by Chan master Žarko Andričević
Giving Rise to Determination
Good morning to everyone. Time is passing very quickly; do you have that feeling? In almost no time this retreat will end. For precisely that reason we must mobilize all our energy to work hard on our method. We should use every moment to the very end of this retreat, and in order to do that we have to give rise to strong determination. In Huatou Chan it is sometimes called angry determination. Ah, but don’t become angry [laughter], just be determined, okay? This strong determination is not something you either have or you don’t have; it is something we can actually give rise to. We can become extremely determined in the context of practice even if maybe we were not determined at the beginning.
What are the conditions which help us give rise to this strong determination to practice? First of all, we have to take full responsibility for ourselves and for our own practice. This has to do with understanding karma in Buddhism. We know that we are the creator of our own life. We are responsible for the things which are happening to us. Therefore there is no one else to blame, and at the same time there is no one else to rely on. We can’t hope that somebody else will do the work for us. So in that sense we take full responsibility for our life, knowing that we are the only one who can give the right direction to our own life. That’s very important for giving rise to this strong determination.
The other thing which is very important is a deep understanding of the mind of life and death. In a general Buddhist context this means understanding the nature of samsara, the nature of suffering. The suffering in our own life is actually a great motivation for practice; if we have a deep understanding of our own suffering then there won’t be any doubt whether we really want to be liberated or not. This wanting to achieve liberation from suffering helps to give rise to a strong determination to follow the path, or, in the context of this retreat, to use the method.
We have to mobilize all our energy. We are supported in this by the fact that we take responsibility for own life, and also have a deep understanding of suffering and a strong wish to be free from suffering. All of these conditions actually enable strong determination to arise, and it is essential for our practice.
But let me illustrate this. There are a lot of stories in Buddhism which can help us understand very clearly what it means to be really determined. For example, if by accident you fall into a deep well and find yourself at the bottom, what kind of thoughts do you think will go through your mind? Will there be many wandering thoughts? Will you start to think, “Hmm, what did I do yesterday? What was that conversation I had with someone several days ago?” and so on? It’s almost impossible that you would think that way. I’m sure we all know that in that situation there would be only one thought in our mind: how to get out from that well. That means giving rise to a powerful determination to get out, to alleviate suffering, to liberate ourselves. Unlike someone who finds himself at the bottom of a well and doesn’t know how to get out, we have a means to get out – we have a method, we have concepts, we have guidance, we have all the necessary conditions to get out. But we have to use them. We have to be serious about this situation we are in; out of that seriousness, strong determination will arise.
I’ll tell you another story, about one of the previous lives of the Buddha. In one of his past lives the Buddha was a young ascetic practicing austerities somewhere in the region of the Himalaya. The God Indra saw him practicing really hard and decided to test him, so he turned himself into a hungry Rakshasa demon and appeared in front of the young practitioner. He decided to tell him half of a very important Dharma teaching contained in one sentence, but not tell him the other half. The rakshasa said “Everything is constantly arising and perishing; this is the law of birth and death.”
The young practitioner heard this and was extremely curious. He approached the hungry demon and asked him “Please, can you tell me more?” The demon said, “Well, I could, but I am extremely hungry; if you allow me to eat you I will tell you the other half of the teaching.” The young practitioner said “But if you eat me, how will I be able to hear the other half?” And the rakshasa said “Hmm, let me think how we can do that.” Then he came up with an idea: “If you climb up that tree, and I stand below the tree and open my big mouth, as you jump from the tree I will tell you the other half before you fall into my mouth. So you will hear it and then I will eat you.”
The young practitioner really wanted to know the Dharma. But could he trust this hungry demon? What option did he have – he really wanted to hear the Dharma – so he decided, all right, he’d jump. He climbed up the tree, and as he jumped the hungry demon told him the other part of the teaching: “When arising and perishing ceases, this is the great peace and joy of nirvana.” These are the words that the young practitioner heard as he was jumping into the mouth of the hungry demon. But then a miracle happened – at the moment that the rakshasa would eat the young ascetic, the demon suddenly turned back into the God Indra and received the young man into his arms. Indra told him he was sure that in his future life he would become the Buddha.
