In the Diamond Sutra there is a line which runs, "Subhuti, what do you think? Can the Tathagata be perceived by means of form or appearance?"
Buddha's student, Subhuti, then replies, "No World-Honored One, the Tathagata cannot be so perceived."
Now, everyone should note that in the sutra it was just telling us not to dwell on appearance or form, to practice charity without dwelling and that blessings would follow from this. The fortune or blessings one receives from the culmination of wisdom are infinite and immeasurable. Here it goes a step further in telling us the reality of seeing a Buddha.
This is very serious. Everyone who is a Buddhist wants to see a Buddha. So, Buddha asked Subhuti, calling him by name, "Subhuti, what do you think?" What's your idea, Subhuti, can people perceive the Buddha in a physical form?
In the sutras it says that the Buddha has thirty-two physical marks (laksanas, or physical marks of a cakravartin-"wheel king") which distinguish Him from ordinary mortals. These are described more fully in the eighty detailed physical characteristics.
For example, He has thousand-spoked wheel signs on His feet, long slender fingers and toes that are finely webbed, a long broad tongue and so forth. These signs all arose from many lives of cultivating merit.
If one makes offerings of flowers and incense to the Buddha, then in the next life, one will be more beautiful. If one offers clothes, in the next life he won't have to worry about going without and will have a healthy body. Also if one regularly offers medicine, one won't get sick in the next life. If in a previous life, a person refused to give medicine as charity, in this lifetime he will encounter many hardships and illnesses.
These results just follow the laws of karma.
How then did the Buddha gain these thirty- two marks and eighty characteristics?
They are the result of virtuous behavior.
These marks are those we could see when the Buddha was alive, in human form. Ananda, His cousin, had thirty of these marks as did the great translator, Kumarajiva. At this point, the Buddha was asking Subhuti if the Tathagata could be seen by means of these thirty-two marks. Subhuti answered, "No, World-Honored One, the Tathagata cannot be so perceived."
You might ask, if the Tathagata cannot be perceived by means of form or appearance, why then in the temples are there statues to which we prostrate?
Buddhism is just like all other religions in that it is against worshiping idols. Then, is it that we shouldn't prostrate to the images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas?
The answer is simple: because of the Buddha, you prostrate to yourself.
The Buddha's image causes respect to arise in you and you prostrate. The image is merely a representation of "I."
When you prostrate, you are not bowing down to the Buddha, rather you are bowing down to yourself, and therefore you are saved.
All religions boil down to the same essence: "I" don't save you. You save yourself due to your mind of true respect.
In actuality, it doesn't even have to be an image of the Buddha to which you prostrate. It could be some wood or clay, but if in your mind it is the Buddha and reverent respect arises, then you have succeeded. This is what is meant by, "because of the Buddha, you prostrate to yourself." It is not bowing down to "me." You bow down to yourself. What part of yourself? Your mind, your respect.
Not only should an idol not be taken for the Buddha but also, while He was on this earth, if you took His physical body to be the teacher, you were grasping onto form.
In the Surangama Sutra, it tells how Ananda made this mistake. The Buddha asked him why he had become a monk. Ananda answered that he saw how beautiful the Buddha looked and how He gave off gentle, golden-hued light. Ananda reckoned that this was not the result of ordinary karma. The Buddha then scolded him saying, Ananda, you are so foolish! You are not only attached to form but have become a monk due to attachment to physical beauty. This same attachment drew Ananda into a potentially dangerous situation with the woman Maugdalena. Thus, the Buddha said one cannot perceive the Tathagata by means of the physical form.
"Why is that? The form and appearance spoken of by the Tathagata is not true form and appearance." What is the reason? The true body beyond birth and death is not this physical body. The physical body experiences birth and death. Even if one lives to be a thousand years, in the end one must still die.
For instance, there was a famous monk called "Jewel-Fisted Zen Master" who lived a thousand years. He practiced for about five hundred years in India but hadn't yet awakened to Great Enlightenment. Knowing that Zen master Bodhidharma would bring Chan (Zen) Buddhism to China, he went ahead to wait for him. After seeing Bodhidharma, he had his Great Awakening and lived another five hundred years in China. As a result, many places have temples named after him.
