Saturday, February 13, 2021

Correspondence with Liu Yimin - Sengzhao - 085


Correspondence with Liu Yimin - Sengzhao

(From the Translator’s Introduction:
The Text: … “Sengzhao composed his first essay, translated in the present volume as “Prajñā without Knowing,” around 405, following on Kumārajīva’s retranslation, in 403–404, of the the Larger Prajñāpāramitā-sūtra. In this essay Sengzhao attempts to distinguish from ordinary knowledge the special mode of cognition that is unique to the sage. In the introductory passage Sengzhao praises the king’s patronage of Buddhism as well as the genius of Kumārajīva, and announces the essay’s topic: wisdom (prajñā) that knows everything without being limited to the cognizance of individual things. A longer section follows in which this theme is developed over a series of nine objections from a fictitious opponent with nine responses by Sengzhao.

This essay was taken south to Huiyuan’s community at Lushan by Daosheng (408), where it was read by many, including the literatus and lay devotee Liu Yimin, as well as the scholar-monk Huiyuan. In response Liu wrote a lengthy letter to Sengzhao; this letter, along with Sengzhao’s subsequent reply (circa 410), forms the “Correspondence with Liu Yimin” translated in this volume. The polite greetings that open both letters contain valuable information about the history of this period. In the main part of the essay Liu expresses his own and Huiyuan’s doubts about the coherence of Sengzhao’s portrayal of the “sagely mind” as at once all-knowing yet being altogether without knowledge. .”)

Liu’s Letter


From Yimin, with obeisance.

I have longed to meet you, sir, since I first tasted of your exquisite renown. How is your health now that at year’s end the winter frost has arrived? With communication severed I grow ever more concerned about your well-being. Here, the humid countryside has taken away my health; illness is my constant Companion. 71

Monk Huiming is setting off to the north, and so I have an opportunity to write you at length.

People of old never allowed mere physical distance to weaken their friendships; shared understanding always kept them close. Likewise, though we 

have never met, with endless rivers and vast mountain ranges between us, I have always cherished the edifying breeze of your virtue, and with your images and traces reflected in the mirror of my mind deep joy gathers up within me. Yet great distances still separate us and the conditions for us to meet never ripen. I gaze at the rosy-colored clouds and sigh in longing.

Please take good care of yourself, in accordance with the seasons. I hope that travel may resume promptly so that I can write you more often. In the meantime I pray that your congregation thrives in harmony and that the foreign master is well.

Your insight and expert analysis, sir, fill this reservoir of wisdom; your exegesis allows one, in the words of the classic, “to bring the understanding past the midway point.” Every time I reflect on the distances between us, my longing is all the more acute.

The mountain monks are pure and resolute in their practice. Single-minded in upholding the precepts, in addition to secluded meditation they devote themselves entirely to study and lecture. It brings me great joy to see them so faithful and dignified. I, too, guided by the promptings of my former lives, have come along this noble path. For this I shall remain grateful as long as the sun and moon circle the skies.

Master Huiyuan is well. 72 Ever refining his spiritual practice, he is “diligent night and day.” 73 Were it not for the deep undercurrent of the Dao coursing through him, and for the fact that his spirit is driven by the Principle, could he, at the advanced age of sixty, still possess a spirit so vast and indomitable? My gratitude to him deepens as I find here more and more peace and fulfillment.

It was at the end of last summer that Master Daosheng 74 introduced to me your essay, “Prajñā without Knowing.” It shows refined beauty of expression, profound points of doctrine, as well as subtlety and acuity in the explication of sagely writings. I savored it, captivated, unable to put it down. Truly you have bathed your mind in the ocean of the universal teachings [of the Mahayana] and have attained insight into the hall of transcendent darkness. Whoever uses [your essay] as a guide to understanding will witness the diverse currents of prajñā converge in wordless unity. What joy!

Now, words may become treacherous when applied to so subtle a principle; few will respond to a song that is so unlike any other. One who has not transcended words and images will inevitably cling to them and end up in error.

[Statement of Topic]

Your analysis of wisdom in terms of its conditions is exquisite, conclusive, superbly refined; its reasoning is without a single fissure. Yet, dull-witted as I am, I have difficulty comprehending it all at once and a handful of doubts still remain for me. I would like to lay them out for you, in the hope that you may respond at your leisure with a rough explanation.

