Archive for January, 2009


Zen and Compassion

Lecture by Master Sheng-yen

Good evening. This evening’s topic is Zen and compassion. Zen is wisdom; why
is it also compassion? A lot of people don’t understand what Zen is. Many people
think that Zen is sitting meditation. Actually, in the Chinese tradition, Zen
does not necessarily require sitting meditation. As long as one’s mind is free
from emotional afflictions, free from vexations, free from contradictions and
free from suffering, that is Zen, or in Chinese, Chan. So before talking about
compassion I’d like you to have some idea of what it’s like to have a mind free
from vexations — without any burden, without anything bothering you.

In the Sixth Patriarch Huineng’s Platform Sutra, there’s a line that says,
"There is no good; there is no bad." This means that when one looks at
what has happened in the past, and at what’s going on right now, one does not
say, "I like this," or, "I don’t like that." "There’s
no good; there’s no bad," doesn’t mean that there is no good or bad, right
or wrong in the world. It means that when one encounters the good, one does not
give rise to the mind of craving; when one encounters the bad, one does not give
rise to the mind of hatred. That state of mind, that neither clings to the good
nor rejects the bad that’s Chan.

For example — take the flowers here. Some people look at them and say,
"Oh! Yellow flowers! I like them!" Others may say, "I don’t like
yellow flowers, I like white flowers. How come they don’t have white
flowers?" When you look at phenomena, what is the reaction that arises in
your mind? You can observe that you often have these emotional reactions, and
when that’s the case, that is not wisdom. We cannot say that it is vexation, but
it is some kind of self-referential knowledge or judgement, and that is not

Another example. Here, right now, I’m actually wearing a lot of clothes
underneath my robe. When I left the Chan Meditation Center in Queens this
afternoon, my disciple told me, "Shifu, it’s very cold this evening. Wear
more clothes." So I wore all these clothes here, and now I’m really hot,
and I want to take them off. And what happens? If I’m sitting here thinking,
"I’m really hot and I want to take off these clothes, but it’s
embarrassing," — that’s problem. If I’m just sitting here thinking,
"I’m hot. I need to take off these clothes," and I just do it, then
that’s not a problem. It’s not discrimination or judgement, it’s just a reality
— that’s the way it is. No problem.

(Shifu removes his robe, removes some layers, and puts his robe back on.
Giggles from the audience.)

So what I did just now, did it cause you a lot of suffering? For me, it
certainly gave me some joy, because it was hot, and now I’ve taken these extra
layers off. When I feel hot and I need to take off clothes, I take them off, and
when it’s cold and I need more clothes, I put them on — that’s Chan.

Sometimes I see gentlemen in suits and ties. They look very nice and proper,
but sometimes they get very hot, and you see them sweating all over, sweat
dripping off their heads, and they still feel, "No, I’m a gentleman — I
can’t loosen my tie or take off my jacket. It wouldn’t be polite." Just as
it’s not very proper for a monk to take off his clothes in front of an audience.
Maybe I should have just sat here getting hotter and hotter. If I thought that
way, it wouldn’t be the action of a Chan Master. As a Chan Master, if I need to
take off some clothes, I take off some clothes. If I need an extra layer of
clothes, I put on some clothes. I just do what needs to be done, whatever the
situation calls for.

Once there was a woman with her little boy, 5 or 6 years old, who came to me
very excited, and wanted her little boy to come and pay respect to me. She kept
saying, "Bow to Master Sheng-yen"’ Instead the little boy started
crying, and started peeing in his pants. The woman became greatly embarrassed;
her son totally embarrassed her in front of the Master. I told her, "Your
son did not embarrass you. It’s normal for kids to cry, and it’s normal for kids
to pee — he’s just doing what needs to be done. In fact, you embarrassed
yourself, because you were the one thinking, ‘My son is not supposed to cry in
front of Master Sheng-yen; my boy is not supposed to pee in front of Master
Sheng-yen!’ and you became embarrassed — what he did what was entirely natural
for him."

