The Koans of Chan
A Golden Pagoda, a Silver Pagoda, a Muddy Heap
By sitting in the full lotus posture, we generate precept power, samadhi power, and wisdom power. The Vajra Dharma-protectors will protect those who sit in full lotus. The demon kings will be kept at bay, and the hungry ghosts will make obeisance.
Here is a koan about full lotus posture. In the past, when Buddhism prevailed in China, monks would be invited to recite sutras at funerals and other special events. Monks who crassly made a profession out of this were derisively referred to as Sutra-peddlers. This story is about one such monk who made a living peddling sutras.
Once, it was nearing midnight when he set out on his return from an evening of chanting sutras for a fee. As he passed through the village, a dog barked at him. The owners of the dog wondered why their dog was barking. The lady of the house said, “Take a look and see who it is. Is it a thief trying to steal something?" Her husband looked out of the window and said, “Oh, it is nothing. Just that Sutra-peddling ghost. Just a sutra-peddling ghost."
The monk became perplexed when he heard that comment. “Why did he refer to me as a sutra-peddling ghost?" He considered himself to be a sutra-reciting monk, but that man had called him the sutra-peddling ghost. He walked on, intent on getting back to his monastery. Suddenly, there was a cloudburst, and the rain poured down. Quickly, the monk took shelter under a bridge. With nothing else to do, he sat down to meditate. Just as he pulled his legs into full lotus posture, two ghosts emerged from the river.
Those ghosts were terribly ugly. Normally, if someone sees a ghost, he will be alarmed. But since the monk was meditating, he was not afraid when he saw the two ghosts. Besides, since he often chanted sutras to cross over ghosts, he thought a lot about ghosts. Hence, when he met these two, he was not afraid. He just kept meditating. Well, the two ghosts started bowing to him. They kept on bowing to him for somewhere between twenty minutes and half an hour.
After that stretch of time, the monk’s legs began to hurt, and he could not endure sitting in full lotus any longer. And so, he eased out of full lotus position into half lotus. Then he heard the two ghosts talking, “Hey, just now we were bowing to a golden pagoda. How did it become a silver one?" Now it became clear to the monk why the ghosts were bowing to him. Since pagodas contain sharira (jewel-like relics that remain after cremation) of Buddhas and sages, when ghosts see a pagoda, they must bow and pay respect. “They must be seeing a pagoda here," thought the monk in amazement. Well, after what the ghosts perceived as a golden pagoda became a silver one, one of the ghosts said, “There are also sharira in silver pagodas, so we had better keep bowing to pay our respects!" With that, the two ghosts started bowing again.
Meanwhile, the monk sat for another half hour or so in the half-lotus position before his legs began to hurt again. Finally, he could endure the pain no longer. But the rain had not stopped. If it had, he would have left his shelter under the bridge and continued on his way. To ease the pain in his legs, the monk moved into a casual cross-legged sitting position. Well, when the two ghosts took a peek, they simultaneously exclaimed, “Look! This is not a golden pagoda or a silver one. It is just a heap of mud! Let us destroy it!" As soon as the monk heard that the ghosts were going to attack him, he quickly pulled his legs back up and sat in a full lotus position again. The ghosts perceived the heap of mud turn into a golden pagoda again. “Wow! What an awesome state! We had better bow some more." So, they started bowing to the pagoda again.
Thereupon the monk thought to himself, “Hmmm...Full lotus position creates a golden pagoda. Half lotus creates a silver pagoda. Sitting casually is just a mound of mud." Here he was a human being, but those ghosts saw him as a mound of mud. How strange! From that time on, the monk resolved to attain Bodhi and no longer went around peddling Sutras. He stopped chanting sutras for a livelihood. Instead, he practiced meditation in his monastery, always in a full lotus position. After sitting for some time, he became enlightened, whereupon he reflected, “My enlightenment was actually helped along by those two ghosts. If I had not met them, I would not be enlightened today." So after that, he called himself Pressured by Ghosts. That is the name we know him by today: Chan Master Pressured by Ghosts. The ghosts forced him into cultivating.
Seeking a method to avoid death
The Chan sect has a verse that says,
The myriad Dharmas return to One.
The One returns to the origin.
Shen Guang, not understanding this,
Pursued Master Bodhidharma.
He knelt nine years at Bear’s Ear Mountain,
Hoping for a method to avoid King Yama.
Seeking the Dharma is not an easy task. It requires a spirit of sacrifice. Here is a story about that. After traveling by boat from India to China, Patriarch Bodhidharma came ashore at Guangzhou and went north to Nanjing. Passing by the place where Dharma Master Shen Guang was lecturing the sutras, the patriarch went in to join the assembly.
