The Buddhist sacred texts state that meditation – that is a deliberate and willed ‘control’ and ‘development’ of the mind – can (and should) occur whilst standing, sitting, lying-down and walking. This practice of turning the attention back to the empty mind ground ‘protects’ each individual from the power of greed, hatred and delusion, and also protects society from behaviours premised upon greed, hatred and delusion. This is the most obvious ‘defence’ that conscious living grants a Ch’an Buddhist practitioner. This is ‘Dharma’ self-cultivation in action and there is no other practice as powerful or effective. The Dharma is the central core of the Budda’s teaching – with the Vinaya (monastic discipline) and Abhidhamma (monastic commentary) being very important but supplementary texts (like the three-legs of a stool). Regardless of the circumstances an individual has to live or exist within, the act of ‘seated meditation’ allows the essence of that circumstance to be actively ‘transformed’ from the inside out, or from the atomic or molecule structure! Although the construction of our surroundings may not be to our liking, we can still operate the principle of ‘non-attachment’ and cognitively and physically ‘distance’ ourselves from the painful sensations that are experienced. With a practice that is long enough and deep enough, bad experiences will eventually give-way to good or neutral conditions. If we can become truly ‘detached’, however, we can remain entirely indifferent to whatever circumstances pass across the senses of the body and traverse the surface of the mind. All of this practice serves to realise the empty mind ground and permanently rectify the ‘inverted’ mind-set that the Buddha pin-pointed as the essence of all human suffering. This is the uprooting of greed, anger and delusion. The conditions surrounding ‘seated meditation’, however, are also sound instructions for avoiding unnecessary social contact and the spreading of diseases throughout society. The Buddha recommends that an individual withdraws into a quiet area that is not too dark, or too light, that is airy but no too windy, that is isolated but not too far away from populations. This withdrawal from direct contact and habitual interaction has the by-product of a) not exposing a practitioner to disease, and b) not exposing other members in society to the spread of disease. This is exactly what is need in this troublesome time!
Even my Daoist friends in China tend to view immortality as a long life lived well (usually 100 hundred-years) - rather than taking the concept literally. Keeping mentally and physically fit are subjects we all must a) study and b) participate in - as we are all living human-beings progressing through our lives. We know from the science of genetics that our life-spans can be determined even before birth (with a number of people dying at aged 27-years of ‘natural causes’, etc), but we also know that our choice of life-style can, in many cases, move the genetic bench-mark to a certain extent. A healthy life-style tends to delay death – whilst an unhealthy existence tends to bring death nearer. This was known thousands of years ago and is the reason traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) advocates ‘prevention’ of illness (and accident) – rather than the ‘cure’ of a specific ailment. Although TCM can (and often does) ‘cure’ symptoms today – this was not the original function of its ancient underlying Chinese wisdom.
Many ancient cultures, such as the Sumerian, the Greek, the Indian, the Egyptian, the Jewish and the Celtic-Druids, etc, developed various medical systems. Chinese medicine developed into a broad and all-encompassing subject premised upon the well-known concepts of the eight trigrams (gua), yin-yang (shade-sunlight), the Five Phases (Wuxing), qi (vital force) flow and psychological and physical exercise! Even within modern China today, TCM shares a common scientific foundation with Chinese engineering and construction – with Chinese doctors often qualified also in engineering (before specialising within the field of guarding the well-being of the human-body rather than designing and constructing material objects). This demonstrates that there is a common cultural foundation throughout Chinese cultural thought – although modern (Western) medicine is also studied and applied throughout China. Some people (and illnesses) respond more effectively to TCM – whilst other ailments and injuries are more easily cured with modern medicine. Sometimes, a very clever and precise combination of both types is used. This is the case with regards to Covid19 – the Chinese State is responding with a strict modern medicine approach to contain and eradicate the illness at source – whilst individual patients, although also treated with modern medicine sometimes choose TCM – or TCM is recommend by a modern doctor, etc.
As individuals, we must take action to guard our health in mind and body the best we can within the society we live. Within the past, Ch’an Masters living in the remote areas of China often sustained themselves through will-power alone as they had no choice. A poor diet coupled with exposure to the elements probably made them very physically weak whilst they made their mind-attention very strong. Many even went as far as eating tree-bark and drinking rain-water for long periods. Their physical poverty was irrelevant to the spiritual training they were undergoing. Very few people in Old China had access to adequate clothing, housing, food or medical treatment, etc, and virtually no one expected to have these things outside of the nobility (about 10% of population). How is this level of ‘non-attachment’ to be achieved? In many ways, the Chinese Ch’an tradition emerged out of the harsh or stark culture of feudal times and has survived into the modern times. Although things are very different within China today, the examples of Vimalakirti, Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng, Master Han Shan and Master Xu Yun, etc, demonstrate that this attitude of ‘non-attachment’ is applied equally in all situations – regardless of whether there is deficient or plentiful material supplies in the environment.
A person may inhabit an ill or injured body – whilst possessing a ‘pure’ and ‘shining’ mind. Many people whose bodies manifest various types of disabilities often realise the empty mind ground and no longer consider themselves limited to the condition of their bodies (or situation of their life circumstances). There is a book published in 1965 in the West entitled ‘Three Pillars of Zen’ by an American Zen teacher named ‘Roshi Philip Kapleau’. Philip Kapleau was a good friend of Charles Luk (1898-1978) and was always respectful toward his translation work and the memory of Great Master Xu Yun (1840-1959). He included in his book the extraordinary story of Iwasaki Yaeko (岩崎八重子) - referred to throughout the book as ‘Yaeko Iwasaki’. This 25-year-old young woman in Japan trained in Zen meditation under Harada Roshi (原田 大雲祖岳) in 1935 – much of the interaction taking place via the written word (in the form of posted letters). Although she began her Zen training carrying-out the usual 25-minute stints of seated meditation in the traditional Zazen position, (followed by 5-minute rest periods practicing ‘walking meditation’ before starting again) in the seated Zazen. However, she soon developed a long-term illness (tuberculosis) that prevented her from going-out into the world and participating in seated Zazen. She was so weak she could not even perform Zazen in the privacy of her home – at least not in the usual physical manner.