Make Use of Good Conditions
So where is our determination in relation to this story? Are we wasting our time here, following wandering thoughts about irrelevant things? If we imagine ourselves to be in a well there is only one thought in our mind – how to get out. Here we have a method to get us out; all we have to do is glue ourselves to that method. So ask, investigate your huatou from one moment to another. There is nothing else for us to do here but to stay with the method. It is so simple. We are provided with everything: a place to sleep, warmth, and food; everything is here for us. We only need to do one thing, and that is to be with our method. I don’t know, maybe this place is too good, [laughter] it definitely does not compare to the bottom of a well. But precisely because the conditions here are so good, we must use these conditions in order to practice, because in other conditions it is not so easy to practice. Here we have everything we need; therefore we should try to mobilize all our energy.
Take up this huatou without leaving any gaps. When you’re asking and there is a gap, it should be a gap of silence into which no single wandering thought enters. Then you ask again, and again you are in silence. Then you ask again. The more determined you are, the fewer wandering thoughts there will be. Gradually you can make this gap much wider; you ask and then for a minute or two you are in this state of wonder, a state of wanting to know without any single wandering thought being there. Eventually you won’t need any words. Your determination and sense of doubt will arise with such power that you will be completely in that state with no need to put more wood on the fire. It is very important that we establish continuity with the method. But we have to be inspired to do that; when somebody knows that his house is on fire we don’t need to beg that person to come out, he will come naturally.
I know that being quite comfortable here, in good health with plenty of food and everything that we need, it is not easy to think about the fragility of life. Especially if we are young, we think that we will be young forever. Even if we are older we think that we won’t change. Things seem quite stable from this perspective; somehow we lose that sharp reflection that our life really is extremely fragile. One day we are well and another day we can be seriously ill. Anything can happen; people are continuously dying around us for all kinds of reasons. Life depends on many conditions that are continuously changing so we can’t really be secure in it. As long as we are in good health, as long as we are here, alive, we have to use this precious opportunity to go beyond birth and death, go beyond this thinking mind and discover our true nature.
From the idea of being determined to actually being determined; sometimes there is a huge gap, sometimes not. But it’s all there inside us. If we can somehow awaken this potential energy in ourselves, we would know very clearly what it is to work very hard on the method, what it means to be really determined. The story I told earlier about the previous life of the Buddha was quite drastic; he was ready to give his life just to hear one sentence of the Dharma. Here we are practicing in a place which is quite luxurious compared to a cave in the Himalaya, and we are listening to the Dharma every day. We have everything we need to practice and, yet at the same time we worry about, what – comfort, discomfort, body pain?. This does not compare to a readiness to give one’s life just to hear Dharma. Well, I’m not trying to make you feel bad, but I’m looking for your dormant energies to be awakened, to work on the method with all your power.
Thirst in the Desert
There is one very nice method I heard from Shifu [Chan Master Sheng Yen] a long time ago. It’s not related to huatou but it is related to the process of practice in general. A person is lost in the desert without water. It’s terribly hot and that person walks with only one thing in mind – to find water to drink because his life depends on it. So he walks and is extremely thirsty and then in the far distance he sees an oasis; he sees water. Of course he is not looking anywhere else; he goes straight to that place. He walks and walks and then he comes into the oasis and he goes directly to the water. First he washes his hands and his face and then he drinks a little bit of water, and then he drinks a little bit more water. Because the air is so hot he decides to enter the water. So, very slowly (because it’s dangerous to enter the water quickly when you are very warm), very gently he enters the water. Then he starts to swim and it is like he becomes water.
This whole process is very similar, or it should be similar, to how we approach our meditation practice here, and to the stages we go through in this practice. What is essential at the very beginning is the thirst. We have to be thirsty, and we have to see our practice as the possibility of satisfying that thirst; this is absolutely essential. If the method of our practice is just one phenomenon among thousands of other phenomena, and we only pick up our method from time to time, that’s not real thirst. It’s far away from being determined. It’s far away from seeing the method as something which can save our life, but that is precisely how we have to view our method. We have to look on ourselves as a thirsty person who walks in a desert. It’s very dificult to have that view if we don’t see our life in the light of impermanence.
If we are not thirsty we should ask ourselves, why are we not thirsty? Can we really not need the water of practice? We have to look deeply into ourselves, examine all the uncertainties in our life, these rising and falling experiences, knowing that we will continue to face many dificulties. There is no person who does not meet difficulties in life. Knowing this, and knowing at the same time that the practice offers a solution and can actually liberate us from all suffering, we must give rise in ourselves to this thirst for practice, and in that sense take working on the method very, very seriously. When we look at ourselves in that way it’s possible to give rise to this dormant energy within us. It’s possible to awaken that thirst in ourselves, to find that strong motivation to continue our practice in a different way.
