The Seven Factors of Enlightenment
by Chan Master Sheng Yen
Between May, 1999 and November, 2003, on Sunday afternoons when he was in New York, Master Sheng Yen gave a series of lectures on the bodhipakshika (Sanskrit), literally, «things pertaining to bodhi,» also known as the «thirty-seven aids to enlightenment.» The 37 aids consist of seven groups of practices expounded by the Buddha. They are: the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Four Proper Exertions, the Four Steps to Magical Powers, the Five Roots, the Five Powers, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, and the Eightfold Noble Path. This is the first of three lectures Master Sheng Yen gave on the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. The remaining two lectures will be featured in subsequent issues of Chan Magazine. The lectures were translated concurrently by Dr. Rebecca Li, transcribed by Sheila Sussman, and edited by Ernest Heau. The entire series will be published as Things Pertaining to Bodhi.
Перевод по «The Seven Factors of Enlightenment»/Chan Magazine 2009 №4 (Autumn), 2010 №1 (Winter), 2010 №2 (Spring).
As a topic the Seven Factors of Enlightenment would be foreign to most people, yet a lot of people have come here to hear me talk about it. It seems that the more exotic the topic the more interest there is in it. This probably has to do with the word «enlightenment,» which is always very enticing to people. Actually, it is possible to attain enlightenment. That is in fact what happened to Shakyamuni Buddha. If enlightenment were not possible, what would be the point of teaching the Dharma?
The Arya-Sarvastivada school of early Buddhism considered the Thirty-Seven Aids to Enlightenment to be the gist of the practice towards liberation. Having completed the Thirty-Seven Aids, one would become an arhat. However, when I discuss the Thirty-Seven Aids, I also talk about how they are practiced in the Mahayana tradition. My perspective on how they are practiced in the Chan tradition will also differ somewhat from other traditions.
Since most Chan masters teach sudden enlightenment they do not talk much about the Thirty-Seven Aids, which are considered gradual methods. However, I do teach gradual methods as the foundation for practice towards sudden enlightenment. For those capable of realizing sudden enlightenment, that is wonderful and they can dispense with the gradual methods. However, those for whom sudden enlightenment is not that feasible can practice gradual methods as a foundation for the sudden methods.
Therefore, when I speak of the Thirty-Seven Aids it is in the context of both the Hinayana path of the shravaka and the Mahayana path of the bodhisattva. The difference between the two paths is basically one of attitude and emphasis. In the Hinyana, liberation means attaining arhatship; in the Mahayana, liberation means attaining buddhahood.
At first glance the seven groups in the Thirty-Seven Aids may not seem related but they are in fact sequential. We often associate Chan with sudden enlightenment but Chan practice does indeed progress in stages. However, one does not take each stage as an ultimate goal. Therefore, even though Chan speaks of sudden enlightenment, it also embraces the gradualism implied in the Thirty-Seven Aids. In fact, Chan believes in practicing the Five Methods of Stilling the Mind in preparation for the Four Foundations. Despite its emphasis on sudden enlightenment, Chan considers the gradual cultivation of the Thirty-Seven Aids as very important.
Prior to the Four Foundations we practice the Five Methods of Stilling the Mind to collect the scattered mind into one that is stable and unified. To remind you, the five methods are: contemplating the breath, contemplating impurity, contemplating loving kindness, contemplating causes and conditions, and contemplating mindfulness of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. After the Five Methods, one is ready to practice the Four Foundations. As we sequence through the Thirty-Seven Aids we are continuously cultivating towards liberation. By the time we get to the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, we should be quite far along the path, though not yet liberated.
It is important to understand that within each group the practices can also be seen as sequential. For example, in the Four Foundations, mindfulness of body precedes mindfulness of sensation, and from there we practice mindfulness of mind, ending with mindfulness of dharmas. Similarly, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment are also sequential.
The Sanskrit term for the Seven Factors of Enlightenment is sapta bodhyanga, where sapta means seven, bodhi means enlightenment, and anga means factor, or item. Each group in the Thirty-Seven Aids has a distinct name, but in fact all thirty-seven aids can be called bodhyanga since they are all factors towards enlightenment. The Seven Factors of Enlightenment are called that because after completing cultivating them, one should be enlightened. In Chinese translations of the sutras, sapta bodhyanga is rendered in various ways. I will not dwell on this except to make you aware that there are differences in how the term is translated in Chinese.
The seven factors are: First, mindfulness in both mental and physical activities; the second is discernment between dharmas [as real or illusory]; the third is diligence, or perseverance; the fourth is joy-and-delight; the fifth is lightness-and-ease, or tranquility; the sixth is concentration; and the seventh is equanimity, meaning freedom from discrimination.
In cultivating mindfulness we are essentially practicing the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. We should also remember at this point that the purpose of practicing the Four Foundations is to cultivate wisdom. Mindfulness of the body has three aspects: mindfulness of the inner body, mindfulness of the outer body, and mindfulness of the inner-and-outer body. The inner body refers to the internal organs вЂ” heart, liver, bodily fluids, and so on. The outer body refers to the sense organs вЂ” eye, ear, nose, tongue, and touch; specifically, how the body responds to the environment. The inner-and-outer body refers to the integration of the inner and outer body. In practicing mindfulness of the body, we pay attention to all three aspects.
We cultivate mindfulness of the body to see it as it really is, to not be so attached to it. We often fret and worry about every little thing that happens to our body. Some people love their body, some hate it, but both attitudes reveal over-attachment to the body as a source of vexations. Being mindful of the body, we understand that it is constantly undergoing change and that things will happen to it. This helps us let go of over-attachment to the body and thus not create so much vexation.
Mindfulness of sensation means being aware of one's sensory perceptions, whether they are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. For example, when comfortable we are aware of a pleasant feeling; when uncomfortable we are aware of an unpleasant feeling, and when we are neither comfortable nor uncomfortable, we are aware of that. In other words, mindfulness of sensation means being aware of your sensations at the very moment you experience them. For example, right now, are your sensations pleasant, unpleasant, or neither pleasant nor unpleasant?
Mindfulness of mind is being aware of how we mentally react to sensations. When we feel pleasure we crave for more or fear that we will lose it; when we feel discomfort we resent it and want to get rid of it. We are excited about a happy experience but get frustrated when we encounter misfortune. We thus have greed on the one hand and aversion on the other. And when our experience is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, we get bored or lethargic. With all these vexations, it is easy to be confused about what we really want in life. So, mindfulness of mind means to be aware of how we react to our experiences.
Mindfulness of dharmas is being attentive to whether our mental objects вЂ” ideas, concepts, symbols, language, feelings вЂ” are wholesome or unwholesome, beneficial or harmful. Just as we need to be mindful of the body, of sensations, and of our mental reactions to sensations, we need to be very clear about how our mental processes create wholesome as well as unwholesome results.
When we think of our body we are usually concerned with issues like comfort or discomfort, health or sickness, whether we are attractive or ugly, and so on. Preoccupied by such thoughts, we rarely see our body objectively; instead, we usually see the body as «mine,» and having this or that state or quality: «I'm good-looking» or «I'm ugly.» When we can look at the body more objectively, we will be practicing mindfulness of the body.
Recently a lady said to me, «Shifu, I have to have surgery and I'm really scared.»
«What are you afraid of?» I asked.
«First I'm afraid of the pain, second I'm afraid I'll die from the surgery.»
I told her, «The more afraid you are of the pain, the more pain you're going to feel. Tell yourself that your body is being treated by your doctor and you are just witnessing it.»
Later she told me because she was under local anesthesia she could observe the surgery and was not afraid. She said, «What I saw was just the doctor performing surgery on a body.» This lady was practicing mindfulness of the body.
