Thiền Tông Việt Nam
Keys to Buddhism (Chìa Khóa Học Phật)
Practicing Buddhism

All buddhas aspire to teach human beings how to practice in order to obtain Buddhahood. However, since humans have various capabilites and learn differently, the Buddha teaches various methods. These are classified into two categories: practicing and remaining in samsara and practicing to escape from samsara.

Practicing within Reincarnation

As was previous explained, causation and conditionality operate in the realm of common truths. Their main engine is karma. Wholesome or unwholesome karma lead to wholesome or unwholesome results. Karma is the cause and the fruit is the result, or "Karmic result." Karma arises in accordance with conditions, creating and developing phenomena, or "karmic condition." When karma ceases and conditions disintegrate, the manifestation from their combined forces dies. It is crucial to understand karma since it is the engine of reincarnation.

Karma is volitional actions, coming from body, speech, and mind. Humans create karma and, in return, karma effects their lives. For instance, an artist imagines a woman and paints her. After finishing the painting, he admires her beauty and falls in love with his creation. Similarly, human beings create karma from body, speech, and mind, harvesting the result, and then, creating further karma. This cycle keeps on operating endlessly. The involvement in the cycle of birth and death as the result of karma is reincarnation.

By understanding how karma works, we may better understand and have influence on the directions of our lives. According to the law of karma, the results we receive now have originated from corresponding causes we planted before. Karma has never been created by supernatural powers or any other mystical sources! Our actions, after many repetitions, become habits, affecting our lives in powerful ways. Let us consider alcohol and cigarette addictions as examples. No one is addicted to alcohol or cigarettes after the first try. However, with repeated usage, drinking and smoking can become habits. In time the users may want to give up these habits but it will not be so easy if these activities have developed into dependencies. The forces of karma are similarly powerful.

There are wholesome and unwholesome karma. Both operate within the cycle of birth and death. Buddhist practitioners need to rid themselves of unwholesome karmas and develop wholesome ones. By doing so, more wholesome seeds are planted which, with proper conditions, can result in better reincarnations. Let us consider an example from worldly life. A person who wants to find elegant interests begins to drink tea, cultivate ornamental plants, and compose poems. Day after day, he engages in these activities until he becomes used to them. When he does not have them, he feels depressed, anxious, or irritated because they have enter his life as habits. In another case, a person enjoys listening to music and playing chess with friends. Gradually, these activities become a habit and he finds it unbearable if they are absent from his life. Similarly, others become addicted to gambling and drinking. The above activities become habits due to repeated engagements. Among these habits, we may consider the first as elegant and decent, the second as joyful and gentle, and the last as detrimental. However, these, or any other habits become unwholesome if they bring suffering to the practitioner or other people. From these examples, we can see that we have the ability to influence our present and future circumstances.

Karma originates from acts of body, speech, and mind. Killing, stealing, and indulging in sexual misconducts are unwholesome acts of the body. Lying, divisive, exaggerated, and harsh speech are destructive acts of the mind. These acts seem to be bad habits that have plagued us for thousands of lives. They are called unwholesome karma because they cause suffering.

Practicing ceasing or transforming unwholesome karma is practicing Buddha's teachings. There are two levels of practice: ceasing unwholesome karma and cultivating wholesome karma.

For a long time, perhaps not heeding the rules of ethical behavior, we have engaged in, directly or indirectly, killing, stealing, or indulging in sexual misconducts, causing suffering. This is creating unwholesome body karma. Now, after learning and practicing Buddhism, we stop creating unwholesome karma of the body. Formerly, we have engaged in lying to deceive, uttering double-tongued speeches to split up, gossiping and speaking frivolously to attract, or using harsh words to belittle others; all acts which brought others pain and misery. Now, to put an end to unwholesome karma of speech, we avoid speaking unwholesome words or in a harmful manner. Previously, our minds have freely followed ignorance, craving, and hateful thoughts and feelings, leading us astray, towards sufferings, and harming others. This is unwholesome karma of the mind. Once we have repented and stop these kinds of thoughts, we cease forming unwholesome mental karma. If we stop these three types of unwholesome karma, no longer causing suffering, then, how can unwholesome karma push us to harvest retributions?

However, ceasing unwholesome karma is only practicing passive good deeds. We also need to cultivate active good deeds. This is how we transform karma. For example, if before, we were engaged in killing stealing, or indulging in sexual misconducts, now, we refrain from killing or actively work to save lives, help others, and live ethically. This is changing unwholesome into wholesome body karma. Similarly, instead of lying, divisive speech, gossiping or frivolously speech, and using harsh words as in former days, now, we speak truthfully, harmoniously, plainly, and amicably. By doing so, we turn karma of speech from unwholesome to wholesome. Moreover, if previously, our minds have been accustomed to ignorance, craving, and hatred, from now on, we change this unwholesome karma into wholesome karma by applying wisdom, giving things away, and being compassionate. Therefore, by practicing cultivating these wholesome karmic habits, not only will practitioner attain ease but they will also create wholesome, peaceful, and happy conditions for others. If everyone in the world practiced transforming karma, the world practiced transforming karma, the world will be filled with happiness, now and in the future!

