Nan Huai-Chin: To RealizeEnlightenment (York Beach,
      ME: Samuel Weiser, 1993). Material used by permission

Content List and preface from To Realize Enlightenment

Chapter 14
CARRYING OUT VOWS

The basic principles of this series have been seeing truth, cultivating realization, and carrying out vows, and the main emphasis has been on the aspect of cultivating realization and doing meditation work. Until now, I have only said a few words about carrying out vows.

In fact, when all of us study Buddhism and cultivate the Path, we all want to experience the fruit of enlightenment. But why is it that so many people study Buddhism, and so rarely do we see people who are truly able to realize the fruit of enlightenment? The main reason is that most people do not carry out their vows sufficiently, not that their meditation work is inadequate.

If you do not carry out vows, then your perception of truth cannot be thorough and complete. Without the genuine carrying out of vows, your work of cultivating realization cannot progress. But it is this aspect of carrying out vows that is so easy for us to neglect. This is why all of you try hard but feel you are not getting on the right track.

Now let me explain by unifying the three aspects of seeing truth, cultivating realization, and carrying out vows. For example, there is a psychological question that is very obvious. Why do so many people in the world want to study the Buddhist Path? Even if they don't follow the road of studying Buddhism and seeking the Path, they still look for some other religious belief. Those people who do not seek religious belief search elsewhere for something to rely on. Fundamentally speaking, subconsciously, they all have something they are seeking. It is like doing business, and looking for the greatest result for the lowest price.

It is the same way with people who seek the supernatural protection of bodhisattvas. They spend a few dollars on bananas, and a few dollars on cakes, and a few dollars on incense, they spend at least a hundred dollars altogether on offerings. When they go to a temple, they burn incense, and bow their heads to the floor, and prostrate themselves. They ask for their husbands to be well, and their children to be healthy. Or they ask for promotions, or for wealth. After they have finished asking for everything, they burn incense, and at the end they take their bananas home with them, and slowly eat them themselves.

How terrible this mentality of praying for gain is! It's the same way when a person who has made a mistake kneels there praying, and makes his confession. What kind of mentality is this? We must think this over for ourselves.

As for those of us who cultivate practice, in our minds we will surely be thinking: "I certainly do not have this kind of mentality." But the way I see it is all the same: it is only a different style. Though we do not have this mentality of praying for gain, nevertheless, we think that by sitting in meditation we will be able to attain enlightenment. Though we are not seeking with bananas, we are seeking with our crossed legs.

Everyone sits in meditation wanting to illuminate mind and see true nature, to achieve buddhahood and consummate the Path. What people like the most is meditation work and experiential states. All you have to do is hear that someone has the Path and has meditative accomplishments, and no matter what, you feel curious and go off to find him. You are not clear about what the Path and what meditation work ultimately mean: this means your perception of the truth is not pure. Why isn't your perception of truth pure? If we pursue this matter rigorously, it is because you do not correctly carry out your vows.

The foundation of the Buddha Dharma is built on the six planes of cyclical existence, on past, present, and future cause and effect. But based on what I know from several decades of experience, very few of the people who study the Buddhist Path really believe in the six planes of cyclical existence, and even fewer believe in past, present, and future cause and effect. Or at least they do not believe absolutely in these basic Buddhist teachings. These are not superstitious beliefs. No one understands it clearly in principle, and even fewer people seek and find realization of it in actual fact. All of you ought to reflect back within yourselves on these points.

Because you do not believe in the six planes of cyclical existence, and you do not believe in past present, and future cause and effect, no matter whether you study Zen, or Esoteric Buddhism, or Pure Land, your basic foundation is wrong. It is like wanting to build a house on sand: it is impossible. But our mental activities are always going in this direction.

. . .

Another example are the spiritual powers. What are spiritual powers like? What is the power to know things in advance like? So many people who claim to have spiritual powers die of high blood pressure and diabetes. So what about an even bigger question? Have we given careful thought to what studying Buddhism and cultivating practice are ultimately for? We always indulge in high-flown talk, but it is not realistic.

