Sandra A. Wawrytko, Ph.D.
Departments of Asian Studies and Philosophy
San Diego State University
San Diego, California U.S.A.

Presented at the Pacific Division Meeting
of the American Philosophical Association
March 27-30, 2002, Seattle Washington

And the fourth plenary session of
the 12th International Conference on Chinese Philosophy
sponsored by the International Society for Chinese Philosophy
the Graduate School of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
the International Institute of Chinese Philosophy
the Institute for the History of Chinese Philosophy
July 20-24, 2001


As scientists delve ever deeper into the subatomic quantum world and out into the farthest reaches of outer space in search of the grounding of reality, they are increasingly forced to face the fact of primal emptiness. Yet, the western philosophical tradition is ill-equipped to address emptiness. Indeed, it has shown centuries of disdain for the entire topic. Parmenides sets the tone of ancient Greek and much of subsequent European philosophy when, instructed by Themis, Goddess of Law and Order, he exalts Being as "the Way of Truth" while denigrating Non-Being as the "Way of Opinion." Picking up on this theme, Plato acknowledges a Realm of Becoming only as distinctly inferior to the Realm of Being. He also banishes Non-Being to the metaphysical basement as unworthy of any discussion or even mention.

The universe looks far different to today's post-modern scientists. In the light of contemporary currents of Chaos Theory and Fuzzy Logic, the metaphysics of Parmenides and Plato look at best quaint and at worst seriously flawed. A revolution is taking place before our very eyes—a radical shift in paradigms. Simplicity and analysis are giving way to complexity and synthesis; particle physics is being replaced by the Big Picture. Instead of emphasizing the discrete pieces of reality, post-modern scientists have shifted to a focus on interrelationships and process. Occam's Razor is wearing thin as reductionism proves a bad fit for the reality now being uncovered. Aesthetics offers a much more insightful approach to deciphering cosmic patterns than scientific realism.

It is more han timely that emptiness be taken seriously by the global philosophical community, just as it has by a select group of post-modern scientists. Emptiness has proven to be much more than an idiosyncratic notion common among philosophies of an Asian persuasion. It must be given careful consideration as a key component of the structure of reality. The philosophical respectability of emptiness can be greatly enhanced by approaching expounders of emptiness as astute epistemologists and even proto-scientists, rather than muddled-minded mystics. Their expertise can complement and advance post-modern science as it explores paradigms that seriously challenge the metaphysical and epistemological assumptions of "western" philosophy.

The congruence of viewpoints between post-modern science and Buddhist thought is well represented in the following observations:

Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

Everything is made of emptiness and form is condensed emptiness.

The first statement is easily recognized as originating in the seminal Buddhist text, the Heart Sutra. The second seems to echo the first. Many would be surprised to learn that the speaker in this case is not another Buddhist "Mystic," but the great scientific genius of the twentieth century, Albert Einstein. True to the inquiring spirit of the scientific method, contemporary scientists continue to take the lead in exploring new constructs for discussing their unprecedented, and often puzzling, discoveries. Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss, chair of the Department of Physics at Case Western Reserve University, notes: "science can never be purely cerebral. The universe always seems to surprise us."(1)

For centuries Buddhists, especially Chan Buddhists, have contemplated emptiness in the guise of sunyatta . Among these, Master Hui-neng is especially noteworthy for his penetrating analysis of cognitive categories. Hui-neng is at least as worthy of the title of proto-scientist as Plato is, and perhaps even moreso. He was able to penetrate to a more profound knowledge (Latin scientia) by deconstructing the conceptual web in which Plato continued to be enmeshed. Coalescing the spontaneity of Daoism (zi-ran) with Buddhist "mind of no-mind" (without a fixated mind; wu xin),Master Hui-neng was equipped to encounter the ever-surprising universe, noted by Dr. Krauss, with a free-floating approach unhindered by thought (wu-nian), phenomena (wu-xiang), or attachment (wu-zhu).


In a general way, the concern of epistemology in the Amero-European philosophical context can be characterized as an exploration and investigation of the way the world appears to us (phenomena) as well as the deeper grounding of those appearances (noumena): the "real" world in comparison with the "really real" world. Among the ancient Greeks, it was the pre-Socratics who first began to suspect that what we see is not necessarily to be believed. From Heraclitus to Plato, the major metaphysical line of thought evolved into early science ("natural philosophy"). Revived in the Renaissance, it was incorporated into the grounding assumptions of Modern Science in the seventeenth century.(2)

Heraclitus of Ephesus (died 460 b.c.e.?) warned that the senses are "bad witnesses to men, if they have souls that understand not their language."(3) He hypothesized the existence of an abstract, rational framework underlying superficial sense data, which he referred to as Divine Fire or Logos. Only a rational mind, such as his, was presumed to have the capacity to discern the rational patterns, the cosmic laws, lurking beneath the deceptive surfaces presented by sense data. Hence, phenomena can only be understood by means of the noumena (or noumenon). Heraclitus also articulated a dualistic worldview that thrives on opposition and conflict, inherited by subsequent thinkers.

