Ch'an Newsletter - No. 44, March 1985

Daily Practice and Intensive Practice
(Lecture delivered by Master Sheng-yen on Sunday, November 4, 1984)

Today I will speak about two different kinds of practice: practice in daily life and practice during a specific time and at a specific place -- as in a retreat, for example.

Many people have spoken to me about the problem of maintaining their practice. One practitioner said, "I've been listening to the Dharma for many years, and I have been practicing very hard. But it seems to me that whenever vexations arise, I'm unable to get rid of them. So it seems to me that my practice has been useless."

Another said, "Every day I have to manage two hundred people. I have to give them assignments. If I don't give them their assignments, they won't know what to do. When they have problems, they bring them to me to solve. Their problems become my problems. Two hundred people bringing problems to me is too much, and I don't like my job at all."

A third person told me, "I am sixty years old. During my life I have helped many people, and now I feel that it is time for me to practice seriously. But I can't let go of all the people who need my help. For example, I had a dream recently where I was with a large group of people and I heard a voice which said, 'You can't forget other people and just work on your own problems; you must still take care of other people.' This bothers me because if I am to practice, I can't take care of all these other people at the same time. I must practice alone. But it is difficult for me to let go of all these other people. Even in my dream I was unwilling or unable to forget them."

I have given these three examples because I believe that they are relevant to many people. How many of you have similar problems? I doubt that most of you are capable of making vexations go away the moment that they arise. Ideally, you should not allow other peoples' problems to cause you vexation. You should not feel that their problems cause problems for you. But very few people can do this.

This ideal can be better understood through the analogy of a glass container filled with colored water. No matter what color the water may be -- whether dirty or clear -- the glass always remains clear and unaffected. If you were faced with the kinds of problems mentioned in the examples above, could you actually say, "I am just like that piece of glass; the colored water does not affect me"? Even if you could do this only sometimes, it would still be very good. Most people are not like the piece of glass. Most people are like a piece of cloth which absorbs the paint which a painter applies to it. Most people, when confronted by a problem which has nothing to do with them, assume that it's their problem.

The sixty-year-old man would like to practice, but he's not determined enough or he can't give up his old habits and the surroundings he's accustomed to. Many people are like this. Some people feel that they have not yet fulfilled their responsibilities to their family, their job and to other activities. When you can't put down responsibilities, habits and interests, you can't really practice.

Really, all of you have the problems I have described. If someone who was mentally unbalanced were to spit on you or kick you, how would you respond? You might say, "This really hasn't happened to me, because this guy is crazy and can't be held responsible for his actions." But if it really did happen, do you think you would be so unconcerned? In fact, I actually saw something like this happen: someone out of his head went up to a man in the street and beat him up. This man went to the police and complained. The police said, "But that guy is crazy." The man was persistent and said, "So you should have him locked up." But the police responded, "He was put in an asylum, and then he was released." The man exclaimed, "Since he's clearly still crazy, he should be put back in the asylum." The police added, "You shouldn't be so angry -- he's insane." But the man concluded, "Angry or not, he should not be out running around on the street." If this had happened to you, what would you have done? If you had the right attitude, you would have felt that the problem belonged to the insane man; you would have been unconcerned and been free of the vexations that troubled the man in my story.

Why have I asked you these questions? It is to point out that practice in daily life is generally insufficient. It is very difficult to reach a state of purity and peace just by daily practice. This is because in our everyday lives we live in the midst of constant confusion and agitation. It is difficult to achieve the kind of tranquility which allows the mind to be unconcerned with external events. That is why periods of sustained practice once or twice a year are essential. It may be necessary to devote a long period to intensive practice sometime during your life.

If you don't practice daily, you may not be able to maintain an enthusiasm for practice. And without periods of extended practice, it is impossible to experience even a brief period of true peace. Daily practice is useful for two reasons: it maintains your interest and enthusiasm for the practice, and it reminds you that you are a practitioner. In being so reminded, you should feel how inappropriate it is to be vexed by life's ups and downs. But the deeper sense of peace can only be known through intensive practice for an extended period.

Because of the relative importance of daily and intensive practice -- I found it necessary to give three different answers to those who complained to me about their difficulties. To the first person, who was discouraged by the persistence of his vexations, I said that it was very good that he recognized that he was unable to transcend his vexations, because it indicated that he was already practicing. If he hadn't been practicing, he wouldn't have been able to recognize this. Thus I told him that he had very virtuous karmic roots. I said to him, "You are like someone who has eyes to see, a brain to think, but hands, arms and legs that don't listen to you. You look ahead, and you see that if you keep walking in the same direction you will step in a pile of shit. You decide to change direction, but your legs don't listen to you, and you end up stepping in it."

To how many of us here does this analogy apply? To everyone, I think. But at least having an idea of what is about to happen is better than blindness or idiocy. The idiot doesn't even know what shit is; the blind man can't see it right in front of him. It takes someone who has tried to practice and who has some understanding of the Dharma to know how to proceed. Someone with no understanding of the Dharma can't recognize shit or vexation because his eyes are closed or simply because he doesn't care.

