Sheng Yen, Faith in Mind

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.


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.

Sheng Yen, There is No Suffering


Like a baby.

The lineage I stated practicing Buddhism in was Sheng Yen‘s, Dharma Drum Mountain.  My teacher made a point that while one needs to be open to change and possibility, one should not hop this teacher or this lineage to that.  Shopping around happens a lot for people who are seeking someone they (imagine) they don’t already have.  That said, I still consider that first teacher my teacher, though locally I have one as well who’s working out beautifully, and I certainly consider Sheng Yen the master I look to, primarily.  Geography has put me in touch with Thich Nhat Hanh much more than Sheng Yen, and it was with Thay that I took the precepts, in his language the mindfulness trainings.  I have nothing but the deepest respect for Thay, but my teacher’s point about sticking with someone still strikes me as sound advice.

So, even though Sheng Yen has passed on, and while I don’t live in an area where I have access to anything institutionally in his lineage, I still look to Sheng Yen.  When I recently got the sense I needed to go back to the Heart Sutra, I asked for his translation and commentary on it for my birthday.  The book came, and I finished it last night.

I was lucky enough to do a short retreat with Sheng Yen in upstate New York.  It was my first retreat, and I’d practiced for about a year or so.  I was blown away, because I had never heard talks like the ones he gave that long weekend.  I had been through grad school and thought I knew a good lecture when I heard it.  I was shrewd enough to know that the three-hour evening talk that Jacques Derrida gave was not good lecturing, nor did the three hours he added the next morning add value to the experience, whatever the merits of his arguments that evening, which, summed up, were that Marx was not invalidated by the collapse of the Soviet Union.  I valued clarity, but I also valued complexity.  The best lecturer I knew could deliver a crisp, clear expression of very complex ideas, and I was impressed.

I had not known the value of intellectual simplicity before I heard Sheng Yen’s talks.  That quality is everywhere in evidence in There is No Suffering.  He delivered a series of talks, interspersed between various meditation periods.  Each was entirely self-contained.  After the first, I remember feeling, hey, this is cool, nothing too special, he’s probably keeping it simple for a general audience.  The retreat, a short one, was intended for new practitioners.

The second talk he gave built on the first, and at the same time was equally simple and self-contained.  He would reference the earlier talk, but in such a clear way that one did not need to refer back to notes.  Talk after talk, the process, entirely simple and clear all the way through, had a snowballing effect.  I had never heard anything like it before, and if only in my rhetorical values I was forever a changed man after it.  I would note that Thich Nhat Hanh has a similar quality of simplicity in his talks.

I read in one of Sheng Yen’s books that he felt his early training was un-methodical, and that he took it upon himself to try to give clarity and form to the various practices that went on in Chan training as he encountered it.  It would be very wrong to suggest that Sheng Yen was merely a systematizer, but he was this among other things.  That quality is palpable in There is No Suffering. Where Thich Nhat Hanh, in his commentary on the Heart Sutra, uses the lines as starting points to various discussions, teasing out if you will meanings present but not explicit to your average reader in the text, Sheng Yen draws out threads and, to maybe stretch the obvious metaphor, weaves them into a coherent pattern.  This systematization is not an ontological position for Sheng Yen–there is no ultimate truth in the system–but a matter of expedience.  A person can be of help much more effectively if there is a coherent system helping that person do so.  We have conditions, as human beings, that make it that way.

Lost in the book, which I gather was taken from talks and then edited, is Sheng Yen’s sense of humor.  The book doesn’t lack because of it, but I make the point simply to record my own memory of him.  He was riotously funny throughout all of his talks, and I had expected someone very serious and studious.  He held a couple of doctorates, after all, and the clarity of his thinking conflicted with my notions of humor.  Turns out he was very possibly the best practitioner alive at the time of a type of pun, I was told by the Chinese man who drove me to the airport after the retreat, that one makes in Chinese by playing with the inflections of words.  In Chinese, the inflection of a word changes the meaning, I am told.  You can’t do this in English, he said, and of course you can’t.  So Sheng Yen was making wisecracks all the time by using one inflection either in place of or in reference to another, not obfuscating or changing his meaning but adding a level of reference, irony, and humor to what he said.  Some of this the translator was able to communicate, if only by explanation.  He also made more conventional jokes, but by and large they seem to have been, probably judiciously, edited out of the book.

One remained, though.  Writing on different nirvanas, he discusses non-Buddhist nirvana, referencing in this case worshiping God or gods:

The reason why this first kind of nirvana is considered a non-Buddhist path is because being reborn in, or brought to a heaven, is not considered eternal from a Buddhist perspective.  Further, it is questionable whether the god has even transcended samsara.

“It is questionable.”  Sheng Yen was a very funny and beautiful man.

Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

I had never read Pema Chodron before, but I had been somewhat wary of her work, due to my own prejudices.  People I knew casually and liked, but who struck me as very bourgeois Buddhists (I know, I know…judging mind…) raved about her.  That worried me.  Also, I came to Buddhism via a meditation group led by a Mexican-American man, fully-credentialed (received the transmission from Sheng Yen), but who practices using his birth name.  I understand that it may be part of the deal in some traditions or organizations for people to adopt a new name when taking monastic vows, and this may be the case with Pema Chodron.  She may not have had any choice in her name.  That said–my own prejudices–I have met too many white people who ostentatiously go all wisdom-of-the-East, and I steered away from Pema Chodron I think out of a semi-conscious association of her, because of her name, with those people for whom I had a great distaste.

