Prajna: Life’s Secret Ingredient

Once, as an assembly of his disciples gathered atop Vulture Peak, the Buddha held a flower in his hand. Everyone was silent, and only the venerable Mahakasyapa responded with a smile.

The Buddha then spoke: “I have the treasury of the true Dharma eye, the wondrous mind of nirvana, the true reality without form. It is a profound teaching that is not set down in written words, but is a separate transmission beyond the teachings. This I entrust to Mahakasyapa.”

The Buddha stepped in front of the Bahu-putraka Stupa, shared his seat with Mahakasyapa, and spread out his outer robe, enshrouding the two. The Buddha then said to Mahakasyapa, “I entrust the treasury of the true Dharma eye to you. Protect and maintain it for future generations.”


The above story is very famous in Buddhism. It is called the gongan of “holding forth a flower and responding with a smile,” and is recorded in the Combined Sources from the Five Lamps, which traces the lineage of the Chan School of Buddhism back to the Buddha’s transmission of the Dharma to Mahakasyapa at that very assembly on Vulture Peak. In front of all the people there, the Buddha and Mahakasyapa shared what is called “mind-to-mind transmission.” Rather than being an explanation mediated through language, such a transmission goes directly to the intrinsic mind, thus breaking the cycle of contradiction and misunderstanding created by language.

Later on, Bodhidharma, the twenty-eighth Indian patriarch of the Chan School, came east to China to teach the Dharma. Bodhidharma taught a style of wall-gazing meditation that could make the mind peaceful by pointing directly to the way things are, which is prajna itself. Five generations of disciples later this teaching was passed to Hongren and then onto Huineng, the sixth Chinese patriarch, under whom the Southern School of Chan witnessed a tremendous surge in growth, fulfilling Bodhidharma’s prophecy:

A single flower will open with five petals,

Bearing fruit when the time is right.

What Is Prajna?

From the past to the present day, those wishing to understand prajna mostly do so through a careful reading and understanding of the Buddhist sutras. Dharma teachers in the past would explain every word and comment on each sentence as they went from sutra to sutra. A teaching on one Buddhist sutra would often take several months, sometimes lasting even a year and a half. It is recorded that when the great Tiantai master Zhizhe was teaching the Lotus Sutra, his explication of the first character in the title, miao (妙), “wondrous,” went on for ninety days. This event would later be remembered by history as “three months on the character miao.”

In the time after Sixth Patriarch Huineng, the Chan School was divided into the Southern School, which taught sudden enlightenment, and the Northern School, which taught gradual enlightenment. The Southern School used the Diamond Sutra in their mind-to-mind transmission, while the Northern School used the Lankavatara Sutra. Huineng’s first connection with the Dharma was forged when, in his hometown of Lingnan, he heard someone reciting the Diamond Sutra. Later on he went to Huangmei and heard Fifth Patriarch Hongren give a teaching on the Diamond Sutra, and upon reaching the passage “give rise to a mind that does not abide in anything,” Huineng suddenly awakened.

Upon receiving the Fifth Patriarch’s mind-to-mind transmission of the Dharma, Huineng became the Sixth Patriarch of the Chan School. Afterwards, the four scrolls of the Lankavatara Sutra which had served as the basis of the Chan School since Bodhidharma arrived in China was now replaced by the Diamond Sutra. Therefore, for anyone wishing to understand the Chan School, Buddhism, or prajna, the Diamond Sutra is a great place to start.

In this day and age we usually strive for knowledge. All anyone has to do is open their eyes and they will be bombarded with massive amounts of information. Knowledge can help us analyze and understand the phenomena of the world. But even wisdom can have both a positive and a negative side. For example, Laozi, the ancient philosopher and founder of Daoism, once defined wisdom as “putting away sagacity and discarding wisdom,” and we hear every day about people using their wisdom to commit crimes. Both of these cases show the possible negative and unwholesome aspects of wisdom. Prajna, on the other hand, is sought and developed from within our own minds, and transcends all knowledge and wisdom. This is why the word is not translated, and instead retains its Sanskrit pronunciation.

When I received full ordination at the age of fifteen, I got a taste of what it means to have to take the inhumane as humane, and the unreasonable as reasonable. My ordination master asked me whether I had killed any living beings. I answered, “No!”

Suddenly, a large willow branch struck me on the head.

“Am I to understand that you haven’t killed any mosquitoes or ants?”

I quickly changed my answer, “Yes, I have.”

Suddenly, the willow branch struck me again, because killing living beings is wrong. The ordination master then asked me whether my teacher had told me to come to the ordination ceremony. I answered, “I came on my own.”

I was struck a third time.

“Your teacher didn’t tell you to come? So you decide things all on your own? That deserves punishment!”

I accepted the reprimand with humility, and then answered, “It was my teacher who told me to come.”

“So if he didn’t tell you to come, you wouldn’t have done so?”

Then I was struck for a fourth time.

I had to put up with quite a bit of pain and suffering during the fifty-three-day ordination period. For time to time, I would hear the sound of water or echoes from the mountain, and could not help wondering where it came from. When my ordination master saw that, he would swiftly strike me with a bamboo cane and say, “What are you listening to? Close your ears! Young as you are, what sounds belong to you?”

After being punished, I would quickly focus my mind. No matter how the wind blew and rustled the plants, I would hear none of it. The preceptor’s bamboo cane then came down again.

“Open your ears and listen! What sound does not belong to you?”

Other times, I would receive a whack for casually looking around. My ordination master would say, “Your eyes are wandering! Can you see anything that belongs to you?”

When I was about to leave the monastery I saw how the wind was blowing across the grass and how the geese were soaring up through the clouds. I immediately caught myself and closed my eyes so as not to see, but my ordination master’s cane was not going to let me off.

“Open your eyes and look around! What does not belong to you?”

