Sutra of Eight Realizations – Part One – The Personal Element

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Buddhism: The Personal Element

Sutra of the Eight Realizations

Day and night, at all times,
Buddha’s disciples should
Mindfully recite and contemplate
The eight realizations of Great Beings.

The First Realization:
All the world is impermanent.
The earth is fragile and perilous.
The four great elements in here, suffering and emptiness.
In the five skandhas there is no self.
All that arise, change, and perish,
Are illusive, unreal, and without a master.
Mind is the root of evil;
Body a reservoir of sin.
Thus observing and contemplating,
One gradually breaks free from birth and death.

The Second Realization:

Excessive desire is suffering.
Birth, death, and weariness in life
All originate from greed and desires.
Desiring less, being wu-wei,
Bodymind are at ease and free.

The Third Realization:

The mind is insatiable,
Always seeking, thirsty for more,
Thus increasing our cravings.
Bodhisattvas, and all others should renounce such conduct.
Always remember to follow the way,
Be content and at peace with poverty,
With wisdom as the sole vocation.

The Fourth Realization:

Indolence leads to degradation.
Always practice with diligence,
Vanquish all vexations,
Subdue the four maras,
And escape the prison of the skandhas.

The Fifth Realization:
Ignorance leads to birth and death.
Bodhisattvas, and all others should always be mindful
To study and learn extensively,
To increase their wisdom
And perfect their eloquence,
So they can teach and enlighten all beings,
And impart great joy to all.

The Sixth Realization:
Poverty and hardship breed resentment,
Creating harm and discord.
Bodhisattvas, and all others should practice dana,
Beholding the friendly and hostile equally;
They neither harbor grudges
Nor despise malicious people.

The Seventh Realization:
The five desires are perilous.
Even as laity, be not sullied by worldly pleasures;
Think frequently of the three robes,
The tiled bowl, and instruments of Dharma;
Aspire to the noble life
And cultivate the Way with purity;
Let your actions be noble and sublime,
Showering compassion on all.

The Eighth Realization:
Birth and death are like a blazing fire
Plagued with endless afflictions and suffering.
Vow to cultivate the
serene mind,
To bring relief to all;
To take on infinite sufferings for sentient beings,
And lead all to supreme joy.

Translated from Chinese by the Chung Tai Translation Committee with pragmatic cultural changes made by Wayne Ren-Cheng

It is important when reading and studying the sutras and other Buddhist texts that we do not always take the language and ideas literally. From Siddhartha’s language and concepts being tied so closely with the pre-Buddhism Hindi culture and faith, to the early Buddhist Councils where the sutras were first written down, all the way to contemporary translations there are the cultural dynamics and use of language at each stage that need close examination.

Siddhartha, with his central focus on teaching the Four Ennobling Truths, and the dharma of impermanence and dependent origination spoke with the language and worldview of the Hindu culture. Siddhartha understood that only through the skillful means using ideas that already resonated with the people could he reach them with his radically different message.

In the initial Buddhist Council, when Ananda and others recited what they had heard the Buddha had say there were others writing it down using words and concepts they were comfortable with. Later councils, some hundreds of years later interpreted the Buddha’s words within different cultural and religious contexts. The arising Buddhists of the Southeast Asian, East Asian, and Tibetan cultures did the same. Jumping ahead to Westerner’s first encounters with Buddhist philosophy and writings, the language they knew was that of Christianity so the language revealed that. It is fairly certain that the Buddha didn’t use the words “thee” and “thou” or talk about “sin” and “forgiveness”.

Pragmatically, in contemporary culture the language of Buddhism in the West is changing again. In Engaged Dharma we try to approach the sutras with what Richard Rorty (whose Neo-pragmatist philosophy plays a determining role in many arising American Buddhist traditions) would term pre-linguistic (before attaching words) awareness. Teachers and scholars who work to offer the traditional dharma to a contemporary audience work diligently to get beyond the words to the intent of any teaching so that its value can be realized. Siddhartha himself must have had a pre-linguistic awareness of the Dharma before it was necessary to put it into words. While the words are important, it is the INTENT that is critical.

The Origin of the Sutra

This sutra was translated from Pali to Chinese by the Parthian monk, An Shih Kao during the later Han Dynasty, 140-171 CE. The original Pali document has since been lost. Like the Sutra on the Six Paramitas it is thought to be combination of smaller works. The sutra is chanted and studied in both the Mahayana and Theravadan traditions, making it a text that broadly influences Buddhist practices.

