Monday, December 28, 2009


I feel I should apologize to my friends and the people who have subscribed to this blog. This year has been a difficult one for me. Among other things, my mother passed away, and after returning to Taiwan I found myself jobless. I've just recently found new work, but unfortunately I never heard back from my contact in Dharma Drum Mountain. In the small town I live in, there is only one very small Buddhist nunnery, and the last time I went there and explained what I wanted help with, I was treated in a very curt manner. I would like nothing more than to be able to finish my translation of Ven. Jinghui's commentary on the Heart Sutra, but at present I'm not able to. I need to explore some other avenues of help, and will keep everyone updated.

Many sincere apologies.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


I just sent off an email with my questions regarding Ven. Jinghui's Heart Sutra commentary to someone at Dharma Drum. It wasn't a complete list of questions, but is a start, and will give me some idea of how much help is available.

Many of you may alread know, but Chan Master Foyuan passed away several months ago. He was a direct disciple fo Empty Cloud, and was highly regarded within China. Let's hope he comes back soon, and continues his work of trying to englighten us all.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Heart Sutra commentary translation update

I got in touch with someone at Dharma Drum Buddhist College here in Taiwan about helping me with the translation of the last parts of Ven. Jinghui's Heart Sutra commentary. I'm going to start preparing an email with the parts I'm having trouble with today. Right now I don't know exactly who is going to be helping me, or how busy they are, so I can't say with any certainty when I'l be able to post the translation. Anyway, I just wanted to let those of you who are waiting know that I'm going to be prioritizing the translation from now on, and I hope to get it out sometime in the near future.

Thanks for your patience and understanding!

Sunday, March 1, 2009


A translation that I've been working on, and one that some of you have been waiting for, has been sitting on the back burner for a while. I've made a few rather big life changes recently, including a change of location, and job, and so haven't been in a position to sit down and really get to work finishing it (it's actually about 90% done). Many apologies!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Happy New Year

By Western calculations, we've already entered the new year, but the Chinese New Year, which is based on the lunar calendar, begins on January 26th. So, while I my be late wishing you all a happy new year (by American standards), I still have time to wish you a happy Chinese New Year (Year of the Ox).


Happy New Year!

Colloquial Chan - by Venerable Minghai

Translators note: The original title of this talk was, in fact, a play on words. The Chinese title was "koutouchan," which means a pet phrase. However, the "chan" of "koutouchan" is the same character as the Chinese word for "Zen," so Venerable Minghai was able to get a double meaning out of the phrase. After racking my brain for a long time, I wasn't able to come up with a clever English equivalent, and so settled on the current title.

We monks like to summarize all of the Buddhist practices into four sentences. Those four sentences are:
1. Taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the Three Jewels
2. Diligently practicing Ethics, Concentration, and Wisdom, the Three Practices
3. Extinguishing Greed, Anger, and Delusion, the Three Poisons
4. Purifying the Three Karmas of Body, Speech, and Mind.
Obtaining a human life and encountering the Three Jewels is a very precious thing. Cherishing the karmic causes that allowed us to meet with the Three Jewels, and insuring that we make best use of this life, are the questions that every Buddhist practitioner needs to think about and face.

The Agamas have a story like this: Once there was a man who, during his entire life, never once performed any kind or charitable deeds. He thoughtlessly wasted his life in idle pleasure seeking, performing many evil deeds and never acting virtuously. After he died, the King of Death (Yama) extensively examined our friend’s life. However, whether it was respecting his parents, accumulating merit, working to liberate sentient beings, taking refuge in the Three Jewels, or practicing the Dharma, Yama could not find one single virtuous act.

Perplexed, the King of Death said, “What a strange guy! You completely wasted your life! Well, I don’t have any choice; I have to send you to a suffering realm!”
Our friend said, “That’s not fair! While I was still alive, not even one person ever told me to practice virtue and abandon evil!”

“That’s not true! Three times I sent messengers telling you to cherish your life and perform more virtuous deeds.”

He replied, “What messengers? I never met them!”

“Impossible,” the King of Death said. “You should have met a man who was once young and strong, but whose energy and vitality slowly drained away. His hair lost its luster, and turned white. His teeth fell out one by one. His ruddy complexion became haggard and drawn. His back hunched over, he needed someone to support him as he walked down the road. When he spoke, saliva would accumulate at the sides of his mouth causing disgust in others. You never saw this kind of person?”

“I saw many people like that! It is an aging man.”

“That was the first messenger I sent to you,” the King of Death said.

“Then who was the second messenger you sent?” our friend asked.

“You most likely met the second messenger as well. Did you ever see someone lying in his bed, moaning, tossing and turning? Crying out and howling in suffering and anguish, his family by his side sighing and grieving?”

Our friend replied, “Yes, I have seen that kind of person. It is a sick person, right?”
“Exactly, that was my second messenger. He told you that your body will become weak and feeble, that you should cherish this body, and take advantage of it while it is healthy by performing some meaningful actions.”

This friend then asked, “What about the third messenger?”

“I am certain you encountered the third messenger. He once had a body brimming with vigor, but it changed into something completely lacking vitality, ice-cold from head to foot. His eyes tightly closed, his face ashen gray, his family sobbing and crying out, but this person could not hear them, or respond. Nothing can be done but to bury him out in a field, or set him aflame.”

“This I also saw, he is a dead man.”

“Correct. A dead man is the third messenger I sent to you.”

