The participants in our Chan Session are working at a very superficial level. They've turned meditation into a contest to see who'll win first place. They are thinking: "If you meditate for three hours, then I'll meditate for five hours, so that I can keep the upper hand." If you let such thoughts control you, can you really expect to get enlightened? Even if you sat still for eighty thousand great eons, you'd still be unable to understand your mind and see your nature. Why? Because you have thoughts of victory and defeat.
Fighting brings an attitude of victory
That stands in opposition to the Way.
Further, it provokes the four marks,
Which sends samadhi-power far away.
This verse warns cultivators not to fight to be number one. When your spiritual skill matures and your wisdom appears, other people will spontaneously acclaim you as number one. Then you can be considered truly number one. But if you contend to be first, then your attitude of victory and defeat stands in opposition to the Way.
Cultivators of the Way should be like water, humble and modest, neither contending for merit nor striving for virtue. They bestow advantages on others and keep the disadvantages for themselves. Lao Zi said,
The highest kind of goodness resembles water,
As it benefits all things and never contends.
It stays in places that most people despise,
And thus it approaches the Way.
"The highest goodness" refers to the best kind of cultivators who resemble water as it flows into the lowest places. Although water benefits all things, it refuses to compete for merit and virtue. Whether it is birds, fish, beasts, plants, or creatures born from wombs, eggs, moisture, or transformation, water treats them all with equal kindness and gives them all whatever they need. Cultivators of the Way are just like water, in that they regard all living beings as their parents from lives past and as Buddhas of the future. We make kindness and compassion our duty and expedient resourcefulness our practice as we rescue living beings from the sea of suffering. A cultivator is willing to dwell in places where most living beings are unwilling to stay. With this attitude, he stays close to the Way. Any thoughts of victory and defeat do not accord with the creed of a cultivator and stand in opposition to the Way.
Cultivators of the Way want to be free of the four marks. They want to have no mark of self. Ask yourself: "Who is this here cultivating the Way?" You'll find that there isn't anyone cultivat-ing. They want to have no mark of others; they have no thoughts of competing with others. They want to have no mark of living beings. Since they have no marks of self or others, quite naturally, the mark of living beings is also emptied out. They want to have no mark of a life span: Since the mark of living beings has been emptied out, how could there be any mark of a life span? But once you indulge in thoughts of victory, the four marks will arise. Once they arise, how can you attain "proper concentration and proper reception?" Why don't you try this out in practice? In a word, anyone who maintains the four marks is an ordinary person. But someone who can be free of them is a Bodhisattva.
Cultivators should remember this verse from the Vajra Sutra,
All things born of conditions are like dreams,
Like illusions, bubbles, and shadows;
Like dewdrops, like flashes of lightning:
Contemplate them in these ways.
Anything with shape or form is considered a "dharma born of conditions." All things born of conditions are like dreams, illusory transformations, bubbles of foam, and shadows. Like dewdrops and lightning, they are false and unreal. By contemplating everything in this way, we will be able to understand the truth, let go of attachments, and put an end to random thoughts.
The Vajra Sutra also says, "Past thoughts cannot be obtained, present thoughts cannot be obtained, and future thoughts cannot be obtained." Why can't we get at past thoughts? Because they've already gone by. What's the point of worrying over them? Why can't we get at present thoughts? Because the present moment doesn't stop for even an instant. If you claim that this moment is the present, as soon as the words leave your mouth, that "present" has already gone by; time never stops. Why do we say that future thoughts cannot be obtained? Because the future hasn't yet arrived. You may admit that it hasn't yet come, but right then it arrives, so the "not-yet-come" (literal Chinese translation for "future") doesn't exist either. Therefore, the past, the present, and future are three thoughts that cannot possibly be obtained. If we can cultivate according to the Dharma that the Buddha spoke, then straightaway, we can realize the state of Nirvana.
Cultivators of the Way must use proper knowledge and views as their standard and cultivate vigorously. Our goal is to "leave behind the mark of speech," so that there's nothing left to say. We also want to "leave behind the mark of the mind and its conditions," so that there's nothing left to climb on. We want to "leave behind the mark of written words." Once words also are gone, they can't represent our speech at all. Since there's no way to express with words, what is there to remember? What is there that we can't put down? What is left to take so seriously? We should apply ourselves to this, and stop toying with the superficial aspects.
Someone is thinking, "Today in meditation, my legs didn't hurt and my back has stopped aching. Before I knew it, it was time to stand up and walk." That's because you were sleeping! Of course you knew nothing at all! Don't misinterpret this state. If you become attached, then you can easily enter a demonic state and be taken in.
Pay attention to this, everyone! Pay no heed to external states. Ignore them completely. Let states come and go naturally. Don't let them influence you one way or the other. The Shurangama Sutra explains this matter quite clearly. I hope that all Chan meditators will look into the details of the Fifty Skandha-demon States of that Sutra very thoroughly. The Shurangama Sutra serves as a precious mirror for Chan meditators, and every cultivator of the Way ought to be thoroughly familiar with it.