November 2021 Sesshin, Day 1: Attaining the Way by Master Sheng Yen
7:33PM Nov 16, 2021
This is the first day of this seven day November 2021 sesshin. And I'm going to begin reading from a book by Master Sheng Yen called Attaining the Way: A Guide to the Practice of Chan Buddhism.
I've read from Sheng Yen before - most people are familiar with him. But just briefly I'll read the the blurb off the back of the book. Chan Master Sheng Yen, 1930 to 2009 - so he died at the age of 79 - was a widely respected Taiwanese Chan master, who taught extensively in the West during the last 31 years of his life with 21 centers throughout North America, as well as dozens of others throughout the world.
author of numerous books actually Roshi, Bowden Roshi went to Taiwan. I don't know how long ago maybe 1012 years ago, it's hard to keep track of time, getting harder and harder for the dedication of a gigantic temple and that was built there for him with him as the master. And he was seven storeys high. A lot of money in Taiwan. And it was quite the quite the scene
a great deal of reverence for him among the Chinese, maybe even a little bit over the top. But we definitely have an affinity with Sheng yen. And with his teaching, Roshi Kapleau also visited him when he was touring Asia. Fact those temple night when we have those rotating, sort of pagodas with all the Buddha figures lit up, some people may know what I'm talking about. Those were given to us when we at 1.1 of our visits to Taiwan.
This book is actually got teachings from four different masters a couple from hundreds and hundreds of years ago. And then sue Yuan, the very, very famous Chinese teacher who lived into the 1900s well into the 1900s Apparently live to be 120 years old. And then the fourth section is material from Sheng yen himself. And this is taken from his talks at a sesshin. And I'm going to just start right in. It's entitled, preparing to practice. And this first section is called give your body to the cushion.
He says this is the first moment morning of a seven day intensive Chan meditation retreat. In Japanese Zen, this is called sesshin, which comes from the Chinese Chacin. I'm sure I'm mispronouncing that, meaning to collect one's mind into a continuous meditative stream. Very simply, that's what we're here to do. Some of you are attending retreat for the first time. For some this is an unfamiliar place. This was his center in Queens, says the noise the noises of New York City never stop. Therefore it is normal to feel nervous or anxious. My best advice is to just relax. For seven days you will also have your body to contend with. Most of you will suffer from leg and back pains. You may get tired or sleepy. Again, relax. Your body and your mind will adjust quickly if you do not resist. Make a firm commitment to focus to leave thoughts of past and future outside these doors. You can and certainly will return to your issues after the retreat. But right now, thoughts about them will hinder your practice. This is such an important point, the more firm we can be in that commitment, just not going to dwell on those things that will wait for me for after sesshin don't want to be spending hours on the mat stewing over things that we can't do anything about right now have this opportunity, all we have to do is to turn our mind to it. He says at all times, keep your mind on your method of practice. When wandering thoughts appear, do not follow them. Simply recognize them and return to the method. That of course is the trick not to let one thought link up with another. And the key to avoiding that is to recognize it as a thought. It's when it happens below the level of our conscious awareness, that thoughts get in there and hijack our practice. He says know that once you've ident you identify a wandering thought for what it is, you are no longer on that thought. If you can do this, I guarantee you will have no anxiety over wandering thoughts.
Decide now not to be concerned with concepts or physical sensations, both real and imagined. Just focus on the method. That is easier said than done. But if you can do it, time will fly. On the other hand, preoccupation with your thoughts and your body will cause time to drag. And you'll experience a lot of discomfort. This is absolutely the case. It's a lesson that's not learned quickly, by most of us. Sometimes I wonder how I got through early sessions, so preoccupied with my thoughts with anticipation of pain. Feelings that I wasn't sitting well. And time dragged isn't necessary. It's not necessary. It's really It's almost a question of surrendering. When we stay in that position, where we're trying to protect ourselves anticipate what's going to be painful and what's going to be difficult. That's when everything gets multiplied. But when our first thought is to turn to the practice, see what's there to look directly Time flies. So she actually can become enjoyable can be the best thing. But it takes it takes some some resolution takes some faith. It's really hard to give up all our habitual ways of dealing with adversity, even though they're so dysfunctional. Great thing about sesshin is it's a chance to really get down in the trenches and see for ourselves what works and what doesn't work. It's a tremendous opportunity
Sheng yen says, Do not expect to gain anything. Forget any expectations you may have about practice. The practice itself is your goal. And by being here, you have already achieved that continue to make it a reality. How effective would worker be if the only thing he or she thought about was the check at the end of the month? So do not think about what you'll get by being here or where you'll be after the retreat. Just focus on your purpose. which is to meditate
so this first day's theme is to relax your body and your mind. take to heart the saying, give your body to the cushion and your mind to the method. If you do that, the rest will take care of itself
give your body to the cushion can help to be aware of just a sensation your buttocks on the cushion. Bring the mind down out of the head out of the chest
he goes on. I hope during this retreat that you will refrain from using your ears except to hear my instructions. refrain from speaking except during interviews, that is during dockside refrain from looking around except when walking or working. At all times, keep your eyes as you would while meditating. And that is to keep clear and wasteful. Not to satisfy curiosity. Such a simple thing to adhere to the guideline not to look around. But so many people do. It's really just avoidance.