In genuine cultivation of practice, in the end there is just one road: carrying out vows. So what does it mean to carry out vows? It means to correct your own mental conduct. Our thinking, the process of arousing mind and setting thoughts in motion: this is behavior that has not yet come forth. All conduct is the active expression of thoughts. When we want to seek emptiness, this is a matter of seeking a metaphysical issue, seeking the root source that can give birth to thinking. To really reach emptiness at the behavioral level and at the level of thinking is almost impossible. If someone manages to have his or her thinking entirely empty, and has become unknowing, then why would he or she have to cultivate the Path? Thus the principle of emptiness is not like this.

. . .

When we work at sitting meditation, why can't we make progress? All of you are sure to think that it is because our method is incorrect, and do all you can to find an enlightened teacher to ask about methods. This is not it! Don't deceive yourselves. Why can't you advance in your meditation work? Why can't you attain samadhi. It is because your mental activity has not been transformed. If you have not changed your mental activity at all, your meditation work cannot progress, and your perception of truth cannot be complete. In Chinese civilization, no matter whether Confucian or Taoist, all teachings are united on this point, all agree on this view.

. . .

What are virtuous practices? By Taoist standards, to rescue someone who is in imminent danger, and on the brink of death, and save his life, is just one virtuous practice. Using this as the standard, you must complete three thousand virtuous practices and accumulate several thousand merits, and only then will it be enough to cultivate and attain the station of the heavenly immortals. It is the same for Confucianism and for Buddhism.

Buddhism requires us to transform completely the way we give rise to mind and set our thoughts in motion, our internal thinking and behavior. But based on what I know, not one of you has budged at all in your mental activity. This is very frightening. Why can't you realize the fruit of enlightenment? Because you have not untied your mental bonds. The bonds of the eighty-eight compulsions are strong and deeply rooted.

People who study Buddhism have one basic defect. All of you should reflect on this. First of all, because you study Buddhism, you look upon the human world as empty. Therefore you seek to leave it behind, to leap beyond it and pay no attention to it. Because you leap beyond it and pay no attention to it you are incapable of compassion. We constantly speak of compassion. You should check into your own mental state and see how much compassion you are capable of. This is a very serious question. The second thing is this: to what extent have we eliminated greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance, and doubt?

Here is an example. The better all of us cultivate practice, the more quick-tempered we become. why is this? You sit in meditation and are sitting very comfortably. If someone comes and bothers you, don't you get angry? Isn't this sort of mental functioning the opposite of compassion?

. . .

To my knowledge, generally people who have studied Buddhism or people who believe in any other religion are more arrogant than anyone in the world. They think that other people are devils who have no faith, and they think they themselves are sages. We who study Buddhism make the same mistake, only we call it by another name. When we see someone outside the Path we feel: "Alas! How pitiful! These are the seeds of hell!" The same principle is involved here: we are unwilling to be humble.

. . .

This is especially true of people who have done a bit of meditation work. All they have to do is study Buddhism and do sitting meditation for three days, and already the attitude that "In heaven and on earth, I alone am the honored one" arises. They think that other people's meditation does not work. They specialize in measuring other people by the standards of a sage, but they themselves have arbitrarily set this standard: things are the size they say they are. Of course when they measure other people, none of them are sages. But they never measure themselves to see how long they are or how big they are. They never reflect back on themselves: this is what's most terrible.

What can be done about such mental behavior? Why can't they realize the fruit of enlightenment? Why can't they attain samadhi? Because they have not transformed this mental behavior one little bit, they have not transformed greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance, and doubt at all. This is very frightening. When we reflect on it, it is very serious.

I emphasize over and over again to everyone that if you cultivate the Path without realizing the fruit of enlightenment and you are unable to experience emptiness, this is because you have not been able to transform your mental activity. Thus, when you sit and meditate, you are only holding onto a bit of emptiness created by the realm of consciousness, and you think that is the Path.

