Formlessness in early and later Buddhism.

My friends and I enjoy many styles of Buddhism. Having fallen from one tree, all the fruits taste exactly the same.

We don’t worry too much about which of the fruits we choose too eat! When they fall from that one tree, they are all the same fruit. Having discerned, ‘this fruit has fallen from this tree’, we collect, eat, and share.

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Diamond Pali

Now, having let you in on this secret of fruits and trees, I want to show you a place where two different Buddhist traditions (branches of the Buddhist tree) bare the same fruit.

We are told about the benefits of developing a mind without foundation in the Diamond Sutra, a Prajnaparamita text (this idea comes up many places in that Perfection of Wisdom tradition), and we are also told the same thing in various places throughout the Pali canon.

So, let’s take a look at this connection.

Here, at the beginning of the Samyutta Nikaya (S.I.1), the author of the Selfless Mind, Peter Harvey, translates:

When I, friend, am supported, then I sink down;
When I strive, then I am whirled about;
Thus, friend, without support, unstriving, I crossed the flood.

And, in the Diamond Sutra, we read:

“Therefore, Subhuti, disciples should leave behind all distinctions of phenomena and awaken the thought of the attainment of Supreme Enlightenment. A disciple should do this by not allowing their mind to depend upon ideas evoked by the world of the senses – by not allowing their mind to depend upon ideas stirred by sounds, odors, flavors, sensory touch, or any other qualities. The disciple’s mind should be kept independent of any thoughts that might arise within it. If the disciple’s mind depends upon anything in the sensory realm it will have no solid foundation in any reality.

And, just like that, we have found fruits falling from different branches, tasting exactly the same. Both teachings urge a mind without foundation — the Prajnaparamita teaching simply elaborates a bit more.

Apple Pie and Worms

Many of the Mahayana doctrines I have come across seem to be elaborations of ideas that already existed in early Buddhist teaching– so I’d call these Mahayana teachings apple pie. The fruit is no different, the teachings are not really ‘new’– they’re just put together, wrapped in dough, and baked for a while.

But, on the other hand– some later teaching does indeed seem to wildly deviate from what we see in the collection of the ‘early suttas’. It might be safe to think of these doctrines as rotten and worm-ridden fruit. It is the same kind of fruit, but it has become inedible.

I suggest that we avoid eating those fruits. These are incomplete (having been eaten by worms), and no longer beneficial (rotten, will cause food poisoning). So, let us check the fruit before we put it in our mouths. May we wash the fruit as well! Inspect the fruit! Do not be without discernment.

Discernment, properly applied and sustained, *can* help us to cross the flood. Beware.