The Chan View of Life 

Dharma Talk by Master Sheng-yen, October 24, 1993. Edited by Linda Peer and Harry Miller


Today I will talk about the Chan (or Zen) view of human life. There are several levels of view, or understanding, of life in Chan because Buddhism does not have a single approach to life. It recognizes the fact that each individual's view of life depends on his or her understanding. If you see deeply into things, then that's your understanding. If you see only what is shallow, than that is your understanding. For example, Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha, has said that all dharmas are Buddhadharma. (Dharma with a small "d" is a technical word in Buddhism which means phenomena, including people, things, ideas, time, space, etc.) We can also say, "All dharmas are the dharma of Chan or Zen." In other words, all things great and small are in accord with the teaching of Chan. This is a deep view of life. But few of us can grasp it.


What is meant by the term "view of human life?" The phrase itself implies that human beings are different from inanimate objects, plants and other kinds of animals.


The Chinese sometimes say that we have the face of a human but the heart of an animal. This is a serious criticism. But is it true that animals are more violent, cruel, unfriendly or evil than human beings? Not necessarily. The aspects of human nature which we can describe as terrifying or even evil may be worse than what we observe in animals. On the other hand, the aspects of human nature which we can describe as virtuous, kind, and loving are better than what we find in other animals.


The Chinese term which we have translated as "human life" incorporates three ways in which humans are different from other animals. First, we differ in daily activities; second, in the process of living; and third, in what is called our "existence."


Our activities occur in the realm of space, so "human life" includes our relationships in space. Every day, from morning to night, we stay home, go to school or to the office, work, clean, cook, or whatever. We act in the space or the environment around us. What we do in space can be quite different from what is done by other animals. In addition to food and clothing, we enjoy such things as entertainment, religious and spiritual pursuits, and the appreciation of art.


What I have called "the process of living" is also different from that of animals, in that we are conscious of time. We perceive ourselves moving from yesterday to today to tomorrow, from last year to next year, and from the time we are born until we die. We have memories that go beyond the memories of animals, and from memory we have constructed history. We also have worries, regrets, concerns, and anticipation, which animals do not have.


Another way in which we are different from other animals lies in how our existence in time and space influences those around us. This is what we call the "existence" of humans. Our influence on the world results from both physical and non-physical action. For example, presumably no one here has met Karl Marx, but his ideas have had a tremendous impact on our age. Mao Zedong never visited the United States, yet his influence is felt here. When I first came to the States in the mid-seventies, I met young people who wore Mao Zedong badges. Such is the impact that one person can have on people of a different place and time. This influence of our mental and physical actions, is again very different from that of the animal realm.


To answer the question, "What is human life?" we must pose three sub-questions. What is the purpose of human activity? What is the meaning of the process of human life? What is the worth of the human existence?


Do you want to know the answers to these questions?


The "Animal" View:

If you feel that human life has no goal or purpose, you will probably feel that life is empty and without substance. If your life has no meaning, you may wonder, "Why do I bother to live?" You may feel that you are a drain on the earth's resources and that life is not worth living.


Once in China a child heard his mother say, "Living in this world is meaningless. I'm an uneducated country bumpkin. What good do I do?" This upset the child, who countered, "Mother, don't talk like that. You are very important to me!" The woman said, "Oh, really? Am I important to you?" and the boy said, "Of course! Without you, how would I survive?" The mother said, "Well, at least somebody thinks I'm useful."


This is the lowest view of human life. Here all activity is purposeless. As it would be for an animal, life is just a search for food and shelter and the need for procreation.


Is this your attitude?


Confucius said, "Food and sex, these are the human instincts." That is, the desire to continue to exist and the urge to procreate comprise the animal side of human nature.


A variation in this view of life is the simple hope that you and your children will continue to live on. To wish to live and to fear death is an animal as well as a human instinct. People, dogs, rats and even fish have this instinct.


