Spring 1998


Song of Mind of Niu-t'ou Fa-Jung  Commentary by Master Sheng-yen on a poem by Master Niu-t'ou Fa-jung (594-657), that expresses the Ch'an understanding of mind. Commentary by Master Sheng-yen
Retreat Report  
The Advantages of This So-called Dreaded Terminal Disease Called the Big C A poem by Richard Barsky
Feng Shui or Boston Sojourn
Hunting Season
Two poems by Paulette Graf

Corrections: We made two serious errors in the Retreat Report, p.26, in the Winter Magazine. The last sentence of the fifth paragraph should read, "This has nothing to do with my respect for him; to see him in tso-ch'an awakens in me respect profoundly." The second sentence in the next paragraph should read, "She died early last year, and she felt up to her death that I was pursuing some dangerous, perhaps sinister path by going to these retreats in New York." Although we make many mistakes, we rarely make mistakes which effect the meaning of an article, and we are very sorry for this. 

In our last magazine we asked for contributions to help pay for the publication of the magazine, but we forgot to mention that they are tax deductible. We want to thank the many people who have sent contributions.

Song of Mind of Niu-t'ou Fa-Jung

Commentary by Master Sheng-yen

This is the 25th in a series of articles from lectures given during retreats at the Ch'an Center in Elmhurst, Queens, New York. The talks for this article were given in May 1982.
Song of Mind continues: 

Completely extinguishing birth and death,
The profound mind enters into principle.

Birth and death, as it is used in the line above, has two meanings, and it is the second meaning that is more important. The first meaning is the birth and death of the physical body. According to Buddhadharma, as long as the karma of birth and death exists, there will be karmic retribution that manifests as being born and dying. The Five Precepts[1] and the Ten Virtuous Deeds[2] create birth-and-death, or samsaric, karma. So too do the Five Hindrances,[3] the Five Hellish Deeds,[4] and the Ten Evil Deeds.[5] The karma created by following the Five Precepts and performing the Ten Virtuous Deeds can lead to a more fortunate human birth or to being reborn in a heavenly realm. The karma created by the Five Hindrances, the Five Hellish Deeds, and the Ten Evil Deeds can lead to a less fortunate human birth or to being reborn in one of the more undesirable realms, which include the realms of titans, hungry ghosts, and the hells. 

The second meaning is that the mind is forever being born and dying; that is, as a previous thought passes away, or perishes, a new thought arises, or is born. Moment after moment, thoughts arise and perish, never stopping. Any thought connected to greed, hatred, or ignorance is a thought that is part of the process of the birth and death of the mind. Even the thought "I want to be a Buddha" is created by the mind of birth and death. Wanting to be enlightened is a good desire, because you must start on the Bodhisattva Path somewhere, but it is a desire nonetheless. 

A disciple once asked Master Mazu, "What is non-birth and non-death, not arising and not passing away?" 

Mazu replied, "I don't know. I only know about samsaric karma, the karma of birth and death." The disciple asked, "Then what is the karma of birth and death?" 

Mazu said, "Wanting to become a Buddha, wanting to get enlightened, wanting to cultivate the Bodhisattva Path, wanting to cultivate the Six Paramitas." 

Our desire to transform ourselves from ordinary sentient beings into Buddhas is still a product of the mind that arises and passes away. It is a necessary place to start, but the person who begins with this desire must eventually leave it behind. The Sixth Patriarch, Huineng, wrote in the Platform Sutra that we should begin our practice by taking the Four Great Vows. On retreat we follow his advice, and recite the vows several times a day. But when we meditate, we should not have these thoughts in our minds. Make a vow as you bow to the cushion, but once you sit down and take up the method, let the vow go and allow its power to strengthen and help your practice. Furthermore, do not aspire to too much, such as vowing to sit until you attain enlightenment. Work to your capacity, such as vowing to sit for the entire period without moving or until your mind clears. 

