Guidance for Practice in Daily Life
A talk by Master Sheng-yen (From Chan Magazine/Fall 1999)
(This talk was given on May 13, 1997, at the end of a retreat in Poland and was edited by Ernie Heau.)
This morning I asked a few people whether there was anything I could help with. They asked me to give some guidance on practice in daily life. How should you practice in this difficult, transitional, post-Communist period? Being neither Buddha nor deity, my understanding and knowledge are limited. If I cannot answer your questions, or my answer does not help you, forgive me. Time is very limited and precious. Be right to the point, and the question should be useful to everyone.
Q: How should lay people practice in daily life? It seems that the life and practice of ordained people or monks is different from the life of lay people, who have families, work, etc.‹all the humdrum and commotion of daily life.
There is one clear distinction between lay and left-home (monastic) practice, and that is the ownership of the different problems that come along with each. For example there is the ownership of one's business‹this is directly connected with oneself‹"This is my company or my job or my family" and so forth, so this is a key difference. From this, many other kinds of secondary questions branch out. But aside from the fact that monastics and lay people own different sets of problems, practice should be the same.
One's wealth, family, job‹all of these things should be looked upon with an attitude of service, as opportunities to tread the bodhisattva path. This is a very key idea and difference. That is to say, you are doing these things on behalf of your family, you are working hard on behalf of your company, and so forth. Monastics are doing the same on behalf of the sangha, which includes all sentient beings. And as for your wealth, it is just passing through your hands, as if you were holding it in
trust for the good of others.
Do not regard those things in a way that if you lose them, it's like losing your skin, and if you gain something you become overly excited and attached. Look upon those things as if you were doing them for someone else's sake. You are like a representative of your family, or the company you work for.
Look upon encounters with people and all situations as opportunities to practice the bodhisattva path. Every situation is a favorable situation, even if difficult. Make it into a chance for practice. Bondage comes when we get swirled into "this is mine" attitudes, and gain and loss give us much concern. When we gain we are very happy, but when we lose we become very sad. It's OK to have feelings, but don't attach them to issues of gain or loss. You can be happy, but keep your emotions very stable, without much fluctuation. This is very difficult, but it is a part of training. Especially when the issues concern wealth and money, or love and conflict. When two people come together they have some kind of opposition. So at least these three things make it difficult, even in one's own family, to have happiness.
Yesterday Torsten gave a good analogy. He said that a sangha is like a universe in which there is both good and bad, and it's quite normal. So substituting this sangha with family, a family is like a universe, and there are good events and bad events, but this is just the nature of a family. When you see things that are not so good, treat them with ordinary mind, with a normal attitude; accept and deal with them accordingly.
In terms of meditation, perhaps monastic life would be easier, and relationships are not that complicated. A layperson can change their situation through daily practice, weekly group practice, and at least two seven-day retreats a year. Of course you can set aside a period of your life to live in a monastic setting. Someone told me yesterday that he would like to be a monk just for a few years, and then return to a householder's life. It is not necessary to do this. You can live in that kind of setting as a layperson for a period of time and then return to a householder's life. So there are several things one can do.
Q: Does Ch'an Buddhism advocate or teach, as in Tibetan Buddhism, any special practices that would prepare laypeople for death?
A very important question, but difficult to answer. I am prepared to die any moment, and I am not particularly concerned how and when, but when it comes I will be fully prepared. One should have the attitude of neither fearing nor looking forward to death. Last fall I went to see a master in his eighties, who was quite ill. When I comforted him, telling him that he will get better, he replied that I didn't have to say this, adding, "If I live, that's fine, if I die, that's also fine." This is equanimity.
However, ordinary people fear death, because they don't know what will happen. Even practitioners, when confronting death, may still have fear. My advice is to practice vows. Again and again, make this vow: I will follow the Dharma lifetime after lifetime, or if reborn into a Pure Land, I will continue to practice there.
No matter how a person dies, it is due to one's karmic retribution, and one's degree of merit and virtue, cultivated in the past. But no matter how we die, we should face death with acceptance and joy. How can we, confronting death, accept it with joy? We find it difficult to leave this world most of all because of our strong attachment to our sense of self and our physical body. We are also deeply attached to family, friends, possessions, wealth. But these attitudes should be turned around; we should reflect that we came into this world owning nothing, and we should leave with nothing.
It is like a traveler whose time is up at a particular hotel, who must leave to continue his journey, and encounter new possibilities. Whether one wants to or not, one has to move on. When ordinary people without practice die, they take with them, first, their habitual lifetime tendencies; second, their heaviest and most dominant karma from this life. These forces greatly influence the future life of someone who does not practice vows. As practitioners we should be constantly making vows, aspiring towards wholesomeness. We should understand one very important point: making vows can overpower our habitual tendencies and our stock of heavy karma. With a strong practice of making vows, we needn't be concerned where we will go after death, or where we will be reborn. We will follow our vows.
Dying is something like passing through the stages of meditation. Some experience suffering that may last for a while. But afterwards it is much like meditation, when first the sense of body dissolves, and then the environment also disappears. At that time don't become anxious and afraid, but continue in that meditative state, just allowing the mind to rest. According to the power of one's vows, one will naturally be carried to the next rebirth. This question is very important, but let's leave death behind and talk about the living.
Q: It was said that relationships in lay life are different from those in a monastery. In a monastery they are simpler. In ordinary life the rules of the game are completely different. Most of the people we encounter are not meditators, but are interested in gaining, in thrusting their opinions upon others. It is easy to practice here, on retreat, where we all know what the rules are, but in lay life we find ourselves in the midst of various conflicts between opposing parties; there is a lot of violence, and aggression, so could Shifu say something about that?
