The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra

Feeling, Cognition, Formation, and Conciousness


So too are feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness. Shariputra, all dharmas are empty of characteristics. They are not produced, not destroyed, not defiled, not pure, and they neither increase nor diminish.


The form-skandha is this way and so too are the other four skandhas: feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness. They are of the same nature as form. Just as form does not differ from emptiness, so too:

Feeling does not differ from emptiness;
Emptiness does not differ from feeling.
Feeling itself is emptiness;
Emptiness itself is feeling.
Cognition does not differ from emptiness;
Emptiness does not differ from cognition.
Cognition itself is emptiness;
Emptiness itself is cognition.
Formation does not differ from emptiness;
Emptiness does not differ from formation.
Formation itself is emptiness;
Emptiness itself is formation.
Consciousness does not differ from emptiness;
Emptiness does not differ from consciousness.
Consciousness itself is emptiness;
Emptiness itself is consciousness.

Therefore, the sutra text says, so too are…feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness are the same as emptiness and form. I have spoken about feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness many times. From where do feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness come, and to what place do feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness go? Ultimately what are feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness? We should understand what their substance is, for through understanding their substance, we will understand their function. When we understand their function, we will know how to defeat them. I will employ some rather superficial levels of reasoning to explain this.

What is form? The body is included among the form-dharmas; since it is form, it is called the “form-body”. Your form-body has an appearance, but when you seek for its origin you will find that it is empty. This, too, I have explained many times. When the four great elements, namely earth, water, fire, and wind, unite, the body comes into being. This is what is meant by having a form. Working together, the elements establish a corporation. The corporation comes into being from the four conditioned causes: earth, which is characterized by solidity and durability; water, which is characterized by moisture; fire, which is characterized by warmth; wind, which is characterized by movement.

When the four conditioned causes disperse, each has a place to which it returns; therefore, the body becomes empty. As the sutra says, form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form.

Form does not differ from emptiness: this is true emptiness. Emptiness does not differ from form: this is wonderful existence. True emptiness is wonderful existence, and wonderful existence is true emptiness. It is not the case that outside true emptiness there is a separate wonderful existence; it is also not the case that moving wonderful existence to one side reveals true emptiness. What is true emptiness is just wonderful existence! What is wonderful existence is just true emptiness! Before the creation of the universe, before one’s parents bore one, in the substance of the original face, the Buddha and living beings are not the slightest bit different. Thus the sutra says, form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. The four great elements transform themselves and unite into a form-body, a corporeal body which has a visible appearance.

Once the body manifests, it likes pleasurable feelings. There are three kinds of feelings, which correspond to the three kinds of suffering:

Feelings of suffering;
Feelings of happiness;
Feelings which are characterized by neither suffering nor happiness.

Are you afraid of suffering? The more you fear suffering, the more suffering there is. So you reply, “I’m not afraid of suffering.” Is the suffering diminished? Because you don’t fear suffering, although the suffering is no less, it can be said that it does not exist. For if you do not fear suffering, then at its origin there is no suffering. If you are afraid of suffering, the more suffering there is, the more you are aware of it. The more you are aware of suffering, the more and more and more suffering there is.

When you experience the feeling of suffering, you feel that of all the people in the world you are the one who suffers most. Everything is felt to be suffering. I have a disciple who feels this way. When he lectures, he lectures on suffering. When he eats, he likes to eat bitter things. (In Chinese, the character ku means both “bitter” and “suffering.”) But when it comes to doing work, he doesn’t like suffering, and he’s annoyed by hard work; he likes happy work. In this world happy work is rarely encountered, and if it is, it is simply the result of having suffered.

“Feelings of happiness” refer to all the kinds of pleasure. You feel that owning a car will make you happy, but after you buy the car, you want an airplane. When you own an airplane, you want to buy a sailboat, you want to take a rocket to the moon. But you get sick, and there are no doctors on the moon, so you die on the moon and become a moon-ghost. Is that being happy or is it suffering? You have become the “ghost in the moon.” Happy feelings are a cause of suffering. Some say they are pleasurable, but they fill up your mind with bigger and bigger pieces of dirt.

