Sun, Moon, Sky, and Sea
by Master Jen-chun
A talk on the correct attitude of a Mahayana practitioner, given at
the Ch'an Meditation Center on July 16, 1989, translated by Ming-yee Wang
and edited by Linda Peer.
What is the proper state of mind of a practitioner of Mahayana Buddhism
(of which Ch'an is a sect)? The mental state of the Mahayana practitioner
should be like the sun, the sky, and the ocean.
"Mahayana" means great vehicle. It is the vehicle or the path of the
Buddhadharma, which is practiced by those with great vision and great mental
capacity. Their vision and capacity are like the sun, the sky, and the
sea, and their understanding and actions are determined by that vision
The mental state of animals is hazy: they do not have a clear understanding
of their environment or their own mental state. Human beings are capable
of being clear, and of seeing and understanding their environment and their
mental state. Human civilization, knowledge, and wisdom come from a deep,
incisive understanding of the environment and of human beings. Our capacity
to analyze and make discriminations about our environment leads to change
and development in our culture. This is the beneficial aspect of the human
mind. On the other hand, we tend to be self-centered and to take everything
personally, so that we form attachments that result in problems. This is
a destructive aspect of the mind.
Furthermore, when we come into contact with objects, our minds have
a natural tendency to want to acquire the objects we like. We suffer from
a mental state that cannot find contentment in itself, but rather is completely
taken over by desires for objects, people, feelings, and so on. In other
words, our minds are normally captured by the environment.
In the past, in the southwestern part of China, there were some very
smart apes. When people wanted to capture these apes they put out wine,
a big chunk of meat, and even some pairs of sandals for them to put on.
The apes would get drunk with the wine, feed on the meat, and then put
on the sandals. As a result, they could not walk straight or fast and could
be captured and killed. Their minds were captured by the environment, and
so were they.
We human beings are supposed to be so intelligent, yet we have the same
kind of uncontrollable desire for things in the external environment. The
desire for things leads to all kinds of attachments. Human beings are enslaved
by such desires and attachments, and all kinds of sufferings arise from
one's own feelings of lacking what one wants, having to endure what one
does not want, and conflict with others. So all kinds of suffering arises,
and the primary reason for that is that people lack a good understanding
of their bodies and minds. Without a clear understanding of our bodies
and minds, we place too much importance on the enjoyment of material objects,
and our minds are enslaved by the environment. This is the primary reason
for our suffering.
If, instead of being captured by the environment, our minds can see
through the environment and transform the environment, then we will not
suffer so much. In the Buddhadharma, there are deep and extensive discussions
of the mind, but very simply put, in the Mahayana tradition, a person should
cultivate a straightforward or upright mind. This means a mind that tries
to make progress.
Next we should cultivate Bodhi mind and have the great vision of following
the Mahayana path. This incorporates the aspiration to practice and attain
Buddhahood and, simultaneously, the aspiration to help all sentient beings.
When one has developed Bodhi mind, one has developed a great mind. These
three aspects of mind -- straightforward mind, the aspiration to attain
Buddhahood, and the aspiration to help all sentient beings -- can all be
developed together. If a person has them all, then no matter what environment
he is in, he will be able to see through the environment right away. He
will not be enslaved by the environment and he will be able to transform
Many people believe that human beings have very great potential and
that if we can use wisdom to mobilize our potential, we can transform our
life energy and help ourselves constantly move toward a more energetic
state of practice. An energetic state of practice in Mahayana Buddhism
is one in which we are diligent but do not worry about how long it takes
us to accomplish attainment. We should not worry about whether we will
have genuine attainment in this lifetime. All we need to do is to constantly
strive to be energetic and diligent. Then we will move steadily forward.
A person who can maintain this kind of energetic diligence is considered
a healthy practitioner on the Buddha path. A healthy practitioner is not
enslaved by the environment, no matter how bad that environment is, and
no matter how deep the suffering is. The person will fearlessly strive
to make progress.
