Archive for April, 2006


Relating to Your Path by Lama Thubten Yeshe

Those who practice religion or meditation—whatever their religious philosophy or doctrine—should never grasp any idea with attachment. Check up on that. Ideas are not fixed externally, from their own side; rather, you get some information from somewhere, perhaps someone tells you something, and if it appeals to you, your mind grasps on to it so tightly. This is very dangerous.

We often accept some ideas as good; "Oh, meditation is great." There are many examples of things that are beneficial, and of course, those who truly understand their nature and follow the right path will definitely find a satisfactory answer to all their questions. But the danger is for those who simply cling to the idea, the philosophy, the doctrine. Whatever your trip, you should not be attached to it. Again, I’m not talking about the external object but rather about the inner, psychological aspect. If you want to be psychologically healthy, you must avoid all such attachments. This is the way to achieve what Buddhism terms indestructible understanding-wisdom, the ultimate healthy mind.

Perhaps you enjoy your meditation and what you get from it, but at the same time you cling to the intellectual ideas of your spiritual path: "Oh, this is perfect for me. I’m getting results; I’m so happy." Then someone asks you what you’re doing, and when you tell them, they put you down.
The same thing goes for you yourself. When people say you are good or bad, your mind should never go up or down in response. You know that words cannot give value to your character, that they can’t change the reality of who you are. Therefore, why do you go up and down according to what people say? Because of attachment, the mind that clings, the fixed-idea mind. So make sure that when you do practice Dharma, you abandon attachment and make it worthwhile.

Check up on this; it is psychologically very interesting. If you don’t react when somebody tells you that your entire trip is wrong, I’d say you have a pretty good understanding of the psychological nature of the mind. Without this understanding, you hallucinate easily and are easily hurt; your peaceful mind is disturbed—by words and ideas alone. Our minds are incredible! Our ups and downs have nothing whatsoever to do with reality, nothing to do with the truth. It is very important to understand this psychology.

It is common to find people who think that their own ideas and path are perfect. But by strongly emphasizing how wonderful their own beliefs are, these people indicate that they are automatically putting other, different ideas down. For example, say I believe that yellow is a fantastic color. With logical explanations, I convince you too, so that you believe, "Yellow is the perfect color; it is so good." Automatically, there arises in your mind the idea that, "Red is not so good." There are two things; this is common. Especially in connection with religion we should avoid this kind of contradiction. Accepting one thing should not make you dark and ignorant of others. If you check up what’s going on here, you’ll see that it is not that you are just blindly following something external, but rather that your mind is unbalanced. If one view is too extreme, it automatically generates another that is opposed to it. This imbalance destroys your inner peace. The culprit is your own unbalanced mind.

This is where religious partisanship comes from. "I am a follower of this religion!" Then, when you see a follower of another religion, you feel afraid and insecure. This is totally your insecure mind, your weak knowledge-wisdom, grasping one extreme. Your mind is polluted; you do not understand the reality of the truth of your own mind. You must try to improve your psychological health. The purpose of practicing religion, Buddhism, Dharma, meditation, is for your mind to reach beyond the unhealthy, contradictory mental attitude. That’s all; so you check up.

Lord Buddha himself exhorted his students not to get attached to his teachings: "If I give you this teaching, promise me that you won’t get attached to it." Can you imagine? Lord Buddha’s teachings are incredible, his methods are universal, but still we should not get attached to them. He even said that we should not get attached to enlightenment, nirvana, or inner freedom; we should practice without attachment.

However, this is very difficult to do, especially in the modern world. It is almost impossible for us to deal properly with material things, and this attitude spills over into our spiritual life. Of course, it is difficult, but you have to check into how to become perfectly psychologically healthy. Avoid extremes.

I mean, in our ordinary samsaric worldly life, if someone says, "Oh, Lama, I like your teachings so much, blah, blah, blah," we automatically grasp, "Oh, yes, thank you so much, I’m glad you like me." We never say, "Don’t be attached." Just observe how we react in our own everyday lives. Check up on that. Remember Lord Buddha; his methods and goals were the highest, but he still admonished us not to be attached to them. "If you get attached to this, you are psychologically ill; you’re destroying your chance of attaining perfect enlightenment." Isn’t that too much?

Lord Buddha never said, "Join my group. Following my path is good; following other religions is bad." He never said that. Even one of the vows he gave to bodhisattvas was not to criticize any other religious doctrine. Check up why he did this. It shows a fantastic, perfect understanding of the human mind. If it were us, we’d say, "Follow me; I’ll give you the highest method of salvation. The others are nothing." We regard our spiritual path as some kind of materialistic competition. If you do that, you will never be healthy, will never discover the bliss of liberation, will never discover everlasting peaceful enlightenment. Impossible. Then, what’s the point?


Lama Yeshe gave this talk at the Chinese Buddhist Society, Sydney, Australia on April 24, 1975.
Edited by Nicholas Ribush.


Transcending Injustice: The Tale of Quan Am Thi Kinh

There was a little girl whose name was Kinh, who was born in North Vietnam a long, long time ago. Her parents would have preferred a boy, but a girl was born to them, but they were still happy and they named her Kinh. Kinh means "respect, reverence." That is a very good name. You respect people, you respect animals, you respect life including the plants and the minerals. Reverence. Reverence for life, for what is there inside of you and around you. Kinh was a very beautiful child. As a little girl she was already very beautiful, like a flower. Kinh used to go the Buddhist temple in the village with her mother to offer lotus flowers to the Buddha and to listen to the Dharma talks given by the high monk. She loved the Dharma.

There was a very deep intention in her to become something like a monk, because she saw the monks living their lives very happily and helping so many people. She wished that she could become a monk, because practicing, living in the temple—everything—seemed to be very beautiful and calm. She loved the manner of the monks, going back and forth with gentleness, touching everything with reverence. She just loved the Dharma, even though she was very small. She inquired about the possibility of becoming a monk, and they said no, not for girls. Because Buddhism had just been introduced into Vietnam, there were only monasteries for monks; perhaps there were one or two temples for nuns, but they were very rare. In that time, there was no airplane, there was no bus, so she could not imagine that she could travel far. She was not happy at the idea that she could never become a monk because she was a girl. A kind of frustration was in her—she believed that as a girl one could also practice like a monk, living the Dharma happily like a monk.

She grew up into a beautiful girl and her parents wanted to marry her to someone in the neighborhood. In olden times, weddings were arranged by parents, and you had to obey them because they had their wisdom, they knew who was good for you. The deepest desire of parents was to see their daughter be wedded to a young man with a bright future. One morning they received a letter from the parents of a young man, asking whether they can marry her to their son. The young man’s name was Sung Tin—"scholar of goodness," "student of goodness." I don’t know how good he was, how bright a human he was, but it seemed that he was born into a family of outstanding tradition, a noble family. He seemed to have a bright future, because he was a good student and he might pass the examination and become a high official in the government. The dream of all students in the past was to pass the high exam and be selected by the king to be a minister, a chief of province, and so on.

Kinh had to obey them to become the wife of Sung Tin, although her love, her deepest desire, was to become a nun. There was no way at all; it was not like in our time. In our time, if a young lady wants to become a nun, she might pick up the telephone and inquire about the existence of nunneries. But in that time Kinh did not have any opportunity to do so. So she buried her desire deep inside and had to obey her parents and be wedded to that young man, Sung Tin. Of course the young wife had to support her husband in his studies. Nourishing the husband, supporting the husband so that the husband can succeed in his studies was the main task of a young wife of that time.

The family of Sung Tin was rich, so Kinh did not have to work very hard to support her husband. There were, however, many young wives who had to sell rice in a market or carry rice in the heat of the summertime in order to earn enough money to support their husbands to continue their studies. This was not the case of Kinh because her in-law family was very rich. So she only took care of the housework, cleaned, cooked, sewed his clothes, and so on. Kinh was trained very thoroughly as a housekeeper by her parents. One day while she was mending some cloth, her husband Sung Tin was studying beside her and fell asleep. Students want to study as much as possible, they want to stuff in as many books and as much knowledge as possible. So he was trying to do the same thing. He studied day and night, and that day, reading a book close to his wife, he fell asleep.

When Kinh looked at Sung Tin, she saw that a few moustache hairs were not cut evenly. So out of her love and care she used a pair of scissors, trying to trim those three or four hairs. But suddenly her husband woke up. And in that kind of state of being, he thought that she was trying to kill him! So he shouted, he screamed. He screamed. I don’t know how deep their love was, how much they understood each other, but this is what happened. So his parents came and asked, "Why are you screaming like that?" He said, "Well, I was dozing. When I woke up, I saw her using a pair of scissors like that. So I don’t know." His parents said, "It does happen that wives who are not faithful may kill their husband, because it’s in their mind to have other desires, other men. So we don’t want you any more as a daughter-in-law. We’d like to send you back to your home." Kinh tried to explain, but the parents did not want to accept.

When I practiced looking deeply into this, I saw that the cause of her being dismissed as a daughter-in-law was not suspicion, but jealousy. Since the time the young man married he spent all of his time with his wife, and the parents felt that they had lost their son. This new woman who came to their home monopolized entirely their son so they acted on this kind of jealousy without even knowing it. So they wrote a letter to her parents and asked them to come and take back their daughter. Imagine how great was the suffering undergone by that family. To them their daughter was perfect, their daughter was very true, very faithful. It was a kind of injustice. And that was the first injustice that Kinh had to suffer, to bear, to accept. So they brought her home. Her parents believed her that she did not have the intention to kill her husband. It was just a misfortune, and the three of them suffered.


But Kinh had learned something from the conjugal life. She saw that people are full of wrong perceptions. Even in that wealthy family, they made each other suffer very much. The love that she felt in that family was not enough to make her happy, to make her bloom like a flower. That kind of love, that kind of life, did not satisfy her deepest need. So the idea of becoming a nun suddenly re-emerged. She spent many nights thinking of how to become a monk in order to practice in a Buddhist temple, so that she would be able to embrace the Dharma entirely and devote her life to the practice of the Dharma.

One night she decided that she would disguise herself as a young man and try to be accepted by a monastery. She did not think that she should go to a temple close to her family, because people would recognize her and her parents would not allow her to go. She decided to go far away because there were temples everywhere. She had to walk something like one hundred miles in order to go so far that even her parents would not know where she was. And she did not tell her friends that she wanted to become a monk. Because if she did, her parents would go looking for her in the temples and would very soon discover her. She kept her desire very secret.

One day she just disappeared with some of her belongings and left behind a letter that said, "Dear Mother, dear Father, I have something I love very much I want to accomplish. So please forgive me for not being able to be home to take care of you, because this desire in me is so big." You know that desire was bodhicitta—the desire to practice the Dharma and to bring happiness to many people, because people suffer so much everywhere and are caught up in their wrong perceptions; they do injustices to each other every day. She didn’t want to repeat that kind of life again, she wanted to become a monk. So after having walked more than one hundred miles, she found a temple—a temple named Phap Van, Dharma Cloud, not very far from Hanoi.