Yet another variation is to believe that your existence is spontaneous, without cause, so you drift and let situations determine themselves.


Do you recognize that there are people who live their lives according to these animal level views of human life?


People often ask, "Why am I alive? Why do I have to live like this? Why do I suffer like this?"


I say, "It is because you are ignorant and lack wisdom that you live and suffer as you do." They often protest: "Well, somehow I was born. I don't know any better, so I'll just continue to live as I have always done." Far too many people do not know why they live as they do, and resign themselves to their fate.


Just yesterday someone asked, "Shih-fu, how much karmic debt do I have? Can I be so indebted that I must suffer so much for so long? When will I finish repaying my debt to other beings?" I said, "It is not to me that you owe the karmic debt. I cannot tell you when it will be repaid."


We are often unaware that we have such views.


The Deluded View:

We might term a second view of life the deluded or foolish perspective. This is a slight step above the animal view. Here people believe what is important is to fight and struggle for protection, safety, and security. Such people buy houses, land, or accumulate wealth to protect their security and that of their children and descendants.


There is a Chinese story about an important official who paid a visit to a monk. Unlike most monks, this monk lived in a tree. The official saw the monk sitting there in the branches of this tall tree, and said, "Master, you are in a very dangerous situation." The monk answered, "I am not in any danger, but you, however, are in a dangerous situation." The official asked, "How can I be in a dangerous situation? I am head of the local government. I am protected by many people. How can my situation be dangerous?" The master said, "The four elements constantly vex you." (Earth, water, fire and wind, which the ancient Chinese believed constitute the physical world.) "The processes of birth, sickness, old age and death can affect you at any time. The vexations of greed, anger, ignorance and arrogance are your constant company. And you say you're not in a dangerous situation." The official was intelligent and had karmic roots for wisdom. He understood immediately: "Master, indeed, I am in a position far worse than yours."


Human beings are deluded. In this world, there is no truly safe place. Try to find safety and security, and you only place yourself in greater danger and insecurity.


A variation of this deluded view is the belief that the purpose of life is to struggle for fame, fortune, and position. Accumulate wealth, and you may then wish to be well-known. Fame may not be enough, and you will next seek power and authority. Many people have this view. They believe that if they do not work hard and achieve, life holds no purpose.


Do you have this attitude?


Satisfaction of your pretensions is a third variation of the deluded view of life. By pretensions, I mean a self image or reputation lacking in substance. For instance, your means are modest, yet you dress in such a way that people will think you're wealthy. Perhaps you are not particularly learned, but you carry scholarly books around to impress people. This is pretentiousness, and some people think that creating an image is the purpose of life. They will do whatever is necessary toward that end.


Another variation of the deluded view is the belief that life's purpose is to triumph over others. Some cannot accept the fact that there are others who have achieved more than they. They work and strive with all their heart, just to outdo everyone else. Then they are proud and arrogant. If they fall behind, they grow discouraged and lose all faith in themselves. They compete with others their whole lives until they finally die.


A person with a deluded view of life is like a dog chasing his own tail. He believes that it is another dog's tail. He chases the other dog around and around a tree thinking only, "Just let me get that dirty dog!" He will never catch his own tail, just as neither wealth, power, success, nor prestige will guarantee our security. Eventually the dog dies, as do we. At that moment the dog dies, he does not know what he was about or why he dies. He is unaware that he has been chasing his own tail. Such is the deluded view of life, and many, many of us live this way.


The View of Worldly Wisdom:

If these are deluded views, what view does a wise person hold? Here we are speaking about worldly wisdom, and we mean someone who lives according to principled ideals and goals. Most of us like to believe we fall into this category, rather than among the deluded.


A wise worldly outlook is typified by an artist devoted to beauty and its rendering. In the process, the artist may be beautified and so also the world. An internal experience of beauty may transform the environment. Inside and outside are not experienced as separate. Such a person recognizes that the whole universe is really one creative work of art.


