In the Bahuna Sutta, the Buddha says that he dwells in unrestricted awareness after being freed from these 10 things (which I have simplified into 3 for you – so that it’s easier to learn and remember):
Freed and dissociated from:
1. The 5 skandhas (the psycho-physical self)
2. Impermanence – birth, decay, illness and death
3. Suffering and defilement
What are the implications of these statements?
Implication 1 – The Buddha’s enlightenment (Nirvana) is a type of unrestricted awareness/consciousness.
I have seen the argument that “Nibbana (Nirvana) is not vinnana (consciousness)” – that the Buddha is talking about the sphere of infinite consciousness (rather than Nirvana) when he speaks about:
- The Luminous mind (Pabhassara Citta) and
- The non-manifest consciousness (anidassana vinnana) that is luminous and radiant all around.
The problem with this argument is twofold:
- If that were so, then the Buddha wouldn’t have said here in the Bahuna Sutta that he dwells in unrestricted awareness freed from suffering. Nirvana by definition is free from suffering; whereas the sphere of infinite consciousness is still subject to suffering – so obviously, the Buddha is definitely not talking about the sphere of infinite consciousness when he talks about unrestricted awareness in the Bahuna Sutta.
- There are Sanskrit Sutras which explicitly say that Nirvana is the essence of consciousness. In the Shurangama Sutra, the Buddha says this:
“The second is the primal pure substance of the beginningless Bodhi Nirvana. It is the primal bright essence of consciousness that can bring forth all conditions. Because of conditions, you consider it to be lost.”
Bodhi (or Bodhi Nirvana) is another name for our own Buddha Nature that we are endowed with since beginningless time which is not born or created and so can not die or be destroyed – our inherent enlightened nature – that’s why the word “primal” is used – we have always possessed it, we all possess this enlightened nature now, even as you are reading these words, and we will forever possess it – we consider that we are unenlightened, hence why we “consider it to be lost” because we don’t realize that we have it – so we go try to seek enlightenment from outside, try to seek enlightenment from external world.
Master Hsuan Hua explains this passage that from the Shurangama Sutra about Bodhi Nirvana:
There is no beginning; therefore the Buddha calls it “beginningless”; it was even before the beginning itself had occurred.
Where does Bodhi itself come from?
Bodhi doesn’t come from anywhere or go anywhere. Each of us is endowed with it. No one person has any more or less of it than anyone else. It neither increases nor decreases, is neither produced nor extinguished, is neither defiled nor pure.
Most people think that nirvana follows upon death, but actually it is not necessarily an after-death state. It is the certification to and attainment of a principle. “Nirvana” is a Sanskrit word which is interpreted to mean “neither produced nor destroyed.” Since it is neither produced nor destroyed, birth and death are ended. One attains nirvana when one reaches the position of not being subject to birth and death.
But nirvana is not the Buddha’s dying. When the Buddha dies, he enters nirvana; he enters and certifies to the principle of nirvana with its four virtues of permanence, bliss, true self, and purity. Some people who haven’t seen things clearly in their study of Buddhism think that nirvana is just death, but nirvana is emphatically not death. One who holds this view does not understand Buddhist principle.
It is the primal bright essence of consciousness.
- “Primal” means that it is originally a pure substance, that is, one which is neither defiled nor pure, neither increasing nor decreasing. Originally its light illuminates everywhere.
- “Consciousness” here does NOT refer to the eight consciousnesses, nor to the eye-consciousness, the ear-consciousness, the nose-consciousness, the tongue-consciousness, the body-consciousness, the mind-consciousness, nor the manas or the alaya consciousnesses. It is not any of the eight consciousnesses. It refers to the essence of consciousness, which is but another name for Bodhi Nirvana.
The phrase is used here to avoid repetition for the sake of literary style. It refers to the most essential and wonderful aspect of consciousness, the inherent Buddha-nature, the bright substance of the permanently dwelling true mind that can bring forth all conditions. Because of conditions, you consider it to be lost. Because these causal conditions arise, you keep getting farther and farther away from where you want to be, like someone running farther and farther down the road.
Didn’t I say before that the more Ananda answered the Buddha’s questions the farther off the track he got? All conditions are transformed and appear from within the primal bright essential consciousness, but after a long time of clutching at these conditions, it seems that something has been lost. What is lost? Nothing, really. The primal bright essential consciousness seems to be lost, but it isn’t. The primal pure substance of Bodhi Nirvana is the true jewel in your household.
Basically, it is right there with you but you don’t know how to use it to your advantage. Since you can’t use it, it seems to be lost. It is as if you had a valuable gem which you have hidden away so well that after a long time you can no longer remember where you put it. Once you forget where it is, you can no longer make use of it.
Although you may be destitute, you don’t know how to get at it and derive benefit from it. It’s the same as if it weren’t there. What do you use instead? You use your false thinking, your mind that seizes upon conditions. In the process you forget the true mind, and once it is forgotten, it is as good as lost. And this is why you have not become Buddhas and are bound up by birth and death instead: you have not found your true mind.
Source: The Shurangama Sutra with Commentary by Master Hsuan Hua, http://www.cttbusa.org/shurangama1/shurangama1_22.asp
Notice at the end here that Master Hsuan Hua also calls Nirvana your “True mind” – NOT the vinnana of cognition/intellect/thinking consciousness which is 1 of the 5 skandhas of your psychophysical self.
So Nirvana = your True Mind = your Buddha Nature.
Implication 2 – The Buddha’s enlightenment is beyond the psychophysical self
People say these days, “The 5 skandhas is what we are” – just a bundle of ever changing, physical and mental processes, there is nothing beyond this. Now if that were so, then why would the Buddha say that he is:
- Freed from the restraints and restrictions of the psychophysical self/5 skandhas
- Dissociated from the psychophysical self – so the real Buddha (the enlightened aspect of him) is not his body with its mental activities.
So certainly, Enlightenment (which has no more suffering) is something beyond the 5 skandhas (which are subject to suffering).
Implication 3 – The Buddha’s enlightenment is beyond impermanence
There’s are pattern of change when things are created within the realm of impermanence – they are born and keep changing – they grow, reach a peak, and then they decay and die. The Buddha’s enlightenment is beyond this pattern of change.
So, Buddhism is not so much about merely accepting impermanence, it is about trying to find an escape from the impermanence of old age, sickness and death. But can there be old age and death without birth? No, because birth leads to old age and subsequent death. Hence why the Buddha said that impermanent pleasures are dukkha – not satisfactory, not ultimate – because they can’t last. All that arises, ceases. There are no things which arise and then just keep arising forever – it will change and after it reaches a peak.
Instead, the Buddha said to seek that within you that does not arise – because it will never cease. Seek the unborn – because it will never die. Seek that within you that is not created – because that can never be destroyed.
So accepting that things are impermanent is just the first step. The other step is to find that within you which is not impermanent – our unborn, undying, unchanging Buddha Nature.