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Listen to Yourself: Think Everything Over
Ch'an Dharma Talks
At the one-week Ch’an Meditation Session, which followed the Recitation Session, participants arose at two-thirty in the morning to begin meditation and meditated without interruption until twelve midnight each day, with the exception of a one-half hour break for a meal at eleven a.m. Many participants remained sitting in the Ch’an Hall during the two and one-half hour rest period in the middle of the night. During this session the Venerable Master gave the following instructional talks.
Opening of Session: December 22, 1972
Hardships and difficulties refine you. Astronauts are now being trained to rocket into space, while we are in training to refine the Vajra Samadhi so that we may enter into the great enlightenment. The Shurangama Sutra says, “The void arises in the great enlightenment like a bubble arising on the sea.” Therefore, enlightenment is vast and boundless.
During a dhyana session time is precious. Be especially attentive and do not waste a single second. If you waste your time, what will be the worth of the bitterness you have already undergone? Those of you who have endured the suffering without running should work hard, and those who couldn’t take it and ran off can now return if they want to. Everyone should work hard.
Because we are conducting this Dhyana Session, the gods and the dragons and the rest of the eight-fold division of ghosts and spirits have come to protect the field of enlightenment and help us accomplish the karma of the Way. So don’t look down on yourselves. Whoever becomes enlightened will end birth and death and perfect his karma of the Way.
Don’t waste your time like you did during the Buddha Recitation Session. Don’t be like one disciple who had false thinking about stealing Ginseng tea. You don’t have to steal it, I will give it to you to get rid of your false thinking. But once you drink it, you must work hard and seek to become enlightened.
That disciple is rather embarrassed that I have mentioned her false thinking, but if she is guilty, everyone should know about it; when everyone knows, she won’t dare have such false thoughts again. Someone else has been thinking about the fourteen-week meditation session several years ago when he thought about eating cottage cheese, and now he thinks it would be fine to have some more. I grant you your wish, and will give you all cottage cheese and Ginseng tea, but you must work hard.
Now, to begin the Dhyana Session, the verse says,
In Gold Mountain Monastery’s Prajna Hall
We gather from the ten directions,
Here where the Buddhas are selected.
Whoever becomes enlightened will know
The face he had before his mother bore him,
And we’ll grant that he is comfortable, clear and cool.
We will sit in meditation for one hour and then walk for twenty-five minutes. The movement stimulates our circulation and the stillness purifies us of our random thoughts. We must reach the genuine stillness, then we will be able to give forth genuine wisdom and liberate ourselves from birth and death. This is the very best Dharma to cultivate, so don’t waste your time.
Day #1: December 23, 1972
If you’ve learned no other talent from your master than that of “I don’t remember,” you’ve done something wonderful! The Way lies simply in forgetting everything. Now, I have a story for you:
At T’ien T’ung Monastery, one of China’s largest, housing over five thousand monks, dhyana meditation is conducted during the winter months. It is said, “Dhyana in the winter and study in the summer.” Why practice dhyana in the winter? The cold weather makes it difficult to sleep and helps you work hard. You have to turn on your own personal heater and fight the cold. Once you have turned on your own internal heater, not only will you not be cold, you’ll perspire. So don’t be afraid of the cold.
At T’ien T’ung Monastery, no one ate after noon. During the dhyana session, however, what with twenty hours of hard work, not eating after noon, and the cold weather, everyone was hungry and began to toy with the idea of stealing food. The deacon, who had spiritual powers, knew this, and while seated in the hall in meditation, would send out a body that would go enter the storeroom, steal the rice crust, and set a piece in each of the meditation monks’ hands. Rice crust is the crisp layer of rice in the bottom of the pan which is saved and cooked with the next day’s rice. When the bell rang at the end of the sitting period, the monks ate their rice crust with surprise and delight and settled down to work with no further thoughts of stealing food. The amount of rice crust, however, decreased daily until, when it was almost gone, the quartermaster and the cook became concerned and began to wonder who the culprit was.
When they reported the losses to the Abbot Mi Tsu, who also had spiritual powers, he passed it off. “Forget it,” he said. “Maybe you’ve got mice in the pantry.” When the Abbot looked into the matter more deeply, he discovered that the deacon had stolen it.
