Chapter 1 - On Practice

1. The negative karma we have accumulated in the eons has grown as high as a mountain. The purpose of practice is to eradicate such karma. If we fail to practice diligently and continue to create more negative karma, that mountain of obstruction will grow to ever more formidable height, barring us from escaping the cycle of birth and death.

2. Ascetic practice means cleansing our minds, or replacing the bad seeds within us: washing away the seeds of greed, anger, and ignorance common people cling to, replacing them by lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, which are the seeds of Buddhahood and Bodhisattvahood.

3. Ascetic practice is no easy matter! In our daily lives, we must train our minds to abstain from calculations and from discrimination. That is the essence of ascetic practice.

4. To practice, or be a practitioner, is easier said than done. As we are all subject to the common ailments of greed, anger, ignorance, pride, and doubt, let us carry out monastic duties with a purpose to train our minds and untie ourselves from such fetters. Only if we have attained that can we set out on the path of practice.

5. The purpose of practice is to eliminate our greed, anger, and ignorance so that our deeds, words, and thoughts will be pure and clean.

6. Wisdom will not unfold for those who do not eradicate their greed, anger, and ignorance.

7. Likewise, those who cling to the pleasure of the six gunas (sense objects, i.e. sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and ideas) cannot unfold their wisdom.

8. Most of the karma we are born with are negative, few are virtuous. Therefore, we must practice asceticism to eradicate our karmic obstructions.

9. Only after we have expelled evil thoughts can right mindfulness come to the fore and steer us away from klesa (vexations, i.e. attitudes, views, emotional states, or conditions, arising from attachments, that cause suffering or disharmony).

10. Asceticism is a great help in support of practice. Thus the great patriarchs and Bodhisattvas Manjusri, Samantabhadra, Avalokitesvara, and Ksitigarbha all took asceticism as their vow and practice. Now, in our practice, we ought to follow their determination, treading the paths of the bodhisattvas.

11. When Master Hsu Yun set out on his pilgrimage, he left bare-footed, took along only a stool and a simple bundle, and passed many a day with scanty food. He would just follow his path, never worrying about the next day. Since his mind was free of clinging, all the dragon kings and devas safeguarding the Dharma protected and maintained him. We simply lack such determination; or else there should be nothing we might not accomplish in our practice.

12. "Wild cranes seek no fodder: the wide world is theirs." They fly and rest as they please and are truly "free." Our practice ought to be like that: tranquil wherever we are, free and easy whether at rest or in action. Come what may, our minds should remain still and unmoved. Such is the state of "samadhi (perfect absorption)."

13. Expect and embrace obstacles! For without them, we cannot make progress in our practice. Only when we comprehend the true nature of adversity and be free of vexations would our wisdom unfold. For example, when provoked by someone, our minds nevertheless remain tranquil, calm, and free of vexations. That is the essence of practice.

14. Practice means "doing what others won't;" only in this way will we be able to eradicate karma and raise merit. Therefore, we should vow to practice diligently. Let us not argue with others and refuse to take up tasks because "That matter is no concern of mine," bickering as worldly persons are wont to do. Practitioners do not haggle, do not calculate how much work "they" have done as opposed to "I." Such behavior undermines practice and would not facilitate the advance of merit and wisdom.

15. Practice aims at retrieving our true nature: "that certain state" in which we were before we were born. You fail to understand this now because your wisdom has not yet unfolded. It is like the moon veiled by dark clouds: its true nature, although shining, cannot be seen.

16. Practitioners should not quibble over who is right or wrong. When accused of being in the wrong, accept it even though you know you are right. If you are ready to admit mistakes, you will remain untroubled; if not, your mind will be disturbed and vexation will follow.

17. Ascetic practice means training yourself to "renounce your body" (i.e. renouncing physical desires and cravings). You should realize that no matter how well you take care of it, this body is unreal and will eventually decay. What does it mean when we speak of "renouncing the body?" It means to dress unobtrusively, to eat plain fare, and in general to live a moderate life. Stop craving for lavish clothes, meals, and living conditions is the first step into practice.

18. The harder the path of practice, the closer to enlightenment you will be. Do not expect people to treat you well, otherwise you shall be no different from a lay person.

19. Learn to take losses or be taken advantage of without resentment. Strive to be tolerant rather than calculating so that you may progress in practice.

20. "Keep constant watch over our own transgressions, and we will not stray from the right path." The more we practice, the easier it will become for us to discover our own shortcomings and feel remorse.

