A Golden Ring
An Introduction to Buddhist Meditation
Dr. Yutang LinThe Thangka of Yogi Chen appearing as Bodhisattva Manjusri
Table of Contents
In July 1991 I was invited by the Miami Buddhist Lotus Society to give a series of talks on Buddhist teachings. Three of these lectures were devoted to Introduction to Buddhist Meditation. This book contains refined transcripts of these lectures with relevant additional materials included as appendices. A detailed explanation of why and what I would like to offer in this work is given in the opening talk that follows.
The talks were based on a Chinese article of mine bearing the same title (佛法習定入門：Traditional Chinese version). After the Chinese article had gone through three revisions I offered it on the altar table requesting Buddha's approval. That night in a dream I saw myself with both palms folded together, holding a small, transparent bag full to the rim with whole peanuts. According to my late Guru Yogi Chen's teaching, peanuts seen in a dream represent things born from the Dharma because peanuts are called hua sheng (花生) in Chinese and it sounds similar to fa sheng (法生) which in Chinese means born from Dharma. Accordingly I offer the following interpretation of this dream.
The small, transparent bag signifies a short and clear article. Its fullness signifies that the content is full of the essentials of Dharma. The peanuts in the shells signify that to taste their flavor one needs to engage in practice (so as to shell the peanuts for eating). Holding the bag with palms folded together signifies that the article was written with the cooperation of wisdom and compassion.
In that dream I simultaneously heard a heavenly voice saying: "其他的是ring; 這是golden ring. (The others are rings; this one is a golden ring.)" Since a ring's round shape signifies perfection and its use is a reminder of something essential, I believe that the message conveyed was: a perfect reminder of the essentials. In tantric Buddhism very precious teachings are often referred to as golden Dharmas; I am honored to have heard such an auspicious compliment. This is the origin of the title of this book.
The Thangka of Yogi Chen appearing as Bodhisattva Manjusri riding a dragon was prescribed by his oral instruction to me. It was painted, under my supervision, by a devotee Zen Wei who had never met Yogi Chen in person and yet had seen him many times in dreams during the painting of this holy image. It is contained in this book and followed by a supplication to his holiness for his blessing to all practitioners of Buddhist meditation.
The Chinese article on meditation first appeared in my Chinese book One Melody in Ten Variations (一曲十彈). As soon as it was printed in Taipei, Taiwan, my father sent three copies to me via air mail without informing me in advance. Early in the morning on the day the books arrived, in a dream I saw the great protector of Dharma, Bodhisattva Wei-Tuo, appearing exactly as the image contained in this book and lasting for about thirty seconds. To express my gratitude to Bodhisattva Wei-Tuo for such a sign of approval, his holy image was included in the second edition of that book. Now his holy image is also included in this book, signifying, on the one hand, our continued gratitude and, on the other hand, our plea for his protection to all practitioners of Buddhist meditation.
The Chinese article was carefully proof-read several times by Shou-Yean Lin and Chun-Jane Chen, and contains improvements in readability based on their suggestions. The present work has been edited by Ann Klein and Harold Rossman to improve the English. Andrew Ellis has improved the English and suggested ways to improve the format. Formatting of the entire book has been done by Chen-Jer Jan. My sincere thanks to them and may they someday enjoy the fruits of Buddhist meditation. Thanks are also due to the donors for making the printing and free distribution of this work possible; may they succeed in practicing Dhyana Paramita (meditation) based on their merits gained through Dana Paramita (donation).
May all beings soon realize the original purity of Limitless-Oneness!
March 8, 1994
El Cerrito, California
The talk I am presenting now is based on my Chinese article bearing the same title. That article was the result of several months of study and many revisions. My intention was to offer a practical manual on Buddhist meditation.
You may wonder why I wanted to write a manual on Buddhist meditation when there are so many books available on this topic? In many books on Buddhist meditation one encounters abstract theoretical terms describing highly advanced meditative states. Although such theories are valuable knowledge, beginners would be at a loss about how to apply them in the practice of meditation. Besides, too much theoretical knowledge may sometimes even become a hindrance to adopting a practice. It is analogous to learning how to swim by reading books about it rather than going into the water. The accumulation of such knowledge is no guarantee that one will learn to swim with ease. What is essential is a daily practice in water.
An ideal manual for beginners should avoid complicated descriptions of advanced stages; instead, it should provide a general outline of the essentials and a detailed account of the practical steps. This is precisely what I am trying to accomplish in this article.
Nowadays, meditation is often introduced or taught as merely a relaxation technique. However, Buddhist meditation involves our whole being ─ our way of life, our outlook of the world. Meditation should not be an independent activity; it should connect with every aspect of our lives.
If we study Buddhist teachings on meditation carefully, we learn that Buddha does not encourage people to jump into meditation. The Eightfold Noble Path puts Right Meditation as a final step, preceded by Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Livelihood, etc. Therefore, beginners should first learn of the preliminary stages for meditation and make proper preparatory adjustments of their lives.
In this connection I have pointed out in my manual the essential principles of Buddhist meditation. Once the beginner has learned these essentials, it will become easy for him to integrate all aspects into a unified activity during his actual practice of meditation. For example, a book on swimming tells us how to move our hands, legs and head and how to regulate breathing; still we need to integrate all these into a coherent act of swimming, and that is the difficult part. The same is true in meditation. The essential principles guide us in making meditation a coherent activity; therefore, it is very important.
I am now going to orally translate my Chinese article for you and elaborate on it to help you get a clearer understanding. Since we will have three meetings, there will be plenty of time for you to raise questions whenever you have one.
It is indeed a natural ability of human beings to be able to concentrate on activities that interest us. When we are doing something, it is our natural ability to concentrate with a clear mind, without distractions. However, due to the complexity of our worldly lives and the holding on to our desires and views, as we grow older, we often find our minds to be narrow and scattered—narrow in the sense that we are prejudiced by fixed views and confined by our attachments; scattered in the sense that while doing something we cannot help stopping the rise of judgments and other thoughts. We have lost the ability to act in a pure, natural way. For example, we tend to eat only certain foods cooked in certain ways, and while eating, our minds tend to engage in making judgments and other thoughts that have nothing to do with our eating. In order to carry on our daily lives with ease, concentration and clearness of mind, it is important for us to train our minds so that we may regain our natural ability to concentrate with a clear mind. Nevertheless, even if we adopt certain practices to train our minds and thereby regain our ability to concentrate with a clear mind, it is no guarantee that such practices would free us from prejudice. Furthermore, unless we are able to reflect upon our views, the more we learn to concentrate, the stronger our attachment to prejudice may become. Therefore, meditation in general does not necessarily bring about reasonable and desirable results. This is also why my topic is not on meditation but rather on Buddhist meditation. Without an open and broad view of the world, meditation may cultivate ignorance and prejudice. Buddha taught us to use our concentration ability to engage in observations and wise reflections, thereby gradually eradicating the roots of our prejudices and consequently enjoying an open and clear way of life. In emphasizing Buddhist meditation, on the one hand we would like to develop our ability to concentrate, and on the other hand, we would like to set our efforts into the enlargement of our minds toward clarity and infinite openness.
The basic teaching of Buddhism is to recognize the essence of life through the viewpoint of impermanence, suffering and selflessness. These three concepts, like the three legs of a tripod, constitute the central idea of the Buddhist teaching. On the one hand, they are used to explain the phenomena of transmigration and suffering, which are rooted in our ignorance of the fact of impermanence and selflessness. On the other hand, they are used to explain how liberation from suffering and transmigration is achievable — one needs to practice Buddha's teachings so that one may live in the awareness of impermanence and selflessness. Hence these three concepts are essential to the Buddhist teaching.
To help you understand why there is suffering, let us consider the following: We are accustomed to being led by our familiarity with concepts into thinking that we have certain knowledge. Let say for example, we have a friend named David and when we talk about David we think that we know him. Nevertheless, we know far less about David than what he knows about himself, and even he does not know everything about himself because he hardly recognizes all the desires, emotions and thoughts that are underlying his actions. The point is, the things that we do know are far fewer than the things that we do not know, and yet we are often led by concepts into action as if we have full knowledge. Our conceptual world tends to be stable and concrete and keeps us from realizing the fact of impermanence and selflessness. Such ignorance is the root of all our suffering.
Using the concepts of suffering, impermanence and selflessness we can point out the way to liberation from suffering, namely that we should be aware of the impermanence and selflessness of all phenomena and thereby free ourselves from ignorance and its consequential attachments and prejudices. We should not be fooled by the limiting effect of concepts; rather we should live a life of natural purity and openness.
In fact, these three concepts can be deduced from one another:
(1) Things are impermanent, hence there is no security and consequently suffering will arise. Things are impermanent, hence they are selfless — with nothing therein for us to hold onto.
(2) Things are selfless, hence there is no permanence. Things are selfless, hence subject to change and decay and ending in suffering.
(3) Suffering prevails in life which shows that there is no stability and permanence. Nothing is free from the condition of suffering, hence there is no self that has an independent existence.
It is like looking at a crystal ball from three sides, from any one side you will see the other two. But in the crystal ball itself, it is just a whole.
In Buddhism we say that Buddha is one who has achieved the unification of Wisdom and Compassion. This is because when we describe a Buddha, we can do so only from certain perspectives. Hence we make the distinction of Wisdom and Compassion, and then emphasize that Buddha has unified the two aspects. Nevertheless, in Buddha himself, there is no distinction of Wisdom and Compassion. Buddha is a whole, and there are no aspects to be unified. It is only due to the relativeness of our concepts that we artificially draw the distinction of wisdom, the rational aspect, and compassion, the emotional aspect.
Similarly, we should understand that suffering, impermanence and selflessness are artificial distinctions made by us with respect to the phenomena. The phenomena do not bear such distinctions.
It is Buddha's way of leading us to understand reality that phenomena are viewed from the three aspects of suffering, impermanence and selflessness. When one sees the interconnection of these three aspects and realizes the Limitless-Oneness of phenomena, it is liberation of Buddhahood; when one does not see through the interconnection of these three aspects, they serve to describe the causes of sorrows, insecurity and transmigration. Thus we see that these three concepts are essential to the Buddhist theoretical teachings, both with regard to explaining the bondage of worldly lives and the path and fruit of Buddhist liberation.
At this point I would like to explain further the reality that Buddha wants to show us through the interconnection of these three concepts.
Buddha had the actual experience of everything in Limitless-Oneness. In the concept of oneness, some limit is implied because, without some limitation, how could we point out a certain one? Nevertheless, I introduce the seemingly contradictory term of Limitless-Oneness to help explain Buddha's experience, which is indeed inconceivable and indescribable. This notion of Limitless-Oneness serves a two-fold function: on one hand, it points out that Buddha's Enlightenment transcends all limits—is beyond our language, our concepts, our sensation, and even the natural limits of space and time; on the other hand, it points out that this transcendence is not beyond or above, but one with all, and all are one.
From our ordinary point of view the two aspects of Limitless-Oneness may seem all too abstract, metaphysical and lacking in substance in the reality we know. Hence, I need to explain them in more detail.
First, let me explain the meaning of oneness when I say that all are one. For example, our bodies have many different parts — eyes, ears, hands, etc. All of them form one body because they are all connected. Similarly, although the world consists of so many things, they are all connected as one. This seems to contradict the fact that in the world, it is survival of the fittest. In the human world, we have wars against one another; how could we be one? Buddha's experience of the oneness of all is beyond our ordinary experience, yet it is possible for any one of us to share this experience through the cultivation of Buddhist practice. Only when one has some taste of this oneness can one see clearly that hostility and selfishness are wrong.
