Song of Mind of Niu-tou Fa-jung (No. 28)
Commentary by Master Sheng-yen
(From the Fall/1999 issue of Chan Magazine)

(This is the 28th article from a series of lectures given during retreats at the Ch'an Center in Elmhurst, New York. The talks in this article were given on Nov. 28 and 29, 1987.)

Eternal day is like night,
Eternal night, like day.

These lines speak of two different levels: the level of the beginning practitioner--all of us here on retreat--and the level of the already-enlightened being. Let's talk about the first level because it is more relevant to our situation. John tells me that, so far, every day of retreat has been good. Perhaps the rest of you feel envious, but actually, John should not feel too happy about his situation. In fact, it would be better if he treated every day as if it were the darkest night. On the other hand, those of you who feel the days have been dark and difficult should think of each day as being filled with light and joy. You are probably wondering, "How can pain be joyful?" It is because the experience of pain is a part of practice and life, and it provides you with the opportunity to observe it, to see how you respond to it, and to practice accepting and letting go of it.

A good friend in Taiwan with whom I often converse sometimes hears me speak about my difficulties and problems. This householder Buddhist's response to everything I say is always the same, "No problem! Everything is fine." He believes that problems and troubles arise so that we can face them as well as ourselves. It is an important part of daily practice. This man has a great attitude. No matter what happens, it is not a problem. If you have been fired from your job, no problem. If someone you love has died, no problem.

The last time I saw my friend I had the opportunity to offer him a bit of his own wisdom. What he thought was a promising business venture turned out to be a scam, and his so-called partner made off with his half of the investment. "No problem," I said.

"No problem!" he answered, bewildered and scratching his head. "But I've just lost a great deal of money."

I replied, "That's fine. When you have money, you are constantly worrying about how to protect it or save it or invest it. It just makes trouble. Now you have nothing to think about, so you have no problems."

I would like to relate another story that was popular news in Taiwanese tabloids for a while. It seems that the beautiful young wife of a rich and famous man ran away to Hong Kong with an American man. Of course, the press was merciless. Everyone was sympathetic toward the rich man, figuring that he must be suffering a great deal from sadness, anger, and humiliation. But he seemed to be unfazed by the experience. His friends asked incredulously, "How can you be so happy?"

He answered, "The very fact that others desire my wife must mean that she is very good. It just shows that I have good taste."

Three months later his wife returned to him. Again, the press made a big deal about the turn of events, but the man was still happy. He hosted a huge party to welcome back his wife. Again, his friends were quite surprised by this man's behavior and asked him how it was that he could be so forgiving and magnanimous. He told them, "That she returned to me tells me that I am a good husband and that she cares for me. After having the opportunity to compare our relationship with another, she chose me, and that makes me happy."

Is this person a wise man or a fool? Who is to judge? How can one know his true motivations? I choose to believe that this man truly did not overly attach to things, that he really did not let things bother him, and that he had the ability to put things down. His attitude is a healthy one. Regardless of what his true intentions were, the way in which he responded to the situation was quite uncommon, and his behavior is relevant to our practice. Say, for instance, that your legs hurt so badly that you think it could not possibly get any worse. The best attitude would be to view it as a golden opportunity to experience such a condition. To experience what we believe to be at or beyond the limits of our capabilities is worthwhile. To endure what we consider to be excruciating pain tempers our will, determination, and self-discipline. Of course, there are different ways to deal with pain. From the point of view of practice, the way to deal with all circumstances is not to try to conquer or overcome them, but to accept them and let them go.

Such an attitude works for painful and difficult situations as well as pleasurable and smooth-flowing situations. Therefore, if everything seems to be going exceedingly well with your practice, it is no reason to feel happy or proud. From experience I can tell you that at the moment you acknowledge your good fortune and happiness, the situation will change. Again, if you accept and endure your painful legs, eventually the pain will disappear and you will be left with a cool, pleasant sensation. The best thing would be to ignore the new development and concentrate on your method. But, if you turn your attention to your legs, thinking, "Wow, what an amazing experience! A minute ago my legs were excruciatingly painful, but now the feeling is almost pleasurable. Can this really have happened or is it my imagination? Do I have special powers? Is this a result of good practice?" In turning your attention to your experience, the mind stirs, and you find that you are off the method and that the pain has returned.

