Cultivation without Attainment

Subhuti said to the Buddha, “World-honored One, the Buddha attained anuttara samyaksambodhi, yet nothing was attained?”

“So it is, so it is, there is not even the slightest Dharma that can be attained in anuttara samyaksambodhi, and this is what is called anuttara samyaksambodhi.”

Diamond Sutra Chapter 22

In the above passage Subhuti uses the phrase “nothing was attained” to say that the Dharma is not fixed, and in that sense cannot be attained. We all inherently possess the wondrous Dharma of prajna; it is not something that can be attained outside of the mind. We never lack it in the first place, so we cannot say that it is gained. One who believes that there is something to be attained still has attachments.

An ordinary person may believe that there is something to be gained or that the Dharma can be fully described in words, but each of these is a form of attachment and constitutes “abiding in something.” Then there are others who believe that the Dharma cannot be described, nor is there anything to gain; however, they do think the mind can be obtained. Both of these views lead to clinging and attachment, causing one to face both phenomenal hindrances, and principle hindrances. “Phenomenal hindrances” are the phenomena which hinder ordinary beings, while “principle hindrances” are the errors in understanding that hinder bodhisattvas. The realization that “nothing is attained” breaks through phenomenal and principle hindrances, and the understanding that the Dharma cannot be fully explained in words breaks through the hindrance of language. In this way, “non-attainment” is the only true attainment, and is what allows us to return to our intrinsic nature, which is inherently pure.

In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha says, “That which is called the Buddhadharma is not the Buddhadharma.” In the Diamond Sutra the Buddha negates one teaching to establish another, and establishes one teaching to negate another. Whether he is constructing or negating, the Buddha does not want us to abide in any teaching, so that we can realize our intrinsic prajna nature.

One day, Chan Master Tianran suddenly told his disciples, “I miss the mountain forest. I wish to live there for my remaining years.” The Chan master then put an end to his life of wandering and built a small hut on Mount Danxia in Nanyang County, China. Within three years, people began to come in droves to seek instruction from Chan Master Tianran, and his disciples grew to number three hundred. As a consequence, his simple hut expanded and became a temple complex.

Chan Master Tianran would often say to his disciples, “Safeguard well that thing of yours; for it cannot be spoken of. Can Chan really be explained? And how is this so-called Buddhahood to be realized? I have disliked hearing that word ‘Buddha’ my entire life. These days Buddhists scramble about and busy themselves with meditation and the search for enlightenment, yet they do not realize the treasure they possess. I can offer no path to cultivate here, nor Dharma to realize. Realize your mind, and there will be no worries or concerns. Fail to realize your mind and you will be deluded about your own intrinsic nature. Such is like the blind leading the blind, who altogether jump into a fiery pit.”

Chan Master Tianran was attempting to eliminate ordinary beings’ hindrance of believing that there is some correct realization that can be attained. He was also attempting to eliminate the principle hindrance of having fixed ideas and preconceived notions: when we think to ourselves that we understand enlightenment, or even that we have realized enlightenment, we can end up with very fixed ideas about everything. We may even start comparing our knowledge and practice with that of others, trying to see who comes out on top. This is when our practice can actually become an obstacle for us. That is why we should try to practice not to gain anything. However, prajna allows us to transcend the knowledge and wisdom that can act as obstructions. It is only by having a mind that does not abide in anything that all of wondrous existence is able to arise from emptiness.

When National Master Muso Soseki was a young man, he traveled a great distance to come to Kyoto to learn from Yishan, a Chinese Chan master who taught in Japan. One day, Muso went to see Yishan and formally asked for instruction in the Dharma by saying, “Your disciple is still unclear about the great matter.1 Master, I beg you to teach me how to realize enlightenment.”

Yishan replied, “In our tradition there is nothing to say, so how can a single word of instruction be given?”

Muso pleaded again and again, “Master, please teach me with your skillful means of compassion.”

Yishan answered in a much harsher tone, “I have no skillful means, and no compassion either!”

Having been rejected by Yishan so many times, Muso thought that he must not have a good karmic connection with Yishan. He resolved to leave Yishan’s monastery and head to Manju Temple in Kamakura to request the teachings from Chan Master Koho Kennichi. Koho Kennichi would beat and shout at him mercilessly, causing even more pain to Muso who was so firmly committed to seeking enlightenment. Brokenhearted, Muso vowed to Koho Kennichi, “Until your disciple has extinguished all delusion, I will not return to see you.”

Muso then went off by himself into the mountain forest where he practiced hard day and night, contemplating in quiet solitude.

One day Muso was sitting under a tree. A faint breeze was blowing softly and his mind was as still and quiet as a mirror. The day had drawn to midnight without him realizing it, and it was soon time for him to rest for the night. Just before he was about to go to bed, he reclined slightly to lean against a wall when, to his surprise, he fell over. It turned out there had never been a wall there against which he could lean, He had only thought there was. The moment he fell over, Muso unconsciously let out a laugh and suddenly attained enlightenment. He then spontaneously composed this verse:

Many years digging in the ground looking for the blue sky;

Adding layer upon layer of things obstructing my heart.

A common brick comes flying in the darkness one night,

Casually breaking the bones of empty space.

There is no wall to lean on, even though some people may believe there to be. Some people are unwilling to cultivate their diamond-like mind, or see their intrinsic prajna nature. Some people believe that they can attain enlightenment and live a life of freedom by relying on others or following some sort of set formula. To believe this is blind faith, and to maintain it is superstition. National Master Muso Soseki attained enlightenment at the age of thirty-one, and the conditions that brought him to enlightenment stemmed from the kindness of the Chan masters who used their rough treatment of him as a skillful means. They did not want him to become attached to language nor to the notion of the Dharma, for the prajna mind lies directly within our own minds.

No Attainment, But Not Negating Attainment

One morning, the Buddha put on his robe, picked up his bowl, and went into the city of Sravasti to beg for food. Ananda accompanied him. That morning they saw an old couple, their backs stooped over, who were warming themselves over some burning garbage. They looked like a pair of old cranes missing all their feathers, and they displayed a greedy and miserable expression.

The Buddha told Ananda, “If this old couple had scrimped and saved in the past, they could have become wealthy elders of Sravasti. If they had cultivated the spiritual path with unrelenting zeal, then they could have become arhats, or non-returners, or once-returners, or stream-enterers,2 thereby becoming noble ones and attaining the bliss of liberation. But when they were young, they were lax and extravagant. They did not put effort into attaining a comfortable living, they heard the Dharma but did not uphold and practice it, and they did not live in a pure and upright fashion. That is why, in their old age, they are like old cranes that have landed on the banks of a dried up pond. The only thing they can do is spend their remaining years of life in such misery.”