The Buddhist Practice does not aim at establishing a new conceptual perspective which would inevitably bring about the duality of right and wrong. If it were such, then it would be only trying to replace one set of artificial standards with another, and consequently cannot free people from prejudice. Rather, Buddhist practices aim at freeing us from the delusive limitation of concepts and senses, and help us regain our innate spiritual purity. In the light of our original purity, we will realize that selfishness and hostility are ill-founded, but not simply because we are subscribing to certain ideals.
Furthermore, it is of utmost importance that we understand this oneness, because if we are limited by our conceptual selves, then our lives are certainly miserable. When all things are constantly subject to change, how could we keep our tiny selves above water all the time? It would seem that the whole world is running against our will most of the time if we are self-centered. Our lives are so fragile — what guarantee do we have for our safety and subsistence?
Second, as to limitlessness of Buddha's Enlightenment, I offer the following explanation: We know that concepts have limited applicability to reality and that the range of human sensations is limited; how, then, could Buddha transcend such limits? Buddha transcends conceptual limits by returning to the original state of no concepts, which is freedom from concepts even in the subconsciousness. This does not mean that Buddha is incapable of using concepts; it simply means that Buddha's mind is not confined or directed by concepts. The possibility of transcending normal human sensations is shown by reports of people with supernatural abilities. From the Buddhist point of view, such supernatural abilities are within the reach of all human beings, provided that they free themselves from cultural barriers that prevent the development of innate subtle abilities. Since Buddha is one who has attained freedom from all artificial barriers, no matter how subtle they are, his innate abilities are fully developed. Hence, he naturally transcends the limitation of normal sensation.
How could Buddha transcend the basic framework of the Universe—the space-time continuum? We are accustomed to the limits of space and time; omnipresence, omniscience and eternity seem unreal to us mortals. Did not Buddha die at the age of eighty even though in Buddhist terminology it is labeled as entering Nirvana? Yes, from our ordinary point of view, no matter what you call it, Buddha died at eighty, and so it seems that he is at least subject to death, if not rebirth. Nevertheless, when he attained Full Enlightenment, he lost his identification with the mortal body and life, he was at once in eternal union with the whole universe—the universe not limited by our concepts of space and time, and it is precisely in this way that he achieved his transcendence of space and time. Furthermore, his transcendence is not just a psychological event; it has been witnessed by Buddhists over the ages that as long as a Buddhist is sincere in taking refuge in Buddha and devotes himself to Buddhist practice, he will receive numerous inspirations from Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and protectors. The only reasonable explanation for all those miraculous inspirational events is that Buddha and holy beings have achieved omnipresence, eternity and omniscience.
There is no way that I can advocate the above to people simply because it is my belief. Any one who adopts the Buddhist practice will sooner or later experience the truth of the above statements. It is only because it is based on such a general fact that I dare to advocate Buddha's transcendence to the world.
When one, through the cultivation of Buddhist practices, experiences the original purity of Limitless-Oneness, his life is no longer limited by his mortal existence. Even the concepts of space and time become meaningless in the sense that they are no longer operative in the usual way. If we study the basis of science, we will realize that the basic measurement and hence operational significance of space and time are indeed defined by man. When Buddha was able to free himself from all concepts that were consciously or subconsciously present to him, spatial and temporal distinctions faded away, and all became one. This is not just theoretical projection of what Buddhahood should be like, be it realizable or not. Buddhists through the ages can testify that, as a result of their practice, many extraordinary phenomena have occurred which baffle scientific explanations, but can be reasonably accounted for according to the Buddhist teaching of Limitless-Oneness. The working of prayers that affect people thousands of miles away is one such miraculous phenomenon. Even if someday science may be able to explain supernatural phenomena, it will still be unlikely that science can have the power to reproduce such extraordinary events.
Science is built on theoretical systems which in turn are built on concepts, and concepts by their nature divide and define limits. Even the concept of infinity hinges on the concept of finiteness and can be understood only as being non-finite. Buddha's Enlightenment, on the contrary, is completely beyond conceptual confinement. Here lies the fundamental reason why science can never achieve Buddhist Enlightenment and its accompanying supernatural powers.
Science can provide us with instruments and technology that help us hear and see things thousands of miles away, but it cannot do so without those instruments and energy sources; whereas telepathy and clairvoyance come to practitioners naturally.
Human knowledge today is based on the fundamental duality of subject and object, the observer and the observed. Nevertheless, in quantum mechanics we have come to recognize the Uncertainty Principle which illuminates the limit of a dualistic approach. In using the concept of a field to establish General Relativity Theory, Einstein is approaching the Buddhist teaching of all are one. In Limitless-Oneness the fundamental characteristic of human cognitive activities, the subject/object distinction, has been transcended.
The Buddhist practice will help us realize our original state of Limitless-Oneness. As we gradually approach Enlightenment, the broadening of our horizons and the openness of our lives will enable us to face the difficulties of life with a proper perspective. Consequently we will be able to handle things more satisfactorily and even enjoy a spontaneous feeling of peace and happiness. As we turn the center of our attention from selfish interests to the well-being of all sentient beings, we will naturally live a life of service and find such a life meaningful and spiritually rewarding. Besides, as we gain experience of Limitless-Oneness, we will be able to use such experience to help others in many extraordinary ways.
The future seems to lie beyond the scope of human knowledge. However, a Buddhist practitioner may sometimes know future events in advance. It is revealed to him in dreams or through heavenly voices. Ordinarily we lack the ability to see the causal consequences of events, hence the future is full of surprises. Nevertheless, phenomena occur according to the law of causation and consequence, hence the future is, to some extent, predictable. This does not imply fatalism because events that are bound to happen due to past events may still be changed by additional efforts before they actually happen. This and the fact that all are connected as one are the reasons why prayers can help people who are suffering the consequence of past negative activities. Theoretically we can explain as above the fact that practitioners do sometimes know things in advance; practically, we have no mechanical way to achieve such results. It remains a mystical spiritual reality known to devoted practitioners through the ages.
In light of the explanations given above, Buddhist meditations may be classified into two types. One type is called concentration practice (Samatha) and consists of training leading to one-pointed concentration which is free from distractions, drowsiness and absent-mindedness; the other type is called observation practice (Vipassana) and consists of observation in the light of Buddhist teachings such as impermanence, suffering and selflessness. Practicing only concentration meditation, even though it may improve clarity of one's awareness, cannot help one reach the ultimate goal of Buddhism—complete liberation from bondage. Practicing only observation in the light of Buddhist principles, even though theoretically that might help one gain some transient experiences of Enlightenment, will bring about Full Enlightenment only after one's ability to concentrate has become perfected. Therefore, it is necessary for us to practice both kinds of meditation until we have unified and harmonized these two aspects of Buddhist meditation and realized the ultimate liberation. The transcendence of Buddhist teaching over other religions lies fundamentally in its wisdom to cut through the root of bondage—the dualistic concept of an independently existing self; the Buddhist teaching of the wisdom of no attachment will help us see through the subtle bondage of heavenly meditative states and thus free us from the achievements of other religions. Hence, Buddhist meditation is different from the meditative practices of other religions.
There are already many detailed and comprehensive expositions on Buddhist meditation in print. Nevertheless, detailed and complicated theoretical discussions are difficult to understand and too much teaching may render the beginner at a loss as to how to practice. In order to provide a practical manual for beginners in this article, I mention only briefly the essential points of many aspects of Buddhist meditation, while with regard to the actual steps of practicing meditation I go into detail. For example, the definition and classification of achievements in meditative states such as the four dhyanas, the eight dhyanas, the four approaches and the four fruits are important; nevertheless, these are not immediately within the reach of beginners, therefore, in this article only a general rather than subtle description of the essential characteristics of meditational achievements is provided to serve as a goal for beginners to improve themselves. Details such as the appropriate time, place, clothing, food and preparatory and corollary details for practicing meditation are fully explained in their natural order.
The Basic Buddhist principle adopted in this presentation is the view of the original purity of the whole Dharmadhatu (i.e., the collection of all phenomena). The whole Dharmadhatu is in Limitless-Oneness. To say that this Limitless-Oneness is originally pure, we mean that it is not the result of practice or cultivation, rather, it is naturally free from artificial limitations. Usually we are not aware of this fact because we are accustomed to being limited by concepts and the senses. To people who are able to free themselves from the limiting effect of concepts and senses, the truth of Limitless-Oneness and original purity will become self-evident simply because it is so. What Buddhist practice does is simply help remove our prejudice and habits so that we may return to the original state of purity which is beyond value systems and judgments. It is a process of unlearning our cultural differences—we are born American, French … or Chinese, which is an accidental event but it affects our upbringing and outlook on life. Only when we are free from cultural prejudice can we see that essentially we are all the same. Whatever we do to others based on cultural prejudice is simply due to ignorance of the fundamental unity and equality among all beings; when we hurt others we are indeed hurting ourselves. These are not abstract religious ideals—the modern awareness of ecology and of the need for environmental preservation testifies to the truth of these wise teachings.
Another aspect of original purity is that when we achieve Full Enlightenment we are simply returning to a natural state; it will not be something foreign to our nature and thus needs some effort to keep. Were Full Enlightenment an object to pursue and preserve with effort, it could not bring complete liberation because then we would need always to be on the watch for it and never able to relax. Just the opposite; we need to learn to let go. We have been holding on to the notion of a self for too long. Our minds are constantly running with thoughts: I am like this, you are like that, and our relationship is such and such … without end. When our minds are so conditioned and complicated, we simply cannot relax. We need to unlearn all this and return to the state of simplicity and childlike innocence. Only then will we find freedom and happiness in life.
Returning to our innocent state does not mean that we need to abolish our culture and social structures. It is an obvious fact that social structures have their limits—the peace of a society is basically maintained by its people goodness and mutual trust, rather than by police and lawyers. It is important to cultivate the spiritual innocence of people so that laws and law enforcement agencies will not be misused but can serve properly as tools to help the innocent.
Original purity is beyond our judgments and preferences. All our values and propensities relate to our cultural backgrounds; what is considered good in one culture may be considered bad in another. For example, in America, people name their children after someone they love; hence a child may be given the name of a grandparent. In the Chinese culture, it is disrespectful to use the name of a parent in naming a child. Original purity is beyond these cultural differences and relative judgments.
The principle of the original purity of the Dharmadhatu and the trinity system of impermanence, suffering and selflessness are different theoretical approaches to the presentation of Buddhist teachings. The outstanding feature of the trinity system is its function as an antidote to worldly ignorance, bewilderment and attachments. In contrast, the main emphasis of the principle of original purity of the Dharmadhatu is on opening up to the original clarity and purity. In fact, struggling away from ignorant attachments and opening up to enlightened awareness are two aspects of one process. Depending on the situation, either one of these two aspects may be emphasized in practice and application.
Observational meditation may be classified into two types: one type aims at producing antidotal effects, e.g., visualizing the nine stages of decay of a corpse so as to free one from attachment to human bodies; while another type constitutes pure observation, e.g., watching the breath. In my presentation the visualizations chosen belong to the pure observation type for the following reasons. Unless one has been well-indoctrinated by the Buddhist philosophy, it is rather difficult for beginners to willingly adopt an antidotal practice such as visualizing a decaying corpse. The second reason is that pure observations are more in line with the chosen basic principle of the original purity of Limitless-Oneness. The third reason is that pure observation may readily lead to freedom from conceptual bondage without creating a new barrier. Although there are antidotal practices in Buddhist teaching, they serve only as corrective measures to our bad habits and attachments, and final Enlightenment should be free from any trace of a one-sided, antidotal practice. Nevertheless, it is not uncommon that practitioners become limited by their practice, and so it seems that their practice has become a new barrier to their returning to the original purity of Limitless-Oneness. Pure observation is less likely to result in such unintended and undesirable consequences. The final liberation as taught by Buddha is not escaping from reality; rather, it is liberation amidst real-life situations. Pure observation trains us in facing the reality, not as we think it to be, but as it is.
