Supreme Efforts
by Ayya Khema

We can notice fairly easily what our mind does. It reflects and reacts and it often has fantasies and also moods. Anyone who doesn’t meditate will believe in all of that. Even those who do meditate might still believe in the reactions of their own mind to the outer stimuli or might believe the moods which come into the mind are to be taken seriously, that whatever the mind is doing is due to an outside occurrence and not to an inner reaction. This is easily seen if we watch our thinking process not only in meditation but in daily living.

The Buddha gave very exact instructions on how to counteract any unskillful mind states and produce skilful ones. They can briefly be expressed as “avoiding,” “overcoming,” “developing,” and “maintaining,” and are called the four supreme efforts, which have been briefly mentioned before. They are part of the 37 factors of enlightenment, so must be part of our practice. When perfected they are part of the enlightenment process.

You may have heard the expression “Nibbana and Samsara are both in the same place.” It is not a true saying, because there is no such “place.” But Nibbana, liberation, emancipation, enlightenment, and Samsara, the round of birth and death, how can they be together? In a way they can, because they are both in the mind, in everybody’s mind. Except that everyone is only aware of one of them, namely that which makes us continue in the round of birth and death; not only when this body disappears and it is called death or when a body reappears and it is called birth. But there is constant birth and death in our every moment of existence. There is the birth of skilful and unskillful thoughts and the dying away of them. There is the birth of feelings, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, and the dying away of them. There is the birth of the arising of this body and it’s dying away moment after moment, except that we are not mindful enough to become aware of that.

We can see this quite clearly when we look at a photo of ourselves taken 10 or 20 years ago. We look entirely different from what we see in the mirror now. But it doesn’t follow that a body takes a leap of 20 years and then changes itself suddenly. It has changed moment by moment until after a longer time span, it is finally noticeable to us. With more mindfulness, we could have known it all along, because there is constant birth and death in the body, the same as with thoughts and feelings. This is Samsara, the round of birth and death within us, due to our craving to keep or renew what we think is “me.” When there is liberation, that craving ceases, whatever dies is left to die.

Although we have the potential for liberation, our awareness is not able to reach it, because we are concerned with what we already know. We are habit-formed and habit-prone and every meditator becomes aware of the mind habits with their old and tried reactions to outside triggers. They have not necessarily been useful in the past, but they are still repeated out of habit. The same applies to our moods, which are arising and passing away and have no other significance than a cloud has in the sky, which only denotes the kind of weather there is, without any universal truth to that. Our moods only denote the kind of weather our mind is fabricating, if it believes the mood.

The four supreme efforts are, in the first place, the avoiding of unwholesome, unskillful thought processes. If we look at them as unskillful, we can accept the fact of learning a new skill more easily. Avoiding means we do not let certain thoughts arise, neither reactions to moods nor to outside triggers. If we find ourselves habitually reacting in the same way to the same kind of situation, we may be forced to avoid such situations, so that we can finally gain the insight which needs to be culled from it. While we are reacting to a situation or mood, we can’t assess it dispassionately, because our reactions overpower the mind.

Avoiding, in a Dhamma sense, means to avoid the unskillful thought; in a practical sense, we may have to avoid whatever arouses such mind states in us. That, however, must not go to the length of running away as the slightest provocation, which is a well known, yet unsuccessful method of getting out of unpleasant reactions. Habitually running away from situations, which create unwholesome reactions in us, will not bring about a peaceful mind. Only if there is one particular trigger, which arouses unskillful responses in us over and over again, we may have to move away from it without blaming anyone. We just realise that we have not yet been able to master ourselves under certain circumstances. Just as we don’t blame the unpleasant feeling anywhere in the body, but realise that we haven’t mastered our non-reaction to dukkha yet, and therefore must change our posture.

It amounts to exactly the same thing. One is a physical move, the other is a mental one. All it means is that we haven’t quite mastered a particular situation yet. It brings us to the realisation that there is still more to be learned about ourselves. Blaming anything in our outside of ourselves is useless, it only aggravates the situation and adds more unwholesome thinking to it.

In order to avoid unskillful reactions in the mind, we have to be attentive and know the way our mind works before we verbalise. We can learn about that in meditation. Awareness is the prime mover in meditation. It isn’t viable or useful to have calm and peaceful mind states without being completely aware of how we attained them, remained in them and came out of them. Having learned this through our meditative practice enables us to realise how our mind works in daily life before it says anything, such as possibly: “I can’t stand this situation” or “I hate this person.” When that happens, an unwholesome state has already been established.

Before the mind is allowed to fall into this trap, a dense and unpleasant feeling can be noticed, which acts as a warning that an unwholesome mind state is approaching, which can be dropped before it has even established itself. It is much easier to let go before the negativity has taken hold but it is harder to recognise. When we notice that a mind state is approaching which does not seem to be accompanied by peace and happiness, we can be sure it will be unwholesome. The more we train ourselves to be mindful of our mind states, the more we realise the unhappiness we cause ourselves and others through unskillful thinking.

When we have not been able to avoid an unwholesome mind, we have to practice to overcome it. Because of the difficulty of becoming aware in time to avoid negativities, we have to be very clear on how to overcome them. Dropping a thought is an action and not a passive reaction, yet it is difficult to do because the mind needs something to grasp. In meditation, we need a subject, such as the breath or the feelings/sensations to hold onto, before the mind can become calm and peaceful. When we want to overcome unskillful mind states, it is easier to substitute with wholesome thinking, than just trying to let go of unwholesomeness.

