Seminar in Zen and Pureland Buddhism
The First Meeting
Professor Rogers: In January 1991, in Kathmandu, the capital of the mountain Kingdom of Nepal, we met at a place called the Vajra Hotel. Those of you who have studied Buddhist tradition know that vajra means a thunderbolt vehicle which is the third of the great vehicles in Buddhism. The Hinayana, a smaller or lesser vehicle; the Mahayana, the great vehicle; and then either the Vajrayana, the thunderbolt vehicle or the Tantrayana, the Tantric path, which characterizes Tibetan Buddhism. Vajrayana also came to China and then to Japan as the great Shingon, the True Word or Mantra Sect of Buddhism. So, we met in this Buddhist setting; the hotel run by Tibetan Buddhist. Out of the group that traveled to the Buddhist holy sites in Nepal and India, there were many interesting people: two physicians, a clinical psychologist, an ACLU lawyer, someone who had done a lot of tracking in the Himalayas, an artist and a professor of philosophy. When you meet a new group of people there is a kind of chemistry that goes on, and you try to figure out how to fit in with the group that you will be with for three to four weeks.
I guess gradually it was Dr. Lin that I was struck by as someone who really knew what he was doing. The rest of us knew a little about Buddhist tradition and a little about what people do on a pilgrimage; but from the very beginning, Dr. Lin seemed to be very connected, devoted, purposeful, and focused. So, out of a sort of Southern hospitality, I said, "Oh, you have to come to Washington and Lee University to see us sometime." That was about it. But after I came back here I said to myself, "It would be really great if he could come," and he has come. We will be with him this morning and tomorrow night, his lecture at eight o’clock, and again on Wednesday. He has read all the questions that each one of us put together anticipating his visit. So here is Dr. Lin!
Dr. Lin: I have read your questions and they are very good. You have so many questions and we have so little time, therefore, I will first give a short talk hoping that some of your questions will be resolved by it. After the talk we will discuss whatever questions you might have then.
First of all, I would like to emphasize that what Buddha tried to explain to us is not just theory, not just certain views that he tried to persuade us to have. He tried to convey an experience which was the result of his pursuit of how to solve the problems of life, death, sickness, old age and suffering in the world. The solution he found was an experience which was direct and intuitive, but too difficult to express. Therefore, at first, he was going to remain silent about it, but then, out of his compassion, he began to teach people on the problems of life and their solutions.
Over the years Buddhism has spread to different people in different localities. In order for different people to understand the essence of Buddha’s teachings, it is presented more or less differently in various localities . Consequently, many systems of thoughts have developed within Buddhism, and Buddhism has become manifold. It has thus become rather difficult for us to get to the quintessence of Buddha’s teachings. Nevertheless, I think the easiest way to understand Buddha’s teachings is to try to look directly at the experience that he tried to communicate to us. That experience, in simple terms, is his realization of his oneness with the whole universe; and it is a Limitless-Oneness.
People might ask, "How can there be such a Oneness with wars going on in the world?" Usually I answer this question by offering some examples of my personal supernatural experiences. Since the questions raised by this class are far deeper, I will even try to explain the very experience that Buddha realized. Although it is not my own experience, fortunately, my late teacher, Yogi C. M. Chen, did attain the experience of Limitless-Oneness and revealed it to me. He also told about that experience in his books.
In that experience, everything, including one’s own body, disappears. There is nothing left, except the light of blue sky everywhere. In Tibetan Tantric Buddhism this is called "the Dharmakaya Light." Dharmakaya Light is the basis of Dharmakaya, the Buddhist terminology for the universe. Nevertheless, the concept of Dharmakaya assumes that all things are basically on the same footing, which goes beyond the distinction of reality and non-reality, while the usual concept of the universe implies the factual existence of things and distinguishes between reality and illusion. In Buddhism, Dharmakaya is the collection of all Dharmas, i.e., all things as they are. Hence the chair that I am sitting on, and the thoughts and sensations I have, are considered equally as Dharmas. So we cannot replace the term "Dharmakaya" with the term "universe" at will.
When can one experience this Dharmakaya Light? According to the Tibetan tantric teaching there are several possibilities. One possibility is that at the moment of sneezing, one might get a glimpse of the Dharmakaya Light. The other possibility is at the moment of fainting. Another possibility is at the moment of death. For people without preparation for death by practicing Buddhist tantric methods, the Dharmakaya Light they experience at the moment of death is fleeting, lasting for less than a second. Nevertheless, the possibilities that I have mentioned so far are not situations that we can enter at will, and therefore cannot be used for practice.
However, there are other possibilities. For example, during deep and sound sleep one might experience the Dharmakaya Light. One may also experience it at the peak of sexual intercourse. Such a peak cannot be reached by ordinary people because they have already discharged before reaching it. Tantric practitioners who have training in visualization and breathing to a certain extent will be able to have sexual intercourse without discharge. Thereby they can reach the peak of sexual union and see the Dharmakaya Light. In Tantric Buddhism one goes through many preliminary practices so that one becomes able to use sleep or sex for spiritual advancement.
Finally, the Dharmakaya Light may be attained through meditation. Chan (Zen) is a kind of Tantric practice that tries to reach the Dharmakaya Light through meditation—a meditation that engulfs one’s whole being. The experience of the Dharmakaya Light is possible only for very mature practitioners who are able to reach a near-death stage through meditation. Naturally the following question arises: Are there characteristics of the Dharmakaya Light experience that are recognizable to practitioners who begin to approach it? Indeed, there are.
My late teacher revealed that there are four characteristics of this experience that are common to all practitioners who are entering it, and that these four characteristics occur simultaneously:
- The first characteristic is called "Bright Image," i.e., all things appear to be brighter than usual, as if they were seen through a crystal. This particular characteristic occurring alone is not too difficult to attain. Usually when people go into meditative states they have this experience.
- The second characteristic is called "No Thoughts," i.e., while fully awake one’s thinking process has stopped; there is not a thought in one’s awareness. Consequently, one is not even aware of this "No Thoughts" occurring. It is only later when one reflects upon one’s meditative experience that one realizes what happened.
- The third characteristic is called "No Duality," i.e., one is free from the dualistic sense of subject versus object antagonism.
- The fourth characteristic is called "Ceased Breathing," i.e., one’s breathing becomes ever finer and slowly comes to a halt. There is no air in or out through the nostrils. However, at this moment one’s abdomen begins to expand and contract in rhythm, and this is called "inner breathing" because the air is still moving inside the body. Our normal breathing, in contrast, is called "outer breathing." The characteristic of "Ceased Breathing" means that one’s outer breathing has stopped.
According to my late teacher, Yogi Chen, when one attains the Dharmakaya Light, even the inner breathing has stopped. At this stage even one’s heartbeat has stopped. Such a meditative state is thus very close to death. Ordinarily our heartbeats are considered to be beyond our conscious control, and yet practitioners of meditation can slow them down or, in rare cases, even stop them completely through meditation. When one’s inner and outer breathing stops, one’s body will be completely filled with air, and then this air bag will shatter, i.e., the boundary between inner and outer air disappears and one’s inner air becomes one with the air outside. (This does not mean that our physical body will shatter into pieces.) At this point one goes into the Dharmakaya Light experience. I myself have had experiences of the above-mentioned characteristics of the Dharmakaya Light experience: Bright Image, No Thoughts, No Duality and Ceased Breathing. Nevertheless, I have not had the experience of the Dharmakaya Light because my meditations are not deep enough. The stopping of the outer breathing is not very difficult to achieve; many practitioners of meditation have had this experience. As one’s meditation goes deeper, the breathing automatically becomes finer and slower, and eventually stops by itself. As soon as the outer breathing stops, the inner breathing begins. It cannot be achieved by intention because as long as one maintains thoughts, the outer breathing cannot stop.
Once I had an experience of the outside air pouring into me while I was doing "Powa," a Tantric practice to help deceased people enter Buddha’s Pureland. All of a sudden, without my intention or expectation, the air outside came into me, not through the nostrils but from all directions; and then went into the Amitabha Buddha that I visualized in front of me.
I mention all these personal experiences to help you understand that those characteristics mentioned above, although they sound incredible, are indeed achievable.
