Ch'an Newsletter - No. 79 June/July 1990

Attitude Towards Practice and The Fruits of Practice
lectures given by Master Sheng-yen during the May 1990 retreat

During the retreat, I have spoken of many things that will aid your practice and increase your understanding of Buddhadharma. Specifically, I have told you about a number of important aspects of practice: confidence, a sense of karmic repentance and karmic shame, and the making of vows and the transfer of merit. Tonight I will go over these points in detail and show the connections between them. Finally, I will speak about some of the fruits of practice: Dharma Happiness and Dhyana Joy.


Confidence is one of the most important, positive attributes that we can have in our practice. It is confidence that will increase your faith in your method, in yourself, and in your teacher. This faith will help you overcome any obstacle that gets in your way and will help you see that the Three Jewels -- Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha -- can guide you toward your goal. Faith and practice will lessen and eventually eradicate your self-centeredness.

One of the greatest obstacles to practice is doubt. Confidence and faith are the antidotes to doubt. As you continue in practice and you see the benefits it brings, you will grow stronger in practice and your confidence and faith will increase.

With confidence you will come to understand the nature of and the need for both karmic repentance and karmic shame -- two topics which I will be talking about this evening.

Karmic Repentance

One of the most important doctrines in Ch'an is that of cause and consequences. This is the doctrine that describes how the particular events, good or bad, that befall you at this moment are rooted in your past deeds; and, by extension, what you do now will determine what happens to you in the future.

When we recognize all of the bad things that we have done in the past and the evil acts that we have committed against others and against ourselves, we see that we are suffering from their effects at this moment. It is these things that we have done that have brought us into our present life with all of its troubles and vexations. We maybe suffering for things that we have done earlier in this life, or it may be for things that we have done in previous lives of which we are no longer aware. The point is that if we are suffering now it is because of our own acts and no one else's. We then realize that this body we have is not a real body but a body of karmic retribution. We are here now in this life with our bodies and minds filled with obstructions directly as a result of our previous thoughts, words, and actions.

When we understand the cause of our suffering, we can then take responsibility for what we have done, admit our errors, and vow to change. This is karmic repentance: seeing what is wrong, understanding why it is wrong, and vowing to do something about it. Karmic repentance is a turning away from the generation of bad karma.

We usually develop a sense of karmic repentance when we have vexations and when we suffer. We then realize that we have received retribution for our previous erroneous actions. It is important to note that karmic repentance simply means recognition of wrong and resolution to change. It does not mean that we should hate or dislike ourselves, knock our heads against the wall, or scourge ourselves into agony. It does not mean that we are horrible people, that our existence is hideous, or that we are not fit to deal with others. We simply recognize what we have done wrong.

Whatever wrong things you have done in the past should be just put aside. There is no need for you to always carry the burden of all the wrong things you have ever done in the past. This would be too painful. This does not mean that you simply forget about these things and believe that they never existed.

For example, if I owe Chris $50, all I have to do is say, "Chris, I owe you $50 which I borrowed two years ago. Don't worry. One of these days I will pay you back." And that's fine. Then I can go about my other business. Every time I see Chris I don't have to say, "Hey, Chris, I still owe you $50." I only have to say it once, but I must have the sincere goal of paying it back when I am able.

Not to have a sense of karmic repentance means that you do not believe in cause and consequences. A person with this mind-set does not believe in past and future lives, or even in the past influence on the present and the present's influence on the future. He or she only knows a present unconnected to anything else. What happens now happens for no reason; what you do now has no consequence in the future. A person who sees the world in this way has fallen into the erroneous view of "termination." Everything begins and ends with this life. To look at the world in this way is to fail to take responsibility for what you have done, and is to have no hope for change in the future.

Karmic Shame

A Ch'an Buddhist doctrine that is as equally important as cause and consequences is that of causes and conditions. This is the doctrine of interdependence: that everything comes together because of contributing factors. Nothing exists independently in and of itself. To understand causes and conditions is to recognize that other factors and other people have contributed to the circumstances in which you find yourself.

Not to understand this doctrine of causes and conditions means that you have a view of the self as something which is not an illusion, but as something real and concrete. In the Ch'an view this is a reason to have karmic shame. You exaggerate your self-importance. It is not that you are so mighty and powerful that you have created all that is around you and determined exactly what events will transpire in the world.

For example, it so happens that I am in a relatively comfortable situation: my health is good, I have food to eat, clothes to wear, adequate shelter, and a chance to hear this and read that. All of this does not simply reflect the fruits of my labor. Many others have helped me to get to where I am.

To have a sense of karmic shame is to see that nothing you have created really originated from your efforts alone. It would be foolish of me to think that my disciples have food to eat and clothing to wear simply because of what I have done for them. Of course, what they have stems from their own karmic merit. It has nothing to do with me. I am only one factor in a great array of causes and conditions.