A healthy practitioner should always try to practice three kinds of
contemplation: contemplation of the sun, the sky and the sea. Contemplation
means to use one's wisdom to examine and investigate one's internal mental
state and one's external environment, in order to see clearly the true
reality of one's mental state and environment. When one can do that, one
can deal with external phenomena appropriately and one's mind will be in
an illuminated state. It's illumination won't be covered by obstructions.
In Buddhism, there is a practice of contemplation on light, or luminosity.
The sun is the object in our physical world which is most representative
of light. Human beings have an innate tendency to strive to improve and
cleanse themselves, expressed as striving for light and illumination. This
was expressed in ancient religions in practices that pay respect to the
sun or the sky.
Most of the light in this world and most of the energy that nurtures
this world come from the sun. For this reason, in Buddhism the sun has
often been used as a metaphor for the luminous quality of the Buddha. For
example, the sutras say that Buddha was the honored one among the suns
and the moons, meaning that Buddha is representative of, and the symbol
Buddhists often pay respect to or recite the name of the Medicine Buddha,
who has the function of helping us to relieve suffering and extend our
lives. Associated with this Buddha are the Sunlight Bodhisattva and the
Moonlight Bodhi-sattva. The Sunlight Bodhisattva represents the sun, giving
the earth light and energy. But at times, sunlight is too powerful, so
it needs to be balanced by the gentle coolness of moonlight. Likewise,
in the Buddhadharma, we need the power of wisdom, symbolized by sunlight,
balanced by the gentle mind of compassion, symbolized by moonlight.
Worldly light, whether it is sunlight or artificial light, allows us
to see objects, but it does not prevent us from doing all kinds of evil.
The light of wisdom allows us to see clearly and thoroughly through ourselves,
our mental activities, and the external environment. When we have a thorough
understanding of ourselves and the environment, we will not be enslaved
by the environment and we will not do evil.
Ordinarily, each person has his/her own small perspective on reality.
Some people think they have a good understanding of the world and think
highly of their own point of view and philosophy. They may think highly
of themselves despite doing stupid or evil things. A truly wise person,
because he can clearly see his/her own mind as well as the environment,
will not be distracted or obstructed by anything.
If you are truly wise, you can transcend the world as well as attend
to the world. This does not mean that you are separate from the world,
but rather that you can engage in any situation without the suffering.
We say that a wise person has walked the highest mountains and the deepest
depths of the sea. With wisdom, in even the worst situations you can help
sentient beings without experiencing personal suffering or vexation.
A wise person will always be in good spirits. She will not be discouraged,
because her view of herself and of the world is the truest understanding
and her mental state is luminous. The wise person's mental state is like
the sun high above the land, illuminating everything clearly.
Most of us are too enthusiastic about ourselves. We feel too much warmth
for ourselves, and we are too cool toward others. Maybe we feel warm toward
a few close friends and relatives, but we do not feel as warm toward them
as we do toward ourselves. To be wise, you must let go of the warmth you
feel for yourself and enhance the warmth you feel for others. If this warmth
is sincere it is like a kind of undefiled illumination.
The state of mind of a Mahayana practitioner should be like the sun,
and it should also be like the sky. The sky symbolizes purity, freedom
or liberation, and something of the highest order, or supreme. Buddha is
sometimes called the Sky of the Heaven of Ultimate Truth, because he realized
the highest truth. The Chinese character that we translate as "sky" or
sometimes, "heaven" can also mean empty space. As such, it also has the
connotation of equality or undifferentiation.
Our understanding of space has increased with the advance of science
and technology, but in Buddha's time, over 2,000 years ago, people had
a very limited understanding of the physical world. Nonetheless, Buddha
and others of his time spoke of an extremely large cosmos. Their description
is, in fact, in accordance with the idea of space that we have now.
"Sky" also connotes an unobstructed condition. Space is limitless, and
all kinds of things can fly through the sky without any obstructions.
