The following talks were given by Ch'an Master Sheng-yen during a seven-day Ch'an retreat at the Ch'an Meditation Center in Elmhurst, New York some years ago.
This the first morning of a seven day intensive retreat. Some of you are here for the first time. Probably, some of you didn't sleep well last night. You're in an unfamiliar environment, and the street noises of New York City never stop. Perhaps you're nervous or overly anxious about what will happen as the retreat progresses. This is all normal. You will adjust, but accept that it might take three days, possibly more. Just relax. In addition to your surroundings and psychological state, you also have your body to contend with. Most of you will suffer from leg and back pains. Again, my advice is to relax. Your body as well as your mind will adjust quickly if you do not put up resistance, if you relax into the situation. Make a firm commitment to focus, to leave thoughts of past and future outside these doors. You can, and certainly will, return to your issues once the retreat ends, but they will hinder your practice now. And you are here to practice. Your mind should be on your method. When the inevitable wandering thoughts appear, do not follow them. Simply recognize them and return to the method. Know that once you identify a wandering thought for what it is, you are no longer on that thought. If you can do this, I guarantee you will have no anxiety over wandering thoughts. To practice successfully, you must relax both body and mind. To accomplish this, decide not to be concerned with thoughts or physical sensations, both real and imagined. Easier said than done, but if you can do this and focus solely on your method, then time will fly by. On the other hand, if you become preoccupied with your thoughts and physical condition, then time will drag and you'll experience a lot of suffering. Another difficulty all of you will face is your expectation of what you might gain from this retreat. I'm sure you all have personal goals and expectations concerning your practice. I'm telling you now to forget them. They do not exist. You are here to practice. That is your goal; you have already achieved it. Now you must continue to make it a reality. Put your illusory goals and expectations with your thoughts of past and future. Practicing is like working for a salary. If all of your attention is focused on your future paycheck, your on-the-job effectiveness will diminish. You might even be fired. Also, realize that this work only issues checks when the work is done. So, this first day's theme is to relax -- your body and your mind. Give your body to the cushion and your mind to the method. The rest will take care of itself.
There are four principles of daily life activities that impact on our practice. I will consider the first two together, namely to be tidy and clean. When we keep our environment clean and in order, it will influence the mind to be less scattered. An unkempt and dirty environment will likely add to your confusion and disturb your practice. That is why ask you, during retreat, to keep your area in order. I ask you to put away your bedroll upon waking so that it looks as if no one was sleeping there. When sitting, place your extra belongings between your cushion and the next person's, not in front of or behind you. When you rise from sitting meditation, fold your towel neatly and place it on top of the round cushion, and center the round cushion on the square cushion. While walking, take the initiative to pick up any debris you may find on the floor. Tidiness should carry over during mealtime as well. When finished eating, place the bowl on the plate with your spoon or chopsticks to their right. Leave your area clean. Use the napkin to clean your face and hands as well as the table in front of you. Wash your bowl and plate with water from the pitchers and then drink the water. Dry your bowl and plate with the napkin and place any remaining debris, such as fruit rinds, in the bowl. If we cannot even keep our environment clean, how can we expect to purify our minds? An ordered environment helps to pacify the mind and positively influences our practice. The third principle is to remain peaceful. Our every movement should manifest peacefulness. When we can maintain peace and gentleness in our behavior, we will naturally generate the fourth principle -- harmony -- in our relationship with others. To be truly harmonious with others, however, one must first be harmonious with oneself. A harmonious mind is not plagued with contradictions and self-criticism. When we are at peace with ourselves, it is naturally easier to be at peace with others and the environment. Even in the midst of adversity, we should try to maintain peace within ourselves and encourage harmony with others. Here on retreat, you have a chance to work on keeping your environment clean and your mind peaceful. To do this, focus on your mind. It is where everything begins. Do not be concerned with others' practice and behavior. Attend to your practice and let others attend to theirs.