I recently had a procedure where the doctor put an endoscope into my stomach and I observed the examination on a screen. As I was enjoying looking at the inside of my stomach, the doctor told me he found a small cyst. He asked me if I wanted it removed.
I said, «Sure, why not?»
I watched him remove the cyst with an instrument. There was some discomfort, but the whole time I wasn't thinking of it as my stomach. I was just observing this stomach undergoing treatment. Mindfulness of body means contemplating the body just as a body, instead of thinking, «Oh, this is my body and they are operating on my stomach. How can they do that?» Doing that, you will become very tense and possibly affect the process. Of course there may be pain, but being tense and afraid will not help.
Bruce, how's your [injured] finger?
Bruce: Oh, much better.
Sheng Yen: Is it your finger? [Laughter] If you succeed in contemplating the body, you will also be very clear about your sensations. If you succeed in contemplating sensations, you will be very clear about your mental activities. And if you can do that, you will be able to contemplate dharmas very clearly, seeing what's going on clearly. And this is how we cultivate the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
Discernment means distinguishing real from illusory dharmas. It also means understanding the difference between the wholesome and the unwholesome. If one understands the difference, one will move towards wholesomeness and begin to depart from vexations. And once we depart from vexations we also move towards wisdom, away from hatred and towards compassion. With the cultivation of discrimination, we move forward on the path of liberation, which is to say, of wisdom and compassion.
What then, is real as opposed to illusory? Without practicing the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, it can be difficult to understand the distinction. For example, if one sees the body as existing independently, that is to say real, that would be illusory and unwholesome. Similarly, when we contemplate sensations we understand that whether pleasant or unpleasant, they are relative, not absolute. In a good mood even a minor thing can seem pleasant, whereas in a bad mood something supposedly pleasant can seem unpleasant. Through contemplation we can thus see that sensations do not have absolute and inherent qualities.
There was this youth who was attracted to a young woman who completely ignored him. One time he approached her and was perhaps a little too fresh and she slapped him in the face. Upon being slapped the young man was overjoyed. Can you relate to this? What was going on?
Student: She ignored him before but when she slapped him, she was finally paying attention. So that made him happy.
Sheng Yen: That's right. This story shows the relative nature of sensations. Being slapped in the face in this case was a pleasant sensation to this young man.
Similarly, when we contemplate the mind we can see that its contents have no absolute quality but are relative to events and transient. When we contemplate mental dharmas we see that they are empty of self. We will see therefore that being mindful of body, sensation, mind, and dharmas is wholesome, and discriminating the real from the illusory is wisdom. Through contemplating the four kinds of mindfulness, we realize that all phenomena are impermanent and therefore empty. This wisdom allows one to know absolute truth and relative truth. Absolute truth refers to the emptiness of dharmas and the law of causes and conditions, while relative truth refers to the transient phenomena of daily life. With discrimination, we will know the difference between wisdom and vexation.
Without acquiring some wisdom and knowing true from false Dharma, trying to practice with great diligence may be like a blind person riding a blind horse. Two dangers of practicing blindly like this is that first, one may fall into the error of believing incorrect Dharma and second, one may practice incorrect methods. Therefore, to truly practice with diligence one should be guided by a teacher who has the correct understanding of Dharma and who practices the proper methods. Otherwise, without a qualified teacher one would not know how to deal with unusual physical or mental states one might encounter.
How do you know if the teacher is teaching the proper Dharma? First, consider whether the teacher has a correct understanding of the key concepts of Buddhism. This means the teacher should exhibit a clear understanding and acceptance of the law of cause and effect. This teacher would not use his or her position for self- benefit and would not do unwholesome deeds because he or she would know that there would be retribution through karma. He or she would know very clearly that to receive wholesome results, one ought to engage in wholesome deeds.
A good teacher of Buddhism also needs to understand the law of conditioned arising, which states that all things exist as a coming together of myriad causes and conditions, and therefore everything is impermanent, without an inherent self. Understanding phenomena in this manner means that one possesses basic Buddhist wisdom. A student can thus use his or her own understanding of karma and the law of causes and conditions to evaluate whether the teacher or method is in accordance with correct Dharma. A teacher who truly practices according to these laws is a good teacher; if a method encompasses these two ideas, it is a good method.
To practice with diligence we therefore need to distinguish between proper Dharma and erroneous views and we need teachers who know the difference. What is the proper Dharma? The Thirty-Seven Aids to Enlightenment are the proper Dharma and the proper methods of practice. Understanding these proper methods, one can then practice diligently. What is diligent practice? It is to practice the Four Proper Exertions. If it seems like we are going back to the Four Proper Exertions again, that is correct. This time, however, we are talking about the Four Proper Exertions in the context of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment.
Here is how to understand this process. To review, the first five groups are the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Four Proper Exertions, the Four Steps to Magical Powers, the Five Roots, and the Five Powers. These five groups are really about cultivating samadhi power as you make progress. When we begin to practice, our samadhi power is relatively weak, so we need to build on a solid foundation. Then, as our samadhi power deepens we move to the next stage, but we also go back to the foundation methods to improve our contemplation. Over time, this process will allow us to advance our power of samadhi. In other words, making progress is not a simple linear process; as you make progress you also revisit the foundation methods.
It is not correct to think that you must go through all the Thirty-Seven Aids to attain liberation. Indeed, if one has very sharp virtuous roots, one can attain liberation just by practicing the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. And if that is just not quite enough to get one there, one can add the next step, the Four Proper Exertions. And if that's still not enough, then one can practice the Four Steps to Magical Powers, and that can be enough for some. And if one is not able to attain liberation by practicing those three groups, one can cultivate the Five Roots and Five Powers. And if that still does not do it, one will need to cultivate the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. In fact, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment are themselves adequate to attain liberation, because they are seven methods for cultivating bodhi. If the cultivation of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment is still not enough for liberation, then one ends up with the Noble Eightfold Path as well.
Getting enlightened is not like weightlifting where you keep lifting heavier and heavier weights. Some people can only lift ten pounds while others can lift several hundred pounds. It is kind of the opposite with the Path. Those who have the most virtuous roots need to take fewer steps and to hear less Dharma to attain liberation. If you need to practice all seven groups to be liberated, that is because you don't have quite adequate virtuous roots under your belt. So if you have heard all the previous lectures and are still here listening to this talk about the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, you must come back for the lectures on the Noble Eightfold Path. [Laughter]
Whether you are already enlightened or have poor virtuous roots, it is still useful to hear the Thirty-Seven Aids explained. The more one hears the Dharma, the more virtuous roots one will develop. Even if one did not practice before hearing the Dharma, afterwards one will think more of the need for practice. So it is still beneficial for you to listen to Dharma and still useful for me to teach it.
To repeat, diligence actually refers to the Four Proper Exertions. This means first, avoiding new unwholesome practices; second, cutting off existing unwholesome practices; third, beginning new wholesome practices; and fourth, continuing existing wholesome practices. This is what diligence means.
For example, one has vowed to practice the Dharma, and one has also vowed to cut off unwholesome behavior and unwholesome speech. Although that is good, one may not yet be able to avoid unwholesome thoughts. So, the practice of exertion is to also vow to cut off unwholesome thoughts. That's the practice of the Four Exertions.
To take this practice to a deeper level, you not only vow to avoid unwholesome behavior, you also vow to engage in new wholesome behavior. We are usually happy to be recognized and rewarded when we do good things, but that is not good enough because the expectation of praise or reward is itself a vexation. So one goes further and makes this vow, «From now on, I will not expect any reward from wholesome behavior.» That would be a deeper level of practicing diligence.
