Although practice is not about external condition or formality, external conditions can play certain roles in the learning and purification process. For example, when we do not know what method to use in practice, we need the guidance and help of mentors (of great virtue) as well as Right View drawing from the sutras or Buddhist texts. Such outflow of the Dharma manifesting as external conditions allows us to utilize their functions in learning and purification. It is like being in the presence of fragrance from burning incense.
Likewise, we can see the importance of external causes and conditions in the study and practice of “Śamatha-vipaśyanā”, Calming-and-Insight. A quiet and secluded environment is helpful to practice. Keeping the Buddhist precepts also has certain effects. The precepts are for the purpose of telling us not only what not to do, but also what is good to proactively do at the same time.
All good and wholesome actions in the world can help purify our mind, and all intention and conduct of so-called “evil” or unwholesome actions hinder our practice. By studying the precepts, we can distinguish the outward quality of virtue from “evil”, and with such ability we can examine the internal world of mind. There are two aspects in the dharma (or law) of mind –- wholesome and unwholesome. Unwholesome aspects represent vexations. When a thought arises, we can analyze what kind of consequences it will most likely bring. If an action will cause harm to others, inevitably it will harm ourselves and it will become a hindrance to our practice.
As an unwholesome thought arises during practice, we can draw on teachings from Dharma texts. We can recognize the thought’s negative pulling force and try to modify or correct our behavior. Through this change of behavior, we gain the benefits of learning as if being in the vicinity of fragrant incense. If we can do wholesome actions more often, it resonates with the goodness within, and gradually enhances the strength of positive qualities. On the other hand, if we try to avoid unwholesome actions or even the thought of it from arising, then the functions of unwholesome inclination of our mind will slowly weaken.
At the beginning stage, of course it is natural that we need the supportive conditions from the external in order to learn the ability of examining and discerning and then making the right choices of action in accord with the Dharma. However, the most important aspect in this process is still the beneficial effects of the “fragrance of incense”, which is the purification of mind. The mind is the originating and driving force of all actions. If our mind is purified, our actions will be naturally clean. The deeper we explore the mind, the more unpredictable it seems to us. We think the mind is ours, yet it does not seem to listen to our commands. If we say it is not ours, we know it is thinking something within. Therefore, the mind is something abstract and very difficult to grasp. By looking from different angles and looking at various aspects of mind, the Buddhadharma helps us to investigate and therefore perceive clearly the functions of the mind. Have we noticed it in our learning process?
Occasionally, we may feel that our mind lacks strength. This is because we are not able to grab hold of our own mind, not understanding correctly the nature and functions of mind. Therefore we are unable to utilize its functions and we feel powerless. Situations like this will happen in the process of our practice.
If we only focus our practice on the formality of the external, for instance, eating a vegetarian meal once every new and full moon day, or occasionally going to the temple for a visit, having tea and chatting with the monastics, of course we will not recognize our mind’s lack of energy, because it spins with the external environment. One should not be critical of people who believe that they are Buddhist because, in some degree, they meet the “qualifications” according to the external forms. However, if you have studied the Buddhdharma for quite some time, even if it is considered good knowledge from a worldly perspective, from the point view of practice, it is not ideal to remain on the surface of external or the formality of the practice.
(Teachings during retreat at Ipoh, Malaysia, Originally published in Chinese by Fa Lu Yuen Publications, 1998)