The Inquiry of Lokadhara
Chapter Three: The Eighteen Elements
Degé Kangyur, vol. 60 (mdo sde, ma), folios 7.b–78.b
Translated by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
First published 2020
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In The Inquiry of Lokadhara, the bodhisattva Lokadhara asks the Buddha to explain the proper way for bodhisattvas to discern the characteristics of phenomena and employ that knowledge to attain awakening. In reply, the Buddha teaches at length how to understand the lack of inherent existence of phenomena. As part of the teaching, the Buddha explains in detail the nonexistence of the aggregates, the elements, the sense sources, dependently originated phenomena, the four applications of mindfulness, the five powers, the eightfold path of the noble ones, and mundane and transcendent phenomena, as well as conditioned and unconditioned phenomena.
The sūtra was translated by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee under the guidance of Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche. The translation from the Tibetan was produced by Timothy Hinkle. Andreas Doctor checked the translation against the Tibetan, edited the text, and wrote the introduction. James Gentry subsequently compared the translation against Kumārajīva’s Chinese translation and made further edits.
The translation was completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
Chapter Three: The Eighteen Elements
The Eye Element
“Lokadhara, regarding the elements, how are bodhisattva great beings learned in the eighteen elements? When bodhisattva great beings practice correct contemplation of the eighteen elements, they think, ‘The eye element cannot be observed to be the eye element. There is also no I or mine in the eye element. It is impermanent, insubstantial, and empty of inherent nature. Therefore, what is imputed as the characteristic of the eye element cannot be observed in the eye element. The eye element is untrue and totally nonexistent, for it is born from false thinking. The eye element lacks true characteristics, as the space element is the eye element. For instance, just as the space element lacks true characteristics and is not an entity, the eye element also lacks true characteristics and is not an entity. Why is this? [F.38.b] Because no real entity can be found in the eye element, the eye element does not exist in any location or direction. It does not exist internally, externally, or somewhere in-between. The eye element lacks true characteristics and is not an entity. Thus, no entity of the eye element can be apprehended, for it arises from many causes and conditions. The eye element is neither past, nor present, nor future, and there is no intrinsic nature of the eye to observe in the eye element. The eye element depends upon the ripening of the results of past actions and current conditions, whereupon the eye element is imputed. The eye element is a nonelement. No eye element can be observed in the eye element. The so-called eye element refers to the domain of consciousness. The eye element manifests when three factors come together: a clear eye faculty, an apparent form, and the involvement of the mind faculty. The eye element lacks anything that can be called a real eye element, and the wise understand the eye element to be the absence of the eye element.’ ”
The Form Element
“Lokadhara, if bodhisattva great beings contemplate the discernment of the eye element in this manner, they will understand the form element to be a nonelement. Why is this? There is no element of form that can be observed28 in the form element, for the form element is uncompounded and uncreated.29 Because form is devoid of any true characteristics, it is called the form element. If form is insubstantial, lacking even concepts of it, what need is there to mention the so-called form element? Because the so-called form element is not an entity, the characteristic of form does not exist within form, outside of form, or somewhere in-between. Rather, it is imputed. Form appears due to the combination of a location where forms can appear, the presence of an uncorrupted eye faculty, [F.39.a] and the involvement of the mind consciousness. This is called the characteristic of form. It is similar to a reflection in a mirror. If the mirror is unblemished, the characteristic of form will appear in it. But form in fact has no true characteristics; the reflection of a form appears in the mirror even as there is no person there. Further, even if there is a mirror outside, the characteristic of form arises from within. Similarly, when an uncorrupted eye faculty is present in a location where forms are visible, much like the reflection in a mirror, the resulting apprehension can be labeled the characteristic of form. Form is devoid of elements, shapes, and true characteristics. These are the so-called characteristics of form. Because the characteristics of form are devoid of self, they are called the characteristics of form. Because they are perceived according to the individual in question, they are called the characteristics of form. Any person who understands the characteristics of form also understands the characteristics of the absence of form. If one understands the characteristics of form as an unborn element, one will also understand the characteristics of form to be an uncreated element. Why is this? The characteristics of form are neither past, nor present, nor future. The demonstrated lack of inherent characteristics, the demonstrated characteristic of falsity, and the demonstrated imputed characteristics are called the form element. In this way bodhisattvas discern the form element.”
