The Five-Story Building of Life

Why are we in this world? What is the true meaning of life? Many wealthy people neither have an understanding of religion nor practice it. Even though they have many possessions, they feel that when they eventually die, they cannot take a single cent with them, so why not eat, drink, and be merry now—enjoy life thoroughly and imprudently. From a worldly perspective, it seems to be a life of leisure, completely carefree. From a Buddhist viewpoint, it is a life lived in vain. It is a life that creates a lot of bad karma. From the opposite end of the social spectrum, the poor often feel that since they will inevitably die, it is very sad that they have no money to enjoy life. Consequently, they feel that life is not fair and may attempt to obtain wealth by breaking the law, robbing, stealing, or resorting to blackmail and kidnapping. Inevitably, this not only brings them suffering, but also causes endless distress to society. Based on this understanding, we must determine what work we should do that will not disappoint society and our family and, above all, not be a disappointment to ourselves. Unfortunately, most people do not understand the self. Their understanding of the self is rather unclear, and many people take this body to be the self. They only try to satisfy their own needs. They seek fame and wealth thinking that is happiness. Actually, this concept is wrong.

People live in this world not just to obtain clothing, food, housing, and transportation; to eat, drink, and be merry; to satisfy the desire for fame, wealth, and sex; or to seek power and influence. If people only live for these purposes, after they die and return to dust, they will decay just like the grasses and trees, and their death will be no different from that of lower animals. Human beings are the most intelligent creatures in our world. We should use our incomparable wisdom, rational thought and compassion, and vigorously pursue the spirit of harmony, mutual assistance, and compassion to establish a Pure Land on earth.

I. The First Story: Mundane Existence

Our life can be compared to living in a tall, five-story building. Those who live on the first floor are ordinary people who only see the surface of life. Seeking power, fame, and wealth, they are only interested in taking advantage of others; they have no morals or mercy or compassion. They live only in a materialistic world, and their minds are filled with vexations. They feel empty because in a materialistic existence, people pursue only external stimulation that excites their bodies and senses. We need to understand that this stimulation only provides momentary happiness, and when it is gone, our minds again feel empty and are filled with vexations and uncertainty. Then a new search begins for a different kind of stimulation, but it has the same effect. Initially it feels very new and interesting. Gradually the excitement wears off, and we feel very tired, empty, and bored. Thus we continue to blindly seek the joys and excitement of a materialistic life and never find peace and stability. This is living on the first floor of life’s five-story building.

II. The Second Story: Worldly Spirituality

Even though the excitement of a material life produces confusion, we still possess intrinsic wisdom that encourages us to seek more in life so we naturally come to pursue a life of the spirit. This is like being on the second floor of life’s building. What is a life of the spirit? In worldly spirituality, a life of the spirit may include practicing calligraphy, painting, music, dancing, mountain-climbing, swimming, or taking trips to the mountains and forests, as well as pursuing a variety of leisure and spiritual activities. These pursuits can all elevate the spirit, but we still remain in the spiritual sphere of a mundane existence. Above all, mundane spiritual pursuits cannot lead us to true liberation and peace. In modern society there is remarkable progress in the arts as well as in various kinds of spiritual development, which shows we already know that we need to elevate our lives from mere materialistic existence. We understand that humanity needs not only a materialistic existence, but also needs to pursue the arts and spiritual development. But no matter whether it is pursuing the arts, knowledge, or worldly spirituality, we cannot escape from the material world as it pertains to materialistic living.

III. The Third Story: Beneficial Religions

The third level of a person’s life is religion. In society many different religions already exist, and more are being developed. Although they may be flourishing, the results are not always desirable. It is a well-known fact that as long as one can expound on certain beliefs or principles, a new religion can be established. Some religions formed in this manner have become deviant. In fact, there are deviant religions in Taiwan, in the U.S., and throughout the world. There are also good religions in the world, such as Buddhism, Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Taoism, and many others. Living in accordance with the teachings of these beneficial religions is like reaching the third story of life’s five-story building.

