The Ultimate Question

In the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment (Yuanjue jing, 8th century), the bodhisattva Vajragarbha rises from his seat and asks the Buddha the following question:

“World Honored One; if all sentient beings are originally perfect buddhas, then how can they also possess ignorance? If sentient beings are originally ignorant, how can you say that they have always been perfect buddhas? If all the worldlings in the ten directions are originally perfectly enlightened, but later give rise to ignorance, at what point do all these tathāgatas regenerate these afflictions? My only request is that you not discard your limitless great compassion and that you reveal the concealed treasure to the bodhisattvas and sentient beings of the degenerate age. This will cause bodhisattvas to gain unshakable faith, and allow all sentient beings of the degenerate age to gain access to this teaching which is a sutra instruction of the complete doctrine, such that they can permanently sever doubt and regret.” Having said this, he prostrated himself to the ground. He asked this question three times in succession.

When I first read this I thought to myself, “Finally a Buddhist text that addresses this important and fundamental question.” I have been asking this question for at least thirty years, but no religious Buddhist, with the exception of Dr. Robert Thurman, has ever been willing (or able?) to discuss this question with me. Instead, they inevitably fall back on the Buddha’s refusal to discuss “unedifying” questions, or perhaps answer with a vague allusion to the “gobly stuff.” The former response is based on the interpretation that all metaphysical questions are irrelevant, and that the Buddha himself eschewed all such questions, preferring instead, on the analogy of a doctor, to limit himself to a description of the disease, suffering, and the cure for disease, a combination of morality, wisdom and dispassion.

This approach may satisfy some religionists, but it does not satisfy me. If one studies the Pali Canon in its totality, not picking and choosing texts to suit one’s predilections, two things are clear: (1) like his contemporary Socrates, the method of questioning is at the core of the Buddha’s philosophical method, and (2) the Pali Canon includes a comprehensive metaphysical description of the world. The third objection that I would make to this interpretation of the Buddha’s allusion to questions that do not conduce to enlightenment is that it makes the dharma incomplete in its very essence, since one of the essential meanings of the word is “reality.” How can a complete and comprehensive theory of reality eschew such an important and fundamental question? Per contra, how can an incomplete view claim to be the ultimate spiritual philosophy? My conclusion is that all these answers that pass for Buddhist are actually fundamentally evasive and adharmic. They are really based on the fear of the religionist that their metaphysical worldview is wrong. Many religionists today eschew philosophical investigation and prefer instead the practices of morality and meditation, although the Buddha himself implies that his path is incomplete without the cultivation of wisdom. Moreover, the cultivation of wisdom, addressing as it does ignorance, is even more fundamental than either meditation or morality.

The fundamental problem of the ultimate origin of ignorance, desire, and suffering demands a metaphysical response that is convincing if Buddhism itself is to be convincing. Without a metaphysical ground how can anyone say that the rational response to suffering is the renunciation of desirous attachment? If the fate of the Tathagata is annihilation, as some Theravadin religionists seem to believe, an equally rational response to suffering  might be to live, laugh, and enjoy the experience of the present. In fact, this is the dominant philosophy of secular society: eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. This approach to suffering only becomes definitely irrational if there is an alternative. If the alternative is nihilism, one could argue that hedonism is as rational as renunciation. So this question is very far from being irrelevant.

This problem is very similar to the problem of the origin of evil posed by the Christian tradition, and is really inherent in the formula of the Dying God, on which Buddhism is also based (sans God): If God is perfectly good, how does evil arise? The Biblical answer, that evil arises out of disobedience, makes no sense at all in the Buddhist context, because Buddhism is a-theistic. Even in the Christian context it makes no sense, since it simply begs the question: How does the potentiality for evil arise within the context of perfect goodness? Why would a good God even create such a potentiality? At this point the Christian explanation degenerates into anthropomorphism, assuming that God has intentions, wants, etc. The picture that invariably emerges makes God seem like a sadistic monster, playing with people’s lives like a puppet master plays with puppets. It is a short step to the Gnostic demiurge.

