Ch’an Sickness (I & II) – By Master Shen Yen

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Master Sheng Yen_1
Master Sheng Yen_1

Ch’an Sickness (I) (Lecture delivered Sunday, June 24, 1984)

This talk continues the discussion begun two weeks ago concerning the four kinds of erroneous attachments to the four characteristics: self, others, sentient beings, and life. At that time, I gave a general explanation of the four characteristics. I said that all four characteristics result from attachment to the sense of self. Last week, I examined these characteristics from the perspective of the practitioner. We understood how he experienced them throughout the various stages of his practice. Today we will continue the discussion, and attempt to understand the problems that can occur when a practitioner is attached to the four characteristics. Solutions to each of these problems will also be discussed.

This discussion will be divided into three sections. In the first, we shall examine how the attachment to the sense of individuality, which results from the four misconceptions, is manifested in the practitioner’s behavior. In the second, we will present a description of the experienced practitioner and the conduct which will best aid his progress. And in the third section, we will provide a general description of the appropriate attitude of the practitioner throughout the course of his practice.

People who have achieved results from practice, and who have practiced for many years, may feel that they have reached the stage of pure wisdom, where all attachment to self is terminated, and Nirvana is entered. Actually, anyone who thinks that he has become enlightened really has not. Such a person still possesses a sense of self (because of the very fact they he thinks that there is a self to be enlightened).

Enlightenment is neither an object nor a feeling nor an environment to be entered. Were enlightenment any of these, it would be limited and thus illusory. So long, then, as enlightenment is seen as an objective, and so long as there is a self to benefit from enlightenment, wisdom is still far away.

After hearing what I have just said, you may think that you understand. But it is difficult for a beginner to appreciate the joy which results from these experiences. Indeed, suppose that after much practice you experience the feeling of disappearance of the self into Nirvana. At this time tremendous bliss would well up in you, and you might exclaim, “Truly, my self has disappeared completely. I have entered Nirvana.” Have you really entered Nirvana, though? Since there is still a sense of self to enter Nirvana, the final achievement is still unrealized. But so powerful is this experience that it is likely to mislead even a very experienced practitioner.

What I have just discussed provides a first example of the misconceptions that result from erroneous attachment to self. Let us now examine a second example. Suppose through practice someone reaches the stage where self-centeredness ends and the method of practice dissolves. He will feel entirely relaxed and free, unified with the universe, yet unconcerned with its relation to him — because his sense of self is gone. His state is not one of exultation, but rather of perfect ease; he will not jump with delight, and shout that he has entered Nirvana. But the self still exists in this case, no matter what the practitioner may feel he has experienced.

Once a practitioner whose experience is identical to that described above comes down from this state, he may assert that he understands Nirvana, that he has seen the Dharma body of the Buddha, and that he has attained final wisdom. If you, who have not yet attained the meditative skill of this person, attempt to contradict him, and say, “You are only talking nonsense, for you are playing games with ghosts!”, he may well overcome you in argument. Such a practitioner is generally very attached to his achievement. He will be frustrated when you do not believe what he says. He may respond as follows: “You have never had my experiences, so you don’t know what you are talking about.” To make matters worse, there may be another person close by who is willing to affirm what this practitioner claims, perhaps because this other person feels that his own descriptions of Nirvana and his other achievements may accord perfectly with descriptions given by the sutras. This by-stander may say that, because he himself has known the experiences described by the other practitioner, he is in a position to affirm their validity. This will make the first practitioner very happy. He will think that the one who supports what he says is his true Dharma friend.

Entering Nirvana is said to result in liberation. What kind of liberation, then, does this practitioner possess, who responds to praise with delight and to insult with frustration? It would seem that his Nirvana is faulty. Perhaps our practitioner might respond to this conclusion as follows: “I may respond to praise and criticism in different ways, but I do not do so to please myself. Since I am quite free from the self, I really do not care at all. But in order to uphold the dignity of the Buddhadharma, I censure those who conflict with the Dharma and praise those who are in accord with it.” What can we say to this? It would be impossible to judge such a person’s achievement. What is important is his own enlightenment experience. If as a result of this experience he feels, “Wow, I have entered Nirvana and have lost my self! I have tremendous wisdom,” then he has not entered Nirvana. Nirvana is entered only if both Nirvana and samsara (as well as time) disappear and become like a dream; it is entered only if there is no more feeling of happiness and sorrow, and if the mind is quite stable and tranquil.

It may seem strange that even enlightenment is said to be a dream. It may be easier to understand what samsara is. But if both are said to be equally illusory, then the practitioner is engaging in the dispiriting process of fighting to leave one dream only to enter another. Actually, enlightenment itself is not a dream, but the concept of enlightenment as well as its attainment is truly a dream. Thus, sentient beings in samsara are living in a dream with a concept of enlightenment that is really nothing more than an object of grasping. Once they actually reach enlightenment, enlightenment is no longer a dream. Indeed, enlightenment ceases to exist. When genuine enlightenment is entered, it disappears.

A practitioner is comparable to someone trying to climb a mountain made of glass. The mountain is very steep and slippery. The mountaineer is barefooted, and to make matters worse, the mountain is covered with oil. Every time he makes an effort to climb, he slips. With persistence, however, he tries again and again to make progress up the mountain until, utterly exhausted, he collapses into a deep sleep. When he awakens, the mountaineer finds the mountain completely gone. He realizes that all his effort was but a dream, and that there is no need to climb; there is no progress to make. In the dream, however, the mountain did exist, and if he had not attempted the impossible in his dream — the ideal of climbing the mountain — he would not have been able to wake from his dream. Thus, in the practice of Buddhadharma it is necessary to try to leave samsara and achieve Nirvana (although neither can be accomplished since both are quite illusory). If in the course of your practice you experience such states of self-enlightenment, then know that you are still only dreaming.

So far we have treated those who feel they have achieved enlightenment in relation to an existing self. In our third example, we will examine the equally false, reverse perspective. In this case, the practitioner asserts that he is indifferent to praise and blame, to the affairs of the world and even to his own practice because, he has understood that there is neither Nirvana nor a self to enter Nirvana, and that equally there is no world other than a meaningless illusion. This attitude is quite erroneous and is perhaps more dangerous for the practitioner than either of the two previous examples of misconceptions. In these latter two, the practitioner may attain the various heavenly states after death; states attainable by dhyana. But this third practitioner is tempted by his misconceptions to stop practicing. Were he to persevere in practice, he would be in the fortunate position to enter the formless heavens. But if he were to cease practicing because he felt that nothing mattered since all is illusion, he would fall into the animal realms after death. Neither the heaven nor the human realms would be open to him. He would fall because of ignorance.

These three examples of erroneous conceptions should not be viewed as extraordinary. (It is very easy for a practitioner who works diligently to experience the states described above.) Thus, you can understand the great importance of a master who can guide his students away from these pitfalls. Without such a guide, though convinced he is practicing Buddhadharma, the practitioner is likely to be traveling the outer paths.

Ch’an Sickness (II)
(Continuation of lecture delivered by Master Sheng-yen on Sunday, June 24, 1984)
I will now discuss two important rules, or precepts which a practitioner should follow in order to maintain a correct attitude toward practice. These precepts are first, to refrain from claiming that one has reached enlightenment, and second, to take enlightenment, or Nirvana as the goal of practice.

It is important that you never say that you have already achieved enlightenment. It may be all right for someone who is enlightened to confirm the fact if he is asked, but he should never boast. You may wonder how to tell when genuine enlightenment is reached. There are two ways. The first is to consult someone whose practice is more advanced than your own. The alternative is to attempt to discern whether your experience is the same as that described in the sutras as final enlightenment. This method is relevant only when the first is not practical, and it is prone to error, since the practitioner may misinterpret the sutras — a dangerous mistake. The proper approach is through reliance on the traditional explanations of the sutras — this way you can employ the sutra as an index of your experience. The wrong approach is to use your own experience to interpret the sutras.

As we have seen, it is common for practitioners to make an incorrect association between their experience and enlightenment. Rather than reaching enlightenment, these practitioners become affected by a special kind of pride which often influences serious practitioners. In order to avoid the misconception of false enlightenment, serious practitioners must remain ever alert to such pride. This warning may be understood to be a part of the first precept above. The discussion of false enlightenment is only pertinent to practitioners who actually believe that they have experienced Nirvana. These are at least serious practitioners. However, someone who makes this claim without ever having had the experience of false enlightenment merely demonstrates that he has not practiced. He is not a serious practitioner.

