It would be ideal if your environment were relatively simple and if conditions would allow you to be at ease in such an environment. This suggests that you can practice. However, if you find that you do not have these favorable conditions or you cannot practice in such conditions, it is unnecessary to force it, for example, by sending you to the mountains. Would you be able to truly practice then? It is possible that, after getting there, you would feel lonely and bored, regretting that you did not bring a few copies of the cartoon book <The Little Robot Cat> and you find each day is hard to pass without the cartoons. It is even harder without anyone chatting with you! You cannot hear sound of human, maybe occasionally seeing a couple of human faces but they are silent… Would you be able to stay there?
You can actually give it a try, by locking yourself in a room, in which there is no book or anything. Try living in there for two or three days. If you are able to stay, it suggests that you can live alone. So, if you are going to practice in the mountains, you might be okay. But if you feel uncomfortable after sitting in an empty room for a couple of hours without any noise distracting you, so quiet that your ear cannot stand it, then that means you do not yet have the condition to practice in such environment. Usually people are used to the distraction of noises, feeling their existence in that way. When all of sudden being isolated from the external world, one may feel as if landed in space. This means your mind is unable to resonate with the environment and will need adjustment to adapt to it.
It should be understood that not only conditions need to be essentially good, but also we need to be in harmony with the environment. For instance, when participating in a seven-day Chan retreat, some participants feel it is very difficult because talking is not allowed during the seven days. Some of them even try to talk more before the retreat officially starts and noble silence is observed. They wait until the retreat is finally over and feel a big relief, “Wow, now I am liberated!” and begin to chat endlessly. I was a vegetarian and observed the “no eating after noon meal” even before I took ordination and became a monk. Someone said to me, “Since you are going to become a monk and you would need to be completely vegetarian, you should eat lots of delicious meals now…” This is the same mindset as talking more before silent retreat begins.
For example, there are many delicious foods you have not tasted. Now you decide to become a monk and you go and try these foods. Having tasted them, you might find that they taste so good it is better not to become a monk. Is it possible? Absolutely. When you come to join the retreat, you try to talk more before silence is enforced. Let me tell you, you will feel it is extremely difficult when silence begins, and you will be bothered by the noise you have created before the retreat started. So once you enter the Chan hall, you should make an effort in settling the mind, letting it become calm and quiet and then entering the practice of the method. But if instead you do something stimulating and your five senses become excited, it is difficult to switch to the quiet retreat life. Therefore, do not encourage yourself with such a habit.
If you come to a retreat just because someone said it is good and you want to give it a try and you think maybe once is enough, with such an attitude it is not easy for you to learn and understand how strong the pulling force is of the five desires of a human being. Also, it is difficult to observe how easy the mind of clinging is at the moment of contacting the five desires. Then of course it would be unclear to you why the five desires can be big obstacles to Chan practice.
When you consider practice is very important, usually you pay attention and practice with diligence. In the process, slowly you observe why the five desires can be obstacles for practice or something that pulls you down and which makes you unable to practice. If you understand it, you will find ways to create an environment that is helpful to your practice. You will adjust your daily life to make it simple, including your mental conditions, and will often stay alert and guard your senses in your surroundings.
If your environment appears to be favorable for practice but actually your mind lacks alertness and not in sync with such environment, maybe it is suitable for you only for a limited period of time. As the feeling of freshness or curiosity disappears, its positive impact on your practice will diminish. For example, some of you have lots of pressure from work and you would go to karaoke or night club often, drinking, singing, dancing, etc.. Or you have been too busy at work, so when you get a bit of break time, you would go to a quiet place for vacation. But returning home after a few days, you feel more tired. It was not a vacation but only a use of a different way to stimulate the feeling of numbness. The fact is that you did not truly allow the pressure to release, and, at most, it appears to have reached a balance on the surface.
“Addition” is usually the approach for people trying to balance their life. When imbalance appears that one side is too heavy and another is too light, they would add something to the lighter side. When it reaches a point where this side becomes heavy, then adding something to the lighter side… In such a way adding endlessly until both sides become heavy and they feel unbearable!
In Buddhist study and practice, the method we use to reach balance is “subtraction” or deduction. When one side is too heavy, we do not add to the light side but to take off something from the heavy side until it reaches balance. When one side is heavier, then deduct a bit from that side to again reach balance by taking off something that is unnecessary to the mind, including greed, anger, delusion, arrogance, and doubt.
In fact, the necessary conditions for practice mentioned in < Concise Śamatha-vipaśyanā> (小止觀) are mainly for helping us to guide and reduce clinging of the mind. When you understand it, you will try to adapt to the environment. For example, in Chan retreat, the daily routine is simplified to the minimum. Under such beneficial conditions, you should make good use of the time not only to practice diligently in this environment but also to try to elevate and purify the mind.
(Teachings during retreat at Ipoh, Malaysia, Originally published in Chinese by Fa Lu Yuen Publications, 1998)