Discovering True Life through the Study of Buddhism

I. Understanding Life: Spirituality and Causality

In this world we all wish for a happy and fulfilling life. We also hope that our existence can be meaningful and worthwhile. To achieve this goal, we must understand that in addition to daily living and survival, we also have our true life, which is boundless and endless. Some people today do not realize how precious life itself is—that is why they are despondent or focus only on themselves and constantly seek diversions and pleasures.

Human life embodies three aspects: daily living, survival (or existence), and true life. Each and every one of us should understand this and thus respect and care for ourselves. If we care for ourselves and have respect for ourselves, then surely we will respect others and be concerned with their daily living, survival, and true life.

Buddhism tells us that we have a past, a present, and a future. If we believe that we have a past, a present, and a future, then the sphere of our existence is limitless, and our life is endless. The Buddhist sutras tell us that the past is the cause, and the present is the effect; the present is the cause, and the future is the effect. Why don’t most people believe these truths? Because most people cannot see future events and do not remember past events, especially the events in previous lives, they do not truly believe in the past or in the future, or in the causality of three times. If we do not believe in the past, the future, or the causality of three times, does that mean we also do not believe in the present? If we do not even believe in the present, then we will suffer from confusion, be lost, and not know how to face life.

In speaking of the past, at least we usually know our grandparents, our great grandparents, or the parents of our great grandparents, but going back further, we probably don’t know or remember our ancestors of many past generations. Just because we do not know or remember them doesn’t mean they never existed. We should realize that the past truly exists. Also, both in the distant past and the present as well, there are cases where people are born with knowledge of their past lives. For example, in ancient Chinese history, the famous poet named Bai JuYi could read the Chinese characters “zhi (之)” and “wu (無)” as soon as he was born.

Some time ago, there was a newspaper report about a man in Tainan, Taiwan, who was found lying drunk in the park. Passersby reported him to the police. When he woke up and was being questioned by the authorities, he suddenly had a heart attack and died. The police notified his family and asked the court to certify his death. After the man’s son brought back his father’s remains, his father appeared to him in a dream, saying, “I did not die from a heart attack after I became drunk, I was beaten to death by six or seven people. Hurry and appeal to the authorities.” His son then went to the police and restated the case to the courts. After an investigation and autopsy, it was proven that the man truly was beaten to death.

Many such telepathic events have been recorded in the history of Buddhism. It proves that all people have their own endless spiritual true life, and that everyone’s mind can give rise to conscious thought. Even when sleeping at night, this mind can give rise to dreams. What are dreams? In dreams, people enter into another world where there are sorrows as well as joys, but when they awaken from their dreams, those sorrows and joys can no longer be grasped. Everyone probably has had such experiences. Sometimes the events in our dreams produce certain responses or insights because this mind of ours transcends time and space, and thus reaches everywhere. Whether far or near, the awareness of our mind always exists. For example, when our loved ones, our sons or daughters, go to study in another country, each day we worry about their daily life, their studies, and their health. One night we dream that our loved one is sick. We call the next day and find out that he or she really is sick. Why is this? This is the function of the mind, similar to what people call the sixth sense. We need to know and understand that besides a person’s materialistic existence, there is also a spiritual life, which is boundless and endless. Because of this, Buddhism speaks of the causality of three times; meaning that one’s boundless and endless life consists of a past, a present, and a future; the past is the cause and the present is the effect; the present is the cause and the future is the effect.

If people focus only on a materialistic existence and work unceasingly to acquire material things—fame, wealth, and prosperity—and even use fraudulent means to obtain these and then believe they have achieved success in life, this will create a lot of bad karma, bringing unrest to society and harm to other sentient beings. Ultimately, as a result of only emphasizing a materialistic existence, people will discover that they have lived a life in vain.

Besides a materialistic existence, there is also the spiritual life. If we only seek blindly for material things, our mind cannot attain tranquility and peace. Feelings of void and vexations will inevitably follow. Even though they obtain material things, most people still do not find satisfaction and fulfillment, because materialistic existence is limited, and human desire is limitless. For example, some people who have ten thousand dollars will wish for one million dollars, and when they have one million, they wish for ten million. Even if they possess the whole earth, they still desire to conquer space. Therefore, people are constantly mired in desires and in vexations.

