Song of Mind of Niu-tou Fa-jung (No. 28)
Commentary by Master Sheng-yen

(From the Fall/1999 issue of Chan Magazine)
(This is the 28th article from a series of lectures given during retreats at the Ch'an Center in Elmhurst, New York. The talks in this article were given on Nov. 28 and 29, 1987.)
Eternal day is like night,
Eternal night, like day.
These lines speak of two different levels: the level of the beginning practitioner--all of us here on retreat--and the level of the already-enlightened being. Let's talk about the first level because it is more relevant to our situation. John tells me that, so far, every day of retreat has been good. Perhaps the rest of you feel envious, but actually, John should not feel too happy about his situation. In fact, it would be better if he treated every day as if it were the darkest night. On the other hand, those of you who feel the days have been dark and difficult should think of each day as being filled with light and joy. You are probably wondering, "How can pain be joyful?" It is because the experience of pain is a part of practice and life, and it provides you with the opportunity to observe it, to see how you respond to it, and to practice accepting and letting go of it.
A good friend in Taiwan with whom I often converse sometimes hears me speak about my difficulties and problems. This householder Buddhist's response to everything I say is always the same, "No problem! Everything is fine." He believes that problems and troubles arise so that we can face them as well as ourselves. It is an important part of daily practice. This man has a great attitude. No matter what happens, it is not a problem. If you have been fired from your job, no problem. If someone you love has died, no problem.
The last time I saw my friend I had the opportunity to offer him a bit of his own wisdom. What he thought was a promising business venture turned out to be a scam, and his so-called partner made off with his half of the investment. "No problem," I said.
"No problem!" he answered, bewildered and scratching his head. "But I've just lost a great deal of money."
I replied, "That's fine. When you have money, you are constantly worrying about how to protect it or save it or invest it. It just makes trouble. Now you have nothing to think about, so you have no problems."
I would like to relate another story that was popular news in Taiwanese tabloids for a while. It seems that the beautiful young wife of a rich and famous man ran away to Hong Kong with an American man. Of course, the press was merciless. Everyone was sympathetic toward the rich man, figuring that he must be suffering a great deal from sadness, anger, and humiliation. But he seemed to be unfazed by the experience. His friends asked incredulously, "How can you be so happy?"
He answered, "The very fact that others desire my wife must mean that she is very good. It just shows that I have good taste."
Three months later his wife returned to him. Again, the press made a big deal about the turn of events, but the man was still happy. He hosted a huge party to welcome back his wife. Again, his friends were quite surprised by this man's behavior and asked him how it was that he could be so forgiving and magnanimous. He told them, "That she returned to me tells me that I am a good husband and that she cares for me. After having the opportunity to compare our relationship with another, she chose me, and that makes me happy."
Is this person a wise man or a fool? Who is to judge? How can one know his true motivations? I choose to believe that this man truly did not overly attach to things, that he really did not let things bother him, and that he had the ability to put things down. His attitude is a healthy one. Regardless of what his true intentions were, the way in which he responded to the situation was quite uncommon, and his behavior is relevant to our practice. Say, for instance, that your legs hurt so badly that you think it could not possibly get any worse. The best attitude would be to view it as a golden opportunity to experience such a condition. To experience what we believe to be at or beyond the limits of our capabilities is worthwhile. To endure what we consider to be excruciating pain tempers our will, determination, and self-discipline. Of course, there are different ways to deal with pain. From the point of view of practice, the way to deal with all circumstances is not to try to conquer or overcome them, but to accept them and let them go.
Such an attitude works for painful and difficult situations as well as pleasurable and smooth-flowing situations. Therefore, if everything seems to be going exceedingly well with your practice, it is no reason to feel happy or proud. From experience I can tell you that at the moment you acknowledge your good fortune and happiness, the situation will change. Again, if you accept and endure your painful legs, eventually the pain will disappear and you will be left with a cool, pleasant sensation. The best thing would be to ignore the new development and concentrate on your method. But, if you turn your attention to your legs, thinking, "Wow, what an amazing experience! A minute ago my legs were excruciatingly painful, but now the feeling is almost pleasurable. Can this really have happened or is it my imagination? Do I have special powers? Is this a result of good practice?" In turning your attention to your experience, the mind stirs, and you find that you are off the method and that the pain has returned.