After the lecture, the patriarch asked Master Shen Guang, “What are you doing here?"
Master Shen Guang answered “I am lecturing on the Sutras."
Patriarch Bodhidharma asked, “Why are you explaining the Sutras?"
Master Shen Guang replied, “In order to teach people how to end birth and death."
Patriarch Bodhidharma replied, “The essence of Dharma cannot be put into words. There is no Dharma to be spoken of. As to the Sutras you lecture, the inked areas are words and the blank areas are paper. How can this end birth and death?"
When Master Shen Guang heard that, he became angry and shouted, “You devil! How dare you slander the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. This is outrageous!"
Then he struck Patriarch Bodhidharma on the face with his iron chanting beads!
The patriarch was caught unprepared and two of his front teeth got broken off. Patriarch Bodhidharma thought to himself, “If I spit the teeth on the ground, then this place will suffer three years of great drought." (The folk belief was that if the teeth of a certified sage fell to the ground, the heavens would mete out punishment and the region would suffer a three-year drought.) Patriarch Bodhidharma did not wish to let this region’s people go through the suffering of a drought, so he swallowed the two teeth instead of spitting them out.
His decision accords with the saying, “If someone knocks out the teeth of an arhat, the arhat swallows them." Patriarch Bodhidharma practiced the paramita of patience under insult. Without a word, he left Master Shen Guang’s lecture hall. He crossed the Yangtze River and headed toward the Song Mountain Range in Henan Province.
At that time, the Ghost of Impermanence, under the orders of King Yama, came to invite Master Shen Guang to a tea in the underworld. He asked the monk, “Are you Shen Guang?" Master Shen Guang replied, “Yes." The Ghost of Impermanence said, “King Yama sent me to invite you down for tea." Master Shen Guang was surprised and said, “When I lecture on the sutras, the heavens rain down flowers, and golden lotuses well forth from the earth. Yet I still have to die?" The Ghost of Impermanence said, “Of course you have to die!" Master Shen Guang questioned, “Who in this world is free from death?" The Ghost of Impermanence told him, “That black-faced monk whose teeth you knocked out is free from death."
Master Shen Guang then implored the Ghost of Impermanence saying, “Mr. Impermanence, could you be compassionate and speak to King Yama, asking him to let me go and find the dark-faced monk so that I can learn the method for ending birth and death?" The Ghost of Impermanence agreed to his request. Master Shen Guang then headed north, traveling day and night in order to catch up with Patriarch Bodhidharma. Finally, he arrived at Bear’s Ear Mountain and saw Patriarch Bodhidharma sitting in a cave facing the wall in meditation. He bowed to Patriarch Bodhidharma in repentance. After nine years of kneeling, Master Shen Guang obtained a method to avoid death, and became the Second Patriarch of the Chan School in China.
Enlightenment must be certified before it counts
Before the time of the Buddha Awesome Voice, anyone who became enlightened did not need to be certified by another person. But after the time of the Buddha Awesome Voice, enlightenment has to be certified before it counts. Someone who thinks he or she has become enlightened must have that enlightenment certified by a Patriarch or brighteyed Good and Wise Advisor. For example, the Shurangama Sutra contains the stories of twenty-five sages who each describe how they gained perfect enlightenment, and who then each request Shakyamuni Buddha to certify their attainments.
I will now tell a story of such a certification. During the Tang Dynasty of China, a Great Master called Yongjia (Eternal Excellence) was born in Yongjia county of Zhejiang Province. Because he stayed in Yongjia all his life, people gave him the name of Great Master Yongjia.
After he entered monastic life, he studied the teachings of the Tian Tai School and cultivated meditative contemplation. One day, while reading the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, he suddenly got enlightened. Soon after, he met a disciple of the Sixth Patriarch named Chan Master Xuance (Mystic Law) and related his awakening. Master Xuance suggested that he go to Cao Creek to pay respects to the Sixth Patriarch and request certification of his enlightenment. To do otherwise, to claim that one has become enlightened by oneself without the benefit of a teacher, would make one a follower of the externalists who believe in spontaneity.
When he arrived at Nanhua Monastery in Cao Creek, the Sixth Patriarch was meditating. Master Yongjia, full of pride, strode directly in front of the Patriarch’s meditation seat. Without even making a half bow, let alone a full prostration, he simply grasped his tin staff, walked three times around the Patriarch’s seat, then stood and rapped his staff on the ground.
