The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra

The Conditioned Body


He illuminated the five skandhas and saw that they are all empty.


The three lights shine everywhere, permeating the three forces.
The one returns to the place of union, yet the one comes forth again.
See that form is emptiness and that feeling is the same way;
False thoughts are the shifting currents, while formation is the arranger of karma;
With consciousness, which understands differences, the five shadows are completed.
Mirror-flowers and water-moon, beyond defiling dust:
Emptiness not empty – the great function of clarity;
Vision is yet not a view – happiness indeed!


The three lights shine everywhere, permeating the three forces. “The three lights” are the sun, the moon, and the stars, which illuminate everything in the universe and thoroughly penetrate “the three forces” of heaven, earth, and humanity. The three lights are also the lights of wisdom: the light of the prajna of language, the light of the prajna of contemplative illumination, and the light of the prajna of the characteristic of actuality (The three are also said to be the symbolic red, white, and purple lights).

The light of true prajna of the characteristic of actuality is the very deep prajna-light by which Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva illuminated the five skandhas and saw that they are all empty. With the three kinds of light he illuminates every place in the heavens and on earth, and the lights permeate the three motive forces.

The one returns to the place of union, yet the one comes forth again. “The one” refers to one’s own nature. The “place of union” is where one’s own nature dwells. Basically it is this: “Ten thousand dharmas return to one; one returns to unity.” So says the verse about Shen Guang (Also known as Hui Guo, was the second Patriarch of the Chan School of Buddhism in China ):

Ten thousand dharmas return to one, The one returns to unity [1]. Shen-kuang didn’t understand, And ran after Bodhidharma; before Him by Bear Ear Mountain knelt Nine years seeking Dharma To escape King Yama.
The “one” that the ten thousand dharmas return to is the mind or nature of each individual. The “one returning to unity” is the uniting with the Buddhanature. After uniting with the Buddhanature, “the one comes forth again”; this is the giving birth to the wonderful functioning of the one, which is the Buddhahood you realize. The one that comes forth again is just you, this Buddha.

See that form is emptiness and feeling is the same way. You can see form, yet it is fundamentally empty. The sutra says that form itself is emptiness; what does this mean? We common people are attached to form, to a general form-body in which the many kinds of form-dharmas are united. This is what we call our physical body. “How can we say that the form-body is empty?” someone says. “It’s really here! It wears clothes, eats, sleeps, so how can it be empty?” When you understand how form can exist, you can be empty.

I spoke earlier about the emptiness of analyzed dharmas. The body is analyzed as the summation of the characteristics of form which are united together. This is the way it is. Earth, water, fire, and wind, the four great elements (mahabhuta), are the differentiated characteristics of form. The form-body comes into being when earth, water, fire, and wind unite.

The skin, flesh, muscles, and bones of our bodies are the great element earth. The saliva, urine, excrement, water, and sweat are the great element water. The heat of our bodies is the great element fire; and the circulation of the breath is the great element wind. The four great elements unite to become a body, and when they separate, the body is destroyed. Each of the four elements returns to its original position, which is emptiness.

Most people are attached to the body as “me”. That’s wrong; the body is not “me”. “Then what is ‘me’?” you ask. You can control your body and have the perceptions of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and knowing. It is the perception-nature which is me. “So then what is the body?” One can only say, “This body is mine,” not “This body is me.” The body is like a house; you live in a house, but you do not say, “This house is me.” If you were to say that, everyone would laugh their teeth right out of their mouths.

But when you refer to your body as “me”, most people don’t laugh, because they also live with the same supposition. But it is just the same as supposing that your house is you. Because you live in a body-house, you say it is you. In the body there are seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, feeling, and knowing. But are those the Buddhanature? It is the Buddhanature which is you.

The body comes into being merely through the gathering together of conditioned causes. If the conditioned causes set themselves up in a different manner, then the form-body disperses. That is the reason one cannot say, “My body is me.” One can only say, “It is mine. This is my body, and I can disown it or exchange it for another.” You have that kind of authority, but you yourself don’t know it yet. Because you live in the house, you don’t know about the events which go on outside. You still suppose, “This house is me.” Don’t perceive the house as being you.

If we take a look into form and analyze it, form itself is empty – it doesn’t exist. Therefore, it follows that emptiness can be changed into form-dharma. How does the change take place? Earth, water, fire, and wind merge to become a body. It has been said that God created people. His work of creation was just a matter of putting earth, fire, water, and wind together. If we use earth, fire, water, and wind, we can also create a person, or a lot of people. Anybody could do it. A few materials are used, and a person is created. When the conditioned causes come together, a person comes into being; when the conditioned causes disperse, the person ceases to exist.

If you understand that form itself is emptiness, then you shouldn’t perceive the body as “me”. It is only a possession; it just belongs to “me”. But here especially you should not be attached. If you take the attitude that “the body is what I have,” then you will want to help it a lot, and you will “make your mind your body’s slave.”[2] Here “mind” means your awakened mind, which can understand that your body is a form-dharma and thereby unreal. Therefore, don’t be attached to it. Destroy the form skandha, and the form skandha will be empty.

“See that form is emptiness and feeling is the same way.” Feeling, the second of the five skandhas is like form; it’s empty.

False thoughts are the shifting currents; this refers to the cognition-skandha. While formation is the arranger of karma; this is the formation-skandha. The karma created from formation is arranged together in an orderly fashion.

With consciousness which understands differences: the consciousness-skandha is fine discrimination and understanding of differences. The five shadows are completed. Form, feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness are the five skandhas, which are often represented in Chinese by the character yin , which literally means shadow.

Mirror-flowers and water-moon, beyond defiling dust. The five skandhas – form, feeling, thought, formation, and consciousness – are like flowers reflected in a mirror, or like the image of the moon on the surface of the water. No dust at all defiles them, for the five skandhas are all empty.

Emptiness not empty – the great function of clarity. When you don’t understand clearly that the five skandhas are all empty, there is affliction, false thinking, and trouble. It is just within clarity about the five skandhas that you turn your consciousness around to realize wisdom. Doing just that is the especially great and wonderful functioning which you then understand.

Vision is yet not a view – happiness indeed! True emptiness produces wonderful existence. The production of wonderful existence has a great use. “Vision is yet not a view” means that then your seeing is the same as not seeing. When you are unaffected by this kind of experience, you attain genuine happiness. Therefore, the verse says, “Happiness indeed!”

[1] According to a textual variant, the second line of the verse reads, “To what does the one return?”

[2] The quotation is from Tao Yuan Ming’s celebrated poem “Returning Home”. In the poem the poet talks about returning from an official position which he felt compromised his principles.

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