Parmenides (c. 515-445 b.c.e.) had a more radical position, banishing the phenomena completely through his reductionism of is and is not, day and night, truth and opinion. Failing to meet his criteria for Being (logically necessary, eternal, uncreated, indestructible, uniform, immutable, immovable), phenomena are relegated to the unthinkable and unspeakable oblivion of Not-Being:
you cannot know Not-Being-that is impossible—nor utter it. . . . it shall never prevail that Non-Being exists; and do you debar your thought from this way of inquiry.(4)

Instead, Parmenides embraces abstraction with a vengeance, refusing to give any credence to common sense observations (even though he feels compelled to call in a goddess, as an expert witness). Significantly, Giorgio de Santillana hails Parmenides as "the First Metaphysician," with equal claims to inclusion in the realm of science.(5) Yet his excessive esteem for reason and thought led to the absurdities of his disciple Zeno's infamous paradoxes. A contemporary scientist reveals the strong attractions of this kind of world even today:
I miss the purity. Theoretical physicists, and many other kinds of scientists, work in a world of the mind. It is a mathematical world without bodies, without people, without the vagaries of human emotion. . . . Much of science, in fact, is built on these pure pictures of the mind. And the equations have a precision and elegance, a magnificent serenity, an indisputable rightness.(6)

From a Buddhist perspective, of course, this pure world is simply another dream world, obviously a ravishingly beautiful dream, but a dream nonetheless.

It remained for the great visionary Plato (c. 428-347 b.c.e.) to expand the collective dream of purity by drawing together the intriguing insights of his predecessors in a grand scheme of metaphysical hierarchy. The higher level is dominated by Parmenides' changeless Being (the superior intelligible realm outside the cave), while the ever-changing realm of Becoming occupies the lower level (the inferior visible realm inside the cave). True reality consists of the "pure" Ideas or Forms (Eidos; literally "the look"), known through intuition (noesis) or discursive reason (dianoia), what is "known but not seen." Lower level reality, sullied by association with the senses, involves mere opinion (doxa), based on belief (pistis) and imagination (eikasia), what is "seen but not known."(7) Plato's divided line continued to dominate the way reality was conceived of for centuries.

With the rise of Modern Science in the seventeenth century, the phenomena/noumena dichotomy evolved into the distinction between secondary qualities (how things appear to us) and primary qualities (how things actually exist). A debate soon arose between Empiricist and Rationalist interpretations of how to access the primary qualities. The Continental Rationalists, represented by René Descartes (1596-1630), placed their faith in reason, while Empiricists, such as John Locke (1632-1704), relied on sense impressions.

Enter the metaphysical demolition expert, David Hume (1711-1776), philosophical provocateur! After assiduously examined the claims of both parties in the debate, Hume applied the rigorous analysis of Pyrrhonian skepticism to those claims. No assumptions, presumptions, or wish- fulfilments were allowed to obscure the analytical process. Reason led Hume to conclude that skepticism undermined both equally. In his groundbreaking Treatise of Human Nature Hume demonstrates first, with regard to reason, that "all knowledge degenerates into probability" (IV,1). Moving on to the senses, he questions their trustworthiness on numerous counts, including the supposed evidence for material objects and even self identity (IV,2). He concludes with what has come to be known as Hume's Fork: belief must be justified by either reason or the senses, yet neither provides sufficient justification. The former is irrelevant to the real world and the latter unreliable. While this would seem to mandate skepticism, as required by intellectual honesty, Hume instead recommends "carelessness and inattention" based on the fact that "the skeptic still continues to reason and believe, even tho' heasserts, that he cannot defend his reason by reason."

Hume's exposé proved to be a turning point for philosophy in Europe. Although he did not attract legions of converts to either his pristine Pyrrhonian project or its proposed resolution by "carelessness and inattention," his revelations could not be ignored. To this day they continue to be challenged, nuanced, and even downsized, but never completely dismissed. Hume remains an unavoidable pothole on the epistemological highway that all serious philosophers must contend with on their way to "Truth."

Foremost among those who found themselves transformed by Hume's insidious analysis was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who acknowledged that he was thereby awakened from his"dogmatic slumbers." The dream of fully grasping the elusive noumena had been shattered for Kant, leaving his own "Critical Idealism" as the fallback position. However, he seems to have succumbed to yet another dream world here, the "als ob" (as if) dream—the necessity for reason to act "as if' its noumenal guarantees remain in place, despite our inability to reach the ding-an-sich. Although Kant avoids the Cartesian cope-out in the Meditations of a metaphysical deus ex machina on one level, he is unwilling to face the full consequences of Hume's critique, which would require taking emptiness seriously.

Nonetheless, an important change has taken place in the wake of Kant's presumed awakening, his Copernican Revolution (Critique of Pure Reason). Metaphysics, once lauded as the Queen of the Sciences, must give way to Epistemology, With the noumena unverified and unverifiable, we are left to investigate the mind, specifically the rational mind, that presumes their existence. Attention shifts from the elusive ding an sich to the processor of its data. By interacting with its environment, the mind is shown to participate in the "creation" of reality.

