Nan Huai-Chin: Working Toward Enlightenment (York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1993). Material used by permission

Content List of Working Toward Enlightenment

Chapter 1

There is a story behind this book. An old friend, Mr. Xiao, came to see me. As he was about to leave, he asked me a question: "Shakyamuni Buddha left home when he was 18,[1] and finally--much later, after years of effort--lifted his head, saw a bright star, and was enlightened. What was it that he was enlightened to?"

If it had been someone else who had asked this question, it would not have had any great importance. But Mr. Xiao has been studying Buddhism for many years, so when he raised this question, it was no ordinary matter.

According to what is recorded in the scriptures and the traditional accounts, as soon as Shakyamuni Buddha was born, he was already equipped with an extraordinary natural endowment. Because he had cultivated enlightenment practices through past lifetimes over many eons, as soon as he was born in this life, various kinds of auspicious things happened. He renounced his princely position and left home, and for twelve years he sought enlightenment. Everyone should pay attention to these twelve years, because it is very easy to pass over them lightly.

At the moment we will emphasize the twelve years when Shakyamuni Buddha cultivated various religious practices. At that time there were many Indian religious sects that had been in existence for quite a while, each with its own methods of cultivating practice. Shakyamuni Buddha fully studied the various kinds of ascetic practices and used various methods to cultivate and refine himself. He was not like present-day students who study Buddhism and who vacillate back and forth, paying homage to one teacher after another, going from one conventional formulation to the next. Every time Shakyamuni took up a method of practice, he would study with complete sincerity and dedication, and do the necessary work.

After Shakyamuni worked his way through all of them, he recognized that none of these methods was the true, ultimate way to enlightenment.At this point, he went into the freezing snow-covered mountains and practiced austerities. After six years, he also recognized that austerities were not the path to enlightenment and that it would be best to leave them behind. After this, he sat in meditation under the bodhi tree on the banks of the Ganges River and made a vow he would not arise unless he achieved supreme perfect enlightenment; if not, he would stay there until he died. After all these efforts, he one day looked up to see a bright star and awakened to enlightenment.

Certainly everyone knows this story. I have told it again because I want to focus everyone's attention on it: I want everyone to know what Shakyamuni Buddha did during those twelve years, and how he cultivated practice. When we read his biography, we read only that he studied avrha-samadhi,"concentration without thought" for three years, and in the end, "realized it was wrong and abandoned it." We always overlook the fact that during these twelve years he earnestly cultivated practice.

. . .

Readers should note that Shakyamuni Buddha recognized that these are not the path to enlightenment and at the time he could not find an enlightened teacher, so all he could do was go by himself into the mountains to practice austerities. Every day he ate only a piece of dried fruit, so naturally he became emaciated, to the point that he barely looked human any more. By practicing like this, Shakyamuni wanted to find the real truth. But after six years he realized that austerities are not the path to enlightenment either, so he came down out of the mountains. When Shakyamuni Buddha reached the banks of the Ganges River, a shepherd girl offered him some fine milk curds. Because he accepted them, the five attendants sent by his father abandoned him. They left because they thought that Buddha had abandoned his will to cultivate practice. Later on, these five men were the first to be delivered by Buddha at the Deer Park,and became his first great disciples.

When Shakyamuni accepted the milk curds from the shepherd girl, everyone thought he had retreated from the path--that he had backed out. The men following him withdrew, because at that time in India everyone thought that one who left home to cultivate the path must practice austerities.

There is one point that we must pay attention to! Buddha saw the bright star and awakened to enlightenment only after he had accepted nourishment and recovered his physical strength. This is why I always alert the people around me to pay particular attention to their physical health and nourishment. Without a healthy body, there is no way to cultivate the path and realize enlightenment-this is a fact. We must investigate, step-by-step, the relationship between physical health, nourishment, and the cultivation of the path to enlightenment.

Only after Buddha accepted nourishment and recovered his physical abilities did he cross Ganges River and arrive under the bodhi tree. At that time, he had no way to find an enlightened teacher able to guide him: all he could do was rely on himself, sit in meditation under the bodhi tree, and make his vow.

The few simple words of Shakyamuni's vow are easy to ignore. When we read them, it seems we have understood their meaning, but we have not entered into them deeply or comprehended them fully. The vow that Buddha made at that time dispensed with religion, and dispensed with grand phraseology. It was like making an oath or making a bet: "If I do not achieve enlightenment this time, then I will die right here, and that's all there is to it. I will not get up from this seat." With these sentences, he expressed how intent he was on seeking enlightenment.

. . .

Shakyamuni raised his head at that moment and was enlightened. Tell me, after he was enlightened, was all the cultivation he had done before wasted, were those twelve years of effort all in vain? In other words, when. he awakened to enlightenment, he was about 30 years old, and when he began to spread the Dharma, he was no more than 32. His disciples were all much older. All the instruction he received. from childhood on, and all the various forms of cultivation and austerities he practiced after he left home--were these all done in vain or not?