Each of the eight realizations are meant to be subjects of meditation and moment-to-moment practice. Within each one there are levels of practice that lead to gradual realization of the paths to positive personal development. The sutra is lyrical, its simple words meant to be chanted and memorized. And, each of these subjects can be further divided to reveal the depth of ideals contained in Buddhist philosophy. The concepts of causality (dependent origination), not-self, karma, attachment, potential (emptiness), selflessness, impermanence, mindfulness and more are found in the Sutra of Eight Realizations.

Although the form of the sutra is simple, its content is extremely profound and marvelous. The Sutra on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings is not an analysis of anything. It is a realistic and effective approach to meditation.

We’ll be experiencing the Eight Realizations through a contemporary, pragmatic lens, one meant to reveal that even 2500 years later this work has relevance in practicing Buddhism in the West.

These Eight Realizations empower humans to make positive changes to alleviate suffering, and enable them to realize their potential as positive agents of change in the Universe. We can choose to be more aware of our carbon footprint and other environmental factors of living. Through that awareness followed by action we can make positive changes, or at least mitigate the negative. Personally we improve the matter (health) of our bodies. We can come to recognize that emotions and sensations are transitory phenomena and that we can choose how we react to them. Mental formations, our dispositions such as selfishness and attachment can be discarded and replaced with selflessness and generosity.

We will be creatively re-describing “evil and sin”, offering a more useful view for a contemporary practice. We develop mindfulness so we can recognize our dispositions and habits, we practice meditation to develop awareness so that we come to realize that each experience causes the “death” of what we were then and the “birth” of what we come to be. It is not a matter of WHO we are, it is a matter of HOW we are.

The First Realization clarifies the four basic subjects of Buddhist meditation: impermanence, suffering, not-self, and dispositions. Our meditation practice should develop deeper levels of mindfulness of these realities.

All things are impermanent. Moment-to-moment everything goes through changes dependent on their experiences and intent. Impermanence is a direct result of the core Buddhist concept of casuality or dependent origination. The Universe is a causal process where everything changes dependent on its experiences. We must always be aware and mindful that our actions have consequences.

The four great elements (earth, water, fire, air) that make up the world, and the five skandhas or aggregates (Matter, Feelings/Sensations, Perception, Mental Formations, Thought Processes, Consciousness) that make up the self are all impermanent.

There must be awareness of psychophysical suffering or unsatisfactoriness. Being aware of suffering leads us to our responsibility to work toward its alleviation in ourselves and the surrounding Universe.

Physical pain is a small part of the suffering that the Four Ennobling Truths reveal. More important is the psychophysical suffering; the suffering/unsatisfactoriness/discontent/anguish that comes from unnatural attachments and desires. The suffering that comes from not realizing the transitory/impermanent nature of phenomena, even pain.

There is no permanent self, there is the not-self that is subject to impermanence and the causal process of the Universe. This empowers us by making us mindful that our actions and thoughts can be changed for the better.

All of us have heard someone say, “I can’t change. This is who I am.” The Buddha would say, “Bull!” Stephen Batchelor, one of the most respected Buddhist teachers of our time has a suggestion for anyone who believes they “can never change”. Get your family photo albums and find every possible photo of yourself. Now, put them in chronological order. Begin with yourself as a baby and continue through to the present. Think about who you were at each stage, think about the experiences of each stage, and then try to convince yourself that you’ve never changed.

The skandhas, the five aggregates of material form, feelings, perception, mental formations, and the six senses arise and fall within moment-to-moment experience but they have no inherent existence, nor are they a permanent aspect of HOW we are. They are causal factors of our dispositions and habits but they are not us. Whether positive, negative or neutral they are transitory phenomena and can, and will change. Some change happens as a result of universal circumstances beyond our control, while other changes must be achieved through our own effort and commitment.

Anger can be changed to calm. Anxiety can be changed to action. Grasping can be changed to generosity. And, in this causal Universe good dispositions like contentment can be changed to depression. Buddhist practice, beginning with meditation can help one develop their positive dispositions and weaken the negative ones. Dispositions are as affected by impermanence as any other thing.

In Buddhist philosophy the mind is not a root of evil any more than it is the root of good. The mind, or consciousness is the root of choices, choices that are influenced by HOW we are. Ignorance is more likely to lead to negative choices, while a mind trained in the ways of equanimity and wisdom is likely to make positive choices. The body is not a reservoir of sin. The actions of the body are directly caused by the state of the mind which is why I prefer the term ‘bodymind’ as a reminder of that link. The body doesn’t store up the positive and negative experiences, it only responds to them.

As we observe and contemplate the Sutra of Eight Realizations the realizations of impermanence, of dependent causality, of not-self, and of the bodymind will arise, and the knowledge of our ability to transform from a state of ignorance, to one of equanimity and wisdom will follow.

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