DHARMA TALKS BY ZEN MASTER SENSHIN
The Kamala Sutra*
On a certain occasion, the Buddha led a number of his disciples to a village of the Kalamas, where his wisdom and merit and holiness were known. And the Kalamas assembled, and did homage to him and said many priests and Brahmins had at different times visited them and explained their religious tenets, declaring them to be excellent but that each abused the tenets of every one else, whereupon they, the Kalamas, became perplexed as to whose religion was right and whose wrong; but as they had heard that the Buddha taught an excellent religion, they begged that they might be freed from doubt, and able to learn what the truth was.
And the Buddha answered, “You were right to doubt, for after all, it was a doubtful matter. I say unto all of you, do not believe in what you have heard; that is, when you have heard anyone say this is especially good or extremely bad. Do not reason with yourselves that if it had not been true; it would not have been asserted, and so believe in its truth. Neither have faith in traditions, because they have been handed down for many generations and in many places.
“Do not believe in anything because it is rumoured and spoken of by many; do not think that is sufficient proof of its truth.
“Do not believe merely because the written statement of some old sage is produced; do not be sure that the writing has even been revised by the said sage, or can be relied on.
Do not believe in what you have fancied, thinking that because an idea is extraordinary it must have been implanted by a Deva, or some wonderful being.
“Do not believe in guesses, that is, assuming something at haphazard as a starting point and then draw your conclusion from it, reckoning your two and your three and your four before you have fixed your number one. Do not believe because you think there is analogy, that is a suitability in things and occurrences, such as believing that there must be walls of the world, because you see water in a basin, or that Mount Meru must exist because you have seen the reflection of trees, or there must be a creating God, because houses and towns have builders.
“Do not believe in the truth of that to which you have become attached by habit, as every nation believes in the superiority of its own dresses and ornaments and language.
“Do not believe because your informant appears to be a credible person as, for instance, when you see anyone having a very impressive appearance conclude that he must be clever and trustworthy; or when you see anyone who has powers and abilities beyond what men generally possess believe in what he tells, or think that a great nobleman is to be believed, as he would not be raised by the King to such high station unless he were a good man.
“Do not believe merely on the authority of your teachers and masters, or believe and practise merely because they believe and practise. I tell you all, you must of own selves know that this is evil, this is punishable, this is censured by wise men, belief in the kind of thing will bring no advantage to anyone, but will cause sorrow. And when you know this, then eschew it.
“I say to all of you, dwellers in this village, answer me this. Greed, anger and ignorance, when any or all of these arise in the hearts of men, is the result beneficial or the reverse?” And they answered, “It is not beneficial.”
Then the Buddha continued, “Covetous, passionate and ignorant men destroy life and steal, and commit adultery and tell lies, and incite others to follow their example, is it not so?” And they answered, “It is as the Buddha says.”
And he continued, “Covetousness, passion, ignorance, the destruction of life, theft, adultery, and lying, are these good or bad, right or wrong? Do wise men praise or blame them?
Are they not unprofitable, and cause of sorrow?” And they replied, “It is as the Buddha has spoken.”
And the Buddha said, “For this I said to you, do not believe merely because you have heard, but when your own consciousness you know a thing to be evil, abstain from it. “
And then the Buddha taught of that which is good, saying, “If any of you know of yourselves that anything is good and not evil, praised by wise men, advantageous, and productive of happiness, then act abundantly according to your belief. Now I ask you, absence of covetousness; absence of passion; absence of folly, are these profitable or not?’ And they answered, “Profitable.”
The Buddha continued, “Men who are not covetous, or passionate, or foolish, will not destroy life, nor steal, nor commit adultery, nor tell lies, is it not so?” And they answered, “It is as the Buddha says.”
Then the Buddha asked, “Is freedom from covetousness, passion and folly, from destruction of life, theft, adultery and lying, good or bad, right or wrong, praised or blamed by wise men, profitable and tending to happiness or not?” And they replied, “It is good, right, praised by the wise, profitable and tending to happiness.”
