General Discussion of Testing Conditions

62) Causes of Adversity

Elder Masters of the past have made this observation:

When vowing to perform lofty, virtuous deeds or to begin cultivation, the practitioner usually encounters many obstacles that test his will and challenge his endurance.

There are four stages in the lives of monks and nuns when they can usually expect to face obstacles: when cutting their hair and entering the monastery, when receiving the precepts, when studying the sutras, particularly Mahayana sutras, and when setting everything aside to devote themselves to cultivation. Some, because they have created good conditions in the past or are especially diligent and persevering, may easily pass through the first three stages to reach the fourth. However, it is difficult to avoid obstructing conditions when cultivation reaches a fairly high level.

For example, while an Elder Master of the recent past was diligently engaged in meditation, his evil karma suddenly manifested itself, making him blind, deaf and mute for three long weeks. Reviewing accounts of the past, this author recalls the story of a layman who built a hut in a quiet, out of the way place to practice meditation. He brought along a helper to relieve him of daily chores. At the beginning, he sat in meditation for periods of one to two hours. Then he progressively increased the time, until toward the end, he could sit up to three full days and nights, remaining all the while in deep concentration. At one point, he was in samadhi for twenty-one days without food or water. The helper, noticing that the layman had been seated for such a long time, approached him and saw that his breathing had "stopped." His chest, moreover, showed no sign of movement, as it had on previous occasions. Not realizing that this was the state of profound samadhi and thinking that the layman was dead, he buried him alive.

Another case: there was a Pure Land Master who practiced assiduously, reciting the Buddha's name up to one hundred thousand times each day. Thanks to such diligence, auspicious signs would appear wherever he went. One day, a vagrant appeared, requesting permission to stay overnight at the temple. The monk glanced at the man and told his young assistant, "This man has the features of a criminal; let him eat his fill and tell him to go elsewhere." However, the novice, being compassionate, was swayed by the man's repeated supplications and did not have the heart to follow his Master's instructions. Sure enough, a few days later, the man slipped furtively into the master's room in the middle of the night, broke his arms and legs and killed him. He then stole a few things from the temple and disappeared.

The ancients have commented that such occurrences are the result of "fixed karma" and are virtually unavoidable. Cultivators usually face three types of obstacles -- the Obstacle of Afflictions, the Obstacle of Karma and the Obstacle of Retribution -with the Obstacle of Karma being the most dangerous. Yet, nothing usually happens when the practitioner first begins to cultivate, while the deeper his cultivation, the more obstacles he is bound to encounter. Why is this so? It is because as common people living in the Dharma-Ending Age, most of us, naturally, have heavy obstructing conditions. If not, we would have been reborn in the Dharma Semblance Age or the Perfect Dharma Age. However, it is not cultivation that gives rise to obstacles but rather a phenomenon known as "reshuffling of karma." Heavy karma is commuted into light karma, future karma is "reshuffled" into current karma. Let us suppose that we have ten parts of bad karma but that through cultivation we manage to eradicate seven parts, so that only three parts remain. Instead of having to repay that karma in the future, thanks to our cultivation we may only have to endure light retribution in this very life, and thus be free to attain liberation swiftly.

For example, in one of his previous lives, an Elder Precept Master had been a monarch, who had waged many wars to conquer neighboring kingdoms. Having committed such great karma of killing, he was destined to descend into the hells once his residual merits were exhausted. However, thanks to the Master's earnest cultivation and propagation of the Dharma, his evil karma was commuted into daily bouts of seizures, which made him feel as though many invisible swords were stabbing and slashing his body. This went on for two years before the disease disappeared.

Buddhist treatises also mention the case of a layman who had also committed the karma of killing and was due to suffer rebirth as a hog for seven lifetimes. However, thanks to the fact that he was a vegetarian diligently practicing Buddha Recitation, he was, in his old age, stabbed seven times and killed by marauding soldiers. Thus he repaid his evil karma all at once. In summary, these occurrences are commonly referred to as the state of "bunching together of karma."

However, this does not mean that all cultivators have to suffer retribution for their past karma. In some cases, the more they practice, the more they witness auspicious signs and the more they are at peace and in harmony, with no obstacles in their way. This is because these practitioners did not commit very heavy transgressions in their past lives, or else they have already cultivated for some time and possess many good roots. The majority of practitioners, however, are likely to stumble over some obstacles, major or minor.