. . .

So I always tell students that among the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching, there is not one that is entirely good, and not one that is entirely bad. There is bad in the good and good in the bad. There is only one hexagram which may be reckoned to have all its lines auspicious, and that is the hexagram "Humility." So when Buddhism tells us to study emptiness, the first precept is that we must be humble. How many people can do this? Reflect back yourselves: who is humble?

Only if you can truly achieve humility will you be capable of the compassion of the bodhisattvas. The Taoist Lao-tzu said: "I have three treasures: humility, frugality, and not presuming to take precedence in the world." Not presuming to take precedence in the world is humility. It's the same way in Buddhism. To what extent does Buddhism take humility? It extends humility to selflessness. when humility reaches its ultimate point this is selflessness.

Therefore, if we only want to sit in meditation and reach emptiness, and we cannot achieve selflessness at the level of mental activity, then we cannot become empty. This is because as we sit there preserving emptiness, it is the self that is trying to preserve emptiness, and we have not achieved selfless emptiness. If there is no self, what's the need to seek emptiness? Selflessness is already empty.

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Now the foregoing refers to practice, but what about vows? That is even harder to talk about. If you cannot carry out your vows, you cannot manage to see truth. To put it another way, if you cannot carry out your vows, then you cannot succeed in the work of cultivating realization. What's the use of sitting well? You may say: When I sit in meditation, I can sit for three hours, and my mind becomes very pure." But really you are sitting there being lazy. This can be called a form of what is described in the play on words in classical Chinese: "The Tao means stealing [tao]." The meaning of this saying from The Yin Convergence Scripture is that people make use of the essence of heaven and earth, and borrow the original capacity of life, in order to be able to cultivate themselves and achieve the Path. Once people are born, they steal food and air from heaven and earth. They sit in meditation at all hours of the day and night wanting to imbibe the correct energy of heaven and earth, and the refined essence of the sun and moon. How terrible this thievery is! But The Yin Convergence Scripture is encouraging us to be thieves. If we really steal certain things from the universe, then our lives will be perfected: our lives will be the universe. After you do this, then you can let other people steal from you. This is the Taoist viewpoint.

The thought of the classical Chinese philosopher Mo-tzu [fl. fourth century B.C.] came out of Taoism. Mo-tzu demanded that we "sacrifice ourselves to benefit the whole world." This is equivalent to the Buddhist spirit of great mercy and compassion. Self-sacrifice is the philosophy of Mo-tzu. Mo-tzu is a figure in the Taoist classic Biographies of the Spirit Immortals, where it says that Mo-tzu was still in the world during the time of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty [who reigned 140-87 B.C.). But who still saw him then?

Yang Zhu [c. fourth century B.C.], another classical Chinese philosopher, advocated the primacy of absolute individualism and self interest. His philosophy, which resembles classical 19th century liberalism, also came out of Taoism.

Now let us return to the main topic. We who study Buddhism are there sitting in meditation stealing, while at the same time, out in society so many people are busy on our behalf. For this reason the Buddhists have a saying which is very special, a saying that is recited every morning and evening: "To those above we repay the four major forms of benevolence. Below we help those beings suffering in the three mires." This is a vow. Every day it alerts us to do meritorious deeds. We who study Buddhism must examine ourselves at all times wherever we are to see if we are fulfilling this vow. Every day we must repay the four major forms of benevolence. We are indebted to all four forms of benevolence: the benevolence of the buddhas, the benevolence of our parents, the benevolence of the nation, and the benevolence of sentient beings.

What is the benevolence that sentient beings show toward us? A person lives in the world, and depends on the fruits of the labor of many people. This is why we must repay the four forms of benevolence. To live for one day, we must trouble many people to provide us with the necessities of life. This is really the way it is.

