Ch'an Newsletter - No. 60 May 1987

Upside Down
(Lecture given by Master Sheng-yen on the Surangama Sutra Sunday, December 8, 1986)

Ananda was puzzled by why we have lost sight of our true nature. The Buddha replied that ordinary sentient beings do not see clearly because of their preconceived views. What they think is upside down, may be right side up. What they believe is correct, may be incorrect. The Buddha placed his hand down, and asked Ananda whether his hand was right side up or upside down. Ananda replied that it would be commonly held that the hand was in an inverted position, but he did not know whether the position was correct or inverted. The the Buddha explained that since we were born with our hands hanging down at our sides, perhaps the hand pointed up is really in an inverted position. Ananda knew what the view of a common man might be, but he also knew that this was not the Buddha's view. The Buddha used this analogy to show that the average person has a mind that creates discriminations, and that what he believes to be true, may in fact be false.

When the Buddha saw Ananda's confusion, he spoke: "Virtuous men, I have always declared that Form and Mind, and all causes arising therefrom, all mental conditions and all causal phenomena are but manifestations of the mind. Your bodies and minds are just appearances within the wonderful, bright and pure Profound Mind. Why do you stray from the precious, bright, and subtle nature of fundamentally Enlightened Mind, and so recognize delusion within enlightenment? The mind's dimness creates dull emptiness, and both in the darkness unite with it to become form. The mingling of form with false thinking causes the latter to take the shape of a body stirred by accumulated causes within and drawn to externals without. Such inner disturbance is mistaken for the nature of mind, hence the false view of a mind dwelling in a physical body, and the failure to realize that this body as well as external mountains, rivers and space, and the great earth are but phenomena within the wondrous, bright True Mind. Like an ignorant man who overlooks on the great ocean, but grasps at a floating bubble, and regards it as the whole body of water in its immense expanse, you are doubly deluded amongst the deluded."

The Buddha spoke about delusion, the inverted point of view commonly held by sentient beings. Sentient beings usually take external phenomena as reality, but because such things are not real, they can be compared to a cloud that moves across the sun and temporarily obscures the brightness: the one pure mind of wisdom. The body, the mind, the environment are all part of this wonderful, bright True Mind. All things are not apart from this mind.

If we maintain a balanced mind toward all of these phenomena, we become like the Buddha. Ordinary sentient beings see a bubble on the ocean and take it to be real and substantial; they forget the ocean from which it came. Most people take what they hear and know and what they possess to be part of themselves. What they have no contact with they disregard. The small part of the world they see blocks them from wisdom, like a cloud hides the sun. People are cut off from liberation and bound up with the little bit of phenomena that they know. This is being upside down. This is being inverted. This is seeing the part and missing the whole. There are people who visit a mountain, bring home a rock from its face, and never see the mountain's immensity.

We divide invertedness, or incorrect behavior into three levels: worldly inversion, inversion of Buddha Dharma, inversion of enlightenment.

Worldly inversion is common and easy to understand. It is behavior that we might call abnormal, or asocial. An example would be a father who marries his own daughter, or someone who prefers the company of animals to that of human beings, or someone who does hateful things to get the attention of someone he or she loves. These things do happen -- a father who marries his daughter, for example -- such cases appear in the Bible or in Chinese history. Wang Chou-chin was a woman who was captured by a tribe of barbarians. The head of the tribe took her as his wife. They had a son, and when the father died, by tradition, the son had to take his father's wife, his mother. We view such actions as inverted.

There are many cases of people who prefer animals to people. Once in Massachusetts, I met a woman who loved her dog more than people. When she died she left everything she had to her dog. This is inverted behavior.

It is not surprising for a man to see a beautiful woman with another man, and think, "What's she see in him? He must have something on her, otherwise she wouldn't possibly have anything to do with him." There are people who would do anything to win someone else's attention or affection. John Hinkley was a young man who tried to kill the President just to impress an actress. This is inverted behavior.

The second kind of inversion concerns Buddhadharma. Buddhadharma speaks of the connection between past, present, and future through the laws of cause and effect. If something happens to most people, they blame it on fate or God.

Recently a man came to me and told me a sad story. He had only one son, and the young man had developed cancer. Why his son, and not another's, he asked. "I've been a good person, and so has my son," he said. "Why is he being punished?" He later went to a Protestant minister, and the minister told him that the question itself was wrong. God has the authority to give a son, and He has the authority to take one. But no one can blame God. The only recourse is to pray to God to make the boy well. "Is God unfair?" he asked. Then he said to me, "Shih-fu, if I become a Buddhist, will my son recover? If this were true, I would convert immediately."

Recently, an old, venerable monk developed cancer and died. A few years ago, Karmapa, an accomplished monk who was the head of a Tibetan sect of Buddhism, developed stomach cancer and died. Even great masters, accomplished practitioners, can succumb to ordinary illnesses. What is at work here? Everyone has bad karma, and is subject to the suffering that comes with karmic consequences.

