Abiding in the Boundless Mind

Dr. Yutang Lin

In the Diamond Sutra (金­頦g) there is a famous saying often quoted by Buddhists, namely, "One should abide nowhere and yet develop one's intentions (應無所住而生其心)." Abiding nowhere means to be free from attachments; and to develop one's intentions [in such a state of mind] means to apply one's mind in an intuitive and spontaneous manner. In the Altar Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch [of the Chinese Chan School] (六祖壇經) it is said that Hui-Neng (惠能), the Sixth Patriarch, comprehended the essence of the teaching upon hearing this sentence. However, for ordinary people it is puzzling as to how to follow this teaching when trying to attain such a state of freedom--how can one develop any intention without abiding somewhere; and what would it be like to abide nowhere?

To be free from attachments and the consequential prejudices is a very difficult task because some attachments and prejudices are easier to discern and formulate while others may be inexpressible and almost humanly impossible to relinquish even when recognized to be such. Therefore, it cannot be accomplished merely by others' pointing them out; it can only be achieved by one's conscious and continuous effort in adopting Buddhist practice. Clarity and tranquility is an innate quality of our mind; however, for those who have become aware of their inner pollution and turmoil it will take long term nourishing to gradually regain purity of mind. Abiding nowhere is an ideal goal of freedom of mind which is hardly applicable to an ordinary person even if he is aspiring to it. In actual practice we need to find a practical guideline showing us the direction toward the summit of abiding nowhere, thereby we may gradually climb out from the whirlpool of worldly suffering and sorrows.

In the course of Buddhist practice it is generally taught that one should develop the Bodhi-mind, establish one's Bodhi-vows, and practice Bodhi-activities; all of these aspire to help all sentient beings attain Enlightenment. This is of course a correct teaching. Nevertheless, upon closer reflection one recognizes that the essential factor in Bodhi-mind, Bodhi-vows and Bodhi-activities, namely, the Enlightenment of Buddha, is only an abstract concept to us ordinary people. Be it described generally as the unification of Wisdom and Compassion (智悲圓融) or in more detail as the five aspects of Wisdom and the four levels of Compassion (­智四悲), it is simply beyond the reach of our ordinary daily lives.

Our daily lives are subject to many conditions and restrictions, and are full of antagonism, hindrance, judgment and choices. The state of Buddhahood is inconceivable and even beyond the limits of time and space. Therefore, the process of reaching Enlightenment is an approximation from a finite state to an infinite one. In the light of this observation it seems to me that the well-known Four Kinds of Boundless Mind (四無量心) would serve as an appropriate guideline in the process of purification toward Buddhahood--our original purity.

The Four Kinds of Boundless Mind are:

Loving-kindness: May all beings have happiness and its causes!
Compassion: May all beings be free from suffering and its causes!
Joy: May all beings enjoy the fruits of Dharma which are beyond suffering!
Equanimity: May all beings abide in the equanimity which renounces all worldly discriminations!

All of them share one essential feature--its scope encompasses all sentient beings without limitation of space and time.

These four kinds of Boundless Mind guide us to serve all sentient beings in the following order: First, we should endeavor to help them become free from suffering and attain happiness, and we need to consider rationally the causal conditions involved in order to plant proper causes and develop favorable conditions. Secondly, we should pursue the joy which is beyond the suffering of transmigration, hence we need to learn and practice the teachings of Buddha. In our daily activities we should endeavor to incorporate a spirit of being free from attachments beyond selfish considerations, and opening up to the world in taking others' interest to heart. Thirdly, only when we abide nowhere, i.e., staying in the equanimity and clarity of mind which is free from discrimination and prejudice, can we attain liberation and also serve sentient beings sincerely and appropriately. This means, in practice, we should be patient, tolerant, above prejudiced favoritism, and maintain a universal loving-kindness.