When she came to the temple disguised as a young man, as a student, she asked to see the abbot. She attended the Dharma talk and was so moved that she waited until the people all went home, approached the monk, and asked to be ordained as a novice monk. The monk asked her to sit down and he said, "Young man, why do you want to become a monk?" And she said, "Dear teacher, I have seen that everything is impermanent, that nothing can last forever. Everything is like a dream, everything is like the flash of lightning. When I looked at a cloud in the sky, first I saw the cloud having the form of a dog, and in no time at all, the form of dog is transformed. I saw the cloud now in the form of a shirt. Everyone is trying to get fame and profit and money in the world and they don’t seem to be really happy. I want to have true happiness, and I believe that only in the Dharma could I find peace and happiness." After having said that, she stayed quiet and the monk congratulated her, "Young man, you have understood the teaching of impermanence and I hope you succeed in the practice as a monk." So he allowed her to stay in the temple, and three months later she was ordained as a novice monk.

Her Dharma name was Kinh Tam. He retained the name Kinh, "reverence," and he added the name Tam is "the heart." Reverence of the Heart or The Heart of Reverence. My students all bear the Dharma name "heart." "Source of the heart," "Door of the heart," everything is "of the heart." So they share some of the new novice’s name.

Kinh Tam practiced very well, very diligently. She was very intelligent. She studied, she learned the sutras very quickly and she enjoyed very much the life of a young monk. Her teacher loved her very much and he always believed that this was a young man. The young novice was very handsome. Although she was disguised as a young man, although she did not wear anything—gold or perfume and things like that—she was still very handsome as a young "monk," and that drew a danger to her. Because down in the village there was the daughter of the wealthiest family, who would come to the temple every fortnight to offer incense, flowers, and so on, with her mother. The first time she saw the young monk, she fell in love with him right away.

I don’t think that it was because of his face; his face was beautiful, yes. But there was something more than the appearance of a young man. The young monk practiced mindfulness very well—we have to call her "he"—he practiced walking mindfully, drinking mindfully, doing everything mindfully. And that is why he looked very beautiful. Because people in society are not that beautiful; they are always in a hurry, they only run, they only do things quickly, they don’t have that freedom, that relaxation, that kind of peace that is expressed through the way you look, through the way you do things, through the way you sit down, through the way you walk. And that is why the young lady fell in love with the young monk right away.

Her name is Mau. Mau means "color." What color, I don’t know. I don’t blame her. I don’t blame her because the monk was very beautiful. You can call him "handsome," but he was more than handsome, he was beautiful because he had peace within him. So if there is a lady who falls in love with a monk, that is not something extraordinary, that does happen. I remember there was one time a man who came to Plum Village and who asked Sister Jina, "You are such a beautiful lady, why have you become a nun? That is a pity, that is a loss." After some silence Sister Jina said, "If you see me as beautiful, it is because I have become a nun. If I had not become a nun, I would not be as agreeable, as pleasant as you may see."

That is true, when you become a monk or a nun, you become much more beautiful. You adorn yourself with peace, with mindfulness, with the practice of the Dharma, and that is why you emanate that kind of beauty that is rare in society. So I really don’t blame Mau at all. If I was Mau, I would fall in love with the young novice also. She tried to talk to him, tried to find opportunities to be alone with the young monk, Kinh Tam. But Kinh Tam always seemed to avoid her; it was very frustrating. Sometimes she tried to guess in advance the way the young monk would go, and run to wait for him, but when he saw her, he would turn and go into another direction. She tried several times to express her love to the young monk, but he was very determined to continue practicing as a monk.

She was very frustrated. She did not know how to transform her love. She did not understand the Dharma. She only practiced Buddhism in a very shallow way—going to the temple, offering a lot of bananas, sweet rice, and flowers and doing a lot of prostrations. She did not know how to practice in order to take care of her desire, her anger, and so on. When you go to the temple, you have to learn the Dharma. You have to change yourself in the practice of the Dharma and not do like Mau. Her love for him was so deep, and she was deeply frustrated. That is why, one day, when her parents were not home, she called into her room the young man who worked as a servant, an attendant, in the family. He took care of the garden and the housework, and during the night—I think it was a full moon night—she could not bear her love any more. So she called him in and she allowed him to have sexual intercourse with her, and during the act she imagined the young man as the young novice. It was stated in the story very clearly that in that state of being half awake, she imagined the young man as the beautiful novice.

The accident happened. And a few months later she felt that she was pregnant. She tried to hide it from her father and mother, but it became more and more apparent. The parents asked, "Why are you like that my daughter? You don’t want to eat anything, you refuse eating rice, you eat only very sour things." She said, "No, I am perfectly all right, my parents. I just don’t feel well enough in my body, that’s all. Maybe my blood needs purification." But in a few days, she was summoned by the council of the village together with her parents, because in the village they had noticed that the young lady without a husband had become pregnant. They set up a kind of court and asked her to tell them with whom she had slept in order to become pregnant like that.

So she thought for a long time: "The young man was already chased away. Even if I tell the truth, people wouldn’t believe me. The head of the village said that I should tell them the truth, and if I name the young man, I will have the opportunity to have him as an official husband. Why don’t I tell them that the man who slept with me is the novice Kinh Tam practicing in the Phap Van temple?" So she said, "Respected elders, I used to go to the temple and I fell in love with the young novice Kinh Tam over there. And both of us could not bear our love not being fulfilled, that is why we have made the mistake. So please forgive us."

The head of the village sent someone to summon the family of the temple: the monk, the novice, and a few other people from the temple. When Kinh Tam arrived, she was told that Mau had declared that "he" had slept with her and made her pregnant, and the head of council said, "Kinh Tam, young novice, you have already decided to become a monk, why didn’t you practice the precepts? You have slept with a young woman in the village. What do you have to say?" And the young monk said, "No, I practiced my precept. I never slept with anyone in the village. Please reconsider. This is injustice. Please be understanding. Please have compassion. I have not done anything like that." But when the head of the village turned toward Mau, she continued to confirm that it was the young monk who had slept with her and caused her to be pregnant. And the young novice firmly denied this. "No, as a young monk I practice deeply my precepts. I have never done that. The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha are witness to my honesty."

Finally, they had to use whips. "You have to tell the truth, otherwise you will be beaten with a whip thirty times. You have to confess that you have slept with Mau." Then they tied her up to a pillar and they ordered her to be beaten thirty times by the whip. That is the kind of punishment used in the past. The whipping was very, very strong and the blood began to penetrate, to come out into the cloth of the young monk. But "he" did not give in. "He" said, "No, I am innocent, please reconsider." And after Mau saw that, she said, "Please, thirty lashes are enough." She felt pity for the young novice. Because she was the daughter of a wealthy family, her request had some weight. So they allowed the novice to go home. When they went back to the temple, other people wanted to take care of the young novice but the young novice said, "No I will take care of myself. I can make the bandage, I will take care of the wound on my body," because she did not want others to discover the fact that she was not a young man.

After taking care of the wounds inflicted on her by the whips, she presented herself to her teacher, and her teacher said, "My son, I don’t know, I’m not sure. I don’t know whether you have done it or not. I really don’t know. If you have done it, then I wish you would practice deeply the practice of Beginning Anew every day. And if you have not done it, please also practice forbearance—shanti-paramita—and try to find the joy in the practice." That was all of his teaching. And because of that, she was requested by other people in the temple to move into the gate of the temple and stay there, and not to stay together with other monks. You know, every temple has a triple gate, and the tower bell was very close to the triple gate, and now Kinh Tam was ordered to go and live alone in the triple gate so that the population of the village could not blame the sangha, because there was already suspicion.

I don’t know whether if I was the teacher of Kinh Tam I would allow her to continue to stay with me in the compound of the sangha. I don’t know, because my time is different and that was a very old time and people were still full of prejudices, and so on. And I would have had enough wisdom to know whether my student had done it or not because I always try to practice good communication with my students and with my insight, with my mindfulness, I would know that he has done it or not. Because I am not there to blame my student, I am there only to help him or her. So she would tell me the truth. When the baby was born, Mau did not know what to do. She did not want at all to tell people that this was a child coming from a servant. That would be very bad for the reputation of her noble family. To die was preferable to saying that she has slept with a servant. That was something she could not bear, and her family could not bear. You have made a mistake, you have done something wrong, but you have no courage to admit your wrongness and you blame other people—that is something that happens every day. So finally she brought the baby to the novice. She brought the baby to the triple gate of the temple and said, "Novice, this is your child. Why don’t you receive it?" Then she put it on the steps and she went away. When the baby started to cry, the novice said, "Well, now the child is abandoned. If I don’t take him, who will take him? I am practicing compassion and understanding. If I don’t take him and try to protect him, who will?" So he said, "Leave it to me!" And he picked up the baby.


The baby was hungry and the novice did not have milk. So she took the baby and went into the hamlet and tried to beg for some milk. Every day she had to go to the village and ask for some milk for her baby. There were people who were moved by the act of the young novice, but there were many people who said, "Well, how could he practice as a monk if he does things like this—sleeping with a woman and when the woman gave him the baby, accepting it, and now trying to raise the baby as a father. How can someone practice the Dharma in that way?" The novice felt that people didn’t understand her, and yet she continued to practice forbearance because she was able to feel the peace and the joy of living with the Dharma.

If she wanted to get rid of that injustice, it would not be very difficult—just declare to the village council and to her teacher that she is a girl. And a few minutes later she would be free from that kind of blaming, from that kind of suffering. Why hadn’t she done it? Because she loved the Dharma so much, she wanted so much to continue as a monk, that is why she did not give up. When you are in love with something very deeply, when you feel so much happiness with that object of your love, then you have the courage to bear all kinds of injustice. So being beaten, being misunderstood, being blamed by many people, she could still go on because she had the pleasure, the happiness, of being a monk, of practicing the Dharma.

In our days, there are people who live in the Sangha and who encounter some difficulties and think of leaving the Sangha. They don’t have that kind of forbearance. They cannot bear little injustices inflicted on them because their desire, their happiness is not large enough. Therefore the key is whether you love it a lot, you treasure it a lot, you want it a lot, whether your heart is huge or not. If your heart is small, then you cannot bear injustice inflicted on you. Understanding and love are what help your heart to grow bigger and bigger. That is the practice of the four unmeasurable hearts—loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Because your heart can grow as big as the cosmos; the growth of your heart can never end. If you are like a big river, you can receive any amount of dirt—it will not affect you, and you are able to transform the dirt very easily.

In the Dharma talk in English preceding this one, I used that image offered by the Buddha. If you put an amount of dirt in a small container of water, then that water has to be thrown away, people cannot drink it. But if you throw that amount of dirt into a huge river, people in the city continue to drink from the river, because the river is so immense. There does not have to suffering because of that amount of dirt. Overnight that dirt will be transformed by the water, by the mud within the heart of the river. So if your heart is big as the river, you can receive any amount of injustice and still live with happiness, and you can transform overnight the injustices inflicted on you. If you still suffer, it means that your heart is still not large enough. That is the teaching of forbearance in Buddhism. You don’t try to bear, you don’t to suppress your suffering. You only practice in order for your heart to expand as big as a river. Then you don’t have to bear, you don’t have to suffer.