Again, "Sky" connotes emptiness in the Buddhist sense: things are empty
in that they have no unchanging, independent, sovereign self-nature. Everything
changes, and we cannot find, in any phenomenon, characteristics which are
intrinsic and do not change. For example, water can be a liquid, a solid,
or a gas. It can be fresh, then salty, then fresh again, and it can separate
into hydrogen and oxygen in our bodies and become part of us. Fire is hot,
but is it burning the same thing now as it was a moment ago? Things do
not have any unchanging, intrinsic nature.
In the same way, there is nothing that does not change in ourselves.
Our bodies change, our activities change, our thoughts change, and so on.
Few of us live to be 100 years old. Our bodies change and then die. We
cannot live without food, water, air, and the help of other people, so
we are not independent. We are also not sovereign in that we do not have
complete control over what we do. We are governed by laws and affected
by the actions of others and even their physical presence. So from the
point of view of the Buddhadharma, the phenomenal self is an illusion that
arises because of cause and conditions coming together.
We constantly think, "I think this" and "I'm doing that." But the concept
"I" is only the understanding of an ordinary person holding on to an illusion.
An enlightened person sees that the idea of "I" is just the product of
cause and conditions coming together: a phenomenon that appears and will
later disappear. From the enlightened point of view, there is really no
self in the sense of something unchanging, independent, and sovereign.
A person who comprehends the Bud-dhadharma will realize that all external
phenomena do not have any unchanging, intrinsic nature or characteristics
and that internally there is no self of which to speak. However, ordinary
people's conceptions are not in accordance with this enlightened view.
The conceptions of ordinary people, even intelligent and educated people,
are precisely opposite the view of the Dharma. This is true even though
modern science tells us the same thing-that everything keeps changing all
the time. Because of attachment and desire, from beginningless time people
have held on to things and to an existence that they call their self. Regardless
of what they may understand from their education, so far as their attachments
are concerned, they act as if there is an unchanging self and unchanging
Emptiness in Buddhadharma does not mean that nothing exists. The concept
of emptiness points out that things exist only because of cause and conditions,
and that they are not permanent, independent, or sovereign. A person who
truly understands this will not create bad karma by doing evil because
he knows that eventually he will suffer the consequences. In fact, a person
who truly understands emptiness will make meritorious and virtuous use
of his body and the environment, even though they are only an illusion
and the consequences of cause and conditions. It is through emptiness that
the possibility of merit and virtue arises. If things were not empty, if
things had unchanging natures, then they would function mechanically and
there would be no possibility of transformation.
The Dharma teaches that a person who truly understands emptiness will
be capable of "emerging" or "moving." What does this mean? If you do not
understand emptiness, when you believe something belongs to you, you hold
on to it. You will not let go. We hold on to our lives especially strongly.
When you have such attachments, your whole being is obstructed by them.
It is like being tied up. You cannot move around. You are enclosed, enslaved,
and in bondage. On the other hand, if you truly understand emptiness you
will not be attached; and when you are not attached, you will not be obstructed.
So it is possible for you to move and to emerge from bondage.
There was a king who liked to eat a particular kind of bird. His servants
captured them and put them in cages and fed them. The birds got even heavier
and fatter and could not escape from the cages. But one bird refused to
eat anything and got thinner, eventually escaping through the bars of the
cage. He said to the birds still in the cage, "You are attached to eating,
so you are enslaved. You cannot escape."
If you are attached to your self and to enjoyment of the physical body,
you will be enslaved by your self-centeredness. If you have no attachment
to self, then you will be like empty space or like the sky, free and at
ease, with no obstructions.
How can we learn to be like space or the sky? Space has enormous capacity.
It can contain everything. Our mental scope, on the other hand, is usually
very narrow because we are attached to a self. If we put aside our attachment
to a self, our mental scope will be as extensive as space. We are also
attached to things in our environment. Some things and situations please
us and some are not to our liking. We have to be able to see these things
as illusions. Otherwise, our reactions to the environment will cause us
suffering and vexations. If we see that the environment is empty, we will
be able to be like space.