In your essay you say that prajñā is in essence “neither existent nor nonexistent, neither full nor vacuous. Though vacuous, it never ceases to illuminate; illuminating, it does not lose its vacuity. . . . [In the Radiance] it is said, ‘Unmoved in perfect awakening, he establishes all dharmas.’” Further, you assert, “Indeed, it is just that on account of what distinguishes [the sage] from a common person—his spiritual perspicacity—he is not defined by marks of conditioned events.” You also say that the functioning of the sagely mind “is one with its stillness, its stillness is one with its functioning . . . the quieter the spirit, the swifter its response.”

[You argue then that] the mind of the sage is quiescent, yet it reaches to the apex of Principle, which is one with nonbeing. 75 It is “swift without swiftness, slow without slowness.” 76 Its knowing does not conflict with its stillness; its stillness does not oppose its knowing. Never is its stillness lost; never does its knowing cease. Thus, the pattern of the sage’s engaging with things, accomplishing his acts and transforming the world, is such that he remains within the realm of the nameable, all the while transcending it immensely, united with the nameless.

This mysterious doctrine, I confess, continues to elude me.


Presently I should like to address these doubts regarding your outstanding essay. Specifically, I would like to inquire what it is precisely that makes the sagely mind different [from the mind of the ordinary person].

Does this difference consist in the sage’s thorough mastery of numen and his complete activation of the operations of mind, in wondrous comprehension and dark tallying? Or, rather, does it consist in the sagely mind being essentially self-so, self-enclosed, and self-sufficient, numinously silent in solitary self-apprehension?

If it is the former case, then the terms “stillness” and “illumination” [with which you describe the sage] must be equivalent to “concentration” and “wisdom.” If the latter is the case, the sagely mind has by and large ceased responding to conditions. 77

You say, however, that even though the mind’s activities are obscured by the darkness of mystery, it remains extraordinarily active in its illuminating; and that even though the spirit dwells unsullied beyond the world of transformations, it shines the light of discernment with an unparalleled brilliance. To argue such a thesis you must have recourse to a deep realization indeed.

In my view, a knowledge that perceives change, responds to occasions, and accords with and responds to beings cannot be considered “nonexistent.” You write that the sagely mind is “fundamentally free” from falsely discriminating knowledge, but you do not demonstrate how the sagely mind can be without discrimination.

It may be advisable to first determine how exactly the sagely mind accords with and responds to things. Is it that it illuminates the markless alone? Or is it that it completely discerns the marked in all its transformations?

If it perceives [nothing but the marked in] its transformations, then this differs from [a perception of] the markless. If it illuminates the markless and only the markless, it must be powerless to respond to conditions. You say that there is no phenomenon to which it reaches out, and at the same time that it has the power of according with beings. I do not fully understand this and I beg you to elucidate further.

You write that “though there is in [the sagely mind] no corresponding, there is nothing with which it does not correspond; though there is in it no affirmation, it leaves nothing unaffirmed. That it leaves nothing unaffirmed means that it affirms while not affirming; that there is nothing with which it does not correspond means that it corresponds while not corresponding.” Now, that there are no things with which it does not correspond, even while it does not correspond: this is perfect corresponding. That there are no things it does not affirm, even as it does not affirm: this is ultimate affirmation.

But how could there be an ultimate affirmation that would at the same time not be affirmation at all, or a perfect corresponding that would at the same time not be a corresponding, such that it would allow you to speak of “corresponding without corresponding” and “affirming without affirming”?

If what you mean is simply that perfect corresponding is not ordinary corresponding and that ultimate affirmation is not ordinary affirmation, then your words are just a way of referring to the fundamental distinction between insight and delusion, nothing more.

This is the point of your essay that I do not understand. I beg you to explain it once again and dispel my doubts.

The day your essay arrived, Master Huiyuan and I wasted no time in examining it closely. The Dharma master admired it just as I did. You and us lead each other in the pursuit of truth. It is just that our reasoning seems to be based on different principles, and so our understanding may not be identical to yours. Afterward your work was circulated among the community, and many pondered its crucial points. We only regret you cannot be with us now.