IV. The Fourth Story: Buddhism

Among all religions, Buddhism is the religion of religions. Why? It is because Buddhism speaks of life’s past, present, and future. Buddhism teaches that the world is boundless and limitless. Providing us with infinite space and time, it enables the capacity of our mind to be boundless and limitless. Furthermore, Buddhism teaches the principle of causality. Whatever cause we now sow, we will reap its effects in the future. As a result, we could and should pursue a perfect, happy, and fulfilling life here and now. We need to understand that future not only means a future life after death; ten or twenty years from now is also the future; even three months or five months, three days or five days from now are all in our future. From this viewpoint, the Buddhadharma is very pragmatic and filled with wisdom, for it teaches us that the future is in our hands, and our effort can surely bring us endless possibilities. The Buddhist sutras tell us that if we put in one measure of effort, we will reap one measure of effect, and if we put in ten measures of effort, we will reap ten measures of effect; this notion is very true as well as very positive. Above all, in Buddhism any ordinary person can become an awakened one, such as a Bodhisattva or a Buddha, and this gives humanity endless hope. For these reasons, we elevate Buddhism from the third floor to the fourth floor.

Buddhism is not a castle in the air. Rather, it is the irrefutable description of reality and thus can be perfectly put into practice in everyone’s daily life. To facilitate this application in contemporary society, Chung Tai promotes the integration of Buddhism into five different areas, namely education, art, science, academic research, and everyday life. In particular, we have established a Buddhist institute for teaching and studying the Buddhadharma. Second, we have established Chan meditation centers around Taiwan and around the world to teach Buddhism and Chan meditation. These meditation centers also offer serene and quiet places to help practitioners incorporate the teachings into their daily lives. Third, we are establishing elementary, junior high, and high schools with the hope to integrate the Buddhadharma into education. Also, at Chung Tai, we have specialists and researchers who are working on in-depth art projects such as statue restoration and various Buddhist arts exchange programs. We hope that in the near future we can establish a Buddhist arts research institute to be solely dedicated to the integration of Buddhism and the arts.

Even the main structure of Chung Tai Chan Monastery in Puli, Taiwan was designed with the idea of integrating the five areas. Physically, the monastery’s main building from the ground to its highest peak is about 145 meters high (~475ft), with a width about 130 meters (~425ft) and a depth about 130 meters (~425ft), and it embodies Buddhist teachings, modern technologies, and traditional heritages. For example, the sixteenth floor houses the Thousand Buddhas Hall with glass-curtained walls on both sides that enclose a teak pagoda of the Seven Medicine Buddhas. This teak pagoda is constructed without using a single screw or nail, which is the method used in traditional Chinese carpentry and indeed a precious and fading art form that needs to be preserved. To better reveal the special artistic and Buddhist features of this pagoda, an approximately 30-meter-tall (~98ft) by 16.5-meter-wide (~54ft) glass-curtained wall on each side provides a view of the Seven Medicine Buddhas wooden pagoda even from a distance. This is a unique construction in Asia, and people in the architectural world know that it requires the highest modern architectural skills, which are not available in Taiwan. Therefore, to actualize this design we enlisted the help of German engineers using German technology and materials. In addition, the lighting in the Thousand Buddhas Hall utilizes fiber optics that give off light but not heat, minimizing the possibility of fire resulting from the wooden structure. The building itself is also rich in artistry. Inside the building is a culture and arts pathway, a museum for Buddhist arts, literature and history, international conference rooms, and a comprehensive library as well. Decorations on the walls and in the halls of the monastery are meticulously crafted, incorporating both ancient Chinese and contemporary styles and bringing together Eastern and Western artistic designs. Materials from thirteen different countries were used in an effort to discover the most suitable material for each place to reveal its distinct and implicit meaning. Not only has Chung Tai used highly sophisticated modern technology in its architecture, but it has also retained many of the characteristics of Chinese traditional monasteries, such as porcelain tiles, slanted roofs, and arch-like hallways and exterior appearance. In terms of symbolizing Buddhist teachings, the monastery building is indeed an integration of Mahayana altruistic and Hinayana ascetic practices, as well as an integration of gradual cultivation and sudden awakening teachings. In fact, if one looks deeper, one finds that every corner has its special meaning. The building is a prime example of manifesting Buddhist teachings in the five areas—education, art, science, academic research, and everyday life. With its vast, flexible, skillful means and its profound insight, it is fitting to say that Buddhism is the teaching of teachings, the science of sciences, the art of arts, and the education of educations. That is also why we say that Buddhism is the religion of religions, and we place it on the fourth floor of the five-story life building.