Part of this powerful willingness to continue with the method arises in the process of practice itself. If we expect all of this to arise before we actually begin our practice, then it won’t happen. We have to motivate ourselves, but in the context of practice this determination will grow. The more we practice seriously, the more this determination grows, and the more confidence we gain in ourselves. It’s actually all connected with the practice itself. We have to take this practice very seriously and then all these things will arise, and at some point we will find that the practice goes smoothly.
Huatou is Tasteless and Dry
In the beginning it’s quite difficult. You start working on the huatou but you are just repeating some words which don’t have any meaning, and it doesn’t produce the expected effect. There is not any kind of doubt arising; it feels like an absolutely tasteless and pointless thing to do. It seems like that at the beginning. You’re repeating some question, you’re asking huatou, but nothing is happening. There is nothing for the mind to taste there, it’s somehow very dry. You are questioning but your mind is indifferent, as if a completely neutral thought arises without bringing any corresponding emotion with it to somehow attract your attention.
This is how it seems at the beginning – what can we do? We should continue asking, mobilizing all our energy, and we have to have faith in the method. We must trust that we are capable of working on the method, and that the method is capable of bringing us where it is supposed to bring us. Again, we have to try to give rise to this thirst, maybe by thinking about impermanence, about uncertainties in our lives. Do we really know who we are? Do we know where we came from, or where we are going? Whenever we investigate these fundamental issues of life, there is a possibility for this thirst to arise, for inspiration and motivation to arise. The fundamental truth about our lives is there all the time, but we cover it up with all sorts of things. As long as we are covering it, everything seems more or less fine, but actually it’s not. We all live like that. But here is the opportunity to dig deeper into ourselves and put this cover-up aside, to awaken this thirst for the true knowledge about ourselves and life.
Engaging ourselves in practice with this great thirst would be a much simpler situation than the one we have now. Sitting with a thousand wandering thoughts is an extremely complex situation, very superficial on all levels. There is dissatisfaction with the fact that nothing is happening. It is much simpler to put aside all these irrelevant and trivial distractions, bring forth the fundamental issues of birth and death, and take up the method seamlessly from one moment to another. Besides determination we also need persistence, taking up the huatou and not letting go of it; as soon as it goes, bring it back.
In the beginning, it will be us on one side and the method on the other – the one who asks, and the huatou which is asked. But if we proceed with determination and energy the gap will be less and less. Then it is like the man walking straight towards the water. If we can walk as straight as that towards the huatou, having it in our mind all the time, then the gap between ourselves and the huatou will lessen. Eventually we will become one with the huatou in the same way that the man became one with the water.
Asanga’s Solitary Retreat
Now I’ll tell you another story. This one is about a famous Buddhist teacher who lived in the fourth century in India. His name was Asanga. He and his equally famous brother Vasubhandu were the founders of the Yogacara school, a very important school in Mahayana Buddhism. (The Chan school has connections to this school; Bodhidharma brought with him to China the Lankavatara Sutra, which is part of Yogacara teaching.)
At one point Asanga decided to go for a solitary retreat. He climbed a mountain, found a cave, and began his practice. His main purpose for this retreat was to receive teaching from Maitreya Bodhisattva. So he did all kinds of practices to invite Maitreya to appear in his cave. He practiced very seriously for three years but nothing happened, no trace of Maitreya Bodhisattva. Asanga said “Well, this doesn’t have any meaning anymore. I’m leaving this retreat.” He left his cave and, going down the mountain, he heard the sound of bird wings. He saw a bird entering a nest in a cleft in the stone cliff. As he looked closer he realized that the bird had shaped the stone with its wings by continuously flying in and out. He was absolutely amazed! Wings are so soft and the rock is so hard, how persistent that bird must be to erode that stone! He said to himself, “Well, I have to go back to my cave. If that bird can do that to stone, my meditation is definitely an easier thing to do than that.”
He went back and another three years passed, but still no trace of Maitreya Bodhisattva. Again Asanga said to himself, “This doesn’t make sense anymore. I have to leave my retreat.” So he left. As he was going down the mountain he heard water dripping on a stone. He went closer towards that sound and saw that soft drops of water, falling just from time to time, had actually carved a hole in the stone below. As he observed that phenomenon he again realized that he was not patient enough, he was not persistent or determined enough, and that his meditation was definitely easier to do than what the water was doing that to stone. So he went back to his cave again.