Under the temptation of desires, even when we obtain what we want, we receive only temporary satisfaction and happiness. This kind of happiness is not true happiness. It is only a joy resulting from the stimulation of our senses—eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and conscious mind. It is a short-lived joy. When this joy dissipates, we will again feel empty and be filled with vexations. We begin the search for another kind of happiness only to continue the vicious cycle. In the past, people often sought short-lived stimulation and happiness from diversions like playing cards or dancing. Now, they not only play cards and dance, but also use drugs and indulge in all kinds of substances to numb themselves, to escape from reality, and to try to forget who they are. Thus, they only continue to demean themselves more and more.

II. Integrating Spirituality and Material Existence with a Tranquil Mind and Good Deeds

Buddhism teaches us that we should de-emphasize and let go of materialistic attachments and that we should emphasize our spiritual life. This way, we will have a happier and more peaceful life. From a Buddhist perspective, a spiritual life is one where this very mind does not think of the past, the present, or the future, and is always calm and tranquil. This is then the most abundant and fulfilling spiritual life. For example, during the day we go to school, go to work, or do other tasks; in the afternoon or evening when we get home, we feel that our body and mind are very tired. At that time, we close our eyes and sit quietly for a while, letting our emotions and thoughts settle down. Then our mind becomes free of delusive thoughts, clear wisdom will manifest, and we will immediately feel refreshed. Then our minds are uplifted and transformed into purity. When we understand this principle, we must have confidence in it, and we must let this mind become calm, thus uplifting and purifying ourselves, and striving for a fulfilling spiritual life.

Understanding the importance of spiritual life does not require us to disregard our material life completely. In fact, our material life and spiritual life are interconnected and will develop simultaneously. In Buddhism, the Buddhist sutras refer to the material life as the means for accumulating spiritual blessings and merits. If we understand this truth and work hard toward achieving this goal, our lives will become brighter and more meaningful. Then what does it mean to cultivate blessings and merits using our material life? It means to do good deeds in our daily life. In Buddhism, we believe that if we have no blessings and merits, we will encounter obstacles in all that we do, and nothing will run smoothly. For example, a student wishes to earn a college degree, or even a doctorate, but if he has no blessings and merits, or if his family is poor and has difficulty just obtaining food and clothing, he must work part-time while going to school. Therefore, he may work in the daytime to pay his tuition and support his family, and only be able to study at night. Since the endurance of the body and mind is limited, under these conditions it is difficult for him to achieve success in his studies. However, if a student is well off and not lacking in food, clothing, housing, or transportation, then he can easily concentrate on his studies and achieve success. Similar situations can be found in all of our undertakings, no matter whether they are material or spiritual pursuits. Therefore, Buddhism teaches us that we must cultivate blessings and merits. Yet where do blessings and merits come from? They come from doing good deeds and building good relationships with others.

In Chinese history, the first emperor of the Sung dynasty once had a teacher named Zhang GuoLao. Zhang was also known as the saint Chen Tuan. At that time, the Sung Emperor had a great meritorious general by the name of Cao Bin, who had helped the emperor establish his reign. As soon as Chen Tuan saw Cao Bin, he said, “Great general, your physiognomy does not look right! In your later years, your life will be in danger. You must start to perform good deeds from now on; that will definitely change your life and increase your blessings and merits!” Cao Bin knew that Chen Tuan was a saint and would never be untruthful, so he always kept these words in his mind. Once, the Sung emperor sent Cao Bin to lead his troops to conquer the city of Ying Bin in Sichuan province. After the conquest, the troops wanted to set the city on fire to prevent future uprisings. At that moment Cao Bin remembered the words of Chen Tuan, so he gave the order not to harm a single person and the city’s infrastructure. Not only that, he also provided living expenses to the captives and sent them back to their native country. After Cao Bin left this city, the people of Ying Bin erected a temple in his honor and named it the Temple of Cao Bin. When Cao Bin returned to the capital city, he met Chen Tuan again. As soon as Chen Tuan saw Cao Bin, he said, “Great general! What great good deeds have you done? I see that your countenance is shinning, and your physiognomy has greatly changed! You now will not only be free from illness, but you will enjoy great blessings and honor in the future!” Later, Cao Bin had nine sons, who all achieved great success as military or political leaders. He lived over ninety long and propitious years as a result of cultivating blessings and merits, and of doing good deeds.

