The Instruction of the Sutra of the Complete Enlightenment - How to Use Illusion to Remedy Illusion

Talk presented by Venerable Chang Hwa
Report written by Chang Jie 03/14/2010

    On Sunday, March 14, 2010, Venerable Chang-hwa gave the second of the lecture series on the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment with a talk entitled "How to Use Illusion to Remedy Illusion" at CMC.

    According to Venerable, the Buddha said that our body and mind are illusory and that we are all in a dream. Everything that we do in the dream is also illusory, including the practice and methods that we use. How can we use the illusory body, mind and method to wake up from the dream? After hearing the bodhisattva Manjusri's question and the Buddha's response, bodhisattva Samantabhadra, known as the bodhisattva foremost in action who is very diligent practitioner and will do anything for practice, rises and asks, how can we use this illusory body and mind to remedy all things? He asks this question on behalf of the rest of us who still do not understand the first answer. The Buddha replies by stating that all things, including our body and mind, though they are illusory, come from our complete enlightenment.

    To understand this point, Venerable gave the example of H2O. What is H2O? It is water. What about ice? What about snow? What about steam? They are all H2O. H2O, under different conditions such as pressure and temperature, will manifest into different forms. Likewise, when the Buddha said that all illusions come from our pure complete enlightenment, like H2O, it does not change, but manifests into different forms under different conditions, and is impermanent. This is conditional arising which changes constantly.

    H2O are the components that make up ice, water and steam, but we cannot see the components with our eyes. But we cannot say that H2O does not exist, because without H2O, which we cannot see, it is impossible to manifest ice, water and steam. Similarly, we cannot say that our complete enlightenment does not exist, because without our original Buddha nature, it would be impossible to manifest all kinds of illusory phenomena.

    In physics, a system called quantum dynamics uses mathematical equations to describe a molecule. Nothing is fixed. Even though H2O is still H2O, the description for H2O is not fixed. It's dynamic. Because of this dynamic property, it can become ice when it is below 0 degrees and steam when it is boiled above 100 degrees. It will melt into water when in room temperature all because of this dynamic property. This is comparable to how the sutras and masters describe all worldly phenomena, including our body and mind, as arising and disappearing because of this emptiness. The property of emptiness never changes, and that is our Buddhanature. Our Buddha nature is emptiness. It is because of this emptiness that everything exists. So it is not like emptiness is nothing exists. It is because of this property, when conditions ripen, things form. When conditions are over, then things are gone. Then we apply Buddhist principles of causes and conditions and causes and consequences, all this comes to play. Everything exists because of the nature of emptiness.

    In the sutra, the Buddha says even though everything is changing all the time, even though the property of emptiness allows everything to change, this property of emptiness never changes. It does not mean it is fixed; it just means that the property never changes. Shifu, in his commentary, gives the example of an old-fashioned watch. The watch has many wheels-- one to tell the seconds, one for the minutes, and one for the hour. Everything is turning and the watch is ticking, but there is something in the center that never moves. Because this never moves, everything is able to move. The watch which keeps changing is like all phenomena. The axle that never moves is our Buddha nature.

    The second part of Samantabhadra's question is, since the body and mind are illusory, who is practicing? Who are you? Who am I? Your body is illusory, your mind is illusory, so who are you? In the book, Shifu asks his disciples to describe their husband or your wife, to describe him or her so that we would know exactly who this person is based on their description, even if we never see them. Is this possible?

    Even if the girl had used physical characteristics to describe her boyfriend, we would still be able to find many people in this world that fit her description-- people of the same height, weight, and skin color. If she had described his personality, we would find many people who have similar personalities. Also, people change from one moment to the next. For example, he doesn't love you anymore but you still think that he loves you. That person, in the next minute, will not be the same person you think he is right now. So, it's impossible to describe a person precisely. How can we describe ourselves? Who is our self? It is meaningless to describe or ask, who am I, if you want to find a precise answer.

    The sutra gives an analogy on how to use the illusory body to remedy the illusory mind. If you rub two pieces of wood together, you will generate fire. The fire will ignite both pieces of wood and burn them to ashes, and when the wind blows, everything will be gone. That is how we should practice.

