How to Contemplate Our Illusory Body and Mind

Talk presented by Venerable Chang Hwa
Report written by Chang Jie 03/21/2010

    On Sunday March 21, Venerable Chang-hwa gave the third lecture on the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, "How to Contemplate Our Illusory Body and Mind" at CMC. The first and second lectures introduced the questions raised by the bodhisattvas Manjusri and Samantabhadra. Because their questions are direct and profound, as are the Buddha's answers, these teachings are called the sudden or direct path.

    Since these direct methods are not easy to comprehend or actualize immediately, other bodhisattvas continue to ask questions so that we may better understand, proceed on the path, and one day attain Buddhahood. The next bodhisattva to question the Buddha is the Bodhisattva of Universal Vision who asks if there are any gradual methods for practitioners who have just initiated bodhi mind and have vowed to practice the bodhisattva path but cannot attain Buddhahood upon hearing the direct teachings because they are in the Dharma Ending Age.

    The Buddha answers that we should first try to keep in mind that everything is illusory and that we need to detach from them. If we are unable to do this, the Buddha taught another method of practice. Prerequisites to these alternatives methods are upholding the precepts and stilling the mind.

    Venerable shared stories about her personal experiences in practice and the importance of having the correct attitudes of compassion and wisdom when upholding precepts. Initially, when Buddhists begin keeping precepts, they may stop doing certain things, making people around them feel uncomfortable or hurt. The purpose of upholding precepts is not harming others; rather, we should try to make people around us feel safe and comfortable. If we do not have the right attitude when upholding the precepts, then the precepts will do neither us nor anyone else any good.

    In the book, Shifu says we should first avoid doing harm to ourselves and others. Second, we should do that which benefits ourselves and others. Third, we should do that which benefits others even if it does not benefit ourselves. (This does not mean that we should benefit others by bringing harm to ourselves.) These three guidelines are the bodhisattva precepts.

    Taking and upholding the bodhisattva precepts is very important. An analogy Shifu gives regarding taking of the bodhisattva precepts is that of a lighter, which represents our Buddha nature or mind. This lighter can generate a fire that shines for ourselves and for others. The act of lighting a fire represents taking the bodhisattva precepts or making vows. Without making vows or taking and upholding the bodhisattva precepts, we are like a lighter without a fire. Our minds do not function completely and thus we cannot help ourselves or others.

    The benefits of upholding the precepts are that, first, because you are not doing anything wrong, your mind is calm. For example, after a quarrel or fight, our minds will probably be unstable, and as a consequence, methods of practice will not work for us. So, upholding precepts is the first step to calming the mind. Second, if you uphold the precepts and do your best to benefit others, you will create good karmic affinities with others so that you will have good conditions for practice and awakening or realization. For example, when Shifu was on solitary retreat, he needed people to support him, provide him with meals and a good environment. When we go on a retreat, we need people to cook for us and help make the retreat go smoothly. At home, we may find our practice disturbed by our family or children, but if we are kind to them, they will be quiet and leave us alone during practice, which is good for your practice.

    The second prerequisite for practice is to be at ease in all environments. No matter where you go, you should feel at ease, without disturbances or complaints. You should be at ease in every situation -feel comfortable, like everyone and like every environment.

    The Buddha taught that when we practice, we should use one method to concentrate or still the mind, whether it is counting the breath, watching the breath, or chanting the Buddha's name. The purpose of using the method is so that we can let go of our wandering thoughts and focus until nothing, neither wandering thoughts nor happenings in the environment, bother us and our minds are still and calm.

    When our minds are calm and concentrated, we can start to contemplate our thoughts as they arise and perish. When we do this, we will find that the mind is nothing more than a connection of many individual thoughts rather than one continuous thought and these individual thoughts arise and perish quickly, one after another. When are able to perceive this, then we can begin to contemplate the self and the environment or worldly phenomena.

    When contemplating the self, we should contemplate two aspects of the self-namely, the physical self and the spiritual self. The physical self is the body while the spiritual self includes the mental and emotional aspects of the mind. The sutra states that the body is composed of four elements-earth, water, wind and fire. The earth is bones and teeth; water is all the liquid parts of the body, including blood; fire is the body's heat and wind is the breath. When we die, our bodies return to the four elements. Our bodies change and decompose not only when we die, but all the time. It metabolizes. For example, our bones keep changing-as we grow, our bones get larger, and as we get older, our bones shrink. Our blood cells have cycles where cells die and new cells are generated. We drink water every day. Our body's temperature changes constantly--it is lower in the morning and higher in the afternoon; we feel hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Even our breath changes-when we are sick, our breath is shallower, and when we are healthy or when we exercise, our breathing is deep. Every moment, our bodies are changing.

    How should we contemplate our spiritual self? The sutra said that our body is a temporary combination of the four elements, as are our six organs or faculties (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind) which are also temporarily composed of the four elements. The environment is also a temporary combination of the four elements and changes all the time. Your eyes are changing and the object is changing as well. So what are you seeing? When you see someone you like, you generate happiness. But that person has changed the next moment, and you have also changed the next moment. What about the happiness? Venerable Abbot Guo Xing asks, "The mother you see, is she your real mother? It is your mother in your memories, it is not your real mother. Your mother has already changed the next moment you see her, and you have also changed, so the mother in your memory is not your real mother." Because we are so attached to our memories and consciousness, we do not understand the true reality of that object. We give these objects labels and interpretations based on our memories, and do not see the truth or reality of the objects, thus generating suffering and conflicts. While we may be able to accept these explanations on a superficial, knowledge-based level, they do not become real until we experience them directly. Only when we calm and concentrate our minds, and the mind becomes subtle, can we have the direct experience that our bodies, minds, and all objects are ever-changing. Once we have this direct experience, we will not attach to our bodies or other people's bodies, nor attach to our mind or other people's minds.