The Buddhist sutra says, “Do not neglect to perform even a small good deed; do not perform even the smallest evil deed.” The Buddha always told his disciples to take every opportunity to cultivate blessings and merits. For example, once a lay disciple offered a new robe to a monk disciple of the Buddha. The Buddha, taking this opportunity, asked his disciple, “Now, this layman has given you a new robe. What will you do with your old robe?” The disciple answered, “World Honored One, now that I have received a new robe, I will still keep my old robe. I will not wear this new robe until my old robe is all worn out.” The Buddha said, “Oh, what will you do with your old robe after it is all worn out?” The monk said, “When this old robe is worn out, I will cut it up and use the pieces as rags to wipe the table.” The Buddha asked again, “After the rags have disintegrated, what will you do with them?” The monk then said, “World Honored One, I will bury them under the tree to be used as fertilizer.”

From the Buddha’s conversation with his disciple, we can truly understand the meaning of cultivating and not squandering our blessings and merits. Not to squander our blessings and merits is to cherish them and to use them wisely. To cultivate is to diligently cultivate virtue and extinguish evil, thus accumulating blessings and merits. One develops new resources and the other curtails any unnecessary waste. Especially today when most of us enjoy an adequate or even abundant material life, we must be doubly aware that we need to cherish our blessings and merits by curtailing any unnecessary waste as well as developing new resources by diligently perfecting our good deeds. The Buddhist sutra says, “To the receiver, even a grain of rice is as great as Mount Sumeru. If one does not realize the Way in this lifetime, one will return as an animal in repayment of the giving.” This means that even if it is a grain of rice, when it is given to us, we should cherish it. We should cherish all things without wasting them; this is the true meaning of cherishing our blessings and merits. If we understand to cherish and cultivate our blessings and merits in all undertakings, then our blessings and merits will surely accrue more and more.

III. The Law of Life: Causality of Three Times

During this lifetime, whether we live to be 70 or 100 years old, no matter whether our life is long or short, we all need food, housing, and clothes, which in turn require blessings and merits for them to be realized. As for the blessings and merits, the Buddhist sutra states that all our past good deeds and virtue accumulate to become the blessings and merits of this life. For example if our blessings and merits in this life consist of ten million dollars, it means that we only have these ten million dollars to use in our lifetime of 70, 80, or even 100 years. Therefore, we must understand how to cherish these ten million dollars. If we do not cherish our savings, but instead indulge ourselves with merrymaking and an extravagant lifestyle, the money will be used up very quickly. When the money is all gone and all our possessions are exhausted, we will encounter difficulties in our survival and our life. Even though we may work hard and try to start anew, we will still suffer during the process. The ancients have said, “Blessings, prosperity, and long life, these three stars uphold each other;” “Before looking at life, first look at death.” From a Buddhist point of view, these common Chinese sayings speak of the law of cause of effect; that is, past causes lead to present effects, and present causes lead to future effects. This is an absolute truth in this world, so we should live our life and do good deeds to accumulate blessings and merits in accordance with the principle of causality.

Some people question why we should even care about the future since we cannot see it.  Actually, the future does not always imply a future life after death. Ten years from now is the future; three years or five years from now are also the future. Three days or five days from now is the future. Even the next hour is the future. If we understand this principle, “the future” is not a superstition. If we diligently cultivate good deeds and practice persistently, we do not need to wait for a future life—we will reap our reward in this life. Some people only notice that many people in our society do not do any good deeds, yet they enjoy wealth and honor, rising to great heights of success. On the other hand, many people do good deeds, even are pure vegetarians, yet their life is filled with suffering and vexations and they do not have any success in life. They then feel that the causality that Buddhism teaches is only to lure us to do good deeds, that there is no such thing as the causality of three times. This perception is definitely wrong. Buddhism teaches that causality pertains to the past, present, and future, that it is very fair, and that it is a necessary course. If we had faith in Buddhism and performed good deeds in the past, we will enjoy blessings in this life. If we perform bad deeds in this life, even though it may seem that we have escaped the judicial law now, bad karma will manifest in the future. This is the principle of causality; it is also said that “The causality of three times will never fail anyone.”

