Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Heart of Chan’s Three Freedoms - by Venerable Minghai

The Heart of Chan can be described in many ways. Broadly speaking, it means to live according to the spirit of Chan and the teachings of past masters. If we look to the teachings left behind by the Patriarchs, or to the sutras for a description, we will find this heart portrayed from many different viewpoints. The Heart of Chan’s Three Freedoms is just looking at this heart from yet another perspective. Although this perspective in itself is not enough to bring about a realization of one’s true nature, it will enable us to immediately set to work bringing about change in our attitudes and outlooks.

Freedom from Anxiety

We can find discussions of the origin and cause of anxiety in the human heart in Western philosophy as well as in Buddhism. Some philosophers have said the universal nature of human anxiety stems from the fact that everyone who comes into this world must face death. From the day we are born, we face death, and death is difficult to confront. Furthermore, we all are aware of death; we do not need to be taught about it, it as it is in our subconscious. From a Dharmic perspective, the anxiety and sadness in our lives originate from attachment to our gains and losses. Anxiety also stems from feeling unable to control our fate, and the impossibility of knowing exactly what the future holds. I do not know if you have noticed, but there is one area of study that interests people everywhere in the world. People from all walks of life, in the East and West, are all particularly interested in fortune telling. The West has its own system of predicting the future, such as the horoscope. The East also has its own methods, and in China we have a particular abundance of such techniques. The flourishing of this kind of scholarship in our culture illustrates that we have a longing to control our destiny. Of course, we could also say that this widespread desire to predict the future illustrates that humans as a whole possess a latent worrying mentality, a wish that by using various forms of fortune telling, by grasping a hold of one’s future, one could melt or dilute the anxiety we have towards the future’s unknowns.

The Chan master Yunmen Wenyan said, “Every day is a good day.” This is the mentality of a Chan practitioner. It is free from anxiety. So, we are capable of thoroughly putting down this fear and anxiety, but where do we start? First, I think we need to put down this anxiety about the future, all of our guesses, worries and fretting over our possible windfalls and setbacks. All of the things that await us in the future are in fact the results of our words and deeds of the present moment. We cannot control all of the external factors of our life, but we can control our own thoughts, speech and actions. Only after we have succeeded in doing this can we grasp hold of the future. In this way, we can genuinely transform our anxiety about the future into the power of the present, into the power of perception, certainty and determination.

In the many utterances left behind by the Chan masters of the past it is not easy to find references to the world or Buddhist country in which they will be reborn. The reason is that they are already in complete control of the present moment. They are already in control of all of their thoughts, words and actions. Having taken hold of the present moment in this way, the future, however it may be, is not a problem. If you want to know what the future will be like, look at what is transpiring right now. Look at the moment-by-moment unfolding of your own thoughts, words and actions. Are they positive or negative? By looking at these things, we can know what the future holds for us. Our future is not some kind of miracle brought about by an unknowable god. If there any miracles to be found, they are in the present moment. Sitting around fretting and worrying will be of absolutely no help towards creating the future you want for yourself. In fact, it is just the opposite. The worry, fear and apprehension are obstacles. If you wish the future to conform to your vision of it, you should start by building its foundations in the present moment. Go and create the future you want! If we are in control of our thoughts, words and deeds of the present moment, there will not be any completely unpredictable events in the future.

Freedom from Regret

Regret is a terrible burden. It is an attitude directed towards all of our actions, speech, thoughts and mistakes of the past. I believe almost everyone has experienced it to some degree. It is a form of attachment, and constrains the heart, fixates it on past events. The heart becomes shackled by our attachment to these events. However, the Heart of Chan is regretless. How was this freedom won? By letting go of attachment. The Heart of Chan is empty, it is like using a bamboo basket to carry water; the water all runs out, it can not remain. The Heart of Chan sees our past, as well as our mistakes and negative karma, from the perspective of a wisdom that knows the true nature of phenomena. It knows that all these things are empty, and therefore not real in the sense that our attachment-filled hearts understand things as existing. Belief in so-called fortune and hardship, which is responsible for so much of the regret we have, is in fact just the creation of the attachment in our hearts. By knowing that the object of our regret as well as the regret itself are empty, and therefore not real, the knots of attachment in our hearts are undone, and the regret will dissolve. Like this the heart forms a wall, nothing can touch it. This is the special characteristic of the Heart of Chan.