The next day the Abbot went into the dhyana hall to meditate with the assembly, and sure enough, during the early evening sit the deacon went off to steal the rice crust. He didn’t use his physical body, however, he used his spirit. While his spirit was in the storeroom, the Abbot stashed his physical body underneath the meditation bench. When the deacon returned, he couldn’t find his body, and began to look everywhere for it. When he finally discovered it, he had great difficulty getting himself out from under the bench.
“What are you doing?” said the Abbot. “You’re stealing the rice crust again, eh? That’s a violation of the precepts, You’ll have to leave.”
The deacon replied, “I don’t mind leaving, but these people are too hungry to work. I must request that the Master set up provisional regulations allowing them a little something to eat in the evening.”
“That’s none of your concern,” said the Abbot.
“Perhaps not,” said the deacon, “but unless you grant my request, I won’t leave.”
Because of this the Abbot allowed everyone two vegetarian dumplings each evening.
The deacon left T’ien T’ung Monastery and headed for Hangkow. He passed through the bustling city of Nanking where, by means of his spiritual powers, he stopped to watch an opera. Then, using his spiritual powers once again, he went to Hangkow’s Kuei Yuan Monastery for lunch. The Abbot of Kuei Yuan also had spiritual powers. “Today,” he said, “a bhikshu is coming for lunch. We will eat first and then hit the boards.”
When the deacon arrived, he heard the boards being hit to signal lunch and went straight to the dining hall. But when he entered the hall he saw that everyone had already eaten. “Why aren’t you following the rules?” he demanded. “You are supposed to hit the boards first and then eat.”
“And why did you stop off at Nanking to attend the opera?” countered the Abbot.
Speechless, the deacon left. He went directly to Szechwan where he sat beneath two cinnamon trees to meditate. Later he built a monastery there called “Twin Cinnamon Monastery” which is also very well-known. That is the account of the stolen rice crust. We have among us one shameless bhikshuni who wanted to steal some ginseng. Therefore I have given you all ginseng tea to drink in the morning and in the evening, even though originally ginseng is not taken until the fourth day of a dhyana session. I only hope that you will all work hard and seek enlightenment. If you don’t, you’ll disappoint me, and the tea will have gone to waste.
You should all sacrifice your small selves and perfect your great selves, like the deacon who stole food for everyone else, not just for himself. This is sacrificing the small self and perfecting the great. The small self is the physical body; the Buddha-nature is the great self, for it is the total substance with great function. Living beings are a part of the Buddha-nature and so they must return to the root and go back to the source, return the parts to the whole in order to realize the great function. This is to sacrifice the small in order to perfect the great.
There are twenty people attending this Dhyana Session, which is not bad. I hope that you all put forth a great effort, use your time well, and arrive at your aim; return to the root and go back to the source.
Day #2: December 24, 1972 (afternoon)
The primary aim of a dhyana session is to unite body and mind. The body must follow the rules when walking, standing, sitting, and reclining. The mind must not fantasize or engage in thoughts of greed, hatred, or stupidity. You must single-mindedly investigate, “Who is mindful of the Buddha?” This investigation is like drilling a hole through a piece of wood. Prior to penetrating, there is the daily work of drilling. Our “Who is mindful of the Buddha?” is the drilling, and we must drill until we open enlightenment. Thus we investigate throughout the day, at every moment. When our investigation penetrates, everything which has not yet been understood will become clear.
In your investigation you should be like a cat stalking a mouse. The mouse is like one’s thoughts, and the recitation of “Who is reciting the Buddha’s name” while relentlessly guarding oneself against false thoughts, is like the cat.
Investigation is also like a dragon guarding its pearl. Always attentive to just his most precious possession, the dragon never strays from his gem. Again, investigation is like a hen brooding over her eggs, thinking about them day in and day out, until they finally hatch.
In our investigation of dhyana we must investigate continually without fear of heat or cold. We should be as conscientious as that mother hen. We absolutely must get through to “Who is mindful of the Buddha?” “Who am I?” and find the “Who,” thereby accomplishing our work.
There are many topics which may be used to investigate dhyana. “Who was I before my parents bore me?” is one. “What in the world is not subject to production, dwelling, decay, and extinction?” is another. “Dried excrement,” is another. Don’t laugh and call this a stinking topic, because it’s already dried out and has no odor! Besides, if you can investigate it you’ll come up with something that has a lot of “flavor” to it! Whichever topic you respond to is the best one for you.