As an example of the misapplication of Buddhist teaching, let us consider the case when someone, after learning the concepts of Bodhisattva and Mara (devil), claims himself to be a Bodhisattva and denounces his opponents or people who are not in agreement with him to be Maras. The dualistic concepts are used in Buddhist teaching to show us models for imitation and improvement, but not to provide labels and tools for criticism and fighting. Nevertheless, constructive criticism is not excluded from a Bodhisattva's behavior. A Bodhisattva is forever ready to help and holds no grudges against people. Hence, for beginners, in order to avoid this kind of mistake, it is safer to start with practices that are neutral, rather than antidotal. Antidotal practices usually will take a long time to produce obvious effects and might form new partialities; hence I do not recommend them to beginners. Some advanced practitioners use one-sided practices to correct their bias because they are experienced and know when and where to stop.
1. Fundamental Principles of Buddhism
The fundamental principle of Buddhism is that the whole universe is in Limitless-Oneness, it is originally so, and pure, i.e., free from artificial limits of concepts, values and judgments.
This is an abstract idea and seems to be far from reality, even contradictory from a logical point of view. How could we accept it, and how could we adopt it in daily life?
The concept of Limitless-Oneness is contradictory from a logical point of view because when we talk about one, there is implied some defining limitation of it, otherwise we could not refer to it. Hence, if we say oneness and limitless, it is the same, from a logical point of view, as saying something unknowable or practically non-existent.
Nevertheless, from limitless and oneness respectively we can learn some aspects of Buddha's Enlightenment. Buddha's Enlightenment is essentially undefinable and inexpressible, therefore, when we resort to concepts in explaining that experience, either we are limited by the concepts used or we have to go beyond the concepts used. If we stay within logical limits we can hardly transmit the essential aspects of Buddha's Enlightenment. Hence I introduce the contradictory notion of Limitless-Oneness.
How could we accept this notion of Limitless-Oneness? Its truth has been witnessed by Buddhist practitioners over the ages. It is not stated here as a dogmatic doctrine to be blindly followed, rather it is a spiritual insight revealed to guide practitioners on the path toward Enlightenment. Its truth can be experienced by devoted practitioners as they continue on the path, thus it is not an irrational dogma based on blind faith.
How can we adopt it in real-life situations? It does not mean that we could intrude into others' rights and properties and act simply as we please. Rather, we should give up our prejudices and attachments, open our mind to the world, and be tolerant and considerate to one another. In this way, we will gradually approach Limitless-Oneness even in our daily lives.
As a Buddhist practitioner, I used to ask myself the question: how do I apply Buddha teachings in my daily life? There are so many theories and rules of conduct in Buddhism, and it would be very difficult to know how to apply them to our daily lives. Furthermore, new elements of the modern world and the complications of each individual situation cannot be given full treatment in any religion. Real-life situations often require immediate attention and responses; we may not have the chance to consult a spiritual teacher in advance. Hence, in order to apply Buddha teachings to our daily lives, it is necessary that we use very simple and fundamental principles to guide our considerations and activities. How do I obtain such workable guidelines? I look directly at Buddhahood which is in Limitless-Oneness, and our situation which is limited in all practical aspects, then it becomes obvious that our approach to Buddhahood is a process of transcendence from finiteness to limitlessness. Thus, the main principles to guide our activities and practices are, on the active side, to open up, and, on the reductive side, to let go of attachments. What I have learned for my own use are the principles of opening up and no attachment. I offer them to all Buddhist friends who also want to apply Buddha teaching to their daily lives.
These two principles are complementary to each other and interconnected. Without letting go of attachments, there is no real opening-up. Without opening-up, one can hardly let go of attachments. Opening-up means to see things from all angles, to love all equally, and to consider things in long term instead of the immediate result. No attachment means to give up one prejudices, preferences and partialities. We need to let go of our limited views, desires, emotions, and habits, and open up to the openness, impartiality and tranquility of Limitless-Oneness.
Let us consider, for example, opening up in space. Please imagine you are in the center of a big balloon, and try to expand this balloon as much as possible. Could you please tell me how large your balloon is?
One member of the audience says that he feels some curvature, a boundary, but he can not specify where it is. Another says that as his balloon enlarges he gradually loses feeling of it. A woman says that she feels that the balloon is limited by the room, so she closes her eyes and has a mental image of a big balloon in the sky, with herself in the center.
In all three answers, we find a sense of boundary, and the woman points out that the walls are limiting her imaginary space. Once I had an answer from a man that the sphere was not only limited by the walls, but stayed in front of him, although he was told to think of himself as being in the center of the sphere. These responses show that our sense of space is unconsciously limited by the room we are in or by the habit of looking forward.
Thus to open up in space means to adopt Buddhist practices so that our minds will not be limited as in the above examples and will have the freedom to transcend sensual and habitual limits. It also means that we should transcend the views and customs of a locality.
Opening up in time means not to be confined by the present situation, but to have a perspective that sees the continuity of past, present and future, an overall view of life, a sense of history and even beyond history.
Opening up in emotions means to be kind and considerate to people you meet and adopt an attitude of service in your work. If we confine our love, goodwill and generosity to a certain few, then we may never achieve peace of mind because life is impermanent and all those we care for are not free from life's ups and downs. However, if we enlarge our caring and loving to all beings, then we will live in peace that comes from a commitment to serve all equally with love. Of course, we can actually help only those we happen to encounter, nevertheless, to each one we equally offer what is appropriate with the awareness that the underlying love transcends worldly considerations and is in the light of Limitless-Oneness.
Opening up in perspectives means to see things from all angles, with an overall view, and free from personal and cultural prejudices.
Opening up in perceptions means to go beyond the normal sensory limits and develop our potential for supernatural powers. This is not something sought after by Buddhists, but it may develop naturally as one advances on the path toward Enlightenment. When one's worldly worries and attachments fade away, one's innate subtle abilities will automatically exhibit their functions.
The teachings of Confucius were respected and followed in China because they teach a broader view—how to live a life so that society is harmonious, instead of a primitive, self-centered view of life. The teachings of Taoism, Hinduism, Christianity and many other religions all aim at harmony between man and nature, or man and heaven; they offer a even broader view than the social order of Confucianism. Nevertheless, it is only Sakyamuni who became aware of the subtle attachment to an illusive notion of self in the realizations of heavenly religions, and became free from such illusions thereby attaining Limitless-Oneness. Thus, Buddhism is most thorough in teaching one how to open up. Consequently, it is only Buddhism that teaches that even its teachings are simply means to help one become liberated, and that in the final liberation one should not be confined by these teachings.
In the process of giving up attachments and opening up, we need first to regulate our lives and activities in the light of these principles, then, after our external and internal lives are quite consistent, we can practice meditation in order to reach the depths of our mind and thoroughly let go of the subtle attachments and prejudices in our subconscious.
When we regulate our lives and activities according to the Buddhist teachings, sooner or later we may come across situations that require not only enormous adjustments but also in-depth reflections into our minds in order to change fundamentally. For such in-depth and subtle reflections one needs training in meditation.
A habit of practicing Buddhist meditation daily can also help us gradually to become open and free from attachments and prejudices. Just as physical exercise and nutritious foods are beneficial to our health, similarly Buddhist practices can be considered as spiritual exercise and nourishment that are beneficial to the clarity and peace of our minds.
2. Fundamental Principles of Meditation
2.1 The Consistency of Action and Mind
One needs to live a life of consistency, and inner thoughts and outward activities need to be in harmony. If one acts in one way and thinks otherwise, then meditation can sharpen the conflict and consequently bring harm instead of peace and clarity.
2.2 The Interaction of Body and Mind
When our minds are calm and peaceful, our bodies will feel light and comfortable; when our bodies are tired and tense, our minds become irritable. When our minds are in bewilderment, our bodies feel tired and heavy; when our bodies are comfortable and relaxed, our minds calm down.
Thus, it is very clear that our minds and bodies affect each other in an interconnected way. When we practice meditation, it is not just a training of the mind; it also involves taking proper care of the body. For example, one should not practice meditation when the body is very tired because one's mind tends to become dull and sleepy.
2.3 The Concordance of Breathing and Mind
Our breathing and mind are like Siamese twins, i.e., they are so inseparably connected that one always affects the other. To pacify one's mind one can regulate the breathing, and as the breathing becomes even and gentle, the mind calms down. To achieve deep and smooth breathing one can regulate the mind, and as the mind becomes clear and calm, the breathing becomes even and long.
These three Fundamental Principles of Meditation are each on a subtler level. The first one deals with the outermost level of action and mind; the second one the medium level of body and mind; and the third one the innermost level of breathing and mind.
Only when we are mindful of what is implied in all the above mentioned principles can we effectively practice Buddhist meditation and achieve desirable results.
Today's lecture concludes at this point. If you have any questions, now is a good time to ask them.
Q1: If the practice of breathing and the practice of chanting can both calm our mind, is there any special method that makes the one practice better over the other?
The best way is to combine them into one practice. I have written a short article on this; it is called "The Unification of Mind and Wind." It is included as an appendix in my book "The Buddhist Practice of Chanting 'Amitabha'" as well as in the new edition of my booklet "On Chanting 'Amitabha'." (It is also included in this book as Appendix A.)
The practice I introduce combines chanting, deep breathing and a very simple visualization. Traditionally in the Pureland School there is a teaching of combining regular breathing with chanting—one watches the in and out of breathing while chanting. I add to this a simplified tantric visualization so that the air inhaled is visualized as white light of Wisdom and Compassion from Buddha and the air exhaled is black gas of bad Karmas. I suggest deep breathing rather than regular breathing so as to help the practitioners' health. Also, I add to the tantric visualization the visualization that the black gas of bad Karmas is purified by Buddha so that it will not pollute the world.
Some people who have practiced this method have told me that it is very helpful. Therefore, I hope that you will try it.
Q2: Two of the fundamental principles of Buddhism—one views life as impermanent, while the other as suffering; are they contradictory to each other?
No, they are not. They would seem contradictory when one reasons as follows: If life is impermanent, then suffering is also impermanent, transient, and hence life can not be characterized as suffering. Furthermore, if life is suffering, then suffering prevails and it is not impermanent.
The reason that impermanence and suffering are not contradictory is as follows:
Life is impermanent, but we have attachment, desires and preferences, therefore, whenever things are not going our way, we suffer. Furthermore, the lack of security in life owing to its impermanence is a fundamental source of our suffering.
Life is suffering, even though each case of suffering is transient and impermanent, its impermanence does not affect the pain it incurs as long as it lasts.
When we compare the above reasoning, it should become clear that the reasoning that leads to the impression of contradiction is unrealistic and proceeding purely in the abstract. Therefore it should be rejected.
How do we, based on the fact of impermanence, transcend suffering? Since life is impermanent, attempts to hold on to one's attachments are futile, hence we let go of attachments and learn to accept things as they are. In this way we will gradually open up to the world and see that all beings are in the same boat. As a result we will gradually give up a self-centered way of life and choose to live a life of compassionate service. When we devote our lives to helping all beings awaken to the truth of Limitless-Oneness, we will experience mental peace and joy which will enable us to rise above all worldly sufferings. When we live a self-centered life, we are living in a prison built by ourselves, and the few things and people we care for are constantly in situations beyond our control, hence our lives are filled with unhappiness. When we adopt Buddhist practices, we will gradually become free from self-centeredness, the conceptual bondage of particular cultures and emotional confusions of personal idiosyncrasies. Through regular practice our minds will become clear, tranquil, concentrated and compassionate.
When we work for our self-interest, our potentials cannot be fully developed because we are very limited by such a narrow view of life. When we open up to see and care for the well-being of all beings, our ability will gradually grow and our potentials will develop to full maturity.
Our physical growth is limited. In contrast, our spiritual growth is limitless because originally it is in Limitless-Oneness. Whoever follows the guidance of Buddhism, adopts the practices and lives a life accordingly will gradually experience the truth of Limitless-Oneness.
