Middle Way Philosophy
The Wellspring of Life: Middle Way Philosophy
I. Why the Middle Way is the Wellspring of True Life
Regarding the continual development of human life, one can consider its wellspring from three aspects: daily living, existence, and true life. In this context, daily living pertains to material objects. If there is deficiency in material life, we will encounter problems in clothing, food, housing and transportation, and it will even be difficult to survive. In this sense, material life is called a wellspring. Yet human desire is insatiable and material life is limited; when it reaches its peak under certain conditions, it will regress. When human or natural disasters strike, material daily living is affected, even to the point of deficiency or the complete exhaustion of resources. So daily living is only called a small wellspring.
The second wellspring is existence. As human beings exist in this world, we need a dignified existence that lasts from generation to generation; this is also a wellspring. Surpassing the first wellspring of daily living, this wellspring of existence is called a middle wellspring. But when great disasters strike, this middle wellspring can also perish.
The third is the wellspring of true life, which is the Middle Way Philosophy. Middle Way Philosophy is an everlasting wellspring, inexhaustible in supply and always available for use. Even if human or natural disasters such as a tidal wave, a hurricane, or a great earthquake should strike, this wellspring will not be affected. If we deeply realize this inexhaustible wellspring of true life, our life will surely be endless, and our daily living and existence in the world will also become very meaningful.
Daily living is a small wellspring. Existence is a middle wellspring. These two wellsprings will dry up and even perish when encountering human and natural disasters. But the wellspring of true life, Middle Way Philosophy, is everlasting and will never be exhausted. If we can find this never-ending, continual wellspring, even when confronted by great calamities, our daily living, existence, and life will always have abundant brightness and hope.
Middle Way Philosophy comprises what we call Middle Way thought and Middle Way Reality. Thought refers to the state of our consciousness or ideology. There are various thoughts—philosophical thoughts, scientific thoughts, political thoughts, etc. Yet these thoughts are not necessarily complete and perfect. For example, no matter how advanced technology is, if we do not have a mind of purity, compassion and impartiality from Middle Way thought, technology can bring us problems. Technology can be used in criminal activities, or even destroy and extinguish the human race as nuclear weapons can. Therefore, we should understand that the incomparable and perfect Middle Way thought is the foundation for benefiting others as well as oneself. Understanding Middle Way thought can help us to find a brighter and broader path. Yet to only have Middle Way thought is not enough. We must put Middle Way thought into practice in our daily lives, transforming it into realistic action. This is called Middle Way Reality. Reality is the true realm of our mind, the true form of all phenomena.
Why must we investigate Middle Way thought? It is because we live in a dualistic world where people and things exist in opposition. For example, now the lights are on and everything is bright. When we turn the lights off, everything is in darkness. Brightness and darkness are opposites. We all know that religion helps people cultivate good deeds, yet the opposite of good is evil. Beauty and ugliness are opposites. Inside and outside are opposites. Action and stillness are opposites. Even the saint and ordinary person are opposites. Whether it is in the past, present or future, or whether it is in the East or the West, it is always a world of opposites. A dualistic world is not perfect because in duality people each have their own opinions and conceptions and look at things differently. Thus it is difficult for people to reach agreement, which consequently leads to disputes, conflicts, and even hatred and wars.
Su TungPo wrote a poem about Mount Lu that explains the duality of this world:
From one side a ridge, from another a peak;
The views from far or near, above or below, are all different.
We do not know the true face of Mount Lu
For we are standing in its midst.
Mount Lu is very high and massive. It looks different when we see it from far or near, one side or another. Because we live in this dualistic world and because there is the subjective point of view of the “I,” everyone looks at Mount Lu differently. This is the way of the world. So where can we get a “true” view of the mountain? How can we adapt and live in harmony in this complicated and dualistic world? How can we always behave just right no matter when we come in or go out, advance or retreat, move right or left, be in motion or in stillness? To achieve these goals, we must understand Middle Way thought and Middle Way Reality.
II. The Nature and Origins of Middle Way Thought
Many people may think that practicing the Middle Way is to treat people with sincerity—neither leaning to the left nor to the right, neither eating too much nor too little, neither expressing aggression nor lacking initiative. Because when we are too aggressive, things will easily fail and when we lack initiative, we cannot achieve success. However, this is only a description of virtuous Middle Way thought or the Middle Way of the mundane world. Confucius said that even this mundane Middle Way is not easy to achieve, “The wise go beyond the proper limit and the foolish cannot attain it.” The wise here does not refer to the truly great wise ones, it refers to those who seek worldly knowledge through improper means and think that they are upstanding. In our society, people like this exist, who think they are clever, but they actually suffer more setbacks by trying to take advantage of people and situations. That is why it is said, “the wise go beyond the proper limit.” Those who are foolish have inaccurate perception or no proper discernment of good and evil; they just follow the words of others. Even when taught the principle of Middle Way, it is futile because as it is said, “the foolish cannot attain it.”
Now I wish to talk about the Middle Way not in the mundane, relative sense but in the true, ultimate sense. Here “true” means to be real and not illusive; “ultimate” implies actuality, the authentic principle. As it is not illusive, Middle Way thought is unadulterated wisdom and Middle Way Reality is the realm of perfection. As a result, with Middle Way thought we can see everything clearly and always in accord with Reality as such, i.e., see things as they truthfully are but not as what we think they are. Furthermore, Middle Way thought has its solid foundation and origins. Specifically, we can speak of two such thoughts, the Middle Way thought in Confucianism, and the Middle Way thought in Buddhism.