21. Practice to remain tranquil and unfettered whether in action or at rest. What does this mean? It means that while you are active, your mind should stay calm and unswayed by your concerns; but while you are at rest, you must not cling to the idea, or to the appearance, of "motionlessness."

22. "Sweep the dust by reciting the name of (Amitabha) Buddha, and the Lotus will flourish." This stanza means that we practitioners ought to be guided by right mindfulness, purify our minds and turn all evil thoughts into proper ones by incessant recital of the Buddha's name.

23. Take everything as it comes; nothing ought to disturb the mind of a practitioner. Forgo your cravings for worldly goods such as lavish clothes, meals, housing, cars, as well as all your sense of judgment, praise, or blame. Once you have untied yourself from physical and mental distractions, wisdom will unfold. Conduct your daily lives in an unobtrusive fashion -- the path is the wisdom of ordinariness. Also, abstain from both vexation and exultation. Treat others neither overly kind nor too harsh. Foster good karmic affinity with others when occasions arise but do not court their favor. Be forever on the watch over your own thoughts and take note whenever an evil notion arises.

24. The only way to grasp the essence of the Dharma is to practice in person. Once you have truly understood the bitter misery of both living in this world and the perpetual wandering through the cycle of rebirths, your wisdom will unfold. Increasing awareness will then lead you on to the path of supreme enlightenment.

25. Once you have obtained wisdom through practice, your mind will become clear and keen, and you shall be able to complete all your tasks satisfactorily and without obstacles. Therefore, to deliver other beings, you must first liberate yourself lest you should lead them astray. Then people will more readily accept your teaching.

26. Practice requires perseverance; do not aspire to any instant enlightenment. Without reciting the name of the Buddha continuously thereby removing omnipresent illusions, how can you hope for any attainment? But if you exercise faith, dedication, and practice reciting the name of the Buddha continuously, even during your daily round, you will quite naturally arrive at an enlightened mind and at the realization of the buddha-nature immanent in all beings.

27. Come what may: the mind of a practitioner ought to remain calm, unfettered, and unobstructed. Indeed, it is at the attainment of such "complete freedom" that our practice aims.

28. In order to attain true comprehension of the Dharma, you must practice yourself. Just as they say, "He who drank it knows whether the water was cold or warm." Go ahead and practice yourself; only then may you have genuine attainment.

29. Emulate the good (examples given by others), ignore the bad. Keep your sense of right and wrong to yourself. Unpleasant circumstances are propitious for the practice of forbearance. Practice is not about judging who is right or wrong or who has more reason. Rather, the strength of practice lies on whether you can remain undisturbed under challenge.

30. It may come to pass that the master blames you for not having swept the floor even after you have indeed done so. If you object, debating right and wrong, you will not yet be in any way different from a lay person. If, however, you accept the reproach, answering, "Fine, I shall sweep it again," you have set out into practice.

31. "Forbearance" is fundamental to practice. If you forbear with others, you will be able to reform people wherever you go because forbearance brings forth moral conduct and forestalls resentment. As people enjoy your company, you will quite naturally attract them toward practice.

32. Practice forbearance! This is the root and foundation of our practice. If you lack forbearance, you are a monastic practitioner in name only. Therefore, do not presume that you are right in whatever you do. If you don't abstain from seeing everything your "own way," you can never practice forbearance.

33. Practice means looking inward and gain awareness of your own mind, not going after matters of the outward world. Instead of tying your happiness solely on agreeable circumstances, your mind should naturally be filled with dharmic joy from practice. Guard yourself against capriciousness and indecision lest your mind should come under the sway of external conditions. If you can abstain from attachment to the form and sense of "self," you are honestly treading the path of practice.

34. In your practice, strive to personify lovingkindness and compassion. This must radiate from the expression in your eyes and let people sense that here, indeed, is a kind, compassionate person. Only then will you be able to summon people toward faith in the Buddha, learning and practicing Buddhadharma.

35. In group practice, if one attains a certain level, all others benefit. They will be inspired to follow his/her example and practice vigorously. Since all of you wish to practice and karmic affinity has brought you together, you ought to help and encourage each other along the way. If, however, you allow sentiments of judgment, jealousy, and delusion to flourish, it will not only affect your companions' resolution but will also impede your own tranquility in practice.