From the Ch’ing Dynasty on, the topic most frequently used has been “Who is mindful of the Buddha?” The word “Who?” is most important, since no one knows who is mindful of the Buddha. If you know, you are enlightened.
“But the one mindful of the Buddha is just me!” you may say. “How could I not know who that is?”
When you die and have been cremated to ashes, where have you gone? To find the “you” of your self nature, which is mindful of the Buddha and which does not die, is the spiritual exercise of investigating dhyana. When your investigation reaches the point that the mountains are leveled, the seas disappear, and you doubt that there’s a way at all, then suddenly, there beyond the dark willows and the bright flowers is another village. Although you felt there was no way, there is yet another world, another realm—the realm of light peace. Those who can investigate to the ultimate point can experience freedom, independence, and the bliss of both body and mind—a bliss which is incomparable.
In cultivation one must neither forget the work nor force it, a point which is well-illustrated in the following story:
There was a man from Sung who notice that the sprouts in his fields were growing very slowly. Determined to think of a way to help them grow fast, he went to his field one day and pulled each sprout straight up an inch or two higher than it had been. He then returned home and said to his family, “I’m exhausted! I’ve spent the entire day helping my sprouts grow.” His son, wondering what new scientific method his father had discovered, went to the fields only to find that all the sprouts had withered and died.
Cultivation of the Way is similar. You should not be like the man of Sung who forced his plants to grow. The element of the wonderful enters your cultivation at the point when you neither relax your cultivation nor force it. An ancient has said, “Don’t try to go too fast or you won’t reach your aim. Don’t be satisfied with small gains or you will never accomplish great works.” Don’t be like one of my disciples who, after two years of cultivation wanted to know why she hadn’t become a Buddha. I asked her, “ You lived at home for more than ten years. What advantage did you gain in all that time?”
If it weren’t for the chill that strikes to the bone,
How could the plum blossom be so fragrant?
Plum trees bloom in the bitter cold and so their fragrance is especially sweet.
In investigating dhyana you should not fear pain or cold. Don’t sit during meditation waiting for the bell to ring like one of my disciples did when she first began to meditate. Her brain was clouded with a smog of thoughts then, but over the years she has gotten a little better. Her head is a little clearer, which indicates a bit of progress.
In general, when you first begin to investigate dhyana you will experience pain in your knees, ankles, and back which makes you uncomfortable. When people’s legs hurt, they stretch them out, and when their backs ache, they lean against the wall. But in the dhyana hall, one is beaten for stretching out his legs! And leaning against the wall is a violation of the rules. When there is pain you must be patient. Bear the pain, the hunger, and the fatigue. If Buddhist lay disciples can be like this, even more should those who have left the home life be like this! Resolve to break all pain barriers so that you may gain inner freedom and peace. Investigation of dhyana is basically a battle with the Demon King—birth and death. Since this is a battle of life and death, you should even more be able to resist a little pain. Will it kill you? No! So what is there to fear? One could speak forever about the advantages of investigating dhyana. I have spoken just a little.
During a dhyana session time is extremely valuable. Each second holds the chance to become enlightened. Don’t waste a minute! How do you know that in that very moment that you wasted you wouldn’t have become enlightened?
“Perhaps,” you may say. “But I don’t want to become enlightened. What use is it?”
Then why did you come here to investigate dhyana? If you have that attitude you will leave Gold Mountain empty-handed. Wouldn’t that be a shame?
When I participated in dhyana sessions I never left the dhyana hall except to attend to essential matters. Do you remember two years ago when five of you went to Taiwan to take the complete precepts? In Hong Kong you met Bhikshu Ming Kuan who told you that he and I had sat together for ten consecutive weeks of meditation during which time we sat in the hall both day and night. If he hadn’t mentioned that, I wouldn’t have remembered it. Now, in following me, you are perfecting your ability to forget things. Not bad! Keep it up and you can obtain my robe and bowl and then even be able to forget them!
We have talked enough. We should investigate more. Investigate to the point of no-enlightenment. After all, didn’t someone say earlier that enlightenment was useless?
Day #2 (Evening)
Meditation, like all cultivation, must be practiced daily without interruption.
“But when will I be enlightened?” you ask.
