Bodhi-dharma's Breakthrough Sermon
Translated into English by Red Pine, 1987
Student: If someone is determined to reach enlightenment, what is the most essential method he can practice?
Bodhidharma: The most essential method, which includes all other methods, is beholding the mind.
Student: But how can one method include all others?
Bodhidharma: The mind is the root from which all things grow if you can understand the mind, everything else is included. It's like the root of a tree. All a tree's fruit and flowers, branches and leaves depend on its root. If you nourish its root, a tree multiplies. If you cut its root, it dies. Those who understand the mind reach enlightenment with minimal effort. Those who don't understand the mind practice in vain. Everything good and bad comes from your own mind. To find something beyond the mind is impossible.
Student: But bow can beholding the mind be called understanding?
Bodhidharma: When a great bodhisattva delves deeply into perfect wisdom, he realizes that the four elements and five shades are devoid of a personal self. And he realizes that the activity of his mind has two aspects: pure and impure. By their very nature, these two mental states are always present. They alternate as cause or effect depending on conditions, the pure mind delighting in good deeds, the impure mind thinking of evil. Those who aren't affected by impurity are sages. They transcend suffering and experience the bliss of nirvana. All others, trapped by the impure mind and entangled by their own karma, are mortals. They drift through the three realms and suffer countless afflictions and all because their impure mind obscures their real self.
The Sutra of Ten Stages says, "in the body of mortals is the indestructible buddha-nature. Like the sun, its light fills endless space, But once veiled by the dark clouds of the five shades, it's like a light ˇ®inside a ˇ®at, hidden from view." And the Nirvana Sutra says, "All mortals have the buddha-nature. But it's covered by darkness from which they can't escape. Our buddha-nature is awareness: to be aware and to make others aware. To realize awareness is liberation," Everything good has awareness for its root. And from this root of awareness grow the tree of all virtues and the fruit of nirvana. Beholding the mind like this is understanding.
Student: You say that our true Buddha-nature and all virtues have awareness for their root. But what is the root of ignorance?
Bodhidharma: The ignorant mind, with its infinite afflictions, passions, and evils, is rooted in the three poisons. Greed, anger, and delusion. These three poisoned states of mind themselves include countless evils, like trees that have a single trunk but countless branches and leaves. Yet each poison produces so many more millions of evils that the example of a tree is hardly a fitting comparison. The three poisons are present in our six sense organs' as six kinds of consciousness' or thieves. They're called thieves because they pass in and out of the gates of the senses, covet limitless possessions, and mask their true identity. And because mortals are misled in body and mind by these poisons or thieves, they become lost in life and death, wander through the six states of existence, and suffer countless afflictions. These afflictions are like rivers that surge for a thousand miles because of the constant flow of small springs.
But if someone cuts off their source, rivers dry up. And if someone who seeks liberation can turn the three poisons into the three sets of precepts and the six thieves into the six paramitas, he rids himself of affliction once and for all.
Student: But the three realms and six states -of existence are infinitely vast. How can we escape their endless afflictions if all we do is behold the mind?
Bodhidharma: The karma of the three realms comes from the mind alone. If your mind isn't within the three realms, it's beyond them. The three realms correspond to the three poisons- greed corresponds to the realm of desire, anger to the realm of form, and delusion to the formless realm. And because karma created by the poisons can be gentle or heavy, these three realms are further divided into six places known as the six states of existence.
Student: And how does the karma of these six differ?
Bodhidharma: Mortals who don't understand true practice and blindly perform good deeds are born into the three higher states of existence within the three realms. And what are these three higher states? Those who blindly perform the ten good deeds and foolishly seek happiness are born as gods in the realm of desire. Those who blindly observe the five precepts and foolishly indulge in love and hate are born as men in the realm of anger, And those who blindly cling to the phenomenal world, believe in false doctrines, and pray for blessings are born as demons in the realm of delusion. These are the three higher states of existence.
And what are the three lower states? They're where those who persist in poisoned thoughts and evil deeds are born. Those whose karma from greed is greatest become hungry ghosts. Those whose karma from anger is greatest become sufferers in hell. And those whose karma from delusion is greatest become beasts. These three lower states together with the previous three higher states form the six states of existence. From this you should realize that all karma, painful or otherwise, comes from your own mind. If you can just concentrate your mind and transcend its falsehood and evil, the suffering of the three realms and six states of existence will automatically disappear. And once free from suffering, you're truly free.
