Here’s what you’ll encounter in modern Buddhism quite often – the mistaken idea that absolutely everything is dependent upon something else. What they don’t realize is that this idea of things being dependent on other things only applies to the conditioned realm of phenomena. It does NOT apply to enlightenment – enlightenment is not dependent upon anything whatsoever – it has no causes and so is not created.
Ānanda said to the Buddha , “World-Honored One, if the wondrous enlightened nature is indeed NOT dependent on causes and conditions, why then has the Buddha often taught the monks that our visual awareness requires four conditions to be present : space, light, mind, and the eye- faculty. What did you mean then?” The Buddha said, “Ānanda, what I have said about causes and conditions as they function in the world is not an ultimate truth.
[Source: A New Translation Buddhist Text Translation Society. The Śūraṅgama Sūtra With Excerpts from the Commentary by the Venerable Master Hsüan Hua (Kindle Locations 1803-1806).]
So when reading the Sutras and Suttas (which we should all do to learn Buddhism from the source rather than merely rely on scholarly books and articles – which are secondary interpretations which may be right or wrong), be mindful of when the Buddha is teaching a provisional truth as opposed to an ultimate truth.
What’s a provisional truth? It’s like when you’re a kid and you’ve got those extra training wheels on a big bike. These training wheels are just temporary.
So in this example, the provisional truth is – for us to be able to see, we need the conditions of:
- Our eyes have to be intact
- We need light – as we can’t see well in the dark
- We need space – as we can’t see through obstructions like walls
- And we need a brain – cos our visual cortex processes the information from our eyes
What’s the ultimate truth? It’s like when you no longer need anymore training wheels – so you dispense with them. Training wheels will actually get in the way and even slow you down.
In the example, the Buddha is saying that ultimately, our seeing nature – our ability to see, i.e,. “that which sees” – doesn’t need any of those 4 things because our seeing is not dependent upon any of them. For example:
- If we say that it’s our physical eyes that see things – then the eyes of a corpse should be able to see (but they don’t).
- Same if we say it’s the physical brain that sees – then the brain of a dead body should be able to see (but it doesn’t).
- If we say we need light to see – so when it’s pitch black darkness, we say we can’t see – but we do – we are actually “seeing” the darkness. So our seeing does not lapse for an instant whether the dualistic phenomena of light or dark appear before it.
- If we say we need space to be able to see – then if a wall is in front of us, we say we can’t see – but we do – we are actually “seeing” the wall.
All these things are just changing opposite phenomena appearing before our perception – light and dark, space and obstruction, yin and yang.
Ānanda said, “Relying on the light of the sun, of the moon, or of lamps, ordinary people can see various objects. That is what they mean by ‘seeing.’ Without at least one of these three sources of light, they would not be able to see.”
“Ānanda, if people cannot see when light is absent, they would have no visual awareness of total darkness. Since they are visually aware of total darkness, you cannot say that they cannot see in the absence of light. Further, if their inability to see light when they are in total darkness indeed means they cannot see when it is dark, then conversely, their inability to see darkness when it is light must also mean that they cannot see when it is light, since the cases are parallel and both involve instances of not seeing. “Light and darkness are mutually exclusive; still, regardless of which one is present, your visual awareness does not lapse for an instant. Therefore you should understand that in both cases there is seeing. How can you say that there is not?
“You should understand then that:
- When people see light, their awareness of it does not come into being because of the light.
- When people see darkness, their awareness of it does not come into being because of the darkness.
- When people see space, their awareness of it does not come into being because of the space, and
- When people see solid objects, their awareness of them does not come into being because of the solid objects.
[Source: A New Translation Buddhist Text Translation Society. The Śūraṅgama Sūtra With Excerpts from the Commentary by the Venerable Master Hsüan Hua (Kindle Locations 1807-1818).]
So here, the Buddha getting to the heart of the matter. Causes and conditions is just a provisional truth. Only phenomena are dependent upon causes and conditions – and they are constantly in flux – from 1 polar opposite to the other – like light vs dark. Your enlightened Buddha Nature – “that which is aware” of these dualistic phenomena – is NOT dependent upon causes and conditions – it is independent of them. It does not rely upon anything whatsoever. Phenomena are merely like dust appearing before our eyes.
So you need to be aware of the distinction between dualistic phenomena and “that which is aware” of these dualistic phenomena. Phenomena are merely “objects” of our perception whilst “that which is aware” of these phenomena is the perceiver, the One Who Knows, the Buddho, the Buddha Nature.