On the path to enlightenment, exertion means practicing with great perseverance and great patience, and being continuously engaged. Some may misunderstand this to mean going full force and forgetting about daily life. Far from being proper exertion, that is more like a demonic kind of practice. Rather, proper exertion is like a small stream flowing without pause вЂ” not too tense and not too lax. When you are too tense, it is possible to fall into a demonic state where you generate unwholesome thoughts and attitudes. When you are too lax, you will not be really engaged; you will be like a deflated balloon, not able to generate any power. Proper exertion, therefore, is being ceaselessly engaged in the practice вЂ” not too tense, not too lax, with great perseverance and patience.
This morning I asked my attendant to cook some millet for me. The millet that she uses sometimes still has husks that get stuck between my teeth. So I asked her to remove the grains with husks before cooking the millet. She said, «Shifu, it's very hard to find the ones with husks.» I started showing her how to do it, and I would pick one out and say, «See, this is one with a husk.» I picked up another one, then another one, one by one. I was just doing this in a very concentrated manner, until my attendant said, «Shifu, it's almost time for your lecture!» And then I realized that an hour-and-a-half had passed! It was very joyful for me to do this and I did not see it as a chore. As far as I was concerned, I was picking out pearls.
The key to diligence is great patience, without any sense of great like or dislike about what one is doing, without thinking of gain and loss. If you practice this way, inevitably, Dharma joy will arise. First, there is joy from hearing the Dharma. Before encountering the Dharma, we have a lot of erroneous views; we are at war with ourselves, experiencing struggle, conflict, and contradiction; we also have external conflicts. After hearing the Dharma, we understand the law of cause and effect, or karma. We also understand the law of causes and conditions, which says that things happen according to the myriad underlying conditions that exist at any given time. Because of this conditioned co-arising, everything is in flux, everything is impermanent, empty, and without inherent self. Upon hearing such a teaching, one should feel joy.
Confucius said that if we hear a good teaching in the morning, we should be ready to die in the evening. Hearing the Dharma is like the thrill you feel when you hear something that brings you to full alertness; you feel the lifting of a heavy burden that you have been carrying for a long time. «Before this, I was so vexed because I was looking at things the wrong way, but now I see the world with a different attitude. I can finally let go of this burden.» Do you experience joy when you hear the Dharma? You must to some extent; otherwise, why would you be foolish enough to come here on a Sunday to hear me talk? [Laughter]
In addition to the joy of hearing the Dharma, there is the joy of practicing meditation. When we cultivation dhyana, we attain stability, peacefulness, and calmness of mind and we feel Dharma joy. This kind of Dharma joy is not some kind of excitement but a deeper feeling of inner calm that is not affected by the environment: «I'm just here enjoying this moment of peace and quiet.» I believe many of you at least to some degree have experienced this Dharma joy. If you have not and you still come to my retreats, then that is pretty foolish.
As we practice Buddhism, we give rise to fewer vexations and we avoid the pitfalls of suffering and vexation. But if we go further and practice the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, we will experience Dharma joy. Several Tibetan lamas live in exile at our Dharma Drum Mountain temple in Taiwan. Even though they have lost their country, the lamas are always joyful. Many lay practitioners at the temple don't understand this. They ask the lamas, «How is it that you are always so happy after losing your country?» The lamas say, «The loss of our country has been painful, but because we still have the Buddhadharma, we are happy.» These lamas are joyful because they are always with the Dharma, living it and teaching it. It is precisely because they live in accordance with the Dharma that monks and nuns are happy. I, myself, always feel Dharma joy. I hope that you will apply the Seven Factors of Enlightenment in your own life and be immersed in Dharma joy as well.
After the experience of joy, lightness-and-ease, or tranquility, will arise as well. This means being free of the passions of body and mind. Lightness-and-ease is a deeper and subtler realization than Dharma joy, which can be coarse or fine. With Dharma joy there is still much movement of the mind. «Oh, this is so joyful!» That would be a coarser kind of Dharma joy. At a finer level, there is quietude in Dharma joy and one feels lightness in the body but still lacks the mental pliancy of lightness-and-ease. With mental pliancy body and mind are unified and one no longer worries about either; one is no longer preoccupied with the body and its sensations, whether it feels light or heavy, even whether it's there, and one is not aware of having any vexations of the mind.
While practicing, some people become aware that they no longer feel sensations, but then, they become excited about this: «My body has disappeared; I no longer feel it. That is amazing.» This means that one is experiencing lightness of the body, but since the mind still takes note of it, some coarseness is still there. In real mental pliancy, even though the body feels weightless, one has no thought of whether the body or the mind is there. When true mental pliancy happens, everything is very easy, smooth, and comfortable. One is sitting there and the wind blows but one has no notion that they and the wind are separate. The sounds of the environment, my talking, they are all the same. Everything is very harmonious вЂ” body, mind, and universe are one. But please do not mistake mental pliancy as just being extremely relaxed and having no vexations. That is a good stage where grosser thoughts and sensations are absent, but it is only when one has unified mind, body, and the environment that one has arrived at lightness-and-ease. At this point one is ready to practice the sixth factor of enlightenment вЂ” concentration, or samadhi.
The sixth factor of enlightenment is concentration, or samadhi. In Buddhist practice, there are nine levels of samadhi вЂ” the first eight constitute worldly samadhi, while the ninth is called non-worldly samadhi. The first samadhi level is the stage of lightness-and-ease. This is also equivalent to the first dhyana level. One proceeds by stages to the fourth dhyana level, and further on until one reaches the deepest level of worldly samadhi, the eighth. Non-worldly samadhi, the ninth samadhi stage, is referred to in Chan as «sudden enlightenment.» It is so called because at the moment of realization, one's worldview is suddenly transformed from one that is upside-down, one that is ruled by suffering and vexation, to one in which one's bondage to vexation and suffering is released.
The sutras define samadhi as the state where the mind becomes single-pointed and is totally present in that situation. It may sound arduous to start with the first factor of mindfulness and diligently work all the way to the sixth factor of concentration. In reality, all it takes is for one's attitude to change, and it is possible in an instant to experience lightness-and-ease. And if the experience is deep your mind would become very stable and very peaceful. That would be samadhi. On the other hand, as you hear this lecture, if your mind was totally in the present moment, focused on hearing the Dharma, with no thoughts of good or bad, right or wrong, free of wandering thoughts вЂ” that too would be samadhi.
Earlier I said that there are two ways of experiencing samadhi. One comes from changing one's attitude, where a turn of thought suddenly allows one to experience samadhi. The other kind comes from the step-by-step cultivation through the four dhyanas and eight levels of samadhi. The second way of samadhi is the deeper way. To put it in mundane terms, the first can be likened to being knocked unconscious, and then waking up not realizing what happened to you. The second is like falling into a very deep sleep without dreams, and then waking up a few hours later not realizing you had even been asleep.
You may wonder, «Why should I work so hard cultivating samadhi? I may as well get hit on the head or just go to sleep.» The difference is that after regaining consciousness or waking from sleep, one would not experience lightness-and-ease. You would probably be just as prone to irritation as before, and you would probably be subject to the same seductions and distractions. Your character would probably be the same. By contrast, after deep samadhi, one will feel great peace of mind and joy. Afterwards, one would be less likely to respond to negative stimuli as before.
The seventh factor of enlightenment is equanimity, with the Sanskrit upeksha, literally meaning «not taking notice.» We saw that the fifth factor, lightness-and-ease, was a very enjoyable and comfortable feeling вЂ” the body is relaxed, without tension, and the mind is settled, without any vexations. But there is always a temptation to become attached to this feeling, to want to remain in it forever because it is so blissful. If one does this, one is like a rock soaking in a pool of water, not doing anything useful. Therefore, one needs to practice equanimity, not taking notice.
As we said, experiencing deep samadhi is very joyful. The fourth factor of joy-and-delight, the fifth factor of lightness-and-ease, and the sixth factor of samadhi are blissful experiences that can emerge from practice. That is why they are called Dharma joy. But attaching to such experiences is not proper Buddhist practice. We practice Buddhism to alleviate suffering, but it is also important to be free from attachments to joy as well. The correct practice is to be liberated from suffering as well as from joy-and-delight.
