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Perceiving the five aggregates (skandhas) as empty in nature and the method of perfect penetration through the ear faculty

The Heart Sutra and its teaching of perceiving the five aggregates (skandhas) as empty in nature

The Heart Sutra begins by stating that "Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, when practicing in the deep prajna-paramita, perceived that all the five aggregates are empty in nature (ārya-avalokiteśvaro bodhisattvo gambhīrāṃ prajñāpāramitā caryāṃ caramāṇo vyavalokayati sma: panca-skandhās tāṃś ca svābhavaśūnyān paśyati sma)." This indicates that the method of "perceiving the five aggregates as empty in nature" indeed directly points to the Buddha's wisdom, as an ultimate method of practice that enables one to attain liberation and freedom.

How does one go about "perceiving that the five skandhas are empty in nature"? As mentioned in "Master Sheng Yen On Guanyin Bodhisattva's Methods", one can emulate Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva by using illuminating wisdom to carefully observe and examine each and every one of the five aggregates: form, sensation, perception, volition and consciousness. Life is composed of the five aggregates, and will not come into being if any one of the elements is missing. On the other hand, the five aggregates themselves cannot be separated from the law of "dependent origination"; they are constantly changing across different spatial and temporal configurations, lacking any intrinsic self-nature. Therefore, the phenomenon of life is transient and impermanent. Not only do various physical life forms lack intrinsic nature, but even our thoughts and all things in the world do not actually have intrinsic nature, and thus are empty in nature as well. To perceive this requires a genuine insight into emptiness. While practicing deeply the prajna, or the wisdom of emptiness, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva perceived himself as composed of the five aggregates which are intrinsically empty in nature. In addition, he also perceived the selves comprising each sentient being as empty in nature. This insight helps us also to contemplate and see the emptiness in the five aggregates, and thus transcend our own suffering.

So how do ordinary people apply the concept that the five aggregates of form, sensation, perception (feelings), volition (mental activity), and consciousness are all empty in nature, and thus apply it in their daily life experiences?

Through Chan practice and systemic training, we can actually follow systematic steps to begin practicing how to contemplate and perceive the five aggregates, constantly reflecting on and observing our body and mind to experience the reality of impermanence. For example, when reciting the Buddha's name, we can observe our bodily sensation and feeling, as well as our mental activity and responses. To contemplate our body is to contemplate the "form", while to observe our mind is to observe our "sensation, perception, and volition". In so doing, we will gradually realize that our attachment and clinging to our physical body is a kind of psychological function; thus, we should practice letting go of our attachments and clinging.

The method of perfect penetration through the ear faculty

In the Shurangama Sutra, the Buddha, in order to awaken sentient beings to their true nature, invited 25 bodhisattvas to share their approaches to "realizing and illuminating the mind-ground (realizing the nature and source of our mind, attaining the state of illuminating the mind and seeing our true nature)". According to their own spiritual capacities, each bodhisattva had developed different "methods to achieve perfect penetration". Among them, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva's "method of perfect penetration through the ear faculty" was much praised and recommended by the Buddha as the one method that is most suitable for general practitioners.

How do we go about practicing this method? In the book Master Sheng Yen On Guanyin Bodhisattva's Methods, Master Sheng Yen points out that, first, we should learn the basics of training our ear faculty, by enabling our mind to calm and settle down through hearing. We can start with happy, pleasing sounds---forests, birds singing, winds blowing, and rivers flowing-- to help us calm our body and mind. We subsequently allow the sound to lead us into forgetting the environment, the sound itself, and even our own selves. At this point, our mind will gradually unify with the sound into the state of oneness.

Next, we can make our ears act like sound-absorbing panels. Instead of intentionally trying to hear something, we should simply allow whatever sound arises to enter our ears and accept the sound as it is. Instead of proactively seeking the sound, simply stay passive, and act like an acoustic panel: that is, as soon as the sound hits the panel, allow it to disappear.

Neither reject loud sounds; nor seek quiet sounds; whatever we hear is fine as it is. Most importantly is not to "label" any sound. We practice hearing a sound without our mind giving rise to any emotion—be it pain, sadness, or excitement. Instead, we simply settle ourselves into a serene state of joy. The aforementioned encompasses the beginner's method of practice through the ear faculty. If we can always allow our ears to act like a sound-absorbing panel in a noisy environment, this would greatly help us keep a calm and easy mind.

(Source information: from Master Sheng Yen's book, Master Sheng Yen On Guanyin Bodhisattva's Methods ) 

Extended Reading:

Upholding the Buddha's name: "Namo Guan Shi Yin Pusa"

Recitation of Dharanis and Mantras: Six-syllable Mantra, White-robed Guanyin Mantra, Ten-Phrase Avalokitesvara Sutra for Prolonging Life, Great Compassion Dharani, and Dharani of Eleven-Faced Avalokitesvara

Repentance: Great Compassion Repentance and performing Guanyin repentance method

Reading Scriptures: Universal Gate Chapter and Heart Sutra

Perceiving the five aggregates (skandhas) as empty in nature and the method of perfect penetration through the ear faculty

Resource: Issue 340 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Photos: Issue 340 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Translation: Denise Chuk
Editing: Chia-cheng Chang (張家誠), Keith Brown