If we entertain the negative mind states for any length of time, they become more and more at home. As they make themselves comfortable, we are more and more inclined to believe them and finally come out with thoughts such as “I always hate people who don’t agree with me” or “I always get nervous about thunder.” These statements are designed to show one’s own unchanging character, giving our ego an extra boost. The only reason these states might have become ingrained in our character is that having entertained negativities for so long, one can no longer imagine to be without them. Yet these are nothing but unskillful mind states, which can and need to be changed. The quicker we substitute, the better it is for our own peace of mind.

If we have dislike or rejection concerning a person, we may remember something good about that person and be able to substitute the negative thought with something concretely positive. Everyone is endowed with both qualities, good and evil, and if we pick on the negative, then we will constantly be confronted with that aspect, rather than the opposite. With some people, this will be more difficult than with others. They are our tests, so to say. Nobody gets away in this life without such tests. Life is an adult education class with frequent examinations, which are being thrown at us at any time. We are not told in advance, what is in store for us, so we should be prepared all the time.

As we learn the skill of substitution and do it successfully once, we gain confidence in our own abilities. There is no reason when why we cannot repeat this whenever needed. The relief we feel is all the incentive we need for practice.

When we are confronted with situations which we find difficult to handle, we can remember that we are faced with a learning experience. Overcoming unwholesome mind states needs mind power, which we develop through our meditation practice. If we are not yet able to keep our attention in meditation where we want it to be, we will not be able yet to change our mind when we want to do so. The more skill we develop in meditation, the easier it will be for us to either “avoid” or “overcome.” By the same token, as we practice substitution in daily living, we assist our meditation. When we realise that our mind is not a solid entity which has to react in certain ways, but is a movable, changeable phenomenon, which can be clear and illuminated, then we will more and more try to protect it from unwholesomeness. It is often a revelation to a new meditator to find out that the mind is not a fixed and believable reactor, but can be influenced and changed at will.

To develop wholesome states of mind means that we try to cultivate these when they have not arisen yet. If the mind is neutrally engaged or has a tendency to weigh, judge and criticise, feel hurt or be ego-centred, we deliberately counteract these tendencies to develop skilful mind states. We acknowledge that all negative states are not conducive to our own happiness, peace and harmony. When we develop loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, we experience that these states are conducive to our own inner well-being. Obviously, we will then try again and again to cultivate the mind states which result in personal contentment. Developing them from that understanding alone, that the wholesome states are good for us, is a powerful insight. When our mind is at peace, we realise that while there are innumerable unwholesome situations in the world, if we have an unwholesome reaction to them, that only doubles the dukkha. It will neither relieve the situation nor be helpful to anyone.

If we develop a capacity for seeing the positive and using whatever arises as a learning situation, trying to keep the four supreme emotions, mentioned above, in mind, then there remains only the last effort, namely to maintain skilful mind states. Anyone who has not reached full liberation from all underlying tendencies will not be able to maintain positive states at all times, but our mindfulness can be sharp enough to tell us when we are not succeeding. That is the awareness we need to effect changes. When we are not able to maintain wholesomeness, we can always try again. Should we start blaming ourselves or others, however, we are adding a second negative state of mind and are blocking our progress.

A skill can be learned. We have all learned many skills in this life. This is the sort of ability well worth cultivating, more important than proficiencies. This is not a character trait we either possess or lack. Everybody’s mind is capable of developing the wholesome and letting go of the unwholesome. But that also doesn’t mean that we find everything wonderful and beautiful from now on. That too is not realistic. That which can be practised is, that although there is unwholesomeness within and without, dislike is not an effective reaction to bring peace and happiness. The pinnacle of all emotional states is equanimity, even-mindedness, which is developed through our meditation practice and based on insight. It is our tool in daily living to develop and maintain wholesome mind states.

It is neither useful to suppress nor to pretend by thinking “I ought to be” or “I should be.” Only awareness of what is happening in our mind and learning the skill of changing our mind is called for. Eventually, our mind will be a finely tuned instrument, the only one in the whole of the universe that can liberate us from all dukkha. All of us have that instrument and the guidelines of the Buddha teach us the skill to use this instrument to the best advantage; not to believe its moods and reactions to outer stimuli, but to watch and protect it and realise its potential for complete liberation.

If we want a good tool, we need to look after it in the best possible manner. This means not letting any dirt particles accumulate, but to clean it up as quickly as possible. The same criterion applies to our minds. This is probably the hardest skill to learn, which is the reason so few people do it. but a meditator is on the right path towards just that, by realising that the mind cannot be believed implicitly, being much too fanciful and fleeting.

The four supreme efforts are called “supreme,” not only because they are supremely difficult, but also supremely beneficial. A serious meditator wants to transcend the human realm while still in human form and these efforts are our challenge. They are so well explained by the Buddha that we can clearly see the difficulties we are faced with and the reasons why we are still roaming about in Samsara. But we don’t have to continue that unendingly. Knowing the path and the way to tread upon it, we have the opportunity to become free of all fetters.

Ayya Khema 20.