And he says to cultivators of Chan, I give three guiding principles. First, relax your body and mind. Second, settle upon a practice method as soon as possible. Third, do not concern yourself with how well you are doing. If you follow these guidelines, your practice will be smooth and fruitful.
That third one, do not concern yourself with how well you are doing. That's a tough one.
Naturally, we want to do well. We want our practice to be effective. We want our lives to change to progress. But you can't do two things at once. And anytime you're judging, gauging how well practice is going. You're not actually fully involved in the practice. You stepped aside. How many times can you do that? Speaking from personal experience, you can do that almost continually. Don't be like me.
When you sit in meditation, relax your body from your head to your belly and to your legs. Your mind must not be tense or hurried. It always keep a patient attitude. If you sink into torpor or become scattered, or if your method is not going smoothly, just relax your body and your mind. Tensing will only add to your afflictions and waste time. Remember though, the purpose of relaxing is to further your practice, not to take it easy to relax and know that you are relaxed. This is the first step in cultivating practice. Relaxing starts with the correct posture, and then sitting peacefully, as if you had no concerns at all. So if you discover you are tense, first check your posture, then relax your mind. Indeed, relaxing helps you discover where you're tense. It sort of exposes where you're clenching, hanging on, unwilling to open fully. And relaxing makes it possible to dissolve those knots
it's actually it's therapeutic to feel Wherever your attention is, the problem is when you're clenching somewhere and you don't even really know it, it's not conscious
of that solid base. Your seat, the body floats up from their chest is open. Chin is drawn in the back of the neck lengthened a little bit takes a while, takes a while. But once you find your seat
Yeah, practice becomes kind of wonderful. Finding your seat does not come quickly. There is a saying I think it takes three years to find your seat. Of course, it varies extremely from person to person. And I see many people come into practice and their posture is exquisite right off the bat. Not that I'm jealous.
He says the practice methods we commonly use our breath counting, reciting a Buddha's name, investigating koans and silent illumination or shikantaza. We don't, we don't have that practice that I'm aware of anybody doing of reciting a Buddha's name. But that's done in pure land Buddhism. And in China. The Pure Land school and the Zen school are kind of mixed in together you have monasteries, temples, where both are done. And there's actually a koan, who is reciting the Buddha's name. So people who have been doing the practice of repeating I take refuge in Amita, Buddha Namo Amida Butsu, is Japanese formulation. A move on to investigate that koan, who is it was reciting the Buddha's name. I think in Japan, there is a lot more concerned with purity, not mixing in different practices. And so pure land and Zen are seem to be more separated. He says, if you've been practicing a specific method, whether for a short time or for many years, try to stay with it. Do not be casual about switching.
That's probably put the right way. Do not be casual about switching. If you're bouncing from practice to practice, you're not going to be able to get very far. But sometimes people have been doing one practice for a number of years. And they're reluctant to even bring up the possibility of doing something different. You have to you have to use some judgment. And sometimes it's it's extremely helpful to move from one practice to another, depending on how you're doing and what you're how you've developed. You've moved along. People switch sometimes from one koan to another. People switch from doing shikantaza to koan work, or vice versa. So long as you are consulting with a teacher, and looking at it objectively, getting someone else's view. I don't think that's a terrible thing to do. Other people, the practice they're working on, that's their practice, prepared to do it for for their whole lives if necessary. That's a wonderful thing too.
Then it comes back to the third guideline is not to gauge your own progress. If your practice goes well, don't be elated. If it is not going well. Don't get discouraged. Just be sure that you are practicing in accordance with the Dharma.
Once you get this once you begin to set aside obsession with your progress or how well you're doing, lists a burden. Definitely want to be thorough and determined, want to be vigilant, not flying off into daydreams or thoughts. You want to look directly, not half heartedly. But you don't accomplish that by worrying all the time about how you're doing. Just notice and respond.
Don't carry that burden. My practice is no good, my practice is great. Both are hair at heavy loads to carry.
says after sitting, Adjust your posture so that your whole body is comfortable. And as it should be, it is not necessary to sit in the full lotus position. The main thing is to be stable. After your posture is correct, do not pay any more attention to your body. Just keep your mind on your method. If you do all of these things, you will be practicing Chan
go back again to that main thing is to be stable. For people sitting in a chair, that's a real that should be something to look at and make sure that you have your body still. stillness of the body translates into stillness of the mind and vice versa. Ramana Maharshi the Indian master said the whole spiritual practice can be summed up in the words be still surely quoted the Christian Be still and know that I am God. Being Hindu he was willing to truck with God.
