Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


If there is something known, then there is something not known, for in the holy mind there is nothing that is known and nothing that is not known. The knowing of unknowing is called sarvajnata, all-knowing. Thus the sutra is to be believed when it says. 'In the Holy Mind, there is nothing that is known and nothing that is not known.'
The sage voids his mind and makes real his intuition. Though he always knows, he never knows. Thus he can diffuse his brilliance and cover his light. His empty mind mirrors the metaphysical. Shutting up his knowledge and blocking his hearing, alone he perceives the inscrutable.
In wisdom there is a mirroring that probes the abstruse, yet there is no knowing in it. In the spirit there is response to occasions, yet there is no deliberation in it. Because there is no deliberation in it, it reigns in solitude beyond the world.

Prajna Has No Knowing 3-10 SENG-CHAO


Hui-yuan converted Tao-an's teachings on meditation and monastic discipline into a way of life on Mount Lu, and his efforts established the spiritual foundations of Pure Land Buddhist thought. In Ch'ang-an, Kumarajiva, who was unable to meet Tao-an, furthered his translation activities with single-minded brilliance. Seng-chao, the fourth great star in the early Chinese Buddhist firmament, did for the work of Kumarajiva what Hui-yuan did for Tao-an. In both cases, the disciple was the force which assured that the current of his Teacher would flow unabated through subsequent centuries. Taking the Madhyamika or Middle Way standpoint of Kumarajiva, Seng-chao provided the basis for the San-lun or Three Treatise school of Madhyamika doctrine in China.

Seng-chao was born in 374 CE. into an impoverished family which lived near Ch'ang-an. Although his poverty forced him into employment offering neither prestige nor financial gain, he was fortunate to become a copyist, reproducing Chinese texts with his elegant calligraphic hand. His exceptional natural intelligence allowed him to absorb the classics he copied, and even as a youth the breadth of his reading and the depth of his understanding were recognized by others. He was drawn to the Taoist scriptures and especially to their hsuan hsueh, 'dark learning', arcane interpretations of the more mysterious parts of the Tao Te Ching and the writings of Chuang-tzu. Many Taoists, confronted by the erosion of the social order and the uncertainties of almost ceaseless warfare amongst unstable alliances, sought to give new meaning to the concept of freedom in thought and action. Named tzu-jan, naturalness or spontaneity, this ideal was expounded by analogy with Nature, in which everything happens without anything being done by some obvious directing agency. The awareness that Nature was inherently intelligent in its activities led Taoist thinkers to meditate upon the mystery behind it, wu, essential non-being. Their concern with pen-t'i, the transcendental reality (pen) and its phenomenal manifestations (t'i), formed a natural bridge to the Buddhist distinction between paramarthasatya, absolute truth, and samvrittisatya, relative truth.

Seng-chao immersed himself in hsuan hsueh and absorbed its most profound doctrines, but he felt that somehow he had not penetrated to the core of understanding. When he happened to read the Vimalakirti Sutra, he experienced the thrill of finding new levels of insight, and immediately became a follower of buddhavachana, the word of Buddha, and donned the robes of a monk. Even as a young man, he was already famous in Ch'ang-an for his knowledge of Buddhist and Chinese texts, his brilliance as a thinker and expositor of their meanings, and for his mastery of the art of public debate. Admired by many, envied by some, he found only limited ways to deepen his understanding. Tao-an had died; the Buddhist community struggled to continue his work, and Kumarajiva, who had accepted Tao-an's invitation to come to Ch'ang-an, was held under virtual house arrest in Ku-tsang. Seng-chao yearned to study under him and, after waiting while one diplomatic effort after another failed to gain Kumarajiva's release, he decided to make the dangerous journey to Ku-tsang to join him.