Metaphysics has never fully recovered from Kant's demoralizing acknowledgement, which has equally infected the realm of science, The Kantian perspective lingers on in such images as the "Black Box" of W. V. Quine and J. S. Ullian:
The world with its quarks and chromosomes, its distant lands and spiral nebulae, is like a vast computer in a black box, forever seated except for its input and output registers. These we directly observe, and in the light of them we speculate on the structure of the machine, the universe. Thus it is that we think up the quarks and chromosomes, the distant lands and the nebulae; they would account for the observable data. When an observation turns out unexpectedly, we may try modifying our theory of that structure at one or another point.(8)

Many scientists have come to essentially the same conclusion as philosophers regarding the ultimate elusiveness of the noumena. This is especially true after encountering such challenges as Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and the quirky world of quantum physics (light as particle/wave). Earlier expectations of science as a potential tool to gain absolute power over reality now seem quaint, if not outrageously egotistical. Writing in 1919, Hugh Elliot adamantly denied "any form of existence other than those envisaged by physics and chemistry," in which he expressed absolute faith:
If we knew the precise disposition at any moment of all the matter and energy existing in the Universe, and direction of motion in every moving particle, and if we were armed with a mathematics of infinite power, we should be able to prophesy the exact disposition of all matter and energy in the universe at any future time.(9)

Standing at the threshold of the twenty-first century, scientists are much less sanguine about such prospects. Intimations of this seismic shift can be found in the bold question broached by the physicist Louis de Broglie in 1939:
May it not be universally true that the concepts produced by the human mind, when formulated in a slightly vague form, are roughly valid for Reality, but that when extreme precision is aimed at, they become ideal forms whose real content tends to vanish away? It seems to me that such is, in fact, the case. (10)

What remains is science as a set of elaborate conceptual frameworks subject to continual review, refinement, and occasional revolutionary reconfiguration (i.e., the paradigm shifts discussed by Thomas Kuhn). Science as a sophisticated metaphysics.


In view of the foregoing discussion, the noumena, it would seem, are no longer a viable goal for either philosophers or scientists. Still, this does not seem to dissuade many from carrying on business as usual. Meanwhile the uninformed masses remain addicted to metaphysical realism. Supporters of science in particular manage to remain as smug as the most self-satisfied metaphysician. In the same work that mentions the Black Box, Quine and Ullian confidently proclaim: "Scientists are so good nowadays at discovering truth that it is trivial to condone their methods and absurd to criticize them."(11) Yet the scientific method itself demands we never surrender our critical capacity. The same methodology was adhered to by kyamuni Buddha:
Be not led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: "this is our teacher."(12)

If the human dream of finally penetrating to the noumena is nearing its end, we perhaps can look forward to an awakening to reality in the fullest sense. Or so Buddhism seems to suggest. Returning to Kant's self-avowed awakening from his "dogmatic slumbers," might it not have been only a partial awakening, a glimmer of enlightenment? In that half-hearted stupor he proposed a salutary step, the philosophical equivalent of the Corpernican revolution. Replacing the previous focus on matter (external, objective, material reality) with a new regard for mind brings Kant's philosophy one step closer to Buddhism's own priority on mind. But this mind continues to be mistakenly qualified; it is the rational mind, the very mind responsible for the deceptions to be exposed, the self-deluded or at best semi-deluded mind. Buddhism's clarification and corrective moves our focus to buddha mind, deconstructed mind. This mind is fully capable of detecting and deconstructing its own concepts, delving them analytically and detaching itself from the constructive process. We thereby arrive not at Kant's ding-an-sich (things themselves being constructs as well), but at no-thing.

Why is it so difficult to accept the Buddhist suggestion, or even seriously consider its validity? What is the primary obstacle to emptying out "reality"and thereby testing the Buddhist hypotheses? Why was Kant apparently incapable of taking the next logical step in the direction of full awakening? Why does Kant abjure one dogmatism, one dream, only to fall into another? Correspondingly, how can we explain Hume's failure of nerve at the final moment, just prior to his own satori of sorts? Why did he experience fear and trembling rather than bliss at his own revelations? Why do the rigorous skeptics seem to have final recourse to an alleged pragmatism, really denial in disguise?

To properly address such questions, we must begin with the motivations underlying repeated refusals to follow the road to its end. One of the primary motivations for Amero-European philosophy's phenomena/noumena dualism (or, more precisely, hierarchy in favor of the latter) was the terror attendant upon the fact of Change. To banish change, it was necessary to banish all its manifestations, specifically phenomena, as well as to posit their polar opposites—unchanging, eternal, and hence obviously superior, noumena. Buddhism, of course, has no such problem nor corresponding priority since it recognizes Change, Impermanence (anicca/anitya), as one of the three essential characteristics of reality. While many might thence conclude that Buddhism is phenomenally-based, reverting to the opposite of the West's own highly-vaunted Eternality, such a conclusion would be both hasty and naive. Nonetheless, such a conclusion has often been put forth by philosophers ignorant of the actual philosophy of Buddhism, leading to the related assumption that Buddhists embrace a nihilistic or life-denying worldview.