The old, the sick, and the dead are the envoys of the King of Death sent to the human realm to tell us life’s universal laws. It does not matter whether we are rich or poor, in our lives we all will encounter these three things. These are also the conditions that Shakyamuni Buddha said all living creatures must inevitably face – aging, illness and death. The Buddha-dharma is that thing that wants all of us, who must inevitably confront these three things, to have a meaningful life, and perform more deeds that are virtuous. In order to do this we need to implement the “Purification of the Three Karmas” I mentioned earlier. The thing that I specifically wanted to share with everyone today is one of those Three Karmas, namely speech-produced karma. Because of this, I named this lecture “Colloquial Chan.”

We who have just begun studying Buddhism already know that, of the “Ten Virtuous Actions,” four are related to speech, three our physical behavior, and the final three are related to our thoughts. The four kinds of speech we are to avoid are lying, profanities, divisive speech and abusive speech. The four kinds of physical actions we are not to commit are killing, stealing, licentiousness for lay people, and all sexual activity for monks. The three thoughts are greed, anger and wrong views.

“Not lying” includes arrogant talk, such as boasting about one’s Buddhist practice, or swindling others. For example, if I say that yesterday, while still on the train someone tried to steal from me, but did not succeed and was caught by the police, that is a lie. The vow of “not lying” refers to this. “Profane talk” means vulgar and obscene language. “Divisive speech” refers to creating discord between people. Abusive speech is cursing others. These are the areas within the four speech-related Virtuous Actions that are in need of correction. I would like to discuss in more detail some methods of purifying our speech. In actual fact, our speech cannot be separated from our way of thinking. Although of the Ten Virtuous Actions, the easiest negativities to commit are those related to our speech, they are also the easiest to correct.
Without Complaints

A few years ago, I experimented by trying for one week never to complain, regardless of the time, situation or place. I discovered that it is a very difficult practice. I recommend everyone try it and see for themselves. You may discover, as I did, that when you are trying to maintain this practice, complaining has already become a deeply ingrained habit. A mind raised under the influence of habitual complaining makes us place the causes of all unpleasant situations on external conditions. Instead of looking inward for the true causes of our difficulties, we simply point the finger outward and shirk our responsibility. This “complaining mind” takes the place of a discriminating mind that uses the Buddhist teachings to investigate and draw conclusions about a problem. Moreover, the conclusions drawn by the “complaining mind” in fact hinder our observation and understanding, and lock our thinking into a narrow, single-sided way of viewing a situation. There is no room for improvement with the “complaining mind,” no way to adjust its viewpoint. Under its influence, we will most likely just adopt a series of disadvantageous, negatively conditioned responses.

Sometimes we may think that the Buddhist teaching of Samsara is abstruse, mystical and difficult to understand. However, the “complaining mind” is a good example of Samsara in daily life. If every time we encounter an unpleasant circumstance we immediately begin complaining, and do not stop to examine ourselves or the karmic causes and conditions of the circumstance we find ourselves in, then the next time we have a similar problem, we will simply respond with the same conditioned reflex. Why do we repeat the same mistakes over and over? It can be said that one of Samsara’s meanings is repetition, life after life repeating the same mistakes. Because of the same delusions, we repeat the same actions, and afterwards are affected by the same painful results. This is exactly what Samsara means. So, do not look down upon this practice of “without complaints.” It is exactly how we cut off this kind of repetitive, Samsaric cycle.

How do we stop this “complaining mind”? We know that complaining comes from a hateful, grudge-bearing heart. So, we need to change our hearts. To do this we can follow these two points:

1. Master Observing and Understanding

We need the ability to comprehend and understand everything that comes before us, to develop a kind of comprehending ability. This is the wisdom the Buddha spoke of – the wisdom of observing the co-dependent origination of objects arising and ceasing, completely uninfluenced by any kind of conceptions or judgments. This is an equanimous heart. If we can use our equanimous heart to calmly observe the layers of concepts and labels in our minds, or the purification of the conditioned reactions of joy and hate within our hearts, this is the wisdom of observing. If we genuinely want to be without hatred, or not complain, we need to start by improving the power of our wise observation.

If you succeed in this kind of observation, you will discover that our hearts are not at all simple. Our hearts resemble a river, in that our thinking and our habits will continue to follow the course created for them by our past actions, the same way a river follows the course cut into the land, despite our wanting to change it. If you want to cut off the negative thoughts and conditioned reactions with one blow, it is completely impossible; they will just return to flowing in the same direction they are accustomed to following. If you stubbornly force yourself not to say one word of complaint before having developed an equable heart, and before being able to calmly observe the thoughts rising and falling, it is very possible that you will wind up with an incredible amount of stress and tension.

Here, I would like to share with everyone some phrases you may find relevant whenever you encounter a negative situation while practicing. These “Colloquial Chan” sayings are phrases that monks often use in their practice.


A favorite pet-phrase often said by monks when they encounter a difficult situation is “Suffering! Suffering!” Although this pet-phrase sometimes is a complaint, when used correctly it also helps us to mediate the negative energy in our hearts. Keeping negative feelings bottled up in our hearts without a healthy way to deal with them is not a proper approach to practice. Please note that this form of mediation and the complaining I just described are not the same thing. This kind of “complaining” allows us to observe the truth Shakyamuni Buddha described as the human condition, allows us to bring his Dharma into our life right then and there. It is not pointing out a certain person or situation, so it does not have a negative character. In our daily lives, much of what we say is negative and accusatory in nature, directed at criticizing a certain person or situation, but the target of this phrase “Suffering” is a situation in its entirety. It includes internal and external states, as well as the interaction of inner and outer circumstances’ karmic causes and conditions. The greatest value of this phrase lies in reminding us of the situation of our life.