At the time I answered my old friend Mr. Xiao by saying, "What he was enlightened to was interdependent causation and inherent emptiness." Mr. Xiao said, "Oh ... right" pushed the door open, and left.

I don't know whether everyone has taken note of this or not. This is a very serious question. After he left, a thought came to me: Mr. Xiao has studied Buddhism for many years. If someone else asked this question, it wouldn't matter much, but since he was asking this question, it was very serious. In other words, when he asked this question, it had extraordinary depth.

In truth, Shakyamuni Buddha awakened to inherently empty interdependent origination. Interdependent origination is inherently empty: this truth is very simple, so at the time, why was it so difficult for Shakyamuni to awaken to it? What was the difficulty? Buddha left home and cultivated practice for many years, and only then was able to understand this truth. But now all of us understand it, everyone who reads a Buddhist scripture understands it right? What is so special about this? If he was enlightened to the inherent emptiness of interdependent origination, then he penetrated everything with this one principle, he comprehended everything. So what truth is this? Assuming that he awakened to this truth correctly, then what do we say about his previous efforts? How can we account for them?

The second question is this. Right now we are studying Buddhism. Having read the Buddha Dharma, we then understand that inherent identity is fundamentally empty, we understand inherent emptiness and interdependent causation. Though we understand these truths clearly, why then do we still have to cultivate practice for such a long time? Moreover, we ourselves have been unable to become even first stage arhats of the lesser vehicle,let alone bodhisattvas. How it makes us lament, that in this present age, we have not seen anyone who has been able to realize even half of the fruit of enlightenment.

Thus, after Mr. Xiao had left me, a certain thought made my mind uneasy. I lamented that in the civilization of the present-day world, where religious activities and spiritual studies of various kinds and styles are all so extraordinarily well-developed both at home and abroad, society is getting more and more chaotic, cultured thinking is getting more and more confused, and the general mood is getting worse and worse. Everywhere there is confusion and chaos. Alas! It is true that everything and everyone is in chaos: this is what is called a world in chaos.

This question of Mr. Xiao's--where does the question lie? Take note! All of us who study Buddhism are to some extent inverting cause and effect. What do I mean by this? "Inverting cause and effect" means that we are reversing cause and effect, basis and results, and taking the cause for the effect.

We all understand that inherent nature is fundamentally empty; we all understand that everything is a product of interdependent causation and so on. But these principles, these truths, are not truths that we have discovered on our own. They are the answers that Shakyamuni Buddha gave to his disciples after he spent so many years practicing austerities. After other people took these answers and recorded them, and we read them, we understand them. In fact it is not that we have understood them ourselves. It is only that with the aid of the Buddhist scriptures, we have accepted the results achieved by the Buddha and appropriated them for ourselves.

So what should we do? The answer is that we ourselves must travel the road of cultivating practice. We must imitate Shakyamuni Buddha and travel the road of meditative concentration. We must seek realization on the road of true, correct practice. We ourselves must realize and witness interdependent origination and inherent emptiness.

After we have understood these truths, we often mistakenly assume that they are results we ourselves have achieved. In recent years, those who lecture on sitting meditation all understand Taoism, and understand Esoteric Buddhism, and are full of things to say. But when we take a look to see how they really are, it doesn't seem that way at all. As for whether they have achieved anything or not, whether they have found realization or not one glance and it is obvious that they have not. As the Sung dynasty Zen master Ta-hui Tsung kao said, "I know whether or not you are enlightened when you just stand there: what need is there to wait for you to speak?"

But people nowadays have many theories, especially theories of the special meridians and eight ch'i channels. They open this one and that one and they get very excited. I say to them, "You shouldn't get your bodies into total chaos."

All of this happens because we have learned a bit of knowledge from the Buddhist scriptures and have appropriated the results achieved through the practice of the people before us. We have reversed cause and effect, taking the effect as the cause and the cause as the effect.

This great canon of teaching by Shakyamuni Buddha is truth, sure enough, and it is also experience. He had doubts about the question of birth and death, and about the question of life. What Shakyamuni pursued was how to completely comprehend human life. It is very easy to use the experience of people who have gone before, adopt the insights that they have accumulated, appropriate these insights for ourselves--thus inverting cause and effect--and make this the study of Buddhism. The result is that we remain ourselves, and the study of Buddhism remains the study of Buddhism: the two are placed in opposition, and it is useless for cultivafing practice. Therefore I always say that the Buddha Dharma--which is one method of cultivating practice and the merely conceptual study of Buddhism, have totally different implications. Right now we follow the road of preparing to learn to be buddhas. This is the reason for this book.

Notes from the editor of the web edition
[1] There are two accounts of the age of the Buddha when he left home to practice asceticism. The more popular account is that he left home at the age of 29 and attained enlightenment at the age of 35. Master Nan portrayed the second account here.