The lesson to be learned is not to let your mind stir, either with feelings of suffering or with feelings of joy. Most of you have probably been to the circus and watched in awe as an acrobat performed tricks while balancing on a high wire. Where do you think this person's focus is? Is she wondering about whether the audience likes or dislikes her? Is she anticipating applause or hisses? Or is her mind on her practice? Like the acrobat, we must thoroughly train ourselves to be completely unconcerned about what goes on around us or what responses we might encounter, and we must remain diligently focused on our methods.
To summarize the first level of understanding, these verses tell practitioners not to be dismayed by difficult situations or misled by good situations. Practice, like life, is not linear, and you will encounter good days and bad days, good sittings and bad sittings, good experiences and bad experiences. The best approach is to keep your mind on the task at hand and let the experiences come and go. These verses tell us that as practitioners, we should maintain equanimity in our practice and not allow our minds to be moved by the environment.
The verse "Eternal day is like night, eternal night, like day" also speaks of the enlightened condition. People who are enlightened do not act differently from those who are unenlightened. People who act differently, put on airs, or act superior to others because they think they are enlightened are, in fact, not enlightened. The truly enlightened person does not attach to the experience of enlightenment. It is something that has already passed. For the enlightened, there is really no such thing as enlightenment.
Therefore, enlightened ones act more or less the same as ordinary people. They would likely not stand out in a crowd because they are not concerned with what others think of them. They do not require attention and adulation. Often, it is the monk who appears slow and somewhat dumb who is the great practitioner; and the monk who appears to be extremely sharp and knowledgeable is the one who often needs to practice more diligently. Do not concern yourself with or waste time wondering what your experiences may mean, whether you are making progress or not, or how you appear to others or me. Stay with your method and the rest will take care of itself.
Outwardly like a complete fool,
Inwardly mind is empty and real.
Yesterday, I talked briefly about monks in monasteries and how it is that looks can often be misleading. Some monks who appear to be foolish or dumb may actually be deeply enlightened. There are many stories in Buddhist history that speak of enlightened monks who were often overlooked by others because of their behavior or appearance. Often, these monks would break or disregard many of the minor monastery rules, making them appear to be disrespectful, ignorant, or absent-minded.
One such story involves Ming dynasty Master Han-shan (not the poet) and his experiences with a monk while visiting a monastery. This particular monk had contracted a disease that had grotesquely bloated his body and had turned his skin a sickening yellow color. He was shunned by the rest of the monks in the monastery because they were disgusted by him. He spent most of his time alone because no one would go near him. Still, he was grateful for being in the monastery, and when he asked for a work assignment, he was given the task of cleaning the bathrooms.
Master Han-shan developed an interest in this man because every morning he noticed that the bathrooms were spotlessly clean. Han-shan inquired and was directed to speak to the sick monk. This monk told him that he would clean the bathrooms every night while everyone else slept because he himself had nowhere to sleep. After he was finished with this assignment, he would spend the rest of the evening in the Meditation Hall waiting for morning service.
After hearing this, Master Han-shan had great respect for the monk that everyone else avoided. As it turned out, Master Han-shan had a few, long-standing problems with his meditation that he could not resolve. He thought that there might be more to this monk than anyone knew, and so he told him about his problems and asked for guidance. Master Han-shan's intuitions were correct, because the diseased monk regarded the problems as a simple matter and offered perfect advice.
We can gain a few insights from this story. One, this monk felt no need to advertise his experience and attainment; and two, he was neither depressed over nor deterred by the preconceptions of and treatment by his peers. He did not indulge in arrogance or self-pity. How affected do you think you would be in similar circumstances? Would great spiritual experiences fill you with feelings and thoughts of pride and superiority? How would you react if you were the subject of constant ridicule or harassment? Worse, how would you feel if you were ignored and shunned? Would you have the same resolve and equanimity as did the monk in the story?
