“How many kinds of practitioners are there for liberation cultivation?”
Excerpts from An Exposition on the Lankavatara Sutra
Venerable Xiao Pingshi
In Buddhism, there are three kinds of practitioners: the sound-hearers, the solitary-realizers, and those who pursue the bodhisattva cultivation path to attain liberation. The notion of the first two dharma paths relies on the concept of emptiness characteristic pertaining to the phenomenal world.
That is, on the basis of the phenomenal world, the practitioners pursuing the Sound-hearer Bodhi path assert that the five aggregates, eighteen elements, and nine states within the three mundane realms denote impermanence, suffering, emptiness, and selflessness. Due to such realization from their cultivational experience and direct observation, the practitioners will completely extinguish their attachment to the three realms to attain wisdom-liberated arhathood. That is, their notion of all dharmas is inseparable from impermanence and emptiness-appearance.
However, as the aforementioned practitioners do not comprehend the ultimate reality of the dharma realm, although they can realize the remainderless nirvana, they cannot touch upon its apex truth. Their knowledge and views are tantamount to nihilistic emptiness. Nonetheless, as they have faith in the Buddha’s words, they know that although the notion of remainderless nirvana is devoid of the mental faculty and the mental consciousness, it is also apart from seeing, hearing, feeling, and cognizing and is ultimately extinct and tranquil, and there exists no perceiver to perceive the extinction and tranquility. Yet, there exists the apex true reality, alaya-consciousness (renamed retributive consciousness); hence, nirvana is not tantamount to nihilism. That is, as arhats fear the stream of transmigration, they have chosen to abandon themselves and abide in nirvana, and they will no longer have future rebirths in the three realms.
The practitioners pursuing the solitary-realizer Bodhi path also rely on the emptiness-appearance of the phenomenal world to proclaim that all the dharmas of the five aggregates, eighteen elements, and nine states within the three mundane realms arise dependently without an intrinsic nature. On the basis of the five aggregates and eighteen elements, the practitioners observe the twelve links of dependent origination: with the arising of this, that arises, and with the cessation of this, that ceases. Furthermore, they affirm that the dharmas within the three realms all rely on conditions to arise and cease devoid of an entity; hence, the notion of dependent arising without an intrinsic nature. Their notion of emptiness-appearance is derived from the conditioned dharmas within the three realms. As pratyekabuddhas pursue the solitary-realizer Bodhi path by practicing direct observation of the dependent arising without an intrinsic nature and the twelve links of dependent origination to enter the remainderless nirvana after they pass away, like the sound-hearer arhats, they still do not know and comprehend the apex truth of nirvana. This is because solitary-realizers’ dharmas are all based on the emptiness-appearance of the phenomenal world, which cannot touch upon the emptiness-nature of the dharma realm.
On the other hand, prior to bodhisattvas’ cultivation of the Buddha Bodhi, they also rely on the phenomenal world to realize that the five aggregates and eighteen elements denote impermanence, suffering, emptiness, and selflessness, and that the five aggregates and eighteen elements are all dharmas of dependent arising without an intrinsic nature, like the practitioners pursuing the Two-Vehicle Bodhi path. Bodhisattvas also observe that the dharmas within the three realms are all conditioned phenomena that arise and cease dependently without an intrinsic nature. This practice denotes bodhisattvas’ four aids to penetration, which come after the sixth abiding stage of listening and absorbing prajna. They subsequently foster the true principle of the Buddha Bodhi: the emptiness-nature of the dharma realm, that which co-exists with the aggregates, elements, and sense fields. This means that all dharmas are manifestations of the mind, and that the grasped and the grasper are both mind-only, our own mind.
Bodhisattvas delve into the true principles of the mind to contemplate, and gradually unlock and comprehend the ultimate reality of the dharma realm: the wondrous principle of reality-suchness of the tathagatagarbha. This stage denotes the observation practice of the highest mundane wisdom in the Path of Preparation (aids to penetration). Hence, bodhisattvas will diligently contemplate and reflect through the Chan method to attain awakening to the True Mind and to gain the Mahayana vision of the path.
An Exposition on the Laṅkāvatāra Sutra Vol. 1, p. 220/221