When Yogi Chen talks about Chan (Zen) in his writings, he is talking about this Dharmakaya Light experience and its utilization in all aspects of life. The utilization of this experience is to base our living in this final realization of Limitless-Oneness.
When we talk about this Dharmakaya Light experience as the Enlightenment experience, it does not mean that the goal of Buddhism is to practice meditation to such an extent that one is very close to death and then remains useless. Rather, it is the true beginning of Buddha’s Wisdom and Compassion. The Wisdom based on this Dharmakaya Light experience goes beyond the worldly wisdom that is limited by our normal sensations. The Compassion based on this Dharmakaya Light experience accepts all without reservations. The wonderful interplay of Wisdom and Compassion results in the infinite teachings and other salvation activities of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
Based on the degree of realization of Dharmakaya Light, Yogi Chen classified the Gong-An’s of Chan, i.e., the anecdotes of Chan masters’ teachings, into four levels. He wrote a book on this entitled "The Lighthouse in the Ocean of Chan." At the first level, you simply enter the Dharmakaya Light experience, hence, the first level is called "Entrance." In Chan it is often denoted by the drawing of a big circle. Why is a circle used to represent the Dharmakaya Light? In the Limitless-Oneness of the Dharmakaya Light, everywhere can be the center and then it is of equal infinite distance to all sides; similarly, the center of a circle is of equal distance to all points on its circumference. Of course, the Dharmakaya Light actually has no boundary.
Although I cannot emphasize the importance of the Dharmakaya Light experience enough, it is still not something that we want to have attachment for. Its significance lies in the fact that, prior to this experience, one has never actually been free from the dualistic conceptualization of "me" and "others." As long as there is such a distinction, one cannot truly love others. When there are no difficulties, when we have enough to share, of course, it is easy to love one another. At times of shortage or hardship, fighting becomes inevitable for people with a sense of self. Only people who have experienced the Limitless-Oneness of the Dharmakaya Light can truly love others as themselves. It is not because that experience has transformed them; rather, it is because the experience is a vivid manifestation of their having returned to their original purity.
Furthermore, the motivation to serve others will spontaneously emerge from the Dharmakaya Light experience because it is a real experience of being one with all. One then no longer does good because of believing in some conceptual framework of goodness or for rewards in the future or in Heaven. Rather, it is simply out of a profound sense of Oneness that it has become mandatory to act for the well-being of all.
If one who has had the Dharmakaya Light experience becomes attached to it, then he will stay in it. Thereby he cannot help ordinary sentient beings through direct involvement. This is not the best possible way to serve others who are still in the whirlpool of worldly sorrows. Therefore, after one has attained the Dharmakaya Light experience and has practiced to the extent that he can enter it at will, he should come out from that meditative state. Yogi Chen pointed out that such a freedom from attachment to the Dharmakaya Light experience is a major step on the path toward complete Enlightenment. In his classification it is the second level, which is labeled "Exit."
The third level is called "Use." After one has exited from attachment to the Dharmakaya Light experience, one practices infusing the Limitless-Oneness of Dharmakaya Light experience into all daily activities, and thereby rooting our thoughts and actions in the oneness of all. We are accustomed to selfish desires and actions, and to self-centered thoughts and talks. Even when one has purified oneself to the extent that one has had the Dharmakaya Light experience, it might still be just a fleeting moment of awakening. Therefore, one needs to practice penetration and utilization of the awakening in one’s daily life. When one has mastered utilization of the awakening in daily activities, then one may bestow Enlightenment on those who are ready even through simple daily encounters. In the history of Chan there are numerous such examples. One famous story is the bestowal of Enlightenment on a devoted disciple by the Bird Nest Master, who simply blew a feather in his own palm.
Finally, one has become so mature in the utilization of the awakening experience that it has become one’s nature and there are no traces of practice or endeavor. This fourth and final level is therefore entitled "Finish."
Chan, as I explained above, is the quintessence of Buddha’s teachings. All Buddhist teachings are rooted in the Dharmakaya Light experience and guide us toward this experience. The above is only a brief explanation of Chan. For detailed study and guidance on practice, please read Yogi Chen’s "The Lighthouse in the Ocean of Chan."
In Buddhism there are many systems with their respective stipulation of stages. Among all these various teachings, Chan is a direct teaching at the ultimate stage. It is not a beginner’s course; hence most of us need to start our Buddhist practice with easier methods. Many of the questions that you have raised are due to a lack of understanding of the different stages in Buddhism. For example, some of you considered meditations leading to concentration as Chan practices, without realizing that such practices are only basic but not intrinsic to Buddhism. Concentration practices are common to Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, etc.
The next question is—how to approach Chan, or how to attain Chan through practice? There are many traditional approaches that are developed by different masters and marked by their individual styles. They are the so-called Schools of Chan, e.g., Lin-Ji, Cao-Dong, etc. Of course, we need to respect and learn the traditional teachings. However, one should also realize that there is no way which is the only true way to attain Chan. Hence we should not be too attached to the individual styles.
When the masters helped their disciples as recorded in the Gong-An’s, the Chan anecdotes, they did not have preconceived ideas in mind. A Chan master simply acts in response to the situation raised by the student. It is analogous to a man with eyesight who naturally extends a helping hand to a falling blind person. The way he helps is in response to the way the blind person is falling. Hence we cannot simply try to imitate his hand movements in order to gain his eyesight.
The master tried to aim at and destroy the self-centeredness of the student at that instant; and when the student was ready, he experienced it and got the essence of Buddha’s teachings instantly. Later, people tried to record incidents like these to convey the inconceivable teaching; and they called the teacher’s responses "methods," as if there was a general way or approach. Actually each response was unique to the given situation relative to the student at that particular moment. As the time and place change, so do the student and the teacher’s response. Hence, we should not just imitate the actions of Chan masters in order to achieve Enlightenment.
This is pointed out by the saying: "A Chan practitioner walks the path of birds." Birds fly in the sky, leaving no traces; similarly, a Chan practitioner’s activities cannot be grasped. If we take a photo of a bird in the sky and think that it is still there in the sky, then we are certainly mistaken. Likewise, if we read a Chan anecdote and think that the master’s response is the answer for all times to come, then we have been misguided. This is precisely what the Chan masters tried to avoid when they taught without resorting to the holy teachings as recorded in the Sutras and Sastras. Only with this kind of proper understanding can we go into the study of Chan anecdotes.
Let us consider a question raised by one of you: "I used to think that Zen is the same as Buddha Nature. What is the difference?"
The difference is that "Buddha Nature" is just a concept, while Chan is the actual realization of Enlightenment. As a conceptual tool, "Buddha Nature" helps to dissolve the boundaries of all our concepts; thereby we may become free from the views and thoughts that we have held. Nevertheless, it is just a concept. If we do not enhance it by actual practice, we will never experience the freedom from conceptual limitations.
Another question from you that is of interest is, "Is sitting meditation really the way to reach Zen?"
According to Yogi Chen’s teaching, in the Chinese Chan tradition, one starts the sitting meditation only after one has had the Chan experience. Before one attains the Chan experience, one needs to travel to look for a teacher with real attainment, and then practice according to the teacher’s instructions. After one has attained the Chan experience, at first one has no mastery over that experience and it is just a fleeting glimpse of the Dharmakaya Light happening by chance. Therefore, one needs to practice sitting meditation in solitude in order to stabilize that experience and gain mastery over it. The goal at this stage is simply to become able to enter and exit the Chan experience at will.
Only after one has mastery over the entrance and exit of Dharmakaya Light can one expand the practice to ordinary daily activities. In the Chinese Chan tradition, it is even said that one should not go into retreat before one has obtained the Chan experience of awakening. One needs to do many good deeds to help sentient beings and visit Chan masters until one becomes mature and meets a master who, with one act such as a blow or a shout, breaks up your ego.
Some even experienced awakening during their pilgrimage from master to master: one saw his own image in the water; one heard the sound of a stone hitting a bamboo; while another saw a peach blossom; and they instantly awakened. There is simply no one or definite way to obtain the awakening experience, and in these cases, the water, the stone and the flower are the masters. This is called "the Direct Transmission of Dharmakaya."