You ask, “How can all those kinds of false thinking stop?” Should one have feelings which are characterized by neither happiness nor suffering? One could say, “I don’t wish to suffer and I also don’t wish to be happy; I just want to make it through one very ordinary life and forget it.” Not bad. In this one life you can say that you broke even. You did business and didn’t make a profit, but you didn’t take a loss, either. You didn’t make money, but you didn’t lose any.

The initial assets were fifty million and you still have fifty million. No gain and no loss: that is what is meant by feelings which are characterized by neither happiness nor suffering. But you wasted effort and did business in vain. You came into this world all confused, and you leave it all confused. Your wealth has not been well established and your accounts have been mismanaged. Consequently, this is called “coming and going in confusion.” It earns more confusion, and there is no interest in it.

As for cognition, you certainly must have false thoughts if you want enjoyment. You can’t be without it. “How can I think of a way to buy a car? How I can buy a beautiful home? How can I think of a way to buy a steamship? An airplane?” Your false thoughts fly back and forth and your hair turns white. Why? It turns white from false thinking. As soon as you begin false thinking, your hair starts turning white.

When you lie in your bed at night you have a thousand plans, as I’ve said before. Sometimes you get up early to act on them. Sometimes sleeping seems nice, and you just sleep. Formation is basically to act out karma, that is, to really act upon your false thinking. Now I will tell you about the five skandhas as they are found in your body.

1) The body is the form-skandha.
2) Once you have the form-skandha, you then have feelings of enjoyment and pleasure.
3) You want pleasure, and so you give rise to false thinking, which is cognition. How can I get what I want? How can I actually indulge in pleasure?
4) You have to go and do it; this is formation.
5) Acting requires a certain amount of wisdom, a consciousness which is a kind of small intelligence, about a hair’s worth.

If you live in the “small-wisdom loft”[1], then you only take care of small-wisdom undertakings with your small wisdom, a small bit of wisdom in a small, small loft. Can there be any great development? No. No big business is done by the very small company in the very small loft.

You must have wisdom to help you actually carry out your plans. When you have a plan and actually put it into effect, then you can accomplish the aim of your false thinking and obtain the pleasure you sought. You then supply your body with what it needs and seeks. Your body achieves its aims. “Oh…enjoyment! Ahhh!” The enjoyment lasts about five minutes. Because of the excessive exertion, your blood vessels rupture and then death comes. You can say that the enjoyment didn’t last long. What was it all about? It was just the five skandhas.

The five skandhas are just five ways of uniting, of working together to open a company. The company, once opened, opens again and again. Again and again. In a lecture on the Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva, I explained it this way: the skandha-company grows everywhere like a wild vine which is never cut. Once opened, the Five Skandhas Corporation, Inc. always stays open, always feeling that there is hope. What hope? “Ah! This life I didn’t make money, but wait until next life and I will be able to make some.” Who can know whether there will be even less capital in the next life?

It’s just like gambling. You expect to win money, but as soon as you pull the handle on the slot machine, the money falls down into the machine and the house wins. It didn’t last long. At first you expected to win, but you lost. It is the same with your body, yet you gamble with it. Why do you want to gamble with it as if it were money? Because you haven’t seen through it, you don’t know that there are so many subtle, wonderful, and inconceivable states between heaven and earth. There are all these states, and yet you cannot move forward even a single step.

But there is one step that is even more esoteric, even more profound. What should you do? Just make the greed in your mind disappear. That is to neither make money nor lose it. That way you can preserve a little of your original share[2], in order to cultivate. That is what is called “returning to the original source”. Then you can return home.

[1] This lecture series was given at the Buddhist Lecture Hall at 125 Waverly Place, San Francisco. This reference is to a portion of the BLH where students studied.

[2] shou yi dian ben fen. The phrase is also sometimes used to imply “mind your own business” or “be content with your own lot.”

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