How to Clear up Obstructing Conditions

64) Advice of Ancient Masters

When first entering the Order, the author heard a saying, handed down by word of mouth, which contains many hidden meanings and implications. However, he cannot vouch for its authenticity or provenance. The saying is as follows:

If the Buddha is one foot tall, the demon is ten feet tall; if the Buddha is ten feet tall, the demon stands just above the Buddha's head. However, if the Buddha grows taller still and exceeds the demon in height, the demon will surrender to the Buddha.

Reflecting on this story, the practitioner should ensure that his own Buddha is taller than the demon. Otherwise, he will be subverted and vanquished. Therefore, those cultivators who fail and retrogress should not fault external circumstances or lay blame on others. They should only blame their own Buddha, for being weaker than the demon. If they persist in holding fast to their vows and determination, demonic obstacles will disappear.

The Patriarch Bodhidharma once outlined four practices which Buddhist disciples should take to heart. They are summarized below.

1. The Practice of Compensating for Previous Wrongs

From time immemorial we have been lost along the six Evil Paths. In each lifetime we have incurred karmic debts, large and small, in connection with either love-attachment or hatred. These are truly countless. Although our efforts in cultivation dissolve part of this karma, it is not entirely eliminated, and must be gradually repaid. Thus, someone who is always ill, or is disabled, has created heavy karma of killing in past lives. Those who are the targets of a great deal of slander and calumny were, in earlier times, intelligent and influential people who, proud of their good fortune, despised others. Or else, they created the karma of vilifying the Dharma or the Order. Those who are always lacking in means lacked compassion and failed to practice charity in past lives. Those who must endure banishment, imprisonment, bondage and torture, were, in past lives, in the habit of chaining, beating or imprisoning sentient beings. Those who are lonely and isolated, lacking supportive friends, did not have bonds of affinity with other sentient beings in the past.

These karmas are countless. If today we encounter animosity and opposition to our cultivation, we should remain calm and forbearing, accepting that we must repay our karmic debts without chagrin or complaint. In the wasteland of Birth and Death, all sentient beings have been related at one time or another, sharing the same table, living in the same house -- as family members or as friends. Therefore, of all karmic obstructions, those of killing sentient beings and of love-attachment are the deepest.[73] The ancients have lamented:

In the vast ocean of karma, love-attachment is the most difficult thing to sever. In the great wide world, killing sentient beings [for food] is the most common transgression!

In East Asian folklore, there is the tale of a famous poet who journeyed to the mountains during the Mid-Autumn Festival in search of inspiration. In the moonlit night, he witnessed the Immortals "mount the wind and ride the fog," as they gathered around a huge marble table laden with succulent fruits and rare wines, playing musical instruments and reciting poetry ... Among the fairies was a maiden by the name of "Mountain Moon," with lovely, ethereal features and a gracious, enchanting voice. The poet, eaveasdropping, was moved to the point of confusion. Suddenly, an elderly Immortal, having savored his cup of wine, began to recite verses:

Those of common destiny, Meet at the Assembly of Immortals; I consent to the poet Wedding Mountain Moon!

Hearing this stanza, the poet reluctantly emerged from hiding and joined the assembly. The elderly Immortal decreed that the young maiden had a karmic affinity with the earthly poet, and that they should live together for thirteen years. He thereupon ordered that the register of Immortals be brought over, and crossed her name out. After thirteen years of life together, her earthly life having come to an end, Mountain Moon rendered herself invisible and flew back to the mountains to pursue her cultivation. Thus, even Immortals are within the cycle of Birth and Death, causes and conditions.