There are several ways one can meditate on the breath. One is to be mindful of the breathing process; that is, be aware of the length of the breath or of the subtle movements of the abdomen. In maintaining such awareness, do not attempt to control the rhythm of your breath or your moving abdomen. Simply be aware of the relationship between breath and abdomen. The limitation of this method, although it makes you feel stable and comfortable, is that it is difficult to move beyond this point. That is why I usually advise the method of counting breaths. When counting, do not concentrate on your abdomen or the length of your breath. Instead, breathe normally, and when exhaling, focus on the number 1. Maintain your awareness on the number 1 until the next exhalation, and then count 2. Do this silently up to 10, and then begin again. While counting, wandering thoughts will naturally arise. The advantage of this method is that you will notice their intrusion quickly, providing you with an efficient reminder to return to the method. Whenever you notice that you have lost count and are following your wandering thoughts, return to your breath and begin at 1 again. Do this for the entire sitting period. Sometimes you are so scattered you cannot even get to 10, or you repeat a number over and over, or you over count. If this occurs without improvement, try the following alternative counting method: First, count even numbers backward from 20 to 2 (again, changing numbers with each exhalation), and then count odd numbers backward from 19 to 1. Because it requires more concentration, this method usually helps to lessen scattered ness. There are three important requirements for the proper use of concentration methods. First, disengage your intellect. Second, cultivate patience. In other words, relax your mind and emotions. Third, after settling into the correct posture, relax your body. Tension, whether it be physical or mental, has a detrimental effect on practice. It leads to resistance, which in turn causes exhaustion; and you cannot focus on your method if you are exhausted. To learn to relax your body and mind, and to give your body to the cushion and your mind to the method, is the foundation of effective meditation practice.
In Ch'an, there are three principles of practice. I talked about the first, in part, yesterday. Being neat, orderly, peaceful and harmonious are daily behaviors. This, along with other guidelines, fall under the principle of living in accordance with precepts. The second principle is samadhi, which can be expanded to include meditative methods. How do we use methods to stabilize the mind? Past patriarchs have said that samadhi is none other than the mind. It follows, then, that cultivation of samadhi through meditation methods will lead to a clear, stable mind. It is generally accepted that the cultivation of samadhi leads to the generation of wisdom, the third principle. Other spiritual disciplines view wisdom in a different light. Their levels of deep meditative absorption (samadhi) lead to greater intelligence, insight, mental stability, but not liberation. The wisdom that Buddhism speaks of refers directly to enlightenment and liberation. In the Platform Sutra, the Sixth Patriarch says that samadhi is wisdom and wisdom is samadhi. When samadhi accords perfectly with wisdom, this is Ch'an. Wisdom is the fulfillment of the complementary relationship between principle (theory) and practice. The essential theory states that there is no true self because nothing is permanent. Yesterday I described the method of watching the breath. This, in fact, is contemplating impermanence. Breath, body movements, numbers, all continuously change from moment to moment. During sitting meditation, it is equally important to contemplate the impermanence of wandering thoughts. Thoughts, as much as anything else, continuously arise and perish. The idea of self is generated by thoughts, or rather, from attachment to these thoughts. Once we experience and realize the ephemeral nature of these thoughts, we also experience the ephemeral nature of the self. Thoughts have no independent, external existence, and neither does the self that identifies with them. The experience of impermanence is of paramount important in one's practice. Practitioners of outer paths interpret samadhi as non-movement of the mind. They do not realize that even in non-movement there is still one thought. Although they remain fixed on this one thought, it still subtly and continuously moves. When thought remains, even one thought, there still exists the idea of self. There are still attachments. If the mind were truly unmoving, there would be no self. Ch'an believes that it is more important to recognize and experience impermanence than to try to halt the thinking process. If we can maintain an awareness of the impermenence of thoughts, we will see there is no self that attaches to these thoughts. We will be able to directly perceive each thought as selflessness. This itself is wisdom. Liberation, according to Ch'an, comes through an understanding of the concept of impermanence, followed by direct experience of this impermanence. In order to experience liberation, we must first follow the precepts (the principles I outlined yesterday) and practice a method diligently. We must practice with an understanding of wisdom, so that we can experience it directly. This is the wisdom of liberation. This is sudden enlightenment.