Many here on this retreat are working on a hua tou or gong an (koan), and for these methods the same advice applies. If you are using a hua tou or gong an, you can vow to sit until you give rise to the doubt sensation, which is the burning desire to know the answer to the question posed by the hua tou, even though there is no answer; or, if you have already given rise to the doubt sensation, you can vow to sit until the doubt sensation completely engulfs you and becomes a great mass of doubt. 

Actually, once you are engulfed by the great mass of doubt, you would be so absorbed by the hua tou that you would not want to get up. The great mass of doubt is a necessary step in hua tou or gong an practice. If you do not become engulfed by this doubt sensation, it would be impossible to achieve enlightenment by these methods. 

Many practitioners cannot give rise to this doubt sensation. In that case, all they are doing is reciting the hua tou question over and over. Others give rise to the doubt sensation, but can go no further. Sometimes, practitioners are in the midst of this doubt when a wandering thought suddenly appears, and they mistake it for the answer to the hua tou and think that they have experienced enlightenment. Of course, it is not. What happens when you solve a gong an or hua tou is that you are no longer there. It is not that you come up with an answer. That is how the problem posed by the method is resolved. 

On one retreat, a person was using the hua tou, "Who am I?" Suddenly, he stood up, walked over to me and said, "I know the answer. I'm that little rock on the table under the painting of Bodhi-dharma." 

I asked, "Why is it that you are not Bodhidharma, but just this little rock?" 

He replied, "Well, I don't know. I was practicing hard and felt compelled to turn my head. When I did, the first thing I saw was the rock, and the thought came to me: I am the little rock." 

Do not laugh, it could happen to you. This kind of response is not uncommon. Throughout Buddhist history, people have been practicing these gong an and hua tou. Books have been compiled recounting exchanges between masters and disciples. One can read the answers that disciples gave, whether they were given as words or as actions. People have been reading these books for centuries, hoping to gain insight from these exchanges. Many people try to give the same response or some other clever response, but it is foolish and a waste of time. This is just skirting the practice. The truth is, there are no correct answers to these questions. When you are truly working hard on the method and you reach a point where there are no thoughts at all, then you can see into your self-nature, the nature of Dharma, Buddha-nature. That is the answer.

Now I have a question. Is there a mind or is there no mind that sees into Buddha-nature? If you can correctly answer this, then you have seen into your self-nature. 

The next lines in Song of Mind are: 

Opening your eyes and seeing forms, 
Mind arises in accord with the environment.

Some people like to meditate with their eyes open, others like to close them. We encourage beginners to meditate with their eyes open, so that they do not succumb as easily to drowsiness or fantasies. People who meditate with their eyes closed claim that they are disturbed and distracted by the environment when their eyes are open. Actually, it doesn't matter. Eventually, you will find, whether your eyes are open or closed, that wandering thoughts and fantasies will arise, drowsiness will come, and the environment, at times, will distract you. The problem is not with the eyes, but with the mind. 

Many people tell me that their fantasies and illusions are never as vivid and beautiful as when they come on retreat. Some have claimed that they can create a beautiful scene on the wall in front of them and then travel into the scene and interact with it. I tell them that I am happy the Ch'an Center and retreat can provide them with such fine entertainment but that they might be better off concentrating on their methods to make better use of their time. For those who like to indulge in such fantasies, meditation, it seems, has its benefits. But on retreat it is a waste of time. 

When meditating, you should not focus or concentrate on the wall, the floor, or an object. It doesn't mean that you should purposely blur your vision, for that would eventually cause your eyes to fatigue. Simply, it means not to use your eyes. You have all experienced this. If you are engrossed in something, you are unaware of everything else that is going on around you. Usually, it is because you are engrossed in a daydream, a book, a movie, or work. Here, I am asking that you become so single-mindedly involved with your method that everything else fades away. Of course, counting your breaths is probably not as interesting as reading a mystery novel or daydreaming about an exotic island, but that is why meditation is called practice. 