Apart from the obstacles caused by external factors, there are three other causes of karmic obstructions:

According to the Mind-Only School, various evil and wholesome karmic seeds are stored randomly in our Alaya consciousness. When we recite the Buddha's name or meditate, we accumulate the seeds of transcendental virtue, and therefore, evil karmic seeds have to emerge. For example, if a dense forest full of wild beasts is cleared for habitation, trees and shrubs are cut down, causing these beasts to flee out of the forest. The development of afflictions and obstacles from evil karmic seeds is similar. This is called "the reaction of evil karmic seeds."

There are cultivators who practice without fully understanding the Dharma, not realizing that the manifestations of the mind and the environment are illusory nor discovering what is true and what is false. They therefore have wrong views. Because of this, they develop thoughts of attachment, happiness, love, worry and fear, creating obstacles for themselves when they are faced with objects and conditions within themselves or in the outside world.

Take the case of a man who follows a map hoping to find a gold mine. The path that he takes crosses high mountains, deep ravines, empty open stretches and dense forests, an itinerary naturally requiring much labor, hardship and adversity. If his mind is not steady, and he does not adapt himself to the circumstances and his own strength, he is bound to retrogress. Alternatively, he may abandon his search, stop at some temporary location, or even lose his life en route. The path of cultivation is the same. Although the practitioner may follow the sutras, if he is not flexible and patient, ready to change according to his own strength and circumstances, and if his determination is weak, he will certainly fail. This obstacle, in the end, is created by himself alone.

The above summarizes some of the causes of the obstructions faced by cultivators.

63) Demonic Testing Conditions

The karmic conditions that test and create obstacles for the practitioner have many different manifestations. I will summarize them in six points:

1. Internal "testing conditions"

During cultivation, some people suddenly develop thoughts of greed, anger, lust, jealousy, scorn or doubt. They may also suffer delusion, leading to drowsiness and sleep. These thoughts sometimes arise with great intensity, making the Practioners feel annoyed and upset over, at times, trivial matters. Sometimes auspicious and evil events alternate in his dreams. The specific details of these events are too numerous to be described. Faced with these occurrences, the practitioner should realize that these karmic marks have appeared as a consequence of his cultivation. He should immediately understand that all karmic occurrences and marks are illusory and dream-like; he should foster right thought and they will disappear one after another. Otherwise, he will certainly be swayed, lose his concentration and retrogress. The ancients used to say in this respect:

Do not fear an early manifestation of evil karma, fear only a late Awakening.

Sometimes the practitioner, in the midst of intense cultivation, suddenly becomes confused and weary, which is a state difficult to fight off. At that very moment, he should arise and bow to the Buddhas or circumambulate the altar. Or else, he may take a temporary break, read a few pages of a book or rearrange some flowers, waiting for his mind to calm down before returning to the altar to resume recitation. Otherwise, the more he tries to focus his mind, the more scattered it becomes. This is a case of flexibility in cultivation. It is similar to the situation of a commander-in-chief facing an invading army as powerful as a river overflowing its banks. In such a situation, the general should stay on the defensive, consolidating his position, rather than charging into battle.

Some practitioners suddenly feel solitary and isolated when reciting the Buddha's name like a single-note musical piece, and grow melancholy and bored. In such cases, they should not hesitate to add mantra or sutra recitation or visualization to their practice.

By way of illustration, I shall recount a few incidents for the benefit of the reader. One day a laywoman visited the author, crying in anguish as she told him that whenever she engaged in Buddha or Sutra Recitation for more than half an hour, she would fall asleep without realizing it. At times she would even urinate right in front of the altar. Therefore, fearing evil karma, she ceased to practice and abandoned all cultivation. I advised her to concentrate on practicing repentance for a while. As expected, in time she was free of those karmic manifestations. Furthermore, she would view numerous snail shells in her dreams, and, as she broke them open, she would see a lotus seed in each shell. The laywoman was afflicted with heavy delusions and the shells were manifestations of the karma of delusion. Breaking them open and seeing lotus seeds symbolized eliminating delusion and creating the causes and conditions of Awakening and rebirth in the Pure Land.