Response to Liu Yimin


“Never have we met” 78 and long have I yearned for an encounter—in vain. When Monk Huiming arrived, he gave me your letter dated the twelfth month of last year, including your inquiry. As I savored its words, reading it repeatedly, in my enjoyment of it I felt as though, if only ever so briefly, you were present here in front of me.

The season of cold winds has arrived; how has your health been since you wrote? As for me, poor in virtue as I am, I have been struggling with exhaustion and have rarely been well.

The messenger makes ready for his journey back south, so I must be brief.

 Fifteenth day of the eighth month. Sengzhao.

Though our garb differs, we are one in our pursuit of the wondrous truth. Separated by vast rivers and mountains, we are neighbors in a shared understanding. Thus, as I gaze off into the southbound road and my thoughts fly off toward you, a sense of homecoming fills the emptiness under my lapels.

Sir, you have now fulfilled your aspiration for noble solitude, beautifully transcending the mundane, and you dwell in secluded tranquility beyond the realm of worldly affairs; the square inch of your heart 79 is surely filled with joy. “Whenever you gather for debate”80 we hear refined song not unlike that of the Bamboo Grove, 81 lofty as it is effortless.

You who are so pure and free, I do not know when at last we will meet! I only wish that you will take good care of your health, and that I may receive news from you whenever there is a messenger. I also hope that the monks on Lushan are in good health, and that the clergy and householders prosper in harmony.

News of Master Huiyuan’s well-being comforted me greatly. While I have yet to receive his pure tutelage, I have long revered his superior virtue and hoped eagerly to meet him. How wonderful that the noble Huiyuan, though now over sixty, is still so full of vigor, as he guides his disciples on secluded cliffs and gives himself to contemplation, guarding the One in the empty valley, 82 while praises of his virtue are heard far and near. Often I extend my thoughts toward his corner of the earth, but they vanish on the hazy horizon. Unable to pay him my respects directly, I sigh deeply with regret.

But you, sir, are always in his pure presence. Your insight thus deepening, you must be brimming with elation!

[Situation in Chang’an]

The community here is as usual. Master Kumārajīva is in good health. The Qin king is a natural conduit for the Dao, endowed by Heaven with extraordinary faculties. He is like a wall and moat guarding the Three Jewels, his mind set on propagating the Dao.

This has attracted monks of great renown, specialists in the wonderful scriptures, to come here from afar, and the edifying winds of Vulture Peak have been gathering force in this country.

The noble Ling’s 83 far-off journey will be a ferry for a thousand generations to come: he brought back from the Western Regions more than two hundred new texts of the universal [Mahayana] teaching.The king also invited a master of Mahayana meditation, a master of the Tripiṭaka, and two masters of the Vibhāṣā. 84

Master Kumārajīva is translating the newly acquired scriptures in Large Stone Temple. This treasury of the Dharma is deep and vast and daily yields new wonders. The dhyāna master 85 teaches meditation at Tilers’ Temple, surrounded by hundreds of disciples, who exert themselves tirelessly day and night in dignified harmony. This delights me greatly.

The master of the Tripiṭaka86 is translating the Rules of Discipline in the Middle Monastery. His text is meticulous yet comprehensive, just as if it was the original text when first compiled.

The masters of the Vibhāṣā are working in Stone Ram Monastery on the Indian text of the Śāriputra-abhidharma. 87 Though they have not yet begun with the translation itself, whenever I inquire about their proceedings I hear new and remarkable things.

The greatest fortune in my insignificant life has been to take part in this splendid occasion, to encounter this magnificent transformative event. Regret, as I may, that I was not there in the Buddha’s Jetavana assembly, my only other sorrow is that you, O sir of virtue and renown, cannot join us here in the present Dharma gathering.

Venerable [Dao]sheng was here with us for a number of years. Whenever we spoke he expressed deep admiration for you. Abruptly, he had to return south where you, sir, met him. I myself have not heard from him since, and this fills me with unspeakable worry.

When Monk Wei came from Mount Lu (Lushan), he brought with him your poems “In Praise of the Buddha-recollection Samādhi” along with Dharma master Huiyuan’s own “In Praise of Samādhi” with preface. In both content and form these compositions are exquisite; anyone with a taste for refined writing will recognize their beauty. So sings one who entered the door of sagacity, who knocked on the gate of mysteries. You, sir, and the master must have composed other writings. Why send so few?