On retreat, we need to observe the Chan principles for living which are orderliness, cleanliness, tranquility and harmony. Always maintain a sense of proper order and purity. Whether in the Chan Hall, the dormitory, the dining hall, or the bathroom. Being orderly means being aware of the correctness of your environment, your personal space, your sleeping quarters, the dining room, and your meditation cushion. If you do this, when you return home, you will surely have a more heightened awareness of order. Without being aware of yourself and your surroundings, how can you be aware of others. at the dining table, eat in silence and with full attention. Afterward, rinse your cup and bowl with a small amount of water than drink the water leaving behind no food particles. Place your drinking cup in your rice bowl. In any fruit peelings or napkins into the cup. Utensils go to the right of the cup. Use your napkin to wipe the table where you are sitting, leaving the tabletop spotless as if it had not been used. Only then can we say that the meal has been finished. This mindful attention to eating is intimately related to Chan life and Chan practice. After all, if we eat in a disorderly way and leave a mess, what can be said of our minds. Anyone who's ever been a waiter in sesshin knows that not every place is thoroughly cleaned and not every plate is clean.
If you are aware of the orderliness and cleanliness of your surroundings, you can be more aware of your inner mind. To purify your mind is no small task. But when your awareness functions in orderly surroundings, your mind can reflect that and become more tranquil. It's one of the reasons for the aesthetic of Zen. Simple, straight clean. It does have an effect it does help every little bit.
Tranquility also means being silent and smoothing your emotions. No matter what you are doing, become careful, peaceful and quiet. This way even with a lot of people moving in a confined space. There will be order and tranquility Do not harbor contradictions or antagonisms in your mind. If you cannot harmonize your inner mind, neither can you harmonize with those around you. If you resent your environment and find fault with others, your mind will surely lose its inner balance. An ancient worthy said. Be ever mindful of your own faults as you sit quietly and when you are talking freely, do not speak of the faults of others, of course, is one of the 10 Cardinal precepts. Not to speak of the faults of others, but overcome my own shortcomings. immunity and strife are not the way to harmonize. Tolerance, persuasion and explanation are better. John, practitioners must first do a good job on themselves. If there are no internal contradictions, then you will certainly be able to harmonize with others and with yourself.
This next section is called the twin pillars of concepts and methods. Says Chan relies on the twin pillars of concepts and methods. Unless both are firmly in place and working together, your practice will lack a firm foundation. Without cultivating practice, studying Buddhist concepts is just an intellectual exercise. On the other hand, practicing the methods without understanding the concepts can lead you astray. empowerment comes with clearly grasping the concepts and methods and using them to cultivate practice. So please attend to the Masters instructions, correct your concepts and practice your method.
One basic concept is to offer your body and mind to the life of practice. This overcomes self centeredness, and all of its consequences. However hard you practice, cultivating from a self centered stance can only result in more afflictions for yourself and others.
Makes me think of something that way then said the Sixth Patriarch of Zen. Speaking of bowing, the object of bowing is to break the curtain of self intoxication. So why not put your head as low as the ground. Cherishing pride is committing a crime, while forgetting your merit brings joy beyond measure. Once we understand this and get a flavor for it, doing prostrations is a joy. To lower the small self to affirm our true self since the real meaning of prostrations.
Says practice requires three kinds of putting aside first putting aside the self. Second put us putting aside thoughts about goals. And third, putting aside past and future. The self in quotation marks refers to the notion of AI that we have as a result of possessing a body and a mind. Goals refers to the benefits of Chan practice, especially enlightenment. The past and future refers to our mental projections of things that no longer exist, and things that do not yet exist. These three attitudes, belief in a self desire for benefits, and being hostage to past and future, compose a central core of the personality and the essential elements of self worth. It is our ideas of self worth. They are the roots of misfortune, bringing with them affliction and bondage. Not putting them aside means that the most important result of Chan practice, enlightenment will be beyond reach. To experience the benefits of Chan, you have to put these attitudes aside, at least temporarily. It would be a very rare individual that can put them aside permanently and forever. Many times people can see the nature as Sheng yen puts it or how have an opening and get through their first koan. Because for a limited amount of time, they've been able to just focus on the practice and set aside these distractions.
Why sesshin is so useful, we can do in sesshin, what we might not be able to do for many, many years.
He says methods are the tools you use to correct yourself to regulate your conduct your speech and your mind. Basically, we rely on the five precepts and the Eightfold Noble Path to correct our physical, mental and verbal conduct. On retreat, we also use sitting and walking meditation prostration and work to regulate bodily bodily conduct. We restrict speech and chant scripture is to regulate our verbal conduct, we practice concentration, recite the Buddha's name and investigate why those that is koans to regulate our mind.