There are many examples of people who live extraordinarily long lives. Buddha's number one student Mahakasyapa is an example of one still living on this earth. Long life is merely a physical appearance. It is not beyond birth and death. A thousand years is still but a thousand years.
That which is beyond birth and death is not the physical body, or the rupakaya. It is the dharmakaya, which has no appearance. This is why the Buddha again emphasized the point in the sutra, where it says: The Buddha told Subhuti, "Everything with form and appearance is merely illusion. If all form and appearance are seen as illusion, the Tathagata will be perceived."
The famous translator monk Kumarajiva, in translating this part of the Diamond Sutra, used very strong words, "The Buddha told Subhuti." In this section, pay particular attention to the words "everything with form and appearance." Whatever may transpire because of one's cultivation work would not happen without this effort. People talk about different meditative experiences, but when one is not meditating, these go away. Every visaya is but an appearance, and every appearance is but an illusion, not reality.
How then, does one perceive the real Buddha, the Tathagata? Only when one has perceived the dharmakaya has one come "face to face" with the real Buddha. If one perceives that all form is not form, this is not emptiness.
Most people explain this as achieving emptiness. This is foolishly adding another meaning to the words. The Buddha only said to perceive form as illusion.
What then is "not form"? Buddha gave no definitive explanation.
Please be careful on this!
Most people who study the Diamond Sutra will give their own explanation of emptiness. Those are your own words and not the Buddha's. The Buddha simply said to perceive that form is not form is to perceive the Tathagata, the dharmakaya. The important point is that the Buddha said "illusion" and not "empty." What is this really saying? Simply, do not dwell.
Dharmakaya, Sambogakaya, Rupakaya - Substance, Appearance, Function
The most important lines in the fifth section of the Diamond Sutra are "Everything with form and appearance is merely illusion. If all form and appearance are seen as illusion, the Tathagata will be perceived."
In the middle of the Diamond Sutra, there is a gatha which reads, "One who looks for me in appearance; Or pursues me in sound, Follows paths leading astray, And cannot perceive the Tathagata." And at the end of the sutra, there is another gatha which reads,
All phenomena are like
A dream, an illusion, a bubble and a shadow
Like a dew drop and a flash of lightning
Thus you should view them.
For the last thousand years, Buddhist and literary scholars as well have argued over which gatha contains the main point of the Diamond Sutra. These lines in the fifth section can also be taken as a gatha. I hope that when you are studying on your own, you will also take this question into consideration.
The Buddha said that we should not perceive the Tathagata in form. Everyone who's studied some Buddhism knows that when one becomes a Buddha, one also achieves the three bodies, or kayas. These are the dharmakaya, the sambogakaya and the rupakaya. This is why in some temples you will see three of the same Buddha images on the same altar. They represent the three kayas.
This became very popular in China, and by the Tang Dynasty, the Taoist temples were also doing their own form of this. Taoists had the Three Clear Ones: the High Clear One, the Supreme Clear One and the Jade Clear One.
This situation is representative of the world of religion in general. Whether they be "Western" or "Eastern," religions do influence each other quite deeply.
We've all heard the terms for the three kayas. What do these mean?
The dharmakaya is clear and serene, the sambogakaya has billions of appearances, shapes and sizes and the rupakaya is complete and perfect. Let's put Buddhism to one side and look from a philosophical perspective. The dharmakaya is the basic substance, that which all the phenomena in the universe have in common. In modern-day terms, one could loosely use the term "energy wave."
The sambogakaya is the outward appearance as it goes through various transformations which can perform many different functions, these functions being the rupakaya. From a philosophical perspective, the three bodies are substance, appearance and function.
Everything in the universe has these three aspects. Take water, for example. It can be made into tea, ice-cubes, steam, and so forth, all with different appearance and functions, but no matter how it transforms, the basic substance is still water. We now have some idea of what the three kayas are, in theory at least.
