Song of Mind of Niu-tou Fa-jung (No. 29)
Commentary by Master Sheng-yen
(From the Winter/2000 issue of Chan Magazine)

Commentary by Master Sheng-yen
(This article is the 29th from a series of lectures given during retreats at the Chan Center in Elmhurst, New York. These talks were given on December 1st and 26th, 1987, and were edited by Chris Marano.)

Those not moved by the environment
Are strong and great.

Those not moved by the three levels of environment ‹ phenomena not related to you at all, phenomena that happen to you in a cursory way, phenomena that you actively and willfully engage ‹ are considered strong and great. To reiterate, an example of a phenomenon that is not related to you might be the sound of a jet passing overhead. An example of a phenomenon that happens to you in a cursory way might be a chance interaction between you and another retreat participant. An example of a phenomenon that you actively and willfully engage might be the pain in your legs. Pain in the legs is a physical phenomenon, but the thoughts derived from that pain are a product of your discriminating, self-centered mind. Pain is pain, but the mind which experiences the pain will either remain calm or become vexed.

It is difficult not to be influenced by the environment. Today, was anyone able to meditate, do yoga exercises, eat, work, prostrate, slow walk, fast walk, listen to lecture, recite the liturgy, or even rest without being disturbed by the environment? Do not be disturbed if, in recalling your day, you realize that you were off your method or unmindful many times. Practice is precisely  catching yourself engaging in thoughts of past, future and fantasy, and bringing yourself back to your method or to the task at hand.

Every situation is an opportunity for practice. For instance, are you disturbed by the ticking clock, or do you use it to help your practice? Most of you have indicated that the even, rhythmical sound of a clock is not a hindrance. That is good, but what if a team of construction workers were digging up the sidewalk outside? This actually happened when our Center was located down and across the street. I recall it was a particularly hot and muggy summer retreat. That Center was not as luxurious as this one. What little ventilation we had, was provided by open windows and a noisy fan. All day for seven days we were surrounded by the sounds of jackhammers, hydraulic machinery, power tools, and workers talking, yelling, laughing, cursing and telling stories. Two of them ate lunch every day right outside one of the windows, and all of us heard their conversations. It was challenging, to say the least. How many of you would have remained undisturbed through all of that? Would you have been able to use that commotion to help your practice?

One of you says that you would deal with external disturbances by grabbing hold of your mind and chi. That will not work. If you grab hold of your mind, it will hurt. If you grab hold of your chi, it will become obstructed. What you must do is grab hold of your method. If you are really concentrated, you will not be bothered by any external phenomena, no matter how chaotic it might seem.

How many of you are aware of me when I walk behind your meditating bodies? If you are aware of me and it moves you to think and wonder, then your mind is scattered. If you are aware of my movements, but you are undisturbed and continue with your method, then your mind is fairly, but not deeply, concentrated. A deeper level of concentration would be if you were so focused on your method that you were completely unaware of my presence. One of you is indicating that you are sometimes unaware of my movements. Strange. If you are unaware of my movements, then how can you be sure I was even there?

Usually, retreatants are easily disturbed by movements, sounds and body pain the first two-to-three days of retreat. As the retreat continues, however, your concentration will strengthen and deepen. You will acknowledge, but no longer be bothered by, things that disturbed you in the beginning. I would describe this as moderate concentration. In deep con centration, you would not even note or acknowledge external phenomena.

Think of your method as stringing pearls, each pearl indicating your attention to the method. As your concentration deepens, the spaces between each pearl ‹ those times when your mind is idle or not on the method ‹ will lessen and eventually disappear. When there are no longer any gaps in your concentration, you will not be disturbed by any external phenomena. You will be unmoved by the environment.

Of course, the unmoving mind I have described here is different from what is often described as the "unmoving mind of an enlightened being." As has been the case with previous verses, these lines of verse can be interpreted on two levels: that of ordinary practitioners and that of enlightened beings. I am sure all of you have had experiences where you were completely unaware of phenomena around you because you were so concentrated on what you were doing. You do not need to practice meditation to experience this. It is not uncommon. People engrossed in reading, writing, studying, working, watching or listening to a performance can become so absorbed by what they are doing that they are not aware of sounds and other disturbances around them. These are examples of a non-enlightened mind that is unmoved by the environment.

I recall seeing a movie a long time ago in which a child was watching an outdoor performance. The boy was outside the periphery of the audience, and he had been tending a small fire to keep warm. He became so engrossed in the performance that he forgot about the fire. Un-beknownst to him, the fire spread and started to scorch the back of his clothes. Still, he was so involved in the performance that he did not realize what was happening. Part of his awareness knew something was amiss because he would occasionally wave his hand to shoo away the disturbance, but never once was his focus on the performance broken. His clothes ignited, and still he was unaware. It took a bucket of cold water thrown on him by someone else to break his concentration. If you can work on your method and attain the same degree of concentration as that boy attained, then you have reached a fairly deep level of concentration.

The second level of interpretation describes enlightened beings who have let go of all attachments. When there is no self-center or mind of attachment, there is no mind to be moved. On the other hand, enlightened beings are clear and keenly aware of all that happens around them. It is as the Diamond Sutra states: "The mind should be kept independent of any thoughts which arise within it. "The mind that the Diamond Sutra speaks of is not the self-centered mind of vexation, but the mind of wisdom. The objective environment exists, but there is no longer a self which attaches to it.