Although I can't provide you with the experience of enlightenment, I can offer you advice. If you put this advice to use, it may help your practice. It is you who must do the work and follow the Path. I just give guidance and direction. Two problems plague practitioners: drowsiness and scattered mind. Drowsiness afflicts everyone -- beginners, advanced practitioners, even masters. Today, however, I want to address scattered mind. Scattered mind, or the inability to concentrate on a method because of the intrusion of wandering thoughts, is caused by an improper understanding of how to use the method. Other contributing factors are mental fatigue and idleness. When scattered mind frequently occurs, the first thing to do is relax your body and mind. In other words, temporarily rest. Consciously put the method aside and take a break. If idleness is the root of your problem, you won't even realize that you have left the method. You'll be completely immersed in your wandering thoughts. To be effective in your practice, it is important to will yourself to return to the method once you realize you've left it. There are three levels of practice. The first is called "taking it up," and it means to return to the method over and over again. The second is contemplation, which means to be smoothly and continuously on a method of practice. The third level manifests when contemplation is uninterrupted. This is illumination. Illumination is the clear awareness that you are on the method. Of the three, illumination is most important. When you are working smoothly on all three levels, you are truly using the method correctly. During such times, speaking of scattered mind is irrelevant. There will be no scatteredness. It will also help you to overcome drowsiness. Sometimes, however, the best thing to do is rest. So, at this point, most of you should be concerned with the first level of practicing a method, namely taking it up. Don't be swayed by tempting thoughts. Continuously bring yourself back to the method.
Today I will talk more on illumination. No matter which method you use -- counting breaths, hua-t'ou, etc -- your attention is to point inward; the light of awareness is to reflect back to illuminate the mind. Therefore, you should know whether or not you are on the method, scattered, or dull. Knowing where you are in relation to these three conditions is itself cultivation of the path. In regard to the method of counting breaths, along with the consciously directed act of counting, you will naturally develop a simultaneous awareness that knows you are counting. It is not a direct, conscious awareness; rather, it is peripheral, indirect, unintentional. This awareness is illumination. It should be present no matter which method you use. I should make clear that illumination is not concentration. Concentration demands energy, but illumination is effortless. It rises of its own accord as a natural part of the method. It is like a mother who is busy doing something while her child plays nearby. Although she is not watching the child directly, she is always aware of where the child is and what the child is doing. After you have spent considerable time practicing a method and have become familiar with it, illumination will be so strong that you will no longer be aware of external stimuli. You will be close to that level beyond awareness of space and time, when thoughts are minimal and the body ceases to be a burden. This is effective practice indeed.
In order to practice effectively for more than a couple of periods, you must learn to relax your body and mind; otherwise, physical and mental exhaustion will overtake you. On the other hand, while relaxing the body and mind, you must guard against laziness and dullness. If you can maintain this balance between exhaustion and dullness, the energy that is freed up can be channeled into the practice of the method and the cultivation of determination and will-power, which are necessary to continue on the path. Usually, after a long time practicing with one method, you become bored and feel you going nowhere. It is like driving a car across the heartland of America. Hour after hour, the scenery seems the same. You aren't even aware how fast you are going. Then, suddenly, you arrive at your destination. In the same way, though you may be practicing well, it may seem you're not making any progress. If, however, you generate the power to go on -- and on and on, if need be -- suddenly you will arrive. Do not give in to boredom. On the other hand, recognize that when you are excited because you feel you are making progress, you have lost the method. It is necessary to avoid both emotional extremes and simply rely on your determination to continue to work. Since the practice might seem difficult, especially in the beginning, it might be helpful to think of yourself as a trailblazer, carving a path through unknown wilderness. After you have surmounted obstacles and bypassed obstructions a few times on your way to your destination, the path will no longer seem the same. Though obstructions will still be there, your experience in dealing with them will render them ineffective. Practice is a long process. Your objectives on a retreat are to learn correct attitudes for practice and to become thoroughly familiar with your method through continuous work. This will improve your daily practice, helping you to become more diligent, perseverant and patient. Also, you will naturally become more relaxed in body and mind. All these benefits cannot help but improve your life and your practice.
