In practice, we all hope to be able to improve ourselves and make progress. It is usually the case in the pursuit of worldly knowledge, and Buddhist practice is not an exception. We all wish to reduce our shortcomings and eliminate our vexations. Even if we are unable to eliminate them, we want them to gradually lessen. If we can truly let the Dharma penetrate our mind, it will have the function of purification. Little by little, we will sense the dropping off of vexations layer by layer and have a feeling of being free or liberated from them.
Every day we have to face all kinds of problems in life. We respond to them according to our internal condition, and how we react reflects the state of our mind. For example, when things happen, often we panic and are unable to apply our understanding in the situation even though we have studied the Dharma. We fail to observe or reflect within: Why did this vexation arise? Perhaps this indicates that my practice is not good enough to enable me to use the Dharma in transforming the vexations.
I often remind people that Dharma study is the study or path of liberation. Our mind should be more widely open after studying Buddhism. If we feel more and more suffering than before we studied the Dharma, then we should examine whether it is the problem of the Dharma or if it is our attitude. In studying the Dharma, it is not to use the method for binding ourselves but rather to help us broaden our views and expand our mind’s capacity.
When setting up the rules, the Buddha told us that the Precepts are for liberation — they can aid us in attaining liberation. We think that the laws restrain us, but actually they provide the conditions for more freedom. Whether the laws are restraint or freedom depends on how we perceive them. If we do not violate them, the laws are not something that restrain us. As long as we do not run the traffic light when it is red or drive over the speed limit, traffic officers will not bother us. But if we not only drive over the speed limit but also rush through a red light, then the police will issue a ticket of violation. It is the same with Precepts. On the appearance, they seem constraining; but in actuality, they allow us for more true freedom. The Precepts help us to prevent creating unwholesome or “bad” karma, which would hinder our practice. If we do not create bad karma, of course the road ahead of us is wide and open.
Every phase of our practice as well as the methods we use help to make the path broader and smoother. We do not know how long we will be traveling on this path, maybe thirty years, maybe fifty years, or even beyond this lifetime. Of course we hope the longer we walk the path, the smoother and wider it becomes. Even if we do not think that far ahead but only focus on the present, can we in the deep sense benefit from the learning of the Dharma? Is our mind more open? As we face all sorts of problems, are we more tolerant with an open mind? Can we face them with a positive attitude and handle them with wisdom?
Sometimes when we encounter a problem, we really do not know how to handle it. But when our mind is quiet and calm, carefully looking at it from the point view of the Dharma, maybe we can release the tremendous pressure within, and think like this: “Things have happened already. This means the causes and conditions are ripe and we cannot avoid it from happening; so, we must face it, accept it, and then slowly adjust ourselves to the situation. Even if the problem is quite serious, we have the confidence and ability to deal with it. What is the biggest problem in our life? It is death! If we can see through the phenomenon of death and face it without anxiety or fear, then, what else can we not see through and put down the burden?”
We put our attention on our internal purification; yet, we can still let the external formality play its role and function. For example, during morning classes, can we let our mind settle and focus on the chanting? When we do prostration together, can we be fully present and allow the mind to resonate with the proceedings? I believe many people feel resistant to the ceremonial aspects of the practice. They may think, “People like me do not need to perform rituals of repentance…” With such a thought, of course it will not have any effect on them. On the other hand, if someone feels deeply moved to tears during the ceremony and resolves to change and be a new person, this person will benefit greatly. This external formality has its function, and the state of mind with which we treat it is very important.
Similarly, as we try to keep the Precepts, we do not treat them as strict rules or regulations. Precepts for us are preventive from doing unwholesome conduct and creating bad karma, and they are for freeing us from suffering. If you think Precepts are simply restrictive, it indicates that in the mind maybe there is still an urge to do “bad” things. For example, if you feel the traffic rules are restrictive, it suggests that you perhaps wish to run through red lights. We should train ourselves to voluntarily follow the traffic rules regardless if it is late night or early morning when people are less likely to be out on the street. It is our responsibility to follow the necessary regulations and let them be effective without resistance. Only then can everyone live in a more harmonious environment. If we do so, not only will it lessen the vexations and hindrances in our practice, but at the same time it also helps others do the same.
We know that external forms have the benefits of learning, however, I shall emphasize again that the purification of our mind is of the most importance. Therefore, we must return to ourselves. Others may be of help externally, but will not be able to help us with our own mind. Even though the Buddha has the supernatural power of “seeing the mind of others” and can tell when unwholesome thoughts are arising in us, he cannot eliminate them from our mind — The only person who can do this is ourselves. Therefore we must return to the training of our own mind and allow its own purification to function.
Once we turn inward and reflect on our own mind within, we will find that it is actually not an easy thing to do, because when the mind is not quiet and settled, we cannot examine it clearly and effectively. We have to use methods to train our mind and help it to reach a certain degree of concentration and stability. Then, we can further investigate and allow it to function in order to have the effects of purification.
(Teachings during retreat at Ipoh, Malaysia, Originally published in Chinese by Fa Lu Yuen Publications, 1998)