Now I’d like to talk abut compassion. In order to have compassion, one must
have wisdom. If one has wisdom, then one will not give rise to emotional
afflictions when one encounters difficult or problematic situations in life.
There will not be a lot of movement in one’s mind, or ups and downs in one’s
emotions, so one’s point of view will not be full of judgements like, "This
is really good," or, "This is really bad." When individuals
without wisdom encounter difficult circumstances, they tend to create lots of
conflict and struggle within themselves, and consequently they also see
opposition between themselves and others. Here opposition doesn’t necessarily
mean bad relations, it means seeing others as opposed to yourself. Some people
you like, you perceive them as good, you want to be close to them and even
possess them; others you hate, you see them as bad, and you reject them. This is
self-centered behavior; it is the behavior of those without wisdom, and why,
without wisdom, one will not be able to treat others with compassion.

Very often when we think about compassion we think of two things: sympathy,
or pity, which means feeling bad for others; and empathy, which means feeling
what another person feels. Actually, compassion, in Buddhism, means
unconditional love. Love means concern for the welfare of others (not romantic
love), and unconditional means without regard for recognition, reward, or
receiving anything in return. There are different levels of this compassion. The
first is compassion for those close to us, our families and friends. At the
second level, we have ceased to distinguish between family members and
strangers, or friends and enemies, and we manifest compassion for all people.
But we are still distinguishing between the self (the one who is compassionate),
the act of compassion itself, and the one who is the object of that compassion.
At the highest level of Chan, compassion is just giving that occurs naturally,
with no sense of self, or of other, or of being compassionate. You understand so

Now I’d like to talk about the method of practice. What kind of method do we
use to attain this level of practice — the compassion we just talked about?
Being compassionate in that way is not easy, and we must rely on a method of
practice to reach that goal.

Methods of practice fall into two main categories. The first is gradual
practice and gradual enlightenment, and the second involves either gradual
practice that leads to sudden enlightenment, or sudden enlightenment followed by
gradual practice. A lot of you may have been thinking of sudden practice and a
sudden enlightenment. But there’s no such thing.

The most common method is that of gradual practice and gradual enlightenment.
So I will talk a little about this. I’d like to ask how many of you have
experienced sitting meditation, or have learned how to do sitting meditation
already? More than half… most of you.

The main function of sitting meditation is to concentrate and then unify the
mind. Unified mind can manifest in three ways. First is unification of body and
mind, body and mind fused into a single stream of clear concentration. Second is
unification of inside and outside, so that there is no distinction between self
and environment. Third is unification of the previous thought and the following
thought — the mind stays on one thought, and we enter what is called samadhi.

It’s difficult to go right to unified mind, so in the beginning of practice,
one has to try to concentrate the mind. And in the beginning even concentrating
the mind is not so easy, so one has to work on relaxing the body and mind and
eventually the scattered thoughts will lessen, the mind will begin to settle
down, and concentrating will be easier. Once the scattered thoughts in the mind
cease, then one has entered the unification of body and mind.

Earlier today, when I was riding into Manhattan from Queens, I was talking
with someone in the car. After a while I stopped talking, but she continued —
she kept talking and talking, reacting to everything in the environment…
everything interested her. And I was there listening to everything she said. I’m
using this individual as an example of someone with a scattered mind, whereas my
mind was in a unified state. I heard everything she said, but did not give rise
to any reaction. I did not give rise to craving or to hatred. This was a state
where the body and mind were unified. When the body and mind are in a unified
state, they are not bothered or moved by what’s going on in the environment.
(This is the stage where the mind, body and environment are unified, but not the
previous thought and the following thought.)