However, there are happy and unhappy people everywhere. Although still within the realm of samsara, people who practice ceasing and transforming karma often live with more ease, filled with joy and happiness that can be felt by those around them. Those who continue to indulge in unwholesome acts of body, speech, and mind, are often afflicted with unsettled and troubled minds, affecting how they view and live their lives. According to the law of karma and depending on conditions, the causes human beings have planted in the past greatly effect present and future situations.

To practice stopping and transforming karma fruitfully and completely, the first and determinate condition is taking refuge in the Triple Gems15 and receiving the five precepts16. Taking refuge in the Triple Gems is setting direction for our lives. What is the purpose of practicing stopping and transforming karma? Is it not because we want to follow in the Buddha's footsteps, apply his teachings, and look to monks and nuns for guidance in order that we may improve our lives? Once we understand the purpose of this practice, we may no longer be afraid or hesitate, but bravely and consciously overcome every obstacle to follow the Buddha-dharma.

We use the precepts as a barrier to prevent our mind, speech, and body from developing unwholesome karma. Upholding the five precepts is forming the first resting station on the path to stopping karma. Without this station, we do not have enough energy and well-being to climb safely up the mountain of wholesome karma. Furthermore, the five precepts are the first step to complete emancipation. Feelings of peace, happiness, and freedom can come from keeping the five precepts. Therefore, practitioners need to respect and keep the precepts as if they were protecting their most precious jewels. Since taking refuge in the Triple Gems and keeping the five precepts is crucial, Buddhists practitioners need to fully realize their significance before advancing to other Dharma gates.

Practicing to Escape Reincarnation

We know that karma is the main engine for reincarnation. Acts of body, speech, and mind are the origins of karma. As long as karma exists, samsara exists; when karma ends, samsara ends. Among the three, the mind is the leader because, with thoughts, speech and actions follow. Therefore, if we want to end our karma, we have to purify our mind. Purifying our speech and actions without cleaning our minds is superficial cleaning:

A long time a go, Patriarch Huai-Jang in Nen-Yueh often saw Tao-i (later known as "Ma-tsu") meditating all day. The Patriarch asked him, "What are you meditating for?"

"To become a buddha," Tao-i answered.

The next day Huai-Jang took a brick and rubbed it against a rock near where Tao-i sat meditating. Tao-i was surprised and asked, "What are you rubbing that brick for?"

"I want to make a mirror." Huai-Jang replied. 

"Rubbing a brick cannot make a mirror."

"Meditating cannot make you a buddha."

"What, then, is the correct way?" "Like an ox pulling a cart, if the cart does not move, do you hit the cart or the ox?" Huai-Jang asked. Tao-i had no word.

The cart is a passive object and the ox is the active doer. If you want to move the cart, you have to stimulate the doer. Hitting the passive object is useless effort. Similarly, our speech and body are the passive objects while the mind is the active doer. Making our bodies sit straight or forcing our mouths to chant is useless efforts if we cannot control our minds. Controlling and refraining the mind is not limited to sitting or standing, but also includes when walking or lying down. We have to watch our minds all the time. With constant watching, we may be able to stop mind karma. Speech and body karma will then be purified accordingly.

The aim of Buddhist practices such as chanting sutras, reciting mantras or buddhas names, and meditating are used to stop mind karma. Respected teachers often say that chanting sutras without distracted thoughts will bring merit and virtues, reciting mantras without agitations will bring miracles, invoking buddhas’ names mindfully will bring rebirth into the Pure Land, and meditating with a tranquil mind leads to concentration. These practices produce calm and settled states of mind karma. Although the methods are different, their ultimate goal is to stop mind karma. If we see things from an ultimate point of view, we can accept all methods without opposition. If we just judge which method is being used, we will find many contradictions. Therefore, broadminded people will see the aim; whereas, narrow-minded people can only see the methods. The Buddha-dharma is like a house with many doors: people may enter from any door, seeing each other and the things in the house. Beginners often wonder why other people enter the house from other doors. They often try to advice others to use the same door they did. The advice from wise and open-minded people is, “With ease, choose an appropriate door for your current situation. Entering the house is for your benefit.” 

At this point, I will give simple and general explanations on only two methods for practicing: the Pure Land method of recitation of Buddha’s name and the Zen method. Practitioners may apply these methods to escape from reincarnation.

The Recitation of Buddha’s Name

This method includes contemplative visualization and recitation. Contemplative visualization is taught in the Amitayurdhyana Sutra and recitation in the Amitabha Sutra. While contemplative visualization is similar, we will only cover the recitation method in this book. All Buddhist practice methods have two parts: temporary means and ultimate aims. Temporary means are like gates; ultimate aims are like the hosts. When one wants to see the host, first, one must enter through the gate. If one does not use the gate, one cannot come to the house, let alone, meet with the host. Using the gate is the necessary step before meeting the host. It is difficult to fulfill one’s wish without this condition. If one wants to achieve the best result with this recitation method, one has to skillfully apply the method.