Regarding the karma of killing, both Elder Master Arya Simha (the Twenty-fourth Indian Patriarch of Zen) and Elder Master Hui K'o (the Second Chinese Patriarch), despite having achieved Enlightenment, still had to repay their debts by calmly submitting to violent death.[74] Take also the case of Maudgalyayana, a well-known disciple of Sakyamuni Buddha, with the highest spiritual power among Arhats. Because he wished to repay his previous karmic debts, he let a group of bandits kill him with sticks and stones and bury his body in an excrement pit. The Buddha, moved by this scene, ordered his disciples to unearth the body, cleanse and bathe it with perfume, then cremate it and retrieve the relics.[75]

On the path of cultivation, no one knows who is really perfect. Thus, we should neither be complacent nor look down on others. Because the karmic debts of sentient beings are countless, sometimes they must repay one layer after another. Some cultivators seem to be free of karmic debts, but this may not be the case. It may just be that the time and conditions for repayment have not yet arrived. To eliminate evil karma, we should be patient, practice repentance, and strive to cultivate. Nguyen-Du, a famous Vietnamese poet of recent times, had perhaps deeply assimilated the Buddhas' teaching on karma and the possible transmutation of cause and effect when he wrote:

Having committed evil karma, 
Let us not blame Heaven for being near or far, 
While Providence plays a part, 
So do we ...

These words are generally recognized as a reflection of the truth.

2. The Practice of Adapting to Conditions

This means that the practitioner should adapt flexibly to his situation and conditions. For example, living in conditions of wealth or poverty, he lives in accordance with conditions of wealth or poverty. The same applies to conditions of underdevelopment or prosperity, adversity or good fortune, loss or gain, right or wrong ...

Contentment with conditions means being wealthy without being arrogant, being destitute and beset by misfortune without being sad and depressed or altering one's determination. Why is this so? It is because instances of prosperity, decline, misfortune, and/or blessings are all illusory.[76] They appear for a while according to our karma and then disappear. It is really not worthwhile to become attached, discouraged or sad.

Confucius and his disciples were once surrounded by rebel soldiers. They had been short of food for seven days, yet Confucius was happily playing the lute. His leading disciple inquired, "How is it, Master, that in the face of death you can still smile happily?" Confucius replied, "Whatever misfortunes befall a man after he has done his best to prevent them, can only be the will of Heaven. Why, then, bemoan them and weep?" Confucius may be considered a sage conversant with the will of heaven and earth -- always calm and clearsighted, never bewildered or wavering, regardless of the circumstances. The practitioner should be likewise, realizing that wealth and property, family and friends, are all the result of illusory, temporary conditions. He should not be unduly attached to or preoccupied with them, if he is to progress along the path to liberation.

3. The Practice of Being in Accord with the Dharma

"Dharma" here means "True Thusness Dharma." For Pure Land practitioners, it represents the Buddha Recitation Samadhi. For Zen followers, whether they are walking, standing, reclining or sitting, the mind should always accord with True Thusness, just as water blends with water and empty space is one with the atmosphere. The Pure Land practitioner is the same: his mind is always focused on the words "Amitabha Buddha."

The ancients have said:

If a practitioner is not in samadhi for one instant, at that moment, he is no different from a corpse.

This is because if a cultivator's mind is scattered, he has been effectively "captured" by worldly Dusts. Once captured and dragged away, his "Dharma-Body Wisdom-Life" is lost and gone. On the other hand, if the practitioner is always focused on the Buddha's name, his mind will gradually become silent, still and illuminated, in unison with Buddha Amitabha. He is thus assured of rebirth in the Pure Land.

4. The Practice of Non-Seeking

This refers to the pure practice of not seeking after anything. All dharmas are illusory and dream-like, born and destroyed, destroyed and reborn. What is there which is true, everlasting and worth seeking? Furthermore, worldly phenomena are all relative; in calamities are found blessings, in blessings there is misfortune. Therefore, those who have wisdom are always calm and unruffled, their minds undisturbed in all situations.

