The above sentence proclaims Emptiness to be the substance of all Dharmas: That being the case, there can be neither birth nor death, no defilement, no purity, no increase or decrease. What holds true for the dharma of the skandhasóapplies equally to the rest of dharmas; and, therefore, all dharmas are absolutely and permanently void.
An ordinary person views all the things of this world as possessing their own shapes or forms. He or she grasps at and clings to them, not understanding that their presence is empty of a permanent, separate self. The Buddha, mindful of some of his adherents who still grasped at worldly dharmas as if they were real, addressed once more the problem generated by the perception of dharmas as increasing, decreasing, defiled or pure. Explaining in more detail, he reiterated that since all dharmas are void, there is no birth and no death, neither an increase nor a decrease, neither defilement nor purity. The central and notable theme of this Sutra is the essential emptiness of all dharmas, and the distinguishing marks of their emptiness are defined as non-arising, non-ceasing, non-defilement, non-purity, non-increasing, non-decreasing, non-birth and non-death.
The Vaipulya Sutra speaks of ìneither existing nor extinct, neither permanent nor annihilated, neither identical nor differentiated, neither coming nor going.î The history of Buddhism is replete with illustrious sages who pondered and expounded this doctrine at great length. To deluded worldlings, however, it makes no sense to speak of no birth and no death. They hold birth and death to be essential; all of us were born and must die in the same way that the grass sprouts and grows in the spring and summer and dies in the fall. That is clear to everyone, so how can anybody teach that there is no birth and no death? Thus, worldlings come to perceive objects as permanent (the view called parikalpita in Sanskrit).
In The Madhyamika Sastra, Bodhisattva Nagarjuna (c.150-250 C. E.) says: ìFor the one who is already born, there is no birth; nor is there birth for the one who has not been born. Also, neither the one who was born nor the one who was not born has birth, nor does the one being born have birth at the time of birth.î For example, grass that is one foot tall is no longer sprouting. That is what is meant by ìno more birth for the one already born.î Now, suppose that the grass that is presently one foot tall is allowed to grow one more foot: It still cannot be said to have birth, because there is no manifestation of birth. That is what is meant by ìWhat has not been born yet has no birth.î The grass cannot be said to have birth or be born at any specific time during its sprouting, and so it is said that ìThe one being born does not have birth at the time of birth.î The mark or the sign of birth does not obtain at any one moment. Bodhisattva Nagarjuna demonstrated by means of this example that the doctrine of no-birth makes perfect sense and that it is relevant to an understanding of the Teaching.
I have already explained birth and non-birth. Let me explain now the opposite of non-birth. For the one already dead there is no death; for the one not yet dead there is no death either. At the time of dying there is not one specific instant in which death manifests itself. The following explanation should clarify the eight dharmas of form: neither existent nor extinct, neither permanent nor annihilated, neither identical nor differentiated, and neither coming nor going. A simple statement of non-birth and non-death would not be convincing enough, so, to counter any argument, the Buddha added ìneither permanent nor annihilatedî for those holding on to doctrine of permanence. To make it succinct in terms of the luminous Dharma, it is often said, ìIf you open your mouth you are already wrong; if you give rise to a single thought, you are in error.î All of this is, inconceivable. However, The Surangama Sutra simply asserts, ìThe language we use has no real meaning.î
I would like those who hold things to be permanent to explain why we cannot see at present all those who have lived before us? If you consider thusly, the impermanence of human existence becomes immediately apparent. Similarly, those who subscribe to the annihilation theory should tell us how it is possible for us to eat last yearís rice. Todayís rice is the seed from last yearís plant, which, in turn, grew from the seed of the previous year. That should be evidence enough that the annihilation theory does not work, as asserted by the aforementioned ìneither birth nor death, neither permanence nor annihilation.î
Regarding ìneither identical nor differentiatedî, it means not being the same or alike and not being varied either; it also means being neither one nor many. Consider the human body, for example: It is a collection of many dissimilar partsói.e., skin, muscle, tendons, bones, blood, viscera and more. Though we refer to it as one body or one sentient being, there are, actually, more than one. However, the body cannot be called a group or a composite because it is perceived as an entity. Thus, the idea under discussion can reasonably be reformulated as ìOne is all, and all is one.î The Ultimate Dharma is the silence that follows after the sound of discussion has ceased and when the role of thought is done.
ìNeither coming nor goingî addresses the view of things as having independent, lasting existence. By coming and going we imply questions such as ìWhere do people come from, and where do they go?î Similarly, some may wonder, ìWhere do mountains come from and where do they go?î Again, the view that holds everything in the world to be in some way continuing is called in Sanskrit parikalpita. This view is based on a fundamental cognitive distortion, bringing further distortions in its wake: From there on, there is birth and death, permanence and annihilation, sameness and differentiation, coming and going.
