November 2021 Sesshin, Day 2: Attaining the Way by Master Sheng Yen
7:34PM Nov 16, 2021
This is the second day of this November 2021 seven day sesshin. And this morning I'm going to continue reading from the book Attaining the Way A Guide to the Practice of Chan Buddhism by Chan Mr. Sheng yen.
And we're going to continue from where we left off yesterday. This is a new section entitled impermanence, the foundation view.
Just a note about the this word impermanence. It's one of the three characteristics of existence - of unenlightened existence - as taught by the Buddha. The three characteristics are suffering, impermanence, and no self - dukkha, annika and anata.
So, when he says when even titles is the foundation view, this is one of the basic foundations of all Buddhist teaching. He says, on the practice path, there is no achieving undeserved success. Someone on retreat once asked me, of the nine levels of meditative concentration, the highest is Samadhi, in which sensation and conception are obliterated. How is this cultivated?
This is the Samadhi of total extinction, the holiest of the four fruits of the Hinayana path, the so called lesser vehicle. I don't think it's any longer politically correct. To refer this as the Tera Vaada teachings. It's common in Southeast Asia. Hinayana is just sort of a little Mahayana, one upsmanship. We have the greater vehicle and they have the lesser vehicle. I don't think we need to get into that. Any rate, this is a classification that's used in the Tera Vaada teachings. He says however, if you have yet to achieve the four absorptions and the eight Somalis, how can you think of cultivating the ninth level, this is like building the top floor of a house before the foundation is in. To learn Buddhism, you must start from the foundation view of impermanence. What is impermanence? It is suffering, it is emptiness. It is no self is the absence of intrinsic identity.
These are basic concepts of Buddhism and chon impermanence. Impermanence is inherent in the cycle of birth and death. Our bodies, our minds and our surroundings are impermanent, there is nothing that does not change. Somebody once said, rocks and stones are just processes that change very, very slowly. From our point of view, and our timeframe.
If we examine anything closely, we don't find a thing. It all dissolves
subatomic particles. energies and patterns. There is nothing that does not change. Some people say the changing moment itself lasts forever. But this view is alien to Buddhism. Buddha Dharma holds that all mental and physical phenomena are impermanent, perpetually coming into being and extinguishing Buddha Dharma requires that we understand this I could just say the simple truth is that all physical phenomena are impermanent, perpetually coming into being and extinguishing.
The Buddha Dharma isn't a speculative teaching, it's a description of reality. The Buddha himself said, don't take anything that I say, because it's because I say it tested for yourself. The Dalai Lama famously said that if there is a tenant or belief in Buddhism, that's contrary to scientific teaching, then we must abandon that belief. We're not interested in doctrine. We're interested in the truth. Sheng yen goes on. When I asked a prominent gentleman why he entered Buddhism so late in life. He said that when his mother and elder brother died in quick succession, he felt a deep loss. Impermanence had touched him at the most painful point in his life. If we fail to reflect on impermanence, we are living a dream. Because we really do not know what life holds for us. Someone who has never peeked through death's door, and taken a look inside, might feel immortal.
says when I was young, I respected old Buddhist teachers. I also felt sorry for them, because they were not far from death. Now my turn to be pitied has come. Impermanence is painful and we cannot get what we seek. Or we seek to hold on to what we have. It's painful because we seek what we can't get. We try to hold on to things when they're when they're impermanent. He says in the Three Kingdoms period following the Han dynasty in the third century, the general South sow, wrote this verse. Human life in the world, how much happiness can there be to it? Happiness is like the morning do and when advantages, how much we suffer. Not a Buddhist salad salad still had an insight that accords with Buddha Dharma. There is an intrinsic link between impermanence as suffering and impermanence as emptiness, our environment and all phenomena in it exist only temporarily. They are like reflections of the moon on the water, empty, illusory forms. Not knowing that emptiness means impermanence. We cling to phenomena and bring suffering upon ourselves. If we understand that life is impermanent, full of suffering and void of intrinsic reality, our problems will mitigate. And we will know a thing or two about no self. One student told me it's no use trying to avoid the inevitable. It's no use pursuing what is not in one's karma. What I can get, I work for what I can solve, I solve the rest, I let go. If I can't let it go, I just accept it. My mind has become much calmer. studying Buddhism has been very useful to him. springs to mind the Serenity Prayer was my mantra when I stopped drinking. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference goes a long way to enabling us to live in a rational sane way.
