Living without Abiding

The mind of the past cannot be obtained,

The mind of the present cannot be obtained,

And the mind of the future cannot be obtained.

Diamond Sutra Chapter 18

Where then does the mind reside?

Modern life is complex, and most people are switching the roles they play all the time. We’ve become attached to the six sense objects of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, and dharmas, and worry each day about what we gain and what we lose. If we’re not enjoying beautiful sights, then we’re grasping at sounds and tastes. We mistake what is false to be true, what does not exist to exist, and what is defiled to be pure. We each find ourselves bewildered by our own delusional thoughts and the thoughts of others, and by the illusions of life and the world. We each have a heart and a brain, but as sentient beings, we are muddled in delusion, and our minds abide in the five desires and the six sense objects.

As long as the mind abides in something, it is not secure or stable. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, and dharmas will change. Once you make a sound, it no longer there; it is no longer yours. Yet if you do not abide in anything, do not engage in anything, and instead transcend all things, where will you abide? This is abiding in prajna, for it is something else entirely which transcends this world. However, even while abiding in the world of prajna one can freely interact with sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, and dharmas, for as human beings who live in the world we must have things like homes and families. It is possible to live like the great Buddhist layperson Vimalakirti, who is described in the Vimalakirti Sutra as “Though a layman, he is not attached to the three realms. Though married, he always cultivates purity.”

When the Buddha became enlightened he didn’t give up things like eating; he did not reject the world. He too lived in the world, and could become upset the same way we do, as well as scold others. But the Buddha’s scolding is not the same as when an ordinary person scolds another. When the Buddha admonished his disciples, he would call them “ignorant of affliction,” “deluded,” or “inhumane.” To me, this is scolding, but it is scolding done in a way that is artful rather than vindictive. When we get mad, our anger is followed by a surge of emotions, but when the Buddha was upset, he did not abide in his emotions. One such example is when the Buddha reprimanded his son, Rahula. It seemed that the Buddha was being very stern, but he was doing so to teach and reform his son. From here we can see that the Buddha was not fixed in his emotions, nor could he be manipulated by his emotions.

“Subhuti, what do you think, does the Tathagata have eyes of flesh or not?”

“Yes, World-honored One, the Tathagata has eyes of flesh.”

“Subhuti, what do you think, does the Tathagata have heavenly eyes or not?”

“Yes, World-honored One, the Tathagata has heavenly eyes.”

“Subhuti, what do you think, does the Tathagata have wisdom eyes or not?”

“Yes, World-honored One, the Tathagata has wisdom eyes.”

“Subhuti, what do you think, does the Tathagata have Dharma eyes or not?”

“Yes, World-honored One, the Tathagata has Dharma eyes.”

“Subhuti, what do you think, does the Tathagata have Buddha eyes or not?”

“Yes, World-honored One, the Tathagata has Buddha eyes.”

“Subhuti, what do you think, has the Buddha said that the sand in the Ganges River is sand or not?”

“Yes, World-honored One, the Tathagata has said that it is sand.”

“Subhuti, what do you think, if there were as many Ganges Rivers as there are grains of sand in the Ganges River, and if all of the sand in all of those rivers were added up, and if the number of Buddha worlds equaled the number of all of those grains of sand, would that be a lot?”

“It would be very much, World-honored One.”

The Buddha said to Subhuti, “The Tathagata fully knows and fully sees the minds of the sentient beings in all of these worlds. And how can this be? The Tathagata has said that all minds are not minds and that thus they are called minds. And why is this so? Subhuti, the mind of the past cannot be obtained, the mind of the present cannot be obtained, and the mind of the future cannot be obtained.”

Diamond Sutra Chapter 18

In the above passage the Buddha uses the grains of sand in the Ganges River as a metaphor for the great number of living beings in existence, and yet the “Buddha eyes,” which encompass all eyes, are capable of knowing the mind of all living beings throughout the various Buddha realms.

The Treatise on the Awakening of Faith in Mahayana contains a highly influential passage that says “one mind opens two doors.” Living beings and the Buddha inherently have the same nature. It is only because of delusion, the distinction between ignorance and enlightenment, and the processes of arising, abiding, change, and cessation that defilement and purity exist. “One mind opens two doors” is a way of expressing this relationship: though the nature of the mind does not change, the mind has both an aspect that conforms to suchness and a delusional, conditional, and ignorant aspect.

There is no inherent difference between living beings and the Buddha, for the mind of a living being is the mind of the Buddha. As living beings inherently possess Buddha nature there is fundamentally no distinction between them and the Buddha whatsoever. This is how the Tathagata is able to fully know and fully see the nature of the minds of living beings.

Living beings have simply become muddled and deceived by the six sense objects. They come up with all manner of deluded thoughts and have forgotten the true mind, which is quiet and undisturbed. With such deluded thinking they cannot possibly gain insight into true reality.

The Buddha, however, is no longer affected by karma, and has become enlightened to the true mind. The Buddha knows that he is one with all living beings, and it is because of this oneness that the Buddha generated the compassion to liberate living beings by extinguishing their suffering with his compassion.

The “Buddha eye” mentioned in the above passage is said to encompass all kinds of vision, hence the expression “the same contemplation in oneness,” which is “the myriad phenomena return to the one, for there is no other contemplation.” In the same way as the one “Buddha eye” can encompass the five eyes, a single grain of sand encompasses all the sand of the Ganges River, one world encompasses many worlds, and one mind can encompass the minds of all living beings.

The five eyes mentioned in the above passage from the Diamond Sutra does not imply in any way that a person grow five pairs of eyes. The five eyes refers to five different states of vision that can be achieved with our eyes, through which we can see much more than our eyes normally can. The five eyes are:

  1. Eyes of flesh: This refers to the type of vision that people in this world normally possess. This kind of vision can be halted by all manner of impediments.