There is a famous Confucian saying that is very meaningful: “Doing evil will surely bring destruction. If those who do evil do not perish, this must be due to previous good karma; when prosperity ends, perishing misfortunes will follow. Doing good deeds will surely bring prosperity. If those who do good deeds are not prosperous, this must be due to previous bad karma; when misfortunes end, good fortune will follow.” When we see that those who do evil always seem to be successful and enjoy wealth and honor, it is repayment for past good deeds. If they do not know to cultivate blessings and merits in this life, and only know how to enjoy themselves, then when their blessings and merits are depleted, they will no longer enjoy success, wealth, or honor, but will immediately suffer poverty and misfortunes. When they use up all their past blessings and merits, karmic retribution will immediately manifest. When we see all these phenomena in society, we will realize that the saying, “Doing evil will surely bring destruction. If those who do evil do not perish, this must be due to previous good karma; when prosperity ends, perishing misfortunes will follow.” is true. However, if those who do good deeds do not have good benefits now, it is because they must have done evil deeds in the past. When bad karma manifests, one will suffer retribution in this life. When we understand the law of causality, we can tolerate all karmic retributions. We must now diligently cultivate good deeds and extinguish all evil. When bad karmic retribution is eradicated, good karmic retribution will manifest. Thus, “Doing good deeds will surely bring prosperity. If those who do good deeds are not prosperous, this must be due to previous bad karma; when misfortunes end, good fortune will follow.” The Buddhist sutra also states that when the rich practice the Way and study the teachings of the Buddha, their lives will go from brightness to even more brightness. When the poor practice the Way and study the teachings of the Buddha, their lives will go from darkness to brightness. When we understand this truth, and work diligently in this direction, we can surely make changes to our life in this lifetime.

IV. Cultivating Merits with Chung Tai Four Tenets

At Chung Tai, we have four tenets. If we work hard toward observing them, we will definitely accumulate merits and wisdom.

1. To our elders be respectful

We should foster a mind of respect toward our parents, teachers, and superiors. All people have a sense of pride or even arrogance, thinking that we are superior to others. Whether in our family, at school, or at our job, everyone has a sense of dignity. But excessive clinging to a sense of dignity will become a kind of pride or arrogance. We do not easily realize our sense of pride or arrogance, so we need to have a mind of respect to subdue our pride. In practicing “To our elders be respectful,” children should respect their parents, students should respect their teachers, and employees should respect their superiors. The ancient Chinese scholars have said, “Be sincere and respectful from within.” With sincerity and respect from within, we will naturally perform virtuous deeds and achieve merits. Buddhism teaches, “With one measure of respect we can eradicate one measure of karmic obstacles. Eradicating one measure of karmic obstacles we can increase one measure of merits, blessings, and wisdom. With ten measures of respect we can eradicate ten measures of karmic obstacles. Eradicating ten measures of karmic obstacles we can increase ten measures of merits, blessings, and wisdom.” Therefore, we should cultivate a mind of respect toward our elders. If we have a mind of respect, we will eradicate our pride and arrogance, and our merits and wisdom will naturally increase.

2. To our juniors be kind

Those who are in a supervisory position should be merciful and compassionate toward their subordinates. For example, parents should be merciful and compassionate toward their children and have concern for their children’s health, education, and daily living. These are all manifestations of a compassionate mind. If you are in a supervisory position, you should be merciful toward your subordinates, be concerned with their health and advancement. This way, employees will be loyal. Otherwise they feel alienated from their superiors. In Buddhism, “All Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have a mind of compassion as the foundation. With a compassionate mind, they bring forth the Bodhi mind. With a Bodhi mind, they achieve supreme awakening.” We should have unconditioned mercy and all-embracing compassion toward all sentient beings. A Bodhisattva has compassion as a foundation, for that is the entry leading to the destination of supreme awakening.