In Buddhism, when we say a person has awakened to Supreme Enlightenment, achieved anuttara-samyaksambodhi, to what exactly has one awakened? It is exactly that basic substance of which all life in the universe is comprised, the dharmakaya. In the Heart Sutra, it is called, "neither beginning nor ending, pure nor impure, increasing nor decreasing." In the opening verses preceding the Diamond Sutra, it is referred to in the line, "How to achieve immortality, the indestructible vajrasattva?" The familiar line, "Not a thought arises, the entire body reveals itself" also refers to the dharmakaya. The dharmakaya has no appearance.
As to the perfect reward body, the rupakaya, this is the result of one's cultivation work and is very difficult to achieve. I mentioned before the thirty-two marks of a Buddha and the eighty detailed physical characteristics. The body of anyone who has succeeded in cultivation, attained the Tao, has undergone a complete physical transformation. This physical body is the reward body.
Why is it called the "reward body"? Actually, everyone's body is a "reward body." If throughout one's life one is very comfortable and fortunate, this is the reward of previous virtue. Others may experience a lot of pain and suffering and lead a very pitiful life. Their body is the result of non-virtuous actions in a previous life. Through cultivation work, we transform this karmic reward body.
In the Taoist school, they describe the process as getting rid of illness to lengthen one's life and achieving immortality. This is talking about transforming the reward body. Achieving the perfect reward body is gaining complete liberation, changing mortal bones into immortal bones and gaining every kind of super power.
This is extremely difficult to achieve. The perfect reward body is very difficult to cultivate. The Taoist cultivation, opening qi mai, as well as Esoteric cultivation, opening the three channels and seven chakras, both start from the reward body. Samatha and samapatti (stopping and introspection), the Pure Land practice of reciting the Buddha's name and vipassana meditation are all examples of practices which mainly cultivate the dharmakaya. When one cultivates to the point where he or she has at will another body outside of this physical body, this is the sambogakaya or transformation body functioning. This is a very basic overview of the three bodies.
The average person who practices Buddhist or Taoist cultivation works on the dharmakaya.
The Esoteric school emphasizes the achievement of the three bodies because only when one achieves the three kayas has one successfully completed the Path. This is also called completion in one lifetime. "In one lifetime," means in this one lifetime to settle the question of life and death, to succeed at achieving the three bodies. In theory, this can be done, but in actuality, it is of the utmost difficulty. One must achieve perfection of vinaya (discipline), samadhi and wisdom as well as completely transform this physical body of four elements born of one's parents. Only this can be called completion in one lifetime.
In Tibetan Esoteric Buddhism, in addition to worshiping Shakyamuni Buddha, they also worship Padmasambhava. It is said that Padmasambhava is the reincarnation of Shakyamuni Buddha, born eight years after the Buddha's passing. The Buddha was born of the womb and there were many things he could not teach as the founder of the orthodox teachings. Therefore, to found the esoteric teachings, he returned born of a lotus transformation.
In southern India, there were a king and queen who were childless and in despair about their situation. While they were in the imperial gardens gazing at the lotuses one day, suddenly one lotus grew taller and larger. Out of the pod in the center burst forth a small boy of flesh and blood. Thus, he was called Padmasambhava, the Lotus Born.
As a prince, he was heir to the throne, but just as Gautama Shakyamuni did, he left the royal life at eighteen to follow the way of a monk. Unlike as in his last life however, he did not pass away into nirvana. Instead, he rode into the air on a white horse.
Earlier on in Tibet, every year there would be huge celebrations commemorating this. People would perform fire pujas throughout the country. They would burn all kinds of things as offerings-clothing, grains, valuables. Some women would even cut their hair and burn it as an offering. The fires would be kept burning for seven days and seven nights. People encircled the fire, continuously chanting Padmasambhava's mantra. Padmasambhava would always appear on his horse, circle the fire once and then disappear again. Padmasambhava always looks as he did as a young man with two small wisps of mustache. This is to show that he had achieved the perfect reward body.
In Taoism, this would be called immortality or "The sun and moon rest together; heaven and earth have the same longevity." Upon achievement of the perfect reward body, the sambogakaya is also naturally achieved. In order to be the role model for Esoteric Buddhism, he had to have had completion in one lifetime for the teaching to be perfect.
Now that we understand this, we can see that the Diamond Sutra concentrates on perceiving the dharmakaya.
