The past mind cannot be attained,
The present mind cannot be attained,
The future mind cannot be attained.
— Diamond Sūtra (Śākyamuni Buddha)
— 金刚经 (释迦牟尼佛)
In the ‘Sūtra Of Guānshìyīn [Avalokiteśvara: Contemplator Of The World’s Sounds] Bodhisattva’s Prediction [Of Buddhahood]’ (观世音菩萨授记经) is an interesting episode that speaks of the nature of names. In it, Śākyamuni Buddha (释迦牟尼佛) told Flower Of Virtue Treasury Bodhisattva (华德藏菩萨), that when ‘King Powerful Virtue, in his garden tower, entered samādhi [meditative concentration], this king’s left and right had two lotus flowers, that from the ground sprung up, with various colours adorned, their fragrance strong, like heavenly sandalwood. There were two boys who manifested birth from within, and with crossed legs sat.’ (‘威德王，于其园观，入于三昧。其王左右有二莲花，从地踊出，杂色庄严，其香芬馥，如天栴檀。有二童子化生其中，加趺而坐。’) ‘Then, King Powerful Virtue, from his meditative concentration arose, saw the two boys seated in the lotus flower treasury, and with verse asked: (‘时威德王从禅定起，见二童子坐莲华藏，以偈问曰：)
Are you gods or dragon kings,
yakṣas [nature spirits], kumbhāṇḍas [minor gods],
humans or non-humans?
May you say your names.
Then, the king’s right side’s boy with verse answered: (时王右面童子以偈答曰：)
As all dharmas [phenomena of mind and matter] are empty [of permanent self],
why ask for names?
Past dharmas have already fallen away,
future dharmas have yet to arise,
and present dharmas do not abide.
Benevolent One, is asking for whose names?
Empty dharmas are also not humans,
not dragons, not rākşasahs [demonic ghosts].
Humans, non-humans and others,
all cannot be attained.
The left side’s boy then said in verse: (左面童子而说偈言：)
Names and the named are all empty.
Names and the named cannot be attained.
All dharmas are without names,
yet you desire to ask for names,
desiring to seek true names,
which have never been seen or heard.
As rising dharmas immediately fall,
why then ask for names?
Spoken names with languages
are all falsely set up.
My name is Gem Intention,
and his name is Gem Superior.’
Indeed, all phenomena, including our fluctuating configurations of bodies and minds are void of any fixed substance. What we call our ‘self’ in name is but a continually fleeting process of constant change, even if unnoticed due to unmindfulness. Tom, Dick and Harry, from young at birth and till old at death, are never exactly the same Tom, Dick and Harry due to fluxing physical and mental aspects of being. Think ever re-forming cells, thoughts and such. In fact, Tom, Dick and Harry are not always humans. They could had been non-humans in past lives. Even in this life, if they say, manifest great wrath in anger, they could even physically and mentally resemble rākşasahs, and become so in future lives. Yet, exactly due to impermanence from moment to moment, none of these states and identities are truly graspable. Only Buddha-nature, the potential for spiritual perfection of Buddhahood remains unchanging.
The emptiness of names and the named tells us not to cling to notions of self and the rest of all phenomena. Yet, Gem Intention and Gem Superior still revealed their names. This reminds us that despite the absolute truth that all phenomena is empty of permanence and substantiality, there is still practical need to use conventional names as differentiating labels for relating to one another, for social communication and even conveying of the Buddha’s teachings. Even though all names are ultimately false names (假名), they are still needed for sharing relative truths and pointing out the absolute truth. Every word here is a ‘name’ too. Thus do we need to walk the Middle Path between the absolute and relative, to relate to either but clinging to neither. Incidentally, King Powerful Virtue later became Śākyamuni Buddha, while Gem Intention became Guānshìyīn Bodhisattva, and Gem Superior became Dàshìzhì (Mahāsthāmaprāpta: Great Power Arrived) Bodhisattva (大势至菩萨), both of whom are now key assistant Bodhisattvas of Amitābha Buddha (阿弥陀佛: Āmítuófó).
Dharmas born of causes and conditions,
I say is emptiness,
likewise named as false names,
likewise named the meaning of the Middle Way.
— Middle Treatise (Nāgārjuna Bodhisattva)
— 中论 (龙树菩萨)