This problem is not limited to Buddhism and Christianity. It afflicts any spiritual system that asserts that there is a dichotomy between experience and reality. Even a philosophy that asserts that lived reality is itself ultimately and completely spiritual, not merely theoretically but also as a matter of experience, i.e., mystical hedonism, as it is sometimes called, must needs explain why no one feels spiritual.

A corollary question also arises out of the metaphysics of the Buddhist view of samsara. It is a common refrain in the texts that the correct view of samsara is that it is beginningless and endless, this being the only way to evade the problems of origination and theism. But if samsara is beginningless and endless then the karmic continua (“mindstreams”) that are differentiated beings must also be beginningless and endless. Since the thirst for enlightenment and therefore the experience of enlightenment itself arise as a karmic consequence,[1] i.e., the experience of dissatisfaction, and every karmic continuity is eternal, why are we not all already enlightened? No wonder religious Buddhists don’t want to discuss metaphysics! I was asked once by a Theravadin group why the answer to this question matters. The answer is that these are all challenging and difficult questions that demand to be answered. Otherwise, one is simply accepting Buddhism on faith, like any other religion. But that is not what Buddhism is, or should be, intrinsically. The scriptures make it clear that the perfection of wisdom is based on certainty. Certainty is not the same as faith. Certainty is the rational realization that the Buddhadharma is perfect and complete and absolutely and irrefragably true, and can only be achieved based on questioning. The scriptures state that this is a precondition of attaining enlightenment. It follows that wisdom is even more primary than meditation, since ignorance is the root cause of desire, which is the proximate cause of suffering. Many Arahants of the Pali Canon are reported to have become awakened soon after hearing and accepting the Buddhadharma. Meditation and morality had little to do with it. Such is the power of truth.

Over the years I have asked this question, which I consider to be the ultimate question of Buddhist metaphysics, corresponding as it does to one of the (if not the) most perplexing aspects of Buddhist philosophy, of many individuals and groups, including Buddhist scholars, monks, abbots, and groups. Most replies I have received are completely unconvincing and unsatisfactory. One exception is the reply I received from Dr. Robert Thurman, prominent Buddhist, American academic, media celebrity, and personal friend of the Dalai Lama. His answer was respectful, interesting, and intelligent. Basically his view was that the reason that we still appear unenlightened, despite having existed eternally, is that even samsara’s existence is not recognized from the transcendent or supramundane perspective of perfect emptiness. It has literally never happened! It isn’t real.

As the quotation above states, from that perspective we are already enlightened Buddhas, only we do not recognize this fact, and so “fall” into the illusory pseudo-existence of samsara, characterized by ignorance, desire, and suffering. We are perfectly enlightened Buddhas and ignorant simultaneously! Once might argue that this perspective is not dualism because samsara really does not exist at all. Instead, this is the doctrine of transdualism. It is an ingenious solution, but it still seems to beg the fundamental question.

Padmasambhava also recognized this problem in his original writings in the Kanjur, as discussed by Herbert Guenther in The Teachings of Padmasambhava.[2] Here he identifies an “insanity” at the core of enlightenment itself that leads to the “breaking apart” of the transdual. I find this way of conceptualizing this problem as a kind of insanity very interesting, despite its paradoxical nature (all statements about the transdual are inherently paradoxical), and more satisfying than Professor Thurman’s assertion that life isn’t real. It reminds me of Aleister Crowley’s assertion that the ideal and the real (corresponding to nirvana and samsara in the Buddhist worldview) are “separated” by the “abyss,” the proper name of which is da’ath (knowledge), presided over by Choronzon, who is both the “demon of the abyss” and the ratio (“thinking’s thinking,” in Padmasambhava’s terminology). The difference is that in Buddhism samsara is something to be transcended absolutely – the same texts that refer to samsara being beginningless and endless also refer to the end of samsara, which will come about (according to exotericism) when every being (isn’t the number of beings infinite?) attains enlightenment, whereas in Crowley’s system a Master simultaneously transcends and manifests in samsara, on the premise that once enlightenment is attained one can delight in the world of lived reality without attachment, and therefore without suffering. It is a paradox but the world only gives herself up to him who does not desire her. But Crowley’s solution also posits another problem: Why participate in samsara at all if one has no attachment to it? This is really the same problem, put another way. (Crowley’s answer is that the potentiality towards samsara is ultimately given and therefore it is contrary to enlightenment to renounce cyclical existence in an ultimate sense. Therefore transmigration is endless and, in fact, conterminous with the state of enlightenment itself, as Crowley implies in his famous poem, “Hymn to Pan.” The Buddha’s reply to this is that samsara can never manifest transcendence adequately because of its changing nature, and therefore can never be satisfying to anyone, unenlightened or enlightened. But confer the Bodhisattva Vow, which is a kind of affirmation of existence in disguise.)

