Here is the second half of my interview with Venerable Master Miao Tsan. I asked him some more specific questions about Zen but there are foot notes at the end. I touched on some of the subjects briefly, some of them I've mentioned here before, but there is a wealth of information about them on the internet as well.
Before I get into the rest of the interview, I'd like to thank some of the people who helped make this happen. The people at Bright Sky Press and their promoters: Lucy, Susan and Monica. The Golovines for hosting the Master and logistics for more than just my interview. Richard whose presence during the interview was comforting and Kate for the heads up to us on the initial event.
But anyway, the rest of the interview:
I have been a scholar of Buddhism, mostly Zen, for nearly ten years. Only in the last year have I begun sitting zazen and it has opened up more about me to my self than the previous ten. What advice and reasoning do you have to give to those who study without practice to begin meditation or mind training? What benefits to have to offer for those that begin a spiritual practice?
I think at first we can deal with our negative habits. In this world people think that this is negative habits, first people need to give that up. Then second we can try some meditation. Third if you can be able to be aware of your own thoughts, gradually you have control of your own thought and every single thought it is created by our selves. If we don’t even know that we are creating the thought, it means unconsciously there are no thoughts leading us to nowhere. If you can be aware of your thought this is very important. How can you make this happen? Meditation first and then quit the negative habits. Sometimes you can read some books. Probably, for my own idea, I am a Zen practitioner, so I can read some articles from the Zen Patriarchs. They guide you how to realize your own mind. They guide you to know how a practitioner can really practice in daily life. Quit negative habits and then be aware of your own thoughts, meditate and read some articles related to your practice.
I’ve often found that the meditation has allowed me to step back from the cycle of thoughts and so you don’t get caught up in the thoughts. It’s a very useful tool in realizing your own habits and that you may not be able to change the habits immediately but as soon as you recognize them it becomes easier.
Yes, the moment when you can be aware of your own thought, you start to change that. You are not following the thought. In everyday life whenever a thought pops up in our minds, most of the time we follow it. So when we are meditating, we focus on the method. When the thought pop up we call it wandering thought because we don’t want that to happen. So we just ignore them. Gradually they lose their power. So the more we generate the same thought, the more powerful the thought becomes. So it is ourselves who gives the wandering thought power. It’s become our habit. So the moment we can be aware of the thought, the thought loses its own power a little bit. So gradually our mind becomes more calm.
One of the first experiences I had with that was the pain in the legs when you sit...
... and acknowledging it as pain and that it’s not going anywhere until you go somewhere but that you’re not going to go somewhere yet. That you just acknowledge it for what it is and then it has no strength. After that realization a lot of other things in my life have become habits that have disappeared because I stopped giving them power over me.
Yes, yes, that’s right.
Monday night, you emphasized that the world that we live in is a product of our minds; that our minds control our experience of the world. Many people are so conditioned to believe that the world exists in spite of them, that they have trouble seeing this. You also emphasized that the mind has no form, which is a reference to the Heart Sutra1, a very Zen teaching that denies the fundamental independent nature of existence. It is a paradox that emphasizes the non-duality of the universe that can't be truly understood intellectually. I'm curious to know your personal experiences with the Heart Sutra and what it has taught you. It seems to be an important touch stone for many Zen practitioners, would you mind sharing a little?
Heart sutra is more like the heart is 100 percent of what I call the mind. That’s a translation idea. You can call the Heart Sutra the “Mind Sutra.” They’re the same. So actually the heart is 100 percent equal to the idea of the mind. The Heart Sutra focuses on realizing the mind. Mind has no form. Whenever existence is there, there is the mind. So existence and essence never can be separated. Just like when you hear this sound: *clap* The ability with which you can hear the sound can never separate it from this sound: *clap*. But how can you show me the ability? *clap* you can hear. This sound you can hear. You realize the knowing is there, the knowing comes from within. It’s not coming from the ear or the brain; it’s coming from the ability of the mind.2 So if we can realize this, our mind has no form.
Whenever the phenomena is there, the creation of the phenomena includes your thought, your physical body and the whole environment. The whole relationship, they are one, they cannot be separated. If you can realize this then you realize where the mind is. Thought is creation, it’s one little portion of our mind. People can learn to realize this concept. So skillful means is to say “if you change your thought, you change your direction, you change your life” It’s skillful means to say this. It’s because when your mind has different function, different way, or different direction, if you have your mind functioning in a different way you have a different thought, a different manifestation. So whenever your thought is different, phenomena is different. Thought itself is part of the phenomena; physical body is part of phenomena which is manifested by mind. So actually mind has no form, if you realize this you achieve enlightenment. You can say “one is all”, non-duality, because your thought, physical body and environment are one, they are inseparable. So I think the main part of the Heart Sutra is to tell us this.
