Perhaps drawn by the renewed appeal of Buddhist practice and meditation in steadying our daily lives marked by unexpected twists and turns, several acquaintances, both new and old, also dropped by for the very first time to attend the talk. What originally envisaged to be a Dharma talk to a Chinese speaking audience was transformed into a bilingual session (Chinese and English) due to the presence of our American friends, including one of Wei Joo's friend from Sarasota through his Shaolin kungfu's connection. And the demand of the motley crowd was ably met by Master Jian Zong whose measured tone and clear diction in both languages soon captivated our undivided attention.
But before that, all were treated to a sumptuous vegetarian dinner. And there were plenty of help there too. Especially gracious was Sister Yu Tze, who, despite having to absent herself because of her pre-arranged trip to Seattle, undertook to prepare several vegetarian dishes, which I took delivery of two days earlier from her home.
Now back to the Dharma talk. Master Jian Zong first expounded on the duality of emptiness and existence as a central Buddhist concept. These are not opposing or mutually exclusive notions as adhering to one to the total exclusion of the other runs counter to the essence of Middle Way. It's best summed up in the approach of letting go when a thing is done.
There are three levels of emptiness. The first is emptiness of self, connoting letting go of our attachments. The second level is emptiness of Dharma, which can be concisely explained by using an analogy. In Buddhism, there are 48,000 Dharma gates to learning Buddha's teachings but all with one universal aim: liberation of the mind and enlightenment. And the Dharma, which comprises Buddha's teachings, is the metaphorical boat/raft that provides our safe passage across life's ocean, the voyage oftentimes rife with treacherous peril and formidable impediments, to reach the other shore of safe refuge. But once ashore, we should let go of the raft, and not carry it on our shoulders. This follows from a central tenet of Buddhism, dependent origination, or in layman's terms, the causality effect, which holds that nothing ever happens without a reason, or a cause. The third level is emptiness of the Buddha nature, our very original nature, our very essence. [But what the Buddha-nature is empty of is not its own ever-enduring reality but impermanence, impurity, moral defects, and suffering.]
Turning to meditation. Master Jian Zong cited two moments in our daily routine that would benefit from meditation: before we get to work to calm down, and before we go to bed to settle down. Therefore, meditation aids in stilling the mind. But where is the mind? There is a popular Chinese song named "The moon represents my mind", which is employed in the analogous pointing to the moon using the finger as where the mind is. But we should not transfix our attention on the tip of the finger and confuse it with the moon up in the sky as where the true mind lies. Simply, enlightenment is the absence of confusion and ignorance.
All of us are born with the Buddha nature. And Master Jian Zong illustrated this truism by way of a Zen koan in which a monk asked his master what an enlightened state is like. The master answered, "Bhikkhunis are for women to become." On the surface, this seems to be stating the obvious. But if we drill deeper, we will realize that the enlightened being is with us from the start. All we need to do is to rediscover what has always been there.
Turning to sitting meditation, Master Jian Zong explained that the primary purpose is to still the mind, and enumerated the three steps entailed as follows:
a) Body posture: the best sitting position is the full lotus position where both legs are on top while cross-legged. The lotus is the symbol of a pure mind, and is the ubiquitous seat for the Buddha and Bodhisattvas in portraits. Then there is the half-lotus position where only one leg is on top, and simply cross-legged where both legs are placed below. If for some physical reason one cannot achieve the above sitting position, then sitting on a chair will do too since comfort and relaxation are paramount. In all cases, sit on a flat/firm surface and keep the body upright. Avoid sitting on a soft seat such as a sofa as then the bottom will sink, thereby making it difficult to maintain a stable and body upright posture. Both hands are then grasped together in a so-called diamond hand gesture where both thumbs are enclosed within the fingers of one palm which are then overlaid with the fingers of the other and loosely placed on the legs. [In Buddhist parlance, diamond is Bodhi mind, a non-moving mind.] Maintain a trace of smile on the face. And lower the eyes.
b) Breathing: Strive for a smooth, gentle, even, and silent breathing motion. Press the tip of the tongue against the back of the front teeth to keep the mouth moist.
c) Mind: This is the most important step. There are three disruptions to stillness that we should watch out for: wandering thoughts, dozing off, and boredom. Our mind can be likened as a monkey mind, always doing the screenplay, the direction, and the acting by itself. To overcome wandering thoughts, we need to let go, to leave everything behind. It's pretty much like a bouncing ball, the more we try to bounce it (controlling our thoughts), the more it has the tendency to bounce out of control. But if we stop the bouncing (letting go), then the bouncing will slow to a halt naturally. Wandering thoughts are also guests in our house. And guests come and go.
While wandering thoughts tend to afflict beginners, dozing off can beset advanced learners. One possible remedy is to open the eyes, massage the face, head and other parts of the body to regain clarify and focus.
Boredom is relieved by focusing, by being mindful of the breath. A method noted for its simplicity in this regard is the breath counting method. Just do nothing but notice the inhaling, but count 1 to 10 during exhaling in one breath. Depending on the length of the breath, the count can be to 7, 5 or 3.
Zen is the mind of the Buddha, and therefore the essence of Zen practice is embodied in the refrain that wherever you're, there's where the mind is! To focus one's mind is to be the master of one's mind.
Other variants aimed at convenience include reversing the count, and counting in another language. One can also focus on the tip of the nose and observe the breathing. Essentially it is using one single thought to overcome all other thoughts.
On how to maintain a state of compassion and to practice the Bodhisattva's way diligently, Master Jian Zong offered two means:
a) Make a vow, which is a powerful motivator for continuous effort and diligence [e.g., Pu Sian's Ten Great Vows, Guan Yin's 12 Great Vows, and The Buddha's 500 Great Vows], and
b) Observe suffering.
Both will help to cultivate compassion and kindness.
Medical studies have revealed that meditation can lead to stress relief. To put that in the right perspective, recent studies indicated that 70-90% of working people in US suffer from stress-related sickness, that 1 million workers are on sick leave a day, and that all these add up to 100 billions of medical expenses annually. Hence, more companies are now encouraging meditation practice among their workers.
By spawning the clarity of the mind, meditation can also help one focus on and figure out the problem, thereby developing one's potential. A clarified mind would be able to make the right decisions, a pre-requisite for effectiveness [doing the right things].
Master Jian Zong ended the lively Q and A session, some of which were covered in the salient points listed above, by recounting several real-life stories of how meditation helps practitioners to face life's adversity/emergencies/peril with well-conceived approaches born out of calmness instilled through the practice of meditation.
Thus ended a fruitful night of Dharma bliss during which beginners and advanced learners alike partook of the gems of Buddhism delivered by Master Jian Zong.
Master Jian Zong giving each attendee a gift ...