It is in the context of the foregoing that I, who have what I think is quite a high realization of emptiness and am not troubled on that account, discovered the quotation from the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment. Finally! (I thought) this question is being addressed by an authoritative text. So let’s see what the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, which is the foundation text of Korean Buddhism,[3] makes of this question.

First of all, the sutra states that the answer to this question constitutes the highest Buddhist teaching:

“Then the World Honored One, speaking to the bodhisattva Vajragarbha said: Excellent, excellent! Good son, you have asked well for the bodhisattvas and sentient beings of the degenerate age about the Tathāgata’s extremely deep and recondite final expedient means. This is the highest teaching given by the bodhisattvas, the fully revealed doctrine of the Great Vehicle, which is able to cause the enlightening bodhisattvas of the ten directions, as well as the sentient beings of the degenerate age to gain unshakable faith and permanently sever doubt and regret. Now listen well, and I shall explain this for you.”

Next, the Buddha asserts that transcendence is an inherent aspect of perfect enlightenment, because any enlightenment that does not posit the transcendence of existence is simply another aspect of samsara, and therefore unsatisfactory.  This is why the Buddha (in the Pali Canon) rejects religion (Brahmanism). Religions, with their gods, goddesses, altered states of consciousness, miracles, myths, etc., are all based on insights and experiences that are relative and contingent, and are therefore all cyclical, transmigratory, and ultimately unsatisfactory. Only a realization that definitely goes beyond all of this, in fact, that goes beyond anything that is able to be experienced or expressed in rational language or in terms of concepts, descriptions, characteristics, etc. goes beyond samsara and achieves the transcendental or supramundane. This is why the Buddha rejects all relative and contingent existence, including higher worlds or heavens, absolutely and without exception

“Good sons, all worlds begin and end, are born and die, have prior and after, exist and do not exist, gather and scatter, arise and cease. This circular motion of going and returning without a moment’s lapse, variously being grasped and released, is all cyclic existence. The nature of a Perfect Enlightenment that is discerned without having left cyclic existence is simply transmigratory. If you think you can escape cyclic existence in this way, you are completely off the mark.”

The Buddha elaborates this statement by showing that all samsaric experience whatsoever actually originates in a disturbance or vibration of consciousness. Interestingly, this is exactly the view of quantum physics, in which the world itself is unchanging but in or through which the mind moves, generating the experience of time and phenomenality characterized by transitoriness and flux (see the Encyclopedia of Philosophy):[4]

“It is comparable to the way in which shaking the eyes can make still water appear to move, or the way that a transfixed gaze can enable the appearance of a fire-wheel. In the same way, clouds flying past the moon make it seem to move, and when you are in a moving boat, the shore appears to move. Good sons, all these things are in motion without cease, and even though the objects are already stationary, you can’t get a fix on them. How can you possibly expect to get a glimpse of the Buddha’s Perfect Enlightenment with the cyclical, samsaric, stained mind which has never been clear? Because of this, you are prone to give rise to these three mental disturbances.”