For example, when a monk cultivates alone in a deserted hut, his living conditions are miserable and lonely and he has few visitors. Although his mundane conditions may be wanting, his cultivation is diligent. After a while, if virtuous people learn of his situation and come with offerings, his hut will gradually grow into a large temple, filled with monks and nuns. By then, while his blessings may be great, his cultivation has effectively declined, because his mind is now preoccupied with external events. The truth of misfortunes and blessings, mutually dependent, is similar. Therefore, ideally, the cultivator should seek neither untoward occurrences and rebirth as a sentient being nor auspicious occurrences and Buddhahood.

Some may ask, "If we recite the Buddhas's name seeking neither rebirth in the Pure Land nor the ultimate blessings and wisdom of Buddhahood, how can we progress in our cultivation?" Answer: It is because Buddhahood is True Emptiness. The more we seek it, the farther we are from it, and the more likely we are to lose it. Thus, the Lotus Sutrastates:

Even if countless Arhats, Pratyeka Buddhas, and other sages, up to the level of Non-Regressing Bodhisattvas, were to ponder and seek it for innumerable kalpas, they still would not be able to see or understand the true wisdom of the Buddhas.

As far as rebirth in the Pure Land is concerned, the practitioner's method is to seek yet not seek, not to seek yet seek. This paradox resembles the case of a bright and clear mirror. When an image appears before the mirror, the mirror reflects it; when there is no image, the mirror remains empty and still. To cling to sight, knowledge and seeking is to "stray" into deluded thought. On the other hand, not to see, know or seek is to be no different from inanimate wood or stone! Speaking more broadly, the practice of non-seeking encompasses all "three doors of liberation": emptiness, signlessness and wishlessness.

If the cultivator can follow these four practices taught by the Patriarch Bodhidharma, he will be able to remain calm and unruffled in the face of all obstructing conditions.

65) How to Ensure Non-Retrogression of the Mind

A Pure Land treatise on the Buddha Recitation Samadhi has explained the "ten practices of non-seeking" to eliminate the ten major obstacles encountered by practitioners on the path to Enlightenment. These ten major obstacles encompass all obstructions and impediments. Therefore if we follow the ten non-seeking practices, all obstacles will disappear. These ten practices are:

1. We should not wish that our bodies be always free of diseases and ailments, because a disease-free body is prone to desire and lust. This leads to precept-breaking and retrogression.

2. We should not wish that our lives be free of all misfortune and adversity, lest we be prone to pride and arrogance. This leads us to be disdainful and overbearing towards everyone else.

3. We should not wish that our mind cultivation be free of all obstacles because, in such a case, our knowledge would be exceptional. This leads to the transgression of thinking that we have awakened, when in fact we have not.

4. We should not wish that our cultivation be free of demonic obstacles, because our vows would not then be firm and enduring. This leads to the transgression of thinking that we have attained Enlightenment, when in fact we have not.

5. We should not wish that our plans and activities meet with easy success, for we will then be inclined to thoughts of contempt and disrespect. This leads to the transgression of pride and conceit, thinking ourselves to be filled with virtues and talent.

6. We should not wish for gain in our social relations. This leads us to violate moral principles and see only the mistakes of others.

7. We should not wish that everyone, at all times, be on good terms and in harmony with us. This leads to pride and conceit and seeing only our own side of every issue.

8. We should not wish to be repaid for our good deeds, lest we develop a calculating mind. This leads to greed for fame and fortune.

9. We should not wish to share in opportunities for profit, lest the mind of delusion arise. This leads us to lose our good name and reputation for the sake of unwholesome gain.

10. When subject to injustice and wronged, we should not necessarily seek the ability to refute and rebut, as doing so indicates that the mind of self-and-others has not been severed. This will certainly lead to more resentment and hatred.

Thus, we can see that life, while full of obstacles and impediments, can be summarized in ten points:

  • Sickness of the body
  • Misfortune and adversity
  • Hindrances and impediments to cultivation
  • Demonic obstacles to fulfillment of vows
  • Failure in activities and undertakings
  • Indifferent or treacherous friends
  • Opposition from many quarters
  • Hostility in return for good deeds
  • Loss of wealth and reputation
  • Subjection to injustice and wrongs.