All of us encounter difficulties from time to time, and we can use this time to practice and investigate. The causes of any problem we experience are all related to us. Can anyone cite an example of something that has happened in their life and truly say, “That wasn’t my fault”? What about Samsara? You are in Samsara, are you not? Being in Samsara is definitely your fault. Illness? Being sick is not your fault? If your electricity goes out? Who loses their electricity? Does the Fourth Patriarch’s temple? Yes, the power often goes out at the Fourth Patriarch’s temple, does it not? Natural disasters? Where are there natural disasters? Floods? Are you from Hubei? Everything is related to you, including the fact that you are from Hubei and that Hubei floods. But what if it never flooded in Hebei? Why were you born in Hubei instead of Hebei? Who is responsible for you being born in Hubei? Some people say, “Being ugly isn’t my fault. My father is ugly, so I am, too. This isn’t my fault.” But this is also not the real reason. There are many beautiful parents in the world, why did you choose ugly ones? In regards to illness, perhaps it is your habits that are to blame, such as a poor diet. Other people say, “While I was walking down the street, a car suddenly hit me. Is that my fault?” But why did you leave your house at that particular time, and not a bit earlier or later? Why was it that you happened to be in just that place, at just that time? Think about it! People often say anything negative that has happened to them is not their fault, but I myself have never found this to be true.

Only when we have taken responsibility for every conceivable difficulty or problem we have encountered, or will encounter, can it be said we have truly begun Buddhist practice. If we take responsibility for our actions and their results, we can change ourselves, and finally begin practicing. Many eminent monks of great virtue often say “Shameful” because this word has very deep implications. When some Chan Masters are working to spread the Dharma and encounter obstacles, they will say, “Shameful! My own virtuous merit is not enough, my wisdom is not enough. Shameful!” This “shameful” takes the true origins of the problems encountered and turns them around on one’s self, as one’s own responsibility. It is a kind of wise reflection. This “shameful” does not mean the same thing as the conventional, worldly usage. It is not negative guilt that makes us lose our self-confidence. It refers to a heart that shuns negative deeds, sees the negative deeds as shameful, and aspires to virtue. The Buddha said, “Shame is a virtuous dharma, a heart with shame cannot commit evil deeds, shame is virtue’s armor.” So, “shameful,” this “Colloquial Chan,” I highly recommend to everyone.

That’s OK

The great Master Hongyi often likes to say, “Never mind,” but I myself like to say, “That’s OK.” Not matter what kind of difficulty we encounter we can always use this “Colloquial Chan.” For example, if we are going to catch a train but are running late, and miss it, can we say, “That’s OK”? Right now the Fourth Patriarch’s temple is very hot, can we say, “It is hot, but that’s OK”? We want it to be a bit cooler, but that is impossible, so we feel troubled and pressured. At a time like this, we can say, “That’s OK.” Why say, “That’s OK”? Because when it is hot we sweat, and sweating has certain health benefits. We can find, and observe, the positive side of every predicament we encounter in daily life. This is the meaning of this “Colloquial Chan.” The end result of every difficult situation can end up becoming something positive. Actually, we often do not really know the good and bad of a situation, so we should not hastily draw conclusions, feeling that it certainly must mean this or that.

We all know the story of “Saiweng’s Lost Horse.” In ancient times, the household of an old man living in Inner Mongolia lost their horse. The old man’s neighbors all lamented his loss, but Saiweng simply said, “Who knows, perhaps it is actually a good thing.” A few days later, his horse came back home, bringing with it many other wild horses. As a result, his household quickly became rich. The value of one horse in those days is the about the same as a Mercedes Benz is today. It is the same as a family have a whole bunch of Mercedes Benzes! So, all of Saiweng’s neighbors were jealous, but this old man only said, “Who knows? Perhaps it is not such a good thing.” Soon after, his son broke his leg while trying to tame one of the wild horses. His neighbors came to console him, but Saiweng said, “Who knows? Maybe it is a good thing.” A short time later war broke out in the country. All of the young, able-bodied men that lived near Saiweng were conscripted. However, because of his broken leg, Saiweng’s son did not have to go to war.

Of course, this story is not entirely true, but in our own lives there are many situations that may be good or bad. The power to decide which kind of situation they are rests in our own hands. When we find ourselves in the middle of a predicament, if we have the ability to do so, we can make positive use of that time. Often times a difficult position is in fact an opportunity. Waiting behind every problem is an opportunity. If you look at it this way, then whatever difficulty you come across you can say, “That’s OK.”

Do any of you know what my favorite “Colloquial Chan” is? I have not yet taught you the “Colloquial Chan” that I myself frequently use. It is “Forget it.” When we find ourselves in a situation where others are vilifying us, we can use the “Forget about it” approach. I use this one a lot. Of course, I often say “That’s OK,” and, “Suffering” even more.

2. The Grateful Heart

The second method for creating a heart free of hate is to cultivate a grateful one. “That’s OK” is, in fact, a grateful heart. It also refers to something we monks like to say, “grateful, forgiving, creating karmic connections and sharing.” The grateful heart is facing everyone and every situation with joy. The appearing of every person and event is only the Law of Causation in action. If you observe the arising and ceasing of every thing, you can accept them, and from this perspective see an opportunity, an outlet. That is what the “grateful heart” is.