Already, half the retreat is over. The remainder of the retreat will pass quickly for most of you. It's like life. When I was young, it seemed to take forever to grow one year older. Now each year flies past. I turn around and twenty years are gone. The sutras say everything is impermanent and each fragment of time goes by quickly. Anything we see, hear, or experience is impermanent. When Sakyamuni Buddha first turned the Dharma Wheel, he expounded the doctrine of impermanence. During every Evening Service, we recite, "Be mindful of impermanence, Be careful of idleness." Realize the time you have to practice is precious, fleeting. Once gone, it can never return. If you maintain a clear awareness of the impermanence of life, you will not waste time engaging in vexing thoughts, like jealousy, arrogance, or pointless self-criticism. Not only does the generation of vexations harm you, it also harms those you come in contact with. Therefore, if you maintain this mind of impermanence, you will work hard and practice better; and you will of benefit to yourself and to others. If you feel drowsy during practice, remember impermanence; you will realize you have no time to waste sleeping. If you are afflicted by scatteredness, remeber impermanence; you will realize there is no time to waste with wandering thoughts. Participating on a retreat is a rare occurence. Do your best to make the best of such an opportunity. Some of you have been on many retreats and think you've been practicing for years. This is nonsense. If you consider one or two hours a day of daily meditation and a yearly retreat as continuous practice, you're mistaken. Most of your days, including now, in the midst of a retreat, you are lost in vexation, wandering thoughts and drowsiness. Is this true practice? Great Ch'an practitioners never let there minds stray far from impermenance, and so they practice hard and don't waste time. When they weren't meditating, they used the teachings of the Buddhadharma to help themselves and others. Only when you truly realize that life is impermanent and time short will you be able to practice consistently hard. From now, I suggest you prostrate to your cushion before sitting, to remind yourself of this. Make a vow to be diligent. After you sit down, make another vow not to wait, not to expect the bell to ring signaling the end of the period. Plunge yourself wholeheartedly into the practice. You must do this, because life is impermanent and time is short. At the same time you use the concept of impermanence to immerse yourself in practice, you must also continue to relax your body and mind. It sounds contradictory, but you must approach practice with an alert and diligent, yet relaxed attitude. If you allow yourself to become tense, you will soon become exhausted. If you relax to the point of sleep, kneel on the hard floor for a few minutes. That ought to wake you up. If you become merely drowsy, open your eyes wide and stare at the wall in front of you while you continue to meditate. Once your eyes well with tears, drowsiness should subside. Because our sense of time in daily life is long, maintaining a mind of impermanence is difficult. We become complacent and think we have all the time in the world to do things. Cultivating ourselves during retreats equip us with knowledge and experience that can only enhance our daily lives. The idea of impermanence does not give us leave to do nothing or care about nothing. Quite the reverse, because everything is impermanent, we have no time to waste in idleness, especially when it comes to practice. I once met a man who had only a few months to live. In those remaining months, he accomplished several years worth of work. If you can develop a similar attitude and apply it to practice, your progress will be quick and smooth.
Later today I will teach you the prostration method. Prostrations are part of Ch'an practice. There are different ways to approach prostrations, one of which is to do repentance prostrations with form. Later, you'll learn formless repentance, as described by the Sixth Patriarch in the Platform Sutra. It is better to start with form and move to formlessness. It would be similar to learning about emptiness before learning ways to cultivate the path of emptiness. If you learned about emptiness first, you might decide that, since everything is empty, there's no point in doing anything, including practice. That would be a serious misunderstanding. Because we are all self-centered, we must begin with the self -- existence -- and work toward the realization of emptiness. Repentance requires a sense of shame or humility. I always have trouble getting this point across, because there is no English word that fully conveys the meaning of the Chinese character. Shame and humility both have connotations which slant the meaning somewhat, but it is all we have to work with. In describing it, perhaps you will get the proper idea. In order to give rise to this feeling of humility, you must develop the capacity for introspection. Introspection, or self-reflection, is directed toward body, speech and mind, the three elements which create karma. Introspection, if conducted with a clear sense of honesty, will naturally lead to the realization that most of our behavior is self-centered -- which at one point or another, causes suffering for ourselves and others. With this realization will also come a better understanding of our motivations, and our misinterpretation and misunderstanding of those understandings. From this understanding should hopefully come a sense of humility, and the motivation to change our behavior. It is rare that we recognize our own faults. We usually blame others or the environment, and see ourselves as victims. Because most people act from self-centeredness, it leads to conflict and suffering. We increase one another's vexations. We live in an ocean of suffering. The purpose of practice is to attain wisdom and liberation. We become liberated from this ocean, and with it comes clarity, or wisdom. All our practice and cultivation must begin with self- reflection. From the subsequent sense of humility, or shame, comes genuine repentance. If you are unable to recognize your mistakes and you go on believing you have done/said/thought nothing wrong, then your self-centeredness is strong. It will be difficult for you to benefit from practice and a teacher's guidance. You need to give rise to this sense of humility and the subsequent desire to repent in order to move forward. You must be the one to do this. No one can do it for you. Self-centeredness is greed, hatred, arrogance and destructive self-criticism. We all have these qualities, to one degree or another. It is all self-centeredness. However, if we hold strongly to our ways and feel we are right, that we know everything there is to know, then practice will be difficult. It will be difficult to give rise to humility, a necessary step on the path to liberation. Sakyamuni Buddha told his disciples that developing a sense of humility was a fundamental part of practice. A person without this quality would be incomplete and unable to sincerely repent. Such a person cannot alleviate karmic obstructions. Karmic obstructions can stifle progress in many ways. One way to progress is to find a good teacher. However, don't think that teachers are omniscient. You must take the initiative to ask the teacher for help or advice. Your inability to seek or accept advice is entirely due to your karmic obstructions. They might manifest in your character, expressions, ideas, actions; but they all act as a wall separating you from your teacher. Your wall makes you invisible or unrecognizable. It does not allow the teacher to offer help. Someone with few karmic obstructions can be helped easily by teachers. Past patriarchs have said this, and I have experienced it myself. Just a few words can provide a great deal of help, and it usually results in deep gratitude on the part of the practitioner toward the teacher. Those with heavy obstructions require a lot of work and attention, and their progress is slow. Usually, too, such people end up blaming or criticizing the teacher.