If I gave a reason, I would get three whacks, but even if I gave no reason I would get three whacks. The willow branch had beaten away all pride and obstinacy and transformed me into a person who could act without a “self.” When we think that we clearly understand something, know it in our heart, and that we’ve realized the Way, we end up with fixed ideas and preconceived notions about everything. We start to compare our knowledge and our practice with others, trying to see who comes out on top. This is when knowledge becomes an obstacle for us.

When we have been conditioned by knowledge and ideas, they can lead to attachments and arguments. Children are often unreasonable, and when defending some idea will say to other people: “That’s what my dad says,” or “that’s what my mom says.” They begin to change this after finishing kindergarten and move on to “That’s what my teacher says.” When they reach high school they say “That’s what my classmates say,” and as young adults they change to “That’s what my boyfriend says” or “that’s what my girlfriend says.” After the age of thirty or forty, they will gradually say things like “That’s what some spiritual teacher says,” or “That’s what some guru says.” Now, in the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha says:

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

Why does the Buddha say that someone who says, “the Tathagata has spoken the Dharma,” then they are defaming the Buddha? The Treatise on the Perfection of Great Wisdom says:

The prajna paramita is divided into two aspects: its already realized aspect is called bodhi, while its yet unrealized aspect is called emptiness.

There are different degrees of “emptiness”: a teacup is empty, a house is also empty, and space too is empty. There is a Buddhist saying that says “It is better to have a view of existence as grand as Mount Sumeru, rather than give rise to a view of emptiness as trifling as a mustard seed.”

The sutras describe eighteen different aspects or levels of emptiness, but some views of emptiness can become obstinate or negative and result in nothing more than nihilism. It is better to not focus on “emptiness” as the object of spiritual study and practice. This concept is expanded upon in the following passage from the Diamond Sutra:

Subhuti, suppose you had this thought: “It is not because his marks are complete that the Tathagata attains anuttara samyaksambodhi.” Subhuti, do not have this thought: “It is not because his marks are complete that the Tathagata attains anuttara samyaksambodhi.”

Subhuti, suppose you had this thought: “Those who initiate the mind of anuttara samyaksambodhi advocate the Dharma of annihilation.” Do not have this thought. And why is this? Those who initiate the mind of anuttara samyaksambodhi, in regards to the Dharma, do not advocate the annihilation of notions.

Diamond Sutra Chapter 27

“Advocating the Dharma of annihilation” means falling into having a one-sided and nihilistic view. Those who have their minds set upon supreme enlightenment (anuttara samyaksambodhi) “do not advocate the annihilation of notions.” They do not cling to the notion of phenomena, nor do they cling to trying to get rid of such notions.

Prajna is the mother of all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future. It points directly to the original mind by piercing through all the various worldly afflictions and suffering such as the obstacles of language, knowledge, and ignorance. Prajna directly grasps the great wisdom of all the Buddhas and has a practical application in the present world. Prajna is truly life’s secret ingredient for success.

Prajna is holding right view and being truly enlightened. Prajna is knowing that all phenomena arise through causes and conditions, and that they exist only temporarily. Prajna is understanding the inherent emptiness of dependent origination, and knowing that true emptiness is only possible because of wondrous existence. Emptiness does not dwell in emptiness, and existence does not abide within existence. The mind “that does not abide in anything,” as mentioned in the Diamond Sutra, is the true mind with which all living beings are endowed. But prajna can only be bright and shining by experiencing it, observing it, and practicing it in daily life.

Earlier in my teaching career I divided prajna into four levels, based on the spiritual level of the practitioner. They are:

  1. Right View

    Right View is the prajna of human and celestial beings; it is holding an opinion based on principles that are neither off track nor incorrect. It is like taking a photograph that shows one’s own original face. Right view can come about from ordinary beings’ understanding of cause and effect. Most people are able to learn through experience the causes and conditions for the ills of the world, such as illness, afflictions, monetary loss, and so on. Understanding cause and effect and thereby being able to be free from suffering is the worldly understanding of cause and effect.

  2. Dependent Origination
    Dependent origination is the prajna of sravakas and pratyekabuddhas. Dependent origination can be summarized as the doctrine that effects arise from causes, facts are founded upon principles, and that existence is established through emptiness—it is a supramundane teaching able to be comprehended by sravakas, pratyekabuddhas, and arhats. Such practitioners are able to ascertain that the five aggregates are empty, and so are free of mental hindrances. They have elevated their spirit to a higher level. They know all things and all affairs, and that there is nothing to do about them. They know that the sentient beings of the six realms of existence are all interconnected. They know that dependent origination is the true reality of the universe.

  3. Emptiness
    Emptiness is the prajna of bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas do not only realize supramundane teachings, but the worldly teachings as well. Moreover, bodhisattvas take the next step and apply the transcendent mind to the conditions of this world. There is a verse that describes the prajna of the bodhisattva:

    A color here, a fragrance there, are nothing but enlightenment’s path;

    Now speaking, now remaining silent, are all Chan in the end.

    Use emptiness as one’s causes and conditions, and naturally you will know all phenomena.

  4. The Prajna of the Buddha
    The final level of the prajna of the Buddha is the state of non-duality between essence and phenomena attained after the prajna of one’s own nature has been realized. In this state there is no division between transcendent teachings and worldly teachings, and all views of the self, others, and the outside world are eliminated. Causes and conditions may come and go, or may not come and go; there is no abiding in form. All things are perfectly and naturally integrated.

We can explain these four levels by how one learns to play a musical instrument. Regardless of whether the instrument is a flute, a violin, or a piano, when first learning to play, you must start with reading music and fingering the strings or keys. Practice comes by grasping at each note and each melody, going over each note as indicated by the notation on the musical score. At this stage you must look at the score before you play, just as one with right view still relies on looking at the external world.

After practicing to a certain degree of fluency, the score has already become ingrained in your mind, and you no longer need to look at it to play. Although you do not look at the score any longer, the score still exists within the mind, just as one who knows dependent origination has merely fused the internal and the external.

