Chan and the Life of Wisdom

I. Right Understanding of Life

After we are born, we not only face the question of survival, but we must also cope with people and society. No one can avoid these problems for we are basically social beings. The scope of human life is as extensive as it is complex. How can we live in harmony, peace, comfort, freedom, brightness, and prosperity, and further advance into the realm of liberation and freedom in this life? First, we must have right view and right understanding—the proper way of looking at and valuing life. Then, we can walk steadily on the wide path of life; our actions will have a dependable guide; we will not be deluded; thus there will be peace and stability in society.

In Buddhism, this proper way of looking at and valuing life is known as right view or right understanding; it is also known as right wisdom. It is not enough just to have right wisdom. Buddhism teaches us to strive for a perfect life, to arrive at ultimate truth, virtue, and beauty. To achieve this, one needs to have the Buddha’s wisdom, purity, brightness, and compassion. We refer to this as pure wisdom, pure untarnished wisdom. Pure wisdom is inherent in everyone’s original nature. The Buddha thoroughly understood, taught, and propagated this, but as sentient beings, we still cannot clearly and truly grasp it. This is the difference between the Buddha and sentient beings.

Generally, there are four kinds of wisdom: foolish wisdom, erroneous wisdom, right wisdom, and pure wisdom. Because of our misunderstandings we form attachments, we cannot distinguish between right and wrong; this is called foolish wisdom, and is also called erroneous wisdom. Living with these misconceptions, life is filled with darkness, vexations, suffering, and worry, and is lacking in morality. These conditions not only affect the self, but more seriously, they endanger families, society, and even all of humanity. If we truly understand the principle of Chan, we can eradicate foolish wisdom and erroneous wisdom, and give rise to right wisdom and further attain pure wisdom. The sutra says, “With wisdom there is brightness; without wisdom life is filled with darkness,” and clearly points out the importance of right wisdom and pure wisdom in our lives.

Buddhism teaches not only wisdom, but also compassion. Wisdom and compassion are the essence of Buddhism and the goal of students and cultivators of Buddhism. In other words, it can be said that compassion belongs to the sphere of emotion, and wisdom is rational thought. If we have compassion but do not have wisdom, we will be ruled by emotion, thus causing difficulties that impede our success in future undertakings. If we only have wisdom and not compassion, we will be indifferent and unfeeling, and life will not be complete or satisfying. The true essence of Chan encompasses both compassion and wisdom. It promotes right wisdom and helps us to attain the pure wisdom of the Buddha. The Buddhas’ realm is absolutely pure and perfect.

II. Applying Chan in Daily Life

When we speak of life, we should look at it from two perspectives: daily living and true life. If we have right wisdom and pure wisdom, our daily living will be rich and meaningful; our true life will become infinite.

How do we incorporate Chan into our daily lives? First, we must always maintain an attitude of “Being content one always enjoys happiness.” For some people, this idea might seem rather problematical because our industrialized society stresses competition and efficiency. So, one might wonder whether this attitude would decrease efficiency or impede social progress. My answer is “No.” In fact, this contentment is not passive or an unconscious way of thinking, but rather it is a positive attitude full of life. Using contemporary language, “Being content one always enjoys happiness” means that we always fulfill our responsibilities and are amicable with others.

The reason we have vexations is because we are not content. For example, after you find a job, you tend to think only of how to advance further and get ahead. This is like “standing on this mountain and only seeing that the other mountain is higher.” When you think this way, vexations will arise. However, if you think differently, such as “this job was not easy to find; many different causes and conditions in society helped me to get this job,” you will naturally treasure and respect your job and will have a mind of gratitude toward society and others. When you look upon this job and your coworkers with this attitude, you will always be happy and content.

The Buddhadharma says, “Repay the four kindnesses above; help those in the three suffering realms below.” This means that we should acknowledge the benefits we receive and always try to repay our benefactors. But who are the benefactors of our existence? Our parents, our teachers, society, and our country have all contributed. Why? From our birth to the completion of our education, we depend on the care of our parents. During our school years, our teachers direct our studies so that we can acquire the knowledge and skills to earn a living. Society and our country provide us with jobs and security. Without all of these, life would be difficult, and our careers would not be successful. All of these people help us directly and indirectly. How can we not be grateful to them?