Another story: A novice once told the author that in his dreams, from time to time he would see some thirty to forty persons armed with knives and spears coming at him, striking and slashing him all over. In his daily practice, he would diligently recite mantras, alternating between the Great Compassion Dharani and the Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara Mantra, without success, as each time he recited either mantra a few times, he would develop a headache which lasted the whole day. He sought medical treatment to relieve these symptoms, to no avail. Knowing that his karma was heavy, the novice vowed to bow to the three thousand Buddhas in repentance. However, when he entered the main Buddha hall, he saw a huge, tall, fierce-looking man, who approached him and pushed him to the floor, preventing him from bowing. For this reason, he came to see the author, weeping in anguish, and asked, "the sutras teach repentance and cultivation to extinguish bad karma, but if you are prevented from repenting and cultivating, what else are you expected to do,"

The author pondered for a moment. He reflected that the novice must have committed a heavy "killing" karma, and been responsible for many deaths in past lives. Moreover, he knew that the Great Compassion Dharani and the Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara Mantra had a powerful, beneficial effect, while vowing to bow to the three thousand Buddhas was an all-encompassing, lofty resolution. In this case, however, the novice had made the mistake of just praying and thinking of himself alone, forgetting those whom he had wronged in past lifetimes. Moreover, he was not being flexible in cultivation. This is not unlike a debilitated person suffering a heavy bout of influenza. He should take a mild analgesic, to recover little by little; instead, he begins to ingest a powerful antibiotic. This, of course, provokes a strong reaction which overwhelms him. Therefore, the author advised the novice to bow each night while reciting the short repentance liturgy, and then kneel to recite the rebirth mantra twenty-one times. After that, he should repeat the Buddha's name some five hundred times, seeking repentance, and transfer the merit to all whom he had wronged in previous existences, so that they, too, could swiftly escape the cycle of Birth and Death. He should continue this regimen for some time, and, if nothing untoward occurred, gradually increase the number of recitations. The novice followed the author's advice and as expected, his predicament was resolved.

These cases reflect internal karmic manifestations. If the practitioner does not understand them and eliminate them with flexibility, they will surely develop into dangerous obstacles.

2. External testing conditions

These are external obstacles creating difficult conditions which can make the practitioner retrogress. These obstacles include heat, noise, dirt and pollution, freezing weather, or an outbreak of mosquitoes and other insects. When faced with these conditions, the cultivator should be flexible and not become attached to forms and appearances. He should just seek tranquility and peace of mind.

For instance, in sweltering heat, he should not mind donning a light robe to bow to the Buddhas, and then retiring to a shady spot outdoors to recite the Buddha's name. At the end of the session, he can return to the altar to make his vows and transfer the merit. If the practitioner happens to be living in a mosquito-infested area, he can sit inside a net while reciting the Buddha's name. As another example, in northern climes, where the weather can be freezing, monks and nuns must dress carefully in socks, shoes and hats when going to the Buddha hall to recite sutras.

As another example, some destitute laymen, living from hand to mouth, going to work early and coming home late, pursued by creditors, tattered, hungry and cold, with sickly wives and malnourished children, can hardly afford a decent place to practice. In such situations, cultivation is truly difficult. The practitioner should redouble his efforts and have the patience and endurance of the beggar woman in one of our previous stories in order to succeed.

Other people, with heavy karmic obstructions, do not experience untoward occurrences as long as they do not cultivate, but as soon as they are ready to bow before the altar, they develop headaches, grow dizzy, and are afflicted with all kinds of ailments. Or else, they may receive sudden visitors or encounter unusual events. Faced with these occurrences, the practitioner should redouble his efforts and find ways to cultivate flexibly.

These ways depend on circumstances; they cannot all be described. One point, however, should always be kept in mind: when faced with difficult circumstances, pay attention to the mind, and do not cling to appearances and forms. The evil, turbid Saha World has always been full of suffering and tears. Without perseverance and forbearance, it is very difficult to succeed in cultivation.