While we say there is “nothing to attain,” this does not negate the attainments of spiritual practice. The Buddha wants us to cultivate free of attachments, but that does not mean that we do not need to cultivate. There are some people who will chant the sutras, bow to the Buddha now and then, and perform various acts of giving, but when they meet with the slightest difficulties regarding their emotions, career, work, or health, they blame the Buddhas and bodhisattvas for not protecting them. The Dharma is not some business deal. As we interact with the Buddhas and bodhisattvas our faith should increase and become more pure. We should be able to feel connected to all the Buddhas, rather than always putting up roadblocks. If in our minds we are looking to get something, how can we be free?

Once there was a particularly zealous Buddhist practitioner who made his own Buddha statue. Every day he would carry the statue with him and devoutly make offerings to it. One day this practitioner went to a Buddhist temple to burn incense, but noticed that the incense he was burning wafted off to the other Buddha statutes. He thought to himself, “My Buddha statue cannot smell the incense I burn. I need to fix this.”

He soon came up with an idea: he would drill holes in the nostrils of his Buddha statue to which he could affix some incense, and that way only his Buddha statue would enjoy the incense he burned.

A few days later the practitioner’s Buddha statue, originally immaculate and clean, now had its nose blackened by the smoke. Only then did the practitioner realize that his own delusion had ruined the majestic appearance of the Buddha statue.

Not Alarmed, Not Frightened, Not Scared

The mind that abides in no one thing is then able to abide as conditions arise and change, protecting us from the many snares of karma. When the mind abides in things, it cannot recognize wisdom, and its attachments make it impossible for us to get a clear handle on life’s priorities. Only a mind that does not abide in anything is not alarmed, frightened, or scared, and is thus free from distortion and delusion. As long as the mind is seeking something, our faith, too, will become distorted.

The Buddha said to Subhuti, “So it is, so it is. Moreover, if a person hears this sutra and does not become alarmed, or frightened, or scared, then this person is indeed a rare person.”

Diamond Sutra Chapter 14

What does the Buddha mean when he says “not become alarmed, or frightened, or scared”? The great master Sengzhao offered the following explanation:

Having attained the Mahayana wisdom through listening, one consistently listens to the teachings and one’s body will show no sign of fear; so it is called being “not alarmed.” Having attained the Mahayana wisdom through contemplation, one experiences a deep faith without any doubt; so it is called being “not frightened.” Having attained the Mahayana wisdom through cultivation, one cultivates the practice according to the teachings, and one will never be maligned; so it is called being “not scared.”

The Buddha says that, if upon hearing the Diamond Sutra people “believe it and [do] not turn their minds against it,” their merit will exceed that from the giving of their lives countlessly over a period of countless eons. “Believing it and not turning the mind against it” means being able to receive and uphold the wisdom written in the Diamond Sutra. The mind not abiding in any single place will not produce calumny. By receiving, upholding, reading, and chanting the Diamond Sutra, one is able to benefit oneself, and by explaining it to people, one is able to benefit others. In his Exegesis on the Diamond Sutra the Sixth Patriarch Huineng states:

The faithful are obedient to principles, and so the text says “not turning against it.” Practice and understanding in accord with one another is known as “receiving it”; determination and diligence are known as “upholding it”; the undistracted mind is known as “reading it”; and seeing nature and not turning against it is known as “chanting it.”

The Vastly Profound and Gloriously Pure Non-Retrogressing Dharma Wheel Sutra states:

Ananda, the faith of a great bodhisattva is pure, for there is no faintheartedness. They attain a pure mind with respect to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. They watch over their six sense organs and want for nothing. They cause living beings with no faith in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha to generate the joy of faith. With the joy of faith generated, the mind will not be self-indulgent; and when generating the aspiration for enlightenment, one will not cling to mental notions. Faith brings the realization that the six great elements3 are equal to the dharma realm.

Those who practice the bodhisattva path are able to maintain a faith that does not regress. They are naturally harmonious and meek. There is no faintheartedness for they are in want of nothing. They enter the ocean of the Triple Gem and receive the treasure of wisdom capable of fulfilling all their wishes.

The faith of ordinary people is fragile, and hearing examples of people with good intentions who are not rewarded may cause them to question the Dharma. Such people believe in the Dharma one day and then doubt it for three. This is not unlike a fisherman who fishes for three days and then dries his nets for five. Such people are ignorant and, even if they wish to be enlightened, will not become enlightened.

Once there was an old monk who wished to raise funds to build a temple, so he would spend his days chanting sutras and reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name at the town market, hoping for donations.

Three months went by and no one took any notice of him. Near the monk’s spot in the town square there was a boy who sold wheat cakes who became quite incensed by what he saw. The boy thought to himself, “Gosh, that old monk is really having a rough time. I’ll give him the money I get from selling these wheat cakes.”

So the boy took the money obtained from selling wheat cakes that day and donated the entire sum to the old monk. When the people at the marketplace heard that the boy selling baked wheat cakes had made a donation, they felt ashamed. One merchant considered, “If a mere boy selling wheat cakes knows about cultivating merit, how can I not be as good as him?”

The news passed from one person to ten, then from ten to one hundred, and in short order the old monk secured all the funds needed for building the temple. The old monk was extremely grateful for what the boy had done, and he said to the boy, “Child, today you have shown such kindness and generated great merit. If you experience any sort of hardship in the future, remember to come to the temple to see me.”

After heading back, the boy was fired by his boss because he could not turn over the money from selling wheat cakes. Unable to find another job, the boy wandered the streets and was eventually reduced to begging. He often went hungry, contracted scabies, and eventually went blind. One day, the boy remembered what the old monk had told him, and step by step he groped his way to the temple.

The old monk was a great cultivator, such that he had already developed heavenly eyes, and thus knew the boy’s predicament and that he was coming to the temple seeking aid. So that night he gathered the monks together and explained, “Tomorrow our temple’s great Dharma protector and benefactor will be coming. Everyone should gather at the temple gate to respectfully receive this guest. We must show him great hospitality.”

The next day the entire temple staff had swept the place clean and was awaiting the benefactor’s arrival. But the morning became late afternoon, and no such person had shown up. The old monk sent someone to inquire about the matter and the receptionist replied doubtfully, “No great Dharma protector and benefactor has made an appearance today.”

The old monk made a further inquiry, “You mean to say that no one has been by today at all?”

The young monk then spoke haltingly, “No, there was no one. Well, there was only one little blind beggar, that is all. He wanted to come in, but I was afraid he would spoil the great welcoming ceremony you had planned, so I gave him a few pieces of bread and sent him on his way.”

The old monk shouted, “That was our great protector and benefactor! Hurry and bring him back!”

Although some reluctance showed on the monk’s faces, no one dared disobey, so all they could do was leave the temple and start searching. Fortunately the blind boy walked slowly, and so it was not long before they caught up with him. The young boy was welcomed back into the temple and given a room, where he was treated with the utmost respect and cared for in every possible way. But no one could have imagined that one night, as the boy went to the latrine, he accidentally fell into the cesspit and drowned.