Brahmaviharas – Equanimity (Part 2)
by Gil Fronsdal

Equanimity is a form of care for others, an attitude of caregiving, kindness, and goodwill for others. Equanimity is when our goodwill is equanimous, and not reactive, or agitated. It is when our goodwill is not influenced by any kind of pursuit of desire or wanting something, and not caught up in repulsion or pushing away.

This comes into play particularly when it’s hard to have goodwill for people. It comes into play when it’s hard to have pure love or kindness for people, because of the circumstances they’re in. One circumstance is when people make choices for themselves that in the end are not for their own benefit. We want to have equanimity for people who make choices that are harming themselves. It’s their choice, and it’s their agency. It’s their choice in a sense, even if the choices they’re making are unconscious. The choices are their own. And so how our goodwill comes into play when people are making poor choices is part of the domain of this brahmavihara of equanimity.

Certainly, we can feel compassion for people. But wanting and trying to help, when they’re making choices that are going in the opposite direction, is kind of exhausting for the person who’s being compassionate. And it may be pointless to have appreciative joy when we know they’re making bad choices. When we know that suffering is coming, it can be challenging for the person who’s wise and can see what’s going on. The wise person witnesses this person making choices which are unfortunate choices. They’re going in a poor direction, but I still keep my heart open to them. I still have this goodwill and care for them.

But I harm myself if I get all agitated and contracted by it, or if I keep pushing to be compassionate and try everything I can to help the person. Or if I go along and celebrate with them, when what they’re doing is actually quite harmful, even though they have a kind of joy. And so how not to harm ourselves with our goodwill is in the domain of equanimity.

The word ‘equanimity’ in Pali is ‘upekkha’. It comes from the root verb ‘to see’, ‘to view’ and ‘to observe’. The etymology of the word means to have an overview of the situation. It is like having a bird’s eye view. To not be lost in the details of everything, but to have an overview of everything. So we can see it with wisdom. We (learn to) see the bigger picture, and we’re not caught in the details.

For example, there are times when people will do you a favour. You come to work and a colleague says, “I had a really difficult night last night. It was very hard. I have family who has COVID-19. People are dying.” Or, “My child was up all night, throwing up and having a fever.” They come to work and they say, “It’s a hard time, and I’m really irritable.” And you say, “Thank you for telling me.” And then, if you find that they’re expressing some irritability, you’re much more forgiving of them. You say, “They’re having a hard time.” You have an overview of why they are the way they are. So you have more space for them to be that way. They’ve been kind enough to warn you, and so you get out of their way. “Okay. That’s just today that they’re that way.” And you feel for them. You have compassion for them. You’re equanimous about how they may say a mean thing or cut you off going to the bathroom – whatever it might be. In that sense, there’s an overview of the situation, a bigger picture. And so you’re more equanimous and at ease with what to do.

Upekkha is a wisdom factor. Our understanding of a situation is really useful for having equanimity. To simply hold ourselves in an equanimous way is probably not so helpful. Because holding and assuming something, which is not really true for ourselves, can be exhausting and harmful to ourselves. So, how do we have that bigger picture? How do we have the understanding of circumstances and other people, so that when we have goodwill for them, it’s appropriate. We have equanimity, meaning we don’t get agitated. We don’t get restless, upset, or contracted.

One of the classic Buddhist teachings is that everyone has their actions as their own – no one else makes up for your actions. They are your own actions, no matter your circumstances, or where you find yourself in life. There are a lot of unfortunate things that happen to people. We get sick in all kinds of ways. We end up living in a war zone. We have some accidents. A car drives into us – we’re doing nothing wrong – but someone else maybe is not paying attention. They run into us, and we’re injured. These things that can happen are not our choices. But, we do have a choice in how we respond – how we choose to live our lives. We’re always at a moment of choice. And when we are practising mindfulness, we start seeing more and more the places of choice. More and more, we notice that there are actually a lot of choices, moment by moment. If we’re not mindful, then we’re just on auto-pilot mode. We don’t see that we have choices about how we stand, and how we look at people. We have choices in how we speak, or when we don’t speak. We have choices in how much food we eat, or don’t eat. When we are on auto-pilot, habits come into play. Craving or aversion comes into play. And it’s (auto-pilot) driving the boat – we are not in charge.

When we see the place of choice – because it’s clear in the quiet, open, mindful mind – the consequences are up to us when we exercise that choice. So, if I see a thorn sticking up out of the ground, and I choose to step on it, and I cut my foot, that was my choice because I chose to step on it. That’s kind of a dramatic example. But if you don’t see you have a choice about what you’re going to say, and you feel angry and use a swear word with someone, and the person gets angry back, that’s partly a consequence of your choice. Or that person doesn’t want to talk to you and walks away, that’s also partly a consequence of your choice. If you do see that choice, then you can say, “Well, wait a minute, I have a choice here. What choice do I want to live by? What is my deepest choice? What are the deepest values I want to live by here? What’s most important for me?” And to pause, and look, and choose what that is. And so, when we want to make our own choices, we see that other people have choices as well. We can’t be in charge of the choices other people make. We might help and advise them. There are all kinds of things we might do. But ultimately, people make their own choices. And when they make choices that are not wise for themselves, it’s their consequences that they’re going to have to live with. If those consequences are unfortunate, it’s heart-breaking sometimes.