In fact, however, Buddhism does not offer its own version of metaphysics in opposition to the traditional Amero-European versions. Insofar as metaphysics involves a mapping of the component pieces of reality, Buddhism does not engage in metaphysical flights. If anything, it is a Trans- Metaphysics, that goes beyond the assumed need for metaphysics. Emphasis is given to how we know this alleged reality, the concern of Epistemology. However, unlike Kant's Corpernican Revolution, Buddhism does not envision us as limited to examining the tools of knowledge. Rather, we are assumed to have the capacity to wake up from both metaphysical and epistemological dreams and fancies. So finally we can come to "unknow" reality. When "cessation of thought" is accomplished, as Nagarjuna observes, we discover that "knowledge itself has died away."(13) We thence enter into Trans-Epistemology, a means to get beyond, or more precisely beneath, all conceptual constructs.

Trans-epistemology is open to many misunderstandings. It cannot truly be conceived of or thought. A comparison with more familiar thinkable models of epistemology may be useful here. The following chart outlines two of the most prevalent metaphysical and epistemological options—Idealism and Realism—as compared to what Buddhism offers.

ideas are real
truth is internal and subjective
everything is as it appears (phenomena)
the "world" is a mental projection dependent on the mind
Coherence Theory of Truth
material objects are real
truth is external and objective
something exists beneath appearances (noumena)
the world provides the data for the mind independent of the mind
Correspondence Theory of Truth


the human mind grasps the partial truth, a distorted view of reality
concepts and judgements filter reality, enforce selective seeing or "seeing as"
clouds obscure the sky

buddha mind grasps the complete truth
an undistorted, unfiltered, non-discriminating experience of reality
the empty, unclouded sky

Twofold Truth
Mundane & Transcendent; Superficial & Profound

What Buddhism proposes is not actually at odds with many proponents of philosophy and science today and in the recent past. Consider the views of W. V. Quine:
As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer. . . . in point of epistemological footing, the physical objects and the
gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conceptions only as cultural posits.(14)

Quine's views are not far removed from the Buddhist claims that reality as we ordinarily experience it is delusory, a dream concocted by the mind. As stated by Bodhidharma, "Everything . . . . comes from the mind."(15) What differs is that Buddhism goes further, declaring, "the mind is the buddha, the buddha is the mind." Hence we are able to wake up from our dream world to see reality as it is.

For Quine and others the noumena remain ever out of reach. They assume that we cannot get past the "irreducible posits" nor can we do without them. As Kant intoned, even reason has its limits. Once those have been reached, no hope for additional progress remains. Accordingly, contemporary philosophers have sought refuge, if not oblivion, in such "safe" havens as logic and language.

The situation is quite the contrary for the Buddhist. The limits of reason signal not the end, but the beginning of the journey. This limited human mind, the mind fixated on reason and its concepts, is at its core the buddha mind. And the buddha mind can go further, deeper, than the limits of reason can possibly envision. Leaving behind the constraints of human mind and human nature, we can and must awaken to buddha mind and buddha nature. We will find the elusive noumena once we realize that we are, and always have been, the noumena in a sense. There is nothing else we, or anyone or even anything, could be. As Hakuin recommends: "Forget yourself and become the universe."


The challenge, then, is to wake up, fully, completely, unreservedly. To do so we must deconstruct the conceptual schemes we have so carefully constructed, both as individuals and as members of our culture, our species. Assuming that it is both necessary and possible to empty out the distorting concepts of the human mind, to reveal the underlying reality of buddha mind, one must determine precisely how this is to be accomplished.

Although this has been a topic of endless discussions in myriad Buddhist texts, perhaps the most concise and incisive account can be found in the Diamond Sutra (Vajrachchedika-prajña -paramita Sutra). Long recognized for its profundity and rigor, the Diamond S tra was at one time the basis for government-sponsored examinations in China to determine eligibility for monkhood. It poses both an intellectual and an existential challenge for Buddhist practitioners. While many have a
tendency to cling to words and doctrines, the Diamond Sutra delves much deeper, becoming a catalyst to get us unstuck from both words and doctrines, thereby penetrating the true message of Sakyamuni Buddha.

A final recommendation for this text is its role in the awakening of Master Hui-neng, our featured philosopher in this discussion. Thus it served as the foundation for his seminal notions of wu-nian, wu-xiang, and wu-zhu, to be discussed below in conjunction with post-modern science.The logic of the Diamond S tra is striking in its simplicity and shocking in its mport, a veritable thunderbolt (vajra). One message resounds throughout its 32 sections, some 5000 characters in the Chinese version (approximately the same length as Lao Zi's Dao De Jing). It is the message of deconstruction—deconstruct Buddhist doctrine, deconstruct names (language), deconstruct concepts of reality, even deconstruct the Dharma. Perhaps most importantly, deconstruct the notion of self. This message is so disconcerting that it is actually delivered twice, first in a fairly mundane form (sections 1-13) and then under the unvarnished guise of Prajña -paramita (13-16), the Wisdom Gone Beyond or the Perfection of Transcendental Wisdom.

In both cases the entrée to this radical approach is a question posed by Buddha's stellar disciple Subhuti, a distinguished exponent of Prajñ -p ramit practice. Equally significant are the other traits associated with Subhuti—his penchant for solitary practice, the absence of either internal or external conflicts, his meditational focus on non-discrimination, and finally his reputation for friendliness. Each of these traits will prove to be crucial for the implementation of Diamond Sutra.