There are ways to make your heart big. That is the practice of looking deeply in order for you to understand. The moment when you understand, your compassion arises. And that compassion will allow you to go on, allow you not to suffer, not to look at other people with the eyes of irritation and hatred. That is the real practice of forbearance—you don’t have to suffer. Forbearance in the context of the Buddhist teaching is not to try to swallow the injustice, or to suppress the injustice, but to embrace it entirely with your big heart. So every morning you have to go to your heart, touch it, and ask, "My heart, my darling, have you grown overnight a little bit bigger?" We have to visit our heart every day in order to see whether our heart still continues to grow unlimited, to grow great. "Growing great" is the term used by Buddha while he was teaching about the four unmeasurable minds. Your heart of compassion becomes larger. It grows great all the time, your heart of loving kindness, your heart of joy, your heart of equanimity. OThat is why paramita is sometimes translated by the term "[ph: vo que]." [Thây writes on blackboard] It means "the highest point, the limit." [ph: vo que] means "no point all highest or limit." "[ph: Que]" means extreme, like a [ph: Ba kuk], the northernmost or the southernmost tip of the earth called [ph: Ba kuk]—north pole. It is an extreme, this is the limit. But how ur compassion, our loving kindness, our joy, our equanimity knows no limit—that is why these four minds are called "unmeasurable minds" because they always grow and grow, without stopping. They grow into a river, and then they grow into an ocean, and they continue. The more your heart becomes bigger and bigger, the easier you can bear, or accept, injustice without suffering.

A few days after the young monk received the baby and adopted him and tried to nourish him, he was summoned by his teacher: "My child, why have you done that? You have not slept with the lady, it is not your baby, but why have you received it? It does not seem that this is making a good reputation for our Sangha." I do not know whether, if I were the teacher I would do like him, very afraid of my prestige. But Kinh Tam bowed to him and said, "My dear teacher, I have learned in a sutra that if you build a stupa of seven stories, and if you build one thousand of them, the merit would not be as important as the merit of saving the life of a living being. That is why I have accepted this baby and try to bring it up." That is what the young monk told his teacher.

The novice learned to sing lullabies. So in the village they heard sometimes the big bell and the gatha, "Listen, listen, this wonderful sound brings me back to my true self. May the sound of this bell penetrate deep into the cosmos . . . ," and so on. And sometimes they could hear, "Sleep well, sleep well, my baby . . . . " These two things mingled with each other. I believe that the novice practiced well, singing the lullaby as well as the gatha, because both of them have the flavor of the Dharma in them.

When the little boy was grown up, Kinh Tam became very sick, and she knew that she would die in a few days. So she wrote a letter to her parents and she wrote down their exact address, and she told the boy that after her passing away, he had to try his best to go back to her original village and present this letter to her mother and father. She also wrote a letter to her teacher. Two letters. After she passed away, the boy did as he had been told. He went to the teacher and submitted the letter of his "father" and also he asked for the permission to depart in order to go to the original village of his "father." After reading the letter, the monk was very surprised so he asked two nuns to come to examine and all the nuns reported that the young novice was not a boy, but a girl. Then everyone was very surprised, and the monk sent a messenger to the head of the village. The head of the village was very surprised, also. So he convened a meeting and sent a delegation to the temple for the verification of the fact. After having verified that, he announced to the whole village the truth and asked the family of Mau, Color, to come and answer their questions.

And Mau’s wealthy family had to pay a very heavy kind of tax to the village, and they had to pay all the expenses of the funeral organized by the temple. In the Vietnamese poem written about the story we have the full text of the letter. Kinh Tam requested the forgiveness of her father and mother, saying that she had not told them where she had been because she desired so much to practice as a monk. She said that she practiced like that not only for herself, but for the whole family and for many living beings, and she hoped that they would understand and forgive her, and receive this young man as someone very close to the family although he is only an adopted child. Her parents cried a lot. It had been so many years without hearing anything from their daughter and suddenly this morning they received a letter announcing that she was no longer alive. So they cried a lot, and they set out for the Phap Van temple. They also told the former husband, Mr. Sung Tin, to come along. They spent many days traveling; and when they arrived at the temple, they saw the banner bearing their daughter’s name, and a very long procession. All the people in the village came to attend the funeral service. They were so moved, and many people were crying.

If you practice, you have to practice like that. That is the absolutely perfect way to practice. Even if injustices are inflicted on you, you continue to have a lot of energy, you continue the Way. You don’t blame anyone for your suffering. Practicing like that is real practice. When her family arrived, they participated in the funeral service and were received as distinguished guests by the temple and the village. After that, the whole village organized a ceremony to transfer all the merits to Kinh Tam and to practice giai oan. Giai oan means "untie the injustice." And it was said at the end of the story that the Buddha appeared and announced that Kinh Tam had arrived in a state of enlightenment, and she was now acting as one manifested body of Avalokiteshvara. Her name is Quan Am Thi Kinh. She is a Vietnamese Avalokiteshvara and the story is known by everyone. In the temple, many people know the poem by heart and it is the perfect model for the practice of forbearance.

All of us feel at times that we are victims of injustice. We suffer so much injustice, even from the people we love. And we want to repair that injustice, we want to cry out. We want to practice untying the injustice that we have borne for so long in the past. That is why we are always ready to talk to other people about our suffering and the injustice we have suffered. Maybe deep in our heart, we want justice to be done by any kind of means. Maybe we want a military solution. Sometimes you want to use a gun. Sometimes you want to use a stick. Sometimes you want to use an army. As a nation, if you feel that you are a victim of injustice, you are tempted to use a military solution. But if you are not a nation, you are inclined to use other kinds of revenge—using sticks, hiring someone to beat the other person, using a gun, or you want to manipulate the situation, you want to use political means in order to repair your injustice.

But according to the teaching of the Buddha, you can only repair that injustice in you, you can only transcend it, by transforming it. The only way is to practice the four immeasurable minds—maitri, which is loving kindness; karuna, which is compassion; mudita, joy; and upeksha, equanimity. And in order to cultivate these four qualities, you have to use the practice of looking deeply, namely, calming and looking—samatha and vipasyana . You do your best to remain calm, to remain concentrated. You do your best to look deeply into the nature of your suffering, and suddenly understanding comes and your heart begins to expand. Suddenly you feel that you have the power to bear that injustice; you can survive with that, you can live with that, and you even can transform it.

The Buddha said that when you are struck by one arrow, you suffer. But if a second arrow comes exactly to the same spot, you suffer not twice, but maybe thirty times more. When you suffer something and you get angry, your suffering will be not only doubled, but thirty times more intense. You amplify your suffering by your ignorance, your anger, your frustration, your hatred. Why do you have to suffer that much? In fact, why do you have to receive the second arrow? With one arrow, and with some understanding and practice, you would not suffer much and you would be able to remove the arrow very soon. But because of our ignorance, our lack of practice, we become angry, we let hatred and despair overcome us—that is why our suffering has become unbearable. This is the teaching of the Buddha in the Samyutta Nikaya (Samyutta Nikaya: 4, 210) about the first arrow and the second arrow. The second arrow is ignorance.

The other day we used the image of a little child tearing apart a butterfly. The little child does not know that doing that is inflicting a lot of injustice and suffering on the little insect. The little child just wants to play. He doesn’t know that tearing apart a butterfly like this is making a living being suffer. The little child is doing it out of ignorance. When we tell the little child, "My darling, do you know that tonight the little butterfly cannot go home to his parents? What if you cannot go back tonight to your parents? They would suffer a lot." If you tell a child that, the next time she will not tear a butterfly with her two hands. She will be able to protect life. "Lord, forgive them because they do not know what they are doing." People make each other suffer, and they don’t know it. They act out of anger or hatred; they don’t have happiness within themselves. They are overwhelmed with ignorance, with hatred, with anger, and that is why they have made people around them suffer. And we may be doing the same thing, but we don’t know it.


It happens from time to time everywhere that a person will use a gun to kill people in a market place; suddenly in a high school someone with a gun just appears like that and kills three, four, five students without any reason at all. Your daughter, your son, goes to school as usual. And that morning it happens that it is your daughter who was killed by that crazy man. That is a form of injustice. And you might bear a lot of hatred toward that man. But if you look into that man and look deeply, you see that that man is full of craziness, that man is full of ignorance, that man is full of hatred, of alienation. When a man holds a gun and shoots at people like that without reason, there must be a reason. And people like him or like her, they do exist in the world. How could a man become like he is? How was his family, how was his society, how was his education? Did anyone take care of him at all? Of course, if we were there we would try our best to prevent him from continuing to kill other people. We are urged to act right away, put him in a situation where he cannot continue to harm people, even to lock him into a prison cell; we have to do that. But we have to do that with wisdom and compassion. We don’t do that with anger and hatred. We don’t do it out of the will to punish the man, because the man has been suffering a lot.

-Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh



Formless Meditation

BUDDHADHARMA: I’d begin by asking each of you to speak about your understanding of formless meditation from the point of view of your tradition. In Zen, for example, formless meditation often goes by the name of shikantaza, or “just sitting.” Reverend Bennage, could you say more about that?

DAI-EN BENNAGE: Yes, we say “just sitting,” but the “just” in “just sitting” doesn’t mean “just” in the usual way. It means thoroughgoing, total sitting. It’s like the feeling you would have if you were riding a horse at an incredible speed and you fell out of the saddle and found yourself between the saddle and the ground. What kind of state of mind would you have there?

Shikantaza is thoroughgoing, total attention to everything, a tremendously powerful practice. It’s like a huge gymnasium opens up in front of you in which there are no lines of demarcation, no markers to go by. You don’t know whether the space is for volleyball, basketball, or what have you. You don’t know what to do with that immense space, but you can learn to have deep trust. The abbot I trained with in Japan talked about allowing ourselves to be babysat by the universe. Since the universe is good, it takes no effort to be babysat by it. We simply allow ourselves to be present. In Zen, we have a recitation: “Abandon myself to breathing out and letting breathing in naturally still me. All that is left is an empty cushion under the vast sky, the weight of a flame.” Abandoning ourselves to breathing out means no effort. It means allowing the causes and conditions of where we are in the universe—with our amount of sleep, food and so on—to do the breathing for us. All that’s left is the great emptiness and the vivacity of who we are.

TENZIN WANGYAL: In the Dzogchen tradition, the very reason people are introduced to form practice is to introduce formless practice, the nature of mind. The master introduces you to yourself. In formless meditation, we abide without any judgment, without observer and observed, abiding in the boundless view. Spontaneous meditation and flexible action is what formless meditation really is. In the process of doing it, we experience emptiness, clarity and bliss. However, if we grasp for these, they do not work. You have to be aware but not grasp, which we call “self-liberation.” For example, if you leave a hundred-dollar bill in the street and you go back an hour later, you won’t find it. It is self-liberated. Why? Because no one was grasping it, it went away.

Formless meditation is ultimately about self-liberating the observer. No one is grasping, because there is no observer to grasp. Everything is effortlessly self-liberated into space. This is the experience of emptiness, which in turn leads to fearlessness. With nothing there, there is nothing to fear. Yet there is also unceasing clarity: the flow of life never stops, experiences never stop. Everything is lively and fully there, without anybody doing anything. This kind of clarity offers a deep experience of hopelessness—not in a bad sense, but in a positive sense of having no need to go anywhere or get anything. When the emptiness and clarity, the fearlessness and hopelessness, are inseparable, it produces the experience of bliss––happiness with no reason to be happy.

GAYLON FERGUSON: Formless meditation might appear more mysterious than it is. There’s a sense in which the attitude of formless meditation—which is not to manipulate whatever arises in our experience—is there whether we’re doing practice with form or without form. There’s a continuity between the two. Appreciating them both is a matter of understanding the view of the teachers of the lineage; namely, that one could practice without any gaining idea, without pushing anything away, but nakedly and directly experiencing the vividness of whatever arises in one’s experience, whether that’s emotional experience or perceptions of the world. Nowness is really the essence of formless practice as well as practice with form.