As news of the boy’s death spread, many people became outraged by the injustice of the boy’s fate. One such affected person said, “You tell us now, how is goodwill rewarded? How can we say that karma exists in this world? This boy made a living by selling baked wheat cakes, and he was doing quite well for himself. But then he had to try to make some merit: first he gets fired and becomes a beggar, and then he contracts scabies and goes blind! Finally, after he settles down in the temple, he falls into the cesspit and drowns! How can you say that goodwill is rewarded?”

This kind of talk spread throughout the community until it reached the ears of the old monk. One day the old monk had gathered all the villagers together for a teaching, and used the opportunity to explain the fate of the boy:

“According to that boy’s karma, he would have suffered for three lifetimes: During the first lifetime he was to be poor and develop scabies; during the second lifetime he was to go completely blind; and during the third lifetime he was to fall into a latrine and drown. However, due to his one compassionate thought to give and generate great merit, the negative karmic effects of three lifetimes were combined into one, sparing him the hardship and torment of the two other lifetimes. Now he has already been reborn in heaven!”

With his one thought of compassion and his act of giving, the boy who sold baked wheat cakes eliminated the negative karma of three lifetimes all at once.

The people who were outraged at the injustice of the boy’s fate were treating the Dharma and merit like a business transaction, but sometimes what we only see with our physical eyes is not how things truly are. How things look on the surface are but a temporary combination of conditions; a false appearance created by the deluded mind. If we allow our minds to abide in deluded thoughts and deluded notions, we will alternate between faith and doubt, and then it will be impossible to attain enlightenment. This is why the Diamond Sutra says of itself that we should “believe it and not turn our minds against it.” Only when we are not alarmed, not frightened, and not scared can our bodies and minds be free. Then the mind need not abide in anything.

“Subhuti, good men and good women during the period of declining Dharma will receive, uphold, read, and chant this sutra. If their virtues were completely described, there are some who would go mad upon hearing it, and they would form deep doubts and not believe it. Subhuti, you should know that the teachings of this sutra are inconceivable, and its karmic results are inconceivable.”

Diamond Sutra Chapter 16

The Buddha states here that the meanings of the Diamond Sutra are so profound that they cannot even be conceived of, and that no language can fully describe them. The positive karmic results that can be attained through receiving and upholding the sutra are also inconceivable, for they are limitless and incalculable. The great master Sengzhao once said:

All the merit from this teaching transcends the mind, hence it cannot be imagined by the mind; it transcends language, hence it cannot be explained verbally. It cannot be weighed with a scale or quantified by any measure. If a person realizes the emptiness of self and phenomena and deeply understands true reality through this sutra, then their merit will be vast and on par with that of the Buddha mind, which is limitless and incalculable.

The Firm Mind Is Like a Diamond

In the time of the Buddha there lived a ruthless murderer who harmed countless people because of his misguided belief that killing people and taking their finger-bones would enable him to ascend to heaven and attain liberation. After killing someone, he would take one of their finger bones and string it onto a garland of many finger bones that he wore around his neck. People were terrified of him and abhorred his grisly cruelty. The people called him Angulimala, Sanskrit for “finger-garlanded heretic.”

Later the Buddha encountered Angulimala and, because of the Buddha’s transformative teachings, he ordained as a Buddhist monk and began to live a wholesome life. However, when he entered the city to gather alms with the other monastics, the city’s residents had still not forgotten the evil deeds he had committed, so they threw dirt and stones at him, and would curse and defame him. Each day Angulimala would always end up with his clothes soiled and torn and his faced bruised and streaked with blood.

One day, the Buddha called for Angulimala and consoled him compassionately, “Angulimala, you must remain composed and unshakable, and find joy in receiving the teachings. As you continue to practice in accordance with the Dharma so assiduously, your previous negative karma will be like salty, foul water poured into a great quantity of pure water, such that in time it, too, will be refreshing and drinkable. The Dharma is like moonlight breaking through the layers of clouds to illuminate your mind, ensuring that you follow the correct path. The seeds of negative karma you sowed in the past must be repaid with pure, wholesome karma, so that when the clouds of darkness disperse, you will see moonlight shining everywhere, illuminating yourself and others.”

Due to his faith and understanding of the Buddha’s teachings, the mind of the murderous Angulimala became like the great earth itself, immovable and unshakeable, as he transformed himself from the murderous “finger-garlanded heretic” into an arhat.

“Furthermore, Subhuti, if those good men and good women who receive, uphold, read, and chant this sutra are disdained by others, it is due to negative karma incurred in a former life. That negative karma should be the cause of the person falling into a lower realm, but in this life, he is merely disdained. Eventually his negative karma from previous lives will be eradicated, and he will attain anuttara samyaksambodhi.”

Diamond Sutra Chapter 16

In the above passage the Buddha says to Subhuti that if someone single-mindedly practices, upholds, reads, and chants the Diamond Sutra and does not garner the respect of human and heavenly beings, but is instead cursed or despised by others, this is because such people have extremely grave negative karma from previous lives. Such karma should lead them to fall into the three lower realms and suffer there, but if they are able to patiently endure and maintain their practice even as they are despised by others, then the purity of their faith can make their past karma slowly disappear. In the future they will realize unsurpassed, perfect enlightenment.

The English variant karma is derived from the Sanskrit term karman, meaning “action,” and refers to physical and mental actions, deeds, and intentions. Karma is generally divided into three categories: physical karma, verbal karma, and mental karma. Karma is also divided into positive karma, negative karma, and neutral karma (which is neither positive nor negative). If the karma created is of the five great violations4 or ten unwholesome actions,5 then one will surely suffer the negative karmic effect of rebirth in the three lower realms of the animal realm, the realm of hungry ghosts, and the hell realm. If one generates the positive karma of the five precepts and the ten wholesome actions, then in future one may experience rebirth in the human or heavenly realm.

The karmic obstacles we encounter can be formed either from the karma of past lives or the karma of our current lives, but all such obstructions serve to obscure the intrinsic nature of suchness so that we continue to travel through the cycle of birth and death in the six realms of existence. As we receive, uphold, read, and recite the Diamond Sutra, we will come to realize the wondrous wisdom of prajna and understand that everything is illusory and fabricated. Rather than being altered by circumstances or driven by karma, such understanding allows us to alter our own circumstances. By delving deep into prajna we completely purify false fabrications and remove karmic obstacles.

Before Chan Master Fayuan Yuanjian was enlightened, he and Chan Master Tianyi Yihuai had heard of the great wisdom of Chan Master Guixing in Ye County, so they decided to travel there and request the teachings. It was winter and bitterly cold, with a heavy snow blowing in the wind. Eight monastics in total made the journey to Guixing’s place. As soon as he saw them, Chan Master Guixing loudly scolded them and tried to drive them away, but the group was unwilling to leave. Guixing then threw water on them, soaking their clothing and bedding. The six other members of the group could not bear this, and so they left in disgust. Fayuan and Yihuai simply straightened their robes and knelt on the ground, begging not to be sent away.

Shortly thereafter, Chan Master Guixing scolded them once more, “So you won’t leave? Is it that you’re waiting for me to beat you with a stick?”