Since Kumarajiva had a paucity of resources at his disposal in Ku-tsang, Seng-chao was not able to undertake a full course of studies, but he readily assimilated his Teacher's standpoint and dialectical method. When Kumarajiva eventually entered Ch'ang-an in 401, Seng-chao was with him, and though he was the youngest member of the circle of monks who formed the translation school, he was appointed Kumarajiva's special assistant by the ruler Yao Hsing. In addition to overseeing many of the details involved in translating lengthy and abstruse texts, Seng-chao also wrote prefaces to a number of them. He found time to compose a series of brilliant treatises on concepts and topics fundamental to Madhyamika thought, and these works became the foundation for the later Three Treatise school.

When he finished writing Prajna Has No Knowing, he showed his manuscript to Kumarajiva, who praised it as a perfect reflection of his own understanding. He sent a copy with Tao-sheng on one of his frequent visits to Mount Lu, where it was seen by Liu I-mm, a highly honoured lay recluse, who said, "I did not suspect that there might be a Ho Yen [a great third-century Taoist] amongst the Buddhist monks as well." Liu I-mm passed the treatise to Hui-yuan, who was so struck by its insights that he insisted the whole community at Mount Lu study it. Seng-chao's other essays were also well received, and when Kumarajiva died in 413, Seng-chao was asked to write his obituary. Shortly after the passing of Kumarajiva, Seng-chao composed Nirvana Is Nameless, and Yao Hsing commissioned copies for the use of his royal household. Seng-chao died in 414, not long after his Teacher, leaving behind the largest and most influential collection of early Chinese Madhyamika writings which survive.

After Liu I-min read Prajna Has No Knowing, he wrote to Seng-chao, asking a number of questions about his method of analysis and understanding. Seng-chao revealed something of his conception of dialectical method – and his affinity for the method of Nagarjuna – in his reply:

To say that prajna is non-existent is to say that it is not affirmed as existent, but does not mean that it is affirmed as non-existent. To say that it is not non-existent is to say that it is not affirmed as non-existent, but does not mean that it is affirmed as not non-existent. It is not existent and not not existent. It is not non-existent and is not not non-existent.

Besides employing a double dilemma (or tetralemma) in respect to concepts like prajna, he indicated the importance of logical quantification.

In Prajna Has No Knowing, Seng-chao held that a fundamental tenet of the Prajnaparamita scriptures is the absence of any ontological characteristics in prajna, wisdom and insight. Yet even though there is nothing that prajna knows or sees, there is a kind of knowing without characteristics, or intuition without knowing. Drawing from his intimate familiarity with the Tao Te Ching, Seng-chao depicted this transcendental insight in terms of a mind devoid of knowledge. When consciousness is emptied of knowledge based on discernible characteristics, it can be filled with insight. In the paradoxical language Seng-chao sometimes preferred, the Sage can be said to know all and know nothing. In part this means that cognition of particulars masks the possibility of universal cognition or all-knowing (sarvajnata). It also means that the empty mind of the Sage is not mindlessness as ordinarily understood, but rather the mirror of utterly transcendental Reality, shunyata, the Void.

If prajna is knowledge without knowing, mirroring the inscrutable, then the mind of the Sage can recognize phenomena and respond to them but it cannot be said to do so with deliberation, intention or motive. Phenomena arise within the Void, but the 'empty' mind assumes a standpoint beyond them, and no attribute appropriate to a mind identified with phenomena can be assigned to it. Just as universal cognition is knowledge outside of events and their defining and adventitious characteristics, so pure mind is beyond the world even whilst seeming to participate in it. This is why Buddha could use innumerable suitable means to aid others in their myriad paths towards Enlightenment. Abiding beyond all means, he could employ what would be useful to that end.

If supreme knowledge is to be characterized, one would have to say with Seng-chao, "Though real, it is not existent; though empty it is not non-existent." Quoting from the Tao Te Ching, he added: "If you wish to say that it exists, it is formless and nameless." In the language of The Voice of the Silence, prajna is that condition in which one realizes "the voidness of the seeming full, the fullness of the seeming void". Since prajna is insight devoid of characteristics, it is void even whilst exercising insight. It is omnipresent, but no search for characteristics or qualities will reveal it. Thus, Seng-chao quoted from a sacred text, "without moving from perfect Enlightenment, the Tathagata establishes all dharmas, elements of existence". This knowing without knowing is knowing spontaneously and manifests as acting spontaneously. "What more can one know? What more can one do?"