    Shifu says that the two blocks of wood are our illusory body and mind. The fire represents our departing from our attachment to our body and mind. The fire ignites and burns down our attachments to our body and mind. It does not mean that our body and mind do not exist, but only that it burns down our attachment to our body and mind.

    In the sutras, the Buddha describes four levels of departing or detachment that explain how this illusory practice works. The first level of detachment deals with ordinary people. We have many attachments to worldly phenomena-- money, property, houses, cars, jewels. We may be attached to our careers. Perhaps there are those of us who have husbands who have good careers and don't need to work. But they may still ask their husbands to make more money. We are attached to our bodies. I don't feel good. My body aches. I am getting old. There is a wrinkle on my face. I have a wife, but I still have many girlfriends, because it makes me happy. So we are very attached to our sensual pleasures. We spend our entire lives pursuing sensory pleasures and, as a result, generate a lot of suffering.

    One way to let go of our attachment to money is to make offerings. Venerable told a story about how she met some rich people who told her not to worry about them, because, based on their experience, the more they donate, the more money and the faster they earn it back. Sometimes, they would earn twice or three times what they had donated in just a couple of days. But we should not attach to this feeling either. Perhaps, you might donate $100 and then have expectations of perhaps earning $300 in a week. When it does not happen, you might become disappointed. This becomes another kind of attachment.

We donate to help good people like monks and nuns, but should we donate money to people who do harm, like taking drugs or alcohol. Should we give to those who beg on the street? Venerable told a story about a queen who enjoyed making offerings. She went to see the Buddha to make a big offering. The queen wanted to free five slaves, but they did not want to leave her. She thought this very strange, since everybody wants freedom, and asked the Buddha why this was so. The Buddha explained that many lives ago, she was still a queen who liked to make offerings and donated money to many people, including monastics. At that time, there were five monks to whom no one offered any food. Because they were hungry, they banded together and claimed that they had attained arhatship in order to receive offerings. People started to show their respect, including the queen, and donated money, food and built a temple for them. Because in this previous life, she had offered happily to monastics, in this life, she was still a queen. But these five monks became the queen's slaves. Even though the queen offered them freedom, they did not want to leave because they had not yet repaid their debt. So when you make offerings, the merit that you generate is your merit, no matter whom you donate to. The merit is generated from the mind of wanting to help people and has nothing to do with to whom you donate. But the receiver has to accept the karma of repaying their debt, if they are cheating people. Making offerings is a way for people to let go of their attachments to money, property, even career.

    When we have good careers, that is good and we should work hard. What if we fail and lose all our money and our job? That's okay too-- we should work hard to find a new job. We shouldn't be too upset or try to kill ourselves, recognizing that everything arises due to causes and conditions. Since everything will change, we shouldn't be upset or be attached to the failure.

    People sometimes suffer because they can't choose their parents or their children, who may behave badly or may not love us. Some people run away from home. But we shouldn't run away from our problems; these people exist because we have a lesson to practice in this lifetime. We should practice until everything that happens around does not bother us anymore and we become detached from it.

    The second level of detachment is detachment from the function of mind. For example, if your husband or wife scolds you, how do you feel? You feel bad. If your husband or wife has an affair with another person, you feel bad. Your mind generates hatred and anger, and you might even want to take revenge.

    Venerable told the audience a story about a girl whose boyfriend dumped her. She was miserable for a year. Someone told her that she seemed to enjoy this process of losing love. She became angry. The friend continued by pointing out the many advantages she is gaining as a result of her boyfriend dumping her. The next day, she returned to her friend and agreed that since her break up, her parents stopped waking her up in the morning, and her friends take her to the pub to try to cheer her up because they are afraid she might hurt herself. At that moment, she became all right again.

    Venerable told another story about a university student in Taiwan who attended a retreat. Just before the retreat, his girlfriend dumped him. He was sick for two days and went to Shifu for an interview. He said he could not sit anymore, and that he wanted to leave. Shifu asked why. He said he felt miserable and couldn't sit. Shifu asked him how many times he had been dumped by his girlfriend. He answered this was his first time. Shifu said, "Okay, only once. Then you got beat up? You are much stronger than that. Go back to your seat! Use your method." He felt shocked, returned to his seat, and sat through the seven days.