Continued diligent practice allows you to no longer look at the score, nor consider it within your mind. At this point a piece of music can be played straight through without any conscious effort whatsoever with a performance that is seamless in all respects. There is no longer a score inside or outside the mind, though the “score” still remains as a cause; yet you still play according to the score, as you are unable to create your own music. This is just as one who knows emptiness has left behind the internal and external.

Once you have mastered and integrated tonal modes and music theory, you can ride along with the great changes of the universe. You can now freely and effortlessly create music wherever the mind wanders or the spirit soars. This untrammeled mind is prajna; neither forgotten nor unforgotten. This is prajna at its highest level, with nothing internal and nothing external.

Right view, dependent origination, emptiness, and prajna are all “unconditioned Dharmas.” There is a short Buddhist verse that explains what this means:

Three kinds of birds fly through the sky;

Their flight can be short or far;

But the sky itself is neither short nor far.

Three kinds of animals cross the river;

Their crossing can be deep or shallow;

But the water itself is neither deep nor shallow.

Consider the differences between a sparrow, pigeon, and eagle: some can fly for a short distance, and others for longer distances. Likewise if a rabbit, horse, and elephant were to cross a river, each would become submerged in the water differently because of their size. But the sky itself is neither short nor far, and the water is not shallow or deep. This analogy tells us that, while our realization of it may be shallow or deep, prajna itself is neither shallow nor deep. We should not become fixated upon what is shallow or deep. Do not fall into a nihilistic view.

The Diamond Sutra says that “all forms are illusory.” People who are new to Buddhism can begin with an understanding of conditioned existence to lead up to an understanding that all forms are illusory. For us to understand the unconditioned teachings, we must first look at phenomena.

People often become confused by the illusory things outside the mind. Even if they are clearly illusions, we take them to be real. Even if they are clearly temporary, we cling to them desperately. This is why our mind abides in “existence” and becomes attached to externalities.

Those who become attached to rank and position will, in the end, find that it is lonely at the top. Those who become attached to fame and fortune will find themselves willing to die for the sake of wealth, as long as there is enough money involved. While it is okay to have anything in the world, whatever it may be, we must not become consumed with desire for it, for having excessive craving for something burdens us with caring for it and sorrow when it is gone. This is why we should look at everything in the world through the wisdom of prajna.

Prajna Is Everywhere in Life

How can we live lives that shine with the light of prajna? The opening of the Diamond Sutra describes how the Buddha manifests prajna in his daily routine of getting dressed and taking his meals. All living beings can experience and apply prajna in their daily activities, such as walking, standing, sitting, or lying down. As the Buddha ate, his mouth was illuminated; as he carried the alms bowl, his hands were illuminated; upon entering the city of Sravasti, his feet were illuminated; and as he sat in meditation, his whole body was illuminated. Each of these instances is a manifestation of wisdom and an example of prajna. The opening of the Diamond Sutra is as follows:

Thus have I heard. At one time, the Buddha was in the city of Sravasti at the Jeta Grove Monastery with a gathering of monks numbering 1,250. At mealtime, the World-honored One put on his robe, picked up his bowl, and went into the city of Sravasti to beg for food. After he had gone from house to house, he returned to the grove. When he had finished eating, he put away his robe and bowl, washed his feet, straightened his mat, and sat down.

Diamond Sutra Chapter 1

In this passage, the Venerable Ananda is recounting what he heard from the Buddha: At that time, the Buddha was dwelling in the Jeta Grove Monastery in the city of Sravasti, and there were twelve hundred and fifty monks attending to him there. When it was time to eat, the Buddha put on his monastic robe, and holding his alms bowl, he led his disciples into the city of Sravasti to gather alms from house to house. Afterwards, he returned to the Jeta Grove Monastery. After finishing his meal, the Buddha put his robe and bowl away, washed his feet, spread out his mat, and then sat in a cross-legged position.

Let us take a closer look at the how the Buddha exemplifies the six paramitas through his carefree daily routine, depicted in the opening of the Diamond Sutra:

  1. The Buddha demonstrates the paramita of morality when he “put on his robe, [and] picked up his bowl,” showing the calm solemnity of how he observed the rules of proper behavior.

  2. The Buddha demonstrates the paramita of giving when he gathers alms in the city. By going out to gather alms, the Buddha enables living beings to hear the Dharma. The Buddha thus makes a connection with living beings by giving the gift of the Dharma.

  3. The Buddha demonstrates the paramita of patience by gathering alms “from house to house.” Going to each house shows that the Buddha does not care whether his bowl is full or empty, or whether the food is good or bad. Everything is treated equally.

  4. The Buddha demonstrates the paramita of diligence when he “had finished eating, he put away his robe and bowl.” From entering the city to beg for food to the putting away of his robe, the Buddha relied upon no one else.

  5. The Buddha demonstrates the paramita of meditative concentration when it is said that he “washed his feet, straightened his mat, and sat down.”

  6. This one day in the life of the Buddha, from dressing and eating to feet washing and mat spreading, completes the five paramitas. These aspects of daily life are the external manifestations of the “form” of the paramita of prajna, while the essence of prajna itself is found within the mind. When the mind of prajna is applied to all the activities of daily life, this fulfills the paramita of prajna.

In the opening of the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha embodies the life of the six paramitas, shining with the light of prajna. He does not display supernatural powers with conjuring tricks, but rather wants us to live a life of prajna by using the prajna within our own minds in our ordinary, everyday lives.