Karmic obstructions are greed, hatred, arrogance and destructive self-criticism. Greed and hatred spring from the same source. When we cannot attain what we desire (greed), very often the desire will change to aversion (hatred). Arrogance and Destructive self-criticism, or self-pity, also spring from the same source. When we want others to think highly of us (arrogance) and they don't, very often we will turn to putting ourselves down (self-pity). The central root of these obstructions is ignorance, or lack of self-faith. If you do not have faith in yourself, in your abilities, you will come to depend on others. You will expect the effort and energy of others to benefit you. This belief contradicts the law of karma -- cause and effect -- which says that the person who expends the effort receives the result. If you can generate a sense of humility and sincerely repent your past self-centered actions, you will develop a receptive mind. With a receptive mind you will meet good teachers and be helped by them. With a humble and receptive manner, your karmic obstructions will lighten. At the instant our concept of self changes, our ability to receive help will also increase.
A mind of humility, coupled with a sense of shame, will enable you to repent and open to a more harmonious and peaceful existence. You'll no longer waste energy in an attempt to protect yourself and reject others. To help us on this path, we can practice repentance prostrations, with an attitude of humility and a sense of shame, in consecutive stages. First you should remember your childhood. Try to remember all the things you said and did that hurt others (and, consequently, yourself). Then do the same for your teen-age years, early adulthood and so on until the present. It is necessary, while doing repentance prostrations, to look deeply into your heart. Because we don't know how to resolve the conflicts that arise from introspection, and don't know how to deal with the emotional turmoil that usually results from such memories, we normally avoid self-reflection. However, now is the time to do just this. Now is time to recognize shortcomings and repent. This is the purpose of these prostrations. Afterwards, you will be purged of negative emotions and have a pure mind again. I have told you, from the first day of the retreat, to focus attention on yourself and not be concerned with others. Don't look around to see what other retreatants are doing. It's none of your business. Previously, I have emphasized faith as being necessary in one's practice. There are three kinds of faith: faith in oneself, faith in the method, and faith in the teacher. On this retreat, I am the teacher. If you have faith in me, but not yourself, that would be an external, outer path. If you have faith only in yourself, and distrust me, you won't be able to benefit from my guidance and experience. You would be practicing blindly. The Dharma of Ch'an is introspection. Through introspection we gain a clear understanding of our good qualities and shortcomings. With this intimate knowledge of ourselves comes greater faith in ourselves. This faith will enable us to interact with others and the world with more tolerance and harmony.