Usually, the more deeply enlightened a person is, the less he or she will stand out in a crowd. Once, someone made a long pilgrimage to Master Hsu-yun's residence in order to meet the great, contemporary master. The man spotted a non-descript monk spreading manure in a field and asked if he was going the right way and how long it would be before he arrived at Hsu-yun's monastery. The monk in the field annoyed the traveler because he asked questions about his reasons for wanting to visit Hsu-yun. The traveler did not want to be bothered by this ordinary monk, but as you may have already guessed, the manure-spreading monk was Hsu-yun himself. My master, Lin-yuan, also did not have the appearance of a great, awe-inspiring monk. It was the same for me when I was younger, but now people show me more respect. Some may say it is because of my personality and reputation as a Ch'an teacher, but I suspect it has more to do with looking old and my hair turning white.
These two lines of verse refer to the appearance of one who is already enlightened, but I encourage all of you not to wait for enlightenment to cultivate such an attitude. You will have far fewer vexations if you have the attitude of the diseased monk in the Han-shan story. Pretentiousness is the source of many problems. Whatever you are doing, just do it. Do not concern yourself with the approval or disapproval of others. Do not think about whether you look like a fool or not. People waste so much time and energy trying to impress or take advantage of others.
How many of you would accept a job as a cleaner of bathrooms? Would you consider the job to be below you? How many of you would be willing to let someone else get the better of you in certain situations? If you cannot do even this, then you have not learned much from practice. If in your mind you are clearly aware of what is happening around you or to you, then it does not matter what others perceive or believe. You may appear to be foolish or gullible to others, but in your mind you know you are not. Cultivating such a personality can also be transformative for others, because people will eventually realize that you are not a fool and that, in fact, you are accepting them. Such behavior gives others permission to be more honest and less pretentious.
One of my students in Taiwan once told me that he is clear and sharp when he listens to my lectures, but when he is working he feels dull and one step behind everyone else. Then he turned to me and said, "You often appear like that yourself, Shih-fu. If I didn't already know you and were to see the way you act sometimes, I would think that you are a stupid idiot."
I did not expect such a comment, and so I responded, "A person with great wisdom is like a fool." But then I added, "Since I'm not a person of great wisdom, you are probably right. Perhaps I am just a fool." I am also happy that because of my practice, I have grown less sensitive to things other people say and do; otherwise, I probably would have been insulted by this man's comment.
Actually, it is true that I am sometimes slow-acting. I could claim that it is because I am mindful about my every decision and movement; but the truth is that sometimes, I do not know what to do. Once, two of my disciples were arguing and fighting right in front of me. If I had adhered to the rules of the temple, I would have asked them to leave. Instead, I closed my eyes. I sat there, doing nothing, and then left.
The same person who called me a stupid idiot witnessed the entire interaction, and he caught me in the hallway and asked, "You are their Shih-fu. What are you going to do about it?" I said, "I don't know." Ultimately, I talked to each disciple, but not until they had finished arguing and had calmed down. I did not see any point in trying to reason with them when they were in the middle of a fight. Nothing would have gotten accomplished. By waiting until they were calm and rational, I was able to talk to them without shaming them or antagonizing them further. Also, because they were clearer, the problem was quickly and easily resolved. I still am not sure if my strategy was foolish or wise, but at the time, it seemed to be the expedient thing to do.
In an earlier lecture, I asked what you would do if the Ch'an Center caught fire. I went on to say that a practitioner with true Ch'an spirit would continue to stay on the method, even at risk of burning to ashes. I hope you realize that I was exaggerating to make a point. In that sense, I was encouraging all of you to disregard any and all outside disturbances. On the other hand, you must have enough sense to know what to do in any given situation. If it becomes obvious that the fire is out of control, what are you going to do? If you continue to meditate, thinking, "The Ch'an Center's Dharma Protectors will take care of the situation," then I would say you really are a fool. Do what is expedient. Later, if I yell at you for having allowed yourself to be moved by the environment, just accept it. In your mind, you know you were clear and that you did the wise thing. It does not matter what I think about you.