Thus, mind is (1) reality, and (2) the experience of phenomena originates in the mind.  In its former aspect it is the transcendent or supramundane. In its latter aspect it is samsara.

The Buddha then explains why a Tathagata does not return to cyclical existence or rebirth:

“Good sons, it is like an illusory eye disease falsely engendering a vision of sky- flowers. If the illusory eye disease is removed, you cannot ask: ‘now that this eye- disease is cleared away, when will other eye-diseases reappear?’ Why? Because these two things—flowers and eye-disease, are not interdependent. It is also like when the sky- flowers vanish from the sky. You can’t say, ‘ when will the sky re-arise sky-flowers?’ Why? Since the sky originally has no flowers, they do not arise and cease. Saṃsāra and nirvana are the same as arising and ceasing; marvelous enlightenment illuminates perfectly, and is free from flowers or eye disease.”

“Good sons, you should know that the sky does not exist for an instant nor not exist for an instant. How much more so with the Tathāgata’s perfectly enlightened marvelous mind and becoming the equal original nature of the sky?” “Good sons, it is like smelting gold ore. The gold does not come into being because of smelting; it is already perfect gold, and after refinement will never again become ore. Even though it passes through endless time, the nature of the gold is never corrupted. It is wrong to say that it is not originally perfect. The Perfect Enlightenment of the Tathāgata is also like this.”

Once samsara is recognized for what it really is, it disappears, and does not re-originate because ignorance, once replaced by wisdom, cannot be unlearned. It is a onetime deal. The “Wrong of the Beginning,” as Crowley calls it, is resolved. The mirage or illusion of existence simply disappears. Since the conditions of its production have ceased, so does samsara. 

Next the Buddha explains the enigma by reference to the inherently paradoxical nature of the transdual:

“Good sons, the marvelous perfectly enlightened mind of the tathāgatas originally has neither bodhi nor nirvana; it has neither accomplishment of Buddhahood nor non-accomplishment of Buddhahood; no false cyclic existence and no non- cyclic existence.”

Here we arrive at a conclusion similar to that of Padmasambhava. The original perfect state from which we begin, by definition transdual (since dualistic reason can never comprehend the whole), is not only the state of enlightenment, but rather a state that, being beyond the duality of enlightenment and non-enlightenment, is actually both unenlightened and enlightened simultaneously (and therefore beyond good and evil). Samsara is simply the manifestation of the unenlightened aspect of the transdual. Then, when one becomes enlightened, one returns to the original and originating state, but changed essentially, in that, as stated in the previous paragraphs, wisdom cannot be unlearned (the state of the system has been changed), and therefore no return to samsara is possible.  Although this is puzzling to the religious mind, this formulation actually begins to indicate some sort of ultimate teleology. Intuitively we think that we are returning to an original state of perfection. In fact the sutra states that this is only partly true. It is also true that we return to the original state in a different state, characterized by enlightenment, and both of these statements are true, despite the paradox, due to the nature of the transdual. Even the concept of enlightenment itself is essentially samsaric, since it posits samsara as its precondition.

Finally, the Buddha reiterates that the Buddha does not return to cyclic existence, that all his karmas are annihilated, that there is no more rebirth and that the ultimate paradox of the transdual is ultimately unable to be rationally explained. The Buddha rejects the question itself as ill-formed. The only way to understand it definitively is to become a Buddha.

“Good sons, in the state is the consummation of the direct disciple path, there is complete severance of the karmic activities of word, thought and action.” “Yet they are still incapable of attaining their own actualized and manifest nirvana. How can you possibly expect to fathom the Tathāgata’s state of Perfect Enlightenment using discursive thought? It is like trying to burn Mt. Sumeru with the fire from a firefly—it is impossible!” “Using the cyclic mind, you produce cyclic views and you will never be able to enter the Tathāgata’s ocean of perfect tranquility. Therefore, I say that all bodhisattvas and sentient beings of the degenerate age should first sever the beginningless root of cyclic existence.”[5]

“Good sons, habituated discursive thought arises from the conditioned mind. The six data- fields, false conceptualization and conditioned energies are not the true essence of mind— indeed, they are like sky- flowers. But using discursive thought to discern the Buddha- state is like the sky- flowers further producing ‘sky-fruits.’ Circular false thoughts are useless here.” “Good sons, false, floating thoughts and numerous clever views are incapable of perfecting the expedient means of Perfect Enlightenment. Using this kind of discrimination, you cannot even formulate a proper question.”

