Ch'an Newsletter - No. 4 April 1980

A Talk Given by Shih-fu During the January Retreat

Practitioners come to the retreat hoping to get great benefit, hoping to go home a new person. This attitude is very good in itself yet it can also become an obstacle to the practice. If while you're practicing you still harbor this kind of desire, it will distract you from working on your method. In fact, the harder you work, the greater the obstacle becomes. Students should not be concerned about gaining something from the practice, nor should they be afraid they can't practice well. Both these attitudes are incorrect.

However, it is necessary to make a great vow. When Sakyamuni Buddha, before attaining Buddhahood, sat down beneath the Bodhi Tree, he made his great vow that if he didn't realize supreme enlightenment he would not get up again but would rather die on the spot. It was with this vow that he became the fully 'Awakened' One. So each time right before you sit down you should make a strong vow to put your whole self into this sitting, but once you are seated you should only be concerned with the method of the practice. It is like travelling to some destination, once the goal and direction is set we just get on with the actual travelling. We don't have to worry about whether or not we can get there, how long it will take, whether this is the best route or not. Even if we can't see the destination we needn't be doubtful nor anxious. To set the vow is to set the direction and goal, and the practice is our vehicle of transport. Great vow and hard practice go together. If they are not coordinated you will waste alot of time and won't get any genuine benefit. At best you will alleviate some of your Karmic obstructions.

There are many kinds of obstructions and just about everyone has some obstructions. Today is the first day of our retreat and some people are already experiencing obstructions. How do they manifest? Some people get angry with themselves, hate themselves, but can't help themselves. They would like to have their mind calmed down and yet their mind doesn't calm down. They would like to practice well and yet as great as their hope is to practice well it is hard for them to do so. This is an example of an obstruction. In some people this phenomenon has already come out, while in others it has not yet surfaced.

To be anxious towards the practice is good yet one of the main problems of practice is over-anxiety. There is a a saying that before one is liberated from the cycle of birth and death, one is like an ant in a red hot frying pan. Someone who clearly understands the suffering inherent in the cycle of birth and death and who works hard to be liberated from it, exhibits a correct anxiousness towards the practice. Actually, only after you have already glimpsed your self-nature are you likely to be this anxious to break the cycle of birth and death. On the other hand, over-anxiety is always based on an unwholesome attitude. Someone practicing poorly sees another practicing well and gives rise to envy. The more envious he gets the harder it is for him to sit well. This is an example of over-anxiousness. Those who are not practicing well should not be worrying about what others are doing.

Then there are those who are practicing very well or who think they are practicing well. They might have seen a beautiful illumination or heard some sound or their body may feel extremely comfortable, light and joyous. Naturally, they feel elated by this. This kind of 'good' feeling is no big deal, it is merely a sign that one is practicing well. If you cling to it, it will become an obstacle. You should not be attached to this kind of phenomena but just go with it and continue to push forward.

Talk Given on the Other Day:

I have come to America with the intention of transmitting the Dharma, you have come here seeking the Dharma. In truth, the Dharma can neither be transmitted or sought. In China, during the T'ang dynasty a monk went to practice under the famous Ch'an Master, Ma Tzu. Ma Tzu asked him : "Where do you come from." Ma Tzu scoldingly replied: "You should pay attention to the treasure in your own house. Instead of running all around, go back and take good care of your own treasure." The monk was puzzled and asked: "Could you tell me where my treasure is?" Ma Tzu replied: "Isn't it what's talking to me?" Upon hearing this the monk suddenly became enlightened. So simple, just like that! Yet we should realize that before he had met the Master he had been practicing for many years. He had sought the Dharma everywhere, Ma Tzu just gave him the final push. It's like the Chinese saying: "Even if you are wearing a pair of iron shoes and walk everywhere until they are worn out, you still can't find it; but when you actually get it, it doesn't seem to take any effort at all." Buddhadharma is everywhere -- there's no need to seek it from Shih-fu. Those who seek outside for the Dharma and not within are referred to as those who see outer paths, they will fail to find their own treasure. (Editors note: Outer Paths is a Buddhist term often translated as heretical teachings or heterodox schools, it refers to anyone who seeks the Dharma from an external source, be it from God, a guru, a master, Sutras (scriptures), or even a Buddha.)

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