At Chung Tai, we hope to encourage people to understand the Buddhadharma, its truths and its methods, in many different ways. But no matter what approach one takes, it almost surely comes from one’s mind-consciousness. In fact, activities emerging from the first, second, third, and fourth floor of the five-story life building all fall into this category. Because the mind-consciousness is dualistic and relative, this world then becomes a world of opposites. As a result, no matter how good our achievements are, they are only relatively good in comparison with those that are relatively bad; where there is male, there will be female; where there is a Buddha, there will also be a Mara or devil; where there is a bright sky, so there will also be a dark sky. In this world—inside and outside, high and low, large and small, bright and dark, and so on—are all opposites. Thus we all live in a world of opposites, and it is not an easy task to find a place of true stability in this world of opposites.

V. The Fifth Story: The Essence of Buddhism-Chan

To find the place of true stability in this world of opposites, we promote the teaching of Chan for it can truly help us attain the ultimate state of peace and bliss. This is the fifth story, the highest floor in the five-story life building, and it transcends time and space. As a result, this floor is where each one of us should choose and hope to live. Life is a five-story building. We hope that all people can ascend from the first to the second story, from the second to the third story, from the third to the fourth story and finally from the fourth to the fifth story.

This fifth story is not unattainable. It can be called our true life. Most people feel that life is finite and limited. Actually, true life is infinite and limitless. This may at first sound incomprehensible, like comparing human life to that of crows, but it is the truth, and the teaching of Chan can lead us to that state. In China, we say that a good reputation lasts for hundreds of generations, even thousands of generations; this is the state of immortality, and establishing virtue, establishing teaching, and establishing merit are called the three lasting or immortal accomplishments. From a Buddhist perspective, these three lasting accomplishments are still relative and belong to the world of opposites. For example, after a dynasty change in China, those who achieved merit and established virtue in the previous dynasty might not be considered as virtuous ministers, but might even be considered sinners instead. So even if we have established virtue, teaching, and merit, due to the changes in time and space, things that were previously deemed good may now be seen very differently, because this world is a world of opposites.

If we wish to find the ultimate state and discover the true refuge in life, we need the teaching of Chan. Chan brings us true life because Chan transcends time and space. If this mind of ours has not experienced the practice of Buddhism or been transformed by Chan, we will always live in the world of opposites; no matter whether we are on the first, second, third, or fourth floor, we are still in this world of opposites. The Buddhist sutra says, “Chan is the mind of the Buddha; the scriptures are the mouth of the Buddha; the precepts are the body of the Buddha.” So, Chan is the essence of Buddhism and is the teaching with which we can pursue our true life.

A. The Aim of Chan

Today, most people have a poor understanding of Chan. Although many places teach Chan, some notions and concepts of Chan have gone in the wrong direction, and those are not the true Chan teachings. Today, people have different reasons for practicing Chan meditation. Some practice meditation for their health or to cultivate chi or energy. Some meditate because they feel it is elegant and very fashionable to do so. Some meditate with the hope of attaining spiritual insight or supernatural powers, hoping that the gods will give them supernatural powers or spiritual insight, or hoping to get a lucky lottery number and obtain great wealth. These types of meditation are very remote from true Buddhist meditation.