What is this method? Reciting the Buddha’s name is using emotions to replace emotions or using a thorn to remove a thorn. People in the world are usually absorbed in worldly passions. Everyday their minds run after these passions and cannot stop. Seeing this, the Buddha felt pity for us, teaching the Amitabha Sutra which describes the wonderful landscape of Sukhavati17 and disparages the sufferings and defilements of the Saha18 world. Hearing this sutra, people may feel the desire to be reborn in Sukhavati and become tired of the Saha world. When people’s minds are overly filled with likes and dislikes, it is easier for them to become single-mindedly focused on their recitation. Otherwise, people may recite with distracted minds. Therefore, this method uses like to replace dislike: more specifically, the liking for the loveliness of the Pure Land to replace the dislike for the ugliness of the Saha world. The feelings of like and dislike becomes the gate for entering the land of Sukhavati. 

What do people like? In the Amitabha Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha described Sukhavati as containing “inhabitants (who) do not suffer but only have pleasure, so it is called the Land of Ultimate Bliss.” Moreover, in this land, all the fences, trees, and nets are made of the four precious elements of gold, silver, crystals, and lapis-lazuli. The ponds are full of the eight-virtue19 water, surrounded by buildings made of seven treasures20. These ponds are filled with lotuses with leaves as big as wheels that radiate colorful lights and give off a pure and wonderful scent when they blossom. There is also celestial music, rains of flowers, birds chirping Dharma songs, etc.

There, Amitabha Buddha21, the ruler of the Land of Ultimate Bliss, teaches the inhabitants: sravakas and bodhisattvas who will no longer regress in their practices. These are all the highest level of good people. This land also has all the elements that we desire: no suffering, full of happiness, the landscape is grand and beautiful, full of seven treasures, saintly teachers, good friends, longevity, good health, freedom of dress and movement, etc. These things make people wish to be reborn to this land. This is the method of arousing the likes.

What do people dislike? The Saha is so full of sufferings that it is even hard for Shakyamuni! According to the last part of the Amitabha Sutra, the Buddha said, "Buddhas in the ten directions praise my unthinkable merit, saying that I can do the hardto-do thing of becoming a buddha and preaching hard-to-believe teachings to human beings while living in the five-fold defiled world22." The Buddha’s criticism of the Saha world arouses our dislikes.

The two worlds are clearly described: one is grand and beautiful, full of happiness and luxuries while the other is full of filths, defilements, and sufferings. One arouses our likes while the other reinforces our boredom of worldly sufferings. These are the gates for entering the Land of Ultimate Bliss. The arousal of these two states helps the restless mind that usually follows worldly passions to gradually become calm and cool. Then, we can effectively apply the recitation method, chanting Amitabha Buddha’s name.

To practice this method, everyday we must magnify our likes and dislikes to an extreme level while also vowing to be reborn in Sukhavati. We turn any attachments for the Saha world towards Sukhavati. For example, when we see filthy garbage, we say to ourselves, “This Saha world is so filthy and boring; whereas, Sukhavati is so beautiful, grand, and full of the seven treasures that it is worthy of aspiring towards. I am determined to be reborn into the Pure Land so that I will not see this filth anymore.” This is turning the dislike of filth into the liking for purity.

When we face sufferings and adverse conditions, we say to ourselves, “In this Saha world, there are many unsatisfying conditions; whereas, Sukhavati is full of pleasure, happiness, and satisfying conditions. I am tired of this world and wish to be reborn into the Land of Ultimate Bliss.” This is turning the dislike of suffering into the liking for happiness.

When we go about and hear curses and insults, we say to ourselves, “In this Saha world, I often hear bad words; whereas in Sukhavati, I always hear celestial music and birds singing the Dharma. I’m quite bored of this Saha world and vow to be reborn into the Pure Land so that everyday I may hear the Dharma.” This is turning the dislike of defilements into the liking for Bodhi23.

Sometimes, when friends betray us, we say to ourselves, “Friends in this Saha world are not very good, making me sad, bringing me sufferings. The Land of Ultimate Bliss is full of the highest level of good and respectful people. I am determined to be reborn into the Land Ultimate Bliss so that I may be friends with these people.” This is turning the dislike of unwholesome friends into the liking for wholesome friends.

When we have to work hard to earn a living yet still lack food and clothing, we say to ourselves, "In this Saha world, poor me, I have to work hard without having enough. However, in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, without effort, I have food when I want to eat and I have luxurious things to wear when I need clothing. Therefore, I am determined to be reborn into the Land of Ultimate Bliss so that I may have delicious food and luxurious clothing without effort." This is turning the dislike of poverty into the liking for comfort.

