In the “Twenty Five Prerequisite Conditions” of <The Concise Śamatha-vipaśyanā> or <The Essentials for Practicing Calming-and-Insight & Dhyāna Meditation>（小止觀）, it was mentioned that keeping the Precepts is of the first importance. If, prior to studying Buddhism, one is already a kind-hearted person who understands the virtue of caring for others, then one is naturally inclined to be wholesome in their behavior after learning Buddhism and vowing to keep the Precepts; such is a superior condition. If one was born in an environment that is ideal or supportive to the study of Buddhadharma, who cultivates kindness or has affinity for studying the Dharma as one grows up, then one is said to have meritorious “karmic root”. If you have just begun to study the Dharma and to learn the Chan practicing method of concentration and contemplation, the causal conditions and affinity you have in this lifetime is considered superior to many people.
If you have made various mistakes in the past, even though you have recognized them and have resolved to repent, the consequences of some unwholesome actions you have to accept and carry may still become obstacles for your practice. This may suggest that your wholesome karmic root is not sufficient and therefore your behaviors show some impurity.
Also, after you have learned the method, how much time do you spend on your practice? This is also very important. If you have set up a regular practice with daily schedule, your ability to practice will accumulate. If usually you do not practice and only do so after you have registered for a Chan retreat, or only try to stretch your legs after you have received the letter of acceptance to the retreat, then, when you sit in the Chan hall, you cannot expect a good result… You yourself should know about this simple logic. If you have not put effort in your practice, how well you do in Chan retreat will not be the same as those who have learned the method, participated several intensive Chan retreats, and keep a regular daily practice for a long time. Therefore, do not compare yourself with others. The ability or strength for practice is not built overnight in retreats.
To a certain degree, an intensive Chan retreat offers the opportunity to focus and strengthen the good karmic energy, including that which has been accumulated life after life. If your energy has been scattered and you are only now thinking of building strength, you will find that there is a lack of energy or power to focus, and therefore the retreat may seem lax or sloppy. On the other hand, some participants have been practicing diligently and developing some power for concentration, so they can better utilize the opportunity of the retreat to deepen their practice, and they may be able to go through the retreat more smoothly.
The causes and conditions of practice for each person are different. Therefore the situations in retreat for each participant will not be the same. When you sit in meditation, even if you cannot do well with your method, there is no need to create more problems or bigger obstacles for yourself. If you have the mindset of comparing with others, when someone next to you starts to have some energetic movement, you might think to yourself, “Good, my energy might also begin to move…” Having such thought, the little concentration you might have had will dissipate, and you may feel defeated. Being so, your mind is not on the method but wandering around such “impure” motivation.
In addition, when your mind is involved in comparison or “performance”, and you care too much about your “face” or reputation, you might think, “I have studied Buddhism for one or two decades, a senior in Buddhist study”, or “Everyone knows me as a long time devoted Buddhist”. If you are well known in some fields in the society, it may also become a pressure since your status is your identity, and to maintain such an identity, you want to maintain a certain level of performance. If your mind comments, “when others can sit for half an hour, I should be able to sit at least two hours! This will show that my practice has reached a certain degree of depth”, but during this two hours, your mind is really not calm, and as a matter of fact suffering, it is not a proper practice. Honestly speaking, no one will notice your performance. If everyone is truly practicing, who cares if someone cries or makes noise? It is also useless to show your practice to the retreat teacher or supporting team.
In every retreat, I remind participants not to have the mentality of comparison or performance. However, once entered the Chan hall, many students forget about it, and these vexations or obstacles appear again and again. Such mindset, mixed with greed, arrogance, pride, or concealing, is the function of the unwholesome aspects of the psyche. It can form a stream of energy, even though not powerful at the beginning and only appearing occasionally, if you are not careful and aware of it, slowly it can intensify and become a flood of energy. When this energy is strong enough for you to notice and you do not wish to correct it or make an adjustment, it can be troublesome.
When we practice with diligence, the functions of the five organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body) are relatively lessened and our mind is mostly focused on thoughts and consciousness. There are different layers in what we are conscious of. Layer by layer, what on surface actually appears from deeper layer. If your practice is not well grounded or solid, what you usually observe or feel is just the surface layer. You can only become aware of it when deeper layers surface for you to notice. When this happens, already it is difficult to adjust your thoughts and emotions. However, although it is not easy to adjust and overcome such obstacles, there are still ways to put them down or let them go. These vexations of greed, arrogance, pride, or concealing, etc. are functions of deep and subtle aspects of the mind. After your practice has reached a certain depth, the mind is quiet and you can calmly observe these functions and their impact on us also subsides.
So, when entering the Chan hall to practice, you must put aside all the complicated motivations, your seniority in Buddhist study, and anything external related to your fame or status. Eliminate any mindset that can possibly become obstacles, only keep a simple mind, and settle your mind on practice with a kind mindset of no-greed, no-arrogance, no-pride, and not concealing.
After you have adjusted your mindset, you also need to remind yourself of these guidelines and be alert all the time. You may reflect after the last sitting period each evening and ask yourself: “Did I have unwholesome mindset today? Did I have the wanting of gaining something? Did I attempt to show off?” It would be ideal to apply the method if you find your motivation is simply to come and practice.
(Teachings during Chan retreat at Ipoh, Maylasia. Originally published in Chinese by Fa Lu Yuen Publications, 1998)