Letting go of joy does not mean that we do not welcome happiness but that we do not crave it, and when we experience it we do not cling to it. Through this practice we will know that there is not one single experience that is permanent, that all things are transitory and thus impermanent and empty. Letting go is cultivating the wisdom of emptiness, an essential condition for liberation.
Practicing the Seven Factors of Enlightenment
The early Pali scriptures, the agamas, speak of three aspects to the practice of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment: first are the conditions that should exist to begin the practice; second, how to practice the factors; and third, how to use the functions and merits gained from the practice. I will talk about four important conditions for practicing the Seven Factors: having virtuous roots, having faith in the Dharma, having the right view, and having diligence.
The first important condition for practicing the Seven Factors is having virtuous roots. Having virtuous roots and encountering people with wisdom, you should then use every chance to learn Dharma and cultivate faith. This will give you the correct views to guide your conduct in accordance with the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. You also need the right wisdom to do as the Buddha taught, and you need to always protect the six senses. The best way to meet these conditions is to practice the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. The teachings and methods of Buddhadharma are there to guide you but cultivation is your own responsibility. If you follow this principle you will find freedom from vexation, confusion, and struggle and you will eventually attain liberation.
Who among you does not have virtuous roots? You may think you lack virtuous roots because you have vexations. If that is so, why are you here today? Clearly, having virtuous roots gave you the desire and willingness to hear the Dharma and be near people with wisdom. Or, your being here may be due to causes and conditions. For example, by chance you hear on the radio a discussion on Buddhism that makes sense and you want to learn more. After looking into it, you end up at a place like this. Whether you are here by intention or causes and conditions, it was due to your virtuous roots. Either way brings you closer to the Dharma and people with wisdom.
Outside this Chan Center is a bus stop. This place is a little exotic looking, and sometimes people waiting for the bus are curious. They ring our bell; we invite them in, give them some literature and let them look around. We actually have had people come back to hear a lecture or participate in activities. Anyone here stumble into the Chan Center this way?
[Someone in the audience relates an experience.]
Do the people who come in here out of curiosity have virtuous roots? Yes, we can say they do. What are virtuous roots then? It has to do either with having connected with Buddhadharma in the past, or having an outlook that corresponds to what Buddhism teaches. Hence, when their causes and conditions ripen, it is not too hard for them to connect with the Dharma.
What I call «people with wisdom» is often translated in the sutras as «learned friends.» These are people with whom we interact on a level that is beneficial in the Dharma sense, to either or both parties. Therefore those who want to practice the Seven Factors of Enlightenment should have learned friends to help them. Should we remain friends with those who are not beneficial to us? Some feel that if they befriend someone who behaves unwholesomely, they can change them for the better. If that is so, there is no need to discriminate against them. This is a correct view but it really depends on what kind of person you are. If you can befriend unwholesome people without being affected yourself, that's fine; otherwise, it can be a problem. You may intend to deliver sentient beings, but if you are not careful you can end up being delivered yourself, but to the wrong place. [Laughter]
You may want to be wary of friends who are not benevolent, but when such people are in need you should still help them. On the other hand you also need learned friends with whom you can learn Buddhadharma and cultivate wisdom and compassion. But what are wisdom and compassion? The answer is rather simple. When you give rise to vexation and suffering within yourself or through the environment, that is lacking wisdom; when you cause suffering to others, that is lacking compassion. Now turn that around: when you do not cause vexation and suffering to yourself, that is wisdom; when you do not cause vexation and suffering to others, that is compassion.
Faith in the Dharma
After you have learned something of the Dharma, you give rise to the pure faith that the teachings are useful for yourself and also for others. Then you also have to remind yourself often to use the teachings in your actions. This is the second important condition for practicing the Seven Factors of Enlightenment.
A disciple asked me to help him with his severe headaches. After he practiced meditation for a while, his headaches went away. After that his faith in Buddhadharma became rock-solid. He also served as my translator for twenty years. Another example is a minister who just wanted to learn meditation but not the Dharma. Later on he brought his wife along and after two meditation classes her insomnia was cured. After that she became a Buddhist. They had an interesting situation вЂ” a Christian minister with a Buddhist wife. These things happen not because I have special powers, but because people have the virtuous roots to encounter the Buddhadharma and receive its teachings. Actually, when people complain to me about their headaches, I tell them, well I have headaches too. [Laughter]
Faith in the Dharma can come, first, when Buddhism makes sense to you, and second, when you can apply it to your daily life. Because it is logical you have faith in it, and because it is useful you will remember to use it. Here today, we have a couple that learned at the same time that they both had cancer, as if they had planned it. It was a very sad thing but these people also have very virtuous roots. Using the teachings of Dharma, I encouraged them to have faith in themselves and to make vows. Eventually they recovered their health. They are also dedicated volunteers at the Chan Center. These people's virtuous roots allowed them to be close to learned friends, allowed them to practice the Dharma, and they have a pure faith in the teaching.
In describing the conditions for practicing the Seven Factors, the Hinayana scriptures say: «After one has heard the wondrous Dharma, and one's body has the right posture, and one's mind has the right thought, one can then practice the Seven Factors of Enlightenment step-by-step.»
«After one has heard the wondrous Dharma» refers to hearing any correct teaching of the Dharma, and thus acquiring the right view. For example, even though I am not really lecturing on a particular sutra, what I am saying comes from the sutras. Therefore, any of the true teachings of the Buddha is «wondrous Dharma.» Thus, the third condition for practicing the Seven Factors is right view, or right wisdom. Right view means living with one's thoughts always in accordance with Dharma; right wisdom means living without vexations. The ability to do so comes from constantly applying the methods to one's daily life.
If one has the right view, «one can then practice the Seven Factors of Enlightenment step-by-step.» One proceeds step-by-step, starting with mindfulness, then to discrimination, moving on to the diligence, then joy-and-delight, to lightness-and-ease, then concentration (samadhi), and finally equanimity. This is diligence, the fourth condition for practicing the Seven Factors. This does not mean knowing any particular teaching, but knowing what one needs to do, or stop doing, in order to practice. With right view, one will give rise to the factors that have not yet arisen, and keep cultivating the factors that have already arisen. Right view gives rise to diligence and diligence means practicing the Four Proper Exertions.
Protecting the Six Sense Faculties
After having right view and right wisdom, one still needs to constantly protect the sense faculties of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. To protect the senses means keeping them pure, not allowing them to fall into temptation or be defiled. Difficult as that may be, you need to constantly protect your six senses. Like my eyeglasses вЂ” the only way I keep them free of dust and smudges is to constantly polish them.
A young American who has practiced with me for over ten years frequently comes on retreats. After each retreat he takes the five precepts together with the other participants. He told me that at the end of a retreat he could take the precepts sincerely and uphold them purely at that moment. However, a month or so afterwards he would begin to slip up. First one precept was broken and he would say to himself, «Well, I broke one precept already, so what the heck?» After that it became easier to break the others. Then he would feel guilty and go on retreat again, where he would take the precepts once more. The interesting thing is that every time he takes the precepts, it takes a longer time before he breaks a precept again.
He asked me, «What do I do when I break the precepts?» I told him, «You just need to repent.» He said, «But the precepts have been broken already.» I said, «Well, try to uphold them again.»
This is what is meant by constantly protecting one's six senses вЂ” one needs to constantly uphold the precepts in order to keep the senses pure. It does not mean that taking the precepts will suddenly free you from ever erring again. The idea is that you try and when you fail, you repent and try again. When you are able to constantly protect your six senses, then you will realize the teaching in your internal and outward behaviors. And when you constantly protect your six senses, your behavior will be suitable for practice.