And the Buddha said, “For this I taught you not to believe merely because you have heard, but when you believed of your consciousness then to act accordingly and abundantly.”
And the Buddha continued, “The holy man must not be covetous, or revengeful or foolish, and he must be versed in the four virtuous inclinations, which are Metta, desiring for all living things the same happiness which one seeks for one’s self; Karuna training the mind in compassion towards all living things, desiring that they may escape all sorrows either in hell or in other existences, just as a man who sees his friend ill, desires nothing so much as his recovery; Mudita, taking pleasure in all living things just as playmates are glad when they see one another; and Upekkha, keeping the mind balanced and impartial, with no affection for one more than another.”
How applicable this Sutra is today! We are many people born of many different parents, arising from many different countries, and many traditions. When we hold on to form: be it our humanness, the colour of our skin or our eyes, the languages that we speak, the cultures into which we are born and are raised, our value systems, our belief systems, our spiritual practices, our moral and ethical concepts, then we believe that our way is right and somebody else is wrong – my way of breathing, my way of speaking, my way of practicing, my way of sitting is correct – suggests that everybody else is not correct. In that way, we are holding an image of who we think we are. And as we hold that image of who we think we are, it automatically sets up the possibility for bias interactions. When we suspend our belief system of this being called I, this concept, this belief of I am something that is fixed and tangible, only then can we truly experience that which is greater than our belief systems alone. We believe we are something rather than experiencing Buddha nature of all beings that resides in no place but in, and through, and with us.
The Sutra suggests, that when we experience the depth of our own humanity, we experience not only our humanity, but the essence of all beings. When ideas appear and we invest in an idea, an idea about, who I think I am, what I think my practice is, what my teacher said means this, versus what somebody else’s teacher said means that, we believe our ideas rather then our experience. When we invest in that way, a gap opens, and that gap is between what we believe and what we experience directly. In that gap, we lose our innate clarity and wisdom. When that gap opens, we lose awareness of our innate compassion, and our goodwill for all beings. When that gap appears, we dwell in the realm of dualism – I am something and you are something. I am a human being and that is a tree. I was born in America and she was born in Korea. You see the distinctions we make? What is most important is to observe how attachment to conceptuality works subtly within each of us. Besides, which voice do you choose to listen to? Is it the voice that is asserting itself, and investing in an ego? Is it based in time, memory, habit, or conditioning? Could it arise unconsciously so that we are not aware of how we engage with another?
Our responsibility is to bring into alignment all that we are, to perceive what it is that motivates and drives us, thereby clarifying our life direction. Initially, we do that by aligning the mind, with the breath, through our seated posture, through the process of inquiry. The Sutra encourages us in the direction. In the Sutra, the Buddha is saying, do not believe in this or that, do not take anything for granted, especially when it comes from an “authority”: a higher spiritual authority, or a lower religious authority, or a middling educational authority! Instead, ask, is this true? Are you listening deeply to perceive the truth of what is being expressed? This process of enquiry is our responsibility, and it is our responsibility alone – to perceive the truth then act accordingly. Each of you here today has your own question, a deep resounding question that can be expressed in your own words. Perhaps the words are not apparent to you now, and yet, there is a sense of a question – can you hear it?
Naturally, and through rigorous meditation practice, all extraneous thought will cease, be it for a moment, a breath, one day, seven days, or throughout an entire life, life time after life time. Through a process of enquiry, thinking settles of its own accord, and we begin to experience that which the Buddha is speaking about in this Sutra - perceiving the truth through pure awareness - that which is originally ours. It cannot be taken away, nor can it be added to. When we go outside, it doesn’t turn blue in reflection of the sky, nor does it turn green in reflection of Tri Hang’s beautifully kept garden. Pure awareness has no attributes – no sound, no smell, no taste or touch – nor does it change. Pure awareness is an activity of essential mind. As practitioners, we train to awaken to essential mind, and in that awakening, we awaken with, and for all beings.