The foregoing discussion of the Superb Doctrine has dealt with ìneither birth nor death, neither permanence nor annihilation, neither sameness nor differentiation, and neither coming nor going.î Now we are going to turn our attention to the doctrine of the Ultimate Reality as ìnot defiled, not pure, not increasing and not decreasing,î and dependent only on the substance of Prajna (or the Voidness of all things).
Both defiled and pure are without definite form, thus leaving everyone to his or her own resources, or subjective point of view. Rejecting defiled and clinging to pure give rise to yet another defilement because of our natural tendency toward opinions and prejudice. It is only when discriminating thought no longer arises that Liberation can be attained. Let us imagine that someone slips while walking on a country road; while getting up he or she puts a hand in some dung. This person washes the dirty hand, and having done that, considers it clean. Had a handkerchief been used instead to wipe that hand clean, it would have been considered somewhat soiled even after many launderings; it might even be discarded. However, the hand cannot be discarded since it forms an essential part of ownerís body; one has no other alternative but to wash it carefully and then accept it as clean. The handkerchief is easily abandoned, however, and for that reason there is no need for the mind to hold on to the idea of soiled.
A female scholar named Lu Mei Sun once told me a story about a friend of hers, a lady who lived in a village. Once her friend went shopping in a nearby town, where she saw a pretty enamelware receptacle that she liked well enough to buy; she derived much pleasure from serving food in it. About six months later she invited several of her friends for a special meal and used her favorite vessel to serve it in. Her guests, however, were repelled by it, because they identified the vessel as a chamber pot. In spite of the fact that the pot was never used for anything else but food since the lady had brought it home brand new from the store, her friends were taken aback. Through this example, we can appreciate how the view of soiled and clean is totally grounded in the assumption that things have permanent and, therefore, independent existence.
Also, there is a certain soy condiment that is very popular, but most of those who consume it are not aware of the process used to make it. During its fermentation, the condiment harbors colonies of maggots; they are carefully removed prior to the productís being offered for sale. People enjoy the flavor but were they reminded, while eating it, that it was once populated by maggots, they might suddenly consider the condiment dirty and stop eating it. Clearly, the maggots feel perfectly at home in the midst of the decomposing material, and the question of dirty or clean does not arise; yet rotten or decomposing material suggests dirt and disgust to the minds of people.
Similarly, those who inhabit heavenly realms consider us, the earthlings, dirty; yet they, in turn, are deemed dirty by the Arhat, or Saint of the Theravadin tradition while he, the Arhat, is perceived as dirty by a Bodhisattva. Thus, the demarcation between pure and impure is far from clear. If your mind is impure, the world appears correspondingly impure, and vice versa. All these distinctions are arbitrary, yet people grasp them, clinging to their views as if they were carved in stone.
Finally, we are going to talk about increase and decrease. As it is to be expected, these two terms are, likewise, completely relative: There may be an increase in the decrease or a decrease in the increase. Let me give you an example. There are ninety days of summer. At present, thirty days of summer have already passed. We might say that hot weather has been increasing over the past thirty days, or we can put it differently by saying that the hot season has decreased by thirty days. An idiomatic saying puts it as follows: ìMonths and years have no feelings; they just decrease while they increase.î ìWhile the years increase, our life span decreasesî says the same thing, using different words. I am eighty-four years old. If I am to live till ninety, I have six more years; and if I live one more year after that, it means an increase, and yet it is also a moment to moment decrease in my life span. That is the meaning of an increase in the decrease and a decrease in the increase.
In a few words, there is neither birth nor death, neither impure nor pure, neither increase nor decrease: This is the wonderful doctrine of the Middle Way. However, most people twist their perception to fit their picture of how reality should be. Then there, indeed, is birth and death, impure and pure, increase and decrease, all being produced by the notion of ego and its concomitant craving. For that reason the Buddha taught about the True Nature of Reality: He pointed out that the notion of separate ego is an illusion, and he emphasized the necessity to eliminate craving if we want to bring the round of suffering to a halt.
The essential point in all this is that the skandhas are all empty at this very moment; since the Dharma of the Skandhas is central to the Buddhadharma, the rest of the Dharmas are equally empty. To reiterate once more, there is no birth and no death, neither pure nor impure, neither increase nor decrease. According to The Mahaprajna Paramita Sutra, Emptiness is the substance of all Dharmas.