This is what I heard one time when the Buddha was staying in the monastery in Anathapindika’s park in the Jeta Grove near Shravasti with a community of 1,250 bhikshus, fully ordained monks.
That day, when it was time to make the almsround, the Buddha put on his sanghati robe and, holding his bowl, went into the town of Shravasti to beg for alms, going from house to house. When the almsround was completed, he returned to the monastery to eat the midday meal. Then he put away his sanghati robe and his bowl, washed his feet, arranged his cushion, and sat down.
At that time, the Venerable Subhuti stood up, bared his right shoulder, put his knee on the ground, and, joining his palms respectfully, said to the Buddha, “World-Honored One, it is rare to find someone like you. You always support and place confidence in the Bodhisattvas.
“World-Honored One, if sons and daughters of good families want to give rise to the highest, most fulfilled, awakened mind, what should they rely on and what should they do to master their mind?”
The Buddha said to Subhuti, “The Bodhisattva Mahasattvas master their mind by meditating as follows: ‘However many species of living beings there are—whether born from eggs, from the womb, from moisture, or spontaneously; whether they have form or do not have form; whether they have perceptions or do not have perceptions; or whether it cannot be said of them that they have perceptions or that they do not have perceptions, we must lead all these beings to nirvana so that they can be liberated. Yet when this innumerable, immeasurable, infinite number of beings has become liberated, we do not, in truth, think that a single being has been liberated.’
“Why is this so? If, Subhuti, a bodhisattva still has the notion of a self, a person, a living being, or a life span exists, that person is not a true bodhisattva.
“Moreover, Subhuti, when bodhisattvas practice generosity, they do not rely on any object—any form, sound, smell, taste, touch, or object of mind to practice generosity. That, Subhuti, is the spirit in which bodhisattvas practice generosity, not relying on signs. Why? If bodhisattvas practice generosity without relying on signs, the happiness that results cannot be conceived of. Subhuti, do you think that the space in the Eastern Quarter can be conceived of or measured?”
“No, World-Honored One.”
“Subhuti, can space in the Western, Southern, or Northern Quarters, above or below be conceived of or measured?”
“No, World-Honored One.”
“Subhuti, if bodhisattvas do not rely on any concept while practicing generosity, the happiness that results from that virtuous act is like space. It cannot be conceived of or measured. Subhuti, the bodhisattvas should let their minds dwell in the teachings I have just given.
“What do you think, Subhuti? Is it possible to recognize the Tathagata by means of bodily signs?”
“No, World-Honored One. When the Tathagata speaks of bodily signs, there are no signs being talked about.”
The Buddha said to Subhuti, “In a place where there are signs, in that place there is deception. If you can see the signless nature of signs, you can see the Tathagata.”
The Venerable Subhuti said to the Buddha, “In times to come, will there be people who, when they hear these teachings, have real faith in them?”
The Buddha replied, “Do not speak that way, Subhuti. Five hundred years after the Tathagata has passed away, there will still be people who appreciate the joy and happiness that come from observing the precepts. When such people hear these words, they will have faith that this is the truth. Know that such people have sown wholesome seeds not only during the lifetime of one Buddha, or even two, three, four, or five Buddhas, but have, in fact, planted wholesome seeds during the lifetimes of tens of thousands of Buddhas. Anyone who, for even a moment, gives rise to a pure and clear confidence upon hearing these words of the Tathagata, the Tathagata sees and knows that person, and they will attain immeasurable merit because of this understanding. Why?
“Because that person is not caught in the idea of a self, a person, a living being, or a life span. They are not caught in the idea of the Dharma or the non-Dharma; a sign or no-sign. Why? If you are caught in the idea of the Dharma, you are also caught in the ideas of a self, a person, a living being, and a life span. If you are caught in the idea that there is no Dharma, you are still caught in the ideas of a self, a person, a living being, and a life span. That is why you should not get caught in the idea that this is the Dharma or that is not the Dharma. This is the hidden meaning when the Tathagata says, ‘Bhikshus, you should know that the Dharma that I teach is like a raft.’ You should let go of the Dharma, let alone what is not the Dharma.”
The Buddha asked Subhuti, “In ancient times when the Tathagata practiced under the guidance of the Buddha Dipankara, did the Tathagata attain anything?”
Subhuti answered, “No, World-Honored One. In ancient times when the Tathagata practiced under the guidance of the Buddha Dipankara, he did not attain anything.”
“What do you think, Subhuti? Does a bodhisattva adorn a Buddha Field?”
“No, World-Honored One. Why? To adorn a Buddha Field is not in fact to adorn a Buddha Field. That is why it is called adorning a Buddha Field.”
The Buddha said, “So, Subhuti, all the Bodhisattva Mahasattvas should give rise to a pure and clear mind in this spirit. When they give rise to this mind, they should not rely on form, sound, smell, taste, touch, or object of mind. They should give rise to an intention with their minds not dwelling anywhere.”
“So, Subhuti, when bodhisattvas give rise to the unequaled mind of awakening, they should let go of all ideas. They should not rely on form when they give rise to that mind, nor on sound, smell, taste, touch, or object of mind. They should only give rise to the mind that is not dwelling anywhere.
“The Tathagata has said that all notions are not notions and that all living beings are not living beings. Subhuti, the Tathagata is one who speaks of things as they are, speaks what is true, and speaks in accord with reality. He does not speak falsely. He only speaks in this way. Subhuti, if we say that the Tathagata has realized a teaching, that teaching is neither true nor false.
“Subhuti, bodhisattvas who still depend on notions to practice generosity are like someone walking in the dark. They do not see anything. But when bodhisattvas do not depend on any object of mind to practice generosity, they are like someone with good eyesight walking under the light of the sun. They can see all shapes and colors.
“Subhuti, do not say that the Tathagata has the idea, ‘I will bring living beings to the shore of liberation.’ Do not think that way, Subhuti. Why? In truth there is no living being for the Tathagata to bring to the other shore. If the Tathagata were to think there was, he would be caught in the idea of a self, a person, a living being, or a life span. Subhuti, what the Tathagata calls a self essentially is not a self in the way that ordinary people say there is a self. Subhuti, the Tathagata does not consider those ordinary people as ordinary people. That is why he can call them ordinary people.
“What do you think, Subhuti? Can someone visualize the Tathagata by means of the thirty-two marks?”
Subhuti said, “Yes, World-Honored One. We should use the thirty-two marks to visualize the Tathagata.”
The Buddha said, “If you say that you can use the thirty-two marks to visualize the Tathagata, then is the Cakravartin also a Tathagata?”
Subhuti said, “World-Honored One, I understand your teaching. One should not use the thirty-two marks to visualize the Tathagata.”
Then the World-Honored One spoke this verse:
“Someone who looks for me in form
or seeks me in sound
is on a mistaken path
and cannot see the Tathagata.”
“Subhuti, if you think that the Tathagata realizes the highest, most fulfilled, awakened mind and does not need to use all the signs, you are wrong. Subhuti, do not think in that way. Do not think that when one gives rise to the highest, most fulfilled, awakened mind, one needs to see all objects of mind as nonexistent, cut off from life. Do not think in that way. One who gives rise to the highest, most fulfilled, awakened mind does not say that all objects of mind are nonexistent and cut off from life.”
After they heard the Lord Buddha deliver this discourse, the Venerable Subhuti, the bhikshus and bhikshunis, laymen and laywomen, and gods and asuras, filled with joy and confidence, began to put these teachings into practice.
Translated by Thich Nhat Hanh from the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (in Sanskrit), and the Chinese Taishō Revised Tripitaka, No. 235.