The Key to Enlightenment

There is a locked door in your mind, and you have to use a key to unlock it.

How can we become enlightened? Enlightenment can be compared to unlocking a door. When the door is locked, you can’t go in or out through it. You have to use a key to unlock the door. If you don’t have the key, then you’ll be locked inside the house forever. Where is the key? It’s right where you are; it’s very easy to find. How can you find it? As you sit in Chan meditation, recite the Buddha’s name, and recite mantras, you are looking for the key. When will you find it? It depends on the level of your cultivation. If you are vigorous, you will find the key very quickly. If you are lax, you’ll never find it, not in this life or in lives to come. This is a very simple principle.

In the analogy, the lock in your mind represents the ignorance that causes your pure and bright mind to become dark and defiled. When you encounter situations, if you lack wisdom to distinguish good from evil, you will act in deluded ways. After you have gained skill in your practice, you will be able to smash through ignorance and unlock the door of your mind to reveal bright wisdom. Then no matter what happens, you won’t get afflicted.

What is ignorance? To put it simply, it is darkness, or lack of understanding. When we don’t understand the truth, our mind is locked up and we cannot attain enlightenment. During the reign of Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty, there was a eunuch named Yu Chao’en.Yu Chao’en asked the National Master [the Dharma Master who was the emperor’s spiritual teacher], “What is ignorance?”

The National Master said, “You look like a slave. What makes you think you’re qualified to ask about the Buddhadharma?” The eunuch was furious. The National Master smiled and said, “That is ignorance.” A proverb says: “The fire of ignorance can burn up a forest of merit and virtue.”

People are able to become enlightened only because they cultivated many good deeds in their past lives. If they hadn’t cultivated those good deeds, they wouldn’t attain enlightenment in this life. Do you want to become enlightened? Then you must first cultivate. Only then will there be hope for enlightenment.

How did Shakyamuni Buddha achieve Buddhahood?

He cultivated blessings and wisdom for three asamkhyeya kalpas.
And planted the causes for the fine hallmarks for a hundred eons.

For three great asamkhyeya kalpas (uncountable eons), he cultivated blessings and wisdom. For a hundred great eons, he performed merit that led to his being adorned with the Thirty-two Hallmarks and Eighty Subsidiary Characteristics. That’s why he was able to become enlightened upon seeing a bright star one night while sitting under the Bodhi tree. If he hadn’t cultivated in the past, he couldn’t have achieved Buddhahood when he did.

A talk given on July 12, 1980