Student: But the Buddha said, "Only after undergoing innumerable hardships for three asankhya kalpas did I achieve enlightenment," Why do you now say that simply beholding the mind and over-coming the three poisons is liberation?
Bodhidharma: The words of the Buddha are true. But the three-asankhya kalpas refer to the three poisoned states of mind. What we call asankhya in Sanskrit you call countless. Within these three poisoned states of mind are countless evil thoughts, And every thought lasts a kalpa. Such an infinity is what the Buddha meant by the three asankhya kalpas, Once the three poisons obscure your real self, how can you be called liberated until you overcome their countless evil thoughts? People who can transform the three poisons of greed, anger, and delusion into the three releases are said to pass through the three-sankhya kalpas. But people of this final age are the densest of fools. They don't understand what the Tathagata really meant by the three-asankhya kalpas. They say enlightenment is only achieved after endless kalpas and thereby mislead disciples to retreat on the path to Buddhahood.
Student: But the great bodbisattvas have achieved enlightenment only by observing the three sets of precepts"' and practicing the six Paramitas, Now you tell disciples merely to behold the mind. How can anyone reach enlightenment without cultivating the rules of discipline?
Bodhidharma: The three sets of precepts are for overcoming the three poisoned states of mind, When you overcome these poisons, you create three sets of limitless virtue, A set gathers things together-in this case, countless good thoughts throughout your mind. And the six paramitas are for purifying the six senses. What we call paramitas you call means to the other shore. By purifying your six senses of the dust of sensation, the paramitas ferry you across the River of Affliction to the Shore of Enlightenment.
Student: According to the sutras, the three sets of precepts are, "I vow, to put an end to all evils. I vow to cultivate all virtues. And I vow to liberate all beings." But now you say they're only for controlling the three poisoned states of mind. Isn't this contrary to the meaning of the scriptures?
Bodhidharma: The sutras of the Buddha are true. But long ago, when that great bodhisattva was cultivating the seed of enlightenment, it was to counter the three poisons that he made his three vows. Practicing moral prohibitions to counter the poison of greed, he vowed to put an end to all evils. Practicing meditation to counter the poison of anger, he vowed to cultivate all virtues. And practicing wisdom to counter the poison of delusion, he vowed to liberate all beings. Because he persevered in these three pure practices of morality, meditation, and wisdom, he was able to overcome the three poisons and reach enlightenment. By overcoming the three poisons he wiped out everything sinful and thus put an end to evil. By observing the three sets of precepts he did nothing but good and thus cultivated virtue. And by putting an end to evil and cultivating virtue lie consummate all practices, benefited himself as well as others, and rescued mortals everywhere. Thus he liberated beings.
You should realize that the practice you cultivate doesn't exist apart from your mind. If your mind is pure, all buddha-lands are pure. The sutras say, "if their minds are impure, beings are impure. If their minds are pure, beings are pure," And "To reach a buddha-land, purify your mind. As your mind becomes pure, buddha-lands become pure." Thus by overcoming the three poisoned states of mind the three sets of precepts are automatically fulfilled.
Student: But the sutras say the six Paramitas are charity, morality, patience, devotion, meditation, and wisdom. Now you say the paramitas refer to the purification of the senses. What do you mean by this? And why are they called ferries?
Bodhidharma: Cultivating the paramitas means purifying the six senses by overcoming the six thieves. Casting out the thief of the eye by abandoning the visual world is charity. Keeping out the thief of the ear by not listening to sound is morality. Humbling the thief of the nose by equating smells as neutral is patience. Controlling the thief of the mouth by conquering desires to taste, praise, and explain is devotion. Quelling the thief of the body by remaining unmoved by sensations of touch is meditation. And taming the thief of the mind by not yielding to delusions but practicing wakefulness is wisdom, These six paramitas are transports. Like boats or rafts, they transport beings to the other shore. Hence they're called ferries.