There are many kinds of art. The process of creating a work of art can be a painful process, but when the work is finished, seeing or hearing the finished product can be a beautiful experience, both for the creator and the audience.


Often the world seems beautiful to the artist while he or she is involved in the work. But once the artist must deal with the ordinary world, life may not seem so wonderful. I know a painter whose work is truly beautiful. He is happy when he talks about paintings and art with other people. But when the conversation shifts away from art, he becomes irritable and bad tempered. He makes life difficult for his wife and friends.


In China we consider the martial arts to be a form of art like painting or poetry. In Taiwan there was a well-known T'ai-chi master, who no doubt found life beautiful and peaceful when he was involved with T'ai-chi, but whose personal life was a mess. He drank a great deal, and finally died of alcoholism.


Artists may experience beautiful moments, moments of non-separation between self and not-self, but these are transitory. Life is not always beautiful. More often than not, it is the not-so-beautiful aspects of ordinary life that we experience.


Some scientists, whose lives are devoted to the analysis and observation of the physical world, exhibit the wise view of life. They behold the enormous universe and they investigate minute atomic particles. They experience the limitlessness of nature, and from that derive the limitlessness of what is within them. They may observe only matter, but with their keen understanding they extrapolate unlimited totality. Can they posit the meaning of life? That is unlikely.


A scientist once said to me, "Shih-fu, science and Buddhism reach the same conclusions, so if I pursue science, there is no need to study Buddhism." I said, "What kind of conclusion is that?" "Buddhism," he said, "says that there is no limit to phenomena. Science has also come to the same conclusion. Buddhism says all phenomena are empty, and science, in its analysis of matter at the most minute level, also finds no real substance. The conclusions are identical." I responded, "No, they are completely different. Can science tell you why you were born into this world?" He said, "Oh, that' simple. My mother gave birth to me." I asked, "Why did your mother give birth to you and not to someone else?" and he answered, "My mother gave birth to me, and that's enough. It was not necessary that she have a different child." Again I asked, "Then why were you born to this mother and not another?" He had no answer for that, so I said, "This shows that you are unclear about such fundamental questions: you do not have the answers." Finally, I asked, "Why have you come into this world and this life? Where will you go from here?"


Science may show you that phenomena are limitless and empty, but it cannot answer questions about the purpose of human life, and what will happen to you after death. That is why many scientists come to adopt a religious faith of some kind or another, and believe in God or another deity. Even Einstein was religious. In Taiwan, scientists often become Buddhists, because science cannot answer the fundamental questions about human existence.


Philosophers may be wise. They live according to thought-through ideas, and they consciously strive to incorporate their ideals and principles into daily living. Through logic, they conclude that certain ideas are reasonable and should be held. Idealism, materialism, humanism, existentialism and phenomenology are examples of such philosophies. Philosophers can live according to what they believe to be true. Ideas inform their lives.


Some philosophers may believe that they will be outlived by their ideas. Many such people face death contentedly as long as they believe their ideas, creations and contributions will endure. However, we know that for thousands of years one philosophy has been refuted by another. Think of the recent re-evaluation of Marxism.


The religious constitute another group who seek wisdom. A religious person lives his life according to principles and recognized goals, and governs his life according to his faith in God. The meaning of his life is based on obeying God's law and on the anticipation of joining God in his heavenly kingdom after death.


The individual and God are, on one hand, connected together; on the other hand, they are independent. This remedies a weakness of the artist, the scientist and the philosopher. These people run the risk of losing their identity in merging with their art, science or philosophy. However, a person who believes in God sees himself as having an independent eternal identity, or soul. For many people it is important to have this sense of independent, eternal identity. Otherwise they feel empty.


The Chan View:

There is a fourth view that is higher still than these other perspectives, and it is the foundation of the Chan view of life. It is the view that life's purpose is enlightenment, the dissolving of the self. We must pass through three stages to arrive at enlightenment. First, we must affirm ourselves, second, mature ourselves and third, dissolve ourselves. This is called the realistic view of human life because it is grounded in ultimate reality.


