White Wind Zen Community

A Community practising and teaching Dogen’s Zen since 1985

Makahannyaharamitsu: Vast Perfect Knowing

by Eihei Dogen zenji

translated by Ven. Anzan Hoshin roshi

and Yasuda Joshu Dainen roshi


The moment of Avalokitesvara's1 practice of vast and perfect knowing is the clear seeing with the whole body that the five aggregates2 are all empty. Existence is the forming of the five aggregates of form, basic reactivity, symbolization, habitual patterning, and consciousness. These are five aspects of perfect knowing because clearly seeing these is perfect knowing.

If you understand this, then you can understand the teaching that "form is emptiness, emptiness is only form"3 Form is form. Emptiness is emptiness. It is the hundred grasses, it is all forms.

Perfect knowing is sometimes analyzed into the twelve spheres:4 eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; form, sound, smell, taste, touch, mental objects. Or even into eighteen which would be these twelve and also the visual consciousness, the auditory, the olfactory, gustatory, kinaesthetic and mental. Fourfold perfect knowing would be: contraction,5 its cause, its ending, and the way to end it. Sixfold perfect knowing would be: generosity, integrity, flexibility, energy, practice and knowing. Single perfect knowing presents itself directly as the immediate present and this is completely and utterly Awake.6 Threefold perfect knowing is past, present and future. Another kind of sixfold knowing is earth, water, fire, air, space and mind. The fourfold activity of perfect knowing is called walking, standing, sitting and lying down.

In the community of Sakyamuni the Awakened One there was a monk who thought to himself, "I praise and offer respect to the most profound perfect knowing. It has no arising or ceasing yet it expresses itself as the five aspects: precepts, meditation, wisdom, liberation, and the insight and knowledge that leads to liberation. There are also the four stages of stream-entry, once-returner, non-returner and of the saint.7There are further the paths of isolated and conditional enlightenment and the path of enlightening all beings.8 There are also the Three Jewels of the Awakened One, the Teachings, and the Community of Practitioners, the turning of the Wheel of the Teachings and the vow of liberating all beings."

Sakyamuni realized the monk's thought and so said to him, "Thus it is, thus it is. Yet still this profound and subtle perfect knowing can never be measured."9

As for this monk's "thought", when all phenomena are "respected", perfect knowing actualizes itself beyond "arising and ceasing" as this "praise". This shows itself as precepts, practice, wisdom and so on right up to the vow to liberate all beings. This is called Mu or "Open Space". This "Open Space" shows itself like this. This is the most profound and subtle perfect knowing, beyond measure.

Once Indra, the king of the shining ones10 asked Venerable Subhuti, "O Worthy One, if those who are grounded in Openness and Vastness11 wish to learn this profound perfect knowing, how should it be done?"

Subhuti answered, "If those who are grounded in Openness and Vastness wish to learn perfect knowing, they should learn it to be as space."

So the study of perfect knowing is space,12 and space is perfect knowing.

Indra then asked the Awakened One, "O Generous One,13 if men and women devoted to the Teaching of Reality should receive and maintain this most profound perfect knowing that you have taught, and should they repeat it, contemplate it and proclaim it, how should I offer protection?"

Subhuti asked Indra, "What is there to protect?"

Indra said, "O Worthy One, I can find no thing to protect."

Subhuti then said, "If men and women live according to this teaching of perfect knowing and do not stray from it, this is the protection. Men and women who abide in this teaching of perfect knowing are beyond harm from humans and nonhumans. If you want to protect these Wakeful ones14 who dwell in the teaching of perfect knowing, this is like wanting to embrace space."15

We should know that receiving, holding, chanting the Discourses16 and knowing them are themselves protecting and preserving wisdom. Protecting is this receiving, holding, chanting.

My late Master Rujing once said:

"The whole body is a mouth, hung in space.
It doesn't matter from where the wind blows
-- north, south, east, west --
the windbell always speaks of perfect knowing:
-- rin! rin! rin!"