If we look back at our lives, we will see clearly that many things turned out not as we expected which means most of our worries, plans, calculations, anticipations and expectations are unnecessary burdens that we bring upon ourselves. Would not you prefer to live a life that is not so overridden with worries? Buddhist practices can help us become free from such worries.
If we remember that the universe is in Limitless-Oneness, then it becomes obvious that what we do know is too little compared with what we do not know. Then we will stop criticizing others because we are fully aware that we do not know enough of the whole situation to judge. Thus we become free from criticism. When our minds stop judging and criticizing, it will become easier for us to regain our innocence. It is important to save precious time for practice, rather than wasting it on inconsequential criticisms. Who are we to judge others? People in certain situations act in certain ways as a result of their cultural background and upbringing; sometimes their actions are due to their not knowing a better way. When we see that we are all more or less in the same situation—desiring happiness but not knowing how to attain it, and trying to become free from suffering but unable to avoid it, a deep sense of compassion naturally arises in our hearts, and a feeling of oneness will inspire us to be kind and helpful to other sentient beings.
If we were born and grew up in others' situations, we would probably act in the same way. Thus, what is useful and important is not criticism, not antagonism, but to broaden ourselves to be tolerant, to be receptive to others, and to make life easier for everyone. Only when you make it easy for others, will life become easy for you. When you are demanding and unforgiving, you are carrying a burden yourself. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we should compromise with those people who hurt others, or to go along with injustice. It means that when we handle evil, the fundamental attitude is to try to enlighten through wisdom and compassion rather than by force and fighting, the exception being an emergency when it is necessary to take forceful action to protect the innocent.
The fundamental principles are very important because they unify the Buddhist practices and rules of conduct into a coherent whole so that we will not be overwhelmed by the multiplicity of rules and tied down to inactivity by superficial adherence to rules. Nevertheless, how best to apply the principles to our lives is something we learn by living a Buddhist life. Just as a Chinese saying goes: As you grow old, you keep on learning; so we can always try to improve our application of the fundamental principles to our lives. Since one's particular situation can hardly be understood completely by others, one needs to learn how to live a Buddhist life mainly through learning from one's experiences. In this connection, reading the biographies of Buddhist practitioners can be very helpful.
We say that spiritual growth is limitless. How do we measure our spiritual growth? It is simply returning to our original innocence. As our minds become more and more like a child's innocent mind, they become less and less bound by self-centered worldly considerations. Only then can we enjoy natural happiness. Life is short, what is more worthy than happiness? When we see this, we will have to make a choice as to what is more essential to our lives. How much can we eat? How much clothing can we wear? Why spend so much time and energy on moneymaking? True happiness comes from spiritual cultivation; it is not the fancy car you drive; those outward things may increase your desire and greed but cannot bring lasting happiness.
When you have happiness in your heart, you can still drive a fancy car. When you do not have happiness, driving a fancy car cannot help you to become happy. In the United States, one of the richest countries in the world, millions of teenagers think about or commit suicide annually. Hence it is fundamental to our well-being that we know how to maintain our inner peace and develop our inner happiness. Only when more and more members of a society understand this, and work for inner peace and happiness, can the society become a happy environment. The practical aspect of how best to apply the principles in our lives is something that we, in most cases, learn gradually from our experiences.
Q3. I have been a Buddhist for many years. I know the principles and try to abide by them. However, there are certain things and aspects that seem to be obstacles that I will never ever overcome. What is your advice on this?
The traditional advice would be that you have to work harder, that you are not devoted enough. Yet there are other aspects to this kind of problem which is, in a sense, comforting to know.
First of all, Buddhism is trying to teach us to be free from conceptual bondage. Since most of the teachings we receive are in words, sometimes a Buddhist, especially those who have been practicing for years, becomes bound by the wording of the teachings. This is a pitfall that we should be aware of. Buddhism as presented in writings is a system of thought that depicts an ideal. Life is impermanent; there is no guarantee that we will have the time to complete the course of practice in our remaining years. This fact should not discourage us from practicing Buddha teachings because the practices are beneficial to us individually as well as society as a whole. Consequently, our practice of Buddhism is a process of approaching the ideal, and in the process, trial and errors are normal and inevitable. Therefore, no need to be too hard on yourself for the errors. Just keep up your efforts with sincerity and perseverance, and you will gradually taste the sweet flavor of spiritual growth. If you constantly compare yourself with the ideal, you will not have a second of rest and you will soon wear out. The right attitude is that of a gardener—daily watering, thorough weeding, seasonal fertilization and patience for the plants to grow at their own rate and the flowers to bloom in their own season. The flowers and fruits of spiritual growth also take time to mature into fullness.
As long as we keep walking on the Buddhist path, we are not only improving our inner state of mind but also affecting all people who come into contact with us. Thus the process is quite worthwhile in its own right.
Q4: You mentioned the transitive nature of mind and breathing goes both ways, i.e., mind can calm the breathing and breathing can calm the mind; this is fascinating. Could you please say some more on this?
Many religions that practice meditation are aware of this fact. Nevertheless, in Tantric Buddhism there is a special teaching that is based on the experiences of accomplished practitioners. It reveals that a person's consciousness—the subtle element which enters one's body at the union of the egg and the sperm, and leaves at the very end of the death process—is mind and wind inseparable. Here mind is the mental element of consciousness itself, and wind is a very subtle material element of air. Since they are fundamentally inseparable, it is no wonder that they affect each other in a sensitive and intimate way.
Q5: Dr. Lin, you say we should be tolerant and transcend antagonism so that there is no separation and distinction; but then how do we deal with conflicts in different traditions, in view of the fact that each tradition considers theirs as correct while other traditions' as less correct?
If you believe in oneness, you will try to put it into practice. As soon as you try to practice oneness, the general question arises: Does it render us unable to act at all because our activities are usually within the context of you and me as different individuals. Each group from different religious traditions thinks that theirs is the right one, then what do we do? First of all, as to what is right, what is truth, each group needs to enlarge their views in order to find the answer. No one can reach truth by insisting on one view or by forcing views on others. Stubborn insistence or forced persuasion leads only to war and suffering. The cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union is based on each side's insistence that their own system is superior. From a global point of view, we all live on the same planet and we need to live in peace and cooperation. Instead of fighting, we should work together to solve the global problems of hunger, population explosion, ecology, environmental protection, energy conservation, recycling, etc. Thus we see that if we enlarge our views in the light of oneness, we will not be rendered inactive; just the contrary, we will be actively working for more fundamental and important issues and live in peace and harmony. Hence, it is very important to spread the message of the need and benefit of enlarging our views and our degree of tolerance because that is how we will live in peace and reach truth.
Q6: How do we know that our thinking is right or wrong, good or bad?
Whenever there is a conflict in views, first of all, do not resort to violence or force to settle the dispute. If certain views are forced on people, and the views are wrong, then the results are terrible. Violence will only increase or intensify suffering in the world, hence it is not the right approach to truth. The way to settle our differences is to avoid direct confrontation on a particular point, and try to allow each side to go on its own way. Allow diversity, allow people to do things in their own way, and let time decide which the right way is. The way that is closer to the truth will prevail in a free environment. Had we resorted to war in the first place, the world might have been destroyed by nuclear bombs.
We need to talk about this topic because without proper understanding of this, sometimes people who are new to Buddhism want to jump into practicing meditation and then encounter many problems that they did not expect. Actually, meditation requires proper preparation. Knowing the position of meditation in Buddhism can help us avoid unnecessary obstacles and guide us along the right path.
1. Learn Buddhism through reading or listening to lectures, think over the meaning of the teachings, understand the essential principles of Buddhism and the methods of practice, then practice diligently in accordance with the teachings. In general, actual practice comes after learning and understanding the general principles and the techniques. Since meditation belongs to practice, it should be undertaken only after one has learned and understood the essentials of Buddhism and the method of practicing meditation. Otherwise, you may spend a lot of effort and get undesirable results, or you may be practicing non-Buddhist meditation without being aware of going on the wrong path.
2. One should understand that the essence of Buddhism, when applied in our daily lives, becomes the principle that emphasizes serving others in order to benefit them and even to the extent of forgetting one's own interests. One needs to uphold this principle as the norm of one's intentions, speech, conduct and activities so as to achieve the consistency and purification of one's body, speech and mind. Only then can one make real progress in Buddhist meditation. Without living a Buddhist way of life, meditation becomes just a spiritual powdering—it may have some temporary benefits, but no fundamental improvement will result.
When one practices meditation while living in accordance with the Buddhist teachings and rules of conduct, it is like a plant growing in a favorable environment, in time it will grow to its fullness.
The subtle attachments and illusive concepts that are deeply held in our subconscious can be purified and released only through training in Buddhist meditation. Only when one has become free from those subtle attachments and illusions can one enjoy a natural and open way of life.
When we try to act and say things to benefit others, we will realize that it is a very difficult task which requires learning from experience. It requires knowing the other's situation and how he or she would perceive what we say. We also need to learn when to speak and when not to.
The people we try to benefit should not be confined to one's family, relatives and friends. Otherwise, we will still be limited by selfishness. The Bible teaches "Love thy neighbors" and I think the neighbors intended are not just those who live nearby, but rather anyone you may encounter.
The main source of our spiritual impurity is our narrow-minded selfishness. It limits us and causes us not to trust one another. When we are cautious with people in our daily lives, it becomes a mental barrier that steals away all natural and spontaneous activities. People become cool and polite outwardly, and cold and tense inwardly. If we want to live in a natural and spontaneous way, we need to have faith in the goodness of people. Only then can our inner goodness grow and flow out in our expressions and activities. In this way we can benefit people who come our way, and live happily. If we are constantly on alert, what kind of life is that? The modern world with its highly developed technology has made our lives too complicated, fast-paced and tense. It is no wonder that the numbers of cases of hypertension, heart-attacks and ulcers are constantly rising. To live a happy and harmonious life, use of technology should be guided by wisdom. Wisdom can grow in one's mind only after one has dispelled narrow-minded selfishness.
One meditates to calm down and watch the subtle activities of the mind in order to reach inner peace. Hence this goal can be achieved only when we are living a simple, honest and caring life. When we are too engrossed in complicated worldly activities, even if we sit down daily for a meditation session, we cannot stop our minds from continuous engagement in those worldly problems and our related emotional reactions. Consequently, such meditation practice can hardly advance one on the right path, and may even magnify worldly sorrows. When our outward activities and the coarser functions of our minds have not been tamed and refined, there is no possibility for us even just to encounter and discern the subtle activities of our minds, not to mention resolving those innermost problems. Do not waste time and attention on enhancing one's personal appearance and indulging in excessive comforts of life. We need to give up non-essential and inconsequential activities like partying and gossiping so that we can use precious time and energy to engage in Buddhist practice and service. Only after long term diligent practice of Buddhist meditation can we come to grips with the subtle attachments in our innermost minds. They are subtle, yet fundamental to our psychological make-up.
Buddhahood is an ideal which is hard to reach, but not beyond human efforts. Even if we cannot reach it within our lifetime, so long as we walk on the path toward Enlightenment, our lives will benefit from our endeavors. This is the reason why Buddhists devote their lives to practice, try to propagate the teachings, and preserve the teachings for generations to come. It is not like some political idealism which says that it is for the people, and then once its adherents are in power the people suffer. Rather, it is very realistic in that the results we experience are determined by the effort and sincerity we put into the practice. This statement is not only based on my own experience as a Buddhist practitioner but also born out by the biographies of Buddhist practitioners through the ages.