Prajna is like light, for light is unsullied, pure, and carefree. To be illuminated by the light of prajna is not something only for the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. As long as we speak tender, kind, and encouraging words, are our mouths not illuminated? When we observe the world and look at all living beings equally with compassionate eyes and contemplate society with the eyes of wisdom, are our eyes not illuminated? When we are able to serve others with the labor of our own hands, are the palms of our hands not illuminated? When we listen to the Dharma and chanting in praise of the Buddha, are our ears not illuminated? When our faces are smiling with compassion and kindness, are our faces not illuminated? When our minds are full of compassion, bodhi, and a commitment to the path, are our minds not illuminated? When we properly observe decorum and have a calming countenance in all of our actions, maintaining a nonjudgmental attitude towards the cruelty and corruption of others, are our whole bodies not illuminated?

When people reach a stage where their light no longer shines, they are like a lantern painted black. We should not just be concerned with external things like sunlight, electric lights, lamplight, and firelight, nor should we take notice of the dim, false lights within perverse and misleading ideas. The most important question to ask is: Where is our light? Can our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body all be illuminated? Is it possible for our mind to shine forth with light? Can we light the mental lamp of our intrinsic nature and the truth of prajna?

The Original Vows of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Sutra states: “Be humble and smiling, and personally perform acts of giving everywhere.” All the Buddhas and bodhisattvas create the causes and conditions needed to liberate all sentient beings. They must be as humble as the ground, and personally perform acts of giving with a smile. Practicing in this way means living a life of prajna such that everyone can be peaceful, carefree, and at ease.

Putting Prajna into Practice

No one can live your life or become enlightened for you. But how is it that prajna is inherent to the mind? How can we attain enlightenment and see our nature? We should not rely on holy water, magical talismans, or the empowerments and blessings of a guru, for we must break through the delusions within. In all things you must depend upon yourself. There is no one else who can take your place.

Once Xiangyan Zhixian had come to study with Chan Master Weishan Lingyou. Lingyou said, “I have heard that at Chan Master Baizhang Huaihai’s place you gave ten answers for every question and a hundred answers for every ten. Is this true?”

Zhixian answered, “It is, I’m ashamed to say.”

Lingyou continued, “That’s nothing more than clever worldly repartee. It will be no help whatsoever in liberating you from the cycle of birth and death. Now I ask you, what was your original face before you were born?”

Zhixian pondered the matter for a long while, and then he asked for instruction, “Master, please be compassionate and teach me.”

Lingyou replied, “I know that if I were to reveal the answer to you now, you would curse me in the future when you truly attain enlightenment.”

If in learning Buddhism we only chase after profound spiritual experiences or only request the teacher’s instructions to help us avoid trouble, then we have wasted our mental effort. It is no different from watching an athlete train as we sit by on the sidelines; by only watching, we will not become any stronger or more agile. Any specialty requires its own systematic training, so if we wish to live a life of wisdom, how can we ever act conceited or lazy?

Once Chan Master Daoqian and his good friend Zongyuan were traveling on foot, walking to various monasteries to learn from the great Chan masters. As they journeyed, Zongyuan found the mountain and river crossings extremely difficult and tiring, so on many occasions, he complained and demanded to end their trip.

Finally, Daoqian comforted him and said, “We have decided to take this tour to study and learn, and it would be a shame to abandon it in the middle of our trip. I know you are very weary and tired, but from now on I will do whatever I can do for you. However, there are five tasks that I cannot help you with.”

“What five?” Zongyuan asked.

Daoqian smiled, “Getting dressed, eating meals, urinating, defecating, and walking.”

Zongyuan then understood what Daoqian was talking about. There was more that Daoqian could not do for him than just getting dressed, eating meals, urinating, defecating, and walking. It is truly impossible for other people to live your life for you. So if you truly wish to live a life of wisdom, how can you slack off and rely on others?

There are some people who have been faithful Buddhists for many years and have delved into the Buddhist sutras and who can talk a great deal about the principles in those Buddhist books, but they are incapable of applying the teachings to their lives. Such people cannot let go of who is right or wrong and who wins or loses. This goes against the essence of the Diamond Sutra. If Buddhism becomes separated from life, there can be no prajna, nor can there be any understanding of “emptiness.”

Once there was a businessman who considered himself to be a Buddhist, but he suffered from a terrible temper. When angered, he would curse and shout at his own mother without realizing what he was saying. One day, he went to the Buddhist temple to light some incense, and there he saw a statue of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, splendid and majestic. The businessman thought, “It is said that Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva responds to every request, so if I were able to see the bodhisattva for myself, I could ask for my business to prosper and my work to go well, and I will make even more money.”

The businessman then spoke to the abbot of the temple asking, “Venerable, how can I see Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva for myself?”

The abbot thought he could free the businessman of his delusions, so he said to him, “Return home: if you see someone wearing their clothes backwards and having put their shoes on wrong, then that person is the very Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva who responds to every request.”

Overjoyed, the businessman hurried back home, but along the way he saw no bodhisattva as described by the abbot. He became furious with the venerable abbot for having deceived him, so when he finally returned home, he knocked on the door with great force. His mother heard the urgent knocking, and came to the door shaken and in great haste. As a result she had gotten dressed so quickly that her clothes were on backwards and she had put her shoes on the wrong way.

The door opened and the businessman saw his mother—was this not Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva as described by the abbot? The businessman realized the error of his ways and felt regret. His mother, who had suckled him as a baby and spent her whole life devoted to looking after him, was she not a bodhisattva who responds to every request? From then on the businessman changed; he took care of his mother with respect and devotion all the rest of her days.

Prajna is not present only when reciting the Diamond Sutra, nor is it necessarily present during retreat. Prajna exists in the ordinary, everyday activities of eating and dressing; it is present in how one deals with the world and the people and things in it.

Longtan Chongxin went to study with Chan Master Tianhuang Daowu. Longtan Chongxin stayed with the Chan master for twenty years, yet during that time he did not feel that he had gained a great understanding of the Dharma.

Finally Longtan went before Chan Master Tianhuang Daowu to ask to leave the monastery. Chan Master Tianhuang asked, “Where are you going?”

Longtan said, “I will travel around to learn and study the Dharma.”

