The Biggest Obstacle in Practice

IMG_0711If you had read the original text of < The Concise Śamatha-vipaśyanā> (or <The Essentials for Practicing Calming-and-Insight & Dhyāna Meditation>,小止觀),  you may find that the series of lectures I gave before on the text were not explanations of the entire content word by word, but only on some important concepts according to the analysis and summary I did on the texts, and they were given in a contemporary style that people can easily understand. This is because the content of the text needs to be understood from the circumstances of our time. For example, the practitioners in early times could go to deep woods in the forest or mountains; therefore, “quiet dwelling” was emphasized and considered ideal for practice.  As for “sufficient means of food and clothing”, it was considered ideal to wear simple rag cloth and eat the most simple food only for the sake of keeping the body alive.  Great Master Zhi Yi viewed that as the ideal condition for practice, but it is an ascetic form of practice that is not easy to follow completely nowadays. Of course, if you do have situations that allow you to practice in such a way, it is good.

However, not everyone has such conditions.  If you think that the conditions for practice should be like that and try to follow it, in the end it may turn out that the best condition becomes the biggest obstacle!  It is a common to wish to have the best condition. Take studying as an example. Most people like to achieve the highest education.  If you have not completed even grade school but you are being sent to study in college, it would be suffering for you.  Grade school is already tough, how do you get through junior high? How would you complete college?  So we need to know our own conditions while understanding the real purpose of what Master Zhi Yi listed as conditions for practice. He did not ask us to simply follow such a way of living but ignore the real significance of it.

Thus, we must truly understand the conditions for practice conveyed by < The Concise Śamatha-vipaśyanā> and its spiritual meaning. Essentially it tells us that grasping or attachment to worldly concerns is the biggest obstacle in practice. With a mind of grasping and attachment, the practice is difficult to succeed.  The practice should progress towards uplifting and purification of the mind. Desire and attachment are energy that pulls you down.  If desire and attachment are too deep for you to be able to let go at once and completely, it is necessary to use some techniques to help alleviate, gradually clear up, and eventually eliminate it.  This is a process of successful practice.

How to reduce desire and attachment? Everyday, the five senses of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body come in contact with the five conditions, namely sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, which can stimulate and induce desires.  When such distractive signals are received, how does the mind react? For example, you like to eat chocolate. Every time you see chocolate, you cannot help but attempt to eat it.  This is the function or working of desire and attachment. Of course, reducing desire and attachment does not mean you would not eat it whenever you see chocolate; instead, at the moment of seeing the chocolate, you can remind yourself, “My desire is present; will I be able to eat less? Can I have just a taste of it and let it go?”

As you are aware and see the problem, instead of falling into the old habitual trap of desire, you can shift or make an adjustment in your mind, or even tell yourself, “I like chocolate because it is sweet and delicious; but is the taste really so great?” Or you may rationalize further, “It is satisfying when I eat it, but the taste disappears quickly afterword.  This object and the particular function of the five senses are so brief, why do I allow myself hanging on to such deep attachment just for a momentary pleasure?” Try using such an approach of reflection and contemplation can help reduce worldly desires and attachments.

(Teachings during Chan retreat at Ipoh, Maylasia.  Originally published in Chinese by Fa Lu Yuen Publications, 1998)


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