Significantly, despite Subhuti's expertise in Prajña-paramita, it is soon made clear that he has much to learn, as shown in his question: where should the mind (xin) abide (zhu), and how is thought to be controlled in order to realize Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi (the utmost, unexcelled, perfect awakening)?

The answer to this question is, in a sense, that the question itself is inappropriate, displaying a deep-seated misunderstanding of Buddhist doctrine. In logical terminology it is a manifestation of the Fallacy of Complex Question: a question that is phrased in such a way as to presuppose its own answer (for example, have you stopped cheating on your taxes yet?). The structure of the question leads us to assume that there is a particular place for the mind to abide. In fact, as interpreted by
Master Hui-neng, and verified by section 10 of the text, non-abiding rather than selective abiding is the authentic response offered by both the Buddha and the s tra (see especially sections 2,3,10,14,17). Abiding is the problem, not the solution. True awakening comes with non-abiding,
or, in more contemporary parlance becoming unfixated or unstuck on various concepts and conceptual frameworks that obscure the true message of Buddha and our buddha mind. Thus Subhuti is later hailed as "one who abides no where," that is, as non-abiding, unstuck, even on his own enlightenment (16).

The opening discussion includes standard topics that practitioners are liable to get stuck on: the Bodhisattva life (3-5), Buddhahood and the Dharmakaya (6-8), as well as spiritual practice (9-12). The radical (root) message first surfaces in section 3, heralded by the curt announcement, delivered by Subhuti, that "the Tathagata has nothing to say." This "wisdom gone beyond" is then discussed (13-16), eliciting tears of joy from Subhuti (14). What precisely has been so joyously transcended
here? The list includes, but is not limited to, the following:
clinging to merit, salvation
attachment to self, words (encompassing Dharma)

A series of seemingly paradoxical pronouncements ensue:

despite talk of Bodhisattvas, "no being has been liberated" (section 3, p. 26)
despite talk of merit, "in the practice of charity a Bodhisattva should be detached" (section 4, p. 28)

despite talk of the characteristics of the Tathagata, "whosoever perceives that all characteristics (xiang) are in fact no-characteristics perceives the Tathagata" (section 5, p. 19)
despite talk of the teaching, "Buddha-teaching must be relinquished; how much more so misteaching!" (section 6, p. 31)
despite talk in general, "truth is uncontainable and inexpressible" (section 7, p. 32)

Similar statements are made to empty out "Buddha-Religion" (section 8), the process of enlightenment (section 9), Pure Lands (section 10), and the mundane merit of giving material goods (section 11). This draws the first part of the text to a close with the transitional section 13:
the Perfection of Transcendental Wisdom is not really such, "Perfection of Transcendental Wisdom" is just the name given to it . . . . the Tathagata has nothing to teach (p. 41)

In conjunction with the problem of abiding, another significant term used in the s tra becomes crucial here: xiang (see sections 3-6,13-14,20,26-27,30-32). Variously translated as "appearance" or "material characteristic," it seems to reflect the "phenomena" discussed above, in contrast to noumena. These are precisely what we are wont to become stuck on. Hence, the concept of merit evolves from getting stuck on the distinctions of gift, giver, and recipient, just as salvation fixates on the presumed fact of salvation, a savior, and the one to be saved. Section 13 connects the xiang directly to our view of reality in a physical sense by questioning our common sense assumptions:
the Tathagata declares that all these molecules are not really such; they are called "molecules." [Furthermore] the Tathagata declares that a world is not really a world; it is called "a world" (p. 41)

Based on the remarks of Quine concerning "the conceptual scheme of science as a tool," I cannot imagine that he would disagree with the text on this point. Updating the reigning scientific vocabulary, we could add various subatomic particles to the above list, noting "quarks and charms,
phonons and excitons, are not really such; they are called 'quarks and charms, phonons and excitons.'" Hence, what at first may strike us as an irrational dismissal of the reality of the world quaworld is in fact a very sophisticated recognition of the cultural language game (Quine's "cultural
posits") that we are inclined to become stuck on.

In the very next section, 14, Subhuti's tears of joy signal his interior realization of the profundity of the preceding discourse. He credits it with allowing the hearer to"conceive an idea of Fundamental Reality, and then quickly adds that such an idea "is not, in fact, a distinctive idea," thereby indicating that he indeed understood the message. (p. 43) To be a Buddha is, in fact, to "have left behind every phenomenal distinction." (p. 44) Buddha heartily agrees with these carefully worded observations, concluding "that Truth to which the Tathagatha attained is neither real nor
unreal." (p. 45) Subsequent sections then address the same topics previously presented: bodhisattvas (17) and buddhas (18-29). Now, however, the message of deconstruction is amplified and common
"truth" is openly contradicted and shattered. The misperceptions of "normal" views are contrasted with the liberated purview. The mind cluttered with delusory concepts confronts the pristine emptied mind:

"NORMAL" REALITY, FULL (DREAM) dharmas, what appears to be, true name, mind, inner imposed upon outer

vs. "RADICAL" REALITY, EMPTY (AWAKENING) Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi, prajña -paramita, without name, without mind, neither inner nor outer

section 18 five "eyes", temporal process, past-present-future vs. no mind
beyond time and space, no past, present, or future

