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
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
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 and the Ten
Virtuous Deeds create birth-and-death, or samsaric, karma. So too do the
Five Hindrances, the Five Hellish Deeds, and the Ten Evil
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
Mazu said, "Wanting to become a Buddha, wanting to get enlightened,
wanting to cultivate the Bodhisattva Path, wanting to cultivate the Six
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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
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
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
FENG SHUI or BOSTON SOJOURN
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
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
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
This morning I will not
Comb my hair
It has lain
Pillowed on the hand of my lover.
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
Brookline, Massachusetts 1997
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
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
Whooping alone in my car
At our bloodless encounter.