In brief, we should skillfully redirect the dislikes of all unfortunate situations towards the aspiration to be reborn into the Pure Land. The more we focus on our boredom of the Saha world, the more we will strengthen our aspirations to be reborn into the Pure Land. This is skillfully using the doorway of the temporary means of likes and dislikes to enter the Pure Land.

What is the ultimate aim of this method?

According to the Amitabha Sutra, after introducing the Land of Ultimate Bliss, Shakyamuni Buddha said, "If good men and good women, hearing of the Amitabha Buddha, focus on their recitation without any distractions for one day, two days, three days, four days, five days, six days, or seven days, the Amitabha Buddha and his saintly sangha will appear before them at the time of their death. With their calm minds, they will be reborn into the Land of Ultimate Bliss of Amitabha Buddha."

Practitioners recite the phrase, "Namo Amitabha" as their every day practice. They use these words as a collar to hold their monkey-minds still and in one place. Silently or aloud, practitioners constantly recite the Amitabha’s name as they are walking, standing, sitting, lying down, or working. If they patiently recite without any distractions, their discriminating minds will gradually become calm and settled; until one day, it becomes single-minded. At this point, their mind-karma will be purified; as will their body karma and speech karma. When the three types of karma are purified, nothing can pull us into the cycle of birth and death. This is reflected by the recitation, "With the three types of karma purified, one is reborn in the Pure Land with Amitabha Buddha."

Nevertheless, it is necessary to distinguish between single-minded and no-minded. When one recites single-mindedly to be reborn into the Pure Land, this is practical recitation. When one recites no-mindedly until one realizes true Amitabha nature and know that one’s mind is the Pure Land, this is ultimate recitation.

One practices practical recitation by reciting, “Namo Amitabha,” without any distractions, using one thought to replace all other thoughts. When one holds on constantly, without interruptions, to the recitation in all activities, one becomes single-minded. Single-mindedly, one vows to be reborn into the Land of Ultimate Bliss. At this stage, there is still a sense of a place outside of ourselves that we need to reach.

One recites "Namo Amitabha" as an excellent medicine to treat all the diseases of distractions. When these diseases are cured, there is no need for the medicine anymore. This means that one recites until one achieves no-mind mind and only Suchness remains. At this point, one realizes one’s nature is both Amitabha and the Pure Land. This is ultimate recitation. The alert and aware essence of one’s true nature is called "Boundless Light". It is also called "Boundless Longevity" as it is outside the cycle of time (never born nor die).

From the beginning, one’s nature was always pure, yet is defiled by agitated, false thoughts, following karma into the six realms24. When all the false thoughts have settled, only the pure mind, or the Pure Land, remains. This is reflected in the saying, "When the mind is pure, the land is pure." Ultimate recitation is realizing that everything we need is within ourselves, and, therefore, innate. This way of practicing is quite suitable to the Mahayana spirit and other Buddhist methods.

Practitioners can believe in this method because Shakyamuni Buddha introduced it. As practitioners raise likes and dislikes, they need to rely and fix their minds on the Pure Land of Amitabha. It is not necessary to analyze whether the Pure Land exists or not. If practitioners firmly have faith that Shakyamuni did not mislead them and apply this recitation method, they will have great benefit. They need to focus on their recitation constantly, day and night, without any distractions or worries about how much time have past. They do this until they become single-minded. They must also skillfully vow to be reborn into the Pure Land no matter what situation they find themselves facing. Having faith, practicing, and vowing are necessary elements for practicing the recitation method.

When we examine any method, we should look at its ultimate goals and not get bogged down in the means. According to the different degrees of human understanding, the Buddha installed different methods to fit the different needs. We should not be attached to our abilities and criticize others nor overvalue others’ abilities and devalue our own. Wise practitioners try to understand themselves and where they are in their practice first, then, choose a suitable practice method.

The Method of Meditation

Practicing meditation is a way of looking directly inside and clearing out thoughts and plans. This method also includes temporary means and ultimate goals. A temporary means of this method is using wisdom to remove emotions. Practitioners directly examine and analyze phenomena, seeing that they are temporary and combined from numerous causes and conditions. With this realization, their emotions become cool and calm, not agitated or passionate as before. Therefore, they decide to begin practicing in order that their minds may also become settled.

There are many different meditation methods. Generally, Buddhist meditation includes relative meditation and absolute meditation. 

Relative Meditation

Due to human’s attachments to worldly things, the Buddha taught relative methods as a doctor prescribes medicine according to the disease. The teacher needs to know clearly the practitioner’s spiritual disease in order that they may give the suitable method for practicing. However, the practitioner has to skillfully apply the meditation method to achieve the desired results.

There are many different methods in relative meditation to cure the different spiritual diseases. People who often think need to use the method of counting the breath. People who have strong lust need to use the method of contemplation of impurities. People who often have anger will find the method of contemplation on compassion helpful. People with great ignorance may use the method of contemplation of distinguishing the realms, the analyzing of our body, both inside and outside, as different parts with its different limits. With these relative meditation methods, practitioners contemplate a subject until their minds grow accustomed to the object, becoming settled. Here, only the counting of the breath, the most common method, will be explained.