He goes on the Diamond Sutra speaks of formlessness it points out that the four forms of self oneself others living beings and life and I think others are other people living beings are all creatures. Others living beings life are all derived from the idea of an independent, intrinsic identity. Because of this, you and I and other living beings are put in opposition. Life refers to the movements of you I, and living beings in space and time. For getting this false self, you can witness formlessness see your real nature and open up to enlightenment.
Don't imagine that after a few retreats, you will be enlightened. It's possible, but as long as the self form still rules, and egocentrism is solid, how can you see your true nature?
Want to degress for a minute here. I think we talk about impermanence, life and death. It's sort of given Buddhism the reputation for being a nihilistic religion or just gloomy. think we all understand that what it is is a clear eyed look at things as they are. But sometimes, when you try to drive the point home, people feel a little appressed. Looking for good news. And I want to read something. I read it recently at a meditation intensive in Cleveland, from Joko Beck, was a American teacher who died a few years back. And she says she says this, we refuse to see the truth that's all around us. We don't really see life at all our attention is elsewhere. We are engaged in an unending battle with our fears about ourselves and our existence. If we want to see life, we must be attentive to it. But we're not interested in doing that. We're only interested in the battle to preserve preserve ourselves forever. And of course, it's an anxious, anxious and futile battle, a battle that can't be won. The one who always wins is death, the right hand man of impermanence. What we want out of life as we live it, is that others reflect our glory. We want our partners to ensure our security to make us feel wonderful to give us what we want, so that our anxiety may be eased for a little while. We look for friends who will at least take the cutting edge off of our fear, the fear that we're not going to be around one day. We don't want to look at that. The funny thing is that our friends are not fooled by us. They see exactly what we're doing. Why do they see it so clearly? Because they're doing it to they're not interested in our efforts to be the center of the universe. Yet we waged the battle ceaselessly. We're frantically busy. When our personal attempts to win the battle fail, we may try to find peace in a false form of religion. And people who offer that carrot get rich. We are desperate for anyone who will tell us it's all right. Everything can be wonderful for you. Even in Zen practice, we try to find a way around what practice really is, so that we can gain a personal victory. People often say to me Joko, why do you make practice so hard? Why don't you hold out any cookies at all. But from the point of view of the small self, practice can only be hard. Practice annihilates the small self and the small self unit isn't interested in that one bit. It can't be expected to greed, annihilation with joy. So there is no cookie that can be held out for the smallest self unless we want to be dishonest. Wait. There is another side to practice however, as our small self dies are angry, demanding complaining, maneuvering, manipulative self, a real cookie appears joy and genuine self confidence. We begin to taste what it feels like to care about someone else without expecting anything in return. And this is true compassion. How much we have it depends on the rate at which the small self dies as it dies here and there. We have moments when we see what life is Sometimes we can spontaneously act and serve others. And with this growth always comes repentance. When we realize that we have almost constantly hurt others and ourselves, we repent, and this repentance is itself pure joy
joy that comes from seeing things as they actually are. From being okay with our being works in progress
there's a saying A, we will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. When we see how we've lived a self centered life, always looking to maximize our glory as Joko puts it. We have sympathy for others who are who he see doing the same thing. If you're going around critical of other people for their lack of insight and selfishness. Turn around and take a look at yourself. Think someone who's really seen themselves has a sense of sympathy for everyone who's struggling with their own delusion. Someone said everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. We have a chance coming to this teaching to find a saner, realistic way of fighting that battle. Not defending what can't be defended, opening up to what is.