In our daily lives, we should train ourselves to be less sensitive to the perceptions of others. Like enlightened beings, we should not be afraid to appear outwardly foolish. Whenever you find that you are filled with vexation because of embarrassment or over-sensitivity, reflect, "Why am I not cultivating outward foolishness and inward clarity?" This is not an easy task for most people, even for Buddhists and Ch'an practitioners. Moreover, we are not enlightened beings, so we cannot expect to act this way all the time. But it is definitely an attitude worth cultivating, and I encourage you to make it an integral part of your daily practice.


Song of Mind of Niu-tou Fa-jung (No. 29)
Commentary by Master Sheng-yen
(From the Winter/2000 issue of Chan Magazine)
Commentary by Master Sheng-yen
(This article is the 29th from a series of lectures given during retreats at the Chan Center in Elmhurst, New York. These talks were given on December 1st and 26th, 1987, and were edited by Chris Marano.)
Those not moved by the environment
Are strong and great.
Those not moved by the three levels of environment ‹ phenomena not related to you at all, phenomena that happen to you in a cursory way, phenomena that you actively and willfully engage ‹ are considered strong and great. To reiterate, an example of a phenomenon that is not related to you might be the sound of a jet passing overhead. An example of a phenomenon that happens to you in a cursory way might be a chance interaction between you and another retreat participant. An example of a phenomenon that you actively and willfully engage might be the pain in your legs. Pain in the legs is a physical phenomenon, but the thoughts derived from that pain are a product of your discriminating, self-centered mind. Pain is pain, but the mind which experiences the pain will either remain calm or become vexed.
It is difficult not to be influenced by the environment. Today, was anyone able to meditate, do yoga exercises, eat, work, prostrate, slow walk, fast walk, listen to lecture, recite the liturgy, or even rest without being disturbed by the environment? Do not be disturbed if, in recalling your day, you realize that you were off your method or unmindful many times. Practice is precisely catching yourself engaging in thoughts of past, future and fantasy, and bringing yourself back to your method or to the task at hand.
Every situation is an opportunity for practice. For instance, are you disturbed by the ticking clock, or do you use it to help your practice? Most of you have indicated that the even, rhythmical sound of a clock is not a hindrance. That is good, but what if a team of construction workers were digging up the sidewalk outside? This actually happened when our Center was located down and across the street. I recall it was a particularly hot and muggy summer retreat. That Center was not as luxurious as this one. What little ventilation we had, was provided by open windows and a noisy fan. All day for seven days we were surrounded by the sounds of jackhammers, hydraulic machinery, power tools, and workers talking, yelling, laughing, cursing and telling stories. Two of them ate lunch every day right outside one of the windows, and all of us heard their conversations. It was challenging, to say the least. How many of you would have remained undisturbed through all of that? Would you have been able to use that commotion to help your practice?
One of you says that you would deal with external disturbances by grabbing hold of your mind and chi. That will not work. If you grab hold of your mind, it will hurt. If you grab hold of your chi, it will become obstructed. What you must do is grab hold of your method. If you are really concentrated, you will not be bothered by any external phenomena, no matter how chaotic it might seem.
How many of you are aware of me when I walk behind your meditating bodies? If you are aware of me and it moves you to think and wonder, then your mind is scattered. If you are aware of my movements, but you are undisturbed and continue with your method, then your mind is fairly, but not deeply, concentrated. A deeper level of concentration would be if you were so focused on your method that you were completely unaware of my presence. One of you is indicating that you are sometimes unaware of my movements. Strange. If you are unaware of my movements, then how can you be sure I was even there?
Usually, retreatants are easily disturbed by movements, sounds and body pain the first two-to-three days of retreat. As the retreat continues, however, your concentration will strengthen and deepen. You will acknowledge, but no longer be bothered by, things that disturbed you in the beginning. I would describe this as moderate concentration. In deep con centration, you would not even note or acknowledge external phenomena.
