Sharing From The Heart – No 98:
CLIMBING THE MOUNTAIN
Translated into English by Như Lưu
Narrated by Phương Quế
Bhikkhuni Triệt Như – Sharing From The Heart – No 98
Translated into English by Như Lưu
CLIMBING THE MOUNTAIN
Our Master Thích Thông Triệt used to say: “Practicing Stillness (samādhi) meditation is like grasping at moss to climb the mountain”. Real mountaineers use steel anchors and rope to help them up the mountain. For us, we may just get our mind into a state of non-verbal awareness at a “snap of our fingers” (as our Master used to say), but at the blink of an eye, thoughts inserted themselves in our mind as quickly as we “snap our fingers”! This is the reason why Stillness meditation is so hard to master.
Ancient Zen masters had also experienced this arduousness. Chinese Zen Master Bàng Long Uẩn (Pang Jushi) exclaimed: “Hard! Hard! Hard! Three tons of sesame oil spread on the pole”. When I was a young child, there were martial art troops who would come to my neighborhood to perform. Among the acts was a game where people need to climb up a pole covered in oil to reach the prize-money hung at the top of the pole. People would slide down as soon as they manage to make some little progress.
Chinese Zen history has another quote: “The path of Thạch Đầu is slippery!” (Thạch Đầu Hi Thiên, or Shitou Xiquian, was an 8th century Chinese Zen master; he lived under the Tang dynasty and was a contemporary of master Mã Tổ Đạo Nhất, or Mazu Daoyi). In the Ten Stages of Development of the Bodhisattva, the 5th stage is named “The Stage of the Mastery of Utmost Difficulties” and refers to the mastery over the mind’s verbal chattering. However the difficulty, this bridge on the path of Stillness needs to be crossed in order to reach the treasure trove of our transcendental wisdom. Let us now attempt to climb the mountain and learn how the Buddha and Buddhist masters taught us to climb.
1. Worldly mind: our starting point is at the bottom of the mountain. The Buddha taught us that every person has the potential for enlightenment. But, as we live in the world, we find that life is often filled with bitterness, sadness and suffering interspersed by a few instances of happiness. We struggle to find a way out and think that we may have to endure until the end of our life.
2. Awakening: then, as a result of some favorable causal conditions, we suddenly awaken and decide to find refuge in the Buddha’s teaching. The awakening may be triggered by the passing of our elderly parents as we feel orphaned and need a teacher, someone who we can lean on and seek advice when turmoil hits our family. Or it may be caused by the passing of a friend still in the vigor of youth, as we realize that impermanence is a law that does not wait until people becomes old or ill. We look around us and see that many of our relatives have left this world. Where they have gone, we don’t really know. We look at ourselves and realize that our life has seen much wandering, worry and sorrow. We notice some gray hair on our head. When will be our turn to go, what can we take with us then? We have been working hard half our life and managed to own a house and a car, but now our hair is no longer black, our lips no longer rosy, our eyes no longer clear, and yet our duties towards our parents are still un-fulfilled. Deep in our mind, we always knew that there is only one path to follow, the path pioneered by the Buddha, if we wish to make our life worthwhile and free from suffering.
3. Non-verbal awareness: we start to join spiritual seminars. We try several methods to gain a better understanding of the spiritual path. What method accords with our life objectives? What teaching accords with the true teaching of the Buddha? What practice methods are clear, practical and science-based? Once we have chosen a method, we will need to muster the resolve to follow it to its completion. Resolve is a very important factor on the spiritual path. It was referred to as “decisiveness” in the Ten Stages of Development of the Bodhisattva and “adherence to steadfast principles” by our Master. We need wisdom first to discern the right and wrong paths. The ultimate guiding criterion is the teaching of the Buddha which promotes adherence to precepts, morality and pure conduct, and development of wisdom, compassion and harmony. However, how can we tell which practice method is the correct one? This is not a simple matter. We may gain an idea by observing the conduct of master and students. Does the master emanate wisdom and compassion? Do students show by their behavior, speech, and comportment that they are living the teaching? Once we have chosen our path, we need to commit ourselves by enrolling into classes according to their level and suitability to our own level of spiritual development. We need to be eager without being impulsive. We need to patiently study, understand and practice.