This new situation did not deter her or her Zen teacher. Yaeko Iwasaki read Great Master Dogen’s ‘Shobogenzo’ at least seventeen times whilst lying in bed over a five-year period. This was her immersion into the essence of the Soto (Caodong) School of Zen – whilst Harada Roshi guided her through the Koan-practice associated with the Rinzai (Linji) School of Zen! (Harada Roshi was actually trained in both the ‘Soto’ and ‘Rinzai’ traditions). Yaeko Iwasaki was given the Koan ‘Mu’ to contemplate and penetrate day and night – awake or asleep whilst lying in her sick-bed. No matter what moment of the day it was, or how she felt at a particular moment – she was tasked with manifesting ‘Mu’ clearly (like a ‘hua tou’) - until its essence (the empty mind ground) manifested and became ‘clear’! As her father had died suddenly, and given that her health was deteriorating rapidly, a very real and profound ‘fear’ of death acted as the key motivation for her continuous Zen-practice regardless of circumstance. A sense of desperate urgency was very much present as she did not know how long she had to live – only that her life could end at any moment without warning!
This dramatic situation is exactly like the Zen story that states that a Zen-practitioner must desire enlightenment as strongly (and irrationally) as a drowning man demands air! When human-beings are placed in dangerous or highly unpredictable situations – quite often a ‘heightened’ sense of awareness is achieved that interprets the world from an entirely ‘new’ perspective. Yaeko Iwasaki had an alert and bright mind that was inhabiting a body that was a) not functioning properly and b) as a consequence, was close to shutting-down entirely. The biological situation was precarious to say the least. Although still a young woman, Yaeko Iwasaki was going to die without living a full-life and experiencing so many things common to many people. This was a very sad situation – but ‘sadness’ had to be replaced with ‘clarity of thought’ and ‘self-pity’ had to be transformed into a ‘positive’ and highly ‘focused’ Zen-mind that would stop for nothing regardless of existential situation! As her life-force (qi) began to ebb-away – Yaeko Iwasaki achieved a total and full enlightenment! Her story should serve as an inspiration for us all!
‘What is Maha? It means “Great”. The capacity of the mind is as great as that of space. It is infinite, neither round nor square, neither great nor small, neither green nor yellow, neither red nor white, neither above nor below, neither long nor short, neither angry nor happy, neither right nor wrong, neither good nor evil, neither first nor last. All Buddha Ksetras (lands) are as void as space. Intrinsically our transcendental nature is void and not a single Dharma can be attained. It is the same with the Essence of Mind, which is a state od “Absolute Void” (I.e. the voidness of non-void).
Learned audience, when you hear me talk about the Void, do not at once fall into the idea of vacuity, (because this involves the heresy of the doctrine of annihilation). It is of the utmost importance that we should not fall into this idea, because when a man sits quietly and keeps his mind blank he will abide in a state of Voidness of Indifference.
Learned Audience, the illimitable Void of the universe is capable of holding myriads of things of various shape and form, such as the sun, the moon, stars, mountains, rivers, worlds, springs, rivulets, bushes, woods, good men, bad men, Dharmas pertaining to goodness or badness. Devi planes, hells, great oceans and all the mountains of the Mahameru Space takes in all these, and so does the voidness of our nature. We say that the essence of Mind is great because it embraces all things, since all things are within are nature.
When we see the goodness or the badness of other people we are not attracted by it, nor repelled by it, nor attached to it; so that our attitude of mind is as void as space. In this way, we say our mind is great. Therefore we call it ‘Maha’ (Great).
Wong Mou-Lam, The Sutra of Hui Neng, San Yang, (1929), Pages 28-29
Whereas scientists are not sure where the COVID19 infection came from, the Buddhist response is one of enhanced loving-kindness, compassion and wisdom. The Buddha’s compassion never wavered during his lifetime, regardless of what he experienced. In times of hardship, chaos and disaster, the minds and bodies of ordinary people become infected with a ‘fear’ that permeates every waking moment and is the basis for every action. All is change. Fear comes and fear goes and during these times, we must not become ‘attached’ or ‘polluted’ by this process – this is exactly the same requirement for monastics as it is for the laity as the ‘mind ground’ underlies all evenly. Sit strongly, breathe deeply and return all sensation to its empty essence. Still the mind and expand the awareness as from this all universal love, compassion and wisdom will flow! If you are ill, sit like an iron mountain until you can ‘see through’ the phenomenon of discomfort! The enlightened mind is like a giant (empty) and round mirror (with no limits) that reflects all things!
Shi Da Dao
Adrian Chan-Wyles (釋大道 - Shi Da Dao) is permitted to retain his Buddhist Monastic Dharma-Name within Lay-society by decree of the Government of the People’s Republic of China, and the Chinese Buddhist Association (1992). A Buddhist monastic (and devout lay-practitioner) upholds the highest levels of Vinaya Discipline and Bodhisattva Vows. A Genuine Buddhist ‘Venerates’ the ‘Dao’ (道) as he or she penetrates the ‘Empty Mind-Ground' through meditative insight. A genuine Buddhist is humble, wise and peace-loving – and he or she selflessly serves all in existence in the past, present and the future, and residing within the Ten Directions – whilst retaining a vegetarian- vegan diet. Please be kind to animals!
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