Ultimate and Conventional Truth Are One 

* A Dharma Talk by Master Sheng Yen on November 1, 2002

(The following talk was translated live by Rebecca Li, transcribed from tape by Bruce Rickenbacker, and edited for the magazine by David Berman, with the assistance of Rebecca Li and Wei Tan.)

Have you been practicing? Yes? [laughter]

Whether we see each other or not is not so important. What is most important is that you keep practicing. So, even if we don't see each other, you should still keep practicing.

Recently, in mid-October, from the 13th to the 16th, I was in mainland China, visiting many of the historical sites of Chan Buddhism in China. In the past, I'd only been able to read histories and gongans (koans) describing the interactions between masters and their students, and I'd always wondered, where did this story happen? In the story it says it happened in a [particular] mountain, and I'd always wondered, what does this mountain look like? I never had a chance to find out until this trip. For example, the Sixth Patriarch, Master Huineng, studied under the Fifth Patriarch in a place called Huangmei - literally it means "yellow plum." What did this place called Yellow Plum look like? Also - another example - after Huineng received Dharma transmission from the Fifth Patriarch, he had to cross a river. What was this river like? And after he crossed the river, he entered a mountain called Dayu. What was this mountain like? And then, later on he finally arrived at the Monastery of the Dharma Nature? - you may have heard the famous story of him arriving there and witnessing these two monks arguing over whether it was the flag moving or the wind moving - what was that place like? This time, I had the chance to see it all, every step of the way. It was really a fantastic opportunity.

Also, when we hear about the place where Master Huineng spoke the Platform Sutra , what does that place look like? And that place has this stream called Chao - what does that stream look like? And also, there is a monastery there called Bali Monastery, and what is that place like? Again, this time, on my trip, I got a chance to see all these places.

Also, in the Caodong tradition (in Japanese the Soto tradition), Master Dongshan attained enlightenment while he was crossing a river - he looked into the water and saw his reflection and attained enlightenment there - and this time I had a chance to go to that river and look at my own reflection in the water.

Also, you may have heard of the story of what happened to Master Baizhang, the story of the wild fox. The story went like this:

When Master Baizhang was teaching e encountered an old man who asked him the question, "[For an adept] Is there karma?" Master Baizhang returned the question to the old man, "So is there karma?" And the old man told Master Baizhang that he had been asked this question before, that it had been five hundred lifetimes ago, and that he had responded, "No, there is no karma," and because of that [error], he had been reborn as a fox for five hundred lifetimes. The old man was actually the fox, and was coming to Master Baizhang for the correct answer. The Master said, "Ask me again," and the old man did, and Master Baizhang responded, "An adept does not evade karma." After hearing this response from Master Baizhang, the old man said, "You have released me from the body of the fox. Please go to a cave on the mountain to bury the body."

And I'd been wondering what this cave looked like, and this time I got a chance to see it as well. And during my visit the abbot of the monastery there gave me a gift, a calligraphy of four characters, "Bu Mei Yin Guo"? not confused about cause and effect? which are the same four words that Master Baizhang spoke in answer to the old man. As if I were also the fox coming to Master Baizhang, asking that same question.

During this visit to mainland China, I visited 27 places in six different provinces, all of them sites of origin of Chan Buddhism during the Tang Dynasty in the eighth and ninth centuries.

When I was reading these stories, I always thought of these masters as living in the mountains, on steep slopes, and when I heard of the story of Master Baizhang saying that if he didn't work the land that day, then he wouldn't eat that day, I imagined that he worked on dry land, and when I went there, I discovered that the land they cultivated is in a flat basin, and is wet, so they were working in rice paddies.

If one hasn't been to the place, it is very difficult to imagine how it looks.

There's another story about an old master working in a vegetable garden, spreading manure, and a very high government official who came in, wishing to visit this old master. He asked, "Where is Master so-and-so?" The old man replied, "What's so special about this old master? He's just like me, a regular old guy spreading manure." The minister felt that this monk was truly ignorant. How could he say that a master is just an old guy spreading manure? So he ignored the old monk, went into the monastery, and asked someone else about where Master so-and-so was, and the person in the monastery said, "That's the monk outside spreading manure."

So I was always curious what this vegetable garden looked like, and this time I got the chance to see the place, and right now that place is still a vegetable garden.

Actually, I wish I could go there right now and plant vegetables; that vegetable garden is still there.

It's truly interesting, especially if you have heard and studied these stories; if you go to these places, the feeling is completely different.

