Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Venerable Master Miao Tsan, abbot of Vairocana Zen Monastary in Garden Grove, California. He is also the author of Just Use This Mind, a best selling book in China and Taiwan. The Ven. Master was in town to promote the English translation of his book published locally by Bright Sky Press.
The main idea of the book takes the root truth that lies at heart of Zen which potentially exists at the heart of all faiths and philosophies: our world is made up of our habitual unconscious views. Through active effort, we can change those habitual views to find happiness. Avoiding Buddhist terminology wherever possible, Master Miao Tsan speaks not as a Zen Master, but as just a spiritual guide pointing us to this universal truth that he has found himself.
Andy and I were invited to attend a panel discussion the Monday night before I spoke with Master Miao Tsan, where I was first introduced to his views. Between his many other speaking engagements during the week, he spared some time to sit down and answer a few of my questions.
Here is the first half of the interview:
Buddhism and Zen in particular are very misunderstood in the West. Speaking in front of such a large group of people who may be depending on you to clarify this misunderstanding, do you feel pressure?
I think the first thing is, In Zen every single person possesses the mind. And the mind is somehow like the person’s creator. Every single person’s mind create everything, manifests everything. The moment when the mind is creating is the moment the mind is manifesting the reality or the phenomena, I think somehow it’s difficult for a Westerner because mind has no form. People can not imagine how a formless mind can manifest, can have the creativity. I think this is the biggest idea; it is a very important idea in Zen practice. I think in the west, people think Buddha is more like a creator, but Buddha is a role model for a Buddhist. For a Buddhist I think this is the correct answer. It’s hard to accept it, the concept that mind has no form, mind manifests everything and every single person possesses the mind.
There is often an assumption that Westerners have difficulty grasping Buddhism because it is a product of the East. Do you find this to be true, or does that difficulty exist in the East as well? Do you find the separation of who gets it easily versus who has difficulty a personal issue, or cultural?
I think somehow some label it as a cultural issue, somehow you can say the essence of Buddhism, the essence of teaching has been structuralized and people put all the culture together and people put all the essence together. So nowadays I think that many teachers in order to deliver the essence, the message, to people through their own systems through their own structures.
So many practitioners they have their own ideas. They need to learn the form and structure first and then get at the essence. I think somehow this has created more burden for practitioners, eventually. For my ideas, Zen concept, Buddhism, the essence of Buddhism taught focus on the mind, every single person possesses the mind. If you drop all the form, in west, everyone still can practice. If you can be aware of your own thought, your own mind, be aware of your own action, this is true practice. You can use your own thoughts to purify your own mind, everyone can do this. Without through the forms you can practice. But sometimes form is needed, but it depends, it depends. I think this is a very big problem because people attach to forms, without the forms they don’t know how to practice many practitioners think this way. That’s why the culture shock of the forms blocks them away from the truth.
When I started practicing Zen, I started just for the meditation and I started going to the Houston Zen Center. They do also practice the forms of chanting and rituals. And at first they made me feel uncomfortable and eventually I just kind of accepted it. There’s a reason they’re doing this so I figured I'd find out why they’re doing this.
Practice is important to me especially as a cook. Dogen zenji, the founder of the Soto lineage, wrote Instructions to the Cook (Tenzo Kyokun). It shows how cooking can be practice, and that everything can be practice as well; that it’s not just sitting and that different forms of chanting and ritual are just an extension of how we practice. The forms are empty but that because we practice it develops things inside of us.
Yes, chanting and ritual practicing are like tools. But all the tools, all the material like Buddhism, no matter what kind of Buddhism: Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, no matter what kind of schools, they offer you other materials, they offer you a lot of ritual practice but no matter what type of Buddhism no matter what kind of ritual practice, there is only one purpose: “How can the person use the tool to purify his mind?” This is the only purpose. If you are not focusing on this purpose everything becomes attachment, everything becomes inventions. Everything becomes the practitioner’s burden.
While I'm looking forward to it, unfortunately, I have not yet read your book. How would you summarize it for someone not sure about wanting to read it?
I’m not trying to make everyone become a Buddhist or become Zen practitioners, here I am trying to help people to realize themselves. So just like I mentioned if you realize yourself, you realize your life, you realize you mind, you are a true practitioner. So I am here to share my message through the e book to share my message to the audience to the public. In order to use the material from the book and benefit from the book they can practice themselves because every single person possesses the mind. Of course we can grasp at new materials and use those new materials to redirect our lives in a new direction. I think this is the purpose. I’m not here to convince everyone here to become a Buddhist, this is unnecessary and impossible.
According to my book it says, every single person has his own definitions which are coming from his habitual thinking pattern of mind. And every single person’s definitions or thinking patterns is not the truth, but the truth is that every single person can build his own habitual thinking patterns up can establish his own thinking pattern. No matter who you are you can never escape from ideas. You have a mind, I have a mind. Your mind generates the thoughts, my mind generates the thoughts.
Once you form your pattern in mind, you can only have your mind operating through those patterns. This is the principle. You can apply this principle through your daily lives and do some adjustment of your thinking patterns in mind in order to manifest a better manifestation because our mind actually has no form. Every single person, modern person’s mind is operating through ego. Ego is the thinking pattern. The ego is a term but not a thing. Actually ego is the combination of your thinking patterns. Once attachment occurs, appears, we call it ego appears. So ego is terminology only, ego is not a thing you can hold or see.
When someone through his formless mind can generate his own thought and generate his own actual thinking pattern. When he attaches to his own thought or thinking pattern, ego is there. Ego is not a thing, not something to grasp. It is invisible. So I think this is the principle I have people try to realize. Fundamentally you’re free without attachment to your own thought; thought is your own creation. Thoughts come and go. Body comes and goes. Energy comes and goes. Form comes and goes. Only the formless mind, the functions and abilities of the mind are always there. Everyone wonders, but there is no exception.
I try to show this idea to people, in order to give them some idea. You can operate your mind from the purity of your mind in order to manifest better phenomena. If you still have your mind operating through the thinking patterns, habitual thinking patterns, your life has been tied up by that. You don’t have the freedom. I try to share this idea to people.
I’ll have the rest posted later this week. I talk a little shop with the Ven. Master and we throw around some Buddhist terms and references that I’ll do my best to explain in footnotes.