3. Testing conditions caused by adverse circumstances

Practitioners on the path of cultivation are at times impeded by adverse circumstances. Some are prevented from cultivating or frustrated in their practice by parents, brothers and sisters, wives, husbands or children. Others suddenly develop a chronic disease, from which they never completely recover. Still others are continually pursued by opponents and enemies looking for ways to harm them. Others are slandered or meet with misfortunes which land them in prison, subject to torture, or they are sent into exile. Others, again, victims of jealous competition or calumny, lose all peace of mind. This last occurrence is the most frequent. Such cases occur because of the power of evil karma. The ancients had a saying:

There are instances of sudden praise and unexpected honors which are undeserved, and other instances, not deserving of blame, which create major opportunities for censure and contempt.

The author will recount a few minor incidents to demonstrate this truth.

Early in this century during the French colonial period, there was an abbot who was honored by the Emperor of Vietnam with the title of High Priest. His temple was also given a special honorific name. Thereafter, he was accompanied by soldiers and banners wherever he went and received special treatment, such as being carried on a hammock on and off ferry boats. A local tramp, seeing this, was greatly chagrined and began to curse the abbot. He then declared that on the occasion of the Ullambana Festival [Bon festival or Vu-lan] he would go to the temple and rail against the Master in front of his entire congregation. On the appointed day, the tramp, having gotten drunk, removed his shirt and went to the temple with torso bared. Right at that moment, however, the abbot happened to be busy praying for a number of turtles which were about to be released in the lotus pond. The tramp, unexpectedly touched by this scene, went home and called upon his friends to meet at the temple to become disciples of the abbot. From that day on, wherever he went, he would praise the abbot as a gentle monk of great merit and virtue. He would even explain away the special treatment accorded the abbot, including the instances of being carried by hammock, as fully justified by his great merit.

Another incident took place not long ago. Two laymen from far away came to visit an Elder Master who was from their village and whom they had known "way back when." They reached the temple about fifteen minutes after the Master had gone out. They questioned his young attendant, who said that the Master had just left. When they inquired of others at the temple, the latter, unaware of the Master's departure, replied that they had just seen him. Because of these contradictory responses, the laymen grew suspicious, thinking that the Master did not wish to meet with them. Thereupon, they left the temple, never to return. From that time on, they would criticize the Master wherever they went, accusing him of lacking virtue.

In truth, the conduct of the abbot in our first story was not praiseworthy, yet he was praised. The inadvertent action of the Elder Master in our second story did not warrant any criticism, but he was misunderstood and slandered. These two occurrences are commonly explained as chance events. In Buddhism, however, they are seen as the results of good or bad karma. If this applies even to minor occurrences, all other adverse events can similarly be traced to past or current karma. When faced with such occurrences, the practitioner should repent and exercise patience and forbearance. He should not grow dejected or complain, lest he retrogress on the Way.

4. Testing conditions caused by "favorable circumstances"

Some practitioners do not encounter adverse circumstances, but on the contrary, meet with favorable circumstances, such as having their wishes and prayers fulfilled. However, such successes belong to the category of "binding" conditions, rather than conditions conducive to liberation. Thus, just as some practitioners set their minds to peaceful cultivation, they suddenly encounter opportunities leading to fame and fortune, "beautiful forms and enchanting sounds." Or else, family members, relatives and supporters seek to follow and serve them on their retreats. For example, a monk who has made up his mind to cultivate in earnest may suddenly be requested to become the abbot of a large temple complex. Or else, a layman may unexpectedly receive a letter inviting him to become a minister heading such and such a government department, or offering him the chance to participate in a business venture which promises a quick profit. These instances, all of which are advantageous under mundane circumstances, are seductive to the cultivator, and may gradually lead to other complications. Ultimately, he I may forget his high aspirations and retrogress. As the saying goes, more lives are lost in a flood than in a fire.

Thus, on the path of cultivation, favorable circumstances should be feared more than unfavorable ones. Unfavorable events sometimes awaken the practitioner, making it easier for him to escape thoughts of attachment and redouble his efforts in cultivation. Favorable events, on the other hand, may make him quietly retrogress, without being aware of it. When he suddenly awakens, he may discover that he has slipped far down the slope. The ancients have said:

Even two or three favorable circumstances may cause one to be deluded until old age.

This saying is truly a ringing bell to wake cultivators up. Therefore, the challenge of favorable events is very subtle -- practitioners need to pay close attention to them.

5. Testing conditions of a clear, explicit nature

These are clear "testing conditions" which occur right before the practitioner's eyes, without his realizing their implications For instance, a monk of relatively mediocre talents and virtues becomes the object of adulation, praised for great merit, virtue and talent. He then develops a big ego and looks down on everyone, giving rise to thoughtless action resulting in his downfall. Or else we have the case of a layman with the potential to progress far along the Way. However he is blocked and opposed by others, who advise him, for example, that vegetarianism will make him sick, or that overly diligent mantra and Buddha Recitation will "unleash his evil karma," causing him to encounter many untoward events. He then develops a cautious, anxious attitude retrogressing in his determination to achieve the Way.

There are also circumstances in which the practitioner realizes that to advance further is to invite failure and defeat, yet, out of ambition or pride, he continues all the same. Or else, even though the cultivator knows that external circumstances are illusory and dream-like, he cannot let go of them, and thus brings great suffering upon himself. For example, there was once a monk who spent a good deal of effort and money hiring stonecutters, carpenters and masons to build a large temple complex on top of a mountain. As soon as the temple was completed, the monk, by then completely exhausted, became gravely ill. Before passing away, he requested his disciples to carry him around the temple on a hammock, as he touched each and every stone, weeping and lamenting![72]

Another story concerns a Vietnamese monk who was of fairly high rank within the Buddhist hierarchy. He was honest by nature, liberal and broadminded, given to practicing charity. However he had a shortcoming -- pride and conceit. Several local politicians, having noticed this, went to see him along with a fortune teller feigning a courtesy visit. During the ensuing conversation, the fortune teller took a glance at the Master and praised him for his "marks of merit," which would surely bring him many supporters, while his fame and renown would spread far and wide. He added that if the monk enjoyed political and social activities, he would surely become a great leader. For example, he would easily be elected Prime Minister, if he were a layman. Hearing this, the monk replied with a few words of modesty; however, his face exhibited extreme delight. Seizing the occasion, the politicians lamented the current period, expressed compassion for the sufferings of the people and the declining state of the country. They then gradually persuaded him to join a political movement. The result was a great deal of pain and anguish for the monk over an extended period of time.

This story demonstrates that the easy-going and credulous are often duped. When they have not eliminated greed, it is easy for others to deceive them with money, sex and fame. It also applies to those who have a temper and too much pride. Easily aroused, they bring a great deal of trouble and anguish upon themselves. These are the trappings and the pitfalls of the outside world -- which are also encountered within the Order. I bring them up here as a warning to fellow cultivators. If they are not careful, they will become entangled in the cycle of obstructing karma. The practitioner should develop a clear understanding of these adverse conditions and resolve to progress along a path consonant with the Way. Only then will he be able to overcome these obstacles.

6. Silent, hidden testing conditions

This refers to silent challenges, inconspicuous in nature. If the practitioner is not skillful in taking notice, they are very difficult to recognize and defeat. Some people, who may have recited the Buddha's name diligently in the beginning, grow worried and discouraged by deteriorating family finances or repeated failures in whatever they undertake, and abandon cultivation. Others see their affairs quietly progressing in a favorable way; they then become attached to profit and gain, forgetting all about the Way. Others diligently engage in Buddha and Sutra Recitation at the beginning, but because they fail to examine themselves, the afflictions within their minds increase with each passing day. They then grow lethargic and lazy, to the point where they do not recite a single time for months, or even years. Still others, although their lives are progressing normally, see their living conditions continuously fluctuating with changing external circumstances. With their minds always in confusion and directed toward the outside, they unwittingly neglect recitation or abandon it altogether.

All the above are the fluctuating effects of good and bad karma, which have the power to influence the practitioner and retard his cultivation. They are therefore called "trying, testing conditions." When first taking up cultivation, every practitioner has a seed of good intentions. However, as they encounter karmic conditions, one after another, both internal and external, ninety-nine cultivators out of a hundred will fail. The ancients had a saying:

In the first year of cultivation, Buddha Amitabha is right before our eyes; the second year, He has already returned West; by the time the third year rolls around, if someone inquires about Him or requests recitation [at a funeral, for example], payment is required before a few words are spoken or a few verses recited.