The same is true for all your senses. When something attracts your eyes and captures your attention, your mind is no longer your own. It's been ensnared by the phenomenon. The mind has been stolen away, and it is impossible to be its master. When you hear beautiful sounds, your ears want to draw closer to it, and the same is true for taste, touch, and smell. 

In all cases, the mind is being led and turned around by the environment. But originally, the mind doesn't exist. When the eyes look at something, the mind arises. When the ears hear something, the mind arises. But if you are not listening and looking, then at that time, the mind does not arise in relation to those senses. That is why I encourage you to isolate yourself from the environment, both outside and within the Ch'an Center. By concentrating wholeheartedly on your method, you will not pay attention to what is around you and your mind will not be moved by your senses. As you are well aware, it is not an easy task. Even if you successfully disengage your mind from the five physical senses, there is still the sixth sense of discriminating consciousness. Your mind continues to be swayed by your memories and thoughts, by the past and future. Where is the mind of the cook who is still chopping vegetables even though she is now meditating? Where is the mind of the mother who, although she is sitting on the cushion, is still playing with her child? Whatever you like to do in your daily life, chances are that your mind will be doing it while you meditate, calling up the appropriate memories and entrapping you. Some of you watch movies, some of you play music, some of you write stories, some of you play sports, some of you trouble shoot problems at work, some of you plan vacations, some of you replay what you said and should have said in last week's argument. Have I missed anything? It is part of the human condition. That is why I also encourage you to isolate yourself from the past and future. This part is necessary to disengage the mind from the sixth sense of discriminating consciousness. 

The mind, originally, does not exist. It is through contact with the environment that it arises. Not only must there be an environment, but one must perceive it and interact with it. If contact, perception, and interaction do not take place, then the mind will not arise. Furthermore, if there is no interaction, the environment will not exist either. Apart from the mind, there is no environment. It is someone else's environment, someone else's phenomenon, not yours. Even your body, at that time, is not yours. It, too, is someone else's perception, phenomenon, environment. During meditation, we draw our minds back from the environment -- from space, time, past, and future. If and when you effectively isolate yourself, the mind will not arise. At that time, I ask you, "Where is your mind? What is your mind? Who are you?" 

Some of you may insist that there must be an objective environment that exists whether an individual is cognizant of it or not. But if there is an objective environment, then there must also be a subject. One cannot exist without the other. Does that mean if your mind stops while you are doing fast walking meditation and you forget to make the turn at the end of the room that you will pass right through the wall as if it doesn't exist? The point is, if your mind stops, you probably wouldn't be walking anymore. It is not uncommon for people who achieve this state to collapse during walking meditation. I say "probably" because some people continue to walk after their minds stop. Their bodies continue to move out of habit. The same thing occurs when people reach this level of absorption during prostrations. Some people will freeze in position, others will continue to rhythmically move. 

Mind stopping also occurs in samadhi, but there are many levels of samadhi, and there is also a past, and future with the samadhi experience, though the person in samadhi may not be aware of time. Time is still present because a person can move into and out of different levels of samadhi and because there is still a self on which the meditator reflects. Therefore, one cannot say that self, past, and future disappear with the samadhi experience. The no-mind state is different. In the no-mind state, individuals can still interact with the environment. Phenomena remain, but attachment to self is gone. In samadhi, one is not aware of the environment. In the no-mind state, one is clearly aware of the environment. In the one-mind state, subject and object still exist, except the subject has expanded to include all other things. 

Through meditation, we want to reach a point where the mind does not arise. When there is no mind, there is no self. If that condition lasts indefinitely, we say that such a person is liberated. 

