Bhikkhuni Triệt Như – The Fount of Happiness – No 5
Translated into English by Như Lưu
Have you ever looked at the drops of rainwater that stay on leaves and flowers after a downpour? Once the clouds have cleared, the sun reappears and through the trees’ canopy, its rays touch the drops of rainwater and make them scintillate. As I sat inside the classroom at the monastery and looked out the window, I saw innumerable diamond-like drops of water on green leaves and slender flower petals that receive the sunlight and reflect it into dancing colors. The drops of rainwater then gather together, become heavy, and shaken by the breeze, roll down and fall to the ground. They vanish discreetly, without making any noise. A human life is just like that. After sparkling for many years with young hair and rosy lips, laughing and weeping, it suddenly vacillates and flutters for a few days, then falls silent, soundless. Raindrops fall on the ground, autumn leaves fall on the ground, we too will one day rejoin the earth.
The young pepper tree leaves outside my window also sparkle with tiny drops of dew early in the morning, and as the sun rises higher, they scintillate like small and colorful diamonds. They tremble gracefully under the gentle breeze as if they are dancing to a celestial harmony. There is no sound, not a note of music, not a human voice, only the vast silence of nature.
These drops and rainwater and small leaves are reminding us to live in accordance with the laws of nature. Everything that appear before our eyes are formed by the coming together of innumerable things, and as such they change and transform constantly without ever standing still. Therefore, as long as we are present on this earth, let us live with a mind as pure as a sparkling drop of rainwater, whether it falls on a leave or a flower petal. Let us live our life with joy, spontaneity, energy and innocence like the leaves that are dancing in great harmony under the gentle breeze.
Each of us has this mind. It is as clear as a crystal, not colored in green, red, purple or yellow. But when it is illuminated by the light of wisdom, it emits all sorts of bright colors, comes up with skillful actions in every circumstance, can be as hard and indestructible as a diamond, and has the power to shatter delusion, unwholesomeness, and suffering.
We need to realize that each of us has this crystal-pure mind. Until then, we will keep wandering in search of spiritual teachers, trying to find the truth in sutta and books, or on the internet, or in famous spiritual retreats or workshops. If we feel happy, sad, or occasionally irritated, if we find ourselves worrying about some problem of the world, this certainly means that we haven’t realized that we possess within ourselves an invaluable treasure of bliss.
Some of you might argue:
- “Everyone knows that we all have Buddha-nature. The suttas say that very clearly!”
Then, why do we still feel concern and doubt:
- “The suttas say that the gem is in the fold of our robe, so why I haven’t found it?”
We know that we have an invaluable treasure, but this knowledge hasn’t turned into a clear cognitive knowledge. We haven’t understood all of its properties and functions, and this is why we are still looking for it outside, on the “other shore”, or in the fold of the master’s robe.
The suttas contain this sentence: “Turning inward and observing your mind is your main duty, you will not attain anything by turning to other people”. When Zen master(Daimei Fachang) studied under master (Mazu Daoyi), he focused on four words “Like mind, like Buddha”, attained realization then retired to a mountain top in solitary retreat. This story showed that he had indeed high spiritual faculty and sharp wisdom.
Bodhidharma, first patriarch of Chinese Zen, taught his disciple(Dazu Huike) to aim for the same goal: to keep the mind stable, free from thoughts, free from attachment to the external world:
“Outside, cut all attachments
Inside, stop all thoughts
Keep your mind strong like a wall
This is how you attain the truth.”
The clearest example comes from the Buddha and his sangha. The Buddha taught and upheld the need of living a life of seclusion, for himself and for his disciples. This is an important requirement, we might say the most critical, the most absolute requirement, and probably the only requirement of the spiritual path.
How can I call this the only requirement? In the times of the Buddha, a new bhikkhu would make the renunciation vow, receive from the Buddha a study topic, then retire in a forest of his/her choosing to immerse him/herself in the topic. After a while, he/she attained a complete understanding of the topic, as well as stillness of mind. His/her mind became illuminated, he/she knew that all mental defilements have been eliminated, and cognized: “Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, after the present life there is no more coming to any state of being”
The suttas simply and succinctly say that bhikkhus completed the renunciation vow then retired in isolation in the forest. They evidently still needed to seek alms from the villagers in order to survive.
Let us examine what are the effects of seclusion on the spiritual practice. First it brings seclusion from family life, which is the bind of love so difficult to severe. Once this tie has been cut, the practitioner experiences much less sorrow and attachment. The Buddha once said: “Family life is limiting, the path is littered with the dust of life...” He also noted: “A loved one is a source of suffering”.
The second effect of seclusion is seclusion from society, crowds and noisy gatherings. The bhikkhu retires into the forest to practice. This is consistent with the Middle Path that eschews both extreme austerity and a life of indulgence, a path the Buddha himself followed.
As a result, desires gradually disappear: greed, desire for possessions, lusting for carnal love, desire for fame and status, desire for food and rest. Attaining the pure mind is attaining nibbāna, arahat-hood, which is a state still far removed from Buddha-hood. As arahats have yet developed the complete wisdom, they are not deemed to have attained the “utter and complete enlightenment” of Buddha-hood. However, arahats have liberated themselves from suffering, they live the tranquil life free from concerns, and when they leave this world they will enter nibbāna instead of being reborn. In other words, they will then attain the ultimate liberation.