When you uphold the precepts, your actions and your speech will accord with the teachings, and as you cultivate the Seven Factors of Enlightenment your mind will accord with the Dharma. Without protecting the senses it would be very difficult to practice the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. One's mind will be confused and one's life in chaos. With a confused mind, you will be emotionally unstable, and with a chaotic life, you will have disharmony. Please make sure to protect your six senses when you embark on the practice of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. Doing this is necessary to deal with the five hindrances of greed, hatred, drowsiness, scattered mind, and doubt.
The Five Hindrances
The purpose of the Seven Factors is to cultivate the wisdom based on contemplation as well as the wisdom based on samadhi. Having gained the two kinds of wisdom, one uses them actively but one has to keep the five hindrances вЂ” greed, anger, drowsiness, restlessness, and doubt вЂ” from arising, and if they arise, to cut them off. Then one needs to stabilize one's mind in order to cultivate the Seven Factors of Enlightenment.
To eliminate hindrances you must recognize them as soon as they arise. For example, greed may come from having favorable circumstances in one's life and craving for more. When one encounters unfavorable conditions one wants to reject them, giving rise to anger. If you are already tired when you start to practice, you may fall into drowsiness. Excitement and stimulation will result in scattered mind, making it difficult to stabilize the mind. Doubt comes from lack of confidence in the teaching, or lack of confidence in one's ability to practice. These five hindrances, so named because they obstruct our practice, are all obstacles to generating wisdom and compassion.
When you have a very good sitting, when your mind is calm and your heart is joyful, don't you wish it would last longer? Do you ever give rise to such thoughts? Or you may think, «Ah, this feels so good, I want to go deeper.» Do you have thoughts like this? Yes, of course you do. This is one of the hindrances. Which one?
Sheng Yen: Yes, greed. Therefore, to practice the Seven Factors well, you will need not only learned friends but also the proper attitude. A young professor was attending retreat for the first time. During the first five days she suffered greatly. She kept saying to herself that the next day would be better, but every day her suffering actually increased. She told herself that if things did not get better by the fifth day, she was going to leave. She blamed herself for not having virtuous roots and not having the capacity to practice Chan. She decided that Chan was not for her and she stood up, getting ready to leave. At that moment she felt she had let me down, and that she had let down the Buddha. She felt embarrassed, so she bowed to the Buddha statue in the Chan Hall. In that moment all the physical discomforts that she had been experiencing vanished. She had been struggling and suffering so greatly for five days, and suddenly all those negative sensations were gone. She was so attached to her suffering that she could not let it go. The moment she gave up on that idea, her discomforts dropped away. She returned to her cushion and sat very well for the rest of the retreat. The difference was that she no longer wished her suffering to be gone, and she no longer rejected the discomforts of sitting. She was then able to practice very well, and at the end, did not want to leave. In fact, she plans to become a nun.
This is what it means to eliminate the five hindrances. Among the five hindrances, greed and hatred are very difficult to overcome. So, if you want to experience letting go of suffering, I welcome you all to our seven-day, 14-day, and 49-day retreats. Or, go on retreat forever by becoming a monastic practitioner.
How to Practice the Seven Factors
In Hinayana Buddhism one practices the Four Foundations of Mindfulness to ultimately attain liberation. However, in the Mahayana, one also practices the Four Foundations to help deliver sentient beings. We recognize that the early teachings are the foundations of later Mahayana Buddhism. Starting out with the Hinayana practices, it will be easier to gain power. To skip the foundation methods and jump right into the Mahayana methods is impractical because we would be talking about methods that one's body and mind have not quite yet mastered. In fact, some people criticize Mahayana Buddhists for attempting to practice without first understanding the Hinayana foundations. They have a good point.
On a recent tour to China I visited several monasteries, one of them very old. I asked the people there: «Do you do practice Chan?» They said, «Yes.» «What is your daily practice?» I asked. They replied that they sat for ten periods a day, each period being the time for a stick of incense to burn down. Since a stick burns down in about an hour, that means they do sitting meditation all day. So I said, «Many of you must be enlightened already!» One of them said, «Not really, we are just training our legs.»
I'm not saying that their practice is wrong. After all in the Caodong (Soto) sect of Chan, the main practice is «just sitting» (Jap. shikantaza). Sitting that long everyday for months on end is a real accomplishment, but the point is that practicing Chan is not just a matter of training the legs. One masters the Four Foundations of Mindfulness to always know what is happening in one's mind. Chan teaches that when we sit in meditation, we should always know where the body is and what it is doing, and that is true for the mind as well. You should be clearly aware of whatever thoughts arise in your mind, and whatever you are feeling. This actually is the cultivation of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
To practice the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, we begin by practicing each of them separately, after which we naturally practice them together. This is similar to the Four Foundations of Mindfulness where we first practice each foundation separately, and then we contemplate them together. At that point, when we contemplate one of the foundations we also contemplate the other three.
To use an analogy, in an extended family you have yourself, your spouse, your children, as well as the grandparents. When you think about taking care of your extended family, you think of them collectively. However, when you actually help them you address each person's particular needs. The problem is, when you take care of each person separately, inevitably there are preferences and possibly discrimination. You may like some members of the family more than others, and so on. So taking care of the entire family at the same time reflects a higher level of ability. Similarly, being able to practice all seven factors simultaneously reflects a deeper level of practice than practicing them separately. In the beginning one starts with one factor and proceeds step-by-step to the others. When you practice that one factor, you will know clearly what you are practicing. Trying to cultivate all seven factors at the beginning, you will end up not practicing any of them well. It is important to have the proper attitude for practicing the Seven Factors of Enlightenment.
Obstructions, Desires, and Vexations
To cultivate the seven factors well, we need to eliminate obstructions, put down desires, and cut off vexations. Removing obstructions means cutting off attachments to people, things, events, anything in one's life that are obstacles to practice. Putting down desires means departing from the five desires associated with the five senses, but also means not having ideas of attaining anything. Cutting off vexations means purifying oneself of the three poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance, and knowing what to do when they arise. After we are able to do all three, we can eventually move to the seventh factor, equanimity, letting go of the blissful states.
Eliminating obstructions, letting go of desires, and cutting off vexations are guidelines for daily life and difficult to do, but as conditions for practice they are essential. Before one is liberated it is impossible to have no vexations whatsoever. The important thing is that at least during the time that one is practicing, one tries not to give rise to any vexations.
In Islam when a child wants to marry, the parents want the spouse to also be a Muslim or be willing to convert. One of my disciples wanted to marry a girl from a Muslim family. When he met with her parents, they told him that to marry their daughter he had to become a Muslim, as well as bring their children up as Muslims. Being Buddhist, this was a very difficult dilemma for him and he asked me for advice. I told him that he had to decide what he really want more вЂ” a wife or the Buddhadharma.
«Oh, I want a wife,» he said.
I told him that Buddhism does not make its followers do this or that; if he had to choose between a wife and the Buddhadharma that was his decision to make. I said that if he was willing to give up Buddhism, it apparently meant that Buddhism was not that important to him. He asked me if he would be doing something wrong, like committing some kind of sin.
I said, «If you don't want Buddhadharma anymore, why worry about your karma?» By speaking of his karma, I meant his not being able to hear the teachings of the Buddha if he left. Before leaving he said, «Shifu, don't be sad, I will always be a Buddhist in my heart and mind I will still be a Buddhist. My heart is forever yours, so you should be happy.» And I was very happy to hear that.
