Bhikkhuni Triệt Như – Sharing From The Heart – No 92
Translated into English by Như Lưu
Today, we will assemble a common set of prayer beads that is generally applicable to students of mid-level spiritual capacity. Based on what we have experienced so far, the first requirement is an awakening.
1. Awakening. We have been living in the world for many years since we reached adulthood. We have gone into the world and looked after our family, primarily our nuclear family but also at times our extended family consisting of grand-parents, parents, uncles and aunts, siblings and cousins from both set of families. Worries, concerns and sorrows are inevitable. When we take time to reflect about our life, we may see that we have often forgotten about ourselves. We have been busy from morning to evening trying to earn a living, and when we lie down in the evening to have a rest, we may find our mind and body completely exhausted. Life goes on that way until one day we look into the mirror and notice that our hair has turned gray. We then realize that half a life has passed and that we are entering the second stage of our life, the ageing stage. Illness will surely follow and probably death will come soon behind. We start to wonder what will support us on the long journey through birth and death. We go back to the Buddha, just like our parents did when they took us to the Buddhist temple when we were young.
2. Taking refuge – Receiving the five precepts. We remember that in the old days, Buddhist temples are often set in nature and exude an atmosphere of tranquility and quietness. Monks and nuns are often gentle, simple and economical with words and laughter. When we come to the temple, by just taking in the scenery, paying homage to the Buddha, and listening to the sound of the bell at day’s end, we already let go of so many worries of the world. We then decide to make the vow to take refuge in the Three Jewels and uphold the Five Precepts. The Five Precepts are fundamental rules of morality in human society. By upholding the Five Precepts, we gradually transform our mind. Our speech and actions reflect our state of mind. When we constantly think wholesome thoughts towards other people and about good deeds, we change our our countenance. An air of gentleness and friendliness appear on our face, our speech becomes softer and our gesture more welcoming. We begin to stop generating bad and unwholesome karma. We enjoy good health and harmonious relations within our family. Upholding precepts is a quick way to reach the “heart” of other people.
3. Listening to the dharma: Taking a further step, we start to have many questions that need answers, such as: who am I? where do I come from? what happens to me after this life? We do some research, read sutras and books, come to the temple more frequently, and enjoy hearing the dharma. Once we have become familiar with the Buddhist spiritual practice method, we make the decision to commit ourselves to a spiritual path that is appropriate for our spiritual capacity. This requires us to clearly understand the practice method and see where the spiritual path will lead us, and whether it accords with our goals and with the teaching of the Buddha.
4. Contemplation: the practice journey starts with transforming our perspective on life and aligning it with the objective perspective taught by the Buddha. This consists of recognizing the three special characteristics of the world: impermanence, suffering and no-self. We start to develop an insight and wisdom that goes beyond the world. At this point, our mind becomes less strongly attached to what happens in the world and changes in other people, such as when they alternate between joy and sadness, or between love and hate towards others. As a result, we start to reduce the sorrow and anxiety caused by the behavior of other people.
5. Tranquility of mind (samatha): We subsequently practice the techniques that aim at slowing down and then stopping the agitation of the mind. When live our normal life and interact with other people, we see, hear or touch objects in the environment but our mind remains at peace. We perceive very clearly the scenes and people in front of us, but in our mind feelings such as like or dislike, judgment, criticism or joy do not arise. At this stage we start to gain control of our mind. Our mind becomes quieter, more silent, and more serene. This practice technique is called samatha.
6. Stillness of mind: at the next stage, we recognize the quality of the moments of silence of the mind even if they last just a few seconds. We then repeat this practice over and over again. When we have a spare minute, or a spare five minutes, we recall this state of “complete silence” of our mind. This state is really a clear but non-verbal awareness where we are fully aware but our mind if empty and silent. People have described this state of mind in various ways such as a feeling of vastness, emptiness, or absence of any objects, etc. This state is stable and is called Samādhi or Stillness. Common techniques used to attain a state of Samādhi includes breathing and silencing the inner talk in the mind.
7. Silent awareness: there are many states of mind that have varying degrees of stability. For example, our mind may be stable one day, and then become anxious and full of thoughts the next day. This is why it is very difficult to ascertain a state of mind, because the essence of the mind is its fluidity. Like any other worldly phenomena that are subject to the law of dependent origination, the mind changes constantly depending on conditions. All worldly phenomena arise from a combination of conditions, and as a consequence they are impermanent, ever changing, empty, and illusionary. They all follow the cycle of birth, destruction and rebirth. As such, we reluctantly allocate names to each practice step as a matter of necessity even though they really cannot be described by words. With this caveat, we will use the term “silent awareness” to describe our mind when it stays in a prolonged state of non-verbal awareness.
8. Wisdom: the Buddha also taught the “As it is” method, which is a very important practice that aims at the same goal of attaining non-verbal awareness. Under this method, we are clearly aware when we see, hear, and touch things, but then stop there. This awareness is silent and objective. It is silent because we do not name the object and do not elaborate further about it. It is objective because we perceive the object exactly as it appears in front of us. When we practice this method, we let go of our prejudices and biases and drop our attachment to whatever happened in the past, and what may happen in the future and in the present. I wish to clarify that our mind is then also in a state of “non-verbal awareness” or “silent awareness”. This state is described by past masters as “facing the world without movement in the mind”, or as in the Diamond sutra: “Do not dwell on anything that has a form, sound, smell, taste, or touch when you build your mind, Dwell on nothingness when you build that mind”.
9. Awake awareness: this is another step that we tentatively identify as following on the previous steps. We need to keep practicing the steps of “non-verbal awareness”, “silent awareness” and “knowing things as they are” in our daily life. As we still have our family and work life, we evidently are required to use our thinking to work things out, and therefore we will continue to use our thinking. However, as our mind has moments of silence and serenity, our potential for enlightenment will have more opportune conditions to elicit new, exciting and useful discoveries.
10. Cognitive awareness: as the last step, we reach the inevitable stage where all our experiences and practices are by themselves recorded in the treasure trove that is our cognitive knowledge. Everything became well understood and memorized in a form what we may call condensed cognition. It is a form of non-verbal cognitive knowledge that stays still in our long term memory or in the precuneus area of the brain. When it expresses itself, it is the source of “unhindered eloquence”.
11. Internalizing suchness: at that moment, we reach the stage where our mind is empty, vast, unlimited, and totally silent. This mind may be called the immobile mind. This is when we realized suchness in everything, as well as our suchness mind. When we look at the world with our immobile, objective, and tranquil mind, we see the world as immobile, objective and tranquil. In other words, we see suchness in the world. We see suchness in the world and suchness in our mind, they are one, equal, the same. Once we experience the suchness-nature of the world, we also experience its equality-nature.
From this basis, the four qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity develop in ourselves in immeasurable quantity.
The inevitable results of the development of Buddha-nature are:
+ Transcendental wisdom that generates new and unlimited interpretations
+ Unhindered and unlimited eloquence
+ Unlimited loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity
+ Cleansing of all mental defilements, fetters and underlying tendencies
+ Purification of all three forms of karma
+ Cessation of rebirth, if one chooses to dwell in nirvana. If he/she chooses not to dwell in nirvana, he/she is reborn to fulfill the Bodhisattva way.
In this text, I have sketched in broad terms our spiritual path. Our progress on the path is contingent on our resolve, assiduity and unshakable forbearance when we are faced with the challenges of the world and our karma from past lives.
My question to you is: what is the most important condition that allows us to progress on our spiritual path? Or in other words: what is the red-colored thread that runs through our bodhi beads?
Master’s Hall, 2 March 2021
Bhikkhuni Triệt Như