In the Shurangama Sutra, the Buddha relates the story of how, just after his enlightenment, he went back to his 5 companions to help them open their enlightenment by saying that people aren’t enlightened because they are confused by afflictions which are like visitors and like dust – visitor dust.
The first person to be enlightened under the Buddha was Ajnata Kaundinya (also called Anna Kondanna in the Pali language). So the Buddha asked him to share what specifically caused him to awaken? What was the exact understanding that allowed him to open his enlightenment?
How Venerable Ajnata Kaundinya awakened his enlightenment
Kaundinya replied that it was because he understood what the Buddha meant by visitors and dust. So what did the Buddha mean by “visitor dust“?
Imagery for contemplation
Imagine some dust in the air, dancing in ray of light shining through a crack in a dark room. What moves? What is still?
- The dust moves – it comes and goes (is transient) – like visitors of an inn coming and going – there are mere guests.
- The space is still – is ever present (not transient) – is like the Master of the inn – this is the host, who always lives there.
The key point here in enlightenment is to find the Master of the inn – where is he? Remember in Zen/Chan Buddhism, we ask ourselves an investigative question of “Who?” So as we calm our minds down reciting the Buddha’s name, we investigate “Who really is it that is reciting the Buddha’s name?”
Don’t mistake the transient visitors to be the Master – as the Master is not transient.
Why is it compared to “guest dust”?Because it is not something fundamental to us.Our bodies are basically clean, but if we go out on a windy day the dust may blow up and cover us, soiling our bodies. When we take our hands and brush away the dust, it disappears. What does this represent? It represents our afflictions and ignorance which are like “guest-dust”
- What is NOT fundamental to us are transient phenomena – like thoughts, emotions, afflictions – they are like dust, that is sometimes on our bodies and sometimes not – dust can not permanently remain.
- What IS fundamental to us – is the Master of the Inn, the Host – this is our eternally dwelling True Mind of our Buddha Nature.
Considering it this way:
- The one who does not remain is called the guest, and
- The one who does remain is called the host.
Master Hsuan Hua’s commentary: We can also say that we reside in our bodies temporarily as a guest does in an inn. We should understand that our bodies are merely an inn, not an actual home. They are not our own home, and so we shouldn’t be too attached to them. But our host, the permanently dwelling true mind, never goes away, never ceases to exist.
Practical Application of the Principles
So in your meditation, while you are sitting there, observing your thoughts, ask yourself:
- What moves? vs What is still?
- What comes and goes? vs What stays?
Master Hsuan Hua gives an insight into this imagery – the ray of light represents the light of wisdom that allows you to see 2 things:
- Your afflictions – which is like the dust floating in the dark room of ignorance – there are mere visitors – don’t get confused by them.
- The unmoving stillness of your essential nature – this is the Master of the inn.
So shine your wisdom on to observing your thoughts arising and ceasing in your mind AND on the Mind itself – what moves, what is still?
- Thoughts move, don’t they? They come and go. Thoughts flow in and flow out of your mind, don’t they? So just leave them be – let them flow in and out of their own accord. Don’t grasp them each time they arise – just leave them be. They are mere visitors – let them do their thing and then let them go.
- Yet that which is aware of those thoughts – the observer, the knower – that does not disappear with the disappearance of thoughts.
Because if awareness did disappear when thoughts disappear, then:
- It would no longer be aware of…. the space…………. between… thoughts……..
- BUT we ARE still aware of this space….. just after a thought ends.. and…… before another thought begins).
So the awareness pervades no matter whether thought is present or whether thought is absent – it is present all the time, we just don’t realize it.
Master Hsuan Hua’s commentary:
Ignorance and afflictions as numerous as motes of dust move, but empty space does not move. Empty space represents our seeing-nature, which is also unmoving. It is the genuine host, our permanently dwelling true mind which does not come and does not go.
So the awareness is:
- Aware of thoughts when they are present
- Aware when thoughts are absent
“That which is aware” of thoughts does not come nor go with the thoughts:
- Thoughts are mere visitors – like dust dancing in space, like visitors.
- The Master of the inn (the knower) observes the comings and goings of the visitors – like the unmoving space in which the dust dances, ever present, always observing.
Shine the ray of light of your wisdom on both your thoughts AND that which is aware of the thoughts as you reflect in your meditation.
Implications of this teaching
So can you see how this is a way to be able to detach from your thoughts (to let go of them and go beyond the arisings and cessations of thoughts- which are but moving, mental objects) to the awareness which is beyond the presence or absence of thought.
Get this. Anything that moves is like a visitor that comes and goes – so not just your thoughts, but your emotions too, your body too – they are all transient. Try to find the awareness behind it all that transcends the transience – the host, the Master of the inn – open up to this awareness rather than constantly grasping thoughts and mental objects out of reactive habit.