The method of breath counting, Anapanasati, is also the first of the Six Wonderful Strategies25. As mentioned earlier, this is the ideal method for those who often think. Thinking is a common habit of all human beings. This method will focus our thinking; starting with the breath because it is so crucial to human life. To begin, meditators regulate their breathing; the first step towards peace of mind and health of body. After this, they can approach the dharma door of the Six Wonderful Strategies.

The Six Wonderful Strategies are counting, following, focusing, contemplating, returning, and calming. Applying these steps, practitioners proceed from coarse to subtle levels as they progress through the six strategies. Also called the Six Wonderful Dharma Doors, this method helps practitioners to effectively calm all their thoughts. Here are simple explanations of the six strategies.

Counting the Breath

After settling into a meditative posture, use the method of counting the breath to focus your minds. While inhaling deeply and exhaling thoroughly, count one. Inhaling deeply and exhaling thoroughly, count two. Continue until ten. Then, start again from one. If you become distracted and lose count, start from the beginning. Practitioners have to pay attention to the counting and the breath subtlety. If the mind becomes distracted, readjust immediately. If the mind is excited or uncontrollable, practitioners may divide the breath counting process into two parts, for example: inhaling, count one; exhaling, count two, etc. When the awareness and the counting of the breath can be sustained for half-an-hour to one hour, then the mind is fairly calm and the practitioner may go on to the next step.

Following the Breath

At this stage, practitioners now follow instead of counting the breath. Keep the awareness with the inhalations and exhalations. The same is true with long, short, cold, or hot breaths. We follow the breath as a lender follows his debtor. The mind follows the breath without any distractions. When the mind becomes calm and settled, practitioners may go on to the next step.


Now, practitioners no longer follow the in and out breaths but place the mind on the nose to watch the breath. Focus the mind on one point around the nose area, such as the rims of the nostrils or just below the opening. Be aware of the breath at this point. During the sitting session, when the mind can sustain this stage, go on to the next step.


Not clinging to the calm state achieved in the focusing step, practitioners now start to observe the continuity of the in and out breath, noting its impermanence. The body depends on the breath, and, as such, it is also impermanent. The time it takes for one inhalation and exhalation is short just as the body exists then decays. The in-breath has no location and neither does the out-breath. Therefore, the breath does not truly exist. The body survives dependent on the breath, so it is ephemeral and not real. With this observation, attachment to the body-as-self loosens. When practitioners no longer believe that their body is real and ever-lasting, they may go on to the next step.


At this point, practitioners watch the observing mind to see what it is and where it resides. Look for it everywhere and see that it cannot be found. As the practitioner looks at the observing mind, the silence and stillness of the mind reveals itself. Now the practitioner is ready for the last step


Now, let go of the watching of the observing mind until there is only the knowing that is the pure and alert mind, which has neither distractions nor drowsiness. Once the practitioner can stay with this state of mind all the time, the final goal of the six wonderful strategies is achieved. At this point, the changing stream of consciousness comes to an end and karma created by the mind consciousness is purified. This means that defilements can no longer draw practitioners into the cycle of birth and death.

If meditators can skillfully apply the six wonderful strategies, they can enjoy the fruit of their practice and escape from the cycle of birth and death. However, there will be other difficulties and obstacles as well as uncommon experiences during the practice process. Therefore, you will need to have an experienced teacher to guide you

Absolute Meditation

This type of meditation originated from the story at Vulture Peak in which Shakyamuni Buddha raised a flower without speaking, at which time, Mahakashyapa smiled. With this act, he received transmission of the true Dharma. This understanding of the Buddha-dharma without words is considered the beginning of Zen. This transmission continues up to the twenty-eighth patriarch, Bodhidharma. From India, Bodhidharma went to China, transmitting his teachings to Hui-Ke. The Buddha-dharma then spread to Viet Nam, Korea, and Japan. Bodhidharma’s main proclamation was:

"Not dependent upon words and letters,

Transmission beyond scriptures and doctrines,

Directly pointing at the mind,

Recognizing one’s true nature and becoming a buddha."

From this proclamation, the absolute character of this meditation is revealed. This meditation may be further divided into two kinds of practices: from nothing to having and from having to nothing. From nothing to having is fi rst knowing that all phenonmena are unreal and temporary and then realizing that one’s true mind is the absolute essence. Constantly living with this non-birth and non-death nature is achieving enlightenment. Conversely, from having to nothing is first recognizing one’s true mind, and then knowing that all phenomena are unreal and temporary. Constantly staying with one’s Owner is recognizing one’s true nature and becoming a buddha.