“The Dharma is right here. Where else would you go to learn?”

“I’ve been here over a dozen years now and have never heard you give me any instruction in the Dharma. How can the Dharma be here?”

“How could you lie like that!” Chan Master Tianhuang continued, “What do you mean there’s no Dharma here? You bring tea every day and I receive it from you and drink it. Then you bring food and I receive it from you and eat it. You join your palms together and bow, while I nod my head. In every one of these instances I am teaching you the Dharma. How could the Dharma not be here? These things are the Dharma. They are the prajna of everyday life!”

Longtan said, “Oh. That’s prajna? Let me think about it.”

Chan Master Tianhuang replied, “You can’t think about it; thinking is the discriminating mind and that’s not prajna.”

From hearing these words Longtan finally understood.

Such teachings are truly beyond conception and show moments of sudden realization. In the Mind Seal Commentary to the Diamond Sutra, the great Qing dynasty scholar Puwan commented upon this passage from the Diamond Sutra:

At that time the elder monk Subhuti was among the gathering of monks. He rose from his seat, bore his right shoulder, knelt on his right knee, and with palms pressed together before him, respectfully spoke to the Buddha saying…

With the verse:

In a fiery transformation and a churning of waves, a dragon is born;

While the shrimps and crabs merely exert their eyes.

Puwan explained how enlightened people are like dragons that can fly through the sky, riding the wind and rain, while those who have yet to attain enlightenment are like shrimps or crabs that can only exert their eyes, giving a stirring description of the ignorance of the unenlightened.

That opportunity for sudden realization is present throughout our lives. Every day there are opportunities for enlightenment. People who are too tired to get out of bed and suffer the daily frustrations of being late may come to the sudden realization that they should get up earlier. People who are weak may come to the sudden realization that they should start to exercise daily. But these are so often just passing thoughts, for ingrained habits are hard to change. Buddhist enlightenment is not the same as a momentary realization. It must be experienced in our lives and practiced in our daily activities. This is the only way to experience Chan in daily life, for Chan is daily life. Only by putting our realizations into practice can we gradually be freed from our affliction and suffering and attain the freedom of bodhi.

The Miscellaneous Treasures Sutra tells the story of the mutual hatred between a maidservant and a goat: Once there was a maidservant who was responsible for working in the mill. Each morning she would take coarse grains and pulses, like barley and soy, that her master had given her and grind them into meal. However, a certain goat would often steal a bite of the soy meal whenever the maidservant was not looking. For this reason the master often suspected that the maidservant was not making enough soy meal, so he would berate her and punish her with a beating. Each time after the maidservant was punished by the master, she would angrily take up a bamboo stick and beat the goat. Being beaten repeatedly, the goat grew increasingly spiteful, as well.

One day, the maidservant was making a fire and the goat saw that there was no bamboo stick in her hand, so he butted her with his horns. The maidservant became angry and flustered, so she picked up a burning piece of firewood and beat the goat. The goat’s flesh began to burn, and he was in great pain, dashing madly about and throwing sparks from his flaming body, spreading the fire to the nearby villagers and their homes. The blaze grew and even consumed the surrounding mountains and wild plains. Five hundred monkeys who were living on the mountain could not escape the blaze, and they, too, perished in the fire.

Such a terrible disaster all came from the anger and hatred between the goat and the maidservant. It is from instances like this that the Buddhist saying, “The flames of anger can burn up a forest of merit” comes from. Anger can make us feel as though we have plunged into a land of demons with rancid winds and rains of blood.

The Upasaka Precepts Sutra states that there are three kinds of enlightenment:

One kind is attained through hearing; the second kind is attained through contemplation; and the third kind is attained through cultivation. Since the sravakas have attained enlightenment by hearing [the Buddha’s teachings], they are not called Buddhas; since the pratyekabuddhas have attained their own partial realization through contemplation, they are called pratyekabuddhas. The Tathagata has no teacher and attains enlightenment through cultivation and not through reliance upon hearing or contemplation. This is total enlightenment, and so such a person is called the Buddha.

The Tathagata is the Buddha not because of hearing the Dharma or contemplating it; rather, the Buddha attains enlightenment through the process of cultivating the Dharma. This is why such a person can become the Buddha.

Once there was a man who made a living as a thief. One day, his son said to him, “Dad, you are getting old. How am I to make a living? You really ought to pass on to me the secrets of your trade.”

The father said, “Fine. I will pass on my knowledge to you tonight.”

When the still hours of the night arrived, the father told his son to go out with him. Soon they found a house and prepared to break in. The two jumped over the wall and entered the house. Once inside, the father opened a cupboard, and told his son to hide himself within. Suddenly, the father started shouting:

“Thief! Thief! There’s a thief here!”

The father’s shouting woke the homeowner, who immediately came down to catch the thief. By then the elder thief had run away, but his son was still hiding in the closed cupboard. The young thief thought to himself: “How could my father do such a thing? Why did he shut me up in this cupboard and then run off after shouting an alarm? What am I going to do now?” The only thing he could do was look for a way to get out of this predicament on his own.

Desperation is the mother of invention, and so the young thief came up with an idea: Still inside the cupboard, he started to imitate the sound of a mouse:

“Squeak, squeak, squeak.”

The homeowner was looking for the thief with a candle in hand, and when he heard the mouse squeaking, he relaxed.

“Oh, it’s only a mouse. The thief must have run off.”

When he had let his guard down, the young thief dashed out of the cupboard and blew out the candle. In the darkness, the homeowner ran after the thief. The young thief was quite worried now, and the chase was on.

The young thief then thought of another idea: he ran by an old well, picked up a large stone, and threw it in. When the homeowner reached the well he said, “Alas, it looks like this well claimed somebody’s life tonight.”

The homeowner then left. The young thief was able to return home safe and sound.