Let us return to matters close to us. Since the beginning of 2020, due to the corona virus pandemic, authorities around the world have ordered the population to isolate themselves, limit travels and public gatherings, and wear face masks in order to protect themselves and others. Now, in mid-2021, most of us have been vaccinated and life is gradually returning to normality. Let us examine our spiritual progress during this past period.
Society seems to have experienced a high degree of upheaval. People have lost their jobs, businesses have failed, some people have lost their lives, others seem to have lost direction in their lives. Natural disasters have added to upheavals created by the pandemic, such as wild storms, floods, earthquakes, and bushfires happening everywhere. Those of us who are caught in the vortex of life may easily develop feelings of despondence, anger, madness, and hatred.
On the other hand, despite the challenges of the last year, some of us who live by the teaching of the Buddha, who understand the truths that govern human life – namely impermanence, continual change and transformation, inevitability of birth-aging-illness-death and truth of suffering – have managed to keep their equanimity and accepted the painful changes in life.
In the last year, as we had to limit our outings, we had the opportunity to stay more at home. It feels like we are in constant retreat or living in seclusion. This is especially true for me who live at the monastery which is located in a remote area in the hills where properties are set on more than 4 hectares of land. We never see our neighbors. We don’t hear human voices coming from neighbors. When I go out into the garden, I only hear the birds singing, each with their own song. Occasionally, I hear a dog barking or a rooster crowing in the distance. As I have been spending the whole year at the monastery, I have come to know the flowers in the garden. In spring we have red prunus, white prunus, pink bi-color prunus, purple moss-rose purslane (portulaca grandiflora, V: hoa mười giờ or “10 o’clock flower”), oleander (V: hoa trúc đào), golden rain tree (cassia fistula, V: hoa hoàng hậu or “queen flower”), 10-petal mai flower (ochna interregima), snow-white Chinese sacred lily (narcissus tazetta, V: hoa). In summer we have purple royal poincana (V: hoa phượng), often fog in the morning and a hot sun at midday. In autumn we have golden leaves, autumn rain, white clouds over blue sky, a strong breeze and fallen leaves. Winter in California is mild, trees and plants just take a short rest and, following a few showers, come back to life and sprout new buds for early spring flowers. All seasons are bursting with life, each has its own beauty. A rose rises its stem high, confident and independent. A bamboo prints its sharp silhouette over the blue sky, a white prunus releases its pure scent in the middle of a cold winter night, a small hare darts about the garden, wrapping its small mouth around the garden tap to get some drops of water.
It seems to me that the whole world is represented in our small patch of land. We have people, animals, old trees, flowers, fruit trees, white clouds and blue sky, moonlight, rain and sunshine, breeze and gale, hot and cold. The few monks who permanently live at the monastery continue to lead their peaceful life, watering the plants in the morning, taking a rest at midday, and watering the plants again when it cools down in late afternoon. Each takes care of their own corner of garden, going about their business in silence, not indulging in idle talk, ignoring news of earthquakes, floods, demonstrations and violence in the world. They naturally become detached from events in the world and have the opportunity to turn inward and observe their mind. The pandemic-induced isolation has indeed helped us live the life of seclusion and listen to the “dhamma” expounded by trees and plants. We gain a profound experience that the true dhamma is everywhere, that the Buddha is truly present in the whole universe across past, present and future. So is the sangha. The silent sound of the dhamma resonates day and night. Is there anything that does not follow the everlasting truths taught by the Buddha: dependent origination and co-dependent arising, impermanence, continual change and transformation, emptiness and illusionary nature of phenomena.
What brings more joy than the clear cognition of the truths taught by the suttas? This is true happiness, that comes from inside ourselves and not from outside. The fount of happiness is thus wisdom, or right knowledge, or right view. In contrast, suffering and sorrow comes from ignorance.
Thankfully, ignorance is also subject to the law of impermanence and change and transformation. Once sufficient causal conditions are present, ignorance turns into wisdom. Wisdom is truly the essence of ignorance.
Suffering and sorrow are also impermanent. Their essence is emptiness and illusion, they are just like a dream. Everything are like the clear drop of dew that rolls, falls to the earth and disappears when shaken by the gentle breeze.
Suffering and sorrow makes us feel tired, disheartened, irritated. Furthermore, they spill onto our parents, our family, and friends who also feel tired and don’t want to come near us. They are like the corona virus who spread quickly with contact. We have been trying to avoid the corona virus, why don’t we also try to avoid the virus of suffering and sorrow? The whole world is trying to get vaccinated, we will all need two shots to feel reassured. So, those of you who are in suffering and sorrow, please hurry to get your first shot: the conventional truth of wisdom that teaches impermanence, dependent origination, co-dependent arising; and then your second shot: the ultimate truth of wisdom that teaches that the essence of the world is emptiness and illusion. What comes next?
Everything that we cling to, aspire in life falls away. Desire and infatuation disappears, our mind is at peace, free of thoughts and aspiration. We attain non-self, non-dwelling and therefore liberation. We suddenly realize that nothing has been binding us, nothing in the world has been trying to attract us. So, why do we keep being reborn to repay our life debts? It is all caused by our own ignorance. Switch on your light and see that ignorance is unreal. Where there is wisdom, ignorance disappears. If ignorance is unreal, what about wisdom? If there is no ignorance, who needs wisdom?
So, why do we practice spirituality?
We do so to attain wisdom.
But we just say that wisdom is not real.
But as long as we have not escaped ignorance, we still need wisdom.
Master’s Hall, the 5th of June, 2021
Link to Vietnamese article: http://tanhkhong.org/a1998/triet-nhu-snhp005-nhu-giot-mua-trong