Contemplating Liberation Bodhisattva

A literal translation of ‘Guanyin,’ the Chinese name for Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, would be ‘Contemplating Liberation Bodhisattva.’ Avalokitesvara is also known as the ‘Bodhisattva Who Contemplates the Sound of the World.’ In fact, a bodhisattva who perfects this practice is a Contemplating Liberation Bodhisattva.

Again, these words embody more than we may ordinarily take them to mean, so I will talk about the special meanings of the following words: world, sound, contemplation, and liberation.

‘World,’ for instance, is not limited to the planet Earth or even the known universe. It refers to all dimensions of reality, all directions, and all times.

Likewise, ‘sound’ is not limited to physical sound. It refers to all phenomena perceived by the mind—from subtlest to most apparent, including thoughts. How does one contemplate sound? At first, one listens to actual sounds in the environment. Eventually, the listening turns inward, and the minds, contemplating the very nature of the self, becomes so one-pointedly focused that the hearing faculty no longer perceives sound.

Ultimately, when you realize the most profound emptiness of self, you can use the five sense faculties—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching—interchangeably. You can listen with the eyes or see with your whole physical being. This is not the same as a blind person using the other senses to compensate for lost sight. Using all sense faculties interchangeably is an outcome of training and an expedient skill of liberation. Having freed themselves from attachment to self and realizing emptiness, it is as if bodhisattvas do not see anything when they look at things. This is not stupidity or inattentiveness. This is so because bodhisattvas are not attached to their sense perceptions or to the objects of their perception.

The Chinese guan (contemplation) has many shades of meaning, among them to use methods of practice, to observe or perceive, to be aware, or even to assimilate an idea.

All practices can be considered contemplation—whether they are directed inwardly or outwardly. Practice can also involve contemplation of emptiness, or voidness. “While coursing in the deep prajnaparamita,” refers to the deep state of absorption achieved by Avalokitesvara while contemplating the ineffable nature of emptiness.

Contemplation may begin with our bodies and sense faculties, but ultimately we must use our minds. Indeed, by themselves, body and sense faculties cannot contemplate. For example, in the contemplating breath method, it is the body that breathes, but the mind that contemplates the breathing. Similarly, in contemplating impurity the mind investigates the constituents and processes of the body. There are other methods that utilize seeing, hearing, touching, and their corresponding sense objects, but it is always the mind that contemplates.

Contemplation involves the sixth consciousness, which is the mind of discrimination and cognition. For that matter, without a body and its sense faculties there can be no practice of any kind. There is a vipassana method called ‘sweeping’ where one contemplates, or sweeps, the sensations of the body. Without a body and the senses, what is there to sweep? There is a Chan method where you imagine cool cream pouring over the body. Again, one needs a body and sense faculty to do this. Likewise, Chan methods like huatou investigation and silent illumination are dependent on a physical body.

Even with methods that do not need sense faculties or sense objects—where mind contemplates mind—a body is needed. I teach a method called ‘cat watching mouse,’ where the mind of awareness watches its thoughts. However, the very thoughts that the mind watches arise from interactions with the environment. Hence, one needs a body and senses to practice. Pure awareness is not enough. There are beings reborn in realms—sometimes called the heavens of form and formlessness—with highly refined, almost imperceptible forms, or no form whatsoever. Due to previous merit and practice, they are free from sources of suffering. However, since they have limited or no form they cannot practice. Although some are able to practice, they cannot derive consistent power because they lack the six sense faculties. In most cases, beings reborn in higher realms of reality spend all of their time receiving the positive retribution and bliss of past virtuous actions.


There Is No Suffering, Contemplating Liberation Bodhisattva, pp.23-26.
Talks given by Master Sheng Yen

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