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Chan and Daily Life

A lecture at the Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri on April 17, 1990

I would like to thank Professor Grant and the university for inviting me here today. From the introduction given me, you may have the impression that, having written numerous books on the subject, I know a great deal about Buddhism. But throughout my study and practice of Buddhism, one important lesson has been drilled into me: once you’ve learned something, be sure to forget it. If you’ve written a book, forget the contents. It’s done. It’s gone. Just forget about it. A Chan practitioner does not dwell on accomplishment.

Another important lesson I learned is this: you should have money in the bank and money in your pocket, but you should have no money in your head. Some people believe the opposite. Their minds are filled with money, yet their pockets are empty and their bank account is zero. A Chan practitioner maintains an empty mind.
It wasn’t until yesterday that Professor Grant informed me of today’s topic. Thirty years ago I would have needed some advance time to prepare. If the topic is simply about Chan, then there’s no need for preparation. If I’m to speak on an area where I’ve done scholarly research, then, yes, I must have some time in advance. However, the Chan sect avoids the use of words, but words are sometimes unavoidable, so those speaking about Chan should not need to consider what it is they’re going to say beforehand. Perhaps Chan is best suited for lazy people, those who don’t like to work at all.

What do we mean when we say that Chan avoids words? Most importantly, it means not relying on what has been spoken or written in the past. There is no need for us to believe even the words of Shakyamuni Buddha. Thus we approach Chan unencumbered by what we have heard and what we have read. Other religions and schools of philosophy use considerable verbiage. Chan advocates throwing everything away. You leave the past behind — what you have read, heard and experienced.

At Webster University this morning, I spoke about this principle of letting go and leaving behind. Someone said, “That sounds scary, to throw away your whole past, to totally discard everything you know.” I am not really advocating that we return to some vegetative state, where your head is as empty as a dried pumpkin. We must learn, but we don’t want to cling to what we have learned. We don’t want it in our head. Is this possible? It certainly is not easy.

I slept at Professor Harris’ house last night. In the morning when we gathered for breakfast, his wife asked me, “Did you sleep well? Did anything bother you?” I said, “I slept quite well.” I told them that there is nowhere in the world that is free from noise and disturbance. Professor Harris added that no matter where we are or what we do, our minds are always buzzing with self-created problems. It is true: we are most disturbed not by what goes on around us, but what goes on in our heads.

What is going on in our heads? It’s our thoughts entangled with the past, present, future. And it’s not being able to get what we want when we want it, and not being able to get rid of what displeases us when we are displeased.

It might seem that some people can always get what they want. Imagine a campus heartthrob. Perhaps he’s got three girlfriends he can call on any given night. It looks like he can have whoever he wants, but he still has to choose one of the three. Can he have all three at the same time? Eventually you reach a limit.

You might think that it’s very easy to get rid of what you don’t want, but this is not necessarily so. Many people get married only to find later that they want to be single again, but it is not easy to dissolve a marriage.

In making decisions we usually connect the past, present, and future, and the process is fraught with contradictions. I don’t bother to go through all of this. I’m involved in a long list of activities and I have many disciples in Taiwan and here in the United States. I am always busy. Nevertheless, I am not disturbed by the number of obligations I have and the amount of work I must do. People ask me how I manage to deal with all of this. It is simply that I don’t put myself in the way of what I do. There is nothing that I wish to do or not do for personal gain or preservation. I do what I have to do with all my heart. I do not do what is not permitted me, what is unnecessary, and what I am unable to do.

Does this mean that I constantly change direction, try one thing, abandon it, and then try something else? No, because there is a central purpose that underlies everything that I do. I try to maintain the attitude of a Bodhisattva, and accordingly I try to benefit others as much as possible. It’s fine if what I do for others is also of benefit or at least of no harm to me. Even sacrifice of oneself is sometimes necessary. Viewing the world this way and maintaining this attitude, I have no vexation.

Be sure to understand that the willingness to sacrifice oneself is really the mark of a saint. It is not something that most of us can do. Do not be overwhelmed by unrealistic demands on yourself. Do what you can with the abilities you have now. Don’t think you have to be a saint and perform miraculous deeds. It is Confucianism that advocates striving after sagehood or sainthood. It is true that Buddhism advocates the Bodhisattva ideal. But this is for those who are ready, otherwise everything in its time. To be taken for a Bodhisattva when you have not truly attained this state is to have problems indeed.