As we progress on the path of Buddhist practice, our illusions and clinging fade away; consequently our natural ability to see things as they are brings forth the fundamental truth: Each one of us is only a speck in the universe, hence there is no ground for self-glorification and self-centeredness. All of us are sentient beings who are essentially the same—having feelings, emotions, intelligence and subject to suffering. We are capable of maturing into a being full of limitless compassion and wisdom, but if we are limited by wrong views and selfish habits, then we will hurt ourselves as well as others. Life is impermanent and may end at any moment, hence we should use every moment for the improvement of the world and help everyone to become free from illusions, clinging, desires and inconsiderate activities.
3.The sequential steps mentioned in number one above may be referred to as: learning, assimilation and practice, while those in number two: behavior, meditation and maturity. In the course of one's practice this sequence should be followed as a general guideline, but not adhered to in a rigid linear way. Usually, after one has learned from teaching and practiced them, questions arise about the theory, the practice or how to apply it in real-life situations. Consequently one needs to learn more, study more, assimilate more and then practice more. Also one goes through continuous refinement and improvement of one's behavior and meditation in the process of maturing on the Buddhist path. Earlier stages of maturity serve as the foundation for refinement in behavior and meditation. Thus, in the course of practicing Buddhism, we are repeating the process of learning, assimilation and practice as well as that of behavior, meditation and maturity. It is like climbing a spiral staircase—one repeats the same act of climbing while reaching higher and higher levels.
Not only does behavior help meditation and the two together help maturity, but also meditation can help behavior and maturity can help meditation and behavior. The Buddhist rules of conduct and meditations are tools to help one approach the enlightened state of mind. As one advances on this path the reasons for these tools and how they are put coherently together to help one advance, become more and more apparent. When one sees intuitively that we are fundamentally all the same, then one naturally behaves accordingly and meditation becomes natural and harmonious. In short, a practitioner's behavior, meditation and maturity are intimately connected.
4. According to one of the basic teachings of Buddhism, the Eightfold Noble Path, Right Meditation is the final step. This shows that in order to achieve the right results of meditation, one needs to go through the preparatory steps as follows:
4.1 Right View—Learning the teachings of Buddha, especially the essential principles and philosophy of Buddhism.
4.2 Right Thinking—Assimilating the essential principles of Buddhism so that they become the central guidelines of one's intentions and that one's thinking becomes consistent with the teachings.
4.3 Right Speech—One engages only in proper and beneficial conversations, and avoids lying, gossiping, slandering, cursing, idle talk and flirting.
4.4 Right Activities—One engages only in constructive and beneficial activities, and avoids killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, gambling, intoxication, drug addiction and harming sentient beings.
4.5 Right Livelihood —One's livelihood should be maintained by lawful and moral means, and should not involve activities that intend to harm sentient beings, nor engage in improper activities such as geomancy, astrology and witchcraft.
4.6 Right Diligence—One should make constant effort and take appropriate measures in freeing oneself from improper activities and their sources and advancing on the righteous path to Enlightenment.
4.7 Right Mindfulness—One should be constantly aware of one's feelings, emotions, thoughts and environment, and upon seeing their transient nature, free oneself from attachment and suffering in entanglement.
After the above preparation, one may then work for:
4.8 Right Meditation—Through cultivation of Buddhist meditation one gradually achieves the various states of meditation which are, in general, characterized by concentration, tranquility, feeling of light and ease, and spiritual insight.
The Eightfold Noble Path was arranged in a logical and natural order. The first two steps have to do with learning the teachings and internalizing them. Then one begins to adjust one's speech and activities in accordance with the Dharma, and even reflect on one's livelihood to make sure that one is thoroughly consistent with the teaching of Buddha. In addition, one needs to adopt appropriate practices and work on spiritual improvement diligently and constantly. If one is not working devotedly for Enlightenment, true spiritual transcendence will not have a chance to mature into reality. Only after one has become a devout Buddhist working diligently for Enlightenment, can one become constantly mindful of one's inner feelings, thoughts and outward environment and see them as they are, free from the bias of attachments, illusions and prejudices. Only then is one ready to engage in proper meditation and, in time, to harvest the fine results of Buddhist meditation—liberation from worldly sorrows and enjoyment of an open and compassionate life. In short, achievement in Buddhist meditation is the result of thorough understanding of Buddhist philosophy, consistency of one's whole being, plus diligent practice.
5. My late teacher Yogi Chen used the analogy of gardening to point out the main stages of approaching Enlightenment. From this sequence of eight stages we can see the interdependency of the main steps that a serious practitioner should take, and appreciate the proper position of meditation in Buddhism from the perspective of a lifelong endeavor.
The Eight Stages on the Path toward Buddhahood as taught by the Buddhist Yogi C. M. Chen:
In this sequence of practical training for a Buddhist practitioner, meditation comes sixth, indicating that meditation should be preceded by the preparatory steps of being aware of impermanence, renouncing worldly activities, behaving in accordance with Buddhist rules of conduct, developing the Bodhicitta and practicing compassionate services. It also shows that Wisdom and Buddhahood are based on achievement in meditation.
Below I will explain the eight stages in more detail.
5.1 Use the Money of Impermanence
To enter the path of devoted practice of Buddhism, one should be fully aware of the facts of impermanence: life is impermanent; there is no guarantee of how long it will last; one does not know when it will end; and one does not know how it will end. Nevertheless, we all know that death will certainly come. Only when one is fully aware of these facts of impermanence will one realize the importance of immediately engaging in Buddhist practice and service. If we put off Buddhist practice, Buddhist teachings will remain just words, and we cannot benefit from it. Life is short and we may never have the opportunity to practice Buddhism if we keep procrastinating.
To use the money of impermanence means to treasure one's own time, to find time for Buddhist practice, and to give up non-essential and inconsequential activities.
Many Buddhists think that they will devote themselves to practice at their leisure during retirement years—right now is too early to quit. In the event of sickness or accidents, they will have to quit their worldly commitments anyway. Some of them, alas, die before their retirement, so they will never have had a chance to devote themselves to the practice. Even if they live to retirement age, their worldly commitments are many and their energy and concentration is weak, consequently they cannot practice diligently. They can hardly advance on the path to Enlightenment themselves, not to mention becoming able to guide others onto the path. Reflecting on this, should not we as Buddhists make a wise choice and a steadfast decision early in life?
5.2 Purchase a Land of Renunciation
In order to use our time on Buddhist study and practice, we need to renounce worldly activities; otherwise we will always be preoccupied by entanglements. A practitioner without renunciation of worldly activities is like a farmer without land; how could he proceed to plant anything? Ideally, one should renounce the world to the extent that his entire mind and all of his time are absorbed by Buddhist study and practice. One should, at least, start with cutting down on non-essential activities. Lay Buddhists who maintain worldly life-styles should observe renunciation of mind, i.e., their minds should be free from worldly desires, entanglements and anticipations. We can achieve this kind of renunciation by realizing that all worldly things have to be given up in the end. They should allow time each day for practice, and during these periods of practice, they should renounce the rest of the world completely, and be totally absorbed in their devoted practice. They should also try to utilize holidays and vacations for additional practice, using that time for short retreats in solitude. In brief, renunciation is not just avoiding worldly entanglements, but it is also active striving for Buddhist study and practice. It is clear that this kind of renunciation is not escaping from the reality of life. If one's renunciation of worldly activities is not thorough, then one does not have solid ground to build the edifice of Buddhahood—whenever the residue of worldly involvements goes up-and-down, it will produce an earthquake to one's practice.
5.3 Build a Fence of Silas (Rules of Conduct)
How do we secure possession of land and protect it from intruders? We build a fence around it. Similarly, in order to secure our renunciation of worldly activities and insulate our practice from corruptive influences we need to follow the rules of conduct set out by Buddha.
The rules of conduct of Buddhism may be classified into two main types: One type is to help one stay away from evil or worldly troubles; the other type is to guide one toward active participation in practice and service. Staying away from evil is not the best way to purify oneself; rather, it is active involvement in services. When one participates in service his view gradually broadens, consequently he will understand the misery of being self-centered and the happiness of an open attitude toward people and life. Also, through service to people one experiences the happiness of helping others; this will enable him to give up self-centeredness which produces suffering. A self-centered person lives an anxious life of calculating —what is my share, what is in it for me … and loses all spontaneity and joy of life. In order to free ourselves from such an anxious way of life, we should be concerned about what we have to offer and how best to help others.
Earnest gratitude from others can be earned only by sincere caring and thoughtfulness. When kindness is imparted, both parties are warmed by a feeling of oneness; and peace on earth begins right there. It is not very easy to appreciate teachings on why we should be kind to one another, but it is intuitively felt when we practice service and kindness.
The analogy of silas as a wall emphasizes the protective aspect of silas. It should not be mistaken for a limiting prison because the silas also emphasize and encourage caring for and serving all sentient beings.
5.4 Plant the Seed of Bodhicitta
To plant the seed of Bodhicitta means to cultivate through practice the will to help all sentient beings attain Full Enlightenment. Learning about Buddhism and becoming appreciative of the great wish to help all sentient beings attain Enlightenment is just an abstract ideal for neophytes. It has some appeal to us but is not assimilated by us. Nevertheless, all Buddhist practices begin with Developing the Bodhicitta, i.e., wishing that all sentient beings be well, free from suffering and attain ultimate liberation; and conclude with dedication of merits, i.e., sharing the merits of practice with all sentient beings. In this way we are reminded from beginning to end to work for the Enlightenment of all sentient beings. Consequently, through years of practice the abstract ideal gradually becomes internalized until it becomes our dominant will.
It is not easy to let go of personal problems that are usually present and yet view the whole spectrum of all beings' suffering through life and death with compassion. Nevertheless, in order to liberate oneself completely, such a fundamental change of mind is necessary.
In order to develop one's own Bodhicitta, one should learn the great vows of Bodhisattvas and Buddhas as recorded in the Sutras, memorize them, and repeat them daily. One may also formulate one's own great vows of Bodhicitta which deal with the special problems of our times and are in accordance with Buddhist principles.
Our names are just words and sounds; after years of usage they have become so important to our lives and emotions. Similarly, the recitation of Buddha's great vows or our own vows of Bodhicitta may seem, in the beginning, to be just vain hopes. Nevertheless, through years of regular practice these vows may become central to our thinking and shape the course of our lives.
At the beginning of practice one should visualize all Buddhas and holy beings in the sky blessing us, and all sentient beings surrounding oneself practicing simultaneously. This visualization includes the whole universe and may help enlarge our minds and free us from egocentrism.
5.5 Irrigate with the Water of Compassion
It is one thing to have good intentions to help others; and it is another thing to actually get involved; and it is still another thing to have the ability to help others. In the course of helping others, the recipients' reactions render complications to the situation.
Great compassion cannot be mere words; it requires deeds in the form of service. Therefore, after one has adopted the Bodhicitta as the root of one's intentions and actions, one needs to learn how to help others on the Buddhist path through compassionate service.
Service may be in the form of offering material help, spiritual guidance, moral support or sanctuary. It should be offered with pure intentions, i.e., free from any expectation of gain and gratitude. It should be given to whoever is in need, rather than only to those whom one cares about or is related to. One should not become attached to the merits of service, but maintain a humble and grateful attitude for the opportunity to serve.
In order to grow through compassionate service, one should practice it in daily life and adhere to it as a lifelong way of life. Just as plants need regular irrigation for the duration of their lives, one needs to be patient and tolerant in order to grow through service. The hardships that one endures in service will someday yield sweet fruits of joy. It is precisely through offering and sacrificing one's well-being for others that one grows out of the tiny cell of self and enjoys the fresh open air of great compassion which envisions the Enlightenment of all sentient beings.
When we put others' well-being before our own, even sacrifice our own well-being for others, we will receive the real benefit—the joy of service. All worldly rewards are very limited in what they have to offer—how much can one eat and wear? How big a house does one need? Luxuries are merely burdens in disguise. Only when we live a simple way of life and devote ourselves to Buddhist practice and service, will we live a happy life.