There is also another story about a disciple pushing a cart filled with tools, going to work the fields. As he entered the field, the master was sitting there with his leg sticking out on the path, so the disciple said, "Master, please move your leg," and the master said, "I'm not going to move. What are you going to do?" The disciple said, "Please move your leg. I have to pass," and the master said, "I'm not going to move. What are you going to do?" and the disciple went ahead and pushed the cart over his leg, breaking the master's leg, the master yelled in pain, and the disciple laughed. This truly was a strange story. This time, I had a chance to go to that place where this whole event happened.

Right now, that place doesn't have a master like that. If such a master still exists over there, I would like to push such a cart over his leg. [Laughter.]

This definitely takes courage, Without courage, who would dare push a cart over a master's leg?

Do you understand the meaning of this story?

Student: I think it means you have to trust your own judgments, and not let somebody else make your decisions for you.

Shifu: This is a gongan, so please continue to contemplate. [Laughs] I'm not going to give it an answer. [Laughs] In fact, everybody will come up with a different answer. If you ask a hundred people, you will get a hundred different answers to this gongan. In fact, if you work with this gongan for ten years, you will probably come up with ten different answers in the process, However, this story actually took place. It is a Chan gongan (public case).

In the place where Master Huineng approached the monastery, witnessing the two monks arguing over whether it was the wind or the flag moving, there is still a pole for a flag. There's no flag there now, but the pole was put up in memory of what took place. And when our group visited this place, there were two young monastics taking us around, and someone asked was it the wind or the flag moving, so jokingly I pointed to the two young monastics, asking them, "Which is it, the flag moving or the wind moving?" and these two monastics responded with a smile. And I said to everybody, "If one continues to ask the question, then it is your mind that is moving." So far, what we have been talking about, in these historical stories, these gongans...when I was visiting one of these monasteries, the people there asked that I give them a calligraphy, that I write some words for them using brushes. Of course these words mean something, so I wrote "Er Di Rong Tong", and the meaning of these four words is that the ultimate truth and the conventional truth are one and the same, and not different, referring to the fact that ordinary sentient beings see the conventional truth, but that enlightened beings see the ultimate truth.

Why did I give them these four characters, about the conventional and ultimate truth? It is because Chan is not separate from real life, regular daily life. Apart from the reality of daily life, there is no Chan. When I was in China, the monastic practitioners all had very big areas of land. There was one place where they had a thousand Chinese acres of land. They had planted a lot of trees, and a lot of bamboos, and they used the rest to plant vegetables and to grow food for themselves. On another mountain, the mountain where Master Baizhang was, they also have a very large piece of land, and they do the same, growing food for themselves - these monastic practitioners work in the field all day long and they meditate only at night, in the evening.

We had a chance to experience what life is like there, in the mountains - it gets dark early. When we were there, it began to get to dark around 4:30. By five o'clock, the mountains began to get blurry, because it was getting dark, so these monastic practitioners get up very early in the morning, work in the fields all day, and when it begins to get dark, they return to the monastery - in the old days, they didn't have electricity - to practice and to listen to the master's lectures, and nowadays they live the same way, except that they have electricity now.

So, what are these two truths, the ultimate truth and the conventional truth? Well, the ultimate truth means that one is able to understand the true nature of all phenomena, which for me is the nature of emptiness, and in the Chan tradition we also call that the Buddha nature. Very often people think that when one attains enlightenment and can see the Buddha nature, it means that one can open one's eyes and see the Buddha nature, or can feel some special sensation that is called Buddha nature. [Shifu chuckles] People often have this kind of idea about Buddha nature, and these are erroneous understandings of what Buddha nature is. [In the correct understanding of] Buddha nature, there is not one part of daily life that is not the Buddha nature; as for one's mind, all wandering thoughts are Buddha nature. The difference [between ultimate and conventional truth] is that [in ultimate truth] there is no attachment whatsoever to these wandering thoughts.

When wandering thoughts arise in one's mind and there's no attachment to these wandering thoughts, that is being one with the Buddha nature; when wandering thoughts arise and there is attachment, that is vexation, so Buddha nature and vexation are not different. After enlightenment, one experiences ultimate truth; before enlightenment, one experiences conventional truth. So you can see that these are not two things, but one.

