been revealed yet”. Because of the different capacities of beings, I have spent my time ‘tactfully’ teaching individuals only what they could handle. Teaching them ‘partial truths’. THEREFORE, in forty years, I have yet to teach the ‘complete truth’.
He goes on to liken the dharma to water. Explaining that water may come in various forms such as rivers, streams, wells, ponds etc. While they are clearly different in form, they all, by virtue of being water, have the power to wash off dirt. In the same way it is said, that although the Buddha’s teachings come in many different forms, they all wash off our delusions and lead us from suffering. As to the statement that they are all equally able to ‘wash away the dirt’, there are some complicated but important implications of this, that it would not yet be appropriate to go into. In later classes we will elaborate. Suffice it to say that they are all equally valid in helping us remove delusion and suffering.
The Buddha, goes on to say for example that in the beginning, in the middle, and in the end of his ministry, he may have used different methods, but that at heart, he consistently taught that all things are selfless/”naturally vacant”, impermanent/”ceaselessly transformed”, and “instantly born and destroyed”.
This section ends with the sentence: “Only a Buddha together with a Buddha can fathom it well”. This statement is of immense importance in Tendai thought but is perhaps too ‘deep’ to go into here. What needs to be kept in mind here though is that it is a ‘joint-project’. A Buddha AND a Buddha. While this is not clear yet, it will be as we build on our current material.
This is followed with the world shaking in six ways and various kinds of amazing things occurring such as flowers falling from the sky and so forth. These signify the importance of what has just been said. The very presence of these words alters the world forever.