To affirm oneself is to affirm the purpose, goal, meaning and worth of one's life and to be willing to look at oneself honestly and clearly. People ask, "Why were we born into this world and this life?" We are here to receive our karmic retribution, and also to fulfill our aspirations or vows.


We must understand that in one lifetime, our actions (which create karmic retribution), and the results of those actions (retribution), are relatively limited compared to the myriad of lives we have lived through. What we do and what we receive often do not correspond. Some people seem not to have done much good, and yet are born with wealth or find easy success. Others work hard their whole lifetime, yet can barely feed themselves. They achieve nothing, have unfulfilling relationships, and seem to have lives filled with vexation and suffering.


Why are there such disparities? To answer this, we must understand karmic retribution. This lifetime was preceded by innumerable previous lifetimes, during which we acted in many different ways. The consequences of these actions reach into this lifetime and future lifetimes until we have received the full karmic retribution for what we have done. One reason why we were born this time around is to pay back karmic debt from previous lifetimes.


This answers the question I posed to the scientist, "Why are we born into this world?" I, myself, was born with many physical problems and was often sick. I asked myself, "Why is my health so poor? Was my mother unfair, bringing a healthy brother and sister into the world, and me so sickly?" Now I understand that this was not my mother's doing. She had no choice. Our body at birth is the result of all our previous lifetimes. But many of us feel that where and when we were born and our whole lot in life is unfair.


A few years ago I went back to mainland China and met with my elder brother. He said, "You have the most merit and best karma among our brothers and sisters." In childhood I envied his health; now he envies what he sees as my achievement in life. I said, "Brother, how many hours a night do you sleep?" He answered, "From six to eight." and I said, "I don't have your good luck or good karma. I only get four and five hours of sleep a night." Then I asked my brother, "What kind of food do you eat?" and he said, "Vegetables, bean curd, carrots, etc., and sometimes meat and fish." I said, "I'm not so fortunate. I only eat bean curd and vegetables, never meat and seafood."


Then I asked, "Brother, how many people do you have to meet each day?" He said, "Not too many. My family is small, and I'm retired. I don't have that much to do." I said, "Every day I have to meet many, many people. Again, I don't have your good karma. It shows that I have come into this world to repay my debt." After I said these things, my brother felt much better.


Sunday is a day off, but what a pity: I have to give a talk here. I have indeed come into this world to accept my karmic retribution.


We have also come into this world to fulfill our aspirations and vows. A "vow" in Buddhism is the strongest promise or pledge that one can make.


Every one of us has aspirations and has made pledges and vows. Isn't that true?


I believe that every one here has made promises and pledges to ourselves and to others in this lifetime, as well as in previous lifetimes. When I was in the army, many years ago, I liked to read, but I did not have money to buy books. A sympathetic friend said, "When I have enough money, I'll open a bookstore so you'll have all the books you want." I was grateful and prayed to Avalokitesvara in the hope that my friend would succeed in opening his bookstore. We both made promises. My friend promised to open a bookstore so that I could have books, and I pledged my help through my faith in the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.


He still hasn't opened the bookstore. I'm still waiting. Perhaps even in the next lifetime, I will find myself asking, "When are you going to open your bookstore?" Maybe he'll say, "You said that you were going to pray to Avalokitesvara for my bookstore. It hasn't happened and it's your fault."


Hasn't every one of us made many promises that we didn't keep? People in love promise all sorts of things, but they conveniently forget them when they are married.


Any promise not fulfilled will eventually have to be repaid. We enter the world to fulfill our obligations and repay our debts. Promises or vows even to someone we're not indebted to must still be fulfilled.


When people take advantage of you or make you unhappy, you need not think, "I'm indebted to these people and must pay them back in this lifetime." Consider it this way: "I promised some thing in a past life, so what I suffer now fulfills that promise.