The Sixth Patriarch said, “Shramanas (monks) ought to possess the Three Thousand Modes of Awesome Deportment, and the Eighty Thousand Subtle Manners. Only when one’s behavior is impeccable does one merit the name Shramana. [Shramana means ‘diligent and putting to rest’. A Shramana ‘diligently cultivates precepts, concentration, and wisdom, and puts to rest greed, hatred, and stupidity.’] Where do you, O Virtuous One, come from? And why are you so arrogant?"
Master Yongjia answered, “Birth and death is the only important thing, and impermanence comes with haste."
The Sixth Patriarch said, “Then why do you not embody birthlessness. Why do you not understand ‘no-haste’?"
Master Yongjia answered, “Once I understood, there is no birth. Once I realized it, there is no haste."
The Sixth Patriarch said, “You have really grasped the idea of birthlessness."
Master Yongjia said, “Do you mean to say that birthlessness is an idea?"
The Sixth Patriarch said, “If it is not an idea, then how can you distinguish it?"
Master Yongjia said, “Making distinctions is not an idea, either."
“You are so right! You are so right!" said the Sixth Patriarch, and thereupon certified him and made him his Dharma heir.
After Great Master Yongjia was certified by the Sixth Patriarch, he planned to return immediately to Kaiyuan (Primary Source) Monastery in Yongjia. The Sixth Patriarch asked him to stay for one night, but the next morning, he went right back to Yongjia. Because his enlightenment to the truth of the Buddhadharma was certified in just a single evening, people of that time nicknamed him, “The Monk Who Became Enlightened Overnight". Afterwards, he energetically propagated the Sudden Teaching of the Chan School and is most noted for his Song of Enlightenment of more than fifty stanzas, which explains the state of sudden enlightenment. The Song is a masterpiece that will long endure and has become required reading for Buddhists.
How Chan meditation can halt the process of birth and death
In the final years of the Northern Song Dynasty in China, there lived a national hero, Yue Fei. His father passed away when he was young. His mother was worthy and wise. Mother and son had only each other to rely upon for support. She taught her young son to read and write. Since the family was too poor to afford brushes, ink and paper, he practiced writing characters in the sand, and eventually became an accomplished calligrapher. Yue Fei entered military service at an early age. His mother tattooed on his back the slogan, “Give your all in service to the country". He never forgot his great vow to save his country’s people.
This was the era when the Tartars (of the Jin Dynasty) invaded the Song Dynasty and captured the capital of Bianjing (Kaifeng). They kidnapped the two Emperors Hui and Qin and took them to the North. Duke Kang established the Southern Song Dynasty in Hangzhou and proclaimed himself Emperor Gaozong. He appointed Qin Hui as his Prime Minister. At that time, the scholars advocated peace, while the military advocated going to war with the Tartars. General Yue Fei gave the Tartars a devastating defeat at the town of Zhuxian (close to Bianjing) and planned to attack their capital towards Yellow Dragon (near Jilin Nongan).
Unfortunately, Prime Minister Qin Hui was jealous of Yue Fei and so issued twelve false summons commanding Yue Fei to return to the capital. Yue Fei’s credo was “loyal subjects are patriots to the end". Thus he led his troops back to the capital. En route he passed by Gold Mountain Monastery, in the middle of the Yangtze River, where he stopped to pay his respects to Chan Master Daoyue (Joy of the Way).
The monk urged him not to return to the capital, but to enter monastic life and cultivate the Way at Gold Mountain Monastery in Zhenjiang. That way, he could avoid all political scandals and conflict. Yue Fei did not take the matter of birth and death seriously, feeling instead that the duty of a military man was to follow orders. He did not follow the philosophy that, “When the general is in the field, he can choose not to follow the emperor’s commands". Thus, he rejected Master Daoyue’s wise suggestion. Before he left, Master Daoyue wrote him a verse that said,
Before the New Year’s Day,
be very cautious of heaven’s tears.
A gift with two dots beneath it
will harm you grievously.
Yue Fei returned to Hangzhou and Qin Hui sent a message to his military reading “No grounds necessary", which was a summons to imprison both Yue Fei and his son. As he approached the executioner’s block, Yue Fei suddenly realized the meaning hidden in Venerable Daoyue’s verse. On New Year’s Eve, which fell on the twenty-ninth day of the twelfth lunar month that year, the heavens poured forth a heavy rain. Hearing the rain as he sat in jail, Yue Fei knew his death was at hand.