We should also understand what it means to “attribute the good deeds to others and the bad deeds to ourselves.” For example, if a corporation does not have employees and consumers, it cannot elect the position of chairperson. If a country does not have citizens, statesmen, and generals, it cannot produce the position of president. Therefore, the success of an individual is in reality the success of all people. The fruits of one person’s success are shared by all people. What is “attributing the bad deeds to ourselves”? When we encounter difficulties and even failures, we must carefully examine ourselves and determine the reason from within; we need to find out how to remedy our shortcomings, and not to accuse or blame them on others. When we understand these principles, our mind will be at peace, and we will view life and society differently.

Living in this age of rapidly expanding and available information, human skills and knowledge are at a very high level. Yet this only heightens our mind-consciousness; the dissemination of information is not guided by right view and right understanding. As a result of this heightening of mind-consciousness, knowledge can be developed abnormally and become a form of disease; if the development of science and technology is not based on right wisdom, pure wisdom, and compassion, new inventions can lead to self-destruction and new ways of committing crimes. In fact, are we not seeing these destructive tendencies resulting from scientific and technological advances in modern society right now? This fact really underscores the importance of Chan in our modern technological society. Actually, whether we hold jobs or work for society, or even aspire to save the country and humanity, we all need the compassion, impartiality, right view, right understanding, and pure wisdom of Chan to guide us. If each one of us could truly and sincerely cultivate this, then what Confucius hoped for: a society where “Not appropriating the lost property on the street and not having to lock the doors at night,” will not be just a dream.

In a society where people are filled with worldly desires, the spirit of the people lacks the guidance of right view and right understanding. As a result, vexations and sufferings are increasing; moral principles and virtue are deteriorating; disturbances and confusion in society are constantly emerging; and people have real difficulties finding calmness and resting places for their minds. The teaching of Chan can definitely improve this situation. If we understand the principles of Chan and can incorporate them into our daily lives, we will not only greatly reduce our vexations, but we will also live in greater harmony. Our society will thus be more peaceful, harmonious, bright, and auspicious.

III. Three Studies and Chan Wisdom

Specifically, if we hope to have a life filled with brightness and wisdom, we can achieve this in Buddhism by observing the three studies: moral precepts, samadhi, and wisdom. In observing the three studies, the first step we must take is to uphold the precepts, which purify one’s actions, words, and thoughts. After the purification of upholding the precepts, one practices concentration and cultivates to attain the state of deep samadhi. Finally, following the mastery of samadhi, wisdom will naturally arise. In Buddhism, moral precepts, samadhi, and wisdom are known as the three studies which are without outflows. Although they seem to differ in stages, they are in essence one. When practicing one, one practices all three; they are three in one.

Why is upholding the moral precepts listed first in the three studies? Is it because the Buddha is not compassionate enough? Actually, the moral precepts are like the constitution of a country or the regulations of a school. These rules or regulations are all superfluous for those who observe the law because they will not violate them. But, because of the protection of these laws and regulations, people feel more secure and believe they can be free from worries and be at peace. One needs to understand that moral precepts have only been established for the sake of those who are unaware, or for those who have already developed bad habits, so that they can learn to rectify their behavior. The purpose of the moral precepts is to help people: on the one hand, to eradicate their bad habits, and on the other hand, to develop good habits and eventually attain clarity and purity of body and mind.

When one upholds the precepts faithfully and with purity, the mind naturally becomes tranquil and still, like a pool of still water. At this point, vexations will gradually decrease, and the knots of the mind will progressively be untied. When the knots of the mind are untied, the afflictions of the body will naturally disappear; wisdom will gradually and spontaneously arise. Using this spontaneous wisdom to reflect and observe, we sever our vexations and attachments. When vexations and attachments no longer arise, we will thus attain the pure unsullied wisdom of the Buddha.