All of you have probably had some experience like this, when you have been
aware of what’s happening in the environment, but your mind was not moved by it.
But this state of mind may arise only occasionally. In order to maintain this
state of mind, one must practice constantly, and then it is possible that in
this state of unification one will experience enlightenment. If one has not
studied the Buddhadharma then this is very unlikely, but if one has diligently
studied the Buddhadharma, and has been able to maintain this state of
unification, in which the mind is very calm, and one’s responses to others are
without either hatred or craving, then this experience of enlightenment is very

One of the very important things one must understand from the study of
Buddhadharma is that the experience of unified mind is not liberation. It is an
experience that can be very profound and joyful, but the Dharma teaches us not
to attach to the feeling of joy and mistake it for liberation. What we must
understand is that there is something beyond unified mind, and that is no mind.

And what about the unification of previous thought and following thought?
What is this like? It is as if you were inside of a big, clear crystal ball, but
you do not see the crystal, because you are as clear as the crystal around you.
The mind is very clear and bright and solid. Will one get enlightened while in
this state? No, as long as one is in this state one will not get enlightened.
But after one leaves this state and returns to normal activities, one may become
enlightened. One should not attach to the experience, and should not give in to
cravings to repeat the experience, and should simply go about one’s daily life,
and some simple thing may happen that leads to enlightenment.

This is the approach of gradual practice and gradual enlightenment. So you
see there is no sudden enlightenment, where after one experience everything is
resolved. One goes about practice gradually, then one becomes enlightened
gradually. How is that related to compassion?

After enlightenment, one is able to put down the burdens in one’s mind. This
is a very great joy, different from worldly happiness — it is the joy of
liberation. And when enlightened beings see others they see all the suffering
others experience, the contradictions between previous thought and following
thought, the constant struggle in their minds, and inevitably give rise to
compassion for others.

Now I’d like to ask you to think of your family members, or perhaps your
friends. When they experience struggles in their minds, and those struggles
manifest in their speech and manner, they may do or say things that are
difficult or unpleasant for you, things that cause you to suffer But if you have
been engaging in practice, and are aware that their behavior is the result of
their suffering, you will probably not do anything that causes them more
suffering, right? You may react, but instead of fighting back and increasing the
suffering, you might comfort them, or might find it’s best to get out of their
way… but you certainly wouldn’t want to do anything that causes them more

As practitioners, we should practice concentrating the mind, and also
practice compassion when interacting with others. We should not wait to have the
experience of unified mind before treating others with compassion. We should
find ways to benefit and to bring joy to every person we come across. To make
the other person happy — that is the practice of compassion.

It’s interesting though, that there are some people who are compassionate to
everyone else, but harsh on themselves, constantly oppressing themselves, and
causing themselves a great deal of suffering. This is because they lack wisdom.
It is important to be compassionate with oneself as well with others, to reduce
the suffering of others, but also to reduce one’s own suffering. Have you met
people like that, who are compassionate to others but not to themselves? This is
a problem — often such people will work hard to help others, but eventually,
because of their own suffering, they will cause others to suffer more. Without
wisdom, it is difficult to practice compassion.

To cultivate wisdom one needs to practice a method. What is the method of
practice? Be aware of your breath. Whenever you encounter any stressful
situation, or tension, or any form of suffering, simply relax all your muscles
and nerves, relax your body, and just put down whatever it is that is stressing
you, and go back to enjoying the breath. You just go back to your breath, and
say, "Oh, this is so joyful, this breath, and it’s so wonderful to be alive
and enjoying this breath." As long as you’re alive, there are infinite
possibilities. And this way you can come to understand that there’s no need to
suffer. Whatever needs to be done, you simply do it, but it’s not necessary to
suffer. And if you always practice this way, then it’s very possible that this
practice can lead to enlightenment.

I’d like to tell you a gongan (koan) that comes as a dialogue between a Chan
Master and a monk. One day the monk said to the Master, "I would like to
know Buddha." The Master answered that the Buddha is someone who is riding
on an ox and also looking for an ox.

Do you understand the meaning of this? You’re asking, "What is
Buddha?" but you yourself are Buddha. Do you understand?