What is the true practice of Chan meditation? Chan teaches that “Awaken the mind to see its true nature; seeing the true nature, one becomes a Buddha.” In our minds there are three greatest vexations and enemies. The first is delusion. As soon as we sit down, we think of this and that, and worry about gains and losses. Most people do not know that delusion is an enemy. With too many delusive thoughts, our mind cannot attain peace and tranquility; our mind cannot become clear and pure like a pool of still water, or clear and lucid like a bright mirror that can illuminate the universe. The first part of the Buddhist practice of Chan meditation is to eradicate delusions. Next, we need to keep our mind bright, lucid and pure, so that only this absolute, very mind exists, and it exists with absolutely no second thoughts or delusive thoughts. If delusions arise, then we cannot attain this clear and lucid state.

The second problem is drowsiness and stupor. When we are practicing sitting here without any thought, we may feel sleepy and drowsy. Most people feel that sleeping is not a bad thing; it is something that we need. Actually, if we reflect carefully, we realize that a big portion of our life is spent sleeping. Drowsiness is actually a waste of life so when we are meditating we must not have the slightest bit of drowsiness or lethargy. This mind must truly settle down. The delusive mind is like a cup of muddy water; it is filled with sand and dirt. We meditate so the dirt can sink to the bottom of the cup. This is the first step in our practice. The second step is to completely eliminate all the dirt or to transform impurities into purity. This way, we will find our true direction. If we do not suffer from drowsiness, have no delusive thoughts, and the mind is doing nothing, then we may experience boredom. Most people don’t know that according to Buddhism, boredom is a great problem; it is indeed the third of the three greatest enemies. To overcome boredom, we must give rise to right mindfulness. With right mindfulness, this mind will not lapse into boredom.

Chan meditation will eradicate these three great problems: delusion or the waves in the mind, drowsiness, and boredom. When we eradicate these three vexations, our mind gradually becomes clear and refreshed. What do we feel when the mind is refreshed? It is like attending a Chan-7 retreat where during the first three days of the meditation retreat, we do not have any special feeling. On the fourth day our mind gradually becomes lucid and pure. On the fifth day, when we sit down to meditate we do not wish to get up. On the sixth and seventh days we no longer feel the passage of time. So on the first and fifth, sixth, and seventh day, this mind is completely different. One is like being on this miserable, samsaric earth and the other is like being in heaven. How can that be? On the first day in the Chan Hall our legs are painful and numb; the mind feels helpless, entangled by delusions and drowsiness. This is not sitting in meditation. On the contrary, it is like sitting in prison, like sitting on a pincushion. But after one day, two days, and then three days of patient endurance, our body gradually changes over. Delusions and drowsiness are reduced. This mind of boredom has disappeared. This, then, is a good stick of incense (i.e., a good meditation session). Sitting here for an hour passes by in a flash because this mind has transcended time and space—it is a world of the absolute.

When you have had a good meditation session, you will realize that life in this world is very meaningful, very valuable, and that our life is limitless. We certainly should not waste our life, and should never try to harm ourselves. Not only will we treasure our life, but we will also realize that everyone has this mind and that everyone equally possesses Buddha nature. Because of this, we should and will respect and cherish each other, and further cultivate this mind of ours. When we understand and realize this very mind, then we have truly found ourselves.

B. Rediscovering Ourselves

Most people have many entanglements in life. They are busy with family, jobs, school—these are our responsibilities, and they are also a source of merits. Besides these duties, the most important thing we can do is to rediscover ourselves and to clearly know who is acting or speaking. We learned many things in school, which most people consider to be wisdom. According to Buddhism, that is not true wisdom but only an accumulation of knowledge or experience. What then is true wisdom? It is to let this very mind that can learn to reflect inward. What is this very mind that we learn with? Only when this mind becomes tranquil can we find the self, the true self.

The founder of Taoism, Laozi, talked about the Way and Learning; he 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.” According to this, learning all knowledge and skills is like addition; we add to our knowledge every day. If we do not add, then we would have nothing inside or no knowledge. “Learning is like rowing a boat upstream; if one does not advance, one regresses.” However, our practice—our cultivation of the Way—is like subtraction. Constantly examining and reflecting, we decrease and eliminate our vexations so that our mind constantly maintains its peace and tranquility. When we truly achieve peace and tranquility, our mind will contain unlimited and boundless worlds, unlimited and boundless wisdom and virtue; this life is indeed infinite. We will be able to perfectly master both mundane living and the spiritual life. Then we will indeed be Bodhisattvas in this world.