How do we obtain wisdom? Many practitioners believe Buddhist wisdom comes from enlightenment. So then, how does one become enlightened? Wisdom and enlightenment manifest when your focus changes from the self; when greed, hatred, ignorance, arrogance, suspicion and doubt, which arise from self-centeredness, no longer manifest. One accomplishes this through methods of practice. Practice is guided by views, or attitudes. When one's attitude is correct, it is called "right view." When it's off base, then it's called "heretical view." To develop right view, you need to expand your awareness from the self to all sentient beings. Self- centeredness slowly dissolves as you develop compassion for others. When self-centeredness no longer arises, wisdom manifests. The development of compassion is the development of bodhi mind. Complete bodhi mind is anuttara samyak sambodhi (unsurpassed, altruistic, enlightened mind). To generate bodhi mind, which means achieving Buddhahood, you must traverse the Bodhisattva path; that is, develop compassion such that your concern will be directed toward saving all sentient beings. Sakyamuni Buddha practiced for the benefit of sentient beings. In his wisdom he saw the inevitable cycle of birth, aging, sickness and death. He also the constant cycle of life and death when larger animals preyed on smaller animals. He practiced to find methods that would help to alleviate the suffering of sentient beings. Thus, compassions was Buddha's starting point. Everyday we recite and chant the Four Great Vows. The first vow is, "I vow to deliver innumerable sentient beings." The last vow is, "I vow to attain Supreme Buddhahood." In the order of the vows that we must develop compassions and deliver sentient beings first, and attain Buddhahood later. Most of us want to derive personal benefit from meditation. We want enlightenment. But think of it this way. Say you want bread. In the old days, you had to plant a crop of grain first. Now you have to work so you can buy it. Even beggars have to make an effort to get food. The point is, you have to expend energy to attain a goal. In our practice we must also expend energy. We must plant seeds. And our field is sentient beings. We need to establish a connection with sentient beings. Doing this, we generate compassion, which eventually can lead to bodhi mind. In light of what I said, we should vow that whatever you do will be done for the benefit of sentient beings. When we sit to meditate, we should desire to sit for the benefit of sentient beings. To help others become healthy, you must learn how to be healthy too, and you must learn the ways so that you can help others also learn. This is the path of compassion.
Practice and cultivation in the Ch'an sect are often misunderstood by outsiders or newcomers. People read stories and koans where practitioners attain enlightenment upon hearing a single word. It's misleading. They think they can become enlightened by reading one or two books. Especially misleading can be the term, "sudden enlightenment." People read this and think enlightenment requires little, if any, practice. They wait for enlightenment to strike them spontaneously. Very few people have become enlightened, including disciples of great patriarchs. For example, Master Ma-tzu had the greatest number of disciples in Ch'an's history. He also had the greatest number who attained enlightenment, about 120. Sung dynasty master Ta-hui Tsung-kao once helped eighteen disciples reach enlightenment in a single night. Simple arithmetic tells us that if he kept up that pace, he could help 180 disciples reach enlightenment in ten days, 1800 in one hundred days! Obviously, it doesn't work this way. Ta-hui was not handing out diplomas. I counted the number of disciples who achieved enlightenment under his guidance -- less than 25 in his entire career. He just had a spectacular night. Still, you might be impressed by the numbers I've rattled off. Remember, though, that Ch'an Buddhism has been around for centuries, and thousands upon thousands of people have devoted their lives to practice. What about the vast majority who did not achieve enlightenment? Was practice a waste of time for them? Should they have given it up? I don't think you believe this. Everyone derives benefit from practice, to one degree or another. Many people believe that the whole purpose of practice is to achieve enlightenment. Such people would like everyone else to help them in their practice and lend their support. After enlightenment, they will gladly return the favor. This is not the way to develop compassion or follow the first of the Four Great Vows. Such people can even change from being initially loving kind to becoming more and more selfish. Insisting that others cater to them instead of offering their help to others. Practicing in this manner for years will only serve to create heavy karmic debts. They are making it even more difficult for themselves to achieve enlightenment. They have forgotten that the foundation of practice is benefiting sentient beings. Practice and generating bodhi mind complement each other. When your practice is an even mixture of both, you and others will benefit. Please, keep compassion in the forefront of your mind. If it is difficult for you, then develop a sense of humility, which serves as a catalyst for the growth of compassion.
At times people will ask me how long it takes to achieve enlightenment. There is no set time. A second, an hour, a year, a lifetime, many lifetimes. In ordinary matters, on person might achieve in an hour what takes another a week. One person, with a single phrase, might save a million people, whereas another might not be a single person in an entire lifetime. Don't waste your time calculating how long it will take; rather, consider your diligence now, consider your karmic obstructions. Karmic obstructions are obstructions generated and carried in our minds from time without beginning, through life after life until now. The bad and good karma that we have created is carried within our minds. Ceaselessly, thought after thought, we carry this karmic debt, and we continue to attach to our selves. This is what drives us on.