The Eye-Consciousness Element
“Bodhisattvas then discern the characteristics of the eye consciousness in the following manner: the eye consciousness has no eye consciousness, no eye-consciousness element, and no characteristic of being permanent. The eye-consciousness element has no entities or real phenomena. The eye-consciousness element is indemonstrable. [F.39.b] The eye-consciousness element cannot be gathered or separated, for it lacks a substantial basis. We call it the eye-consciousness element because it depends upon the causes and conditions of previous actions, concurrent conditions, and form. Childish ordinary beings call it the eye-consciousness element because they follow their mistaken minds. The noble ones, however, understand and realize it as a nonelement. Why is that? Because the eye-consciousness element is indefinite. They call it the eye-consciousness element because it is born from and depends upon conditions. The location of the domain of consciousness is the eye-consciousness element, because this consciousness lacks a definite nature. It is said to lack a definite characteristic because it is unborn, because it demonstrates falsehood, because it falsely imputes the characteristic of form, and because it demonstrates conditions.30
“The Thus-Gone One skillfully makes distinctions based upon beings’ understandings, and so he teaches such characteristics in order to destroy all characteristics of unity as well as difference. The eighteen elements are taught to demonstrate that31 consciousness lacks true characteristics, but the pure eye faculty still cognizes the characteristics of form; the eye-consciousness element is thus taught in order to integrate these two things, and in order to demonstrate the true nature of the eye consciousness. The eye-consciousness element is the locus of the visual experience. Even the eye-consciousness element, which is conscious of form, is described as a nonelement. Why is this? The wise do not observe the eye-consciousness element as the eye-consciousness element. Since the eye-consciousness element cannot be observed as the eye-consciousness element, [F.40.a] it cannot be found to be an entity. Why is this? The eye-consciousness element lacks true characteristics. The eye-consciousness element is nothing more than a mere imputation. The expression element is merely an expression that means non-appropriation. When there is something to be seen, the characteristic of the eye consciousness arises from the function of the eye consciousness and mind. This is called eye consciousness. Knowledge of conditional characteristics arises from the gathering of three things: the eye element, the form element, and the eye-consciousness element. Although they are devoid of the substance of an element, it is due to the categories of the eye element, the form element, and the eye-consciousness element that beings can enter the genuine path. Yet in this, there is not truly an eye element, a form element, or an eye-consciousness element. All the thus-gone ones skillfully explain how to understand, see, and discern characteristics. Those who understand and realize this teaching of characteristics will understand the three realms to be without elements. Why is this? Because the realms lack the characteristics of elements, and the elements cannot be observed as the characteristics of the realms. The ear element, sound element, and ear-consciousness element; the nose element, odor element, and nose-consciousness element; the tongue element, taste element, and tongue-consciousness element; and the body element, tactile element, and body-consciousness element should also be understood in this way.”
The Mind Element
“Lokadhara, how do bodhisattva great beings discern the mind element? Bodhisattvas think, ‘The mind element lacks true characteristics because it has no substance whatsoever. [F.40.b] The mind element lacks an actual element and anything called a mind element. As for the so-called mind element, for example, once one has placed a seed into the earth, and it has been moistened by the water in the soil, warmed by the sun, and stimulated by the wind, a sprout will gradually grow. The sprout has not arisen from the seed, and the seed is not the same as the sprout. Once the sprout arises, the seed perishes. Yet, the seed is not other than the sprout, and the sprout is not other than the seed. Just as the seed does not exist within the sprout, so it is with the mind element. Because it produces mental actions, it indirectly represents the mind consciousness, just as the seed indirectly represents the sprout; thus it is designated the mind element. There is no mind aside from the mind element, but the mind element cannot be known as mind; it is designated mind element as a label.32 This so-called mind element does not exist within the mind, outside the mind, or somewhere in-between. But it is called mind element because it is produced out of the causes and conditions of previous actions, because it knows mental actions, because it cognizes what can be perceived, because it combines labels with characteristics, and because it arouses observations in the present moment. It is characterized by indeterminate mental activity and a combination of many causes and conditions. Because the mind element arises from a combination of many factors, it conforms to how beings cognize. Ultimately, there is no mind element. Why is this? Because it is devoid of substance. The mind element is unborn, because it is devoid of birth. The so-called mind element is a label that is applied on the relative level. On the ultimate level, there is no real mind element. It cannot be observed as past, present, or future. The wise understand the mind element to be devoid of an element.’ ”
The Mental-Object Element