Thousands of sutras have been spoken, written down, and passed on to us. Regardless of the language that is used, or the translations received, our responsibility is to awaken to the true meaning of the Sutras so that all beings awaken. In perceiving the truth of The Kalama Sutra, we cut the perpetual cycle of birth and death, self and other, of this practice, or that one.
Truth is to be experienced: to be tasted, to be smelled, to be felt, and to be seen. It cannot be an idea. For example, when we see someone suffering, we feel deep pain, we feel that, and yet if we have not yet clarified the source of our own pain, our own suffering, is it possible to be of service to others? Whereas, when we use a process of enquiry we can see through what we think is pain. What is pain? What is suffering? Where does pain come from? Who creates it?
As humans, we have enormous capabilities, and yet we only use a tiny fraction of our capacity. Each of us intuitively knows that our capacity is boundless; it has no beginning and no end. Without a sense of that, no one would be here today. The Sutra is encouraging us to engage in that which cannot be engaged, to consider the inconsiderable, to taste the untastable. We cannot attain the fullness of our humanity by thinking about it. The Sutra is encouraging us to drop what we think we are and be who we truly are. We are originally essential beings – it is simply a question of awakening. And for that we use our practice. Of course, practices are as vast and wide as the people who practice them. Whatever your practice may be, please throw yourself into it completely, become it completely, so that you can shift beyond your idea of what practice might be. When you are sitting and breathing in and out, as your breath and mind align, and right at the bottom of your exhalation, and just before it is necessary to inhale, ask yourself who is breathing? What is that? Or, choose a question of your own. The question itself is not what is important. What is important is what comes after raising an enquiry. What comes next is the activity of deep listening. We perceive the mind that is before thinking, our original mind, where there is no coming or no going, no life and no death. As the Sutra reminds us, practice is not about believing, rather, all practices involve questioning, for oneself, the verity of what one hears. Is there any truth to what is being said this morning? Does it resonate in my being? What is truth? How do I know?
Originally, we are inseparable from all phenomena. Sitting together just now, let every dualistic thought move right through you as is this morning’s breeze. When we don’t question, every concept sticks. There is a beautiful section in The Vimalakirti Sutra, where the author, layman Vimalakirti, observes at the end of his dialogue with a Bodhisattva, flowers falling from the sky. As they fall, there is an awareness of flowers sticking to various beings (and not-sticking to others!). Whether what is received is wonderful, beautiful, repulsive, or disgusting, originally, nothing sticks. To experience that is awakening. However, when our energy is spent trying to rationally figure out how flowers could possibly fall from the sky, right there, is sticking! Now is the time to perceive the futility of extraneous conceptual activity through the direct experiences of sitting, cooking, breathing, cleaning, eating, walking, and enquiring together. Now is the moment to see through those unhelpful attachments.
Whether bird poo lands on your shoulder, or sparks from a shooting star, or flowers from the sky, do not give rise to self-serving feelings of irritation or happiness. In other words, if someone is yelling and angry, or someone is happy and expressing love, we tend to prefer one experience to another. We prefer the glorious flowers falling from the sky rather than stinky bird poo. If we invest in that mind of preference, we will cause suffering continually for ourselves, as well as for others. Rather, apply yourself in your practice, and consider that mind that makes these arbitrary distinctions of good and bad, of beautiful and disgusting. What is that source of good and bad? Apply yourself to the process of inquiry; experience that before a single thought occurs. Focus, and take yourself deep within your experience, and let go!
To sit a one day, seven day, or a hundred day retreat, not much thinking is required. Everyone has a schedule to follow, just stay with your practice. When you are not sure what to do, raise your eyes and observe the person in front of you. When walking, as the person in front of you steps, you step too. Also, sense the room breathing in and breathing out, and your breath will naturally align in one infinite breath. Experience, not thinking, is your original teacher. But, do not believe me. Find out for yourself!
*The Kalama Sutra. Translated into English from the Thai Version by H. E. Sukich Nimmanheminda.