But we don’t let our goodwill or love for them get tied up and dependent on the choices they make. We don’t exhaust ourselves with our compassion. We don’t regret the ways in which we celebrated with them. We have goodwill with this overview of seeing clearly. When people whom I love and care for, are making choices, and those choices are not wise. I have to allow them a certain generosity – to give them the autonomy and dignity of making their own choices and then they have to live with the consequences. I’ll try to be supportive, but I’m not going to be responsible for all the consequences of their poor choices. They’re going to have to live with that themselves. Exactly to what degree we’re involved or not involved has a lot to do with the consequences we think will come about by offering our support. If we think we can actually turn the boat – turn them in a new direction, or help support them to come to a new way of living – maybe it’s great to offer a lot to them.

But we have to be very careful we don’t harm ourselves in that process. This is why mindfulness is so important – to really track ourselves and see what’s going on inside of ourselves. We have choices. We make choices as well. Can we choose the peaceful choices? It doesn’t mean the passive choices. It doesn’t mean the uninvolved choices. It means, whatever choice we make, can we do so without the negative alternatives to equanimity? Can we do it without chasing or wanting something, or without getting caught up in the need for something to happen? Can we do it without contraction, aversion, closing down (shutting off), or pulling away in horror? Can we do it without being restless or agitated? Can we do it with a mind at ease? If the mind is at ease, then the goodwill as equanimity becomes the equanimity brahmavihara.

I’ll read you a very famous passage, used liturgically in Theravada Buddhism. I see it as supporting our understanding and appreciation of people’s place of choice: ‘Beings have actions. They have actions as their refuge, actions as their heritage, and actions as their one closest relative.’ Actions and choices are closely related. Be careful with the choices you make – not to be hamstrung, not to be inhibited or passive in some kind of negative way. Use your choices, so that whatever you do in the world, you do without hurting yourself. You stay peaceful, at ease, and equanimous in a way that allows the best qualities of who you are to be shared with the world.

Lotus 302.

In the Spirit of Chan
by Venerable Sheng Yen

Perhaps some of you have heard the sayings “Chan is not established on words and language” and “Chan is a transmission outside conventional teachings.” But if Chan does not rely on words, why would anyone want to read a Chan book? Isn’t that a contradiction? Although Chan is not established on words, it has, among the many sects of Buddhism in China, left behind the most writing. The primary goal of these writings, however, is to show you or teach you that “Chan is not established on words and language” and that “Chan is a transmission outside the conventional teachings.” So there is a reason for you to read such a book.

The word “Chan” can mean enlightenment, and enlightenment can be understood to mean realising “the first meaning,” or “the ultimate truth.” In Chan, there is also what is called “secondary meaning,” or “conventional truth.” Conventional truth can be expressed in words and concepts, but the primary or ultimate, truth of Chan cannot be expressed in words. In the Chan tradition, sometimes the ultimate truth is compared to the moon, and the conventional truth is compared to a finger pointing at the moon. No one would mistake the finger for the moon. Words, language, ideas, and concepts are like the finger and can express just the conventional truth. These words and concepts only point to the ultimate truth. The ultimate truth can be called mind, original nature, or Buddha-nature It is something everyone must experience for himself or herself. It can never be fully described.

What is the source of Chan? According to the Chan lore, the monk Bodhidharma brought Chan from India to China in about 500 C.E., more than a thousand years after Shakyamuni Buddha’s death. But Indian history contains few records of the interim period, so we know relatively little about the origins of Chan practice.

We do know stories and legends that describe the origins of Chan. Most famous is the account of the transmission of the Dharma to Mahakashyapa, one of the Buddha’s chief disciples, who became the First Patriarch in the Chan lineage. The story is this: one day during a sermon at Vulture Peak, Shakyamuni Buddha held a flower in his hand in front of the assembly and did not speak. No one seemed to know what this gesture meant, but Mahakashyapa smiled. The Buddha said, “The Treasure of the Eye of the True Dharma, the Wondrous Mind of Nirvana; only Mahakashyapa understands.” This event marks the beginning of the Chan lineage and the master-to–disciple transmission that continues to this day. This story was unknown to Buddhist history until the tenth-century Song dynasty. But the literal truth of the story is not as important as the message it contains about the nature of Chan.

Shakyamuni Buddha had two other disciples, one very bright and the other quite dull. The first disciple, Ananda, had a powerful mind and a fabulous memory. However, he never attained enlightenment during Shakyamuni’s lifetime. Ananda thought that Buddha would reward his intelligence with enlightenment. It never happened. After Buddha entered nirvana, Ananda hoped Mahakashyapa would help him.

After Buddha’s passing, Mahakashyapa tried to gather 500 enlightened disciples together in order to collect and record the Buddha’s teachings. He could find only 499. Some suggested that he invite Ananda, but Mahakashyapa said that Ananda was not enlightened and therefore was unqualified for the assembly. He said that he would rather not have the gathering at all than allow Ananda’s attendance.

But Ananda persisted. Three times he was turned away by Mahakashyapa. Ananda said, “Buddha has entered nirvana. Now only you can help me reach enlightenment!” Mahakashyapa said, “I’m very busy. I cannot be of help. Only you can help yourself.” At last, Ananda realised that he had to rely on his own efforts if he wished to attain enlightenment. He went off to a solitary and secluded place. As he was about to sit down, he attained enlightenment! Why? At that moment he relied on no one and dropped all of his attachments.