For ordinary people like us who do not have this level of wisdom yet, a more important question is how not to create even more regret. It is a very difficult thing to do. To do this we must grasp hold of the three activities of our body, speech and mind, to bring our lives in accordance with the Dharma and our vows. We also have to fulfill all the various responsibilities, duties and obligations we bear to the best of our abilities, and cherish and make ample use of all the varieties of precious karmic opportunities we possess. If we do not we will simply continue to fill our hearts with regret. I have many good memories from my college days, but I also feel that I wasted a lot of time. My university had a great library, but I did not read many books. I did not value and make use of that precious karmic opportunity. I regret that. Today we have many valuable, karmically created opportunities: we can study Buddhism, we have a human body, we have happened to meet with the Buddha-dharma, we have a good place to practice, we can hear teachings on the Dharma, and have encountered the sutras and met qualified teachers. If we don’t make ample use of these opportunities, we will keep adding to our regret.

To stop creating more regret, we also need to cherish every day of our lives. You should cherish every karmically created opportunity you have. You should be very committed to being kind to every person you encounter and not causing them harm. Every person you encounter in your life - your teacher, parents, wife or husband, students – do you earnestly care for them? If not, then waste no time and start to do so right now. We also need to diligently perform whatever role it is we have in life. If you are not diligent, then afterwards you will regret it. If you always miss the opportunities presented to you, then you will continuously add to your regret; your burden will be greater and greater, and the longer you live the more weary you will become.

Freedom from Resentment

Resentment is all-encompassing. It includes how others treat us, how society treats us, illness, unexpected accidents, even the weather. We can also resent those aspects of our body over which we have no control, and situations brought about by that fact. Freedom from resentment, simply put, means to not resent any of the people, circumstances or things we encounter while travelling down this road of life, but to positively confront it all with gratitude. Positively confronting difficulties with a gracious heart does not refer to an affected attitude, but one arisen from an intuitive perception of the nature of dependent origination. What is dependent origination? Everything in our lives is dependently arisen. We can say that every unavoidable event that comes crashing down on our heads is dependently arisen, in that we are responsible for those events having the ability to come into being in the first place. They belong to us, we created them. Accept them, face them, do not reject them. If you end up with a very ill-tempered husband or wife, it is dependently arisen, the causes lie with you. Another example would be our being born onto this whirling planet Earth. Our planet is not peaceful right now. There are often wars, frightening things happen, and the environment is getting worse and worse. So we need to know that to be born in this world, in this country, in this age, definitely has its karmic causes. And the causes for all of this lie with us. Looking at the wars on the planet, and then looking in our hearts, we will immediately know that the wars were originally raging in our hearts, and have just been projected outwards. Our hearts have hatred and wrath. We reject others and see everything that is “ours” or related to us as the most important, so we are born into a place with war. If our hearts are completely free of hatred and malice, and we do not see ourselves as the center of everything, then we will be born in a harmonious environment, in a peaceful age, on a peaceful planet. We may even be born in a heaven realm or in Amitabha’s Pure Land.

The most difficult people to feel gratitude towards are those we do not get along with, people who make trouble for us and stab us in the back. Actually, these kinds of people help us by pointing out our faults to us. They help to supervise our behavior. We ought to thank them for all the hard work. If a person, like a troublesome coworker, is always watching you, finding all your faults and telling you about them year in and year out, I suggest you give him a salary because that requires a lot of patience! If you wanted to purposefully invite someone to do the same kind of work, he would be very difficult to find. But in our lives we often encounter people like this. If we maintained a relationship like this for a long time, it would foster our long-term diligence in living up to the standards we are supposed to have as Buddhists. Someone who hangs in there for the long-term, and who always holds you up to your self-professed standards without easing up even for a minute, if his long-term commitment is greater than yours is, you definitely should befriend him! Someone like that is truly amazing, is truly a friend!
So use this heart, free from resentment, as your basis for living. Face everything with a grateful heart, whatever you are dealing with. See difficulties as our teachers. They are like Chan Masters Deshan or Linji giving our heads a whack with a stick, forcing us to improve, pushing us towards enlightenment. Next time you encounter a troublesome person or an annoying situation, think of it this way, “Oh, this is Chan Master Deshan, or Chan Master Linji, coming to train me. It is a teacher helping me to cultivate my patience and ability to transform hardship.” Or we could see this person or situation as someone helping us to cultivate patience. The Perfection of Patience is one of the Six Perfections we need to cultivate on the Buddhist path, after all. If you are able to see things this way, many kinds of people, environments or situations can become your teachers. What is even better is you do not even have to pay any tuition!

1 comment:

David Clark said...

No comments on this post? Wow! I just discovered this surfing around Zen web sites and I must say I am quite impressed. This translation was a pleasure and inspiration to read. To be sure, I will check back and read more. I don't see much recent activity, so I hope you haven't given up.

David Clark

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