Service and care need not be in words, but need be in deeds. Those who are benefitting from your care and service will appreciate it, and the warmth felt in their hearts will be the source of true happiness—both for them and for you.
5.6 Fertilize with the Manure of Meditation
Through experiences gained in service one's mind gradually becomes purer and purer. Only then can one practice mediation and progress without going astray.
Without taking the preparatory steps as mentioned above, those who jump into meditation practice may still learn to concentrate, but only to concentrate on their self-interest and egocentricity. Their walls of self becomes a fortress which limits their lives as those in a cold prison. Their fighting and competition with others gain force but only to bring about more destruction of their own innocence and our peaceful environment.
People who have already practiced meditation without understanding the necessity of preparation should begin to make amends; otherwise, not only attachments to worldly objects but also those to supernatural phenomena would lure one astray from the path toward Enlightenment.
The real benefits of a solid approach to meditation will come gradually and become obvious after, not days or months, but years of practice.
Without the concentration, tranquility and clarity of a meditative state one can hardly free oneself from the grip of conceptual dualism, habitual attachments and subtle clinging in one's subconsciousness. Also, the innate supernatural abilities will not have a chance to manifest in a mind clouded by desires, worldly considerations, delusions and prejudices. Therefore, just as fertilizer enriches the soil to bring about the blooming of flowers and the yielding of fruits, meditation helps one regain the innate wisdom which is beyond conceptual and cultural limits and develop innate supernatural abilities which transcend physical and natural limits.
5.7 Bloom will the Blossom of Wisdom
The wisdom of Buddha is innate and transcends concepts. We are so engrossed in worldly affairs that our innate wisdom becomes clouded. As we progress on the path toward Enlightenment our innate wisdom will gradually manifest in our ability to remain peaceful amidst the ups and downs of our lives. Also, it will manifest in our ability to help improve the environment toward peace and freedom.
Although Wisdom is a very abstract ideal, nevertheless, the growth of Wisdom in a Buddhist practitioner can be glimpsed from his unpretentious behavior, humble and kind manners, simple and straight expressions and humorous remarks.
5.8 Ripen will the Fruit of Buddhahood
As we progress on the path toward Enlightenment our wisdom and compassion gradually mature and unify into spontaneous acts of salvation.
The analogy above outlines the main steps of the staircase aspiring toward Buddhahood. Instead of providing a cluster of minor rules of conduct this analogy serves as a vivid and easy-to-remember reminder of the key sequential steps that a devoted practitioner should take. Of course we should pay attention to the rules of conduct, no matter how minor they are, but even more so we should reflect on where we stand with respect to the sequential main steps. Significant progress is made only when we advance on the main steps.
Serious practitioners need to go through the step of renunciation; otherwise, they will not even have a chance to understand what Buddha really taught, not to mention to realize Buddhahood. The true meaning of Buddha's teachings should be understood intuitively through living a Buddhist way of life; those who have only conceptual grasping of the philosophy are far from understanding the teachings.
1. Meditation is crucial to the Maturity of Wisdom
We mentioned above the sequence of behavior, meditation and maturity in the course of one's practice. Meditation is the central connection between behavior and maturity. Observance of rules of conduct alone, without the further aid of meditation, can hardly bring about maturity of innate wisdom. Observance of rules of conduct requires mindfulness and will, but does not entail thorough understanding of Buddhist philosophy and pure intention. Only through purification of the subconscious achieved in deep meditative states can all hindrances to the manifestation of innate wisdom be resolved.
2. Meditation is Fundamental to the Manifestation of Supernatural Abilities
In Buddhism supernatural abilities such as clairvoyance, clairaudience, mind reading, past lives recollection, and appearance at will, are not sought after. Attachment to supernatural abilities is considered a hindrance to Full Enlightenment. Displaying or boasting about one's supernatural abilities is usually prohibited except in rare occasions when such acts will help increase faith in Buddhism.
For example, when I pray for the deceased, sometimes they appear to me. Since David Tseng is here with us, I would like to mention an incident related to him. Once I was at home in El Cerrito and sat in meditation; I heard David's voice over the telephone answering machine. He called me from Miami and said that his friend passed away in Los Angeles, so please perform Powa〈a tantric ritual to help gain rebirth in Buddha's Pureland〉for him. Simultaneously, an old man's face appeared in front of me; he also appeared during my practice of Powa. Later I checked with David, and he confirmed that the face and posture I saw matched his friend. The deceased was a total stranger to me, nevertheless, when I sincerely prayed for him, through Buddha's grace, such unusual phenomenon occurred. Events like this are plentiful; they help us to understand the deeper meaning of Buddhist teaching, and have deeper faith in the Dharma.
In telling you about this event I am not claiming possession of supernatural powers because most of the time I do not see anything unusual. However, events like this do occur, and they demonstrate that our innate supernatural abilities may be awakened through the cultivation of Buddhist practice.
As one progresses in meditation, the innate supernatural abilities will manifest themselves in a mind of clarity. Since this is a natural development the practitioner should not avoid manifestation of supernatural abilities, nor should he anticipate, cling to, or feel glorified by such manifestations. Since we are all capable of the development of supernatural abilities and also equally capable of attaining Buddhahood, no one is special. People who are proud of their supernatural abilities are still under the illusion of a special self. When one is proud of or boasting about one's supernatural abilities, it is just an expression of egocentricity. Basically it is not very different from the pride of having a beautiful appearance. What good does it bring to the rest of the world? The world will improve only when we have compassion, tolerance and the ability to serve. To gain complete freedom and be of utmost service to all, one should steer clear of such attachments and broaden one's view to include the whole world. This does not mean that we should not esteem achievements in realizations; it simply means that milestones, when attached to, will turn into blocking stones.
The supernatural ability that relieves one from all sorrows and transmigration is called Defilement-proof. Defilement-proof is the peculiar supernatural ability of Buddhist saints because only the Buddhist realizations are beyond heavenly attainments and free from transmigration. Buddhist realizations will transcend transmigration because they are based on the non-self philosophy which enables one to become free from all attachments. For the non-self ideal to become a concrete realization, it is necessary to implant it into one mind through meditation.
From the above, we see that all supernatural abilities will manifest only after cultivation in meditation. Besides, we also see that, without proper understanding of Buddhist teaching of non-self, achievements in meditation can not liberate us completely. Therefore, in order to maximize the results of our efforts in meditation, we should obtain a thorough insight of non-self through the study of Buddhist teachings and live an altruistic way of life. Reality is in Limitless-Oneness; do not be limited.
3. Meditation is Fundamental to All Realizations in Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana
All realizations in Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana are based on Defilement-proof supernatural ability. Therefore, they can be achieved only through cultivation in meditation.
One's achievement in meditation reflects, on the whole, the degree of clarity and tranquility of one's mind. One's inner peace and clarity depend on balanced maintenance and development of both body and mind. Therefore, meditation involves proper and regular diet, hygiene, exercise, and moral observance, as well as consistency of mind, speech, behavior, activities and livelihood. Through diligent practice of meditation in such a thorough manner for long periods of time, one's ability to concentrate and visualize will improve naturally and solidly.
If we do not understand the wholeness of meditation as described above but adopt meditation as merely a sort of recreation or a training in concentration, then we may still obtain the temporary benefit of relaxation or build up an ability to concentrate but cannot achieve profound tranquility of mind. Besides, one's inner conflicts, attachments and prejudices may be fueled by the mental force developed through meditation. Consequently, the more one practices meditation, the more likely one suffers from inner and outer conflicts.
Furthermore, adopting meditation as merely a technique or training without a thorough and complete adjustment of one's way of life is like arranging cut flowers—sooner or later the beauty will fade away. In contrast, meditation integrated with a devout Buddhist way of life is like planting a tree in rich soil; as long as one keeps up the practice, the benefits will naturally grow, blossom and yield fruits. This is the right approach; it is stable and safe. If you advance in the right manner, even when your daily meditation session is short, over the years it will yield real results.
Nowadays more and more people are attracted to and engaging in meditation practice. Nevertheless, most of these people are not aware of the wholeness of meditation. Some of them even suffer as a result of lacking such knowledge; therefore, the importance of this topic cannot be overemphasized.
In fact, all the things that we have discussed so far apply equally to breathing practice. When our minds are entangled, the air passages in our bodies are also twisted. Consequently, stronger breathing may cause more severe damage. Therefore, breathing practice also requires wholeness of one's way of life. Nowadays so many people are trying various kinds of Qi Gong (氣功 ; breathing practice or yoga), therefore I mention this point in passing.
Are there any questions about things that I have talked about so far?
Q7: If someone who has a very negative mind starts to practice concentration and breathing technique, you are saying that it could actually do them harm?
Yes, it is possible, especially after meditation has become a habit. The stages that I have just mentioned are not invented by me; they are all in the Sutras. If we want to learn Buddhism but do not follow the Sutras, then where else can we find reliable sources to guide us?
Of course, such a thorough preparation may seem too huge a project to undertake, and in view of the transient nature of human lives, it would seem that one may never be ready to practice meditation. Therefore, I often encourage people to start with the chanting practice which is a safer approach.
The reason that chanting is a safe practice to begin with is as follows:
Through the habit of self-centered thinking we have become engrossed in worldly sorrows. When we begin to practice meditation we are confronting our inner turmoil, and due to lack of training, beginners tend to remain engulfed in the inner turmoil. Besides, we are so accustomed to worrying that we do not know how to escape from it. Practicing chanting develops a new habit which is free from worldly considerations. The force of this new habit will help dissipate the old habit of self-centeredness. Since chanting is free from entanglements, we are indeed practicing pure action. Originally our actions are all pure in the sense that they are genuine, spontaneous and free from calculations. Worldliness has deprived us of such purity. Now, in order to live a happy life we need to regain our innocence through the practice of pure intention and action. Therefore, chanting is a slow but effective method which will gradually free us from worldly entanglements and bring back our innocence.
Since chanting requires very little effort, when we practice chanting it will not become a serious confrontation with the illusions, attachments and prejudices that are deeply rooted in us, therefore, it is a safe practice for any beginner. Although it may seem to be only a drop in the bucket in the beginning, if we keep up the practice of chanting for years, it will have a cumulative effect. Furthermore, chanting will eradicate the roots of our sorrows because it works right at the center of command—our minds.
After one has practiced chanting for years, one will realize that chanting is indeed also a concentration practice—concentrating on the holy name or mantra repeated. Meditative states will also arise during chanting. Furthermore, chanting practice may also lead one beyond the confinement of conceptuality.
Q8: Suppose someone has achieved one-pointed concentration, what are some of the symptoms of the problems that you say he would encounter?
It all depends on what he is doing after he develops the ability to concentrate. Since we are talking in the abstract without referring to any special case, I cannot say what the symptoms would be. The lack of general guidelines shows that it is very important in the actual practice of meditation to have an experienced teacher. Experienced teachers will be able to understand the problems which practitioners encounter, and offer appropriate solutions. Besides, interferences from evil spirits may be warded off by the protectors of teachers who have attained some degree of realization.
In principle, when we encounter problems in meditation practice, we should reflect on the foundational preparations. If there is anything lacking in our preparation, we should start making amends.
After one becomes able to concentrate one-pointedly, one will often have experiences of the spiritual realm. Some spirits may want to test you or lure you by fancy phenomena, supernatural abilities or worldly gains. Evil spirits may try to possess you or become your ally. If you become attracted to the power and gains they provide, you will become their instrument for obtaining worship, offerings or energies.