Thus, in merit there is misfortune, in misfortune there is merit, in freedom there are obstructions, in obstructions there is freedom. Realizing this, cultivators in the past have used "obstacles as conditions for progress." They have said, "If others do not bother and disturb us, success in the Way is difficult to achieve." This is because contempt, slander, calamity, injustice and all other obstacles are the "yardsticks to measure the practitioner's level of attainment." Remaining patient and calm in the face of such impediments, the cultivator demonstrates that he has reached a high level of practice. If it were not for these obstacles, how could his level of attainment be measured?

In truth, it is not that the practitioner seeks obstacles and impediments, but that he must be ever-vigilant, for the Way is full of dangerous and unforeseen events. He should prepare himself for all eventualities so that when faced with actual obstacles, he can remain calm and unruffled. An Elder Master once said:

Only those with wisdom and strong determination can apply these ten practices. As long as they meditate, are enlightened and hold steadfastly to these ten practices, even if they enter the realms of the demons, the demons cannot make them retrogress. Even though they may be in the realms of form, sound, fame, fortune, love, hate, right, wrong, prosperity, decline, success, failure ... they will still be calm and at peace.

Thus, if we are deluded, all good and favorable circumstances can become conditions obstructing the Way. If we truly understand that all disease, suffering and demonic obstacles are inherently empty and false, lacking true substance, they cannot harm us in any way. The wise should apply the above ten points in the following way:

  • Turn suffering and disease into good medicine
  • Turn misfortune and calamity into liberation
  • Turn obstacles into freedom and ease
  • Turn demons into Dharma friends
  • Turn trying events into peace and joy
  • Turn bad friends into helpful associates
  • Turn opponents into "fields of flowers"
  • Treat ingratitude as worn-out shoes to be discarded
  • Turn frugality into power and wealth
  • Turn injustice and wrongs into conditions for progress along the Way.

We can see, then, that good or bad, success or failure always depends on the mind. Therefore, while beginning cultivators are very leery of obstacles, high-level masters are at times eager to face them. I will relate a few anecdotes in this regard.

The Second Patriarch Hui K'o, having experienced Awakening under the Patriarch Bodhidharma, left for an undisclosed destination to work as a hired hand, cutting wood, pounding rice, guarding other people's homes. When he was asked, "Why are you lowering yourself by performing such menial tasks, you who are next in succession as Patriarch?" he replied, "I want to subdue my mind; what difference does my occupation make?"

Another anecdote: A famous Immortal, having achieved success through self-effort, "escaped" his mortal body and went to visit the Heavens. Once there, his mind was moved at the sight of fairies with exquisite, ethereal features, beyond human description. The Fairy Queen reprimanded him sternly, "Although you have attained the Immortal Way, you have not purged your thoughts of lust and desire. How can you be worthy of joining the ranks of True Immortals?"

Ashamed, our protagonist returned immediately to the human realm. He then used his spiritual powers to transform stones into gold. After filling his pockets with the precious metal, he entered a brothel to consort with six or seven of the youngest and most lissome prostitutes. For two years, he would lie next to their nude bodies, training himself to overcome all thoughts of lust and desire. When he knew that he had succeeded, he asked the ladies to prepare a cake batter and place it on his stomach. He then proceeded to bake it, using his internal body heat concentrated at a point just below the navel. He then treated them to the cake and went on to expound the Immortal teachings, before "riding the clouds" back to the Heavens.

I shall next recount a few more stories, by way of comparison.