From Nothing to Having

When practitioners reflect, they can see that all things which are created from conditions do not have solid or real nature, but are empty, of temporary and conditioned combinations. When conditions coalesce, things are called "born"; when conditions disperse, then we say things have "died." "Born" or "die" has no real nature; just the coalescence and dispersion of conditions. When practitioners use their prajna wisdom26 to reflect in this manner, they will realize that all things are like bubbles and shadows, empty of a solid self. This is why Zen meditation is consider the gate to understanding emptiness.

From the gate of prajna wisdom, practitioners may enter the house to see the Owner. Realizing the true from the false, practitioners end thousands of lifetimes of ignorance and live with complete wisdom. This is enlightenment and deliverance. Conversely, mistaking the false for the true and forgetting the eternal absolute truth is ignorance. False formations are "born" or "die" while true nature has never been "born" or "die." Therefore, realizing and living with this true nature is to be free from the cycle of birth and death. This is "recognizing one’s true nature and becoming a buddha." True nature is innate in every sentient being, not created nor achieved through practicing.

Also, there really is no Dharma to speak of since it is beyond dualistic descriptions. Reading thoroughly this section on Absolute Meditation, you will not be able to find any step-by-step method for practicing since it is not bound to any form. Therefore, there are no preparations, staying, or relaxation steps as in other types of meditations. Instead of asking for a practice method, practitioners need to use the prajna sword27 to clear out the forest of tightly grasped views. Only then will the ultimate goal appear. If practitioners try to search for a method of practice, they will be disappointed:

Hui-ke said to Bodhidharma, "My mind is not at peace. Please teach me how to pacify it."

"Bring me your mind and I will pacify it,"

Bodhidharma answered.

"I cannot find it."

"There, I have pacified your mind for you."

At this, Hui-ke understood the essence.

Reading this, practitioners may become disappointed, thinking "How can I find a method for pacifying the mind?" The half-real and halffalse reply from Bodhidharma to Hui-ke’s earnest question makes us embarrassed. Yet, right at that moment, Hui-Ke understood. How amazing this is!

When practitioners have distracted, false thoughts during meditation, their minds cannot be at peace. Many practitioners think that trying to pacify the mind is necessary. Therefore, when they hear about a Zen master, they immediately set out on their way to look for a method. If they study this method or that method to pacify their minds, this is only using hot to treat cold or using bright to erase darkness. All these dualisms are unreal and false symptoms. Bodhidharma did not teach that way. He simply said, "Bring me your mind and I will pacify it." When one looks directly at the anxious mind, it will disappear, leaving no trace. Hui-Ke had to say, "I cannot find it." Bodhidharma only had to reply, "There, I have pacified your mind for you." Hui-ke right away saw the Way.

For a long time now, we have believed that the agitated, thinking mind is real. However, if we look inside we will find no trace of the thinking mind and will then know it is empty of ownbeing. When we know it is empty, our thoughts no longer grab our attention and so will not disturb us. When thoughts arise, if we do not follow them, our minds will be calm. Following thoughts, thinking of this or that, never stopping, our minds cannot be at peace. The moment that a thought arises, if we know that it is empty and do not follow it, it will disappear by itself. This is a wonderful way for pacifying the mind. This way does not rely on any method or form. 

Also, if we look directly at the false thoughts, they will disperse like clouds or smoke. This is "directly pointing at the mind," not relying on any means. If we all practiced in this manner, no one would be unwise enough to run after their thoughts, trying to destroy illusions. We only need to know that thoughts are false and not follow them. This is the essence of Bodhidharma’s pacification of mind.

A monk once asked Zen Master Tsung-mi, "How does one practice Zen?" The master replied, "Knowing illusions is practicing." This answer is simple and complete. Knowing that thoughts are false and not following them, our minds become calm by themselves. This is the wonderful practice of Zen. And, even though we say "practice," it is not practice, because we do not create, destroy, or alter anything. We use wisdom only to penetrate illusions. This "non-practice" practice begins with understanding the emptiness of the thinking mind and continues when you embrace the single mind essence. Master Wei-Hsin of Tong dynasty said, "Thirty years ago, I saw mountains and rivers as mountains and rivers. After I heard the Master’s teachings, I saw mountains and rivers not as mountains and rivers. Now my mind is clear so I see mountains and rivers being mountains and rivers." 

Before Master Wei-Hsin practiced Zen, he saw things the way most people do: only as physical mountains and rivers. After understanding Zen, he saw mountains and rivers as temporary, conditioned combinations; as things with non-real nature. After looking at everything through the eyes of wisdom, Master Wei-Hsin rid himself of all de filements. A pure, single mind essence was revealed. He saw mountains and rivers as mountains and rivers because he was free from all rigid viewpoints and discriminations. Master Wei-Hsin was really a person who reached the goal of the path of birds28. Perhaps a more concrete example of this practice can be found in the conversation between Zen Master Yuan-Kuan and a monk who managed the garden:

The monk asked, "What should we do when we cannot control our internal enemies?"

"They would not be deadly foes if you knew them," the Master replied.

"What should we do after we know them?"