Then, my life fell apart, I started to get back to my practice, and in conversation with a Zen priest for whom I have a great deal of respect I was recommended Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart.  Time, I figured, to drop my prejudices, which at some basic level I can no longer afford, and give her a go.  I nabbed the library’s copy and went.

So, I’ll start by saying that I found much of value in the book.  She makes a very basic point which is worth making: falling apart is impermanence by another name, and is thus the basic characteristic, along with emptiness, of samsara.  When things fall apart, the self wants to avoid it–and you can be sure that my own self has done precisely this.  However, she recommends embracing the condition of falling apart, of sitting with it, literally in the case of sitting meditation practice, and metaphorically as well.

For whatever reason, I’ve developed what I will admit is an aesthetic when it comes to particular practices called “Buddhist.”  It’s taken directly from Sheng Yen’s method(s), which in essence sought to maintain, though clarify, systematize, and such as it were distill the various techniques bequeathed him by his various teachers.  This he did, exceptionally well.  He was seen during his lifetime, and now, too, I suppose, as an innovator, and this he was in two ways, in his systematization of technique just previously mentioned, and also in his insistence that all of these techniques were available to lay practitioners as well as monastics. What he explicitly did not do, however, was develop new techniques.  He taught that one should have an absolute faith in the method at hand.  Mixing methods or making them up out of thin air was not his game.  Even someone like Thich Nhat Hanh, who uses his skill as a poet to develop new gathas, always grounds himself in a rigorous attention to tradition.  What might seem a whole-cloth innovation in Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching is as often as not based very directly on material he gleaned from above all the various Pali scriptures which he, broadening his textual base from typically Zen scripture, re-introduces to his own Zen technique.  So, he innovates by digging into scripture that is, at least in their oldest extant written form, older than the oldest Mahayana text.

I write the above to preface my preference in When Things Fall Apart.  Pema Chodron, as far as I can see, is at her best when relating the most basic and most traditional teaching.  What struck me in the book as most beneficial personally was a moderately lengthy discussion of the practice of Tonglen.  What people–or at least what I need, is very practical instruction, particularly when in a difficult time.  I don’t have time for theory.  I need to know what to do when I sit my ass down on the cushion, because just watching my breath just doesn’t cut it when I’m in a total crisis.  I’m not that accomplished a practicioner.  Tonglen practice, a Tibetan practice with which I had no familiarity as I have basically no familiarity with Tibetan Buddhism, was of great help.

Now, to my prejudices, and how they were confirmed.  I would say were I trying to look better than I do that “I don’t mean to criticize someone who clearly is more accomplished a practitioner than I am, but…”  However, I am trying to do that.  There are real problems with Chodron’s approach.  Maybe it’s a function–she mentions working with a homeless person in the book, which, while homeless people are not the only ones who need help, are definitely people for whom things have truly fallen apart–of the need to make money in order to do other kinds of work that don’t generate a lot of income, like, for example, working with homeless people.  Homeless people don’t give lots of “dana,” for example, and don’t buy new copies of Buddhist books.  Upper-middle class people do, and in Buddhism in the United States, particularly for a white writer, that means you aim at upper-middle class white people.  These are people who do not respond well to having their social self-delusion exposed.  So, if you want them to buy your next book, you push gently, or, in Chodron’s case, you don’t push at all.

Above all, you communicate the misapprehension that somehow racism in the United States is a matter of differing but somehow equal opinion or perception, that is to say, rooted in self-centered conceptual (samsaric) thinking.  Witness this, from the chapter called “Widening the Circle of Compassion”:

But suppose someone does not agree with us? Then what happens? Do we find ourselves getting angry and aggressive? If we look into the very moment of anger or aggression, we might see that this is what wars are made of. This is what race riots are made of: feeling that we have to be right, being thrown off and righteously indignant when someone disagrees with us.

I would want to look more specifically at wars to judge whether or not they are questions of differences of opinion.  That’s surely part of it.  Race riots, on the other hand, are by no means functions of difference of opinion.  Race riots, first off don’t happen very often.  The L.A. Uprising of my lifetime, was not a race riot.  Race riots in the United States have been as often–I might wager most often–started by white people against black or brown.  Witness, among others, the Zoot Suit Riots.  In something like the riots after Dr. King’s assassination, riots in Watts or Detroit, we do not have presented a counter-argument in response to a (white) argument.  We have people who have been pushed beyond their limits by intolerable circumstances with no legitimate or even non-violent means to create positive outcomes.  It’s not a question of two equal sides, both mired in their own subjectivity.  It’s a question of unequal power relations, and anyone whose sympathy lies with the powerful has some sickness to deal with.  That said, it’s a comfortable thought to white people to see racism as a mere difference of opinion–well, I don’t see it that way but you are entitled to your opinion–rather than a question of unearned privilege.  Chodron seems to not see this clearly.

Also, Chodron privileges, like so many white people, Chinese and Japanese culture over other Asian societies.  Unmistakably:

Referencing Bodhidharma:

a painting of Zen master Bodhidharma. (73)

Referencing Katagiri Roshi:

As the Zen master Katagiri Roshi often said…(56)

Referencing Thich Nhat Hanh:

As the Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says…(75)

I don’t hear Buddhists refer to Thich Nhat Hanh as anything other than a Zen Master.  He’s not just a teacher: the man is a Master.  But, he’s from a little country, it seems.  Not good, and very off-putting.

The book, to be sure, was not without merit, as I indicated.  I got another Pema Chodron book as a present, so I will give her another shot.  If your life does fall apart, as mine has, I suppose the best bet is actual practice and talking with an actual teacher.  I’ve been lucky enough to have the San Francisco Zen Center as a resource and recently Deer Park Monastery, in Escondido.  Actual practice is the thing.

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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