Then the monk asked the Master, "So what happens after I know of the ox?
After I know that I myself am the Buddha?" The Master said, "Then just
ride the ox home."

Even after you know you are the Buddha, it doesn’t mean that you have
returned to the Buddha. Even though you know you are inherently the Buddha, you
are still just a baby Buddha — you haven’t completely become the Buddha yet.

Then the monk asked again, "What should one do when one has ridden the
ox all the way home?" And the Master replied, "Then, like a herdsman,
tend to the ox, so that it doesn’t trample over other people’s meadows and

Even after enlightenment, one does not become lazy about practice, but
continuously cultivates compassion and wisdom so as not to cause harm to oneself
or others.


The Evolution of Happiness

is said that after his enlightenment the Buddha was motivated to teach
by seeing that all beings were seeking happiness, yet out of ignorance
were doing the very things that brought them suffering. This aroused
his great compassion to point the way to freedom. The Buddha spoke of
different kinds of happiness associated with various stages on the
unfolding path of awakening. As we penetrate deeper into the process of
opening, the happiness of each stage brings us progressively closer to
the highest kind of happiness, the happiness of nibbana, of freedom.

What are the causes and conditions that give rise to each of these
stages of happiness? How does this joy come about? The events and
circumstances of our lives do not happen by accident; rather they are
the result of certain causes and conditions. When we understand the
conditions necessary for something to happen, we can begin to take
destiny into our own hands.

The first kind of happiness is the one that’s most familiar to us –
the happiness of sense pleasures. This is the kind of happiness we
experience from being in pleasant surroundings, having good friends,
enjoying beautiful sights and sounds and delicious tastes and smells,
and having agreeable sensations in the body. Even though these
pleasures are impermanent and fleeting, in the moments we’re
experiencing them, they bring us a certain delight.

According to the Buddha, each of the different kinds of happiness is
created or conditioned by a different level of purity. The level that
gives rise to sensual happiness is purity of conduct, sometimes called
purity of action. Purity of conduct is a fundamental way of coming into
a true relationship with ourselves, with other people, and with the
world. It has two aspects. The first is the cultivation of generosity –
the expression of non-greed and non-clinging. It is greed or attachment
that keeps us bound to the wheel of samsara, the cycle of life and
death. With every act of giving we weaken the power of grasping. The
Buddha once said that if we knew as he did the fruit of giving, we
would not let a single meal pass without sharing it, so great is the
power of generosity.

The Buddha spoke of three levels of generosity. He called the first
beggarly giving – we give the worst of what we have, what we don’t
want, the leftovers. Even then, we have a lot of doubt: “Should I give
it? Shouldn’t I? Next year I’ll probably have a use for it.” The next
level is friendly giving – we give what we would use for ourselves, and
we give it with more spontaneity and ease, with more joy in the mind.
The highest kind of generosity is queenly or kingly giving. The mind
takes delight in offering the best of what we have, giving what we
value most. This is the perfection of generosity.

Generosity takes many forms – we may give our time, our energy, our
material possessions, our love. All are expressions of caring, of
compassion, of connection, and of renunciation – the ability to let go.
The beauty of generosity is that it not only brings us happiness in the
moment – we feel good when we give – but it is also the cause for
happiness to arise in the future.

The other aspect of purity of conduct is sila, the Pali
word for morality. In the Buddha’s teaching there are five precepts
that lay people follow: not killing, not stealing, not committing
sexual misconduct, not using wrong speech – false or harsh speech – and
not taking intoxicants, which cloud or delude the mind. The underlying
principle is non-harming – of ourselves, other people, and the

