Conducting Periodic Retreats

43) The Great Issue of Birth and Death

Only Buddhism discusses and offers a thorough solution to the religious truth "swift is the wave of impermanence, great is the issue of Birth and Death." Philosophers merely deal with the questions of everyday life -- after birth and before death. They do not thoroughly investigate the issue of Birth and Death -- before birth and after death. Confucius did comment on the after-life, but he did so with the goal of fulfilling filial obligations and conducting rites and ceremonies according to the motto "worship the dead as if they were still alive." Once, when one of Confucius' disciples asked him about death, he replied "You who do not even know about life, how can you know about death?" The Taoist solution to the problem of death is to lengthen the lifespan, attempting to achieve immortality.

However, while we may live longer, we cannot escape death, because all conditioned dharmas are within the cycle of Birth and Death. In the truth of the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination, Buddha Sakyamuni identified the source, demonstrating clearly that "birth, old age, disease, death, worry, love-attachment and unhappiness" are caused by a single, original thought called delusion (ignorance).[60] To destroy delusion and return to the Original Nature is to completely eliminate the source of Birth and Death Yet, this is only severing attachment to self and others we should also sever attachment to self and dharmas to attain the stage of complete Enlightenment Nevertheless, to be free of attachment to self and others and dwell in Nirvana without Remainder -- escaping the sufferings of the Triple Realm -- is still a very difficult step which is rarely achieved. It is also the first stage for cultivators.

As Sakyamuni Buddha predicted, in the Dharma-Ending Age, those who have awakened to the Way are rare enough, not to speak of those who have attained Enlightenment. And, if we have not attained Enlightenment, we are, by necessity, subject to Birth and Death. Therefore, to solve the problem of Birth and Death in this very life, in the middle of the Dharma-Ending Age, there is only one expedient, i.e., "to take our karma along to the Western Pure Land." Why is this so? It is because, if we have neither attained Enlightenment nor achieved rebirth in the Pure Land, we are necessarily mired in Birth and Death. As we revolve in the realm of the Five Turbidities, deep in the Dharma-Ending Age, morality and virtue keep declining, bad karma is easy to commit and good conditions are difficult to create. In the end, we cannot escape from the three Evil Paths. Thus, Birth and Death is the big issue. Practitioners seeking rebirth in the Pure Land should bear it in mind day in and day out.

A famous Chinese Master of recent times, when still a young boy at home, saw the flowers wither and die in front of his parents' house and began to ponder and shed tears ... This monk, full of wisdom, had when still young, deeply realized the truth of Birth and Death as the common fate of all sentient beings![61]

44) The Meaning of Conducting a Retreat

As indicated above, if we have not attained Enlightenment, we should recite the Buddha's name seeking rebirth in the Pure Land. To ensure that this occurs, we should recite to the level of one-pointedness of mind. And, in order to practice to that level, we should conduct periodic retreats. To be "in retreat" is to retire to a small house, meditation hut or small room, cut off all outside activities and conditions and concentrate on reciting the Buddha's name for a period of seven days. Why seven days and not six or eight? The Amitabha Sutra states:

Sariputra: if a good man or a good woman hears Amida Buddha preach and firmly holds the Name wholeheartedly and singlemindedly, be it for one day, two days, three days, four days, five days, six days, or seven days, Amida Buddha, together with all the holy multitudes, will appear before that person as the end of life draws near. When death arrives, that person, with mind undisturbed, at once gains rebirth in Amida Buddha's Land of Utmost Happiness. (Hozen Seki, Buddha Tells of the Infinite: the "Amida Kyo," p. 53.)

Since the Sutra does not refer to six days only, nor does it speak of eight days, Pure Land practitioners, basing themselves on the words of Buddha Sakyamuni, have traditionally taken the period of retreat as seven days.

According to the Esoteric School, the number seven is the ultimate number in the cycle of Birth and Death. Therefore, in the bardo stage, the "soul" must undergo changes every seven days, and to be efficacious, mantras should be recited at least seven times. Buddhist texts note this with the words "the Dharma is thus," i.e., according to the law of nature it has to be that way and cannot be explained, just as it is difficult to explain why fire is hot and ice is cold. Starting with the number seven and multiplying it by three or seven, we have twenty-one or forty-nine. Therefore, the Esoteric School teaches that mantras should be recited [at least] seven times to be effective, twenty-one or forty-nine times if the mind is weak and agitated. Thus, basing themselves on this teaching, practitioners arrange retreat periods of seven, twenty-one or forty-nine days.

What does it mean to have "one-pointedness of mind"? It means to concentrate the mind on recitation, without sundry thoughts. "One-pointedness" means the mind is devoid of all distractions, thinking about no other realm except the realm of Buddha Recitation. Individuals of high capacities may reach such a state in, perhaps, one day, those of moderate capacities in three or four days, those of limited capacities in seven days. Looking at it from another point of view, individuals of high capacities, ideally, achieve one-pointedness of mind during the entire seven-day period, those of moderate capacities only do so for three or four days, while those of limited capacities may only do so for one day during the whole period of retreat.

However, why did Buddha Sakyamuni estimate that we could achieve one-pointedness of mind within a week, when in fact, some of us may recite for two or three or even many years without ever reaching that state? This situation results from three causes.

1. From the viewpoint of "marks" (phenomena), we fail to follow Buddha Sakyamuni's admonition to conduct periodic retreats for cultivation. When we do so, we engage in several practices at the same time (sundry practices). We should realize that if we would like to achieve one-pointedness of mind, we should practice Oral Recitation exclusively during the retreat period, and not engage in Mantra or Sutra Recitation or meditation as well.