The Practice of the Promise

The meaning of fulfilling a promise is to speak words that amount to something, to do what we say we will do. It means to not rashly make commitments, and when we do commit to something to definitely follow through, whether we feel like it or not. If we persist in living this way, our human lives will definitely be sincere and honest, and the resources of honesty available to our human life will increase. Young people especially need to experience this point for themselves. We need not only to fulfill promises made to others, but those made to ourselves, as well. For example, if we tell ourselves that tomorrow morning we will get out of bed before 5:00 AM, we need to keep this promise. It is even more important to keep the promises you have made to others, whether big or small.

This kind of practice can improve our self-confidence. Every time we follow through and do what we said we would, we build up our self-confidence. Even if it is a small matter, like saying we will finish reading a book within the week, we do it. This is a kind of positive feedback, which is itself a kind of self-confidence – I am certain I can accomplish it. Beginning to foster a self-confident heart begins with small matters.

Honesty seems to be a very urgent matter in Chinese society today. Our modern-day society, with all of its problems, needs us to diligently practice honesty. To our young friends who want to be honest people, who want to be known as men and women of their word, the first step is to learn not to rashly make promises. People who often take their promises lightly are usually lacking in honesty. The promises made by people in a bar, after getting drunk, are rarely kept. The essential point in making a promise is doing so after having first spent time considering the commitment, and then afterwards honoring it.

Those people who are true to their word create a positive environment for their own human lives. Those not true to their word will discover that others’ promises are not often kept. Karma, or cause and effect, as taught by the Buddha is actually very simple. It is everyone establishing a code of conduct for their behavior, and a standard that they live up to for their lives. If, when we speak, we find that others think our words do not count for anything, then that is our own doing. Even though this kind of behavior is directed at others, others will, of course, also use it towards you. Those who abide by their promises will usually make friends with others who also abide by their promises. Untrustworthy people who do not take their promises seriously will make friends who also do not take their promises seriously. Our environment is molded in this way.

Based on my own personal experience, I have discovered that this “Practice of the Promise” follows a series of reactions: “Valuing your word – Speaking circumspectly – Reflecting – The power of concentration – The power of wisdom.”
Suppose we want to value our word, and so one day we make a promise. In the course of making good on our word we experience many hardships, but we hang in there and do it. Perhaps we regret ever having made the promise in the first place, and wish we could take it back. But, by taking our commitments seriously, we learn that the next time we make a promise we will do so more cautiously, and after having thought through what is required to keep it. People who are in a leadership position within a company will have more experience with this kind of cautious promise making. If a manager rashly commits to doing things without thinking them through, he will make trouble for his department, perhaps even causing it to lose money, and will face many difficulties and problems. So, as a result, when he speaks he does so very cautiously.

What is “circumspect speech” in regards to Buddhist practice? It is that while fulfilling a promise we made, we will discover that we develop a special, single-minded ability to reflect on what we are saying. The Buddhist Sutras call this “reflecting.” Those who are true to their word have a special trait or characteristic: they can very clearly remember the things that they have said. Each person’s ability to be able to remember all the things he has said, as well as the degree of clarity he has regarding things he has said, is different. This difference lies in our ability to look back on the things we have said, and in the ability to keenly observe and control the process of a thought as it transforms from idea to action. The power of our mindful observation improves when we are true to our word. We are also able to very clearly reflect on what we say to others, and can focus on, and understand, what others say with the same clarity and focus. Everyone’s capacity for this is different. Why is that when class is over, some students remember a lot, but others only a little? It is because the ability to focus on what the teacher was saying during class is different. When the teacher is speaking, some students can listen single-mindedly and so can remember, but others cannot. This kind of absorption is called “the power of concentration” in the Buddhist Sutras. You can listen to what others say single-mindedly, and speak to others the same way. We have an opportunity to do this kind of Chan practice on a daily basis. When you are making a promise, mindfully observe what you say with the utmost focus, and then, with the utmost concentration and care, choose your words. When those who keep their promises speak, it is always very clear, clean and succinct. What they mean is very clear. They do not create any vague or ambiguous situations. This is due to the clearness in their hearts, which is what the Buddha referred to as “the power of wisdom.” If we consistently do not reflect on the things we have said, are not willing to endure the difficulties that may be required to keep our word, and do not abide by our word, but simply do as we please, the direction of our lives will become unclear. We will not know what we want to do, and when we deal with others they will feel that we are unreliable and not dependable, which is a manifestation of our lives lacking honesty. If we lack honesty, it is very difficult to successfully complete any undertaking. Honesty is a limitless resource. When we trust a person, we are willing to give everything to him or her, we know it is safe to entrust things to his care. So, that is not a simple, finite material resource, but rather a limitless one.

We monks, who have been practicing in Bailin Temple for more than ten years, have had a chance to see the power of honesty at work. When we began practicing there, we had no money. When we went to find some workers to help repair the temple, we discovered that we did not know how to haggle with them. When we would discuss the price of something, it was extremely simple. For example, when I was told how much a certain repair would cost, I would simply say, “Oh, OK.” Other people would see this, and think that by doing things this way we would end up losing a lot of money. But, after some time, they discovered that was not necessarily the case. They saw that we were always very straightforward and honest in our dealings with the workers. We were very clear about what we wanted, and what needed to be done, and so the workers would reciprocate the honesty, and do what they had agreed to do. Sometimes a certain worker was a bit crafty, and obviously was thinking to cheat us, but after dealing with us a few times he became quite honest. Do you know why? Because no one likes stress, but wants to be relaxed and worry-free. If there is no honesty among people, and one person is always second-guessing the other party, trying to protect himself from being taken advantage of, or trying to manipulate the other person, it is very tiring. Everyone wants to deal with others in a stress-free way. Maybe a particular person was not very honest when he began dealing with a particular monk, but after some time he become very honest and trusting. There were times when we did not have enough money on hand for a particular project, but we promised to pay the workers later, and they agreed to it because they knew that we monks were true to our word. We were always honest in our business affairs.

