October 23, 2014

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Everyday Challenges

Dedicated to Grand Master Jy Din Shakya,
founder of the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun

Dear Friends,

Let’s review an episode in the life of the Indian Buddhist Master Dipankara.

Some monks in Tibet had invited Dipankara to come to their monastery to preach the Dharma. The great master complied, bringing with him a servant who not only had an unruly character but, worse, was a terrible cook. It didn’t take the Tibetans very long to take note of this servant’s bad behavior and lack of culinary skills. Indignant because of the way he was treating his exalted master, they decided to offer Master Dipankara their personal assistance. They approached him, bowing respectfully, and said, “Master, why do you put up with this useless man? He causes more problems than he solves. Please send him home and let us look after your needs.”

The master smiled. “You are not correct in your appraisal of the situation. This man is not my servant. He is my teacher. His irritating temper and uselessness teach me everyday how to be patient and tolerant.”

The moral of this story can be applied to the difficulties we face in our ordinary lives. Instead of trying to solve every problem that confronts us by relying on welfare, or a destructive solution, or on a pleasurable escape, we can use the difficulty to train ourselves in forebearance and in those two main Mahayana virtues, compassion and wisdom. In this way we develop our own ability to cope with adversity. Our inner world wants tranquility, and we can attain that tranquility when we bring our outer world into harmony with this inner tranquility. The decision to do this is always ours. When there is disharmony it is because we choose to be annoyed by people or things we cannot control, just as we choose to be angered by the actions of thoughtless people or by events that do not go the way we planned.

We know that in today’s world there are many factors which hinder the cultivation of a peaceful mind. Even the most simple life becomes a competitive arena in which it's necessary to fight for social status, money, material goods, and power. Communication media are such that we are overstimulated by all sorts of desires. Every where we turn we see something that we are told we should want and have. And we enter the arena in order to fight to get these things. But though Zen masters, like those Tibetan monks, fear the consequences of so much turmoil, we know that these masters continue to instruct their disciples and to show by their own example that the torch of the Dharma is unquenchable.

Zen master Tzun Tao Ly Sinn once stated that a monk strives to achieve liberation from outside to inside and a layman strives to achieve from inside to outside. The layman, he said, has the more difficult but more rewarding task for he must constantly engage his interior Buddhist ethics in dealing with the harsh conditions of the outer world he lives in. But then, if he succeeds in maintaining his ethics, he is so morally strong that he is able to make a great inward turn to achieve harmony and stability in meditation. The secular life offers many possibilities for attaining a truly deep practice. The monk, on the other hand, is not exposed to daily struggles with the harsh outer world. He is in many ways untested and does not have many opportunities to develop the Zen virtues of morality, compassion, concentration, and wisdom. These virtues are separated only theoretically. In fact they are interdependent and interactive. It often happens that ethical elements are overlooked when emphasis is placed upon meditation techniques. The goal of Zen is seen to be enlightenment achieved through the fastest and most direct methods of meditation. Monks often ask themselves, “Why should we pay so much attention to morality and the Buddhist rules of self-discipline?” In their environment they feel secure and imagine that they have conquered temptation when, in fact, they are not exposed to temptation. Aside from the easy rules of monastic life there are those Precepts that state that they may not kill, or take what is not given to them, or lie and cheat, or drink intoxicants or take drugs, or engage in improper sexual conduct. The layman must face these temptations daily, and as he struggles he develops moral strength. The monk faces no such struggle. He knows also that for those who reach high levels of enlightenment no rules apply. He thinks, then, that he can skip over ethical training and concentrate on mind control and trance. He doesn’t realize that the enlightened man has gained his liberation through the subjugation of those desires which embroil him in daily conflict. It is self-discipline that transmits spiritual power.

In like manner it is necessary for us to believe in the Law of Cause and Effect. We must accept responsibility for our actions, knowing that what we did yesterday has a direct effect upon the circumstances we find our selves in today. Past actions, whether good or evil, are like seeds that grow into the future. When we remain aware of our thoughts, words and deeds and strive always to apply Buddhist Precepts to them, we make ourselves strong in our Faith and able to endure any hardship that may befall us.

Insights spring up when the mind is cleared and prepared for cultivation. Then, when we are free from the entanglements and brambles of everyday life, we can calmly concentrate upon our chosen method of meditation: solving a Koan; gazing into our mind to penetrate the very source of our thoughts, feelings, and impulses; or to the method that our Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara taught, to egoless listening to the sounds that come to us.

Said differently, we undertake a journey across the depth of the mind having prepared ourselves to be like explorers who investigate an unknown territory. This is a journey into our true Self, our universal Buddha nature; and we must value the journey, the constant effort, as much as we value the goal.

As we mature in our Faith and our practice, wonderful results come naturally to us, making light of our burdens and less of our pains, freeing us to experience a calm and constant joy.

And this is the reason Master Dipankara valued the presence of the otherwise worthless servant. That servant enabled him to overcome the temptations of anger and judgmental criticisms, those temptations that the layman faces everyday of his life. That servant taught him how to practice tolerance and forgiveness.