The basis of Confucian Middle Way thought comes from several sources. In the Book of History, it says, “The mind of man is precarious; the mind of seeking the Way is subtle. Only if discerning carefully with single-mindedness, one abides in the Middle.” Here “Middle” means not to arouse the mind, not to give rise to any thoughts, namely, to be in accord with Reality. The Doctrine of the Mean also speaks of the Middle Way: “When pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy have not arisen, that is called the Middle Way.” It means when there is pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy in our daily lives, the mind cannot easily get settled. If we wish to transform pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy into a mind that is pure and unmoving, a mind of wisdom and compassion without outflows, then we should not arouse the mind, should not give rise to a single thought “when pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy have not arisen.” If we do not give rise to any thoughts, not only will we not have bad thoughts, but even good thoughts will not arise. This mind will then be perfectly clear, lucid, and the master of itself at all times; this is the Confucian Middle Way. If we truly realize this principle, we will be enlightened; we will come to be aware of the Way, which is the wellspring of life. When we become aware of this truth, our true life will be infinite. The Confucians say, “When one is enlightened to the Way in the morning, one can die happily at night.” Because when we understand and realize the meaning of the Middle Way, we will transcend life and death. This is the Middle Way spoken of in the Doctrine of the Mean. In addition, the Book of the Great Learning also speaks of the Middle Way, “The Way of the Great Learning is to clearly understand virtue.” To clearly understand virtue is to realize the original virtue that each and every one of us intrinsically possesses; this original virtue is exactly the virtue of our Middle Way, nondualistic mind.
Not only in just these examples, but Confucian Middle Way thought also has many other precedents. For example, the Confucian Way that should be transmitted (Note: The famous Confucian scholar in the Tang Dynasty, Han Yu, once wrote: “A teacher should fulfill three duties: Transmitting the Way, teaching knowledges, and unraveling perplexities.” Here the Way refers to the Confucian Middle Way thought.), the Virtuous Path that Yao, Shun, Yu, Tang, Wen Wu, Chou Gong, and Confucius have successively walked (Note: Yao, Shun, Yu, Tang, Wen Wu, Chou Gong, and Confucius are ancient sagely kings or sages in the history of China; they have transmitted the orthodox teaching from generation to generation, which has been considered as the backbone of Chinese civilization.), all expound the teaching of Middle Way. So clearly the Middle Way thought is really rooted and well founded in the teachings of Confucianism.
In Buddhism, Middle Way thought begins with Shakyamuni Buddha’s great awakening. When Shakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment, he said, “Wonder of wonders! All sentient beings possess the Tathagata’s wisdom and virtue. It is only because of their delusions and attachments that they cannot realize it.” Here, “the Tathagata’s wisdom and virtue” refers to Middle Way Reality. It is also to awaken the mind with which you are listening to the dharma, and maintain this mind to be clear, lucid, and always in control. If we truly realize this principle, that is awakening; it is also realizing the Way, the wellspring of true life. When we attain this Way, our life will be endless and this mind will transcend life and death.
After Shakyamuni Buddha entered the Mahaparinirvana, Buddhism flourished most during the time of Bodhisattva Nagarjuna. In his Mulamadhyamakakarika (the Middle Way Treatise), Nagarjuna uses the “eight negations” i.e., eight different negative principles, to elucidate the realization of Middle Way: “Neither arising nor ceasing; neither permanence nor annihilation; neither identity nor distinction; neither coming nor going.” The mind of ordinary people always comes and goes, thus arising and ceasing; from the past to the present, the mind of ordinary people has always been entangled with the emotions of pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy, like the waves in the ocean endlessly arise and cease without any peace, always in entanglements. Consequently, they are unable to realize the non-arising, non-ceasing mind of Middle Way.
There once was a Buddhist master named Hui Wen. Amazed by the vastness of Buddhist scriptures, he didn’t know where to start his practice. So he placed some commonly known sutras on the table, and after praying to the Triple Gem sincerely with eyes closed, he randomly picked one of the sutras, which turned out to be Nagarjuna’s Middle Way Treatise. As he was studying the Middle Way Treatise, he became enlightened when he read, “Whatever is dependently arisen, that is said to be empty; it is also a conventional designation; it is also the meaning of Middle Way.” After his enlightenment, he began to preach the dharma and his understanding, which later became known as the Tian Tai sect in Chinese Buddhism (Note: There are various sects in Buddhism. In general, eight sects are more widely known in the Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, namely, Chan, Pure Land, Vinaya, Esoteric, Tian Tai, Hua Yan, San Lun (Madhyamaka), and Wei Shi (Yogacara). No matter which sect, this mind-dharma of Middle Way is always the essential teaching.).
In Chan, from the Vulture Peak where Shakyamuni Buddha held up a flower and Kashyapa smiled in return; to the teaching which Bodhidharma, the first Patriarch of Chinese Chan Buddhism, brought from India to China; to the awakening of Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng, the mind-dharma of the Buddha has always been passed down from generation to generation to the present time. What exactly is this mind-dharma? Middle Way thought and Middle Way Reality; the combination of these two is also called the Supreme Way. Middle Way is the way of sudden awakening to the mind, thus directly attaining Buddhahood. Understanding this teaching and having the opportunity to practice it are truly our greatest blessings. For example, although he was illiterate, when the well known Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng heard of the Buddhadharma, he was suddenly awakened; his realization is precisely the way of sudden awakening to the mind.
According to the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, Chan Master Shen Shiu once wrote the following verse:
The body is a Bodhi (wisdom) tree;
The mind a mirror standing bright.
At all times diligently wipe it
And let no dust alight.
When the Sixth Patriarch heard this verse, he knew that Shen Shiu had not attained supreme enlightenment. Since he was illiterate, he asked Chang BieJia to help him write down his own enlightenment experience:
Bodhi is no tree
Nor [the mind] a mirror standing bright;
There is nothing to begin with.
Where can the dust alight?