Think of your method as stringing pearls, each pearl indicating your attention to the method. As your concentration deepens, the spaces between each pearl ‹ those times when your mind is idle or not on the method ‹ will lessen and eventually disappear. When there are no longer any gaps in your concentration, you will not be disturbed by any external phenomena. You will be unmoved by the environment.
Of course, the unmoving mind I have described here is different from what is often described as the "unmoving mind of an enlightened being." As has been the case with previous verses, these lines of verse can be interpreted on two levels: that of ordinary practitioners and that of enlightened beings. I am sure all of you have had experiences where you were completely unaware of phenomena around you because you were so concentrated on what you were doing. You do not need to practice meditation to experience this. It is not uncommon. People engrossed in reading, writing, studying, working, watching or listening to a performance can become so absorbed by what they are doing that they are not aware of sounds and other disturbances around them. These are examples of a non-enlightened mind that is unmoved by the environment.
I recall seeing a movie a long time ago in which a child was watching an outdoor performance. The boy was outside the periphery of the audience, and he had been tending a small fire to keep warm. He became so engrossed in the performance that he forgot about the fire. Un-beknownst to him, the fire spread and started to scorch the back of his clothes. Still, he was so involved in the performance that he did not realize what was happening. Part of his awareness knew something was amiss because he would occasionally wave his hand to shoo away the disturbance, but never once was his focus on the performance broken. His clothes ignited, and still he was unaware. It took a bucket of cold water thrown on him by someone else to break his concentration. If you can work on your method and attain the same degree of concentration as that boy attained, then you have reached a fairly deep level of concentration.
The second level of interpretation describes enlightened beings who have let go of all attachments. When there is no self-center or mind of attachment, there is no mind to be moved. On the other hand, enlightened beings are clear and keenly aware of all that happens around them. It is as the Diamond Sutra states: "The mind should be kept independent of any thoughts which arise within it. "The mind that the Diamond Sutra speaks of is not the self-centered mind of vexation, but the mind of wisdom. The objective environment exists, but there is no longer a self which attaches to it.
The unmoving mind of enlightenment is different from the ordinary mind that is unmoved by disturbances. Actually, the mind that is wholly concentrated on the method is stuck to the environment. In this case, however, the environment is the method. Although the mind is focused and working hard on the method, it is still a discriminating, self-centered mind. Hence, the mind that moves is the mind of discrimination; and where there is discrimination, there is vexation. If discrimination and vexation still exist, so too does the self. With the enlightened mind, there is no self-centeredness; and, although the environment still exists objectively, enlightened beings do not perceive it as such because they have no egos which attach to it.
"Those not moved by the environment are strong and great" does not refer to people who are famous leaders, athletes, or karate experts. It refers to those who are unmovable. Those without self-centers are truly strong because they cannot be deterred by anything or anyone. One who is self-centered can still be harmed or influenced by others; but a selfless, enlightened being cannot.
Such strength and greatness can sometimes be observed even among unenlightened people. For example, people who act not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of others, are often more courageous than those who have only their own interests in mind. Their words and actions are often more noble. Acting always and only with one¹s own benefit in mind ‹ even if it is striving for enlightenment ‹ is not a sign of strength and greatness. That is why the first Bodhisattva Vow states, "I vow to deliver innumerable sentient beings."
While we traverse the Bodhisattva Path, we are still ordinary sentient beings, replete with vexation, attachment and egos. There is still the idea, "I want to help sentient beings," and there is still a sense of satisfaction when we see the good work we have done. This is good, but it is not enlightenment. As the Diamond Sutra also states, for those who have attained great enlightenment, helping still continues, but there is no longer an "I" who helps or sentient beings who need to be helped.
There is neither people nor seeing.
Without seeing there is constant appearance.