19 "great" merit vs. non-merit

20 "perfectly formed body", "phenomenal characteristics" (xiang) (p. 59) vs. non-appearance

21 "an enunciation of Truth", "living beings" (p. 60) vs. no teaching
no living beings

22 acquisition vs. no acquisition

23 goodness vs. no goodness

24 merit acquired through giving, material objects vs. merit by giving prajña-paramita

25 liberation of living beings, "common people" (p. 64), distinct reality of ego vs. neither liberation nor common people, "ego is not different from
non-ego" (p. 64)

26 fixation on physical appearance (phenomena) vs. the true Tathagata

27 perfection of form vs. exposing (deconstructing), rather than extinguishing concepts

28 merit through giving materials things vs. non-fettering merit, devoid of
desire for reward

29 Tathagata located in time and space vs. Tathagata beyond time and

30 "minute particles", world, cosmos vs. mere phenomena, "words cannot explain the real nature of a cosmos" (p. 71)

31 conventional truth vs. transcendental truth

32 being fooled by fleeting phenomena vs. detachment from phenomena

The concluding g tha of the Diamond S tra points out more readily recognizable sources of distortion among appearances, emphasizing their unreliable and misleading qualities. These can serve as a bridge to the broader of range of phenomena, which are also mere phenomena and similarly delusory, despite our tendency to get stuck on them.
all phenomena are alike
a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow,
like dew or lightning,
one ought to contemplate them as they are.(17)


How, then, may Hui-neng be of help to the post-modern thinker, especially philosophers and scientists? I believe he offers a method by which we can avoid getting stuck on any and all conceptual frameworks, including those of science and philosophy (metaphysical as well as
epistemological). This is demonstrated in his poem (in which he has even unstuck himself from the proprietary first person "I"):
Hui-neng has no special aptitude;
He does not cut off any thought.
His mind responds to all situations,
In what way can the bodhi tree grow?
(Platform Sutra, chapter VII)

Such is the way of the unstuck, non-abiding mind that Master Hui-neng propagated. This poem about his break through is his own composition, a response to the poem of a critical fellow "Master," Wo Lun, who bragged about having cut off all thoughts. Hui-neng seems to be indicating that this too is a kind of stuckness, attachment to non-attachment. Although some "progress" had been made, the latter seems to qualify as what Bai-zhang (720-814) referred to as "the intermediate good":
This is the half-word teaching. This is still the formless realm; though you avoid falling into the ways of demons (mara; delusions), this is still a meditation sickness. This is the bondage of the bodhisattvas (18)

The "final good" for Bai-zhang, seems to coincide with Hui-neng's realization:
you no longer dwell in nonattachment, and do not even make an understanding of not dwelling either . . . . the station of Buddhahood cuts off twofold folly; the folly of subtle knowledge and the folly of extremely subtle knowledge. Therefore it is said that a man of great wisdom smashes an atom to produce a volume of scripture. (19)

The Diamond S tra is intended for the most sophisticated Buddhist practitioners, those well-versed in the Dharma's doctrines and texts. So well-versed, that this very knowledge has become their greatest obstacle. Similarly, Hui-neng's advice is best suited to and most needed by the most sophisticated segment of the human population insofar as conceptualization is concerned, those who are so adept at abstraction that they are endangered by their own cognitive flights. These are the
masters of metaphysics, found in the fields of philosophy and science. He can point out to them the next logical step, through the doorway that leads beyond the ultimate self-delusions: language and thought. As he so succinctly states: "mere talking about food will not appease hunger" (chapter 2, p. 25)

His primary tool is prajña, which allows for introspection:
To know our mind is to obtain liberation. To obtain liberation is to attain Samadhi of Prajna which is "thoughtlessness." What is thoughtlessness"? "Thoughtlessness is to see and to know all Dharmas (things) with a mind set free from attachment. When in use it pervades everywhere, and yet it sticks no where. (chapter 2, p. 32)

He compares the capacity of the mind (buddha mind) to space (gong), yet its voidness is even greater than that of space, for it is able to encompass even the voidness of space within its voidness. This, he warns, is not to be confused with "the idea of vacuity" into which so many fall (including Wo Lun). In his exposition Hui-neng equates prajñ with the evocative Chinese character for wisdom, hui (using the composite zhi hui). This character depicts a hand holding two brooms, poised
above the mind (xin), that is, the action of sweeping out the heart/mind.
Freedom from abiding means all delusions have been swept away, deconstructed, such that there is nothing left to lose, and equally nothing left to gain. It is the being of the Tathagata, as discussed in the Diamond Sutra: Thus Come and equally Thus Gone, fully enlightened, detached, even from detachment, deconstructed (including deconstruction of deconstruction), utterly emptied out. Hui-neng identifies it a putting "one's own essence of Tathata into operation." (chapter 2, pp. 28-29) It is the practice of unknowing to be more precise (what a contemporary Korean Master Seung Sahn has called the "don't-know mind"). (20)
He who does not practise it is an ordinary man. He who directs his mind to practise it for even one moment is the equal of Buddha. (chapter 2, p. 28)