2. There are various reasons why some practitioners cannot avoid sundry conditions and thoughts or concentrate on cultivation for seven days. These reasons range from lack of external support (the need to prepare their own meals and attend to other miscellaneous activities) to lack of earnestness.

3. The three capacities mentioned above are a rough estimation. For example, within the category of high capacity cultivators, we have "supremely high," "moderately high," and "low high" capacities. Moderate and limited capacities may likewise be subdivided. There are thus a total of nine categories, which may in turn be divided into many more categories.

We should also realize that Buddha Sakyamuni's words are only generalities. For example, the sutras state that individuals of high capacities can achieve one-pointedness of mind for seven days, not eight or nine. In reality, these sages are not only undisturbed for eight or nine days; conceivably, their minds can remain empty and still during their entire lives. Conversely, those of limited capacities, weighed down by heavy karmic obstructions, not only may fail to reach one-pointedness of mind after seven days, they may even recite during their whole lifetime without ever reaching that state. Thus, we should interpret the words and meaning of the sutras flexibly, without being attached to the words and betraying the phrase, or grasping at the phrase and doing injustice to the meaning.

45) How to Conduct a Seven-Day Retreat

In conducting a seven-day retreat, one can either practice alone, to attain purity more easily, or with many other cultivators. In either case, three types of good spiritual advisors are required.

1. Teaching Spiritual Advisor

This is someone conversant with the Dharma and experienced in cultivation. The retreat members can have him follow their progress, guiding them throughout the retreat, or they can simply seek his guidance before and after the retreat. When several persons hold a retreat together, they should ask a spiritual advisor to lead the retreat and give a daily fifteen-to-thirty-minute inspirational talk.

2. Caretaking Spiritual Advisors

This refers to one or several persons assisting with outside daily chores such as preparing meals or cleaning up, so that those on retreat can cultivate peacefully without distraction. Such persons are called "retreat assistants."

3. Common Practice Spiritual Advisors

These are persons who practice the same method as the individual(s) on retreat. They keep an eye on one another, encouraging and urging each other on. These cultivators can either be participants in the same retreat or cultivators living nearby. In addition to keeping an eye out and urging the practitioners on, they can exchange ideas or experiences for the common good. This concept has been captured in a proverb:

Rice should be eaten with soup, Practice should be conducted with friends.

An Elder Master of great virtue in the Zen tradition once taught:

The practitioner should take the ten directions as his perfect Enlightenment seat, and not set a limit to the length of retreats. If one year is not sufficient to become enlightened, he should meditate for ten years. If ten years are not enough, then he should meditate for twenty or thirty years, or up to his whole lifetime, always unwavering in his determination.

Pure Land followers should do likewise. Attending a seven-day retreat is the best expedient to reach one-pointedness of mind. If one retreat is not sufficient, then he should cultivate during many retreats, never wavering in his determination.

Some might ask, "To achieve rebirth in the Pure Land, we should recite to the level of one-pointedness of mind. However, since few practitioners can reach that level today, are we not wasting our efforts?"

Answer: I briefly answered that question earlier and will repeat the answer here for emphasis. The goal of Buddha Recitation is one-pointedness of mind or samadhi. However, the Pure Land method has one particular characteristic, namely:

Those "above" should reach the state of undisturbed mind; for those "below," only ten thoughts will bring success.

In other words, those of high capacities who recite to the level of one-pointedness of mind in this very life will be assured of rebirth in the Pure Land. On the other hand, those of limited capacities who can have ten undisturbed thoughts at the time of death will also achieve rebirth there. Therefore, the question of an "undisturbed mind achieving rebirth in the Pure Land" applies at the time of death, not during this current life. Moreover, even if we achieve one-pointedness of mind in our usual practice, should we, on our deathbed, change course and practice other methods, we will not achieve rebirth in the Pure Land.

To have ten undisturbed thoughts at the moment of death is, in truth, no easy thing. This is because at that time, we are faced with a karma-power, caused by current and past transgressions, called "near death karma." If we do not practice Buddha Recitation diligently in our daily lives, that near death karma will overpower the mind. Right thoughts cannot then arise and the mind-consciousness will be disturbed at the time of death. Under these circumstances, how can we achieve rebirth in the Pure Land?

There was once a lay Pure Land practitioner who liked to perform Buddhist works, but his daily recitation was only perfunctory. At the time of death, he developed an aversion to hearing the Buddha's name and refused to follow the admonitions of fellow practitioners. Elder Master Yin Kuang concluded:

This was due to bad karma accrued from time immemorial, in particular the karma of stinginess in giving advice, seeing people headed toward death but not warning them. These inauspicious signs are indications of impending rebirth among hungry ghosts.

Buddha Sakyamuni once said to his disciple, Ananda, "Some people perform good deeds all their lives, but at the time of death are reborn in the hells; others create bad karma all their lives, yet at the time of death are reborn in the heavens. Do you know the reason why?" Ananda said, "Great Master, please teach us the causes." The Lord Buddha said, "When those who perform good deeds are reborn in the hells, it is because their good karma in this life has not matured, while their bad karma from time immemorial has come to fruition. Conversely, when those who create bad karma in this lifetime are reborn in the heavens, it is because their bad karma in this life has not reached maturity, while their good karma from past lives has borne fruit. Good and bad karma interact for many lifetimes before emerging. As with debts, the most important is repaid first. Therefore the cultivator should be diligent in daily life, and not indifferent or lazy."

Thus, upon reflection, we can see that the practitioner seeking rebirth in the Pure Land should, in daily life, diligently apply himself to recitation. This will facilitate the development of one-pointedness of mind at the time of death. For this reason, if we do not routinely achieve pure recitation, we should make it a point to attend many retreats.