After one has gained mastery over the entrance and exit of the Dharmakaya Light experience, one no longer needs to stay in solitary retreat. Then one can live on a mountain where there are only a few people, and practice combining the awakening experience with simple daily activities. One no longer has to stay only in one room, but may walk around on the mountain of his retreat, a natural environment without complex human relations.
When one becomes quite at ease with this practice in the mountain, then one will go down into the city to practice while mingling with people. Hui-Ke, the second Patriarch of the Chinese Chan School, was a monk, and yet for his practice at this stage he went to gambling houses and brothels. One’s greed and concern over gain or loss are operating during those kinds of involvements. The advanced practitioner is trying to penetrate those fundamental attachments with the awakening experience and thereby become truly free from them. The complete purity of mind thus obtained has been tested with real situations, and is therefore applicable to life. One then devotes one’s life to service based on such purity.
Before one reaches such purity, the subtle traces of attachments may still emerge occasionally and this should be taken care of. Consequently, the distinction between the actor and the observer is still working in one’s consciousness, and one’s activities are not pure and natural. Furthermore, when good deeds are the result of conscious control, there is no telling when righteousness may yield to desires or impulses.
The Chan use of the Dharmakaya Light experience is to spontaneously sublimate all our self-centered tendencies to their original purity in Limitless-Oneness. There is no longer a chance of one’s self-centeredness working behind one’s activities. One becomes at ease with his desires and impulses because he no longer lives in their shadows but stays in the openness of the whole universe as one.
When the second Patriarch went to the prostitutes, people ridiculed him because he was a monk who was supposed to remain chaste. The second Patriarch simply replied, "I am training my own mind; it is none of your business." Nevertheless, this kind of training is not for beginners to take up. It is training at the very last stage. In order to dig out the roots of all one’s desires, it is necessary to go into situations where desires are rampant. The practitioners at this stage will visit or stay in a cemetery at night. At that stage they are already able to see ghosts. They will use the scary sights and sounds to enhance the stability of their Dharmakaya Light, and thereby transcend the ordinary fear.
We are not at such an advanced stage, nor have we had the Dharmakaya Light experience. Can we still practice sitting meditation and gain some benefits, or should we start it only after we shall have had the Dharmakaya Light experience?
Sitting meditation does not have to be the advanced Chan practice. It can be a simple practice of observing one’s breathing, or concentrating on one point. To reach the Dharmakaya Light experience, it is necessary that we have the basic meditational ability to concentrate on one point. Hence, we can still practice sitting meditation and gain some benefits. However, even for the very basic sitting meditations, it is very important that one is consistent in one’s mind and activities, and not attached to worldly things.
If we study the Chan anecdotes carefully, we will notice that those Chan practitioners, in order to obtain awakening, gave up everything and went on a quest looking for a Chan master. Such a pilgrimage might continue for years as they travel from master to master. How many of us could do such a thing? How many of us would give up everything for such a spiritual quest?
Further, although Chan is undefinable and without a definite method or answer, still, traditionally there are two methods which have been passed down. One method is to ponder a Hua-Tou, i.e., a question that deeply puzzles one. This pondering should be kept up continuously without a break until one attains the awakening experience. It may take days, weeks, months or years. This could drive an ordinary person crazy, and hence it is dangerous unless the practitioner has completely renounced worldly life.
Indeed, the aim of this practice is to break up the hold of one’s rationality (but it is not to break up one’s rationality). Whenever we are acting within the confines of concepts, we are aware of the subject/object distinction, and hence we cannot be one with our immediate experience. Hence to reach the Limitless-Oneness of the Dharmakaya we need to go beyond rationality. An analogy would be like trying to escape from a mental cage by drilling at one point until the drill goes through. In the case of Chan awakening, it is not just creating a hole, it is comparable to the whole cage collapsing.
How many of us can keep pondering one question all the time? That actually requires training in advance. Therefore, the sitting meditation for concentrating on one point is preparatory for the real Chan practice.
People often try to understand Chan, instead of by complete devotion and involvement, by observations made from an on-looker’s standpoint. Consequently, their remarks are apt to be contradicted by some known Gong-An’s. For example, some would tell us that the Chan practitioners are practical in the sense that they work daily for their livelihood. The First Patriarch Bodhidharma sat in meditation facing a wall for nine years waiting for someone mature enough to receive the transmission of the quintessence. What kind of practical mindedness was exemplified by the First Patriarch of Chan? Thus we see that working daily for livelihood is not essential to Chan.
Seeing the example set by Bodhidharma, some would tell us that sitting meditation is the way to attain Chan. Nevertheless, when the Second Patriarch, Hui-Ke, came to ask for teaching from Bodhidharma, the transmission had nothing to do with instructions on sitting meditation.
Hui-Ke was no ordinary man; Prior to going to Bodhidharma, he had studied the sutras and realized that he did not have the real attainment. Therefore, he went to Bodhidharma for teaching on the quintessence. He stood outside for three days and nights in the snow waiting for Bodhidharma to pay attention to him. The snow covered his feet up to the knees. Finally Bodhidharma broke the silence and asked, "What do you want?" Hui-Ke replied that he would like to receive the teaching on the essence of the Dharma. Bodhidharma said that the ancients gave up their lives in order to obtain such teachings; hence, such teachings could not be given lightly. To show his determination and appreciation of the teaching, Hui-Ke cut off his left arm at the elbow and presented it to Bodhidharma.
Seeing this, Bodhidharma said, "Now that you have sacrificed the well-being of your body for the Dharma, you have thereby shown your appreciation of the Dharma; nevertheless, the quintessence of the Dharma cannot be obtained from others." Hui-ke said, "My mind is not at peace; please pacify it for me!" Bodhidharma said, "Bring me your mind; then I will pacify it for you." Hui-Ke remained silent for a while and then said, "I cannot find my mind." Bodhidharma said, "I have pacified it for you." When one realizes that there is no mind to be found, then there are no more disturbances of mind. During this famous episode there is no mention of sitting meditation.
The above shows that there is really no definite way to attain awakening. That is also the reason why a Chan practitioner goes from one master to another in search of the one who would bestow awakening on him. It is also recorded in the Gong-An’s that some Chan masters would point out to a visiting student that another master was the right teacher for him. They even knew who was a suitable teacher for whom. Practicing a method is more or less an outward imitation; only the inner realization of a true master and the inner maturity of a devoted disciple can meet and bring about union in the Limitless-Oneness. Hence, for Chan students it is of utmost importance to take refuge in a true master.
The other method in the Chinese Chan tradition is the "Running and Shock" method. The practitioner runs clockwise in a circle, with his left shoulder lifted and body leaning a little bit toward the right; his left hand moves back and forth a lot, and he runs faster and faster. Suddenly the teacher or an attendant makes a loud noise. Upon hearing the noise, the practitioner stops running and stands still. Such a running and shock practice may sometimes bring about the Dharmakaya Light experience.
We usually take it for granted that air goes through both nostrils. It is taught in Tantric Buddhism that practitioners of meditation have learned that sometimes the air will go by itself through only one nostril. Often the air goes in through the left nostril and comes out through the right one. Therefore, the practitioner runs in the particular way described above so as to help more air go into the body. When the body is full of air, and one runs very fast and suddenly stops in response to a shock caused by a loud noise, the conditions may bring about the extraordinary Dharmakaya Light experience.
Rinzai and Soto, the Japanese Chan schools, originated in the Chinese tradition and are named after the Chinese Patriarchs. Last night I heard Professor Rogers mention that in one of these two schools, I do not recall now which one it is, the student is not given something to work on; rather the student may come to the teacher when he has questions to ask. To me, such an arrangement contains a hidden teaching. It would be interesting for you to ponder over why the arrangement is such that the student goes to the teacher only when he has questions. The hidden teaching in this arrangement is beyond the actual questioning and answering between the student and the teacher. In other words, the arrangement contains a Hua-Tou in itself, i.e., a puzzle to ponder. You might want to think about this before our next meeting, and then we can talk about it next time.
Professor Rogers: To think about what?
Dr. Lin: Why the arrangement is such that the student comes to the teacher only when he has questions. You see, it is not the case that the teacher has something to give to the student. Rather, the teacher offers an answer only when the student has a question. The teacher seems to be waiting passively. Why is he like that?