The teaching of Chan can bestow upon us infinite peace and unequaled tranquility. Those who have truly experienced this can surely reach the inner hall of the Way. With the practice of Chan meditation, we will be able to realize this pure and lucid mind, this mind of impartiality, this mind of wisdom, and this transcendent unmoving mind; above all, this can all be verified in the Chan Hall with our diligent practice. What is the difference between a pure unmoving mind and a delusive scattered mind? For example, in a classroom if the teacher gives a clear and interesting lecture, the student listens attentively without any delusive thoughts and even to the degree that a mosquito bite would not bother him. When the bell rings at the end of class, he wonders why the class has ended so soon. On the other hand, if a different teacher in the same classroom, teaches by rote and doesn’t explain things clearly, the student becomes more and more confused; his back hurts from sitting; he starts to have delusive thoughts; he may even look at his watch again and again, and wonder why the class hasn’t ended yet and why it seems so long. Think about it. Within the same time and space, why is the perceived length of time so different? The first student feels that time is very short because the mind is tranquil and focused, and there is no thought of time and space. This state is still very remote from that of deep samadhi; it may only be considered a similar state. On the contrary, with a confused and delusive mind, the second student feels that time is very slow—an hour seems like a year. It is like being in prison; even a minute is difficult to endure. It is also like speaking with people who do not share the same interests; when words are not agreeable, even half a sentence is too much, and the time feels as painful as sitting on a pin cushion. However, if we are chatting with people with whom we have affinity, then we do not even feel the passage of time.

C. The Highest Form of Emotion Management.

We need to understand and realize the mind, and in Buddhism, this is called the mind dharma. When this mind is filled with delusive thoughts, pleasure, anger, sorrow, joy, and similar complicated emotions, we develop attachments and feel the fear of gains and losses, which consequently brings mixed feelings of hatred and craving, and then it is difficult for anyone to become liberated. Nowadays, psychologists speak about emotion management. Yet, the ancient practice of Chan is the highest form of emotion management even in our present world. As soon as our mind moves, we need to know whether the thoughts are wholesome or unwholesome, and eventually, we must arrive at the state of no-thought; the state of no-thought is Chan. However, the state of no-thought is not a state of being confused or one of being asleep. No-thought simply means having no wandering thoughts, no delusive thoughts, and no thoughts of drowsiness or boredom, and furthermore, it implies that every thought is always clear and lucid; we are the master of our thoughts. With this mastery, this mind that we think with is then the true self. It is like what Confucian scholars have said, “Clearness and brightness are within oneself.” The mind of clearness and brightness is our original mind. When we find our original mind, we find our true self.

Most people often say, “I am very busy today.” But we are not busy for ourselves; we are busy for others. This is because we have not yet found our true self. Which one is actually the self? Think about it. Defining the self is not simple. According to Buddhism, the self that ordinary people usually identify with is just a combination of physical matter and mental elements. Physical matter makes up our body, which includes the elements of earth, water, fire, and air. These four great elements are originally empty in nature, i.e., empty of inherent, independent existence. Because of our attachments, especially attachments to our false self, these four great elements become non-empty, and consequently bring us various problems. There are also all kinds of mental activities in our mind, including delusive thoughts, ignorance, and emotions such as pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy. Together, these activities can be categorized into the four mental aggregates, which are feeling, conception, volition, and consciousness. If we can transform the attachments and the delusive, ignorant mental activities into purity, impartiality, and the absolute in accord with Reality as it is, then we will find our true self, and our life in this world will truly become that of a sage. This is then a meaningful and worthwhile life.