The interpenetration of samadhi and prajñais discussed in chapter 4. Also included here is an explication of three key terms—wu-nian, wu-xiang, and wu-zhu—and their interrelationships:

WU-NIAN non-thought ("Idea-lessness")
devoid of discriminating thought liberated from thought
object or main doctrine

WU-XIANG non-form ("Non-objectivity")
devoid of discriminating phenomena liberated from phenomena
basis or essence

WU-ZHU non-abiding "(Non-attachment")
devoid of fixation/stuckness liberated from fixation
principle or root

Wu-xiang entails that we "free ourselves from absorption in external objects." (p. 45) Applying wu-zhu, we empty out any value judgements concerning our concepts, positive or negative evaluations: "All things—good or bad, beautiful or ugly—should be treated as void." This includes emptying out all temporal links: "let the past be dead." (p. 44) In discussing wu-nian, Hui-neng emphasizes how this differs from the misguided attempt to cut off all thoughts: "it is a great mistake to suppress our mind from all thinking." Thought does not cease, the enlightened mind is not thought-less. It merely "should stand aloof from circumstances." (p. 45) The interconnection between these practices is clear; the respective terms are but convenient labels to guide the inquiring mind. The intent is to
fix our mind on the true nature of Tathata (Suchness) for Tathata is the quintessence of idea, and idea is the result of the activity of Tathata. . . . Without Tathata the sense organs and the sense objects would perish immediately. (pp. 45-46)

Despite the idealist, even mystical, ring to this pronouncement, another interpretation is possible. Tathata is what it is, and is the source of the interpretations generated by the sense organs in processing the data of sense objects. Like Kant, Hui-neng asks us to look at the source of thought within the mind (epistemologically), rather than outside of it (metaphysically). Then he bids us go further to realize how "reality" has been constructed by mind, Tathata, the ground of reality, as a means to end our self-deluded fixation on thought. Thought is thereby econstructed rather than destroyed. It remains intact, so to speak, however we are no longer in thrall to our thought. Similarly, when we realize the trick behind a magical illusion, we are no longer tricked, no longer deluded into thinking it is a feat of magic, even though we continue to observe the performance.

To address the specific fixations of his students, Hui-neng applied individualized "therapy,"as documented in chapter 7. Consider the case of the monk Fa Da, stuck on both the Lotus Sutra and his own sense of superiority based on his recitation of the text. Hui-neng's diagnosis is swift and succinct:
Fa Ta, the Law is quite clear; it is only your mind that is not clear. The Sutra is free from doubtful passages; it is only your mind that makes them doubtful. (p. 62)

Hui-neng's prescription derives from the Lotus S tra itself, from the very chapter where Fa Da gets stuck when Hui-neng asks to demonstrate his expertise in recitation:
1. open one's eyes to Buddha knowledge/awakening
2. see Buddha knowledge/awakening
3. Recognize or realize Buddha knowledge/awakening
4. Enter into Buddha knowledge/awakening

Hui-neng challenges Fa Da to take an interactive rather than passive stance to the text, to "‘turn round' the Sutra" rather than being turned around by it. To do otherwise is to be like a yak following its own tail, in endlessly futile circles! (p. 64)


It is here that we may begin to discern Hui-neng's cogent advice on emptiness, as well as Chinese philosophy's potential contribution to post-modern dialogues. In what sense is the post-modern thinker, scientist or philosopher, like a yak in love with its own tail? For thousands of years, with few exceptions, those trained in European and American intellectual traditions have indeed been going around in circles. Whether circumscribed by reason or materialism, pragmatism or idealism,
empiricism or realism, they have trod well-worn paths, fixated on a very select set of cherished concepts. An appreciation for emptiness has been virtually non-existent in such circles.

Post-modern science has seriously challenged those cherished concepts, and even strongly suggested that some of those paths are dead ends. During this transitional phase we need to rethink our methods and assumptions. We especially need to rethink thinking, along with our sense of the identity of the thinker. In a world which gives daily evidence of the delicate balance existing within and between eco-systems, we can no longer maintain our fixation on human beings as a superior species with a divine mandate to direct and control the environment. The simple elegance dictated by Occam's Razor is giving way to seemingly chaotic and ultimately unpredictable nonlinear
dynamical systems theory.

Yet the yaks continue to be mesmerized by their tails nonetheless, deep in denial. Listen to their baleful cries. The first laments the demise of the Standard Model in physics:

Physicists are hunting for an elusive subatomic particle that is thought to give matter its mass. This particle, the Higgs boson, is the last undetected piece of the Standard Model, a theory that describes our understanding of nature's order at the deepest level. . . . it lets physicists account for all known matter in the universe. . . . properties are largely determined by elegant though highly abstract principles involving mathematical symmetries. There is at least one major glitch in this elegant picture. The preferred menu of particles predicted by this model,
in its simplest and most symmetrical form, is one in which all particles are exactly the same and have a zero mass. To rescue the standard model from this absurd prediction, physicists have postulated an entity called the Higgs Field, which breaks some of the symmetry and allows particles to have mass. . . . In a glaring shortcoming, all attempts to graft the fourth force, gravity, onto the Standard Model have failed. It seems very unlikely that two separate unrelated theories govern the universe. . . . According to the weird rules of the subatomic quantum world, a particle like Higgs spends part of its lifetime sharing its existence with other particles—in essence, becoming other particles part of the time and picking up some of their mass.(21)

Note the fervent clinging to concepts of universality and legance, and the corresponding dread of impinging emptiness represented by the unthinkable—zero mass. Wish-fulfilment or fear of failure are rampant, while the challenging facts are denigrated as absurd and weird. On the contrary, Hui-neng would welcome this emptying out of the old concepts to make way for wu-nian, wu-xiang, and wu-zhu.