We all have three fires of ignorance in our mind: the fire of anger, the fire of desire, and the fire of hunger. These three fires are constantly raging in our mind. If we have a mind of mercy and compassion, it will extinguish these three fires from our mind. For example, the fire of desire is the desire that may exist between men and women. When a man sees a woman and develops sensual attachments, the fire of desire will arise and the body will feel feverish. If one is not mindful at this time, and continues to nourish these lustful thoughts, then the fire of desire will become stronger and stronger. This fire can even consume our reason, and further cause us to do many unlawful things. In contrast, if we constantly maintain a mind of mercy and compassion, these three fires of ignorance cannot arise. Hence we should always maintain a mind of mercy and compassion, which can extinguish vexations; subsequently, clear wisdom will constantly manifest.

3. With all humanity be harmonious

We should be congenial with all people. Most people know, “When the family is harmonious, all endeavors will be prosperous; whenever there is harmony, wealth is created.” We must always harbor a mind of harmony with others; then we will have a healthy life. If we are not harmonious with others, often lose our temper, and give rise to anger, this not only is harmful to our health, but will also create many difficulties that will prevent us from getting along with others. For example, in Buddhist monasteries, the six points of reverent harmony are established to facilitate a harmonious sangha. With the six points of reverent harmony, practitioners have a guide to help them live in harmony and can help each other cultivate merits and wisdom, ultimately leading to the realization of supreme awakening. In today’s society, when we understand that people should be harmonious with each other and we should all work together toward that goal, then families, society, and the whole world will be more peaceful and prosperous.

4. In all endeavors be true

We must be sincere and assume responsibility for everything that we do; we should neither take credit for others’ success nor lay blame on others for our own wrongdoings; this is then called being true. If we are in school, we must be earnest and responsible in our studies. We must review our lessons thoroughly, never skip class, and not cheat during exams. If we obtain our diplomas by cheating on our exams, or by not studying when we should, we will later regret that we are short of knowledge when we need it; we will find that our skills and knowledge are inferior to others. It will then be difficult for us to achieve success. Thus, we should study hard in school, and be earnest and responsible in all endeavors. When doing research, we should use logical reasoning and find our own way to contemplate the mechanism behind our investigation. We should not copy from others. In the past, people said, “All literature is but copying each other.” That is not correct understanding. Also, things are not the same today as they were in the past. It is now a crime to plagiarize the works of others, and doing so will adversely undermine our credibility and greatly influence our future studies and career.

So we should be true in all of our endeavors. Whether we are at home, in public, or in any other position, we should be sincere, earnest, and responsible. Even when we meditate we should be true to the practice; we should not do it in a perfunctory manner. To practice meditation is not merely to sit there. When we meditate we should not have delusive thoughts or become drowsy. We should maintain this clear and lucid mind; then we will be in accord with the Way. Otherwise, if we just sit there harboring delusive thoughts, it would be as if we never meditated and would be a waste of time.

The Four Tenets of Chung Tai are the guidelines to help us increase our merits and wisdom. When we can carry out these four tenets, we will surely increase our blessings and merits. As a result, no matter where we go, we will be masters of ourselves and always in control, and all our endeavors will also be successful.

V. Balancing Merits with the Mind of Wisdom

People need blessings and merits. Without blessings and merits there will be obstacles in all that we do. So we need to cultivate good deeds and accumulate blessings and merits. But it is not enough just to have blessings and merits; we must also have wisdom. If we are wealthy in blessings and merits, yet do not use them properly, or if we only use them lavishly and live an imprudent life, then we are not using our blessings and merits to improve our lives but to create bad karma, and this will surely plunge us into the lower realms.

The Buddhadharma tells us that beside blessings and merits, we must also cultivate wisdom. Most people may misunderstand this and think that the wisdom that Buddhism speaks about refers to getting a master’s or doctorate degree or studying various skills. Actually, that is knowledge and not wisdom. The wisdom of Buddhadharma is not the same as knowledge. Knowledge is something acquired from learning or studying worldly phenomena. From a Buddhist view, this very mind that does the learning and studying is itself true wisdom. Thus wisdom is inherent in us, whereas knowledge is something we acquire from the external world by learning and studying. Whether it is science, philosophy, or medicine, these are the different forms of knowledge obtained from our studies. But, when this mind of ours can maintain tranquility and peace; when it can constantly reflect inward and abide in right mindfulness and samadhi, then that is true wisdom.