So far I have not answered all the questions that you wrote down for me. Nevertheless, I believe it is better to ask new questions now that you have heard my talk, rather than my going through the list of questions you previously had.
Question from a student: When you talked about losing the sense of subject and object, is that differentiating between yourself and other objects or beings? Could you explain that more?
Dr. Lin: It is something that one realizes upon reflection only after one has come out of that state, just as one becomes aware of the degree of one’s tension only after becoming relaxed. Furthermore, it is a personal experience that is almost impossible to communicate to people who have not had the same experience. Still I can tell you something to help you understand it.
Usually when we sit on a chair we are constantly aware of our body resting against the chair; without making any effort we sense the boundary between two objects. However, as a result of my meditational practice, the sense of boundary between two objects simply disappears by itself. The sense of a boundary was a natural sensation which I realized later to be unconsciously maintained by conceptual distinctions.
Thus, losing the sense of subject and object distinction is not just a conceptual thing; it is something one can actually experience.
Right now we can try the following experiment: try to imagine that you are at the center of a ball of air or light, and imagine that the ball is getting larger and larger. Since you have not practiced this before, naturally you will sense a limitation to such expansion. Can anyone tell me where you have sensed a boundary? Or, in other words, do you sense some obstacle to your imagined expansion?
One student: This circle that we are sitting in (referring to the seating arrangement in the room)
Dr. Lin: Yes. You are limited by the walls. Whenever we enter a room, our notion of space will be limited by the walls. Only when we try to expand the space in our minds do we come to realize that we have such conceptual boundaries. This does not mean that walls do not exist or that we can go through walls. Rather, it simply means that it is not necessary for our minds to be unconsciously limited by our senses. The so-called "supernatural" abilities are simply expressions of the mind when it is awakened to and freed from the limitations ill-imposed by our normal senses. It takes practice to free our minds from all these kinds of unconscious presumptions. When we are free from unconsciously self-imposed mental blocks, we will be able to see a new world and live our lives differently. That is why we need these kinds of spiritual practices and that is where the significance of such a spiritual practice lies.
The traditional ideals such as "Love thy neighbors; all people under the sky are brothers and sisters; ..." are not just empty words. It is possible for one to attain such spiritual freedom enabling one to truly feel like that. Physically our growth is limited; spiritually we are all capable of unlimited growth. Life is an opportunity for such growth, that is where its true significance lies. In comparison, all other things are just transient. Spiritual growth is an eternal quest for humanity, and it is the only source of true happiness in our human existence. Whoever has enjoyed freedom from the ego will selflessly serve others.
Another way to reach the presumption-free state is through the practice of pure or direct experiencing. This is the "Vipassana" practice, also referred to as "insight meditation." There are two kinds of Vipassana practices: One kind is training oneself to think in accordance with Buddha’s teachings (this is not the kind that I am referring to), and the other kind is training in observation and awareness by simply observing one’s sensations, breathing, thoughts or emotions without involvement or reaction.
To people who have not done such practices it would seem to be a waste of time because one simply sits still, becomes introspective, and does not react. Nevertheless, it is indeed a training in experiencing things as they are. We have been so dominated and prejudiced by our thoughts that most of the time we lose touch with our immediate experiences, especially the subtle sensations. We cannot see the world as it is; and our actions are guided by our limited views. Distortions lead to more distortions and ultimately cause considerable confusion.
We are constantly under tension because of such distortions and confusion. We do need to learn to unwind in order to have a clear mind and a happy life. As we pay attention to our experiences as they are, the grip of our conceptual framework gradually loosens. People are usually quite blind as to what is actually going on, and simply push forward with their plans, desires and views. Pure experiencing has an awakening effect that will refresh our awareness and sensibility. As a result we will be more in tune with reality and become more empathic to others’ situations.
Pure experiencing will purify our minds thereby freeing us from our prejudices and attachments. A booklet of mine called "The Practice of Singing Along" describes a pure-experiencing practice that I have invented. The key point is to try to sing along with songs from a tape being played, not segment by segment, but rather sound after sound. One tries to sing along by intuition, not memory.
I began my practice by using a French tape because I do not know this language. Although we cannot understand a foreign language that we have not learned, still we should be able to hear every sound as it is spoken. Unfortunately, we tend to mentally close our hearing to foreign languages as we have difficulty capturing the spoken sounds. On the one hand, this is our sense of economy working, i.e., we simply ignore what would be of no avail to us. On the other hand, such habitual tendencies become automatic mental blocks to our ability to learn or readjust. That is why language learning is natural to small children, but a tremendous task for many adults.
When I practice singing along, I try to sing at the same time I hear the song; otherwise, it would be from memory rather than a direct experience.
Question from the class: But you must be a little bit behind it; aren’t you?
Dr. Lin: Well, it takes practice to achieve that. Right now you think that it certainly takes time for the sound to reach me and for me to imitate it out loud.
(Dr. Lin made a sound by striking the desk.)
This sound as it occurred was, in fact, beyond our concepts of who made it and where it came from. We had an immediate sensation that involved no thinking. As long as we have a sense of this being a sound coming from a place outside of ourselves, then our faculties are not functioning intuitively. The natural functions of our faculties are being interfered with by distinctions made on an unconscious level based on culture and personal past experiences. Through practice, all these add-ons will gradually weaken and finally fade away. It is possible to reach the state in which the sound you hear is felt as yours. The sound is just there, free from the distinction of being yours or mine. When you can experience just pure sounds, then you will be able to sing along simultaneously with the song being played.
The importance of this practice lies in the spiritual freedom it will bring. After I had practiced singing along for one year using the same French tape, gradually I was able to do it. Also, as I sang along, the "Bright Image" that I mentioned earlier would appear.
Question from the class: Is it the Dharmakaya Light?
Dr. Lin: No, that is not the Dharmakaya Light. "Bright Image" simply refers to the experience of seeing everything brightly.
When one is singing along closely, one becomes so concentrated that one cannot cling to anything. Normally, one tends to cling to the sounds one has just heard, and this clinging will prevent one from hearing the forthcoming sounds properly. Similarly, if one anticipates anything, then the anticipating attitude will interfere with one’s perception. Hence singing along also frees one from anticipation. It was my experience that the practice of singing along can bring one into meditative states that are free from clinging and anticipation.
As I entered that meditative state, tears simply rolled down my face; I intuitively sensed that we are fundamentally the same and that we have been deceived by superficial differences into making divisions among human beings. Differences in culture, country or species do not matter; as sentient beings we are all the same.
If I were born as you, then what your mother says would be as dear to me as to you; and that is the reason why children can learn several languages easily. To children, all languages are as natural as their mother tongue. Adults have made the distinction between native and foreign languages, so they learn through translations. Consequently, the learning process is slow and clumsy. Instead of the natural way of immediately responding, we adults are constantly translating or checking the grammar when using a second language. In this way we lose our natural ability to be direct and simple.
Once we have purified our minds through such practice, we will realize the underlying truth of what people are doing when they kill each other in wars—it is the same as killing their own parents. This kind of realization is the real benefit of Buddhist study and practice, especially the practices. Only through adopting these practices will one see the fundamental truth. It is different from brainwashing by ideologies. Buddhist practices simply clear your mind’s eye so that you can see the truth yourself; you will really sense it.
Question from a student: I am having trouble understanding the difference between transcending desires such as greed and using it as an excuse to act out one’s desires.
Dr. Lin: First of all, you have to answer to yourself whether you are sincere or not. Only when you practice sincerely and your concern goes beyond the ordinary limits of yourself, your family, and your country, does the transcendence have real meaning. One’s personal greed becomes an insignificant thing when one sees the whole picture—so many people are suffering; life is so fragile; there are so many natural calamities and yet people are adding on suffering by fighting. When one’s mind is broadened to see and care for all this, then it becomes free from personal gains and losses.
As to those people who use ideals as pretexts for promoting their self-centered interests, I think they are indeed suffering a great loss. In the final analysis, what can they truly gain by this? They are only falling deeper and deeper into the tiny prison that they are building for their own confinement. I have only sympathy for them. What we need to do is to help them see the vastness and freedom of Limitless-Oneness.