It all depends on how hard you work. If you investigate in the morning and in the evening, while walking, standing, sitting, and lying down, your skill will mature and you will certainly become enlightened. For example, you can’t see the trees grow, but everyday they become taller. Meditation is like the wild grass growing in the spring; you can’t see it grow, but daily it becomes more profuse. If you don’t work, you are like a whetstone which decreases imperceptibly day by day.
“But people aren’t stone!” you say. “What decreases?”
What is lost is your inherent wisdom. Don’t think that you will obtain the Way immediately. Of course, everyone wants to become enlightened quickly, but if you don’t work how can you? When you went to school, you passed through grades from elementary school to high school to the University and then perhaps on to take a Master’s or a Doctor’s degree. It’s much less easy to become a Buddha.
Someone has regrets, “Had I known it would be this difficult, I never would have attended the session.” It’s too late now! Since you’ve already joined, you should finish what you began. I’ll tell you frankly that it won’t be a waste. When you attend one dhyana session, your Bodhi sprouts grow just that much taller. attend two sessions and they grow even taller. The day will certainly come when they bear fruit. So have no regrets. Not the slightest effort goes to waste, and the wisdom-life of your Dharma body will grow naturally. Even those who are not attending the session but who have just come to take a look plant good roots. Strive mightily and have no regrets!
When investigating, “Who is mindful of the Buddha?” things may get vague. You investigate diligently, but you can’t figure out “who” it is. If you can continue without stopping, however, you will give rise to a “feeling of doubt.” With great doubt there is great enlightenment; with a small doubt there is a small enlightenment; and with no doubt there is no enlightenment.
What is meant by “a feeling of doubt?” Beginning meditators may bring forth thoughts of doubt, but they can only be called “thoughts.” They don’t count as a “feeling” of doubt. They may think, “Who is mindful of the Buddha?” Then gradually the ghosts of the mad mind become collected and diminish until you gain control of the questioning thought of “Who?” This is called “investigation,” and is the “feeling of doubt.” When your skill is pure and ripe, even when you are not doubting, you will doubt without interruption. You will investigate the word “Who?” continuously for several hours with great clarity.
At that time you won’t breathe, your pulse will have stopped, your thoughts will have stopped, and you will have attained profound and great enlightenment. Whether walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, you will be in samadhi, without entering or leaving it. Above there will be no heaven and below no earth; and in between there will be no people. Everything will be empty. Even empty space will have been obliterated. So the Shurangama Sutra says, “The void arises in the great enlightenment like a bubble arising on the sea. When the bubble bursts, emptiness basically does not exist, much less the three realms of existence.”
When empty space has been annihilated, what kind of state remains? When there is no emptiness, what confused thoughts can there be? At that time it is very easy to become enlightened, to return to the root and go back to the source, to understand your mind and see your nature. Understanding your mind and seeing your nature, there are no obstructions anywhere—no worries and no troubles. You are absolutely imperturbable. With samadhi like that, Mount T’ai could collapse in front of you and you wouldn’t be startled. A beautiful woman—or a handsome man—could stand in front of you, but you wouldn’t move at all. That is independence, true independence!
Those who wish to become enlightened must not be lazy; all the Patriarchs and Buddhas of the past were heroically vigorous. Then they were able to realize the Way, perfect the three enlightenments, and complete the ten thousand conducts.
In the Ch’an Hall, the vigorous ones make progress. The Ch’an Hall is called the Prajna Hall and so the verse says,
In Gold Mountain Monastery’s Prajna Hall,
We gather from the ten directions,
Here, where Buddhas are selected.
Whoever becomes enlightened will know
The face he had before his mother bore him,
And we’ll grant that he is comfortable, clear, and cool.
The Prajna Hall has been designed as a place for you to refine your wisdom. You should become smarter the more you study, not stupider.
“It’s too bitter,” you say. “I really can’t take it.”
If you can endure what you can’t endure and conquer all difficulties, you are an extraordinary person. Any person can do common things. You should strive to be one who stands above the crowd. Then you will be a person of honor and ability, one capable of great undertakings.
The Buddhas have gathered here from the ten directions in the hall where the Buddhas are selected. We, too, have assembled from the ten directions to cultivate and train together. Let’s see who can be the first to become enlightened and realize Buddhahood. Whoever can find his original face, the one he had before he was born, will obtain genuine independence, clarity and ease.
I hope that you will be able to find out “who” you were before your mother gave birth to you. Not that face with the blue eyes, but the one you had before you were born—your original face. Search! We must find out “Who?”