He sat for another three years but still no trace of Maitreya Bodhisattva. Again he said, “I’m leaving. This is the end.” Going down the mountain this time he saw a man sitting near the road with some iron bars beside him, and he was polishing one of the iron bars with a piece of cloth. Asanga asked him “What are you doing?” and the man said “I am making needles out of these ironbars.” Asanga looked closer and he could actually see some needles there; it was not just an attempt to do the impossible, the man was actually successful. Asanga was completely out of himself and he said, “Well now I have to go back again.”
After another three years passed without any sign of Maitreya appearing, Asanga finally decided to end his retreat. As he went down the mountain this time, he heard terrible animal screams. He came closer and saw a badly hurt dog. The dog couldn’t walk; the whole back part of his body was an open wound crawling with maggots. He wanted to help this dog, so he used his stick to remove the maggots. But the dog started to scream even more because it was very painful. Then he tried with his hands but that was also painful for the dog. He realized that if he wanted to help this dog he would have to do it with his tongue. And at the moment that he was actually removing those maggots from the wounds of the dog with his tongue, a miracle happened – the dog transformed miraculously into Maitreya Bodhisattva! Asanga said “All these years I was sitting in my cave practicing meditation and there was no trace of you.And now when I’ve left and I’m helping this dog, you suddenly appear?” Maitreya Bodhisattva said, “I was there all the time, but you were not able to see me.”
Persistence and Compassion
That story goes on but I won’t tell you the rest of it now. There are two very important things in that story. One is, obviously, persistence in practice. He tried for three years, day and night, before giving up. Then each time he came back for another three years of hard practice. All those events he experienced when he left the cave also tell us that we have to persist in our determination. Another important thing in this story is compassion, a truly necessary attitude in our practice. If there is no compassion our practice will be very much self-centered, and this is somehow a barrier, an obstacle, a hindrance.
What does it mean to have great compassion as an attitude in our practice? It means that as we practice we have to be aware that it is not just for our own sake but – well,if Isay “for all sentient beings,”that could bea bitabstract. Butlet’s say itis for all people with whom we interact, then of course it spreads further on. This kind of attitude is very important. The lack of this attitude in Asanga’s practice was the thing which prevented him from seeing Maitreya, who was there all the time. Once that attitude had arisen, he saw him immediately. So you can bring this mind of compassion to your practice. We have to be compassionate to ourselves first, and then extend that compassion to everybody else. We have to practice in this compassionate atmosphere. At the beginning of this retreat I was talking about how we have to create a relaxed atmosphere. But that’s also compassion. When we are relaxing our body, that’s how we are compassionate to ourselves. This attitude that we don’t just practice for ourselves, but that we practice for all sentient beings, is very important. It takes away the self-centered attitude and then practice goes much more smoothly. So this is something we definitely have to introduce into our practice.
A Heroic Act
But my main topic is persistence and determination; please don’t go back now to relaxing and being compassionate towards yourself, and forgetting the huatou. Don’t stop asking it with a strong determination. It’s a heroic act, to take up the huatou and work on it. Master Hanshan from the sixteenth century said that it is like going into battle with ten thousand enemies and you have the huatou as a sword. What are these ten thousand enemies? They are all other phenomena, all wandering thoughts and everything which interferes with our practice. But we take up this huatou courageously as if holding avajra sword, a diamond sword in our hand cutting through these attachments. That is strong determination – not being distracted, not being fascinated by anything, but going straight towards questioning, giving rise to the doubt sensation.
I will say again that at the beginning it seems senseless and dry, it seems nothing is happening; but we have to persist. We have to go through that stage and make the huatou really our own, become one with it. So don’t let go of the huatou. If you become very tense by working so hard on it, then consciously put it aside for a while. Relax your body and mind and then pick it up again and continue. This is a different case from when you lose the huatou by being immersed in wandering thoughts – if you really feel that working hard on it creates this kind of tension, then for a while you can put it aside and relax. Then pick it up again and continue, maintaining a relaxed body and mind while holding very tight to huatou. So let us try now to practice with more diligence and determination, with more energy, but at the same time don’t become tense. Don’t let go of your huatou. Try to glue yourself to it, stay with it all day long. The last thought in your mind before you fall asleep should be huatou. The first thought when you wake up should be huatou, and so on through the whole day. Whenever you see that you lost it, bring it back immediately.
This talk is taken from a Huatou retreat led by our teacher Žarko Andričević at the Dharma Drum Retreat Center in November, 2014.
Transcription and editing by Buffe Maggie Laffey.