Going back to Sheng yen. Some people think I am selfish and clinging. But once I'm deeply engaged in the practice, the master just has to shout or hit me at the right moment. And then I'll be enlightened. I really don't have this ability. Selfish clinging is deep rooted and intimately linked to one's life. To overcome it, you must do the work yourself. All I can do is point out the way where water goes a channel forms. When the necessary work has been done, success will come then all it takes is a light tap and selfish clinging can suddenly be removed. It is true that John espouses sudden enlightenment. But if I told you to stop discriminating and abide nowhere Could you do it? If you could, you would be suddenly enlightened. If not, every stirring of your mind is discrimination and cleaning. If people who claim to be enlightened, are still living with affliction and attachment, what's the difference between being enlightened and not being enlightened? So little thing about the term enlightened it really I think Sheng Yen is reserving it for someone with deep deep realization and self cultivation. He also uses the term seeing the nature which I think is more analogous to an initial Kensho someone getting through their first koan. Such a person were to call themselves enlightened, it would be somewhat embarrassing.
So he says, First, learn to abide nowhere, abiding means holding on to your senses, your pre conditioned perceptions and your preconceived ideas, seeing, hearing perceiving and knowing in reality they encompass the whole spiritual mental and physical life. Clinging to any of this means there is abiding. When there are concepts of self there is a biting and there is form. This is not no self.
Biting nowhere means having no discriminating thoughts. If you can refrain from discriminating, then you have no thoughts. If you have no discriminating thoughts, then you abide nowhere. If you abide nowhere, you can be formless. And if you can be formless, you will then see your true selfless nature. The meditation method that we teach is an orderly process for helping you step by step until you reach the state of having no discriminating thoughts. We have thoughts all the time, but are scattered and chaotic mind is strong. These thoughts are illusions the mind of affliction. After using the meditation method properly and consistently, you will gradually detach from the afflictions of greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance and doubt. greed, anger and ignorance. These are the traditional three poisons. And to them he's added arrogance and doubt. Perhaps some people think that meditation is also a form of attachment. This is true, but it is not an attachment that brings affliction. On the contrary, it can relieve affliction. The meditation method is the way.
To genuinely benefit from Buddhism, there is no other route except to walk on solid ground and start building from the foundation of understanding impermanence. You can't enter the realm of enlightenment by just imagining it. So I ask all of you before sitting first bowed your cushion your body, Mangala body, Mandela means place of enlightenment. At the same time, say to yourself, I vowed to use all my time on meditation. After you sit, make another vow, I vow to put my whole being into my practice. In this manner, you will develop mindfulness and understand impermanence. In our center, we don't bow to our cushions. That's not our practice. But so I've seen some people do that at times, and there's nothing wrong with it. The main thing is to be conscious of your purpose, when you sit.
There is a power to making a vow. Even if even if you don't know if you can live up to it, to make that vow, and if you fail, try again.
moves into another section here understanding impermanence. When I was young, it seemed forever between birthdays. Now each year flies quickly by our turn around, and 20 years are gone. A lot of us can relate to this. When you're 20 doesn't feel that way. From the perspective of cosmic time, a life is shorter than the blink of an eye. Buddhism teaches that all phenomena all things seen, heard, thought or experienced are impermanent, arising and perishing in a fragment of time. When Shakyamuni Buddha first turned the Dharma Wheel at Deep Deer Park, he expounded the doctrine of impermanence during every evening service we recite, be mindful of impermanence, be careful of idleness. The canon of Buddhism is full of admonitions about impermanence.
Arnold Park, there's an inscription on the Han. I'm not sure if I remember it exactly. But it goes something like this. Great is the matter of birth and death. Life passes swiftly by Wake up, wake up. Don't waste a moment.