  2. Heavenly eyes: This type of vision is like that possessed by heavenly beings, though it can be obtained by ordinary people through meditation. Heavenly eyes allow one to see everything, whether indoors or outdoors, day or night. This kind of vision is still hindered by misunderstanding of principles.

  3. Wisdom eyes: This is the vision possessed by sravakas and pratyekabuddhas. It is vision imbued with wisdom, and is thus superior to the vision of heavenly eyes, but because of the obstruction of knowledge this vision lacks compassion. It is still inferior to the Dharma eyes, which provide vision with both wisdom and compassion.

  4. Dharma eyes: This is the vision of bodhisattvas, and can adapt to any given circumstance to liberate sentient beings. With the vision of Dharma eyes, bodhisattvas perceive all worldly and transcendental phenomena in all their details, as well as the minds and karma of all living beings.

  5. Buddha eyes: The Buddha perceives the truth of all phenomena. Buddha eyes include the attributes of the four previous kinds of vision, but are far superior to them.

Again, there is no difference between the Buddha and ordinary people; the two are equal. Even though the Buddha possesses the “five eyes,” he still possesses eyes of flesh like living beings. The five eyes can also be attained by ordinary people; ordinary people are only impeded by the assurance that their views are correct and their attachment to them. Because ordinary beings are still constrained by their biased views they cannot see all things thoroughly.

The Flower Adornment Sutra describes the mind of the Buddha in the following verse:

Pure in mind and free from all flattery and deceit;

Joyful by nature, delighting in compassion.

As long as we learn how to transform miserliness and greed into generosity, hatred into joy, and malevolence into kindness, then enmity and worry will be eliminated as a matter of course, and we will no longer find ourselves “licking honey off the razor’s edge” in mad pursuit of the taste of the five desires.

Changing the external world is not as good as changing our own mental state. Consider how two people can feel differently about a pond full of fallen flowers: one person may feel pity that the fine flowers have lost their petals, while another may be happy that the fruit will soon be ripe.

There is a Buddhist verse by Fu Dashi that says:

Heavenly eyes are far-reaching and unimpeded;

Eyes of flesh are impeded and not far-reaching;

Dharma eyes only contemplate the worldly;

Wisdom eyes are directly aligned with emptiness;

Buddha eyes are like a thousand suns

Shining at different places with the same light;

Perfect illumination within the Dharma realm,

Where no place is left unrevealed.

The expression “dharma realm,” fajie (法界) in Chinese, refers to the world of absolute reality that the Buddha has awakened to. The dharma realm is as vast as space, and within it there exists no mental distinctions; self and other are one and equal. All living beings can be seen as existing as living beings with the Buddha’s own mind. When the mind is free from discrimination, it becomes like a flawless, bright mirror that can reflect anything that is but before it without obscuring it at all.

The discrimination created from illusory phenomena is abiding in notions. The Diamond Sutra says, “All forms are illusory,” but if we can refrain from abiding in notions, then we will not be affected by these illusions. If we are not affected by illusions, then there is nothing that arises or ceases. In this way our pure intrinsic nature can manifest.

The mental state of “non-thought” is not obtaining the mind of the past, present, or future, and is also called the state of non-attachment. Only when we are free from attachment can our lives move forward rather than remaining in place like a spinning top. When we are free from attachment the mind does not abide in the six sense objects; it does not abide inwardly nor does it abide outwardly, but comes and goes freely. In pursuing the state of “non- thought” it can help to remember these three things:

  1. Do Not Relive the Past
    As long as one’s current life is better than the past there is no need to be attached to past glory. But so many people can be like old, white-haired ladies, reminiscing about bygone days. People get old and feel that they have lost their youth, that the years are adding up and that time is against them. This is when they sink into remembering the past, for looking back at bygone times can become a familiar habit. This is why one should not relive the past.

  2. Do Not Desire the Present
    The many cravings and desires we encounter in this present life follow one after another. We should not get caught up in who is right and who is wrong, or worry about who wins and who loses. Once we begin to obsess about such things we start to discriminate and judge.

  3. Do Not Fantasize about the Future
    The cycle of constant arising and ceasing is plagued by impermanence. The future has not yet arrived and already it is impossible to plan for the changes of impermanence. Since every moment is formed through a combination of causes and conditions it is impossible to guarantee what the future will bring.

This approach to the past, present, and future can be related to the Buddhist “threefold training” of morality, meditative concentration, and wisdom. In order to not relive the past, one can establish meditative concentration. To not desire the present, one should observe proper morality. To not fantasize about the future it is important to cultivate wisdom. The mental state of “non-thought” where the mind of the past, present, and future is not obtained is precisely the Buddhist threefold training.

The Mind of Pure Freedom

The Buddha said to Subhuti, “What do you think? In the past, when the Tathagata was with Dipamkara Buddha, did he attain the Dharma?”

“No, World-honored One, when the Tathagata was with Dipamkara Buddha, he truly did not attain the Dharma.”

“Subhuti, what do you say? Does a bodhisattva adorn the Buddha land?”

“No, World-honored One. And why is this? That which adorns the Buddha land is non-adornment, that is what is called adornment.”

“For this reason, Subhuti, all great bodhisattvas should give rise to purity of mind in this way: they should not give rise to a mind that abides in form; they should not give rise to a mind that abides in sound, smell, taste, touch, or dharmas. They should give rise to a mind that does not abide in anything.”

Diamond Sutra Chapter 10

What is the largest thing in the world? In Buddhist cosmology there is a great mountain called Mount Sumeru that is said to be at the center of every world system, encompassing many realms. But Sumeru is not the largest thing. What is the fastest thing in the world? A lightning strike cuts across the sky in a fraction of a second, but lightning is not the fastest thing. A single thought can be much greater and much faster than either of these.