Does this verse show that Hui Neng was truly enlightened? Not quite. It shows that he had realized the empty nature, but not the Middle Way. To realize emptiness is only part of the Middle Way, because besides emptiness, there is also non-emptiness. This so-called non-emptiness is the wondrous existence of all phenomena.
After Hui Neng realized the empty nature, the Fifth Patriarch elaborated on the Diamond Sutra to him. Upon hearing “Without abiding in anything, in such a manner one arouses the mind,” Hui Neng immediately attained supreme enlightenment and realized Middle Way Reality. He said, “Who would have thought that self-nature is intrinsically pure; who would have thought that self-nature is intrinsically unborn and undying; who would have thought that self-nature is intrinsically self-sufficient; who would have thought that self-nature is intrinsically unmovable; who would have thought that self-nature can give rise to all dharmas.” What he realized in that moment was truly Middle Way Reality—not thought but actual reality. In that moment he truly realized this very mind, the mind with which you are now listening to the dharma. What is known as “self-nature” is this pure and lucid mind that each of us possesses. This mind is filled with infinite wisdom, virtue, as well as wondrous functions. Everyone has this mind. Because of our delusions and attachments, this mind of purity, this mind of wisdom, this Bodhi mind, this true and wondrous mind of Middle Way Reality, cannot manifest. Nevertheless, our mind neither increases nor decreases the least bit.
From the original virtue in “The Way of the Great Learning is to clearly understand virtue” of the Book of the Great Learning to the self-nature of the Sixth Patriarch Platform Sutra, all refer to this very mind of ours. Clearly Middle Way thought and Middle Way Reality do have historical precedents and are well founded; this fact consequently illustrates that every one of us indeed possesses this very mind. The Middle Way Philosophy of Confucianism is very similar to that of Buddhism, but they still have differences: one is deeper and the other is simpler. In Confucianism, its Middle Way thought still has the idea of emotional, conceptual, and conscious activities; this mind still has the subtle thoughts of arising and ceasing, and it still has the afflictions of subtle ignorance. On the other hand, when attaining the state of Middle Way Reality in Buddhism, we can reflect and penetrate the subtlest beginningless ignorance, realize the state of non-arising, and finally achieve the ultimate state of liberation. This shows that there are still degrees of subtle differences between the Middle Way thought of Confucianism and that of Buddhism.
III. Awakening to the Mind of Middle Way
How do we awaken to this very mind? After awakening, how do we truly realize it? Furthermore, how do we apply this very mind after realization transpires? Actually, everyone intrinsically possesses this very mind. It is the mind with which Shifu is teaching the dharma and with which you are listening to the dharma. It is the mind that does not think of the past, or the present, or the future; it is the mind that is present in the here and now.
Buddhadharma tells us, “The past mind cannot be grasped; the present mind cannot be grasped; the future mind cannot be grasped.” If we are thinking of the past, the present, or the future, the mind is in motion and clinging. If we think of our past successes and joys, no matter how successful or joyful they were, they have all passed and no longer exist. If we think of our past sufferings or frustrations, it would only increase our sorrow or cause us to think that life is meaningless. So no matter whether the past was good or bad, a success or a failure, or filled with pleasure, anger, sorrow, or joy, it is already in the past, like a dream; it is really futile to think about it. Why should we not think of the future? For the future is not yet here. Thinking about it is just an illusory and unreal dream. And regarding the so-called present, because of the ever-changing nature in each moment, what we think of now as the present has actually already become the past. That is why it is said, “The present mind cannot be grasped.” For example, each day, when we get up, we think that the mind of getting up is real. But after we get dressed, the mind of getting dressed arises and the mind of getting up no longer exists. We think that this mind of getting dressed is the true self, but is it? When we brush our teeth and wash our face, the mind of getting dressed again vanishes; hence, the mind of getting dressed must also be illusive. Moving forward, taking care of our daily necessities, going to work, and coming home—all of these are the arising and ceasing of this mind. Therefore, the present mind cannot be grasped; the past mind cannot be grasped; the future mind cannot be grasped. All of these three states of mind cannot be grasped.
If we attain the state in which our mind does not think of the past, the present, or the future, this mind will be perfectly lucid and clear; it is also what the Diamond Sutras says: “Without abiding in anything, in such a manner one arouses the mind.” This mind of non-abidance is our everlasting and undying true mind. It is also the mind of which “pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy have not arisen.” From the past to the present, this mind of ours feels pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy. Hence, the mind is like the ripples in the river, never able to attain tranquility because it is always clinging. When we truly understand this, we will be able to realize Middle Way thought, and attain the state of Middle Way Reality. By then, this mind will be calm and tranquil, like a pool of still water; this is also the so-called unthinkable mind.
This unthinkable mind is different from the usual unthinkable mind; it is the mind of “no thought.” When something unexpected happens, we say “this is unthinkable!” This “thinking” is the function of the sixth consciousness; it is the mind that is thinking of the past, the present, the future, losses and gains, right and wrong, self and others—this is thinking, and it is also discriminating. When discriminating, one is discerning between right and wrong, discriminating between correct and deviant. As soon as we start thinking, a thought arises. As soon as we discriminate or speak, a thought arises. When a thought arises, that is no longer the Middle Way, no longer Reality—because the mind of Reality does not fall into thinking or discerning; it transcends words and all dualistic views, just like still water without any ripples; it is also like a mirror, clear, bright, and free of dust.