“In discerning and understanding the mental-object element, bodhisattvas understand the mental-object element to be a nonelement. Since a mental object lacks intrinsic nature, no intrinsic nature can be observed.33 [F.41.a] The mental-object element is an indeterminate element. Because the mental-object element cannot be observed as inherently existent, it also cannot be observed to be any definite thing. Still, the mental object element is described and taught in order to bring understanding to beings who see mistakenly and who are bound by falsity. The mental-object element is explained in order to establish ordinary beings with an understanding of the absence of elements. Why is this? The mental-object element has no mental-object element, for the so-called mental-object element arises from a gathering of many conditions. Phenomena that arise from a gathering of many conditions have no intrinsic nature. Because causes and conditions have no intrinsic nature, causes and conditions arise from a stream of mistaken perception that is itself a gathering of many factors. The Thus-Gone One thus teaches the mental-object element in order to ripen beings, using conventional language to illustrate the absence of elements. Even though the mental-object element does not exist internally, externally, or somewhere in-between, in order to cause beings to understand and see virtuous and nonvirtuous phenomena, he explains with recourse to the mental-object element the absence of all phenomenal characteristics.34 Since they ultimately have the characteristic of emptiness, the mental-object element is taught to ultimately be emptiness. Why is this? The mental-object element is totally nonexistent, because there are no actual marks of existence in the mental-object element. For instance, just as space has no true characteristics, but is still called space, the mental-object element likewise has no real marks. The mental-object element is taught in order to destroy the marks of mental objects, for the mental-object element is a nonelement. Why is this? The mental-object element does not exist in the past, present, or future. And yet, because of being formed in dependence on many conditions, the category of mental-object element is designated, in accordance with the mental-object element imputed by beings. The wise understand the mental-object element to be a nonelement, [F.41.b] for the mental-object element is not singular or multiple. The mental-object element does not have many marks of the mental-object element, nor does it have even a few. Through the skillful means of demonstrating elements, the mental-object element is described as an element. Those practitioners who understand and realize the mental-object element see and understand it to be a nonelement. There are no conceptual marks related to the mental-object element throughout the three realms. But because beings imagine there to be mental objects, due to a combination of many causes and conditions, the mental-object element is taught. The mental-object element is thus explained to show how mental objects are differentiated and have no definite characteristics.
“The wise do not see mental objects as arising, because they see the mental-object element in terms of its marks. For them, the mental objects that arise are unborn. Why is this? It is because the mental-object element is devoid of marks. The wise understand and realize the characteristic of mental phenomena to be free of marks. Therefore, concerning the absence of conceptual marks with regard to the mental-object element, it is called the mental-object element because it lacks both marks and concepts. The mental-object element has no basis for dwelling, no dwelling, no basis for arising, and no basis for dependence. The mental-object element has no birth, because the mental-object element is primordially unborn. Why is this? Because the mental-object element is devoid of elements. Moreover, because the mental-object element is formed, it does not exist. Moreover, because it is not formed, not dispersed, not assembled, and not fixed, it is the mental-object element. Thus do bodhisattva great beings discern and understand the lack of an element to be the mental-object element.”
The Mind-Consciousness Element
“Lokadhara, how do bodhisattva great beings discern the mind-consciousness element? Bodhisattva great beings think, ‘The mind-consciousness element is an unborn element; it is an unfixed element. [F.42.a] As the mind-consciousness element is devoid of substantial existence and actual qualities, the mind-consciousness element is used to demonstrate the characteristic of the absence of qualities. Why is this? The mind-consciousness element cannot be observed as the mind-consciousness element. The mind-consciousness element is called the mind-consciousness element because it is false, nonexistent, mistaken, and has mind as its forefront, whereby it perceives mental objects. It is called the mind-consciousness element because it conforms with childish ordinary beings.’
“Noble beings understand and realize the mind-consciousness element to be a nonelement; they understand and realize the mind-consciousness element to be false and nonexistent. However, since it demonstrates the phenomena of causes and conditions, and since it has mind as its forefront, and thus knows the coming together of many conditions, it is called the mind-consciousness element. Moreover, it is taught as such because it accords with beings’ perception. The wise understand the mind-consciousness element as a nonelement. It arises from the gathering of many causes and conditions as well as from imputation. When the elements are perceived to be devoid of marks, that is the ultimate, for elements have no characteristics on the ultimate level. The so-called mind-consciousness element is taught as a relative phenomenon in order to ripen beings, so that beings can understand the mind-consciousness element as a nonelement. Also, the so-called mind-consciousness element is taught so that the elements can be destroyed with just a few phenomena, and so that one can disengage from them. Why is this? Noble beings seek what cannot be perceived,35 for the mind-consciousness element does not exist within the mind-consciousness element, outside of the mind-consciousness element, or somewhere in-between.