The distinction between something large enough that it can encompass the universe and something that is large enough to obscure a tiny speck of dust is merely a temporary label. In the above passage the Buddha attempts to remove for us various impediments like the notion that his enlightenment was predicted, the notion that he adorns the Buddha land, and even the notion that he attained enlightenment. To “not abide in anything” does not mean not accumulating merit and wisdom, nor does it mean having a nihilistic view that there is no such thing as predicting or attaining enlightenment. To “not abide in anything” means that we should affirm that the Buddha land does not need adorning, but is inherently and intrinsically complete, and that the Buddha’s Dharmakaya is inherently dignified as well.

In the Diamond Sutra the Buddha says that there is no Dharma to teach, and no people who attain the Dharma, so that living beings can understand the empty nature of Buddhahood. Our minds, though they strive to attain, should not cling to any attainable phenomena. The mind that does not abide in anything is the mind of pure freedom.

During the late Tang dynasty there was a Chan master named Yunmen Wenyan who went to Zhejiang Province to seek instruction from Chan Master Daoming. As Yunmen entered the doorway of Daoming’s hut, Daoming suddenly and forcefully slammed the door, pinning Yunmen’s foot in the doorjamb.

Yunmen yelled, “Ahh! That really hurts!”

Daoming asked, “Who is it that is yelling in pain?”

“It’s me, Yunmen!”

Daoming said, “And where do you feel pain?”

“It’s my foot; you’ve got it pinned in the door.”

Daoming asked again, “You say your foot is in the door, but where are you?”

“I’m outside.”

Daoming continued, “If you are on the outside, how is it that your foot is on the inside?”

Yunmen then realized the profundity of what Chan Master Daoming was trying to express. There are no distinctions like “inside” or “outside” when it comes to the intrinsic nature of the Buddha or the inherent nature of prajna. Worldly opposites like inside and outside, you and me, good and bad, and even big and small are all fabrications. Sentient beings cling to labels and distinctions like “inside” and “outside” and get bound up in them, unable to transcend them.

When considering the inherent nature of the true mind, it can be said that negative karma is also empty by nature. When the delusional thoughts are extinguished, negative karma disappears as well. There is an old Buddhist saying that captures this sentiment: “Lay down the butcher’s knife and become a Buddha here and now.” Another Buddhist verse says:

Wrongdoing is mind-made, originally empty;

If the mind ceases, wrongdoing is extinguished.

The mind, gone; wrongdoing, destroyed—both are empty;

This is called true repentance.

Every single thought contains within it all of the ten dharma realms. There is no telling how many times we traverse these ten realms in a single day. When we are compassionate and have the aspiration to attain enlightenment, isn’t that the mind of the Buddha? When we give and serve others, isn’t that the mind of a heavenly being? When we are greedy, hateful, or ignorant, and think about how we can get even with and harm, even kill, other people, is that not the mind of a hell-being, hungry ghost, or animal? Within the space of a single thought we can travel the entire universe. Without finding the true mind within this mess, we cannot possibly be free.

All sentient beings have their own attachments. For some it is fame, fortune, or positions of power. For others it may be beautiful clothing and romance. There are others who are attached to knowledge and opinion; such people may believe that science alone is rational and that Buddhism is superstition. However, when it comes to rational science, we can all agree that science, whether it be the laws of mathematics and physics or the experiments of chemistry and biology, must begin with a hypothesis. Surely these hypotheses from which all of our scientific understanding is derived are clear, understandable, and believable, right?

Sadly, this is not always true. Consider in plane geometry the hypothesis about whether or not two lines will converge when extended into infinity. It is impossible to prove such a hypothesis. How can anything be proven regarding infinity, let alone if two lines will intersect? But the proving of the hypothesis that two parallel lines do not intersect when extended infinitely is part of Euclidean geometry that so many have learned.

Another example is economics. Economic hypotheses are carried out under the assumption that all other factors will remain the same, but the conditions for this hypothesis will never exist in life. The only thing that is for certain is that everything is always changing! Isn’t this the “impermanence” that we talk about in Buddhism?

If we consider where each theory begins, and think about all of the knowledge that permeates our everyday lives and social structures that we take for granted, can any of these theories stand up to examination?

Once Huineng was listening to Fifth Patriarch Hongren expound the meaning of the Diamond Sutra. When Hongren reached the passage “they should give rise to a mind that does not abide in anything,” Huineng experienced a great awakening and realized that all phenomena are not separate from intrinsic nature. Huineng exclaimed excitedly:

“Who could have thought that intrinsic nature is inherently so pure and clear! Who could have thought that intrinsic nature is inherently neither created nor destroyed! Who could have thought that intrinsic nature is inherently complete! Who could have thought that intrinsic nature is inherently unmoving! Who could have thought that intrinsic nature can inherently manifest all phenomena!”

There are ten common epithets for the Buddha, one of the most common being tathagata in Sanskrit or rulai (如來) in Chinese. The meaning in both Sanskrit and Chinese is similar: ru means “thus” and lai means “come.” This signifies that the Buddha cannot be said to have come from any concrete place, nor can he said to be going anywhere. Another way to analyze this name is that the first character, ru, represents what is called the Buddha’s “Dharmakaya.” That is the absolute aspect of the Buddha that pervades all of reality. The second character, lai, represents the Buddha’s “Nirmanakaya.” This is the aspect of the Buddha that manifests in various forms according to conditions to liberate living beings. By comparison, the Buddha’s Nirmanakaya has hundreds of millions of different forms, while the Buddha’s Dharmakaya is constant and unchanging. The combination of these two concepts into rulai creates a non-dualistic relationship between what is in motion and what is still that is “thus as it is.”

The intrinsic nature of living beings is inherently pure, and does not arise or cease. Human beings intrinsically neither come nor go, are not born, and do not die. Living beings are endowed with Buddha nature and need not seek anything outside themselves. Each person’s intrinsic nature does not waver, and it is from this intrinsic nature that all phenomena arise.