The spirit of these four kinds of Boundless Mind should be integrated as a whole. Thus they teach us to abide in the equanimity of abiding nowhere, from which spontaneously develop activities that relieve suffering of and bring happiness to all sentient beings, and perfect our services by bringing about the joy of Enlightenment transcending transmigration. Following this teaching we will have a definite goal in reflecting on ourselves, namely, to purify our intentions and enlarge our horizons. We will also have a tangible guideline in serving others, namely, to relieve suffering, bring happiness and share the joy of the Dharma. Furthermore, since all four kinds of Boundless Mind center around all sentient beings and together they aim at the ultimate joy of Buddhahood, their application is naturally boundless in time and space. Consequently, the ultimate realization of Buddhahood is forthcoming from their backstage, and the Bodhi-activities are interwoven into their functioning.

In reality, how could we relieve suffering of all sentient beings, bring happiness to them, and share the joy of the Dharma with them? We are so limited in our resources and abilities that neither a definite answer nor a feasible solution is apparent. Upon such a cool and rational reflection one may wonder if the four kinds of Boundless Mind are merely fanciful idealism that can yield only temporary and psychological self-deceit. No, that is not the case. Although absolute ideals need to be seasoned by real-life experiences to become pragmatic wisdom, and a paradise on earth requires constant maintenance and reconstruction from damage and destruction caused by nature or human folly, if we do not march step by step toward truth, beauty and goodness, we will inevitably sink inch by inch into the mire of survival by violence and brutal force. Whatever we enjoy now is the result of an accumulation of effort and labor, and the cocoon of sorrow enclosing us has been woven continuously by tiny threads of selfishness, therefore we cannot but be cautious in choosing the direction of our activities. Stop not from doing even trivial acts of goodness; and stall not from marching onto a long journey. The higher the ideal, the more diligent and strenuous we should be.

As far as an individual is concerned, without the guidance of the four kinds of Boundless Mind one would be immersed in the sorrows and conflict of interests of daily life, then how could one be free from agony and self-centeredness, and when will one find a moment of tranquility and rest? In contrast, when one abides in the openness of the four kinds of Boundless Mind the ups and downs of personal life is readily accepted as it is--a "small potato" in the universe. The four kinds of Boundless Mind guide us to transcend the antagonism and criticism among individuals and to direct all our efforts toward relieving suffering of and adding happiness to the world. Engaging in the endless activities of compassionate service would free us from the prison of self-centeredness and nourish all of us with the universal love encompassing all sentient beings. To engage in compassionate service it is not necessary to go in an eccentric way. One may just as well spread the spirit of Boundless Mind in daily life with the awareness of boundless compassion--be helpful and kind to people you encounter, be tolerant to induce peace and harmony, and you will add happiness to life and gradually mature in wisdom.

Abiding nowhere is too difficult to practice for most of us; therefore, I suggest that we adopt the more tangible Four Kinds of Boundless Mind as the guiding principle of our daily activities. I hope that in this way the practitioner may gradually approach and realize the state of abiding nowhere and yet developing one's intentions. However, right at the moment of complicated weighing and calculating of loss and gain it is almost impossible to even think of Boundless Mind. To overcome such a difficulty we need to develop the habit of doing certain Buddhist practices daily at a regular time. A good practice recommended by many Buddhist sages and teachers as suitable for most of us is the chanting of Amitabha. Through the force of habit developed by daily practice our mind may become clearer and purer.

On the one hand, we need to remind ourselves of the impermanence and transiency of life, and conclude that life is too short and precious to throw into inconsequential arguments and fights. Such an awakening will free us from our sorrows. On the other hand, we need to practice diligently the chanting of Amitabha (or some other Buddhist practice) to purify our minds through constant repetition of a pure and holy name. In this way we will not get lost in the necessity and triviality of worldly subsistence and may retain a peace of mind for enjoying the leisure of a simple and pure life as revealed in the following stanza of the Chinese poet Tao Yuan Ming (陶淵明):

Gathering flowers near the East fence
In leisure the South Mount I notice!

August 8, 1994
Chinese Father's Day
El Cerrito, California

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