What is perceiving the dharmakaya? It is enlightenment, seeing the Path.
The Diamond Sutra is of the prajna (transcendental wisdom) teachings which mainly focus on True Form Prajna. This is the substance of the beginningless source of all life. The rupakaya and sambogakaya are within the prajna visaya. This is why the Buddha said one cannot perceive the Tathagata through the physical form. The Tathagata is the origin of all life, the essential substance of all life. To have faith and reverence is no problem, but to become attached to a form is wrong. Not only in Buddhism is this wrong, but in any other religion as well.
Grasping onto Physical Appearance
In my experience, there are many people who grasp onto physical appearance. Those who grasp onto appearances tightly fall into one or another category of psychological illness. Sometimes it can be quite serious, even beyond treatment.
This is something encountered not just in Buddhism. Any religious order or community will encounter these kinds of people. They are not open to receiving any teaching, because they are grasping onto blind faith. In Buddhism, this is called grasping too tightly onto form. The full title of the Diamond Sutra is the Diamond Severer Sutra, which has the underlying meaning of the culmination of wisdom that does not grasp form and that one cannot perceive the Tathagata through form.
Many people who do Zen or other kinds of practice will often ask, is this or that kind of experience good? Is this or that a good sign? You absolutely must remember that "All phenomena are but illusions."
Today in meditation you reached a wonderful state, but without meditation, there is no wonderful state, so this is obviously not Tao. If by sitting in the lotus position the Tao is conferred upon one and then is taken back when one's legs uncross, this is the cultivation and attainment of one's legs and not the Tao.
To borrow a line from Taoism, "The Tao, it cannot for an instant leave; that which leaves is not the Tao." It is also what the Heart Sutra calls "no beginning or ending, not pure or impure, not increasing or decreasing ..." It's not as if by cultivation one can increase it, or that in slacking off it will decrease. The Tao cannot be perceived by appearance and thus, all phenomenal appearances are but illusions.
This being the case, what if a Buddha appeared right in front of your eyes? In light of the Diamond Sutra, how should this be taken? If you were really seeing a Buddha standing in front of you, you'd better go have your eyes checked or carefully examine your psychological state. Some people may hear sounds or have premonitions. Most people who have these happen to them love to play around with this stuff.
Hey! Don't get sidetracked! All phenomenal appearances are but illusions. The highest bodhi is incredibly ordinary. The most wise and skillful actions are also the most simple. The same with people, the more wise and skillful they are, the more commonplace they appear. Lao Tzu said, "The highest wisdom appears stupid." The ultimate wisdom is plain and simple. This is true of philosophy and science as well.
People always feel that their life is special. That is just one's own feeling. It's not until one has experienced life at its most simple that one has tasted the height of it.
On this point I sometimes joke saying that human history, from a Western perspective, was shaped with two halved apples. The first was the apple that Adam and Eve ate which kicked off human history. The second apple was the one that Newton saw fall which then changed the course of human history. Throughout the ages, people in many lands had happily eaten apples without ever having discovered gravity. Then out of the blue, Newton sees an apple drop and realizes that the earth has gravity.
An apple is a common thing. Every year apples drop to the ground. One person through this very common knowledge brought forth something extraordinary. Another example is steam. We've all seen boiling water and seen the steam, but someone saw in this common phenomenon the power to run an engine. Every common object and situation has this same potential. The extraordinary is within the ordinary.
In studying Buddhism, don't go chasing after the strange and mysterious. If you can live life at its simplest, then you will know the Buddha. In other words, you will perceive that all phenomena are illusions and not even the Buddha can be obtained. If at all times one does not grasp appearances, then one will perceive the Tathagata, the original nature of the dharmakaya.
The fifth section of the Diamond Sutra is extremely important, especially to those people who work hard on their daily cultivation. Prince Jiao Ming called this section "Like Theory, the Truth Is Perceived". The "theory" is the dharmakaya. The essence of Tao is a "theory," an understanding. The rupakaya and sambogakaya are one's ordinary affairs. Theory is in the philosophical realm while one's "affairs" are one's effort in cultivating the right way. This title, "Like Theory, the Truth Is Perceived" is pointing to the dharmakaya.