This method is also known as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness-contemplation or mindfulness of the body as impure, our perceptions as suffering, the mind as impermanent, and the dharma as no self. Contemplating the body as impure may be difficult to accept. We may wash our bodies everyday and so perceive ourselves as clean. What about the poop that just left your body? It was in your body five seconds earlier, and only five seconds later, it is not in your body anymore. It has somehow become dirty. Once we think it's not a part of us anymore, we consider it dirty.

    The second contemplation is contemplation of our perceptions. When she was very little, she rarely saw coffee. One day, one of her father's friends returned to Taiwan from the United States and brought them a small bag of coffee. They didn't know how to make coffee back then, so they boiled it in water for a long time. Everybody had a sip, and even though it was bitter, remarked how delicious it was. When she was in college, sometimes she had to drink coffee to stay awake and bought instant coffee, because at that time, brewed coffee was not popular in Taiwan. Everybody thought it smelled so good and wonderful. When Venerable came to the U.S. to study, she started to drink brewed coffee, which was even better. Then there was Starbucks, which was even better than the coffee at the supermarket. At the lab that she worked at, the boss was very picky about coffee, so the employees bought high quality coffee beans. They would grind the coffee beans, brew fresh coffee, and drink it within two hours, and after two hours, threw it away. Venerable drank this kind of coffee for a long time. One day, when she went to CMC, she had a cup of coffee and almost threw up. She thought this is terrible coffee and could not drink it. She felt very happy as a little kid with the bad coffee. But now, 90% of all coffee cannot please her anymore. So, what is perception? There is no such thing as real pleasure, because it is constantly discriminated by our minds and our habits. That's the third contemplation, the contemplation of our mind as impermanent.

    Venerable gave the example of being dumped by one's girlfriend. She may have loved you very much, but now she doesn't love you anymore. This is impermanent. We can observe ourselves. We love our parents when we are very little, depend on them and stay close to them. When we grow up, we can reflect on how we treat our parents, when they are sick or confined to bed, or dying. Our minds toward our parents, spouses and children keep changing. Every thought in our mind keeps changing. If we contemplate our mind as made up of individual thoughts that are connected together, and every thought is illusory, then who is the self? Where is your mind? Your mind is not the thought, let alone the connection of each thought.

    The last contemplation, contemplating the dharma as no self, describes the first three contemplations-- the body as impure, your perception as suffering, and the mind as impermanent-- as conditional arising. Everything depends on conditions. If your body gets fat, skinny, grows up, or shrinks--all depends on the conditions. The body, the mind and perceptions have no permanent self but are dependent on conditioned arising.

    The process of preparing yourself for practice and using the method of contemplation until you realize that everything is illusory and has no self, is very long. When you read the sutra, you may give up even before you start. Shifu gave this analogy about practice. The process of practice is like finding a wooden nail stuck in a table. You want to take the nail out. So you take another wooden nail and use it to drive the first nail out, but then the second nail gets stuck in the table. You drive a third nail into the table, getting the second one out, but now the third one gets stuck. In the same way, you let go of one attachment, but another one takes its place. Practice is using the same method over and over again until you realize that the hole is empty. With that realization, if there is nail in the hole, it is not an issue anymore, because when we practice, we may see that our Buddha nature is the nature of emptiness, and not grasp for something or try to get rid of anything. The sutra says that enlightenment is just like waking up from a dream. We realize there is no one practicing the method, and there is no realization or attachment. Nothing changes.

    Shifu said that we have to keep using the method in order to let go of attachment and realize the emptiness of our nature. However, practice is not just about doing the same thing over and over again, or giving yourself a hard time. Shifu tells another story in the book about a man in northern China who is able to use his bare feet to walk on an icy lake without any pain. The village people praise him, saying that he must be a very advanced practitioner because he is able to walk on the icy lake with bare feet. A master then points out to his disciples some ducks walking on the icy lake and exclaims that they must be very great practitioners. Shifu says that practice is not about doing something difficult or repeating the same thing over and over again. For example, I may chant the Buddha's name, but if I don't have the right attitude, then chanting the Buddha's name is not practice. Shifu says that in practice, we need the correct concept and method. Both go together, to make the method real.

    Shifu said that the purpose of practice is to enter Chan. We will realize that there is no door to enter through because Chan is with us since the beginning. We are like people who merely touch the doorknob without turning it, and find that they cannot open it or the door is not working. So we keep changing methods, and try to open another door and find out that we cannot open that either. Shifu said that when you practice, you use the method, try to enter and realize that Chan is always with you. You need to open the mind door, not any door that is outside our selves, let go of your attachment, and discover that Chan is already within you. You realize that there is no self and the nature of emptiness is always with you.

    Finally, Shifu said that in order to attain complete enlightenment, we have to open our mind to our unlimited potential and let go of ideas of existence, non-existence, perfection, imperfection, ordinary people and the Buddha. We should let go of all discriminations and just open our minds, compassionately and wisely accept everything in this world. This is the correct attitude for practice.

    To summarize, the Bodhisattva of Universal Vision asks on behalf of us ordinary bodhisattvas who have just initiated the Buddha path. Even if we cannot use the sudden method to get enlightened, the Buddha provides us with gradual steps to practice. Despite the fact that it is a long process and path, we must keep in mind that Buddha nature is already intrinsically within us, never changing, and we shouldn't look for something outside of ourselves.

    Venerable invited the audience to the next session where she will talk about the bodhisattva Vajragarbha who asks, since we have already intrinsically attained Buddhahood, what is the origin of sentient beings, which is a basic question in science as well.

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