Just as generosity is a practice, so, too, is commitment to the
precepts. Consciously practicing them fosters wakefulness and keeps us
from simply acting out the habit patterns of our conditioning. The
precepts serve as a reference point, giving us some clarity in
understanding whether our behavior is wholesome or unwholesome. They
are not a set of commandments – “Thou shalt not do this” and “Thou
shalt do that” – but rather guidelines for exploring how our actions
affect our mind: What happens when we’re in conflict with the world?
What happens when we’re in harmony with other people and ourselves? In
the traditional teachings of the Buddha, morality is the foundation of
concentration, and concentration is the foundation of wisdom. When the
mind is in turmoil, it’s very difficult to concentrate. The power of
virtue is a steadfastness and ease of mind. And when we’re in harmony
with ourselves, we give a wonderful gift to other people – the gift of
trust. We’re saying with our lives, with our actions, “You need not
fear me.” Just imagine how the world would be transformed if everybody
observed one precept: not to kill.

The joy we experience when we’re practicing generosity and morality
gives rise to the second kind of happiness, the happiness of
concentration. The Buddha called this purity of mind. When the mind is
steady and one-pointed, there’s a quality of inner peace and stillness
that is much deeper and more fulfilling than the happiness of sense
pleasures. We enjoy sense pleasures, but at a certain point we tire of
them. Just how long can we listen to music or eat good food? By
contrast, the happiness that comes with concentration of mind is
refreshing. It energizes us.

There are many techniques for developing concentration. We can focus
on the breath, on a sound, on a light, on a mantra, on an image, on
walking. We can practice metta, lovingkindness, or karuna, compassion.
We can each find the way that for us is most conducive to strengthening
the state of one-pointedness, of collectedness. We learn how to quiet
the inner dialogue. As concentration becomes stronger, we actually
start living from a place of greater inner peace. This is a source of
great happiness, great joy.

The happiness of concentration makes possible the next kind of
happiness, the happiness of beginning insight. When the mind is still,
we can employ it in the service of awareness and come to a deeper
understanding of who we are and what life is about. Wisdom unfolds in a
very ordered way. When we sit and pay attention to our experience, the
first level we come to is psychological insight. We see all our
different sides – the loving side, the greedy side, the judging side,
the angry side, the peaceful side. We see parts of ourselves that have
been covered up – the jealousy, the fear, the hatred, the unworthiness.
Often when we first open up to the experience of who we are, we don’t
like a lot of it. The tendency is to be self-judgmental. Through the
power of concentration and mindfulness, we learn how to rest very
naturally in the simple awareness of what’s happening. We become less
judgmental. We begin to get insight into the complexities of our
personality. We see the patterns of our thoughts and emotions, and the
ways we relate to people. But this is a tricky point in the practice.
Psychological insights can be very seductive – who’s more interesting
than oneself ? – so it’s easy to get lost on this level of inquiry. We
need to be watchful and keep coming back to the main object of

Through the practice of very careful momentary attention, we see
and connect very directly with the nature of thoughts and emotions, not
getting so lost in the story. What is the nature of anger? What is the
quality of happiness? What is the quality of compassion? The momentum
of mindfulness begins to build.

At this point there’s a real jump in our practice. The Buddha called
this level purity of view, or purity of understanding. We let go of our
fascination with the content of our minds and drop into the level of
process, the flow of phenomena. We see clearly that what is happening
in each moment is knowing and object, arising and passing away.

The Buddha once gave a very short discourse called “The All” in
which he described the totality of our experience in six phrases:

The eye, visible objects, and the knowing of them.

The ear, sounds, and the knowing of them.

The tongue, tastes, and the knowing of them.

The nose, smells, and the knowing of them.

The body, sensations, and the knowing of them.

The mind, mind objects, and the knowing of them.

This is our first clear glimpse of the nature of the mind
itself. We see that all we are is a succession of mind moments –
seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, thinking, feeling. At
this stage, we have a very direct understanding of what the Buddha
called the Three Characteristics. We have a visceral experience of the
truth of anicca, impermanence: everything is changing constantly. And
out of this intimate understanding of the momentariness of phenomena,
we begin to comprehend more clearly what the Buddha meant by dukkha,
suffering – the unsatisfactory nature of things. When we see that even
pleasant things are changing – and changing rapidly – it becomes
obvious that they are incapable of satisfying us. Not because they are
inherently bad but because they don’t last. This insight leads to an
understanding of the characteristic that is most difficult to see –
anatta, or selflessness. There is no one behind this process to whom it
is happening; what we call “self” is the process of change.