36. Practice aims at unfolding wisdom, but you ought to cultivate merit as well. Be forever merciful and compassionate, try your best to help those in need and foster good karmic affinity with others. This, then, is the dual practice toward gaining both merit and wisdom.

37. Set out with the dual practice toward gaining merit and wisdom. As you get on in life, gradually attaining both, you will quite naturally reach the ultimate goal of practice.

38. Be merciful to all beings. Remember that they, like us, were born into this world so as to practice and plant good seeds. Therefore, be merciful and compassionate. Tread the bodhisattva-path and wish that: "May all beings, sentient or otherwise, acquire buddha-wisdom."

39. Worshippers bring offerings to the temple with the intention of seeking merit. You must not assess these offerings at their material value. Whatever is offered, if only a blade of grass, we should accept with joy. Most important of all: do not distinguish the offerings; for as soon as you do, you would desire the good ones and despise the bad. You might become vexed or even create negative karma through sneering at them hence spoil your practice. Handle the offerings as they come, use your wisdom to make the best out of them. Such will then be in keeping with the dual practice toward attaining merit and wisdom.

40. Those who wish to tread the bodhisattva-path must never think, "As long as I myself am doing fine, what are the others to me?" It is indeed the others whose welfare should always be foremost on your mind -- even at your own expenses. On the other hand, if you only look after your own concerns, endless delusive vexations will follow.

41. Monastic practitioners ought to be kind and compassionate to all beings while providing them with expedient guidance for practice. Remember, all bodhi fruits grow out of lovingkindness and compassion.

42. After I am gone, there is no need to worry that no one would guide you in your practice. Just remember what I told you: reciting the name of the Buddha; practice diligently and with firm determination; abstain from the pleasures of the six senses; adapt yourselves to circumstances (rather than insisting on your own way). If you are able to do so, it will be as if I were still among you.

43. You might enjoy a great deal listening to your Master's expositions and feel them quite agreeable. However, such "agreeableness" reflects the stage reached by your Master. As for your own level of attainment, it depends on how much you put those teachings into practice. Only through such a process will you be able to fully comprehend and verify their truthfulness and usefulness.

44. True listening does not rest in how much you have listened to your Master but in how well you have listened. Even if you have listened well, you would benefit only if you can apply properly what you have heard to the circumstances you come across.

45. We who chose the path of ascetic practice ought to regard all circumstances and hardships as good opportunities to discipline our minds and bodies. Such training will help to cut off our delusion and vexations, to cleanse our habitual patterns, and to toughen us against all resistance. Merely performing laborious tasks in the temple certainly does not turn us into ascetics. Therefore, you who have left home for practice ought not to be afraid of hardships. Only through overcoming continuous adversities can we discipline our minds and unfold our wisdom.

46. "Without hardships, there can be no attainment in practice." Walking the path of asceticism requires firm determination. With such willpower, you naturally will not discriminate against tasks assigned to you. Instead, you will carry them out devotedly without even considering them as menial, for such tasks will wear down your pride and help to reduce your karmic obstructions. Therefore, a practitioner ought not to be afraid of, nor try to escape from, hardships, for without them there is nothing to practice on hence no attainment to speak of.

47. There are eight kinds of misery from which we constantly suffer: birth, aging, disease, death, separation from loved ones, company of hated ones, failure to obtain what we desire, and all the ills of the five skandhas (form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness). In addition, we are also vexed by our greed, anger, and ignorance. Unenlightened as we are, we totter from day to day under the full sway of such delusive and afflictive karma, suffering immensely. Without diligent practice under the guidance of Buddhadharma, we can never be liberated.

48. Among the four forms of birth, the spiritual level of human beings is the most elevated. However, if we do not understand the Dharma and the principle of causality, we might kill animals just to satisfy our desires of eating meat. This will create very severe karmic obstructions. Listen! As we butcher those creatures, they, too, know the pangs of death and will scream out miserably, and those are screams of resentment. If we kill them anyway, we shall come under the sway of this negative karmic affinity. This will start a vicious cycle of killing and revenge, barring us forever from escaping samsara. For this reason, a Buddhist should faithfully keep the precept against killing, cultivating a compassionate mind instead.

