* Spoken by Master Sheng-Yen during retreat, May 29, 1982
In the Ming dynasty there was a master named Han-Shan who taught people how to practice by using one word: she: ( ,"let go of"). What does this mean? Whenever a thought arises, drop it immediately. "Dropping doesn't mean resisting or trying to throw it away. It just means to ignore it. If you don't seem to be getting anywhere in your meditation practice, the main reason is that you are unable to let go. While you are paying very clear attention to your method, perhaps a stray thought may appear. This is very common, especially in the beginning. But don't let it disturb you. Discovering a stray thought should cause you to put more effort into staying with your present method. Problems with stray thoughts fall into two categories: 1) You discover the thought, but can't make it go away. The more you try to chase it away, the more thoughts come up. 2) By the time you discover your thoughts, it's already too late, and you've already gone off the track in a whole train of wandering thoughts. The first type can be compared to being surrounded by flies while eating something sweet. If you wave your arms about, the flies will just disperse and swarm back again. The best way to deal with this problem is not to bother with flies, or else you'll never finish eating. As soon as you've eaten the food, the flies will naturally disappear. The second type is similar to dozing off on top of a horse, so you are not aware when he leaves the path and starts wandering around in all directions to graze on grass. When you are mentally fatigued or physically weak you may not be aware of your wandering thoughts. When you finally do realize it, a few minutes may have passed. But don't get upset. Anxiety will just cause more thoughts to come again. Instead of regretting that you wasted a lot of time immersed in wandering thoughts, just relax your mind and go back to your method.
There are many levels to the practice of letting go. The first step is to let go of the past and future and just concentrate on the present. It seems easy but it's not. Any stray thought whatsoever is definitely connected with the past or the future. At the second level, we must even let go of the present moment, which consists of two parts - the "outside," or the environment, and the "inside," which can be further divided into the body and the mind. First we must give up the outer environment, because all thoughts come about through the contact of the environment with our physical senses. If we weren't aware of anything outside it would be impossible for thoughts to even arise. Temperature, cars, birds, the wind, noises of people walking in front of you, light or darkness, someone breathing loudly, all influence you to give rise to various thoughts. Since it is impossible to meditate in a place where absolutely nothing will disturb you from outside, the only way is to let go. Until you reach the point of concentrating only on your mind and body, and not on the environment, you will still hear noises from outside. But instead of getting annoyed at them, just drop them as they arise.
After letting go of the outer environment, the next step is to let go of yourself. The first stage is to let go of your body. Long ago there was a great Chan practitioner who always fell asleep while meditating. In order to combat the problem, he arranged it so that his meditation seat was situated on top of a rock at the edge of a cliff. He knew that if he were to doze off, he would fall head first down the ravine. A person like this will practice very well because he no longer cares about his body. He is prepared to die if he does not practice well. So if you're always worried about your body, if you are aware of all kinds of discomfort, such as being hot, cold, sore back, pain in the legs, itching, and if you constantly desire to scratch yourself, relieve your legs, indulge your body, then you will never enter a good condition of meditation. Some people may think that it would be easier not to think about the body than to give up the whole environment. But actually it is extremely difficult not to pay attention to your body. When you have an itch, it seems the longer you try to endure it, the worse it gets. If you just scratch it, the problem would disappear immediately. But this is false reasoning, because once you give in and scratch it, another part of your body will itch. This will go on forever. If you just ignore it, however, it will slowly disappear and no further itching will arise. There is a similar way to handle pain. When you feel a pain, you should not tense up until it seems that your whole body is painful. You should relax and isolate the pain, by saying to yourself, "It's just my knee that's hurting. It has nothing to do with the rest of me." The second step is to just watch the pain to see how painful it will get, with the attitude that you don't care about your body anyway. It will get more painful, but in the end it will disappear. After that happens, you can work on your method very well again. If you just keep single-mindedly on the method, eventually you will forget even the existence of your body, and only your concentration will remain. When only concentration remains and there is no environment and no body, at that point there is still one thought left. The final step is to let go of even that one thought. And that would be letting go of the mind.