The Practice of Refusal

How to decline someone’s request is an art. How to refuse someone in just the right way, so as not to displease him and invite any trouble, is something women in particular need to learn how to do. Perhaps women need to decline others’ requests more than men. Men need to focus more on fulfilling their promises and to taking real action.

I divide the Practice of Refusal into three categories: direct refusal, tactful refusal and substitution refusal. Direct refusal is straight to the point, very clear, whereas tactful refusal is less direct, and more circuitous is nature. For example, someone invites you to go dancing, how do you tactfully decline? Maybe you say you have a previous engagement, or that you do not know how to dance. So, the other person might say, “If you cannot dance it is no problem, I will teach you.” So, the tactful approach oftentimes turns into the direct approach. You have to say that you actually do not want to go. The third kind of refusal I call “substitution refusal.”

Any time you decline someone’s offer, or request, it must be done in a very clear manner. Whether you are using the direct, tactful or substitution approach, do not be unclear or vague, and do not get the other person’s hopes up only to let him down in the end. Regarding inappropriate forms of refusal, I would like to enumerate a few kinds. The first is declining an offer, or request, in an excessively forceful manner that hurts the other person’s feelings. I think this may be the most often committed, inappropriate way of refusing someone’s request. The second is refusing someone in an excessively vague way, getting someone’s hopes up, making him look forward to something, and then in the end turning him down. The third kind of inappropriate refusal we often commit is putting things off until later. We should not lead people on.

I think that, of the different ways of declining an offer or invitation, the “substitution” variety is the most deserving of recommendation. Although we are not able to commit to something, we still want to do our best, and so try to help as much as we can. This is something we all need to learn how to do. Directly refusing a request or invitation often kills others’ hopes, hurts others’ feelings, especially when they are having a very hard time in their life. Monks like me often encounter people in this kind of situation. Sometimes, people who have just discovered that they have a terminal illness come to the temple and say they have lost all hope. They say, “Please tell me this illness is not a problem, that you can give me a cure!” If someone committed a crime, is brought before a judge and sentenced, and his relative comes and asks for help, what can you do? This has happened to us before. One of our disciples was put in jail. A family member came to the temple and asked us to help get him released. How do you turn down their request? If one of you had this kind of problem, what would you do? Since we cannot go to the captain of the police and just ask him to release the person, we could help the family find a lawyer. This is what is meant by “substitution refusal.”

I divide this kind of refusal into three types. The first is:

1. Using This for That

We who have left the householder’s life oftentimes wear a mala around our wrists. If a layman sees the mala and says, “Your mala is great! Can you give it to me?” What should we do? At a time like this, we can substitute “this” for “that” by saying, “I’m sorry, but this mala was given to be by someone else. If the next time I meet him, he discovers that I gave his gift to someone else, he will not be very happy.” So, we do not have to tell him “No, do not ask me to do something like that again.” Instead, we can give him something else in place of the mala we are wearing. Every time someone comes to us in need of help, we have this option of substituting the thing asked for with something else.

2. Using a Method in Place of Money

If someone were to ask you to loan him $500,000 to buy a house, how would you answer him? Laymen and women often ask me, “Someone asked me if I could loan him money. Should I do it?” I answer them, “You can think of it this way: if you want this friend to pay you back, do not do it. However, if you can be happy whether or not he pays you back, then go ahead and loan it to him.” Looking at the situation this way, if he does return the money later, you can have a pleasant surprise. ‘Wow, I got a half a million dollars!” It is like finding something that was lost. But if you are expecting the money to be paid back, it is best not to loan it because it will just be yet another thing to worry about. So, if you do not want to loan him the money, how do you refuse? Among the different kinds of “substitution refusal,” this method of using help in place of money is perfect. For example, you can ask how much money does he really need to buy this house? You could suggest that he buys a cheaper house. Perhaps a $150,000-dollar house is enough. You could also offer to help him to find a bank to give him a loan.

Here, the meaning of “method” is a reason, a way, or a plan, pointing out a route. Someone comes asking you for something you do not have, so you can tell him or her where he might be able to find it. You could help him by looking yourself, or asking others where it can be found. You could also describe what your financial situation is like, that money is tight right now, and you do not have the money to help. But the reasons you give for being unable to help must be the truth, you cannot only be passing the buck.

3. Using Encouragement in Place of Help

This is method most often used by monks when declining a request. Even though we monks do not have much time, material or financial resources to help, we are still able to offer assistance in our own way because a monk’s encouragement is able to instill confidence in the faithful. A simple example is putting a sick person’s mind at ease by telling them not to worry, and to recite Guanyin Pusa’s name, or to recite sutras, and that the illness will slowly get better. If someone is facing a lawsuit, you can also encourage them. It really does help.