Ironically, formless practice is the simplest of all, but we could complicate it by talking about it. Although it is fundamentally uncomplicated, within formless practice, there is still progression. The Mahamudra tradition of formless practice speaks of four stages: one-pointedness, stabilizing the mind in its own essence; simplicity, where there are no further complications to deal with; one taste, the seamlessness of non-duality; and finally non-meditation, not manipulating the sacred world in any way. These are simply further levels of spaciousness and vividness.

AJAHN SUMEDHO: In the Vipassana tradition, you begin by examining the impermanence of conditions. After your practice deepens, the sense of personal identity lessens and attention is awakened. Once you realize the state of awakened attention—what we call the unconditioned, stillness, or the still point of awareness—you gain perspective on thoughts or emotions, the conditions of the present. You witness rather than grasp and identify. With this recognition of inner light, insight into the truth of cessation, you have direct insight into shunyata, emptiness, or pure awareness, and anatman, non-self.

At that point, we can cultivate and develop that reality. In our daily life, we no longer seek identity and attachment to worldly conditions—the sense of ourselves as a personality and the illusory world that most people need for identification. This reality doesn’t need an object for its existence. It’s a natural state of being that isn’t created or dependent on conditions.

Once there is realization of awareness and non-attachment, then there’s no need to use form anymore, because the path of awareness is very clear. Awareness does not require an object. Its natural state is not a created state. Most people are always looking for something they conceive of or that they imagine. Awareness—what we call the gate to the deathless—is learning to realize this natural state of being. Then, we don’t need a form any more. We can just be present with the existing forms as they rise and cease. We can use form, but we don’t need it anymore, because our insight embraces form rather than depends on form.

BUDDHADHARMA: Would you describe this as a practice or as an attainment?

AJAHN SUMEDHO: Attainment is a word I don’t use, because it’s misleading. When you’re talking about attainment and meditation, it sounds like you’ve got to get something you don’t have. The Buddha was pointing to something quite obvious, suffering, which is a very banal human experience. In investigating that truth, we let go of the causes rather than attain anything. It’s a matter of relinquishing, letting go—of non-attainment really—not trying to get anything but to awaken fully to life, to see things through wisdom rather than delusion. Wisdom isn’t an attainment; it’s a natural state we begin to recognize and access through our attention to life, through awareness to existence as it manifests.

BUDDHADHARMA: Presumably this is a condition that could exist whether you were in a formal practice situation or walking about in the market?

AJAHN SUMEDHO: Yes, it integrates into the flow of life because you’re not binding it to formal situations—even though you certainly use formal meditation sessions as a means to cultivate this attention through the four postures of sitting, standing, walking and lying down. Some students get to this quickly; others take much longer. In either case, I don’t let people delude themselves, thinking they have to do something in order to become something. But obviously, to realize the natural state of awareness that needs no object they need meditation retreats and formal practice.

BUDDHADHARMA: How do meditation with form and formless meditation work together?

DAI-EN BENNAGE: My training was entirely in Japan. I started with a Rinzai master, Omori Sogen Roshi, who told me straight off that my Japanese was not good enough for me to do koan practice. Therefore, I should practice shikantaza for three years before koan study would be considered. He did teach me susokukan, the counting of exhalations. The spaciousness of formless meditation can be hard to sustain, so I found the counting practice extremely helpful in dealing with that huge space with no landmarks that would open up in front of me. There are variations on this type of meditation with form, but I found counting the most helpful. It’s a concentration practice that cuts down outer distractions and helps you to get quickly and deeply to the breath.

After three and a half years my teacher became too ill for us to continue, and I found a teacher in the Soto tradition. I practiced shikantaza, but they did not speak about using any form such as the susokukan method as a support. I found, though, that I reverted to susokukan in times of mental turmoil. I also found that when I felt more concentrated I could let go of counting and be fine with the larger space provided by shikantaza. I still teach that way. I don’t know if including the possibility of counting exhalations is considered strict Soto Zen shikantaza, but I feel it’s a tool people can use when they need it. To this day, there are occasions when I revert to susokukan if, for example, there is news from the war that might upset me. In so doing, I also remember that, as our abbot said in Japan, no one graduates from this practice. When I feel the need for and the benefit from going back to counting, however briefly—perhaps not even as much as ten breaths—I too am a student along with my students.

Even though there is a branch of Soto that uses koan practice, the main stem of Soto Zen is the shikantaza practice of seamless sitting. In order to have formless practice, though, the forms around it are essential as a support. Therefore, we put extreme emphasis on the quality of the seated posture. We are not invited to allow ourselves to be more comfortable. We are asked to deal with what comes up sitting in that position and to see how often the pain is not physical. It comes from the mind. One young man who was just beginning was struck by how much knee pain he had, but when thoughts of fishing came to his mind, his knee pain disappeared. It showed him how much of the pain is in the mind. One needs to understand this or formless experience will not be possible.

All of the myriad forms support the formless experience, especially in the monastery, where I lived a cloistered life for twelve years. We didn’t have interviews often, only if we really felt we had something to discuss with a teacher. But our teachers never took their eyes off us—where we were, the sound we made with our slippers, the way we reached for something, the way we passed something to someone else, the tone of our voice, our body language in standing at a distance or near to other people. What we did on the cushion should be manifest when we stood up and, as the Venerable Ajahn Sumedho said, it should be visible in sitting, standing, lying down and walking.

BUDDHADHARMA How do you instruct someone in shikantaza, other than the close observation you were just talking about?

DAI-EN BENNAGE: That comes through the practice of deep trust, which is not easy in our culture. When students feel they need a safety net, like the trapeze artist in the circus, they may consider using the susokukan method. When they feel they don’t need that, they can let it go and go back into the arena of the trust. They have a choice. And the point is to see how little of the susokukan seems necessary.

TENZIN WANGYAL: In Dzogchen, we refer to form and formless meditation as meditation with attributes and meditation without attributes. It’s very traditional to do meditation with attributes before going into meditation without attributes. The usual style of meditation with attributes is shiné, calm abiding. We use external objects, such as seed syllables. One might, for example, begin by meditating on a white, luminous AH surrounded by a rainbow. Internally, we might focus on a particular part of the body, such as the third eye area. We also use the breath, of course. Sounds are good for people who need less discipline. People who need more discipline need to focus on an external object.

One begins with effortful calm abiding, which develops into natural calm abiding and finally into ultimate calm abiding, which is essentially the beginning stages of formless meditation. At the effortful stage, one is dealing with all the external problems that dominate us—sounds, discomfort, movement of the thoughts, and so forth. One might also have internal obstacles, such as falling asleep or becoming extremely creative, having many ideas and projects. We regard these two as different kinds of movement of the prana [wind, life force]. When it moves downward, we have dullness. When it moves upward, we have agitation. Working with all of these requires effort. We usually need to practice calm abiding for a long time and follow strict rules, but it all comes down to being alert in the moment and focusing on an object.

Gradually you begin to develop stability. You find the calmness more inside you than in the object. Eventually you feel the same kind of calm, even if the object of meditation is removed. The form is less necessary; form is fine, but without it you can still experience stability. That is natural calm-abiding. The mind is clear, sharp and stable, and those characteristics are still there when the objects are removed. It’s like learning to drive. When you first learn to drive, you cannot turn on music or do anything else at all. Gradually, people reach the point where they can drink coffee, put on makeup, brush their hair and so on. That’s natural driving or ultimate driving—so long as you’re not getting into accidents. Once you achieve the ultimate calm abiding, you are abiding in the nature of mind; there’s no sense of observer or observed. You abide in ultimate stillness. When you are finally able to rest there, that’s formless practice.

This is a beginning level of formless practice, because you usually cannot stay there long. There will always be obstacles, which at this stage are largely internal obstacles. When I was a teenager I went into a dark retreat—fifty days in a totally dark room. In the dark, you have lots of visions. The distractions are obviously not outside, so you see just how many obstacles you have inside. Since I was practicing this as a teenager, which is rather common in Tibet, I had so much energy! It was not an easy thing. It was an especially powerful way to reveal how much internal movement arose as an obstacle to calm abiding.

AJAHN SUMEDHO: Naturally, you start people out from the point where they are, which for most people is attachment to objects and to ideas. You direct attention to very obvious existing conditions, such as the inhalation, the exhalation, the physical body, the experience of sitting, standing, walking and lying down. We point students to impermanence; we get them to reflect on the changing of thoughts, of history and so forth. Starting with the first noble truth, the point is to use the awareness to notice the existing conditions one is experiencing, such as thinking or emotional feeling. You can notice any conditioned phenomenon—its arising, its presence and its absence. When you begin to recognize the sensation of thought or emotional experience through this development of awareness and you recognize how things arise and cease, your relationship to them is no longer one of personal identity, which is the second noble truth.

Now one sees the nature of conditioned development in terms of dhammas [discrete building blocks of experience]. Samskaras [mental formations] are seen as impermanent, and that which is aware of the impermanence takes refuge in transcending the conditioned realm. You are now at the gate to the deathless realm, the unconditioned. Allowing things to cease in your mind, you have insight into the third noble truth of cessation, the end of suffering or the end of an arising condition. With this perspective on human existence, we have insight into the fourth noble truth, the path of non-attachment, or non-identity with conditioned phenomenon. At this point, there’s no need to use form anymore because the path of awareness is very clear.

GAYLON FERGUSON: The beginning of practice in our tradition, which is derived from both the Kagyü and Nyingma lineages of Tibet, is closely related to what the others have discussed. Specifically, we begin with shamatha and vipashyana, calm abiding and insight. The student begins with mindfulness of body and mindfulness of the breathing as objects, and then moves to some insight into the nature of reality and on to an experience of spaciousness or egolessness. At that point, one begins to work with compassion practices to awaken the heart, the bodhicitta practices associated with Atisha. Those lojong, or mind-training, practices often involve resting the mind in its basic nature, in its fundamental goodness, as the basis for compassion practice.

The full development of the formless aspect of this meditation path is called Mahamudra in the Kagyü lineage and Maha Ati or Dzogchen in the Nyingma lineage. In those advanced meditation practices, the essence of mind is itself taken as the formless object of meditation. Alongside those techniques, Vajrayana, or tantra, uses visualizations and mantras as part of what’s called the development stage of a sadhana, a ritual practice liturgy. The development stage is always accompanied by a completion stage, in which you dissolve the visualization. You no longer rest your mind on visualizing something or saying a mantra; you rest rather in the essence of what you’ve been connecting with through the mantra recitation and visualization. The completion stage of a sadhana practice, then, is another instance of formless practice.

BUDDHADHARMA: Where does the stability of calm abiding fit into the visualization and mantra practice?

GAYLON FERGUSON: The stability or the shamatha aspect of visualizing and reciting is that your mind stays with what you’re visualizing and reciting rather than wandering off to a laundry list of other things. One can definitely develop shamatha further during visualization; that’s part of its importance. It’s a way of developing a deeper kind of stability, stability in some of the qualities of mind that are represented by, let’s say, Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, or Manjushri, the bodhisattva of insight. One is resting one’s mind in those very qualities by visualizing them in particular forms.

BUDDHADHARMA: You have all talked about intensive training as a prerequisite to formless meditation. Sometimes one hears people saying they’re practicing formless meditation, Dzogchen, for example, and after practicing for about a year, they claim to have experiences of bliss and self-liberation. How do you know if that’s genuine?