The prophecy in the Chan Master’s verse was about to be fulfilled. When you write two dots beneath the word ‘gift’, you get the word ‘Qin’, the name of Prime Minister Qin Hui. Yue Fei was executed at Fengbo Pagoda. Qin Hui asked the executioner what Yue Fei’s final words had been. The executioner said, “I heard him say, ‘I have met my end today, only because I did not heed the advice of Chan Master Daoyue of Gold Mountain.’" Qin Hui flew into a rage and ordered Heli to hurry to Gold Mountain Monastery to arrest Master Daoyue. But the day before, while in Chan samadhi, Master Daoyue had foreseen this situation and had written another verse, which said,
Heli is coming from the South,
But I am going to the West.
If my strength in the Dharma
were not sufficient,
I would surely have fallen
into the villain’s hands.
After he wrote this verse, he entered the stillness of Nirvana. When Heli reached the temple the next day, Master Daoyue had already entered Nirvana. Heli had no choice but to return to the capital and make a report. This story proves that when you have perfected the skill of Chan meditation, you can control your own birth and death. You can go off to rebirth at any time you choose. You are in control of the process, and it is a very natural matter. Chan Masters of the past all possessed this ability. They could be born and die as they wished.
In the Tang Dynasty, there was a Chan Master named Deng Yinfeng (Hidden Summit) who entered Nirvana while standing on his head. The contemporary monk, the Living Buddha of Gold Mountain, entered Nirvana while standing up. Due to their skill in Chan meditation, they could come and go as they pleased, without any restrictions.
The mind of Elder Master Wei Shan did not move
Venerable Master Lingyou Wei Shan of the Tang Dynasty cultivated the Way on Wei Mountain of Hunan Province. There, he gained the samadhi power that enabled him to instantly reach stillness when he sat. He was detached completely from all manner of wealth, relatives, friends, and the five sensual desires. Although Venerable Master Wei Shan did not seek fame and fortune, everyone came to know about his cultivation as time went by. As a result, many people came to give offerings and to draw near him, with the hope of seeking blessings and wisdom. His good reputation even spread to the ears of Prime Minister Pei Xiu, who then went to call upon him.
On the mountain, the Prime Minister saw that there was only a simple hut without even a bed. There was only a sitting cushion and the old venerable simply sat there. When people came, he did not move, and when people left, he did not acknowledge either. He ignored all visitors, neither receiving them nor seeing them off. Prime Minaster Pei Xiu thought, “This old cultivator does not even have a monastery. Since I am wealthy, I might as well make an offering to him so he can build a monastery!" He then ordered his followers to take out three hundred taels of silver. However, Venerable Master Wei Shan neither accepted the offering nor rejected it. There was a clump of grass near the hut and so Prime Minister Pei Xiu hid the silver in it. At that time, three hundred taels of silver was equivalent to about three million dollars now.
Three years later, Prime Minister Pei Xiu thought, “The monastery should be completed by now. Let us go and take a look!" When he arrived at the mountain, he found that there was nothing but the same old hut. No monastery had been built. Prime Minister Pei Xiu then had a false thought, “I gave him money, yet he did not use it to build a monastery and he still appears impoverished. Who knows where the money has gone?"
Thereupon, he asked Venerable Master Wei Shan, “Chan Master! Where is the money that I gave you to build a monastery?" Venerable Master Wei Shan replied, “Look for it where you left it." Pei Xiu walked to the clump of grass and found that the money was still there untouched. Then Pei Xiu had another false thought, “This old cultivator is really lazy. I gave him money and yet he does not even know how to use it. Why is it that the more he cultivates, the more stupid he becomes?" At this point, Venerable Master Wei Shan told him, “Since you think that I do not know how to use money, you had better take it back and spend it on other things. I am not interested in building a monastery that has physical form."
Pei Xiu then realized that this Chan master had some substance, and so resolved to build the monastery for him. He built the physical monastery, but did not know the importance of nurturing the incomparable wisdom of his own mind. Venerable Master Wei Shan did know, and was building an inner monastery of wisdom. If we can silence our mind, quiet our thoughts, and not seek the five desires, then we can also be true cultivators. We should all learn from Venerable Master Wei Shan and not be moved by the sight of money.
An old monk in meditation is worth ten thousand taels of gold
Elder Master Wei Shan once said, “An old monk in meditation is worth ten thousand taels of gold." Prime Minister Pei Xiu knew that entering monastic life was good, but due to his position as premier, he could not leave the home-life. Instead, he built a great monastery that could accommodate two thousand monks cultivating together.