Having set forth the doctrine he wished to convey, Seng-chao then stated nine objections and answered them, explaining that the use of paradoxical language is necessary when discussing prajna, for language cannot convey absolute Reality but can only suggest it. For example, prajna is said to have no knowing because it knows paramarthasatya, which is not an object of knowledge but rather the transcendental precondition without which there could be no objects of knowledge. Similarly, there is no distinction between the quiescence and activity of prajna, for its quiescence is its activity. The inherent limits of language are commensurate with the limits of philosophical understanding: dialectic brings the mind to its highest and clearest level of understanding and shows that true insight can be achieved only in a transcending act of realization, for which the most rigorous thought and meditation prepare the mind. "Even though language cannot express such realization, nothing save language can communicate it. Thus the Sage always speaks and never speaks."

A few years later Seng-chao returned to the relationship between language and reality, in part because he found that monks and disciples frequently misunderstood the notion of shunyata. In Voidness of the Non-Absolute he identified three critical misconceptions. First of all, some believe that shunyata is the negation of images of external objects and that such negation voids the mind of all limited conceptions. This view is correct in that total quiescence of consciousness is the necessary condition for realization of shunyata, but it implicitly clings to the belief that things are real whether the mind entertains them or not. Secondly, others believe that form is shunyata because form does not create itself and therefore is made by the Void. True, forms are not self made, but this view wrongly suggests that shunyata itself has some inherent nature out of which forms are created. Thirdly, still others incline to the belief that shunyata is a kind of primordial non-existence out of which all that exists arises – as if what exists could somehow be reduced to shunyata. This is like saying that what exists is non-existing and what does not exist is also non-existing, and therefore non-existence (shunyata) is the matrix of everything. These three misconceptions rest upon a misunderstanding of the nature and limits of language.

Seng-chao argued that while it is acceptable to call things 'things', one cannot call names 'things', for things are not names and do not correspond to actualities. Names are not things and do not correspond to true concepts. Even though one may say that names correspond to things, one slips into a double ontological error in assuming that such a view means that true concepts correspond to actualities. Once this error is recognized and removed, one can see that paramarthasatya is a name and cannot be called a thing, nor can it be said – because paramarthasatya is absolute – that this name corresponds to a thing. Thus language cannot speak of paramarthasatya as an object, though one can talk about it in an attenuated way. Things constitute a problem for the understanding because they exist in some respects and do not exist in others. What exists does not coincide with paramarthasatya or shunyata, and what does not exist is not merely the negation of images. So even though 'existing' and 'non-existing' differ in respect to name, they are identical in reference. Things are like phantoms, men who exist but not as actual men.

Because a thing has no actuality that corresponds to a name, one cannot aver that a thing is real. Since a name cannot produce a real thing, names are not real. In simpler language, there is no correspondence between names and things that can bear the weight of reality assigned to it in ordinary speech. For Seng-chao, this understanding of the relation between things and names is not simply a discovery about language or a realization of the elusive nature of things, but is a fundamental insight into the mysterious being of the Sage. The Sage is one in consciousness with the shunyata of things and does not merely impose some adventitious concept of voidness on them. This means that he is identical with all dharmas, or ultimate constituents of existence, and is their support. The Sage is immanent in all things, one with their nature, as indescribable by language as they are. One could truly know a Sage only by becoming one. Thus the problem of adequately understanding the Sage is identical with that of adequately understanding reality.

The last of Seng-chao's great essays addressed the problem of change from a philosophical standpoint. Like Nagarjuna, he used the dialectical method to show the contradictions implicit in ordinary thinking, but in addition he shifted back and forth between the standpoints of paramarthasatya and samvrittisatya to show that much philosophical misunderstanding arises from the inability to consistently keep to one perspective. In Things Do Not Shift, Seng-chao noted that people ordinarily think that change signals movement through time. Nonetheless, the sutras teach that dharmas do not move.