There are two sects within Ch'an Buddhism: the Linji (Japanese: Rinzai) sect and the Caodong (Japanese: Soto) sect. They use different methods, but their goal is the same: to reach a point where the mind does not arise. The Caodong sect uses the method of silent illumination (shikantaza) to achieve its goal. Meditators "just sit" until all thoughts fade and the mind no longer arises. The Linji sect uses a hua tou or gong an to concentrate the mind, create the doubt sensation, and then burst apart all thoughts, so that the mind does not arise. Ch'an likens the meditator's persistence in trying to answer the hua tou to a mosquito trying to draw blood from an iron bull. If the mosquito persists, it will eventually disappear, just as the hua tou practitioner's sense of self will also disappear if he or she persists with the method. 

Intellectually, this all sounds fathomable, reasonable, even doable. But it isn't easy. From the mind's (the ego's) point of view, it is the same as asking it to die. And if the mind is the self, it is like asking the self to die. Are you willing to die? If you say yes, then practice should be no problem. Enlightenment is just around the corner. But talk is cheap, and speculation that does not lead to action is idle chatter. I ask again, are you willing to die to become enlightened, because that is what it takes. 

Of course, I am talking about the death of your ego, your attachment to self. I am not referring to the death of your body and life. When the self dies, you are still here, the world is still here. Your life is still your life. Nothing changes except that your attachment to self no longer exists. But when you stand at the threshold of enlightenment, these words offer no assurance or consolation. To enter the gate of Ch'an, you must let go of your body, mind, and soul. As far as your ego is concerned, that means death. 

Practice is the way in which we gradually loosen our attachments to the world and to our selves. On retreats, we practice with intensity, using our methods in a controlled environment. In daily life, you can still practice. You can continue to meditate, and you can practice mindfulness in your daily activities. Practice does not mean that you cut yourself off from the environment and withdraw your senses. You are still aware of everything. You appreciate beauty, avert danger, and so on. The practice comes in letting phenomena -- objects, ideas, feelings -- come and go without clinging to them, dwelling on them, indulging in them. The same is true when you meditate. You don't deal with your thoughts and emotions by suppressing them or denying them. You simply watch them come and go, like the wind. You have no choice. As long as you are a sentient being with vexations, thoughts and emotions are going to arise.


  1. The Five Precepts are 1) not killing; 2) not stealing; 3) refraining from sexual misconduct; 4) not lying; 5) not abusing alcohol and addictive drugs. 
  2. The Ten Virtuous Deeds are 1) renouncing the killing of sentient beings and always giving rise to a mind of compassion; 2) renouncing all forms of stealing and always being content with what one has; 3) renouncing all misguided lust and being content with one's partner; 4) renouncing lying and always speaking the truth; 5) renouncing sowing dissension and having no intention of destroying and spoiling relationships; 6) renouncing evil speech and being harmonious and mild in manner; 7) renouncing trivial, nonsensical speech and always knowing how to speak words that are kindly and truthful; 8) renouncing the coveting of possessions of others and not thinking of taking others' possessions; 9) renouncing anger and malevolent, hateful, resentful and aggressive states of mind and always maintaining loving, benevolent, and compassionate states of mind toward sentient beings; 10) renouncing divination and the telling of fortunes, practicing correct views, and having a settled and deep faith in karmic rewards and punishments. 
  3. The Five Hindrances are 1) desire; 2) ill will; 3)sloth and torpor; 4) restlessness and anxiety; 5) doubt, all of which prevent practitioners from attaining concentration and meditative absorption. 
  4. The Five Hellish Deeds are 1) matricide; 2) patricide; 3) murder of an arhat; 4) injury of a Buddha; 5) attempting to bring about a schism in the Buddhist monastic community. According to traditional view, these deeds immediately plunge the doers into the depths of hell. 
  5. The Ten Evil Deeds are 1) killing; 2) stealing; 3) adultery; 4) lying; 5) double tongue; 6) coarse language; 7) filthy language; 8) covetousness; 9) anger; 10) perverted views. 

Retreat Report

This is my second retreat report, about my 11th retreat, which ended on 6/5/97. 

At first this picture may look unclear or nonspecific, but in fact it is direct, and even quite easy to explain. I drew it as I came home from the retreat, and then I saw that it represented the retreat. 