In this context, the old saying, "Your destiny is really in your hands," is valid. Our intentions, sincerity, and actions can make a great difference, so we ought to be careful. Self-centered people are living in misery, because even if they can fool others all the time, they can never fool themselves. In view of the liberation experienced by Chan masters, selfish people are missing the best opportunity that life has to offer, and wasting life by rushing into wrong directions. How pitiful!
Question: In meditation you reach the point where you lose the concept of yourself and another, so it is all one. But when you have to withdraw from that meditative state, and it reaches the point where you do not see a distinction between yourself and others, do you not have any concept of self?
Dr. Lin: Well, by the definition of Buddhahood, that is the case. Nevertheless, it does not mean that the awakening experience will render one ignorant of worldly ways. The purer one becomes, the clearer one sees the underlying motives of others.
In practice the main problem is how to apply the Oneness that one realizes through meditation in daily life. In real life "there are no free lunches." Of course, realization of Oneness does not mean that based on your realization you will get a "free lunch." The main point is that one has gained the freedom to see the whole spectrum. Consequently, one sees clearly what is at the root of human suffering. There are things that we can do little about, like natural calamities; however, man-made sufferings can be reduced and even prevented from happening by our efforts.
There are different ways to solve human problems: politically, socially, economically, etc. These ways are limited and more or less superficial. The fundamental solution to human problems is a common awareness that we need to be good ourselves and kind to others. The laws are very limited; it all depends on how they are interpreted, carried out, and to what extent they can apply. Law enforcement can capture only some illegal dealings, and sometimes punishes the innocent by mistake. Laws may regulate human affairs, but cannot be a source of compassion and goodwill.
Once we realize the importance of everyone being good and kind, we should start improving ourselves. This is not self-centered because it is not out of a sense of trying to be superior, but just the result of seeing the whole picture and recognizing that this is the foundation for a solution to our problems. Besides, others will follow only after we have set good examples ourselves. We can improve ourselves through practice, and we have control only over our own activities. Others can be influenced only when they are willing to listen to us. If we start with criticizing others, it will simply be a waste of time and energy.
When you begin to improve yourself, outwardly it seems that you are the same as before; you still have things in life to take care of. Nevertheless, you are now living with an open and new perspective, and your motives are no longer self-centered. Previously, we tried to get more for ourselves, so we thought and acted in terms of competition. With the new perspective of the oneness of the whole, we work in cooperation for harmony and peace. If the situation involves competition, we avoid it by starting on a new route. An old Chinese saying goes: "One step backward, and the ocean becomes expansive and the sky spacious." That means when one is all wrapped up in worldly entanglements, if one will only yield a little bit, then one will see that life is in fact not so narrow. Life is full of possibilities; simply yield and live in peace.
Question: How does the concept of "no self" come up?
Dr. Lin: At the level of being a concept, all concepts are just man-made devices. We have been bound by our concept of a self, so Buddha gave the teaching on "no self" in order to free us from the concept of a self. It is not Buddha’s intention to give us another conceptual cage; His teaching is not for us to live within the concept of "no self," rather it is simply a guide toward experiencing freedom from "self."
Some people may get the correct message upon hearing the teaching of "no self," while others may be misled into thinking that there is still something to hold onto. Therefore, Chan masters help people get the message by doing without the traditional teachings of Buddha. They convey directly the experience of awakening, which is essentially beyond the reach of concepts and speeches.
The effectiveness of communication is relative to the understanding of the parties involved. Hence, concepts, as tools for communication, are bound to be limited in their range of applications. Once we realize this limitation, we will be able to use concepts as tools more effectively.
Professor Rogers: Dr. Lin, in the introductory part of your talk you talked about the four characteristics like things becoming brighter, etc. I think you referred to that as the real stuff. I feel very uneasy when I hear that, because that is something very different from where I am, and I am not sure if I desire it; but if I was to get that, I would need to desire it, so it sort of sets up a kind of dualism that makes me feel very uncomfortable.
Dr. Lin: Right. That is precisely why my teacher was breaking the tradition when he revealed all these experiences. The tradition of Chan is not to talk about it so as to avoid the problem you have just raised.
Let us consider the following famous Gong-An: A monk sat in meditation. Upon seeing this, his teacher began to rub a brick on the ground. The monk asked, "What are you doing?" The teacher replied, "I am polishing it into a mirror." The monk retorted," How could you succeed in that?" The teacher replied, "Likewise, one cannot become enlightened through meditation." The basic teaching here is that as long as you have the idea of attaining Enlightenment then you will never get it, because the idea itself becomes a block in the path of reaching oneness with all.
Why did my teacher run such a risk and break the traditional silence? Nowadays so many people are talking about Gong-An’s that Chan has been degraded into a mere play of words and wits. Many people think their witty remarks and guesses are "answers" to the Gong-An’s, and that is all Chan is about. Hence, in order to dispel such errors, my teacher revealed the experiences with the hope that someday some serious practitioners may be able to reach it, and feel reassured by duplicating the experience he revealed to us, even in the absence of a living master.
Besides, the Chan practice is never trying to reach this or that experience. It simply offers a Gong-An for the practitioner to ponder, and nothing else. So, please forget about the desire to reach something. The method is simply to work on a Gong-An.
Professor Rogers: So, these statements are simply put out there, so that if we have that kind of experience, then we know that is it; and there is nothing that we can do about having that experience.
Dr. Lin: Yes, in a sense, there is nothing you can do about having that experience; however, in another sense, there is. Now that you have learned the principles of Buddhism, you can start trying with some simple practices. Gradually you will approach it. It is like planting a tree: it needs sunshine, fertilizer, and a daily supply of water. At first you do not see anything; years later the tree is there. There is nothing you can do to speed up its growth; just wait patiently. You simply need to keep up with the watering, adding of fertilizer and weeding. Similarly, we simply need to keep up with our daily practice, and the spiritual maturation will gradually take shape.
Professor Rogers: You are suggesting that there are many practices?
Dr. Lin: Yes. There are different practices for different people at different stages. Now we can talk about why I recommend chanting. Of course, meditation is good, and concentration practices are good. However, if we study it carefully, we will notice that in the Sutras, before a meditational technique is given, there is a short paragraph that says, "When this person has realized the futility of worldly endeavors and given them up, then he goes to a secluded place and starts to practice the following meditation."
The popular approach nowadays is to adopt the meditational techniques and encourage everyone to start practicing them without even mentioning the existence of such a preliminary step. Why do we need to mention this preliminary step? Whoever is so busy with his daily life, especially our modern complex life with speedy communication and mobility, is bound to have a mind full of thoughts and tensions. Such a person cannot simply sit down and concentrate on one point for, say, thirty minutes.
If he tries to do that, then the result is that he will be concentrating on the running around in his mind for thirty minutes. If there is no conflict or worry in his mind, then no harm will be done. Otherwise, the conflict or worry will be magnified through the "meditation" and the prejudice, attachment and tension will become even stronger. Consequently, the meditation will produce ill effects, therefore, it is very important that one first prepares oneself for meditational practice. One needs to gradually reduce one’s worldly desires and involvements, and build up a sincere desire to obtain the fruits of meditation.
In comparison, the chanting of "Amitabha" is more suitable for beginners of Buddhist practice. It is a way to free our minds from our customary views and thoughts and to stop our entanglements within our thoughts. Since all our worldly thoughts and concepts are connected in a self-centered way, there is no one ordinary concept that we can use without implicitly touching the net of our worldly thoughts and concerns. "Amitabha" is the name of a Buddha. It is not connected with our worldly entanglements. We practice to form a new habit of chanting such a holy name or a mantra in order for the old habit of running around in a self-centered circle to fade away.
We build up the length of chanting gradually from, say, five hundred repetitions a day for months to a thousand a day, just as we gradually increase the number of rounds of our daily jogging. We have only so much energy and we are accustomed to devoting all of it to our self-centered ways. With the gradual development of the habit of chanting, our energy finds a new direction and moves away from holding onto preconceptions and precautions. It is a slow and gradual change and there will be no abrupt conflict; hence it is safe for everyone to adopt. If we keep up the daily chanting, even though it is a gradual change, some day we will be free from attachments and prejudices.