The first [word of the Heart Sutra]: “Avalokiteshvara: [the Bodhisattva of Compassion], the Bodhisattva’s name already tells you everything. If you realize the Bodhisattva’s name you realize the Heart Sutra because the Bodhisattva’s name is just like if I realize that my own existence in every single present moment is inseparable from everything.3 My mind manifests the oneness all the time, all the time it is inseparable. Your thought, physical body, environment; they are together. If you realize this, you are the Bodhisattva and you already are liberated from all the suffering.
I knew of three of the Four Great Bodhisattvas4: Avalokiteshvara or Kwan Yin, Ksitigarbha or Jizo, and Manjushri, but Samantabhadra [Bodhisattva of Great Action, representing the embodiment of Buddhist philosophy through the action of practice] was the one that I didn’t know. Once I knew the purpose of Samantabhadra, what it represents of the Four Vows of the Bodhisattva5... it was no longer something abstract. That to become the Buddha’s Way is to become the Buddha. In sitting in meditation, that’s what happens, you become no different than the Buddha. That as soon as you realize this you are no longer separate.
To become a Buddha, I tell students this, self awareness makes you a Buddha not the meditation or ritual practice. Self awareness makes you a Buddha. When someone can manifest the functions, the pure functions without distortion, without attachment, when someone’s mind can manifest the mind itself, its functions and abilities, the person becomes a Buddha. We can divide the functions into four portions. One we call compassion (Kwan Yin), one we call wisdom (Manjushri), one we call the vow of patience and learning (Jizo) and one we call the Magnificent Manifestation ability (Samantabhadra). Once the person can manifest his own purity in mind, the person becomes a Buddha, 100%. So we are not pursuing to become a Buddha, the way to become a Buddha is the way to purify our minds; to get rid of all the pollutions of mind.
..Because the desire to become a Buddha gets in the way
It’s an outgoing thing, it’s not right.
The first of your two final comments Monday night was that you wanted people to remember that you wear black and that you are a monk. To me this highlighted the nature of the answers you gave to the questions asked.
Yes *laughs again*
They fit the form that my mind has taken from my study of Zen so I understood them well. I have the tools to understand what you’re talking about. I have a context in which to place them and am used to listening to the way monks speak. I've learned to look to where the finger points rather than at the finger itself and I think that a lot of people there were stuck looking at the finger.
So I realized this and it caused me to want to try and see it from the beginning again. I found myself trying giving up that form, to listen with a "beginner's mind," as Suzuki Roshi puts it, to try and stop having preconceived notions, to try and identify with the way others around me understood your words.
One of the metaphors that I like is that teachers can only point at the truth; we have to find it ourselves. I came up with the metaphor of two people bird watching. The teacher has spotted the bird and points while the student desperately tries to follow the teacher's guide to see it as well. The difference of their perspective makes it difficult for the student to see it for themselves, even if they are looking right at it. Sometimes they don’t recognize it because they think that it’s supposed to look like something else. A lot of that has to do with perspective. With the difference of your perspective as a Chinese monastic, how do you think that affects your ability to teach those with such a different perspective, that of an everyday American?
First we need to realize the truth. We can think, we have actions, then we have a result. It doesn’t matter if the ability is coming from God, your Buddha nature or your mind it doesn’t matter. We’ll put this concept aside. You can think, this is the truth. You have a physical body, this is truth. You live in society, this is truth. How can you make yourself become better a person? How can you really live with happiness? This is the real issue. So I think everyone should think about this, how can you make this happen? It doesn’t matter if God gives you the ability or if intrinsically you have it. You already have it and this is the truth. How can you use this ability to make your life better? This is the issue. In order to uplift life, in order to use the ability to make your life better, you should be able aware of your own ability. What is the ability and how is the ability working for you? We should realize this. This is every single person’s job, not just a practitioner’s. If you want to make your life better you should realize who you really are, what can you do? Where are you? Go back into the original place, go back to the truth. Then you know where you can start or restart to find the happiness. This is not only for a practitioner or monk. A monk is a person who becomes a monk and tries to have the role to play to pursue his own happiness. A monk is a human being. It’s not like people think, that monastic practice belongs to a monk or something. No, every person has the ability to make their lives better. How can you use that to make your life better? I think this is the real issue; it has nothing to do with the monastic or mundane.