When he arrived home, the young thief found his father, and took him to task: “Why did you play such a trick on me today?”

The father asked, “What do you mean I ‘played a trick’ on you?”

“I mean closing me up in a cupboard and then shouting, ‘Thief! Thief!’”

The father then asked, “So, how did you get out of it?”

The son told him everything that happened. The father was very pleased and said:

“Son, I have found my successor in you. Now you understand. You know that to adapt to changing circumstances you must depend upon yourself. Others cannot pass on anything to us!”

We often hear about students blaming their teachers for favoritism, disciples blaming their spiritual mentors for not passing on the “real secrets,” and children blaming their parents for the partiality of their love. But success and fulfillment are not things that others can give us. Prajna is inherent to our own minds; it is one’s will to succeed and the power to put one’s vision into practice. If we do not seek prajna within, nor practice prajna in our lives and, instead, only indulge in idle talk of prajna, what good does it do?

When Fifth Patriarch Hongren passed on the robe and bowl to Huineng, he knew that initially no one in the monastic community would understand, so he had Huineng leave the monastery at Huangmei in the middle of the night. After departing from Huangmei, several hundred monastics chased after Huineng to try and claim the robe and alms bowl. One such monastic, Huiming, was the first to catch up with him, and tried to take the robe and bowl that had been given to Huineng by the Fifth Patriarch.

Huineng laid the robe and bowl on a rock beside the road and said, “This robe symbolizes trust. How can you take it by force?”

Huineng then hid away among the bushes. When Huiming tried to take the robe and bowl, he found that he could not lift them, and then he understood. He felt ashamed of himself and then begged Sixth Patriarch Huineng to give him instruction in the Dharma.

Huineng said, “Remove all your mental conditioning and do not give rise to a single thought. […] Do not think of wholesomeness. Do not think of unwholesomeness.”

Huiming then asked, “Besides the hidden and profound meaning imparted to me now, is there any other?”

Huineng answered, “If I could tell you, it would not be hidden. If you reflect within, the hidden and profound are close at hand.”

The true hidden meaning is to eliminate the place where thoughts dwell, and cut off the path of language. Prajna, pure and free, is right here in our minds. But even if one has grasped this hidden meaning and has attained prajna, it is still up to us to carry it through in the actual practice of daily life in a dynamic and adaptive fashion.

Fostering Executive Power

The ability to get things done and accomplish one’s vision is the secret that can bring success to any organization or enterprise. In Chinese, we call this zhixing li (執行力), “the power to execute.” One example of zhixing li was, towards the end of 1996, Fo Guang Shan took less than three months to arrange in good order the holding of an international colloquium for Catholic and Buddhist leaders. Cardinal Francis Arinze was surprised, and the impression we made was quite profound. After being informed of this event, the late Pope John Paul II looked forward to later meeting me.

As long as we believe in the power of the mind, we can take each day and look on the bright side, thinking of how each matter will be successful and how we can make it a success. Every day we can open our eyes and feel hopeful. If we work in this way unceasingly, we will surely be successful.

The failure of worldly enterprise often comes from conditions not being right. Success comes from being able to develop the right conditions. That is the greatest secret to success in life. It is commonly said throughout the Buddhist teachings that “all phenomena arise through causes and conditions.” This means that any business undertaking requires the proper conditions of capital, land, markets, planning, publicity, qualified personnel, and so on. If any one of these conditions is lacking, then the undertaking will not easily succeed. For this reason there is no need to play the blame game when difficulties appear. It is important to create connections with others, and remain focused on people. That is the only way to get along well in the world, and only by getting along with others can we create the wide-ranging connections to bring about a better future. When we take the initiative to dedicate our abilities to others, we align ourselves with new and different causes and conditions, allowing us to be successful when we have the right conditions in the future.

It is possible to accomplish many things under difficult circumstances, but in my own life, I’ve never felt I’ve had to face difficult circumstances. What other people did not dare consider I have always been willing to try, and I did not give up when encountering setbacks. Instead I waited for the right conditions, or tried to create the necessary positive conditions. Once I had made a decision to do something, I would then explain the necessity and importance of the undertaking to my disciples, and I was not easily dissuaded by the majority’s opposition.

Before launching the Merit Times in 2000, the senior journalist Lu Keng came to Fo Guang Shan to see me. Some of his friends had told him, “You have to convince the master that trying to launch a Buddhist-run newspaper is impossible. He must not do it under any circumstances.”

As we talked, not only did it turn out that Lu Keng was unable to disabuse me of my plan, but I even talked him into writing his own column for the Merit Times.

When I was young I developed the habit of thinking things out. I would think, “If I had the chance to start a magazine, how would I organize all its content?” or, “If I had the chance to spread the Dharma, what and how would I teach?” I never waited around idly or became hesitant or pessimistic when conditions were not right for action. I listened attentively, and through the process of giving without notions, I learned from everyone I encountered, accumulating experience and wisdom. Once the right conditions were present, I was already well prepared with all the necessary planning, procedures, and details, regardless of whether I was building a temple or founding a school, so naturally these projects were able to progress smoothly.

Whenever the Buddha taught the Dharma, six conditions needed to be present: the right faith, right listening, right time, right teacher, right place, and right audience. These six conditions can be seen in the opening line of the Diamond Sutra: “Thus have I heard. At one time, the Buddha was in the city of Sravasti at the Jeta Grove Monastery with a gathering of monks numbering 1,250.” The six conditions are as follows:

Thus
Faith: In order to be able to receive the teaching the faith of the assembly should already be established.
have I heard
Listening: The members of the assembly should already possess the necessary merit to hear the teachings.
at one time
Time: The time to deliver the teachings has ripened.
the Buddha
Teacher: The master delivering the teaching joyfully teaches the wondrous Dharma.
city of Sravasti at the Jeta Grove
Location: The venue that the teachings are being delivered in is suitable.
gathering of monks numbering 1,250
Audience: The faithful assembly that is ready to hear the teachings has gathered together.