Will this new habit become a new prison for us? It will not. The reasons are as follows: A mantra consists of pure sounds, so it has no meaning and no conceptual boundary. If it is a holy name such as "Amitabha," what does it mean? "Amitabha" means infinite light and infinite life. Infinite light is limitless in space; and infinite life is limitless in time. The basic structure of our conceptual universe is thereby dismantled. There is nothing for us to hold onto. Thus, it is clear that the chanting practice will not form a new prison for us.
Chanting is also a kind of meditation. It changes us step by step, so it is slow and safe. Other meditational practices, especially the Chan endeavor of pondering constantly on a Hua-Tou, involve direct confrontation with one’s self. One attempts to destroy one’s self-awareness; it is like a life-or-death battle between one’s understanding of no-self and one’s habitual self-awareness and self-centeredness. Very few people have the courage to face such a duel, not to mention the ability to conduct it well. Hence, we need to know our own level, and then choose a practice that is suitable and therefore profitable for us. For most of us who still have worldly involvements and human relationships to worry about, chanting is a safe practice.
If you are from a Christian background, it is not necessary to chant "Amitabha." Within the orthodox Christian tradition there is a practice which mainly involves the chanting of "the Prayer of Jesus." The short prayer is like a mantra, and it says: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." The goal of this practice is to repeat it to such an extent that, for the rest of one’s life, whenever the heart beats once, one has recited the prayer once.
When one is serious about developing this practice, at the beginning one can still go on with one’s ordinary daily life, but one chants the prayer whenever one remembers, or at least keeps a regular daily session for the practice. According to the orthodox Christian literature, in the end the practitioner needs to go into retreat to do this practice under the guidance of a master who has had experiences in this practice. Why does one need the guidance of an experienced master? When one is devoted to a spiritual practice, on the one hand, one is fighting with one’s ego to obtain purity; and on the other hand, one will encounter temptations from evil spirits. Hence, the guidance and protection provided by a master is of great benefit and importance.
Tomorrow morning I will go to the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Park to perform "Powa," a Tibetan Tantric ritual, for the deceased. The aim of this ritual is to transfer the consciousness of the deceased to the Pureland of Buddha so that they will no longer suffer in transmigrations. People who are interested in observing this ritual are welcome to join me. We will meet at ten o’clock at the statue of Stonewall Jackson in the cemetery. It will last for twenty to twenty-five minutes. The ritual itself is short but I will give a brief explanation to help you understand it prior to the ceremony.
Professor Rogers: So, this is really part of your practice—in any community you visit, you go to the cemetery?
Dr. Lin: Yes, to pray there for the deceased. My late Guru, Yogi Chen, used to do this, and I am continuing the practice.
The experience of visiting a cemetery will help you understand tomorrow night’s lecture on impermanence. Actually, visiting cemeteries is in itself a practice of impermanence.
Professor Rogers: So, I do not know whether you demolished our practice of sitting ...
Dr. Lin: No. When you sit in meditation, one way is to try to concentrate on one point. Chanting "Amitabha" is simply trying to concentrate on this one point— "Amitabha."
Professor Rogers: Your suggestion to us is that we need to prepare for our meditation. Maybe our class is, in a way, ...
Dr. Lin: The class can continue to do the sitting practice without running into the risks I mentioned because you are doing it for only twenty to thirty minutes at a time and only three times a week. The effect of such a practice is so little that there cannot be a big problem resulting from it. Although you are not prepared, you are not going into deep water to swim. You are only getting your feet wet, so there can be no danger.
(The whole class burst into laughter.)
Question from a student: In Buddhist teachings it is said that all sentient beings and all inanimate things, like grass, stones, etc., are Buddha. Does it mean that ...
Dr. Lin: All are really one to Buddha, namely, people who have had the awakening experience. In that experience Buddha could not distinguish between animate and inanimate; he could not even point to an object and call it something. He can function only after he has come out from that experience. For us, we need to first achieve that experience in order to realize the truth of Oneness. The teaching is a theory, a conceptual tool; it tells us to start thinking in terms of the Limitless-Oneness. From our ordinary point of view, the teaching is false. Nevertheless, if we want to have that experience, we need to follow the teachings and begin to see things from the Oneness point of view. Only then will we be able to savor Oneness someday.
How can we be sure that we are not mistaken in following the Buddhist teaching? We do not have the Oneness experience; how do we know that it is true or even attainable? The answer is that as we walk on this path we will grow and have more and more experiences that assure us of its correctness and benefits. Many extraordinary experiences that occur are difficult to explain and are even contrary to our common sense.
For example, a Buddhist friend Mrs. Young went back to Hong Kong for a short visit. I did not know what she was going to do over there. One night in my dream I saw her releasing turtles which is a Buddhist practice done to save lives. When she came back to the United States, I checked with her and found out that my dream occurred only a few hours after she actually did that in Hong Kong. If we take an airplane flight to get there, we will realize how far away it is, and in comparison, how tiny the sphere of our immediate senses are. How do we explain this?
If we follow the teaching, it says all are essentially one; then there is no wonder that we can see things happening afar because all are connected as one. We simply need to loosen our preconception of physical limits, and then extraordinary things will happen.
Besides, according to my experiences, the messages that we receive do not come in a random way. It has always been information that is of significance and relates to me in some way; and only as much as I need to know is revealed.
Another example is as follows: Before I began to plan for my pilgrimage to Bodhgaya where Sakyamuni became enlightened, I had a dream in which I saw that I would go to Nepal before I would return to Taiwan. Since I knew no one in Nepal, I did not know why I would be going there. In that dream I also saw a well-dressed Lama giving blessing to people, so I told my wife that I would probably see the Dalai Lama over there. I also told Professor Pryor, who was making arrangements for the pilgrimage, about this. The dream occurred more than one year before my pilgrimage took place in 1990.
Even when we went on the pilgrimage in January 1990, we did not know that the Dalai Lama would be there. Then in Varanasi Professor Pryor announced that the Dalai Lama would be in Sarnath the following day, and that we had been granted an invitation to attend the ceremony. So we actually saw him in India. This event becomes not so mysterious when we understand that all are actually one. This example also shows that our preconception that the future is unknown to us is not absolutely true.
I receive phone calls from people in Taiwan, Malaysia, Canada, Miami, New York, Los Angeles, etc., asking me to pray for someone who has passed away, or someone undergoing surgery, etc. I have had feedback from many people testifying that the prayers helped or worked. How do we account for prayers working for total strangers in vast distances? If it does not help, why do people keep calling me? I simply put their names down in a book, set it on the altar before the Buddha, and chant some mantras. That is what I do; and it works. If you do Buddhist practice, someday you may have this kind of experience yourself.
Question from a student: What is the Buddhist view on what is called fate, fortune or destiny?
Dr. Lin: Basically the Buddhist teaching is based on the law of cause-and-effect operating within the context of transmigrations, i.e., before Enlightenment all sentient beings go through life after life in the six realms of heaven, asura, human, animal, hungry ghost and hell.
The course of one’s present life is partly determined by one’s actions in past lives, and partly determined by one’s actions in this life. One’s actions in this life may or may not yield fruits in this life; the fruit of one’s actions may become mature in future lives.
Events that have happened already are determined by previous actions, hence they are fated in that sense. Nevertheless, events that have not yet happened may be changed, if only we know and work in advance on the causes for change. Hence, the law of cause-and-effect does not mean fatalism. It is precisely because of the law of cause-and-effect, changes are possible, Enlightenment can be work at, and fatalism does not hold.
Question from a student: I do not know about transmigration; but according to Buddhism, is there an origin?
Dr. Lin: Well, to this kind of question, even if someone gives you an answer, you will never know if it is true or not; it is purely theoretical. The Buddhists say that the transmigration is from time of no beginning.
The emphasis of Buddha’s teaching is rather on the reality of suffering—the speedy arrival of old age, sickness and death, and on how one may be free from all this. Work on these real problems; do not spend time on those that are not real problems.
Professor Rogers: But we think it is a problem.
Dr. Lin: Right. Then the way out is to tell you that it is from time of no beginning. Anyway, if you like, please check it yourself.
(The whole class laughed.)
Professor Rogers: Thank you, Sensei (Japanese for teacher.)