TENZIN WANGYAL: In the end, it’s very difficult to know. You can never judge other people’s experience. You see, 99.9% of people might not be having that kind of experience, but there might be 0.01% who could have that experience. How can we judge? We are trying to define what’s happening in the moment and by so doing, we spoil it.

BUDDHADHARMA: So if you practice with Ajahn Sumedho, do you get a different kind of formless meditation experience than if you practice with Reverend Bennage, or in the Kagyü or Nyingma traditions? Are there different kinds of formless meditation experience?

TENZIN WANGYAL: Of course, it’s very important to define more precisely what formless meditation means. Does it simply mean meditation without an external object? Does it refer to a feeling in the body? Does it refer to whether you are focusing on the emotions in the mind or not? As far as Dzogchen is concerned, formless practice does not have much to do with emotions or feelings or external objects. Ultimately, it’s about the observer. At some point you have to get beyond that. That’s real formless meditation. Everything else is an approximation of formless meditation, where you might say you are having experiences of bliss, for example. You might indeed experience bliss, but there’s definitely somebody who wants that bliss and does not want to let go of it. You cannot say the experience is not bliss, but it’s not real formless meditation. There’s no “object” per se, but meditation experiences become objects.

GAYLON FERGUSON: This comparison of experience and practice across traditions applies not just to formless meditation but to meditation altogether. Is all Buddhist meditation in essence the same? Certainly we hope that it’s all a matter of the wakefulness of the Buddha. There’s an essence of wakefulness that is the nature of mind and it is inseparable from the nature of reality. That understanding is held by all the traditions. At the same time, there’s undoubtedly a different flavor of practicing satipatthana, the Theravada tradition; practicing shikantaza or zazen; or practicing formless meditation within a Vajrayana sadhana. I’m sure the experience of a specific tradition has its particular flavor. Do the others think that’s true?

DAI-EN BENNAGE: I do believe that the fruits of practice come in many flavors, but that there is some commonality that we see manifests itself in students as growing spaciousness and growing acceptance over time. I think of the example of Brother David Steindl-Rast, who was interested in beginning Zen practice with Shimano Eido Roshi. He had to ask his superior for permission, and his superior asked to meet the teacher first. After the meeting, Brother David asked his superior, “What do you think?” He replied, “He spoke like a monk, he moved like a monk, he acted like a monk, and I didn’t understand a single word he said, but you may go and practice with him.”

This commonality covers not only Buddhism but any practice of giving up ego for the greater good of sentient beings. The flavors are also important, but I’d like to hope that there is commonality that runs through numerous traditions.

BUDDHADHARMA: At times, people might want to taste a lot of different flavors. Is it best to remain with the style of meditation practice in one’s own tradition, or at a certain point is it worth exploring and testing another flavor to see where the commonality is?

AJAHN SUMEDHO: I can’t speak for anyone else, but I would definitely say that as you have insight into formless reality, then of course you could appreciate all the different methods or techniques. It’s not as if you feel that yours is the only way to do it, because emptiness, non-attachment, non-self, is the universal reality. It’s not personal; it doesn’t belong to any group or tradition. It isn’t even Buddhist.

BUDDHADHARMA: If you’re practicing in the Theravada tradition, for example, and you’re introduced to shikantaza, would it be valid to say that you’re practicing the same thing under another name?

AJAHN SUMEDHO: Well, I’ve not practiced those ways, so I can’t speak from experience, but the reality of emptiness is the point of it. If those ways of practice lead to that, then that’s excellent. Who can argue with that? One has to follow where your interest and your faith lies. If one has a particular affinity with a particular tradition, that’s probably the right one to follow.

DAI-EN BENNAGE: Affinity is really important. It’s not that one teacher is more skilled than another. I dearly loved and venerated the first teacher I had, but in my forties I didn’t have the physical stamina to work with the Rinzai tradition on that level. By happenstance, I found a shikantaza tradition in which I could work broadly and deeply. I tell students in the beginning that if they still have the opportunity to go to other places to please take advantage of it now and find the best working combination for them.

In my own case I trained in one tradition, but I was interested in Thich Nhat Hanh, because I wanted to see how the teaching was done in English, since I had all of my training in Japanese. Our abbot was quiet about this idea, but then she said, “Dai-En, you are so close to full understanding, could you please wait? Once you recognize that, then go to another style.” I followed her advice and I am glad I did, because I did not confuse the two streams. I was clear on my primary training, and then when I took that understanding to a different school there was no confusion.

Some students will come for a full introduction and then I won’t see them again, and I might get in touch with them and they’ll say, “Well, I have this foundation; now I can do it all on my own.” I respond by asking, “Have you ever wondered why it’s important for teachers to be trained a dozen years, fifteen years or more? What is available in that intensive training?” Some understand that, but not everybody.

GAYLON FERGUSON: I think it’s important to stay with one’s tradition and take it to some completion rather than spiritual shopping or giving into spiritual materialism. I like Ajahn Samedho’s use of the word emptiness, because it seems to me with formless meditation we are talking about different ways of realizing emptiness or resting in emptiness. And yet emptiness manifests in myriad ways through the compassion of the Buddhas. They’ve given us these various compassionate skillful means that have the different flavors we’re talking about. One could have affinity with different aspects of the Buddha’s wisdom that show up in different traditions. But it seems a misuse of that skillfulness to hop from tradition to tradition prematurely.

BUDDHADHARMA: If a student asked you to compare shikantaza, silent illumination, Dzogchen and Vipassana, how would approach that kind of question?

GAYLON FERGUSON: One would have needed to have practiced in all those traditions.

DAI-EN BENNAGE: Correct. To actually taste each of those—that’s a rare person. How can we open our mouths to make a judgment about a style in which we have no experience, no guided training?

TENZIN WANGYAL: There are a few issues we are mixing here. We are talking about formless meditation and we are also talking about the commonality in different traditions. In essence, formless meditation has got to be the same, because formless is formless. What makes the difference is the form, how one is introduced to the form, the development of the form, and how one enters into the formless from there. These are the things that create the differences.

In the buddhadharma, there are many tenet systems, doctrinal systems, and as a result there are differences we have to acknowledge, for example between Madhyamika and Cittamatra. In the monastery, people study these for years and try to understand the fine points of difference. But these differences do not mean one is good and the other is bad. The point is to come to deeper understanding. For example, some aspects of Hinduism and Shaivism seem so similar to Dzogchen. Are they really similar or not? That’s a big question and it could be quite worthwhile to debate it.

When it comes to the formless, every tradition has different ways to do it. I always encourage students to listen to other teachers and to gain more understanding, but it’s always important to have one thing that you follow completely. That’s not a question of one being better than another; it’s more a question of energy and time. If you’re focusing on too many things, you might not have anything in the end.

Formless meditation is supported by all sorts of forms in all sorts of traditions. Not only that, it is supported by everyday human experience. If you carry a big weight and walk for many miles and then you set it down . . . imagine that moment. You say, “Aah,” and in that very moment you can have a great life experience that does not belong to any tradition. It needs no label. A moment of physical or emotional exhaustion can give you great access to stillness. Everybody has that, even if they haven’t heard one word of dharma.

BUDDHADHARMA: Is that a Dzogchen experience?

TENZIN WANGYAL: Sure. No doubt.

BUDDHADHARMA: So the Dzogchen tradition exists to bring about more of that kind of experience?

TENZIN WANGYAL: Yes, definitely. Dzogchen is unique in that there is a sense of engaging less with the conceptual mind and emotions. We do need to engage them to some degree because they are within our experience, but we engage them minimally in achieving formless experience.

GAYLON FERGUSON: Formless meditation is ultimately about non-conceptual wisdom, so I would like to reiterate Reverend Bennage’s point that the fruit of all of these practices, what we would look for, would not be a matter of the technique or the practices themselves. We would look for less fixation on self, more gentleness and more compassion. That would be the proof of the pudding of formless meditation.

BUDDHADHARMA: Once a student engages at the level of formless meditation practice, are there still many obstacles and much work to do on the path? Are there still dangers?

DAI-EN BENNAGE: This reminds me of when my Rinzai master, Omori Sogen Roshi, gave inka to one of his monks. Even though there is a certain sense of graduating at that point, an acknowledgement of a level of understanding, Roshi still insisted that the monk train with him three more years in order that he see with veracity that he had that level of understanding and that he was not trapped by his own understanding. Those three years turned out to be necessary.

It is also important for those of us who have trained in a sangha to see everyone as good dharma brothers or dharma sisters. It’s the notion of “fare well.” I was once seen off with a farewell meal by a wonderful Catholic priest, who was genuinely wishing me to fare well. If there is someone whose nose-picking bothers you, you need to work on that kind of thing as soon as possible, because you will focus on external objects again and again. In my experience, our fellow monks and nuns were not only our greatest challenges, they were also wonderful teachers. There were times I wanted to quit and someone’s hands raised in gassho made me feel ashamed and renewed my determination.

GAYLON FERGUSON: Taking pride in one’s practice or building up one’s ego through practice is a possible obstacle at any point along the path, whether we’re discussing practices with form or the formless practices. One needs continual surrendering and giving in to the genuineness of experience as opposed to building up any kind of conceptual territory.

TENZIN WANGYAL: At this stage, one needs to look into the nature of the obstacle itself. Take anger, for example. We think of anger as having an external basis, so that if we let go of the source of the anger, the anger is let go of. Again, we are focusing on the external form. Better to look into the anger itself. It has energetic qualities, pranic qualities. It travels in the channels [nadis] and on the winds [prana]. There are subtler reasons for anger than the appearance of pesky neighbors. One needs to go backward, inward, to the subtlest karmic traces of mind.

People want to change and transform, but by that they almost always mean external situations. They continue to carry the same mind. If you really need to change, you need to change not the appearance, but the view.

AJAHN SUMEDHO: In the Theravada tradition, we speak of progress on the path in terms of being released from the ten fetters. The first ones have to do with being bound to the self as an individual personality and then to our cultural conditioning. Then we are still stuck with the existing conditions of consciousness in a human form and the anger and fear that are not mere cultural conditioning. As further awareness develops, attachment even to the body and subtle energies falls away. The final relinquishment centers on a lingering sense of self. As we give that up, we are accepted in the universe. For the arhat, there is no more delusion.

Generally speaking, what keeps you going on the path is that as you practice and develop, your sense of faith increases. I had a lot of doubt and skepticism: did this brilliant philosophy have any practical application to anything I was interested in doing? But as I began to practice and live the life of the monk, I began to experience good results. That began to increase my faith in the practice, which helped to carry me through a lot of difficulties. You realize there is nothing else. The vehicle is what you surrender to rather than trying to find the perfect place to live, or the ideal companion to live with or a utopian world. You are always balancing faith, saddha, with wisdom, panna. They work together.

Eventually, I did a lot of meditation on space. The mind is always looking for objects. In a monastery, for example, you get caught up with your relationships with other monks and their personalities. I began to develop an awareness of the spaces between the monks rather than simply getting caught in, “This one I like; this one I don’t like.” I tell students that instead of focusing on this one or that one, look in-between, just using space.

I found the most insight to sensory experience in listening to sounds and recognizing the arising and ceasing of sound and then recognizing the stillness, the still point in background of it all. That gave me a clear sense of being very empty. It gave perspective. It wasn’t a style, but rather a way of getting perspective on conditions as I experience them. You begin working on levels of infinity, the immeasurableness of space, stillness or silence. Then you are fully connected in consciousness to the whole universe. You no longer feel separateness in terms of form or convention. The formless doesn’t mean an absence of form. It just means non-attachment to the form that exists in the present.