Fayuan replied earnestly, “The two of us have traveled hundreds of miles to come and study here. How can a ladle of water possibly send us away? Even if you beat us with clubs, we still will not leave.”

Chan Master Guixing replied, “Since you really came here to learn, go and register for lodgings.”

Upon registering with the receptionist, Fayuan served for a time as monastery cook. On one occasion he took some oil and noodles without asking and made some five-flavored porridge to offer to the monastic community. After Chan Master Guixing found out about this, he reprimanded Fayuan with extremely harsh words: “You have misappropriated temple property and made an offering to the monastic community on your own. Besides corporeal punishment in accordance with the monastery rules, you must pay back the monastery for the cost of the goods.”

Chan Master Guixing then gave Fayuan thirty strokes with the meditation stick. The value of Fayuan’s robe, bowl, and sitting mat were assessed to repay the value of the food, so they were taken as payment and Fayuan was driven out of the temple.

Even after being driven out of the temple gate, Fayuan was still unwilling to leave, and instead would sleep standing up each night in the hallway of the dormitory. After Chan Master Guixing learned of this, he again rebuked Fayuan saying, “This hallway belongs to the monastery, and is to be used only by members of our monastic community. Why are you staying here? The rent you owe to the monastery will be calculated and billed to you.”

After Fayuan was told how much he owed the monastery, he displayed no sense of reluctance whatsoever, but went to the marketplace and began to chant sutras in hope of receiving donations to pay back what he owed.

Not long after, Chan Master Guixing spoke to all the monastics at the monastery and said, “Fayuan is a true Chan practitioner, and a vessel for the Dharma.”

He then had a servant invite Fayuan into the assembly hall, and in front of all those gathered there, presented Fayuan with the Dharma robe and gave him the name Chan Master Yuanjian, meaning “perfect mirror.”

Offering the Three Karmas

The six paramitas are what transform our afflictions into enlightenment. Among the six, the paramita of patience is sure to be tested while we cultivate the spiritual path. However, the most difficult trials offer the greatest and most enduring blessings. One concrete example of such a series of trials to learn the Dharma is the life of Milarepa.

Milarepa’s hometown was located in the Gungtang Province6 of Posterior Tibet. While his parents lived, Milarepa’s entire family supported themselves from the lands bequeathed by his grandfather, allowing them quite an affluent lifestyle.

When Milarepa was seven, his father died, and in his will he clearly stipulated that Milarepa was to inherent the entire estate upon reaching adulthood. The will also requested that his paternal aunt and uncle were to act as his guardians. However, not only did his aunt and uncle take over the estate, they even forced Milarepa and his mother to labor endlessly in the fields during the blazing heat of the summer months. Over time, the villagers grew to despise Milarepa and his mother. Milarepa’s mother swallowed her sadness and put up with the ill-treatment until Milarepa came of age. Once Milarepa became an adult, the aunt and uncle then simply sent both mother and son away. Milarepa’s mother was full of rage and resentment, and she had Milarepa swear an oath that he would take his revenge on these wicked foes.

Milarepa then went to Ü-Tsang, a province in western Tibet, and began to study sorcery, quickly mastering it. He cast a spell which killed thirty-five people, including his uncle’s son, daughter-in-law, family members, and friends. Fearing that people in the village may seek revenge, his mother sent word that Milarepa would summon a hailstorm to destroy the grain seedlings to intimidate the villagers into not taking action. And so Milarepa sent another hailstorm that destroyed the crops of the entire village. However, Milarepa was kind and good by nature, and felt great remorse over what he had done, so he decided to dedicate the rest of his life to seeking liberation through practicing the Dharma as a disciple of the Buddhist teacher Marpa.

Marpa tested Milarepa in a hundred different ways. First he said to Milarepa, “Construct a stone building for storing Buddhist texts. After that is done I will transmit the Dharma to you.”

Milarepa had finished construction on half of the building when Marpa said to him, “I didn’t think this out clearly beforehand. This is not the right place. You should go to the top of the western mountain and build it there.”

All Milarepa could do was tear down what he had built, stone by stone and beam by beam, and then carry these materials over to the western mountain for construction there. Milarepa was about halfway through when Marpa spoke once more, “That’s all wrong! You should go build it on top of the northern mountain. And it should be shaped like a triangle.”

Milarepa’s rebuilding was about a third of the way completed when Marpa spoke up yet again:

“This looks like an altar for practicing sorcery. Tear it down!”

Having built up and then torn down the structure several times, Milrepa’s back was already very worn and bruised, and he was enduring an unbearable level of pain. But his teacher demanded that he construct a nine-story building in the shape of a cube. Milarepa worked quickly day and night, and Marpa’s three main disciples even helped him to move stones. When Marpa found out, he had Milarepa tear out any stones that others had moved into place. He said that each and every stone and wooden beam must be put in place by Milarepa personally.

After the construction of the building was finished, Marpa angrily drove Milarepa away and said, “Is that your offering? Do you think that constructing this building makes you so great?”

As he continued to try to make a suitable offering to his teacher, Milarepa solicited donations by wandering with his alms bowl, garnering enough to purchase a large, square copper lamp. He then offered the lamp to his teacher in hopes that Marpa would teach him the Dharma and pass onto him his secret teachings as soon as possible. Instead, Marpa ordered Milarepa to call down a hailstorm upon the two villages of Yehpo and Yemo. After finishing this task, Milarepa requested the teachings once again. Marpa surprised Milarepa, and told him, “Only when you restore the crops belonging to the villages of Yehpo and Yemo, will I transmit the Dharma to you!”

Milarepa was ashamed. The fact that he could not receive the Dharma pained him greatly, and he was sad and hopeless. Marpa’s wife consoled Milarepa with tears in her eyes. She stole Marpa’s ruby seal along with some jewelry that belonged to Naropa, Marpa’s teacher, and gave them to Milarepa. She also forged a letter which would enable Milarepa to gain an audience with Marpa’s chief disciple, Lama Ngokpa. When Ngokpa saw the letter, he immediately bestowed upon Milarepa the empowerment and secret instructions pertaining to the deity Hevajra. Even then, without Marpa certifying his transmission, Milarepa couldn’t connect with the teachings no matter how assiduously he practiced.

Before long, Marpa ordered Ngokpa and Milarepa to come and see him. Marpa thundered with rage, and scolded both his wife and Ngokpa. Marpa then said, “In order to eliminate Milarepa’s past negative karma, I tested him in a hundred different ways so that he must practice austerity. Over the course of the past eight phases in austere practice, his karmic hindrances have mostly been eliminated. I will now give him my blessing and bestow upon him the empowerments and instructions, enabling him to succeed in his practice.”

Those present were so happy for Milarepa that many were moved to tears.

The story of Milarepa shows us that Buddhahood is to be realized by human beings. Everyone can attain Buddhhood as long as there is determination, renunciation, and forbearance. In the end, Milarepa’s genuine devotion to his teacher and his assiduous and diligent cultivation of the practice was able to eliminate his severely negative karma and attain enlightenment.