This story speaks to the idea that in a dilemma, it is difficult to make a decision without being influenced by one's desires. However, if this person lives as a Muslim but has a Buddhist attitude that is pretty good. Getting married is not necessarily an obstacle to practice. Still, one needs to look at different situations carefully. Some of them can be obstacles, others not. Otherwise, one would have to go to the mountains and become a monastic in order to practice. That is not the case at all. Anyone can practice the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. Shakyamuni Buddha taught the Noble Eightfold Path as well as the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. The Thirty-Seven Aids to Enlightenment are taught to all practitioners, lay and monastic.
Mindfulness is the Key
Although mindfulness is the first factor of enlightenment, in another sense it is also the last because it regulates the other six factors. Under what conditions do we practice the other six factors? In general, when one is lethargic, then one practices the arousing factors: discrimination, diligence, and joy. On the other hand, when one is unsettled, one practices the calming factors: lightness-and-ease, samadhi, and equanimity. When you lack interest in the practice, you should focus on the arousing factors, and when you are unsettled, you should practice the calming factors. With these two complementing approaches, one is constantly cultivating both wisdom and samadhi. The common link among all the factors is mindfulness, being aware of your own mental states and practicing the right method for your situation. Without mindfulness it would be impossible to practice the other factors. One of the sutras says that when one is continuously mindful of the internal body, the external body, and the internal-and-external body, then one is cultivating mindfulness. At that time one will then be able to cultivate the other factors.
We know that we have a heart, a liver, blood, tendons, etc., but we normally do not see or sense them except perhaps when we are not well. When we practice very well it is not that we can see our internal organs but that we are more aware of them. The external body consists of head, torso, and limbs that we experience through our sense organs. The internal-and-external body refers to the integrated inner and external body. It can be likened to a case where one can take care of the entire extended family at the same time. Similarly, here you are contemplating both the internal body and the sense organs and the four limbs, all of the entire body simultaneously.
Don't be concerned that contemplating both the internal and external body at the same time might be too demanding. The main point is to realize that all the elements that make up the body do not make a self. The purpose of this contemplation is to really look into the question, «What is the вЂself'?»
Contemplating the body is intimately related to contemplating sensation because sensation can only be experienced with the body. For example, when you sense that something smells nice or bad, do you sense it with your internal or external body? Probably both are true.
Sensations can be pleasant, unpleasant, and neither pleasant nor unpleasant. When we are mindful and aware of the quality of our sensations, we are contemplating sensations. We know whether they are pleasant, unpleasant, or neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Observing our reactions to sensations is contemplating the mind. The result of that mental reaction is a dharma, or mental object, and contemplating that is the fourth foundation of mindfulness. In our story about the young man who loved a Muslim girl, his desire for her became a dharma, a mental phenomenon. Or, if someone gives rise to a vow to leave home and become a monastic, that idea also becomes a dharma in that person's mind. Starting from the contemplation of the body to contemplating one's sensations, and then one's mental reactions to sensations, and then the dharmas arising from that, these four contemplations are the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. They are very critical for the cultivation of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment.
The philosopher Descartes said, «I think, therefore I am.» His idea was that the ability to think was proof of the existence of the self. In Buddhism one looks at the self as made up of four elements, the first of which is the body. The second element of self is the sensations that the body experiences. The mental reactions to these sensations are the third element of the self. The dharmas, or ideas and concepts arising from one's mental reactions, make up the fourth element. If you can see clearly that what we call the «self» is really made up of these four elements, none of which have true selfhood, then you will be able to live with fewer vexations. If you are deluded or unclear about this, you will experience more vexations. That is why it is important to contemplate these four elements of body, sensations, mind, and dharmas.
Samadhi and Wisdom in the Seven Factors
The purpose of practicing the Seven Factors of Enlightenment is to cultivate samadhi and wisdom. As we develop the power of samadhi, we balance and stabilize the body and mind; as we develop wisdom, we reduce our suffering and vexations and enhance our ability to help others. Unless we clearly understand this we may wonder whether the Seven Factors of Enlightenment have anything to do with practice. There are two aspects to using expedient means in practicing the seven factors. The first is to be always clear about your method and the second is to regulate your body and mind according to the method. Following this approach, you will practice effectively.
What are expedient means? From the perspective of Buddhadharma, any teaching transmitted through language, words, actions or ideas is expedient means. A teacher with wisdom and compassion will instruct students according to their situation, understanding, and level of progress. This is expedient means. This is like a doctor prescribing the appropriate medicine for the patient's particular problem. There are all kinds of illnesses, all kinds of medicines, and all kinds of patients. Even a single patient may have different problems at different times. The doctor knows there is no one cure that will be effective for everyone at all times. Therefore, the doctor prescribes for the patient's situation and needs at that time. Similarly, practitioners have different needs and expedient means are used to help them. The teacher will instruct according to one's needs from different perspectives and at different levels of the Dharma.
Once I was out in cold weather without a coat. This lay gentleman offered me his own coat. Wearing that coat, I did not look like a monk anymore. Another practitioner offered me her fur coat saying, «Shifu, my coat is warmer than that coat. You should wear mine.» I did not think it was appropriate for me to wear a woman's coat, but she said, «Well, Shifu, what about expedient means?»
The Dharma itself is beyond words but the Buddha needed to use words to help sentient beings depart from suffering. The words he spoke were dharmas of expedient means. So we have the Dharma, which is the ultimate truth of the Buddha, and we have dharmas, the language, words, and ideas used as expedient means to give the teachings. Even with expedient means, one should follow certain principles. Under some conditions, one may not be able to do much about someone's suffering. You may ask, «You may look silly wearing a lady's fur coat but if you got sick you might not be able to teach. So isn't her offer expedient means?»
What do you think?
Student: What about the fact that the coat came from animals?
Sheng Yen: That is also an issue to ponder. Maybe you can use it as a koan. According to the precepts, a monk or nun may use a fur coat to keep warm, but the fur should come from animals that died naturally.
Contemplating External Phenomena
An example of expedient means is to use thoughts that arise in your mind to illuminate external phenomena. Remember though, that external phenomena include things within your body that you can sense, whereas internal phenomena refer to thoughts arising in the mind. To cultivate samadhi you can collect your scattered mind by focusing on certain phenomena. You can concentrate your mind either on a specific external phenomenon or on external phenomena as a whole.
Is the breath an external or internal phenomenon? A lot of people may think it's an internal phenomenon. When you think, «I am breathing,» that thought is an internal phenomenon, but your actual breathing is an external phenomenon. So when you are observing the breath, you are already using the mind to focus on an external phenomenon.
There are people who meditate without a specific method and very often, if they are not just resting or dozing, their minds are chaotic and fluctuating. In this scattered state they are basically watching movies in which they are the scriptwriters, the directors, as well as all the actors. They can be daydreaming about a girlfriend or boyfriend, or about making a lot of money, and on and on. When not practicing a specific method, watching a movie in your head is at least entertaining; otherwise you will get very irritated, feel very uncomfortable, and fidget a lot. In this kind of scattered state you need an expedient means such as the method of observing the breath. With this expedient means the chaotic thoughts can eventually be replaced by a single-minded focus on the method. It is very important to understand this principle of the method as expedient means.
Tying the Mind to Phenomena
After applying expedient means, the next step is to tie the mind to phenomena and to abide in that. This means connecting the mind to the phenomenon that one is focusing on. It is like this meditation bell here. As you can see, there's a little chain tying the bell to the striker so the striker does not get lost. Tying the mind to a phenomenon means that there is a linkage such that the object of focus does not get lost. It is like placing a banana in front of a monkey, but in a place where it cannot reach it. If the monkey is hungry, he will sit and gaze at the banana for a long time. So while the monkey's mind is tied to the phenomenon, he is abiding in that phenomenon.