Student: But when Sbakyamuni was a bodhisattva, he consumed three bowls of milk and six ladles of gruel prior to attaining enlightenment. If he bad to drink milk before be could taste the fruit of buddhahood, how can merely beholding the mind result in liberation?
Bodhidharma: What you say is true. That is how he attained enlightenment. He had to drink milk before he could become a Buddha. But there are two kinds of milk. That which Shakyamuni drank wasn't ordinary impure milk but Pure Dharma-talk. The three bowls were the three sets of precepts. And the six ladies were the six paramitas. When Shakyamuni attained enlightenment, it was because he drank this pure dharma-rnilk that he tasted the fruit of Buddhahood. To say that the Tathagata drank the worldly concoction of impure, rank-smelling cow's milk is the height of slander. That which is truly so, the indestructible, passionless Dharma-self, remains forever free of the world's afflictions. Why would it need impure milk to satisfy its hunger or thirst?
The sutras say, "This ox doesn't live in the highlands or the lowlands. It doesn't eat grain or chaff. And it doesn't graze with cows. The body of this ox is the color of burnished gold." The ox refers to Vairocana. Owing to his great compassion for all beings, he produces from within his pure Dharma-body the sublime Dharma-milk of the three sets of precepts and six paramitas to nourish all those who seek liberation. The pure milk of such a truly pure ox not only enabled the ˇ®tathagata to achieve buddhahood but also enables any being who drinks it to attain unexcelled, complete enlightenment.
Student: Throughout the sutras the Buddha tells mortals they can achieve enlightenment by performing such meritorious works as building monasteries, casting statues, burning incense, scattering flowers, lighting eternal lamps, practicing all six periods" of the day and night, walking around stupas, observing fasts, and worshipping. But if beholding the mind includes all other practices, then such works as these would appear redundant.
Bodhidharma: The sutras of the Buddha contain countless metaphors. Because mortals have shallow minds and don't understand anything deep, the Buddha used the tangible to represent the sublime. People who seek blessings by concentrating on external works instead of internal cultivation are attempting the impossible, What you call a monastery we call a sangbarama, a place of purity. But whoever denies entry to the three poisons and keeps the gates of his senses pure, his body and mind still, inside and outside clean, builds a monastery.
Casting statues refers to all practices cultivated by those who seek enlightenment. The Tathagata's sublime form can't be represented by metal. Those who seek enlightenment regard their bodies as the furnace, the Dharma as the fire, wisdom as the craftsmanship, and the three sets of precepts and six paramitas as the mold. They smelt and refine the true buddha-nature within themselves and pour it into the mold formed by the rules of discipline. Acting in perfect accordance with the -Buddha's teaching, they naturally create a perfect likeness. ˇ®Me eternal, sublime body isn't subject to conditions or decay. If you seek the Truth but dont learn how to make a true likeness, what will you use in its place?
And burning incense doesn't mean ordinary material incense but the incense of the intangible Dharma, which drives away filth, ignorance, and evil deeds with its perfume. There are five kinds of such Dharma-incense. First is the incense of morality, which means renouncing evil and cultivating virtue. Second is the incense of meditation, which means deeply believing in the Mahayana with unwavering resolve. Third is the incense of wisdom, which means contemplating the body and mind, inside and out. Fourth is the incense of liberation, which means severing the bonds of ignorance. And fifth is the incense of perfect knowledge, which means being always aware and nowhere obstructed. These five are the most precious kinds of incense and far superior to anything the world has to offer.
When the Buddha was in the world, he told his disciples to light such precious incense with the fire of awareness as an offering to the Buddhas of the ten directions. But people today don't understand the Tathagata's real meaning. They use an ordinary flame to light material incense of sandalwood or frankincense and pray for some future blessing that never comes.
For scattering flowers the same holds true. This refers to speaking the Dharma, scattering flowers of virtue, in order to benefit others and glorify the real sell. These flowers of virtue are those praised by the Buddha. They last forever and never fade. And whoever scatters such flowers reaps infinite blessings. If you think the Tathagata meant for people to harm plants by cutting off their flowers, you're wrong. Those who observe the precepts don't injure any of the myriad life forms of heaven and earth. If you hurt something by mistake, you suffer for it. But those who intentionally break the precepts by injuring the living for the sake of future blessings suffer even more, How could they let would-be blessings turn into sorrows?