Just after the Diamond Sutra opens, it is said that Subhuti “rose from his seat, bore his right shoulder, knelt on his right knee, and [pressed his palms] together before him”—this is how to make an offering to the Buddha with purity of body, speech, and mind, and respectfully request that the Buddha teach the Dharma. The Diamond Sutra begins with daily life, for the best kind of practice is to offer the three kinds of karma every day:

  1. Offer physical karma by doing good deeds.

  2. Offer verbal karma by speaking good words.

  3. Offer mental karma by keeping good thoughts.

Everywhere Is a Temple

Even an ordinary person can become as solid as a diamond as long as they are able to eliminate their delusions and attachments and believe in their own Buddha nature, their ability to become enlightened, and their own unlimited potential. The Lankavatara Sutra says, “Consider the amala fruit; it ripens gradually.” In learning Buddhism one cannot act rashly. An amala fruit does not go from bud to fruit all at once, but rather ripens bit by bit. All the flowers, grasses, and trees of the earth grow gradually, and there is no way to force them to grow faster. All human learning, even artistic pursuits like singing, dancing, calligraphy, and painting are all perfected gradually.

As referenced before there is an old Buddhist saying: “Without a meditation breakthrough, do not dwell in the mountains. Without meditative insight, do not go on retreat.” This means that, after some major breakthrough, one can go off into the mountains to practice what was learned. After a moment of insight, one may be able to confirm it more fully on retreat. There are some people who want to rush off and live in a mountain hermitage as soon as they first encounter Buddhism. But even if we understand enlightenment in theory, it still takes a lot of hard work to truly be enlightened. No one can grow up and mature all at once. In Buddhism sometimes we talk about “sudden enlightenment” versus “gradual enlightenment”—both approaches are fine, and both require time. Once one has perfected one’s merit and created the proper conditions, success will come naturally. Cultivation is not assuming some style or putting on an act, it should develop naturally, for only in that way can it be true reality as it is.

One day, the king of Zhao made a special effort to visit Chan Master Zhaozhou Congshen. At the time, Congshen was lying down resting in bed and he said to the King of Zhao, “Oh great king, I’ve grown old. I know you have made this trip expressly to see me, but I do not have the strength to get out of bed and receive you. Please do not take offense.”

The king of Zhao was not offended at all, but rather was overjoyed, and the two talked together quite happily. Once the king of Zhao returned, he sent one of his generals to deliver a series of gifts to the Chan master. When the general arrived with the gifts, Congshen got out of bed at once and greeted the visitor at the door.

Congshen’s disciples were confused. One disciple asked, “When the king of Zhao came yesterday, you would not get out of bed. But when his subordinate came today, why did you get out of bed to greet him?”

Chan Master Congshen replied, “There’s something you don’t understand. My way of receiving guests is as follows: For first-class guests, I lie in bed and greet them using my intrinsic nature. For second-class guests, I go to the guest hall and treat them courteously. For third-class guests, I go to the front gate to greet them respectfully in accordance with good social form.”

The story of Chan Master Congshen’s manner of greeting guests became well known. Centuries later the great Song dynasty poet Su Shi was preparing to visit Chan Master Foyin at Jinshan Temple, and he wrote to him beforehand requesting that they dispense with all the complicated greeting ceremonies, just as Chan Master Congshen received the king of Zhao.

When Su Shi arrived at Jinshan Temple, he saw Chan Master Foyin standing outside the temple’s main gate to greet him. Su Shi felt quite satisfied with himself and said, “Why is it that you can’t let go of worldly social conventions? It seems to me that your practice cannot compare with the free-spirited unconventionality of Chan Master Zhaozhou Congshen, as I see you came all the way out here to receive me.”

Su Shi thought that he would render the Chan master speechless, but Foyin waved his palm leaf fan, and leisurely spoke the following verse:

Zhaozhou, on that day, was less than humble,

Not coming out of the monastery gate to receive the king of Zhao.

You do not know the immeasurable form of Mount Jin

The great universe is my Chan bed.

Su Shi clung to the physical appearance of receiving guests. Chan Master Foyin had no such attachments to physical appearances, and could regard the entire universe as his Chan bed. When the entire universe is your bed, how is it possible to distinguish between being in bed and getting out of bed? This is having a mind that does not abide in anything. Being excessive or overly restrained are both attachment. Clinging to the five desires and the six sense objects is, of course, insatiable, but we can also go too far in seeking an otherworldly life such that we appear lonely and dejected. By cultivating meditative concentration and wisdom together we can harmonize the worldly and the transcendent. In fact, one of the principles of Humanistic Buddhism is to use what transcends this world to do worldly work.

The famous poet Tao Qian once said, “I build my cottage in the world of men / Yet there is no clamor of horse and carriage.” One of the insights that the Sixth Patriarch Huineng gained from the Diamond Sutra that he shares in the Platform Sutra is that existence and non-existence are not dualistic, and to understand such is to live a life of non-thought and non-discrimination. This way, every place can become like a temple for enlightenment. In a similar fashion, we should use the transcendent qualities of Buddhism, such as vast, limitless compassion, and apply it to the work of liberating living beings.

Perfected Humanity Is Perfected Buddhahood

If anyone should think that I can be seen among forms,

Or that I can be sought among sounds,

Then that person is on the wrong path

And he will not see the Tathagata.

Diamond Sutra Chapter 26

As mentioned previously, tathagata or rulai (如來) in Chinese is one of the epithets of the Buddha. The true nature of the Tathagata is unshakable, and it pervades all of the dharma realm. When the Tathagata comes, he has not truly come, and though sometimes he is hidden away, when he goes he has not truly gone. Because he does not come or go, he is called Tathagata, “thus come.”

In the above, “coming” and “going” can refer to the relative distinctions between things, but how is it that the Tathagata, who has realized and attained the Dharmakaya, does not manifest it? In the Diamond Sutra it says that, “‘Tathagata’ means all phenomena as they are.” The Tathagata is one who realizes the principle of “suchness”: that absolute and immovable reality which pervades as many worlds as there are grains of sand in the Ganges River and extends throughout the three thousand-fold world system. That is another way in which the Tathagata “does not come from anywhere and does not go anywhere.”

The Treatise on the Awakening of Faith in Mahayana states:

The intrinsic essence of suchness neither increases nor decreases in ordinary people, sravakas, pratyekabuddhas, bodhisattvas, or all Buddhas. It does not arise in the beginning nor does it cease in the end and is absolutely eternal. From the very beginning, suchness by its very nature is perfectly endowed with all meritorious qualities. Namely, its essence is endowed with the quality of the light of great wisdom; the quality of illuminating the dharma realm; the quality of real cognition; the quality of mind in its intrinsic purity; the qualities of permanence, bliss, purity, an independent self, unchangeableness, and freedom. It possesses inconceivable teachings more numerous than the grains of sand along the Ganges River, from which it is not separated, disconnected, nor made different. And as it is perfect and lacks in nothing whatsoever, it is called the tathagatagarbha, and it is also called the Tathagata Dharmakaya.