This is the sound of perfect knowing in the Transmission of the Lineage of Awakened Ones and Ancestors. It is the knowing of the whole body, the whole knowing of other, the whole knowing of self, the whole knowing of north, south, east, west.

Sakyamuni the Awakened One said, "Sariputra, all beings should abide in this perfect knowing as have all the Awakened Ones. They should make offerings, praise and contemplate perfect knowing just as they would make offerings, praise and contemplate the Awakened One, the Generous One. Why? Because perfect knowing is not different from the Awakened One, the Generous One; the Awakened One, the Generous One, is not different from perfect knowing. Perfect knowing is Awakened One, Awakened One is perfect knowing. Why? Because all Those Who Have Come Thus, worthy ones, Completely Awakened Ones17 arise due to their realization of perfect knowing. It is because all those grounded in Vast Openness, those who have realized states of conditional freedom, saints, non-returners, once-returners and so on arise due to perfect knowing.

"It is because all of the ten wholesome activities,18 the four concentrations,19 the four formless harmonizations20 and the five powers of the shining beings21 all arise from perfect knowing."

Thus the Awakened One, the Generous One, is nothing other than perfect knowing. Perfect knowing is all things. "All things" are the forms of emptiness: no arising, no falling, no purity or impurity, no increasing and no decreasing. Manifesting perfect knowing is manifesting the Awakened One. You should question into this, investigate it, honour and proclaim it. Meeting the Awakened One, one attends to him and serves; attending and serving is to meet the Awakened One.

This was presented to the monks at Kannon-dori-in during the summer training period22 of 1233 and transcribed by Ejo in the head monk's quarters on March 21, 1244 at Kippo-ji in Fukui prefecture.

  • 1. Kanzeon (Japanese). A figure from the traditional Mahayana sutras representing compassion as the responsive activity of clear understanding of the nature of experience.
  • 2. Skandhas.
  • 3. .The pivotal line from the Prajnaparamita Hridaya sutra.
  • 4. Ayatana.
  • 5. Dukkha. From the roots "jur" and "kha," meaning literally "a blockage in the space of an axle hole" or "bad" and "space." A bad space is of course one which is obstructed. The space of experience becomes obstructed through the appearance of subjectification and objectifications through contracting around experiences.
  • 6. Anuttara samyak sambodhi.
  • 7. Sotapanna, sakadagamin, anagamin, sravaka.
  • 8. Prateykabuddhayana and bodhisattvayana.
  • 9. Maha Prajnaparamita sutra, 291.
  • 10. Devas. Beings of refined levels of experience who are interpreted by humans as forms of light.
  • 11. Bodhisattva mahasattvas.
  • 12. Koku.
  • 13. Bhagavat. This epithet is usually translated as "World Honoured One" or "Lord" but the ancient Sanskrit and Pali roots of the term reveal a much more interesting meaning. One was considered to be honoured or renowned because one was the leader of a pack of warriors who looted and pillaged. As the leader was tougher than anyone else, he was the one who decided who got what when it became time to share out the booty. Thus, he was obseqiously called the "generous one." An Awakened One has explored the depths of experiencing and from this shares forth the Teachings that allow others to realize their own natures and to actualize liberation from confusion about Reality. Thus, "Generous One" is a far more appropriate and accurate translation.
  • 14. Bodhisattvas.
  • 15. Maha Prajnaparamita sutra, 291.
  • 16. Sutras.
  • 17. Tathagatas, arhats, samyak-sam-buddhas.
  • 18. Keeping the Ten Grave Precepts.
  • 19. Deep concentration states which purify the mind but result only in dwelling in this conditional state of purity.
  • 20. Unlimited emptiness, unlimited consciousness, emptiness beyond consciousness, pure non-conceptual emptiness.
  • 21. Jinzu, abhijna. Miraculous seeing and hearing, clairvoyance, remembrance of all past existences and great activities.
  • 22. Ango.