This is what Nagarjuna, the great Indian scholar, meant by tying the mind to a phenomenon вЂ” one is always focused on it, not forgetting that it's there. Abiding in the phenomenon means one's mind is so focused that it becomes very stable. If the mind is not abiding in the phenomenon, it is like the monkey wanting the banana but walking away every few moments, and coming back. His mind is tied to the banana but is not abiding in it; he keeps losing his focus. That describes the state where the mind is tied to the phenomena but not entirely stable yet. When the mind is entirely stable, it does not lose its focus.
Once when I was using this monkey analogy, a student said, «I can totally relate to that, because this whole idea of tying the mind to phenomena is about cultivating samadhi, right?»
I said, «Yes.»
And he said, «Well, that's what I did when I was pursuing this attractive woman.»
I told him, «It's not the same thing. Instead of the clarity and calmness that one develops in samadhi, your mind was completely controlled by your desire.» [Laughter]
When you can tie your mind to phenomena and abide in them, you can clearly perceive the previous thoughts as they fall and the following thoughts as they rise. You know clearly the thoughts that just arose in the mind. You are aware of the upward and downward movements of the mind. The upward movement of the mind is when one knows what's going on clearly but there is also a feeling of excitement. The downward movement is when the mind is not as clear. In samadhi the mind is supposed to be very stable, without upward and downward movements, but before entering samadhi it is almost impossible for the mind to be completely without any ups and downs.
The important thing is to make an effort to maintain a stable and even mind. If the mind gets too excited it will become scattered; if the mind drifts downward too much it will lose clarity. In the process of stabilizing the mind, it is normal to have upward and downward movement. When one is clearly aware of these movements, one should perceive clearly the previous thought and the following thought. Without the fluctuating movement, there will neither be previous nor following thoughts. So, the idea is to be very clearly aware of every thought, of every movement of the mind, but at the same time, not to allow the mind to move upward or downward too much.
A mind that is doubtful in the midst of practice is not sure what is going on or what to do. «Should I do this or that? Doing that felt nice before, but now it does not.» And so on. This doubt is due to lack of confidence, an inability to gather mind-power in practice. At this point one needs to use the Seven Factors of Enlightenment properly to take care of the situation. For example, when meditating, someone will be sitting there slowly becoming drowsy. Then, when they wake up they will think that everything is fine, that they were meditating well. This sequence can recur again and again. There is nothing seriously wrong with this, but this is a downward movement of the mind where one becomes increasingly unclear, confused about what's going on, and doubtful.
The other case is when one has been sitting well and is excited about it. «I have been sitting well, and it's going to get better!» This is an upward movement of the mind and one may find oneself having happy ideas, joyful thoughts. Then, one may think, «I am sitting well, but can I keep it up, can I keep getting better? Should I be feeling good?» And this is doubt again.
So these upward and downward movements of the mind lead to doubt, and constantly asking oneself questions. That is because one doesn't know whether one's situation is positive or negative. In principle it is a good thing to be sitting in a very calm and relaxed way. However, when one has been calm to the point where the mind has gotten dull, that means that the mind is unclear and moving in the direction of drowsiness. Also, in principle being relaxed is a good state. However, if one is so relaxed that the mind is getting too lax, then one is heading towards scattered mind. These are the situations that one needs to be clearly aware of, and how to adjust accordingly.
Being aware of one's mental state is applicable not only on the cushion but also in one's daily life. For example, there are people who are considered dull-minded, who live in a kind of confused state, as if their brains were buckets of glue. There are also people whom we may call oversensitive, who react to things very quickly, actually sometimes overreacting. Some may think these people are a little crazy. These are polar states of mind that one can have in daily life and they can even occur in the same person at different times. Perhaps I am one of those people. Sometimes, when I don't quite know what's going on, (Учитель Дхармы Го Юань, настоятель монастыря) Guoyuan Fashi [the abbot] tells me, «Shifu, you need to go do such and such.» And I say, «Really?» But the same thing happens to him too, and I have to tell him. [Laughter]
Once we had a bodhisattva here who I asked to deliver an object to Guoyuan Fashi, and he said, «Okay,» as if he were going to do it right away. But in the meantime another person asked him to do something else in the basement. So he put my object down and went to the basement. While he was down there, somebody else wanted him to do something else. By this time he completely forgot about the thing that needed to be taken to Guoyuan Fashi. Originally, I could have delivered this thing by myself. Now, half a day had gone by and this thing was still sitting in the reception area in front of the Guanyin statue.
When I saw that, I asked this person, «What happened? Didn't you take this to Guoyuan Fashi?» And he responded, «What? You mean I didn't deliver it?» So I ended up delivering it myself, and this person said, «Shifu, I only have one pair of hands!»
I felt, well, he has a point. So while it is true he had only one pair of hands, he was still a little bit scatter-minded. Anyone can be scatter-minded once in awhile but one should recognize it and adjust one's mind to stabilize right away. If there are many things happening in daily life, one learns to take care of the things that need to be done one by one.
Practicing the Seven Factors of Enlightenment also helps maintain the health of the body and the mind by calming the mind and eliminating vexations. This is because the practice requires both body and mind to be relaxed. This promotes mental health through keeping a stable and balanced mind, one that does not agitate easily and does not fluctuate all the time. Cultivating the Seven Factors will help eliminate the vexations in the mind so that our interactions with others are harmonious. Taking care of business, one will not be confused or doubtful.
A Review of the Seven Factors
The Seven Factors of Enlightenment are seven practices that guide us towards samadhi and wisdom. The first six factors вЂ” mindfulness, discrimination, diligence, joy, lightness-and-ease, and concentration вЂ” focus on cultivating samadhi, while the seventh factor, equanimity, focuses on both samadhi and wisdom. The Seven Factors are important in the Hinayana as well as Mahayana traditions, the main difference being that the Hinayana emphasizes samadhi, while the Mahayana emphasizes wisdom, including wisdom in daily life. Put another way, the Hinayana is more about individual practice; the Mahayana is more about relations in social settings. As one who received transmission in Chan Buddhism, I try to express the spirit of the Mahayana.
The Mahayana sutra, the Vimalakirti-nirdisa, has this passage: «Though [the bodhisattva] observes the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, [the bodhisattva] understands all the points of the Buddha's wisdom. Such is the practice of the bodhisattva.»
This passage says that though one practices the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, one is not limited by them. If one also realizes the Buddha's wisdom, then one is practicing the bodhisattva path. And what is the Buddha's wisdom? It is the wisdom of emptiness in which one sees that all sentient beings possess buddha-nature. In the Hinayana there was no emphasis on seeing the buddha-nature in either oneself or others, while in the Mahayana, buddha-nature was seen as shared by all sentient beings. The fundamental difference between buddhas and sentient beings is that buddhas have seen their buddha-nature while ordinary sentient beings have not. Therefore, practitioners of the bodhisattva path should apply the Buddha's wisdom in daily practice and in interacting with people. This way, though one is not yet a buddha, one's behavior is in accordance with the Buddha's. When our wisdom is in accordance with that of the Buddha, our wisdom is the same as that of a buddha. The Hinayana goal is to obtain individual liberation. In this view, if other sentient beings have virtuous roots, they will eventually also begin to practice towards liberation. On the other hand, in the Mahayana view, sentient beings are regarded as already being buddhas.
Some people may think that Westerners have a strong sense of individuality and are disposed to practice only the self-liberation path. That is not necessarily the case. Westerners, especially those that have a religious faith, believe that because God loves humanity, they should also love humanity. There is also among Westerners a very strong sense of justice, a belief that we should not tolerate unjust treatment of people. These sentiments in Western society gave rise to the ideas of democracy and equality. Were it not for such ideas, there would not be the American Constitution, nor would slavery have been abolished. These principles are also in accordance with Mahayana Buddhism, which transcends culture and nationality. Now, let's consider how the seven factors are regarded in Nagarjuna's Mahaprajnaparamita Shastra.