Most ordinary people have ripples and defilements in their mind. What are these ripples? Each thought that arises dualistically is a ripple. From morning till night, so many ripples arise in our mind. What are these defilements? Our mind is filled with scattered thoughts of greed, hatred, ignorance, pride, doubt, and erroneous views. There are many types of greed, such as the greed for wealth, sex, fame, food, and sleep; there are also many kinds of hatred and ignorance. These are all defilements. Therefore, in Buddhism, there are 84,000 skillful means to overcome and eradicate these defilements from our mind. When the defilements are completely eradicated from our mind, the mind will then be full of brightness. The mind full of brightness is the true Reality, which everyone possesses. But because we have lost the purity of this mind and lost the Middle Way Reality of this mind, we feel vanity and vexations, or even feel that living in this world is only waiting for death, and so we suffer drastically.
Buddhism teaches that we all suffer from eight duhkhas, namely the duhkhas of birth, aging, illness, death, separation from loved ones, being with people we dislike, desiring things we cannot get, and the irritations of the Five Aggregates. These exist because we live in a dualistic world; when there is birth, there certainly will be death; when there is success, there inevitably will be failure; when there is going, there surely will be coming; when there are loved ones, there will be enemies; and when there is love, there will be hatred. All are the dualistic phenomena of the world as well as the source of suffering. If we wish to transcend these dualistic phenomena, we need to find an absolute state of mind in this world of opposites. Middle Way Reality is this absolute state of the mind; it transcends duality. If we realize this absolute state of the mind, we will transcend time and space and all dualistic states. After we transcend duality, we will not escape from the world, but rather we find the essence of our mind. If we realize the essence of this very mind, we will have found the wellspring of our true life.
IV. Transforming Life with Middle Way Reality
In this world, whether people are rich or poor, no one can escape death. But, death is not the end. Death is only the phenomenon that shows the disintegration of our physical body that is composed of earth, water, fire, and air. Although the physical body has disintegrated, we still have karma, and our life is still endless. Even so, many people cannot understand this. For instance, the rich or those who have power often feel that life is so short and they should just enjoy their wealth and indulge themselves with eating and drinking, or just play politics to inflate their ego, to satisfy themselves. They may feel that this is enjoying life and in doing so, their life will not be wasted. That is not right. Not knowing there is a future life after death, people may concentrate totally on enjoying their wealth or abusing their power now. Consequently, they create bad karma, and bad karma leads to future retribution. In this life or a future life, there is settlement or retribution for present good or bad deeds, and there is also reckoning in this life or a future life for past good or bad deeds.
No matter whether people have religious beliefs or not, the law of karma or the principle of causality is a fixed law. If we do many bad deeds, we will surely not escape the principle of causality, and thus experience retributions. If we realize that true life is endless and that it has causal effects from the past, the present, and the future, then we definitely will not do such foolish things.
If we understand, “everyone can realize and attain the state of Middle Way Reality,” we will realize how precious life is and realize that it doesn’t matter if we have no money or other possessions, because money and possessions do not last; they only contribute to a materialistic life. Our pure, unmoving mind, our mind of wisdom and compassion contains endless wealth. That is why the Buddhist sutra says, “Being poor materially is not poor; being poor in the mind is really poor. One who is poor materially can cultivate the Way; this is the poor [who are the Way] cultivators. If the mind is poor and without wisdom, one descends to the realm of hungry ghosts.” One is not poor just because one is lacking in wealth. Those who have money and possessions can still be very poor, for their mind may never be satisfied with what they possess. A common Chinese adage says, “The sky is not really high; the [unsatisfied] human mind is higher than the sky.” What is real wealth? The Buddhist sutra says that he who cultivates virtue and is content is the richest; he who listens to the dharma and realizes the truth is the richest. It also says, “With the joy of Chan as nourishment, we are filled with the joy of the dharma.” If we can comprehend the truth, realize the principle of Middle Way Reality, even though we do not have a single cent, we will truly become the “profusely wealthy,” because everything of true value—wisdom, virtue, and wondrous abilities—is already in this very mind of ours.
The ancient sage says, “Learning consists of accumulating daily; the practice of the Way is composed of subtracting daily. Keep on subtracting until you reach the state of Wu Wei, when nothing is done and nothing is left undone.” Worldly studying is “addition”, but realizing Middle Way Reality is “subtraction” because we reduce the garbage in our mind. When the garbage of greed, anger, ignorance, pride, etc. is completely eliminated, Middle Way Reality, the mind of purity, the mind of Wu Wei and brightness will immediately manifest; this is also the same as realizing what the Buddhist sutra teaches, “All the sages and saints differ [from sentient beings] because of [their realization of] unconditioned dharma,;” it is also the realization of “when nothing is done and nothing is left undone.” When we realize this very mind, we will have everything, life will be endless, and wisdom, virtue and merit will also be inexhaustible. Is this not riches and honor?
If we do not realize this principle and attempt to find satisfaction by aggressively seeking fame and power, it will be difficult to attain wealth and honor. Even if we manage to attain these, we may have harmed others in the process, or let people down, or even let ourselves down. Then on the surface we may have riches and honor, but our mind is always filled with vexations, void, and fear. We may not even sleep well at night, fearing that people will find out what we have done. Actually, it is recorded in the Buddhist sutras that as soon as our thoughts arise, they will sound like thunder to the heavenly beings, and all the demons and spirits will know about them as well. If we do not wish others to know the arising of our thoughts, we must realize the state of Middle Way, i.e., not to give rise to a single thought. It is also when this mind that Shifu uses to preach the dharma and you use to listen to the dharma—no matter what the conditions are—is always mindful, always maintains to have no thoughts and is in accord with Middle Way Reality, then no one can find us. Not only will demons and spirits not be able to find us, but even the Tathagata will not be able to find us.
This mind is extremely subtle. In the Buddhist sutra it is also called the dharma realm. When this mind is pure, is without faults, and reaches the absolute state, the world we see is the Pure Land. That is why the sutra says, “When the mind is pure, the Land is also pure.” To be reborn in the Pure Land we must begin with this mind. Similarly, the Confucians say, “Examine ourselves deeply; we will then naturally see and attain it.” If we constantly reflect inwardly and examine ourselves, we can see and attain purity of the mind, and then the whole world will also be pure.