I sometimes come across people who treat me as if I were a great master. To such people I say, “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but please don’t take me for a saint. Otherwise you will end up by causing me harm.” Why would anyone want to add to his or her suffering by posing as someone else’s ideal, as someone else’s illusion? Most often our suffering derives from unrealistic demands that we make or others make upon us.

Many people feel that Chan is an exotic product of the Orient that is of no use to the West. A similar attitude arose in China when Buddhism was first introduced there. Many Chinese thought that this was a foreign imposition that was unsuited and unadaptable to China. Something that is only useful to one nationality, culture, or group is useless and valueless indeed.

A Chan story goes as follows: There was a monk who asked his master, “What did Bodhidharma bring when he came to the East?” The master replied, “He didn’t bring anything.” The monk insisted, “Didn’t Bodhidharma bring Buddhadharma, the teaching of Buddha, from the West?” The master replied, “No, not really. Buddhadharma has always been in China.” The monk was puzzled, “Well, that’s strange then. If Buddhadharma was already here, why did Bodhidharma bother coming to China?” The master’s reply is interesting: “Because Buddhadharma was already here, it is for that reason that Bodhidharma had to leave India and come here.”

Does everybody get that?

What did Bodhidharma tell us? He said that everyone can become a Buddha. Everyone has Buddha Nature, but no one realizes it. How can we attain this realization? He gave us two methods. The first is the method of principle. The second is the method of practice.

In the first method there is nothing to talk about and nothing to do. You use no logic and there is no need to practice; you simply make your mind the same as a wall. You can see through this wall; it is transparent. It does not move. Nonetheless, you can hang things on it and you can write on it. But the wall itself does not change. Just so, your mind may contain knowledge and experience, but it is unaffected by them. In reality, it is empty of everything just as the substance of the wall is neither increased nor reduced by what is hung upon it.

When the mind is confused, you believe that what is stored in it is you. Then you continually try to take some things out and put other things in. The motion and confusion in the mind increase. The mind is strange. When you have no use for something stored in your mind, it comes out and gets in your way. When you need something from your mind, it often happens that you can’t find it anywhere.

This afternoon someone came up to me but forgot what it was he wanted to say. It hid from him. Why was that?

If your mind is calm and cool, there’s no need to anxiously search it for information. With a calm mind, what you need is available. When you are at a loss, it is because your mind is spinning with craving, misgiving, and distress. When your mind is like a wall, then it is like the mind of the Buddha.

Can you make your mind like a wall? Can you take all your past knowledge and experience and lock them in a storehouse. Can you prevent their escape? Who among you thinks that they can do that?

We often meet people who talk constantly. Sometimes there is nothing left for us to do but to tell them to shut up. That may be easy. But what happens when it is your mind that you are trying to quiet? Are you able to tell your mind to silence your wandering thoughts? Probably not.

It is for this reason that Bodhidharma also gave us the second method, that of practice. He divided the method of practice into four stages.

The first stage has to do with suffering. You recognize that your problems and the difficulties that befall you stem from your previous karma. Everything that now exists has its origin in some other place and some other time. We may not be able to know this origin. What has brought us and all around us to this present moment has its roots in innumerable past lives. But most of us cannot look deep into the past, and there is no way for us to prove the existence of past lives. Even in this life there are many things we are unable to remember. When we are confronted by unpleasantness and unhappiness in the present, we should know that they are rooted in what we have done in the past. We may be unable to perceive exactly what that cause was, nevertheless we should understand that the origin is in ourselves and accept the consequences that we now confront.

Is this unconditional acceptance a sign that the Chan approach is passive or negative? Not at all. By understanding that we have laid the groundwork for our suffering in the past, we can see that the here and now is the groundwork for the future. We can lay down a new cause right now to counteract our present suffering and immediately put ourselves on a course that will be more positive. By doing this we pay back debts that we have accrued in previous incarnations.

It is important to understand that this paying back consists of acting properly in the moment with what we have at hand. It does not mean surrendering. If this building burst into flames, there would be a cause for it. What would we do? Would we attempt to douse the flames? Or would we sit down and try to figure out how the fire started? There’s no need to concern ourselves with the reason. What we must do is to put out the fire now. When we have done everything that is humanly possible, only then do we unequivocally accept the consequences without complaint.

