The Four Erroneous Perceptions

In studying the Diamond Sutra we come across the Four Erroneous Perceptions. These are:

From Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation:

  1. A self
  2. A person
  3. A living being
  4. A life span

From Red Pine’s translation:

  1. A self
  2. A being
  3. A view of life
  4. A view of a soul

Why are these erroneous views? It seems in common parlance, these are accepted as truthful. Of course there is a person here. Of course we are born and then die which means we have a life span. What is Buddhism trying to say if they call these ideas erroneous?

Strickly speaking, these ideas don’t exist coming from the absolute realm. If we go beyond language and beyond ideas, then these “ideas” don’t correspond to reality. If we want to understand vastness and emptiness, we are encouraged to explore how these views are erroneous. If we want to understand interbeing, we need to open our minds to that which is beyond our language and concepts.

This is so important that the Diamond Sutra says that to understand one verse is to penetrate the whole of it:

The body of merit of the person who grasps, memorizes, recites, and masters such a sutra as the Diamond Sutra or even explains a 4 line verse of it to others will exceed my former body of merit not by a hundredfold or a thousandfold or a hundred thousand fold or a million fold or a hundred million fold or a thousand millionfold or a hundred thousand million fold, but by an amount that cannot be measured, calculated, illustrated, characterized or even imagined.

In order to understand vastness, we use numbers like a millionfold or a hundred thousand million fold. We use concepts like there is no body, no life span, no centralized being at all.

This is all pointing to a taste of what the Buddhist call Great Space or boundlessness, or emptiness. The sky that is behind the clouds. The space that is behind the stories of our life. If we can touch into this Great Space, we can get a different perspective on our lives and stories. This different perspective is what, eventually or gradually grows into our freedom and liberation. It becomes the release from our suffering based on clinging to a self and believing in the solidity of our stories.

This touching into the Great Vastness and the Four Erroneous Perception is elaborative of the Three Doors of Liberation:

  1. Selfless or no Self
  2. Signless or no name
  3. Aimless or no goal

Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

Where there is a sign, there is delusion,
That is, when there is a perception, there is deception
The substance of any perception is its sign.
Our task is to practice until signs no longer deceive us

And our perception becomes insight and understanding.

What is true is the dynamic of this moment without conceptualization. Before we put a name on it, the process of life is, as Katagiri Roshi would say, just Life-ing. The formation of the moment itself is the Buddha-nature. This Buddha nature is so much more vast that the intellectual ideas of a life span, a being or a centralized self.