49. Among the six divisions, our human existence is by no means easy to attain! The idea, though, is that we should grasp this unique opportunity for practice so as to break out the cycle of birth and death and ultimately reach buddhahood. Do not accumulate additional negative karma through our greed, anger, ignorance, and endless pursuits of tasty food, lavish clothing, worldly pleasures, children and grandchildren, etc. If, instead of diligent practice, we remain attached to the six sensual objects and lose this precious opportunity of human existence, we will be forever confined to samsara. Be aware that human beings can easily be reborn as animals like cows, horses, pigs, dogs, etc., hell-beings, or hungry ghosts. Where we end up depends on where we put our minds. We can either utilize this human existence to practice in the hope of attaining Buddhahood, or to create more negative karma hence confine ourselves in the six divisions of rebirth. Since we all have chosen to leave home for practice, wouldn't it be wise for us to follow the Dharma and find a suitable way to escape the entanglement and torment of samsara?

50. When leaving home for practice, both your body and your mind should "leave." In other words, genuine renunciation means you ought to have as little secular entanglement as possible. In case your parents or relatives come for a visit, discuss with them only Buddhadharma so as to convert and deliver them. Do not indulge in the sentiment of parting from loved ones. Otherwise, you will be a monastic practitioner in name only. And such attachment will surely become a great impediment to your practice and to your attainment of total liberation.

51. Relinquish all aspirations to secular gains! Not only must we part with our greed for wealth, but likewise with our hankering after fame. In fact, there is nothing in this world with which we should be reluctant to part. We monastic practitioners should go even further: consuming only plain food and clothing, devoting ourselves to our tasks in the monastery for the benefit of all beings, and keeping our minds solely on practice. Only through such ascetic practice can we eradicate our karmic obstructions and free our minds of illusive ideas as well as other disturbances. If we live our lives, day in day out, in this manner, we are truly treading the path of practice.

52. The essence of practice is to train the mind. How, then, shall we proceed? First, train our minds to abstain from discrimination, attachment, and vexations. Most people, not realizing this principle, are prone to distinguish good and evil, right and wrong, love and distaste. Practitioners, on the other hand, ought to abstain from discriminating what we see or hear, not to become attached to, or vexed by, them. Such is the practice of training the mind. If a monastic practitioner carries on the habit of gossiping around and judging people, then he/she is a monastic practitioner in name only. Such behaviors are not in tune with the Dharma; in fact, they only reflect the impurity of our eyes and ears. Such "discrimination," though involuntary, will nevertheless defile our minds, create vexation, and lead us astray from the path of liberation.

53. Do not anticipate any specific form through which Bodhisattvas deliver sentient beings. The process (of deliverance) often occurs quietly and naturally. Whether sentient beings can be delivered depends on the degree of their faith, resolution, and willingness to take refuge in the Bodhisattvas. While the compassion of Bodhisattvas to deliver is the primary cause, deliverance cannot take place without the secondary cause, i.e. the vow and dedication of those who wish to be delivered. In other words, only when the two causes correspond will deliverance be possible. Take Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Kuanyin) for example. Sitting high up on the altar, the Bodhisattva appears to be motionless. However, her compassion and mercifulness have been providing relief to many who prayed for help and, in response to their faith, guiding them through the practice of the Dharma.

54. Instead of chattering on worldly matters, we monastic practitioners ought to discuss only about the Dharma. Otherwise, how can there be any "practice" to speak of if we carry on the discriminating, calculating, and competitive demeanor and gossip like lay people do?

55. Most parents wish for their children to grow up to have a bright future: college education, doctoral degree, wealth and success, etc. Unfortunately, many turn their backs on their parents after attaining success. But these parents, failing to realize its futility, continue to place their hope on their children. For many, their concern of, hence attachment to, their children and grandchildren would never cease, not even to the moment of their last breath. They do not realize that such deep affection will confine them to the six divisions of rebirth. Their expectations, attachments, and concerns are the very cause of their lingering in samsara, hence the sources of their perpetual misery.

56. Buddhists believe that "Craving for just a blade of grass, and it will guarantee your remaining in samsara." A blade of grass stands for an object of this world, and desire of which will result in your rebirth into it. A blade of grass also represents a thought, and possession of which will prevent you from transcending the three realms of sentient existence. Even if the object you desire or the thought you have is as trivial as a blade of grass, it is nevertheless powerful enough to confine you in the cycle of birth and death.

57. Regard everything you come across as a blessed reward and conserve it mindfully. Do not squander anything edible or useful; rather, use your wit and patience in handling things broken or worn. Put your mind into it, then you will set out into the dual practice of gaining both merit and wisdom.