Another way to explain the phrase “not abiding in anything” is to say “having no hypotheses.” The Dharma tells us to have a mind that does not abide in anything, while science and the humanities ask that the mind abide in some particular thing. It is only because hypotheses abide in things that we can deduce the various theories and natural laws of science. The knowledge of science and the humanities could not possibly be established without such hypotheses. By not abiding in anything, the Dharma is able to undo the bonds that fetter our minds precisely because it need not rely on other causes or abide in hypotheses. This is the central meaning of the Diamond Sutra.

Prince Bhadrika was a cousin of the Buddha, who later joined the monastic order. On one occasion he was practicing in the forest with two other monastics, Aniruddha and Kimbila, when he began to shout, “Ah, such bliss; truly such great bliss!”

Aniruddha then asked him, “What are you shouting about? What has made you feel such bliss?”

Bhadrika replied, “Venerable Aniruddha, in the past when I was a prince, I lived in the royal palace with impregnable walls and battlements, and there were many attendants and warriors who stood guard over me with weapons in hand, yet I still was terrified of assassins plotting my murder. I ate the finest delicacies and dressed in silks and satins, living a life of extreme luxury, but during that time I never enjoyed the taste of my food, nor felt that my clothing was elegant enough. Now I have joined the monastic order. I have not a single bodyguard and am here mediating in the forest all by myself, but I do not fear that someone will come and kill me. My clothing and food are all quite simple, and yet my heart is full and content. I can now sit and sleep freely without the slightest feeling of unease. This is why I feel such bliss.”

It is true that things like doting love, wealth, and positions of power may appear to bring happiness and comfort to life, but they can also be the burdens that shackle us.

When we give rise to a mind that does not abide in anything, this is our true Buddha nature. If we feel secure in our body and mind it becomes impossible for others to harm us with a look or try to entice us with some proposition. Neither poverty nor wealth, favor nor disfavor, honor nor disgrace can dissuade us from our original aspiration. If we want to find a place where we can settle down and be secure, we must be able to live without abiding.

A mind that no longer abides in anything takes a long time to cultivate. We must always remain vigilant and self-aware, and examine our aspirations to see if they are pure or impure, true or false. It is as the sutras say, “When your aspiration is true, the result will be perfect.”

The mind is like empty space, and it should abide in nothing, just as the teachings indicate. There are a few phrases that I recommend people take to heart, that they may help us to learn to live securely with the mind as empty as space, so we can slowly learn to get along with this mind of ours. They are:

  • The heat of summer and the chill of winter are both beautiful.

  • North, south, east, and west are all fine.

  • Whether high or low, up or down, both are wonderful.

  • Nothing separates oneself and others.

Under Sentence of Death

The Sutra on the Causes and Conditions of King Surupa says:

It is due to love that sorrow is produced;

It is due to love that fear is produced;

If there are those who are free of love,

They will be without sorrow and without fear.

Confucius said, “When you love someone you want them to live, when you hate someone you want them to die.” Love and hate are often entangled with one another. One day two people may love each other so much that they cannot bear to be apart, but the next day they might mix like fire and water. Now she hates him beyond all hatred, but she may still need his help in the future. When love and hate are present, the mind can never be free. Let me quote a poem by Su Manshu:

This Chan mind has evoked jealousy from the beauty;

The Buddha said, in the end, even our enemies are family.

With bamboo hat and cape, I return,

Without love or hate for anyone.

During the time of the Buddha, there was a young monastic who found it impossible to control his lustful thoughts towards the opposite sex, and this vexed him greatly. When he tried to meditate distracting thoughts would well up in his mind and he would no longer be able to concentrate on his practice.

One day this young monastic got to thinking, “If I cannot eliminate the affliction of such desires, these desires will destroy my morality. In order to preserve my pure morals and end suffering, I had better cut off my sexual organ. All at once I would feel peace and happiness, and be free from worry.”

Just as the young monastic had found a knife and was about to do the deed, the Buddha walked in.

“Don’t do such a foolish thing,” the Buddha said. “The source of good and bad lies within the mind, not outside of it. You cannot eliminate the turmoil of your thoughts by seeking a solution outside the mind. You are not going to eliminate your afflictions that way.”

In our lives we should simplify our desires, but the feeling of love is very strong. Human beings need love; love is after all the source of life. Without the love between our parents, how could we be born? Buddhists sometimes speak of a certain spiritual resonance, an emotional connection that is similar to how people say they “click” with one another. This too is a kind of love. If we did not have a certain love for the Buddha, how could we venerate him? If we had no love for our spiritual teachers, how could we treat them with respect? If we had no love for the temple, how could we be willing to work hard and make sacrifices for it?

This kind of love is a greater love than the love that comes from desire. This love is like the love we have for nature: we love the mountains, oceans, trees, and flowers; we enjoy being close to them but we do not need to possess them. On the other hand, desire is selfish and is derived from craving. It is always tangled with happiness and frustration. Pure love untainted by desire is very precious, for it can nourish and strengthen people without any selfish motivation or confusion. Love that seeks nothing and is always refined is compassion.

When the mind is tainted by and bound up with desire we experience sadness and fear, and we wander forsaken and alone amid the turmoil of the three realms. The Diamond Sutra instructs us to not let the mind abide in anything so that we do not develop desirous love, but instead can refine our love into the great compassion of giving.

Once there was a king whose beloved queen had fallen ill and died. The king was stricken with grief beyond all measure, such that he no longer ate or drank. Every day he would cry beside the remains of the queen, and though his many ministers would try to persuade the king to temper his grief and accept the queen’s death, their words did not have the slightest effect.

Some time passed, until one day a sage visited the court. The king’s ministers informed him of the situation, and the sage said to the king, “Your majesty, not only can I tell you in what realm your queen has been reborn, but I can make it so you can speak with her directly.”

The king was overjoyed, and asked that he be brought to speak with his queen immediately. The sage then led the king out of the palace and pointed to the ground where two beetles were busy moving a piece of cow-dung.

“Your majesty,” the sage began, “This is your queen who died not long ago. She has already been reborn as the wife of a dung beetle.”