"Banish them to the non-birth land."

"Is non-birth land his29 dwelling place?"

"Stagnant water cannot keep a dragon."

"What is active water that will keep a dragon?"

"Spreading ripples yet not making waves."

"How is it when suddenly swamps tilt and mountains crumble?"

"Do not say that any corner of my kasaya30 gets wet," said the Master, stepping down from his seat and grabbing the monk.

The hard to control "internal enemies" are the false thoughts arising when the six sense organs contact with the sense objects. When we know their false nature, they cannot harm us. On the contrary, we are able to control them, and then they become calmer and calmer. This is "staying in non-birth land." However, we should not become stuck, thinking of this state as our ultimate goal. Our minds need to be in full awareness, alert and flexible yet not agitated - a state of boundless skillful abilities. This is "active water that can keep a dragon." At this stage, although the sky may collapse or the ground may tilt, the practitioner’s mind cannot be disturbed. This is what is meant by "(no) corner of my kasaya gets wet."

The point of this practice is not for achieving miraculous or supernatural powers. What is important is for practitioners to no longer be moved or disturbed by the eight winds31. Although practitioners face challenges or difficulties, if their minds remain unmoved, this is complete success.

From Having to Nothing

When we recognize true nature in ourselves, we realize that all phenomena are temporary forms that are combined from conditions. True nature is formless, beyond both conditions and non-conditions, permanent and impermanent. This nature is always present in all sentient beings, bright and alert. It does not increase when one is enlightened. Neither does it decrease when one is ignorant. However, people usually forget this. When they can recognize this true nature in themselves, they become Buddhas:

One day, Ta-an asked Patriarch Pai-chang, "I want to know Buddha. What should I do?"

"It is like a person who looks for his ox while he is on its back," Pai-chang replied.

"What is it like after knowing that?"

"Like the person who rides his ox home."

"I do not know how to guard it?"

"It is like the herder who holds a rod while watching his ox, not letting it eats the rice in the paddy."

At this, Ta-an understood.

We have a Buddha nature in each of us but we dare not accept it. Instead, we run around searching for it. We are like the man who is looking for the ox that he is sitting on! When we realize our true nature within ourselves, we will not worry and look for it any more; like the man who rides his ox home. However, knowing that we have not yet finished our task, we need to persistently watch and tame our thinking minds. It is like the ox herder who holds a rod while watching his ox. This is crucial practice for those who have just recognized their Owners. Zen Master Ta’an further instructed his disciples:

What are you all looking for when you come to Ta’an? If you want to become buddhas then see yourselves as buddhas. Why do you carry your buddhas to your neighbors, asking for buddhas? You are like thirsty deer running after sunlight for water, chasing mirages. How could you ever succeed? Each of you has a priceless gem. It radiates through your eyes, illuminating mountains and rivers, trees and grass. It radiates through your ears, apprehending all good and evil sounds. Your six senses constantly radiated day and night. This is called the “light emanating samadhi.” You do not know this essence, embracing your four-constituent bodies32 as solid selves. Yet, these bodies are dependent upon inside and outside conditions so need always to be carefully taken care of. It is like someone with a heavy load on his back, crossing a bridge made from a single tree trunk. This person has to always keep his balance for fear of losing his step.

Reading these lines, we know that Buddha nature is innate in each of us, manifesting through the six organs. The harder we run looking for Buddha nature, the more strained and tiresome we become. We just need to look back to see it. Unfortunately, we rarely accept our true natures. Instead, we accept the four-constituent bodies which readily decay when inside or outside conditions are insufficient. Therefore, we often are worried and fearful of impermanence. When we are able to embrace this unchanging true nature which cannot be harmed by anything, we can experience nirvana.

A monk asked Zen Master Shih-Chiu, "What is the gem in the hand of Kshitigarbha33?"

"Do you have it in your hand?" the Master responded.

"I do not understand."

"Do not tell lies," the Master replied. He then recited:

Not knowing your family treasure,
You follow outside phenomena.
It is like a person who stands in sunlight,
Yet at the same time, tries to escape his shadow,
Or, like an idiot who, without a mirror,
Cannot see his head so thinks he does not have one!

Human beings always run after outside phenomena and forget their true nature. It is like the monk in the story who wanted to ask about the gem in the hand of Kshitigarbha, forgetting the gem in his own hand. Even though we have drifted about in the six realms or wandered in the triple world, true nature is always with us as shadow follows form. We are like Yajnadatta in volume 4 of the Shurangama Sutra who looked in the mirror one day. He liked the head in the mirror because he could see it. However, when he stepped away from the mirror, Yajnadatta could not see his head. From this, he falsely reasoned that he had lost his head so ran madly about.