If we examine the action of not moving, it is not that the dharmas leave motion to find stillness, but that they find stillness in all movements. Because they find stillness in all movements, though moving, they are always still. Because they do not leave motion to find stillness, though still, they do not part from motion. So, though motion and stillness have never been different, the deluded do not agree.

For Seng-chao, the reason one does not recognize the identity of stillness and motion is the interposition of a confused notion of time. In speaking of paramarthasatya, one contradicts popular opinion and one's arguments fall on deaf ears, and in speaking in popular terms, one does violence to the absolute truth and loses sight of reality.

Since dharmas neither come nor go, they do not shift from one point in time to another. Common sense recognizes that things past do not move into the present, but it believes that present things somehow move into the past. If past things do not move, however, neither can present things move. What is in the past is never non-existent in the past and is always non-existent in the present; similarly, what exists in the present is non-existent in the past. Since each thing abides in its place, there is no problem with things but rather with consciousness experiencing them through the lenses of time. When shravakas strive to attain impermanence, they erroneously affirm the possibility of change, and when pratyeka buddhas seek detachment from conditioned existence, they err in thinking that ultimate quiescence is somehow different from change. Followers of the Madhyamika or Middle Way realize that change and stillness are not different conditions of some real external world, but rather two ways of looking at reality – from the standpoints of samvrittisatya and paramarthasatya, respectively. This means that one who would understand the truth does not seek to change his relationship to the world. The truth must be realized in consciousness.

Things are still in that they do not shift from one point in time to another, and they move or pass in that they do not abide from one point in time to another. This is the standpoint of bodhichitta, the awakened mind, and it negates ordinary conceptions of personal identity. One might say, "I resemble the being in the past which one takes to be the former 'me' ", but one cannot affirm, "I am the same being as the being in the past which resembles 'me'." This viewpoint also explains how the Tathagata can use language to point to the inexpressible. Though his mind abides in shunyata and has no duality in it, he teaches in myriad ways. When speaking from the absolute standpoint, he says, "abide" and "do not move from one time to another", but when addressing ordinary individuals he says, "move", "progress" and "flow". Nonetheless, these differences of expression refer to one reality addressed to different minds. Confusion arises when one thinks that moving has to do with shifting from one point in time to another.

Since, Seng-chao taught, each event abides in its own proper moment in time, nothing shifts in time, even though consciousness experiences them as doing so. Yet it is just because nothing can shift from one moment to another that karma is inexorable and cannot be escaped. Even though karmic consequences are implicit in karmic causes, cause and effect do not occupy the same moment in time. Rather, the cause abides in one moment and the effect in another moment, and so one experiences karmic effects after initiating karmic causes. Similarly, the efficaciousness of the Tathagata's teaching endures because its effects do not occupy the same moment as the teaching itself. Rest and motion are relative conceptions which can be understood only from the standpoint of paramarthasatya, and if one can bring one's mind to identify with it, one will understand aright.

Seng-chao sought to express ineffable truth in language, which is necessarily the medium and instrument of relative truth. Like Nagarjuna, he used the dialectical approach, refined in Madhyamika thought, to free consciousness from the false reification and externalization that all too readily result from thinking about the unthinkable. If one refrains from such reflection, one will not be motivated to seek Enlightenment, but if one does engage in such thought, one is easily trapped in subtle ideas whose plausibility hides their falsity. Like pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps, Seng-chao used paradox to bring the 'two truths' absolute and relative – together in a combination that would not ensnare consciousness but rather emancipate it. From the standpoint of subsequent generations of monks, he laid the foundations of Madhyamika in China; from the standpoint of his own life, one might see his quest for insight as an attempt to grasp the innermost meaning of the dark learning hidden in the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching:

Desireless, one may behold the mystery;
Desiring, one may see the manifestations.