At the heel of our attendance at the 2007 Buddhist Summer Camp in Orlando, we congregated, this time closer to home, at the Pinellas Park venue of the Middle Way Buddhist Association on the evening of July 9, 2007 to attend the Buddhist Lecture, From No Self to Liberation: The Paradoxical Wisdom of Emptiness, given by Venerable Jian Fu, the Abbot of the Zen Center of Sunnyvale. We were there too on the following night, July 10, for the Q&A session during which Venerable Jian Fu cited personal anecdotes and experiences to help illuminate the path to enlightenment. A Taking the Refuge in the Triple Gem ceremony was also held on July 9 at the conclusion of the Buddhist talk and I look forward to reading the personal experiences of those who have embraced Buddhism that very night formalized by their participation in the ceremony that included reciting the repentance verses and the Four Great Vows.
Using his uniquely measured tone and even mode of delivery in a slightly accented English suggestive of many years of American education, Venerable Jian Fu started with a simple definition of the Buddha, it being the enlightened one. That state of ultimate bliss, actualized through liberation from suffering, is not beyond us as all sentient beings are endowed with the Buddha nature. What separates us from the Buddha is the concealment of Buddha nature from our own selves, under the cloak of greed, anger, and delusion.
To illuminate the above message, Venerable Jian Fu cited the famous Chan/Zen (Zen being the Japanese word for Chan Buddhism in Chinese) poem attributed to the Sixth Patriarch, Venerable Master Hui Neng:
Bodhi is no tree;
Nor is the mind a standing mirror bright.
There is nothing to begin with;
Where can the dust alight?
Here “nothing” is an allusion to emptiness while “dust” is a euphemism for contamination comprising the three mental toxins cited above.
Our polluted state of mind, and hence suffering, can be traced back to our attachment to the entity, self, or more aptly, our misconceptions of our self.
Firstly, our understanding of ourselves is not correct as we often take our earthly possessions to be part and parcel of our image of self. Putting those possessions in the right perspective as affording us the temporary right to use, Venerable Jian Fu enumerated five groups that de facto own our possessions:
1) The Government and its institutions including IRS and banks.
2) Natural disasters (floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.)
One can also further add lawyers and the insurance group if the above list is not enough to shatter our illusion regarding our flimsy hold on our possessions at best.
Secondly, we act as if we treat our existence as a permanent one. Somehow impermanence is just beyond our comprehension.
Thirdly, we feel that we are in control, without realizing that living and dying are the same thing. We start dying the moment we are born.
Fourthly and lastly, we think we have an independent body, not realizing that inter-connectedness is the operative word. And Venerable Jian Fu illustrated the need for an attitude of sharing by telling the story of how denizens of the Hell and the Heavenly realms feed themselves. Both have the same setting: they all sit around a big table, full of food, and each has a three-foot long chopstick (let’s imagine these are the Chinese realms but the point is not lost).
Soon the hungry souls in the Hell realm are engaged in a chopstick war, each trying to knock the food off the other’s chopstick while unable to put the food into the mouth because of the length of the chopstick. And the day ended with none managing to get any eating done and the same scenario repeats the next day.
At the heavenly realm, the happy souls feed each other, putting their own chopsticks in other’s month. Soon everyone is satiated.
On emptiness, Venerable Jian Fu explained that the notion is not synonymous with non-existence. Rather, emptiness connotes that it is beyond description. It is awareness, and becoming mindful of what the mind is doing, the very essence of meditation in an effort to regain the self command, the discipline of the mind.
Venerable Jian Fu also expounded on the difference between love and compassion. Love is centered on the ego, the false self, and it has a flip side, hate. On the other hand, compassion is unbounded, extending to all sentient beings.
The contrast of love and compassion was elaborated further on the following night of Q&A by Venerable Jian Fu in response to a question from an attendee whether compassion is abstract. Answering firmly in the negative, Venerable Jian Fu reiterated that love, as conventionally used, has both positive and negative implications as exemplified by the roller coaster ride of a typical love-hate relationship between individuals. Compassion, in contrast, is love to all, motivated by a deeper sense of wanting to help others, to save others from suffering. We readily give, in efforts, in wealth, and in kind, to a worthy cause (e.g., victims of the 2004 South Asian Boxer Day Tsunami and the 2005 Katrina Hurricane). Those are tangible feelings and there is nothing abstract about them.
We need to control our mind so that we do not become slaves to our desires. In that respect, we want to live in the moment, which is distinctly different from living for the moment that only conjures up actions of doing whatever we want. But we don’t want to be a control freak either. The Zen practice aims to develop mindfulness, so that our mind is like a clear and still lake, and does not focus on the bubbles that may form on the surface. The freedom that ensues is in the sense of doing anything we want without making any wrong. In time to come with constant practice, we would transcend the duality of stillness and motion.
In responding to another question, Venerable Jian Fu explained that there isn’t any yardstick one can use to measure one’s progress, or even whether one is making any progress at all. But there are certain signs that when viewed together, do point to positive advances on the right track. These could take the form of being more at ease, of showing less agitation, and evincing an overall joyous disposition.
Venerable Jian Fu felt blessed that he has found a great teacher in his search for Dharma. While it’s OK to identify a teacher to guide us along, the important thing is to have faith in your teacher. In a similar vein, Matthieu Ricard, a French monk whose journey from a scientist to a Buddhist monk bears some uncanny resemblance to that of Venerable Jian Fu, has this to say about being under the wings of great spiritual masters in his book, Happiness – A guide to developing life’s most important skill (Little, Brown and Company, NY, First English Edition by Jesse Browner, 2006):
“The good fortune of meeting with remarkable people who are both wise and compassionate was decisive in my case, because the power of examples speaks more forcefully than any other communication. They showed me what is possible to accomplish and proved to me that one can become enduringly free and happy, providing one knows how to go about it. When I am among friends, I share their lives joyfully. When I am alone, in my retreat or elsewhere, every passing moment is a delight. When I undertake a project in active life, I rejoice if it is successful; and if doesn’t work out, I see no reason to fret over it, having tried to do my best. I have been lucky enough so far to have had enough to eat and a roof over my head. I consider my possessions to be tools, and there is not one I consider to be indispensable. Without a laptop I might stop writing, and without a camera I might stop sharing pictures, but it would in no way impair the quality of every moment of my life. For me the essential thing was to have encountered my spiritual masters and received their teachings. That has given me more than enough to meditate on to the end of my days!”
I can definitely see some more parallels between what I have read in Matthieu Ricard’s books and what I have gleaned from listening to Venerable Jian Fu’s talks and the two CDs featuring him that I managed to pick up on the display table on the first night (The Wisdom of Zen Buddhism – A journey from computer scientist to Zen Buddhist master, an interview by Jean Ramacciotti, and Buddhism and Modern Science, Dharma talk by Ven. Master Jian Fu, Seattle, Winter 2005): giving up earthly possessions, seeing the connections between Buddhism and science, being under the tutelage of great masters, being grateful, practicing detachment, and sharing the Dharma.
And I’m blessed too to be able to cross path with both, be it in person or through writing.