In the year Wu (406 C.E.) Master Kumārajīva translated the Teaching ofVimalakīrti. I listened with deference to the translation proceedings, and in between sessions I wrote down all of the master’s definitive explanations and compiled them into a commentary. Though its form is far from refined, its content rests firmly on the master’s authority. I will have the messenger take a copy to the south, in hope that you, sir, may peruse it at your leisure.

The questions you send me are subtle and penetrating, and I feel like that man from Ying, perplexed and humbled. 88 Now, my thoughts are not at all sophisticated and I am clumsy with the brush; moreover, the ultimate realm is beyond words, and any attempt to express it must fail. Endless, endless, is the flow of words, and in the end nothing is asserted. Nevertheless, I shall venture a reply to your letter in these, my untamed words.

[Answer]: [Part 1]

In your letter you quoted me, “The mind of the sage is quiescent, yet it reaches to the apex of Principle, which is one with nonbeing.” You say that I assert that [although the sage] remains within the realm of the nameable, he nevertheless far transcends it, united with the nameless. And you added, “This mysterious doctrine, I confess, continues to elude me.”

Now, to see things in this manner you must forget words and have inner realization, you must attain concentration in the square inch of the heart: the “uniqueness” of the sagely mind can never be understood in terms of any “uniqueness” that an ordinary person can reach.

You also wrote [that if the sage’s “uniqueness” consists in his] “thorough mastery of numen and his complete activation of the operations of mind, in wondrous comprehension and dark tallying, . . . then the terms ‘stillness’ and ‘illumination’[with which you describe the sage] must be equivalent to ‘concentration’ and ‘wisdom.’” Conversely, if it means that the sagely mind is “essentially self-so, self-enclosed, and self-sufficient, numinously silent in its solitary self-apprehension,” then it “has by and large ceased responding to conditions.” 89

To this I reply, “wondrous comprehension and dark tallying” is not equivalent to “concentration and wisdom,” nor is “still numinosity in quiescent self-apprehension” tantamount to the “ceasing of the power of response.” The descriptions differ, but the wondrous function is always one. Where word-traces follow from the self, incongruence ensues, but in the sage there is no discrepancy.

Let me explain. “The mind of the sage illumines silently, yet it reaches to the apex of Principle, which is one with nonbeing.” Now, in that unity all things converge: once it is asserted that the sage has attained this apex-asone-with-nonbeing, why distinguish between “concentration” and “insight”?

For do the terms “concentration” and “wisdom” not fall outside this unity? If these appellations were to emerge within the unity, their very presence would compromise the unity. But since they emerge outside of it, they have no bearing at all on the [sagely] self.

Furthermore, although the sagely mind is vacuous and sublime, it wondrously transcends all limited objects, responds to all stimuli, penetrates all that it encounters, its arcane mechanism operating mysteriously, its responsiveness inexhaustible—surely it cannot be said to have ceased responding to conditions.

Now, as for mind’s “being”: though one may substantialize being as being, being is not being in and of itself. Thus the sagely mind does not substantialize being. Since it does not substantialize being, [for the sage] being is without being. Since being is without being, it is also without nonbeing. Since it is also without nonbeing, there is for the sage neither “being” nor “nonbeing.” With neither being nor nonbeing, his spirit is vacuous.

How is this so? Being and nonbeing are but the mind’s shadow and echo. Words and images are but mental objects produced by contact with these shadows and echoes. When being and nonbeing are discarded, the mind’s shadows and echoes are no more. When shadows and echoes cease, words and symbols are nowhere to be found. When words and symbols are nowhere to be found, one will have transcended the world of limited things. When one has transcended, then, and only then, will one have attained “thorough mastery of numen and ultimate activation of the operations of mind.” This is what I call “wondrous comprehension.”

This “wondrous comprehension” rests on “the supportless.” The “supportless” is in quiescence; when quiescence is attained, vacuity permeates all. “Wondrous comprehension” is in reaching the apex of things; when the apex is reached, each thing is responded to. When each thing is responded to, [the sage] accords with each and every event. When vacuity permeates all, his Dao transcends the realm of the nameable. It is because it transcends the realm of the nameable that I call it “nonexistent,” and because it accords with each and every event that I call it “existent.” To thus call it “existent” may seem to imply substantial existence, but this is just forcing a name on it. Could it really be thus?