1 This is me, sitting in meditation. You can see that my head is dropping. That's because of weakness and because letting the head drop alleviated somewhat a feeling of being choked, which I have carried with me for more that a year now. The chi is caught there and does not want to go. You can see the choking feeling in the drawing. 

2 In the place where my body is connected to the ground, the one line breaks into many lines, which become weaker and disappear into the landscape in the background. That's because all the time there is a strong feeling that all that goes through me -- choking, fear, weakness, clutching -- all these are experienced as part of something bigger that I come from and everything else comes from. I see myself as a part of an endless amazing change. 

3 This is the flow of change. In this retreat, the phenomena I experienced were tough like rocks, choking and unpleasant. But all of it disappears into endless space. All appears and disappears. Whatever it is, it flows, without a beginning and without an end. There is a lot of space around. Not only phenomena. 

4 When you look at the landscape, you can find more places where the lines of "I" gather and almost form another "I." The feeling of "I" appears, conglomerates, and disappears again. Sometimes it is stronger, and sometimes almost nothing. 

5 The head is empty. There is a frame, but there is nothing in it. This is so for two reasons: (A) In the space of the head there is something that is constantly created but does not want itself to be revealed. So it protects itself by the frame around it. (Don't think I don't know what's inside. There are attachments to sex, art, and what others think about me. When all these subside, under them is a fear of being left with nothing to hold on to.) (B) Even though it is an important area, and what happens inside is influential, I nevertheless experience it , at the same time, as empty. There is no reality to all of it. 

6 The little stick that hangs down from the canvas, I added on July 3rd, when I was about to put it on the wall. It represents the mystery that I haven't solved yet: the feeling that something is still unknown. 

Ten years ago I dreamed that I flew in a wonderfully peaceful space. At first I saw ravens flying near me. Their flight was so royal and powerful. Then a huge rock flew toward me. It was very heavy, ancient and beautiful, and it also flew in a royal way, easily and powerfully. The light behind it gave it a wonderful halo. There was a feeling of eternity, calmness and wonder. 

The background from which I arise in the drawing is like that huge rock that floats in endless space. My private body connects to all that is body, too, and at the same time to all that is not body. Whatever is not solved is not important. Important, but not important. And the secret still waits. It too will be unimportant one day. 

Now you can see that abstract art is really very concrete (or very un-concrete.) 

The Advantages of This So-called Dreaded Terminal Disease Called the Big C

Most people, upon hearing of mine or others so-called 
Terminal diseases utter 
Oh, I'm so sorry 

But pity seems beside the point 
As well intentioned as it might seem 

This life choicelessly moves towards its source  Rushing rivers flowing into  unfathomable oceans.  It is possible to drown  It is also possible to appreciate  The beauty of the waves, the ocean floor  Filled with its magical display  The choice is mine  The choice is yours as well. 

Why don't we reflect, meditate
With the arising and passing 
of each moment 
Death, life constantly cycling 

The sages both old and new say 
It's over your shoulder 
In front of your nose 
Clear as the noon day sun... 
This is the warriors' battle cry 
This is the initiation to the Nameless 

*   *   *   *   *   *   * 

There are yet other advantages to this 
So-called Terminal Disease Called 
The Big C. 
At first, I fearfully looked at 
Death's bulging bloodshot eyes 
Its gaping mouth that swallows 
The whole world without exception 

In the blackness of the night 
Half dream, half awake 
I arise filled with panic and fear 

It has taken some time 
But with each passing night 
I vow to look into those bloody eyes 
To stare them down 
Each night I befriend those dark fearful eyes 
That terrifying mouth with its river of blood and tears 

They are my own eyes 
My own reflection... 
I keep looking searching 
Calming and merging 

Over time we have become friends 
Fearing the reaper 
And at times 
Fear of myself has seemingly vanished 

*   *   *   *   *   *   * 

And, there are still other advantages of this 
So-called dreaded affair. 