Environmental karmic obstructions are trivial compared to those within the mind. They are more easily overcome. I knew a monk who had to return to lay life, and when he began working, he abandoned his practice because he felt overwhelmed. On the other hand, I know a lay person who has a complicated job, and he says that, in fact, the job encourages him to practice better. Even if the jobs were similar, why should they have opposite effects on two different people? Realize that the environment is only a minor aspect of one's obstruction. True obstruction comes from the mind. If you maintain a mind of humility, then you can practice any time, any place. Also, if you maintain the impetus to generate bodhi mind, then every person you meet will be a recipient and a source of help. Not only every person, but every situation can become both a recipient and a source of benefit. One situation may cause in aversion in some, yet help others to practice better. Remember, any situation can be an asset to your practice. It depends on your point of view. The cultivation of Ch'an is to transform ourselves, not the environment. Once we are transformed, the environment will also, quite naturally, have transformed, and we can positively influence everyone we come in contact with.
There are many reasons practitioners do not attain the Way or derive much benefit from cultivation of the path. Two big reasons are lack of determination and perseverance. It's like when you travel to a destination you've never been to before. It seems far away and to take forever to get there. People who have never seen their self-nature can be impatient in their desire to experience it. Beginning practitioners may begin to doubt that they are on the right path, or that the path even exists. This is the last full day of the retreat. Don't think that it's the last day for cultivation though. The purpose of retreat is to better learn how to use your method of practice and to develop a better attitude to guide your practice. If you can learn these things, you be able to continue your practice with few interruptions. We grow on retreats. We increase our faith by becoming more aware of our shortcomings. How is this? The more we recognize our undesirable qualities, the less we will hold on to them. Perhaps we'll replace them with better qualities. It is sometimes said that to generate bodhi mind, to make vows of continuous practice and to practice well is easy compared to maintaining a perseverant mind. Therefore, I urge you to work especially hard today. If the previous days have been difficult, put it aside. Today is today. It is important that you not give or slacken in your effort. It is important to complete the retreat. Finishing strongly helps to develop this perseverant mind. Think of fishermen. Our tools are methods; their tools are nets. Fishermen cast out their nets, but they must also drag them back in, whether they have caught fish or not. If they do not collect their nets, it means they do not intend to fish again. They finish their work by hauling in their nets. We, too, must finish our work. You can also think of it as a city maintenance crew. At night they come along and dig up the road to repair pipes underneath. If they do not finish their work, they cover up the road so it can be used again. The next night they continue their work, opening up the road to work on more pipes. Our cultivation is like this. One retreat will probably not resolve all of your problems or cure your faults; however, you must complete this period of repair work. You can always come back on another retreat to continue your intensive work. If you have a perseverant mind, you will work on yourself until all problems are resolved. On these retreats, the more faults you find, the better. It means you are really working. On your last day of practice, I remind you that working with diligence has nothing to do with tension. Tension is a self- defeating obstruction. Diligence is uninterrupted practice.
There's only a half day left until the end of retreat. This is plenty of time to work hard. Enough time. From now until Evening Service there are six hours. Make every thought and every movement a method of practice. Make every place at all times a bodhi mandala -- a place for practice. If you can do this deeply, then even after the retreat ends, all times and situations will remain opportunities for practice. All thoughts and actions are practice. Try your best to make good use of every second remaining. Be acutely aware of any subtle body movement and thought. Every moment, stay on your method. After all these days of practice, you should know what is meant by relaxing body and mind. After doing this, put your mind on the method. Don't be angry if you cannot accomplish this in every moment. Do your best from one moment to the next. All you can do is give one hundred percent of yourself. That is the practice. Regard the retreat as a marathon. All of you must finish the race, whether you are first or last. This attitude of perseverance which you are cultivating here will be very useful in your daily life. Try to always finish what you start. A house is not complete until the last tile is laid in place.