"Below we help those beings suffering in the three mires," means that at the same time we must be mindful of the sufferings of those in the three lower planes of existence: animals, those in hell, and hungry ghosts. In other words, we must be mindful at all times of the sufferings of those who are not like us humans, and we must think of ways to help them. But do we do this or not? We who study Buddhism only think of how to find for ourselves companions who have the wealth of the Dharma, so they can help us achieve the Path. This kind of motivation is the basis of selfishness. Why don't you first help someone else achieve the Path? So first I spoke of practice, and then I spoke of vows. Have you really taken vows or not? Think it over.

Consider the classic Mahayana vows: "I vow to deliver infinite numbers of sentient beings. I vow to cut off endless afflictions. I vow to study innumerable Dharma Gates. I vow to achieve the supreme Path of the buddhas." In reality, while we are chanting sutras, we chant through these vows, and that's the end of it. There are actually no such things in our minds. The first vow is to save infinite numbers of sentient beings, but all we want to do is save ourselves. The second vow is to cut off endless afflictions, but we think: "It would be best if you helped me cut them off." The third vow is to study innumerable Dharma Gates, but we think: "You teach me, and it will be fine." The fourth vow is to achieve the supreme Path of the buddhas, but we think: "One day in the future I may succeed." Usually this is the way we interpret these four vows. Just reflect back, and you will see how serious this is. This is why it is said that the gate of practice is very hard.

The whole Buddhist canon tells us about the practice of carrying out vows. Practice means the thirty-seven components of the Path and the myriad practices of the six perfections. The foundation for studying Buddhism is here. When you understand past present, and future cause and effect and the six planes of cyclical existence, and you improve yourself at the level of mental activity, gradually you will naturally advance in your meditation work and your perception of truth. In saying this I am not just repeating the Buddhist teaching: this has been my personal experience. If you do not start your work from here, it is an insoluble problem, and you will not be able to realize the fruit of enlightenment. Changing your mental activity is much more important than sitting in meditation or cultivating realization. All you have to do is correct your mental activity for one day, and your samadhi power and your sitting meditation will improve along with it for that day.

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To summarize what's been said, you need three things to succeed on the Path: to see the Path, to practice the Path, and to always be correcting yourself, to rid your conduct and behavior of defilements. Now in this entire series of lectures, we've given enough for you to be able to find the Path, and we've presented enough indications for you to be able to practice meditation and achieve samadhi. We've discussed what is and what isn't samadhi as well as the various semblance Dharmas that tend to mislead people. We've explained the use of anapana and contemplations on provisional existence for achieving concentration and insight, the genuine basis behind any of the methods for attainment. So what's left is for you to put energy into the effort and actually get to it. If you put your energy into cultivation work, and into the effort to correct your faults and shortcomings, you will develop enough merit to surely succeed. In this way you can become the savior of self and others.

On the Path of cultivation, you must know that everything starts with and ends with behavior. The whole Path has to do with conduct and behavior, the carrying out of vows. This is the highest truth and also the simplest truth: like a great circle, to do good and refrain from evil, is the very beginning and end of the path. Enlightenment has little to do with supernormal powers and supernatural feats, but rather with accessing our great transcendental wisdom awareness and employing our potential for great functioning in order to help others. You now know that reaching this stage requires that we both accumulate merit and work hard at meditation so as to rid ourselves of defilements. But after they're gone, what's left is to exercise our clear functioning capacity in compassionate behavior for the welfare of others. This is carrying out vows.

So strive hard with your efforts and don't settle for simply building an intellectual edifice of cultivation, like some university professors or academicians do with Zen. Without attainment, such efforts are quite useless. Rather, throw yourself into the cultivation of realization in order to gain attainment. Seeing the Path is one thing, but you will gain power in the Path only through the cultivation of practice. The buddhas and ancients have given us all we need to know, so it's left up to you to make the effort. Don't wait until it's too late. Start now and the blessings of the Path are sure to reach you. Cultivate with your entire mind and body. Settle for no less. This is the way to succeed.