Celebrity scientist Stephen W. Hawking continues to dream of uncovering the "theory of everything" whereby we would "know the mind of God." (22) His like-minded colleagues heartily support such a quest. In lock step with Plato "particle physicists are inclined to see nature as
crystallized mathematics. In the beginning was a single superforce, the embodiment of an elegant set of equations." Asked to comment on challenges to such visions of pristine cosmic order, Dr. Joseph Polchinski stated "Overall my attitude now [toward the challenges] is interest with a high degree of skepticism. . . . To me, the history of science seems to be a steady progression toward simpler and more unified laws, and I expect to see this continue and to contribute to it."(23)
A far less optimistic observer notes "the disheartening effect the discovery of chaos can have: it seems as if all this new science can do is feel out the walls of its prison cell." (22) Again, Hui-neng would hasten to differ with such an assessment. The walls of this perceived prison cell are, after all, nothing but the delusory concepts to which we persist in remaining attached. Confining walls are not in fact walls but only are called "confining walls." The object pursued by the circling yak is not
really an "object," but itself, its own tail. Thus, the final advice of Hui-neng might well be:
free your mind, and the rest will follow


1. Lawrence M. Krauss, "Celebrating the Poetry of Imagination Without Boundaries," The New York Times, June 6, 2000.

2. For a full discussion of the links between the ancient Greeks and science see Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Western Philosophy From the Greeks to the Renaissance (New
York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001). He discusses the impact of the thought of Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle on such thinkers as Heisenberg and Freud.

3. Heraclitus, "Fragments," 4; Giorgio de Santillana, The Origins of Scientific Thought: FromAnaximander to Proclus, 600 B. C. to A.D. 500 (New York: Mentor, 1961), p. 49; based on John Burnet trans., ed., Early Greek Philosophy (London: Basil Blackwell), with slight modifications.

4. Parmenides, On Nature, as cited by de Santillana, p. 91.

5. de Santillana, p. 95. Of course it would be more accurate for de Santillana to describe Parmenides as the "First European Metaphysician," in deference to metaphysical speculations being carried in other cultures at this time or even earlier.

6. Alan Lightman, "Looking Back at Pure World of Theoretical Physics," The New York Times, May 9, 2000, D5.

7. Plato, Republic, book VII.

8. W. V. Quine and J. S. Ullian, The Web of Belief, second edition (New York: Random House, 1978), p. 22.

9. Hugh Elliot, Modern Science and Materialism (Longman's Green, 1919).

10. Louis de Broglie, Matter and Light: The New Physics, trans. W. H. Johnston (New York: Norton, 1939), p. 280. This quotation is cited by B. Alan Wallace in Choosing Reality: A Buddhist View of Physics and the Mind (Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 1996), p. 130. Despite
the title, Wallace offers extensive discussion of shifting attitudes in the non-Buddhist scientific community, including such topics as scientific and mathematical realism, instrumentalism, and quantum reality.

11. Quine and Ullian, p. 32.

12. Aguttara-nikaya; trans. Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught (London: Gordon Fraser, 1978), p. 3.

13. Nagarjuna, Mulamadhyamakakarik , 25; F. I. Shcherbatskoi trans., included in The Conception of Buddhist Nirvana (Delhi: Motilal Bararsidass, 1977).

14. W. V. Quine, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" in From a Logical Point of View: 9 Logico-Philosophical Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953).

15. Bodhidharma, "Bloodstream Sermon," The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma, trans. Red Pine (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989), p. 9.

16. A. F. Price and Wong Mou-Lam trans., The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui Neng(Berkeley: Shambala Publications, Ltd, 1969), section 9, p. 35. Unless otherwise indicated all quotations are taken from this translation.

17. My translation.

18. Sayings and Doings of Pai-chang: Ch'an Masters of Great Wisdom, trans. Thomas Cleary (Los Angeles: Center Publications, 1978), p. 31.

19. Pai-chang, p. 31.

20. See Seung Sahn, Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teaching of Zen Master Seung .Sahn(New York: Grove Press, 1976), p. 35, a section appropriately entitled "You Must Become Completely Crazy." See also his Only Don't Know: Selected Teaching Letters of Zen Master Seung
Sahn (1999).

21. James Glanz, "Particle Physics Braces for the Next Big Thing," The New York Times, November 21, 200, D 1-2.

22. As quoted by Dennis Overbye, "Cracking the Cosmic Code With a Little Help From Dr. Hawking, " New York Times, December 11, 2001, F5.

23. George Johnson, "New Contenders For a Theory of Everything," New York Times, December 4, 2001, F1.

24. Stephen H. Kellert, In the Wake of Chaos: Unpredictable Order in Dynamical Systems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 83.