The lesson to be learned is not to let your mind stir, either with feelings of suffering or with feelings of joy. Most of you have probably been to the circus and watched in awe as an acrobat performed tricks while balancing on a high wire. Where do you think this person's focus is? Is she wondering about whether the audience likes or dislikes her? Is she anticipating applause or hisses? Or is her mind on her practice? Like the acrobat, we must thoroughly train ourselves to be completely unconcerned about what goes on around us or what responses we might encounter, and we must remain diligently focused on our methods.

To summarize the first level of understanding, these verses tell practitioners not to be dismayed by difficult situations or misled by good situations. Practice, like life, is not linear, and you will encounter good days and bad days, good sittings and bad sittings, good experiences and bad experiences. The best approach is to keep your mind on the task at hand and let the experiences come and go. These verses tell us that as practitioners, we should maintain equanimity in our practice and not allow our minds to be moved by the environment.

The verse "Eternal day is like night, eternal night, like day" also speaks of the enlightened condition. People who are enlightened do not act differently from those who are unenlightened. People who act differently, put on airs, or act superior to others because they think they are enlightened are, in fact, not enlightened. The truly enlightened person does not attach to the experience of enlightenment. It is something that has already passed. For the enlightened, there is really no such thing as enlightenment.

Therefore, enlightened ones act more or less the same as ordinary people. They would likely not stand out in a crowd because they are not concerned with what others think of them. They do not require attention and adulation. Often, it is the monk who appears slow and somewhat dumb who is the great practitioner; and the monk who appears to be extremely sharp and knowledgeable is the one who often needs to practice more diligently. Do not concern yourself with or waste time wondering what your experiences may mean, whether you are making progress or not, or how you appear to others or me. Stay with your method and the rest will take care of itself.

Outwardly like a complete fool,
Inwardly mind is empty and real.

Yesterday, I talked briefly about monks in monasteries and how it is that looks can often be misleading. Some monks who appear to be foolish or dumb may actually be deeply enlightened. There are many stories in Buddhist history that speak of enlightened monks who were often overlooked by others because of their behavior or appearance. Often, these monks would break or disregard many of the minor monastery rules, making them appear to be disrespectful, ignorant, or absent-minded.

One such story involves Ming dynasty Master Han-shan (not the poet) and his experiences with a monk while visiting a monastery. This particular monk had contracted a disease that had grotesquely bloated his body and had turned his skin a sickening yellow color. He was shunned by the rest of the monks in the monastery because they were disgusted by him. He spent most of his time alone because no one would go near him. Still, he was grateful for being in the monastery, and when he asked for a work assignment, he was given the task of cleaning the bathrooms.

Master Han-shan developed an interest in this man because every morning he noticed that the bathrooms were spotlessly clean. Han-shan inquired and was directed to speak to the sick monk. This monk told him that he would clean the bathrooms every night while everyone else slept because he himself had nowhere to sleep. After he was finished with this assignment, he would spend the rest of the evening in the Meditation Hall waiting for morning service.

After hearing this, Master Han-shan had great respect for the monk that everyone else avoided. As it turned out, Master Han-shan had a few, long-standing problems with his meditation that he could not resolve. He thought that there might be more to this monk than anyone knew, and so he told him about his problems and asked for guidance. Master Han-shan's intuitions were correct, because the diseased monk regarded the problems as a simple matter and offered perfect advice.

We can gain a few insights from this story. One, this monk felt no need to advertise his experience and attainment; and two, he was neither depressed over nor deterred by the preconceptions of and treatment by his peers. He did not indulge in arrogance or self-pity. How affected do you think you would be in similar circumstances? Would great spiritual experiences fill you with feelings and thoughts of pride and superiority? How would you react if you were the subject of constant ridicule or harassment? Worse, how would you feel if you were ignored and shunned? Would you have the same resolve and equanimity as did the monk in the story?