Maxims of Master Han Shan

1. When we preach the Dharma to those who see only the ego’s illusory world, we preach in vain. We might as well preach to the dead.

How foolish are they who turn away from what is real and true and lasting and instead pursue the fleeting shapes of the physical world, shapes that are mere reflections in the ego’s mirror. Not caring to peer beneath the surfaces, deluded beings are content to snatch at images. They think that the material world’s ever-flowing energy can be modified into permanent forms, that they can name and value these forms, and then, like great lords, exert dominion over them.

Material things are like dead things and the ego cannot vivify them. As the great lord is by his very identity attached to his kingdom, the ego, when it attaches itself to material objects, presides over a realm of the dead. The Dharma is for the living. The permanent cannot abide in the ephemeral. True and lasting joy can’t be found in the ego’s world of changing illusion. No one can drink the water of a mirage.

2. There are also those who, claiming enlightenment, insist that they understand the non-substantial nature of reality. Boasting that the disease of materialism cannot infect them, they try to prove their immunity by carefully shunning all earthly enjoyments. But they, too, are in the dark.

3. Neither are they correct who dedicate themselves to exposing the fraud of every sensory object they encounter. True, perceptions of material objects give rise to wild desire in the heart. True, once it is understood how essentially worthless such apparent objects are, wild desires are reduced to timid thoughts. But we may not limit our spiritual practice to the discipline of dispelling illusion. There is more to the Dharma than understanding the nature of reality.

4. What is the best way to sever our attachment to material things?

First, we need a good sharp sword, a sword of discrimination, one that cuts through appearance to expose the real. We begin by making a point of noticing how quickly we became dissatisfied with material things and how soon our sensory pleasures also fade into discontent. With persistent awareness we sharpen and hone this sword. Before long, we find that we seldom have to use it. We’ve cut down all old desires and new ones don’t dare to bother us.

5. True Dharma seekers who live in the world use their daily activity as a polishing tool. Outwardly they may appear to be very busy, like flint striking steel, making sparks everywhere. But inwardly they silently grow. For although they may be working very hard, they are working for the sake of the work and not for the profits it will bring them. Unattached to the results of their labor, they transcend the frenetic to reach the Way’s essential tranquillity. Doesn’t a rough and tumbling stream also sparkle like striking flints – while it polishes into smoothness every stone in its path?

6. In the ego’s world of illusion, all things are in flux. But continuous change is constant chaos. When the ego sees itself as the center of so much swirling activity, it cannot experience cosmic harmony.

For example, what the ego considers to be a devastating hurricane is, as far as the universe is concerned, a perfectly natural event, a link in the endless chain of cause and effect. The universe, having no ego, continues its existence without rendering judgments about hurricanes or ocean breezes.

When we are empty of ego we, too, can carry on in calm acceptance of life’s varying events. When we cease making prejudicial distinctions – gentle or harsh, beautiful or ugly, good or bad – a peaceful stillness will permeate our mind. If there is no ego, there is no agitation.

7. Our mind and body are by nature pure; but we sully them with sinful thoughts and deeds. In order to restore ourselves to our original purity, we need only to clean away the accumulated dirt. But how do we proceed with the cleansing process? Do we put a barrier between us and the occasions of our bad habits? Do we remove ourselves from the places of temptation? No. We cannot claim victory by avoiding the battle. The enemy is not our surroundings, it is in ourselves. We have to confront ourselves and try to understand our human weakness. We have to take an honest look at ourselves, at our relationships and our possessions, and ask what all our self-indulgence has gotten us. Has it brought us happiness? Surely not.

If we are ruthlessly honest we’ll have to admit that it was our own foolish egotism that soiled us. This admission is painful to make. Well, if we want to melt ice we have to apply heat. The hotter the fire, the quicker the ice melts. So it is with wisdom. The more intense our scrutiny, the quicker we will attain wisdom. When we grow large in wisdom we dwarf our old egotistical self. The contest is then over.

8. There are times when we act with unshakable faith in the Dharma even though we don’t understand the situation we’re in. There are other times when we understand our situation but are afraid to be completely faithful.

In one instance, we have heart; and in the other we have mind. We must put these two together! Understanding AND faith!

9. With one small fulcrum, a lever can move tons of weight. With one greedy thought, years of integrity can be corrupted. A greedy thought is the seed of fear and confusion. It will grow wildly. The material gain that a greedy act brings is a small gain indeed. To act without greed and lose some material benefit is also, therefore a small loss. But to lose one’s integrity! That is an immense loss! The enlightened person stands in awe of the fulcrum.

10. What do people strive for? Money, or fame, or successful relationships, or the Dharma. Well, one man may become very rich but be hated by his family. Another man may be loved by everyone but not have a penny to his name. Still a third man may be hailed as a hero by his countrymen and then find himself with neither funds nor loving family. Usually, so much effort is put into achieving one goal, that the other goals cannot be attained. But what about the man who strives to attain the Dharma? If he succeeds he has gained in that one goal far more than the other three combined. He who has Dharma lacks nothing.

11. Put a fish on land and he will remember the ocean until he dies. Put a bird in a cage, yet he will not forget the sky. Each remains homesick for his true home, the place where his nature has decreed that he should be.

Man is born in the state of innocence. His original nature is love and grace and purity. Yet he emigrates so casually without even a thought of his old home. Is this not sadder than the fishes and the birds?

12. Those who pursue money are always rushed, always busy with urgent matters. Those who pursue the Dharma, go slow and easy. “Boring” you say? Maybe. Maybe it’s downright dreary to stop and smell a flower or listen to a bird. Maybe a glint of gold is really more dazzling than the sight of one’s Original Face. Maybe what we need is a better definition of “treasure”.

13. The heart’s weather should always be clear, always sunny and calm. The only time the weather could turn bad is when clouds of lust and attachment form. These always bring storms of worry and confusion.

14. A single speck in the eye blurs good vision, we see double or triple images. A single dirty thought confounds a rational mind. Many errors in judgment can arise from it. Remove that speck and see clearly! Remove that dirty thought and think clearly!

15. Great accomplishments are composed of minute details. Those who succeed in attaining the Whole have attended carefully to each tiny part. Those who fail have ignored or taken too lightly what they deemed to be insignificant. The enlightened person overlooks nothing.

16. Why are certain material objects so treasured? A gem is virtually useless and a gilded scabbard is no better than a plain one.

Man decides that gold is valuable because it is rare and enduring and brilliant. He then thinks that if he possesses gold he, himself, will become rare or unique, that his individual worth will endure, and that he also will be considered a rather brilliant fellow. So obsessed he may become with these foolish notions that in trying to obtain gold, he will destroy the very life he is trying to embellish.

In the darkness of delusion the unenlightened believe that they can glorify themselves by reflecting the qualities they have assigned to their possessions. Those who live the enlightened life readily discern that the qualities of an object are not transferred to its possessor. A heap of treasures piled in their path will not obstruct their vision. They can see right through them. Gold in the pocket is not gold in the character.

17. Look at people who keep tigers as pets. Even while they’re laughing and playing with them, in the back of their minds they’re afraid their pet will suddenly turn on them. They never forget how dangerous tigers are.

But what about people who lust after possessions, indulging themselves with one acquisition after another. They remain completely unaware of any danger.

Yet, the tiger can eat only a man’s flesh. Greed can devour his soul.

18. It is easier to do the right thing when we know what the right thing to do is. We can’t rely on instinct to find the Way. We need guidance.

But once we’re shown the path and begin to climb it, we find that with each step up we grow in wisdom and fortitude. Looking down we see how many of our old desires have fallen dead on the wayside. They look so feeble lying there that we wonder why we ever thought we lacked the courage to resist them.

The Mountain of Wisdom is different from other mountains. The higher we climb the stronger we grow.

19. People are always looking for the easy way. The hard way – the way learned by difficult experience and painful realizations – doesn’t interest them. They want a short-cut. True Dharma seekers are afraid of short-cuts. They know better. They know that without effort, there’s no sense of accomplishment. It’s that sense that keeps them going.

People who don’t appreciate the struggles of climbing lack understanding of where they’ve been, awareness of who they are, and determination to continue climbing. That’s why they never attain the Dharma.

20. What are the two most common goals for people who live in the world? Wealth and fame. To gain these goals people are willing to lose everything, including the health of their body, mind and spirit. Not a very good exchange, is it? Worldly wealth and fame fade so quickly that we wonder which will last longer, the money, the fame or the man.

But consider the goal of enlightenment, of attaining the wealth of the Dharma. Those who reach this goal are vigorous in body, keen in mind, and serene in spirit…right into eternity.

21. There are people who, though having accomplished nothing, connive to receive great honors or high positions of authority. Well, people who gain high rank without having earned it are like rootless trees. They live in fear that even the slightest wind will topple them.

Undeserved honor is a preface to disgrace.

22. The rich are admired because they’ve saved money. But what’s been saved can be spent. The admiration goes with the money. A king receives loyalty because his people regard him as noble. If they decide he’s acting badly, he may lose more than his throne. Those who are rich in the Dharma and noble in the Buddha’s Way always retain their wealth and the fealty of the people.

23. By successfully concealing his crimes a person can’t consider himself honorable. He knows he’s done wrong. By constantly bragging a person can’t claim to be famous even though he does hear his name mentioned everywhere he goes. By affecting the manners of holy men monks may receive veneration , but a pious demeanor never made anyone a saint. What are true honor, true recognition and true piety? They are internal qualities, not superficial acts or appearances. When a man’s conscience is free from stain, he is honorable. When his reputation for integrity precedes him, he is famous. When humility and reverence for the Dharma flow naturally out of his character, he is esteemed.

24. If men can’t evade the demands of their father and emperor, what can they do when Death gives them an order? They protest bitterly and scream at heaven, but they’ve got to obey. The man who howls the loudest is the one who thinks he’s just reached the pinnacle of worldly success.

The enlightened understand life and death. They always live well and never complain.

25. People think that if they posses worldly knowledge they know everything. But that’s not correct. Even when subjects are mastered there’s always room for error. And if the finest archers can miss their targets occasionally, what about the mediocre ones? When we know the Dharma, we have all the information we need. No matter what the other facts we acquire additionally, our storehouse of knowledge, though very deep and wide, is already full.

26. Everything in the universe is subject to change. There’s only one exception: death always follows life. Isn’t strange that people haven’t noticed this, that they conduct their lives as though they’re going to live forever, that death is nothing to worry about? Of course if they really want to live as long as they obviously expect, they’d better pursue the Dharma. Life, death, and change itself are transcended in the Dharmakaya.

27. I glean what the harvesters have overlooked or rejected. So why are their baskets empty while mine is bursting with so much good food? They just didn’t recognize their Buddha Nature when they saw it.

Everything in life depends on the choices we make.

28. In polite society everybody notices if a man’s hands are dirty. He’ll be stared at contemptuously. Why, the fellow will be wretched until he can wash his hands.

But isn’t it funny how a man can have character that’s defiled by greed and hate and nobody will pay the slightest attention? He’ll move about in perfect ease. Evidently, a dirty character isn’t worthy of notice as a dirty hand.

It’s so simple to restore dirty hands to a state of purity. Just wash them. But what about corrupted character? That’s quite another problem…

29. If a man carries too many worldly burdens, his body will soon wear out. If he worries about too many worldly problems, his mind will soon collapse. To be so occupied with material things is a dangerous way to live, a foolish waste of energy. A man ought to simplify his needs and use his strength to attain spiritual goals. Nobody ever ruined his mind or body by exercising self-restraint.