Another story describes the dim-witted disciple named Suddhipanthaka, or Small Path. All except Small Path could remember Buddha’s teachings. If he tried to remember the first word of a phrase, he forgot the second, and vice versa. Buddha gave him the job of sweeping the ground since he didn’t seem fit to do anything else.

After he had swept the ground for a very long time, Small Path asked, “The ground is clean, but is my mind-ground clean?” At that moment everything dropped from his mind. He went to see the Buddha, who was very pleased with his accomplishment and affirmed that Small Path had become enlightened.

These are recorded in the early texts as true stories, but their meaning goes beyond their original context. The first story illustrates that in practice, knowledge and intelligence do not necessarily guarantee enlightenment and the second story shows that even a slow person can attain enlightenment. Although Shakyamuni Buddha, Mahakashyapa, and Shariputra were people of great learning, Chan has less to do with great learning than with the problem of the mind that is filled with attachments. Enlightenment can be reached only when one’s mind is rid of attachments.

It is said that twenty-eight generations of transmissions occurred from the time of Mahakashyapa to the time of Bodhidharma, who is considered the First Patriarch of Chinese Chan. His teachings were transmitted through a single line for five generations until the time of the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng (638-713), whose many disciples established many branches, some of which still survive today. I am the 62nd lineage holder of Chan from Huineng and the 57th generation in the Linji (810-866) tradition. In the Caodong lineage, I am the 50th generation descendant of the co-founder, Master Dongshan (807-869).

Chan is not precisely the Buddhism brought by Bodhidharma from India, but Bodhidharma brought certain insights to China, and the Chan tradition is related to these. He taught that everything comes from the mind, that the nature of the mind is Buddha-nature, that Buddha-nature is inherent in every sentient being, and that the essential method for realizing this original nature is beholding the mind. These ideas were controversial when they were first presented in China because they seemed to contradict the more complicated philosophies and practices of other Buddhist schools, but they are really just basic Buddhism, stripped to its essence.

There is a famous story about the enlightenment of Bodhidharma’s disciple Huike that illustrates the bare-bones nature of Bodhidharma’s Chan. Huike went to Bodhidharma and said, “Master, could you calm my mind for me?” Bodhidharma said, “Hand over your mind and I will calm it for you!” Huike searched within and then told Bodhidharma that he could not find his mind. Bodhidharma then said, “There, I have already calmed your mind for you.” This is the account of Huike’s enlightenment. Those of you who have been on retreat and suffered a lot of pain in your legs from sitting meditation apparently need not have done so. Unfortunately, you did not meet Bodhidharma.

There is an important work attributed to Bodhidharma called The Two Entries and Four Practices, in which he details more explicitly what sentient beings must do to realise their true nature. The “two entries” are entry through principle and entry through practice. Entry through principle means directly seeing the first principle, or original nature, without relying on words, descriptions, concepts, experience, or any thinking process. Entry through practice refers to the gradual training of the mind.

Bodhidharma describes entry through principle as follows: “Leaving behind the false, return to the true; make no discriminations between self and others. In contemplation, one’s mind should be stable and unmoving, like a wall.” This may sound like the direct, easy path to enlightenment, but it is in fact the most difficult. If we think of Bodhidharma’s own enlightenment as an entry through principle, then we would have to say that it only came after a lifetime of practice, culminating in his nine years of meditation facing a wall in a cave on Mount Song. Actually, the method used to accomplish entry through principle is precisely this phrase, “One’s mind should be stable and unmoving, like a wall.” This does not mean that the mind is blank; on the contrary; it is alert and clear, illuminating everything with awareness and responding with compassion. This is ideal, and it is the state of mind referred to in entry through principle.

The second entry to attain realisation is through practice. Bodhidharma discusses four specific methods: accepting karmic retribution, adapting to conditions, no seeking, and union with the Dharma. Each practice is progressively more advanced, and therefore, they should be followed in order.

Accepting karmic retribution involves recognising the effects of karma and cause and consequence. Karma is a Sanskrit term that translates literally as “action.” When we carry out an action, a karmic force remains that leads to a consequence in the future, whether in the present existence or in a future one. The karmic effect of a particular action is not permanently fixed, because the continual performance of new actions modifies the karmic force accordingly, but in all cases, there is a cause-and-consequence relationship, and the consequence will be similar in nature to the cause. Therefore, when we face adversity, we should understand that we are receiving the karmic retribution from countless previous actions in countless previous lives. When we pay back some of our debt, we should feel happy that we have the capacity to do so. If we have this perspective, then when misfortunes arise, we will be tranquil and without resentment. We will not suffer from disturbing emotions or be discouraged or depressed. This is an important practice.

Karma, or cause and consequence, has to be understood and applied in conjunction with the Buddhist concept of causes and conditions. Causes and conditions describe the fact that things happen because of many conditions coming together. We cannot and should not run away from our responsibilities and the retribution caused by our karma. But we should try to improve our conditions and karma. If things can be improved, we must try to make them better. If they can’t be changed, then we should accept them with equanimity as karmic retribution.

