Phenomena and Principle
"Noumenon" (principle) is truth, reason, the realm of understanding and Awakening and belongs to the sphere of "essence." "Phenomena" are expedients, practices, deeds, "form," and fall under the heading of "marks." However, at the ultimate level, phenomena are noumenon, essence is mark, and both belong to the same truth-like state, all-illuminating, all-pervading. In cultivation, noumenon and phenomena are the two sides of a coin, interacting with one another and helping one another. With noumenon, we have a basis, a direction, a goal to develop into action. With phenomena, we are able to actualize what we think, demonstrate our understanding, reach our goal and, ultimately, achieve results.
Noumenon is like the eyes that watch the road. Phenomena are like the feet that set out to walk. Without eyes, or with glassy, dim eyes, it is easy to get lost. Without feet, however sharp our eyes, there is no way to reach our destination. To "have" noumenon but not phenomena is like having a map and knowing the way, but refusing to proceed. To "have" phenomena but not noumenon is like setting out on a journey with neither a guide nor a clear itinerary. To have both noumenon and phenomena is not only to know the way perfectly but also to proceed to walk. We cannot fail to reach the City of Lights.
Noumenon and phenomena, essence and marks are thus interdependent. If one factor is missing, success is illusory. However, even though the practitioner may not have experienced Awakening, if he follows the itinerary taught by the sages and cultivates, he, too, can reach the goal and succeed. Sutras, commentaries, biographies, as well as the writings of ancient masters and advice from today's good spiritual advisors -- these constitute the itinerary. If we follow these teachings and put them into practice, we will surely achieve results. Therefore, practice without theory is not necessarily a cause for alarm. Of more concern are those who understand theory but fail to put it into practice. Verbalizing incessantly, they discourse without end about the mysterious and the wonderful, but they do not progress one step during their entire lives.
In truth, however, those who lack practice are not really in possession of theory either. Why is this so? As an analogy, if a person knows his house is on fire, yet remains inside without trying to escape, is he any different from someone who is not aware of the fire? Therefore, the Dharma can help those who are of limited capacity and understanding, but cannot save those who possess mundane intelligence and eloquence but are lacking in practice.
It once happened that a particularly dull-witted disciple of the Buddha named Suddipanthaka was taught only two words, "broom" and "sweep," and was asked to meditate on them. He was so stupid that when he remembered one of the words, he would immediately forget the other. However, thanks to his power of perseverance, never neglecting his cultivation even for a single moment, he ultimately became an Arhat. On the other hand, although Devadatta was more intelligent than most, fully conversant with the Dharma and possessing the five spiritual powers, he ultimately descended to the hells because of his greed for fame and fortune and his lack of true cultivation.
Thus, we can see that even though we may be versed in the Tripitaka, without actual practice, our knowledge and understanding are useless. This is because our karmic obstacles from time immemorial are still intact, not reduced in the slightest. How, then, can we hope to compare with an old, dull-witted kitchen helper, her face covered with soot, who diligently practices Buddha Recitation? One day she will reach one-pointedness of mind and be at peace, ending up seated on a lotus blossom!
Therefore, individuals who spend their entire lives seeking understanding based on reasoning grounded in forms and marks -- hoping to become Buddhist scholars while not truly cultivating -- are surely in the same position as those who can list succulent dishes but must endure hunger pangs, or those who count other people's money while remaining poor and destitute themselves. Buddha Sakyamuni compared those persons to deaf musicians playing violins for the multitude or merchants peddling all kinds of wonderful drugs while forgetting that they themselves are afflicted with many diseases.
Those who are determined to study the Dharma should pay heed to this point.