30. What, ultimately, is the difference between hardship and pleasure? A hardship is an obstacle and an obstacle is a challenge and a challenge is a way to use one’s Dharma strength. What is more pleasurable than that?

People are always so afraid of hardship. They go through life trying to avoid the difficult and embrace the easy. For me, it’s just the opposite. I don’t discriminate at all between hardship and pleasure. Whether the path ahead of me is difficult or easy, I don’t have hesitate to follow it.

31. People indignantly condemn thieves to steal material goods. I worry about the kind of thief who steals souls. People act to protect their property. They build walls and install security systems. They hang every thief they catch. What measures do they take to protect their minds from corruption and loss?

32. A man with good character is gentle, humble and free of material desires. A man with bad character is harsh, proud, and enslaved by greed. Gentleness indicates greater strength than harshness. Humility is more admirable than insolence. Freedom is always preferred to slavery.

It’s obvious. A man with good character has a better life.

33. There are material gains and spiritual gains. To gain the material objects of its desire, the mind searches the external world. When it seeks spiritual gains, it turns its attention to the heart.

A person ignores his heart becomes attached to the material world. The Dharma seeker looks inward and attends to his heart. That’s where he wants to form attachments.

34. You can’t be comfortable if you’ve got splinters in your skin. Worse, if you don’t get them out, the skin becomes infected. Infected skin becomes necrotic.

It’s the same with the heart. You can’t be comfortable if splinters of greed are stuck in it. And if you don’t get them out, your heart becomes infected. What will you do if your spirit dies?

35. A natural disaster, a so-called Act of God, doesn’t discriminate between its victims. It damages everybody – rich and poor, good and bad.

Whenever you have power over people, keep natural disasters in mind. Be godlike in your fairness.

36. They best way to convert other people to the Dharma Way, is to convert yourself to it first. Be an example for them to follow. One natural act flowing out of good character is more convincing than the most eloquent speech.

37. It’s easier to go from poverty to luxury than it is to go from luxury to poverty. Everybody knows that. Poverty is like being tossed around in troubled water. If a person is alert, he can find a way out. But luxury is like drifting gently in a river current. He’ll fall asleep and won’t wake up until he’s in the ocean. Welcome hardship. Regard rain as so much morning dew. Be afraid of sunny days. It’s hard to climb with the blazing sun on your back.

38. Our Buddha Nature is always clear and bright. If we can’t see because our eyes are darkly veiled with emotional dust. We can’t clean dust with dust and we can’t calm emotions with emotions. So how do we remove that veil? We use Dharma wisdom. Enlightenment lifts the veil and illuminates our Buddha Face.

39. The great quality of wisdom is that it always responds with precisely what’s needed. Like a well-aimed, sharp pointed sword – it always hits the spot. When we grow in wisdom we understand and can control our mind.

A wise person is always kind and considerate. He always sees what’s needed. He lets snow flakes fall on an overheated body. He provides cool water to slake a desperate thirst.

40. The easy path is always so appealing. So why do I prefer the hard way? On the easy path we take things for granted. We get lazy and bored. This is a formula for trouble and loss. When we go the hard way, we know we can’t let our guard down for a moment. We have to stay alert to meet the challenges. Solving problems makes our mind keener and our character stronger. This is achievement! This is true gain!

41. We all have a tendency to like those who listen to our advice and to dislike those who ignore it. We should guard ourselves against this tendency.

If we allow our emotions to influence us, we’re guilty of ignoring the Dharma’s advice. Love and hate can infect consciousness and jeopardize our ability to perceive clearly, to see with unprejudiced eyes. In the darkness we may stumble. When we control our emotions, we preserve the light.

42. People crave sensory stimulation. They enjoy this kind of external excitement. But I consider such craving a form of suffering. Sensory stimulation feeds on itself, grows larger and larger, and develops an ever-increasing appetite. People will destroy themselves and others, too, in trying to satisfy it. Pleasure derived from Dharma wisdom is internal excitement. Happiness grows along with the capacity to enjoy it. When given a choice between enjoyments, enlightened people always choose the Dharma.

43. Look, all worldly successes have their downside. The richer you become, the more pride you have. The higher your rank, the bossier you act. The greater your ambition, the more inconsiderate you are.

Success in the Dharma works differently. The better you become, the better you become.

44. Waves roughen the sea and windmill turn because of the wind. Take away the wind and the sea becomes calm and the windmills come to rest. For every effect there is a cause.

The waves of desire for things in the material world churn our minds, keep up in a constant state of agitation, scrambling in all directions. What do you think could happen if we eliminate desire?

45. The flow of a stream is sluggish if the source is shallow. A water-wheel won’t turn in it. A tall building won’t last if the foundation is shaky. Walls crack and soon the floors collapse. Depth and firmness are indispensable for good work and endurance. The saints knew this. That’s why they rooted themselves deep in the Dharma. They became towers of goodness that nothing could topple. Their enlightenment was a beacon that guided and inspired others for generations.

Don’t be content to study the Dharma, to memorize its surface. Plunge into it. Go as deeply as you can.

46. Limitless heaven and the huge earth are easily seen by the eye; but a tiny piece of lint can destroy that eye’s vision. A heart filled with love can expand into the universe; but a single hateful thought can puncture that heart and let the love drain out. Never underestimate the power of small things. The saints always gave full consideration to the tiniest thoughts.

47. Even though a hundred persons of great erudition predict failure, the wise person who has confidence in this own abilities will persevere and succeed. Even if these same hundred persons predict success, the person who has only knowledge and not the self confidence born of wisdom will fail.

Book knowledge alone gives rise to doubts and doubts cause confusion. In such conditions, no self confidence can develop. But wisdom leads to trust and trust inspires insight and clear thinking. Dharma followers pursue the path of wisdom in order to eliminate doubt and put knowledge to good use.

48. Not too long ago, when a person fell into the gutter, he’d feel such same that he’d vow with his blood to mend his way and never fall again. Nowadays, when a person finds himself in the gutter he sends out invitations for others to come and join him. This is really sad, isn’t it?

49. The only thing we can be sure of is that we cant’ be sure of anything. The only fact that doesn’t change is the fact that all things constantly change. The saints cultivated patience. No matter what situation they found themselves in, they calmly waited. They also understood that in matters of the heart it’s not the object alone that alters, but the subject, too, which proves fickle. Desire just might be the most changeable thing of all.

50. Cultivate the habit of going to sleep early. This is the best regimen for maintaining a strong and peaceful mind. People who stay up late need to show off and entertain their friends. Or else they’re bored and need excitement. Even if they sleep late, they’re still tired when they get up, still sluggish in body and mind. They can’t work or think well at all. People who follow the Dharma lead fuller, richer lives. They don’t need other people for support. Good habits are like muscles, the more they are exercised, the stronger they become.

51. All rivers, large or small, clear or muddy, flow into the ocean and the ocean responds by yielding vapors that become clouds which rain and fill the rivers. That is the cycle.

The saints show love and respect to all people, rich or poor, good or bad. The people, seeing such exquisite fairness, respond venerating the saints and trying to emulate them. This, too, is a cycle.

Regard the Dharma as a river regards the ocean, the source of its very nature and its endlessly renewing destiny. Regard the Dharma as saints regard the people, the object of love and the reward for loving.

52. If you treat other people as other, as separate, or as people different from yourself, you will not be inclined to be fair or merciful in your judgment of them. But if you treat other people as if they were just versions of yourself, you will understand their errors and appreciate their qualities.

Are we not fortunate that this is the way Heaven regards earth.

53. If one sees only superficial forms of matter and does not penetrate the true nature of visual reality, one is spiritually blind.

If one hears only temporary function of noise and does not penetrate to the true nature of auditory reality, one is spiritually deaf.

Forms and sounds are only illusions. We use vision and hearing to determine their essence to understand the true nature of reality.

54. The unstoppable stream of the ego’s conscious thoughts cannot stay still long enough to comprehend the truth. Yet people are always trying to think up a barrier to the flow, to use thoughts to stop thinking. Thoughts are like wildcats. We would never use one wildcat to tame another.

How then do we enter the state of non-thought? We understand the non-substantial nature of both the one who thinks and the thought itself. We understand that in reality there is not even a single tiny thought of a thought, or a thinker either. When we bear witness to this reality, our own testimony liberates us from bondage of thoughts of having no thoughts.

55. The very nature of mind and body is clear and calm and possesses not a single thought. It is the ego that thinks just as it is the ego that thinks that it desires not to think. The ego causes problems it tries to solve. To be empty of ego is to hear the soundless sound, to see the invisible sight, to think the thoughtless thought.

56. When one reaches the state of the thoughtless thought, one thinks that he is awakened to the Dharma. He thinks about his meditation experience and how it will change his thoughts about his environment. He thinks that it is absolutely wonderful that he has controlled his mind. It wouldn’t be right to say that he has more to think about. Actually, he has less.

57. The clearer the body, the brighter one’s Buddha Nature shines. In the beginning, we still need the body. It’s like a lamp. The Buddha Nature is this flame. But we may still be conscious of shadows. As we progress we feel that the body is the universe itself and that our Buddha Self shines throughout it like the sun.

58. There is no beginning to what came before, and no end to what will come after. It is thought that interrupts the flow of time and calibrates it. It is thought that decides that night follows day, that death follows life, that some things are tiny while others are huge. What, to the universe, is big or large, bright or dark, future or past?

59. Acts are small; the Principle is great. Acts are various; the Principle is one. Those who live the Principle, who let its meaning flow through their very bloodstream, never act at variance with it. In whatever they do, they fulfill the Principle. Whether busy or at ease they are never deceitful, never manipulative. They have no hidden motives and need none.

60. Nothing in the world is gained without desire, without motivation. You can take the route of honesty and be sincere in the pursuit of your desire or you can take the route of deceit and get what you want under false pretenses. One way or the other, when you acquire the object of your desire you’ll become attached to it – for at least as long as it takes you to desire something else. But between the routes of sincerity and guile lies a path in which neither strategy is necessary. This is the route that leads to understanding worldly desires for what they are. On this route your motivations die in their tracks while you move straightforwardly on.

61. When you think of a thing, you impart existence to it. Objects which cause desire to arise disappear when the mind’s eye closes to them. They blend into the scenery.

It is the same with emotions. Hopes, fears, judgments of right and wrong, and feelings of pleasure or misery also vanish when the mind remains uninvolved in the worldly events that occasioned them. When uncluttered by worldly refuse, the empty mind can hold infinite space. Peace pervades its purity, heaven gleams, and the harmony of the spheres resonates throughout.

62. The more people try to use willpower to obliterate a desire, the more they strengthen the desire. The additional force only serves to confuse them. They become obsessed with the problem. The more people talk about the Dharma without knowing what it is, the more they strengthen their ignorance. They grow in this ignorance and soon consider themselves towers of rectitude. They’re like fish out of water who attempt to teach others to swim, or like caged birds who offer lessons in flying.

If you want to conquer a desire, take off its mask and see it for what it is. Instantly, it becomes insignificant – not worth a second thought. If you want to discourse on the Dharma, let it become your natural habitat. Be at home in it. Familiarize yourself with human nature by recognizing your own errors and base desires. Instantly, you’ll forgive others for their mistakes. Be humble and gentle in your love for humanity. That’s the way to set an example for others to copy. Proud rigidity isn’t rectitude. It’s spiritual rigor mortis.