Therefore, since the old times in the Chan tradition, practice has not been separated from daily life. The monastic practitioners we saw in China, spending a lot of time working in the fields - I used to think they worked on the slope of a mountainside, but they actually work in a flat field, but anyway - they spend a lot of time working in the field and only part of the day meditating. What it means is that practice and daily life are not two different things. They should not be seen as separate, although a lot of people seem to think that practice only means sitting meditation. After all, we hear that at Chan retreats you do a lot of meditation. But sitting meditation is only a part of one's life, not all of it, and practice is not only doing sitting meditation. I asked one of the monastics in China, "How much time do you spend doing sitting meditation a day?" And this practitioner said five to ten periods of sitting meditation per day, and I said, "Wow, that's a lot of time for sitting meditation. You must be enlightened, spending so much time in sitting meditation." The monastic responded, "That's not the case at all. I'm just spending the time training my legs [laughter], sitting here all this time."

Let me tell you this: In the monasteries that I visited, the practitioners that spend the most time in sitting meditation are the old monastics that can no longer work in the fields. That's why they spend a lot of time in sitting meditation.

At one monastery, I met a practitioner in his eighties, who spent a lot of time doing sitting meditation, because he couldn't work in the fields, and when he saw me, he was really happy to see me, and he told me that he and a younger monk had gone to a mountain called Putou and been to a cave called Taoyingdong, and that he had seen the image of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara on the wall of the cave, and they had taken a picture of it, and he was very happy about that, and he wanted to give me the picture as a gift because he was so proud to have seen the manifestation of the bodhisattva. And when he told me the story, I was a little surprised, thinking, "Wow! You spend such a long time - now you're in your eighties - practicing all your life, and you think the greatest thing that happened from your practice as seeing the image of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara? but nevertheless, I accepted the gift and thanked him.

Why a pity?

Why do you think I thought it was a pity? It is because he was mistaking the conventional truth for the ultimate truth.

The fact that he saw the manifestation of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara was a good thing. However, it was still an illusion, and he was mistaking this illusion for ultimate truth. The group that traveled with me, that took this pilgrimage to China, had five hundred people. We visited a monastery where a lot of people saw an image of Avalokitesvara in the sky, and somebody took a picture it. I didn't see it; I wasn't paying attention. But a lot of people saw it, and those that did were very excited about the whole experience. So at the end of the tour, when everybody reported about their experiences, quite a few of them said that had been the most important event that happened during the tour: "Wow! I saw the image of the bodhisattva in the sky!" And Guo Yuan Fa Shi said, "That was an illusion that you saw. What's so special about it? The main purpose of this tour was to see where our masters and patriarchs practiced and taught the Dharma and also, through visiting these places, to understand their inner experiences, not to see illusions in the sky." After hearing this response from Guo Yuan Fa Shi, this participant was kind of disappointed, because he thought it was such a great thing that had happened. Actually, there's no need to scold these people for getting so excited about seeing the image of the bodhisattva, for they actually saw the image, and it really happened. However, there's also no need for people to get too excited about what they saw. The fact that they saw the image means that these individuals had virtuous roots in the practice. But the important thing is to understand that ultimate truth and conventional truth are one, and not to think that they are separate. And where is the ultimate truth? Ultimate truth is in the conventional truth.

Ultimate truth means that in one's daily life one does not give rise to vexations. One does not attach to things; one does not cause suffering to oneself, and one does not cause suffering to others. If one can follow this in one's daily life, then one is in accord with the ultimate truth, and the ultimate truth is one with the conventional truth. This is what is meant by practice in daily life, and this is the function of Chan practice in one's daily life, and so, one should not be looking for the ultimate truth apart from the conventional truth.

I've finished my talk here, and I'm supposed to leave in ten minutes, so I've thought that in the remaining time, if you have any questions - in response to what I've just talked about, for example, you can raise the questions here.

Student: What's the state of these monasteries now? Are there lots of practitioners there? Are they healthy and vibrant?

Shifu: Since 1987, I've been to mainland China seven times. In general, the situation of monasteries in the north tends to be worse than those in the south; those in the south tend to be in better shape. The main thing is, after the Communist revolution in 1949, there was a period of about thirty years during which no one entered monastic life at all. Therefore, monastic practitioners of my age or older are very rare nowadays. Most practitioners are in their thirties. In a lot of monasteries the abbots are in their forties. Even those older than forty are rather rare. There are older people, even of my age, in the monasteries, but they didn't become monastics when they were very young like I did. They entered monastic life when they were much older. They are very diligent, but unfortunately it is very difficult to find a teacher there.