At that time, many monastics heard of the new Way-place at Hunan and flocked there to draw near and learn from Elder Master Lingyou of Wei Shan, who taught Chan meditation and gave talks on the precepts and the Vinaya everyday. Prime Minster Pei Xiu, knowing that he was not destined for monkhood, sent his son to the monastery to become a monk. This son was a Hanlin scholar, a graduate of the country’s highest institution of learning. Venerable Master Wei Shan, observing that this Hanlin scholar had come to enter monastic life, named him Fa Hai and assigned him to fetch water. At that time, there were often a few thousand occupants at the monastery and this job was not easy. There was no tap water and water had to be drawn from the wells from morning until night without stop.
Fa Hai woke up at three o’clock in the morning, and while the Great Assembly was doing the morning recitation, he had already started fetching water. He fetched water like this for several years and did not do any other tasks. He did not even attend any sutra chanting or meditation session. Being a Hanlin scholar, fetching water for the Great Assembly might have seemed unfair to him, but he never complained and just did his best.
One day, it so happened that he had some free time. As he had never known what sort of lessons the monks actually studied, he sneaked into the Chan Hall and took a peek. He saw some monks sitting in an upright posture, and some sitting with their heads lowered, snoring in their sleep. Others had their eyes open and were looking around. Fa Hai thought, “I carry water everyday, working myself to exhaustion and here they are, some sleeping while sitting and others looking around with their eyes wide open. How can these monks be worthy of my offering?!" So he complained in his heart.
Fa Hai harbored these thoughts and although he did not tell anyone, Master Wei Shan knew what was up. He called Fa Hai to the Abbot’s quarters and said, “You have stayed in this monastery for a few years only but now you complain that the monks are not fit to receive offerings from you. As of now, this monastery will not keep you anymore. You can pack your things and go!" His teacher had kicked him out! When Fa Hai went to bid farewell to his teacher, he asked, “Master, I have no money. Where can I go?" Chan Master Lingyou then gave him coins amounting to eight-and-a-half cents and told him, “You can go wherever you wish. When you have finished using the eight-and-a-half cents, then stay at that place. Do not stop until you have used up the money."
At the time, eight-and-a-half cents was equivalent to eighty-five dollars now, which was not much. While on the road, Fa Hai did not dare use any of the money. He begged for alms along the way and traveled from Hunan to Jiangsu Province. Later, he passed by Zhenjiang and saw an island in the Yangtze River. There was a mountain on the island. Fa Hai wished to take a look at the mountain and so waved at the ferryman and asked for the price of the ferry trip. The ferryman asked for exactly eight-and-a-half cents – no more, no less! When Fa Hai arrived at the mountain, he found that although it was not very high, it was serene and quiet. So he decided to settle down there. Later, he discovered a cave in the mountain. In the cave, he found jars filled with gold.
That is how the mountain became known as Gold Mountain. Fa Hai used the gold to build a monastery and continued his Chan practice there. Since then, Gold Mountain’s atmosphere of cultivation has been exceptionally good, and produced many patriarchs. At that time, he had not yet received the full precepts and was still a novice monk, but he was already a founding patriarch. Venerable Master Wei Shan’s famous words, “An old monk in meditation is worth ten thousand taels of gold", is referring to Fa Hai. Fa Hai felt that the monks were not fit to accept his offerings, but that was not true. When a person sits in meditation, he will eventually experience ultimate stillness, and light will penetrate everywhere. It is also said,
Sitting perfectly still in meditation
for even a split second,
Generates merit that surpasses that
of building pagodas of the seven gems
in number like the Ganges’ sands.
That is the reason a meditator is worth ten thousand taels of gold. A student of Buddhism who hopes to attain Buddhahood must practice Chan meditation. Practice diligently and do not be afraid when your legs hurt and your back aches. In that way you will have some success. An old saying goes:
If the plum tree did not endure
cold that chills to the bone,
How could the fragrance
of its blossoms be so sweet?
Do not be attached to states
While meditating, the combination of the four elements of earth, water, fire, and wind, of which we are all composed, can all enter samadhi. They can enter the samadhi of emptiness or the samadhi of neither thought nor non-thought. While we are in samadhi, we should not become attached to states and should not allow ignorance and afflictions to move us. If we do, our chances of becoming enlightened will be obstructed.
Let me tell you another koan to illustrate this. In the past, there was an old cultivator who wanted to be born in the Heaven of Neither Thought nor Non-thought, the highest heaven in the formless realm. And so he cultivated the samadhi of neither thought nor non-thought. He was cultivating on a seashore, and was just about to enter the samadhi of neither thought nor non-thought, when the noise of a fish playing in the water disturbed him so that he could not enter samadhi. When he opened his eyes, the fish immediately swam away. He then continued meditating, and just when he was about to enter samadhi, the fish swam back again. This happened many times and caused the old cultivator to feel terribly frustrated. Anger welled and he thought, “I wish I could turn into a king fisher and eat up all the fish in the water!"