The term “Tathagata” also suggests adapting the teachings to conventional truth, which are taught in order to liberate living beings through skillful means. If someone believes that the Buddha is without the notion of self, others, sentient beings, or longevity, then how can the Buddha say of himself that he had attained Buddhahood, become a Dharma king, and is free and unobstructed by all phenomena? “Tathagata” is the true self of the Dharmakaya. In his coming and going, his sitting and lying down, the Buddha was acting in accordance with worldly appearances. The Buddha realized the fruit of enlightenment but did not abide in the appearance of Buddhahood.

Once there was a temple abbot who had been reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha for more than twenty years. Since he began practicing, he had always hoped that he would see Amitabha Buddha with his own eyes so that he could confirm his practice. Finally one night he had a dream in which a bodhisattva from Amitabha Buddha’s Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss said to him, “Your devotion to Amitabha Buddha surpasses most. I have been sent by Amitabha Buddha to tell you that tomorrow he will come to visit you in person.”

After he awoke, the abbot recited the name of Amitabha Buddha with even more joyous devotion. He sat in front of the Buddha hall with the name of Amitabha Buddha always on his lips, as he patiently waited to welcome the arrival of Amitabha Buddha. The abbot waited all day, the sun slipped behind the mountains, and Amitabha Buddha never appeared. He began to doubt: Was it really possible that Amitabha Buddha did not keep his word?

That night, the bodhisattva appeared in his dream again. Just as the abbot was preparing to complain about how Amitabha Buddha did not keep his word, the bodhisattva spoke, “What is wrong with you? Amitabha Buddha came to see you three times yesterday, yet you were unwilling to receive him.”

The abbot replied, “But no one told me that Amitabha Buddha had arrived!”

The bodhisattva said, “You must be blind. Amitabha Buddha first came early in the morning as a begging woman. He had just reached your door when you told a servant to chase her away. Around noon Amitabha Buddha came again as a householder woman. When she reached the main shrine you didn’t look at her even once, and when she told your servant to announce her visit to you, the servant said that you never receive female guests. In the evening, Amitabha Buddha manifested as a stray dog, but as soon as the dog entered the gate the receptionist scared him off with a stick!”

The abbot replied, “I had no idea that was Amitabha Buddha.”

“Subhuti, what do you think? Can the Buddha be seen as his physical body, complete [with the thirty-two marks of excellence and eighty noble characteristics]?”

“No, World-honored One, the Buddha should not be seen as his physical body. And why is this? The Tathagata has said that his complete physical body is not the complete physical body, and that this is what is called the complete physical body.”

“Subhuti, what do you think? Can the Tathagata, complete in all forms, be seen or not?”

“No, World-honored One, the Tathagata should not be seen as complete in all forms. And why is this? The Tathagata has said that complete in all forms is not complete and that that is what is called complete in all forms.”

Diamond Sutra Chapter 20

In the passage quoted above, the Buddha is addressing ordinary people who become fixated on physical appearance and try to understand the Buddha in terms of how he looks or sounds. The Buddha is said to possess “thirty-two marks of excellence and eighty noble characteristics” which describe his voice and appearance, but these two are simply temporary manifestations which arise from causes and conditions for the sake of liberating living beings. As the proper causes and conditions come together they appear, and when the conditions are no longer present they disappear. They are nothing more than temporary manifestations that exist at a certain time. This cannot be the Tathagata’s eternal Dharmakaya that does not come or go.

“Subhuti, never say that the Tathagata has the thought, ‘I have spoken the Dharma’. Do not have that thought. And why is this? If someone says that the Tathagata has spoken the Dharma, then that person is defaming the Buddha, and he does not understand what I have been saying. Subhuti, when a person speaks the Dharma no Dharma can be spoken, and thus it is called speaking the Dharma.”

Diamond Sutra Chapter 21

The Buddha spoke the Dharma as conditions arose and did not cling to the notion of the Dharma. The way that Tathagata teaches is by manifesting as the one who speaks the Dharma. In every case he adapts his teachings in accordance with the spiritual capacity of the audience and manifests a physical form where there previously was no form, and manifests speech where there was once no speech. Saying that the Tathagata “speaks the Dharma” is a worldly notion; that is why Subhuti is told that someone who thinks that the Tathagata “has spoken the Dharma” is defaming the Buddha.

All that the Buddha says is said for the sake of unlocking the intrinsic nature of suchness that living beings inherently possess. The Buddha speaks as conditions arise to eliminate the delusions of living beings, liberating them in accordance with their spiritual capacities.

So what then is the Dharma? In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha also says, “…my teachings should be understood to be like a raft.7 If even the Dharma must be let go of, what about that which is not the Dharma?” We should get rid of the notion of “Dharma” and “non-Dharma” so that a thought like “the Buddha has spoken the Dharma” does not arise to abide in.

Once a certain Buddhist monk came to see Chan Master Dazhu Huihai and said, “I would like to ask a question. Can you answer it?”

Dazhu said, “The moon reflected in the deep pool can be pondered as one wishes.”

The monk then asked, “What is the Buddha?”

Dazhu replied, “If it is not the Buddha across from the clear pool, then who?”

Everyone gathered there was confused when they heard this. Finally, the monk spoke up, “May I ask you, great master, what Dharma you teach to liberate people?”

Dazhu said, “I don’t have a single teaching that can liberate people.”

The monk said, “You Chan masters always speak of wonder and emptiness.”

Dazhu then offered a counter question, “What Dharma do you, virtuous one, speak to liberate people?”

The monk answered, “I teach the Diamond Sutra.”

Dazhu then asked, “Who speaks this sutra?”

The Buddhist monk angrily retorted, “Now you’re just trying to make fun of me. Everyone knows it is a sutra spoken by the Buddha.”

Dazhu then proceeded to quote the sutra: “‘If someone says that the Tathagata has spoken the Dharma, then that person is defaming the Buddha, and he does not understand what I have been saying.’ yet if someone says that this sutra was not spoken by the Buddha, then that person has defamed the sutra. Please explain, virtuous one.”

The monk was completely stumped.

By saying that he did not have a single teaching that could liberate people, Chan Master Dazhu Huihai showed a deep understanding of the Buddha’s meaning in the Diamond Sutra. All the sutras of all the Buddhas do nothing more than wipe away the dust of delusion that obscures our ordinary mind, allowing us to see the intrinsic nature of prajna. The Buddha repeatedly enjoined those practitioners who aspire to unsurpassed, perfect enlightenment to empty themselves of any notion concerning living beings, the form of the Buddha, the form in which the Buddha speaks the Dharma, and other such notions. The Buddha wishes us to be free and undisturbed, and to return to the inherent mind.

In the Lotus Sutra it is said that Aksayamati Bodhisattva once asked the Buddha, “How did Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva come to this Saha World? How does he teach the Dharma for the sake of living beings? How does he apply the power of skillful means?”