As we have said, in the Hinayana, the first factor, mindfulness, is actually the cultivation of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. The method begins by contemplating the body, and then contemplating the sensations experienced by the body. Since sensations are experienced by the mind, we next contemplate the mind's reactions to sensations. The mind's reactions to sensations are mental constructs, or dharmas. We then contemplate that dharmas are all just symbols or ideas, and after they arise, they disappear. We contemplate that these dharmas have the same nature as all phenomena, impermanent and empty.
What do you use to listen to this lecture? You use your ears. And where are your ears? In your head. And where is your head? On your body. That is contemplating the body. When you hear this talk, what do you hear? Whether you understand or not, at the very least you hear sound. What is sound? It is a sensation. That is contemplating sensations. How do you experience this sound? Do you find it interesting or boring? What is experiencing these sounds? Your mind is experiencing these sounds as interesting or boring. That is contemplating mind. But these notions of «interesting» or «boring,» what are they and where do they come from? They are mental objects or dharmas; they are symbols, things that represent something else. This is contemplation of dharmas. This gives you a rough idea of how to practice mindfulness in the Hinayana tradition.
What is the Mahayana approach to mindfulness? The Mahaprajnaparamita Shastra says that the bodhisattva treats all experiences as phenomena вЂ” anything that the sense organs and the mind can experience, all sensations, feelings, objects, ideas, concepts, and events. This includes physical, biological, mental, emotional, and social phenomena. These can all be seen as phenomena. The shastra goes on to say that as bodhisattvas encounter phenomena, they immediately let go of them without any attachment. It is not that one does not remember anything but that the memory does not become a burden. My memory is not that good, but I still remember a lot of things from my youth, the processes I went through, and the knowledge I acquired. Of course I have forgotten a lot. Even though I still remember much, I never allow memory to become a burden in my life.
In the Buddha's time, there was a scholar who knew everything there was to know about philosophy, religion, and other subjects. He wore a metal band around his head to keep it from bursting from all the knowledge. One time, he challenged the Buddha to a debate. This scholar said to Buddha, «Ask me any question. If there is any question I cannot answer, I will become your disciple. Then I will ask you a question, and if you cannot answer, you become my disciple.»
So, Shakyamuni Buddha agreed to that. The first question the Buddha asked was, «Perhaps this is not quite a question, but it is about liberation.» The scholar said, «Well, ask me the question.»
Shakyamuni Buddha kept silent while the scholar waited and waited for the question to be asked. Then he said to Shakyamuni Buddha, «Well, if you don't want to ask me a question, I will ask one.» Then he asked the Buddha, «What is liberation, then?»
Shakyamuni Buddha still would not say anything. Finally, the scholar became upset; «Why aren't you answering my question?» Shakyamuni Buddha responded, «If one is already liberated, what need is there for questions?»
On hearing this the scholar realized that his knowledge was useless, so he said to Shakyamuni Buddha, «I will be your disciple now.»
This great scholar was so attached to all this knowledge he had that other people did not, that he was not able to attain true enlightenment. In itself, having knowledge is not the problem. The problem is allowing knowledge to become a burden. If he hadn't been so prideful of his knowledge, this scholar would have had a better likelihood of being liberated.
The second factor of enlightenment, discrimination, is interpreted in the Hinayana tradition as knowing true from false Dharma, following the true teachings and putting aside false teachings. The Mahaprajnaparamita Shastra has this passage: «Seeking wholesome dharmas, unwholesome dharmas, or dharmas that are neither wholesome nor unwholesome, these are all unattainable.»
For the most part, we respond to phenomena by seeing them as pleasant or unpleasant, or as neither pleasant nor unpleasant. However, when cultivating the factor of discriminating between true and false, as described in the Mahaprajnaparamita Shastra, that should not be the case.
A student of mine who had married about a month before came to see me. I asked him how his new bride was doing. He said, «Before we got married, everything about her was good. After we got married, some things about her were good, some not good, and some things I really can't determine whether they're good or not.» I thought that was interesting. Before he got married, everything was good and afterwards there's some good, some bad, and a new discovery of his wife. Is that the case with you, P., that after you got married you found your wife changing as well? [Laughter] Actually, I have heard the same thing from women. One woman, after getting married, told me: «Before my husband and I got married we went to a psychic to see if our horoscopes were compatible. The psychic said everything was fine. Before the wedding, my husband agreed to everything that I wanted, but afterwards his real nature emerged; he began to grow a fox's tail.» [Laughter] Do the Westerners among you know about [this Chinese saying] of someone growing a fox's tail?
I tell married people that they should adapt to each other's shortcomings because there is no such thing as a perfect person. They should try to understand and accommodate each other instead of being attached to the idea of an ideal spouse. There is no absolute good or absolute bad, and as one's attitude changes one's environment will change as well. For example, some people think that if the spouse does something mean, the spouse does not love them. An outside observer might ask, «Why would anybody want to be with such a person?» But the abused spouse might feel that their partner really does love them in spite of being mean occasionally. So, there is nothing that's absolutely good or absolutely bad. It's all in one's perspective of what's going on. The thing is to understand that as one's attitude about what's going on changes, one's environment will change as well. This does not mean that there are no good people or no bad people, but that one should not allow other people's actions to give us vexation. When encountering these situations, handle them not with a mind of vexation but with a mind of wisdom.
One scenario that sometimes happens is that a member of this Center passes away and leaves behind a lot of Buddhist material вЂ” sutras, books, tapes, and so on. Sometimes the heirs are not Buddhist, so they will gather up these items and bring them to the Center in boxes, leave them in the reception area, and say, «We have all this stuff for you.» Then they leave without telling what it is all about. So what do we do with all these things? Often, we sort them out and leave them in the reception area for people to take. But we try to handle the situation without getting upset. There is no use in getting upset, so we just take care of the matter.
In the Hinayana tradition, diligence means exerting oneself in practicing the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. In the Mahaprajnaparamita Shastra, Nagarjuna describes the Mahayana point of view. For him, diligence is exerting oneself to help sentient beings without being influenced by the three realms of desire, form, and formlessness. One should not be attached to the world of sentient beings; at the same time, one tries to deliver sentient beings from the three realms.
In the Hinayana, the fourth factor of enlightenment, joy-and-delight, refers to the happiness that arises from the cultivation of dhyana. Speaking from the Mahayana view, the Mahaprajnaparamita Shastra says that when encountering phenomena, one does not attach to what is happening, nor does one give rise to vexation.
The fifth factor is lightness-and-ease. In the Hinayana, this refers to mental pliancy in the practice of dhyana, where there's no burden of body and mind, where the mind does not attach to anything, where there is nothing to attain, and because of that, there is no burden. This lightness-and-ease is equivalent to the first of the eight worldly samadhis. In the Mahayana view one does not attach to the good feeling of lightness-and-ease, one sees it as an opportunity to practice simultaneous samadhi-and-wisdom.
The sixth factor of enlightenment is concentration, or samadhi. This is the state where the mind remains on one thing without moving, where one knows clearly that there is no movement or chaos in phenomena at all. There is the same idea in the Avatamsaka (Flower Ornament) Sutra, which says that all dharmas (phenomena) are originally «thus,» and have their own place in the world. Samadhi is approached sequentially in the Hinayana tradition, beginning with the Five Methods of Stilling the Mind and moving on to the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. In the method of Chan, however, samadhi is attained simultaneously with wisdom and can occur at any stage. Chan samadhi is also the samadhi of daily life.
In the Hinayana, equanimity is the idea that as one continues in samadhi one lets go of any mental state that one is experiencing. At a deep level of samadhi, any thoughts that occur are subtle and mostly symbols and even these must be let go. For the Mahayana, equanimity means that one does not attach to any phenomena, including a mind that lets go. There are neither phenomena that can be put down, nor a mind that does the putting down. This state is wisdom, or enlightenment.