* Commentary by Master Sheng-yen on May 11,1997, the sixth day of a retreat held in Poland. Edited by Ernie Heau.
As students of Buddhism in Poland, you have good karma because many meditation masters come here to teach; on the other hand your karma isn't that good because few of them stay. That has its good as well as bad points. It is good because having exposure to different teachers, different styles, you have a better chance of finding something suitable. But it can also be confusing if these teachers teach different things. You may feel that each teacher has good points, but there are so many that you may not learn much from any one of them.
Likewise, whether a teacher stays for a long or short time has good and bad points. In Ch'an history there have been many disciples who became enlightened after just one night with a master. There are also cases where a disciple, even a future patriarch, practiced with one master for ten, twenty, thirty years without getting enlightened but, after going to another master, experienced enlightenment. He would then return to his original master, who would say something like, "After all I have it available here also." So, teachers staying for a long time or a short time -- in either case it could be good or bad. Everything depends on one's karmic roots.
My own Shifu, Master Ling Yuan, had many disciples, but of all of them only two are Ch'an teachers with disciples -- myself and a younger Dharma brother. And yet, I studied with Ling Yuan only one night, and my Dharma brother stayed with him no more than a few months. It all depends on causes and conditions and your karmic roots. Therefore, with all these teachers coming here to teach meditation, you are very fortunate. Unlike myself, who had only one night with my teacher, you have me for seven days. In fact, Ling Yuan did not teach me any method of practice that night. I just asked him a lot of questions, none of which he answered. At the end he scolded me, and that was it. But if I had not been ripe, so to speak, his scolding would not have worked.
My purpose for coming to Poland is to be of some help, and I believe the previous teachers have all been correct in their ideas and views. You may not feel that we are saying the same thing, but this is because teachers express themselves in different ways. How you receive teachings depends on your situation, so at times you may feel that our teachings are contradictory. This is not necessarily the case. In any case, you don't have to accept everything, just what you are receptive to and feel you can use in your practice.
There are many levels of practice in Buddhism. On first learning a basic idea or method, some people can receive and use it quite well, but when they hear about an obscure teaching or a more advanced practice, they cannot use it. Still others are more receptive to advanced ideas and methods than they are to basic ones. This does not mean that those who can use deeper approaches are closer to enlightenment. Nor is it true that those who find basic approaches more suitable cannot learn something advanced. People enter the door of practice according to their personal disposition and causes and conditions. If you are using basic methods and concepts, it does not mean you are fixed at that level, so don't be discouraged. Those who are using more advanced methods should not feel proud or arrogant. What matters is that you use a method that is appropriate for you.
In Ch'an there is no standard way of gaining entry through a door, whether through a basic teaching or a more profound one. This differs from other traditions, for example the Tibetan. Both Ch'an and Tibetan Buddhism have levels of practice, but in the Tibetan tradition the higher the level, the higher the practice -- you move step by step upwards. Though there are levels of practice in Ch'an, realization does not come from progressing from one stage to another. You can enter from any level.
However, the common foundation between the different traditions is collecting the scattered mind. In general, you learn how to collect the mind first, then concentrate the mind, and then unify the mind, to attain no-mind. But these stages are not necessarily fixed. There are practitioners who do not enter through unified mind; from concentrated mind, it is possible to directly experience no-mind, or to go directly from ordinary to unified mind. But this is very rare. Usually one trains the mind to be collected, concentrated, unified, eventually passing on to no-mind.
As I indicated earlier, collecting the mind precedes concentrating the mind. "Collecting" connotes pulling the mind back from your external activity or attention, and beginning to fix it on your practice method.
You should at all times collect the mind, because this is quite useful. To collect the mind you can practice sitting, but more importantly, you can also use the methods in daily life. For example, you can work with the breath, you can bring forth the Mu koan, you can practice mindfulness -- paying attention to the bodily sensations, your mental reactions, the direction and intention of your mind. If you can practice well any of these methods of collecting the mind, vexations will have fewer opportunities to manifest. Your personality becomes stable and calm. You will cause less harm to yourself and others. You can truly go forward in your practice.
Upon meeting people, I do not try to assess what level they are at or if they are enlightened. I observe whether their personality and emotions are stable and whether their mind is clear. If so, I can see that they are ready for serious practice. Very seldom do I try to assess whether someone had a genuine enlightenment. I only do that when I meet someone who is very confident that they are already enlightened. Then I will chat with them to find out their state of mind.
However, other than these occasions, which are very, very rare, I do not test people, especially in interview. The interviews during the retreat are meant to resolve a student's difficulties in practice, to clarify different methods and ideas. However, some of you are coming to the interview quite nervous, perhaps thinking I will do Dharma combat with you. So I hope you will not be so tense, so nervous. On the other hand, there are those who believe that they are already enlightened, and they turn around the interview and try to test me. I do not discourse with such people, because anything I say will probably be denied by them.
However, the main point of tonight's Dharma talk, is the usefulness of collecting or reigning in the mind. In Zen, a retreat is called sesshin, which means "connecting the mind," in which the teacher's and the student's minds mutually seal, in other words, inka or sanction a transmission. This word comes from the Chinese word shexin, which means "collecting the mind." The pronunciation is similar, but the meaning has been changed somewhat. In the remaining two days, I hope you will make collecting the mind your priority. Whether in that time you will be enlightened doesn't matter. If I sanction you but then after the retreat you still have lots of vexations, still harm others, and have all sorts of negative emotions, then what's the use?
On the other hand, if by developing collected mind, you have less vexations, you become more stable and upright, and you have more harmony with other people, then I will call this retreat quite useful. If you continually practice collecting the mind, always withdrawing and collecting the mind, it is very possible you will suddenly realize that there is nothing substantial about your thoughts -- they arise, change, and then disappear, continually. And then you realize that none of these thoughts are you. If you stop identifying yourself with these thoughts, it is possible to realize no-mind. So do not belittle this mere collecting the mind; this very basic practice can be of tremendous benefit.
In Ch'an one can gain an entry at any level. For example, you don't have to go through unified mind to gain entry You may say, "Oh, this collecting the mind, it's just a beginner's practice." But you must have heard of the "beginner's mind," and you should know that the beginner's mind is the best mind.
On the other hand, I did not say that collecting the mind is enough and that you don't need other methods. Although collecting the mind is important, keep practicing, and whatever stage you get to, it will come naturally. From today's interviews, it seems some of you have reached concentrated mind, and some of you also had a taste of the unified mind. However, you should not seek after unified mind, nor should you always be concerned with what stage you are at.
Everyone had an interview today, so I don't think people have questions. Does anybody want to argue?
(Voice from the hall: I have one very short question. There is an insect here. Do you think it had any use from this talk?)
Ask that insect. Please have compassion on that sentient being and take it out.