A certain nun vowed to hold a three months' retreat, to rid herself of transgressions. She followed the cultivation practice of "purifying speech" by taking a vow of complete silence. One evening, as she was seated by the window fingering the rosary and reciting the Buddha's name, a young novice saw her. He immediately turned toward his companion and told him that the nun had heavy karma and numerous character flaws. When she heard this, her face reddened in anger, but she remained calm and continued her recitation. A moment later, the novice added, "I have been watching her and saw her in bed with a neighbor." The nun, no longer able to contain her anger, shouted "Be sure to get the neighbor's name, as I am not going to let you get away with this story." The novice laughed loudly and replied, "I purposely wanted to test you. You have taken a vow of silence. Why are you speaking now? Moreover, the aim of purifying speech is really to purify the mind. Since you cannot purify your mind, what is the point of purifying speech?" The nun was suddenly awakened. Ashamed, she kept silent.

Another anecdote was related to the author by an abbot, when they met on the grounds of the Institute of Higher Buddhist Studies in Vietnam. There was once a Zen Master who was fairly diligent in his meditation practice. At each sitting, he would remain in concentration for six or seven hours without a break. The Master, perhaps out of fear of attachment to worldly conditions, would, as a rule, shun the company of women, to the point where at the end of their visits, he would fetch water and wash the spot where they had sat. After a while, he moved to the Ten Stupa Temple, located in a sparsely populated, mountainous area of Central Vietnam. One morning, he suddenly let out a scream and ran from the meditation hut. The abbot inquired and was told, "I was deep in samadhi when, suddenly, a beautiful woman grabbed me by the neck."

That same evening, the monk became ill. He remained in bed and asked to see the abbot. When the latter arrived, the monk said to him, "You had better get me a wife in a hurry; otherwise, starting from tonight I will not accept any food and will starve to death." The abbot sent for a trusted laywoman, to discuss the matter with her. "Let me go home and tell my young housemaid to pretend to become the Master's wife," she suggested. "After he begins to eat again and recovers, we will see what to do next."

Morning came and the abbot, accompanied by the maid, visited the sick monk and said, "I have settled the issue. This young woman has agreed to become your wife." Upon hearing this, the Zen monk opened his eyes, looked at the maid, held and caressed her hands for awhile, and expired.

From the above stories, we can see that the nun wanted to eliminate afflictions, but she followed external forms only. In the case of the Second Zen Patriarch, he understood that all afflictions were empty, grounded in attachment to the self.[77] Therefore, he took the appearance of a poor and lowly laborer accepting orders and insults, to test his mind and cultivate further. As far as the Immortal is concerned, wishing to eliminate thoughts of attachment and lust, he courageously entered a brothel to cultivate and still his mind. As to the Zen monk in our last story, because he had not yet realized that form is emptiness and emptiness is form, he was unduly fearful of female allurements. Still heavily attached to forms and appearances, in the end he was harmed by the "demon of lust."

In conclusion, practitioners endowed with wisdom not only do not avoid obstacles, they use impediments to progress in cultivation. Those cultivators are no longer attached to forms and appearances, because appearances are merely expedients, while the mind represents the Ultimate.

66) Afterthoughts

In the Dharma-Ending Age, many people recite the Buddha's name, but few achieve results. This is because they lack earnest vows and deep faith. In a discourse on the character of the ideal gentleman, Mencius once wrote:

Wealth and power do not make him proud or lustful; poverty and want do not cause him to alter his resolution; force cannot make him yield and submit.

Even the ideal gentleman should be thus -- not to mention those who cultivate the Dharma and practice Buddha Recitation, seeking to transcend this world and enter the "stream of the sages ..."

The Pure Land method stems from the great compassionate Vows of the Tathagatas; with determination, no one will miss the boat of liberation. This author was moved to ask himself: the wonderful Nature in all sentient beings has always been equal and the same; why is it that some of us are reborn in the Pure Land, while others keep revolving within the cycle of Birth and Death? The music of the high mountains reverberates down to us; how many listen intently to the sound of the flowing stream? The author has, therefore, penned a few thoughts for the edification of others -- as well as himself.