“The wise realize the mind-consciousness element to be an unconjoined element. [F.42.b] They know that the mind consciousness does not perceive the mind element, and the mind element does not perceive the mind consciousness.36 They understand that it is born from a combination of many causes and conditions, which arise from mistaken perception; in other words, it arises from a combination of both causes and conditions, preceded by the mind. The mind-consciousness element is thus taught because it demonstrates to beings the marks of consciousness, which are attached to falsity and are born from imputation. The mind consciousness does not exist in the past, present, or future. The mind consciousness does not come from anywhere, go anywhere, or remain in any place. It has the characteristic of being primordially unborn. In the mind consciousness there is nothing with an inherent, fixed existence. Why is this? The mind-consciousness element has the mark of nonduality, which is to say, it is free of marks. That mark does not exist on account of dualistic marks; this indemonstrability is itself the mind-consciousness element. Once the wise realize and understand the mind-consciousness element in this way, they understand that the mind-consciousness element cannot be found in any phenomenon, object, or location; it is neither the same as nor different from any phenomenon.
“The noble ones realize that the mind-consciousness element is unborn, does not come, does not go, and cannot be observed. Why is this? Because on the ultimate level, the mind-consciousness element cannot be observed; it is imperceptible and indemonstrable. Because the wise do not observe the mind-consciousness element to have a function, they understand the mind-consciousness element to be uncreated. Because the mind-consciousness element lacks the mark of birth, [F.43.a] they understand and realize it to be unborn. Lokadhara, this is how bodhisattva great beings discern and understand the mind-consciousness element.”
The Three Realms
“When bodhisattvas contemplate the three realms, they discern and understand the desire realm,37 the form realm, and the formless realm to be unborn and nonexistent. How do they contemplate them? They think as follows: ‘There is no desire realm in the desire realm. There is no form realm in the form realm. There is no formless realm in the formless realm. However, by using realms to demonstrate those phenomena that are devoid of a realm, the desire realm is shown to those who prefer to enter the desire realm, the form realm is shown to those who prefer to enter the form realm, and the formless realm is shown to those who prefer to enter the formless realm. The absence of realms is indicated and articulated by using realms. The wise understand the desire realm, the form realm, and the formless realm to be utterly nonexistent realms. The wise do not observe the desire realm, the form realm, or the formless realm. By understanding that the three realms are devoid of inherent existence and fixed qualities, but arise from many causes and conditions, the wise thus understand the three realms to be nonrealms. There are no realms, but the three realms manifest due to falsity and mistaken perception. Why is this? Since the wise do not observe the three realms, the three realms cannot be observed or described as belonging to the past, present, or future. The noble ones understand the three realms to be false, nonexistent, devoid of intrinsic nature, free of all phenomena, and arisen from mistaken perception. The Thus-Gone One distinguishes between and explains them in order to disrupt the mistaken perception of many beings [F.43.b] and enable them to see and understand the three realms. The teaching on the existence of the three realms, moreover, describes the three realms so that beings can understand the meaning of nonrealm; for in truth, they are not actual realms. The wise understand and realize the three realms to be nonrealms.’
“Lokadhara, when bodhisattva great beings contemplate in this way, they understand others’ elements and their own elements to be the element of space, for they understand them to be the nonexistent mental-object element, the element of nonexistence, and the unborn element. Why is this? Their own elements and others’ elements are not different or distinct from the element of space. All such elements emerge from space, but since they are born from many conditions, they are known as elements, as there is no fixed characteristic of elements among them. Why is this? It is because space has no definitive element. Given that all characteristics are included in the element of space, this is the meaning of the absence of realms. Just as space has no elements, phenomena too are ultimately without marks and have the characteristic of nonexistence. All elements are free from elements. Since there is no element in an element, elements do not exist internally, externally, or somewhere in-between. There is no element within an element. That absence is not included among characteristics and does not depend on an element. All elements are devoid of a locus. All elements are unborn. The wise do not observe elements arising, ceasing, or abiding in the elements. All elements are unborn, unarisen, nonabiding, and primordially unobservable. The wise do not become attached to elements, which are mere labels. They do not become attached to, grasp at, or conceptualize them. [F.44.a] Therefore, the wise see and understand all elements to be unborn elements. Since all elements are unborn, they are unceasing; thus, on the ultimate level, no element can be observed. Relatively, mental-object elements are distinguished and discussed, but on the ultimate level there is nothing at all that can be described as an element. Thus do the wise understand and realize the definitive meaning of all elements.