The title I chose for my blog is starting with what you have and your book is called Just Use This Mind. You also mentioned that we are all masters of ourselves. This is a common theme in Zen: that you don't need to have or do anything special to benefit from Buddhism. Enlightenment is right in front of us, we just need to open our eyes. So, obviously your book isn't telling people that they have to run off and join a monastery to live a Buddhist life. My experience of Zen is almost exclusively that of American flavored Japanese Soto Zen and in that community the line between monasticism and lay practice is becoming blurred but it still exists. What role do you see monasticism playing in the future of Zen in America?
I think first we should deliver the message widely, the right message, the right teaching widely. Normally if you are monk, nun, or practitioner you can get the message in order to practice it right. Nowadays, many practitioners come from a lot of different schools of Buddhism and schools of spirituality. But I think it is really difficult to really understand the true meaning of mind or spirituality. So first I think, deliver the right message in order for people to get it. No matter if you are monastic or lay, if you practice it wrong, if you have the wrong understanding, it has nothing to do with if you are monk or lay person. So the right message is much more important than monastic affairs or lay people’s daily life. Right message, right understanding can lead people to liberation, freedom and happiness. So first we should deliver this idea widely. And second, it’s just as you sow, and water, if you plant a seed. Whenever they come up, you just take care of it. It doesn’t matter if it is monastic or lay people. Just like if you are a farmer. You can’t focus on this is the seed I want. No, you plant all the seeds, and whatever comes up you take care of them, you take care of all of them.
I guess the traditional model is that the monks practice and that’s all that they do. And that their practice is to benefit all people. A lot of lay practitioners say that monks have it easy because they don’t have to deal with daily lives, family and all of that. But if the monks didn’t exist they couldn’t teach. Just as in a school a teacher may not practice in the world, but that they teach others to do so from their experience and learning. So monks still need to exist because it’s not an overnight thing to learn; it does take a lot of time and dedication.
Yes, you have to give people an option, a different road to a place. It’s just like spirituality is a journey, life is a journey. In life you can change your job. In spirituality you can change your role to play, but the journey is there. You want to become a monk to finish your journey, or want stay a lay person. That is your option, just like you want to walk here or walk over there. Do not take this too seriously; it’s a role to play to finish your journey.
I really enjoyed talking to you.
One of the things that my practice has really benefited me in is that I used to procrastinate a lot and make excuses to not do things. I wasn’t very assertive. I’ve surprised myself in getting here, to making this interview with you happen. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get my life together and this practice had really helped bring it all together, so I really appreciate all those who try to spread this. Thank you very much.
1 – “The Heart Sutra” – or “Heart of Perfect Wisdom” is a comparatively short statement in the form of a lecture by Avalokiteshvara (Sanskrit. Kwan Yin, Chinese. Kannon, Japanese) the Bodhisattva of Compassion, to a disciple of the historical Buddha, Shariputra. It’s topic is the emptiness of phenomena, but it basically denies, one by one, the main tenants of Buddhism holding only the practice of prajna paramita, or meditation as necessary for liberation from suffering. Within the statement, form and emptiness are both equated and differentiated in an attempt to use dualistic language to present the non-dual and interconnected existence of the universe that can only be reached through practice, not intellectualization.
2 – this is in reference to the five skandhas, aggregates or heaps, that make up the mind. Through these five processes, we experience the world around us. In the Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshvara tells Shariputra that he saw the skandhas as empty while meditating. I wrote about these here in the context of experiencing color as a colorblind person. The Master is using our experience of sound here to illustrate this.
3 – My take on this is that when reading or reciting the Heart Sutra, our only focus should be on doing that. We don’t need to get all the way through it before we experience its benefits, just presently experiencing the word “Avalokiteshvara” puts us in the mindset of the Buddha. Doing this, there is no room to think about what’s for dinner or the person that cut you off in traffic. I’ve come to understand this as the purpose for chanting as a Zen form. Content is a bonus, but intention and presence of mind is the practice.
4 - These are four anthropomorphizations of the attributes of compassion, wisdom, patience, and praxis or the applied practice of principles. By definition a bodhisattva is an awakened being who stays in this world to help alleviate the suffering of others.
5 – These are: “Beings are numberless, I vow to save them. Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them. Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them. Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.” These four vows urge us be compassionate, exercise wisdom, be patient and see every moment’s potential to show us the Truth, and to apply our knowledge in practice so that we may see the world as the Buddha did and free ourselves and others from suffering. They are impossible to fulfill, but our constant effort to uphold them is what is important.