D. The Mind and External Environment

This fifth floor of life, Chan, is our true refuge for peace and stability. It is very firm and solid within. Nothing can disturb it. Even an atomic bomb or nuclear missile cannot destroy this fifth story, the Chan mind, because it transcends time and space. Even though we are all physically in the same continuum of time and space, each of us has different perceptions of time and space. For example, it seems to us that 24-hours-in-a-day is only an instant in the long years of our human life. So, when we see its birth in the morning and its death at night in the short life of a small insect, we feel it’s very pitiful that its life is so short. But this is not the case to the insect, for its perception of time is very different from ours; one day to us may be 10 or 20 years to the insect. It is recorded in the Buddhist sutras that the closest heaven to us is the Heaven of the Four Heavenly Kings. The lifespan in this heaven is 500 years, and a day and night in this heaven is 50 years to us. Above this heaven is the Trayastrimsha Heaven, which is also the Heaven of the Jade Emperor in Taoism. The lifespan in this heaven is 1,000 years, and one day and night in this heaven is 100 years to us. Why? It is because the minds of heavenly beings are more lucid, pure, and tranquil. If our mind can attain that state, even though we are still in the desire realm, and still have desires for food and sex, it will be the same as being in the Heaven of the Four Heavenly Kings.

Therefore, all conditions in the external environment cannot be separate from this very mind. If this mind is pure and lucid, virtuous and luminous, we will then be in resonance with the dharma realm of the heavens; it will be as if we were in heaven. If our mind contains vexations, ignorance, worry, and fear, then we are now in hell. As long as we are sowing the cause for hell in the present, we will certainly reap the effect of going to hell in the future. If our mind gives rise to joy in the daytime, we will surely have good dreams at night. If our mind is filled with fear and vexations, we will certainly have bad dreams at night. Indeed, the dream states can be very mysterious and profound, forming a unique personal universe. From this, the function of our mind-consciousness can be really wondrous and subtle.

E. Reflecting Inward

If we want to attain ultimate liberation and complete transcendence, we can only reach it through examination, reflection, and Chan practice. With these practices, our Bodhi mind can then manifest. This Bodhi mind is also called the true mind or the original mind. When this very mind manifests, that is then our true self. When the true mind manifests, we will enjoy virtues and merits. We must understand this and put it into practice to develop perfect confidence in this teaching.

Chan teaching says that realizing the mind is like drinking water; only when one drinks the water can one know its warmth or coolness. Only when we experience this very mind ourselves can we really know how to realize it. Yet realizing it is not enough; we still need to constantly maintain this clear and lucid mind. And how do we maintain it? We must keep this mind free from faults. If we are at fault, we should immediately recognize it, examine it and reflect upon it. This is a progression of the mind’s cultivation. In ancient China, Confucius had a disciple named Che PoYu who had practiced this method of self-examination and reflection. He used to say, “Living for 20 years, one knows the faults of 19 years;” that is, when he was 20 years old, he knew that he had been wrong for 19 years of his life. This is self-examination and reflection. In the same way, after practicing for 50 years, one knows the faults of 49 years. If we constantly work diligently in this direction of self-examination and reflection, we will surely find the path of the mind, find our own world, and attain the ultimate state of peace and stability in life. Nevertheless, most people today do not know how to examine and reflect within; they only see the faults of others, feeling that this is not right, or that is wrong, but do not recognize their own faults.

In Buddhism, there is a saying, “Ordinary people have no faults, whereas the sages have many.” What is the meaning of the statement that ordinary people have no faults? Because ordinary people do not understand themselves, they always look outward. They do not know that they should first examine themselves and reflect upon their behavior, so they always think that they have no faults. The sages, on the other hand, often reflect and examine themselves. With magnanimous minds, they tolerate others, forgive others, wish to bear all responsibilities and further correct their own shortcomings. If we could all use this mentality to encourage ourselves and reflect upon ourselves, then we will not be far from the state of the sages. This is what Buddhism and Chan teach; this is the truth of life, and indeed worthy of everyone’s diligent pursuit. If everyone can practice this way, we will all be moving toward the fifth floor of the five-story building of life, and find our very own profound, vast, and boundless true space.