He says the time you have to practice is precious, fleeting. Once gone, it can never return. If you maintain a clear awareness of impermanence, you will not waste time engaging in vexing thoughts like jealousy, arrogance, or pointless criticism of others and self. Not only does this harm you, it also harms those who come in contact with therefore keeping this mind of impermanence. You will work harder and practice better, and you will benefit yourselves and others
The Buddha said those for those who remember death, they're quarrel seek their quarrels cease. Then there's an Italian, saying, at the end of the game, the king and the pawn go back in the same box what places there for jealousy? He says, When you are drowsy during practice, think of impermanence. You will realize that you have no time to waste sleeping. When distracted by a scattered mind, remember impermanence, you will realize there is no time to waste on scattered thoughts. Coming to retreat is a rare opportunity. Make the best of it. If you have been on many retreats, and think you've been practicing seriously for years, this is self delusion. If you consider one or two hours of daily meditation, and a yearly retreat as continuous practice, you're mistaken. Most of your practice time including now, you are lost in vexation wandering thoughts and drowsiness. Is this true practice? Great Chan practitioners never let their mind stray far from impermanence and when not meditating, they use the teachings of the Buddha Dharma to help themselves and others.
When you truly realize that life is impermanent, and time is short, you will be able to practice consistently and hard. From now on, prostrate to your cushion your Bodhi Mandawa Bodhi mandola. Before sitting, to remind yourself of this vow to be diligent. After you sit down, make another vow not to anticipate the bell. I really like this, this vow so easy to keep returning to the thought of when the round is going to end. Notice it when you're doing it. If you have this habit. It's not a habit to allow to continue.
It's not the problem is having the thought problem is to just let the thought continue. If you do have this such a thought, just return he says plunge wholeheartedly into the practice. You must do this because life is impermanent and time is short. And then he says while being mindful of impermanence continue to relax your body and mind it sounds inconsistent. But you must have an alert and diligent yet relaxed attitude. Tension will exhaust you it's it's somewhat a difficult balance between being realistic about how well we actually practice and having the spirit to do our best want to read something that Pema children teacher in the vaudrey Yana tradition wrote?
If I can find it.
She says this. Meditation practice isn't about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It's about befriending who we already are. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are. That's what we come to know. With tremendous curiosity and interest
So again, tension will exhaust you. If you relax to the point of falling asleep. kneeling on the hard floor for a few minutes should wake you up. If merely drowsy. Open your eyes wide and stare at the wall while you continue to meditate. This will help drowsiness subside because our sense of time in daily life is slow. Maintaining a mind of impermanence is difficult. We become complacent and think we have all the time in the world. retreats equip us with knowledge and experience of impermanence that can only enhance our daily lives. Understanding impermanence does not mean taking license to do whatever we want. Since quote, it is all going to end soon anyway. On the contrary, because we understand impermanence, we know we have no time to waste in idleness, especially in practice, I once met a man with only a few months to live, who accomplished several years worth of practice in those remaining months. If you can develop a similar attitude, and apply it to practice, your progress will be quick and smooth.
When read from another section, it's entitled faith in yourself. There are many kinds of karmic obstructions, barriers that prevent us from improving our Chan practice. Among the most difficult to overcome our greed, hatred, pride and self pity. greed and anger often sprang from the same source. When we can't get what we want. Desire can change to hatred, pride and self pity, or like that, too, when others don't share our high opinion of ourselves, very often we turn to putting ourselves down. What I found, examining myself is when others don't share my high opinion of myself. When my pride is wounded. That's when I develop resentments against other people. In a there's a, one of the 12 steps, is taking a moral inventory. They put it a fearless and thorough moral inventory. And one of the ways of doing that is just starting with the people that you resent. And then looking, what is it that sparked that resentment? It was alarming to me to see how much I had to do with each of those resentments. And then extremely helpful to see that
we don't spend a lot of time in Zen practice thinking about ourselves. But there is something to be said in daily life at the end of the day, to just take a look at how we've conducted ourselves who we've offended, who we've helped, what we wish we could do a little better. It helps to clarify what we're attempting to do. It's too easy to think to put our practice on automatic pilot and think well I'm sitting my hour a day or whatever it is. Trying to let go of thoughts. And maybe over time, things will improve. But it does take a real effort. We have to be engaged
it's better to be engaged it feels better. To know we're really serious about it, not half hearted. half hearted practice leaves us feeling uneasy.