If you recognize emptiness, you will also recognize illusion. You will
understand the sentient beings who are living their life in illusion, and
you will know how to direct them toward the goal of realizing emptiness.
Someone in the state of illusion is like a young child. Sometimes he is
loving to his mother and sometimes he is in bad temper and says and does
hateful things. A mother does not hold such behavior against a child, because
a child doesn't know any better yet. She takes what the child does and
says as an illusion. If you truly know emptiness and illusion, you will
not be disturbed by the behavior or reactions of sentient beings and you
will know how to help them. You can cultivate meritorious deeds.
How should a Mahayana practitioner be like the great ocean? The ocean
is connector. Every part is connected and things can move freely within
it: there is no obstruction. The ocean also has tremendous dynamic energy,
and it has tremendous capacity. The ocean can symbolize the wisdom of the
Buddha. For example, the great samadhi that Buddha entered is called the
Samadhi of the Ocean. It had the attributes of the ocean that we just talked
about. Also, great samadhi is perfectly clear. It can see through everything.
Each thing in this phenomenal world, from the superficial to the deepest
and most subtle phenomenon, is reflected in the ocean of wisdom of the
Buddha. Everything is seen clearly, without any distortion. The Buddha's
wisdom is also like a perfect mirror.
In both ancient and modern times, people have searched for treasures
whereever they have lived. In the mountains, they search for gold or silver,
and if they live near the sea, they look for pearls or treasures in sunken
ships. Similarly, we can say that we enter the sea of the Buddhadharma
to obtain a treasure. That treasure is not gold or silver, but wisdom,
with which we can understand ourselves and our environment. With wisdom,
we are always content and peaceful regardless of our circumstances. However,
wisdom does not just come to us spontaneously.
In the past, people believed that the ocean was bottomless and endless.
They had no way of measuring its depth or extension, so it seemed boundless,
and what it contained also seemed unlimited. The idea of the ocean as boundless
and able to contain unlimited things was used as a metaphor for the vow
of the bodhisattva. What does the vow of the bodhisattva contain? It contains
limitless waves of compassion. The buddhas' and bodhisattvas' minds move
with waves of compassion for sentient beings. Because of their compassion,
they are willing to work hard to help sentient beings.
Wisdom is the driving force of a bod-hisattva's actions. With the guidance
of wisdom, actions will not be deflected onto erroneous paths. A bodhisattva
also has a sea of compassion and uses everything in his/her possession
to help sentient beings, including material possessions, understanding,
knowledge, and so on.
Wisdom is complete awakening. When you are completely awakened, you
will no longer do evil, and you can truly help sentient beings. What is
compassion? Compassion is the ability to communicate with all sentient
beings and to help them to accomplish the Buddhadharma. To make the Bodhisattva
vow is not enough. In addition, you must have the wisdom and compassion
to carry out your vow.
In a Bodhisattva's mind, wisdom and compassion must constantly be in
accordance with each other. To realize Bod-hisattvahood, we vow, on one
hand, to attain awakening for ourselves and, on the other hand, to help
all sentient beings.
A bodhisattva constantly contemplates the ocean of samsara (illusion)
that comes from cause and conditions. Most people do not understand the
working of cause and conditions, and as a result, they will stay in the
ocean of samsara indefinitely, being reborn again and again. Sometimes,
they sink in the ocean and sometimes they can keep their heads above water,
but if they do not understand cause and conditions they cannot transcend
samsara. However, a bodhisattva will sail through the ocean of samsara,
and in doing so, he or she will try to save all sentient beings.
If you want to practice the Mahayana path, you should contemplate the
sun, the sky, and the sea. In the morning, when the sun has just risen,
contemplate it and try to allow your mind to be that luminous. Take time
to contemplate the sky and try to achieve a mental state that is like empty
space-clear and without obstruction. Go to the seashore and contemplate
the boundless capacity and unobstructedness of the ocean. If you engage
in these contemplations, they will benefit you. On the other hand, if you
allow yourself to be governed by the environment and pulled this way and
that, you will not attain the Mahayana path.