Lesson
5

Avalokiteshvara

6 of 12

Emptiness and liberation

The fundamental Buddhist doctrine of emptiness, as expounded by Manjushri, is that things are empty of inherent self-existence. Avalokiteshvara contemplates how the self exists, observes closely its workings, and realizes freedom in perceiving its emptiness. When we see that we are not separate from other beings, that nothing can exist separate and estranged, we recognize our sameness. People are the same in having needs and desires. We all want to love, and to be loved, and we imagine that we are solitary, isolated. To truly realize the self, both the self's lack of inherent separate existence and the larger Self of the interconnectedness of all beings, is called liberation.

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, when practicing deeply the Prajna Paramita, perceived that all five skandhas in their own being are empty and was saved from all suffering.

Heart Sutra

This points to Avalokiteshvara's meditative realization as described in the beginning of the Heart Sutra. The Heart Sutra starts with the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara deeply practicing the perfection of wisdom. The bodhisattva, observing self-existence, perceived the essential emptiness of all things, and so was able to carry everyone beyond suffering.

Avalokiteshvara's practice of freedom through contemplating self-existence is clarified in these lines from Dogen:

To study the Way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be awakened by all things, and the body and mind of self and others drop away.

To study the reality of spiritual life means intimately studying one's self. This can lead to letting go of self-obsession and to the clear awareness of the sounds of all beings. Thus we can awaken to our fundamental openness, clarity, and radiance. But the first, indispensable step is actually to study this self of ours that we usually take for granted. We must carefully and deliberately track our own intentions, desires, conditioned habit patterns, and actual everyday conduct, and take responsibility for them. As we thoroughly study the workings of our self, but with compassion, we can let go of the self and awaken to the deeper reality of all things.

Meditation on sound

Avalokiteshvara recommends concentrating on sound as an object, and then turning the attention back to one's own hearing of sound, to realize that the imagined split between hearer as subject and sound as object is illusory. This practice can overcome dualistic delusions, not only of hearer-sound and subject-object. Through attending to sound, Avalokiteshvara says, dualistic notions of stillness and disturbance, the arising and disappearance of states, and limited ideas about attainment of emptiness or enlightenment are all overcome. Other senses, such as smell, taste, touch, and thought, are only intermittently available, but sound is constant. Sound can be perceived from all directions equally, while visual objects are limited, only seen in the direction eyed, and invisible through solid objects such as walls.

In everyday practice, you can pause briefly in the midst of your busy activities and just enjoy our personal experience of sound. Sound flows constantly, like the stream of a mountain valley. Even when living in a big city, you can stop and soak in the sound of the stream of traffic on a nearby highway. Turning your attention within to appreciate hearing the sound, you can be refreshed by subtle inner sound and silence, and then just return to your work.