The second precept, to take enlightenment or Nirvana as the goal of practice, obliges the practitioner to read the sutras and Buddhist literature as much as possible in order to understand the nature of the goal and the path that leads towards it. But do not become bound by the teachings of the sutras so that they become an obstacle to your practice; nor should you simply study the sutras to acquire information and to impress others.

There are two extremes. A meditator may wish for enlightenment so intensely that he may believe himself to be enlightened before he really is. Alternatively, a meditator may give too much weight to what he has read and heard about the nonexistence of enlightenment. He may think, “There is no enlightenment; the Buddha says so, the Sutras say so, my master says so — everyone who knows about the Dharma says so. In that case, I really don’t care about enlightenment, but just the same I will continue to practice.” This is not a satisfactory attitude, since the practitioner, because of his lackadaisical attitude, will never be diligent and energetic in his practice.

A goal is as important in the practice of Buddhadharma as it is in any other activity. If a practitioner simply took the attitude: “All right, I will do whatever is necessary when the moment comes, but I don’t really care about what happens in the future,” he would never achieve anything significant because he would never be prodded towards exceptional accomplishment. We must feel that enlightenment is something to be strived for, to attain. (And this feeling should be intensified by contemplating your present condition of ignorance and your bondage to samsara.) Although the goal is necessary, you must guard against excessive zeal towards accomplishment of that goal. Such an extreme leads to anxiousness, which alone will stifle progress.

There was once a patriarch who said that the practice of Dharma should commence with the paramita of dana: the giving of offerings. It is most important to make offerings to the Three Jewels (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha). When the Patriarch made this statement, a man in the audience responded by saying, “The Three Jewels are identical to (my) self-nature. Likewise everything that I offer is none other than my own self-nature, So I use self-nature to offer to self-nature. Then it follows that I offer my whole mind to you. Whatever you want I shall think of and then I shall offer it to you.” The Patriarch said, “This is very good, that you offer your whole mind to me. So from this moment onwards, when you eat you consume only the food of the mind; when you drink you drink only the water of the mind; when you walk you traverse only the roads of the mind; when you speak you utter only words of the mind; when you sleep you sleep only the slumber of the mind. When you can do this, you have indeed made full offering to me. However, if this is not possible for you, then you must make physical offerings just like anyone else, otherwise in your next life you will find yourself in the animal realm because of your ignorance.” The questioner was not at the stage where he could truly offer his self-nature. He was still in the realm of the illusory mind. Just as for the questioner there were still physical offerings to be made, so with one who is not enlightened, there is still Nirvana to attain, a goal to be reached.

In the next section, I will talk about the ways to overcome the obstacles encountered in practice. Two rules must be followed to overcome any obstacle. First, you must work very hard, and second, you must study with those who have a genuine understanding of the Buddhadharma, and you must be very respectful towards these people.

Vexations arise according to the intensity of practice. The ideal is to quell these vexations at all times. When there are no vexations, you will be able to practice without paying attention to any state of mind or response that may arise. When vexations are present, you must deal with them swiftly. If your practice is strong, you will be able to tell when such disturbances arise, and adjust your practice to block vexations from occurring. If you do not practice, you will not be able to control vexations: you will not be able to foretell when they arise, nor will you have sufficient means to control them once they do arise. Those of us who fall somewhere in between these two extremes of strong-practice and no-practice may sometimes be able to recognize when we are about to be overcome by vexations. For instance, some people who feel the onset of problems may tell their friends, “Okay, leave me alone for now, otherwise I will be very upset. I may lose my temper or even kill someone.” We have all probably had this experience at one time or another.

There are many kinds of vexations. Some are brought about by physiological problems, others by psychological problems. If you know that such problems are about to arise, you can try to stop them from occurring or at least dampen their intensity. If a problem cannot be resolved, you may have to endure it. Inevitably, some will try to escape from their problems.

The easiest type of vexation to recognize before its full arising is anger. Although other types may be more easily hidden (such as greed), anger is not so easily hidden. One past resident of the Center would hit the wall when he was angry, sometimes until he broke a hole in it or injured himself. Because of the pain in his fist, his vexations would lessen.

The best way to tame vexations is to prevent them from arising and becoming strong. Once arisen, they are best tamed by vigorous practice. In such cases the best practice is prostration. After prostration, anger, greed, and (especially) sexual desire will be reduced, particularly if you prostrate until your body becomes tired. Prostration is a very good method that is suitable for everyone.

Thus we have seen that with diligent practice and study you can overcome the obstacles that may fall in your path.