This year I started a charity project. I am hoping to raise a few million Yuan in a short period of time. Of course, I also have met with many people’s refusals. In fact, all the things I just mentioned are actually refusals I myself have encountered! Some methods are also ones I have used with others. While in the process of raising money, sometimes I am very moved. When I am feeling really discouraged, and I give a certain person a call, but he is unable to donate anything, if he gives me a lot of encouragement, saying that I definitely will succeed with my project, it fills me with energy, like a battery that has been fully recharged. At a time like that, even though this person may not be able to donate a single penny, I am still very grateful to him because he helped to recharge my confidence.

This is what it means to encourage others. Giving others hope, faith or confidence is a kind of “donation,” or “alms giving.” We have many opportunities in our lives to “donate” encouragement to others. In Buddhism, this kind of alms giving is called the “Bestowing of Fearlessness.” When we encounter difficulties, we are especially in need of encouragement and confidence. If you give even one word of encouragement to someone, it is as if you give them energy.

An example of Xuanzang’s way of Refusal

Refusing the Indian King’s Request

I would like to relate to you one incident of refusal concerning the great monk Xuanzang. Xuanzang traveled by himself, on foot, all the way from China to India to study Buddhism. During his journey, he experienced all kinds of challenges, from people, the environment and from society. The hardships he encountered on his journey far exceed those of “Tangseng,” the character in the book Journey to the West, who was based on Xuanzang. Those who have read the book know that whenever “Tangseng” ran into a problem he would call the Monkey King to help. If the Monkey King could not help, then Guanyin Pusa would come and lend aid. However, when we read the historical accounts of Xuanzang’s time in India, he often encountered life-threatening situations.

After he arrived in India, Xuanzang mastered the Buddhist teachings of that time. In ancient India, a single word was used to describe someone who had attained the highest state; it was “god.” The great monk Xuanzang reached the pinnacle of learning in the Mahayana school of Buddhism, and so was called the “God of Mahayana.” If he had reached a similar level within the Theravadan tradition, he would have been called the “God of Theravada.”

Buddhism was not the only religion in ancient India. There were also many non-Buddhist sects. Followers of those other philosophies would often debate with Buddhists. Debate in ancient India was extremely serious business. If you lost the debate, sometimes you would pay with your head, other times the losing party would become the servant of the winning party. While studying in Nalanda University, Xuanzang was challenged to a debate by someone from one of these non-Buddhist sects. Other monks had not been able to defeat this person in debate before, but afterwards Xuanzang set him sprawling.

At that time, there were two very famous Indian Kings. One was named Shiladitya, the other Kumara. Every few years, King Shiladitya would hold a great gathering of the faithful for the Great Equal Assembly. It so happened that just when Xuanzang had completed his studies and was preparing to return to China, King Shiladitya held one of these great gatherings. After the convening of this great gathering, King Shiladitya approached Xuanzang and asked him to remain in India. The Biography of the Tripitaka Master of Great Ci'en Monastery tells us that the king offered to support Xuanzang, and would build him 100 temples if he would only stay in India. How was Xuanzang to refuse an offer from a king with so much power? Xuanzang saw that the king did not understand his own resolve, and turned down the offer. The reasons he gave for being unable to stay were that China is very far from India, and that Buddhism had recently arrived there. He said that there existed only a basic understanding of Buddhism in China, and people did not comprehend the whole of the Buddha’s teaching. Xuanzang said he had come to India on behalf of those who yearned for knowledge and the growth of Buddhism, to collect the teachings and sutras. “Because of this responsibility I bear, “ he said, “I don’t dare forget, even for a moment, that my country’s people are all waiting for me to return.”

What kind of refusal is this? You could say it was a “tactful” one. The next kind of refusal Xuanzang gave the Indian King is of the “direct” variety. The Buddhist sutras say one who deprives others of the opportunity to study Buddhism will, in the future, generation after generation, be deprived of his eyes. Xuanzang said this to the king of India! What did he really mean? He meant if you force me to stay in India, the many people in my country who practice Buddhism will be deprived of the benefits of studying Buddhism. Are you not scared of this kind of karmic retribution? If you deprive the people of my country of the benefits of Buddhist study, you will, century after century, be born without eyes. You will receive this kind of bad karma. Are you not scared of this? This is a frightening thing to say! Why did Xuanzang dare to say such a thing to a king? Because they were both Buddhists. If the king was not a Buddhist, would he dare say such a thing? A non-Buddhist king would certainly be enraged, and imprison him.

The Tete-a-Tete with the Emperor after Returning to China

Here is another story of Xuanzang’s style of refusal. After Xuanzang had returned to China, the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty, called Tang Taizong, worshiped him. He would often invite Xuanzang to the imperial palace for heart-to-heart talks. The emperor felt that Xuanzang was competent enough to work as an official in his court, and thought to make Xuanzang disrobe, and help him manage the country’s affairs. Tang Taizong was a very wise, courageous and resolute man. In ancient China, the words of the emperor were indisputable; even if he made a slip of the tongue, it was still an imperial edict. So, if an emperor tells a monk to disrobe and help him rule the country, how can he refuse?

Xuanzang’s response was that he had to decline. He said that he had left the householder’s life at the age of nine. He also said he was a follower of the Buddhist teachings, and had not studied Confucianism. Ancient Chinese believed Confucius’s teachings helped establish order and control in the world and society. So, by saying he had not studied the Confucianist teachings, he was saying he was unfit to mange worldly affairs. He used a metaphor to describe his feelings. He said that making him give back his vows and return to worldly life, to work as an imperial official, was like trying to make a boat run on dry ground. Not only is there no benefit to be had by doing this, but the boat would needlessly rot away, being made to do something it was not built for. This refusal can be considered Xuanzang’s “direct” method of refusing the emperor Tang Taizong. Xuanzang went on to say that if he was allowed to remain in robes and practice Buddhism, he would be able to repay the graciousness of his country. “Although I cannot help you to rule the country, as a monk I can practice, recite sutras and spread the Buddha-dharma, which is a way of returning the kindness my country has shown me. One can also say it is helping you. If I am able to live this way, this would be my, Xuanzang’s, greatest fortune.” This counts as a “substitution” refusal.