The eternal lamp represents perfect awareness. Likening the illumination of awareness to that of a lamp, those who seek liberation see their body as the lamp, their mind as its wick, the addition of discipline as its oil, and the power of wisdom as its flame. By lighting this lamp of perfect awareness they dispel all darkness and delusion. And by passing this Dharma on to others they're able to use one lamp to light thousands of lamps. And because these lamps likewise light countless other lamps, their light lasts forever.
Long ago, there was a Buddha named Dipamkara, or lamplighter. This was the meaning of his name. But fools don't understand the metaphors of the Tathagata. Persisting in delusions and clinging to the tangible, they light lamps of everyday vegetable oil and think that by illuminating the interiors of buildings they're following the Buddha's teaching. How foolish! The light released by a Buddha from one curl between his brows can illuminate countless worlds. An oil lamp is no help. Or do you think otherwise?
Practicing all six periods of the day and night means constantly cultivating enlightenment among the six senses and persevering in every form of awareness. Never relaxing control over the six senses is what's meant by all six periods. As for walking around stupas, the stupa is your body and mind. When your awareness circles your body and mind without stopping, this is called walking around a stupa. The sages of long ago followed this path to nirvana. But people today don't understand what this means. Instead of looking inside they insist on looking outside. They use their material bodies to walk around material stupas. And they keep at it day and night, wearing themselves out in vain and coming no closer to their real self.
The same holds true for observing a fast. It's useless unless you understand what this really means. To fast means to regulate, to regulate your body and mind so that they're not distracted or disturbed. And to observe means to uphold, to uphold the rules of discipline according to the Dharma. Fasting means guarding against the six attractions on the outside and the three poisons on the inside and striving through contemplation to purify your body and mind.
Fasting also includes five kinds of food. First there's delight in the Dharma. This is the delight that comes from acting in accordance with the Dharma. Second is harmony in meditation. This is the harmony of body and mind that comes from seeing through subject and object. Third is invocation, the invocation of Buddhas with both your month and your mind. Fourth is resolution, the resolution to pursue virtue whether walking, standing, sitting, or lying down. And fifth is liberation, the liberation of your mind from worldly contamination. These five are the foods of fasting. Unless a person eats these five pure foods, he's wrong to think he's fasting.
Also, once you stop eating the food of delusion, if you touch it again you break your fast. And once you break it, you reap no blessing from it. The world is full of deluded people who don't see this. They indulge their body and mind in all manner of evil. They give free rein to their passions and have no shame. And when they stop eating ordinary food, they call it fasting. How absurd!
It's the same with worshipping. You have to understand the meaning and adapt to conditions. Meaning includes action and nonaction. Whoever understands this follows the Dharma.
Worship means reverence and humility it means revering your real self and humbling delusions. If you can wipe out evil desires and harbor good thoughts, even if nothing shows its worship. Such form is its real form. The Lord wanted worldly people to think of worship as expressing humility and subduing the mind. So he told them to prostrate their bodies to show their reverence, to let the external express the internal, to harmonize essence and form. Those who fail to cultivate the inner meaning and concentrate instead on the outward expression never stop indulging in ignorance, hatred, and evil while exhausting themselves to no avail. They can deceive others with postures, remain shameless before sages and vain before mortals, but they'll never escape the Wheel, much less achieve any merit.
Student: But the Bathhouse Sutra says, "By contributing to the bathing of monks, people receive limitless blessings." This would appear to be an instance of external practice achieving merit. How does this relate to beholding the mind?