It might be easy to confuse the principle of causes and conditions with that of cause and consequence. In fact, the two principles are intimately connected with each other, and it is difficult to talk about one without mentioning the other. From the standpoint of cause and consequence, we can say that the earlier event is the cause and the later event is the consequence. One event leads to the next. A cause, however, cannot lead to a consequence by itself. Something else must occur, must come together with the cause, to lead to a consequence. This coming together of events and factors is referred to as causes and conditions. A man and woman together do not automatically lead to children. Other factors must come together in order for the cause (parents) to lead to the consequence (children). Parents, children, and the other factors involved are all considered causes and conditions.

Furthermore, the condition (one dharma) that intersects with a cause (another dharma) must have itself been caused by something else, and so on and so on, infinitely in all directions throughout space and time. All phenomena arise because of causes and conditions. Any phenomenon that arises is itself a consequence of a previous cause and arose because of the coming together of causes and conditions. This leads to the concept of conditioned arising, also known as dependent origination, which means that all phenomena, or dharmas, no matter when or where they occur, are interconnected.

Since all dharmas are the consequences of causes and conditions, their arising is conditional. This includes not only arising and appearing but also perishing and disappearing. A person being born is a phenomenon and a person dying is a phenomenon; a bubble forming is a phenomenon, and a bubble bursting is a phenomenon; a thought appearing is a phenomenon, and a thought disappearing is a phenomenon. All dharmas arise and perish because of causes and conditions.

Let me make a distinction between dharma and Dharma. Dharma with a lowercase “d” refers to any phenomenon. Dharma with an uppercase “D” refers to Buddhadharma, or the teachings of the Buddha, the methods of practice and the principles and concepts that underlie the practice. But remember, even the teachings of the Buddha and the methods of practice are themselves phenomena or dharmas.

The second of the four practices recommended by Bodhidharma is “adapting to conditions.” It also requires an understanding of causes and conditions. Adapting to conditions means that we should do our best within the constraints of our environment. If our circumstances are fortunate for something good to happen to us, we should not get overly excited. Good fortune, like bad, is the result of karmic retribution. Why should we feel excited when we are only enjoying the fruits of our own labour? It is like withdrawing money from our own bank accounts. By the same token, we should not be overly proud, because good fortune, like bad, is the result of many causes and conditions coming together. How can we rake credit for our accomplishments, when they depend so much on the goodwill of others, on the sacrifices of our parents, on the circumstances of history? The practise of adapting to conditions means that you accept your karma, or cause and consequence, without being overly joyful or self-satisfied or disappointed.

Accepting karmic retribution and adapting to conditions are very helpful practices in daily life. They allow us to improve our conditions and karma and maintain a positive attitude toward life. They help us enjoy equanimity in the face of changing circumstances, improve our behaviour, and keep our relationships harmonious. These teachings of Bodhidharma are not hard to understand, and any ordinary person can make use of them. If we can apply them in daily circumstances, we will fulfil our responsibilities and we will make the best of our opportunities. In this way, life will be more meaningful.

The third of Bodhidharma’s four practices is the practice of “no seeking.” There is a Chinese saying that “people raise children to help them in old age, and people accumulate food in case of famine.” Today, people in the West may not raise children just to support them in old age, but people probably still accumulate food, or wealth, in case of hardship. This attitude is not the attitude of no seeking. In the practice of no seeking, we continually, diligently engage in useful activity, yet we have no thought that this activity is for our personal gain now or in the future. We do not look for personal benefits. This is not easy, and it is a higher level of practice than the second practice. In fact, in order to completely avoid self-centred activity, we must make the difficult step of realising that the self does not exist.

What we commonly think of as the self is an illusion. It is nothing in itself at all but a name we give to our continuous interaction with the environment. We constantly see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think, and it is this cascade of sensations, perceptions, and judgments, thought afterthought, that we identify as the self.

To say that the self is an illusion, however, is not to say that the self is a hallucination. The self is not a mirage. We say that the self is illusory because it is not a stable entity but, rather, a series of events that are forever changing in response to a constantly changing environment. The self is not a thing that stays the same, and as such, we say that the self is an illusion. For the same reason, all phenomena are considered illusions; that is, all phenomena are selfless. All things change from moment to moment, evolving and transforming into something else. The self, therefore, is a false existence ceaselessly interacting with a false environment.

The practise of no seeking is an advanced practice because it is the practice of no-self. While it is normal for people to begin to learn and practice Buddhism for their own benefit, eventually, through practice, their self-centeredness falls away. They find themselves busy because others need their help, and they provide what is needed. Such a person no longer even thinks about attaining enlightenment.

When you have ceased to be concerned about your own attainment, then you are enlightened. Otherwise, there will always be subtle, wandering thoughts and attachments to the desire to do something for yourself. If you want to free yourself from all worldly vexations and suffering and if you desire liberation, you are still attached to yourself. It is only when you have no concern about your own enlightenment that you can truly be enlightened. The practise of no seeking is the practice of this enlightened state.

The fourth of Bodhidharma’s practices, “union with the Dharma,” is a basic tenet of Buddhism that all phenomena are impermanent and do not have an intrinsic self. In the practice of union with the Dharma, we try to personally experience this impermanence and selflessness through direct contemplation of emptiness. This is the highest practise of Chan, and it leads to the highest attainment. It is the practice that allows us to reach the point of “entry through principle” that we talked about earlier.