The king was stunned, “How dare you malign my queen?”

The sage responded, “Your majesty, you must believe me. Listen carefully.”

The sage then called out to the beetle, and the king could hear the voice of his queen answer back. The king then asked the beetle, “Whom do you prefer? I, from your previous life, or your current husband, the dung beetle?”

The queen answered, “In my previous life I received your majesty’s royal kindness and lived a happy life. But the past has faded like mist. Of course I now prefer my dung beetle husband.”

Hearing those words, the king awoke as if from a dream. He then returned to his palace and ordered his ministers to bury the queen’s remains.

There is an old Chinese saying that goes, “A speck of iron can obscure one’s vision, but so can a speck of gold. Dark clouds may obscure the sun, but white clouds can also.” Whether clouds are dark or bright they can still conceal the sun, and all chains can shackle us whether they are made of iron or gold. Both favorable and adverse circumstances are part of the Buddhist path. If good or bad situations are employed in the right way they can become skillful means to teach living beings. When we look upon the world we should do so in a way where we can look beyond the world, for only then can we be free from abiding.

Each day our lives fall more and more into a routine. So when the express train stops or volcanic ash disrupts air travel, we feel like the world has shattered and fallen into chaos. We become fixed in our habits and dependent on them, and this brings frustration and worry to our lives. For example, when we become accustomed to being loved by a certain someone, when that care and love are gone, we can become completely grief-stricken over the loss.

In ancient India there once lived a king who wanted to test just how strong the mind could be. One day he sent one of his ministers to the prison and told the minister to bring him one of the prisoners facing execution.

The king said to the prisoner, “You have been sentenced to death, but I will give you one chance to save yourself: I shall have placed upon your head a bowl filled with oil, which you may support with your two hands. If you walk down every avenue and street of this city without spilling a single drop of oil, I will pardon your crime.”

The prisoner had been hopelessly awaiting his execution, and was overjoyed to be given this chance. He started to balance the bowl of oil on his head with great care and began walking the streets. The king attempted to distract the prisoner, and sent people to line the streets to showcase all manner of games and spectacles to the prisoner. He also chose the most beautiful women in the country to dance alongside the streets to melodious music right next to where the prisoner would pass.

The prisoner wanted nothing more than to live, and his only fear was that some of the oil would splash from the bowl he was balancing on his head. As such, he concentrated on every single step as he moved forward. All the beautiful sights and sounds were like a fog to him. None of it held his interest in the slightest.

Finally, the prisoner completed his circuit around the city and returned to the palace without spilling a single drop. The king asked, “When you were walking around the streets, did you not hear anything or see anything?”

“Not at all.”

“Don’t tell me you couldn’t hear the pleasant music or see the appealing beauties?”

“Your majesty, I heard and saw nothing.”

To have single-minded focus is to be like the prisoner balancing the bowl of oil on his head. It is complete and total concentration. If we wish to live a life without abiding and be able to receive the unsurpassed Dharma of prajna we must be able to learn from the prisoner in this story: while trying to balance the bowl of oil in the mind we face the temptations of the five desires and must remain unmoved—looking but not seeing, listening but not hearing. We must protect the purity of the mind the same way the prisoner single-mindedly protected the bowl of oil balanced on his head. Then we will be able to go beyond life and death.

Where is the Mind?

Modern people are always multitasking: focusing their minds on many activities, believing that they can get more things done in the same amount of time. Some examples include using the computer while talking on a cell phone, or listening to music while eating a snack. With the mind dispersed between various activities in this way, we end up feeling very busy, and rather lost.

When we compiled all our forms of media including radio, television, newspapers, magazines, and now the internet, it seems like everyone is portraying themselves as some kind of expert. Everyone has advice on how to make more money than others, how to become successful before you turn thirty, how to keep up with the popular trends, or how to keep your finger on the pulse of the times and be on the leading edge. It seems like our mouths never stop, even for a moment, and just keep pouring out predictions, news of reconciliation and falling out, hearsay, and other rumors. There really is no need for each of us to add our own two cents, nor should we let such unexamined reports provoke quarrels and debate because off their wrongheaded ideas, words, and judgments.

There are many people who bury themselves in their work every day, and pressure others every second. They may pressure themselves, or let other people put pressure on them. People only turn to religion when they face disappointment and failure. This is treating religion like a cold remedy: once the cold is better, people go right back to their old ways and attitudes. Once again they become the same old person with all their bad habits. People can waste much of their lives repeating this cycle.

Once there was a man named Mr. Yin who devoted all his attention to becoming rich. Every day he would send his servants out on errands from morning until night and would never give them a moment’s rest. One of his servants was an old man who was so tired from his labors that he would groan in pain. By evening he was drooping with exhaustion and each night he would sleep like a log.

In his sleep he would dream of being a king who enjoyed banquets and other amusements at the royal palace. In his dreams he could do as he pleased, for no one dared disobey him. But when he awoke the next morning he would be ordered about by the rich man as always.

Sometimes people would see the old servant work so hard and try to comfort him. The old servant would tell them, “A human life is no more than a hundred years; half of that is the day, and half of that is the night. During the day I am a servant and my work gives me a lot of hardship. But during the night I become a king and enjoy unequalled happiness. So why should I be concerned?”

Mr. Yin, the old servant’s master, spent all his time thinking and scheming how to manage his family estate. All this effort left his body and mind completely exhausted, and he would collapse into bed each night dazed and weary. And as he slept he would dream that he was someone else’s servant. He would run about here and there, carrying out endless labors. His master would scold, revile, beat, and humiliate him. Every night Mr. Yin would moan and groan in his sleep until morning.

The rich Mr. Yin was quite upset about this, so he asked a friend of his if there was anything he could do about it. His friend told him, “Your position ensures that you are honored by others. You are so wealthy that you could never spend all of your money, even given several lifetimes. During the day you’re the boss, but at night you dream of being a servant. That sounds fair to me.”