“Lokadhara, thus do bodhisattva great beings contemplate, analyze, and understand the eighteen elements, the three realms, others’ elements, their own elements, and the element of space. When bodhisattvas thus understand and realize them, they do not observe or view elements. They understand all their terminology and have confidence in an understanding of all elements as nonelements. Understanding the differentiation into elements and differentiating them on the relative level enables them to understand how all elements appear on the ultimate level. Understanding the application of the nonexistence of the elements, and thus teaching beings the elements, enables them to ground beings in the application of the elements. Even though, on the relative level, they use words and speech to teach beings about phenomena being devoid of elements, they do not teach that elements have dualistic marks. Even though all elements are nondual, they use skillful means to show that the elements are dependently originated. Even though on the relative level they use words and speech to ripen beings, they teach the ultimate to beings. Even though they are learned with regard to the distinct features of the elements, they trust and understand that all elements are nonexistent. Why is this? Lokadhara, on the ultimate level, the Thus-Gone One does not observe elements or any qualities of elements.
“Lokadhara, I fully awakened to unsurpassed and perfect buddhahood without rejecting or disrupting any elements. [F.44.b] Why is this? On the ultimate level, there are no elements. There are no elements, or any actuality, in any elements. All elements are the same as space; so since all elements are included in space, all elements are characterized as being unborn. The Thus-Gone One understands all the elements in this manner. Lokadhara, the Thus-Gone One did not speak of any elements or even the power of phenomena. Why is this? As no phenomenon whatsoever exists, he should not speak of nonexistent elements. Nonetheless, Lokadhara, although the Thus-Gone One has indeed spoken of nonexistent elements, in truth, there are no elements to speak of.
“Lokadhara, this is called skill in discerning the elements. Bodhisattva great beings are skilled in discerning the elements, understand all elements to be mere labels, understand them as mere relative elements, understand the ultimate element, understand the ascertainment of the elements, understand the relative truth, are skilled in discerning the elements, understand what their particular qualities are, understand the gathering of elements, understand the engagement with the elements, understand the engagement with the elements of truth, are skilled in the distinctions of the elements, understand all elements to be nonelements, understand all elements to be equivalent to the element of space, do not make distinctions among the elements, do not observe distinctions among elements, and do not express any such distinctions. They become skilled in teaching beings about the destruction of the elements. Lokadhara, a skilled magician can show beings various illusions, enabling them to experience various illusory entities. However, a relative or friend might tell them, ‘This is an illusion; these entities are magically created. This illusion is not real. [F.45.a] It only appears to beings as a mistaken perception.’ In that case, any wise person would understand them to be illusions.
“Lokadhara, the nature of the world is like an illusion. If bodhisattvas understand illusory phenomena, they understand the world’s illusory nature. The ways of the world are like an illusion, and through the power of magic, the world magically appears to beings. If someone clings to the world as truly real, bodhisattvas show them that the world is false and illusory. Once the wise who have profound intelligence and sharp faculties are shown just a facet of this, they understand all phenomena to be emptiness, illusory, unreal, and insubstantial; they understand that all phenomena deceive childish ordinary beings, and that they depend upon false conditions.
“Therefore, Lokadhara, bodhisattva great beings who wish to understand the function of the elements should exert themselves in such extremely profound, indescribable, and unobservable discourses as these, which teach the understanding and knowledge of all elements, describe all elements to be beyond words and beyond formation, teach the means and insight related to all elements, teach how the elements are dependently originated, and, moreover, express the true reality of all phenomena. Such bodhisattvas should exert themselves, namely, in all the statements of the profound discourses that teach worldliness and transcendence, the conditioned and unconditioned, what it is to be fettered and not fettered, the aim of practice, and the meaning of the relative and the ultimate, along with discourses on the definitive meaning, discourses on the inferred meaning, and the liberating discourses on dependent origination.”
This was chapter three: “The Eighteen Elements.” [B3]
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