But where does a practitioner begin? Different Buddhist sects employ many methods of practice that can be used by beginners, such as reading the scriptures, making vows, doing prostrations, mindfulness of the Buddha, and counting the breath. These methods all help us to go from a scattered mind, which is confused, emotional, and unstable, to a mental state that is tranquil and in harmony with our environment. The very first thing we should do is relax the body and mind. If we can relax, we will be healthier and more stable and will relate to others more harmoniously.

There is a Buddhist householder who comes to the Chan Centre who is very nervous. His nervousness makes other people feel nervous. When he talks to you, his body is tense, as if he is about to attack you or defend himself. People react to this kind of behaviour; it disturbs them. When I told him to relax his body, he responded in a tense, forced voice, “I am already relaxed!” He is constantly fearful and insecure, and because of the problems these feelings cause, he came to the Chan Centre seeking help. He wanted to learn meditation, so I taught him to gradually relax his body and then his mind. If we cannot relax, there is no way we can meditate; and if we cannot meditate, the practise of no seeking is completely impossible. This man was impatient and thought that if he got enlightened all his problems would disappear. He said to me, “Master, I do not want anything; I just want the method to get enlightened quickly. Give me the method as soon as possible.” I answered, “Such a method has not been invented. If I could invent a guaranteed, speedy method of enlightenment, I could probably sell it for quite a lot of money.”

Now I have invented the following method, and I offer it free of charge to whoever wishes to learn. The method is to relax your body and mind. It is easy and simple. Do not ask whether it can lead you to enlightenment. First, you should be able to relax, and later we can talk about enlightenment. Close your eyes, lean back in your chair, and relax your muscles. Completely relax your eyes. It is very important that your eyelids be relaxed and do not move. There should not be any tension around your eyeballs. Do not apply any force or tension anywhere. Relax your facial muscles, shoulders, and arms. Relax your abdomen and put your hands in your lap. If you feel the weight of your body, it should be in your seat. Do not think of anything. If thoughts come, recognise them and pay attention to the inhaling and exhaling of your breath through your nostrils. Ignore what other people are doing. Concentrate on your practice, forget about your body, and relax. Do not entertain doubts about whether what you are doing is useful.

The principle of this method is to relax–to be natural and clear. Keep each session short, but practice frequently; each session should be no longer than three to ten minutes. If you do it longer, you will probably feel restless or fall asleep. You can use this method a few times a day; it will refresh your body and mind and eliminate some of the confusion in your daily life. Gradually you will gain the stability of body and mind that makes it possible to, eventually, enter the gate of Chan.

Chan is often referred to as the “gateless gate.” The “gate” is both a method of practice and a path to liberation; this gate is “gateless,” however, in that Chan does not rely on any specific method to help a practitioner achieve liberation. The methodless method is the highest method. So long as the practitioner can drop the self-centred mind, the gateway into Chan will open naturally.

The primary obstacle to attaining wisdom is attachment to the self. When you face people, things, and situations, the notion of “I” arises immediately within you. When you attach to this “I,” you categorise and judge everything else accordingly: “This is mine; that is not. This is good for me; that is not. I like this; I hate that.” Attachment to the idea of self makes true clarity impossible.

But how might we define non-attachment? According to Chan, non-attachment means that when you face circumstances and deal with other people, there is no “I” in relation to whatever may appear in front of you. Things are as they are, vivid and clear. You can respond appropriately and give whatever is needed. Clear awareness of things as they are, in this state of selflessness, is what Chan calls wisdom. Giving whatever others may need with no thought of the self is what Chan calls compassion. Wisdom and compassion describe the awareness and function of the enlightened mind. In Chan, these two cannot be separated, and both depend on putting down the attachment to self.

As the Chan school evolved, two forms of practice developed, which correspond roughly to Bodhidharma’s two entries, the one through principle and the other through practice. The method of silent illumination is the specialty of the Caodong tradition, while the Linji tradition advocates the method of gongan and huatou. Both approaches can lead to enlightenment, the realisation of no-self.

The term Silent Illumination, or Mozhao, is associated with the Song dynasty master Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157), although the practice itself can be traced back at least as far as Bodhidharma and his concept of entry through principle. Five generations later, the great master Yongjia (665-713) wrote about “clarity and quiescence” in his Song of Enlightenment. Quiescence refers to the practice of silencing the mind, and clarity refers to contemplation, illuminating the mind with the light of awareness.

Hongzhi himself described the “silent sitting” as thus: “your body sits silently; your mind is quiescent, unmoving. This is a genuine effort in practice. Body and mind are at complete rest. The mouth is so still that moss grows around it. Grass sprouts from the tongue. Do this without ceasing, cleansing the mind until it gains the clarity of an autumn pool, bright as the moon illuminating the evening sky.”

In another place, Hongzhi said, “In the silent sitting, whatever realm may appear, the mind is very clear to all the details, yet everything is where it originally is, in its own place. The mind stays on one thought for ten thousand years, yet does not dwell on any form, inside or outside.”