    Sometimes, after experiencing loss, we may attach to the feeling of misery and suffering. Your mind can choose to feel suffering or happiness. This is a function of mind. We can choose the positive, but we tend to attach to negativity. This is the second level of attachment that we need to let go of. The third level of detachment is detachment from wanting to let go of the illusion of the body and mind. To illustrate this, Venerable told the story of a follower who, during a chanting ceremony, wrote the name of her sister-in-law on a tablet so that she may receive transfer merit to her. This in-law lived with her and always gave her a hard time. As she learned the Buddha dharma, she realized that this must be a result of past karma, started to try to help her sister-in-law, and in the process, began to let go. She didn't feel suffering anymore. When Venerable asked her why she wanted to transfer merit to her sister-in-law, she replied that she hoped to not see her again in her next life. With that kind of attitude, they will probably meet again.

    Some practitioners think that the material world and people are not good for their practice, so they go to the mountain to leave this impure world. They don't want to interact with material things or see people. They just want to be pure on the mountaintop and focus on their practice. Venerable related a story about an old woman who made offerings to a monk for many years. One day, the woman wanted to test the monk's progress, so she sent her daughter to the monk to give him a hug. The next day, the old woman went to the monk and asked, "How was my daughter?" The monk said, "Just like a stone, no feeling." The old woman got mad and said, "I have spent my time and money making offerings to a stone. You have no feelings," and kicked the monk out. Sometime later, the monk came back to the old woman and said, "You can start making offerings to me again, because I have made progress." The old woman made offerings, and a couple of days later, again, sent her daughter to the monk. The next day, she went to the monk and asked, "How was my daughter?" The monk replied, "You know, I know. Let's not talk about it." The old woman smiled and told him that had made some progress.

    The Buddha warned that even though there are many, "Depart from this." and "Depart that." we should avoid nihilism. When we detach from our attachments to body and mind, we still have a very subtle self-consciousness, the mind of wanting to depart from this or that. We need to let go of this. We may get to a level where we are indifferent to everything, or like people who enter Samadhi with no response to anything, but once you leave Samadhi, everything will still exist.

    At the third stage, you still have a subtle attachment to a self that believes that there is one that wants to depart from material life and mind function. Just like the practitioner in the chanting ceremony, you can let go but still want to depart from something, which is in itself a type of attachment. You have to be like the monk, who at the third level, was like a stone, with no feeling for anything whatsoever. When he let go of that, he entered the fourth level, and became alive again but without attachment.

    To summarize the four levels, at the first level, you detach from material, worldly phenomena. At the second level, you detach from the function of the mind. At the third level, you detach from the subtle consciousness of self that there is one that can depart from anything. When you enter the fourth level, you become alive again while everything exists, but without attachment. The first three levels of detachment are detachment from the self. The fourth level is detachment from the dharma self. If you still think there is a thing called detachment, if you still want to detach from something, when you are not bothered by anything anymore, you don't have to detach because you were never attached.

    When you wake up from a dream, if you don't attach to whatever you owned in the dream, then you will not feel as if you had lost something because they are all illusory. You know that everything happens in a dream but you don't attach to them because you know they are all illusory. You will not escape from anything, be against anything, be attached to or love anything. It is just as it is.

    The last part of bodhisattva Samantabhadra's question is, are there any expedient methods that I can use to gradually attain Buddhahood? The Buddha replies by saying that once you know that they are illusory, you are already detached from it. The problem is we don't think it's illusory. For example, even if you accept that one day this clock will disappear or be broken, when you hold this clock, you still think that it's real, so you cannot let go. But once you know that it's illusory, you can let go. Once you let go, you are enlightened. There is no expedient method or gradual step. It's just direct to our enlightenment.

    Both questions from bodhisattvas Manjusri and Samantabhadra are direct, asking how we wake up from this dream. The Buddha's answer is also very direct-- just realize it; know that they are illusory, and when you realize it, you are enlightened. The answers are very short. The first two chapters are very short and get to the point very quickly, but it is we who do not understand and need much explanation

    Since most of us are not enlightened, Venerable encouraged the audience to attend the next talk - "How to Contemplate Our Illusory Body and Mind?"

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