In this connection, it is very important to take refuge in Buddha. Taking refuge is not just participation in the ceremony; it means that one fully understands that Buddha is the one who can guide us to ultimate liberationncluding liberation from the traps of evil spirits. Hence, one relies on Buddha and his protectors for guidance and protection. For serious practice, taking refuge in the Buddha will shield one from evil. Taking refuge in Buddha also entails following the teachings of Buddha and observing the Buddhist rules of conduct; it is not just a demonstration of faith. If a practitioner is not rooted in Bodhicitta, but is acting out of considerations for private gains, then Buddha and holy beings will not help you because helping you in that direction is actually hurting you.
Q9: What if a man prefers to live a celibate life style; he is not a monk but this is what he likes to do; he does not want to have children and he does not do improper things to himself; in some religions there is an assertion that the energy or essence saved can be used for a lot of purposes. Does Buddhism have anything to say to that particular issue? Is this gathering of energy of any use to the Buddhist practitioner in meditation?
The whole spectrum of Buddhist practices may be viewed as a sequential process of sublimation from coarser to finer states until we return to our original purity.
In this process of sublimation there are different approaches to the sexual energy:
In Hinayana the teaching is to remain celibate and set one's mind on achieving liberation from transmigration in the cycle of life-and-death. Such an approach to sublimate the sexual energy is, in a sense, not the ideal one because it is both restraining and limited. It teaches one to avoid facing a major aspect of life, and consequently one would never learn to experience the purity of sex. Nevertheless, this approach has its relative merits—it does help simplify the situation so that beginners will more likely succeed in reaching some degree of sublimation.
In Mahayana the sublimation of sexual energy emphasizes identifying members of the opposite sex as one's mother or sisters and devoting oneself to helping all beings achieve Enlightenment. This approach does not face sex squarely but enlarges one's view to include all sentient beings. This approach includes using sex to help others. Nevertheless, the purity of sex remains a theory; in practice, celibacy is encouraged and identified with spiritual purity. This approach is still not the ideal one because it does not look at sex as it is, and, in practice, mistakenly identifies celibacy with spiritual purity—such identification commits the fallacy of being misled by appearance.
In Vajrayana the sublimation of sexual energy involves identification of sex with liberating practices and salvation activities. It not only recognizes the original purity of sex but also teaches techniques that use sex to achieve Enlightenment. This is the highest and ultimate teaching. Nevertheless, since such a high state of purity is hard to achieve, most practitioners should go through training in Hinayana and Mahayana before they adopt sexual practices in Vajrayana.
According to Tantric Buddhism, Enlightenment means realization of Dharmakaya, i.e., experience of a cloudless blue sky into which everything else has dissolved. Advanced practitioners who have achieved mastery of meditation and breathing practice may use sexual practice to purify their subtle attachments and illusions, and achieve realization of Dharmakaya as a cloudless sky. Nevertheless, this is not the only possible path. One may also practice the realization of Dharmakaya in sleep. The process of sleep is like a shallow process of death. An advanced practitioner may reach deeper and deeper states during his sleep and thereby approach the death process and even experience some parts of the death process. During the death process the cloudless sky experience may emerge, even though for ordinary people its duration is just like that of lightning. An advanced practitioner may apply the stabilizing force of meditation to prolong the duration of the cloudless sky, and dissolve one's self into it thereby achieving identification with the Dharmakaya.
Other occasions when one may naturally experience the cloudless sky are fainting, being shocked and severe sneezing. Fainting and sneezing are not suitable for practice. In Zen practice shock may be used to induce the enlightened state.
The second meeting ended here. Dr. Lin explained to the audience The Ritual of Releasing Lives to Freedom which was composed by Yogi Chen. Afterwards all went to the Miami beach to release lobsters and crabs into the ocean. (See Appendix C at the end of this book.)
Through concentration practice one learns to set his mind fully at a point without the distraction of thoughts and emotional entanglements. Through observation practice one learns to be mindful of things as they are. Under the heading of observation practice there are two main kinds of practices, namely, pure observation and guided observation. Pure observation is to be mindful of things as they are, without becoming entangled or judgmental. Guided observation is observation in the light of Buddhist principles or visualization in accordance with Buddhist teachings.
Concentration without observation is like a sharp sword in its sheath; it is powerful but inactive. Observation without concentration is like candlelight in the wind; it is bright but unsteady. Therefore, both practices need to be adopted and balanced until one's daily activities become natural with concentration and mindfulness. Only when one's concentration and observation practices have become harmoniously unified can one undertake the purification of subtle inner attachments and conceptual frameworks. Thus, in order to achieve Full Enlightenment it is necessary to master Buddhist meditations.
In general, the natural sequence is to learn concentration practice first, and begin observation practice only after one has developed some ability to concentrate—it is easier and sensible to proceed in this way. However, in so far as application of Buddhist teachings to daily life goes, one may need to use the practice which is more appropriate to the situation at hand. For example, problems in personal relationships may not simply disappear if you use concentration on other activities. Their solutions may be easier to obtain if you analyze the situation in the light of Buddhist principles.
For daily practice one needs to allocate an appropriate ratio of effort to these two types of practice according to one's state of mind and inclination. For example, people with very scattered thoughts should do only concentration practice in the beginning, and people with some ability to concentrate may want to spend only the first quarter of a meditation session on such practice and then proceed with observation practice.
1. Understand the impermanence of worldly engagements—even worldly success is only temporary and problems of life such as aging, sickness and death are inevitable. With a keen awareness of impermanence one is no longer eager to devote himself fully to worldly pursuits.
2. Understand the preciousness of the rest of one's lifetime—one has only an uncertain amount of time left, not knowing when it will end; this span of time can be used for Buddhist practice so that one may be ultimately liberated and eventually help all sentient beings become liberated. With such an appreciation of the remaining lifetime, one will devote himself to diligently practicing Buddha's teachings.
3. Do no evil, practice all good deeds, observe Buddhist rules of conduct, and purify one's mind. Discipline oneself so that even minor acts of misconduct are avoided; practice kindness, generosity and tolerance even at the expense of one's convenience. The key point of observing Buddhist rules of conduct is to free oneself from worldly entanglements and to devote oneself to the service of all sentient beings, especially to work toward their ultimate liberation. A simple yet effective method to purify one's mind is to form the habit of chanting a Buddha's name or a mantra.
It is important to express admiration for others' good deeds in public and reserve constructive criticism for exchange of opinions in private. In this way people who try to do good will be encouraged and find it easier to do so. By refraining from criticism in public we are avoiding misunderstandings, rash judgments and hard feelings, and will be acting in the awareness that we all make mistakes.
Before we judge others we should reflect on our qualification to do so. Realizing the lack of relevant knowledge on our part will keep us humble and keep the world in peace. Being humble will keep us away from unnecessary and inconsequential controversies. Being humble will purify our minds and leave us with only one way to proceed—the path of active and constructive service.
We as Buddhists should not adopt an antagonistic attitude toward other religions which teach love and altruism. Compared with people who hurt others or do not do good, believers of a religion that teaches love of mankind are very precious indeed. We should welcome opportunities to exchange ideas with them in a harmonious atmosphere.
4. Sincerely wish all sentient beings to be free from suffering, attain happiness, and reach ultimate liberation; and carry out such great wishes by devoting oneself to Buddhist practice and service. Buddhist service is not limited to formal activities which carry such a banner; it is equally important to be humble, simple, tolerant, generous, peaceful, mindful and caring in daily activities. The spreading of Buddhism is not limited to providing lectures, publications, and ceremonies; it is equally important to transmit the spirit of compassion and wisdom through our worldly endeavors and our daily prayers and dedication of merits. The teaching of Buddha will not be forced on anyone. The teachings will be followed by people who have come to appreciate their value and preserved by sincere followers for all generations to come.
1. Serious practitioners should renounce all worldly involvements and devote their time and energy fully to Buddhist practice. Very advanced practitioners may be able to fully integrate worldly activities with the Dharma and hence need no formal renunciation. Nevertheless, in general, due to our very limited resources of time and energy and the unpredictability of the turn of events, it is advisable for devotees to renounce worldly engagements as much as possible.
Achievement on the Buddhist path usually takes years of devoted practice because the minimum goal is to transcend transmigration. Furthermore, the proper motivation of a Buddhist practitioner should include offering the fruits of his achievement to helping others realize Enlightenment. Therefore, it is very important for sincere aspirants to devote themselves fully to Buddhist practice as early in life as possible.
2. It is very desirable to have a teacher who has some experiences of realization. Following the guidance of such a teacher, a serious practitioner should go into retreat to practice meditation. A smooth and progressive course of meditation practice would ensue under such favorable conditions.
One may begin with short retreats, making good use of a weekend or a three-day vacation. One should set a physical boundary for the retreat and stay within it the whole time. One should engage in no worldly activities, remain speechless and see no one. One may eat and sleep as normal. One will do only Buddhist practices such as chanting, prostration, circumambulation and meditation, and read only materials related to Dharma. One may cook for himself or have others bring food to him without meeting him. One may leave notes asking for supply of necessities but the number of such notes should be minimal. One enters the retreat in late afternoon and comes out in the morning. After having become familiar with short retreats one may gradually conduct longer and longer retreats.
The actual process of finding a good teacher and becoming an accepted disciple depends on opportunities and personal effort. Although it may seem like one is trying to find a needle in the haystack, based on my own experience I would say that as long as one is sincere in devoting himself to working for the Enlightenment of all sentient beings, he will have such an opportunity in due course. All Buddhas and holy beings will help whomever has such a Bodhicitta. One will survive all tests and demanding circumstances by maintaining such a Bodhicitta.
A good time for meditation is when one's spirit is fresh and one feels like doing it. After a nap or waking up in the morning is usually a suitable time for meditation. An experienced practitioner would at times have a natural desire to go into meditation. When one's mind is preoccupied with worldly considerations it is not very useful to practice meditation.
Choose a period in one's daily life when one is unlikely to be disturbed and one's spirit is usually fresh, e.g., early in the morning, and set it aside for daily practice of meditation. Routine practice will soon become a habit; and the force of habit will help one continue to practice meditation. Since the profound effects of meditation usually take many years to surface, forming such a habit is essential to success. During daily practice one should refuse to be disturbed, thereby ensuring concentration. One might consider this period as preparation for the inevitable death process when one will need to concentrate on maintaining one's peace of mind.
Beginners should not strive for long sessions of meditation; rather they should start with fifteen to thirty minute sessions. In this way meditation will not become a hardship but an enjoyable activity. However, it is better to practice several times daily so that it will soon become a habit.
A quiet and undisturbed place, especially if it is an altar room or retreat room, would be ideal. Preferably where the air is fresh and the light is soft. Ideally the fresh air flows across in front of the practitioner and no wind blows directly toward him. Bright lights tend to cause thoughts to ramble while dim lights would induce a dull and sleepy mind; therefore, light adjustment is very important.
You should be neither too tense nor too loose. Do not be overly critical of one's own progress or the lack of it. Be relaxed and natural, understanding that meditation practice is a long-term cultivation and that the achievements will come naturally in time but cannot be rushed. Do not expect too much, too early; simply be patient. Do not tire yourself by overdoing it and consequently burning out your interest in meditation. The attitude of a diligent nurseryman working in a tree nursery should be imitated.
4.1 Maintain a moderate, bland diet by avoiding foods which are too greasy, too pungent, too spicy, etc., and eat only a moderate amount of food. Stop eating as soon as you sense fullness. Eat regularly and avoid snacks.
4.2 Practice meditation only when one is neither hungry nor full. One should wait for at least thirty minutes after a meal before practicing meditation.
4.3 Pay attention to personal hygiene and maintain a clean and orderly habitat.
4.4 Do a proper amount of physical exercise daily.
4.5 Before meditation do some physical exercises to relax the body; after meditation walk slowly for a while to help regulate blood circulation in the lower body.
4.6 The ideal posture for practicing meditation as prescribed in books is difficult to assume for many beginners. The main reason is that their bodies are no longer supple enough to sit cross-legged, owing to their lifelong ill habits and daily tensions. In fact, the ideal posture is usually achieved only after years of practice. Beginners need not be discouraged by their inability to assume the ideal posture. Just sit with legs bent and one leg resting on top of the other, or simply sit naturally.