Don't have to whip ourselves up. Just need to be thorough need to be clear eyed
So again, he says when others don't share our high opinion of ourselves, very often we turn to putting ourselves down. It is the same negative energy directed hourly in one case, inwardly and the other. The root of these obstructions is lack of faith in oneself. Without faith in yourself and your abilities, you feel no recourse but to expect others to benefit you with their effort. This opposes the law of karma, when you reap what you sow. I get the impression reading Sheng yen that he has students and maybe this is something in in Chinese society or Chinese culture, who hope that somehow the master will endow them with what they need to gain on their own. But as he says, and this opposes the law of karma, wherein you reap what you sow, if we can arouse humility and repentance, you will have a more receptive mind. With a receptive mind you will meet good teachers and be helped by them. Your karmic extract obstructions will lighten the instant your concept of self changes for the better, your ability to receive help will also increase. This is a really good point. When we have a fixed, rigid view of ourselves, it's hard to hear anything a teacher has to say. And we're so busy presenting our front putting up a good appearance, that it's just not registering. Even when we were not so far gone, it's hard to hear something the first time so why we repeat things in Zen teaching over and over and over again. Finally, the penny drops and somebody gets it. They say why don't you tell me earlier
the best example of faith in oneself is the Buddha. After many years of practicing without finding liberation, Shakyamuni resolved to find the way armed only with his faith in himself, he attained liberation under the Bodhi tree. His legacy is yours to inherit and embrace.
And then, final section is called relaxing. In the course of the seven day retreat, I may teach several meditation methods, but with just two goals in mind. First is to help you relax your body and mind. The second is to help you pacify and stabilize your body and mind. In reality, these two goals are aspects of the same thing. If you can relax, you will be stable and at peace. And if you are stable and at peace, you will relax. But the place to start is relaxing.
You could say that the peace and stability that peace and stability are the result of relaxing. If you can relax your body and mind your vexations are sure to be reduced, your pressures and burdens will be lightened and your capacity for wisdom will be enhanced. With the body and mind relaxed your attention will be concentrated, your body functions will be balanced and your mind will be calm and peaceful. Some people recite the Buddha's name and transfer the merit to others in order to create good karma for sentient beings. While this is useful, its effect is indirect. However, if we can relax our bodies and our minds and as a result, change our words, actions and disposition. This will be more directly useful to ourselves and to others. So strenuously seeking good things and avoiding bad things will create a lot of tension. So avoiding both of these extremes can go a long way toward relaxing our bodies. minds in daily life. There is a karmic reason for every occurrence in our life. Therefore, as you encounter each one deal with it calmly and serenely, thus it is easier to be relaxed. This is an example of practice and daily living, exemplifying Chan.
Having this understanding that things that happen beyond our control are indeed beyond our control the workings of causes and conditions. gets us out of that fruitless attempt to control the future. Like someone who's just rolled the bowling ball, headed for the gutter. Now you're trying to use body English to bring it back to the pins. And it's pretty natural to do. You know, you see it all the time. But that ball is on its track. It's going where it's going. And what we can do is work on ourselves, let go of our clinging our resentments, our laziness, in attention. And this will have an effect. It doesn't mean that we won't have tragedy in our lives or things will happen that we hope won't. But it does make everything better and as he says not only for ourselves, but for others. In the end, best and highest purpose of Zen practice is to benefit all beings. That's why we're here in sesshin. Time is up. We'll stop now and recite the four vows