Take the Center, for example. We have a nice building and extensive facilities here. But I don't think that the Center belongs to me or that its existence stems only from my effort. Many people have contributed money, time and effort.

It is easy to see how a failure to understand this doctrine would allow one to fall into the trap of pride or arrogance. In the Buddhist context there is a distinction between the two terms. Pride is used in regard to ordinary sentient beings. It is the overly self-satisfied feeling that arises when you believe that you are responsible for obtaining everything you possess and for everything you have accomplished. Arrogance is reserved for those practitioners who have attained special powers or converted many people and who see all of these acts as manifestations of their self-power. Both pride and arrogance are outgrowths of self-centeredness.

A lack of understanding of causes and conditions taken to its extreme goes far beyond simply pride and arrogance. One may even come to hold the erroneous view that is called "the eternal god-self." Someone with this view recognizes the contribution of no one but himself in all that he sees around him. He is totally attached to the idea of his self to the exclusion of all other things. Such a person views himself as all-powerful and all-knowing. He believes that he will continue as he is for all eternity.

Karmic shame is the antidote to self-centeredness in all of its manifestations, from the simple belief in an "I" to the egomaniacal view that one is a god.

When we examine the original teachings of the Buddha, we can see that a sense of karmic shame was basic to the Buddha's teachings. When Shakyamuni Buddha was in the world, he gave his disciples four basic principles of practice:

1. To be content
2. To have few desires
3. To know to be ashamed (of one's strong attachment to self)
4. To enjoy a simple life of practice

If a practitioner is content and has few desires, it means that he is enjoying a simple life of practice. But if you are practicing, yet you are not content and you still have a lot of desires, what kind of a person are you? You are someone with no sense of karmic shame. As you can see, karmic shame is central to these teachings.

It is, of course, very good if you can get to the point where you have little desire. But most people have some desire. So when you find desire arising in you, you should feel ashamed, because this indicates the existence of your strong attachment to self. When you recognize this, you feel karmic shame. This is in itself the practice.

I have said that you should feel karmic shame when you have a strong sense of self. But as ordinary sentient beings, everything we do is attached to a sense of self, to feelings and emotions. What about love, for example? Should a feeling of love give rise to a sense of karmic shame? Should you feel ashamed for loving your spouse or your children?

No, karmic shame doesn't mean that you should always walk around with your head down, and that you should feel guilty for the love you have for your spouse or your children. But it must be pointed out that the love for a spouse or child can be too much the product of self-centeredness, pride, or desire. Sometimes what seems to be love is really ego-based desire that smothers rather than helps those who are close to you. With such feelings you will never transcend samsara.

The proper attitude for a practitioner is to look at your children and your spouse as both sentient beings and as Bodhisattvas. You make offerings to them as if they were Bodhisattvas and, because they are sentient beings, you take care of them. You do not have a special attachment to them, which is really more a concern with your sense of self than their welfare. To act otherwise would indeed be a cause to have karmic shame. This shame will lead to less and less self-centeredness, and as a result you will be more available to your family.

Once you have developed a sense of karmic shame and, in addition, you recognize the need for karmic repentance, you will have a sense of peace.

Making Vows and Transfer of Merit

The making of vows plays a major role in Ch'an Buddhist practice. Everyday we chant the Four Great Vows. We begin by vowing to save all sentient beings. This is followed by our vows to cut off endless vexations, then mastering limitless approaches to Dharma, and finally, our vow to attain supreme Buddhahood.

We do not start by vowing to attain supreme Buddhahood. There is a reason for this. If you begin by only thinking of Buddhahood for yourself, then you will have no Bodhi Mind for sentient beings. Again this means that there is too much attachment to self, and there will be no way for you to reach enlightenment.

In the Tibetan tradition there is great emphasis on this Bodhi Mind. This is not something to be thought of as a concrete phenomenon, nor is to be taken as something strange or particularly special. It is simply a concern for other sentient beings and it is the absence of self-centeredness. In the Tibetan tradition, every practice they do involves this Bodhi Mind. Whether they make prostrations or walk a great distance, they say, "What we do, we do for other sentient beings." Without the Bodhi Mind there is no practice for them.

What they are doing is using the merit from their practice and transferring it to other sentient beings.
This is how the transfer of merit is tied together with the making of vows. Our vows are only truly effective when they are made with the Bodhi Mind -- when they are made with concern for the benefit of others. Thus, the merit that we have acquired in practice is transferred to others because we have made our vows with others in mind.


We can now see how all of the doctrines and concepts I have spoken of are connected and how they reinforce each other. Confidence leads to the faith and the strength to admit our errors and to reduce our sense of self-centeredness, that is to say, it will enable us to perform karmic repentance and to have a sense of karmic shame. With karmic shame and karmic repentance we will be able to rid ourselves of pride and arrogance, and we will not blame others for what befalls us. Then we will be free of self-attachment, and we will be able to practice for other sentient beings. This we will be able to accomplish by making vows and transferring merit.