Everyday, we follow our thinking minds, believing these thoughts and then creating a self from them. When all thoughts calm down, we are startled, thinking that we have lost ourselves. Thoughts are always arising and disappearing, having neither location nor root. However, we grasp them as selves. When thoughts are calm, our faculties for seeing, hearing, and knowing still remain. How then can we say, "losing ourselves?" And who is it who is thinking "losing ourselves?" Only when we recognize the Owner, we will not be cheated by outside sense objects and false thoughts. As Zen Master Fa-Yen said, "I have a thing that is not worldly nor saintly, not wrong nor right, yet naturally know how to deal with events."

The Owner in us is the absolute essence that is beyond duality. When in contact with the world, the Owner is aware and knows everything. This essence, also called the eternal Dharmakaya, was never born and will never be annihilated. It is true, permanent, and formless. It is, therefore, often described as emptiness. One who embraces the Dharmakaya sees his body, mind, and all phenomena as temporary and unreal, like bubbles, shadows, mist, or lightning. If one is always with the Owner while walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, one is doing "birthless practice."

Zen Master Ruiyan Shiyan often sat on a rock, now and then calling to himself. "Owner!" he would shout. "Yes!" he would then answer, adding, "Be alert and do not let people deceive you!"

Calling and replying to oneself may seem silly, but this is an effective practice for remembering the Owner. Practitioners should be alert, always with their eternal Owners, and do not let the outside world deceive them. This is an everlasting principle for those who want to return to themselves. There are many different ways to express this returning to oneself: enlightenment, deliverance, Nirvana, or the Place of Jewels34. When practitioners do return to themselves, nothing in the world can disturb them.

This type of meditation attaches special importance to the mind, not to a definite schedule. In all activities, while walking, standing, sitting, lying, and even resting, practitioners need to recognize every thought yet do not follow them. Therefore, outside conditions cannot grab their attention. Whenever they do not live with the Owner and lose their awareness, they are considered to be gravely distracted. Those who are practicing this type of meditation may seem to be at leisure, but, in fact, they are paying attention to every thought. This practice is the foundation for becoming patriarchs and buddhas:

One day, Wang Chang Shi came to visit Patriarch Lin Chi’s monastery. He walked around and saw many monks staying there. Wang Chang Shi asked, "Do you teach them to meditate and recite the sutras?" 

"No!" Lin Chi exclaimed.

"Then what do you teach them?"

"I teach them to become buddhas and patriarchs."

This method of practice is subtle and internal, not belonging to any outward form. It seems difficult to understand, but people still can go through it. This practice has no levels and no means. Practitioners just live with their formless true nature. It may be rather hard for practitioners to evaluate their progress with this method but they must persist. There are people whose main aim in learning the Dharma is to expound it. Instead of practicing, they use buddhas’ and patriarchs’ sayings to cover their mistakes. These are called thieves of the Buddha Dharma.

In teaching the above ideas on Absolute Meditation, many have asked clarifying questions. Let's look at a couple of these:

Question: Buddhism preaches "no-self" but this section advises people to return to "an Owner." Does the latter contradict the former?

Answer: Buddhism teaches "no-self" in the sense that there is not a self in the body of five aggregates or components: form, feeling, conception, mental formation, and consciousness. We have a tendency to hold on these five aggregates as selves while the Buddha knew that they are conditioned, impermanent, and will cease. This is what he meant by the term "no-self." If one considers the existence of the five aggregate body as one’s self, how can one be free from the cycle of birth and death? Therefore, in Buddhism, one definition of ignorance is the holding on to of the five aggregates as a solid, enduring self.

The term "Owner" is used here to mean the non-birth-and-death essence within this body composed of the five aggregates. This essence will fully manifest itself when one’s feelings, conceptions, mental formations, and consciousness calm down. It is never apart with these aggregates, but when they are operating, we rarely realize this essence. The Owner is the tranquil, aware essence that has never been agitated, changed, or eradicated. To experience it, try this contemplation: When meditating or sitting alone at a quiet place, note how your feelings, conceptions, mental formations, and consciousness calm down, yet your eyes, your ears, etc., are full of awareness. Then, ask yourself, "Who is it that is seeing, hearing, etc.? Is it the permanent, tranquil, aware nature inside?" Therefore, the theory of "the Owner" mentioned here does not contradict the Buddha’s teaching about no self. When we have real experiences, we know it. It is useless to hang on to or argue over theories.

Question: In many sutras, the Buddha reprimanded views about permanence35 and annihilation36 while this section says, "the Owner is permanent and unchanging." Is this section similar to heterodox views of permanence?"

Answer: The heretic holds on to the idea that the five-aggregate body is permanent when, in fact, it is impermanent, bound to birth and death. Therefore, the Buddha reprimanded their viewpoint. That which takes form and belongs to birth and death is impermanent. Since the Owner is formless, beyond duality, and free from birth and death, how can it be impermanent? We make efforts to express the Owner by saying that it is permanent and unchanging. In fact, when practitioners realize this aware nature in themselves, they will understand this sense of permanence that cannot be described. Therefore, when we say that the Owner is permanent and unchanging, it is not similar to heterodox views of permanence, and, as such, there is no contradiction.

Mục Lục