Those who feel that our present place is not peaceful and wish to immigrate to other places, hoping to find a place to live in peace, will not find it because throughout the world the minds of people are not at peace. So where can we find a peaceful country? Everyone’s six sense-faculties—eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and conscious mind—are different, but everyone’s mind has vexations. Some have very serious vexations. Some have very light vexations. But all have vexations. That is why the world is not at peace. If our mind achieves tranquility, this very place will be stable and peaceful, and this very land will be the Buddha Land, for “when the mind is peaceful, the world is also peaceful.” Therefore, if we wish to live a peaceful life, we must completely stabilize this mind so that it is like a balanced scale. If we can achieve this balance, this very world can truly become the Pure Land. It does not take all the people of the world to accomplish this goal; if only half the people could attain this, then the world will be a more peaceful land. However, it truly depends on everyone’s effort.
How do we achieve stability of the mind, the state of “When the mind is pure, the Land is also pure; when the mind is peaceful, the world is also peaceful”? We must realize the Middle Way Reality of this very mind. Once we realize it, we will transcend time and space. The ancient sage has said, “In the mountains there is no sense of time; meanwhile in the mundane world, a thousand years have passed.” This saying describes the state of Middle Way Reality, where neither time nor space exists; the period of several months or several years may feel like a single moment. The mind is very subtle. For example, when we are practicing meditation or attending a Chan seven-day retreat, if we can sit through a good session, we would feel that an hour passes by just like a single moment. But if our legs hurt and our body feels uncomfortable, even ten minutes seem too long—one hour can truly seem like a whole year. Also, when we are attending a business meeting, if the discussion has been joyful and harmonious, it would feel like the time has passed by so fast, even meal time might pass without notice. On the other hand, if the meeting has been tedious and boring, participants might feel restless and keep looking at their watch and wondering why time has passed so slowly. Even in the same space, because of a mind that is restless and clinging, we would feel that time is much longer. In contrast, because of a focused, undisturbed mind, we would feel that time becomes shorter. It is all because of the subtle functions of the mind. When we understand this principle, we will know that to transcend time and space, we must realize the state of Middle Way Reality.
When our mind reaches the state of Middle Way Reality, our concept of the whole world will change. As the Confucians say, “Calmly observe, and the myriad phenomena become self evident; nature narrates itself perfectly, providing infinite, spontaneous inspiration.” This means that when this mind becomes tranquil and settles down, it can clearly see through the myriad phenomena. We then see that there is truth in the mountains, rivers, and earth, in every tree and every blade of grass; each is like perfectly composed prose, providing endless inspiration for us. At this time, this mind is alive; it is inexhaustible, because we have found the fountainhead. Zhu Xi, a Confucian philosopher, explained the meaning of this fountainhead, the principle of Middle Way Reality:
The half-acre square pond openly extends like a mirror;
In the water, drifting clouds and bright sky;
Ask the stream why it is so clear.
For it is live water coming from the fountainhead.
V. The Awakening Story of Wang YangMing
A well-known Confucian scholar in the Ming Dynasty of China, Wang YangMing, was demoted and sent to Lung Chang I in the State of Kwei as a government official. First, he felt disappointed about the demotion. But one day he thought that since he could not be successful as an official, he should take the opportunity to practice the Way. So he followed the method described in the Book of the Great Learning, i.e., from carefully observing the phenomena to realize the ultimate wisdom and thus attain the state of the sages. At that time, Wang thought that “carefully observing the phenomena” should be the first cause of all phenomenal investigations; just like doing scientific research, one needs to understand its cause and effect thoroughly in order to be fruitful. Given this understanding, Wang decided to use the bamboo in front of his house as his research object, questioning why the bamboo is hollow and why it grows in sections. His methodology was very much like the method of “bravely assuming and carefully seeking proof” used in modern science; the method of observing hua tou in Chan also has the same spirit. Looking at it from this angle, Buddhism truly agrees with the teachings of science, philosophy, and psychology.
After a long time of study and investigation, Wang YangMing finally attained a certain enlightenment; he realized that “carefully observing the phenomena” is not to investigate the myriad external objects, but rather it is to “eradicate material desires from the mind” (Note: The “Ge” in the term Ge Wu (格物) etymologically can mean either “to investigate, to observe” or “to eliminate, to eradicate”; the “Wu” also can mean either “material phenomena” or “material desires”. Therefore, Ge Wu (格物) can be interpreted as either “carefully observing the phenomena” or “eradicating material desires from the mind.”), namely its vexations, the craving for fame, wealth, sex, the good and the bad, self and others. When Wang YangMing realized this principle, he immediately found the entrance to the wide Bodhi path of cultivation. From then on, he was constantly mindful. Advancing further in his practice, he got rid of all his possessions. The only thing he had left was a precious and beautiful porcelain bowl from the Jing Te village of Jiang Xi. He was very much attached to this bowl. During each meal, he admired the bowl and it brought him great joy. One day, during a meal, he thought, “In my present state, why should I cherish this bowl?” After careful reflection, he admonished himself, “From now on, I will no longer cherish this bowl.” But he still couldn’t free himself from his attachment to the bowl. Finally, he thought of a way to overcome his attachment. He cracked the edge of the bowl so that his mind would no longer crave it or love it. Thus, he set his mind at ease and his mind became tranquil. One day, a friend suddenly came to visit him, but Wang YangMing already knew about it beforehand. This is the function of the mind. Because his mind was tranquil and still, he was able to acquire spiritual insight.