The ancient sage has said, “Learning consists in accumulating daily; the practice of the Way consists in subtracting daily. Keep on subtracting until you reach the state of Wu Wei, when nothing is done and nothing is left undone.” So in our learning, we acquire and accumulate knowledge every day. The saying that “Learning is like rowing a boat upstream; if one does not advance, one regresses” is very true. In this regard, learning all knowledge and skills is to increase, or is an act of addition. On the other hand, the Way is precisely this pure and lucid mind. So, practicing the Way is to cultivate and attain awakening or enlightenment; that is, we need to keep this very mind clear and lucid without any attachments or without establishing a single dharma or view. Here “subtracting” is to completely eradicate the greed, anger, ignorance, pride, doubt, and erroneous views from our mind. “Keep on subtracting until you reach the state of Wu Wei” means to reach the life of non-arising and non-ceasing as well as the life of endlessness. In our lives, besides cultivating blessings and merits, we must also understand and realize our original mind and original nature; that is the true life-non-arising, non-ceasing, boundless, and endless. This original mind and original nature of Chan is just what ordinary people often mean by “living in the present moment.” If we truly live in the present moment, then life is boundless and endless because this mind of ours is non-arising and non-ceasing; it is true and not illusory. By then, we will not be confused by delusive thoughts or attachments, and our life will be filled with joy and prosperity, for we have found our true self.

VI. Realizing this Very Mind, Realizing the True Life

Ordinary people think of themselves as the “I.” But which one is the true “I?” For example, when we are young, we think of the person attending elementary school as the “I.” But when we finish elementary school and go to junior high school, we think of the person attending junior high school as the “I.” After junior high we go to senior high, and then we think of the person attending senior high as the “I.” After we finish senior high school, that period of life including the “I” is also gone. Our body, daily living, and habits are constantly changing. Each period of life is different from the other. After we finish high school and college, we feel that we have not accomplished much, so after we graduate from college, we want to get a doctoral degree, or establish ourselves in society. After we become the chairman of a company, our student life no longer exists.

No matter whether we are a chairman, a teacher, or a professor, every position is the beginning of another period of life. Even after we have children, after our children are married, and after we have grandchildren—think about it, which period of life is the “I?” If the self of elementary school is the “I” then when we are in college, where is the “I” from elementary school? Seeing it this way we can never find our true self!

The “I” that ordinary people know and perceive is only an illusion. When we are young, beautiful, and strong, we think that is the self. But time passes very quickly. When we grow old, we think this old, wrinkled person is the self. Life is like a series of dreams; we form attachments to the “self” in the dream particularly associated with that period of life. Because we think there is this “self”, then around this illusive “self” we form attachments and thus create sufferings for ourselves. If we do not form attachments, we can then truly discover our own true life. People often say, “The body ages but the mind does not.” But they do not truly understand this. Nonetheless, this saying does elucidate the true meaning of life, for when we truly understand this saying, we will realize how true it is that “the body ages but the mind does not.”

For example, during childhood we have this mind that sees, hears, feels, and knows. When we are 70 or 80 years old, we still have this mind that sees, hears, feels, and knows. When we are a child, if we taste salt, we know it tastes salty. When we are 70 or 80, if we taste salt, we still know it tastes salty. As a child, we know that candy is sweet, and when we are 70 or 80, we still know that candy tastes sweet. The illusive external phenomena can change, but this knowing mind manifests the same ability and above all, it always exists. From this point of view, realizing this very mind that knows is truly realizing our true life.

Every one has this mind that knows. Knowing is the manifestation of our awareness. If we can maintain this knowing and be masters of ourselves both during the day and at night, when we further arrive at the state of absolute knowing, we not only have no bad dreams, but do not have any good dreams, and ultimately can arrive at the stage of no dreams. A well-known adage says, “The sage has no dreams.” If we are totally aware even in our sleep and dreams, this mind will always be clear and lucid, and will never be confused or deluded. The sage is the awakened one. Everyone has this mind that knows and feels; everyone possesses Buddha nature, can become a Buddha or a Bodhisattva, and can reach the state of sagehood. That is why Buddhism teaches that the Buddha or Bodhisattva always abides in this very mind. When a good thought arises, this creates joy and eliminates worries. With one pure thought we are in the Pure Land. If the mind constantly sustains right mindfulness, then we can transcend the mundane and achieve sagehood. On the contrary, when the mind harbors erroneous thoughts, scattered thoughts, evil thoughts, and has greed, anger, and ignorance, then we are in the realm of hell beings, animals, or hungry ghosts. The Buddhist sutra says, “The mind, the Buddha, and sentient beings; these three are no different from each other.” This very mind is inherent in every one of us. To be a deluded sentient being, to transcend the mundane and become a sage, or to descend into the evil lower realms—each direction depends upon our choices.