The Second Meeting
Professor Rogers: We have placed great emphasis, I think, thanks to Dr. Lin, on the importance of practice in how you reach whatever it is that the Sutras, the scriptures, are talking about. We have our sort of academic practice which is sitting. In reading your journals, I thought we were making good progress; we were not thinking about reaching Enlightenment or any sort of dramatic kind of experience, and I am very comfortable with that. In a sense, Dr. Lin is speaking from the Buddhist point of view, and this is the first Buddhist we have heard from in this class in a formal sense. I think he is raising questions about our sitting practice. He is introducing the notion of chanting as something that may be safer or more appropriate to this sort of modern age when we simply are not going to take leave from society.
We are about to look at Shinran whose personality was shaped by Medieval Japan during a time of chaos when there was the sense that there was nothing you could do to affect the stage-by-stage movement toward something called "Enlightenment." It was uniquely shaped by Japanese culture and the times. So, Shinran not only critiqued zazen (sitting meditation), he would say that chanting with any kind of purpose would be ineffectual during such a chaotic time.
The sitting meditation practice that we have been doing as shaped by Professor Follo has been very helpful. Dr. Lin, coming from years of practice in a very complex Tibetan Buddhist form of practice, is saying that the most helpful thing for most of us in this present age is chanting. Now we are going to look at Shinran who advocated the "practice of no practice;" according to him, there is no practice that is effective.
So, that is where I am at the moment—somewhat confused, and very pleased that Dr. Lin will be with us for the next two hours. We will do our ordinary regular practice during the last half hour.
Dr. Lin: What I was saying last time was that sitting meditation may not be appropriate for people who are not well-prepared. It does not mean that you cannot try it. I think it is good for you to have some experience with it. My emphasis was rather on the point that, if you want to have serious results, you have to take into account the preparations for meditation. Otherwise, when you go too deep into meditation, you might run into problems.
Of course, it is good for you to try it and gain some experience of a spiritual practice. Most of you have probably never tried to look into yourself to see what is really going on. You probably did not know that you could calm yourself down by watching your own breathing. There are things to be learned through meditation practice. Hence, it is beneficial for you to have some experiences with meditation.
Your meditation experiences will help you understand that chanting is another method of meditation. After you have done a lot of chanting you will notice that the same meditation experiences will occur. Tantric Buddhism teaches that the mind and the wind (breathing) are an inseparable unity. Since they are one, we can reach calmness of mind through breathing. We watch the breathing; when it becomes subtle and even, the mind calms down, too. Vice versa, when we do the one-point concentration practice, as our thoughts fade away and our attention gradually becomes fixed on the point of concentrationr breathing becomes more and more subtle and even, almost unnoticeable and can even stop. It is a two-way street; you can reach any point from either side, and the two approaches complement each other.
As to the "practice of no practice," this is saying that, based on the Buddhist philosophy, what we are trying to do is to undo. The goal is to reach a state of effortlessness because we are simply learning to unlearn worldly habits and views so that we can return to our original purity, which requires no effort whatsoever to maintain. Shinran talked about the "practice of no practice," and yet he did practice the chanting of "Amitabha."
Professor Rogers: Only in thanksgiving, not in order to ...
Dr. Lin: Yes, in that kind of mood, but he did the chanting.
Professor Rogers: Or, the chanting did itself for him; it was effortless.
Dr. Lin: Well, yes. But that is just to say that one’s chanting should be so pure that it is going on all by itself, that the one who chants should not maintain the second thought, "I am doing the chanting." It does not mean that the chanting practice stopped.
Professor Rogers: That is right.
Dr. Lin: Right. So, actually there is the chanting. When Shinran gave the teaching he was simply trying to direct the practitioners to avoid the mistake of attaching to the accumulation of merits, which is again a self-centered thing. It does not mean that one is refraining from the chanting practice. To us, at this moment, the ideal final stage is only a theoretical thing; hence we do need to adopt a "practice of no practice" to move toward Enlightenment.
When the chanting is pure, there can be no other thoughts. Thus "chanting in thanksgiving" does not mean that one keeps a thought of thanking Buddha; it is rather a teaching on chanting with a humble and thankful attitude. As the practitioners advance on the path, they will experience the benefits of this practice, and a sense of gratitude will arise in them. Finally, when they become enlightened through the help of this practice, they will spread the teaching of chanting to repay the grace of Buddha; the basic way to teach is by personally continuing the chanting practice to set an example for others. Thus chanting in thanksgiving is a never ending process.
Now I am going to answer some questions from Leann Foster.
Leann’s first question: Having said that one cannot set Enlightenment up as one’s goal (therefore you would never reach it) what can one think of as a goal or objective without impeding one’s own progress in Zen?
Dr. Lin: Actually the answer is contained in what I have just said. Nevertheless, in this question it is specific to Zen; and it is the same as your fourth question which asks, "How do you reach oneness/nothingness?" These various terms all refer to the final stage of Buddhahood. It depends on how you do it and what stage you are in. I think, at your stage and under your present circumstances, chanting is a gradual and safe approach. But you need to be careful so as not to fall into the self-centered sense of "I am doing it" or "I am trying to reach something." Simply develop chanting as a daily exercise and keep it for the rest of your life. If thoughts other than the holy name you are chanting arise during chanting, do not be distracted; simply continue to chant and let the other thoughts come and go on their own. If you keep chanting daily for years, you will experience spiritual growth and openness yourself.
As to Zen, you have to give up everything, find someone who has had real experiences, and just follow the master’s instructions without asking questions. Only then will you have a chance to get Enlightenment.
Leann’s second question: How do you set up a goal for practice when the philosophy is already understood and accepted?
Dr. Lin: First, you compare the paths in Buddhism to find out which one is suitable for you. If you want to do the meditations, that is fine; but be aware of the preparations. For example, the Eight-fold Noble Path is given in the order: Right Views, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness and Right Meditation. One needs to learn Buddha’s teachings to obtain Right Views; then one adjusts one’s thinking to conform to the Right Views. One’s speech and actions should also conform to Buddha’s rules of conducts. One’s livelihood should be consistent with Buddha’s teachings. One should not adopt a profession that is against Buddha’s teachings. In short, one needs to be consistent, inside and out, in conforming to Buddha’s teachings. Only then can one practice mindfulness and meditation without the risk of ill effects. Meditation should be part of a Buddhist’s daily life; and a Buddhist’s daily life should be an extension of his meditation practice.
Leann’s third question: How can you reach mindfulness and no thought at the same time?
Dr. Lin: What is mindfulness? Can you listen to music? Yes. When you listen to music, do you need any thoughts? No, however, usually when one is listening to music, thoughts do arise. Mindfulness is simply a natural ability to pay attention to something. When we do the mindfulness practice, we try to concentrate without distractions or interruptions. For example, when we listen to music, we just listen to the sounds without having thoughts. Through mindfulness practice, we will have a chance to reach "no-thought." Usually it is easier to start with concentration on one point, and as one goes deeper into concentratione thoughts will gradually fade away. After mastering that, one can try to concentrate on flowing things like music, and still achieve "no-thought." "No-thought" does not mean that one loses the ability to think forever; it is simply a state of mind when the thinking process becomes unnoticeable.
In this practice, again we need to be reminded of the importance of a consistent Buddhist way of life. It would be impossible for a person who is holding onto a complicated worldly life to achieve no-thought through mindfulness practice. That is the reason why the Sutras teach us to give up worldly things before we seriously start a meditation practice. A very simple life, even in seclusion, with nothing to worry about, is conducive to achieving "no-thought."
Nevertheless, it does not mean that one should live in seclusion or follow a simple life for the rest of one’s life. At first we need a simple environment to practice concentration on one-point. After we have mastery over that, we should try to apply the ability to concentrate in ever-complicated situations. The object of concentration need not be one-point; it will be moving, changing, and ever-complicated. The whole process of learning should be gradual and natural. One can still think, but there is just one thought at any given time. Usually one thinks and evaluates the current thought simultaneously, or says something while thinking about other things at the same time. The result of concentration practice will be such that what one says is exactly what one has in mind at that instant.
Last time we played the tape of chanting "Amitabha," I could see at once that you cannot concentrate on just listening. This is due to your lack of practice of just listening. Before we became complicated beings, the ability to just listen was originally natural to us.
Professor Rogers: How could you tell that we were not listening?
Dr. Lin: Well, I simply looked at you and I could see.