The Buddha’s teaching aims at reaching the “heartwood”. The heartwood of the spiritual path is liberation. In the “Longer Simile of the Heartwood” sutta (Majjhima Nikāya, MN29), the Buddha taught that the immobile mind is the liberated mind. How can we keep our mind immobile? When we are non-attached to whatever happens in front of us, our mind is immobile and still. The mind is still when there is no inner talk arising in it. For this reason, non-verbal awareness is the prime means to keep the mind immobile.
Our Fundamental Meditation course aims at helping students experience non-verbal awareness, even if it is just for a few seconds. We then need to practice in order to maintain this state of non-verbal awareness for longer. This is the most difficult step in the practice of meditation. Why is this so? Because our mind has the tendency to project itself outward, towards memories of the past, plans for the future or attachments in the present. The Buddha advised us to use precepts as a tool to help control the mind: forgoing greed and anger, not longing for worldly things, maintaining purity of speech, not committing evil actions, not harming others and ourselves.
4. Awake awareness: in our daily activities we remind ourselves to maintain at all times a clear awareness, without adding anything to it. For example: when we eat we are aware of eating, when we drink we are aware of drinking, when we walk we are aware of walking etc. If we continually maintain this practice, we will also find ourselves strictly adhering to precepts: not having evil thoughts, not saying evil speech, not committing evil actions. From the foundation of non-verbal awareness, we progress further into a state of silent awareness that is more stable and lasts longer, which we can call awake awareness. We gradually develop a calm and silent comportment and stay away from petty and meaningless disputes. Our comportment radiates composure, our face harmony, and our speech kindness. Our health improves. As our potential for enlightenment develops, we find that new creative ideas spontaneously arise.
5. Condensed cognition: everything that we experience during our spiritual practice is stored in our long term memory and becomes part of our cognition. When this knowledge stays still in our memory, we call it condensed cognition. Likewise, our experiences of non-verbal awareness are stored in our non-verbal cognition. When they occur repeatedly they create an imprint in our mind that allows us to bring this state of non-verbal awareness into our mind whenever we raise the intention to do so. At this stage, our non-verbal awareness has become pure emptiness and tranquility.
6. Suchness mind: together with practicing Stillness meditation, we need to develop an understanding that the essence of human beings is emptiness, illusion and suchness. Once we have attained a deep understanding of these topics, we can “drop” them into the frame of our “empty and tranquil mind”.
If we drop the topic of emptiness into the empty and tranquil mind, we have Emptiness Samādhi.
If we drop the topic of illusion into the empty and tranquil mind, we have Illusion Samādhi.
If we drop the topic of Suchness into the empty and tranquil mind, we have Suchness Samādhi, which is also called Formless Samādhi or Non-abiding Samādhi.
After we experience non-verbal awareness, we may gradually see new interpretations that spring spontaneously from our developing potential for enlightenment. These may start as small discoveries and grow into more profound and novel ones. This faculty will continue to develop without limitations. Our mind will gradually transcend and become purer, more objective. We treat everything and everyone equally. Our wisdom and compassion will shine forth as the light from the sun, illuminating the world around us, shattering the veil of darkness created by suffering and ignorance.
The Buddha has shown us a very clear path forward. However there are many obstacles that may spring up on the path and hinder our progress, such as storms created by karma and ignorance, vortexes created by mental defilements and strong winds of impermanence, aging, illness and death.
How do we overcome these obstacles? At all times, we need to dwell in our pure mind and eschew greed, desires, anger, hatred, regret and worries. In this way, we will always be ready for anything that may come ...
Master’s Hall, April 14th, 2021