In the second stage, we develop the awareness that what we find good or pleasant is also the result of causes in the past, and we don’t get caught up in the feelings of gladness. We don’t take good fortune as a sign of our own specialness or greatness. We don’t let such things add to a sense of self. After all, when something good happens to us, we are simply experiencing the consequences of the hard work we have done in the past. It is as if we are withdrawing money from the bank. And what is so wonderful about withdrawing money from our account?

We must realize that happy events are not all that they seem. Some people still find ways to be unhappy in pleasant circumstances. Many of those with wealth, power, and position are not necessarily happy. Even a simple, common event such as boy meeting girl may not create happiness for all of the parties involved. This is not to say that they will necessarily be unhappy. But good fortune and happy occurrences should not lead us to pride or self- satisfaction. A lot of people forget themselves when they meet with success.

There is a story in China about a beggar who won a lottery. He had the winning ticket secreted in a bamboo walking stick. When he found out that he had won the prize, he was so overjoyed that he resolved then and there to never again have anything to do with begging. In a burst of exultation he threw his old clothes and all of his meagre possessions into a nearby river. Unfortunately, the walking stick was one of the discarded items. Too late, he watched it and his new life float downstream.

A Chan practitioner should maintain an attitude of equanimity. If the money comes, it comes. If it goes, it goes. Neither circumstance should create wild fluctuations in the mind.

By the third stage, the practitioner has come to maintain an attitude of not seeking. Of course, whether you are in the East or in the West, it would seem that nothing could be accomplished if you didn’t set out to accomplish it. Normally, we have desires and goals which we are striving towards. This is what motivates us, and this is very natural. But it often happens that we are unable to attain what we seek.

There is a Chinese saying: If you have the intention of planting a flower, the flower will not blossom. But a willow will flourish even if no one plants it.
Most of you in the audience are fairly young, but you are already old enough to have had lots of ideas of what you wanted to do with your lives. You may have had some career in mind even in your pre-school years. When you reached junior high school did your goals change? And in high school? Your first year in college?

When I spoke to Professor Harris, he told me that he has a Ph.D. in philosophy, and he teaches it as well. He also has a master’s degree in music, and he’s now studying massage and physical therapy. I wondered what his real goal was, his central purpose. But even though he has applied himself to a number of diverse subjects, I don’t think that this has been a problem for him at all. He is embarking on his own path.

It is like a house with many entrances. You may enter from the east or the west side. You can take a helicopter and enter the house from above. You may go in one way, dislike what you see, and then try another entrance.

Regardless of what door you come in through, what you see when you get into the interior of the house is the same. But if you stubbornly stick to one entrance and you can’t get past the door, that is a problem. You may see other people going in through that door, but if you can’t, you have to find another way in. It doesn’t matter what others think of you.

Not seeking anything, there is no single goal to attain. Nonetheless, we must work hard. Without hard work, life is meaningless. We need to work. We need motivation to accomplish everyday tasks. But in terms of spiritual cultivation, keeping a specific goal in mind is itself an obstacle to the accomplishment of the goal. Ordinary aims can be achieved by desire and direct effort, but the highest goal cannot be approached in this way.

If, for example, you practice to achieve enlightenment, you will find your goal moving farther and farther away from you. What does enlightenment mean? It means liberation, both from constraints imposed by the self and those imposed by the external world. Seeking, even if it is for enlightenment, is just another constraint.
Now we arrive at the fourth and last stage of practice. Each method reaches a progressively higher level. The first one is fairly easy to carry out. So, too, is the second one, but the third poses more of a problem. Few can put it into practice.

At the fourth level of practice one simply does whatever should be done. Whatever you need of me, I do. One who has only reached the third level may do a task well, but there may be some negativity in his attitude. But by the fourth level of practice, the practitioner manifests positive, forthright action.

I once met a young man who had wanted to become a lawyer from the time he graduated high school. As it turned out, he was unable to pass the entrance exam, so he eventually studied library science instead. At first he was quite disappointed. After he graduated, he went to France to do research on the French library system. Eventually, he received his Ph.D. in library science. Then he was invited back to Taiwan because there are very few Ph.D.’s in library science there, and they needed somebody for the central library. He came to me for advice and I quoted a Chinese saying to him: “Once you board the pirates’ boat, be a pirate.” I told him to go all the way with library science. He came back from France and thanked me. Things turned out quite well for him, and he was probably better off than if he had become a lawyer.

In whatever situation you find yourself, strive to be your best in that situation, not in some illusion you fear or crave. When things change, change with them. With this attitude, your life should run smoothly, and your vexations and troubles will be few.

by Chan Master Sheng Yen