The ancients have said, “Water can float a boat, yet it can also sink a boat.” Our mind is like water: When the mind gives rise to wholesome thoughts, right thoughts, pure thoughts, then it can float a boat and leads us to a luminous place. On the other hand, if the mind gives rise to evil thoughts, deviant thoughts, scattered thoughts, that is darkness; the boat will sink and we will also suffer in the evil lower realms. If we understand these principles, if this mind can be the master, then we are in control of our lives. The Buddhist sutras state that everyone has this mind that knows and feels; this mind is neither arising nor ceasing. If we can constantly reflect inward and keep our mind tranquil, lucid, peaceful, at ease, and to be the master of itself, then we have found our true life.

At Chung Tai, we hold Chan-7 retreats each year. During these seven days, we work hard to realize the true nature of our mind; that is to experience our true life. For example, on the first, second, or third day, when we sit in meditation, our legs feel painful and numb, and we feel that we are not meditating but are suffering in prison. After the fourth, fifth, or sixth day, the body adjusts itself; this mind becomes like a pool of still water, clear and lucid as a mirror. By then, one hour passes by just like an instant. At this moment we can truly realize this mind, comprehend the truth of Buddhism, and understand our true life.

In this pursuit of realization, we also need wisdom. Wisdom is to recognize and to see this mind of ours. We lack wisdom because of our many delusive thoughts and attachments that obscure the pure and lucid mind and prevent us from seeing the true character of the myriad phenomena in the world. This mind is like the sun, always radiating light. But when clouds or fog arise, they obscure the light of the sun, and it seems that the brightness of the sun has disappeared. Yet when the clouds dissipate, the sun reappears and its light illuminates the world again. So, the so-called being obscured does not mean that wisdom is lost; it just means that the pure and lucid mind of wisdom is obscured by vexations.

The Buddhist sutra states that sentient beings have 84,000 vexations; that is why the Buddha taught 84,000 skillful means to help extinguish these vexations. The 84, 000 vexations can also be subdivided into 108 vexations. So there are also 108 skillful means to counteract them. Just as our prayer beads usually contain 108 beads, they symbolize that with each bead if we make the prayer or recite the name of the Buddha or Bodhisattva sincerely and single-mindedly, we can then penetrate and eradicate the 108 vexations. When our vexations are extinguished, the mind will be refreshed and liberated, and can transcend the mundane and attain sagehood. In addition, these 108 vexations can be further grouped into the six vexations of greed, anger, ignorance, pride, doubt, and erroneous views. These six vexations obscure our mind like six obstacles. We must use the Six Paramitas or Six Perfections: charity, morality, tolerance, diligence, meditation, and prajna wisdom to counteract these six vexations. When these vexations are extinguished, the mind is uplifted and liberated.

Liberation is not what some people think of as death, neither is it entering heaven. Rather, it is to be free of all vexations, free from the vexations of attachments and bondage. Vexations arise from our own delusive thoughts. If our mind does not give rise to delusive thoughts, we will immediately be free of our vexations. The Buddhist sutra says, “As soon as one lays down the butcher’s knife, one immediately becomes a Buddha.” By putting down the butcher’s knife of all vexations, with this clear and lucid mind, one immediately becomes awakened. Practice is to “let the past die like yesterday.” The thoughts that arose yesterday are already in the past; do not dwell on them anymore. Let everything begin from this moment. Practice is also to “let the future arise like today.” If we know to cultivate blessings and merits now, to grasp the present moment, then our daily living, our existence, and our life will always be happy and prosperous.