The Buddha then answered, “Good man, if there are living beings in this land who should be liberated by someone in the form of a Buddha, then Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva will manifest in the form of a Buddha and teach the Dharma to them.”

When someone hears this part of the Buddha’s teaching, he may wonder: Avalokitesvara is a bodhisattva, which is defined as one who has not yet attained Buddhahood. How can a bodhisattva manifest in the form of a Buddha to teach living beings? Is that not masquerading as the Buddha?

Many people may have questions like this, but the answer is that, no, this is not the same as impersonating the Buddha. Avalokitesvara has actually already attained Buddhahood long, long ago, and was named Zhengfa Ming Tathagata (正法明如來), “Clearly Understanding the True Dharma.” However, after he attained Buddhahood he did not forget about living beings, and thus returned to the Saha World where beings live in torment. Here he conceals his Buddhahood and manifests in the form of a bodhisattva to give compassionate aid to living beings.

An arhat is one who dedicates a small amount of merit to many, while Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva dedicates great merit to a few. Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva compassionately stepped back from assuming a Buddha’s form so that he could guide and liberate all those who suffer, so that they may realize the six paramitas and attain the tranquility of nirvana.

That being said, even though Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva has stepped back out of compassion, dedicates great merit to a few, and conceals his Buddhahood by appearing as a bodhisattva, he actually possesses all the practices, vows, and conduct of the Buddhas. This is how Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is able to manifest as a Buddha to teach the Dharma; it is not deception. Additionally, the bodhisattva manifests as a Buddha only for a given time when there is a person who can be liberated by the form of a Buddha. Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva then manifests the form of a Buddha only for a period of time as a skillful means to instruct and guide living beings.

Since Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva has already attained Buddhahood, he is capable of billions upon billions of manifestations, which he uses to spread the Dharma and liberate living beings. No matter what kind of sentient beings, as long as they possess the capacity to understand, the bodhisattva will explain the Dharma to them so that they can transform their ignorance into enlightenment. This is what is meant by the expression “there is no standard Dharma.” There is no standard Dharma, just as there is no standard physical appearance of the Buddha, and we should not become attached to either.

Enlightenment does not lie in being able to recite a thousand Buddhist verses and cannot be found by browsing through the Buddhist sutras. Enlightenment lies in how we use the mind in our daily lives and in every thought. We must not dismiss the minutia of life, for even boiling water to make tea or carrying rocks and firewood all contain the causes and conditions for attaining enlightenment. This is why the Diamond Sutra opens with a description of the Buddha’s simple monastic lifestyle. This shows that genuine cultivation is not a performance or a show, and we should never be concerned with making some pretentious or esoteric display, or trying to one-up each other. The Buddha maintained a simple daily routine and simple food and dress so that he could live free and at ease with a perfectly dignified manner. This allows those with only a tenuous commitment to practice to have faith that, if they put forth the proper effort, they too can be like the Buddha.

I have spent my entire life honoring the Buddha and learning from him, but I do not wish to become a Buddha or a Buddhist patriarch. I am generous and do good deeds, but I do not want to go to heaven. I recite Amitabha Buddha’s name, but I have no desire to gain rebirth in the Pure Land. My aim is not to transcend life and death, but rather to cultivate more resources for Buddhism. I wish to be reborn as an ordinary monk in the human world lifetime after lifetime.

In the Samyukta Agama, the Buddha wants Ananda to answer how he would explain if non-Buddhist monks were to ask the Buddha why he teaches celibacy. At one time, the Buddha was in the city of Sravasti at the Jeta Grove Monastery teaching the Dharma, and he asked Ananda, “Supposing there was a non-Buddhist monk who came to you and asked, ‘Ananda, why does the Buddha teach his disciples to be celibate?’ How would you answer him?”

Ananda replied, “Lord Buddha, I would tell them in accordance with your teachings that we practice in this way to renounce form, so that attraction does not arise in the mind. When one is able to turn away from desire he can proceed to eliminate all afflictions until he attains liberation and realizes the state of tranquility, emptiness of the mind, and the universal nature of the Dharma, which does not arise or cease. After having turned away from physical form, we practice with the remaining four aggregates of feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. One who is no longer bound by the five aggregates can connect to the Buddha mind. Lord Buddha, if non-Buddhist monks were to ask me such a question, I would answer them in this way.”

The Buddha said, “Well done, Ananda, well done! You should answer the question in this way. And why is that? I definitely teach celibacy so that people may practice the renunciation of form, turn away from desire, eliminate all affliction, and attain liberation.”

In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha further tells Ananda, “Lay a mat for me between two trees in such a way that my head points north and my face looks to the west. Why? In the future the Dharma will spread and advance far north.”

Ananda answered, “Yes,” and laid out the mat at once.

At that moment, all the deities who lived in those trees caused the trees to bloom out of season, and they scattered their flowers on the ground. The Buddha told Ananda, “The deities living in these two trees have made an offering of these flowers, which are blooming out of season. However, this is not the way to make offerings to the Buddha.”

Ananda asked, “How then should one make an offering to the Buddha?”

The Buddha replied, “If one is able to receive the Dharma and practice it, then enlightenment is used as a flower offering. Only in this way can one make real offerings to the Buddha.”

At that time, Ananda said to the Buddha, “While the Buddha is in the world, the monastics from all directions, the elder monastics, and the practitioners with deep understanding of the teachings and the monastic rules have all come to see the Buddha. We disciples make use of such opportunities to pay homage to and learn from them. But they will not come after the Buddha’s final nirvana, and we will lose what all these good Dharma friends could teach us.”

The Buddha replied, “You should not despair. All you need to do is constantly remember the four kinds of mindfulness. The first is to be mindful of the place the Buddha was born, the second is to be mindful of the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment, the third is to be mindful of the place the Buddha turned the Dharma wheel, and the fourth is to be mindful of the place of the Buddha’s final nirvana. Ananda, all good men and women who receive and uphold what the Buddha has taught should be mindful of the place the Buddha was born and remember the Buddha’s virtue of practicing the Dharma over many kalpas; be mindful of the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment and remember the Buddha’s virtue of subduing the armies of Mara; be mindful of the place the Buddha turned the Dharma wheel and remember the Buddha’s virtue of compassion to broadly liberate sentient beings; and be mindful of the place of the Buddha’s final nirvana and remember the Buddha’s virtue of his unshakably peaceful tranquility. Anyone who upholds these four mindfulnesses and four virtues will not be separated from the Buddha and good Dharma friends, day or night.

“Ananda, do you think you will have no protection and will lose your support after the Buddha’s nirvana? Do not think this way. All the teachings and precepts I have given since I attained Buddhahood will be your protection and your support. The Buddha’s teachings will become a Dharma vessel that allows living beings in the period of the declining Dharma to sail over to the shore of liberation and serve as protection and support for timid bodies and minds. For those who can put the Buddha’s final teachings into practice, it will be as if the Buddha is still in the world.”

