Seven-day Retreat Talk (Day 4)
by Ch'an Master Sheng-yen
Morning Talk December 2, 1992
Later today I will teach you the prostration method. Prostrations are
part of Ch'an practice. There are different ways to approach prostrations,
one of which is to do repentance prostrations with form. Later, you'll
learn formless repentance, as described by the Sixth Patriarch in the Platform
Sutra. It is better to start with form and move to formlessness. It would
be similar to learning about emptiness before learning ways to cultivate
the path of emptiness. If you learned about emptiness first, you might
decide that, since everything is empty, there's no point in doing anything,
including practice. That would be a serious misunderstanding. Because we
are all self-centered, we must begin with the self -- existence -- and
work toward the realization of emptiness. Repentance requires a sense of
shame or humility. I always have trouble getting this point across, because
there is no English word that fully conveys the meaning of the Chinese
character. Shame and humility both have connotations which slant the meaning
somewhat, but it is all we have to work with. In describing it, perhaps
you will get the proper idea. In order to give rise to this feeling of
humility, you must develop the capacity for introspection. Introspection,
or self-reflection, is directed toward body, speech and mind, the three
elements which create karma. Introspection, if conducted with a clear sense
of honesty, will naturally lead to the realization that most of our behavior
is self-centered -- which at one point or another, causes suffering for
ourselves and others. With this realization will also come a better understanding
of our motivations, and our misinterpretation and misunderstanding of those
understandings. From this understanding should hopefully come a sense of
humility, and the motivation to change our behavior. It is rare that we
recognize our own faults. We usually blame others or the environment, and
see ourselves as victims. Because most people act from self-centeredness,
it leads to conflict and suffering. We increase one another's vexations.
We live in an ocean of suffering. The purpose of practice is to attain
wisdom and liberation. We become liberated from this ocean, and with it
comes clarity, or wisdom. All our practice and cultivation must begin with
self- reflection. From the subsequent sense of humility, or shame, comes
genuine repentance. If you are unable to recognize your mistakes and you
go on believing you have done/said/thought nothing wrong, then your self-centeredness
is strong. It will be difficult for you to benefit from practice and a
teacher's guidance. You need to give rise to this sense of humility and
the subsequent desire to repent in order to move forward. You must be the
one to do this. No one can do it for you. Self-centeredness is greed, hatred,
arrogance and destructive self-criticism. We all have these qualities,
to one degree or another. It is all self-centeredness. However, if we hold
strongly to our ways and feel we are right, that we know everything there
is to know, then practice will be difficult. It will be difficult to give
rise to humility, a necessary step on the path to liberation. Sakyamuni
Buddha told his disciples that developing a sense of humility was a fundamental
part of practice. A person without this quality would be incomplete and
unable to sincerely repent. Such a person cannot alleviate karmic obstructions.
Karmic obstructions can stifle progress in many ways. One way to progress
is to find a good teacher. However, don't think that teachers are omniscient.
You must take the initiative to ask the teacher for help or advice. Your
inability to seek or accept advice is entirely due to your karmic obstructions.
They might manifest in your character, expressions, ideas, actions; but
they all act as a wall separating you from your teacher. Your wall makes
you invisible or unrecognizable. It does not allow the teacher to offer
help. Someone with few karmic obstructions can be helped easily by teachers.
Past patriarchs have said this, and I have experienced it myself. Just
a few words can provide a great deal of help, and it usually results in
deep gratitude on the part of the practitioner toward the teacher. Those
with heavy obstructions require a lot of work and attention, and their
progress is slow. Usually, too, such people end up blaming or criticizing
Breakfast Talk December 2, 1992
Karmic obstructions are greed, hatred, arrogance and destructive self-criticism.
Greed and hatred spring from the same source. When we cannot attain what
we desire (greed), very often the desire will change to aversion (hatred).
Arrogance and Destructive self-criticism, or self-pity, also spring from
the same source. When we want others to think highly of us (arrogance)
and they don't, very often we will turn to putting ourselves down (self-pity).
The central root of these obstructions is ignorance, or lack of self-faith.
If you do not have faith in yourself, in your abilities, you will come
to depend on others. You will expect the effort and energy of others to
benefit you. This belief contradicts the law of karma -- cause and effect
-- which says that the person who expends the effort receives the result.
If you can generate a sense of humility and sincerely repent your past
self-centered actions, you will develop a receptive mind. With a receptive
mind you will meet good teachers and be helped by them. With a humble and
receptive manner, your karmic obstructions will lighten. At the instant
our concept of self changes, our ability to receive help will also increase.
Lunch Talk December 2, 1992
A mind of humility, coupled with a sense of shame, will enable you to
repent and open to a more harmonious and peaceful existence. You'll no
longer waste energy in an attempt to protect yourself and reject others.
To help us on this path, we can practice repentance prostrations, with
an attitude of humility and a sense of shame, in consecutive stages. First
you should remember your childhood. Try to remember all the things you
said and did that hurt others (and, consequently, yourself). Then do the
same for your teen-age years, early adulthood and so on until the present.
It is necessary, while doing repentance prostrations, to look deeply into
your heart. Because we don't know how to resolve the conflicts that arise
from introspection, and don't know how to deal with the emotional turmoil
that usually results from such memories, we normally avoid self-reflection.
However, now is the time to do just this. Now is time to recognize shortcomings
and repent. This is the purpose of these prostrations. Afterwards, you
will be purged of negative emotions and have a pure mind again. I have
told you, from the first day of the retreat, to focus attention on yourself
and not be concerned with others. Don't look around to see what other retreatants
are doing. It's none of your business. Previously, I have emphasized faith
as being necessary in one's practice. There are three kinds of faith: faith
in oneself, faith in the method, and faith in the teacher. On this retreat,
I am the teacher. If you have faith in me, but not yourself, that would
be an external, outer path. If you have faith only in yourself, and distrust
me, you won't be able to benefit from my guidance and experience. You would
be practicing blindly. The Dharma of Ch'an is introspection. Through introspection
we gain a clear understanding of our good qualities and shortcomings. With
this intimate knowledge of ourselves comes greater faith in ourselves.
This faith will enable us to interact with others and the world with more
tolerance and harmony.