It is said in a sutra, “Sagely wisdom is without knowing, yet there is nothing it does not know; it is without purposeful activity, yet there is nothing it leaves undone.” 90

This wordless, markless Dao of quiescent cessation: can it be spoken of in terms of “being” as being or “nonbeing” as nonbeing, “motion” as opposed to “stillness” or “stillness” that nullifies function?

Yet today those who discuss it look to immobilize it in words—they seek corners in the Great Square, 91 they force erudition on mystery and cling to their preconceptions as though they were the final truth. Thus, when they hear that “the sage knows” they think that the sagely mind is a deliberate one; when they hear that the sagely mind “has no knowledge” they imagine it as a vast hollow space. Such assertions of either being or nonbeing are the abode of one-sided views; surely they are not the middle path of nonduality.

There is more. Even though things are individually unique, their nature is always fundamentally one: neither can they be seen as things, nor can their thingness be denied. When things are substantialized as things, names and marks arise in profusion. When thingness is not imputed to things, each is identical with the ultimate.

The sage does not impute thingness to things, nor does he deny the thingness of things. Since he does not impute thingness to things, for him things do not exist. Since neither does he deny the thingness of things, for him things do not nonexist. Since they do not exist, he does not cling to them; since they do not nonexist, he does not reject them.

Since he does not reject them, things wondrously abide as one with the ultimate. Since he does not grasp them, names and forms no longer bring each other about. When there are no more names and forms, he cannot be said to have knowledge. When things wondrously abide as one with the ultimate, he cannot be said to be without knowing. A sutra speaks of this, “As for prajñā and the dharmas: [the sagely mind] does not grasp them, nor does it reject them; it has no knowledge, nor is it without knowledge.” 92 This is a realm beyond the cognition of objects, beyond the deliberate mind. Is it thus not preposterous to try to confine it to either “being” or “nonbeing”?

Allow me to speak now of this “being and nonbeing.” [Ordinary] wisdom arises completely within the realm of marks. Since dharmas are fundamentally markless, how could sagely wisdom be considered [mere] knowledge?

Yet when people speak of “not knowing,” they mean an insentient state, like that of a piece of wood, a rock, or a mere hollow space. Can this “not knowing” accurately describe that numinous mirror, that candle in the dark, that which was shaped before the beginning and from which nothing, however miniscule, can hide?

Now, not knowing arises in relation to knowing; neither not knowing nor knowing can be asserted [of the sagely mind]. 93 Because there is in it no knowing, I speak of it as “not being”; because there is in it no not knowing, I call it “not nonbeing.”

Thus, even though vacuous, the sagely mind never ceases to illuminate; illuminating, it does not lose its vacuity. Nebulous, unperturbedly still, it is perfectly free from grasping and attachment. How could one claim that when active it is “existent” and when still it is “nonexistent”?

Thus it is said in a sutra, “Ultimate prajñā is neither being nor nonbeing, there is in it neither arising nor perishing; it cannot be communicated in words.” 94

Allow me to explain further. When I say it is not “being,” I merely reject assertions of it as being—I do not affirm it as nonbeing. When I say it is not nonbeing, I merely reject assertions of it as nonbeing—I do not affirm it as not-nonbeing. It is neither existent, nor nonexistent; neither nonexistent, nor not nonexistent.

This explains why while Subhūti discoursed on prajñā incessantly, he claimed never to have said anything. How could one ever communicate this Dao beyond all words?

I wish that you, sir, attuned as you are to sublime things, will understand it.

[Part 2]

You also said, “It may be advisable to first determine how exactly the sagely mind accords with and responds to things. Is it that it illuminates the markless alone? Or is it that it completely discerns the marked in all its transformations?”

It seems that you assume that “the markless” and “transformations” refer to separate entities. You see “discernment of transformations” as distinct from the “markless,” and “illumination of the markless” as at odds with reaching out to and responding to events. I fear that this obfuscates the truth of “identity [of emptiness] with the ultimate.”