This mind can reach everywhere. For example, if any of you have children who are far from home, you worry each day about their health, their nutrition, or their study. And as time passes, one night you may dream that your child is sick. After calling him up, you find out that he really is sick. This is what ordinary people call “hearts which beat in unison are linked.” Our mind knows without the limitation of distance. Everyone has this mind of wisdom, of wondrous abilities, and insight. But why don’t we have it now? It is because our mind is rife with ripples and garbage, giving rise to attachments and obstacles. That is why this mind is not serene and tranquil.
Wang YangMing’s cultivation gradually improved; yet he still hoped for the highest achievement, to reach the realm of the sages. He realized that when his body was tired, delusive thoughts and drowsiness arose that immediately created obstacles in his cultivation. So he thought of a way to overcome these. The Buddhist sutras teach us that impermanence can help people realize enlightenment. So Wang had a coffin made and kept it beside him to constantly remind himself that life is impermanent, which increased his alertness and vigilance. He no longer dared to have delusive thoughts or drowsiness. Working gradually in this direction, he experienced another enlightenment; he realized:
The mind’s essence is nether good nor evil;
Good and evil are the manifestations of the mind;
Knowing good and evil is the innate conscience;
Choosing good and eliminating evil is to eradicate material desires from the mind.
Here, Wang realized that this mind has essence and function. Wang’s enlightenment was authentic. Yet to attain superior understanding and awakening, one still needs to go one step further.
That “the mind’s essence is nether good nor evil” means that the mind essentially gives rise neither to good nor to evil. Using the language in the Doctrine of the Mean, it is the mind of which “pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy have not arisen.” This fundamental nature of the mind is the fountainhead of everyone’s life. In our daily life, our mind is always moving and thinking. Whether we are thinking of good or evil, these are all manifestations of the mind; thus, Wang said, “Good and evil are the manifestations of the mind.” In addition, when thoughts arise from the mind, we must know whether they are good or evil thoughts; that is “Knowing good and evil is the innate conscience.” Finally, “Choosing good and eliminating evil is to eradicate material desires from the mind” means that we must thoroughly examine our mind and carefully reflect. If evil thoughts arise, immediately eliminate them; if good thoughts arise, hold on to them. This is the true meaning of “to eradicate material desires from the mind” by carefully observing the phenomena. It is like the Four Right Efforts spoken by the Buddha: “Let wholesome thoughts that have arisen be increased; let wholesome thoughts that have not arisen quickly arise; let unwholesome thoughts that have arisen be eliminated; let unwholesome thoughts that have not arisen be quenched.” Constantly reflect inward, persevere, and work hard, so that we can make progress again and again. Finally, not only do unwholesome thoughts not arise, but even when wholesome thoughts arise, we do not cling to them. We always return to the mind’s essence. This is enlightenment and is also awakening.
VI. Common Problems Encountered During Practice
From childhood to old age, our mind is always moving; our delusive thoughts never cease. Because of the arising and ceasing of our thoughts, there is birth and death. If this mind arrives at the state of non-arising and non-ceasing, it will immediately settle down and become like a pool of still water or a clear and bright mirror, neither moving nor wavering, neither coming nor going, neither arising nor ceasing, neither impure nor pure, neither increasing nor decreasing. At this time, we are in the realm of the sages, the realm of the Tathagata. Tathagata is this very mind that attains the state of perfect stillness and tranquility, the state of constant clarity and awareness, and that is the realization of Middle Way Reality. It should be emphasized that Middle Way Reality doesn’t mean that there is another mind of purity, clarity, and stillness outside of this very mind. Rather, it is just to keep it—this very mind with which you listen to the dharma—pure and lucid.
For ordinary people who have no delusive thoughts, they may become drowsy. Drowsiness is then another problem that needs to be overcome. Actually, sleep is not necessarily a good thing. We spend half of our life sleeping. This is because it is an old ingrained habit; people have to sleep to pass the days. It is like smoking; if people never developed this habit, they definitely would not smoke. But once they have developed this habit, they have to smoke; otherwise, they will feel uncomfortable. Then, how can we overcome drowsiness? First, we must cultivate our understanding of Middle Way Reality. Second, we must realize Middle Way Reality. No matter if we are walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, we have to maintain right mindfulness; we must give rise to wholesome thoughts, but not unwholesome thoughts.
Some people don’t understand this and think that “sitting through the night” (Note: A special kind of meditation practice.) is to sleep in a sitting position. They think this shows that they are skilled in their sitting meditation. This is an erroneous perception. When we are practicing meditation, first, we must not have any wandering thoughts; second, we must not become drowsy; third, we must not be subject to boredom. Most people, when they have no wandering thoughts, will probably become drowsy. If they are not drowsy, they may feel bored; these are all problems that need to be overcome. If we do not have these three problems, this mind will be like a pool of still water—this mind is Middle Way Reality. We must work hard on this method and see how long we can maintain this state. If we can maintain this state for five minutes without becoming drowsy, without wandering thoughts, without being bored, then right mindfulness will manifest in accord with Reality for five minutes, clear and bright within oneself. If we can apply this method and practice diligently to extend the time, we will then find a path of cultivation. When we can maintain five minutes of mindfulness, we will then attain five minutes of Middle Way Reality, and be a Buddha for five minutes. If we can maintain ten minutes of mindfulness, we can attain ten minutes of Middle Way Reality and be a Buddha for ten minutes. If we can maintain it for one hour, we can attain one hour of Middle Way Reality and be a Buddha for one hour. This is the practice of “standing in one’s position firmly and long.” From morning until night, in prosperity and in adversity, in sickness and old age, and even at the time of death, if we continue to practice diligently and at every moment we are in accordance with Middle Way Reality, in Buddhism that means, “Tathagata is presently abiding in the world.”