The world has always been a mixture of different parts. The Treatise on Awakening of Faith in Mahayana divides the mind into two aspects: the deluded mind that arises and ceases from moment to moment, and the true mind of emptiness, tranquility, and spiritual brightness that the deluded mind can gradually become. Vimalakirti, the great Buddhist layperson mentioned in the eponymous sutra, was said to frequent wine shops and gambling houses, though he would spend his time there employing skillful means to guide living beings. During the course of his many lifetimes of practice, the Buddha once saved the lives of five hundred merchants from the perils of piracy by not hesitating to break the precept against killing.

I sometimes call this world a “half and half world,” because it is always part this and part that. Part of this world is the Buddha’s world, and part of this world is Mara’s world. Some teachings are right teachings, and some teachings are wrong teachings. That being said, there is an old saying in Buddhism that, “When the right person practices the wrong teachings, they become right teachings, and when the wrong person practices the right teachings, they become wrong teachings.” We must choose what is wholesome and hold fast to it, planting ourselves firmly in the Buddha’s world, and in the right teachings. We should not become bewildered and lead astray by Mara’s part of the world, or by wrong teachings.

Even Buddhism is made up of different parts. Part of Buddhism is the “southern transmission,” which is made up of countries of the Theravada tradition, while the other part is the “northern transmisson” which includes countries that practice Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhism is also made up of part “exoteric Buddhism” and part “esoteric Buddhism.” One part of Buddhist practitioners are monastics, and another part are laypeople. I personally advocate drawing from both the northern and southern traditions, and fusing exoteric Buddhism with esoteric Buddhism. With the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order I have created a monastic order with a mature system, and with the Buddha’s Light International Association I have organized a sound religious order for the laity.

Over the course of my life I have faced death many times. I have once had a medical operation where I experienced deep insight into the pain of illness at the point of life and death. Some people, even if their bodies are strong, may not recover when they fall ill. Other people may be in poor health and can suffer from many illnesses, but though their lives hang by a thread, they can live long, fruitful lives. There are some people who may have physical disabilities in one area, but function above average in another. Then again there are some people who may have a fair appearance and well-formed bodies, yet they look but cannot see, and listen but cannot hear; they are immoderate in their motions and askew in their demeanor. The world is always like this: nothing is ever entirely good or beautiful. Because of this we should not seek perfection, but instead see past such things and let them go. Then we can be free and joyous in any situation.

Every now and again I hear someone criticize Buddhism and say, “You Buddhists don’t care about fine clothes and good food; you don’t understand how to enjoy things and have fun. Isn’t your life pessimistic and dull?”

But if that kind of happiness were real, why do so many people who live to enjoy such things feel that life is empty, and are left not knowing what to do? Why are there so many people who do not understand the meaning of this life?

In Buddhist writing we often use the expression, “I have Dharma joy and take no joy in worldly pleasures.” Joy in the Dharma is the kind of joy that brings peace of mind and freedom, and harmony and serenity to our relationships. Look at all the people in society who only focus on obtaining fame and fortune. The only thing they know is the mad dash to be number one. They anxiously try and secure some personal gain from the material side of the world, while ignoring the spiritual side of the world. The more people jostle and try to squeeze through this one path, the narrower that path becomes; they end up getting battered and trampled into pulp. Life does not demand perfection. In everything, just do what you can do and you will not feel regret, wherever you may be.

Li Mi’an during the Qing dynasty wrote the poem “Half-Half Song” which best illustrates the sublime “half and half” state:

Having seen through half of this transient life,

Half of life is limitless enjoyment.

The months and years with this half have been completely carefree,

Within this half, heaven and earth are spread wide and clear.

A cottage in half town and half countryside,

A field that is halfway between hills and streams;

Half farming, half study, and half at home;

Relations that are half gentry and half common.

Utensils that are half refined and half coarse;

Rooms and courtyards being half elegant and half plain.

Clothing that is half plain and half novel;

Meal courses that are half sumptuous and half austere.

Servants that are half able and half clumsy;

A wife that is half simple and half talented.

Feeling half as a Buddha, and half as a deity;

My name is half hidden and half revealed.

I return half to heaven and earth;

And half I leave to the human world.

Half a consideration for posterity and future times;

Half a thought for how I will meet Yama, the lord of death.

Half tipsy with wine is just right;

Flowers when half open are quite the sight.

Boats with half sail the smoothest;

Horses with reins half-slacked ride the steadiest.

Half too little gives that extra taste;

While half too much is a wearisome burden.

Pleasure and pain have always been mixed half and half,

And those who gain the advantage are only half.

Chan Master Yaoshan once pointed to a pair of trees in the courtyard and asked his disciples, “Would it be better if these trees thrived or withered?”

His disciple Daowu said, “If they were to thrive it would be better.”

His disciple Yunyan said, “If they were to wither it would be better.”

The novice monk Gao said, “Let those that thrive thrive, and let those that wither wither.”

What a good point: “Let those that thrive thrive, and let those that wither wither.” In spring the red flowers and green leaves appear more striking because they are together, while at night the moon and stars both share their radiance. Such natural beauty gives us a powerful sense of the greatness of the universe. As long as we treat each other with respect and acceptance, maintaining a mutual harmony and balance, we will find that this world of “half this” and “half that” is truly wonderful.

In the Chan School of Buddhism, if you ask an old Chan master how he practices, he is likely to say, “Eating and sleeping.”

Now, you may think, “Don’t we eat and sleep too? Are we also practicing well?” But that kind of eating and sleeping does not count. When an ordinary person eats, he picks the lean or chooses the fat, and when an ordinary person sleeps he tosses and turns without sleeping peacefully. When an old Chan master eats, even the vegetable stalks are tasty, and when he sleeps he is comfortable and peaceful. It is not the same.