These six right conditions must be present in order for a Dharma teaching to occur. Even now, our reading of the Diamond Sutra is made possible due to exceptional circumstances. We should all be thankful for the causes and conditions in the world that have enabled our existence, and we should be thankful to others who have contributed to our success. This is something truly worthy of joyous praise. Everything that is or has happened in the universe is a product of causes and conditions.

No Buddhist sutra ever clarifies the date or time that a certain teaching is given, instead simply using the expression yishi (一時), “at one time.” Why are there no clear indications of time given in the sutras? Because what we understand as “time” is merely due to the differences in how living beings experience the effects of their karma. For example, the time in each country on the globe is not the same: When it is 1:00 p.m. in Taiwan it is still the predawn hour in the United States. Our planet has many different regions, which is why we perceive this “time difference.” The expression “at one time” found in the sutras eliminates this limited concept of time and space that living beings have. As long as we are of the same mind as the Buddha, then the phrase “at one time” is like a limitless benefit that is everlasting.

The Dirgha Agama tells the story about blowing a conch shell that can act as a metaphor for how causes and conditions work together. A long time ago there were people living in a village who had never heard the sound made by blowing a conch shell. One day, a young man who knew how to play a conch came to this village. He took out a conch shell, blew into it three times and put it on the ground.

When the villagers heard the sound they were amazed. They rushed towards the man from all directions, and asked, “How did you make such a nice, pleasant sound?”

The young man pointed to the conch shell and said, “This is what made the sound.”

The villagers touched the conch shell with their hands and spoke to it saying, “Would you please make that wonderful sound again?”

But the conch shell remained silent. The young man picked up the conch shell again and blew into it three more times. It was only then that the villagers realized what was going on. One of them spoke up and said, “That beautiful, pleasing sound is not the work of the conch shell. That man’s hands, mouth, and breath must work in concert with it before the conch shell makes its sound.”

The highest level of management is the management of the mind. Fo Guang Shan built its massive organization through faith in Humanistic Buddhism. In Buddhism, we commonly use the expression faxin (發心), “arouse the mind,” which means to generate an aspiration to do something. The formation of Fo Guang Shan’s monastic and lay orders came about through collective creativity in which each individual faxin, generated the aspiration for compassion and dedicated their efforts, physical and mental, to accomplishing the goal. This was not something that any one individual could accomplish alone. Since the faith in Humanistic Buddhism benefits living beings and allows us a joy that is blameless, everyone is willing to participate no matter what hardships must be faced.

Consider Fo Guan Shan’s use of money. There is a saying in Fo Guang Shan that “what comes from the ten directions, goes out to the ten directions,” meaning that donations from around the world are distributed around the world, not just in a temple’s locality. Every penny comes from the generosity of living beings, so the money must be used in the best possible way for activities or special projects with every attempt being made to come in under budget. Fo Guang Shan’s many volunteers and staff are another example. Given its common sense of purpose, many people are willing to generate the aspiration to commit their physical and mental effort, so long as what they do benefits the needs of the whole. Many private enterprises cannot achieve such a feat. But this is liberation with no notion of self.

The words faxin do not explicitly appear in the Diamond Sutra, so many people think that the importance of generating aspiration is not mentioned in the text. However, the sutra does say:

Of all sentient beings, be they born of eggs, wombs, moisture, or transformation, or whether they have form, or not form, or whether they are able to perceive, or do not perceive, or are neither able to perceive or not perceive, I cause them to enter nirvana without remainder, liberating them.

This certainly describes generating an aspiration. Generating the aspiration to help so many living beings does not mean receiving the merit that comes from giving them food to eat or clothes to wear. Rather, it means enabling living beings to be liberated. Hence the line that follows: “Thus…liberating infinite, immeasurable, limitless sentient beings.”

The Buddha did not think that living beings were liberated by him, because living beings are intrinsically Buddhas. The Buddha was simply granting them liberation in accordance with causes and conditions. The Buddha does not claim any merit, nor does he abide in merit. This indeed is “generating aspiration,” that is, generating expansive aspiration, generating impartial aspiration, generating non-deluded aspiration, generating egalitarian aspiration, and generating universal aspiration. Truly this is a great aspiration without limitation!

When I was seventeen, I contracted malaria. Every day I would shift between fever and chills; it was quite unbearable. The other students at the Buddhist college would entrust their lives to the celestial beings who protect the Dharma, and would simply weather any hardship. I never heard anyone ask to rest, even when they were sick, so I dragged my sick and weakened body through to the work and rest periods along with all the others, and then collapsed into my bed each night. After about a month of this, my teacher, the Venerable Zhikai, had someone bring me a half bowl of pickled vegetables. Holding that bowl of pickled vegetables with both hands, tears streamed down my face. I was grateful to my teacher for caring for me in this way. At the moment I vowed: “For as long as I live, I will dedicate all of my mind and body to Buddhism without fail, so as to repay the kindness of my teacher.”

Soon afterward, my illness was completely cured.

In order to promote Buddhism, I have never refrained from reinventing myself. Even when conditions were not right, I did not simply sit idly by waiting for the right conditions to appear. Sometimes, in order to turn things around, we have to assemble forces from all directions, create momentum, and exert influence. The Buddha did not attempt to change others externally, rather he tried to change himself internally. I have tried to emulate the Buddha’s revolutionary spirit within, so that I could change my own ideas, eliminate bad habits, and renew myself unceasingly.

One must be a sponge: never stop soaking up learning and assimilating new things. Do not be like a plastic bag that even a drop of water cannot penetrate.

A Person’s Unlimited Potential

I have always been shy by nature, and from a young age I invariably became tongue-tied when speaking to groups. Consequently, if I had to appear on stage, I would read my speech over and over again beforehand until I knew it by heart. I would also take an active role in receiving guests at the monastery, and would think about how to answer their possible questions beforehand. Late into the night I would always spend some time reflecting upon the successes and failures with my conversations that day, no matter how exhausted I was.