I am knowledgeable and clear about these rules, because I know and interact with a great variety of people in the society, acting on behalf of my Buddhist organization throughout the world, in political and economic spheres. I meet people of many different levels in society, so I have a wide range of exposure and I am clear about their rules of the game. One principle is that one should handle and deal with situations with compassion. Whatever games people play according to whatever rules, if you play their game, use their rules not to oppose, but with compassion.
For example the Dalai Lama is up against a power that does not speak from the perspective of reason, and that is the government in Communist China. But that does not mean that he is sitting back doing nothing. In fact he is very actively exerting influence from every possible angle. What he is doing is not as simple as just spreading the Dharma. In fact he travels internationally to influence the Communists in different ways. Through gaining the sympathy of other people and also through lectures, initiations, practices, and speaking about peace, he is trying to make the Communists accept him, what he believes and wants to accomplish. So one has to make use of every means to accomplish that, but in his mind there is no opposition, because he does this out of compassion.
My own organization, the Dharma Drum Mountain in Taiwan, is very large. It also extends to the United States and other parts of the world. In order to survive one has to play the game according to the rules of the society, but out of com passion and for the sake of Dharma. Being involved in the Buddhist activities of Dharma Drum, I meet a whole range of people who are running the society and all sorts of things. As I said, the most important thing is compassion, and the principle is to transform enemies into friends, not to turn friends into enemies. It is very important to stand very firmly on this principle and use it in dealing with people in different situations.
So maintaining compassion, we still use the rules and games of life. Second, use your skills, assets , and wealth as a temporary trust to help others. Third, see everything as an opportunity to practice, to develop aspects of your journey on the bodhisattva path. Familiarizing yourself with these principles, you can deal with life both in smaller and in larger, more complicated contexts.
Q: I have a question on how to practice with children. I think this may be important also for others present here. We live in a strongly Christian country and there are basically no opportunities to visit a temple as in other Buddhist countries. Is there anything you would especially recommend in such a situation?
I do not have children, but my advice is that you introduce to them very early the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, especially his early years. Read to them the Jataka tales, which are stories of the Buddha in his previous lives. When you have group practice, bring your children and have a separate room where a sangha member would baby-sit, and teach them ideas of the Dharma. This will give them some exposure while quite young. You can also teach them very simple forms of meditation‹five minutes, ten minutes. Some kids can even sit for half an hour, although that is rare. Another advice is that a pregnant woman can meditate, so the child can experience serenity and calmness while in the womb.
Q: The choices in our life are quite simple when we choose the better good, but lately I
have been encountering more often the necessity of choosing a lesser evil, for example
when in order to protect one's family one has to cause harm. How should one practice in
Is the question because others harm your family, to protect it you have to harm others?
Q: It seems sometimes there really is no choice. For example a drunk comes to our door and knocks and we have to tell him off.
Oh, very simple. To protect our own life or our family, we should not wait until we are harmed. So the first thing is to protect oneself. The second thing is, if one must harm in defense, one should not harm others too much. It is best if we can just deflect hostility. Compassion should be directed equally to all beings, but there are those who are close to us and those who are distant, there are things of primary and secondary concern. Within this equal mind there are still differences. For example one's own existence, the continuum of our own life‹this is closest to us and very important. One's family's welfare is also very important. Although one should have compassion and be fair to all, there are still things that are primary and secondary. Compassion is not waiting for someone to harm you or your family. At some point you act on your priorities.
However if by sacrificing your life or your family, many, many more sentient beings will benefit, you may choose to do so. Not that everyone should do this. If you can and are willing to do it for this cause, that is your choice. If you are not ready for this kind of sacrifice, don't do it, because this is the practice of a high-level bodhisattva. In the Jataka tales, the future Buddha did this over and over. So take hold of this principle and, accordingly, do as much as you can do.
I know you have more questions, but we are out of time. You will have to come back for the sequel when I come back to Poland. But if I die very soon, then I will be reborn and may come back as a little boy. Maybe then I will be the one asking you questions about the Dharma.
Q: When will you come again, Shifu?
I can't tell. I don't know.
Q: Would Shifu like to be reborn as a woman, and if not, why?
All I want to do is come back. I haven't given much thought about whether as a man or woman, but to me it doesn't matter. I do not give more importance to men than to women, but neither am I a feminist. I am neutral.
Q: Why doesn't Shifu greet women by shaking hands?
Shifu: This is just a precept, or rule of behavior, for Buddhist monks. The Buddha probably gave this precept to prevent people from thinking, "Ah, this monk likes women, he shakes this woman's hands," and so give them less vexations. Monks are also human beings, so if they touch women very often, pretty soon they'll want to get married. Women are so nice. OK, our time is up, that's all. Time for evening service.
We should be grateful to all the teachers who have come here. I know most of them, and some are good friends. All teachers have their own styles, their own methods and emphasis, but from my perspective, those who came here are all good teachers. One of them, John Crook, is my disciple. He is active in spreading the Dharma in Europe, and I urge you to trust and have faith in him.
I hope to return to Poland, but I do not know when. If causes and conditions are ripe, I also want to go to Berlin. In fact I would like to go to every possible place, even to hell. However the places I am able to go will probably exclude hell. If my teachings survive somewhere, then I am also there. Shakyamuni Buddha entered parinirvana a long time ago, but today we are still using his Dharma. So is he still here? Dharma is Mind, Ch'an is the Dharma of Mind. If someone uses a teaching, the teacher is with them. More so if their mind is in complete accord with the teacher's mind; then, with this mind seal, their teacher is always with them. I stayed only one night with Master Ling-yuan, but he is still in my heart and mind, though he died long ago. We have been together for just one week, but if you practice what I have taught, I will be with you. Even if you do not see me as your teacher, if the teachings I presented can be useful to you, to that extent, I am a part of your life.