A young girl with breast cancer came to me to see if I could save her. I said that I could help her prepare for death, and help her lose her fear of it. I also counseled her to do as many good deeds as she possibly could. She turned and walked out without saying a word. The next day her older sister came to express her anger: "Shih-fu, I sent my sister to you for comfort. Why did you talk to her about death?" I said, "Even I am going to die, so why shouldn't I help other people, who are also going to die, to prepare for death?" But the older sister could not understand.

It is hard to say what will happen with sickness: a woman I knew developed cancer of the uterus. She was given three years to live. She wholeheartedly embraced Buddhism, and she did whatever she could to help others. She is still living today.

I told all of these stories to the father who came to see me about his only son. I wanted him to understand what was happening so that he would be able to comfort the boy. Anything that happens to us has its root cause in the past or in a previous life.

Once when I was a young monk I went to visit my master's master. He was a great practitioner, and many lay people brought him money and gifts. He would always share whatever he got with the other monks in the monastery. When I was presented with a gift, I said to him, "You certainly must have accumulated a great deal of good merit, and I am fortunate to share in it." The old monk scolded me, and told me that my view was inverted. He said, "At some time I will have to return all of these things, and with interest." I asked, "If you don't have any merit, how can you get all of these gifts?" The old Master said, "You may think that I'm getting all of these gifts, but I'm really an intermediary -- I must pass them on." I understood his meaning then: Many who gave gifts to the monks were really hoping to get something in return. If you give something in the hope that you are planting good seeds to sow later, then you will never be free from samsara. You will continue to spin through life after life.

If you continually set up causes, you will receive effects. If you think about it, you will see that you may be owed so much that you cannot receive everything in one lifetime. You'll have to keep coming back. Like rolling a snowball downhill, the effects to be received grow greater and greater. I was happy that this great master scolded me. I took to heart the principle that everything I received was a cause; everything given out an effect. That is, what you receive must be passed on, you cannot really hold on to it; what you pass on, you pass on as a way of responding to something you have received. If you act in this way, what you receive will not create an effect that you will one day have to receive again. If you maintain this view, your karma will decrease, the effects to be received will diminish, you will become purer, and you will then be able to attain liberation.

Most people feel that what they give out should entitle them to get something back. What you do now is done for rewards received later. You have children now so they can take care of you later. People plant fruit trees so that they might eat the apple or the pears at harvest. This is the hope for a return on effort invested. In Buddhism this is an inverted view.

A young man I knew believed in this principle, and accordingly he felt uncomfortable about taking money for the work he did. I asked him how he supposed that he would be able to live, if he didn't have money. But he was confused and wondered how he could attain liberation if he went on benefiting from his actions. I suggested to him that he look on the work he was doing as something that directly helped sentient beings, and something that would create good karma. As for the money, he could use a minimum amount for his own needs, and help other people with the rest.

The final category of inversion is that which applies to someone who has attained liberation. This is the invertedness that is referred to in the Surarigama sutra. There are many who would like to escape their suffering. I was once asked if the it was the point of Buddhism to escape from the suffering of the world. I said Buddhism will help you to escape from the suffering, but not the world. I was asked, "You mean if you were to chop up a liberated person, he would feel no pain?" No, only the dead feel no pain. For the truly liberated there is still pain, but there is no vexation. What is vexation? It is a wish or desire for something which is there to cease to be there, or for something that is not there to come into existence. There is no such desire in a liberated person. A miser will feel great pain if he loses even one dollar. Though he were very rich, he will feel as if he suffered damage to his own body. A generous person will be glad to share what he has, even if it is very little.

If you fear death or injury, then you have vexations concerning the body. If you treat your body and possessions as empty space, then you need not be vexed about them. A liberated person owns nothing. Should he fear death, it would be an inverted view. If a Bodhisattva viewed the action he took to help others as a cause leading to an effect, then this would be an inverted view. Cause and effect may have meaning on the first level, the worldly view, but they do not apply at the level of liberation. The reason for this is that for cause and effect to operate, there must be a sense of self: something to cause the cause and something to be affected by the effect. But a Bodhisattva has no sense of self, and is therefore not subject to cause and effect.

A Bodhisattva must be willing to take in anything, no matter how big or small; he must be willing to give out anything if it is in his possession. He can give out gifts, and he can receive gifts, but what he gets is not a cause, and what he gives is not an effect.

The Bodhisattva receives something, but it is as if he received nothing. He gives, but it is like he gave nothing. It is like a boat which has a hose to draw the sea up on the port side and which pours the water back to starboard. The ocean itself is neither increased nor decreased. It may seem strange that a Bodhisattva gets nothing for his work, but that's how it is for a Bodhisattva, all work and nothing else. Were he not working, he wouldn't be a Bodhisattva.

In the highest point of view, there is no cause and no effect, and there is no need to be afraid of cause and effect. From the liberated point of view, if there is cause and effect, then there is inversion. If you draw water from the ocean and let it spill out again, you can't consider this cause and effect. Nothing has been gained or lost.

A liberated person is free of karma. Karma still exists, but he is not bound by it. It's like a person who visits someone in jail. The visitor is not imprisoned, though he might be in the jail temporarily. The one in jail is bound there. I once went on a long secluded retreat. This was my choice. Had it been involuntary, it would have been a very different experience.

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