Why do sentient beings suffer? Why are they not enlightened? Because of affliction and attachment. As soon as we form attachments we cannot attain liberation, as our afflictions become inexhaustible. But where do these attachments come from? Attachments are produced by a mind that is ignorant and selfish. We must not become attached to what we hope to attain, for what we know is so limited, and attachment just makes that limited knowledge even more rigid and narrow. If we can get rid of our selfishness and our deluded attachments we can eliminate our afflictions. With no afflictions we can attain enlightenment and liberation, and experience the perfection of nirvana in the human world.

A jet airplane can fly at the speed of sound through the use of turbojet engines. The way that a turbojet engine works is by sucking air into a compressor, the air is pressurized and enters a combustion chamber where it is mixed with fuel and burned, which then immediately flows through the turbine, causing the turbine to spin at high velocity. Finally, the high temperature and high velocity exhaust jets out the nozzle. It is this reaction that supplies the powerful force of propulsion.

Isn’t human life like this? If one can bear it, then high pressure and blazing fire can be transformed into a propelling force for progress. Difficulties and trials can become the gateways to success, and our thinking can transform difficulties into positives. Buddhism has many sayings that refer to this phenomenon, such as “the blaze of flames can become red lotuses” and “affliction is enlightenment.” When we live our lives with determination and diligence anything is possible.

We do need both success and liberation in this life, it is only that it is impossible to achieve either of these by looking outwardly. Rather, one must come to recognize the truth that all phenomena are empty: Emptiness includes both existence and non-existence; emptiness is causes and conditions, for only true emptiness allows for all of wondrous existence. We should all go and directly investigate our own minds and find our own prajna wisdom. The mind of prajna is solid as a diamond, able to break through defilement and sorrow. Practicing the Dharma makes me feel happy, enriched, and blessed. Nothing is lacking. Everything happens naturally, and success simply occurs when the causes and conditions are right.

It is difficult to be born as a human being, and the Dharma, too, is not easy to encounter. Given that in this life we have obtained this human body and have the opportunity to hear the Dharma, our causes and conditions must be really special.

Humanistic Buddhism is Mahayana Buddhism and the Buddhism of the bodhisattva path that brings happiness and well-being to people. It is a Buddhism that advocates cultivation without attainment, and seeks to bring widespread success and universal liberation to living beings. When we make the Mahayana vow, we set our aspiration for enlightenment, the compassionate mind, and the development of skillful means. When we do so we can experience the mind-to-mind Dharma transmission of the Buddha through our intrinsically pure mind of prajna.

The Platform Sutra says: “Kindness and compassion is Avalokitesvara. Joy and equanimity is Mahasthamaprapta. The capacity for purity is Sakyamuni.” These clearly show how important the mind of purity is.

I have been a Buddhist monastic for more than seventy years now, yet I have never spoken with the Buddha nor has a bodhisattva ever laid his hands upon my head to assure me of my future enlightenment. I have always been seeking, searching, and wondering: Where is the Buddha? Over the last few decades, I have gone to India on seven occasions to seek out the sacred sites related to the Buddha. I wandered over and looked around Lumbini Garden where the Buddha was born. I went to places like Uruvilva Forest, where the Buddha cultivated asceticism, and the Nairanjana River, where he bathed after renouncing his asceticism, hoping that I could see some traces of the Buddha. I bowed in homage to the Buddha’s seat under the bodhi tree where he attained perfect enlightenment, hoping that the Buddha would appear to me. I circumambulated the teaching platform from which the Buddha turned the Dharma Wheel. And in particular, I bowed in homage at the sacred site near Kusinagara where the Buddha entered final nirvana. I could not bear leaving that place, for it seemed I was already drawing near the Buddha.

Later on, I felt that when eating, I was sharing the meal with the Buddha; when walking, the Buddha was guiding me. I arose in the morning with the Buddha, and went to bed each night holding the Buddha. I felt the Buddha in my heart, and knew that the Buddha is present wherever there is light, fresh air, and life. After all, the Buddha is the dharma realm and the universe itself.

There is a saying in Buddhism, “If you wish to know the state of the Buddha, you must make your thoughts as pure as empty space.” If you can enlarge your mind to encompass space itself, then you will know what the Buddha is like. As Buddhists, we must realize our everlasting wisdom and let our lives flow into the universe, where we can be together with the Buddha and become one with space itself.

The Buddha is part of the human world, and so are we. What is the secret to success and fulfillment? It is to be found in the unrestrained and limitless potential of the mind of prajna. Single-mindedly thinking of the Buddha and single-mindedly acting like the Buddha combines knowledge and action into one, just like the two wings of a bird or the two wheels of a cart. Whether you are a monastic or a layperson, worldly or transcendent, the Diamond Sutra is a sutra that we can all receive with conviction and conscientiously put into practice in a flexible and practical manner.

The great Tang dynasty poet Li Bo once wrote: “People today cannot see the moon of ancient times / But the moon tonight once shone upon the ancients.” There is no such thing as “modern” or “ancient” when it comes to the Dharma; enlightenment is in the moment! By universally bestowing the Dharma through skillful means, the Buddha was teaching wondrous applications of the Diamond Sutra to Subhuti and the other twelve hundred and fifty people assembled there. And since the Buddha is not bound by time or space, he is teaching us, as well.

Consider again the expression “Pervade across the ten directions and extend down through the three time periods.” The expression “extend down through the three times periods” means to transcend the past, present, and future, while “pervade across the ten directions” is to transcend space, just as Amitabha Buddha is transcendent with infinite life and infinite light. Humanistic Buddhism is what we apply in daily life. We must transcend time in how we treat others and deal with our affairs. We cannot think about one time only, for yesterday, today, and tomorrow all exist in this instant and must be well looked after. Then there are the various conditions of one’s relationships with the older, younger, and one’s own generation, all of which must be well looked after. If you are unable to pervade across the ten directions when managing some enterprise, you will find that you offend your superiors and create difficulties for your subordinates. When we first encounter the Dharma, it may seem deep and profound, but when we apply it to our life the Dharma is simply what makes everything wonderful.

It is my wish that all people will become awakened to, live, and realize a life of freedom that does not abide in anything, and that together we can find fulfillment in this world, and achieve great success.


1. A common Buddhist expression found in the Lotus Sutra to refer to the problem of life and death. Ed.

2. These are four levels of great spiritual attainment, with the arhat being the highest. The non-returner, once-returner, and stream-enterer are each assured to become arhats in a varying number of future rebirths. Ed.

3. Earth, water, fire, wind, space, and consciousness. Ed.

4. Killing one’s father, killing one’s mother, killing an arhat, shedding the blood of a Buddha, and creating a schism in the sangha. Ed.

5. Killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, duplicitous speech, harsh speech, flattery, greed, anger, and ignorance. Ed.

6. Located north of present-day Gyirong county in Western Tibet near the Ngari region. Ed.

7. This is a reference to a famous parable of the Buddha’s. The Dharma is like a raft in that, once it is used to cross the river of life and death, it should be left at the shore rather than carried on land. Ed.