I certainly don’t know if Faith in Mind is the book I’d recommend someone read first if they wanted to get a taste of Master Sheng Yen‘s instruction, but of the books of his I’ve read, this feels to me to be the most characteristic. The form is very typical: there is a complete text, in this case the poem, “Faith in Mind,” attributed to the Third Patriarch of Ch’an, Seng Ts’an, followed by Sheng Yen’s commentary alternating with the relevant portions of the text.
Sheng Yen’s commentary derives from talks given at retreat. He clarifies his approach in the introduction:
…I did not adopt a scholarly point of view or analytical approach. It is not a formal commentary on the text; rather, I use the poem as a taking-off point to inspire the practitioner and deal with certain issues that arise during the course of practice. (2)
This, were I to point to any singular virtue Sheng Yen had in his instruction, is precisely why he was a “Master.” I have not encountered any instruction as useful for actual practice as Sheng Yen’s. This is not to denigrate anyone else, nor, a worse error, to suggest that Sheng Yen lacks anything as a theoretician. On the contrary, his persistent focus on the technical aspects of practice, its practical effects, and the ensuing problems those effects present is itself a theoretical perspective of the highest order.
I first read this book early in my practice. My teacher had been using it in his own instruction, so it seemed like a natural place to go. I have a distinct memory from that point in my life of getting a very specific instruction from the book that has been of paramount importance in my entire practice since, and which literally saved my mental neck on more than one occasion. The passage was indeed there on second read:
When practicing, it is sufficient to just keep your mind on the method. It is unnecessary to reflect on how well you are doing, or to compare whether you are in a better state now than you were half an hour ago…Hold on to one method and go into it as deeply as possible (29-30)
I have never gotten more mileage out of any instruction than I have from these lines. My only business when I am on the cushion is my method. Practically, all the stuff people talk about, like the body falling away and only the method remaining, the method falling away, etc., that all may come, but as soon as I have any sense that I can not be on the method, I need to get my ass back to my method. As soon as there’s any choosing, choose the method. Such simple instruction, but not at all commonplace.