Dharma happiness and Dhyana Joy

There are two special benefits that we derive from practice. They are Dharma Happiness and Dhyana Joy. Dharma Happiness is connected with the concepts of Buddhadharma which guide us in our thinking, attitudes, and approach to life. Dhyana Joy is connected to the training of our bodies and minds through the methods of practice.

Dharma Happiness is the contentment we achieve through the concepts and understanding of Buddhadharma. Before we had the chance to hear Buddhadharma and to practice, we were filled with vexations. But now we have had the opportunity to listen to the Dharma. Just listening to and understanding Dharma is itself a source of great happiness.

Dhyana Joy refers to the relaxed state of body and mind we can achieve when we lessen our vexations through practice. There are many different methods by which we can train our minds and bodies: sitting, walking, prostrations, and chanting. What we try to do is to use right thoughts to replace our scattered, illusory thoughts until we reach the point where our being is concentrated and all illusory thoughts are gone. At that time we will have control over-ourselves. This is a concentrated self.

When we get to the next stage, the large, or unified, self, we will truly feel that our own individual existence is unimportant. This is because there will be no distinction or conflict between the self and others, the body and the environment, the body and the mind, and the self and the environment. When you achieve this state, you naturally have a feeling of joy. Of course, even the experience of a limited amount of concentration and some feeling of ease is a source of joy.

We are now in the seventh day of the retreat. We have listened to a fair amount of Buddhadharma already. There were times and places when there was no Buddhadharma to be heard, and hearing even one line of a sutra was sufficient to bring liberation. This may not be so for us today - we may not be able to attain enlightenment in a moment, but Buddhadharma can still guide us through our daily lives and help us to be happy and peaceful. This will help us overcome and shed feelings of disappointment, sorrow, envy, and bitterness.

After seven days of practice, some of you may be wondering about just what the terms and concepts were that were supposed to make you feel happy. Please tell me if there is anyone who feels like that. Sometimes it may happen that when you hear too much it is as if you haven't heard anything at all, like someone who has breathed all his life but doesn't really know what the air is like.

Have you heard the terms cause and consequence? Have you heard the terms causes and conditions? Have you heard of karmic shame and karmic repentance? Have you heard of making vows and transferring merit? Do these count as Buddhadharma? Who has not heard these terms?

This is in fact a summary of all Buddhadharma. When you believe in cause and consequences, you will not blame others or heaven or nature for your own misfortune. If you believe in causes and conditions, you will not be overjoyed when you meet good fortune, because you will know that it was not created by you alone. You will see that nothing exists independently; that everything is interconnected. Neither painful nor joyful things will seem eternal to you. You will see them as things that happen to an illusory self.

If you have karmic shame, you will not have pride or arrogance when your practice is good. And you will not be jealous or envious. When we make vows and offerings, we offer our complete bodies and minds, on the one hand, to the Three Jewels, so that we can receive the teaching and devote ourselves to practice. On the other hand, we offer our complete bodies and minds to all sentient beings. In this way we will only think of them, not of ourselves. Of course, when we see sentient beings, we will be happy. When we develop a sense of karmic repentance and karmic shame, our understanding of Buddhadharma is naturally increased. Isn't this Dharma Happiness?

And again, for the past seven days, we have been practicing with our bodies and minds, and we had, at first, many obstructions and much heaviness associated with them. But after seven days, the energy channels should be flowing more freely, and we should have more of a feeling of lightness than we did at the outset. Isn't this Dhyana Joy?

We use methods of practice to move our minds from a scattered to a concentrated state, so that we may approach the state of One Mind. When we go through this training, we will be less moody and less controlled by our emotions. We will have better control of our minds. In any situation we will be aware of what's going on, and we can tell ourselves that the suffering we experience isn't what it seems to be. Isn't this Dhyana Joy?

And again, during the past seven days, I have continually told you to be relaxed. It may not be possible to always be completely relaxed, but you should be able to relax somewhat at least some of the time. Is there anyone who has not had that experience? If you know what relaxation is, you can go from a state of tenseness to a state of peace and ease in body and mind. Isn't that Dhyana Joy? Certainly we can train ourselves to be relaxed when we are meditating. But we can also train ourselves to relax when we are not meditating, when we are engaged in our normal daily activities. In fact, you can try to be relaxed in any situation.

To have the mind relaxed means to just let it stop working. To relax the body is to not use our muscles anymore than is necessary so that the body will not be tense. If we can make ourselves relaxed in body and mind in any situation, that is Dhyana Joy. It is for this reason that I say to you that you should be able to enjoy Dhyana Joy at any time and any place.

The two terms, Dharma Happiness and Dhyana Joy, are connected. They compliment one another. Don't forget Dharma Happiness and Dhyana Joy.

On June 18 Swami Pramananda Bharati of the Vedanta School of Hinduism came to visit Shih-fu after he had attended a gathering of world spiritual leaders in Moscow in order to discuss the survival of the planet and the human race.

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