Question from a student: Could it have to do with cultural differences? If we were accustomed to listening to that music repeatedly, could we not attain the state of mind of just listening?
Dr. Lin: It is independent of what you are listening to. At first, for such practice, it is easier to use instrumental music or foreign songs, because if it is something that you can understand, then the meanings will interfere with your pure listening.
Since each one of you has a copy of my book "The Buddhist Practice of Chanting Amitabha," there is no need for me to go into a comprehensive discourse in support of the chanting practice. My purpose today is to recommend the actual adoption of this practice because that is the only way for you to share its benefits. I will go over the key points for the actual practice of chanting.
First, develop it into a daily practice. Set a regular time, and also a minimum amount of repetitions (e.g., five hundred or one thousand repetitions of "Amitabha") for your daily practice. A regular schedule and a set amount will help you form the habit of chanting daily. With perseverance you will experience the good results of having peace and ease.
Second, do not work on dismissing distractions; simply maintain your chanting. During chanting, if you notice that your attention has shifted to other things, or that emotional ups and downs are present, do not try to push them away or judge them. The more you try to do this, the more you are distracted from concentrating on "Amitabha." Simply return your attention to "Amitabha" and maintain the chanting. This is the key point in gradually becoming free from distractions.
Third, practicing the five-variation chanting of "Amitabha," a melodious singing of "Amitabha," is very helpful. Singing it will naturally involve our emotions in the chanting practice. We can simply listen to it, especially when we are too tired to chant. The melody has the effect of embedding the chanting deeply into us. When we simply repeat "Amitabha," the breathing is shallow, and the mind may stay at the intellectual level, but when we sing "Amitabha," the breathing is deep, and our whole being is more likely to become totally involved in it. The aim of the chanting practice is to renew the whole being, not just at the intellectual level. Besides, a song propagates itself in a natural way among people; there is no need for us to try to persuade others, we simply play the tape and people will enjoy listening to it and may even learn the chanting by heart.
Fourth, whenever you learn of someone’s passing away, chant "Amitabha" as a prayer asking for Buddha’s blessing for the deceased. Visit cemeteries and chant "Amitabha" for the deceased there. Stay near a dying person and chant "Amitabha." When we have impermanence in mind, our chanting will be pure and we will practice diligently. We will want to make good use of our precious lifetime to purify ourselves through the chanting practice. Only when we become pure in mind can we serve others well.
Fifth, if you are interested in doing this practice, you can simply keep chanting in your mind anytime, anywhere. For example, when you are waiting in line, instead of incessantly thinking about yourself, chant "Amitabha." When you are in a traffic jam, play the chanting tape, and the traffic jam will be easier to take.
These are the essential points of the chanting "Amitabha" practice. I have some booklets for Professor Rogers, and you are welcome to borrow them or make copies for yourselves. The following is a brief comment on each booklet:
- "The Practice of Singing Along": this is the practice I talked about.
- "A brief Introduction to Setting up a Buddhist Altar": this one is for people who want to chant in front of an image of Buddha. I have posters of Amitabha Buddha for free distribution.
- "The Seed of Bodhi": the main point of this essay is that one should refrain from criticizing others because our knowledge of others is very limited. When we criticize others, they need not change, and we are simply wasting our energy. Instead, we should be aware of our ignorance; thereby we will become innocent. When we become innocent, it is easier for us to advance on the spiritual path.
- "On Chanting Amitabha": this is a short essay for everyone.
- "Pureland Daily Practice": this is for people who, in addition to chanting, want to do recitation of Sutras, prostrations, chanting of mantras and dedication of merits. It is structured around the three Holinesses of Amitabha’s Pureland. Thus, the practitioner makes prostrations to them, and recites their sutras and mantras.
The section at the beginning of this last booklet teaches us how to visualize during the practice so that the whole universe is involved in the practice. We should visualize the following: in the sky in front of us, all holy beings are present surrounding the Amitabha Buddha, and all sentient beings, friends and foes alike, are surrounding us, all facing the holy beings and doing the practice with us. The holy beings are present to bless us all. If we continue to think in this way, our minds will broaden and we will approach the Limitless-Oneness. The Sutras selected were translated by me. They are "The Amitabha Buddha Sutra," "The Heart Sutra," and a section of "Surangama Sutra" on chanting Buddha’s name; they are related, respectively, to Amitabha, Avalokitesvara, and Mahasthanaprapta—namely, the three Holinesses of Amitabha’s Pureland.
This practice will take about thirty minutes, which is quite suitable for modern busy people. The practitioner can extend the period of the session at will by simply chanting more repetitions of "Amitabha."
In the preface to this booklet I mentioned some English versions of the Heart Sutra that are available. There I also explained some particular points in my version of the Heart Sutra which was translated, not from the original in Sanskrit, but from the Chinese version that is popular in China, Japan and Korea.
For example, in the Sutra, the Chinese word "Kong" is actually an abbreviation for the term "Kong-Xing" which stands for the Sanskrit term "Sunyata." In the known versions it is usually translated as "Emptiness" or "empty of inherent existence." Using "Emptiness" may lead to the misunderstanding that nothing exists. "Empty of inherent existence" is correct, but difficult to understand for people who do not have a philosophical background. One needs to learn first through philosophical discourse the meaning of "inherent existence" in order to understand the teaching of no such inherent existence.
I tried to bypass such a circular and difficult path. Let us avoid the abstruse concept of "inherent existence" altogether and, instead, use a different concept that is easier to understand and will still lead us to the same spiritual goal. The concept of Empty Essence was already contained in the Yogacara tradition of Buddhism. The idea is to introduce the notion of an Empty Essence that is common to all phenomena. Since it is common to all, it cannot have any characteristics of its own. For example, if the universal essence is white, then it cannot show red, only pink. This would be contradictory to being universal. Thus, it is empty of color, texture, smell, sound, taste and mental characteristic. My innovation is to call it "Blank Essence" instead, so as to avoid the misunderstanding of nothingness, and improve the understanding of this universal concept.
Why do we need such a concept? We have been accustomed to using concepts that have particular characteristics setting boundaries. Consequently our minds are quite limited to certain patterns of thinking. In order to free us from such conceptual limitations, we use the concept of "Blank Essence" to unify all things and thereby gradually, through practice, diminish their conceptual boundaries.
However, this notion of "Blank Essence" is, after all, still just a conceptual tool. Thus, eventually we need to let go of even this concept in order to attain non-duality in all our experiences. Therefore, the teaching says that the Blank Essence is nothing other than the particulars of our experiences. The Blank Essence is everywhere, but nowhere to be pointed at because it lacks particular characteristics. In other words, first you use the concept to erase all conceptual boundaries, and then you also let this remaining concept go. That is how a practitioner of this approach becomes free from all concepts.
By using "blank" to describe this universal essence it will be easier for people to understand the function of this essence. It is the basis of all phenomena, just as a blank sheet of paper is the basis of all the things painted on it, or a blank T.V. screen is the basis of all the things which appear on it.
I will now give a brief explanation of my version of "The Heart Sutra," and then talk about my Sastra, "The Heart of Sublimation Through Limitless-Oneness Compassion Sastra" which runs parallel to "The Heart Sutra."
[In July 1991 I gave a detailed talk on this topic in Miami, and subsequently wrote a refined transcript of it. It has been published as a book entitled "Wisdom and Compassion in Limitless-Oneness." Hence, rather than presenting the remainder of my talk in this book, I list it as a reference at the end of this book.]
As to the choice of "sublimation" over "perfection" for my translation of "paramita," I have the following remark to add:
"Paramita" means to reach the other shore—from this shore of suffering in transmigration to the other shore of peace in Nirvana. The Buddhist liberation from suffering is not an escape from the world, but rather a purification of one’s mind to its original purity, thereby transcending self-centered suffering and transforming one’s life into selfless services to others.
Escaping from suffering is just a reaction; it is not a solution to the problem. Purification of the mind enables one to stay in the world and simultaneously be free from suffering; it is beyond the original level. Since "perfection" may be relative to a given level, I prefer using "sublimation" which indicates transcendence of any given level.
A Lecture Sponsored by the Department of Religion
Washington & Lee University
May 13 and 15, 1991
Dr. Yutang Lin