These verses relate to what the Diamond Sutra says about there being no self and no sentient beings. In this case, "no people" refers to there being no objective reality and "no seeing" refers to there being no self-view, or subjective reality. However, even though there is neither self (subject) nor others (object), everything is still clearly perceived the way it is. When there is no "you" working on the method and no method being used, we say that you have become one with the method; and although there is neither a "you" nor the method, you are still working hard from moment to moment.
People come to retreats so that they can spend an intense, extended period of time cultivating their minds. For most people, meditating an hour or two a day at home does not provide enough momentum to penetrate a method deeply. As we meditate sitting period after sitting period, we should attempt to make the environment as well as our minds become smaller and smaller, until there are no others to see and no self that sees them.
I understand that some retreatants here are making phone calls and waiting for family members to arrive so that they can receive and deliver messages. People who have been on retreat before know that this is not permitted, and for good reason. If we cannot even remove ourselves from our relationships with the outside world for seven days, there is no way we will be able to make our minds and the environment become smaller.
The first condition for a successful retreat experience is that you let go of, or isolate yourself from, all thoughts about anything outside the Ch¹an Meditation Hall. The second condition is that you let go of all thoughts about everything that happens in the Meditation Hall. If someone yawns and causes you to yawn in turn, then you have not yet removed yourself from what goes on around you. Although yawns may be contagious under normal conditions, they should have no affect on you during retreat. Train yourself to remember that you have no relationship to people sitting around you. They are they and you are you. I see that someone is dozing while I am lecturing. What do you think? Is it because she is bored or sleepy, or is it because she is clearly on her method and knows that I have nothing to do with her? Since it is the first day of retreat, I would wager that it is the former reason.
The third condition is that you let go of all thoughts about yourself. When your legs or back become painful, you must cultivate the ability to say,"These legs and back have nothing to do with me. I am meditating." Or, this sleepy practitioner can tell herself, "My drowsiness has nothing to do with me. My body may be drowsy, but I will continue to work on my method."
The same is true of wandering thoughts. Once you realize you have been caught in a web of wandering thoughts, all you have to do is return to the method. The wandering thoughts are not you. The person who had just entertained wandering thoughts is also no longer you. That person is now part of the past. In the present moment, you are working hard on your method. If what I am saying to you right now is useful to you right now, then accept it; but do not continue to think about it. Likewise, do not imagine what the next moment will bring. You will experience it soon enough.
If you can isolate yourself in this manner ‹ first from the outside environment, then from those around you, then from your own body and wandering thoughts, and finally from the past moment and the next moment ‹ then you, your method and the environment will disappear. This is the ideal. When practitioners claim they have reached such a level of absorption, it is usually for a different reason. Namely, they have become fatigued from expending so much energy and have fallen into a stupor. Many people who claim to have had enlightenment experiences have merely gone blank from exhaustion. Obviously, this is not the condition of which the Song of Mind speaks. If it were, I am sure many of you would have already experienced enlightenment.
"Without seeing there is constant appearance" also refers to the enlightened mind. To an enlightened being, all phenomena are still present and moving, but there is no self which interacts with them. This condition‹ when there is no self but everything is still present ‹ is called wisdom. There is complete awareness of phenomena and all of their movements, including the movement of the body, but there is no self which attaches to it. If, in your practice you get a taste of what it is like to be undisturbed by the environment, you will feel free and at ease. If you get to the point where your former thought and subsequent thought have no relationship to each other, you will feel even freer.
What I speak of is not easy to accomplish. We are ordinary human beings, and as such we are often moved by our thoughts, feelings and emotions. We are moved by sensations of the body. When our body is in pain, or ill, or exhausted, it is difficult to concentrate on things like meditation methods. In addition, we are moved by thoughts of the past and future. We are moved by others around us. We are moved by the everyday world. That is why retreats exist, so that we can devote the time and effort necessary to isolate ourselves from such relationships.
Today is the first day of retreat. Begin it by isolating yourself from the outside world. Let go of all thoughts about the day you just experienced. For the next seven days, your world is your method in the present moment. Devote all of your attention to it.