Purity of view is a gateway to greater insight and even deeper
levels of happiness. The momentum of mindfulness becomes so strong that
the perception of phenomena arising and passing away becomes crystal
clear. Concentration and awareness are effortless. The mind becomes
luminous. This point in the practice is called Vipassana happiness. It
is a very happy time in our meditation. The joy of it far exceeds the
happiness of concentration or of sense pleasures, because we experience
such precise, clear insight into the nature of things. It’s our first
taste of coming home. We feel tremendous rapture and overwhelming
gratitude: after all the work we’ve done, we’re finally reaping a great

But there’s a problem here. This stage is often called
“pseudo-nibbana.” Everything we’ve practiced so hard for – clarity,
luminosity, rapture, lightness, joy – is reflected back to us as what
the Buddha called “the corruptions of insight.” The qualities
themselves are not the problem; indeed, they are the factors of
enlightenment. But because our insight is not yet mature, we become
attached to them and to the happiness they bring. It takes renewed
effort to come back to simply noting these extraordinary states. At
this point we hit a bumpy stage. Instead of the arising and passing of
phenomena, we begin to experience the dissolution of everything – our
minds, our bodies, the world. Everything is vanishing. There’s no place
to stand. We’re trying to hold onto something that is continually
dissolving. As this stage unfolds, there is often tremendous fear.

In Vipassana happiness, we can sit for hours. But at the stage
of dissolution we sit for ten or fifteen minutes and become disgusted.
This phase is colloquially known as the “rolling up the mat” stage
because all yogis want to do is roll up the mat and quit. It’s a very
difficult time, with a lot of existential suffering. This is not the
suffering of pain in the knees or of psychological problems but the
suffering inherent in existence. We think our practice is falling
apart, but actually this is a stage of deepening wisdom. Out of our
opening to dukkha comes what is called “the urge for deliverance,” a
strong motivation to be free.

From this urge for freedom emerges another very happy stage of
meditation, the happiness of equanimity. This is a far deeper, subtler,
and more pervasive happiness than the rapture of the earlier stage of
seeing things rapidly arising and passing away. There is softness and
lightness in the body. The mind is perfectly poised – there is not even
the slightest reaching for or pushing away. The mind is completely
impartial. Pleasant or unpleasant, whatever arises is fine. All the
factors of enlightenment are in the final maturing stage.

It is out of this place of equanimity that the mind opens
spontaneously and intuitively to the unconditioned, the unborn, the
unmanifest – nibbana. Nibbana is the highest happiness, beyond even the
happiness of great insight or understanding, because it transcends the
mind itself. It is transforming. The experience of nibbana has the
power to uproot from the stream of consciousness the unwholesome
factors of mind that keep us bound to samsara. The first moment of
opening to the highest reality uproots the attachment to self, to the
sense of “I.” And it is said that from that moment on, a being is
destined to work through the remaining defilements, such as greed and
anger, on the way to full awakening.

What the Buddha taught on so many levels was how to be happy. If
we want the happiness of sense delights, there are causes and
conditions, namely, purity of conduct. If we want the happiness of
stillness, of peace, we need to develop concentration – one-pointedness
of mind. If we want the happiness of insight, we need to develop purity
of view, purity of understanding through strengthening mindfulness. If
we want to experience the happiness of different stages of insight, all
the way through equanimity, we need to continue building the momentum
of mindfulness and the other factors of enlightenment. And if we want
the highest happiness, the happiness of nibbana, we simply need to walk
this path to the end. And when we aim for the highest kind of
happiness, we find all the others a growing part of our lives.