From the Compass of Zen

By Zen Master Seung Sahn


From Wikipedia

In the {full} sutra, Avalokiteśvara addresses Śariputra, explaining the fundamental emptiness (śūnyatā) of all phenomena, known through and as the five aggregates of human existence (skandhas): form (rūpa), feeling (vedanā), volitions (saṅkhāra), perceptions (saṃjñā), and consciousness (vijñāna). Avalokiteśvara famously states, “Form is Emptiness (śūnyatā). Emptiness is Form”, and declares the other skandhas to be equally empty—that is, dependently originated.

Avalokiteśvara then goes through some of the most fundamental Buddhist teachings such as the Four Noble Truths, and explains that in emptiness none of these notions apply. This is interpreted according to the two truths doctrine as saying that teachings, while accurate descriptions of conventional truth, are mere statements about reality—they are not reality itself—and that they are therefore not applicable to the ultimate truth that is by definition beyond mental understanding. Thus the bodhisattva, as the archetypal Mahayana Buddhist, relies on the perfection of wisdom, defined in the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra to be the wisdom that perceives reality directly without conceptual attachment, thereby achieving nirvana.

The sutra concludes with the mantra gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā, meaning “gone, gone, everyone gone to the other shore, awakening, svaha.


Written by

Richard Hayes
Religious Studies
McGill University
Montreal, Quebec

gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā

The key word is BODHI, a feminine noun in the vocative case, which means awakening. All the other words are also in the vocative feminine and therefore modify BODHI.

GATE means gone.

PARAGATE means gone to the further shore and is a stock Sanskrit expression used by Jains and Buddhists to refer to arahants. (The word PARA means the bank of a river opposite to the one on which one is presently standing.)

PARASAMGATE means completely gone to the further shore. (The prefix SAM is intensive in meaning: completely, thoroughly, altogether.)

SVAHA is an indeclinable particle from Vedic Sanskrit. It is said to be the name of the wife of Agni, the god of fire. It is used at the end of a recitation that accompanies a burnt offering made at a Vedic sacrifice (rather as “amen” is used at the end of a prayer in Christian liturgy). It cannot really be translated, since it is a performative word rather than a word that conveys meaning.

The whole mantra, literally translated, comes out a bit like this: “Oh awakening that has gone, gone, gone to the further shore, gone completely to the further shore. Amen.”

Get Even, Score Points or Wish Enlightenment?

I have been reading Shantideva’s bodhisattva vows on and off for well over a decade. It demonstrates his compassion for beings who are suffering and his deep heartfelt wish to be of assistance to them in their times of trouble. It shows his self-less-ness.

For whatever reason it resonates in my core.

I was fortunate enough over a period of several years to act as something of a sanctuary for others amidst the turbulence and stresses of modern life. It is amazing how much difference a willing ear can make. I helped people, even those who were trying to play the system and I got a few out of some tight self-inflicted corners. All of this with confidentiality. I got through quite a few boxes of tissues mopping up the tears. It was not just students I saw, once word got around.

If someone gives him, Shantideva, an imagined slight, does he seek to get even, pursue revenge or score points?

No, he hopes that in time they will learn from their folly and move away from grasping and suffering. He hopes in his being an instrument of their learning, to have served.

He knows that people gossip about those who are different. He wishes that this obsession with trivia and pettiness will pass, and some wisdom is gained, some loosening of binding.

Someone who has started on the path of the bodhisattva, has no interest in scoring points, being better than and finds the entire notion of revenge a primitive anathema. When attacked they may not defend unless that attack is intended to be fatal. People on the bodhisattva path have much less to defend than your common or garden human. They understand impermanence.

What people say is not real, it is impermanent. It might be motivated by a whole bunch of unwholesome motives, but who cares?

Everybody has to learn and sometimes it is only by seeing the damage wrought by our actions that we do learn. Learning can cause suffering for others as well as ourselves.

On this scale, where are you?

Do you seek to score points and get even, or do you wish people a nice journey towards enlightenment?

Buddhism is Radical

It is possible that through my actions in reading Śāntideva and his Bodhisattva Vow that I have, in effect, taken that vow in this lifetime. It is also possible that I took a similar vow in two of my previous lifetimes. Two of these lives were monastic. This one is not.

It is a moot point as to whether running away from biological function to be a monk is the best way to overcome it. This kind of denial causes problems in many churches. Stuff gets bottled up and not faced. It can be dangerous. It is a tad absolute.

There are a lot of challenges in trying to relate to another human being in an intimate relationship, a good testing ground if you like. It is harder to put into practice in the middle of a “domestic”.

The basic tenets of Buddhism are inconsistent with modern day grasping hedonistic materialism and this bizarre notion of vacuous self-obsessed influencing. If one is striving to become detached and non-attached, that is the antithesis of aquistional materialism. If one sees glamours like kudos and power as impermanent, why would one even bother to chase after them? Some people think you should.

People can be very ambitious to self-advance and rely on this quality being present in others in order to facilitate socio-political negotiations. I don’t really want my back scratched so there is no incentive for me to scratch yours…It does not always work.

It is possible that many people only pay lip service to the religion or philosophy to which they publicly subscribe. The application of tenets is only so far, full attainment rare. There is much social benefit in church or sangha. And that is a good thing.

I’ll posit that although I could have a conversation about non-linear optics with an academic or a laser jock, our orientation towards life would likely be vastly different. If I said that to the other person, they would not know how different. He/she might assume marginal difference within their social conditioned world framing. But I know how radically different my outlook is. Even if I tried to get this across, I would fail.

I call this the Levi’s and robe problem.

Because I wear Levi’s, drink wine and eat steak, it is unlikely that people would accept that I have attained impermanence and to a very large degree detachment. If I wore a monk’s robe it would be less of a perceptual stretch.

People have preconceived ideas about what a perhaps, evolved being, might look like and how they might behave.

Is this my Ego talking, look at me aren’t I clever?

You can make your own mind up. I am not interested in being right nor arguing the toss. I don’t do petty nit picking to score points.

There is a phenomenon which I think of as inverted Ego. It is a close relative of inverted snobbery. People feign a humility which they do not possess in order to look good in front of their peers. I also call this religious top trumps. I did a 3 year silent retreat at “The Priory”. People can be holier than thou…

Siddhartha favoured the middle path. Which might well mean living a pretty “normal” existence without ostentation and excess: not self-flagellating nor overly blowing one’s own trumpet. That middle path is not about power over any other beings, trying to beat others, being avaricious and envious. That path would recognise that imperfection is a quality of all of humanity and would not seek to judge. It would certainly not include obsession about the appearance of the carnate form.

It would see beyond doubt that there is only ONE humanity of which we are all part.

It is about satisfaction and enough. It is about fulfilling genuine needs only and not wants and desires. The middle path does not understand greed.


Here are some questions:

What do you own?

What are your possessions?

Are you in fact possessed by what you consider to be your possessions?

Does your aquisitional materialism have you enslaved?