Serious practitioners may do exercises to loosen the tendons of their legs and thereby achieve the full lotus posture. The following exercise was taught by Yogi Chen and described in Chapter Seven of his monumental work Buddhist Meditation (Some other supplementary exercises are also described there):
[While sitting on a carpet,] take one foot by the ankle, holding it from underneath with the opposite hand. Place the other hand on the knee of the same leg. Raise the ankle with the first hand and press down upon the knee with the second. Then release the foot so that it strikes the ground [i.e., the carpet].
4.7 After urination or bowel movement one should wait fifteen to thirty minutes before practicing meditation. After meditation one had better wait fifteen minutes before urination or bowel movement. This is to allow time for the transition between meditative state and normal state of the body.
Wear clothing that is loose and comfortable, especially avoid tight trousers. The amount of clothing should keep one warm but not hot. Cover the legs with a blanket or towel during meditation to protect the joints from cold, wind and moisture; otherwise, one may develop arthritis eventually.
Sit on a carpet or a cushion which is larger than one's sitting area. According to the teaching of Yogi Chen, one should not use an additional small cushion to raise the buttocks even though that will induce ease of sitting in the full lotus posture. Otherwise, the flow of inner air cannot be forced by the full lotus posture to go upward and thereby help induce good meditation.
1. Before the Sitting
1.1 Arrange offerings before Buddhist images; if offerings are already on the altar, one may simply add rice or water into the mandala or offering cups. Light candles and offer incense. Prostrate three or five times to the holy images. Pray for progress in meditation and a smooth session.
1.2 Repeat the Four Boundless Minds three times, thereby reminding oneself that the ultimate goal of Buddhist meditation is the well-being of all sentient beings:
May all beings be happy and in possession of causes leading to happiness!
May all beings be free from both suffering and causes leading to suffering!
May all beings be inseparable from the joy of the Dharma which is ultimately free from any suffering!
May all beings be free from the duality of attachment and antagonism, and abide in the liberation of equanimity!
1.3 Stop thinking about anything other than the present objective as set by the meditation practice. Be mindful of impermanence and view anything that comes to mind as in the distant past, dead and forgotten. Be fully aware of the lack of concentration and peace in one's mind and consequently desire to devote oneself to the practice, understanding that this is worthwhile and will lead to inner peace.
2. During the Sitting
2.1 The ideal posture is called the Seven Points Posture of Vairocana and consists of the following elements:
To assume this posture one follows the seven points above in the given order. This posture is considered ideal for meditation because later when one is able to sit in meditation for a lengthy period this posture becomes very stable and comfortable. The palms and thumbs are connected in such a way so that when one enters the meditative state the inner air will flow through and then one feels that the two hands are merging into one.
In order to teach my sons the full lotus posture I observed the way I crossed my legs and analyzed it into a sequence of three steps; when my sons were instructed in this sequence they learned to sit cross-legged in no time, therefore, I will describe the sequence below for my readers:
Of course, one may switch systematically the left and right side in the above sequence and obtain an equally valid posture. In fact, depending on each individual's physical make-up, he will find one posture more natural and comfortable than the other. Therefore, one should experiment with both to find the more comfortable one.
When one assumes the sitting posture of simply resting one leg on top of the other (half lotus posture) the key point is to align the legs into one line. If one cannot assume even the half lotus posture, then one can sit in the usual manner with the legs crossed and the buttocks raised by a small cushion. (When one is not sitting in the full lotus posture, the reason for not using a small cushion to raise the buttocks is no longer there.)
2.2 Cover one's lower body with a blanket or towel to protect the joints from cold, wind and moisture. Have a coat or blanket nearby to add on whenever one feels cold. During meditation one's body temperature changes and one becomes more sensitive to changes in the atmosphere, therefore one needs to take these precautions.
3. After the Sitting
3.1 Stretch the right hand with the index finger pointing toward the right front, and stare at the tip of the index finger for five minutes. Then switch to the left side and do the same. These movements help one come out of the meditative state. Entering the meditative state is a gradual process; hence coming out of it should also be gradual.
3.2 Massage oneself or exercise a little while to help restore blood and inner air circulation. Then slowly get up from the seat.
3.3 After one has risen from the seat, walk slowly, preferably circumambulating clockwise, for at least fifteen minutes before one goes to the rest-room or lies down to rest. While circumambulating chant a Buddha's name or a mantra, and dedicate the merits to all sentient beings for their swift achievement of Enlightenment.
I am now going to present eight basic methods of meditation. They are simple and seemingly easy to follow; however, they are difficult to execute to perfection by most beginners. The practitioner may choose to work continually on one of them, rotate and practice all of them, or practice any one of them which seems appropriate to the situation.
These basic methods consist of three practices on concentration, three practices on observation and two practices on the unification of concentration and observation.
1. Concentration Practice
Chant the name of a Buddha or Bodhisattva, or a mantra continuously and single-mindedly. For example, chant Amitabha or Om Ma Ni Bei Mi Hong.
Traditionally chanting is not considered a concentration practice because it is not attending to a fixed point; however, this book is an introduction to meditation for the very beginners, and I believe that chanting is quite appropriate to begin with. For a rather thorough exposition on chanting practice please read my book titled The Buddhist Practice of Chanting "Amitabha
1.2 Counting the Breath
Breathe normally. During one breath, i.e., from the beginning of one inhalation to the end of one exhalation, chant silently: One, one, one… Then, during the next breath, chant silently: Two, two, two… Continue in this manner until one reaches chanting five, and then start over with chanting one again.
Simply do the silent counting during breathing without paying any attention to the quality or change of one's breath. However, in the course of this practice the breathing will naturally become subtler and subtler.
1.3 Visualizing One Point
Think of one's body as transparent and insubstantial as a rainbow or air bubble, and that at the level of the navel, right in the center of the trunk there is a sky-blue ball of light, the size of a pea. Set one's mind on this ball during the whole session. If one's mind tends to become sleepy, one may raise the level of this ball up to that of the heart, throat or forehead; nevertheless, during one session the position of the ball should remain the same throughout.
2. Observation Practice
2.1 Observing Sensations
Observe all the various sensations of the body as they come and go; remain neutral all the time, i.e., refrain from becoming attached or displeased; let the sensations come and go on their own without anticipation or clinging. Beginners may restrict their attention to only a small area of the body or a certain type of sensation such as sounds, smells, etc.
2.2 Observing Thoughts
Observe the natural coming and going of thoughts in one's mind without getting entangled with them; pass no judgment and do not engage in the thinking process; be an impartial onlooker.
2.3 Observing Breaths
Let one's attention follow the flow of breathing: While breathing out one's attention flows out and dissolves into the universe; while breathing in one's attention draws in and rests at the center of the abdomen. Be mindful of the variations in one's breathing such as long or short, coarse or subtle, and present or absent—sometimes the breath is present in only one nostril and during meditation the breathing may stop for an indefinite period.
The essential point of these observation practices is to observe things as they are, without making judgmental distinctions. Usually our conceptual mind is operating and casts a blinder over our immediate experience, consequently we fail to experience things as they are and we live almost exclusively within our thoughts. Therefore, objective observation of our immediate experience is used to help pull us gradually out of conceptual frameworks. Through long term practice of objective observation one naturally realizes the impermanence, Limitless-Oneness and intangibility of phenomena and gradually becomes free from the net of conceptual illusions.
3. Unification of Concentration and Observation
3.1 Unification of Mind and Wind
A detailed description of this practice is contained in Appendix A.
3.2 The Practice of Singing Along
A detailed description of this practice is contained in Appendix B.
1. The corrective goal of a concentration practice is to overcome scattered thoughts, a dull and sleepy state of mind, and absent-mindedness.
2. The corrective goal of an observation practice is, in addition to the corrective goal of a concentration practice, to refrain from becoming entangled with the object being observed and thereby losing the cool impartiality of an onlooker.
3. Helpful methods for achieving the corrective goals:
3.1 To overcome scattered thoughts:
When there are only few and occasional occurrences of scattered thoughts, bring one's attention back to the practice as soon as one becomes aware of the intruding thoughts. When the scattered thoughts are too many or recurring often, come down from the seat and walk in circumambulation while chanting the holy name of a Buddha or a mantra.
3.2 To overcome a dull and sleepy state of mind:
When the dull and sleepy state is shallow, open the eyes wide and bite the teeth several times, and erect the trunk; if the clothing keeps one too warm, change to lighter wear. When the dullness and sleepiness is deep, come down from the seat and go wash the face, or simply take a nap.
3.3 To overcome absent-mindedness:
Return one's attention to the practice as soon as one becomes aware of one's absent-mindedness.
3.4 To overcome entanglement during observation:
When one becomes aware of being lost in the entanglement, remind oneself that such entanglement amounts to self-deception and will yield no fruit, hence it should be given up right away. Immediately return to the attitude of an objective onlooker.
3.5 Pay no attention to the unusual sounds, sights and movements of one's body or inner air flow that sometimes occur during meditation; simply follow the instruction of the meditation method and practice accordingly.
1. Achievement of Concentration Practice:
Being free from disturbance of unintentional scattered thoughts, and free from emotional preferences and complacency, one's mind is naturally pure and clear, abides in equanimity, and is able to concentrate effortlessly at will; the body naturally and continuously feels light and at ease.
2. Achievement of Observation Practice:
Pure, clear and direct experience of all phenomena as they are. If the practice involves visualization, the object visualized, and only that, will appear vividly.
When we are free from conceptual and emotional preconditioning that we have become subject to, we immediately sense the phenomena as a totality, open and boundless. Instead of making distinctions based on personal preferences one realizes that all experiences, good or bad, are parts of an integrated whole; hence one becomes free from trifles and enjoys a life of openness and tolerance. When one is able to appreciate all experiences as a whole, any activity that harms others amounts to self-destruction, and hence one will spontaneously do only good.
3. Although there are systems of stages of meditation achievement described in Buddhism we should not become attached to those names, understanding that they are simply theoretical models to guide the practitioners along the path, leading toward deeper and deeper meditative states. In the Diamond Sutra it is clearly emphasized that people who have achieved Buddhist realizations are free from attachment to holy titles. May all practitioners be free from attachment to holy titles and be free from misleading others using holy titles.
Practicing meditation in concentration and observation will purify one's mind through many stages and gradually free one from the bondage of a conceptual framework. It is concepts which blur one's natural and direct experiences. A practitioner of Buddhist meditation will gradually sense the original purity of Limitless-Oneness. Through the cultivation of such awareness and purity of mind, one spontaneously devotes his life to service aiming at the ultimate well-being of all beings; and his activities are naturally infused with a spirit of compassion and tolerance. With more and more people renewing their lives in this way, the world will become a better place for all to share.
Practicing meditation is like planting a tree from the very beginning; its usefulness is not apparent in the beginning. May all who are interested in practicing Buddhist meditation diligently practice it on a daily basis, sustain the effort throughout their lives, and consequently enjoy refreshed and peaceful lives.
1. May virtuous gurus remain with us and those departed return soon!
2. May perverse views and violence soon become extinct and Dharma spread without hindrance!
3. May all beings proceed diligently on the path and achieve Buddhahood before death!
4. May all beings develop Great Compassion and never regress until they reach perfect Buddhahood!
5. May all beings develop Great Wisdom and never regress until they reach perfect Buddhahood!
Thanks to Upasaka Kwok Sing Hung for formatting the computer file.
Thanks to all Buddhists who helped the publication of this booklet.
Edited and Published by Dr. Yutang Lin
First Edition January 1995
Printed in Taiwan
All rights reserved by Dr. Yutang Lin.
Reprint or redistribute only with permission from Dr. Yutang Lin