63. Those who are serious about the Dharma seek the insights of wisdom in everything they do. Whether busy or at rest, whether alone or in a crowd, in every situation they find themselves, they strive to remain consciously aware. Such vigilance isn’t easy. But once they get used to the practice, it becomes so natural an activity that nobody around them even suspects what they are achieving.

64. If you subtract a single blade of grass from the universe, the universe can no longer be said to be all-inclusive. If you put one tiny thought of greed or lust into a pure mind, the mind can no longer claim to be undefiled.

Be careful of small things. Their absence or presence can change everything.

65. The mind expands, into the universe; the body shrinks to mouse-like size. To be enlightened is to appreciate the dynamics of the Dharma.

When the mind soars into boundless space, the body remains confined to earthly habitats. It is usually found scurrying around in the dark.

66. What a waste of time and energy it is to strive to obtain material objects of desire. No lasting satisfaction can result from acquiring them since by their very acquisition they have ceased to be objects of desire. They are consumed like firewood and “burnt offerings”. We spit out the ashes in our mouths and search for another tree to cut down.

The saints strove for spiritual insights. They questioned the meaning of life. Achieving this insight, they gained the universe. There being nothing else left to desire, they lit no sacrificial fires.

67. Vast as the universe is, it fits inside the mind. Small as the body is, there is not enough in creation to satisfy it.

68. Everything in the universe has One Nature. People who live in the Nature have all that they could possibly want. The enlightened posses. The unenlightened desire.

69. The person who considers himself superior to others constantly renders judgments and perceives differences. He rigidly deals in opposites: good or bad, right or wrong. If he follows his own standards of fairness, he’ll have to reject at least half of creation.

A person who follows the Dharma strives to unify himself with the rest of humanity. He doesn’t discriminate and is indifferent to qualitative distinctions. He knows that Buddha Nature is the One, Indivisible Reality. A person who follows the Dharma strives to remain ever-conscious of his inclusion in that One.

70. Mountains, rivers and the earth itself are parts of The One. The clear mind is transparent; all existence can be seen through it. The mind clouded by illusion of ego sees nothing but itself.

Strive to realize that you are included in The One! Your body may dwell in the material world, but your mind will understand that there is nothing apart from itself that it can desire.

71. In the Dharma’s perfect stillness, the heart perceives and understands everything. There are no words for the tongue to speak, no sound for the ear to hear, no sights for the eye to see. Those who live in the Dharma live in their hearts. It’s strange that though their bodies may be decaying, their breath is always like a fragrant cool breeze. How wonderful it is to be near them!

72. I have learned so much from people who have been shunned by society. Yes, it’s true. Take my advice. If you want to find good teachers, seek out those who have been rejected for being blind, deaf or ignorant.

73. The objects of the material world are the props, sets and characters of a dream-drama. When one awakens, the stage vanishes. The players and the audience too, disappear. Waking up is not death. What lives in a dream can die in a dream; but the dreamer has a real existence that doesn’t perish with the dream. All that is necessary for him to stop dreaming, to cease being fascinated by dream images, and to realize that he has merely been a dreamer.

74. Most people only perceive change. To them things come in and out of existence. Sooner or later, what’s new becomes old, what’s valuable becomes worthless. Their egos determine the nature of destiny of everything

When existence is defined in such finite, ephemeral terms, the power to control people and things is naturally seen as an exercise of ego. And why not? Isn’t the ego an authority on the subject of change? Of course, when it comes to the One Thing That Never Changes, the ego is amazingly ignorant. Nowadays people don’t appreciate the Changeless. They scramble to keep up with every fad and fashion. They’re like comedians, desperately trying to acquire new jokes. Their lives depend on keeping the audience laughing.

What’s truly funny is their conviction that they’re free, powerful and in control. In reality they’re merely helpless slaves to an illusion.

75. There are two ways to perceive the Dharma: the Sudden Way, the way in which the obstacle of illusion is shattered by a striking awareness; and the Gradual Way, the way in which illusion is dispelled incrementally, by continuous effort. One way or the other the obstacle must be destroyed.

76. The Buddha Mind contains the universe. In this universe there is only one pure substance, one absolute and indivisible Truth. The notion of duality does not exist.

The small mind contains only illusions of separateness, of division. It imagines myriad objects and defines truth in terms of relative opposites. Big is defined by small, good by evil, pure by defiled, hidden by revealed, full by empty. What is opposition? It is the arena of hostility, of conflict and turmoil. Where duality is transcended peace reigns. This is the Dharma’s ultimate truth.

77. Though, in fact, the Dharma’s Truth cannot be expressed in words, teachers talk on and on, trying to explain it. I suppose it’s just human nature to say that something cannot be explained and then spend hours trying to explain it. No wonder people walk away. Well, we could be more entertaining. We could make up amusing stories and appeal to our audience with flattering assurances. Of course, we’d just be piling illusion upon illusion. But what would that have to do with the Dharma?

78. A person who is alone can’t hold a conversation. A drum has to be hollow for its sound to reverberate. Absences count. Words limit. Interpretations differ. What isn’t said is also relevant. Absolute Truth cannot be expressed in words. It must be experienced.

And then, in eloquent silence we best reveal that we have awakened to the Dharma.

(from Journey to Dreamland)
Zen master Han-shan Te-ching (Hanshan Deqing) is considered one of the four most eminent Buddhist monks in the late Ming Dynasty [1368-1644] partly for his social-political interactions with Ming court, interpretation of Buddhist texts, and most importantly, for his Chan practice.

The Two Levels of Practice

There are two levels of practice. The first level forms the foundation, which is the development of virtue, the precepts, in order to bring happiness and harmony among people.

The second level is the practice of Dhamma with the sole goal of liberating the heart. This liberation is the source of wisdom and compassion and is the true reason for the Buddha’s teaching. Understanding these two levels is the basis of true practice.

from Reflections by No Ajahn Chah


Below are some of his words of wisdom, taken from the book "No Ajahn Chah":

1. Once there was a layman who came to Ajahn Chah and asked him who Ajahn Chah was. Ajahn Chah, seeing that the spiritual development of the invidual was not very advanced, pointed to himself and said, "This, this is Ajahn Chah."

On another occasion, Ajahn Chah was asked the same question by someone else. This time, however, seeing that the questioner’s capacity to understand the Dhamma was higher, Ajahn Chah answered by saying: "Ajahn Chah ? There is NO Ajahn Chah !"

2. A visiting Zen student asked Ajahn Chah, "How old are you? Do you live here all year round?" "I live nowhere," he replied. "There is no place you can find me. I have no age. To have age, you must exist, and to think you exist is already a problem. Don’t make problems; then the world has none either. Don’t make a self. There’s nothing more to say."

3. Why are we born ? We are born so that we will not have to be born again.

4. You say that you are too busy to meditate. Do you have time to breathe ? Meditation is your breath. Why do you have time to breathe but not to meditate ? Breathing is something vital to people’s lives. If you see that Dhamma practice is vital to your life, then you will feel that beathing and practicing the Dhamma are equally important.

5. What is Dhamma ? Nothing isn’t.

6. First you understand the Dhamma with your thoughts. If you begin to understand it, you will practice it. And if you practice it, you will begin to see it. And when you see it, you are the Dhamma, and you have the joy of the Buddha.

7. Only one book is worth reading: the heart.

8. If you want to wait around to meet the future Buddha, then just don’t practice (the Dhamma). You’ll probably be around long enough to see him when he comes.

9. We don’t meditate to see heaven, but to end suffering.

10. Whatever we do, we should see ourselves. Reading books doesn’t ever give rise to anything. The days pass by, but we don’t see ourselves. Knowing about practice is practicing in order to know.

11.Remember you don’t meditate to "get" anything, but to get "rid" of things. We do it, not with desire, but with letting go. If you "want" anything, you won’t find it.

12. If you have time to be mindful, you have time to meditate.

13. Looking for peace is like looking for a turtle with mustache. You won’t be able to find it. But when your heart is ready, peace will come looking for you.

14. Do not be a bodhisatta; do not be an arahant; do not be anything at all. If you are a bodhisatta, you will suffer; if you are an arahant, you will suffer; if you are anything at all, you will suffer.

15. A woman wanted to know how to deal with anger. I asked when anger arose whose anger it was. She said it was hers. Well, if it really was her anger, then she should be able to tell it to go away, shouldn’t she? But it really isn’t hers to command. Holding on to anger as a personal possession will cause suffering. If anger really belonged to us, it would have to obey us. If it doesn’t obey us, that means it’s only a deception. Don’t fall for it. Whenever the mind is happy or sad, don’t fall for it. It’s all a deception.

16. You are your own teacher. Looking for teachers can’t solve your own doubts. Investigate yourself to find the truth – inside, not outside. Knowing yourself is most important.

17. A madman and an arahant both smile, but the arahant knows why while the madman doesn’t.

18. Outward scriptual study is not important. Of course, the Dhamma books are correct, but they are not right. They cannot give you right understanding. To see the word "anger" in print is not the same as experiencing anger. Only experiencing yourself can give you the true faith.

19. These days people don’t search for the Truth. People study simply in order to find knowledge necessary to make a living, raise families and look after themselves, that’s all. To them, being smart is more important than being wise!

20. Once a visitor asked Ajahn Chah if he was an arahant. He said, "I am like a tree in a forest. Birds come to the tree, they sit on its branches and eat its fruits. To the birds, the fruit may be sweet or sour or whatever. The birds say sweet or they say sour, but from the tree’s point of view, this is just the chattering of birds."

21. Someone commented, "I can observe desire and aversion in my mind, but it’s hard to observe delusion." "You’re riding on a horse and asking where the horse is !" was Ajahn Chah’s reply.

22. If it isn’t good, let it die. If it doesn’t die, make it good.



THE FOURTEEN PRECEPTS OF ENGAGED BUDDHISM- By Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh (From the book Interbeing)
Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.

Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to receive others’ viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times.

Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education. However, through compassionate dialogue, help others renounce fanaticism and narrow-mindedness.

Do not avoid suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.

Do not accumulate wealth while millions are hungry. Do not take as the aim of your life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure. Live simply and share time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need.

Do not maintain anger or hatred. Learn to penetrate and transform them when they are still seeds in your consciousness. As soon as they arise, turn your attention to your breath in order to see and understand the nature of your hatred.

Do not lose yourself in dispersion and in your surroundings. Practice mindful breathing to come back to what is happening in the present moment. Be in touch with what is wondrous, refreshing, and healing both inside and around you. Plant seeds of joy, peace, and understanding in yourself in order to facilitate the work of transformation in the depths of your consciousness.

Do not utter words that can create discord and cause the community to break. Make every effort to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people. Do not utter words that cause division and hatred. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things of which you are not sure. Always speak truthfully and constructively. Have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety.

Do not use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit, or transform your community into a political party. A religious community, however, should take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts.

Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. Do not invest in companies that deprive others of their chance to live. Select a vocation that helps realise your ideal of compassion.

Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life and prevent war.

Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.

Do not mistreat your body. Learn to handle it with respect. Do not look on your body as only an instrument. Preserve vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realisation of the Way. (For brothers and sisters who are not monks and nuns:) Sexual expression should not take place without love and commitment. In sexual relations, be aware of future suffering that may be caused. To preserve the happiness of others, respect the rights and commitments of others. Be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new lives into the world. Meditate on the world into which you are bringing new beings.

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