What is spiritual practice, really? If we take eating as an example, if you can find every meal delicious and tasty, then this is meditative bliss and Dharma joy. If you can sleep comfortably and at ease, that is liberation. Feeling peace in your heart is spiritual practice.

Chan Master Dazhu Huihai once said, “Eat when hungry and sleep when tired.” Being able to sleep soundly without abiding in thought requires that we cultivate good karma. Let us take insight from this laudatory verse in the nineteenth chapter of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the “Chapter on Pure Practice:”

If one’s body is free of all negative karma,

And in speech one turns away from the four wrongs,1

Then the mind will not be entangled in doubts,

And one will be able to sleep peacefully.

If the mind and body can be unperturbed,

Abiding securely in a place of tranquility,

Then one obtains unsurpassed bliss,

And one will be able to sleep peacefully.

If the mind has no clinging attachments,

Keeping far removed for all enmity,

Then be always harmonious and free of struggles

And one will be able to sleep peacefully.

If one does not create negative karma,

The mind always keeping a penitent attitude,

Then trust that wrong will meet its due,

And one will be able to sleep peacefully.

Respectfully care for one’s parents,

Do not harm a single life,

Nor steal the property of others,

Then one will be able to sleep peacefully.

Subdue all the organs of sensation,

Draw near good spiritual friends,

And destroy the hosts of the four Maras,2

Then one will be able to sleep peacefully.

Therefore, we should not bring our frustrations to bed. Any unhappiness that happened today, we should let go of. Do not take them with you when you sleep, and do not carry your anger and resentment into tomorrow. If you want to live a life in which you practice without abiding, then you must not keep your anger overnight.

Meditation means turning off the self that abides in things; it means breaking out of the daily routine of abiding. One no longer clings to delusional thoughts and biased attachments, but brings the mind back to the pure bodhi of the freedom of non-abiding.

There is a saying in the Chan tradition: “Without a meditation breakthrough, do not dwell in the mountains.” We can see that the bodhisattva’s practice depends upon the cultivation of both merit and wisdom. We can only speak of dwelling in a mountain retreat after our minds have had some kind of achievement. But meditative attainment should not lead to arrogance or be used to mislead others and deceive ourselves. Meditation retreats are not an escape from life, nor should they degenerate into a stepping stone for advancement and notoriety. True sitting meditation during retreat must achieve the following:

  • It should shut out the thieves of the six sense organs.

  • It should forbid the mind from straying to delusional thinking.

  • It should correctly contemplate the armies of the three poisons.

  • It should purify the karma of body, speech, and mind.

“Sitting meditation” does not just mean superficially sitting quietly on a meditation mat. Sitting meditation is where we can transcend all things, such that the mind is no longer disturbed. Through sitting meditation one can fully understand the mind and see intrinsic nature. By seeing intrinsic nature, one attains emptiness, and emptiness is itself prajna.

Time Management

Those who have read up to this point may get the feeling that the freedom and independence that comes from having a “mind that does not abide in anything” means just living a free and easy life; that we can do whatever we feel like doing while being relaxed and carefree, without any need to manage our time.

But that is not the case. For myself, whenever I do something, I do pre-event planning and use my spare time in a suitable manner. When I have appointments with other people, I make sure to account for any errors in timing into the trip. Why? Because keeping my word is more precious than time. Excuses such as being busy or not having enough time should not be used to leave others waiting too long. It often happens that I am already sitting patiently in the car while my disciples who are accompanying me are scattered about, delaying the trip. I’ve said to them many times, half as a reprimand and half in jest, “I’m spending my whole life waiting like this!”

When I need to tape something for a television broadcast, I am always well prepared beforehand, regardless of whether the episode is five minutes or eight minutes long. I work out the opening, expansion, development, and conclusion for each topic, and when I finish speaking my timing is never off by more than fifteen seconds. I have never flubbed a scene. The tape can always be broadcast as is without any editing.

Time management is how we cherish our own life. For people who manage their time and use it well, their time is spiritual time. When people do not manage their time well, their time ends up merely being the time as marked by clocks and watches.

Not Abiding in Positions of Power

Early on after Fo Guang Shan was founded, we drafted a series of bylaws. Article 4, Item 22 reads as follows:

The abbot of this temple is the head of the religious order and serves for a term of six years. If reelected, the abbot is allowed to serve one consecutive term. Under special circumstances, and with two-thirds or more in agreement, the abbot is allowed to serve a second consecutive term.

As my second term as abbot was about to expire, I had already begun deliberations on a successor, and when my third term expired, I announced I was stepping down as abbot in accordance with the bylaws. Many devotees came and pleaded with me, asking me to stay, but my mind was already made up. In 1985 I turned the position of abbot over to the Venerable Hsin Ping.

I began serving as abbot of Fo Guang Shan at the age of forty, and those that followed, the venerables Hsin Ping, Hsin Ting, and Hsin Pei, all took up the position around the age of forty, while the new group of Religious Affairs Committee members were all from the “younger generation.”

The transition of leadership for any nation, enterprise, or organization is the real linchpin for sustained management. As long as human beings are involved, we cannot avoid the “win or lose” mentality. The more we get caught up in it, the heavier burden we bear. We should all look upon stepping in or out of office with indifference, because unless we are able to let it go, we cannot live a transcendent and carefree existence.

Do not stay too long in positions of power; give the young people a chance and let them do the job. If they cannot do it well, we, the somewhat more experienced and qualified, will still be around to call for correction and pass on our experience.

Freedom from Life and Death

The Chan Master Damei Fachang knew that he would soon pass away, so one day he said to his disciples: “As for what is about to come, we cannot possibly resist it, nor can we possibly detain what has just passed even for a moment!”

Chan Master Damei Fachang was composed and fearless. Just as he was about to close his eyes and depart from this world, he heard the call of a squirrel outside the window.

The Chan master smiled and said, “What practitioners pursue all their lives is this present moment. Nothing else. You should all practice hard, for I will leave you now.”