To summarize, the Buddhist metaphysical worldview posits an original or fundamental underlying reality that is inherently transdual, characterized by the polarities of non-differentiation (nirvana) and differentiation (samsara), and therefore an infinity of eternally existent, inherently perfect consciousnesses that, being transdual, are simultaneously radically enlightened (which alludes to their essential nature as universal consciousness) and ignorant (which alludes to their particular and experiential nature). Because of the latter they exist simultaneously in the state of enlightenment, which is both universal and unique, and ignorance, desire, and suffering, but the latter, based as it is on radical ignorance, is transitory and ephemeral in nature and subject to awakening. Once a definitive, radical awakening occurs, the essential nature of the ultimately existent is changed fundamentally. The primal ignorance disappears, and enlightenment alone reigns. Thus the universal teleological process is a continuous “returning to itself” of this ultimate reality, by means of which perfection itself is continuously (and paradoxically) self-perfecting itself through the oscillatory mechanism of division and transcendence. In a sense, perfection posits imperfection as its means of self-replication and self-transcendence. Otherwise, the perfect would be static and there would be no becoming, which is a dualistic state and therefore impossible for reality, which is axiomatically transdual. The asymmetry of the two dynamics – “toward” and “away from” samsara – characterized by ignorance and enlightenment is reminiscent of the formula of the Tetragrammaton in Cabala, which is also adumbrated in both Aleister Crowley [6] (whose disciple, Gerald Yorke, became the Personal Representative to the West of the Dalai Lama the XIIIth) and in Padmasambhava. Finally, this is a paradoxical process the ultimate and essential nature of which is emptiness (shunyata).

The Tibetan mahasiddha tradition is interesting in this context, since this tradition consists of  highly realized practitioners (universally accepted as such) who, having achieved emancipation, rather than embracing the monastic life of renunciation and askesis, choose instead to embrace a free-living life of (apparent) binge drinking, sexual orgies, meat eating, and carefree existence. Taoism also accepts a view of enlightenment that includes sexuality (see the Wikipedia article on “Taoist Sexual Practices”). A similar “tension of opposites” exists in Gnosticism. Even in the Pali Canon, being sexual is not necessarily incompatible with enlightenment, as many married householders also awakened during the Buddha’s lifetime.


  1. Strictly speaking, absolute enlightenment – how one conceptualizes the end state doesn’t affect the argument – is not caused by karma. How can the definitive emancipation from samsara/karma in itself be anything else than momentary and non-karmic? Therefore it cannot be produced, nor does it “occur.” How then is it experienced? As the return to the primary state, except with ignorance resolved by wisdom, desire by meditation, and karma by morality, in a system that, having arisen, recognizes the unsatisfactoriness and therefore resolves to escape through the only possible means: the progressive resolution of karmic complexity through the annihilation or fruition of past karmas and the non-creation of unproductive future karma, the concentration and pacification of the mind, and the cultivation of wisdom. The system reaches a critical mass at which moment it experiences a crisis and instantaneous change of state, from which there is no return.
  2. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996.
  3. For why I have become interested in Korean Buddhism, see the Wikipedia article on Seongcheol.
  4. Reference pending.
  5. Confer the yod of Tetragrammaton, or the Big Bang. The asymmetry also suggests the asymmetry of time. Time can go forward, but not backward.
  6. See his Magick in Theory and Practice, Cap. III.
Charles Muller, trans. The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment (Yuanjue jing). Sept. 17, 2003.