From this we can see that Xuanzang was not only able to firmly stand by his lofty and noble religious standards in the face of imperial power, but we can also appreciate the wisdom apparent in his choice of words when declining the emperor’s offer. It was very possible that if he worded it poorly he would have to face the emperor’s wrath. In fact, this emperor had lost his temper with monks before. A great monk of that time called Huilin once objected to something that emperor Tang Taizong had said, making the emperor lose his temper. Tang Taizong actually was not a pure Buddhist, but was more of a Confucianist. He said to Huilin, “In seven days I’ll have your head! You go ahead and pray to Guanyin Pusa and see if it helps!” Tang Taizong had an intensely angry and violent side to him, and was subject to wild mood swings. Huilin was told to recite Guanyin Bodhisattva’s name because Buddhism tells us that doing so helps to ward off calamities. What the emperor was saying was I want to kill you, the power to do so is in my hands, so recite Guanyin Bodhisattva’s name and see whether or not she hears your prayers. After the seven days had passed, Tang Taizong sent his men to bring Huilin before him. The emperor asked, “Did you recite her name?” If you were Huilin, how would you answer? Huilin said, “I did not recite even one syllable of Guanyin Bodhisattva’s name. I only recited ‘Your Majesty!’” The emperor was very pleased with Huilin’s answer and let him go.

Let us look at another example of a refusal that is also is related to emperor Tang Taizong. Not long after Xuanzang had returned from India, the emperor was preparing to lead his army to a war in the east, in Gaoli, which is present day Xianban Island. Because he and Xuanzang got along well and would often sit and talk for hours, the emperor could not bear to be parted from him, so he invited Xuanzang to come along on the campaign. The emperor wanted to be able to still enjoy his frequent chats with Xuanzang while waging war. How was Xuanzang to refuse this offer? He said, “I just arrived from a long journey, returning from India. My health also is not very good, but perhaps I have no choice but to accompany Your Majesty.” The emperor, however, would not let it just go at that. He was not your average, ignorant emperor. He replied, “You, Venerable Monk, were able to travel to such a distant land as India. Compared to India, Xianban Island is just a hop-skip-and-a-jump away. But you do not want to accompany me to even a place as close as this?”

Xuanzang was not successful in his first attempt at turning the emperor down, so he tried again. Everyone, think for a moment. The emperor called on Xuanzang to join him on the campaign, and much to the emperor’s surprise, Xuanzang said he did not want to go. What will the emperor think? Maybe he would think, “I might lose this battle, and this is the reason the monk does not want to accompany me.” He really might think this way. So, Xuanzang first said something positive, buttering him up, as it were. He said, “You have six battalions of soldiers travelling with you, I’m sure that you will be victorious.” Next, he says, “I think that if I go with you I will be completely useless to you. I know nothing of these sorts of affairs. Also, I will just be another mouth to feed, and you will need to appoint people to look after me. If I accompany you, will have to spend so much on me, I would feel ashamed!” In fact, these are not the real reasons why Xuanzang cannot go with the emperor. All of Xuanzang’s refusals actually hang on one reason, which is that one of the many rules a monk accepts when he ordains is that he cannot watch a war between two parties.
Here Xuanzang ran into an extremely sensitive problem: the emperor’s authority compared with that of Buddhism’s. When a monk meets with the emperor, should he kneel and kowtow? Throughout China’s history, this was a problem encountered time-and-again by monks. From the emperor’s perspective, a monk must make obeisance to him. The emperor believes that all is his. However, from the perspective of the Buddha-dharma, a monk has already left the householder’s life and is the disciple of the Buddha. He should not have to bow to the emperor. Xuanzang, being the wise monk that he was, did not immediately bring up this matter of who has ultimate authority over a monk. Rather, he tactfully turned down the emperor. Xuanzang first said, full of certainty, “I’m sure that you will be victorious in your campaign in the east.” Then said, “But I cannot go, if I go I cannot be of any help at all. I would also just add to the cost of the campaign.” Finally, he stated his true reason for being unable to accompany the emperor, namely that monks have a rule forbidding them from going to the scene of a battle, and watching. Xuanzang did not dare to break the rule, but knew he could not just come out and say it right off the bat. If he had, it probably would have enraged the emperor. The emperor would surely have said “What!? You listen to the Buddha, but not me!?”

From these examples, we can get a glimpse of the great monk Xuanzang’s skillful means. In situations like the ones Xuanzang found himself in, turning down another’s request is not at all a simple affair. We can learn from his examples that we need to see the other person’s needs, and at the same time be able to uphold our own principles. There are no easy solutions in situations like those.