When I related this to the one discouraged by vexation, he was reassured. He told me he was happy that I said he had good karmic roots even though he experienced so many problems. I said that he would never have been able to recognize his vexations without good karmic roots. "Then," he said, "practice is really very difficult; when will I ever be able to recognize vexations and still be unaffected by them?" I told him that although such an achievement is possible, there is no way I can predict when he might attain that state. I said, "You must continue to practice, so that vexations will gradually cease to disturb you. With practice there can come a time when we are not affected by vexations at all."

Practitioners deal with vexations in three stages:

  1. Recognizing and identifying vexation. This is the beginner's stage. 
  2. Dealing with vexation. When a problem comes up, you should be very clear about the nature of the problem, and how it has arisen. You should feel no resentment towards the vexation -- it should simply be accepted. You should repent the fault which caused the vexation, and hope that it does not arise again. 
  3. Vexations can arise only once; they then disappear, never to return again. Further vexation may arise, but it will likewise disappear forever. Problems are terminated part by part. Many people, when they begin practice, hope that their vexations will immediately end forever. Is this really possible -- completely overcoming vexation when you first begin to practice? It is, but only for practitioners whose karmic roots are profound and immensely virtuous. Only Bodhisattvas who are reborn can begin practice at such a high level.

If you are a beginning practitioner, when intense vexations arise which can't be tamed, you should not feel disillusioned or disappointed. It is just like working in the little garden behind this building: once we weed it, the weeds will soon return. So we must weed again and again. If we decide not to weed at all because the weeds will just grow again, then the whole garden will become overgrown, and the backyard will never be clear. However, if we never cease in our efforts, then at least there will be times when the garden will be clear and ordered. To anyone who thinks it's useless to strive to cut off all vexations because they can't be terminated at once and will continually return, I would say this: from now on you need not clean yourself after you go to the bathroom, and you need not clean your dishes after eating. After all, you will go to the bathroom today, tomorrow, and the day after that. If you feel that cleaning yourself today is not worth the effort because you will have to do it tomorrow, why do it at all? If your dishes will be soiled tomorrow even though they are cleaned today, why bother with cleaning? This might do for animals, but humans are different. If you recognize vexations, you should make an effort to terminate them every time they arise.

To the man who manages two hundred people, I said, "Don't you realize that you should practice Ch'an in daily life? You say that you must assign jobs to others and then deal with their problems, but this is a splendid opportunity to practice Ch'an." He replied, "I understand what you say, but I feel that I am not practicing at all in my everyday life. I realize only that I am angry or in a bad situation." Then I said, "Meditate at least two hours a day, on Sundays meditate throughout the whole day, and every year participate in two week-long retreats -- then you will certainly be able to deal with any problem in your life as simply an occasion to practice Ch'an."

If what you do in life is done for the benefit of others, then everything in life is the practice of Ch'an. An example: Yesterday we held a day-long retreat at the Center. After the first meal, one participant volunteered to wash the dishes. By the end of the day, he had done the dishes for two meals. I asked him whether he was especially interested in washing dishes. He replied, "No, not at all." Then I asked him whether he had done this to accumulate merit. He told me, "No, I never thought of that. I did it only because no one else was willing to do the dishes." His attitude seems to be reasonable and justified, but actually it is incorrect. It is good because he at least volunteered to do the dishes. But his attitude is not correct because he did not perform the activity as a service to the others on the retreat. Serving others is essential to Ch'an. We should treasure any opportunity to practice, even in a difficult situation. With this attitude we will see the one who provides the opportunity as a Bodhisattva, someone who helps us in our practice.

If someone insults you or gives you a hard time for no reason, shouldn't you feel thankful that you have been given an opportunity to practice? The answer is yes, but only for the great practitioners, not for us. I have asked people if they would like such an opportunity to practice. Most say, "No, I don't think that I'd want to tackle that now. First let me practice and build myself up, and then I would welcome such an opportunity!" Once, at the end of a retreat, there was a lot of cleaning to be done at the Center, but everyone was in a hurry to go home. So I grabbed one of the participants and said, "Now here is an opportunity for you to be a great practitioner." He was interested. He said, "All right, I'd like to be a great practitioner." So I told him about the towels that needed to be taken to the laundry, and all the odds and ends that had to be cleaned up. Then his enthusiasm waned, "Well, I think I'll wait until next time to be a great practitioner. I think I'll go home now." Although the purpose of a Ch'an retreat is to train people to become great practitioners, at the end of this retreat, I was the one left to be a great practitioner; everyone else went home!

To the last practitioner, I said, "You are already sixty years old and you understand the importance of practice. I advise you to put away everything else and direct all of your efforts to practice. Without sufficient, deep practice, the help that you give to others will be limited, regardless of how much effort you put forth. The help you give won't be thorough or complete. But if you practice, there will be no limit to the help you can give to others. This is why I tell you to make practicing your first priority."

Becoming a great practitioner is not easy. You begin as an ordinary person -- with all of the problems, difficulties, and doubts that ordinary people have. From there you must continue to strive with all your effort, always trying harder and harder until you reach your goal. Only by doing this can you become a great practitioner.

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