Usually, the more deeply enlightened a person is, the less he or she will stand out in a crowd. Once, someone made a long pilgrimage to Master Hsu-yun's residence in order to meet the great, contemporary master. The man spotted a non-descript monk spreading manure in a field and asked if he was going the right way and how long it would be before he arrived at Hsu-yun's monastery. The monk in the field annoyed the traveler because he asked questions about his reasons for wanting to visit Hsu-yun. The traveler did not want to be bothered by this ordinary monk, but as you may have already guessed, the manure-spreading monk was Hsu-yun himself. My master, Lin-yuan, also did not have the appearance of a great, awe-inspiring monk. It was the same for me when I was younger, but now people show me more respect. Some may say it is because of my personality and reputation as a Ch'an teacher, but I suspect it has more to do with looking old and my hair turning white.

These two lines of verse refer to the appearance of one who is already enlightened, but I encourage all of you not to wait for enlightenment to cultivate such an attitude. You will have far fewer vexations if you have the attitude of the diseased monk in the Han-shan story. Pretentiousness is the source of many problems. Whatever you are doing, just do it. Do not concern yourself with the approval or disapproval of others. Do not think about whether you look like a fool or not. People waste so much time and energy trying to impress or take advantage of others.

How many of you would accept a job as a cleaner of bathrooms? Would you consider the job to be below you? How many of you would be willing to let someone else get the better of you in certain situations? If you cannot do even this, then you have not learned much from practice. If in your mind you are clearly aware of what is happening around you or to you, then it does not matter what others perceive or believe. You may appear to be foolish or gullible to others, but in your mind you know you are not. Cultivating such a personality can also be transformative for others, because people will eventually realize that you are not a fool and that, in fact, you are accepting them. Such behavior gives others permission to be more honest and less pretentious.

One of my students in Taiwan once told me that he is clear and sharp when he listens to my lectures, but when he is working he feels dull and one step behind everyone else. Then he turned to me and said, "You often appear like that yourself, Shih-fu. If I didn't already know you and were to see the way you act sometimes, I would think that you are a stupid idiot."

I did not expect such a comment, and so I responded, "A person with great wisdom is like a fool." But then I added, "Since I'm not a person of great wisdom, you are probably right. Perhaps I am just a fool." I am also happy that because of my practice, I have grown less sensitive to things other people say and do; otherwise, I probably would have been insulted by this man's comment.

Actually, it is true that I am sometimes slow-acting. I could claim that it is because I am mindful about my every decision and movement; but the truth is that sometimes, I do not know what to do. Once, two of my disciples were arguing and fighting right in front of me. If I had adhered to the rules of the temple, I would have asked them to leave. Instead, I closed my eyes. I sat there, doing nothing, and then left.

The same person who called me a stupid idiot witnessed the entire interaction, and he caught me in the hallway and asked, "You are their Shih-fu. What are you going to do about it?" I said, "I don't know." Ultimately, I talked to each disciple, but not until they had finished arguing and had calmed down. I did not see any point in trying to reason with them when they were in the middle of a fight. Nothing would have gotten accomplished. By waiting until they were calm and rational, I was able to talk to them without shaming them or antagonizing them further. Also, because they were clearer, the problem was quickly and easily resolved. I still am not sure if my strategy was foolish or wise, but at the time, it seemed to be the expedient thing to do.

In an earlier lecture, I asked what you would do if the Ch'an Center caught fire. I went on to say that a practitioner with true Ch'an spirit would continue to stay on the method, even at risk of burning to ashes. I hope you realize that I was exaggerating to make a point. In that sense, I was encouraging all of you to disregard any and all outside disturbances. On the other hand, you must have enough sense to know what to do in any given situation. If it becomes obvious that the fire is out of control, what are you going to do? If you continue to meditate, thinking, "The Ch'an Center's Dharma Protectors will take care of the situation," then I would say you really are a fool. Do what is expedient. Later, if I yell at you for having allowed yourself to be moved by the environment, just accept it. In your mind, you know you were clear and that you did the wise thing. It does not matter what I think about you.

In our daily lives, we should train ourselves to be less sensitive to the perceptions of others. Like enlightened beings, we should not be afraid to appear outwardly foolish. Whenever you find that you are filled with vexation because of embarrassment or over-sensitivity, reflect, "Why am I not cultivating outward foolishness and inward clarity?" This is not an easy task for most people, even for Buddhists and Ch'an practitioners. Moreover, we are not enlightened beings, so we cannot expect to act this way all the time. But it is definitely an attitude worth cultivating, and I encourage you to make it an integral part of your daily practice.