Every spiritual cliché and slogan 
That at times rolled off my swollen 
Sore filled tongue like rushing torrents... 
"Live in the moment." 
"Precious human birth" 
"Open equally to pleasure and pain" 
"Love and awareness are the 
Ingredients to the path of 
And so many others 

Now is the time to put your 
Money where your mouth is 
Deception is difficult 
There are too many reminders 
For this, I am thankful 

*   *   *   *   *   *   * 

And what about family and friends 
Their generosity love kindness care 
It fills me with great joy 
Is it possible to repay such 
Basic human goodness? 
But I vow through endless time 
To return it in kind to 
Those whom I know 
To those who I have not yet 

May I only go straight ahead 
Through this endless illusion of 
Pain and sorrow 
Joy and pleasure 

May all beings benefit 
May they have supreme happiness 
May I dedicate this life 
All lives to the pursuit of their joy 
Choicelessly without reward 
May I develop such courage 

These are just a few of the Advantages of 
This So-called Dreaded Terminal Disease 
Called the Big C. 

                            Richard Barsky 12/97 


I've arranged his pillows behind him 
An outpatient this week 
Oxygen tank drones, heavily squatting 
On the oriental carpet in the entry room 
Its transparent tube reaches across 
Interior boundaries 
Such a nurse 
Edging away from his constant needs 
His pain, another onslaught 
Lost for a moment in the myriad 
My attendance falters 
I'm not his body 
His pillows need adjusting 
Head is dropping forward 
The extra soft one that usually cradles his neck 
Presents too much bulge tonight 
To reshape it, I punch gently 
Kissing his forehead 
Eyes remain closed 
Smiles at last 
Our insistence dissolved 
I say his name 
He responds 
Let me fix your pillows 
He moves slightly forward 
I place yet another upright behind his back 
It's good, he says 
Remove the extra pillow 
And place under his stretched out knees 
Lowering the light, I leave him negotiating rest 
Entering the dining room I draw the shades 
Turn up the light, pour green tea 
And open up Love Poems From the Japanese 

I sit at home 
In our room 
By our bed 
Gazing at your pillow 

                                                  Kakinomoto NoHitomaro 

This morning I will not 
Comb my hair 
It has lain 
Pillowed on the hand of my lover. 

                                                  Kakinomoto NoHitomaro 

The pillow that knows all 
Won't tell, for it doesn't know 
And don't you tell 
Of our dream of a spring night. 

                                                  Lady Izumi Shibuki 


                                                  Paulette Graf, 
                                                  Brookline, Massachusetts 1997

Hunting Season 

During the quiet hunt of bow season a Zen archer puts aside 
His bow, the yumi 
His heart accelerates 
Ventricular pumping too fast in a world 
Where multiple stages of evolution commingle 
Heart monitor, IV medicine, EKG 
Patterns jump and fall 
While I hover and retreat 
He slowly regenerates 
Heart-mind inseparable 
Gradually slowing 
After four days in ICU 
He is released into my company 
Together we walk to the elevator and arrive 
In time to see the stars form Orion, the hunter 

Ancient ones wore the antlers 
And ate the hearts 
For the first time I feel for the hunters 
Who follow their primal compulsion 
Setting forth in dull green camouflage 
Drab with their guns 
Meat on the tables of my neighbors 
And sometimes gifted unto mine 
No trophies or taxidermy 
Always in ritual Indians hunted buffalo revered as "thou" 
How many hunters respect the animals who provide themselves? 
The deer are everywhere 
Alert, they peer 
Statuesque doe station themselves roadside 
And one clear night 
The unicorn himself stood motionless in my path 
Glowing white in my headlights 
As his image registered I pressed 
My feet into the brakes 
And swerved in an arc around him 
Departing jubilant 
Whooping alone in my car 
At our bloodless encounter. 

Paulette Graf


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Dharma Drum Mountain