His hatred scared the fish away and it dared not come again. The old cultivator finally managed to enter the samadhi of neither thought nor non-thought, and was reborn in the Heaven of Neither Thought nor Nonthought, where he enjoyed eighty thousand great eons of heavenly bliss. But because of that fit of anger he had in which he said he wished he could become a bird that ate fish, when his heavenly blessings came to an end, he immediately became a king fisher. It was only when Shakyamuni Buddha had attained Buddhahood, and later expounded the Dharma to him, that he was able to discard the body of a king fisher and be reborn as a human being. He then cultivated under the Buddha and attained Arhatship.
This koan shows why cultivators should not casually get angry, as false thoughts will surely receive retribution. In the Shurangama Sutra, a Bodhisattva named Moonlight specialized in cultivating water samadhi. He contemplated water, and when he entered the samadhi of water-radiance, his body would turn into water. Once, when Moonlight Bodhisattva was in the water-radiance samadhi, his young disciple came to look for him. Upon entering his room, the disciple saw only a puddle of water on the floor. The mischievous disciple then picked up a small stone and threw it into the water.
When Moonlight Bodhisattva came out of samadhi, he felt pain in his stomach and, upon investigation, discovered that there was a small stone inside it. He called his disciple and, questioning him, found out that the child had come into his room while he was in samadhi and had thrown a stone into the puddle he saw there. The teacher then instructed his disciple to wait until he entered samadhi again and then come into the room to retrieve the stone. This koan shows us that as long as a cultivator practices with focused concentration and vigor, he will surely succeed. Cultivation requires one to be focused in order to be effective. If our mind remains firm and determined, we will definitely receive a response from the Dharma.
Chan Meditation - It is Hard! It is Easy!
Hard! Hard! Hard!
It is like trying to put ten baskets of sesame
seeds on the leaves of a tree in the yard.
That is how Elder Pang described cultivation. He thought it was not easy. If it did not lead to a backache, then it created pain in the legs. Cultivators experience all sorts of pain and suffering that make it hard to be at ease. It is with great difficulty that one manages to make a little progress. What is more, if we ever let down our guard, all our past efforts will be wasted. That was why Mr. Pang described practice as being like trying to balance lots of sesame seeds on the leaves of a tree. Ten baskets is not a small number, and to place the seeds on the leaves so that they stay there and do not fall off is not an easy thing to do. Mr. Pang had a relative who heard this and asked, “If it is that difficult, then is it not impossible to succeed in cultivation?" Mrs. Pang responded,
Easy! Easy! Easy!
The Mind from the West,
the patriarchs’ intent,
Appears right here on the tip
of each blade of grass.
Don’t you see?
She said cultivation is actually very easy. All the mountains, rivers, flowers, grass and trees express the intention of the Patriarch’s coming from the west. So she found it very easy. Not at all difficult. Someone then asked Miss Pang, the daughter, what she thought about cultivation. She said,
It is not easy.
Nor is it hard.
Just eat when hungry
and sleep when you are tired.
The three of them had very different views about the underlying principle of practice. Mr. Pang, Mrs. Pang, and Miss Pang were part of the same family, and yet they had different opinions. Here, people have come from all directions to attend this meditation retreat and similarly, everyone has got his or her own views. The best way to handle that situation is to talk less and apply more effort in your cultivation.
Neither coming nor going
When I was in Manchuria, China, I had a fellow cultivator who was originally a bandit. Once, when he was robbing someone’s valuables, he was beaten and suffered an injury to his shoulder. Six months passed but still the wounded shoulder did not heal. At that time, he became repentant and realized his past wrongdoings. He decided to change his evil character and embrace goodness, and so he made a vow, “If my injury heals within a week, I will go to my parents’ graves and observe filial piety." After a week, his injury was completed healed. He then fulfilled his vow by spending three years observing filial piety beside his parents’ graves. As he was able to turn over a new leaf, his master gave him the name, Filial Son Yo.
Before Filial Son Yo left for his parents’ graves, he bowed to Dharma Master Zongyi as his master. This Dharma Master had extremely virtuous conduct and gained the respect of many. He even possessed spiritual penetrations. When Filial Son Yo started learning meditation and applying effort, demonic obstacles transformed into a fire dragon that clasped tightly around his waist and burnt him until he was red and painful. In the midst of the demon’s attack, his master subdued the fire dragon. This dragon then took refuge under him and became Filial Son Yo’s Dharma-protector.