This so-called “right mindfulness manifests in accord with Reality” in the Buddhist sutras has also been referred to as “clearness and brightness within oneself” by the Confucian scholars. In other words, if this mind is always clear and lucid, if this mind constantly manifests in accord with Reality, then one will enjoy endless benefits, and that is the fountainhead of our true life. Once we understand this principle, we will feel that life is very meaningful. That is why the Buddhist sutras say, “Everyone possesses Buddha nature; everyone will become a Buddha.” The difference is whether or not we are awakened to it.
Because our lives are so busy and complex, some people may wonder how we can cultivate as leisurely as Wang YangMing. But we can. “Realizing the wisdom by eradicating material desires from the mind” indicates that if we eradicate all worldly material desires and vexations from our mind, then we will arrive at the wisdom of the sages. When we attain the wisdom of the sages, sincere mindfulness will then manifest. With sincere mindfulness, our mind will become righteous, correct and faultless. When the mind is righteous, our personality and character will be perfected. Thus, we can govern our family and the country, consequently leading to a peaceful world. This practice is called by the Confucians as the Way of “sagely within and kingly without.” In Buddhism it is known as “perfecting virtue and wisdom; benefiting others as well as oneself.”
Many people in our society who practice meditation have not found the right direction; they have taken the long path, or even the wrong path. When sitting through one good session, or seeing certain states, or even having a good dream, they erroneously think that they are enlightened. This is totally wrong. Enlightenment is to realize that ordinary mind is the Way; it is also to realize the truth of Middle Way Reality. Middle Way Reality doesn’t mean that there is another mind of purity, clarity, and stillness outside of this very mind. Rather, it is just to keep it—this very mind with which you listen to the dharma—pure and lucid. At all times we eradicate our vexations and are always in control and able to discern each activity clearly. When at rest, not a single thought arises; when in action, perfect all virtues. When we are still, we not only do not give rise to a single thought, but we also do not have the problems of drowsiness, boredom, and so on; this mind is totally clear and lucid. On the other hand, when in action, we cultivate all good deeds and eliminate all evil; we are dutiful toward our parents and respectful to our teachers, elders, and the virtuous; we perform even the smallest good deeds and eliminate the smallest evil thoughts. Then no matter whether we are still or in motion, every action will be perfected; this is called to be truly awakened to the Way.
VII. The Four Tenets of Chung Tai
To realize Middle Way Reality we need to cultivate preparatory skillful means. When the foundation of skillful practice is accomplished, the realization of Middle Way Reality will surely be possible. In Chung Tai, we have condensed this foundation practice into the Four Tenets:
To our elders be respectful;
To our juniors be kind;
With all humanity be harmonious;
In all endeavors be true.
If we truly incorporate these four principles into our daily lives, we will surely be able to accomplish the initial stage of realizing the Middle Way.
First, “To our elders be respectful,” tells us we must be respectful toward our parents, teachers, and superiors. People in our present society often lack respect, and each of us has, to some extent, a mind of doubt and pride. Precisely a mind of respect can eliminate doubt and pride. Buddhism teaches, “With one measure of respect we can eradicate one measure of karmic obstacles. Eradicating one measure of karmic obstacles we can increase one measure of merits, blessings, and wisdom. With ten measures of respect we can eradicate ten measures of karmic obstacles. Eradicating ten measures of karmic obstacles we can increase ten measures of merits, blessings, and wisdom.” If everyone has a mind of respect, there will be no barriers or friction among people, and we can also improve and help ourselves to achieve a mind free of delusions and confusion.
Secondly, “To our juniors be kind,” says that we should have a mind of compassion toward our disciples, our students, our employees, and even toward lower animals. The Buddhist sutra calls this, “unconditioned mercy and all-embracing compassion.” Now in society most people lack compassion. Enmity, hatred, combativeness, and discrimination exist among people and are the reason why there is always war in the world. If we wish to achieve world peace, we must first extinguish our mind of hatred. We must use a mind of compassion to overcome hatred. If we can cultivate a mind of compassion, society will be harmonious and filled with brightness. Those who respect others will be respected by all; those who love others will be loved by all. To be compassionate to others is truly to be compassionate to oneself; compassion can unravel conflicts. First and foremost, we must cultivate ourselves to have unconditioned mercy and all-embracing compassion. In doing so, society can then embrace the possibility of peace.
In addition, we must not only be compassionate toward other human beings but also toward all animals. In society now there are laws to protect animal rights. It is precisely this idea that through kindness and compassion, we begin to love all things. So the mind of compassion spreads from humans to animals, from animals to plant life as well as all things. Why should we be compassionate? For example, when we see a poisonous snake or fierce beast in the mountains, we are frightened; this is because we have lacked a mind of compassion from the past to the present. Animals act much the same way. When they see each other, they both are frightened. Each animal is afraid of the possibility that it will be hurt or harmed by the other; therefore, one of them will try to attack first. Conflicts between people also arise in this manner. Take gangsters and wayward youth in our society as an example. With a mere look in the eye, we might unintentionally provoke an attack by them, which might cause even greater tragedies. This is all due to the lack of compassion. A compassionate mind is very important; it can also help us maintain good health and improve the integration between our body and mind. If we give rise to a mind of compassion, we will feel calm, at ease, and obtain good health. In our mind we all have three bombs, namely greed, hatred, and ignorance. They may go off occasionally, causing great suffering and danger in our lives. With a mind of compassion, these three bombs can be defused before causing destruction.