To perfect our life, we first need to have blessings and merits. Next, we need to have wisdom. When merits and wisdom have accumulated to perfection, we will become a Buddha and always be the master of ourselves. Following the teachings of the Buddha will lead us to attain perfect wisdom and merits. The Buddhist sutras mention the state of supreme perfection of merits and wisdom. It is true that everyone can attain this state. As for blessings and merits, so long as we practice good deeds diligently, we will ultimately obtain good reward. To cultivate wisdom, we must reflect inward and examine ourselves deeply. If we reflect inward and examine ourselves deeply, and realize our true nature, our wisdom will surely increase, and we can surely attain Buddhahood.

Everyone has this very mind. Accumulating merits and wisdom can prevent us from having delusive thoughts and drowsiness, and will help us to keep the mind clear and lucid so that we are always our own master. By maintaining control of this mind and abiding in purity and clarity for three minutes, we will obtain three minutes of liberation and be a Buddha for three minutes. If we can maintain such a mind for ten minutes, we will obtain ten minutes of liberation and be a Buddha for ten minutes. If we can maintain it for half an hour, we will be refreshed, be our own master, be liberated, and be a Buddha for half an hour. So looking at it from this angle, it is really true that realizing this mind is just like flipping the hand to show its palm or back. It completely depends on whether we act or not.

The Confucian scholar Zhu Xi from the Sung dynasty once wrote the following poem:

The half-acre square pond openly extends like a mirror;
In the water, drifting clouds and bright sky;
Ask the stream why it is so clear.
For it is live water coming from the fountainhead.

This poem is very much related to the mind and meditation practice. “The half-acre square pond” refers to this mind of ours that is like the clear water in the pond. How do we find this pool of clear water? We find it by reflecting inward. “Openly extends like a mirror” means that if we can reflect inward, we will see the luminosity and brightness of our original mind and nature, like that of a clear mirror. Ordinarily, our eyes are always looking outward. Now if we bring them back and look inward, we will immediately discover that there are all kinds of delusive thoughts and different activities in our mind. This mind is immeasurable and limitless. Thoughts are constantly flowing; like a dream, they are all illusory and unreal. Because of these wandering thoughts, we are not masters of ourselves; therefore, when we meditate, we will also easily develop wandering thoughts. Many people do not understand the true meaning of meditation. They try to study meditation, but with their misconceptions, they end up hurting themselves. It is because they take the delusive states of their mind as real, which consequently gives rise to erroneous discriminations and attachments. Even worse, they may develop difficulties in concentration, are always confused, and give way to foolish talk and bizarre, schizophrenic behavior. Therefore when we are practicing meditation, we should strive to be the master; when delusive thoughts, attachments, or cravings arise, we should ignore them, let go of them and bring ourselves back to the meditation practice.

“In the water, drifting clouds and bright sky” means that even though our delusive thoughts are constantly flowing, our pure and lucid mind remains inherent in us and is always intact regardless of our delusive thoughts. During meditation, if we do not pay any attention to or follow our delusive thoughts, then these thoughts will gradually decrease, and we will feel refreshed. At that time we will begin to realize our original mind and nature, and we will feel that an hour passes in an instant; our body and mind will be calm, peaceful, and at ease.

“Ask the stream why it is so clear” is like asking why there is such a wonderful state. “For it is live water coming from the fountainhead” means that each one of us already has this original mind and nature; but because we have lost our way, we then do not know to reflect inward and are constantly seeking things externally, thinking that attachments and delusions are real. If we look inward, we will realize this precious original mind and nature. When realizing this inexhaustible fountainhead, we will truly understand that life is boundless and endless.

So no matter whether it is the Buddhadharma or the teachings of Confucianism, they both tell us that we have a true life. This true life is just in this very mind with which you listen to the dharma. If we assume it without any hesitation here and now, we are then walking side by side with the Buddha. Besides our material existence in this world, we also have a spiritual life. When we understand the true nature of our mind, our life will be very fulfilling, blessed, happy, and real. To achieve this state, besides taking care of our family and career, we must work diligently to accumulate merits and wisdom. By understanding the true nature of our mind, we will then not live a life in vain; rather, we will find a true refuge of peace and stability, and discover our true life amid all its turbulent and disturbing circumstances.