During the first two and a half years that Filial Son Yo sat by his parents’ graves, endless rainstorms flooded the fields and destroyed many crops. Because of that, Filial Son Yo made a vow, “If the sky clears in three days, I shall cut off a piece of my own flesh as an offering to the heavens." Sure enough, the heavens accorded with his wish, and the skies cleared in less than three days. As he had promised, Filial Son Yo then cut off a piece of his own flesh as offering to the heavens. When the nearby residents and county officials heard about Filial Son Yo’s offering, they came in droves and praised him without end. About that time, a little bird flew near and sang, “Do more good deeds! Do more good deeds! Doing good deeds is so good!" That little bird stayed close to where Filial Son Yo was sitting for about three weeks before flying away.
It was truly an inconceivable occurance! When Filial Son Yo had completed observing three years of filial piety at his parents’ graves, he began giving talks at the local branch of the Path of Virtue Society and taught beings how to practice the Bodhisattva Path. Filial Son Yo was twenty-one years old when he vowed to uphold his filial duties. At that time, I was in my teens and was also observing filial piety at my mother’s grave. This was why we admired each other.
One day, we happened to meet. We observed each other in silence for a long time. Finally, Filial Son Yo asked, “Who are you?" I answered, “You should know who you are, but I do not know who I am." Filial Son Yo asked again, “Where do you come from?" I replied, “I come from where I came from." I then asked him, “Where are you going?" He only answered, “I have nowhere to go." He had nothing else to reply. There is no place to come from and no place to go to, and so there is neither coming nor going. There is neither coming nor going, and yet there is coming and going. Coming is coming from the place that we came from, and going is going to the place where we are headed. One of the Buddha’s ten names is ‘Tathagata’ (Thus Come One). The Vajra Sutra says, “The Tathagata does not come from anywhere, nor does he go anywhere. Therefore, he is called the Tathagata."
The Three Cart Patriarch
The main purpose of meditation is to eradicate all our past evil karma, regain our original wisdom, and bring our good roots to fruition. We must be patient, and that means not being afraid of hardship. When the sages of old sat in meditation, they could sit for thousands of years. I shall now relate a koan as an example.
During the Tang Dynasty, when Dharma Master Xuan Zhuang was on his way to India to obtain sutras, he encountered an old cultivator in meditation. Birds had built nests on his head and his clothes were torn and tattered. Dharma Master Xuan Zhuang rang his bell to bring the old fellow out of samadhi. The old cultivator asked, “Where do you come from?" Dharma Master Xuan Zhuang replied, “I come from the Land of Tang and I am going to India to seek for Sutras. What are you doing here?"
The old cultivator said, “I am waiting for Shakyamuni Buddha to come into the world. Then I am going to help him propagate the Buddhadharma." Dharma Master Xuan Zhuang said, “Why are you still waiting for the Buddha to come into the world? Shakyamuni Buddha has already passed into Nirvana for more than a thousand years." The old cultivator said, “Is that a fact! Well, in that case, I will wait for the next Buddha, Maitreya, to come into the world."
Thereupon, he prepared to go back into samadhi. Dharma Master Xuan Zhuang interrupted him and said, “I have a matter to discuss with you." The old cultivator replied, “Do not disturb my peace. I do not want to interfere in worldly affairs."
Dharma Master Xuan Zhuang said, “This is not a personal matter. Although Shakyamuni Buddha has already entered Nirvana, his Dharma is still in the world. I want you to help me spread the Buddhadharma and continue the Buddha’s wisdom life. Now, you go to the Land of Tang and wait for me to return with the sutras, and then we shall propagate the Buddhadharma together. From here, go east and get reborn in the house with the yellow-tiled roof."
Before Dharma Master Xuan Zhuang set out for India to bring back the sutras, he made a prediction to Emperor Tai Zong saying, “The branches of the pine tree are now pointing to the west. When they point east, that means I have returned with the Sutras." One day, Emperor Tai Zong noticed that all the tree branches were pointing to the east and he knew that Dharma Master Xuan Zhuang would return soon. When Dharma Master Xuan Zang returned to Chang An, Emperor Tai Zong led all the court officials to the western gate to welcome him. It was a grand reception, and the streets were thronging with people.