My intelligence, ability, and wisdom are no better than other people’s. When I was studying at the Buddhist college, I took the reprimands from the teachers and the derision of my classmates as right and proper, and I vowed to make up for my deficiencies through physical labor. I would get out of bed early, groping in the dark, so that I could be up to beat the wooden blocks, signaling the other monastics to start their day. While my classmates were studying on their own, I would volunteer to go to the river and fetch water for the monastic community. Before and after our meals I would rush over to the kitchen and living quarters to sweep up. I would spend any free time apart from my studies by heading over to the kitchen to cook, so I was constantly going back and forth amid all the firewood, rice, oil, and salt in the kitchen and its stoves of boiling water.

During the ten years I lived at my training monastery, I worked as a server in the dining hall for six years, spent two years fetching water for the monastery, and another year and a half tending to the main shrine, taking care of the lamps, incense, images, and offerings. During this time I also served as administrator for the monastery library. Working in the dining hall was the hardest: each year when winter came around both my hands would be soaking in cold water as I washed several hundred sets of bowls and chopsticks. The skin on both the palms and the back of my hands were chapped all over, exposing raw, red skin between the cracks.

To train my mind and body and stimulate my potential, I emulated the great monastics of the past by undergoing various kinds of austere practices. I practiced not eating after noon so that I could directly experience the spiritual joy of transcending the desire to satisfy my appetite. I transcribed the sutras using my own blood to make a flesh-and-blood connection between myself and the Buddha, and forge a mental connection with living beings. When the monastery enforced periods of silence, I would slap myself if I violated the prohibition and, over time, I would no longer engage in idle gossip even within my own mind. When paying homage to the Buddha as an act of penance, I would bow before the Buddha, kneeling for a long time repenting for my past lifetimes of negative karma so that my ignorance could be peeled away layer by layer.

Most people who pray are seeking something for themselves. Before the age of twenty I was the same: I would always pray to the Buddha to bless me, and ask that he ensure I become intelligent and make good progress, and that I be able to break through any difficulty and master the Buddhist path. After the age of twenty, after I had graduated from the Buddhist college, I came to feel that all I had been doing was praying to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas on my own behalf, asking for this and that. Wasn’t that selfish? Afterwards, I prayed instead for my parents and teachers, my relatives and companions, and even for those devotees with whom I felt especially connected, wishing that they would be safe and sound, and that they would grow in happiness and wisdom.

As I entered my forties, I gradually began to reflect upon my life and realized that my prayers still constituted a kind of selfish desire. Thus, between the ages of forty and fifty, I began praying for world peace, for a strong and prosperous nation, for a peaceful and happy society, and for the liberation of living beings.

After I turned fifty I had another insight. I was beseeching the Buddhas and bodhisattvas every single day to bring about peace and happiness for the world, for society, and for living beings, but what was I supposed to be doing about it? Thus, after the age of fifty, I began to pray to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas to let me shoulder the burden of the karmic obstacles and sufferings of all living beings: allow me to take on all the bitter transience of human emotions, allow me to practice the great compassion of the Buddha, and allow me to learn how to demonstrate the benefits and joy of the Dharma like the Buddha.

Prajna is concerned with both realization and attainment. The realization of enlightenment is not the same as the attainment of enlightenment. One who realizes can be in accordance with the truth, but such a realization is still not perfect. What attainment of the highest truth looks like can be seen in the story of the meeting between Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty and the great Chan patriarch, Bodhidharma. Emperor Wu asked, “All my life, I have built temples, sponsored monastics, practiced generosity, and made food offerings. What virtue have I gained?”

Bodhidharma answered, “In truth, there is no virtue”

Bodhidharma’s understanding of merit and virtue was different from Emperor Wu’s. Did Emperor Wu have any merit? Of course he did; he had mundane, worldly merit. There is always some merit or virtue gained, no matter how much or how little is done. But mundane virtue cannot compare to ultimate virtue for those of great ability that is unconditioned and beyond attainment; such virtue pervades heaven and earth. What Bodhidharma was talking about was the virtue of intrinsic nature. That is what we seek so assiduously. In modern terms we would call this “discovering our unlimited potential,” like martial artists who become stronger as their skills reach a higher level, and as in gongfu novels when the heroes open up their qi channels.

Nowadays I sometimes hear people talk about how great Fo Guang Shan is. But I will counter: Great in what way? The number of temples or how large the organization has developed arises naturally in accordance with conditions. While I began learning Buddhism well before the age of seventy, one could say that such learning did not mature until I became seventy. Many of the principles have been with me all this time, it was just that before I saw them only vaguely and just kept going towards what I wanted at that moment. Being carefree is not something we can search for. Finding the intrinsic nature of the true, prajna mind is the process of becoming more carefree, and that happens day by day.

Buddhist sutras always begin with the words “thus I have heard” and conclude with the words “they believed, received, and practiced it.” Being able to believe in, receive, and practice the Dharma is “acting like a Buddha.” To act like a Buddha is much closer to the Buddha’s aim than understanding Dharma knowledge or memorizing the Buddhist texts. Acting like a Buddha means putting the Buddha’s teaching into actual practice. We typically call Buddhists “practitioners,” because they are “practicing” the Dharma, that is, acting as the Buddha said and did. A true practitioner must act like the Buddha, not merely “study Buddhism.” If one wants to attain any success, one has to live in the practice every moment of every day and in every place. We should not learn some skillful teaching only to lay it aside and forget about it.

We read the Diamond Sutra in order to act like a Buddha in daily life and to apply the sutra’s teachings to the real world in a practical way. Whether or not we are successful, whether or not we can find fulfillment, then becomes a question of whether or not we can live a life that is carefree with prajna and a diamond-like mind.