In our daily lives, if we can use wisdom to break through the vexations of the world around us, we can then live in freedom. Our homes, schools, society, and all places will be our temples. Our founding patriarchs have said, “Hauling wood and carrying rice are miraculous powers and wondrous skills.” If we can understand that Chan is everywhere, we will attain liberation in life. That is, “Calmly observe, and the myriad phenomena become self evident; nature narrates itself perfectly, providing infinite, spontaneous inspiration.” When we reach this state, our minds become clear and pure, and we naturally become awakened. Then, living among the myriad phenomena and objects of the world, whatever we encounter can be a source of our inspiration; there is no need for special training or intensive effort. In all undertakings, we can clearly see the state of things. The relationships between people or between things will be harmonious and clear. We can take care of things properly and efficiently. This is a life full of wisdom.

IV. Vexation is Bodhi

In Buddhism it is said, “Vexation is Bodhi (i.e., awakening or enlightenment).” When something gives us vexations and sufferings, we can, through wisdom, see and observe things clearly, and turn our sufferings and vexations into joy, freedom, and peace. Vexations, joy, and freedom are within this very thought. The key is: When we face these circumstances, can we maintain a mind of tranquility; can we have the wisdom to understand and observe them accurately?

The sutra speaks of the merits of sweeping the floor and cleaning the toilet. Most people think of those chores and places as unclean; they cannot wait to escape from them. How could they even think of sweeping the floor or cleaning the toilet? These are lowly jobs. How could such work bring merits?

There is deep meaning here. What are the merits of sweeping the floor? First, it decreases our arrogance. All people harbor a mind of arrogance; it is a feeling that the self is very important in this world. This kind of mentality is a great obstruction in our practice. If we can gladly and freely do the work that others deem to be lowly, this helps reduce our arrogance.

Second, cleanliness can calm a person’s mind. When we clean up our home and our environment, our minds feel clean and pure, and the minds of people who pass by or visit us will also feel clean and pure. When the mind is clean and pure, it naturally becomes tranquil.

Third, it means to sweep away the garbage in our mind. We have a lot of garbage and attachments in our mind, such as greed, anger, doubt, etc. When the mind is filled with garbage, we will have a lot of vexations and will constantly be confused. It is said in Buddhism that “Sweep the floor; sweep the floor; sweep the floor of the mind.” When the garbage of the mind is swept away, the mind becomes clean and pure.

If one understands that sweeping the floor or cleaning the toilet is to give rise to the Bodhi mind and nurture the seeds of virtuous actions, then everyone will want to do these chores, and will do them gladly. So, doesn’t this indicate that vexation is Bodhi?

Chan asks us to constantly maintain the reality or presence of the mind. While walking, the mind is focused on the walking; it doesn’t have delusive thoughts when walking. It is the same when sleeping or doing anything else. In Chan, it is said, “Wherever you are, that is where the mind is.” As we deal with others or do our jobs in society, we must also practice self-examination. “When sitting quietly, reflect on one’s own past offences; when talking, do not criticize others.” At all times, we should examine ourselves to see whether we have committed any offences. If we have, we must correct ourselves immediately. Constantly sweep away the garbage in our mind, namely vexations and ignorance, so that our mind will be like a clear mirror, like a pool of still water. At this time, this mind of no thought is the mind of the Buddha. It also is our true life. This kind of life is inexhaustible; it encompasses heaven and earth. Everyone, even animals, possesses this Buddha nature. That is why the Buddha says, “all sentient beings posses Buddha nature.”

If we can incorporate Chan into our daily lives, this will be a life of joy and blessings. If we wish to seek eternal life, we need to have the mind of the Buddha. The Buddha’s mind is pure wisdom; it is also our pure awareness. When we realize and awaken to this awareness, we rediscover our original mind. This mind possesses samadhi power and wisdom. With this mind we can see everything accurately and realistically. Using this original mind to pursue knowledge or to advance our careers, we will be successful; using this mind to practice Buddhism, we will surely awaken to Bodhi, awaken to the Buddha Way. The wisdom of Chan can improve our lives and daily living. If we live our lives by following and working hard on this path, that is truly a life of wisdom, and the true teaching of Chan.