The unmoving mind of enlightenment is different from the ordinary mind that is unmoved by disturbances. Actually, the mind that is wholly concentrated on the method is stuck to the environment. In this case, however, the environment is the method. Although the mind is focused and working hard on the method, it is still a discriminating, self-centered mind. Hence, the mind that moves is the mind of discrimination; and where there is discrimination, there is vexation. If discrimination and vexation still exist, so too does the self. With the enlightened mind, there is no self-centeredness; and, although the environment still exists objectively, enlightened beings do not perceive it as such because they have no egos which attach to it.

"Those not moved by the environment are strong and great" does not refer to people who are famous leaders, athletes, or karate experts. It refers to those who are unmovable. Those without self-centers are truly strong because they cannot be deterred by anything or anyone. One who is self-centered can still be harmed or influenced by others; but a selfless, enlightened being cannot.

Such strength and greatness can sometimes be observed even among unenlightened people. For example, people who act not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of others, are often more courageous than those who have only their own interests in mind. Their words and actions are often more noble. Acting always and only with one¹s own benefit in mind ‹ even if it is striving for enlightenment ‹ is not a sign of strength and greatness. That is why the first Bodhisattva Vow states, "I vow to deliver innumerable sentient beings."

While we traverse the Bodhisattva Path, we are still ordinary sentient beings, replete with vexation, attachment and egos. There is still the idea, "I want to help sentient beings," and there is still a sense of satisfaction when we see the good work we have done. This is good, but it is not enlightenment. As the Diamond Sutra also states, for those who have attained great enlightenment, helping still continues, but there is no longer an "I" who helps or sentient beings who need to be helped.

There is neither people nor seeing.
Without seeing there is constant appearance.

These verses relate to what the Diamond Sutra says about there being no self and no sentient beings. In this case, "no people" refers to there being no objective reality and "no seeing" refers to there being no self-view, or subjective reality. However, even though there is neither self (subject) nor others (object), everything is still clearly perceived the way it is. When there is no "you" working on the method and no method being used, we say that you have become one with the method; and although there is neither a "you" nor the method, you are still working hard from moment to moment.

People come to retreats so that they can spend an intense, extended period of time cultivating their minds. For most people, meditating an hour or two a day at home does not provide enough momentum to penetrate a method deeply. As we meditate sitting period after sitting period, we should attempt to make the environment as well as our minds become smaller and smaller, until there are no others to see and no self that sees them.

I understand that some retreatants here are making phone calls and waiting for family members to arrive so that they can receive and deliver messages. People who have been on retreat before know that this is not permitted, and for good reason. If we cannot even remove ourselves from our relationships with the outside world for seven days, there is no way we will be able to make our minds and the environment become smaller.

The first condition for a successful retreat experience is that you let go of, or isolate yourself from, all thoughts about anything outside the Ch¹an Meditation Hall. The second condition is that you let go of all thoughts about everything that happens in the Meditation Hall. If someone yawns and causes you to yawn in turn, then you have not yet removed yourself from what goes on around you. Although yawns may be contagious under normal conditions, they should have no affect on you during retreat. Train yourself to remember that you have no relationship to people sitting around you. They are they and you are you. I see that someone is dozing while I am lecturing. What do you think? Is it because she is bored or sleepy, or is it because she is clearly on her method and knows that I have nothing to do with her? Since it is the first day of retreat, I would wager that it is the former reason.

The third condition is that you let go of all thoughts about yourself. When your legs or back become painful, you must cultivate the ability to say,"These legs and back have nothing to do with me. I am meditating." Or, this sleepy practitioner can tell herself, "My drowsiness has nothing to do with me. My body may be drowsy, but I will continue to work on my method."

The same is true of wandering thoughts. Once you realize you have been caught in a web of wandering thoughts, all you have to do is return to the method. The wandering thoughts are not you. The person who had just entertained wandering thoughts is also no longer you. That person is now part of the past. In the present moment, you are working hard on your method. If what I am saying to you right now is useful to you right now, then accept it; but do not continue to think about it. Likewise, do not imagine what the next moment will bring. You will experience it soon enough.

If you can isolate yourself in this manner ‹ first from the outside environment, then from those around you, then from your own body and wandering thoughts, and finally from the past moment and the next moment ‹ then you, your method and the environment will disappear. This is the ideal. When practitioners claim they have reached such a level of absorption, it is usually for a different reason. Namely, they have become fatigued from expending so much energy and have fallen into a stupor. Many people who claim to have had enlightenment experiences have merely gone blank from exhaustion. Obviously, this is not the condition of which the Song of Mind speaks. If it were, I am sure many of you would have already experienced enlightenment.

"Without seeing there is constant appearance" also refers to the enlightened mind. To an enlightened being, all phenomena are still present and moving, but there is no self which interacts with them. This condition‹ when there is no self but everything is still present ‹ is called wisdom. There is complete awareness of phenomena and all of their movements, including the movement of the body, but there is no self which attaches to it. If, in your practice you get a taste of what it is like to be undisturbed by the environment, you will feel free and at ease. If you get to the point where your former thought and subsequent thought have no relationship to each other, you will feel even freer.

What I speak of is not easy to accomplish. We are ordinary human beings, and as such we are often moved by our thoughts, feelings and emotions. We are moved by sensations of the body. When our body is in pain, or ill, or exhausted, it is difficult to concentrate on things like meditation methods. In addition, we are moved by thoughts of the past and future. We are moved by others around us. We are moved by the everyday world. That is why retreats exist, so that we can devote the time and effort necessary to isolate ourselves from such relationships.

Today is the first day of retreat. Begin it by isolating yourself from the outside world. Let go of all thoughts about the day you just experienced. For the next seven days, your world is your method in the present moment. Devote all of your attention to it.