Thus far, I have spoken about affirming the self, one's goals, and seeing the self as it is. We must then bring ourselves to maturity, transcend ourselves and transform ourselves from ordinary sentient beings to Bodhisattvas.


The process of maturing involves both leaving behind concern for your self, and reorienting yourself to the benefit of other sentient beings. Then you will be ready to bear inconvenience, trouble, suffering, and vexation on others' behalf. To save sentient beings from suffering, as Buddhists vow to do, requires that you give whatever is needed, time, money, or all your effort. When you give, it may seem that you lose something. A Bodhisattva pays no attention to loss. It is the responsibility to other sentient beings that is important.


To voluntarily abandon your own benefit, to actively help and when necessary suffer for the sake of sentient beings is the correct attitude. When our actions in the interest of others are voluntary, our own suffering diminishes. It is when suffering and vexation are involuntary, that they are difficult to bear. Those on the bodhisattva path must disregard their own benefit, despite the discomfort this may bring. Even if the sentient beings we help do not express gratitude, we will have no regrets. This is wisdom and compassion, and way of a bodhisattva.


The third and final stage of development according to Chan is complete freedom from the self. At this point one passes from the bodhisattva level to Buddhahood. After we have completely let go of the self, we return the benefit of our achievement to society and the world. Personal benefit is of no concern. We offer everything, whatever we own and whatever we have achieved to all beings everywhere. Yet we have no feeling of having gained or lost anything. Sentient beings may benefit from our efforts, but we experience no loss or gain. This is no-self, the stage of deep enlightenment.


If you realize deep enlightenment, you will no longer need to listen to me talk about views of life, because you will no longer have a view of life. In Chan, the final, transcendent view of human life is no view of human life. What is there, then, to be said?


To have a view of life is the condition of ordinary sentient beings. To transcend this idea is the condition of a deeply enlightened being. Such a person will rise to whatever task must be done.


There are many Chan kung-ans which illustrate this point. In one, a monk asks, "What is the place where not one single blade of grass grows?" The master answers, "When you step outdoors, every place is full of fragrant grass." And then he adds, "You can go all over the world, and you will see no fragrant grass." I can rephrase the question as, "What is the one place where you cannot see a single blade of grass?" The answer is very special and seems quite strange. "No matter where you look, fragrant grass is everyplace." followed by, "You may walk all over the world, but you will see no fragrant grass." If every place is filled with fragrant grass, then you will not recognize it or you will not even give it a name. For example, if every being in this world is a dog, then there will be no reason to call anything "dog." The reality of life is apparent everywhere. It is just a matter of realizing it. But if you purposefully look for reality, you will never find it.


Another kung-an tells about two Chan monks who were traveling, and passed by an isolated, deserted temple. One monk needed to urinate, so he urinated in the temple hall, in front of the Buddha statue. The other monk scolded him: "Look, the Buddha is here. How can you urinate here?" The first monk said, "Tell me where Buddha is not, and I'll urinate there." The other monk said, "Buddha is everywhere." The first monk happily said, "In that case, I can urinate everywhere."


I spoken about four levels of view or understanding of human life, and about transcending these views. I hope we are not at the first level, the animal level. Maybe you recognized yourself when I talked about the deluded level, or the third level, the level of the worldly wisdom of artists, philosophers, etc. We should all work towards the fourth level, the view of human life grounded in ultimate reality, and we should vow to eventually transcend the need for a view of human life. Let us strive to fulfill that vow.


Q & A


Question: Where does our ignorance come from?

Answer:In Buddhism we speak of "ignorance without beginning." The concept of "without beginning" is something that is unique to Buddhism. In general, philosophies and religions speak of a "first beginning," but Buddhism does not. Buddhism speaks of "beginningless". When people ask, "Where does this 'beginningless' come from?" Shakyamuni Budhha himself chose to remain silent and give no reply. How could I dare to try to answer it? To try to address this question intellectually is a trap.