58. "Before attaining Buddhahood, be sure to foster good karmic affinity with people." As practitioners, we ought to help others the best we can, be patient and not calculating, joyfully foster good affinity with all beings - even with an evil person or an animal. If, unfortunately, you sense that people don't really like you or feel unpleasant seeing you, it is because you did not foster good affinity with them in previous lives. Therefore, be sure to foster good relations with everyone so that you may later enjoy blessed rewards and favorable affinities. By then, you will have the good karmic conditions necessary to deliver other sentient beings.

59. How magnanimous and merciful Maitreya Buddha and Putai Hoshang (Cloth-bag Monk) are! If we cannot emulate them, i.e. we would take no losses, nor tolerate any criticism, then we have not attained any level in our practice!

60. If a practitioner does not practice diligently, does not work for the benefit of others, does not accumulate merits, does not keep his precepts, practice meditation, or foster the growth of wisdom, then the dragon kings and devas safeguarding the Dharma will not watch over him. He will then be under the full sway of his karmic obstructions and all sorts of problem will arise. On the other hand, if he keeps himself well and practices attentively, all devas will come to his protection. With the mind pure and free, he will then be able to practice without distraction.

61. What does it mean when we say that someone looks solemn and dignified? When one does not act upon ignorance and delusion, when one constantly purifies one's body and mind, he/she will acquire a natural solemn and dignified manner. When one enacts the ideas of lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, when one conducts him/herself in good manners, he/she will look solemn and dignified.

62. We practitioners should dedicate ourselves to "attain Buddhahood and deliver all sentient beings." However, we must work on our own salvation first so that we may acquire the ability to deliver others. The first step is to forgo our desire to eat, dress, and live lavishly, and to forsake our secular affections, attachments, and our incessant pursuit of wealth and fame. Only when our mind and bodies become pure and free of hindrance can we begin to talk about preaching Buddhadharma for the benefit of all sentient beings. Otherwise, with our own minds enslaved by secular attachments, how can we help to free others from such bondage?

63. As practitioners, we ought to relinquish all cravings for good food, nice clothing, comfortable housing, wealth and fame, etc. In other words, we can begin our practice by curbing desires stimulated by what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think, thereby shake off the fetters of sensual passions. This is how the strength of our practice may grow. Therefore, we monastic practitioners ought to content ourselves with a simple life and really devote ourselves to practice. Only by so doing can we hope to win the confidence and respect of all beings and become genuine masters who, while liberating ourselves, can guide them out of their misery.

64. We ought to recognize that "Only through endurance can we transcend hardships, and only through forbearance can we gain blessed rewards." The amount of karmic obstructions we can reduce is proportional to the hardships we endure and the efforts we put into practice. Similarly, merits can only be earned through diligent practice, not external pursuits.

65. Do understand that sitting meditation does not mean sitting there idly, doing nothing. Most important of all, do not cling to the ideas that "I am meditating," "I am reciting the name of the Buddha," or "I am practicing Zen," otherwise, you will be practicing with the omnipresence of the sense of "self." If you continue to dwell on the idea that "I am doing this and that," you are still clinging to erroneous and illusive thoughts and can never be genuinely free. In this way, even if you meditate for thousands of years, the effect will be the same as cooking rocks or steaming sands - all useless in terms of getting yourself to transcend the cycle of birth and death. Forsake all forms, attach your mind to nothing, and think not of what you are doing. Also, conduct your daily activities (be it moving, staying, sitting, or sleeping) without clinging to any idea of purity, or dwell on any dharma. Only by steering clear of all discrimination and differentiation can you transcend the three realms and break out of the prison of samsara.

66. Real life is very much like a soap opera in which everyone plays a role. We all have the experience of following the emotional swings of the characters of soap operas. However, we rarely sense that the ensuing sentiments of joy, anger, sorrow, and happiness are but distinctions made by our own minds. It is much the same in real life. More often than not, we allow our distinction of circumstances or judgments of people to take charge of our emotions without even being conscious about it. Furthermore, it seems that we always find it easier to emulate bad examples than good ones. This is because our delusions accumulated through the eons can easily overwhelm us. Hence, we are often swayed by circumstances befitting our sinister desires. On the other hand, how often have we claimed that "to tolerate the intolerable and practice the impracticable" is the attainment of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, thereby excusing ourselves for not following their examples but merely praising them with empty words? The most unfortunate result is that we keep on ingraining bad habits while shunning the good. This is what we called the misconception of an ordinary person, and it is due largely to our lack of firm resolve (to practice).

To be continued...