To understand Silent Illumination C’han, it is important to understand that while there are no thoughts, the mind is still very clear, very aware. Both the silence and the illumination must be there. According to Hongzhi, when there is nothing going on in one’s mind, one is aware that nothing is happening. If one is not aware, this is just Chan sickness, not the state of Chan. So in this state, the mind is transparent. In a sense, it is not completely accurate to say that there is nothing present, because the transparent mind is there. But it is accurate in the sense that nothing can become an attachment or obstruction. In this state, the mind is without form or feature. Power is present, but its function is to fill the mind with illumination, like the sun shining everywhere. Hence, silent illumination is the practice in which there is nothing moving, but the mind is bright and illuminating.

A gongan is a story of an incident between a master and one or more disciples that involves an understanding or experience of the enlightened mind. The incident usually, but not always, involves dialogue. When the incident is remembered and recorded, it becomes a “public case,” which is the literal meaning of the term. Often what makes the incident worth recording is that, as the result of the interchange, a disciple had an awakening, an experience of enlightenment.

Master Zhaozhou was asked by a monk, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” The master replied, “Wu,” meaning nothing. This is a basic gongan, possibly the most famous on record. Here is another gongan, also involving Zhaozhou. Zhaozhou had a disciple who met an old woman and asked her, “how do I get to Mt. Tai?” She said, “Just keep going!” As the monk started off, he heard the old woman remark, “He really went!” Afterwards, the disciple mentioned this to Zhaozhou, who said, “I think I will go over there and see for myself” When he met the old woman, Zhaozhou asked the same question and she gave the same response: “Just keep going!” As Zhaozhou started off he heard the old lady said as she had last time, “He really went!” When Zhaozhou returned, he said to the assembly, “I have seen through that old woman!” What did Zhaozhou find out about that old woman? What is the meaning of this lengthy and obscure gongan?

Around the time of the Song dynasty (960-1276), Chan Masters began using recorded gongans as a subject of meditation for their disciples. The practitioner was required to investigate the meaning of the historical gongan. To penetrate the meaning of the gongan, the student has to abandon knowledge, experience, and reasoning, since the answer is not accessible by these methods. The student must find the answer by can (pronounced:tsan) gongan, or “investigating the gongan.” This requires sweeping from consciousness everything but the gongan, eventually generating the “doubt sensation,” which is a strong sensation of wonder and an intense desire to know the meaning of the gongan.

Closely related, but not identical to, the gongan is the huatou. A huatou–literally, “head of a spoken word”–is a question that a practitioner asks himself or herself. “What is Wu?” and “Who am I?” are commonly used huatous. In the huatou practice, one devotes one full attention to repeating the question incessantly. The gong an and the huatou methods are similar in that the practitioner tries to arouse the great doubt sensation in order to eventually shatter it and awaken to enlightenment.

Chan Master Dahui Zonggao (1089-1163), one of the greatest advocates of huatou practice, maintained that sitting meditation is necessary to settle the wandering mind before a student can effectively use a gong an or huatou. A scattered mind lacks the focus or energy necessary to generate the great doubt, so in training my students, I first give them a method to unify the scattered mind. Once the student’s mind is stable and concentrated, the application of gongan or huatou may cause the great doubt to rise. This doubt is not the ordinary doubt of questioning the truth of an assertion. It is the fundamental uncertainty, the existential dilemma, that underlies all of our experiences–the question of who we are and the meaning of life and death. Because the question inherent in the gongan or huatou cannot be resolved by logic, the practitioner must continually return to the question, nurturing the “doubt mass” until it is like a “hot ball of iron stuck in his throat.” If the practitioner can persist and keep the energy from dissipating, the doubt mass will eventually disappear in an explosion that can wipe away all doubt from the mind, leaving nothing but the mind’s original nature, or enlightenment.

It is also possible, and perhaps more likely, that the explosion will lack sufficient energy to completely cleanse the mind of attachment. Even as great a master as Dahui did not penetrate sufficiently in his first explosive experience. His teacher Yuanwu (1063-1135) told him, “You have died, but you have come back to life.” His enlightenment was confirmed on his second experience.

Therefore, it is very important to have a reliable Shifu, or teacher, guiding one through all stages of practice. At the outset, attempting to generate the great doubt before the mind is sufficiently stable would, at best, be useless and, at worst, give rise to a lot of anxiety. And finally, any experience one has as a result of the practice must be confirmed by an adept master. Only a genuine master will know the difference between a true and a false enlightenment.

The practice of gongan and huatou is an aggressive, explosive approach toward enlightenment; the practice of silent illumination is a more peaceful way. Both, however, require the same foundation: a stable and unified mind. And both have the same purpose: the realisation of the nature of mind, which is the nature of emptiness, Buddha-nature, wisdom and enlightenment.

Ven Sheng Yen 104.

I remember when I was at the side of my guru, the Wish-fulfilling Jewel Thupga Rinpoche (Khenchen Thubten Chopel), practitioners with extraordinary wisdom and pure precepts were as numerous as the stars in heaven. However, quite a few of them have since fallen into a disgraceful state. On the contrary, those who had impure precepts and simpler intellect have since become great and meritorious masters.

As I reflect on these changes over time, it became apparent that even if we possess wisdom and merits in the present, they are not permanent and we should not feel a sense of superiority and dismiss others because of our achievements.

— His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche

Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche (法王如意宝晋美彭措) 52.











































Ven Yen Pei (演培老和尚) 1.