It is said in a sutra, “Form is not different from emptiness; emptiness is not different from form; form is identical with emptiness, emptiness is identical with form.” 95

If what you wrote in your letter was true, then when apprehending form and emptiness, one would have to see form with one mind and emptiness with another. Viewing form with one mind, one would see only form as not emptiness. Viewing emptiness with one mind, one would see only emptiness as not form. As a result, emptiness and form would be torn asunder and their common root would remain beyond reach.

Thus when the sutras speak of “not form,” they attribute non-formness to form itself, not merely to that which is already not form. Were they merely attributing non-formness to that which is already not form, this would be like asserting that a vast hollow is in fact vast and hollow: doing so would not advance our understanding. Since, however, they assign non-formness to form itself, they mean that form is not other than non-form, and saying that form is not other than non-form is saying that form and non-form are one and the same.

Thus we know that transformations are one with the markless, and the markless is one with transformations. Yet, this is not the common person’s perception of things—thus the conflicting doctrines.

If one were to examine closely the abstruse scriptures and rest one’s understanding on the original intent of the Sage, could one still insist that the ultimate and the relative require two separate minds, and that emptiness and being need different illuminations?

Thus as [the sagely mind] illuminates the markless, its power of reaching out to and according with phenomena does not diminish. As it observes the changing, it does not violate the principle of marklessness. When it encounters being, it does not contrast it with nonbeing. When it encounters nonbeing, it does not contrast it with being. Therefore it is said, “Unmoved in perfect awakening, he establishes all dharmas.” 96

It follows that stillness and function do not obstruct each other. How could one claim that there is a discrepancy between change-perceiving knowledge and markless illumination? You argue, heedlessly I fear, that emptiness and being require two minds, and that stillness and agitation involve disparate functions, which leads you to assert that change-perceiving knowledge cannot be described as “not being.”

However, if only you could give up your self-attachment within the realm of things and find the dark mechanism beyond the realm of conditioned events; if you could equalize all existents in one moment of vacuity and understand that this perfect vacuity is not [mere] nonbeing, then you would say that while the Perfected Person never ceases to accord with and respond to things, to move in harmony with them, to ride their movements in accord with their transformations, such a person is never confined to being.

The sagely mind being like this, could there be in it any discrimination? Yet you claim that I “do not demonstrate how it is that the sagely mind is without discrimination.”

You also say that the sagely mind “does not correspond: this is perfect corresponding. That there are no things it does not affirm: . . . this is ultimate affirmation.” These words are quite apt. If you could only affirm without a deliberate mind, and thus affirm in non-affirming; if you could only correspond with things without a deliberate mind, and thus correspond in noncorresponding! Then you would be able to affirm inexhaustibly while not obstructing non-affirmation, and to correspond inexhaustibly without compromising noncorresponding.

But beware of bringing substantial affirmation to non-affirmation, and substantial corresponding to noncorresponding—this is the road to calamity. 97 Why? If your “ultimate affirmation” can affirm [in this way], and if your “ultimate corresponding” can correspond [in this way], names and marks will take shape, distinctions will arise between the beautiful and the ugly, and you will have to struggle through the cycle of rebirth, life after life, without end. 98

Thus the sage empties his breast and rids himself of discernment and knowing. He resides in the domain of movement and function, yet rests in the realm of non-action. He establishes himself within the nameable, yet dwells in the village beyond words. Quiescent, vacuous, he cannot be captured in shapes or names. Such is the sage.

To say that ultimate affirmation can be affirmed and that ultimate corresponding can be corresponded with is to show a lack of comprehension of the noble purport. I fear that while such “affirmation” and “corresponding” may apply to things, it certainly does not apply to the [sagely mind itself]. How could it?

[Concluding Comment]

When word-traces proliferate, conflicting doctrines thrive. But there is something that words cannot express, and something that traces cannot trace. Therefore, those who are skilled at speaking word seek that which words cannot express. Those skilled at tracing traces seek that which traces cannot trace.

The highest principle is vacuous and mysterious. The moment you try to represent it in the mind you will have missed the target. How much more so when you attempt to express it in words! It will then, I fear, recede even further into the distance.

I hope, O seeker of the truth, that we shall one day meet beyond words.








Titre 3




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