There are four kinds of prostrations. The first kind is for fulfilling wishes. When we prostrate, we ask the buddhas and bodhisattvas to help us. We can do this prostration when we encounter difficulties or misfortune. It can also be done for others. If someone is not doing well, you can prostrate for the Buddha's help. This prostration can also be used to avoid accidents, to sickness, or to prolong life. The second kind of prostration is done out of the sincerity of your heart, not with a seeking mind. You may prostrate from the depths of our heart in gratitude for the Three Jewels. You can also prostrate to your teacher, your shih-fu. Shih-fus represent the Three Jewels, so we prostrate to them with sincerity for their teachings and guidance. It is important to understand that is you who benefits from such prostrations, not your shih-fu. Through this act of gratefulness and respect, we can change ourselves and generate sincerity in our hearts. The third kind is repentance prostration. For this you need a mind of humility and a sense of shame. It is impossible to do this if your are filled with arrogance. Even as you touch your head to the floor, you will still you are right and others, wrong. Such prostrations can help you to change your character to being more receptive and honest. You will be more complete, more well-rounded. It is like washing clothes. Our clothes get dirty over and over, and time and time again we wash them. As long as we wash them, they stay clean. Going through the motions of repentance prostrations without admitting your faults or being open and sincere is like wearing clothes, but never washing them. They just get dirtier and dirtier. When you find stains on your clothing, be joyous that they are so clear and easy to spot. It means that your clothes were relatively clean to begin with. If you never wash your clothes, you may not notice new stains. There is no need for self-pity when you find faults in yourself. The more you find, the better. Perhaps you'll be able to catch them before they arise. Better yet, once you spot your shortcomings, perhaps you'll be able to change them. The fourth kind of prostration I call "formless prostration." However, since it's impossible to immediately arrive at formlessness (no-form), we begin with form and progress through stages until we get to no-form. Similarly, to get to no-self -- impermanence -- we start with the self. From there, we contemplate emptiness until we gradually move to the level of no- self. We do the same with non-attachment, beginning with contemplation on attachment and working toward our goal. Formless prostrations come from contemplating the four foundations of mindfulness: body, sensation, mind and dharmas. No matter which one we contemplate, we begin with form and end with formlessness. We can consider these four foundations in the context of the stages of formless prostrations, which I will now describe. The first stage is when we tell ourselves to do prostrations and our body obeys our commands. We control the body and consciously ordering it to prostrate. While doing the prostrations, we are to remain extremely clear of our movements as well as the sensation. Already, we are contemplating the first two foundations -- body and sensation. The third foundation, mind, is also involved because clarity and awareness are the mind itself. At this point our minds' movement should be fine and subtle, since our body movements are carried out slowly. In the second stage, we know we are prostrating and we feel it, but our bodies are moving by themselves. We no longer have to order or control our bodies. We are now witnesses. Who is prostrating? The body is prostrating. At this stage, there is no longer the thought, "I am prostrating;" rather, prostrations are occurring. At the third stage, others may see you prostrating, but as far as you are concerned, there are no longer thoughts that you are prostrating or that prostrations are occurring. Body, mind and sensation are fused: there is no separation. Like learning to ride a horse, at first there is a rider and a horse, separate wills wanting to go their own way. As a result, the ride is bumpy. Experienced riders feel no separation between themselves and their horses. The horse responds instantly, so that the ride becomes fluid and uninterrupted. The third level is the stage of formlessness, but it is not no- self yet. When we perfect the third stage, there are no influences whatsoever. We are neither affected by internal nor external conditions. Of course, we must always begin with the first stage. If we cannot even reach the initial level of a calm and subtly moving mind, then it will be impossible to progress to the next stages.
As the retreat ends, I wish to tell everyone that spiritual health is much more important than physical health, and that wealth of the mind is a greater fortune than material wealth. I am not saying that physical health and material wealth are unimportant, just less important. We understand the concept of health by knowing what is unhealthy. Overeating or not eating enough is unhealthy. Being too cold or too hot is unhealthy. Too little or too much exercise is unhealthy. Avoid extremes. As with the body, a healthy mind is one where thoughts, moods and emotions are stable and balanced. Constant internal conflict is unhealthy. Also disruptive to mental equilibrium are overly positive reactions to praise and overly negative reactions to criticism. You have just finished a seven-day retreat. This morning I mentioned to one my disciples that he should change his attitude towards other people. He acted on impulse and immediately responded, "I'm not like that. You're blaming me for something I don't do." This is not a healthy reaction. Last night during discussion one woman said that when she got home she would punch her husband for giving her preconceptions about the retreat. I'm sure she was only talking, but it would be bad if she did this. When you have Buddhadharma within yourself, that is the greatest wealth you can have. Wisdom and compassion are also sources of limitless wealth. This morning you received the Three Jewels. It means you have the Three Jewels within you. It is worth much more than any material wealth, because material wealth is limited by nature. Material wealth cannot save you from death. Your Lear jet can still crash. Spiritual wealth cannot be taken away from you. We do need material wealth to support ourselves and the Three Jewels, and to help others. And physical health is important, too, For one thing, you can practice better with a healthy body. But material wealth and physical health need not be emphasized. You shouldn't focus on your body the way a farmer focuses on feeding the pig. After all, the goal of that is to eat the pig. You have all worked hard for seven days. In exchange, you have received the Three Jewels and spiritual wealth. I would say that is a fair exchange.