Bodhidharma: Here, the bathing of monks doesn't refer to the washing of anything tangible. When the Lord preached the Bathhouse Sutra, he wanted his disciples to remember the Dharma of washing. So he used an everyday concern to convey his real meaning, which he couched in his explanation of merit from seven offerings. Of these seven, the first is clear water, the second fire, the third soap, the fourth willow catkins, the fifth pure ashes, the sixth ointment, and the seventh the inner garment He used these seven to represent seven other things that cleanse and enhance a person by eliminating the delusion and filth of a poisoned mind. The first of these seven is morality, which washes away excess just as water washes away dirt. Second is wisdom, which penetrates subject and object, just as fire warms water. Third is discrimination, which gets rid of evil practices, just as soap gets rid of grime. Fourth is honesty, which purges delusions, just as chewing willow catkins purifies the breath. Fifth is true faith, which resolves all doubts, just as rubbing pure ashes on the body prevents illnesses. Sixth is patience, which overcomes resistance and disgrace, just as ointment softens the skin. And seventh is shame, which redresses evil deeds, just as the inner garment covers up an ugly body. These seven represent the real meaning of the sutra. When he spoke this sutra, the Tathagata was talking to farsighted followers of the Mahayana, not to narrow-minded people of dim vision. It's not surprising that people nowadays don't understand.
The bathhouse is the body. When you light the fire of wisdom, you warm the pure water of the precepts and bathe the true Buddha nature within you. By upholding these seven practices you add to your virtue. The monks of that age were perceptive. They understood the Buddha's meaning. They followed his reaching, perfected their virtue, and tasted the fruit of Buddhahood. But people nowadays can't fathom these things. They use ordinary water to wash a physical body and think they're following the sutra. But they're mistaken. Our true buddha-nature has no shape. And the dust of affliction has no form. How can people use ordinary water to wash an intangible body? It won't work. When will they wake up? To clean such a body you have to behold it. Once impurities and filth arise from desire, they multiply until they cover you inside and out. But if you try to wash this body of yours, you have to scrub until it's nearly gone before it's clean. From this you should realize that washing something external isn't What the Buddha meant.
Student: The sutras say that someone who wholeheartedly invokes the Buddha is sure to be reborn in the Western Paradise. Since is door leads to Buddhahood, why seek liberation in beholding the mind?
Bodhidharma: If you're going to invoke the Buddha, you have to do it right. Unless you understand what invoking means, you'll do it wrong. And if you do it wrong, you'll never go anywhere.
Buddha means awareness, the awareness of body and mind that prevents evil from arising in either. And to invoke means to call to mind, to call constantly to mind the rules of discipline and to follow them with all your might. This is what's meant by invoking. Invoking has to do with thought and not with language. If you use a trap to catch fish, once you succeed you can forget the trap. And if you use language to find meaning, once you find it you can forget language. To invoke the Buddha's name you have to understand the Dharma of invoking. If it's not present in your mind, your mouth chants an empty name. As long as you're troubled by the three poisons or by thoughts of yourself, your deluded mind will keep you from seeing the Buddha and you'll only waste your effort. Chanting and invoking are worlds apart, Chanting is done with the mouth. Invoking is done with the mind. And because invoking comes from the mind, it's called the door to awareness. Chanting is centered in the mouth and appears as sound. If you cling to appearances while searching for meaning, you won't find a thing. Thus, sages of the past cultivated introspection and not speech. This mind is the source of all virtues. And this mind is the chief of all powers, The eternal bliss of nirvana comes from the mind at rest. Rebirth in the three realms also comes from the mind. The mind is the door to every world and the mind is the ford to the other shore. Those who know where the door is don't worry about reaching it. Those who know where the ford is don't worry about crossing it.
The people I meet nowadays are superficial. They think of merit as something that has form. They squander their wealth and butcher creatures of land and sea. They foolishly concern themselves with erecting statues and stupas, telling people to pile up lumber and bricks, to paint this blue and that green. They strain body and mind, injure themselves and mislead others. And they don't know enough to be ashamed. How will they ever become enlightened?
They see something tangible and instantly become attached. If you talk to them about formlessness, they sit there dumb and confused. Greedy for the small mercies of this world, they remain blind to the great suffering to come. Such disciples wear themselves out in vain. Turning from the true to the false, they talk about nothing but future blessings.
If you can simply concentrate your mind's Inner Light and behold its outer illumination, you'll dispel the three poisons and drive away the six thieves once and for all. And without effort gain possession of an infinite number of virtues, perfections, and doors to the truth, Seeing through the mundane and witnessing the sublime is less than an eye-blink away, Realization is now. Why worry about gray hair? But the true door is hidden and can't be revealed. I have only touched upon beholding the mind.
(One verse omitted)