The Practice of Speech and Silence

The last practice I would like to discuss is the “Practice of Speech and Silence.” Sometimes in our lives we are required to speak, but other times we should not say anything. I feel that these two points, when to speak and when to remain silent, are the most difficult part of speech-related practice. At all times, and in all countries, philosophers, thinkers and religious practitioners have contemplated this problem. Confucius said, “Be slow to speak, but quick to act.” Buddhism has many sutras, the Three Cannons and 12 Divisions, which contain the words spoken by the Buddhas himself, as well as many great master’s of the past, but another aspect that the Buddhist sutras often speak of is “inconceivable.” It means beyond thought and speech, something that is inexpressible. The “Vimalakirti Sutra” says:

When the bodhisattvas had given their explanations, they asked Manjushri: “Manjushri, how does the bodhisattva enter the gate of nondualism?”

Manjushri replied, “To know no one teaching, to express nothing, to say nothing, to explain nothing, to announce nothing, to indicate nothing, and to designate nothing - that is how the bodhisattva enters the gate of non-dualism.”

Then Manjushri said to Vimalakirti, “Each of us has given an explanation. Now, sir, it is your turn to speak. How does the bodhisattva enter the gate of non-dualism?”

Thereupon, Vimalakirti kept his silence, saying nothing at all.

Manjushri applauded Vimalakirti, saying, “Wonderful! Amazing! Not a word, not a syllable - this is indeed the entrance into the non-duality of the bodhisattvas.”

In this sutra, it says that Manjushri Bodhisattva led a large group of people to speak with the layman Vimalakirti. Everyone discussed what is the state of non-duality, and what kind of state is the Dharma-gate of non-duality that Bodhisattvas enter. Many bodhisattvas first stated their own views on what they believed it to be, and Manjushri Bodhisattva was last. After Manjushri Bodhisattva expressed his understanding, he asked Vimalakirti to share with all those assembled his own opinion. Vimalakirti is this sutra’s main character. He is also the layman who had attained the highest degree of wisdom. In reply to Manjushri’s query, Vimalakirti simply remained silent, and did not utter a word. Manjushri’s response was to exclaim, “Wonderful! Amazing! Even written and spoken words have been transcended! This is indeed the entrance into non-duality!” This silence was Vimalakirti’s answer, a silence that resounded like thunder.

There is also a gong’an similar to this story. Hanyu was a Confucian Scholar born in the Tang Dynasty. He did not believe in Buddhism, and even wrote a text called “An Admonishment to the Welcoming of the Buddha’s Relics.” He wrote the text because the emperor of that time, Tang Xianzong, was very indulgent when moving the Buddha’s finger bone relics from Famen temple to Chang’an, where they were to be enshrined. He spent a huge amount of money on the project. Tang Xianzong had the roads sprinkled with perfumed oils, and dragged in many people to participate in the project, so Hanyu filed a complaint with Tang Xianzong. In his article, Hanyu said many bad things about Buddhism. I think he only used his position within the government to express his Confucianist views, although perhaps the opposite is also true. Actually, Hanyu had studied Buddhism and Buddhist meditation before. Afterward, he was demoted, sent to Guangdong and become close to Chan Master Dadian. He once asked Dadian, “I am extremely busy with my duties, so could you tell me the pith and core of Buddhist practice in one statement?” Chan Master Dadian was silent for some time, and Hanyu did not know what to do. At that time, Ven. Sanping was acting as the attendant of Chan Master Dadian. Ven. Sanping struck the meditation bench three times. Chan master Dadian said, “What are you doing?” Ven. Sanping said, "First move it with concentration, then pull it out with wisdom." Hanyu said, “The style of teaching of the abbot is high and lofty, yet this disciple, here beside the abbot's attendant, has found a point of entry.” “Has found a point of entry,” means that Hanyu was suddenly enlightened. (Credit for translation of this gong'an goes to Ven. Huifeng. Thank you!)

In this gong’an, from start to finish, Chan Master Dadian never directly answered Hanyu’s question. When confronted with the question, “What is Buddhism’s most essential point?” Chan Master Dadian remained silent, but the power of this silence was brought out by means of his attendant, suddenly making Hanyu’s heart open. This gong’an is deserving of our consideration. How do we utilize the Practice of Silence and Speech, this relationship between silence and speech, in the practice that takes place in our daily lives? When must we speak, when must we remain silent?

In our daily lives, we may tend to speak a lot, but sometimes we may overlook silence as an option. A genuinely forthright person’s silence has power, and sometimes this power surpasses that of speech. In the Buddhist sutras this is referred to as “A sage’s silence.” The silence of a sage surpasses the power of words.

In our daily lives, we often say one sentence too many, ruining a situation. Of course, sometimes we say too few words, which can also ruin a situation. In a situation of silence, you can observe the other person’s reaction, and so can seize a new opportunity. In day-to-day life, when we are judging another person, we need to understand in silence. For the things we do not truly understand, if there is no conclusive event or person on which we can come to any conclusion, we need to understand with our mouths closed. This is the highest form of wisdom. How can we judge people we do not know well? Have they even had an opportunity to meet with us face to face, and to defend themselves? Throughout our lives, we have many opportunities to communicate with others, as well as to judge and criticize other people and situations, but this kind of talk is mostly garbage. If we are silent, at least we can decrease the amount of garbage we say.

I would like to say one last sentence in summary. Please do not see Chan practice as something mysterious. Practice is not mysterious. It is like the Three Karmas of body, speech and mind that I spoke of earlier. Of these three, it is with speech that it is the easiest to make a mistake, but it is also the easiest to practice. Although the topic I shared with everyone today was regarding speech, actually many of the things said also involve our hearts. This is very natural because it is our hearts that control our mouths. It is also perhaps easiest to grasp the essential points of practice by working without speech. This is why today I wanted to talk about “Colloquial Chan.”
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