A Buddhist sutra records the following story: One day when Shakyamuni Buddha and Shariputra the Elder were on a journey, they saw that a pigeon was being chased by a vulture. The pigeon was very clever; knowing his unconditioned and all-encompassing compassion, the pigeon flew to hide himself under the shadow of Shakyamuni Buddha. There the pigeon felt peaceful and safe. After a little while, the Buddha moved and it was Shariputra’s shadow which then fell on the pigeon. Immediately, the pigeon started to shiver from head to toe and was very frightened. But what was the reason for this phenomenon? It is because even though Shariputra the Elder has already attained the Arhathood and completely eradicated the six fundamental vexations, he still has the final beginningless ignorance and the subtlest hatred. But Shakyamuni Buddha has eradicated all vexations, penetrated the final beginningless ignorance, and eliminated the subtlest hatred. As a result, not only would human beings be joyful to be around the Buddha, but a poisonous snake or a fierce beast would also feel peaceful and safe when they were close to the Buddha.
Thirdly, “With all humanity be harmonious,” clearly declares that we should be congenial and harmonious toward all people. “When the family is harmonious, all endeavors will be successful.” Congeniality leads to true prosperity. Everyone hopes for world peace so people ban nuclear weapons. But although they ban these weapons outwardly, they still secretly produce them because people are afraid of each other. With this attitude, it would be very difficult to truly achieve world peace. If people transform their minds of greed, hatred, and ignorance into congeniality and harmony, I believe that they will live harmoniously; family and society will also be more harmonious, and the world can then have the possibility of enjoying peace.
Fourthly, “In all endeavors be true,” directs us to be sincere; we must not be perfunctory, take credit for others’ success, place blame on others, or shirk our duties because we can accomplish nothing with this way of thinking. If we work sincerely and realistically, we will definitely achieve success. When doing research or studying at school, we also need to be sincere and real, and not slothful or careless. For example, cheating is not honest or true. Even if we graduate from school by cheating, we will not feel solid, and when working in the society, we will be uncomfortable and will even feel unqualified. We may then find ourselves at our wit’s end and regret not studying harder to learn as much as we could have while at school. When doing good deeds, we also need to be sincere and use a mind of compassion and impartiality to perform the deeds, just like what the ancient sage Fan ZhongYan said, “To care before the care of the world, to rejoice after the rejoicing of the world.” If we perform deeds with superficial intentions and with the goal of selfish fame and recognition, even if we do wholesome deeds, the results will not be beneficial for “when the cause is not genuine, the effect will be distorted and falsified.” Also, people should not attend meditation retreats pretentiously, thinking it is a fashionable thing to do. This notion is wrong and an example of not being true in one’s endeavors. Practice needs to be sincere and needs to come from the heart. We need to eradicate our habitual tendencies. When meditating, we should let go of all entanglements, do not let a single thought arise, be alert, avoid wandering thoughts, drowsiness and boredom, and have right mindfulness at all times.
We must be sincere and focused in all endeavors. The Buddhist sutra says, “If you keep the mind in one place, you can accomplish anything.” If we are sincere and single-minded, anything can be accomplished. Ordinary people all want things to happen as they desire. But using a delusive, greedy, or ignorant mind will never achieve that goal. On the other hand, using a respectful, sincere mind, the response will surely be prosperous.
If we understand Middle Way thought, we will see everything clearly. We will be able to be the masters of ourselves and be lucid at all times. As a result, when we attain the state of Middle Way Reality, our path in life will be brighter and brighter; we will achieve more and more merits, virtue, and success in our careers. Not only will we enjoy a meritorious, bright life, but also we will surely transcend the mundane and attain sagehood in the future.
To realize Middle Way Reality, we should observe the Four Tenets of Chung Tai. If we can further the practice by observing the Four Awareness Contemplations, we will surely attain the highest state.
The Four Awareness Contemplations refer to four different skillful means of using our awareness. The first is observation, the second is recognition, the third is reflection, and the fourth is realization. Observation is to pay attention. Recognition is to recognize our delusive thoughts, drowsiness, and the vexations in our mind, even the subtlest ones, like a detective catching the stealthiest thief. Reflection indicates that after the thief is caught, we need to teach and transform the thief from a bad person into a good person; that is to reflect, penetrate, and transform the vexations. After reflection, we then must maintain mindfulness at all times and settle our mind in accord with Reality; that is called realization.
If we arouse the Four Awareness Contemplations, then we would know whether or not we are really sincere or truthfully practicing “In all endeavors be true.” For example, I am now speaking of the principle of Middle Way Reality. As you listen, you may suddenly become sleepy. If you do not have the awareness of observation, you will not know that you are sleepy and will continue to sleep and even start dreaming. Suddenly you wake up and do not know that you were dreaming. You may even feel that you have achieved samadhi because you have not been observing. If you observe and have the power of attention, you will immediately know when you start to fall asleep and will recognize that it is not the right thing to do. “I am listening to a special lecture today, how can I fall asleep?” When you realize that you are falling asleep, that is the awareness of observation. When you know that falling asleep is wrong and try to overcome it, you arouse the awareness of recognition. After you overcome it and you no longer feel sleepy, that is the awareness of reflection. Even though you have overcome and penetrated it, you still have this mind that can reflect as well as the state that is reflected, a dualistic state. So you must return to the nondualistic source, maintain right mindfulness, and continue listening to the lecture. This returning to the nondualistic source and maintaining the right mindfulness is the awareness of realization.
The ancients have said, “It is easy to catch the thief in the mountain. It is difficult to catch the thief in the mind. (Note: It can also be translated as “It is difficult to catch the thief of the mind.”)” Many thieves exist in our mind; they are constantly stealing our virtue and merits. Therefore, if we rely on the Four Awareness Contemplations to practice the Four Tenets of Chung Tai, we will surely attain the perfect state of Middle Way Reality. When we achieve this state, our life will be endless; our existence and daily living will surely be very bright and full of possibilities.