The moment before his nirvana, Chan Master Damei Fachang only heard the call of a squirrel—nothing else. Within that sound is contained all phenomena, and yet there is nothing within it. Not abiding in life and death is applying prajna to transcend life and death. Not abiding in nirvana is applying great compassion to serve humanity and liberate living beings.

The Perfection of Great Wisdom Sutra describes great bodhisattvas as being free from any attachment to nirvana, and thus being able to move from the shore of birth and death to the other shore of nirvana. If a great bodhisattva had even the slightest attachment, then he would be unable to go from this shore to the other shore.

The Japanese Chan Master Taigu Ryokan entered nirvana on January 6, 1831. Just before he passed away, he said that death was just like going to sleep, and that the most wonderful moment of all was when death came. He instructed us to not abide in the past, present, or future, and that only by enjoying death’s tranquility with no-mind can we enter the Buddhist path. He left behind the following verse:

Signs of spring are on the branch tips;

The cuckoo calls deep in the mountains.

Red leaves swirl away in the wind,

Leaving nary a sign or trace.

Ordinary people often are afraid of the uncertain future, feel regretful about the past, and cannot be present in the now. We often have mixed and confused feelings about the present moment. We worry that the good times will not last, and blame ourselves for the past when we are feeling depressed. Sometimes people will go crazy and contemplate suicide, and other times wish that they could live forever. Sentient beings are always thinking this way and that, back and forth. Their minds are like wild horses that stir up clouds of dust wherever they go.

During the final years of the Tang dynasty the Daoist Lü Dongbin took the imperial examination on three occasions but failed each time. By chance he met the Daoist Zhong Liquan in a small wine shop, and Zhong Liquan passed on to him the magic art of prolonging life. From that point onwards, Lü Dongbin turned away from public life.

One day as Lü Dongbin was passing Mount Huanglong, he saw purple clouds billowing above the mountain, and he knew that some extraordinary individual must be there, so he went there to visit him. As Lü Dongbin entered the hall and joined the crowd, Chan Master Huanglong was beating a drum.

Chan Master Huanglong saw Lü Dongbin as he entered and later shouted, “There is a thief here stealing the Dharma!”

Lü Dongbin stepped out of the crowd, faced the Chan master, and recited a couplet:

“‘A grain of rice contains the world; a small pot can cook the earth.’ Can you tell me what it means?”

Huanglong said, “You are nothing more than a ghost that will not leave its own dead body.”

Lü Dongbin said, “You have nothing that can compare with my elixir of immortality.”

Huanglong replied, “Even if you live for countless thousands of years, you will end up with nothing.”

These words frightened Lü Dongbin, so he threw a sword directly at Huanglong, but the blade could not pierce his skin. Unable to harm Huanglong, Lü Dongbin knelt down and asked Huanglong to teach him.

Huanglong said, “I will not ask you about the pot that can cook the earth, but what is this grain of rice that can contain the world?”

Lü Dongbin was suddenly enlightened, and thereafter wrote the following verse:

Casting away the gourd elixir bottle, smashing the lute,

I no longer yearn for the alchemy of metal in water.

As soon as I met with Huanglong and ever since,

I began to realize how my previous efforts were all wrong.

Lü Dongbin threw away his elixir of immortality, for he now realized that, for a long time, he had been clinging to his physical body and wasting his mental energy. Even if one’s physical form can persist for over one hundred million kalpas, it will still degenerate in the end. This physical body is merely a combination of the causes and conditions of the four great elements. Why must we wrack out brains trying to sustain it?

Everything in the world arises and ceases through a process of formation, abiding, decay, and extinction. Death is not only something that happens to our bodies, but can also describe the arising and ceasing of each thought. When fame and fortune die, when love dies, when our reputation dies, when our power and influence dies, or when any such thing comes to an end we are left feeling like we have nothing to rely on. We must develop a deep understanding of how causes and conditions work, for arising and ceasing do not inherently abide in anything, and only when we understand this can we remain carefree as conditions arise.

At the beginning of the chapter on Contemplating Causality in the Treatise on the Middle Way there is a poem called the “Hymn in Praise of the Eightfold Negation Causality,” which can explain how the essence of the Dharmakaya lacks the delusional notions of arising, ceasing, eternity, nothingness, sameness, difference, coming, or going:

Not arising and not ceasing;

Neither eternalism nor nihilism;

Not the same nor different;

Not coming and not going;

Is how causality can be described,

Which excels at demolishing all sophistry.

I bow in homage to the Buddha,

For this is foremost among all his teachings.

Life is connected to death and death is connected to life, for what has life will die and after death there is life. Life and death have always been but temporary states of existence. What is the use in worrying about them? Why not be free?

To live without abiding means not letting external things determine our happiness, nor the self determine our sadness. It is to live by transcending external circumstances and not clinging to one’s own mind. What the Buddha reveals in the Diamond Sutra is not a set of mysterious principles beyond this world, but rather how ordinary people can illuminate the intrinsic nature of prajna in their lives, and thus live a freer existence.

Life and death are both parts of this world. If we only see life, then we will be happy as a lark; but if we only see death, then we will be miserably sad. Whether we only focus on life or death, only seeing one part of the world makes us unable to appreciate that the cycle of life and death is like a flame being passed from candle to candle without pause. Indeed, life and death are not two separate things at all: Life is not truly life, and death is not truly death, for our lives are unborn and undying.

Buddhist practitioners are experts at understanding life and death. While it is said that the life between each breath cannot be known and that the present moment is impossible to control, we must master each and every thought and clearly understand the value of the spiritual world. This understanding can allow us to cherish the things and feelings of our world even more, and to develop determination to build a pure land of truth, goodness, and beauty.


1. The four kinds of wrong speech: lying, duplicitous speech, harsh speech, and flattery. Ed.

2. These include Mara as the deity who is an adversary of the Buddha, but also encompasses our afflictions, the five aggregates,and the cycle of birth and death. Ed.