Hsing Yun, Four Insights for Finding Fulfillment

I sit at one of Hsing Yun’s temples, on Park in San Diego.  One afternoon, I walked into their bookstore, having read earlier in the day some of Huineng’s commentary on the Diamond Sutra, and what stared out at me but this?  I couldn’t help but, contrary to habit, buy the thing.  Just finished it.

I read a post a bit back on another blog, reviewing in a way the book, Democracy’s Dharma.  The author noted:

generally Madsen shows the Taiwanese organizations breaking down along occupational and socioeconomic lines: Tzu Chi for service workers, Fo Guang Shan [Master Hsing Yun‘s organization] for managers and entrepreneurs, and Dharma Drum for artists and academics.

Dharma Drum is my lineage, but living as I do in San Diego I sit at a Fo Guang Shan temple, so how I understand Four Insights for Finding Fulfillment is conditioned by my experience in the two places.  So, I will say that it’s my own issue that my first feeling when going through the book was that this was a very expedient means: lots of discussion of very practical concerns the likes of which I would imagine businesspeople (precisely as the quote above intimated) would have, followed by practical advice, reference to anecdote, and a quote with citation from the Diamond Sutra.  The Sutra itself is an appendix.

They call us practitioners for a reason, because I certainly haven’t got this ego thing worked out.  I will say that what I felt at first in the book was skimming the surface–no discussions about unmediated mind, the nature of mind and phenomena, etc.–built as the book progressed.  The quotes from the Sutra became longer, and the discussions of the substance of the Dharma became lengthier, on their own terms rather than in reference to typical situations one encounters in what we imagine to be real life.  Master Hsing Yun takes a different tack than Sheng Yen did, but he is absolutely dealing with the same thing.

I am at a point now where I have enough confidence in myself to actually make a point about how Buddhism goes down in North America.  I have not lived in the same town as my Dharma teacher for many years now, and though I listen to his talks via the internet, I have also looked for instruction where I am.  Face to face is good.  So, I’ve stumbled into a lot of stuff on my way.

Here’s the point: a bunch of upwardly-mobile young white people started practicing with these amazing Asian teachers, and then, in the name of expedient means, started teaching all kinds of stuff in the name of the Dharma while completely losing the plot.  I’ll put forward that there’s a lot of underlying white nonsense happening: we will drop the archaic Asian superstition and have a Buddhism for the “West.” This is Orientalism at work.

Master Sheng Yen and Gilbert, my teacher–as well as all kinds of other people, like Master Hsing Yun–employ expedient means, but they put the real point

There is no suffering, no cause of suffering
No cessation of suffering, and no path.

in their talks and books.

I am pleased that at this point I can distinguish shit from Shinola.

There I am, with my teacher.  So:

  • You can talk about psychology in your Dharma, but only if you use it as a door to Ch’an, or Zen, or whatever you call it.
  • You can incorporate martial arts into your program, but only if there’s a point where you drop the fighting and experience non-duality.
  • You can tell someone that practicing can help their recovery, but only if you’ll help that person get to the point where their recovery is there to help their practice.
  • Last, Buddhism is not a brand.

An accomplished practitioner here who facilitates a sitting group I attend told me, when I pointed out some of these concerns that he couldn’t see how the Dharma was the Dharma if there wasn’t any satori in it.  He comes from a Japanese lineage but the point is obvious.  Sheng Yen tossed you in the deep end fairly quickly, and Hsing Yun and Thich Nhat Hanh take different tacks, but in all three they put it all on the table so the people who are ready for it can go.  That I can work with.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go

As should be clear, I’m in a process of trying to get my Buddhist practice back.  The main point isn’t even the daily sit–meditation, that is–though I have been vastly more consistent over the last couple months than I had been in the six years before, much to my improvement.  The point is, as my teacher always said, to not leave my method, so to speak, on my mat.  That is to say, it’s easy to be all “Zen” and calm when sitting on a cushion in a silent place.  Being in the world and keeping a mind of non-attachment without avoiding or disengaging from the world is the hard part.

Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go: Waking Up to Who You Are is Thich Nhat Hanh‘s translation and commentary on Linji, often transliterated Lin Chi and, in Japanese terminology Rinzai.  Linji is most famous as the master who instructed his students to kill the Buddha should they ever meet him on the road.  Less well known is that he also included parents in that particular teaching.  I practice Buddhism and read it, and so I have a greater familiarity with its history and lineages than probably most people, but I am by no means an expert.  Having said that, Linji has a reputation as being extreme in his teachings, though positively so, extreme in his absolute rejection of all labels and concepts.  Hence, his instruction to kill the Buddha.

Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the most gentle people I could imagine, and having been physically present at his teaching I can attest that he very literally radiates a gentle, opening calm.  Reading Linji–actually, students’ records of his teaching–the two masters seem very different personalities.  Linji shouts at his students, as a tool of awakening, to jog them out of conceptualizing thought, for example.  So too does Linji bemoan the low level, to give it a name he didn’t, of his students’ practice, always chasing as it were an enlightenment that very simply doesn’t exist.  Nhat Hanh, in his commentary, often contextualizes Linji, noting that what might seem to us harshness was in fact compassion, not only the compassion that comes from a friend correcting a friend–a deep compassion but often a hard one–but also that, for example, Linji didn’t hit his students.  Times change, and with them notions of acceptable behavior.

Nhat Hanh is absolutely right to point to Linji’s compassion, which can be easy to miss.  Almost constantly, Linji admonishes his students with something like the following:

My friends, at this very moment your own wonderful function is no different than the wonderful function of the masters and the Buddhas.  It is only because you lack confidence that you are looking for something outside of you.

This is a very deep teaching, easy for me to intellectualize and which I have not yet really penetrated in practice.  That lack of confidence of which Linji spoke seems to me to be the normal mental condition of people, certainly in the United States, with its consumption/credit driven economy based on stimulated perception of people’s inherent deficiency in themselves, and definitely in my case.  This is Linji’s basic teaching, as far as I can tell as someone who by no means has been given leave to teach the Dharma, and if one bears this in mind one can see how thoroughly that teaching reflects, going backwards in time, the basic teaching of the Buddha, reformulated for a different historical and cultural context and, moving forward, in teachings of people like Thich Nhat Hanh and Master Sheng Yen, to name the two with whom I am most familiar.  Nhat Hanh’s stress on mindfulness is precisely Linji’s point, phrased differently, and this is absolutely clear in his commentary on the main text.

I am almost of the mind to say that the book is not fundamentally about practical things, because Thich Nhat Hanh, who as I’ve noted before in my response to The Sun, My Heart, has written so widely and in the case of many books with an extremely practical focus, which is to say, how one sits, or a particularly meditation exercise, etc.  Before I started practicing Buddhism I read various sutras, more for intellectual satisfaction than spiritual, though one should properly say that one can find an open door to practice through intellectual pursuit and possibly that was the door through which I passed into Buddhism.  I haven’t read a sutra in a few years, and that was the short Diamond Sutra in Nhat Hanh’s translation and commentary.  Having said that, sutra study, and in that I will included texts like this Record of Linji, should be seen as fundamentally practical manuals if they are to be of any use.  One cannot, however, come to them cold, that is, without a healthy practice, and get anything more than an intellectual understanding of particular ideas.  Linji pointed out at one point that monks sitting in silent meditation seeking enlightenment was just the creation of more karma and the perpetuation of samsara–the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth–just the same as any number of activities we would label “negative” or “bad.”  The same can be said of sutra study for intellectual pursuit.  It’s not that it’s bad, but the Buddha taught in order to give methods by which people could free themselves from conceptual thought, among other things.  To end the digression, I found that, reading this at a time when my daily practice is more consistent, I found myself thinking more about what Linji’s insistence that we should not look outside of ourselves in terms of what that means for me to actually do, both physically and intellectually.  This is not easier than intellectualizing scripture, though in a literal sense it is simpler.

The nice thing about Linji–it’s odd to put it this way, but there it is–is that he, and Nhat Hanh echoing him, make it very clear what one needs to do.  Drop everything, be who you are, where you are, without concepts.  Obviously, that’s not easy, but that kind of clarity is rare.  I feel like people should make points like that all the time, but they don’t.

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