The mind is the most difficult to regulate. For this we use correct knowledge, correct mindfulness, correct concentration, and correct energetic progress. Day after day, we monitor ourselves. from moment to moment, we need to be aware of thoughts coming and going. Whether or not they're delusions, we must be aware of them. If a thought arises in a crude careless way, after it disappears, we must alert ourselves. What was I thinking? If we can persevere, we will enjoy correct mindfulness all the time. There are many methods to keep the mind Correct. During everyday life, you should practice like this. Where is my body? Where is my mind? What are my hands doing? Does my mind know what my hands are doing? What does my mouth say? Does my mind know what my mouth is saying? And essential principle of Chan practice is not to let the activities of body mouth and mind become separated. And this is really basic Buddhist teaching.
Think about what we say before we say it is mindfulness of speech. ask ourselves is this helpful? Or is it harmful?
When practicing on retreat, isolate yourself. First drop everything from the past and everything related to the future. Create an island of time that separates you from before and after these seven days. Refrain from reading, writing, talking and making phone calls. So far as the outside world is concerned, you did not exist before and you will not exist afterward. You are living on a Virgin Island with no knowledge of anything outside. Unless you think like this, you will be dragging along a huge tail, carrying a lot of baggage and it will be very painful. You will have come not to meditate, but to indulge in false thinking. If any outside thoughts occur, tell yourself I was born on this Virgin Island. These outside thoughts have nothing to do with me. Second, isolate yourself from others. Within this island of time create an island of space which only you inhabit. There is only one person on your cushion. You give your body to the cushion and your mind to the method. If people walk by you or sit beside you, this has nothing to do with you. If someone behaves strangely, if someone runs in and does cartwheels or if your back itches, you will respond in the same way. This has nothing to do with me. There is a saying fundamentally there is nothing in the world to be concerned about. But people make trouble for themselves. If the outside world does not influence your mind, nothing can disturb you. It's one of the great things about Sheen is that we can have this sense of being alone. We're not greeting each other as we walked past the hole in the hallway, we're not looking up catching other people's eyes. For as for a monitor, there's nothing more disheartening than to have somebody look you in the eye when there is no need to do that all of us have our business to do. And we support each other without distracting each other. Third, isolate yourself from your previous thought, and from your succeeding thought, good or bad, do not be concerned with them. Just take the present thought and tie it to the meditation method. That's what's most important. The past is gone, the present is dying, and the future is not yet. Regret satisfaction worries expectations. These are all delusions, to not waste a second on them.
The advantage of practicing Chan on your own is that it is very free. It can be adjusted and arranged according to your mental and physical conditions and your particular needs. The drawback is that for people who lack the ability to cultivate themselves, and the mental power of self control, it can be easy to lose track of the guidelines. Practicing Chan in a group can be with or without a teacher, but both require guidelines for collective practice. The teacher has three functions. First, the teacher explains the concepts and methods of Chan Chan to the group as a whole. Second, based on the correct knowledge of the Buddha Dharma and experience of Chan, the teacher gives specific meditation instructions and corrections to the group. And third, the teacher works with practitioners individually or collectively to resolve difficulties that arise. Some practitioners become aware of problems they are having, and bring them to the attention of the teacher for help. In cases where students do not recognize their own problems, the teacher needs to recognize a student's problems, bring them to light and provide help and correction. It's good to be as open as you can about what's going on in your practice. Teacher can't know everything. Sometimes just airing, airing it out. Just letting someone else know what's going on can help resolve whatever you're struggling with. need all the help that we can get says everyone who comes to retreat has a unique physical and mental condition. If the teachers instruction is the same all the time, it might be of help to some but that is most almost like listening to a tape. There will be no way to address people's individual problems or prescribe the right medicine for them. For all these reasons, receiving proper instruction is a necessary part of the retreat process.
My dad one more thing to everything that Sheng Yen is saying there. That is how helpful it is to enjoy our practice.
And I remember after coming back I my Zen career at a big break in about 15 years or so where I didn't go to sesshin and did other things that weren't helpful. And when I came back, of course, there were all the old, many of the old difficulties. But there was a session I did fairly soon after coming back. And on the fifth day. I think it was during the work period. It just suddenly struck me with force I'm glad I'm here. So much of the struggle that we have with the rules and the pain and the difficulty is of our own making can turn around in an instant it's one thing to hear exhortations to throw yourself in your practice, it's another thing to do it. But we can try. Try and fail, try and fail
then try and succeed
so much time ahead of us such an opportunity
to go into the silence, find the stillness, look, look directly. This is our job here in sesshin. Our time is up, stop now and recite the four vows