When Dharma Master Xuan Zhuang met the Emperor, he immediately said, “Congratulations, Your Majesty, on the birth of a prince." But the emperor replied, “No. I didn’t have a son while you were away." The Dharma Master looked into the matter and found that the old cultivator had missed his mark and been reborn in a house with blue tiles, instead of yellow. The blue-tiled house belonged to the Defence Minister Yu Chi Kong. He was now the nephew of Yu Chi Kong. Dharma Master Xuan Zang urged Yu Chi Kong’s nephew to leave home but was rejected. He then pleaded with the Emperor to issue an edict ordering the war minister’s nephew to enter monastic life, explaining, “It is essential that he leaves home. So no matter what conditions he asks for, agree to all of them."
Immediately, the Emperor issued an edict ordering the war minister’s nephew to leave home. When the nephew of Yu Chi Kong received the imperial command to leave home, he set up three conditions, saying, “My first condition is this. Originally, Buddhism does not permit drinking wine. However, I do not wish to give up drinking wine. I expect that wherever I go, there will be a cart of wine following me." The Emperor knew that one of the five precepts in Buddhism prohibits consuming alcohol, but then, Master Xuan Zhuang had told him to agree to any conditions that the nephew might have. So the Emperor agreed to the first condition. Encouraged, the nephew continued, “Now for my second condition. I was born in the home of a general and I am used to eating meat. After I become a monk, I must still have fresh meat to eat everyday."
The Emperor knew for a fact that monastics do not eat meat, but since Master Xuan Zhuang had already told the Emperor to agree with any terms, Tai Zong therefore had to agree to this one as well. The nephew pressed on, “Here is my third condition. All my life, I have been fond of beautiful women. So wherever I go, I must have a cart full of beauties accompanying me." The Emperor agreed to all three conditions. When Yu Chi Kong’s nephew left home, the entire imperial court gave him a send-off to Da Xing Shan (Great Flourishing Goodness) Monastery to enter monastic life.
On that day, the monastery’s big bell was rung and the gigantic drum was beaten to welcome him. As soon as he heard the bell and drum, he had a sudden enlightenment and remembered that he was the old cultivator who had promised to help Dharma Master Xuan Zhuang propagate the Buddhadharma. The moment he obtained the knowledge of past lives, he gave up the three carts of wine, meat, and women. He became Patriarch Kui Ji, the Second Patriarch of the Fa Xiang (Dharma Marks) School.
But all his life he was also known as the Three Cart Patriarch. He could read ten lines at a glance and could discern clearly what one hundred people talking at the same time were saying. Patriarch Kui Ji helped Dharma Master Xuan Zhuang translate the discourses of the Dharma Marks School. His skills were unsurpassed. He earned the name ‘Master of One Hundred Discourses’.
When the old cultivator sat in meditation, he could sit for a few thousand years. Here, we sit for only twenty-one hours each day, which is really insignificant by comparison. We must learn to look upon all matters as being trifles and should not be attached to anything. Endure suffering and pain. It is only by enduring a moment of pain that we can achieve everlasting happiness. All of you should be courageous and vigorous and cultivate diligently. In this way, you will be able to overcome all obstacles.
Cast aside birth and death
A long time ago, there was a diligent old cultivator who had attained some success. But then, a state came along to test his samadhi power. What kind of state was it? Whenever he meditated and was about to enter samadhi, a big stone would appear, dangling from a rope above his head. If the rope were to break, he would be smashed into a meat patty. He knew that this was only a state, and he ignored it. This happened every day. The stone would be there, dangling above his head. Because of that, he became very cautious in his meditation and dared not fall asleep. But he also could not enter samadhi.
After a few days, the state changed. Now, there was a rat on the rope from which the stone was dangling. The rat was gnawing on the rope. The rope had been thin to begin with and now that the rat was gnawing at it, the danger of the stone crashing down on the meditator increased dramatically. As a result of this state, the old cultivator dared not meditate there again. Actually, such states are all illusions. No matter what states appear, cultivators should ignore them. We must cast aside life and death. If we live, we live. If we die, we die.
Our resolve should be that we would rather die as a result of cultivating than to live without doing so. If we do not fear death and can put everything down, we will surely gain enlightenment. This old cultivator was afraid of death, and so he did not dare to continue his meditation. Once he stopped meditating, his skill did not improve, and he did not accomplish anything.
Off by a hair’s breadth to start with,
We will miss by a thousand miles in the end.
When we cultivate, no matter what states we encounter, we must have the samadhi power to ignore them. By doing that, we will eventually experience some positive results and will be able to overcome obstacles. Once we have overcome the obstacles, we will receive some good news.