Due to the influence of the six sense faculties—eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind—people are reborn in the hells or become hungry ghosts or animals. It's also due to the functioning of the six senses that people become asuras or are reborn in the heavens or as humans.
It is also because of the functioning of the six sense faculties that we can become Arhats, Pratyekabuddhas, Bodhisattvas, or Buddhas. Why are the six sense faculties so powerful that they even influence whether we are reborn in the heavens or fall into the hells? Do they determine whether people become Buddhas or ghosts?
Actually, the six sense faculties aren't in control; it's just that we don't know how to use them. The master is within everyone's own nature, the bright nature of enlightenment. This master is also known as the inherent Buddha-nature. When it is in charge, proper thoughts manifest, and one is free and at ease, not obstructed by anything. But once this nature is covered up by even a single thought of ignorance, a dull darkness is erroneously stirred up; the six sense faculties then become the masters and take control. As a result, we are plundered by the six thieves—the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind. They rob our house and steal all our precious treasures. So it is said,
When not a single thought arises,
The entire substance manifests.
When the six sense faculties suddenly move,
There is a covering of clouds.
Because of this, people who are supposed to advance along the Buddha path go down the ghostly path instead. This is like a driver who should be driving his car along the highway, but instead drives it into the ocean, both drowning himself and sinking the car. It's also like somebody who aims high without doing the fundamental work, or someone who climbs a mountain and falls off a cliff, getting smashed to bits. When a person is not familiar with the road conditions and doesn't know how to drive, he's prone to accidents. The six sense faculties of our bodies can be compared to cars. If we know how to drive, we can reach our destination safely; if we don't, we risk losing our lives in an accident.
Our inherent nature, which is clear, perfect, and wonderfully bright, pervades the ten directions and permeates heaven and earth. It is omnipotent, capable of doing anything. However, as in the analogy about driving, even though we may know how to drive, once we go into the womb and enter this “stinking skin bag,” we become muddled. After this we can't even distinguish between east, south, west, north, above, or below, and run around aimlessly. Original-ly we wanted to become Buddhas, but if we are the least bit careless, we may end up being reborn as horses, cows, or sheep.
Some Buddhists are most pitiful. They single-mindedly want to leave the three evil paths, but because they don't know how to drive the car of the six sense faculties, they are controlled by them instead, and so they let the demon king get a hold of them. Trapped in this illusory body of the five skandhas and incapable of freeing themselves, these people suffer unbearable pain. Their inherent natures have been buried, and the bright light of wisdom cannot manifest.
The myriad things are speaking dharmas. If you understand, they are speaking the Buddhadharma, the transcendental Dharma; if you do not understand, then they are speaking worldly dharma, defiling dharma. In this way everything is contained within a single thought of your mind. When you have wisdom, you'll be able to readily solve any kind of problem; when you don't have wisdom, there are obstacles everywhere.
Our body depends on food to survive. However, this kind of food is coarse. In addition, we also rely on the Buddha-nature and the bright light of wisdom to survive. Just as a car needs gasoline to run, people need food and drink to generate energy in order to move. But some cultivators can survive without food or drink. How do they do this? They eat the bright light of wisdom—that is their nourishment.
On a coarse level, our body needs food and drink; on a finer level, our souls need the spiritual nourishment of the Buddha's nature. During the day, when we work, walk, stand, sit, and recline, we exhaust a lot of our energy, use a lot of gasoline. At night when we rest, our pores open up and come into contact with the Buddha light. The bright light of wisdom from the Buddha's radiant treasury enters our pores, replenishing the energy we lost during the day. After we get enough rest at night, our energy returns to its normal level the next day.
Hearing this principle, some people become greedy and think, “Oh, so the Buddha shines his light on me while I sleep. Then if I sleep more, will I be wiser?” In reality, we all need a certain amount of sleep. However, if we sleep too much, our brains will become muddled and dull, and our wisdom will be diminished. It's said, “The longer the night, the more you dream.” Dreaming also wastes energy. Sleeping too much gives you headaches. So in all things we must know where to stop, and not go to extremes.
Ordinary people don't understand this principle. They think people can survive on just food and drink. But skilled cultivators concentrate on food for the soul. They enjoy sitting in Chan meditation and developing samadhi. By being in touch with the Buddha's wisdom-light, they replenish their energy and increase their wisdom power. But you can't be greedy for meditation, either, or get attached to it. Too much meditation will give you Chan sickness.
We students of Buddhism should not run east and west, seeking outside for some secret dharma, looking for shortcuts, being greedy for bargains, wanting to get enlightened quickly. This will only waste the limited gasoline we have, exhaust us, and diminish our wisdom, and we'd gain nothing. This is the problem with not understanding the principles of fundamental Buddha-dharma and seeking outside for dharmas.
What I said today is not a myth. It can be called a spiritual principle. Even the most advanced scientists have not discovered this principle, let alone understood it. They can't even dream of this wonderful doctrine. Basically it's a very ordinary principle, but everyone has overlooked it.
A talk given in May 1983
at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas